Homer and the Life Well Lived (part 1)

A strong sense of purpose is one of the rapidly depleting resources of human will. Without our religious base that held us steady we find ourselves in world of fragile meaning, where definitions of good and bad are like steamed up labels that peel away easily when scratched and leave no trace. Even those who are religious still live life with the general dose of hedonism. Sex before marriage and divorce are two sins in which statistically the christian population no longer distinguishes itself from the general one. The laughably small number young men choosing to enter the priesthood highlights the overwhelming popularity of the ‘christian light’ option for the religious of society. But before blaming the fading religious background for our sense of senselessness i would like to visit the ancient Greeks in the time of Homer to see how they delt what I will argue was a similar situation.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses must visit the underworld to seek advice from the prophet Tiresius. Whist there he is reunited with the great Achilleus, whom he knew. The Greeks held no virtues higher than addressing a council of men and of skill in battle. Achilleus was the greatest man of his generation because he was peerless in both. So what becomes of the man who lived the most distinguished and honorable life, a life that could never be lived in a better way?

Odysseus: Son of Peleus, by far the greatest of the Achaians…Achilleus no man before has been more blessed than you, nor ever will be. Before, when you were alive, we Argrives honored you as we did the gods, and now in this place you have great authority over the dead.

Achilleus: O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying. I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, than be king over all the perished dead.

He is miserable. He had his short and glorious life but now it is over. We see just how grim life after death was for all Greeks no matter how much the gods loved you. And yet they lived some of the most intense and passionate lives full of meaning and strong emotions. When faced with the fact the there is no long vacation after life they diddn’t run off to their birkram yoga retreats, become scientologists or fill their heads with the cotton wool of platitudes. They diddn’t willfully try to destroy their society just to fiddle as Rome burned. Nor did they try to destroy themselves in the daze of hedonism. What I want to argue is that it is the womb of religion that we are comming out of now. We were warm safe and secure, but have been dragged out kicking and screeming. The Greeks on the other hand never knew the womb. The were cleaved from the head of Zeus by an axe like Athena. No elating stories, just the difference between the sun warming your skin and the wet dirt entering your flesh.


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