The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change Your Life - Luc Ferry 2014
Prologue - Greek Mythology: For Whom? For What?
Let us begin with beginnings: What is the underlying purpose of the Greek myths, and why today—more than ever, perhaps—should we pay attention to them? I believe the answer lies in a single passage of what is perhaps the most celebrated work of ancient Greece, the Odyssey of Homer, in which we see clearly the extent to which mythology is not what we so often think of it as being: an accumulation of “tales and legends,” a collection of anecdotes more or less fantastical, whose sole end is to amuse us. Far from being reducible to literary entertainment, mythology is at the core of ancient wisdom, the foundation for that great edifice of Greek philosophy that would subsequently sketch out, in conceptual form, the blueprint of a successful life for human kind, mortal as we are.
Let us allow ourselves to be carried along for a moment on the tide of Homer’s story, whose broad outlines I recall here but which we shall have reason to revisit later on.
After ten long years of absence fighting the Trojans, Odysseus—Greek hero par excellence—has won the day by cunning, thanks, of course, to the famous wooden horse that he left so ambiguously on the beach, outside the city ramparts. It is the Trojans themselves who wheel it into their citadel, otherwise unassailable for the Greeks. They take it to be an offering to the gods, whereas it is a war machine whose ribs are packed with soldiers. Night falls; the Greek warriors emerge from the belly of this imposing statue and proceed to massacre the sleeping Trojans, down to the last man, more or less. It is an appalling and merciless carnage—pillage so dreadful as to excite even the anger of the gods. But at least the war is now over. Odysseus can think of returning home, to his island, Ithaca; to his wife, Penelope; his son, Telemachus—in short, he can reassume his place in the family and at the heart of the kingdom. We observe, already, that before reaching its destination in this harmonious fashion, in peaceful reconciliation with things as they are, the existence of Odysseus—like that of the universe as a whole—begins in chaos. The terrible war in which he has taken part, which has forced him unwillingly to quit the “natural place” he occupied beside his loved ones, takes place under the auspices of Eris, goddess of strife and discord. It is on her account that enmity first took root between Greeks and Trojans—and it is in the perspective of this initial conflict* that the hero’s itinerary must be placed, if we are to grasp its significance as wisdom literature.
The dispute erupts over a marriage: that of the future parents of Achilles,* himself a Greek hero and one of the major protagonists of the Trojan War. As in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, everyone has “forgotten” to invite the wicked stepmother—or rather Eris, who plays that role in this story. This is to say that they deliberately pass over her on this festive occasion: wherever she appears everything is sure to turn to gall; sooner or later, hatred and anger always manage to prevail over love and joy. Naturally, Eris the uninvited turns up, intent on disturbing the proceedings. She comes fully armed—with an apple, which she casts onto the table where the newlyweds are feasting, surrounded for the occasion by the principal gods of Olympus. On this magnificent golden apple are inscribed the words “For the fairest!” As is to be expected, all of the women present exclaim in unison: “It’s mine!”—and the conflict insinuates itself, slowly but surely, that will in due course spark the Trojan War.
And here is how.
Around the banquet table are seated three magnificent goddesses, all equally precious to Zeus, ruler of the gods. Firstly Hera (Juno, in Latin), his immortal wife, to whom he can refuse nothing. But also present are his favorite daughter, Athena (Minerva), and his aunt Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love and of beauty. As is to be expected, Eris’s plot works its course, and the three women all claim the golden apple. Zeus, as head of the family, refrains as far as possible from taking sides in the quarrel: he is well aware that, having to choose between his daughter, his wife, and his aunt, he would have no peace… . Moreover, he must act impartially, and whatever his choice, he will be accused of prejudice by those he rules against. So he sends his faithful messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to discreetly seek out some young innocent to adjudicate between the three beauties. At first sight the young man in question appears to be a Trojan shepherd—but is in reality none other than Paris, one of the sons of Priam, king of Troy. Paris was abandoned at birth because an oracle predicted that he would cause the destruction of his native city. But he was rescued in the nick of time, and his life saved by a shepherd. The latter took pity on this infant and raised him to be the handsome adolescent who now stands before them. So in the guise of a young peasant there is concealed a Trojan prince. With the ingenuousness of youth, Paris accepts the role of judge.
Each of the women, to claim his attention and secure the famous “apple of discord,” promises Paris something corresponding to what she is herself. Hera, who reigns by the side of Zeus over the greatest of empires—namely the entire universe—promises, if he chooses her, that he likewise will rule over all earthly lands and have preeminent wealth. Athena, goddess of intelligence, of the arts, and of warfare, promises that if she emerges victorious he will be conqueror in every battle. As for Aphrodite, she whispers to him that with her help he can seduce the most beautiful woman in the world… . Paris, of course, decides in favor of Aphrodite. And then discovers, to the misery of mortals everywhere, that the most beautiful woman in the world is in fact married to a Greek—not merely a Greek, but Menelaus, king of Sparta, the most warlike of all cities. She is called Helen, the famous “belle Hélène” to whom poets, composers, and chefs have continued to pay tribute down the ages. Eris has attained her objective: a Trojan prince, Paris, charmed by Aphrodite, abducts the beautiful Helen from Menelaus, and the inevitable war between Trojans and Greeks is unleashed a few years later… .
And poor Odysseus will be forced to play his part in it. The Greek kings—of whom Odysseus is one, since he rules over Ithaca—have in effect taken an oath to uphold the marriage rights of whoever marries Helen. Her beauty and charms are such, it is feared that jealousy on her account, fueled by hatred, will sow discord between the kings. They have therefore sworn allegiance to whomever Helen selects. Menelaus being the chosen one, all the others must, in the event of any betrayal, come to his assistance. Odysseus, whose wife, Penelope, has just given birth to little Telemachus, does all he can to avoid this war. He pretends to be demented, he plows his fields back to front, he sows pebbles instead of good grain—but his ruse fails to deceive the wise old sage who is dispatched to seek him out, and in the end Odysseus must resign himself to sailing with the others. For ten long years he is separated from his “natural place,” from his world, from his home in the universe, from his loved ones—dedicated to conflict and discord rather than to harmony and peace. Once the war is over, he has but one idea in his head: he wants to get home. But his troubles are only beginning. His return voyage will last ten long years and will be full of pitfalls: almost insurmountable trials that suggest that an ordered existence, personal salvation, and the path to wisdom are not to be taken for granted in this world. We have to earn them, at the risk sometimes of life itself. It is at the very outset of his return voyage—his journey from war toward peace—that the episode that now concerns us takes place.
Odysseus and Calypso: a successful life on this
earth is preferable to a wasted immortality …
Striving to reach Ithaca, Odysseus must stop off on the island of Calypso, who is a minor divinity but nonetheless ravishingly beautiful and endowed with supernatural powers. Calypso falls hopelessly in love with Odysseus. In short order she seduces him and makes up her mind to hold him captive. In Greek her name derives from the verb calyptein, “to hide.” She is as beautiful as the day is long; her island is paradisal, lush, inhabited by creatures and fruit trees that provide exquisite nourishment. The climate is soft; the resident nymphs who take care of the two lovers are beautiful and obliging. It would seem that the goddess holds all the cards. And yet Odysseus is drawn irresistibly toward his own corner of the world, toward Ithaca. He must at all costs return to his point of departure, and every evening he weeps as he looks out to sea, in despair of ever reaching it. But he fails to reckon on the intervention of Athena, who for her own reasons—which include jealousy that the Trojan Paris did not choose her—has been supporting the Greeks throughout the war. Seeing Odysseus in the grip of such torments, she asks her father Zeus to send Hermes, his messenger, to command Calypso to release him so that he may find his natural place and live in harmony, finally, with the cosmic order—of which the ruler of the gods is, after all, both author and guarantor.
