Sunday, July 22, 2007


Athens is like a massive cereal bowl with a tea-candle in it. The surrounding mountains comprise the rim, and the candle is the Acropolis. Fortunately I got there a day before the archaeological service went on the standard procedure of strike, allowing me to climb the candle just before it went out.

Carl Jung refused to go to Rome for his entire life claiming that the impact of the collective unconscious there would be too much for him. A bit less dramatically, his predecessor Freud is reported to have said when he finally visited the Acropolis, "So all this really does exist, just as we learnt at school!" I've never been to Rome (too much for me), but can testify that Athens did have such an impressive impact; for me it was the sheer size. The questions of paganism were so plainly big. The answer, given on Mars Hill (now a make-out spot), was comparatively humble, yet it caught on. The Parthenon that overshadowed Paul's preaching, withing a few hundred years, had become a church. Likewise today, the Catholics, Anglicans and Evangelicals all, against my expectations, displayed an astonishing vitality in Athens. So much for my stereotype of merely Orthodox Greece. It's good that the entire Body of Christ is represented, warts and all, for our mutual inadequacies tend to draw us together.

As anyone who has dutifully inspected my shelfari shelf and read Shiner's The Invention of Art will understand, the person seeking to find something akin to contemporary "drama" or "art" in Athens will be disappointed. As I've discussed before, the theater of Dionysius is not the town entertainment venue, but a religious platform, as revealed by the prominent seats for Dionysian priests. Likewise, as any good classicist would explain, the sculptures aren't mere sculptures, but incarnate gods. Perhaps the reason why the "drama" and "art" of this period remains so compelling is because they were so much more than mere drama or art.

After the compulsory museum visits (Benaki, Benaki Islamic, Byzantine, National Archaeological), I had a chance for a day trip, and the traveler without a car, which is not recommended, must choose between Delphi and Hosios Loukas. The oracle will have to wait, but the latter did not disappoint. On the extensive bus-ride I had a chance to read Chesterton's reflections on paganism, which certainly trumps anything I've said, and were a fitting end to a trip. Chesterton understands paganism enough to condemn its Carthaginian darkness but affirm its Athenian wonder. He admits the sense he relates "is very subtle and almost indescribable," but it's worth an attempt to follow along.
"He who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realise that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by a religion; notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed.

[The] deep truth of the danger of insolence, or being too big for our boots, runs through all the great Greek tragedies and makes them great. But it runs side by side with an almost cryptic agnosticism about the real nature of the gods to be propitiated.... Certainly the pagan does not disbelieve like an atheist, any more than he believes like a Christian. He feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents. St. Paul said that the Greeks had one altar to an unknown god. But in truth all their gods were unknown gods. And the real break in history did come when St. Paul declared to them whom they had ignorantly worshiped.

The substance of all such paganism may be summarised thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone;... in reality the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. Simple secularists still talk as if the church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church is actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion.

In a word, mythology is a search; it is something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt.... We may truly call these foreshadowings; so long as we remember that foreshadowings are shadows.

We [Christians] know the meaning of all the myths. We know the last secret revealed to the perfect initiate. And it is not the voice of a priest or a prophet saying 'These things are.' It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, 'Why cannot these things be?'"
My doubt will have a difficult time recovering from my having read this chapter while in the pagan heartland. Perhaps it may never fully recover. Whatever book you may be in the process of reading right now, it would probably be worth it to read The Everlasting Man instead.