Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

What Can We Learn from the Greeks?: A Meditation

Last week I referred to the “progressivist” strain in Greek cultural thinking, which was associated with Prometheus and which tracked a general advancement of mankind from his earliest days to the present. But there is another strain as well, the “primitivist” one, in which the history of mankind is described as a general decline over time from prosperity and happiness to suffering and wretchedness. The most famous example of this latter phenomenon is found in Hesiod’s “Myth of Races” (Works and Days 106ff., influenced by Near Eastern predecessors): here the history of mankind begins with the golden race; this is followed by the silver, the bronze, the race of heroes (in many ways a reprieve from the badness of the foregoing), and the current race, that of iron. Hesiod predicts eventual destruction for this race too at the hands of Zeus, but not before they have reached the height of injustice:

And then to Olympos, from the wide-pathed earth,
concealing their beautiful skin in white robes,
abandoning men for the race of the immortals,
Aidos and Nemesis1 will go; miserable pains will
be left for mortal men, there will be no cure of evil. (197-201, tr. Richard Caldwell)

Man’s dilemma, due not only to the fact of death but to his moral shortcomings, finds voice also in Euripides’ Hippolytus. About two-thirds of the way through the play, Theseus, convinced–incorrectly–that his (illegitimate) son Hippolytus has violated his wife Phaedra, laments the foolishness of man in a travesty of Promethean inventiveness:2

What fools men are! You work and work for nothing,
you teach ten thousand tasks to one another,
invent, discover everything. One thing only
you do not know: one thing you never hunt for–
a way to teach fools wisdom. (916-20, tr. David Grene)

A little later, he continues:

The mind of man–how far will it advance?
Where will its  daring impudence find limits?
If human villainy and human life
shall wax in due proportion, if the son
shall always grow in wickedness past his father,
the Gods must add another world to this
that all the sinners may have space enough. (936-41)

The progress envisioned in Prometheus Bound is here reconfigured, to progress in wickedness. Though man may master many technai, his progress in depravity always outstrips his material advancement. As the King James has it, “Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl. 7:29). What man “discovers” in moral degradation portends only his ruin, and signifies that that ruin has already begun. Man’s life is unstable, shrouded in darkness, given to sudden reversal and misery: thus the Chorus Leader laments, “I cannot say of any man: he is happy” (981).

The desperation of man’s predicament is clearly and poignantly articulated much earlier in the play by Phaedra’s nurse, who seeks to help her mistress but helps her only to disaster:

The life of man entire is misery:
he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity.
But something other dearer still than life
the darkness hides and mist encompasses;
we are proved luckless lovers of this thing
that glitters in the underworld: no man
can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding
what is, and what is not: we know nothing of it.
Idly we drift, on idle stories carried. (189-97)

It seems to me that sympathetic Christians can gain something from both the progressivist and primitivist strains in Greek thought, for they both tug at an important truth; but each, as though grasping at one side of the rope, has only one side of the reality.

Christians are not, or ought not to be, nostalgists, and yet we do recognize that man has fallen from his paradisal origin, has marred himself and the world around him, and has given himself over to foolishness. Technological prowess cannot undo the frailty of the human condition that the Greeks recognized. In the pessimism displayed above, there is a truth about the world as it is now. There is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 1:14). There is a darkening of our foolish hearts (Rom. 1:21). “We hope for light, and behold, darkness” (Is. 59:9),  “[f]or the creation was subjected to futility” (Rom. 8:20).

Yet the advocates of progress have something to say as well. To be sure, Christians are not, or ought not to be, interested solely, or even primarily, in material progress. But man does progress in knowledge of God over time, albeit with cycles of decline occurring within overall linear advance. God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh, a name he had not given to the earlier patriarchs (Ex. 3:14). David is told that his throne will be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). Isaiah foresaw the Savior as Suffering Servant more clearly more clearly than did Adam in Gen. 3:15. Finally, “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2).

This progressive revelation of God has led to real gains and progress over time. Surely Ambrose was right in the fourth century to point out to Symmachus that the abolition of state-sponsored paganism was progress. Surely the anonymous second-century author of the Epistle to Diognetus was right to mark Christian child-bearing practices as an advancement over those of many around them: “Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants” (Ep. to Diognetus 5, tr. M. Staniforth, rev. A. Louth).

But this last example shows how tenuous such gains can be, and that the working of the leaven of the Christian faith is not absolute in this age, as our own recent history demonstrates. It does not lead to the overcoming of sin, either our own or anyone else’s, without remainder. But we confess that all will be set right someday; that optimism wins out in the end over pessimism:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. (Rev. 22:1-3)

The fulcrum that allows movement from Hesiodic despair to Promethean hope is Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. That which is “dearer still than life” no longer hides, shrouded in mist, but has been revealed as the true light coming into the world (John 1:9), even the Word made flesh. Hesiod’s golden race lived like gods, and “grim old age did not afflict them” (113-14). But still they died. And the blessedness of that race was never to be recovered.

But death must not be given dominion. Through the doorway of death and resurrection–Christ’s and ours–the golden age is transposed from past to future, and surpassed. Our youth is renewed as the eagle’s (Ps. 103:5). As Isaiah says,

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40:30-1)

Not only is the golden age future, but we participate in it proleptically now. Through faith in Christ, we have already passed from death to life (John 5:24). This, it seems to me, is the only way in which we can reconcile Greek pessimism and optimism, in the one in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17); else “idly we drift, on idle stories carried.”

  1. Shame and Retribution
  2. This is highly ironic, for Theseus himself is the fool here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.