Conclusion - Mythology and Philosophy
The Lesson of Dionysus and Secular Spirituality
I do not propose to return to the Greek construction of the cosmos as it was bequeathed by mythology to the philosophical tradition. We have registered sufficiently, throughout this book, the many and complex senses in which the good life could only be found—at least if we attend to what was for a long period the essential message of Greek culture—through an existence conducted in harmony, ideally speaking, with the cosmic order of things. But with the tragedy of Oedipus, we have also begun to perceive something else: the cracks in the wall of this system, the glitches that must affect and pose problems for it, and that must at the very least strike us mortals as potentially tragic. It is with this development that I would like to conclude, pursuing some further reflections on what might generally be termed “alterity”: this “Other” that opposes the cosmos and opposes harmony, and that is none other than ourselves, we mortals. For the grandeur of Greek myth does not reside solely in its manifold articulation of a universe. It derives equally from the almost desperate effort to integrate the facts, to reconcile all that exists and is other than perfectly ordered within a dominant scheme of thought that nonetheless privileges harmony above all else. It is a fact: Greek cosmology underlines order and justice, accord and identity, but it is no less alert to the uneasy attraction of chaos, difference, festivity, drunkenness—in short, everything that at first sight falls within the province of folly rather than wisdom. It has often been remarked that this “dissident” aspect of Greek thought, so to speak, finds expression in a philosophical tradition parallel to that of the Platonic or Stoic mainstream, in a kind of counterculture that runs through the theories of the pre-Socratic Atomists, the Epicureans, and the Sophists—a species of “deconstruction” avant la lettre, one might say, which already expresses in explicit form a yearning for chaos rather than for order, for difference rather than identity, for the body rather than the soul.
If we place ourselves in this perspective, what seems truly admirable about Greek myth is that it had the extraordinary audacity to accede to this aspect of things and to take account of it, quite explicitly, by embodying it in a figure who has crossed our path already, namely Dionysus, about whom I would like to say a few things by way of conclusion. Let us acknowledge before going any further that it was a very bold move to make so disreputable a figure into an Olympian, and to integrate him so resoundingly and so confidently at the heart of the cosmological system.
For it would be an understatement to say that Dionysus is hard to come to terms with. I have mentioned before how he was born from the “thigh of Jupiter,” snatched in extremis from the womb of Semele, his mother, no goddess but an ordinary mortal who caught fire—literally, was consumed in flames—at the sight of her lover in all his glory: Zeus, ruler of the gods. From the start, Dionysus is a being quite apart from all others. Firstly, he is the only Olympian to be born of a mortal woman, which already suggests that he carries within himself his share of chaos: a fundamental otherness, a sort of flaw. What is more, there is said to be something “oriental” about him, rather than the look of a Greek “born and bred.” The expression is dubious, which is why I have placed it in quotation marks, to indicate that, from a traditionally correct point of view, Dionysus has the air of being what the Greeks called a metic, a stranger. Worse still, since his earliest infancy he has been disguised as a girl, in a world that publicly values only men and male virtues. At the start, it was in order to escape the wrath of Hera that King Athamas—to whom Hermes entrusted the young god—inflicted this disguise upon Dionysus. Besides, several sources agree that it was Hera who had already caused his mother’s conflagration, by strongly encouraging her to ask Zeus to show himself to her in his true colors—Hera knowing perfectly well that the young woman could not endure for one moment the radiance emanating from the ruler of Olympus, and that she would be consumed by it. But then Dionysus subsequently acquires a taste for feminine clothes. To avenge herself, Hera drives him insane when she discovers this disguise, and Dionysus needs to make almost superhuman efforts at self-purification in order to break free of the demented and extravagant frenzies with which the wife of Zeus populates his head. Zeus himself, to shield Dionysus from his wife’s hatred, transforms him into a goat, which, it has to be said, only adds to his oddity: not only is he born of a mortal woman; not only is he somewhat oriental, a bit feminine, and very deranged; moreover, he has a past as an animal! It would be an understatement to say that there is nothing intrinsically Olympian about such a figure. On the contrary, there is everything to be disturbed about, when he is spotted leading his band of satyrs, Bacchantes, and sileni, with their unimaginable morals—threading their way through Greek cities dominated by virile and martial notions of a just order. With his retinue of drunken lunatics, and their appetite for unbridled sexuality, even to the extremes of sadism, we are in the presence of hubris with compound interest! It is worth repeating that it took a singular audacity to insert this peculiar customer into the canon of the most august Olympian gods, which in turn prompts the apparently simple question: Why?