But Calypso has one more trump up her sleeve. In a final desperate attempt to keep her lover she offers him the impossible, as far as any human life is concerned: the chance to escape death—the common lot of mortals—and to enter the inaccessible sphere of those whom the Greeks refer to as “the blessed,” which is to say the gods themselves. For good measure, she enhances her proposal with a far from negligible bonus: if Odysseus says yes, he will be forever endowed not only with immortality but also with the beauty and strength that are the exclusive attributes of youth. This additional clause is both important and amusing. If Calypso specifies youth as well as immortality, it is because she is remembering a slightly awkward precedent:* one that involved another goddess, Aurora, who also fell in love with an ordinary mortal, a Trojan by the name of Tithonus. Like Calypso, Aurora wanted to make her lover immortal so as never to be separated from him. She begged Zeus, who granted her wish, but she forgot to ask him to confer youth as well as immortality upon her beloved. The result: over the course of time the unfortunate Tithonus cruelly wasted away and shriveled up until he became a desiccated husk, a sort of revolting insect that Aurora finally abandoned in a corner of her palace before deciding to transform him into a cicada so as to rid herself of him completely. This is why Calypso’s request is so specific. She loves Odysseus enough not to want him either to die or to grow old. The conflict between love and death, as in all the great stories of salvation or of wisdom, is at the heart of our story… .
The proposition that Calypso dangles before Odysseus is irresistible, as is she herself, as is her island—an unprecedented offer for any mortal. To all of which, almost incomprehensibly, Odysseus remains unmoved. As unhappy as ever, he declines the goddess’s uniquely tempting proposition. Let us be quite clear from the start: the refusal is of epochal significance. It contains in nucleo what is undoubtedly the most powerful and profound lesson of Greek mythology, which will subsequently be adopted by Greek philosophy* for its own purposes, and which can be summarized as follows: the ultimate end of human existence is not, as the Christians (further down the line) would come to believe, to secure eternal salvation by all available means, including the most morally submissive and tedious, to attain immortality. On the contrary, a mortal life well lived is worth far more than a wasted immortality! In other words, the conviction of Odysseus is that the “diasporic” or displaced life—the life lived far from home, and therefore without structure, outside of ones’s natural orbit, in the wrong part of the cosmos—is quite simply worse than death itself.
What Odysseus’s refusal contains in a nutshell is a definition of the life well lived—from which we begin to glimpse the philosophical dimension of the myth. Following Odysseus, we must learn to prefer a condition of mortality in accord with cosmic dispensation, as against an immortal life doomed to what the Greeks termed hybris (pronounced “hubris”): the immoderation that estranges us from reconciliation to, and acceptance of, the world as it is. We must live in a state of lucidity, accepting death, accepting what we are and what is beyond us, in step with our people and with the universe. This is worth far more than immortality in a vacuum, denuded of meaning, however paradisal—with a woman we do not love, however perfect she may be, far from our own kind and from our hearth, in an isolation symbolized not only by Calypso’s island itself, but also by the temptations of deification and eternity that estrange us in equal measure from what we are and from what surrounds us… . It is an inestimable lesson in wisdom for a secular age such as ours today—a lesson that breaks step with the logic of monotheisms past and future, and that philosophy will translate into the language of reason, with its doctrines of salvation without a God, and of the good life for ordinary mortals such as we are.
Clearly we must investigate further the motives for Odysseus’s refusal. We shall see, throughout this book, how the major Greek myths illustrate, develop, and confirm, each after its fashion, the sovereign truth of this refusal, and furnish philosophy with the basis for its future development.
But let us first draw some conclusions from this initial engagement with Greek myth before stating the premises of our investigation as a whole. As a starting point, can we explain how a group of myths invented more than three thousand years ago, in a language and culture with almost no connection to those in which we are immersed today, can nevertheless speak to us with such force and intimacy? Each year, throughout the world, dozens of new books on Greek mythology are published. For a long time, films, animated cartoons, and TV series have routinely raided classical culture for the plots of their screenplays. All of us have at some point encountered the labors of Heracles, the travels of Odysseus, the loves of Zeus, or the war of Troy. I think there are two sets of explanations for this: cultural explanations, naturally, but also and even to a greater degree philosophical explanations, which I would like to raise in this prologue. In this respect, the present work can be seen as directly extending the investigation opened by my earlier A Brief History of Thought (volume one of Learning to Live).* I have tried to retell, in the simplest and liveliest terms, the principal stories of Greek mythology. But I have done so within a particular philosophical perspective, about which I should say a few words. In attempting to bring out the lessons in wisdom concealed within these narratives, I will try to explore the continued relevance of the myriad stories and anecdotes usually grouped together, in more or less jumbled fashion, under the name of “mythology.” In order to better isolate what speaks to us so immediately in these tales of time past, I would like to suggest first of all what our culture owes to them.
In the name of culture: why we,
too, are ancient Greeks …
Let us begin with our broad cultural inheritance of Greek myths.
Consider for a moment that many everyday images, figures of speech, and expressions are directly borrowed without our knowing their meaning or origin. Some commonplaces bear the memory trace of a mythical or fabulous episode, usually the crisis point in the adventures of a god or hero: to go off in search of the “Golden Fleece”; to “take the bull by the horns”; to “fall between Scylla and Charybdis”; to introduce a “Trojan horse” to our enemies; to cleanse the “Augean stables”; to follow “Ariadne’s thread”; to have an “Achilles’ heel”; to feel nostalgia for a “golden age”; to place our efforts under the shield, or “aegis,” of someone; to look up at the “Milky Way”; to take part in the “Olympic” Games… . Other usages, more numerous still, allude to the dominant trait of a personality, the name for which is familiar to us often without our understanding the reason, nor the role it originally played in the Greek imagination: to describe an utterance as “sibylline”; to be confronted with an “apple of discord”; to play at “Cassandra”; to have (like Telemachus in the Odyssey) a “mentor”; to sink into the “arms of Morpheus” or to take “morphine”; to be blessed—or cursed—with a “Midas touch”; to lose oneself in a “labyrinth” of alleyways; to have a “sosie,” or double (named after the servant of Amphitryon whose appearance was borrowed by Hermes when Zeus descended to seduce Alcmena); to be endowed with “titanic” or “Herculean” strength; to suffer the “torments of Tantalus”; to be stretched on a “Procrustean bed”; to be a “Pygmalion,” in love with his creation, or a “sybarite” (like the effeminately luxurious inhabitants of the city of Sybaris); to consult an “atlas”; to swear “like a carter”;* to embark on a “Promethean” undertaking, or upon an endless task akin to pushing a “Sisyphean” boulder; to pass a ferocious concierge or “Cerberus” on the stairs; to speak with a “stentorian” voice; to cut the “Gordian” knot, or ride “Amazon”-style; to imagine “chimeras”; to be petrified, as if by a “Medusa”; to spring fully formed as if “from the head of Zeus”; to be chased by a “Harpy” or “Fury”; to give way to “panic”; to open unwittingly a “Pandora’s box” of troubles; to have an “Oedipus complex”; to be a “narcissist.” … The list could be extended indefinitely. In the same fashion, are we sufficiently aware in our everyday usage that a hermaphrodite is literally the offspring of Hermes (messenger of the gods) and Aphrodite (goddess of love)? Or that “gorgon” refers to a plant that looks petrified, as if it has met the gaze of Medusa; that “museum” and “music” derive from the nine sacred Muses; that a lynx supposedly derives its keen sight from Lynceus, the Argonaut of whom it was said that he could see through an oak plank; that Echo, the nymph, still makes us hear her desolate cry at the loss of Narcissus, so long after her own disappearance; that the laurel is a tree sacred to the memory of Daphne, and the cypress, which can be found in so many Mediterranean cemeteries, is a symbol of mourning that remembers the unfortunate Cyparissus, who accidentally killed his companion—a tamed stag—as it lay sleeping in the woods, and whose grief was such that it transformed him into a cypress tree? … Numerous expressions likewise recall the famous sites of mythology: the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields) or, more remotely, the Bosphorus, which literally means “river passage” for oxen (bous, βος, “ox” + poros, πóρος, “means of fording a river, ferry”)—but which is in fact a recollection of Io, the little nymph whom Hera pursued with her jealous hatred after her illustrious husband, Zeus, transformed his mistress into a charming heifer, to protect her from the wrath of his wife… .
