December 05, 2007

Why the Classics?

In responding to Christopher Hitchens' joyous dismantling of Hannukah, Sam Munson mischaracterizes Hitchens' attachment to classical culture. Hitchens writes, for example,

As a consequence of the successful Maccabean revolt against Hellenism, so it is said, a puddle of olive oil that should have lasted only for one day managed to burn for eight days. Wow! Certain proof, not just of an Almighty, but of an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists. Epicurus and Democritus had brilliantly discovered that the world was made up of atoms, but who cares about a mere fact like that when there is miraculous oil to be goggled at by credulous peasants?

Hitchens is not interested in promoting classical myths, but rather the like-minded Greek and Romans who rejected belief in their own ridiculous gods in favor of natural explanations for natural phenomenon (we don't know quite enough about Epicurus to conclude he was an atheist, methinks, but from his devotee Lucretius we can surmise that was probably the case).

Munson, however, writes as if Hitchens wished us all to offer libations to Olympian Zeus:

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

I'll take Munson's bait, at least provisionally, and in reverse order. Medea's murder of her children is hardly condoned. Despite being cruelly treated then abandoned by Jason, Medea is condemned for killing her children. There are no extenuating circumstances to justify her crime. As for Orestes, honor and tradition demand that he avenge his father Agamemnon, who was murdered by his mother, Clytemnestra. Yes, he suffers horribly--both before avenging his father's murderer and after killing his mother. Who wouldn't in those circumstances? One could add Oedipus, the man who in ignorance commits a great evil. Or Antigone, who opposes state tyranny to satisfy the demands of a transcendent moral order (Hegel supposedly relied on Antigone for the structure of his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but don't hold that against Antigone).

Now, what happens in Abraham and Isaac? A man hears the call of a tribal god, demanding that he go to a certain place to sacrifice his only son. He obeys, takes the boy to the place, is about to strike the blow, but his hand is stayed by the tribal deity, who says, more or less, "Heh heh. Just wanted to see if you'd go through with it."

The Greek gods are unjust, vain, fallible, cruel, capricious--as is the god of Old Testament (Job seems a case in point). The Greeks recognized the failings of their gods (and they and the Romans doubted the veracity of any number of the stories told about them). Judaism demanded fealty and worship and belief without question.

Hitchens has no interest in defending pagan religions or myths (nor do I, for that matter), but I tend to think they hold up rather well against the myths that supplanted them.

Posted by Ideofact at December 5, 2007 01:00 AM