Perhaps, in order to better understand what is at stake rather than attempt an easy answer, we should review the earlier and most vivid episodes of his career*—notably the death of Pentheus, which I have already mentioned briefly. The story is worth telling in more detail since it is so illuminating about the singularity of this strange divinity.
No sooner is Dionysus born than Hera begins to pursue him with her hatred, as we have seen, just as she has pursued so many others—notably Io and Heracles—for the same jealous motives. The child is hidden in a safe place by Hermes, on the orders of Zeus, and raised in the disguise I have mentioned. When Hera discovers what has been going on, she does not merely drive Dionysus insane but also his adoptive parents, Athamas and Ino (in some versions, this also gives rise to the myth of the Golden Fleece: the children of Athamas trying to flee the madness of their father …). Zeus now hides little Dionysus once more, this time in a distant land called Nysa, where he is raised by nymphs—some sources claim it is from this episode that the young god takes his name, Dionysus: “god—or Zeus (Dios), of Nysa.” … Whatever the case, he travels widely, and ends by curing himself of his dementia. At this point he tries to return to Thrace but is violently expelled by Lycurgus, king of this region. Like an intolerant mayor who sees gypsies appearing in the neat and tidy streets of his city, he has no wish to play host to the crazy retinue of Dionysus and has them all rounded up. Not a good idea. The young god is already endowed with fearful powers. He casts a spell on Lycurgus, who in turn loses his reason and comes to a dreadful end, torn to pieces by his subjects after cutting off one of his own legs in a frenzy… . After further voyages Dionysus finally returns to his birthplace, or at least to that of his mother, Semele, who is, as you will recall, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, rulers and founders of Thebes. Semele has a sister Agave, who has a son named Pentheus, first cousin to Dionysus. The latter is therefore equally a grandson of Cadmus. And the father of Pentheus—importantly for our story—is one of the famous “sown men”: the spartoi of whom we have spoken earlier. He is even the most celebrated of these spartoi, by the name of Echion, an authentic autochthon—born of the earth, as is indeed the case with all of these “sown men.” Pentheus is therefore the exact opposite of Dionysus: not a “stranger” but a local, a product of the land. His grandfather being too old by this time to rule the city, it is Pentheus who has become the new king. Now his mother, Agave, has always made fun of her dead sister, the mother of Dionysus: she has never credited the story of Zeus and the immolation of Semele, nor the rumor of a son being born from the “thigh of Jupiter,” and she puts the word about that it is all a fable, if not an imposture—which supremely displeases Dionysus for two reasons: firstly, because he does not like his mother being slandered, and secondly, because Agave in effect denies Dionysus’s descent from Zeus. Both Pentheus and Agave will pay very dearly indeed for this indiscretion.
