It has fallen to my lot recently to teach classics in a small high school not far from my house that offers courses for homeschooled students. Most of them come from Christian households, so one may take it for granted in the classroom that traditional moral values are in place. This is convenient in an era like ours when all such values have been questioned, if not altogether rejected.
The syllabus for the autumn term began with the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. To read this poem is to discover abruptly why the ancient Hebrew prophets were so ferocious in denouncing the religions of the surrounding kingdoms: Temple practices and rites of passage that would be seen as foul to Moses and the prophets are extolled in the Gilgamesh tale.
Interestingly enough, the introduction to the text we used waxes lyrical in its praise of these practices: How profoundly human! How fresh and free from any puritanical strictures! The introduction goes on and on. (Fortunately, the introduction was not listed as required reading for the class.) But it is interesting in this connection to find how insouciantly such critics trot out Puritanism or Victorianism as the villains, as though those 17th-century English exiles in Massachusetts, or that long-lived and melancholy queen, had breathed a cold miasma over the human race, placing the whole realm of sex under the ban. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures with their high moral tone antedate both the Puritans and the queen.
But then we came to Homer. This old blind bard addresses himself to his poetic task with immense energy. And a reader does not get far into The Iliad before he finds himself hailed with the sheer zest with which Homer extols the magnificence, nobility, courage, and prowess of the heroes on both sides of that war. In the Greek camp, we find Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Ajax, and a host of others, who are, to a man, breathtaking in their splendor. Likewise in the camp of their enemy Troy, we find Aeneas, Troilus, Paris, and, towering above all the Trojan heroes, Hector. Heroism is unabashedly extolled, and modern readers can at least admire this quality, even though the idea has suffered under the skepticism and even cynicism that mark “modernity.” Warrior heroes are not popular in the myths presiding in our own epoch, but it would be a pitiable man whose imagination was altogether impervious to the spectacle of real heroism.
But there are some qualities at work in the air of this epic that might encounter stony indifference on the part of modern imagination. For one thing, holiness is in the air. Blood sacrifice is in the cards. Men slaughtered heifers or sheep or cattle at every juncture — as many as a hundred cattle in the famous hecatomb. And if you neglected this pious duty, the consequences were likely to be heavy. Apollo or Hera or Poseidon would fly into a fit of pique and visit condign punishments on your head. The smoke of the sacrifice must go up — but to whom?
To the gods, of course. The difficulty here is that these gods are themselves petty, lecherous, jealous, and venal. Nevertheless, sacrifice, which should bespeak the precincts of the holy, is required. There is at least some awareness of holiness suffusing all, stained and clouded though that may be by the behavior of the gods — rites that must be carried through in the presence of the immortals.
Another quality at work in Greek epic is that of glory. Whether it is a warrior himself, or the shield made by the god Haephestus for Achilles, or the nodding, plume-crested bronze helmet of Hector, we find ourselves regaled by sheer glory all the way through the epic. Obviously, neither Homer nor his audience dreamed that either the idea of holiness or of glory needed any explaining.
So I asked the students just where one might look for traces of either holiness or glory in our own century. There was a long pause in the classroom. No one was quite sure of an answer.
Well, perhaps in the public realm — in politics, say? Surely in the ranks of these public figures we will find glory, at least? But one begins to canvass the field, and finds oneself bemused. Glory? The word dies on our lips. Academia? Here we find eminent scholars to whom a certain dignity attaches. But the scholars themselves would shrink from any talk of glory. Entertainment then: cinema? Television? Music — either pop or serious? Theater? Finance? Science? The military?
Certainly, acclaim crowns many in these domains. But does a skeptical, analytical, critical century such as ours perceive “glory” in the very personhood of a given man or woman, as it was understood by antiquity? Many deserve glory: the medic on a mountain in Afghanistan who crawls under fire to attend a wounded soldier; the firefighter who goes into a burning building to rescue an infirm old woman. But how does the category “glory” appear in modern imagination?
And holiness: How is the teenager in the mall arcade going to conceive of holiness? Or his parents, for that matter? Will the scholars tell us about holiness? Is it a presence in their imaginations?
To be sure, holiness attaches to religion. But is the modern churchgoer hailed by holiness in his church? The drift toward informality and good cheer in all aspects of modern life makes invoking the idea of the holy a difficult task. In Protestant churches, there being no altar, no tabernacle, no incense, and no sanctus bell, the burden must be carried by intangibles — the text of great hymns, perhaps, or the sonority of the minister’s voice. In Catholic churches, attempts to make the Mass familiar, friendly, informal, and affable may at times vitiate the idea of the holy.
A civilization could do worse than ask itself how things are going when the idea of the holy, or of glory, seems remote or strange to its citizens.