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Love, Sex & TragedyReview - Love, Sex & Tragedy
How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives
by Simon Goldhill
University Of Chicago Press, 2005
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A.
Aug 21st 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 34)

In this most accessible of Simon Goldhill's books concerning the ancient world and the Greeks, a vast and assorted history comes under the dominion of meaning. A reader doesn't need to know Greek or even care much about the classical world to find in Love, Sex & Tragedy a map to find real and lasting treasure. The thrust of the book is neatly expressed by Goldhill, "Why classics matters," and is kept before the reader's mind by the question like a refrain, "Do you know where you come from?" Our lives in all western culture are shaped by Greek achievements that survive history, particularly in the most salient century BC, the 5th.

We know from Simon Goldhill's earlier works (e.g., Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia) that he can write at us with Greek references bristling and not translated. He does none of that sort of thing in Love, Sex & Tragedy. He refrains, also, from academic rambles, because he has a cogent argument to make about the importance of classics in contemporary society; his pursuit of this laudable goal is focused, buttressed by facts, rather thorough, and unhurried.

This reviewer found that unhurried was sometimes a minor irritation since there are places where the argument has more support than even a patient reader wants. Must we know so much about the ancients in Athens, Sparta or Rome in order to grasp consequences in our own time?

The scope of Goldhill's book, wide and broad as imaginable in 333 pages, justifies its sweeping title. The book has five parts; it is necessary to précis each of them here to make an adequate review. Through them, we learn what and how ancient Greek and Roman intellectual and cultural advances--particularly about love, women's and men's place, sex, public nudity, sports, theatre, and more--affect our culture's attitudes, laws, and practices. And in many pages offering black-and-white photos, we also see these things as we learn about them. Believe me, you are less apt to forget the significance of satyrs after you see illustration #20, "Acrobatic satyr orgy," a wildly illuminated pot, than if you had only read Goldhill's analysis of it (page 68).

The book is almost too much fun in the early going: nude Nazis duplicating the Greek discus thrower, a Roman bell pull fashioned into a huge penis with wings and a penis of its own, the semen-stained and erotic Aphrodite of Knidos, not to mention the Aphrodite "with the beautiful arse." And more that we learn about Eros and how boys and men in Athens and Sparta found manhood is quite startling in its implications. All this fairly overpowers our attention to Goldhill's thesis, which is that answers to "Who do you think you are?" are grounded in Attic Greek civilization. And this ground is then resurfaced and built upon by centuries of Roman and, finally and catastrophically, Christian history.

Part II of the book begins (page 97) a more sobering critical history of Christianity's sexual, sexist, and anti-sex origins, attitudes, and effects on cultures worldwide. In "The Empire of Religion" Goldhill makes the point that Christianity is a classical subject in that Rome's empire became Christianity and Christianity "took on the form of the Roman Empire." It is, as Goldhill shows, impossible to over-estimate the impact of this convergence for all of us today, Christian or non-Christian. Even those who regard themselves as wholly secular in society are held captive by sexual and other social values derived straight from pre-medieval Christianization of Greco-Roman culture. Here then is the black heart of Goldhill's argument for the relevance of classical studies. We can only wake up from our cultural dreams by self-analysis and social awareness drawn from conscious knowledge of our Attic and Roman origins and how those origins have been twisted and transformed in succeeding histories. The "obvious ambivalences" of Christianity about sexuality (page 127) are a direct result of its origins, its striving to "distinguish itself from classical culture." These contradictions freight societies with a continuing, still-unresolved crisis about how our lives are to be lived.

In Chapter 4 "What's Athens to Jerusalem," Goldhill wisely unpacks the implications of Christianity's struggle within and against classical culture, especially with respect to love, marriage, and sexuality. Goldhill finds and reports on a "radical strangeness" concerning sex, appetite itself, and satisfaction that is the very origin of Christianity and which continues to emaciate and confound culture. And yet it was (and is?) this very strangeness that continues to help Christianity flourish. Perhaps the reason for its historical success--Goldhill thinks so--is that Christians became as Romans and governed the empire until it dissolved into modern nation-states. They wore the same uniforms, fought the same fights, pursued the same earthly pleasures--albeit with a huge psychic burden of guilt.

Goldhill doesn't say so, but it's hard to see how his analysis fails to reveal Christianity as in its essence a corruption of classical civilization by guilt itself, particularly guilt about the body, about sex, and about pleasure. It is Christians who could not look upon sculptures, pots, paintings without exclaiming "your eyes have whored" as Goldhill cites Clement of Alexandria's phrase. And as Christians co-opted "pagan" art forms in the 4th and 5th centuries, the figures and images underwent a fateful transformation obscuring their sexual power, their earthy and fecund meanings, and even their beauty. Goldhill calls it a "two-way conversion" between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture, but it is clear one side has dominated all subsequent histories for fifteen centuries. Philosophers became holy men and recent returns to philosophy cannot blot out the cultural weight of a millennium in which Dark Age was no mere metaphor.

