Author Archives: rescogitandae

Classical Education and Money

Note: The following essay is a rough draft of a work long in progress, and I am posting it here only to solicit feedback, either positive or negative.  Please comment on this post if you wish.

The title of this essay sounds very practical, but the content of the following pages is likely the most impractical exposition you will read for some time.

The issue of the relationship of education and money is, it seems on the one hand, very simple.  It can be expressed in logical form:

(1) Our culture is defined and dominated by the flow of products and
services.

(2)  Education is widely considered both a product and a service.

(3)  The flow of products and services is enabled by money.

(4) Therefore, education must, like everything else, be defined and
dominated by the presence or absence of money.

(5) What applies to education simpliciter also applies to classical education,
as a species of the genus.

It is an argument of elegant simplicity and seems, all things being equal, irrefutable.  A school building cannot be built, let alone maintained, without money.  Amenities required not just for basic creature comfort, but also for sanitary health, such as electricity and water, cannot be attained without money.  The grounds cannot be kept attractive without money.  And, of course, there can be no teachers without money.

This is all before we get to the practical argument that the very purpose and goal of the educative activities taking place in the school must be to facilitate the entrance of the students into the great web of economic life in which the school is just one node.

By this practical argument, education is defined as being about money in an even more profound way than the mere provision and upkeep of premises and staff.  Education is really and truly and fully aboutmoney because everything it does, its whole reason for being, is to create agents trained to “get a good job” and so focus on continually buying and selling things, thus preserving the flow of products and services through the great web.

All this is eminently practical, which is to say, it is about the “real world” of bodies-in-motion, hustling and bustling, constantly moving things about, producing and consuming things useful for the material prosperity of the nation (and perhaps, as a moralistic afterthought, of the rest of the world).

This is why I began by saying that despite its apparently very practical title, the content of the following pages is likely the most impractical exposition you will read for some time.  For, although acknowledging the necessity of money for certain activities connected with classical education, this essay denies that classical education is meant to be “practical” in the above-outlined sense.

Indeed, my argument in this essay is that while money is necessary for buildings and utilities and salaries, beyond such concerns its presence or absence is utterly irrelevant to classical education.  Further still, it is my thesis that the presence or absence of money beyond such activities as those listed is not only hindering to, but finally, entirely destructive of classical education.

Bold, perhaps novel-sounding, words.  To learn why I write them, read on.

  1. Some Unusual Thoughts About Economics (in General)

The title of this essay declares a focus not just on education simpliciter, but on a certain type of education – classical education.  To be clear, classical education is a mode of pedagogy drawn from the literary canon that is often called “the classics” or “the Great Books,” though a higher emphasis is put on the Greco-Roman aspect of those than upon Modern additions to the canon.  Sometimes this mode of education gets identified with the term “Liberal Arts,” the ancient disciplines pertaining to liberi, “free people.”

Working within the classical paradigm as just defined, in order to explore the relationship of money to classical education,I must first provide a look at the more general topic of economics.

I call what follows “unusual thoughts” because in my experience, teachers and lecturers in the classical education movement do not talk about economic matters in this way – that is, with specific reference to the classical texts.  Indeed, much of what passes for economics talk in terms of “the Christian worldview” is little more than a few carefully-selected passages of Scripture deployed to justify the present-day system of capitalism while excoriating the present-day system of socialism.

In other words, much talk of economics in classical education circles is purely agenda-driven, not classics-driven.This has the unfortunate side-effect of too closely identifying the time-honored, trans-cultural cause of classical education with the passing political fads of our own culture. This essay is a first, undoubtedly clumsy, attempt to begin filling the gap.

These days, the word economics refers to a discipline that is broadly considered a “social science” (like anthropology or religious studies) but in the hands of many of its practitioners proceeds as if it is another “hard science” (like physics or chemistry).

Operating as if it is a hard science, economics concerns itself with the collection of “data” from which it creates supposedly empirically-testable hypotheses in order to generate “laws,” analogues to such brute action-reaction principles as E=mc2 and F=ma.

Like other laws in the hard sciences, economic laws are thought to be both rationally understood and rationally manipulable through mathematical calculation.  The discipline of economics concerns the generation and practice of various schemes to manipulate the laws in order to bring about results favorable to the particular theorist working the math problems.

In short, economics for us looks a lot like a kind of technology.  And, like other forms of technology, we tend to think of economics as morally neutral, just a tool the results of which are good or bad in proportion to the goodness or badness of the person using it.[1]

From a classical perspective – recall how I defined that above – this paradigm for economics is flawed and must be rejected.  The flaws begin with the assumption that economics is, or even can be, a science as we are pleased to think of “science.”

It is almost humorous in this connection that many Christian “worldview thinkers” today begin their exposition of economics with the 18th century A.D. theorist Adam Smith, as if economics originally sprang from the head of Moderns like Athena from the head of Zeus.

It is not so.  Anyone who claims to be involved in “classical education” ought to take the classical books with the utmost of seriousness, and that entails beginning talk of nearly every discipline we can think of – art, architecture, astronomy, physics, biology, literature, history, empirical science, politics, and yes, economics – with sober consideration of the Greeks, who either invented or else trailblazingly refined practically all of them.

Historically and etymologically, the word economics stems from the Greek wods oikos and nomos, literally meaning “house law.”  In the ancient agrarian world, the original oikonomos (economics) involved the attempt to be self-sufficient, that is, reliant upon no outside source for any necessities of life.

For as the poet Hesiod had taught the Greeks, the gods had deliberately made man’s life physically difficult so that he could, by very hard work in his own domain, focused primarily on his own things, secure just enough to live, but not enough to make him prideful and forget his place in the cosmos.[2]

Hesiod’s poetic discussion in the Works and Days implies the primacy of the small, individual family farm. We Moderns, living in sprawling mega-cities interconnected in an incomprehensible web called “the global economy,” may thus be inclined simply to dismiss the classical perspective as irrelevant to proper economic thinking.  As one of the two teachers of Greece (Homer being the other one), it would seem that Hesiod is hopelessly outmoded for denizens of a world run by what some have called “the Wal-Mart Effect.”

What can a bunch of old, dead Greek guys who had to quite literally tear up the rocky earth with crude pieces of iron drug by oxen, guys who were utterly dependent on the weather, and who were extremely lucky if their trade ships (carrying fairly rare and exceedingly hard-won surpluses) weren’t sunk by storms within shouting distance of the shore, have to say to us?

As Quickbeam of Fangorn famously said, we must not be hasty.  When Hesiod wrote his poems (8th century B.C.), the Greeks had already transcended the severe limitations of the individual, isolated family farm per se by developing the polis, which we often translate as either “city” or “city-state.”  When we first see talk of economics, it is in this context, the historical life of small communities of families living in close connection with Nature and having all their activities related to what was good for the community.

This mode of lifecame from the original, natural associative desires of human beings.  First man and woman joined for the preservation of the race.  Following marriage was the generation of a family (household).  In the hardscrabble life of ancient agrarianism, the members of the family worked constantly just to provide their own daily needs.  Later joinings of many such households produced a village, which made possible the division of labor, and so some measure of leisure time and interest in luxuries.  Last came the agglomeration of many villages into a polis – the city.[3]

If we wish to call ourselves classical educators, these considerations – the “house law,” the ancient city – must situate our initial talk of economics.  We may (must), of course, move beyond this level, but we must not fail to start at this level.  If we get our first principles wrong, all that follows will also be wrong.

Aristotle followed Hesiod’s lines of thought through his own Ethics and Politics by adding a very developed discussion regarding how all things, man included, have rationally-understandable natures that seek fulfillment in something they identify as good.  There are many kinds of goods, each relative to a specific mode of inquiry or action,but all of them ultimately arrange themselves with reference to a final, objective The Good.

For Aristotle, the city is this natural, final Good of man, for in it all man’s desires and abilities find organization and expression in a life of virtuous moderation.  This he terms “the Good Life.”

