Having taught English literature and the Greek classics for about 40 years, I have found myself from time to time mulling over some of the questions that seem to arch over the whole enterprise. One likes to let one’s mind run along some of the thunderous questions of ultimacy that roll across the heavens under which English classes struggle along. Are the Greek gods good or bad, for example? Or—here’s a poser—what is the relationship between the will of Zeus and “what happens”? After all, he is the king of the gods, and one would think he’d have the prerogative of calling the shots. But not so. Most things seem to go wrong for him, and he has no authority whatever over the Fates, who hold the shears that snip the thread of your life when they decide your hour has come.
At this point in the discussion, I usually make the obvious point that any Christian believer has got precisely the same riddle in his own lap. What is the relation between God’s will and what happens? Attila the Hun. The Black Plague. The dismal slaughter of the world wars. Cancer. Stalin. Alzheimer’s. Genocide. Abortion. There are, to be sure, reaches of “Christian” theology that have it all nailed down so that the human drama is nothing but the unrolling of exactly what the Most High has pre-programmed from all eternity. But mighty few readers of Crisis will be found in those reaches.
Nevertheless, a certain gloomy irony popped into my mind some years ago among my general musings about literature. It was this: When you get rid of the gods, you get rid of us. If we sup-pose that that is merely a platitude, we might reflect briefly. It happens to run exactly counter to the entire set of sup-positions that undergirds our epoch. It makes very little difference here whether we wish to call into play the word “modernism” or “post-modernism.” (Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.)
Somewhere in the 19th—or 18th or 17th—century, the idea began to percolate through Western imagination and philosophy that if we mortals are ever going to stand tall and rise to our true dignity and stature, we are going to have to get the gods off our backs. It trickled down (or avalanched, shall we say) to popular culture in the 1960s. We began to hear, “I make my own morality.” “A pox on bourgeois [read ‘my parents’’] morality.” And religious taboos! Gadzooks! Get these gods off our backs!
The idea was that as long as we have the gods—read “God”—peering over our shoulders and calling us to account, we’re going to creep along timorously, a whole race of helots.
Very appealing notions. There is one small joker in the pack, though: It has been the epochs and civilizations that did think the gods were there—and most emphatically were calling us to account—that have drawn for us the titanic figures of the hero: Gilgamesh. Achilles. Hector. Beowulf. Roland. Lear. Even Henry V. But then a disquieting dwindling begins to take place in our protagonists. We get the courtier: Castiglioni’s Il Cortegiano. And then the gentleman—often very admirable but scarcely heroic. And then? Willie Loman in The Death of a Salesman, who goes out with a whimper, not a bang. Or Estragon and Vladimir, waiting there for Godot, who never shows up.
There are a few figures from our century that testify to the thesis at work in this essay. Tolkien’s figures (Aragorn, Frodo, and their fellowship) and Lewis’s (Reepicheep, Puddleglum, and Peter the High King) stand before us as heroes in the ancient tradition, without the slightest blink of irony. Catholics, accustomed as they are to harking back many centuries for authority, will have no trouble seeing the point of this. Perhaps the most awesome figure conceivable is that of a great king whose majesty knows how to kneel in the presence of the god.