What We Learn from the Ancient Gods
April 13, 2004

Mary Lefkowitz ‘s Greek Gods, Human Lives: What We Can Learn from Myths was published last year, and has been a recent selection for the Conservative Book Club . Lefkowitz argues that though we no longer share ancient theology, we “still have much to learn from listening to what the ancient writers say,” and the “stories can still offer a reliable guide to life in our own time.”

In particular, the myths confront us with a hard realistic view of things: “in the end, I believe, what caused people to abandon the traditional mythologiy was not the many fantasies it contains, but rather its ultimate realism: the myths show a world of evil forces, unpredictable change, difficult conditions, and inevitable death and defeat. By contrast, other religions offered security, and a promise of redemption both in this life and after death.” In short, classical religion’s “main advantage is that it describes mortal life as it really is, fragile, threatened, uncertain, and never consistently happy. They myths portray a world where deities exist primarily to please themselves, not to please or serve humanity. They offer no hope that justice will be done to any individual or within the course of anyone’s lifetime. They do not suggest that it is easy or always possible for a mortal to distinguish right from wrong; on the contrary, they show that it is almost inevitable that they will make series mistakes, even when they have the best of intentions.” Also, “Because there is no orthodoxy and no one deity to depend on, the burden is left to the individual. It is a religion for adults, and it offers responsibilities rather than rewards.”

All of which shows that you can’t really have the stories as a reliable guide to life without accepting the theology too. In what sense, for instance, is the claim that the gods exist for their own pleasure and good and not man’s NOT a theological claim? How can we derive a sense of “what it is to be human” from the Greek myths while extracting the contrast of divine and human life? To put it in a structuralist idiom: How can we even define “human” in the Greek myths without seeing its difference from the binary opposite, “divine”?

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