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Progress Is the Mother of Problems (G. K. Chesterton)

The Ancient Concept of Progress

by E.R. Dodds
Oxford University Press, 210 pp., $13.75

Those, I hope they are many, who have read two of his earlier books, The Greeks and the Irrational and Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety, will know that Professor Dodds is that rare creature, a very learned scholar who wishes to share his thoughts not with his fellow scholars only but also with intelligent readers who are not specialists in his field, which in this day and age means persons who cannot read Greek. They will also, I think, have received the impression that, as a man, he is a rationalist and a believer in the “liberal values,” but at the same time acutely conscious of the difficulties and dangers inherent in both rationalism and liberalism.

The present volume consists of twelve papers, the first written in 1929, the last in 1971, covering a wide range of subjects. This makes the task of a reviewer very difficult, since each chapter deserves a review to itself.

Progress is a term with many different meanings. Before men can conceive of progress or decadence, they must have had personal experience of change. Thus primitive tribes, living by hunting or agriculture, whose way of life has remained the same for generations can have no idea of progress and usually credit such inventions as fire, weapons, agricultural tools either to a god or to a cultural hero.

Objectively speaking, there is only progress if B supersedes A. Thus, in the arts, though there are periods of flowering and sterility, there is no such thing as progress, only change. The plays of Shakespeare do not supersede the plays of Aeschylus, or the music of Mozart the music of Monteverdi. In the sciences, on the other hand, there is progress: the cosmos of Copernicus superseded the cosmos of Ptolemy, as the discoveries of modern astronomy have superseded Copernicus. In the case of the pure sciences, I think one can say that this progress is also an intellectual and moral good. In the case of technology this is not necessarily so. The modern camera and automobile improve upon their predecessors in that they are more efficient at what they set out to do, but one can think, as I do, that both are evil implements which should never have been invented. In recent years we have learned that discoveries in the pure sciences can have disastrous technological applications: we now realize better than our forebears did the truth of Goethe’s dictum, “We need a categorical imperative in science as much as we need one in ethics.”

It is only in social and political history that progress must mean a moral change for the better, which is why there are few times—the early fifth century in Athens, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and France—when people have been able to believe in it. It is much easier to believe in a lost paradise, either the golden age of Hesiod or the fall of Adam in Genesis, and in the myth of eternal recurrence for, as Professor Dodds says, these have deep unconscious roots in human experience.

In the one case, perhaps, the individual experience of early infancy, when life was easy, nature supplied nourishment, and conflict did not exist; in the other, the eternally repeated drama of the recurrent seasons on which all agricultural life depends.

Though his second chapter is entitled “The Prometheus Vinctus and the Progress of Scholarship,” Professor Dodds obviously does not mean progress as I have defined it. Aside from the discovery of new papyri and new archaeological evidence, scholarship is much more like an art than a science. A good work of scholarship, like a good work of art, exhibits two qualities: nowness—it has not been done before; and permanence—it will not be rendered obsolete by later scholars.

What the outside critic does not always sufficiently realize is that the questions which are central for the classical scholar today are for the most part materially different, and nearly always differently formulated, from those on which attention was focused a hundred or even fifty years ago…. What we find in any document depends on our own interests, which in turn are determined, at least in part, by the intellectual climate of our own age…. [There has been] a shift in the focus of attention from textual questions to the study of dramatic technique on the one hand, and on the other to the problem of relating the individual work of art to the social and cultural background out of which it grew.

Before turning to the religious views of the dramatists, the reader might see what Professor Dodds has to say about the religion of the average uneducated man in ancient Greece. The gist of his argument seems to be that the closest we can come to that religion is by studying the religious habits of Greek peasants today, living in the country away from the cities. To be sure, as Christians they have what their ancestors did not, a Bible and an organized church, but to arrive at what they really believe it would be as silly to read theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, as in olden times it would have been to read Aeschylus and Plato. The literate in classical Greece read Homer, but nothing could be less like a sacred book than the Iliad. The gods, as Homer depicts them, are a frivolous, sorry lot who must be feared because they can take or save one’s life, but whom nobody could possibly admire or regard as a model. His human characters, whatever their faults, are infinitely more admirable.

It seems clear that to the Greek peasant today the most important religious festivals are still concerned, as they always were, with the seasonal activities of sowing, a time of anxiety, and harvest, with luck, a time of relief, and with the crucial stages of life—birth, puberty, marriage, death. The ritual actions they perform are, to them, magical rites, designed to promote fertility and ward off misfortune.

Here are a few examples Professor Dodds gives of continuity despite all historical change. Mountaintops were held to be holy ground in ancient Greece: they still are, though now they are the home of Elijah, not Zeus. Once, to purge evil influences which had accumulated during the winter, the Greek chewed buckthorn: today, on the first of Lent, he chews garlic and onion. Now as then a dish of gruel, called panspermia, is offered in churchyards on the day when it is believed the dead revisit their homes.