All this means that beginning our thoughts about economics where our classical tradition begins, the natural end of economics must be seen as the philosophically-defined “Good Life” in community with others. Whereas Modern economics is all about individual fulfillment, the original concept of man’s economic life was as a derivative of his naturally-created naturally-defined social life.  The city situates a man’s own, private things in the larger, public world of a community of equals all committed to living together in friendship and justice.

The Greek understanding of polis thusmoved the original, small-scale “house law”idea of economics beyond the realm of mere animal provision of daily needs, and even beyond the initial village-level division of labor that made leisure time and luxuries possible.  City-life moved economics to the highest level possible: a practical activity taking place in accord with philosophical considerations aiming at a final, objective end.[4]

Hence, as oikonomos, economics, adapted itself from the single household to the life of a whole city, a polis, an interesting creature called “politics”appeared.Derived, obviously, from polis, “politics” was the name of the life of citizens in a cityThis made all talk of production and consumption an integral part of the philosophically-understood, community-governed “Good Life.”[5]

Let us now reconnect to the earlier point that economics is not a “science” as we think of “science.”  For the Greeks, a science was a rationally-governed way to achieve knowledge.  But they made a distinction we don’t – between contemplative science and practicalscience. Contemplative sciences were disciplines that began from rationally-indisputable premises, like the premises of geometrical axioms, and proceeded to rationally-certain conclusions.[6]  Practical sciences, by contrast, were disciplines that began from rationally-disputable premises and so could arrive only at relatively-certain conclusions.

For the Greeks, all “human things,” all things pertaining to the analysis of the rational animal known as man, were practical sciences, not contemplative ones. As one of the “human things” (ethics and politics being others), economics, the community-based aim for the Good Life and the various means contrived to secure it, was not and could not have been a hard science.

Why?  Not only is an agrarian life one that attempts to live in accord with a natural world beyond our rational control, but because man himself is not a mechanism, economics could not have been a mechanically describable and manipulable process.  Community transcends mechanism, and so cannot be described in mechanistic terms.  Hence, economics was not and cannot be a hard science.

In short, to the extent that any of us as classical educators take our culture’s conventional, mechanistic-scientific wisdom about economics (and so also about ethics and politics, intimately connected with economics) as our starting point for thinking about money and education, to that exact extent we are unclassical.

Taking Stock

Before moving on to the next section, let us discern what the above “unusual thoughts” about economics in general have to do with the overall topic, of classical education and money.  As I noted earlier, these thoughts are unusual because they are rooted in the classical books, but, judging by much of the output at conferences and in curricula, the classical books do not often provide the basic categories of thought for classical schools.

What then, does all this about Hesiod and Aristotle and a naturally-defined social life and the progression of oikos (house) to polis (city) have to do with the approach to economics as it pertains to classical Christian schools?  As the Apostle Paul might say, “Much in every way!”

We cannot, of course, just pick up these old Greek authors and set their texts down on our Modern life and imagine that we can repristinate their context and mimic them.  Past ages of time are gone forever.  We don’t live then, but now.  Moreover, as always when we look at cultures other than our own, there are things in the Greeks that we would not wish to repristinate even if we could.  So the questions these texts raise for us, the categories with which they invite us to think about matters of money, do not concern making our culture look like theirs.

Rather, the questions these texts raise and the categories they provide for us are, rather, ones of enduring insight into human nature, insights we may mine from their texts and apply to our own circumstances.  The immense linguistic, sociocultural, and technological changes that separate us from human beings like Hesiod and Aristotle do not separate us from that which we share with them: the human itself.

For instance, we live in environments packed full of millions of anonymous people, such that Aristotle would have considered our “cities” merely associations of strangers for convenience’s sake’s sake.  But this aside, Aristotle is correct that the foundation of a society is mutual respect for the intelligence of others and a desire to live in friendship with them and observe justice relative to them.  This principle already requires a radically different approach to economics than our present “culture war” mentality between “conservatives” and “liberals” allows.

For another, Hesiod’s insistence that life is designed to be very hard, and so each must work very hard on his own things, underlies the very notion of justice in a community.  For implied in that view is that it is the nature of the cosmos that one cannot get something for nothing.  If, then, one is experiencing an easy economic life, or if one aims at that sort of life, one is involved in injustice, of somehow trying to get something for nothing.  And Nature will not tolerate this.

Hesiod’s poem underscores the divinely-ordained difficulty of making the earth provide food (and by extension, all other things we need), and he draws from this fact a corollary that no one should want more than the moderate share he is able to produce by his own efforts from cooperating with the natural world.  The first part of this point is congruent with the Christian theology of the Fall, and so not surprising to Christians, but the second is the product of sophisticated reflection on the nature and limitations of human work under the sun.

What the poet does with this reflection, however, is intriguing.  For wrapped up in his stanzas about farming is the subtle message that it is the very nature of the cosmos to punish those who indulge in the wrongdoing of wanting more than is proper for one man to have.  When in the context of the hardscrabble life of farming Hesiod says that justice involves a man using his intelligence to peer past the appearances, “perceiving all, taking notice of what is better in the end,” when he says that only fools do not understand “how much better the half is than the whole,” he subtly teaches that an economically moderate life, observing duties towards other people in the community, is the best thing for a man.

Those who break this moderation-based oikonomos – that is, those who pervert economics by making it a tool for their own unrestricted gain – the gods punish by making them suffer loss.  Conversely, those who observe proper oikonomos in concert with their neighbors enjoy a polis free from conflict and suffering, for they are living in accord with the divine pattern of the universe.

The critical observation here is that as for Aristotle politics is natural, for Hesiod, economics is natural, arising directly from man’s being rooted in a natural order beyond his control.  Also, economics is defined not, as for us, as the constant efficient movement of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money, but by an overriding concern for justice – for minding one’s own things more than those of others and avoiding desire for excessive accumulation. Lastly, for Hesiod, economics is related not to individuals qua individuals, but to life in community.

These principles are of profound relevance to us, living in a society created by and dominated by the constant, efficient motion of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money.  We are taught every day in a thousand subtle ways that our nature as human beings is to be productive of things to consume, and consumptive of things produced.

In all of this, we are not taught to observe moderation in our desires, nor to set our desires – and our things themselves – in a larger web of naturally created and naturally conditioned social relationships in which our duties toward others are far more important than our personal rights.  We do not believe, with Aristotle, that we are made for life in community with others, and that therefore, everything we say and do finds its meaning only in just relationships with others.

Our unfamiliarity with, and so unconscious rejection of, these classical first principles of economics explains why our views on the subject are utterly self-centered and lacking in any consideration of ethics that transcend “matter in motion” – the constant, efficient movement of goods and services in a machine whose gears are greased by money.  Our unclassical orientation is also why our political views are forever aimed at rhetorically vituperative and socially degrading culture-warring with those with whom we disagree.

With all this in mind, let us now turn to what the classical tradition shows us about the thing that greases the gears of the constant, efficient motion of goods and services: money.

[1]   This is one reason why when economics arises, as it always does, in political arguments, one finds continual, often highly personal, invective coming from self-described “conservatives” and “liberals” and aimed at each other. Each side thinks itself as people to be “good” and the other as people to be “bad,” which means that the morally neutral, scientific law-based tool of economics can be used by either, but with “good” or “bad” results depending on who is using it.

[2]   See Hesiod’s Works and Days, a relatively short, quasi-divinely inspired meditation on the farming life and its relationship to the city and justice.  The focus on his own things (not other people’s) is the key to the justice component of economics.

[3]   See the opening two sections of Book I of Aristotle’s Politics.

[4]   Notice the important fact that in the original discussion, that which was philosophical was on intimate terms with that which was practical.  Today, philosophy and practicality are usually regarded as incompatible, which is why our economics is discussed as an abstract, impersonal, (allegedly) morally neutral technical matter and our politics is often merely a frantic, also (allegedly) morally neutral, scramble for control of the levers of power.

[5]By the way, as a historical aside, this progression of thought is one reason that what we now call “economics” was, until not so long ago, called “political economy.”  Economics and politics were held as symbiotic, whereas in our day the former is just a tool in the power schemes of the latter.

[6]   Interestingly, for them Theology was the first and foremost example of this kind of science.