In effect, we would need an entire book to do justice to all the mythological allusions embedded and then forgotten inside everyday language: to restore life to names such as Ocean, Triton, Python, and the other marvelous beings who inhabit our everyday language incognito. Charles Perelman, one of the greatest linguists of the last century, put it nicely when he spoke of the “sleeping metaphors” in our mother tongues. What Englishman still remembers that “lunatic” means moonstruck—and what Frenchman remembers as he grumbles about his mislaid lunettes (spectacles) that he is searching for “little moons”? One needs to be a foreigner to see these concealed features of a particular language, which is why a Japanese or an Indian often finds poetry in a term or a formula that seem to us perfectly ordinary—just as we find the transliteration of the names they give their children charming or droll: Rose-Pearl, Brave Bear, Morning Sunshine. One of the aims of the present book is to “awaken” the sleeping metaphors deriving from Greek mythology, by retelling the uncanny stories that constitute their point of origin—if only for cultural reasons, so as to understand the countless legions of works of art and literature that line our museums and libraries, drawing their inspiration from these antique roots, and that remain entirely “hermetic” (another recollection of the god Hermes!) to those unacquainted with mythology. It is worth taking the trouble and, as we shall see, deriving the pleasure.
The extraordinary linguistic afterlife of classical mythology is clearly of significance. There are deep-seated reasons for this singular phenomenon—no philosophical system, no world religion, not even the Bible, can claim equivalent importance—whereby the canon of classical mythology, even where there is complete ignorance of its real sources, can claim so unshakeable a presence in our common culture. No doubt this is due in the first place to the fact that it proceeds from concrete stories rather than, as with philosophy, from abstract concepts. This is why mythology can, even today, address everybody: inspiring children with as much fervor as adults, crossing not only social class and age (if conveyed sensibly) but also traversing the generations, even to the present day—as it has done virtually without interruption for nearly three millennia. Although it was for a long time thought of as a mark of “distinction,” as a symbol of the highest culture, the study of mythology is by no means confined to an elite, or restricted to those whose study is Latin and Greek: like the historian Jean-Pierre Vernant, who enjoyed telling his grandson these stories, everyone can understand them, including children—who should ideally be introduced to them as early as possible. Not only does mythology bring them infinitely more than the animated cartoons they are routinely force-fed, it also profoundly illuminates their lives to come, provided that we give ourselves the trouble to understand the prodigious richness of these myths sufficiently to be able to communicate it in terms that are practical and intelligible.
And here we broach one of the purposes of this book: to make classical mythology sufficiently accessible to parents so that they can in turn pass on its riches—without, however, betraying or misrepresenting the ancient texts from which these stories are drawn. This point is crucial, and I would like to dwell upon it briefly.
In its aims and procedures, the present work bears no relation to the genre of popularization or “retellings” that are usually brought together in collections of “myths and legends,” in themselves perfectly enjoyable. Generally speaking, because these are intended for children as well as for a wide readership, the authors cheerfully mix together all of the heterogeneous layers and accretions that have, over the course of time, accumulated around what is thought of as “the” myth in question. In most cases these disparate sources of conflicting authority are scrambled and “arranged” selectively for the needs of the moment. The origin and significance of the great mythic narratives are thus clouded, even falsified, to the point that they end up reduced in our memories to a collection of more or less credible anecdotes, to be placed somewhere between fairy tales and the superstitions inherited from primitive religion. Worse still, their coherence is lost beneath the ornamental frills, accretions, and errors with which modern authors cannot resist embellishing these ancient stories.
In effect, we need to remember that this or that “myth” is by no means the work of a single author. There is no original version, no canonical or sacred text comparable to the Bible or the Koran, piously preserved through the ages, thereafter carrying authority. On the contrary, we are dealing with a plurality of stories and variants, written down by storytellers, philosophers, poets, and “mythographers” (such is the term for those who assembled, collated, and edited the various compilations of myths from antiquity onward) over the course of twelve centuries or more: roughly from the seventh century BC to the fifth century AD—not to mention the various oral traditions, of which, by definition, we know comparatively little.
This diversity cannot be reduced, or dismissed on the grounds that we are not engaged in producing a work of academic authority. Although I do not address specialists in these pages but readers of all backgrounds, I try to avoid muddle and attempt to reconcile what erudition teaches and what a readership imposes without sacrificing the first to the needs of the second. In other words, for each of the myths I indicate the original sources, quote from the most authoritative texts where possible, and specify where relevant the principal variants that emerged over the course of time. My claim is that, far from compromising the intelligibility of these stories, a respect for the ancient texts—their complexity and heterogeneity—is on the contrary the necessary condition for understanding the myths. To trace the different inflections that a tragedian like Aeschylus (sixth century BC) or a philosopher like Plato (fourth century BC) brought to the myth of Prometheus, as originally told by the poet Hesiod (seventh century BC), is to be enlightened rather than led astray. Far from obscuring these narratives, the process enriches our understanding of them. It would be absurd to deprive the reader of these clues to reading on the grounds of seeking to make the subject more accessible: the succeussive recastings of the myths serve only to make them more interesting.
The significance of classical mythology is not restricted to questions of linguistic and cultural heritage. Nor does it depend solely on the narrative qualities of the stories alone to deliver its lessons. This book does not restrict itself therefore to offering a set of narrative keys to what the Greeks would have called the “commonplaces” of the culture—not that such a guide is in any way negligible or to be dismissed. After all, it is with these stories that each of us starts, and from which we partially form our picture of the world and of man’s place in it; to know our origins can only make us freer and more aware of ourselves. But beyond their inestimable historical and aesthetic significance, the stories we are going to discover or rediscover carry within themselves lessons in wisdom, of a philosophical profundity and actuality that I would like us to engage with from the outset.