As Jean-Pierre Vernant has told this story so brilliantly, I can do no better than let him describe at least the scene of Dionysus’s arrival in Thebes:
The city of Thebes is something of a model archaic Greek city; Dionysus comes to it in disguise. He presents himself not as the god Dionysus but as the god’s priest. An itinerant figure, dressed as a woman, wearing his long hair down his back, he is the complete Eastern half-breed, with his dark eyes, his seductive looks, his smooth talk—all the features that might infuriate and raise the hackles of that “sown” man from Theban soil, Pentheus. The two are roughly the same age. Pentheus is a very young king, and this so-called priest is a very young god. Around whom there swarms a whole band of women, young and old, who are Lydians, women of the East—the East as a physical type, as a mode of being. They make a great racket in the streets of the city, they sit about and eat and sleep out in the open air. Pentheus sees all this and it sets him in a rage. What is this bunch of strays doing here? He wants to chase them out …*
What is so clearly captured in this description, and why I have cited it here, is the powerful contrast between Dionysus and Pentheus, the stranger or exile versus the man of the soil, the metic versus the autochthon: we can see from the outset that they must inevitably clash. But Dionysus will stage this in a sinister and deadly manner. Beneath the rage of Pentheus is concealed, as so often in such cases, an unconscious temptation. In effect, he is fascinated by all these women, by this sensuality that brims over in the streets, this liberty of expression and freedom of spirit—he who is so damnably constrained, brought up the hard way from infancy in the “spartan” manner, espousing the “virile” virtues and values of his model city. And Dionysus knows how to exploit and play on this fascination. He invites Pentheus into the forest—slyly, it has to be said—encouraging him to join in the feasting: the famous Bacchanalia, or Dionysia, that are to take place in honor of the god. Pentheus lets himself be tempted. He climbs into a tree, to observe in secret the astounding spectacle that will no doubt unfold. All of which contradicts what he himself is and represents, but for this very reason exerts—mentally, even physically—a secret and troubling attraction… . The Bacchantes, the women in Dionysus’s retinue (thus named in reference to Bacchus, itself one of the other names of this many-faceted god) now start to become delirious, to dance and drink and run after young animals before eating them alive, torturing them, tearing them to pieces… . In short, this is the Dionysiac madness in full sail, in which the most obscure passions are compounded—sexual license, of course, and drunkenness, but also sadism, ecstatic trances, jibbering ecstasy… . For his sins, poor Pentheus is soon spotted—Dionysus having of course arranged this. The women are now pointing him out with their fingers. Look, their new prey! They bend the tree, forcing him to come down, and Agave, his own mother, who conducts operations like a general, tears her own son to pieces, assisted by her cronies. In her frenzy she takes him for a wild animal, and now proudly returns home to show Cadmus her trophy: the bleeding head of his own grandson, mounted on a pike… .
Let us leave to one side the sequel of the story: the aged Cadmus is completely broken; Agave likewise, after she recovers her wits; whereas Dionysus makes a name for himself and openly asserts his power… . But what concerns us more is the fact that the Greeks should need to complement their cosmology—their myths and legends, so entirely dedicated to the cause of order and harmony—with this kind of episode, so indefensible and inappropriate, so close to outright dementia. There is something strange here that forces us to query the inclusion of such a being as Dionysus within the universe of the gods. Once again, we must ask: Why?
The answer is, in effect, quite straightforward. But in the first place we must avoid making a category error: Dionysus is not, like the Titans or like Typhon, a creature of “chaos,” a fanatical opponent of the cosmic settlement established by Zeus. Were this so, he would quite simply not be an Olympian. On the contrary, he would be locked up in Tartarus, like all the other archaic entities, under close watch in the entrails of Gaia. He does not therefore embody—or at least not primarily—one extreme of the two poles of chaos and cosmos, even if, as we have seen from Nietzsche’s commentary on the spirit of music, there is clearly an element of the chaotic, of the Titanesque, in his constitution. In effect, he is a composite of the two, a synthesis possessing its own lucidity, for it suggests that by definition there is no harmony without discord, no Immortals without mortals, no identity without difference, no autochthons without metics, no citizens unless there are strangers… .