Orpheus and Orphism (Part 1)

Given that engaging mythology is a significant part of classical Christian education, it’s likely that most of us have some familiarity with the figure of Orpheus. Sometimes he is reported as the son of the god Apollo and the Muse Calliope; outside myth storybooks, he is rather reported as the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and Calliope. Parentage disagreements aside, Orpheus is famous for a couple of widely-cited reasons: the aid he gave to Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece,1 and his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, which ended in failure but at least showed that Orpheus’ music could charm even the god of the dead.2.

Orpheus Among the Thracians

Greek tragedy offers additional information about Orpheus that needs to be carefully processed, including that his songs had power over inanimate objects as well as animate, and that he had connections with Bacchanalic frenzies.3. In a fascinating historical connection, some sources tell us that when the Dionysian cult invaded Thrace, where Orpheus lived, he refused to honor the new god and instead taught his countrymen to abhor as a great evil the sacrificial murdering of human beings.4 Contra Dionysius, Orpheus preached the supremacy of Apollo, for which “blasphemy” Dionysius apparently had the Maenads tear him apart.5 An alternate version of his death is that Zeus struck him with a lightning bolt for having revealed divine secrets via the mystery religions he set up.6 Though without mentiong the how of Orpheus’ death, no less a source than Plato has it, perhaps surprisingly, that Orpheus’ descent to Hades was an act of cowardice supposedly typical of minstrels, and that the god of death tricked him by showing him only an apparition of Eurydice – after which the gods arranged for his death:

In this manner even the gods give special honor to zeal and courage in concerns of love. But Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, they sent back with failure from Hades, showing him only a wraith of the woman for whom he came; her real self they would not bestow, for he was accounted to have gone upon a coward’s quest, too like the minstrel that he was, and to have lacked the spirit to die as Alcestis did for the sake of love, when he contrived the means of entering Hades alive. Wherefore they laid upon him the penalty he deserved, and caused him to meet his death.7

All these interesting items aside, Orpheus bears far greater import for classical Christian educators than just these “grammar-level” stories and criticisms. Perhaps most importantly for how we Christians deal with pagan mythology, Orpheus has been credited with formulating at least the rudiments of a system of “hyperspiritual” religious rites that eventually became a robust pagan religious offering, Orphism.

As Orphism and its influences is, as far as I can tell, a little-commented-upon topic in classical education circles, and as I myself am in no way an expert on it, this post is merely an attempt to sketch the issues. The remainder of this post and much of the next, in fact, draw very heavily upon classicist W.K.C. Guthrie’s The Greeks and their Gods.8

A Bare-Bones Sketch of Orphic Ontology

6th century B.C. Greece, in which Orphic religion arose, occupied itself largely with the thorny metaphysical Problem of the One and the Many. In a world teeming with Many individual, distinct things, what held them all together into the One overarching cosmos that was equally undeniable from experience? Concentrated in the religious imagination, this conundrum took the form of how to explain and express the presumed basic unity between the divine and the human soul.9 One solution was offered by the followers of Dionysius, who believed the god would at special times lift the human soul out of itself, so to speak, through the practice of passionate and frenzied mystical experiences. But, interestingly, Dionysian orgia did not widely catch on, for the Greek mind in general held the maxim, “mortal thoughts for mortals,” and so wanted to steer far clear of such uncontrollable ecstasies as being rather unhuman.10

The Orphics, by contrast, tried to solve the One-Many dichotomy by positing a sythesis of the mystical Dionysian and rational Apollonian religions. This Orphic synthesis turns out to be that the human soul simply is divine and also immortal, but requires a continual and rigorous process of catharsis, or purification by way of elaborate ascetic rituals in order to be “clean” enough for union with the divine.

Orphic ontology (beliefs about being) were crassly mythological, beginning with the generation of a cosmos by the first great god, Eros (Love), one of whose children, Zeus, swallows the whole thing and recreates it anew. Although superficially similar to other stories, such as Kronos swallowing his children and Zeus swallowing his first wife, Metis, this Orphic ontology should be of interest to Christians because, as Guthrie puts it, “through these crude folk-tales a new idea is set forth, the idea that the god who rules the world is also its creator.”11

What we should make of this germ of truth is certainly open for debate. In the next post, I’ll finish bare-bones sketching Orphism so that between these two posts there will be a foundation for further exploratory work relative to the myths themselves.

  1. Apollonius, Argonautica []
  2. Ovid, Metamorphoses X.1-85 []
  3. See these plays of Euripides: Rhesus 944, 946; Medea 543; Iphigenia in Aulis 1211; Bacchae 561; Cyclops 646; Alcestis 357; Hippolytus 953; Bacchae 561 []
  4. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. 1 (London: The Folio Society, 1996), pp. 112-113 []
  5. Graves, ibid., p. 113. The rest of the story as related by Graves definitely “demythologizes” the children’s storybook version of Orpheus: while condemning Dionysian promiscuity, he apparently also advocated homosexuality, which made Aphrodite his enemy, as well! []
  6. Graes, ibid. []
  7. Symposium 179d-e []
  8. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1950 []
  9. Lest this sound immediately and entirely unbiblical, recall that most basic of biblical doctrines, creation in the image of God, as His offspring, which implies some sort of union-connection between God and His image-bearers, not to mention the Apostle Peter’s remarks about becoming “partakers of the divine nature” through Christ. It should be clear that per se the notion of unity with God is not necessarily unbiblical and anti-Christian. []
  10. Guthrie, pp. 316-317. []
  11. The Greeks and Their Gods, p. 319 []

Glossary of Terms (Myth Conceptions)

Below is a glossary of basic terms necessary for a properly studied Christian view of classical mythology. Lacking a broad understanding of the concepts at work “behind” the myths, Christian critiques of pagan thought run the significant risk of being mere projections of a simplistic kind of “worldview thinking.” Such critiques tend to foster what is sometimes called a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that teaches students (albeit not necessarily deliberately), to be cynical about ancient texts, and so to be primed for deconstructing the Western Tradition itself and retreating to fideistic defenses of Christianity rather than a really robustly classical Christian orientation to the world.

Athanatoi a Greek term meaning “deathless” and referring to the gods; in mythology, being athanatoi is the key distinction between the gods and human beings

Catharsis “purging”; the goal of the dramatic form of tragedy (see below), especially as we see it in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Through participating (by viewing) the tragic plays, the audience could symbolically encounter terrible sins or taboos, of which they themselves might, by common human nature, easily become guilty, but instead “purge” themselves of negative and even violent emotions resulting from such evils.

Fate(s) – see Moirai, below

Hermes Trismegestus – A semi-legendary figure that seems to have been an amalgamation of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. The purported author of the Hermetica, he is often held to be the founder of the hyper-spiritualized (i.e., “gnostic”) Hermetic tradition. Among other famous utterances, we are told that he said, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.”, and again, “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.” These remarks function as expressions of the analogous philosophical concepts of the macrocosm and microcosm (see below). Hermes Trismegestus was often criticized by Christian Church Fathers, most especially St. Augustine of Hippo, for illicitly attempting to unite God and creation.

Logos – a Greek term with a variety of related meanings, including “reason,” “plan,” “reckoning,” “account,” and “word”. In distinction to mythos, “story,” logos conveys the idea of a systematic explanation of phenomena carried out by human reasoning powers. As Greek mythology and philosophy advanced, and particularly as the latter increasingly “rewrote” mythology to expunge its viler “literal” elements, Logos in the sense of Reason came to be seen as that which underlies and holds everything in the world together as an ordered, coherent, intelligible whole. See also macrocosm, microcosm, and mythos below.

Macrocosm – “great world” or “great order”; the Greek philosophical term for the universe as a whole, encompassing all smaller, particular things which are, thus, its constituent parts. The idea is frequently dualistic in the sense of positing that the universe is made up of both matter and soul (though “soul” in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean what it does for Christians). See particularly Plato’s Philebus (28d–30d) and Timaeus (29d–47e) for detailed explanations of both this term and its corollary, microcosm. Both concepts are closely related to the distinction between the One and the Many (see below).

