Getting and spending we lay waste our powers

Do you feel torn asunder? It may be that your culture is driven by irreconcilable forces.

I’ll let you think about that for a minute.

We’re back to school in Minnesota, which means (1) staying put for nearly four whole months, (2) constantly grading something, and (3) marveling all over again at the interconnectedness of work and life, of lifework. 

One of my courses this term is a survey of the Classical Tradition–from The Iliad to Don Quixote in 15 weeks, whee! Our current immersion in Homer is making me long, like Wordsworth, to be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn so that I might see Proteus rising from the sea instead of remaining stuck in the world of getting and spending and, always, doing.

Are you out there, Proteus? I wish I could hear old Triton’s horn.

We in the West are pulled in contradictory directions from our dual foundation in Judeo-Christian religious tradition and a political system based on ancient Greece (via Rome). Both pull us ethically: communitarianism or individualism? self-sacrifice or self-glorification? Matthew Arnold called these dual–and dueling–forces Hebraism and Hellenism, arguing that our Hebraic energy emphasizes ‘doing’, aiming for obedience, right acting, good conscience, while our Hellenic energy loves ‘thinking,’ striving to see things as they really are, expanding consciousness. One is dominant, then the other; we’re never happily balanced between them. His own time and place (Victorian England), Arnold thought, needed more Hellenism. Ours too, I think.

Temple of Poseidon

Some years ago a student in my “In Byron’s Shadow” study abroad course in Greece found himself inspired at the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio. Ecstatic, he emailed home to share this experience; worried, his mother entreated him not to leave the Church to become a follower of Poseidon. It was easy to smile at this and brush it off as a silly concern–who in this day and age worships Poseidon? didn’t the God of Abraham win that battle over the Olympians centuries ago?–but when you’re out at that temple and the sea-god is all around you, powerful and magnificent and, in his stormy moods, sublime, you can feel the ancient call to worship him.

Can’t you just imagine approaching this for worship?

Feeling torn asunder? It may just be your culture. Read some Homer and call me in the morning.

Temple of Poseidon at Sounio–at sunset, its most magical time.

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