Why is this message so important that it must be embedded symbolically at the very heart of Olympus? This question is often answered by recourse to two interpretations of the figure of Dionysus, opposed but equally plausible. Besides, it is quite usual for a myth to give rise to several readings, given that they do not properly speaking have identifiable authors. As with fairy tales, we are here dealing with “generic” literary productions—creations that can be attributed to no individual in particular, hence impossible to ascribe a single easily ascribable authorial intention. Impossible to interview Homer, not merely because he is dead but also because quite probably “Homer” is a collective name that conceals several different identities, or at least several oral traditions, where no single individual can claim responsibility for the meanings of a work. It is always therefore “outside” of the work, so to speak, that we must look in order to reconstruct its meaning—in which case alternative readings are equally possible, and more likely or inevitable than when a work can be ascribed to an “individual” author … which in turn makes the business of reconstruction all the more interesting. And let us equally guard against those evasions, so common in the recent past, which—on the pretext that we dealing very often with “texts,” rather than with works imbued with a controlling intention—consists in seeing only “structures” without ever attempting to elicit meanings and their significance. This would most certainly be a grave error in the case of Greek myth.
So according to a first, “Nietzschean” reading of the myth (albeit vaguely so, given how far removed it is from Nietzsche’s actual thought), Dionysus incarnates the festive or carnivalesque aspect of existence. He represents those moments of abandonment, rapturous and excessive, certainly, but also ludic and joyous, even to the very brink. In short, all those instants that a “liberated” view of life gladly dedicates to hedonism, to the pleasure principle, to the satisfaction of even the most furtive erotic impulses. Here we have what might be termed a “Leftist” reading of Dionysiac ritual, a remote anticipation of anarchism, the spirit of May 1968 in embryo… . It was, moreover, in a fairly congruent sense that Roman culture would subsequently depict Bacchus: an old drunk, no doubt, but at the same time sympathetic, addicted to the good life, full of humor and warmth, and, at the end (like his companion Silenus), a sage of sorts. “Live like a volcano” might be the motto of Dionysus—at least according to this reading of the myth.
The problem is that nothing in his existence, as reported by the myths, remotely corroborates this idealized image of Dionysus. The truth looks quite different. At no point does the life of the god of wine and feasting even conjure up carefree happiness. His birth is painful and his childhood turbulent. When he flees Lycurgus, when he travels in India or Asia, when he returns to avenge himself upon Agave and Pentheus, he lives more often in a state of fear or hatred rather than love and joyous abandon. Moreover, Dionysian festivities—if we take time to consider attentively what the founding texts tell us (the reality was no doubt rather different)—resemble a horror film rather than a joyous orgy: a scene of animals being torn to pieces, children tortured, gang rape, atrocious killings, all conducted according to a terrifying rhythmic cadence—all of which leads us to wonder if the idealized images of the Roman orgy or May 1968 or the “Summer of Love” are not completely off the point. Furthermore, as we saw in his treatment of his cousin Pentheus, Dionysus behaves as little as possible like a sympathetic hero. He charms and seduces, yes, but through hypocrisy, lies, and treachery—in short, by recourse to tricks and artifices that on closer inspection have nothing to do with what adherents of the golden age view are trying to valorize: excess and transgression within a context of joy and free love. There is plenty of transgression in Dionysus, but very little joy or love… .
A second and contrary interpretation, already far closer to the reality, takes its inspiration not from adulterated Nietzscheanism, but rather from Hegel. This consists in saying, in effect, that Dionysus represents the moment of “difference”*—corresponding to the idea that Time must be added to Eternity and Cosmos in order to incorporate the dimension of otherness: i.e., that which is different from those eternal fixities. To try and state the matter more baldly, without jargon: this god of delirium will henceforth embody the need to take account of all that is different from, even opposed to, the calm, eternal, and divinely ordained universe instigated and vouched for by Zeus—not divine chaos as such (which is the realm of the Titans and of Typhon, who are themselves gods and are brought under control even before the cosmos is itself properly established), but chance, confusion, contingency, heartbreak, and the other imperfections peculiar to the human condition. All of this must find expression so that—in a third stage (the first corresponding to the creation of the cosmos as such)—it may be restored within the overall harmony: whence the role of Dionysus at the heart of Olympus itself.