Microcosm – “little world” or “little order”; the Greek philosophical term expressing that a whole (say, the universe) can be understood by looking closely at a much smaller version of it (say, the soul of an individual human being). The comparison is, therefore, a kind of analogy: the human being is a microcosm, a “little world,” all to itself, and if this smaller world can be rationally understood, by extension the larger world of which it is a part (the macrocosm) can be rationally understood as well. See particularly Plato’s Philebus (28d–30d) and Timaeus (29d–47e) for detailed explanations of both this term and its corollary, macrocosm. Both concepts are closely related to the distinction between the One and the Many (see below).

Moirai three Greek goddesses: Klotho, “the Spinner,” spun the thread of each man’s life; Lakhesis, “the Apportioner of Lots,” measured each thread, and Atropos, or Aisa, “She Who Cannot Be Turned,” cut each thread at the apportioned end. Frequently Christians criticize Fate / the Fates as being totally arbitrary, but it is noteworthy that in some sources Zeus, the supreme god, appears as either the executor or even the leader of these three – which gives rise to the significant question whether Fate really is a multiplicity of divinities or an overarching unified (and possibly in some way personal) force guiding and directing all things toward an ordered and intelligible end. By the time of the Roman Stoics Fate will be identified with Reason itself, the very “soul” of the all-encompassing universe, which also leads to interesting theological connections to the Christian doctrine of Providence explored by the Medieval poet Dante in the Divine Comedy.

Mythos – a Greek term meaning “report,” “tale,” “story; does not necessarily mean a falsehood, for it encompasses a wide variety of stories, including true ones; but the term is often used in distinction to logos (see above)

One and the Many – This is a key Greek philosophical concept that expresses two important truths about the world: (1) we experience a great deal of diversity of existing things (the Many) in the world, but somehow all of it contributes to a single, unified whole (the One). Many myths are attempts (focused on various aspects) to engage or explain the interplay between the One and the Many, and the concept also relates to those of Macrocosm and Microcosm (see above).

Ontology – “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is a “something” in the first place? What kinds of “somethings” exist? How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them? What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?

Orphism – This was a systematic religious tradition that emerged in the 6th century B.C. which based itself on the myth of Orpheus, the demigod singer (son of Apollo and the Muse Calliope). Orphism was initially an attempt to grapple with the Problem of the One and the Many (see below) by focusing on the idea of the human relationship to the divine in terms of seeing the human being as the “microcosm,” or a “little cosmos.” The religious ideas associated with Orphism tend to be rather complex, and their relationship with the mythology that represents a much simpler, and much more widespread and politically-important mode of religion, deserves much more serious thought in Christian accounts of pagan culture.

Problem of the One and the Many – Building on the constituent concepts of One and Many (see above), this pivotal Greek philosophical conundrum involves attempting to discern exactly how diversity and unity relate to each other. Among the early options the natural philosophers held (which came down to Plato and Aristotle, who each modified them in their own ways), were the idea that (1) there isn’t any actual unity because, as Heraclitus put it, “You can’t step into the same river twice,” or (2) there isn’t any actual diversity because, as Parmenides put it, distinctions are illusory because all things are simply One.

Supernatural – Despite the popular tendency to simply equate anything dealing with “gods” with the supernatural, this is not the case in the pagan myths because all the divine beings are themselves part of the natural order, just like stars and humans and animals and plants and rocks and all the rest. In other words, unlike in Christianity, there is no actual supernatural activity in the myths, a fact that helps to qualify both the nature of the myths and their general function of non-rational, almost certainly symbolic and allegorical mode of explanation of the world.

Tragedy – a term that has several relevant meanings to Christian engagement with pagan mythology: (1) as used by Aristotle, a story in which someone neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally evil (e.g., Oedipus, Agamemnon, Hecuba), but average and relatable to the audience, comes to a bad end through a significant character flaw. (2) a dramatic part of annual performances, particularly in Athens, during the Festival of Dionysius; tragic plays served a crucial political function by allowing the citizenry to symbolically, through the safe distance of drama, encounter terrible sins or taboos and “purge” themselves (see catharsis, above) of negative and even violent emotions resulting from such evils.

Penelope the Passive Pretty Object

(NB: In case you are coming across this post randomly, PLEASE read the quick introductory material here, because this is part of a longer series aiming at a particular end. Thank you.)

A second “Alt-Penelope” one finds radical cynical scholars (female and male) sometimes presenting is the one who, over the course of the whole Odyssey, supposedly serves merely as a Passive Pretty Object, a patriarchally-stereotypical woman whose entire identity comes only from her association with her husband and who never does a thing of any real consequence, being animated only in an auxiliary manner by external forces. In short, this is the Alt-Penelope who, in the language of the radical cynics “has no agency.”

On this reading, Penelope the Circumspect, whose fame used to be held to reach to the stars in an equal, though different way from that of her husband, might as well not even be a person, for, as it was once actually said directly to me someone in the grip of this sort of bitter feminism, “even Odysseus’ bow has more personality than Penelope.”

Ridiculous, you say? Quite right, and in this post I want to at least begin showing why.

The first issue behind the Penelope as Passive Pretty Object slur grounds itself in the quite proper (and I would even say, for Christians, biblical) concern to recognize the real agency, that is the real personhood, of women. Women are not mere auxiliaries to men, as should be clear from the Genesis creation account itself. There, although woman is created second, and from the rib of the man, the stated reason for God doing this focuses on the incompleteness of man without woman.

Whatever we may or may not want to say about gender roles at various points in history, and even about whether Christianity teaches a universally normative set of gender roles,1 we all must surely be quick to acknowledge that women are not sub-human and ought not to be thought of as identifiable only in relation to men who more or less literally possess them in some sort of power relationship.

Patriarchy is one of the last few terms that late Modernity is willing to acknowledge as a real Dirty Word Which Ought Not Be Said, but quite aside from secular intemperance about the term, it is true that there has often been in history – and still is today – an unhealthy and abusive type of patriarchy which really does demean women as mere auxiliaries of men rather than exalt them as fellow image-bearers and fully equal to men in all the ways that matter to the God, who looks not on outward appearances, but on the heart. This is the type of patriarchy that today’s radical cynical scholars have made the focus of their bitterness, and just as in the saying about people who only have hammers, here too those whose minds can only contain one idea necessarily see that idea everywhere they look.

It is this sort of scholar, utterly obsessed with the idea that Rapacious Gender Conflict Is the Universal Key to All Human Experience, who may be found vomiting the most foul of calumnies against what was, until quite recently, the commonly accepted portrait of Penelope as the very model of the virtuous wife who anchors her husband and children by ordering and preserving that which is truly the seedbed of politics, the family. Penelope, say these scholars (and the impressionable young women they infect with their poison), pretty much does nothing but get manipulated by men and cry over the whole course of the Odyssey, revealing that she isn’t even really a person, but just a Pretty Object that could be replaced by, say, a pile of gold or a painting without any actual detriment to the story.

Again, ridiculous, you say? Again, quite right, but I’ve belabored the point in order to highlight how actually crucial this portrayal of Penelope is to the gender fanaticism that presently rules our culture. In some quarters of academia, the need to portray Penelope as a mere prop in a story that is only and solely about toxic masculinity is so overpowering that you can tell, reading the book or article, that advanced degrees notwithstanding, critical thought has been simply overcome by emotional intemperance and intellectual incontinence. Strong words, true enough. But if you ever descend into the cesspool that is this type of scholarship (or even into its popular representations, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad), you’ll find out just how tame my language actually is.

(At this point, I want to state my apology to readers: below is just a copy / paste of my notes on this subject; I’ve had no time to rewrite it all into a more enjoyable prose format. Hopefully it will still be of some use.)