In the name of philosophy: mythology as a response
to our questions, as mortals, concerning the good life
Hundreds if not thousands of books and articles have been devoted to pondering the status of Greek myth: Should it be classified under “tales and legends,” or filed under religion, or placed alongside literature and poetry, or perhaps on the same shelves as politics and sociology? The answer that the present book offers is quite simple. Classical myth is central to an entire civilization and polytheist religion, but is above all a philosophy in “story form”: a magnificent and concerted attempt to respond in secular form* to the question of the good life by means of lessons in wisdom that breathe and live—are clothed in literature, in poetry and epic—rather than formulated in abstract argument. To my mind, it is this essentially vernacular, poetic, and philosophical cast of Greek myth that accounts for its continuing vitality and involvement for us today—and what renders it singular and precious in comparison with the legions of other myths, fairy tales, and legends that, from a strictly literary point of view, might seem to offer competition. I would like to dwell briefly on this aspect, but sufficiently to make clear the organization of this book and the project that informs it.
In A Brief History of Thought (the first volume of Learning to Live), I proposed a definition of philosophy that takes account of what philosophy has been and should, in my view, still be in our time: a doctrine of salvation without a God, and a response to the question of what constitutes a good life, that relies neither upon some “supreme being” nor upon religious belief as such, but upon its own resources of reflection and reason. An effort of lucidity as the ultimate condition of serenity, understood in its simplest and strongest sense: as a victory—no doubt relative and fragile—over our fears, in particular the fear of death, which so insidiously and under so many forms prevents us from living a full life. I tried also to give both an idea of the major interventions or high points that have shaped the history of philosophy, and an insight into the responses over the course of time to what is, after all, the central investigation of philosophy: that of wisdom itself, as a state of being where the fight against our fears allows humans to be freer and more open to experience, to think for themselves and to live for others. It is within this same perspective that I now approach mythology: as a prehistory of philosophy, its moment of origin, or, put differently, as the matrix that alone explains the birth of philosophy in Greece in the sixth century BC—a cataclysmic event that we are in the habit of referring to as the “Greek miracle.”
From this point of view, mythology delivers messages of astonishing profundity, perspectives that open up to mortals the vista of a good life without recourse to the illusions of a hereafter, affording us a means of confronting human mortality, of facing up to our destiny without dosing ourselves with the consolations that the great monotheistic religions claim to bring to mankind. In these terms—as drawn up in A Brief History of Thought—mythology traces, for the first time perhaps in the history of humanity, or at least in the West, the lineaments of what I have called a “doctrine of salvation without a god,” a “secular spirituality,” or, to put matters even more simply, a “wisdom for mortals.” It therefore represents a uniquely important endeavor to assist mankind in “saving” itself from the fears and terrors that prevent us from acceding to the good life.
This notion may seem paradoxical: Are the Greek myths not populated by an innumerable crowd of gods, starting with those who sit in session on Olympus? Are these not, first and foremost, “religious” deities? Yes, clearly, on first inspection. But if we go beyond appearances, we soon realize that this plurality of gods is poles apart from the one unique God of our various religions of the Bible. Apparently closer to mortals, and more closely entangled with them, the Olympians are at the same time utterly inaccessible: they leave mankind alone to resolve, in lay terms, the question of “how to live”—in stark contrast to the Immortals themselves, and with no hope of joining their ranks, but with full knowledge of the limits to their own mortal condition, which they must try to make sense of as best they can. In this respect the Greek attitude is more contemporary than ever before. And it is this that I would like to clarify, in my prologue, so that the individual stories that we shall follow in the course of this book do not seem a mere patchwork of anecdotes stripped of any common theme—but on the contrary are seen as stories full of meaning and, beyond their poetic lightness, the bearers of a profound and coherent body of wisdom.
To properly understand this axis between mythology and philosophy, and to measure the significance and reach of the lessons for living that they afford—each after its fashion, but interconnectedly so—we must start from the primary fact that, for the Greeks, the world of living beings, of individuals, divides first and foremost between mortals and Immortals, between men and gods.
This may seem self-evident, but on reflection it becomes clearer that the centrality of death—its place at the heart of the entire narrative enterprise—is far from casual. The fundamental characteristic of the gods is that they escape death: once born (since they have not always existed), they live forever and are cognizant of this fact. They are, according to the Greeks, “blessed.” Of course, they experience adversity from time to time, like poor Hephaestus (Vulcan), for example, who discovers that his wife, the divine Aphrodite—goddess of beauty and of love—is deceiving him with his fellow god the fearful Ares (Mars). The blessed are, at least some of the time, fairly miserable! They suffer like mortals, and they feel unmistakably mortal passions—love, jealousy, anger, hatred… . On occasion they even tell lies and are punished for it by their overlord, Zeus. But there is one torment of which they are ignorant, and it is without doubt the most grievous of all: namely those emotions linked to the fear of death. For the gods, time does not count, so to speak; therefore nothing is definitive, or irreversible, or irremediably lost. And this allows them both to endure and witness human passions with a superiority and from a vantage to which mortals cannot aspire. In their sphere, everything is sorted out and settled sooner or later… .
Our principal characteristic as mere mortals is quite the reverse. Contrary to the gods and the beasts, we are the only sentient beings in this world to have full consciousness of what is irreversible: the fact that we are going to die. Not only we ourselves, but also those we love: our parents, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, children, friends. Unremittingly, we feel the passage of time. This, no doubt, sometimes brings us happiness—the proof of which is that we love life—but also remorselessly takes away from us all that we cherish most. And we are quite alone in this predicament, alone to perceive with unparalleled sharpness that there is in our lives—aside from the ultimate endgame, properly speaking, of death itself—the irreparable experience of “never again.” The gods experience nothing of this for the simple reason that they are immortal. As for the animals, so far as we can tell, they barely give thought to these matters; or if they experience a glimmering awareness, it is no doubt in confused fashion and only when their end is very close. On the contrary, humans resemble Prometheus, one of the central figures of classical myth: they think “ahead”; they are “creatures of distance.” They are constantly scanning the future and pondering it. And because they know that life is short and their time is allotted in advance, they cannot prevent themselves from asking how they are to make use of it… .
Hannah Arendt explains, in one of her books, how Greek culture fastened upon this awareness of death as its central concern and how it concluded that there are two ways of confronting the questions raised by mortality, if we are to frame an adequate response.
In the first place we can, quite simply, choose to have children or—as we say—“descendants.” But how does this relate to the yearning for immortality, awakened in us by the contrast between our certainty of death and our delight in life? Quite straightforwardly, it seems, in the sense that, through our children, something of us will survive our own demise, physically as well as spiritually: our facial features or physical resemblances, just like our traits of character, are preserved more or less intact in those we have raised and loved. So, too, education is always a handing on, and all transmission is in some sense the prolonging of a self beyond ourselves, of something that does not die with us. Nevertheless, whatever the magnanimity and the joys—the anxieties, too—of parenthood, it would be absurd to pretend that it suffices to have children for us to attain the happy life! Even less that it cancels the fear of death. Quite the contrary. For this mortal anguish does not necessarily or even centrally relate to one’s own self. More frequently it concerns those we love, beginning (naturally enough) with our children—as witness the desperate efforts of Thetis, mother of Achilles, one of the great heroes of the Trojan War, to make her son immortal by plunging him into the unearthly waters of the Styx, river of the underworld. In vain, because Achilles will be killed by the Trojan Paris, struck by an arrow in the celebrated heel by which his mother held him when she plunged him into the divine water and which consequently remained mortally vulnerable: the Achilles’ heel of Achilles. And Thetis, like all mothers, sheds bitter tears when she learns of the death of her beloved son, whose heroic feats she had always feared would bring him to an early grave… .
