Bernard Knox’s introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad contains an interesting discussion on the nature of the gods and heroes of Greek myth. In contrast to the moral theology that has subsequently developed out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, gods and heroes were not expected to be a source of ethical or moral behaviour. If you wanted guidance on how to lead a good life you turned to philosophy rather than religion. It was Socrates who declared that the unexamined life was a life unlived, in the same sense that non-sentient animals exist without living. Beast or god? It was a moot point for Aristotle: “The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self -sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast or a god.”
Knox takes up this theme.
“To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfilment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism.
“But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of the gods.”
This description straightaway called to mind the phenomena of world leaders like Putin and Trump. Their policy decisions are guided not by reason but by their own psychological need to be accorded at least the accoutrements of respect and adulation. Being a god or a hero in the world of the ancient Greeks was not necessarily a good thing. The gods were similarly capricious beings who demanded worship and adulation but could be very fickle in their favours. The heroes sought to live like the gods but all were fated to die like men.
“Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.
“The heroes are godlike in their passionate self-esteem. But they are not gods, not immortal. They are subject, like the rest of us, to failure, above all to the irremediable failure of death.”
Death comes to all. But heroes could achieve redemption if they recognized their failings and made their peace with the world before the end. Though it would come a bit late for their victims.
“And sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, they come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish (or re-establish) a human relationship with their fellowmen. This pattern, recurrent in the myths of the Greeks, and later to be the model for some of the greatest Athenian tragedies, is first given artistic form in the Iliad.”
But what of the Gods? They are immortal, all-powerful beings. Why should they even want to change? There is a novel take on this in “The Last Days of Troy,” Simon Armitage’s masterly achievement in turning the Iliad into a two act play. At one point the gods are arguing about whether they should stand by while the superior Trojans triumph or should they intervene and help the Greeks win.
Zeus: We need believers, people of faith. If we sympathise – rule with a bleeding heart – then we favour the weak. And the weak are fickle and disappointed, diseased. The weak are weak. Do we put our future in their shaking hands?
Athene: You are saying … let the powerful survive. Those of the strongest arm.
Zeus: And the quickest arm, and the deadliest aim and the sharpest mind. It might be tomorrow or it might take another ten years. But someone will triumph either through muscle or brain …
Thetis: And they’ll be worthy of our praise.
Zeus: … and we of theirs.
An interesting point of theology. Zeus is wondering if the gods are actually made in the image of man by man. They may be immortal but they draw their potency from their worshippers. And in the play Simon Armitage creates a modern day Zeus, devoid of all power who scrapes a living as an actor pretending to be Zeus and selling souvenirs on Mount Olympus.
And so, to our own modern day Zeus. Today I heard Trump say in a press conference that he respects the sovereignty and the right to self-determination of the United Kingdom; as if that were ever in his gift to bestow or to deny! He certainly matches the gods in overweening arrogance. He also matches them in his dependency on public approval. Deny him that. Lose no opportunity to expose him to public ridicule. Organize in opposition to his every move in the hope and expectation that he self-destructs before he manages to destroy America and the world. Our latter-day twilight of the gods cannot come to soon.