This interpretation is palpably closer to the truth underlying the Dionysiac legends, which insist that we take account of otherness, strangeness, disorder, and death—in effect, everything that is not divine. The only qualification (albeit essential) I would bring to this Hegelian perspective is that in the end there is no happy and successful synthesis. Yes, it was unavoidable and essential to invent Dionysus and allow him pride of place, because real life—the good life, for humans and gods alike—is cosmos and chaos combined, mortals and Immortals together. With pure cosmos, life stalls, becomes ossified; with pure chaos, everything is destroyed. The disorder of the Bacchanalia, if unchecked, ends in disaster and death; an opposing principle has to intervene and put an end to it. Reciprocally, a cosmic order without humans—without the living, who move and have their being in the temporal dimension of history—would be death by other means, a cryogenized immobility.
As in Nietzsche’s characterization of the inclusiveness of the “grand style” (I speak here of the real Nietzsche, who is in no sense “Nietzschean,” still less a figure of the “Left”), one must integrate the enemy within* rather than leaving it outside, which is not only dangerous but, worse still, extremely wearisome—which explains the fascination that the German philosopher experienced for the character of Dionysus, in whom he recognized himself. The opposites described in The Birth of Tragedy, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, are inseparable from each other and equally essential to life: just as there is no cosmos without chaos, neither is there eternity without time, or identity without difference… .
Dionysus, by his very existence, reminds us continually of the origins of the world, and the abyssal darkness out of which it came into being. Whenever we need reminding, he makes us newly aware of how the cosmos was constructed out of chaos, and of how fragile is this edifice, stemming from the victory of Zeus over the Titans—all the more fragile if we forget these origins and this precariousness. This is why the carnivalesque frightens us, just as madness frightens us, because we feel undeniably how close it is to us: how it is inside us. This is fundamentally the lesson of Dionysus, or rather of his integration among the Olympians: as in Greek tragedy, we are continually being made to understand that this entire construction is, after all, made by humans and for humans, for those who are not merely members of the eternal cosmos but also plunged into a world of finitude, born in that dimension of loss and disorder of which Dionysus speaks to us at every turn.
Nor is there any final reconciliation—contrary to the Hegelian model—no happy end, and it is perhaps on this point that the myth of Dionysus allows us to grasp, better than any other, the reason why all these myths still speak to us today in so intimate a manner. It is because they speak about us, and our mortality, in ways that are not remotely religious: they do so in the terms of secular spirituality, rather than of belief; in terms of human salvation, rather than faith in God. What is so moving about the voyage of Odysseus is that he does everything in his power to pull through on his own, to remain lucid, to stay in (or regain) his place, to refuse immortality and the too facile assistance of the gods. Some of them, of course, like Athena and Zeus, come to his help, while others, like Poseidon, do everything to ruin his existence. In the end, however, it is Odysseus who pulls through unassisted, advancing steadily toward the death that awaits him. Only philosophy will bear continued witness to this secular vision of reality, originating in Greek myth. Once again, I am fully aware of how illogical this claim may seem at first sight: to judge by all appearances, surely mythology is too taken up with gods, too populated with supernatural beings and occurrences, for loose talk of a “lay” or secular wisdom?
The objection is self-evident. But we must not rest with appearances. If we look deeper, as we have tried to in these pages, we find in Greek myth something quite other than religion: rather an attempt, epitomized by the figure of Dionysus, to take the full measure of human mortality, to confront the truth of this absurdity that the gods have delegated to mankind and to the sensible world, so as to rid themselves of it and preserve their cosmos for themselves. It is this sublunary world ravaged by time to which we must attempt to give meaning, against the odds—or rather to give a whole constellation of possible meanings in the face of its Other, the cosmos of the immortal gods. Fundamentally, what mythology offers us, and what it will bequeath to philosophy as a point of departure, is a vividly inclusive account of the possible itineraries for us as individuals, within a universe both ordered and beautiful, but which exceeds us at every turn. In an age such as our own, in which religion fades day by day—obviously I am speaking of the secular European order, rather than continents still governed by theopolitics—Greek myth explores a question that affects us now as never before: namely, that of life beyond theology. As such, mythology can serve as a template for thinking about our contemporary condition.
