Myth and Thought Among the Greeks
The prejudice and superciliousness of Vernant’s approach to Greek myth and classical culture is evident in the author’s introduction. We are informed from the outset of the “progress in intellectual matters or techniques of reasoning [f]rom the homo religiosus of the archaic cultures to [the] political, reasoning individual” of later Greek civilization (p. 15). Thus we are affronted with the unquestioned presumption that homo religiosus is a primitive creature who concocts myths as a product of his ignorance. Similarly we are informed blithely about “the progression from mythical to rational thought and the gradual development of the idea of the individual person” (p. 15). In making these presumptions Vernant is guilty of sundering fides from ratio and, in so doing, has created a schism between himself and the men of whom he writes. There was no schism between fides et ratio, or between myth and reason, in the eyes of Homer, Aeschylus and Sophocles, or in the eyes of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, or for that matter in the eyes of Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, or Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. The whole legacy of civilized culture down the ages has been a synthesizing of art and philosophy in the service of reality. And, of course, the very notion that Homer, who gave us Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, Penelope and so many others, had a retarded “idea of the individual person” is laughable. It is in fact the consequence of Vernant’s own misreading of the morality and theology of Homeric myth, a flaw which is fatal to his whole thesis.
The work is also characterized by the author’s imposition of his own dogmatic relativism upon the Greeks (and upon his readers). We are told, for instance, that “[t]here is not, nor can there be, a perfect model of the individual, abstracted from the course of the history of mankind, with its vicissitudes and its variations and transformations across space and time” (p. 18). This betrays nothing less than pure illiteracy as regards the author’s approach to myth. Homer gives us Penelope, Dante gives us Beatrice, and Shakespeare gives us Cordelia, all of whom disprove Vernant’s dogmatic denial of their existence as perfect models of the female individual. This blessed trinity of idealized femininity is itself a reflection, either via prefigurement or re-presentation of the Marian archetype presented by what Tolkien would call the True Myth of Christianity. And, of course, we have Christ Himself as the perfect model of the individual. One does not need to be a Christian to see this mythical truth; one simply has to empathise with, even if one doesn’t sympathise with, the notions of moral perfection presented to us. Vernant is seemingly incapable of either empathy or sympathy. He is left, like Pilate, uttering quid est veritas and washing his hands as the moral passion of the myths unfold before his unseeing eyes.
Homer and Sophocles knew better than Pilate and Vernant. They were pagans not relativists and, as such, they knew that truth not only exists but that it is metaphysical and therefore transcends physical reality. This is why they give us blind seers such as Teiresias or Oedipus who see with the eyes of wisdom and faith even though they cannot see the purely physical things around them. Homer and Sophocles knew that Teiresias and Oedipus see better than the likes of Pilate and Vernant because they see the truth. Relativists, on the other hand, are blinded by their faith in narcissistic nihilism. They are neither theists nor polytheists but simply old-fashioned idolaters, idolizing themselves as the arbiters and touchstone of the “truth” that is mere opinion. Such people are not eyeless but clueless.
In a true reading of the timeless myths of antiquity we do not find distance and dissonance between ourselves and our ancestors but resolution and resonance. We can be at home with Homer because Homer is as homely as we are. He experiences the exile of life and desires the community and communion of Home, in its physical and its metaphysical sense. The relativist is not at home with Homer because he believes that man is not homeless because he is an exile but because there’s no such thing as Home. Homer knew better; so did Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tolkien. They knew the connection between Everyman and the Everlasting Man. The relativist knows only Lennon’s Nowhere Man.
Vernant is something of a veritas-vampire, sucking the spirit from myth and leaving only the dust and ashes of psycho-babble. Switching metaphors, he can be said to have the hand of a cheapened Midas. Everything he touches turns to dross. It is easy to relegate myth to mere metaphor but Vernant commits a far greater sin. He reduces myth to mere mechanics. As such, we are not presented with a living myth, nor even the corpse of a myth, but merely a lump of broken machinery. This is what Vernant claims to be the forging of “new paths” whereas, in truth, it is merely the following of a blind alley. His work is truly abysmal, literally, in the sense that it creates an abyss between us and the Greeks. Those wishing to cross the abyss should take one of the many bridges that unite us with our wise and esteemed ancestors. I would recommend Tolkien or Lewis as bridges we should take or, perhaps, more recently-built bridges such as that provided by Louis Markos in his book, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (InterVarsity Press 2007). Far from moving “from myth to reason”, which is the title of the last part of Vernant’s book, we should follow more trusted guides and find the reason in the myth.