The name Artemis has disappeared but there is someone called The Great Lady, who is the mistress of wild animals. There is no longer a home altar to the goddess of the hearth, but every Greek cottage contains an icon. Heracles and local heroes are no longer invoked, instead a local saint, one’s name saint, or the Blessed Virgin. Once, before fording a river, the Greek washed his hands; today he crosses himself. I suspect that, until very recently, such practices continued in all peasant communities which were not influenced by the Reformation.

Professor Dodds devotes a chapter each to the Prometheus Vinctus and the Oresteia, both by Aeschylus, to Oedipus by Sophocles, and to the plays of Euripides. Some scholars have been worried because Prometheus Vinctus is so obviously what Russians would call “an anti-god play.” Aeschylus seems to have gone out of his way to make Zeus as unsympathetic as possible. Nine times he is referred to as a “new” ruler, an insult in Greek because it implies that his sovereignty lacks proper sanction. Then the two characters who speak for him, Cratos and Hermes, are both presented as nasty brutes. How is this to be reconciled with the known fact that Aeschylus worshipped Zeus? Some scholars have gone as far as attributing the play to an unknown atheist. Professor Dodds demonstrates convincingly that this is unnecessary. In the play Prometheus predicts:

Subduing his stubborn temper, Zeus shall come at last to a pact of friendship with me, and the will shall be his and mine.

And we know from the fragments we possess of the Lyomenos that such a reconciliation did take place.

What has led scholars astray is that, brought up on Plato, Aristotle, and Christian beliefs, they could not conceive of a god who grows up, learns lessons, and changes for the better, that the rude tyrant of the Prometheus would finally become lovable and good. They should have noticed that, in the Oresteia, a similar change of heart occurs. The Furies, the spirits of vengeance, by their own choice become the Eumenides, the ministers of blessing.

It is curious to me that, in both cases, it is the immortals who change their characters. In Homer or the tragedians, it seems to me that the mortals never do: they are what they are for better or worse. Hippolytus, for example, could not have sacrificed to Aphrodite without ceasing to be Hippolytus, or Pentheus become reconciled with Dionysus without ceasing to be Pentheus. It seems to me, though of course I may be wrong, that the ancient Greeks lacked the notion of what we mean by temptation, and that the reason for this is that they failed to make a distinction between will and desire. Thus one cannot call a Homeric hero brave, because one cannot imagine him feeling fear. It is not till Plato that the notion of human moral improvement appears, and even in Plato only the exceptional man can do it on his own.

How different is the world of Shakespeare. To the Greeks, suffering and misfortune are signs of the displeasure of the gods. In Shakespeare, both in his tragedies and his comedies, they are to be accepted, not as penalties for the particular sins of the sufferer, but as occasions for grace or as a process of purgation. Those who try to refuse suffering not only fail to avoid it but are plunged deeper into sin and sufferings. In the comedies, suffering leads to self-knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, love: in the tragedies to self-blindness, defiance, hatred. Thus there is no point before he actually murders Desdemona at which it would have been impossible for Othello to control his jealousy, discover the truth, and convert the tragedy into a comedy. Vice versa, there is no point in a comedy like The Two Gentlemen of Verona at which a wrong turning could not be taken and the conclusion be tragic.

I try to imagine what Shakespeare would have done had he written a tragedy about Oedipus. I think he would have opened with Oedipus taking two vows, never to strike a man in anger and never to marry. He would then put him in two situations. First, a man does him a great wrong; secondly he meets a woman and they both fall passionately in love. Shakespeare would then have shown us Oedipus arguing that the man could not possibly be his father, or the woman his mother, but in what he says the audience would perceive that he was rationalizing, that, in both cases, it was only too possible.

A Greek tragedy is the story of an exceptional man who falls from glory to ruin. His personal defect which brings this about is hybris, his belief that no misfortune can touch him, a defect which can only occur in someone who has hitherto been exceptionally fortunate. Consequently, when I watch or read a Greek tragedy, I identify myself with the chorus, never with the hero. A Shakespeare tragedy, however, is not only a feigned history but also a parable which has a significance for each one of us, irrespective of our station in life, for in Shakespeare the fatal flaw is pride, imagining that one is the only really unique person in the world, something which we all without exception do.

The fifth century BC was at first a period of intense curiosity and re-examination of tradition in civic, political, social, and religious conduct, and of the relation between law and nature. For this Professor Dodds suggests two causes.

One was the growing complexity of the social and economic structure, which compelled the introduction of a multitude of new laws. These had no sanction of antiquity, and at Athens at least they were continually being changed…. The other was the widening of the Greek horizon which made possible the beginnings of comparative anthropology…Herodotus declared that we ought not to laugh at any people for thinking their own laws the best—which is a confession of the relativity of Law.

