WHAT AILS THE GREEKS? FOR THAT MATTER,
WHAT TROUBLES US, AT HEART?
Zeus, whoe’er he be, if so it best
Pleaseth him to be addressed,
So shall he be named by me.
All things have I measured, yet
Naught have found save him alone,
Zeus, if a man from a heart heavy-laden with sorrow
Care would truly cast aside.
Aeschylus, Invocation to Zeus from “Agamemnon,” in the trilogy called The Oresteia, 458 B.C.E., tr. George Thomson.
See Greece today, a shambles. How could these be the same People that in
ancient times created and gave the world philosophy (then including science),
history as the authentication of the past, mathematics, democracy, and justice? The goddess Athena, who had no mother but sprang
full-blown from the mind of Zeus, in the aforesaid trilogy portion called “The
Eumenides,” advised that justice transcends vengeance.
The curse of the house Atreus followed his sons, Menelaus
and Agamemnon, through and beyond the Trojan War. Menelaus, King of Sparta, was cuckolded by
Paris, a prince of Troy, who either abducted or eloped with Helen, Queen of
Sparta. (Some of this story was
elegantly retold in the film made by Michael Cacoyannis of Euripedes’ “The
Trojan Women” (1971), starring Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, widow of Priam, the
defeated Trojan King, and Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, widow of Hector,
beloved hero of Ilium. The brief but
bitter confrontation between Hecuba and Helen – the latter played by the most
intensely beautiful Irene Pappas – is worth the entire price of admission.) Some said Helen was contemptuous of Menelaus
because he made love with his little finger in the air. See, Nancy Bogen, “Klytemnestra Who Stayed At
Since Menelaus was weak, he prevailed upon his brother,
Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, a renowned warrior, whose wife was Klytemnestra,
sister of Helen, to help him avenge the insult to his manhood. Agamemnon assembled a fleet of a thousand ships
manned by strong soldiers, who had been promised all the plunder they could
carry from Ilium (or Troy), to participate in the siege of the most fabled and richest
city-state of the ancient world. However,
much as they prayed, they could not persuade a fair wind to Troy from Aulis.
Now every civilization must in some guise come to terms
with the attraction of ritual human sacrifice.
Steeped in superstition, the idea is that the rite of killing a human
being will propitiate the gods and grant good fortune to those who carve out
the future by murdering another human being.
In order to achieve a fair wind to Troy, Agamemnon was told by the
priests that he had to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. He did so; the winds then elated his ships
and the men who had been on the brink of desertion; they sailed to Troy, and
after a ten year siege, utilizing the stratagem of the Trojan Horse, they
prevailed, and utterly toppled and burned the gold capped towers of Ilium, as
we are told by Homer (b. 850 B.C.E.?). Speaking of Helen in “Dr. Faustus” (1592-1594),
Christopher Marlowe wrote: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?”
Upon his return to Mycenae, Agamemnon, whose greatest
desire after a decade of war was the comfort of a warm bath, was greeted by
Klytemnestra, who had designs on Agamemnon’s life because he had murdered their
beloved daughter, Iphigenia. To delude
the gods with an impiety of Agamemnon, but really to establish an alibi, she enticed
him to walk to the palace upon purple coverlets, a color of cloth sacred to the
gods. Once the conquering hero was in his
bath, Klytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon, wielding the
very battle-axe that had helped to enable the Greek victory over Troy.
Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra, now consults
the Delphic oracle of Apollo as to his course of action. Apollo counsels Orestes to kill not only Aegisthus,
but also his own mother, which he does. For
the crime of matricide, Orestes is immediately tormented to his very soul by
the Furies, so feared by the Greeks that these horror spectres were euphemistically
dubbed “The Eumenides,” or “The Kindly Ones.”
Combining reason and religion, coordination seldom achieved or honored, Athena, goddess
of wisdom and justice, invokes a public trial of Orestes, upon the sacred
Areopagus, a giant rock outside of Athens.
Overcoming the cries of the People (i.e. the Chorus) for vengeance,
Athena presides over the determination of Orestes’ imputed guilt. A disinterested dozen of Athenians hears from
Apollo and the populace. After due consideration,
six jurors vote for acquittal, six vote for eternal punishment. Athena takes the decision of the hung jury as
a transcendence of justice as due process of law over vengeance. Orestes is freed from punishment.