An alternative strategy was therefore needed, one that Hannah Arendt shows as coming to occupy a central position in Greek culture: namely heroism, and the glory it procures. Here is the logic concealed behind this remarkable and singular conviction: the hero—Achilles, Odysseus, Heracles, Jason—is one who accomplishes feats unthinkable for ordinary mortals, and who by doing so escapes the oblivion that ordinarily engulfs all mortals. He snatches himself from the world of contingency, which has but one temporal dimension, so as to enter into a sort of perenniality, if not eternity, which in a sense allies him with the gods themselves. Let us be clear: heroic glory, in Greek culture, has nothing in common with what we would today call stardom. It is something else entirely, and profoundly so, deriving from the conviction that pervades the whole of antiquity, according to which humans are in perpetual competition, not merely with the immortality of the gods but also with the immortality of nature itself. Let us try to sum up in few words the reasoning that underlies this crucial assumption.
First, we must remember that, in classical mythology, nature and the gods were originally one and the same. Gaia, for example, is not simply the goddess of the earth, nor Uranus merely the god of the sky, nor Poseidon the god of the sea: they are respectively the earth, the sky, and the sea—and it was evident to the Greeks that these primal natural elements are eternal in the same sense as the gods who personify them. This perenniality of the natural order is, moreover, self-evident, experimentally verifiable. How do we know it? In the first instance, by simple observation. Everything in nature is, eventually, cyclical. Day follows night, and night follows day; fine weather succeeds a storm, as summer succeeds spring and autumn yields to winter. Each year the trees lose their leaves with the first frosts, and each year they return with the sun, so that the principal events that punctuate the natural order remember themselves to us, so to speak. Put even more simply: there is no possibility of our forgetting them, and if such an eventuality arose, they would in both senses “return” to us. On the other hand, in the human world, everything passes; all is perishable and ends by being swept away by death and oblivion—the words we utter as much as the actions we accomplish. Nothing remains of it all … except writing! Indeed so! The written word preserves better than the spoken word, better than deeds or heroic “gests” themselves. And if, by virtue of his actions and the glory they procure him, a mortal hero—Achilles, Heracles, Odysseus—succeeds in becoming the principal subject of a work of history or epic, then he shall in some sense survive his own death, if only in our collective memory. The proof? One might answer that even today films are being made about the Trojan War or the labors of Hercules, or that most evenings some of us at least are describing to our children the exploits of Achilles, or Jason, or Odysseus—and all because a clutch of poets and philosophers, many centuries before Christ, committed these exploits to writing… .
Nonetheless, despite the force of conviction underlying this apologia for the glory that is made permanent by the written word, the question of salvation in the literal sense—what will save us from death, or, at least, from the fears associated with death—is not yet quite settled.
I recalled the name of Achilles just now, and some would say that in this sense he is not dead. In our memory, at least. But in reality? Go and ask his mother, Thetis, for her view of the matter! Of course, that is a way of speaking because these characters are not real in the first place—rather they are legendary. But let us imagine the situation: I am sure that Thetis would give all the books ever written, and all the glorious actions in the world, merely to be able to hold her little son in her arms again. For her there can be no doubt: her son is well and truly dead, and the fact that he is “preserved” in written form, on the shelves of libraries, is assuredly small consolation. And Achilles himself, what would he say? If we are to believe Homer, it would seem that in Achilles’s eyes a glorious death in the course of heroic combat was hardly worth the bother… . That at least is what one astonishing passage in the Odyssey tells us. Let us stay for a moment with this episode, which is of the greatest significance for the question of salvation and the closely related question of what constitutes the good life, defined as a mortal life “saved” from the fear of death. In effect, we shall see how this brief passage in the Odyssey also illuminates the world of classical mythology as a whole.
Here it is: on the enlightened advice of Circe, the sorceress, and thanks to her divine intervention, Odysseus is granted the privilege unique among mortals of descending to the underworld, to the realm of Hades and his wife Persephone (adored daughter of Demeter, goddess of crops and seasons), in order to consult a celebrated soothsayer named Tiresias about the trials that await him during the rest of his voyage home. And in this place—to which unfortunate humans repair after their deaths, this sinister region where they are reduced to unrecognizable and desolate shades—Odysseus comes across the valiant Achilles, at whose side he had fought during the Trojan War. Overjoyed to find his comrade, he addresses him in these optimistic terms:
“Time was, when you were alive, we Argive [Greek] warriors honoured you as a god: and now, down here, I see that you lord it over the dead in all your power. So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles!”
Odysseus here expresses the idea, which I have just expounded, that animates Greek heroism: that notion of a saving glory of which Hannah Arendt wrote. Even if he dies young, the hero who has been singled out by renown—rescued from anonymity and transformed into a quasi-god—can never be unhappy. Why not? Because he cannot be forgotten, precisely—he escapes the dreadful fate of common mortals, who, once dead, become (once more) “nameless,” and therefore lose, as well as life itself, every marker of individuality or, in the proper sense, of personality. Unfortunately, however, the response of Achilles annihilates all illusions attaching to the idea of glory:
“None of your fine words about death to me, shining Odysseus! I’d rather be a slave on earth, looking after the cows for some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes a living, than rule down here over all the breathless dead!”
All of which is a cold shower for his friend Odysseus! In two sentences, the myth of the death-conquering hero is exploded. And the only thing that remains of interest to Achilles in the underworld is to have news of his father and, more intently, of his son, about whom he worries. And as the news is very good, he fades back into the sinister shadows of the underworld with a heart that is a little less burdened, just like any father of a family stuck in everyday concerns—the diametrical opposite of the extraordinary and dazzling hero that was Achilles in life. In other words, he is perfectly indifferent to his former glory and splendor… .
Mythic wisdom—or why the good life is lived
in harmony with the order of things
From this arises in turn the fundamental question, the one to which we must find an answer if we are to grasp both the philosophical import and the deepest unifying thread of Greek myth. If progeny and heroism—descendants and earthly renown—do not enable us to confront death with a greater degree of serenity, if these attributes afford no true access to the good life, toward what source of wisdom then can we turn? This is indeed the central issue, and one that mythology would indirectly bequeath to Greek philosophy. In many respects, the latter was—in its origins, at least—simply a continuation by other means (the claims of reason, rather than myth) of the first.
Philosophy likewise forged an indissoluble link between notions of the “good life,” a life of wisdom, and that of a human existence reconciled to the universe, or to what Greeks called the “cosmos.” A life lived in harmony with the cosmos—this is true wisdom, the authentic road to salvation, in the sense of saving us from our fears and making us thereby happier and more open to others. It was this powerful conviction above all others that Greek mythology was to express, in its mythic and poetic fashion, before philosophy stepped forward to reformulate it in conceptual and discursive terms.
As I explained in A Brief History of Thought (which is why I refer to it only briefly in these pages, merely to clarify the axis of influence between myth and philosophy), the Greek philosophical tradition thought of the world as, first and foremost, an overarching order: at once harmonious, just, beautiful, and good. The word “cosmos” connotes all of this. For the Stoics, for example, to whom the Latin poet Ovid defers in his Metamorphoses—when reinterpreting after his fashion the great myths dealing with the origins of the world—the universe resembles a magnificent living organism. If we want to get an idea of this, we might think of what doctors or physiologists or biologists discover when they dissect a rabbit or a mouse. What do they find? Firstly, that each organ is marvelously adapted to its function: What is better constructed than an eye for seeing, than lungs for oxygenating the muscles, than a heart for pumping blood via an irrigation system? These organs are a thousand times more ingenious, more harmonious and complex, than almost all of the machines devised by man. Moreover, our biologist discovers something else: that the ensemble of these organs, which considered individually are sufficiently astonishing, together form a quite perfect and “logical” whole—what the Stoics indeed named the logos, to refer to the coherent ordering of the world as well as to verbal discourse—and a whole that is infinitely superior again to any human invention. From this point of view, we must humbly acknowledge that the creation of even the humblest being—a tiny ant, a mouse, or a frog—is still far beyond the reach of our most sophisticated scientific laboratories… .