  1. “agency” – ability to act in order to achieve a result
    1. Penelope does act, and quite significantly, for the entire course of her husband’s 20 year absence:
      1. She’s the supreme royal on Ithaca
        1. Telemachus is a child all the way up to the beginning of the story (“child” here meaning unable to take responsibility for one’s own domain).
        2. Telemachus is an inept and irresponsible male, and so he is not really in authority at all despite his occasional bold words.
        3. The only other royal male, Laertes (Odysseus’ father) has deliberately withdrawn from the household, laying down any claim to authority and power he had. (He’s another irresponsible male!)
      2. Although the physical labor of the house is done by maids and servants, Penelope is the directing force behind the whole thing: the servants serve her because she’s in charge: a positive word from her will make their day; a negative word from her will result in punishment. What is all this but agency?
        1. Her direction of the house, without any male overseeing or directing her, also means that she is the political authority in the household, since for the Greeks politics means directing a community towards its purpose.
          1. It is merely an idea of our own time period that politics means voting and making laws and so on. But these things are not the root and basis of politics for the Greeks; they are only some of its normal external effects.
          2. Politics for the Greeks begins in the oikos (the household), and flows “upward” to the rest of the society in the public sphere.
            1. The central problem of the Odyssey is, thus, that the royal oikos of Ithaca is in severe disorder, meaning that the public sphere beyond it is also in disorder. Penelope can’t fix all that by herself, but that is no proof that she “doesn’t have agency.” Agency only means ability to act; it doesn’t necessarily imply actual opportunities to act, let alone successful actions. Politics requires prudence, and Penelope has that quality in abundance.
            2. It is often pointed out that women and children were generally confined to a special upstairs area of the house, the gunaikon. What of it? Within this area, the wife had the power and responsibility – which is all that is required to refute the notion that Penelope did not have “agency.” Again, the problem with this sweeping claim is that it is a petitio: “agency” can only mean political / physical power and authority.
  1. Thus, it is anachronistic interpretation to say in an unqualified way that Penelope “has no political power”, let alone “has no agency.”
    1.  Why should standards from our time get to pass judgement on a past culture – especially if everything is “relative” and “there is no truth”?
       
  2. Two crucial actions Penelope makes that demonstrate her agency:
    1. Planning and executing for three years the deception of Laertes’ burial shroud required significant planning and willpower on her part, especially since she, a lone woman with no male backup, is setting herself against 108 young, strong, aggressive men. What is this courage, determination, and sustained course of action but agency of the highest degree?
    2. Setting up the contest of the bow: Athena “inspires” her to do this, but the Greek term “inspire” here refers to only emotional desire: Penelope herself had to decide to do what her emotions were telling her to do. And what is this but agency?
    3. These two actions “bracket” the return of Odysseus to restore the needed order to the household: the shroud deception prevents Penelope from being “claimed” by another man, and the bow contest enables her husband to symbolically and publicly reclaim the kingship and restore order both to the house and to the kingdom. Penelope’s agency drives the whole story.

Thus, in a way it might be said with all sobriety that the real hero of the Odyssey is Penelope, without whose significant and persistent courage, determination, and outright craftiness (prudence, wisdom) the supposed hero, Odysseus, would be just another boring, chest-thumping male veteran of the Trojan War, arriving at last at home only to be killed by malefactors bent on destroying his family and his kingdom. Far from being a merely Passive Pretty Object who could be replaced by a pile of gold or a painting, she is the very life of the story, the master thread which, if pulled out, would cause the whole epic and all its associated glories, to unravel just like Laertes’ burial shroud.

But that, of course, is precisely why this awful slur against Penelope has been invented in the first place.


Infamous “Alt-Penelopes” Index

Main Series Index

  1. I am referring here to the persistent debate, even among conservative Christians, between complementarians and egalitarians. []

Alt-Penelope 1: The Adulteress

(NB: In case you are coming across this post randomly, PLEASE read the quick introductory material here, because this is part of a longer series aiming at a particular end. Thank you.)

Yes, sad to say, “Penelope the adulteress” is real thing that in ancient times was said, and in our own day is again being said, against the usual portrayal of Penelope. The gist of it is as follows:

  • Whereas, thanks to the children’s story book approach to mythology, “everybody knows” that the god Pan was the son of Hermes and the nymph Dryope, some ancients told the alternative (and quite disgusting) story that Hermes, disguised as a ram, fathered Pan on Penelope.1
  • A second variety of this Pan parentage tale consists in, even more bizarrely, the goat-god resulting from the mating of all of the suitors with Penelope. The factoids on which this Alt-Penelope have been based are:2
    • the fact that in Odyssey 11.180ff, Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia, says not one word to him about the suitors (as if she’s trying to hide Penelope’s unfaithfulness);
    • the incident of 16.394-398, in which Penelope seems to show favoritism to the suitor Amphinomous (as if there’s something going on between them);
    • the Athena-inspired behavior of 18.281-283, in which Penelope engages in lewd tantalizing of the suitors (as if she’s playing up the “sex object” angle for her own gain);
    • the fact that Odysseus simply does not trust Penelope upon arriving home, but puts her to a complicated set of loyalty tests (as if he has actually legitimate reasons to doubt her fidelity).

Whatever one makes of this Alt-Penelope story, the point of both is clear with respect to feminist deconstructions of the classical tradition both generally in terms of Western Culture per se and particularly in terms of Christianity: Penelope was not all an exemplar of proper and healthy femininity, but just another prototype of (in the first story) just another sad victim of male power, or (in the second story) a “liberated women” in charge of her own body and acting just like a dog in heat, like her disloyal handmaidens.

At any rate, both versions strike me as dismissable once they have been properly engaged. The first may be dismissed because it’s obviously just another perverted ancient sexual story to begin with (the sort of crude story the Greeks themselves came to increasingly explain way as they became more philosophically and ethically-minded), and turns out not even to be referencing Odysseus’ wife. The second because all these behaviors can easily be explained in ways other than assuming Penelope was an adulteress.

Thus, regarding Anticleia in Hades (11.180ff), this is simply an argument from silence. That she doesn’t mention the suitors to Odysseus entails nothing definite either way, and certainly cannot be used as a firm foundation to attack the virtuous picture of Penelope presented in the Odyssey as a whole.

The second evidential claim, that Penelope has a soft-spot for the suitor Amphinomous (16.394-398), is equally tenuous. Fagles translates the relevant passage: “[Amphinomous] the man who pleased Penelope the most, thanks to his timely words and good clear sense.”3. Fitzgerald renders it: “He led the group of suitors…and he had a lightness in his talk that pleased Penelope, for he meant no ill.”4) Lattimore’s version runs: “…and pleased Penelope more than the others in talk, for he had good sense and discretion.”5 Cook, in turn, says it this way: “…was leader of the suitors and pleased Penelope the most with his speeches, for he practiced good sense.”6 The point is, I think, clear enough: Penelope likes this suitor, but she likes him in terms of his behavior in her house, which is far less despicable than the others and often issues forth in more temperate speech. To read this as having sexual overtones may very well be one of those instances scholars are famous for – looking into the mirror of a text and seeing only themselves.

The third claim, that Penelope acts lewdly before the suitors on Athena’s inspiration (18.281-283), also need not imply what cynical scholars assume. That is, there is a perfectly reasonable interpretation that has nothing whatever to do with needing Penelope to be a modern “liberated” woman. Consider that the scene of her descent before the gawking eyes of the suitors is literally the mirror-image of the descent of her cousin, Helen, in Book IV, to greet Telemachus: Helen, who condemns her younger self as a depraved pawn of Aphrodite, and whose unfaithfulness was the chief cause of the Trojan War that deprived Penelope of her husband for two decades. Consider also that Athena divinely beautifies Penelope for two stated reasons: to “make her even more esteemed by her husband and son than she had been before” (Fagles, p. 381) and “to make her suitors lose themselves in wonder” (Fagles, p. 382). Moreover, watching the display himself, Odysseus has joy over how Penelope so easily manipulates the sordid crew despoiling his house, using their lusts against them (Fagles, p. 384: “enchanting their hearts with suave seductive words but all the while with something else in mind” – emphasis mine). To those who allow the text to speak in its own words rather than dubbing it with their own, it is clear enough that there is nothing base in Penelope’s displaying of her beauty here.

