Friday, February 25, 2011


"Godlike Helen."  "Godlike Achilles."  It was just two or three weeks ago that my students and I were working out the implications of these phrases in the Iliad--and then in the Oresteia, where they sound more ominously in the ear.  For the Greeks, "godlike" is miles away from what, say, Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee or Barack Obama might recognize as "godly."  The Greek gods, though fashioned in the Greeks' own image, were mostly reflections of the amoral forces of nature, including human nature, not the withered and cross god of the Christianity I grew up with.  Not that the Greeks were amoral--far from it--but their morality grew not from their religion, where it was not to be found, but from their consideration of the needs of others, as necessary to a well-ordered society.

"Godlike" meant, for the classical Greeks, what I loosely paraphrase as "full of oneself."  It was a quality the Greeks knew and appreciated--and, all the same, were wary of.  Helen is "godlike" when, full of buoyant lust for Paris of Troy, she forsakes her husband and daughter to run off with the handsome young man from abroad.  She is "godlike" because, like the gods of the pantheon, she acted purely out of her own nature, authentically, without regard for her actions' social (and, as it turns out, political and military) implications.  Gods need not worry about consequences--no more than hurricanes or earthquakes do.  To be "godlike" is to be wholly at one with oneself, fully and deeply inspired by one's own nature and spirit.  It may also lead to recklessness ... and tragedy (no less than hurricanes or earthquakes do).  For the Greeks, she is "godlike" also because her attraction to Paris finds its cause in a god, Aphrodite, who wants to reward Paris for giving her the golden apple, the prize in an Olympian beauty contest Paris ill-advisedly agreed to judge.

Achilles, too, is godlike ... in his anger with Agamemnon and the other Greeks.  His rage is a full expression of who he really is as an individual, without regard for the probable consequences or the needs of others--not until his beloved friend Patroclus dies and he turns his wrath on the Trojan Hector, who killed Patroclus--and not until (after Achilles kills Hector in bloodthirsty revenge) Priam, Hector's father, risks his life to enter the Greek encampment to beg Achilles to let Priam take Hector's body home for proper burial--a request Priam, King of Troy, makes while kissing his son's killer's feet.  It is Priam's visit that reminds Achilles of the needs of others--turns him from his godlikeness to his humane manlikeness.  (Helen has a similar conversion when she sees the death and destruction caused by her "godlike" actions and repents--not of her lust, but of her ego-centrism--"I Am That I Am," as the singular god of Moses put it, who once "repented" of destroying the whole world in a flood.)   Priam's visit reminds Achilles that his own father will mourn his death when, as is fated, Achilles' death follows close behind Hector's.

Anyway, what made me think of this was something splendid.  I was walking my dog Ripley, who at 14 years, five months, in age, has his good days and bad days lately.  The bright sun and cool spring breeze this afternoon brought out his own "godlike" nature.  He began to pull on the leather lead that held him back.  He leaped and bounded into the wind, his body ecstatically tense.  He was full of himself, all right.  He was delightfully at one with his nature.  He forgot his aches and pains and neglected any amount of caution over his well being.  He was divinely delighted with himself, and it struck me that this is heaven, what he was experiencing and what I was experiencing, just being with him at that moment.

Of course, fate awaits us all, as it did Helen of Troy and "godlike" wrathful Achilles, as, in fact, the Greeks believed it hovered over the gods themselves.  But these moments of exuberance are what it means to live--full of ourselves and abandoned to our own natures.  And, if we can keep this aspect of ourselves in balance somehow with our consideration of others, we achieve what the Greeks, as far back as Homer, recognized as "the good life"--a balance no god could ever achieve, only we humans, with our knowledge of suffering and death (unknown to gods) and of the joys of our natural and occasionally unbridled impulses.

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