The Sophist Hippias said that law is a tyrant and thought that nationalism, created by custom, should be less binding than the international bond between fellow intellectuals. Antiphon thought that barbarians and Greeks were equally human, with the same natural needs, and that the requirements of the laws are most of them at war with nature. Alcidamas was the first Greek explicitly to condemn slavery.

Such “liberal” views, such faith in applied intelligence were, alas, short lived. Instead of social and political emancipation, there came civil wars, wars between cities, brutality, and dictatorships. Also, education was a costly luxury available only to the rich.

This had its inevitable reaction on the character of the teaching. The Sophists depended for their livelihood upon their fees…. Hence demand exercised a dangerous control over supply. What such men as Protagoras would have liked to teach, if I understand them rightly, was simply the art of citizenship; what the discontented aristocrats of Athens required them to teach was something more specific—the art of acquiring personal power in a democratic society.

To speak of the individual only, ignoring the community, of nature only, ignoring law, can have fatal results.

Suppose Nature whispers that democratic justice and obedience to the will of the people are also an arbitrary convention, that man was created free to be himself and push the weak to the wall…. Nature became the slogan of the robber-individual and robber-society, as “the survival of the fittest” was in the later nineteenth century and as “realism” is today.

History is a grim subject. As Lord Acton said: “Neither paganism nor Christianity ever produced a profound political historian whose mind was not turned to gloom by the contemplation of the affairs of men,” for history seems to be largely dominated by the forces of unreason and by chance. In his earlier thinking, when he was concerned with the philosopher and not with the man in the street, Plato seems to have been a rationalist in the strict sense, someone, that is, who believed that all problems could be solved by reason alone, but he changed his mind.

The less Plato cared for actual humanity, the more nobly he thought of the soul. The tension between the two was resolved for a time in the dream of a new Rule of the Saints, an élite of purified men who should unite the incompatible virtues of the Yogi and the Commissar, and thereby save not only themselves but also society. But when that illusion faded, Plato’s underlying despair came more and more to the surface, translating itself into religious terms, until it found its logical expression in his final proposals for a Service State, to be ruled not by the illuminated reason, but (under God) by custom and religious law. The “Yogi,” with his faith in the possibility and necessity of intellectual conversion, did not wholly vanish even now, but he certainly retreated before the “Commissar” whose problem is the conditioning of human cattle. On this interpretation the pessimism of the Laws is not a senile aberration: it is the fruit of Plato’s personal experience of life.

He even went so far as to speak of the “errant cause,” alias “necessity,” which shares with mind the responsibility for the constitution of the universe.

I don’t quite understand what Professor Dodds means when he calls Euripides an irrationalist, because I don’t see how irrationalism can be a conscious doctrine. We are all capable of behaving like madmen, but when we do so we are not conscious of what we are doing. Euripides had a deep respect for what is now called the unconscious and would probably second Blake, who declared:

Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

The man who refuses to come to terms with his unconscious, to marry heaven and hell, who tries to “repress” his unconscious, will sooner or later be overwhelmed by it as Pentheus is destroyed by Dionysus. But Euripides’ portrait of Dionysus is not a pretty one, and I cannot see him personally taking part in a Dionysian orgy, any more than I can imagine him, had he lived in Germany during the 1930s, becoming a Nazi.

There are two chapters which I do not find myself competent to discuss properly. The first is on Plotinus, but I have never yet read the Enneads, though I certainly shall when I get the chance. I was fascinated to learn that Plotinus was the first man to make a verbal distinction between the ego and the psyche.

The second, the last and longest, is about supernatural phenomena in classical antiquity. In this case, I must confess that psychical research is not my cup of tea. I have no doubt that phenomena like ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition occur, but they seldom seem able to do anything really useful like predicting the result of the Derby. In modern times most people, I suppose, who consult mediums wish to communicate with some dead loved one, but if the afterlife is anything like the drivel mediums talk, I don’t want to hear about it. Luckily for them, the ancients believed that only the unquiet dead, those who had died untimely or by violence, were earthbound and available, so their company was not desired, except by necromancers who wished to do harm.

The ancients seem to have had no words for telepathy or clairvoyance: what interested them most was precognition, obtained by examining entrails, divining by lots, consulting mediums or oracles, and in dreams or ecstatic states. They did not have a crystal ball, but they did have what Professor Dodds calls “scryers,” brightly lit mirrors or water into which oil had been poured, and, in AD 371, there is mention of an instrument very like a ouija board. Both then and today there seem to be cases of mediums who can reveal the whereabouts of lost objects. There appears to be one now living in Holland who is consulted by the police to locate missing corpses.

But enough. This is a fascinating volume.

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