This is why I would insist again, by way of conclusion, on the paradoxically secular rather than religious character—human, and sometimes all too human—of the wisdom and spirituality that is the legacy of Greek myth to the Western philosophical tradition.
Of philosophy in general as a secularization of
religion, and of Greek philosophy in particular as a
secularization of myth: the birth of a secular spirituality
I have had occasion elsewhere to develop the notion that philosophy—at least during its greatest moments—has always been linked to, and part of, the progressive secularization of religion.* Even when it embraces materialism and diverges radically from a religious worldview, philosophy maintains a hidden but no less fundamental continuity with religious attitudes. It derives its most important questions from religion, after all, which become properly philosophical only after being formulated within a religious context. It is this continuity beyond rupture that allows us to understand how philosophy will subsequently take up the question of the good life in terms of salvation, in relation to mortality and death, while jettisoning religious solutions. Whence, too, the claims of philosophy to address all individuals and not merely believers, and its ambition to overtake this or that localism in the interests of a universality that from the outset sets it apart from religious communitarianism.
That this rupture and this continuity are present in the Greek context, from the birth of philosophy, is clear from our analysis of myth, and has been demonstrated with great acuity by Jean-Pierre Vernant, who takes his lead from the work of his colleague Francis Cornford concerning the transition from religion—from myth—to philosophy in Greece. Vernant has shown how the birth of philosophy in antiquity is not the product of some unfathomable “miracle,” as is so often claimed, but can be explained by a progressive “secularization” of the religious universe of the Greeks. The point merits attention, for this archaic “disenchantment of the world” bears a double aspect: on the one hand, the earliest philosophers took over in their own name a considerable portion of their religious heritage, such as this had been encoded in the mythic narratives of the birth of the gods and of the world; but on the other hand, this heritage would itself undergo considerable modification, at once translated into and distorted by a new form of rational thinking, which was to give it a quite new inflection and a new status. Thus, according to Vernant, Greek philosophy essentially
transposes, in secular form and at a more abstract level of thought, the system of representation already elaborated by religion. The cosmologies of the philosophers continue the cosmogonies of myth… . Nor is this a question of vague analogy. Between the philosophy of Anaximander and the theogony of a poet like Hesiod, Cornford shows that the structures correspond in detail.*
And in fact, from the dawn of philosophy, this secularization of religion—which is at once preserved but overtaken: questions of mortality and salvation kept in view but the religious answers abandoned—is firmly and visibly in place. What is especially interesting is how this process can be read in two ways: one can privilege what connects philosophy to the religions that precede and inform it; or, on the contrary, one can emphasize what separates philosophy in what might be termed its secular or rationalist moment. So, whereas Cornford is drawn to the links that connect the two, Vernant (without in any way denying the religious origins of early Greek philosophy) places greater emphasis upon what differentiates them. Clearly, he concedes,
the first philosophers did not need to invent a system with which to explain the world; they inherited it ready-made… . But now that this is recognised, thanks to Cornford, the problem necessarily assumes a new form. It is no longer a question of deciding what was already there, in Greek philosophy, but of isolating what was truly new: in other words, the element by virtue of which philosophy ceased to be myth in order to become philosophy.*
Revolution with continuity, so to speak, and operating on at least three levels. Firstly, instead of speaking in terms of filiation—Zeus is the son of Cronus, who is the son of Uranus, and so forth—the rationalist and secularizing project of Greek philosophy will express things in terms of causality: this element gave rise to that element, this phenomenon produced these effects, and so on. Secondly, reference to Gaia or Uranus or Pontus is replaced by reference to the earth, the sky, the sea: the divinities begin to recede before the reality of the physical elements themselves (the moment of rupture), which in no way prevents the cosmos of the physicists from inheriting the fundamental features—harmony, aptness, beauty, etc.—that characterized the archaic mythical and religious imagination (which in turn represents continuity). Finally, the philosopher emerges historically as an individual figure quite distinct from the priest, his authority deriving not from the secrets he holds or withholds but from the truths that he clarifies and makes public, not from occult mysteries but from his capacity to conduct transparent rational argument.