Lastly, moving forward from his return in Book 13, in which Odysseus makes plain his intent to test his wife’s loyalty, although it is not flattering to him, Odysseus may be seen as a typical Trojan War-era male, operating with a sexual double-standard that makes him easily suspicious of women. We know that Penelope doesn’t deserve this, and it is possible that he should know it, too, but he doesn’t. In part this may be due to the simple historical distance of twenty years, in which husband and wife have had zero dealings with each other. People can change. But back to Odysseus’ himself, his evident trait of suspicion (no doubt related psychologically to his pathological lying tendency), could easily have been exploited by the ghost of Agamemnon lamenting how his wife murdered him as soon as he got home. Again, there’s no obvious reason to read the book as implying that Penelope was really an adulteress.

Infamous “Alt-Penelopes” Index

Main Series Index

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (London: The Folio Society, 1996), pp. 102-104. A crucial qualification appears in Volume II, p. 664, where Graves notes that the story seems originally to have referred to the little-known sex-cult goddess Penelope, not to Odysseus’ wife – but apparently it is not only the ancients who seized upon the rudiments of the story, twisted them up, and imputed the grotesque origin of Pan to the Queen of Ithaca. []
  2. Graves, Volume II, p. 664-665. []
  3. Homer: The Odyssey (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 351 []
  4. The Odyssey (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 302 []
  5. The Odyssey of Homer (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 250. []
  6. The Odyssey of Homer: A Norton Critical Edition, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), p. 226. []

Infamous “Alt-Penelopes”

Probably few female characters from the classical Western heritage are better known as models of feminine virtue than Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. For space’s sake, I will not indulge in a recitation of the facts of this reading of Penelope, as it is well-known and adhered to in classical Christian education circles.

As noted in the Introduction to this series, my purpose in all posts contained in it is resolutely to engage with darkly cynical alternate visions of Penelope that, if not quite dominant in secular academia, yet play far too powerful a role in reflecting (and so in an ongoing way, shaping) the general post-Christian intellectual milieu in which we ourselves live and are attempting to carry out the difficult task of classical Christian education.

The sorts of vicious attacks regularly made on Penelope’s character by radically feminist scholars constitute not only attempts to batter down what little is left of the once great cathedral of classical Christian learning, but also a devilish strategy of poisoning the hearts and minds of young women against men.1 And since a great many Christian young women these days live and learn about the world in the corrosive milieu of public schools, the danger to our sisters is greater than we might be comfortable imagining.2

For those of us who only read and teach the narrow range of materials found on typical “Great Books” lists (and who, moreover, do all our teaching from within the intellectually-safe confines of a narrowly construed “biblical worldview”) it can come as a shock to learn that speaking casually of “the classical tradition” can function, as do all generalities, as an unconscious filter on both our knowledge and our expectations. That is, we became so used to the accepted way of telling the stories drawn from the canonical books that we fail (not by deliberate vice) to realize that canonical implies extra-canonical, and that for our secularist neighbors, this is the great and holy Day and Age of Finding and Advancing The Marginalized.

It’s done with Scripture all the time, of course – we’ve all heard of the Gnostic Gospels and other such works which inform a bloated realm of sub-scholarship devoted to using them to deconstruct Christianity itself. This is the day when it is ever so fashionable to say, “But who’s to say which Christianity is the real one? After all, ancient conservatives conspired to suppress alternate versions. The whole thing was and is just a vicious power game.”

The inestimable Penelope, daughter of Icarius, wife of Odysseus, and mother of Telemachus, has, alas, also become a victim of this sort of bitter crusade, and that by the fact that various skeptics and cynics have mined from the detritus of the classical world a variety of what I will call “Alt-Penelopes.”

Without further ado, let me jump into the cesspool of academic attacks on the virtue of Penelope by recounting some not widely-known “Alt-Penelopes” found, ironically enough, in classical sources themselves. Below is a list of the posts in this particular sub-series:

I. Penelope the Adulteress (?)

II. Penelope the Passive Pretty Object

III. Penelope the Silent Victim


  1. This is not merely rhetorical embellishment: I have personally engaged with bitter young women in classrooms – which is the biggest reason I became seriously interested in analyzing attacks on Penelope and defending her image. []
  2. Meaning, our sisters in classical schools and homeschools are not necessarily safe from this malignant distortion of femininity: if they aren’t getting it from popular culture, they will certainly encounter it outside the home when they leave it. []

In Defense of Penelope (Introduction)

To make a long story short, having encountered in some non-Christian educational circles I’ve traveled, much soul-rotting skepticism about the “supposed virtues” of Penelope, which skepticism does not scruple to simply and viciously attack her as a virtual non-entity in a world of oppressive toxic masculinity, I’ve decided to do a series of posts on Penelope that engage in detail with such skepticism.

My hope is that this series will serve to alert other classical Christian teachers to the horrific way Penelope tends to get treated in certain academic circles, and so enable such teachers (1) to better engage the classics for themselves and (2) better prepare their students for the “toxic feminism” that is presently and quite brutally victimizing our whole cultural heritage and indeed, our own souls.

Back to “Penelopiad” Index

Is Technology Morally Neutral?

Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated with the issue of the relationship between human nature / destiny and technology. As children of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, we take for granted the idea that technological advancement is a good thing. In some ways it surely is – indoor plumbing, antibiotics, dentistry, insights into health that have dramatically reduced infant mortality rates and made for longer lifespans and a far better quality of life over those spans, and reliable long-term food preservation come easily to mind.

It is often said that technology is morally neutral, that whether it is good or bad has to do with whether the person using it is good or bad. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” is one popular expression of this idea. It is not computers and the Internet that are bad, but bad people who misuse them to plague others with spam and viruses, or who live lives of virtual immorality on porn sites, and so forth. Television and video games are not malum in se; only people who sit in front of them for 14 hours a day and minimize the concerns of embodied and communal life.

These considerations show that in the midst of our general celebration of technological advance, we do recognize that technological progress has serious downsides. But again, we tend to think that the downsides are all related to how the technology is used, not with what it fundamentally is. I used to agree with this reasoning, but I confess that I’m starting to suspect that the downsides of technology are often built right into the technology itself, which has a definite shaping influence on the character of those who use it. In other words, technology and the morality of its use are not separable issues, but are fundamentally wrapped up with each other in complicated ways that we need to contemplate.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death develops a convincing argument that television watching itself, what kind of thing it is, creates an entirely different cast of mind than reading. Postman argues that television itself almost necessarily encourages mental passivity. You sit and just watch, and as a result you take things in just whatever manner someone, whose person and agenda you don’t know, decides to present it. Television programs exhibit the inchoate organizational feature of constantly shifting perspectives and frames of reference, and by a nearly seamless shifting of subject matter from serious subjects (the news) to trivial ones (commercials).

As Postman sees it, all this tends to break down rational thought and encourage purely emotional reactions and uncritical acceptance of a disorganized, de-moralized, and de-centered perspective on the world. It tends to make mental slaves, not mental free men.


Reading, on the other hand, requires the mind to be constantly active, to pay attention to complex trains of ideas and to follow linear progressions of thought which encourage a critical, disciplined mindset. Reading opens up vistas on the world that require thoughtful interaction, not merely passive acceptance.  Postman’s analysis forms a basic, and I think helpful, foundation for thinking about the meaning of technology not in terms of what sort of person is using it, but rather the sort of person it creates.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but think about it. The common view of technology sees it as in and of itself having an amoral denotation. It only acquires a moral connotation when is put in the hands of a good or a bad person. The different sort of view of which Postman’s is a species sees technology as in and of itself having moral implications regardless of whose hands it is in. Technology, by the simple fact that it is made to be used, implies an ontology about the world (the world is to be used) and about human beings (our purpose is to use the world).

These are definite moral claims about human nature and standards of behavior. If technology says that the world can be used and that we are here to use it, then technology is prescribing a certain form of behavior. But if prescription of behavior is the definition of morality, it follows that technology is not morally neutral but is inherently laden with moral implications.

Of course, a number of positions about the use of technology have been generated throughout human history. Few, if any, groups of human beings have no technology. The most “backward” of savages – note the moral judgment implicit in the word “backward” – have technology to kill animals for food and clothing. Some cultures have stayed on a subsistence agriculture level for many centuries, rarely, if ever, developing implements beyond simple hand tools and simple contrivances for using animals to perform heavy labor.

