14 Sept 2020
Ours has been described as “an age of anxiety” (first used just after WWII, I believe). Many feel it, many express it in various ways: A sense of upheaval, unsettling change, loss, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, despair, rage, forebodings of doom, “future shock,” and so on.
One finds similar states in the Hellenistic age in the west, c 300 BC to about 400 AD. Literature such as the “Book of Revelation” included with misgivings at the end of the New Testament is a classic text of emotional-spiritual mess, and yet also has tales of hope and fulfillment. In the middle ages, these overwhelming social anxieties settled down, but increased in about the 1400’s into the present. If one reads Luther, for example (1483-1546), one clearly sees the emotional-spiritual-intellectual upheaval of an age; one sees it in the Puritan revolution of the 1600’s, in the French Enlightenment thinkers and then the eruption of the French Revolution at the end of the 1700’s. We all know that our society is rife with anxious tensions, unhappiness, etc, affecting individuals and groups to varying degrees.
One thing that abides in my mind as I reflect on Homer (8th century BC): although there is violence and evils operate in his world (mainly unregulated human passions), the actors are generally more peaceful, settled, with feet on the ground. An exception is Akhilleus, filled with wrath—the issue that is central to the Iliad. He upsets the balance in the human condition—acts outside the bounds, as embodied most in his treatment of his opponent, Hektor. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not wrathful, restless, or irrational, but “resourceful,” clever, up to any challenge fate throws at him; he lives within the ordered boundaries. Homer’s world was orderly and settled, but not dead or static. Hence, I would say that reading Homer is like entering a realm of youthful spirit, buoyancy, modest hopes for better things to come—not fatalistic pessimism, nor naive utopian dreaming. The cosmos is stable, a friendly home—a good home to those who obey its laws and limits.
This is astounding to me: within about 250-300 years of Homer, the Greek-speaking world undergoes a major outbreak in the discovery of reason—first philosophy, then science (and the tragedians and historians). The human being is capable of using intellect and making sound choices, achieving much good; or having “twisted reasoning” (Cicero’s term) and making bad choices, and doing great harm to himself and others. Human being emerges as the locus of rational discourse, reason, good—not on Olympos, but within the human psyche. In reading Plato and Aristotle, one sees how much the human mind, governed by reason, is capable of achieving. It truly is an astounding development and a cultural high point in human history—to which we remain beneficiaries. Looking back, I see the potential as present in Homer and his world—perhaps especially in the importance of right action within the bounds set by the gods, or what we might call “nature” (Greek: physis). In reading the earliest recorded philosophers—such as Parmenides (born c 515 BC), one sees reason emerging from myth, story, and becoming a tool for discovering the nature of reality (Parmenides’ main discovery: being, Is!, the grounding insight of philosophy; he also discovered and named “nous,” intellect, as the divine power operative in human being to know what is).
Ah, the youthful, life-affirming, life-giving world of the ancient Greeks. Such a flourishing of what Hegel calls “Spirit” (Geist) in humankind—making possible what we call “history,” the realm of human being (Hegel, “the realm of the Geist’s unfolding”). Homer may be called a “mytho-poet,” but looking back from the philosophy that soon emerges among Greek speakers, I see the potential for such a magnificent life of the mind as philosophy and science essentially are. Homer embodies the fertile soil from which the plant of rational thought will grow; Homer’s world is rich with possibilities, as is youth; and some of these possibilities grow within several centuries of astounding breakthroughs.
If there is a practical lesson here, it would seem to be this: Avoid yielding to anxieties, fears, restless passions, and develop and maintain a youthful spirit, open to possibilities.
Just a few reflections as I keep reading Homer.
16 May 2019
I’ve made slow progress on Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) ever since leaving for Oregon. Barely back into reading him.
Returned to read again some very dense pages on Hegel and Hesiod in Voegelin’s last book, In Search of Order, published posthumously (1987), which he wrote in his 80’s. This short passage, lifted out of its theoretical context, explains far better than I could why am I attracted to turn to Hesiod again. It is so refreshing for a mind steeped, as we all are, in what I call “Cartesian thingism,” which was highly beneficial for the development of modern natural science, but detrimental to more human, whole-aware consciousness. Here is the lifted passage:
“Hesiod’s mythospeculation makes us aware of fundamental experiences of reality that require for their expression the language of the gods even when, in the process of differentiation, the many gods are superseded by the One God. The past of experience will not die with differentiation; it is part of the Whole of reality, of 'the things that are, that shall be, and that were before' [Theogony].”
You may or may not have a clear understanding of what Voegelin is saying; I think I do, but then, I’ve been reading him for about 45 years; and I study the context. If you think back to some of the poems I’ve been dabbling with in the past number of months, you will see some of my concrete attempts to rediscover my own experiences that engendered speech about “the gods” in the first place. I have no difficulty experiencing the moon as “a goddess,” as Siléne. And what you may not understand or appreciate in my approach to reality is that for me, sensing the divine aura in the moon is far more real than all the scientific talk I’ve heard about the moon. I do not reject the scientific talk, but it has never really engaged my imagination or mind. It is abstract, and for me, beyond experience and internally unknowable; however useful, science is a secondary kind of knowledge. But to experience the earth, sky, ocean, moon, sun, stars as gods is directly experienced, as one can remember from childhood, before oblivion set in. I think that if teachers and professors had sought to preserve the fundamental experience, and also explored the physical world scientifically, I would have been far more interested. (I do not fault them; it would take a philosopher to be able to experience the Whole and engage in science at the same time.) As it was, I preferred the mysterious Whole to the analyzed part, although I probably could not have explained it as clearly when I was 20 as I can now. That is why I so strongly reacted against Descartes when I began to study him, with his conception of human being as a “res cogitans,” “a thinking thing.” Reading him made me feel imprisoned in his flattened consciousness things. (Even his “god” is a thing, of whose “existence” Descartes can “prove.” Makes no sense to me at all.) Knowing of what the moon is made, and when, surely has its own beauty and wonder, but it remains quite alien to immediate consciousness. But to feel awed at the feminine beauty of the moon is surely part of my (and I presume, everyone’s) concrete experience. The experience of the oneness of each and of all precedes naming and analyzing; this context for human consciousness is what is absent in Descartes and his descendants.
Who was the philosopher who bemoaned how scientific consciousness had taken the mystery out of the world? Was it Nietzsche? Whoever it was, I agree, even as I appreciate the usefulness gained by science and its offspring, technology. The mystery is not out of the world for Plato and Aristotle. Recall that not long before he died (about age 62, as I recall), Aristotle wrote in a letter, “The older I grow, and the more I am alone, the more I love myth.” Why? I would say that it reconnected him to the Whole, which philosophical-scientific analysis in themselves cannot do. And myth for Aristotle would surely have meant, above all, Hesiod and Homer, perhaps also Aeschylus.
I read Hesiod to help reground me in fundamental experiences that precede analysis and even to an extent, speech (logos) itself.
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