Without going further down this road, we already gain an idea of the disruption wrought by philosophical reflection if we consider the second point in more detail, namely the manner in which the philosophers were to pass from the sacred to the profane, by endeavoring to “extract” or “abstract” from the Greek divinities the constituent material elements of which the universe is composed—by the transition from Pontus to water, from Uranus to sky, from Gaia to earth, and so forth. The process was, of course, more complex than I am able to elaborate here, but the principle remains: it was a case of replacing divine and religious entities with a new interest in natural and physical phenomena. A few centuries later, we still find in a writer like Cicero some amusing echoes of this “secular” revolution, according to which, in his words, “the gods of Greek myth were re-interpreted by natural science.” Taking the example of Saturn (the Roman name for Cronus) and Caelus (the Roman name for Uranus), the sky, Cicero explains the secularization introduced by Stoic philosophy in respect to ancient mythological “superstitions,” in these terms:
Greece long ago was possessed by the belief that Caelus had been mutilated by his son Saturn, and Saturn himself clapped in arms by his son Jupiter [Zeus]. But in these sacrilegious fables was contained a physical theory which is often studied. The point they make is that the ethereal or fiery element which holds the summit of heaven, and creates all things by its own agency, does not possess that bodily part which needs to fuse with another body for the purpose of procreation. By Saturn, again, they seek to represent that power which controls the cyclic course of times and seasons. This is the sense the Greek name of that god bears, for he is called Cronus, which is the same as chronos or “course of time.” And he was later called Saturn because, it was supposed, he was “saturated” (saturo, “made full”) with years; for it is because time swallows the course of the seasons, and is loaded, without being satisfied, with the years of the past, that Saturn is represented as having been accustomed to devour his own offspring.*
Leaving aside the questionable value of Cicero’s homespun etymology in explaining the great Greek theogonies, what is important here is that the underlying mechanism of “secularization” is clearly elucidated: it is less a question of breaking with religion than of rearranging the furniture, less a case of making a clean sweep than of diverting the major themes of myth into new channels. And it is this double aspect—rupture and continuity—that will determine, right from the start, and indelibly so, the ambiguous relationship between philosophy and its only serious rival, religion. Nor is this dynamic by any means restricted to a consideration of Greek thought.* It possesses so general an application that we shall see it confirmed throughout the history of philosophy, up to and including those thinkers reputed to be least religious. I merely allude here to this aspect, which I propose to argue in closer detail in the succeeding volumes of Learning to Live. Let us merely remark here that this argument obtains, without exceptions, for all of the main practitioners in Western philosophy.
It is thus that Plato, the Stoics, Spinoza, Hegel, and Nietzsche, to name but a few, continue to be preoccupied with the dual problem of salvation and eternity—each after its fashion, and all thoroughly convinced that they are marking a radical break with constituted religion. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in Plato and Aristotle the wise man is one who may be said to die less—to be in some sense less mortal—than the fool; or that in the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle’s great primer of the moral life), the object is “to make ourselves immortal, insofar as we can.” Nor is it surprising that the Ethics of Spinoza, albeit from a very different starting point, claims likewise to bypass formal morality in order to lead us toward the “beatitude” of true wisdom—for whom, again, there can be no good life that is not emancipated from the fear of death, as if the successful life and the successful death were one and the same. We cannot discover how to live other than by conquering all fears, and the means of doing so is to have made one’s life so wise, so distanced from folly, that one succeeds in “dying as little as possible.” This is the theme, familiar to Spinozists and analyzed at length by Gilles Deleuze, one of his greatest interpreters, according to which (once again) “the wise man dies far less than the fool.” In Hegel, likewise, the definition of “absolute knowledge,” the apex of his entire system, is inherited directly from Christian apologetics: it consists of attaining to a point where, as with Christianity, the finite and the infinite, man and God, are finally reconciled—which parts ways with religion principally in that this reconciliation must, in Hegel’s eyes, occur in “the sphere of the conceptual” rather than in that of belief… . It is no surprise either if those works in which Nietzsche puts forward his doctrine of “eternal return” so often borrow the parabolic form peculiar to the Gospel texts: here again, it is a case of finding a basis for distinguishing between an existence that is in an absolute sense worth the pain of living through, and one that, on the other hand, is barely worth prolonging… . From this we see once again how underlying continuity and sometimes radical rupture define the complex relation that both unites and divides philosophy and religion.