How pathetic the Christian philosophy seems compared with such nobility! The “New Testament” strives at great lengths
to carry forward the idea that vengeance is not the basis of the Order upon
which Christian civilization should be founded.
However, no society has ever been successfully established consistent with
the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.
As George Bernard Shaw once observed, Christianity is a wonderful
thing. What a pity no one has ever tried
One plows through the Gospels and the founding documents of the new religion to
find the most gracious sentiments. The
hints that there is trouble in Christianity’s earthly ideals occur where St.
Paul, having established to his own satisfaction the notion that allowing
Christ into one’s life leads to a person’s enhanced sense of morality,
nonetheless must reinforce with new Christian communities that the Ten
Commandments remain in force. Just as he
is decrying the legalisms of “the Jews,” St. Paul is anomalously (from his
standpoint) insisting that Christians are bound by the very rules of Moses he
declares to be superseded by Christ!
As St. Paul admonishes us, let us try to be charitable. Jesus described a vision of mankind where
sympathetic cooperation, indulgence, mutual respect, and above all, empathy
prevailed. In the King James Version,
the critical passage is to be found at I Corinthians 13, where in lies the most
beautiful prose to be found in the English language. You all know the passage that begins with the
words, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not
charity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” The culmination reads: “And now abideth
faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
The foulest, most subversive elements from within Christianity seek to redefine the
word “charity” as “love,” which renders the entire passage vague and
insubstantial, substituting a far more variable and undependable term than the intended
Hebrew, “tzedakah.” The betrayal is that St. Paul’s use of the
word is designed to go beyond, not retreat into, the concept of
obligation. I will tell you what St.
Paul meant by “charity.”
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark (National religion, Lutheranism), during World
War II, the Danes managed to save most of their estimated 8,000 Jews. Instead of helping the Germans to round up
the Jews to be sent to death camps, the Danes brought together every type of
watercraft that existed to ferry the Jews to Sweden, which was neutral. While one of the Danish men was helping a
Jewish family to board a fishing boat, the Germans opened fire. They shot him through the neck; they broke
his neck, and they left him for dead.
Years later, he was asked whether he considered himself a hero. “No,” he replied. “What we did was just natural.”
Father John Dominic Crossan, in “The Historical Jesus,” 1991, suggests that the entire
superstructure of heaven and hell went far beyond what Jesus’ public ministry
intended. Jesus, in this construct, was
bent upon the establishment of a society (“kingdom,” if you would) on earth,
where people behaved toward each other with such decency that happiness would
become a virtual commonplace.
The New Testament ends with a tacit admission that such a “kingdom” on earth would
not be possible. What is promised in
Revelation is a relapse into vengeance on a scale never before or since
conceived. Revelation is a book of the
uttermost despair, disillusionment, and apocalyptic revenge. Jesus is coming back, it preaches, and this
time he WILL have the power to send into hell and fire and brimstone every
single person that has ever trod this earth who offended him in any way or who failed
to comport with his teachings. The Book of
Revelation vastly undermines every single precept of the preceding
chapters. It creates the alibi of alibis
for those who find others to be wanting, in their eyes and who seek vengeance
in advance of and in aid of those final days to come.
All praise, then, for the far superior goddess Athena. The decline of Western Civilization has been
the failure of the more modern religions to respect, let alone adhere to, the
faiths of the ancients. Of course, as a
Jew, I must be biased, but I find nothing in the “Old” Testament, complete with
a God wrathful toward Jews who abandon the basic tenets of what we superciliously
still call civilization, yet who never calls us to the Armageddon of the
ultimately nihilistic Christians – and their sympathetic religious analogues in
other parts of the world.
Listen, par example, to the impassioned words of the great “scientific” novelist of our
The experience of Le Barazer, who was now barely fifty years of age,
dated back to the heroic days of the Republic,
when the necessity of secular and compulsory education
had imposed itself as the one sole possible basis
of a free and just democracy. A worker for the good cause
from the very outset, Le Barazer had retained all his hatred of clericalism,
convinced that it was absolutely necessary to drive the priests from the schools,
and to free people’s minds from all mendacious dogmas and superstitions,
if one desired that the nation should be strong, well-instructed,
and capable of acting in the plenitude of its intelligence.
Emile Zola, “Truth,” 1903, tr. Ernest Alfred Vizetelly.
Harvard Hollenberg is a writer and an attorney in New York City.
© Copyright Harvard Hollenberg 2013. All rights reserved.