I sometimes wonder whether I or Emmanuel College‘s New Testament professors teach more lines of Greek writing in a given semester, but in semesters like this one, I have to think I’ve got the edge. As course schedules have fallen, I’m teaching no fewer than seven of Plato’s dialogues (including Republic and Symposium, two of the longer ones), four tragedies, two comedies, and excerpts from Homer and Sappho to freshmen, students in a sophomore-level Introduction to Literature class, and to English majors and minors in an upper-division course on European Literature. All of these texts, of course, I’m teaching in translation (in that respect Mike Luper, our New Testament Greek professor, has me beaten), but all the same, I’m teaching some Greeks.
One of the nice things about teaching these texts in a Christian-college setting is the freedom to get theological with the texts, to explore the treasures for the life of faith that come out of that pre-Christian era. Certainly we dig into the Platonic concepts that informed Christian thinkers like Augustine, and without a doubt those are some of the most valuable encounters my students have with the Greeks. But this semester, the way things fell in my classes, I came to realize that tragedies, if read theologically, might also have a fair bit of gold for the Christian on the grand Exodus to plunder.
Imagining a World with Gods
For my students, undergraduates at an evangelical Christian college, the options open for ultimate terms tend to be limited: there’s the Christian God, and there’s everything-else. Some might be aware that Islam is also monotheistic, and the stronger readers might even be aware that Marxism, just to pick an example, tends to regard history itself as an ultimate term. But for many of them, atheism and other modes of not-believing are, at the risk of generalizing too easily, versions of being not-us, not much beyond an unwillingness to check various desires to smoke and screw and otherwise to indulge in self-destructive pleasures.
That’s why I enjoy teaching Greek tragedies to them. If they have encountered tragedies before, they’ve been Shakespearean, and if they’ve encountered any Greek tragedies at all, they’ve usually been Sophoclean Oedipus-plays, taught under the rubric of Aristotle’s fatal-flaw ethics. So when we step into Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and I ask they who’s right and who’s wrong, they understandably (and profitably, I’m inclined to say) fall into a state of intellectual vertigo. They know that mortals are supposed to do as the gods say, but Artemis’s demand that Agamemnon slaughter Iphigenia like a herd-animal drives some to say that these gods aren’t to be obeyed. (I often go after those inclined to resist Artemis with a line of questioning about whether Abraham should have likewise resisted God when called upon to sacrifice Isaac. I’m a nasty booger in a classroom, you see.) They know that revenge, especially when it comes to murdering one’s spouse in cold blood, is bad, but they have a hard time blaming Clytaemnestra for taking the sword to the adulterous, child-sacrificing monster whom they’ve already met as the egomaniac from the Iliad matched only by the raging ego (the wrath is overrated, I think) of Achilles.
They know about revenge, of course–so many movies in the twenty-first centuries are revenge-fantasies of one sort or another that they’re scarcely aware of St. Paul’s prohibition of the same in Romans. But in a Senecan or a Shakespearean or a Stallonean revenge story, there’s a singular, ultimate term, be it logos or God or American Honor, and although lesser obligations might make the hero sweat a bit at the moment of decision, ultimately in those stories it’s either right or it’s wrong for the hero to end the life of the enemy. (For those following along at home, in Shakespeare it’s often wrong; in Stallone movies, it’s almost never wrong.) In a Greek tragedy, even in Aeschylus, it’s both and it’s neither. And Heaven help the student who wanders into one of Eurpides’s tragedies. There the gods are not only proud and irrational but sometimes cruel for even more obscure reasons than Aeschylus’s deities, and that’s even more disorienting. We moderns (or post-moderns, depending on how you understand our moment) can handle relativism that defers judgment to a higher term (break the rules, but do it for the sake of friendship or justice or patriotism), but we have far less ability to handle moral ambiguity that goes all the way up, to the top of Olympus, before it rains relativism on the righteous and the wicked, just before they realize that in this universe, righteous and wicked can only be relative terms.
An Invitation to Moral Intelligibility
That’s where it gets fun for me: I get to introduce students to monotheism as if they’re encountering it for the first time. Now to be fair, intellectual monotheism, the sort that medieval Christian thinkers knew was available to human reason even without the content of special revelation, starts to take shape in Plato’s dialogues (especially the Euthyphro and Republic but in others as well) and really gets rolling in Aristotle’s scientific treatises (specifically in the Physics and Metaphysics but in other places as well). But as an intellectual exercise for these students, I invite them to view their own Christianity (all but a few of them self-identify as Christian) through the lens of Greek epic and tragedy.
As it turns out, a moral system in which God is the single, ultimate term in moral discourse is not a given. We can not only speculate about but read our way into a universe in which, at the highest levels of existence, we find not one, just, righteous judge but a collection of bickering, philandering, revenge-seeking wills. Or, to put it another way, the Greek pantheon is entirely too human to be properly divine, if one has become accustomed to a God who is love. And although one could make the argument that monotheism (either in terms of a personal god or some other god-term, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, like Reason or Nature) is a sort of inevitable telos of human intellectual development, I’ve found that students are more inclined to think themselves rather fortunate that the right folks were in the right places so that they ended up in the right place, at the right time, not to live in a moral universe with a plurality of “ultimate” terms. And I tend to think they’re right.
And so, as we turn to Christian-era texts, which differ significantly on the honor of the warrior’s life but nonetheless share the strong conviction that reasoned arguments about the honor of military life are possible, I do sometimes think that I’ve just helped a room full of lifelong cultural evangelicals realize that they just might be monotheists as well.
For my money, that’s an alright use of some class time in Introduction to Literature.