The fundamental idea, then, is that within the cosmic order that philosophical inquiry would subsequently explore—the order established by Zeus (according to the inaugural mythological narratives) after a series of wars against the forces of chaos—each of us has his appointed or “natural” place. In this perspective, wisdom and justice consist fundamentally in the effort by humans to find this place. A lute maker adjusts one by one the multiple pieces of wood that constitute his instrument before they can enter into harmony with each other (and if the sound post of the instrument, sometimes referred to as the âme, or “soul”—the small dowel of white wood that spans the top and back plates of the lute—is badly positioned, then the latter will cease to sound properly, will fail to be harmonious). So, too, we humans must, in the image of Odysseus of Ithaca, find our place in life and occupy it under pain of not otherwise being able to accomplish our mission in the scheme of things, in which event we shall encounter nothing but unhappiness. This is indeed the message that Greek philosophy, for the most part, was to draw from the mythological past.
But what connection does this have to the cardinal separation between mortals and Immortals? And how can this vision of the cosmos help us to measure up to the question of salvation? And why should this solution seem superior to that which rested on the notion of descendants or earthly glory?
Behind this will to adjust the self to the world and find our rightful place within the cosmic order, there is concealed a more recondite thought that connects directly back to our questioning of the meaning of mortal life for those who know they are going to die. The burden of the entire philosophical tradition inherited from mythology leads to the realization, in effect, that the cosmos—the order that Zeus created and that philosophy will attempt to reveal to us so that we can find our place in it—is itself eternal. What is the significance of this? one might ask. Well, it mattered to the Greeks for a reason that can be stated in approximate and simplified form as follows: once inserted into the cosmos, once his individual life is set going in harmony with the cosmic order, the wise man understands that we simple mortals are merely a fragment of this whole, an atom of eternity, so to speak, one element of a totality that cannot disappear. So that, ultimately, for the sage, death ceases to be truly real. In a nutshell, death is but a passage from one state to another—and, considered as such, it should no longer hold any terrors for us. Whence the fact that Greek philosophers recommended their disciples not to rely on words, not to content themselves with pure abstractions, but concretely to practice exercises with a view to aiding others to emancipate themselves from their absurd death-induced terrors so as to live “in harmony with the greater harmony,” in accord with the cosmos.
The above is, needless to say, merely an abstract and, so to speak, skeletal summary of this ancient insight into the nature of things. In actual human terms, the work of adjustment to the world takes many forms. It is, as we shall see in respect to Odysseus and his voyage, a singular task in all senses of the term: a task out of the ordinary—only those who aspire to wisdom can embark upon it; the ordinary run of mortals will, in effect, remain in ignorance. But it is also a “singular” undertaking in the sense that each of us needs to approach it on our own account and after our own fashion. It is easy to hire someone else to do work for us—someone to clean, someone to tend the garden—but no one can take our place along that road that leads to the conquest of our fears, so that we can adapt to the world and find our right place in it. The ultimate end, in general terms, is indeed harmony, but each individual must find his particular way of achieving it: finding one’s own path, which is not the path of others, may become the task of a lifetime.
Five fundamental questions that underlie Greek myth
It is within this perspective that I would like to reinterpret and retell the stories of classical mythology in these pages. I see in myth, first of all, a prehistory of philosophy, whose study is indispensable for any understanding, not only of the origins of philosophy but also of its deeper purpose. But beyond this theoretical or intellectual aspect, mythology—by its attempt to think through the human condition as such—furnishes lessons in wisdom that, just like Greek philosophy, speak to us still through the representation of the world and of our selves, to which they bear witness. Considered from this point of view, the major Greek myths seem to be animated fundamentally by five questions that we should keep in mind if we want to appreciate (beyond their beauty or singularity) the meaning of the individual stories that follow. These five pointers will in fact serve me as a thread and organizing principle so that my readers will not lose themselves in the detail.
The first question concerns, logically enough, the origin of the world (chapter one) and of humankind (chapter two), and the birth of this celebrated cosmos—to which mortals, from the moment of their first appearance, will be invited to discover their own way of attuning themselves. All of Greek mythology starts thus, with a narrative of the origins of the cosmos and of mortal life, expounded for the first time by Hesiod in the seventh century BC, in two seminal poems: Theogony (whose title in Greek signifies quite simply “The Birth of the Gods”) and Works and Days. These works deal with the first coming-into-being of the world itself, of gods and men. Their narrative is very compressed, sometimes difficult to follow, and I shall attempt in these opening chapters to retell it as lucidly as possible because it is worth the effort: everything starts from Hesiod.
I ought here to make one point, so as to remove a misunderstanding still frequently encountered: contrary to an idea that was for a long time current but quite incorrect, this mythic account or reconstruction of origins, albeit abstract and often theoretical in its formulation, makes absolutely no claim to scientific truth. Despite what some commentators still suggest today, it has nothing to do with a “first approach”—as yet naive and “primitive” (or even “magical”)—to scientific questions that the irresistible “progress” of our positivistic science has allowed us to render harmlessly obsolete. On the contrary, mythology is by no means the infancy of humanity: it concedes nothing, for profundity and intelligence, to modern science, of which it is not a more or less rough approximation or trial run. It would, for example, be wholly absurd to try and compare the physics of Greek myth with what is taught today concerning the Big Bang and the first moments of the universe. Let us insist once more, since the scientific and progressivist vision is so entrenched in our thinking: the vision enshrined in Greek mythology is something quite other than the modern scientific spirit. It is in no sense the latter’s primitive forerunner. Its concern is not objectivity, nor even knowledge of the real as such. Its true focus is other and elsewhere. Through a form of storytelling that is itself lost in the mists of time, and that, in truth, has no explanatory force in the senses understood by contemporary science, myth seeks to offer mortals the means to make sense of the world that surrounds them. Put differently, the universe is not considered here as an object of knowledge but as a lived reality—as the field of play, so to speak, in which human existence must find its proper position. Which is to say that the aim of these archaic narratives is not so much to arrive at a factual truth but rather to construct a possible sense for human life by inquiring as to what the successful human life might be within an ordered, harmonious, and justly ordained universe—such as that in which we find ourselves, and in which we are placed in order (precisely) to find our way. What is a good life, then, for those who know that they are going to die, and who seem uniquely endowed to do ill and tragically to lose their way? What is a successful life for these ephemeral beings who—unlike trees or oysters or rabbits—possess a sharpened awareness of what philosophers would later term “finitude”? This is the only worthwhile question, the only question that in truth underlies these narratives of origin. Which is why they are so vested in constructing a “cosmos” in the victory of the forces of order over those of disorder—for it is in this cosmos, at the heart of this idea of order, that we will find our place, each after his fashion, if we are to achieve the good life.
This primordial narrative, as found in Hesiod, possesses from the start one very striking characteristic: it is told almost entirely from the viewpoint of the gods, or nature, which amounts to the same thing. The protagonists of this strange and magnificent story are in the first place superhuman forces, entities at once divine and natural: chaos, the earth, the ocean, the sky, the forests, the sun. And even when it describes the appearance of humanity, the story is told from the global perspective of the gods and of the universe.
