At the end of each semester, I inevitably have one or two well-meaning students who are still unsure why they were asked to devote so much time and care to reading, annotating, and discussing archaic Greek literature. They enjoyed reading Homer. They liked our conversations in class, but, at the end of the course, lacking theoretical reasons, they still worry about why they spent so much time on pagan, non-Christian authors. Over the past few semesters, I have thought about how to best answer that question: Why read old (pagan) books? To do so, I would like to begin with an image from a myth.
At the beginning of his Timaeus, Plato retells the well-known myth of Atlantis. There was, once upon a time, a flourishing civilization, which excelled in the arts and sciences. They built a beautiful city, which blended perfectly into its natural environs. But one day, the city was lost. An earthquake caused it to be buried under an ocean of water. And there, at the floor of the ocean, this magnificent civilization rests, in silence.
I like the image of the luxuriously wealthy city at the bottom of the ocean because the metaphor of archaeology brilliantly captures the goals of a student of the humanities. What if, along with the physical ruins of buildings, there were certain ideas, certain ways of life, certain ways of thinking which have been buried under the rubble of time? What if some truth from antiquity, which used to be obvious to everyone else, had only begun to seem bizarre to modern man? As everyone knows, Hesiod’s Theogony is a very bizarre piece of writing by our standards. But what if the truth is, it is not so much this book which is weird, but we who have become strange? What if we moderns are the ones out of step with everyone else, not the ancients who are backwards and behind the times, but we who are out of tune? It is for this reason, with these questions in mind, that I encourage my students, every time they bump into a passage (or book) particularly strange and bizarre, to slow down, re-read, and think more deeply. You might have hit a cultural blind spot.
But the truth is, I like to emphasize to my students, we have undergone a massive, earthquake-like shift, for, as everyone acknowledges, our modern world is cut off from the ancient world by a great chasm. To put it starkly, Christians in America have more in common with a man from China or a woman from Saudi Arabia than we do with a Christian from the first century. China and Saudi Arabia are less foreign to us than ancient man. This is because we moderns live in what we call “a secular age.” As the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, puts it: Secularism is not so much the state of affairs in which there is less belief, but rather the world in which belief has become difficult because the whole mindset wherein belief made sense evaporated. The old, enchanted world, in which spiritual powers flowed through physical matter, passed away.
Thus, Taylor says that in our secular age we all tend to live within, “the Immanent Frame,” by which he means, a kind of intellectual mindset which does not acknowledge any presence of the transcendent within the natural world. Even those who acknowledge the existence of God tend to live as if there were a thick partition between the world of the spirit and the world of physical matter. We live in a world which has been “disenchanted.” Here’s how Taylor quickly sums it up:
Our peasant ancestors would ring the church bells during a storm, the so called “carillon de tonnerre.” It was believed that lightning, which of course threatens us, is guided by spirits, or spiritual forces; that the instruments and actions of the church also carry spiritual force, positive, beneficent, those that are capable of protecting us from the bad forces inhabiting the thunder. Beliefs such as these are not dead today… But these beliefs no longer form a system, are no longer shared by everyone; such that it no longer goes without saying that things can come to pass in this way in the world in which we live. This kind of spiritual force is no longer, phenomenologically, part of our experience of the everyday. To the contrary, when we look at the “official history” of our civilization, that is, from the point of view of science, this type of spiritual force or influence no longer exists for us (“A Place for Transcendence,” from Transcendence, ed. Regina Schwartz).
In his lengthy A Secular Age, Taylor traces the movement from the “enchantment” of antiquity to the “disenchanted” modern world. It’s a process he calls ominously, “excarnation.” Even “[o]fficial Christianity has gone through what we can call an “excarnation,” transfer out of embodied “enfleshed” forms of religious life, to those which are more “in the head.” Again, this not so much the conviction that God does not exist, but rather the feeling that God and other spiritual powers are distant, very far away. The sacred is felt to have withdrawn from the physical, visible world, so that our ordinary actions can be carried out seemingly without any connection to the sacred.
This is the “disenchanted” cosmos we live in in the secular age. The result is that we moderns feel that we have “buffered souls,” that is, we don’t feel as if our souls were open and vulnerable to spiritual forces. We moderns can feel alone, sometimes bored with life, insulated, locked up inside ourselves. We feel that depths are interior, rather than located out in the world. There is nothing out there to discover.
But the Greek experience, particularly as recorded in its archaic literature, was almost the exact opposite: it was a world in which the universe was replete with gods, packed full of divinity; it was a cosmos which was exciting, almost threatening; at the same time, the very idea of what a “god” was, was radically different from ours. To encounter a god in the Greek world was a terrifying experience, in which human beings were afraid they would be undone. The Greek idea of the hero also far outstrips how we would ordinarily use that term.
Antiquity, then, especially in the Archaic Age, has become for us a kind of buried Atlantis, wherein we can potentially find truth and beauty of exceptional rarity. And the modern student becomes a kind of intellectual archaeologist, or to borrow a better metaphor from Hannah Arrendt, a pearl diver, who dives deep into the depths of the past:
And this thinking, fed by the present, works with ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light, but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which what once was alive sinks and is dissolved, some things ‘suffer a sea-change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as ‘thought fragments, as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps as everlasting Urphanomene. (“Walter Benjamin”)
Thus, the student of old, pagan books dives into those bizarre, remote, and distant texts, so far away from our times, to see what is precious within them, to see if they have some priceless treasure which we will have just enough time to pry loose and take back up with us to our own banal age.
This is one of the many reasons we read Old Books: Hesiod, Homer, the Homeric Hymns, Aeschylos, and Plato. We want to stage a confrontation with that which is old; we want to test what seems obvious and commonplace to us against those who are foreign, not in lands, but in time. And we are prepared to find some fabulously exotic things at the bottom of this ocean of time. As C.S. Lewis put it, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.