We shall return to these major philosophical turning points—and many others—in the future volumes of Learning to Live. My present observations, which no more than fleetingly touch upon these questions, lead me to two final remarks, which confirm the approach taken in volume one and equally indicate a direction for what follows.
Firstly, that we must, in order to understand philosophy, avoid committing the cardinal error (so commonplace today) of confusing ethics with spirituality. Ethics, in whatever sense we intend the term, means respect for the other, for his freedom, his right to find happiness on his own terms as long as no one else is harmed by it. Put simply, for we who are alive today, the notion of a common ethical practice is roughly speaking coterminous with our variously enshrined declarations about the rights of man. Were we to apply these consistently, there would be no more rapes or thefts or murders, no more flagrant economic inequalities… . It would be no less than a revolution. And yet … it would not stop us from growing old, or from dying, or losing our loved ones, or merely being unhappy in love, or dying of boredom in a humdrum routine bogged down in banality. For these issues—death, love, unfulfillment—are not properly speaking ethical issues. You can live a saintly existence, respecting everyone else until it hurts, practicing the rights of man until you are blue in the face … and you will still suffer and get old and die. Once more: there is no connection between these things. It is this second category of existential questions that I refer to by the term “spirituality,” as opposed to ethics, and as the argument of volume one in this series (A Brief History of Thought) argues, philosophy, unlike religion, is essentially a secular spirituality. In other words, it cannot be reduced to a straightforwardly ethical project.
But it would be equally mistaken to reduce philosophy to abstract theory. Too often students are taught that philosophy is merely reflection, or the critical spirit, or argumentation. There is no doubt that it is better to reflect, to criticize, to argufy, in order to think clearly—and this is obviously part of philosophy. But it is equally part and parcel of sociology, biology, economics, and even journalism. As I remarked in volume one, critical reflection is by no means the prerogative of the philosopher. The most important legacy of Greek myth to Greek philosophy, in which respect the latter is manifestly heir to the former, is its sense that the essential question is none other than how to achieve the good life, even after the gods have been traded in and the cosmos has been Platonically or Stoically secularized. If philosophy was born in Greece, this is because mythology had prepared the ground by reflecting in an extraordinarily profound manner upon the plight of mortal men within the universe. Indeed, the fundamental question to be asked by philosophers had already been clearly formulated by the time they arrived on the scene: how to conquer the fear of mortality in order to achieve the wisdom that is the sole form of salvation, which saves us from the anguish of extinction consequent upon our mortal state.
This transition—from myth to philosophy—confirms the latter as being well and truly a “doctrine of salvation without god”: an attempt to escape our fears without recourse either to belief or to a supreme being, but by exercising our reason and trying to pull through without assistance. Herein lies the real difference between philosophy and religion. And even if the Greek myths are full of gods, their philosophical grandeur, properly speaking, is to isolate the question of human salvation and cordon it off from the gods and their powers: to establish that it is down to us mortals to settle this question as far as possible, and down to us alone—imperfectly, no doubt, but by means of human reason, not with the assistance of religious belief or immortal gods and goddesses. As we shall see in the next volume, this is indeed the central challenge to be met by Greek philosophy. And part of its continued hold upon us today is that, starting from this particular problem, Greek philosophy was to “invent” such a wealth of inspired responses, which even today offer us so many ways of understanding our own lives.