If you think about it for a second (most people never do), it is quite strange that we in the West are still vaguely aware of the Greek gods. Classical myths often seem ridiculous to us because they show gods hard to respect. Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, and the others are beautiful, powerful, and immortal—almost an exhaustive definition of what a “god” meant in myth—but ultimately frivolous. They cannot die and therefore do not evoke our compassion—nor do they show much compassion or even normal concern for anyone else. They not only commit adultery but also rape as the fancy strikes them. They grow touchy over slights and send as violent retribution against accidental offenders as they do against heinous sinners. Why an intelligent people such as the Greeks would, in their way, worship such beings is hard to fathom.
But why are we in the West still interested in this very unsatisfactory religious system? After all, it periodically inspired the persecution of the early Church over centuries until Constantine’s conversion. Christian emperors returned the courtesy by robbing and destroying pagan temples until pagan worship was simply outlawed, by our lights not the right way to treat another faith but partly understandable after centuries of conflict. Beyond the social competition, early Christians denounced the gods per se as “demons” who had misled the gullible pagans into absurd rites and the worship of vanities. Once Christians displaced the system, you would have thought it would be gone forever.
But nothing remotely like that happened. As the Middle Ages started to reach maturity, pagan mythology was almost everywhere in Western literature. We might expect that a figure such as Dante would turn to a great pious predecessor such as Virgil. But who could have predicted that the greater Latin collector of myths, Ovid, so corrupting that the pagan Emperor Augustus sent him into distant exile on the Black Sea, would be reincarnated in the medieval monasteries as a spiritual allegorist? Shakespeare contains countless references to Ovid, as do many other Western writers, in all sorts of contexts. And later, Enlightenment and Romanticism equally turned to the myths as colorful material to embody truths they wished to express. In more modern times Freud (with mixed success) and Jung (spectacularly) sought psychological truths in the stories of the gods, while Joseph Campbell brilliantly, if mistakenly, argued that all myth was mystical quest. Say what you will against the gods in the strict sense, there is something remarkable that they survived and flourished in different contexts, especially in a culture that arose in direct opposition to them.
Still, what has been missing in recent years is a good rereading of the myths that is both strictly scrupulous about what the myths really meant in their original classical context and how they might still speak legitimately, rather than fancifully, to us today. So it was with no little anticipation that I recently turned to Mary Lefkowitz’s latest volume, Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths (Yale, 2003). Lefkowitz is a first-order scholar who has taught classics at Wellesley for more than 25 years. She rose to a certain national prominence in the 1990s when she undertook to refute the P.C. nonsense of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which tried to make the case that the Greeks had “stolen” their culture from the great Middle Eastern and African cultures, especially Egypt. The book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History was as careful a demonstration of Greece’s real debts to other cultures—and also its undeniable originality—as anyone has a right to expect from America’s academic groves.
But I have to confess that I am half-disappointed in what is clearly meant to be a summation of one dimension of Lefkowitz’s work. There is no problem in what she does with her chapters on the ways in which the classical writers depicted the interactions of gods and men. She provides very useful accounts of the gods in individual chapters on the Iliad and on the Odyssey, then two whole chapters on different sets of Greek plays, a chapter each on Hellenistic poets, Virgil, and the great Ovid. These are worth study, not only for the large sweep they offer, but as commentary when you read or reread some classical text. The attention to detail is unflagging, and the interpretations are always worth attention, though you may find yourself disagreeing the more you have already formed an interpretation of your own.
But Lefkowitz almost wholly fails in what her title promises will be “What We Can Learn from Myths.” Her account of the gods that the Greeks really believed in cuts through a great deal of current nonsense. She gives short shrift to contemporary figures such as Joseph Campbell who turned classical myths into a kind of New-Age quest. The myths of course do, at times, give symbolic expression to something that exists in the human psyche or spirit. But just as often— perhaps more so—they simply reveal that there is no escaping conflict even if we are pious toward all the gods. Where modern psychologizing modes such as those of Jung and Thomas Moore see us as achieving balance and health by making sure to “honor” all the contents of our psyches represented as the full pantheon of gods, in the Greek myths gods are implacably opposed to one another and do not mind collateral damage to humans as they pursue their own aims. That is one of the things, she rightly reminds us, “we can learn from myths.”
Yet her title is clearly intended to draw in some of those contemporary seekers who think studying ancient myths will put them in touch with a wisdom older than Christianity and therefore more in tune with an idealized “nature?’ The text gives no quarter to such wishful thinking in the usual form. But it may be that in her desire to offer a more defensible reading of what Greek myths actually meant and their difference from what people would like them to have meant, that an element of dogmatism in a different key has crept into her book.
Here, for instance, is her summation of what we learn from classical myth: “Suffering and hardship cannot be avoided; death is inevitable; virtue is not always rewarded. Justice may not be done in the short-run, although eventually wrongs will be righted, even if many innocent people will suffer. There is no hope of universal redemption, no sense that in the future the victims of the terrible action of the drama will receive any recompense for their suffering.” She recalls the criticism of the gods by the ancients that pointed to the unworthy stories told about them, but adds: “In the end, I believe, what caused people to abandon the traditional mythology was not the many fantasies it contains, but rather its ultimate realism: the myths show a world full of evil forces, unpredictable change, difficult conditions, and inevitable death and defeat. By contrast, other religions offered security, and a promise of redemption and reward both in this life and the next…. It is a religion for adults, and it offers responsibilities rather than rewards.”
Lefkowitz does not offer any names of the childish believers who supposedly could not face this “religion for adults.” But it seems certain that Plato and Christianity lie close behind her words. Anyone, of course, may choose to disbelieve or try to refute both of those systems, but there is a certain ad hominem in calling what are quite serious human commitments childish merely because they do not accord with your own view of reality. Plato, the Stoics, Cicero, Seneca, Paul, Augustine, and many other figures show considerable differences in their views, but it would be hard to say that the whole dissatisfaction with the grimness of the classical gods merely reflected a lack of courage. On the contrary, it was an intuition that beauty and goodness might have something to say beyond the demise of the last mortal that seems to have driven the classical world away from its crude myths. Lefkowitz has merely accepted the modern dogma that what is hard is right—and that everything else is “myth.”