Backward ho!

It appears that all my correspondents got the connexion, between the rejection of the natural and spiritual order, by Prometheus then, and by almost everyone now. (See postscript, yesterday.) This is good news, for me. Many may still think the comparison irrelevant to the way we live today, and on the surface of things, who can answer them? I happen to think the matter is important, and grieve at the loss of that classical culture — that explicitly pagan classical culture — which through centuries Christians including (especially) those in monasteries were at pains to copy and preserve; and for which they had tremendous respect.

As Jacob Burckhardt wrote: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”

The ancient Hellenes were not the mindless revolutionists that we are; they did not make of Prometheus a boilerplate hero and benefactor of mankind. In their view, he was a trickster, a source of destructive mischief in the heavens; and the consequences of his “benefaction” to mankind was, seen aright, bad news to his supposed beneficiaries. (Consider, for instance, Pandora, who came in Prometheus’ wake, and whose jar, having released much chaos, was closed before Hope could also escape from it.)

We misunderstand the ancients by our ignorant anachronism. For whereas Shelley and Byron were making a cute and purposeful reversal of the widely-known classical myth, we don’t know any better. Verily: Aeschylus was more Catholic than what we now get from Rome. (Though not therefore Catholic.)

To make sense of Aeschylus one must first absorb Hesiod and Homer; and then, his inimitable contemporary, Pindar. It isn’t a one-step process. Aeschylus, in Prometheus Unbound and throughout, does not invent, but embodies, a “worldview” utterly unlike ours; both Aeschylus and Pindar from the same antecedents. These were not liberal people. The ancient lyricism was not “happyface.” These Hellenes stared down reality in its fullest tragic dimensions, and Hope only came to them after many centuries — explicitly through Christ.

Why did Christians preserve this stuff, when by their own account they were fully in possession of something later, and better? It is a question that first occurred to me in high school, thanks to the ministrations of a superb Latin teacher (beloved Jessie Glynn). It was because we cannot properly understand our own intellectual and spiritual heritage, if we take it from a vacuum. The depth of the Christian resonation would be lost on us, in zero gravity.

This, incidentally, has been a radical difference between the Christian and Islamic traditions. Christians instinctively preserve their pre-Christian past, and thereby continue an instructive dialectic with it. The good Muslim erases his pre-Islamic past, having first taken anything from it that might be of practical use to him today. Hence the transmission through Islam of the philosophers (including the medical men); their indifference and neglect for the poets and dramatists and historians whose texts the Byzantine Greeks could also have supplied to them. They thought they were sifting the gold from the mud.

The culture of our universities today is closer to that of Islamic terrorism than to that of our old abandoned Christendom. We teach the technologies, and discard the humanities. We judge everything pre-modern on our post-modern terms. Society has “progressed,” we assume; we don’t need to hear the ancient thinking any more — which now includes anything before the Internet was invented. We have our own thinking; and if the Greeks were dead white paternalistic males, what use are they to us? Ditto everything else that once civilized us. All we want from the past is goods and services, which we’d be happy to pirate except, we’ve taken everything useful already. So we landfill the remainder.

It strikes me that Internet institutions such as the Wicked Paedia operate as a kind of electronic landfill. Pick through the rubbish if you want. But everything you find will be broken into pieces.