The Ancient Greeks, who, despite popular conceptions about the “stupidity” of Ancient people in general, had the basic intellectual cast necessary for developing higher technology, but they chose to deliberately restrict technological advance to the realm of defense and war. (For a classic statement of this reasoning, see Plutarch’s Life of Marcellus, which I have looked at in my post “Archimedean Trifles.”)

Some thinkers, even Modern ones, have advocated such drastic “back to nature” ideas (movements away from technology) that they wound up celebrating the most primitive sort of life imaginable as the highest and best good of man. Our own “First World” culture is the child of the maxim of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) that a geometrical approach to everything will make us “the masters and possessors of Nature” and the idea of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) that inductive empiricism can create a “New Atlantis” governed by an Academy of Sciences.  As such, we seem to believe that the more technological advance we can make happen, the better everything will be.

This idea was summed up eloquently by the frontispiece of another of Bacon’s works, The Great Instauration (1620), which argued that his generation desperately needed to move past the artificial and repressive boundaries of the Ancients in terms of technological progress so as to help mankind become better than he had ever been before.

The frontispiece of the work, in fact, featured a ship boldly sailing through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), which, for the Ancients was the very boundary of the known world and the limits of human endeavor. A Latin motto appeared under the ship, claiming biblical support (Dan. 12:4) for the Baconian project of inductive science overturning all Ancient standards: Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia: “Many will travel about and knowledge will be increased.” Bacon’s vision certainly has been implemented in the nearly four centuries since he articulated it. We live in a world in which the Baconian project of technological achievement has created a “New Atlantis.” Scientists and their Academy all but rule our culture with their pronouncements – and, of course, their ever-amazing gizmos.

In view of all this, what are our options as Christians for thinking about, developing, and using technology?

First it should be said that Scripture is not fundamentally opposed to technology and technological progress. Scripture commands man before the Fall to tend to the Garden (Gen. 2:15), and after the Fall to go to the earth and work it to make it produce things for man’s benefit (Gen. 3:17-19). Scripture does not disapprove of Jubal inventing musical instruments or of Tubal-Cain inventing metalworking (Gen. 4:21-22). God Himself tells Noah to build a ship, which implies that God Himself approves of ship-building technology. Moreover, the “cultural mandate” to subdue the earth is repeated after the Flood (Gen. 9:1).

All this surely implies the acceptability and even the necessity of technology, at least on the low level of shovels, plows, hoes, musical instruments, metalworks, and ships. On the other hand, God disapproved of the mentality of the builders at Babel, who, He said, would not be restricted from anything they wished to do if they were allowed to complete their technological Tower to heaven (Gen. 11). Evidently there are limits to technological advancement which God imposes on man, but what are they?

Consider agriculture. Granting that God told man to till the earth for his food, and granting that this implies the use of the artificial instruments of technology, the further question arises of how far should technology be pressed in the service of food production? Should men stay on a subsistence level of food production, or should they try to make nature produce more than they themselves need so that they can use the excess in trade or store it “for a rainy day”? Should farmers remain on the primitive level of ancient digging sticks, or is it alright for them to attach shaped pieces of metal to the sticks so as to better manipulate the dirt? Should they then stick with their primitive plows, or invent the harrow? Should they then experiment with modifying the harrow by adding spikes and teeth? Is there a moral limit to what sort of development farmers should pursue in the service of agricultural production? Surely we should not object to the technology of crop rotation, or of better mechanical means of harvesting and preserving more food. Should we?

What about areas beyond agriculture? What about medical science? Should we not be grateful to God for giving us the insight to create vaccines so that we do not have to die horrible deaths from the Black Plague or influenza or smallpox? Should we not be all for the process of research that led, just a few decades ago, to the ability to trick certain microbes into producing human insulin so that diabetics can live long, full lives like the rest of us? I am reminded here of an illustration one of my former teachers used about the coming revolution in genetics thanks to the Human Genome Project. He imagined parents in the not too distant future being told by a doctor that the bad news is that their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome, but the good news is that it can be fixed for fifty bucks. Is this a bad thing?

What about computers and the Internet? Online scholarly encyclopedias and the phenomenon of a Virtual “Republic of Letters” can be very illuminating and in its way humanizing. But is there a problem with the easy unconscious slide into seeing the real people on the other end of the electronic connection as “screennames” and “avatars”? This is not to mention what might happen as artificial intelligence gets more advanced. Whole virtual relationships might be created with “people” whom you never realize are really just sophisticated software programs. (Remember the 1980s movie Tron, recently upgraded as Tron Legacy?)

And then there is digital media, which seems truly an awesome achievement. Today, you can own a thousand books on a piece of metal and plastic the size of your thumbnail, and all of them cross-referenceable in just about any way you can think of based on words you type into the interface’s search engine. The dissemination of knowledge made possible by this technology is staggering, but if we think reflectively, surely we should wonder whether will it eventually cheapen books and knowledge by making them just as trivial as any other digitized commodity.

What about rapid transportation? On the one hand, it seems nice to be able to get in your car any time you like and go anywhere you like at a speed that is nothing short of amazing. But how many of us are satisfied with the incredible ability to lasso time and distance and to no small extent make them our slaves?  It seems the faster our technology gets, the more impatient we are with any kind of slowness.  (I’m reminded here of the train engineer in the movie Back to the Future III, who snorted “Can it go 90 miles an hour? Tarnation, son, who’d ever be in such a hurry?” Not to mention Sammy Hagar’s rebellious, but oh so relevant, song “I Can’t Drive 55!”)

A couple of years ago, my wife and I, then living in Idaho, visited family in North Carolina. We flew all the way, and upon stepping off the last plane it suddenly hit me that we had traveled three thousand miles without ever once being exposed to the world outside of metal and glass and plastic contrivances. What would have been fantastic magic to the ancients is a yawning commonplace to us. Is that a good thing?

The more advanced our transportation technology gets, in fact, the more it seems to isolate us from the limiting factors that remind us we are part of a world that is bigger than us and is really not in our control. It takes storms shutting down roads and airports to remind us of that, and even then we often act like the ancient Persian ruler Xerxes, furiously whipping the water of the Hellespont because it would not cooperate with his invasion plans.

More examples could be raised and more questions asked, but these seem enough to make the point. Technology is not morally neutral. It implies all kinds of things about the world and about ourselves, and even as I sit here writing this on my computer, and you sit there reading it on yours, the big assumptions and the big questions just hang in the air waiting to be addressed.

Musings on the Western War Machine

Thomas Cahill marks the beginning of “the Western war machine” from the time of Homer, the 8th century B.C. In the Iliad Homer tells the story of the 12th century Trojan War. The latter was a time of disparate Mycenaean aristocratic societies, “where all decisions of peace and war were made by powerful chieftains who could lead their followers into whatever dangers their whims might prompt them to.”1

Although this is how the Greeks embarked upon the Trojan War in the first place and largely how they conducted themselves once at Troy, Homer retrojects into his narrative armored hoplites engaging in phalanx warfare, an innovation unknown to the time of the Trojan War. “Despite the many descriptions of confrontations between the two [individual] opponents,” writes Cahill, “warfare is largely conducted as an affair of massed charges of armored infantry…chinking and clunking forward like an unwieldy but inexorable machine.”2 As Homer himself puts it, the soldiers march into battle

tight as a mason packs a good stone wall,
blocks on granite blocks for a storied house
that fights the ripping winds—crammed so close
the crested helmets, the war-shields bulging, jutting
buckler to buckler, helm-to-helm, man-to-man massed tight
and the horsehair crests on glittering helmet horns brushed
as they tossed their heads, the battalions bulked so dense.