However, once this structure has been created, we need to reverse the perspective completely and be led by a second question that, in truth, justifies the entire edifice: How are men going to insert themselves into this universe of gods that does not seem, in any a priori sense, to have been made for mankind? After all, we must remind ourselves that it was not gods but humans who invented and composed all of these stories! And if they did so, clearly it was to give a meaning to their lives, to situate themselves in meaningful relation to what surrounded them. This is not always easy, as witness the innumerable obstacles that punctuate the long voyage home of Odysseus (chapter three). In this respect, Odysseus furnishes the archetype of a quest that is ultimately crowned with success, of the good life construed as the search (different and unique for each of us) for our place at the heart of a cosmic order constructed by the gods.
In truth, as we shall see in chapter one, these two questions are two paths that cross each other. There is in Greek myth a progressive humanizing of the gods, and equally a progressive divinizing of men, by which I mean that the very first gods are utterly impersonal: they are, like Chaos or Tartarus, abstract and faceless entities, without character or personality. They simply represent cosmic forces that evolve progressively, without any will, toward consciousness. But little by little, with the next generation of gods, the Olympians, we see characters appearing, personalities, specific functions. In other words, the gods are humanized, after a fashion: they are more aware, more intelligent, more distanced from brute nature, because the organization of a cosmos needs intelligence as well as brute power! Hera is the jealous wife, her husband Zeus is a skirt chaser, Hermes is a crook, Aphrodite knows all the tricks of love, Artemis is frigid, Athena absurdly oversensitive, Hephaestus somewhat simple when it comes to emotions but brilliant with his hands, and so on. In place of the power relations that govern all transactions between the first gods, there slowly evolves a logic that is more human, less governed by brute nature, more nuanced. Even if cosmology and the natural order still carry the day, psychology and a cultural order begin to occupy a larger place in the behavior of the gods. Parallel to this, the opposite tendency asserts itself in respect to primitive men: the more they reflect upon things, the more they come to understand that their deepest interest lies in adapting to this divine world that is the cosmic order. The humanizing of the divine is answered by a gradual divinizing of the human—never completed, of course, for we are and will remain forever mortal, but that nonetheless shows the way forward, the task ahead: reconciliation to the world and to the gods will appear henceforth as an ideal of life. The whole sense of the voyage of Odysseus, which we shall trace or retrace in chapter three, starts here: the good life is the life reconciled to what is the case, the life lived in its natural place, within the cosmic order, and it behooves each of us to find this place and accomplish this voyage if we want one day to arrive in the harbor of wisdom, of serenity.
Nietzsche was to reiterate this, long after the Greeks—which proves in passing that their message preserves an actuality such as can still be found in modern philosophy: the ultimate end of human life is what Nietzsche calls amor fati, or “love of one’s fate.” To embrace everything that is the case, our destiny—which, in essence, means the present moment, considered as the highest form of wisdom, and the only form that can rid us of what Spinoza (whom Nietzsche regarded as “a brother”) named, equally memorably, the “sad passions”: fear, hatred, guilt, remorse, those corrupters of the soul that bog us down in mirages of the past or of the future. Only our reconciliation to the present, to the present moment—in Greek, the kairos—can, for Nietzsche, as for Greek culture as a whole, lead to proper serenity, to the “innocence of becoming,” in other words to salvation, understood not in its religious meaning but in the sense of discovering ourselves as saved, finally, from those fears that diminish existence, stunting and shriveling it.
But we are not all Odysseus, and the instinct to withdraw oneself from the human condition in order to escape death is powerful. There are many of us who would answer Calypso in the affirmative … which is why the third question that runs through Greek myth concerns hubris, the mismeasure of those lives that choose to set themselves against that divine and cosmic order whose difficult birth is recounted in the Theogony. Once mortals appear on earth and are thereby integrated into the universe, what then happens to those individuals who, contrary to Odysseus, do not tune themselves to this harmony and, through pride or arrogance or immoderation—hubris, in other words—revolt against the cosmic settlement established through the wars of the gods? The answer is, a great deal of trouble. To which the stories of Asclepius, Sisyphus, Midas, Tantalus, Icarus, and a host of others all bear witness… . We shall retell and examine some of these stories in detail (chapter four), selecting those that are the most profound and rewarding. But the message is clear enough from the outset: if wisdom consists in finding our natural place in a divine and everlasting order, so as to live our lives reconciled to the present moment, the madness of hubris consists in a contrary attitude, a proud and “chaotic” revolt against our human condition as simple mortals. A large number of mythological stories revolve around this crucial theme, and it is important to resist reading them—as is so often and so mistakenly attempted—according to a modern ethical framework inherited from Christianity.
Fourth question: Between these two possible trajectories, that of Odyssean wisdom and that which yields to the folly of hubris, how do we situate those out-of-the-ordinary heroes or demigods who populate nearly all of the major Greek myths? Neither sages nor fools, they pursue on this mortal earth the fundamental task that was originally that of Zeus: to struggle against the ceaselessly regrouping forces of chaos so that order may prevail over disorder, cosmos and concord over discord. Such is the story of these extraordinary men (literally speaking), glorious destroyers of all the monstrous reincarnations of the forces of disorder, which we shall have occasion to describe (in chapter five). Thus Theseus, Jason, Perseus, and Heracles will continue, in the image of Zeus struggling against the Titans, to hunt down and extirpate the whole tribe of baleful and monstrous entities that symbolize the constantly self-renewing threat posed by the original forces of chaos—or, which amounts to the same thing, symbolize the permanent fragility of the cosmic order.
There remains, finally, the fifth question: on the one hand there is the cosmos, and on the other hand those who subscribe to it, like Odysseus, or who refuse its laws and live in hubris, or who help the gods to reestablish order and so become heroes. But there are also the millions of other beings, simple mortals like you and me, who are neither wise nor wicked nor heroic, and who watch paralyzed as unforeseeable catastrophes swoop down upon them, no doubt interspersed with moments of joy and happiness, but for the most part ills of every kind—sicknesses, accidents, natural calamities—without ever understanding the why or the wherefore! How do we explain to ourselves that a supposedly harmonious world, a cosmos that we are told is just and good, established and maintained by the all-beautiful and blemish-free Olympians, can allow misfortune to strike the good and the evil indifferently? It is in reaction to this question, impossible to evade when we think of a cosmos founded upon harmony and justice, that the Oedipus and Antigone myths in particular formulate their response (chapter six).
Finally, by way of conclusion, we shall see, through a consideration of the figure of Dionysus, how mythology effects the necessary reconciliation of discord and order, of chaos and cosmos—before asking what contribution is made to this synthesis by philosophy, and why mankind passed from Greek religion to more conceptual doctrines of salvation. It is on this point, as we shall see, that the Greek prehistory of philosophy so strikingly illuminates its entire history.