Philosophy was overwhelmed by and absorbed by Christianity. This is no incidental history: philosophy had been in Greece "a fully integrated part of the educational system" (page 137). "Every Greek and Roman of a certain class studied philosophy." But philosophy was more than an intellectual endeavor; it was also a deeply probing psychological resource. And this available power was a challenge and threat to the inner-directed Christian religion. The techniques and insights of philosophy, particularly as developed by Seneca and the socially popular Stoics generally in Rome, were basically antithetical to Christianity. The latter absorbed the former and emasculated it in order to tame it. Nonetheless a dynamic tension persisted between classical philosophy and Christianity with philosophy continuously challenging the priests and bishops of the Church.

Chapter 5. "Greek is Heresy" begins an account of how the Renaissance marks the rebirth of Greek and Roman culture throughout the west. Out of this rebirth came the Protestant break in Christianity's cultural fortress, which accompanied the radical emergence of scientific and libertarian culture. The rediscovery of the Greek language itself was crucial to these advances, and there were important heroes in the stories that emerged; Goldhill presents, e.g., Saint Jerome.

Part III "What Do You Think Should Happen?" (page 163) is a turn from Christianity to democracy. We rejoin the thread in ancient Athens, democracy's cradle. "Around 508 BC, Cleisthenes persuaded his fellow Athenians to adopt a new political system..." All our western fascination with democratic values begins there. That end-of-sixth-century BC stroke was and is a revolution; it's apt and satisfying to give it a date and an author's name (Cleisthenes). Democracy's invention also presages the "magical" 5th Century BC, right on its heels, which is both the glory of Greek history and the fountainhead of all western cultural advance from the Iron Age. Goldhill traces the Greek citizen and the Greek soldier through a few chapters and we learn how much like Athens we are (and how much like Sparta was Berlin in the 1930s). At a point, (pages 195-198) we discover how Plato's critique of democracy in the Republic, his longest and most influential dialogue, has shaped every modern form of government. Plato's critique is simple but historically unanswerable: "When democracy places authority for decision-making in the hands of the people, it is tantamount to asking a shoemaker for advice on music, or a musician for advice on horse-riding." It's not just an ancient concern, Goldhill shows, because Plato's views were exploited throughout the 19th century and continue to inform governmental forms at present. We live in Plato's world, like it or not. The 19th-century Germans adored the Spartan Greeks; other Europeans embraced all things Greek but particularly of Athens. At his best, Plato came to influence and inform representative and republican adaptations of the democratic ideal; at his worst, Plato is a father of fascism. This long but fruitful discussion ends with chapters on Socrates, including his relation to Plato, and on differences between ancient and modern democratic systems.

Part IV "What Do You Want To Do?" opens (page 215) a compelling critical analysis of ancient entertainments--Greek tragedy, the plays and playwrights, theatre; the Roman gladiators in spectacle and, necessarily, of games of death among Romans and their slaves. These spectaculars are, says Goldhill, very much a part of ourselves now. We examine them to know more about ourselves and what we do.

Part V "Where Do You Think You Come From?" (page 255) takes the reader from ancient Athens and Rome through the modern poets, like Keats and Shelley, and into past politics and as it is today. From Cicero to Nietsche and Freud, to Hitler and Germany's catastrophes, into continuing myths and their powers over populations--it's all here in concluding Goldhill's sweeping review of the place of classics in shaping our era and our lives. He concludes with comments on history itself from the time of Heroditus, its father, and Thucydides who made truth and even science the weapons of history with which to defeat myth. Nobody can, Goldhill says, know his or her own origins without the classics; anything less is to remain, in Cicero's words, "forever a child."

It's not an original conclusion nor is it one fully argued, but it is nonetheless finely drawn, that is, it plainly follows the long critical analysis. Some readers will want more.

This reader felt he'd plundered quite a lot of interesting material and, also, with lesser conclusions evident along the way. The meaning of the book as a whole, therefore, was in hand and palpable. One can ferret out a list of meanings, more than one for each of the book's five parts. Foremost among these conclusions, I got these few: that the earthy and fecund acceptance of the cycles of sexual love and lust, sport and pleasure in classical society was disrupted by a revolution against earth and body known as Christianity; that democracy descends from Athens while fascism has its model in Sparta and that peoples still fight and die over the choice; that everything civilization most prizes--philosophy, science, academic disciplines and academies, theatre, arts and music, competitive sports, and much more--owes its birth and its development into genius to 5th-century BC Attic Greece; that the great play Oedipus the King forever warns against anyone or any culture that, from hubris, fails to understand its true origins.

 

© 2007 David M. Wolf

David M. Wolf, M.A. has been leading a Philosophy Evening twice- monthly for the past year at Yoga Bookstore & Cafe in Honesdale, PA.  He is the author of Philosophy That Works, a book about the foundations of knowledge, truth, and philosophy; you can read sections at Google Book Search or Chapter One at http://www.xlibris.com/philosophythatworks. David is presently working on a new novel, and a  growing collection of sonnets, and other works


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