This “brutal innovation,” so unlike previous warfare in the Ancient world, was constituted of “a mass of men no longer individuals but subject to an iron discipline, technologically superior to their opponents, their generals having learned that wars must be managed artfully, each battle planned and played out in the mind before the armies are engaged, and that, insofar as possible, the time, the place, and the conditions of battle are to be chosen beforehand to enhance one’s own position and put the enemy at a disadvantage.”3 According to Cahill’s reading of the history of war, it is from this time in the 8th century B.C. that “the Western war machine is operational, its objective to field a force so lethal as to inspire abject terror in all opponents.”4 Further, “Western soldiers march through history no longer exemplars of aristocratic valor but as the component parts [of the machine] they actually are.”((Ibid.)) The doctrines of overwhelming military force,” of “cold calculation and rational planning, not heroic rhetoric or mystical faith,” can be traced from the time of Homer through Alexander the Great’s campaigns, Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the Conquistadors, and the devastation of Europe during World War II.

To be sure, stories of individual bravery and lofty heroic ideals abound in Western literature (especially in Homer), but as Cahill reads things this is not the norm after the Trojan War. After that conflict, the shape and scope of war, and of the Western military machine more generally, changes dramatically, becoming far more mechanistic, impersonal, technologically-oriented, and artistic (in the sense of artificial)—not to mention far more brutal. The battles depicted in the Iliad, as well as much later in Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ narrative of the Peloponnesian war are savage, gory affairs carried out precisely by clanking, clunking, battle-hardened, frenzied and heartless war machines.5

By contrast, we may consider (very generally speaking) Medieval warfare, which, though possessing much of the post-Trojan War ethos described above, yet also retained deep personal connections and connotations in the form of its Christian feudal context. Medieval warriors may have marched in tight armored ranks of glittering helmets and shields, but as a general rule they did not fight, like Achilles, for abstractions like “glory” and “honor,” or, to put a more distinctly contemporary face on the question, for “their country.”6 Much brutality, much evil, can and has been done in the name of preserving (or capturing) the flag, a goal which fits well with the abstract, impersonal, technologically-driven, mechanistic world of the Modern. I have noticed a trend in popular culture (e.g., Kiefer Sutherland’s 24) in which the preservation of the impersonal nation-state is given the status of Ultimate Priority, so that all manner of moral violations, including torture and the use of innocents as decoys in battle, may be excused in the name of “national security.” War is hell, and hell seems to be peopled by men who have sold their humanity for the mess of pottage that is “patriotism.”

But if the violence and of the Western war machine is the same across post-Troy eras, what about the end result of the wars? If Achilles is doomed to find out, as we read later in the Odyssey, to bitterly wish “I’d rather slave on earth for another man / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive / than rule down here over all the breathless dead,” where “the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home,” to what horrific Hell is the dead Modern soldier, incessantly told that he is but a cog in a great national Machine, doomed? One is reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem The Shield of Achilles, in which a Modern army doesn’t even know why they are going to war. The rallying speech of the leaders “Proved by statistics that some cause was just” seems fit only for the army to be “enduring”, its cold logic moving their feet, but not apparently their hearts, “somewhere else, to grief.”

One thing may at least be constant on the level of the soldiers, however, and that is seeing the ultimate end of their warmaking as being able to return home to normal life. Cahill makes this point by way of an intriguing contrast between the hero of the Iliad, Achilles, and the hero of the Odyssey, Odysseus. Achilles is offered the peace of a stable, loving home life, but instead chooses war and death in the name of having his praises sung for millennia afterwards—only to be bitterly disappointed by the actual conditions of “ruling” in the underworld. Odysseus, on the other hand, leaves the peace of his stable, loving home life to go to war, but his ultimate goal is to return home to his wife and child.7

Cahill thinks highly of Samuel Johnson’s editorial on the Odyssey: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every desire prompts the prosecution.”8 Further, consider men such as General Patton, who loved war and the battlefield more than their very lives, Cahill cites Patton observing a battlefield littered with dead, “I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”9 Contrast such a sentiment sharply with Herodotus’ pithy remark, “No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace children bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their children.”

To return to the earlier point, Cahill cites Victor Davis Hanson, an expert on Ancient warfare, on the Greek view of war as “terrible but innate to civilization—and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.”10 Another contemporary military commentator, Robert D. Kaplan, has even gone so far as to write a book called Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, which apparently argues that modern warfare needs to get away from Judeo-Christian constraints and back to the glory-seeking savagery of the Ancient Greeks. Some interesting discussion could be had on this point by examining the fundamental “ontology of violence” that drove the Ancient world’s mythology and sociology, but for the moment it is interesting enough to note that Cahill again cites Hanson, this time saying that Homer’s idea of war is similar to rap lyrics that “glorify rival gangs who shoot and maim each other for prestige, women, booty, and turf.”11

One last thing on this subject: Cahill asks speculatively whether the Greek tradition of war, seemingly so integral to Western warfare, has not reached the end of its usefulness, given that in our own age decentralized, international, unpredictable terrorism—“a war in which the enemy has no territory to defend and cannot be met on any known battlefield, a war in which all initiative lies with the enemy and every shadow may contain a hideous surprise”12—seems to be the biggest foe with which we must reckon.

  1. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pg. 48 []
  2. Ibid., pg. 44. []
  3. Ibid., pg. 45. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. One cannot help but think here of Tolkien’s depictions, born of his reflections on the trenches of World War I, of the banging, grinding, fire-and-smoke belching, hard, unyielding steel-and-gear industrialism of the war machines of Isengard and Mordor. []
  6. I am indebted for this particular point to my former history professor at New St. Andrews, Chris Schlect. []
  7. Ibid., pp. 65-69. []
  8. Ibid., pg. 68. []
  9. Ibid., pg. 34. []
  10. Ibid., pg. 46, citing Hanson’s An Autumn of War. []
  11. Ibid., pg. 41. []
  12. Ibid., pg. 47. []

The Real Story of the Trojan War (?)

In Book II of his Histories (112-120), the father of history, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, gives an alternative story, told to him by Egyptians who allegedly spoke with Helen’s husband Menelaus, about the kidnapping of Helen and the war of the Greeks on Troy.

It seems that when Paris (or, Alexander) stole Helen away from Sparta, he was blown off course and “wandered” for a while. Landing on a time in Egypt, he was met by Proteus, the king of that land. From disloyal servants of Paris, Proteus discovered what Paris had done, and, declaring him an impious man, gave him three days to leave Egypt. Helen, however, and the treasures Paris stole from Menelaus’ house, would remain with Proteus until the Greeks could come and retrieve them.

Herodotus says he thinks Homer knew this tale, but since it was not grand enough to suit epic poetry he chose to disregard it and accept the other tale, the one which has become immortalized in the Iliad. Herodotus’ evidence that Homer knew the other story comes from Iliad 6.289-292, which mentions Paris having stopped in Sidon on his way home to Troy with Helen. Also mentioned is Odyssey 4.351-52, which has Menelaus telling Odysseus’ son about his own enforced sojourn in Egypt.

But why was Menelaus in Egypt? The Egyptians, says Herodotus, told him the real story behind the Trojan War. Thinking Paris to have gone straight back to Troy with Helen, the Greeks raised their armada and besieged the city. The Trojans denied having Helen or the stolen treasures, and told the Greeks that Helen was with Proteus in Egypt. But since the Greeks didn’t believe them they sacked the city anyway. Not finding Helen within, they then sent Menelaus to Egypt, where he found his wife and his treasures exactly as the Trojans had said.

Fascinatingly, Herodotus believes his Egyptian sources over Homer, and gives as his reason the supposition that the Trojans would not have endangered their entire city for the lust of an erring boy prince who, at any rate, was not due to inherit the kingdom when his father died (that honor would go to Hector). Herodotus thinks that the Trojans told the truth, but that the Greeks sacked the city anyway because “the Divine was laying his plans that, as the Trojans perished in utter destruction, they might make this thing manifest to all the world: that for great wrongdoings, great also are the punishments from the gods.” Says Herodotus, “That is what I think, and that is what I am saying here.”

This is all very interesting, to say the least. I think that Herodotus is right that the “real” story of the Trojan War wouldn’t have been fitting for an epic poem, and in the spirit of his critical historical inquiries it does seem best to critique the myth and present the “real” history. But on the other hand, assuming that Homer’s purpose was far different from that of Herodotus, and also assuming (along with Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) that “myth” has much to teach us even if it is not, technically speaking, “true,” I’m going to stick with Homer’s account.