This book begins, then, at the beginning … which is to say with the birth of the gods, of the world, and of mortal men, as expounded in the most archaic, as well as the most complete and most important, of the texts that have come down to us: that of Hesiod. To which I shall supply, whenever it seems illuminating, a number of complementary or variant versions, always specifying their separate origin and making clear the relevance of these accretions, so that the reader (even the novice) is not led astray from the outset and progressively confused—but on the contrary is enlightened and enriched by a knowledge of myth that aspires not to erudition but to straightforward elucidation. Of course, in this labor, which aims to be at once rigorous and accessible, I have naturally been guided by the works of my predecessors. I must express here my debt, on this point as on many others, to the late Jean-Pierre Vernant. The primer that he wrote for his grandson* has not only served me for inspiration but also to a large extent provided the model for the present book, as have his other works. The same goes for the work of Jacqueline de Romilly on Greek tragedy. I had formerly held discussions with these two scholars while serving at the Ministry for Education, concerned as they were about the decline of the “classical humanities.” I shared their concern, or at least their love of antiquity, and I tried (unsuccessfully, perhaps) to reassure them, and to set in train “measures” to check the educational collapse, real or imagined, that they feared… . But on this point, as on others, I think that books are more effective than political fiat: the latter comes up against so many constraints, obstacles, and shackles, from so many directions, as to render its effects forever uncertain.
I owe a great deal also to other works that I will cite in passing, notably the classic Dictionary of Classical Mythology compiled under the general editorship of Pierre Grimal. In addition to the original texts, which I have had to read or reread, the most precious of all precursors has been the work of Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth. This is a life’s work; with infinite patience and scholarly care, as well as interpretative tact and the humility of a researcher, Gantz succeeded in attributing myths to particular authors, classifying them chronologically, and thereby identifying, for each story, both the original version (insofar as we can be certain) and the slow accretion of variants that enriched the narrative, completed it, or on occasion contradicted it. This richness, not to say profusion, was restored to us by Gantz in an ordered manner, for the first time, which has enabled us all to reliably find our bearings in the literature of Greek myth.
A final word on style, on the organization of this
book, and on what it contains for children
As with A Brief History of Thought, I have chosen to address my readers informally, for two reasons: firstly because I have, so to speak, “tested” these Greek stories on my own children (and on a few others who are close to me), all of whom I principally address in this book. To write for them, I must first visualize one or another individual at any given moment. The second reason is that this child reader, at once idealized and real, compels me to write clearly, to refrain from obscure allusions or from supposing that my audience possesses any prior knowledge of Hesiod, of Apollodorus, of Nonnus of Panopolis, of Hyginus—or any prior familiarity with the meaning of such words as “theogony,” “cosmogony,” “mythographer,” “cosmos,” and so forth: words to which I shall have constant recourse but which my informal approach compels me almost automatically to define and clarify as I proceed—which I would certainly forget to do were I to use a more formal register.
The conviction that has motivated all of my work, over the years, is that, in this strange blend of frenetic consumption and disenchantment that characterizes the society into which we find ourselves plunged today, it is more essential than ever that we offer our children—and ourselves: mythology is for everybody—the chance to make a detour through the major works of classical literature before entering adulthood and signing up for the world of getting and spending. The reference here to consumption is neither facile nor a rhetorical device. As I had occasion to explain in my study of the history of the family,* the logic of consumerism, which none of us can pretend entirely to escape, follows that of any other addiction. To the image of the addict, who cannot prevent himself from increasing the dosage and frequency that supposedly makes life bearable, the well-trained consumer would shop ever more frequently, and buy more with each and every foray. It suffices to watch the television channels that cater to children for a few moments and observe how they are continually interrupted by advertisements for us to understand that one of their principal purposes is to transform children insofar as possible into model consumers. This logic, into which they are inserted at an ever-younger age, has destructive consequences. It works on us by an insidious mechanism: the less we experience a rich interior life on a moral, cultural, and spiritual level, the more we are given over to the frenetic need to acquire and consume. The “rental of empty head space” that the television affords advertisers is thus their golden opportunity. By its ceaseless self-interruption, television aims literally to plunge audiences into a condition of lack, of need.
Let us avoid misunderstanding: I have no intention of indulging in yet another neo-Marxist diatribe against “consumer society,” even less of trying my hand at the now ritual critique of the publicity machine. It is not all at clear, to my mind, that the suppression of advertising would in any sense change the underlying problems. Quite simply, as a father and a former Minister for Education, it has seemed to me crucial for us to put the frenzy of acquisition and ownership in its place—secondary, despite everything—and to make our children understand that acquisition is not the alpha and omega of existence: that it does not remotely begin to map the horizon of human life. To help children resist the pressures imposed by advertising, to allow them to free themselves or at least establish some inner distance, it is essential—perhaps even a matter of survival, if we remember how addiction is sometimes fatal—to provide them as early as possible with the elements of an interior life that runs deep and is lasting. To which end we must, I think, hold fast to the fundamental principle I have just outlined, according to which the more that individuals are endowed with strong values (cultural, moral, spiritual), the less they experience the need to acquire for the sake of acquisition and to press the “buy” button for no reason; the less, accordingly, will they be weakened by the chronic dissatisfaction created by an infinite multiplication of artificial needs. Put differently, we must help our children to accord greater importance to the logic of Being as against the logic of Having. It is in this spirit that I dedicate this book to all parents anxious to make a true present to their children—one that accompanies them on their search and that is not discarded on Christmas morning as soon as the wrapping has been removed.
It is in this perspective that I believe it is crucial for us to return to the sources of Greek mythology, so as to share their essence with others. Of course this is not the only aim of this book, which attempts primarily, as I have said, to cast new light on the earliest moments of Western philosophy. But when I speak of children it is from experience rather than theory: when I began to relate the most famous Greek myths to my own children, when they were five years of age, I saw their eyes light up as never before. They fired questions from all sides, involving all the thousand and one aspects of the adventures I recounted. Never had I seen children’s stories received with more enthusiasm, not even the classic fairy tales (magnificent as these are) of Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, or Charles Perrault—to say nothing of the TV series that amuse, no doubt, but hardly engage their resources in the same manner. I am convinced that the deepest messages carried by the Greek myths, touching on the creation of the world, birth and death, the agitations of love and war, but also dealing with justice and the meaning of punishment, or with courage, risk, and the taste for adventure—that these all powerfully help children to understand their own actions and the world around them with a uniquely penetrating regard, which bears no comparison to what is ordinarily dispensed from the television or computer screen. Nor have I any doubt that these archaic narratives are inscribed in their memory, to accompany them for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the myths that we are going to discover or rediscover together are addressed quite as much to adults as to their children—which explains why this book will sometimes change register, and why its mode of address varies: sometimes I am addressing adults about the origins of philosophy, at other times I recount the legends as if to an audience of children, and at other times I offer interpretations of certain episodes that seem to merit a more searching analysis. I am aware that this combination gives the book a somewhat parti-colored aspect, as indeed was the case with A Brief History of Thought. But this is a decision, and any inconvenience has seemed to me finally outweighed by the advantages of employing different registers.
I am also aware that over the course of these chapters the reader will inevitably have certain questions—historical, philological, and even metaphysical—to which I cannot respond without burdening my narrative to the point of unreadability: When, how, and why did the Greeks invent mythology? Did they believe in their myths in the same sense that a contemporary believer relates to his or her religion? Did these myths have a metaphysical function, for example one of consolation or reassurance in the face of death? Were the Olympian gods worshipped in quasi-religious ceremonies? What connection is there between the surviving texts and the earliest oral traditions? Did Greek parents tell their children at bedtime the adventures of Odysseus and Heracles? Or were these reserved for adult audiences, as was often the case with the lays of the troubadours in medieval Europe, or with fairy tales in the seventeenth century? I shall attempt to return to some of these entirely valid questions during the course of this book, when it seems opportune to do so. But to speak of them now would be to place the cart before the horse, and it seems preferable on all counts to begin with the great mythological stories themselves before reflecting any further on their significance or their cultural status.