It’s hard not to feel helpless as we witness the dissolution of cooperation around the planet, along with the dying gasps of dialogue among people who hold different views. This is not new, but it’s painful to watch the unravelling of civility and kindness in our world. We are living at a time when the spiritual teachings that many of us rely on to guide and inspire us are being turned into instruments of intolerance and hatred. So what are we to do? Where are we to look for an example that we can admire? One place, which can’t be accused of taking sides in any present dispute, is Classical Greek Literature.
Ancient Greece and Now
Every age has its momentum and its heroes who swim against the current. Judging from the cultural heritage we have inherited from Ancient Greece, this was as true for their time as it is for ours.
The epic poems of Homer depict a generation that was drawn into war when King Menelaus—his ego bruised because Trojans had kidnapped his wife—launched “a thousand ships” to get her back. Homer’s epic poems also launched a theme into our western world in which the ‘heroism’ of battle is linked with a longing for peace and home.
The plays of Sophocles are more psychological. They depict a world, not unlike our own, in which individuals lack the power to escape the conditions into which life has placed them. What is less familiar to our modern perspective is the view that a force called ‘Fate‘ rules the human realm and that this Fate can be known beforehand, as pronounced by the Delphic Oracle.
Sigmund Freud modernized this idea—that individuals live in the grip of inescapable influences—and identified several psychological ‘complexes’ that operate beyond our conscious control. A famous example drawn from Ancient Greek drama is the Oedipus Complex, named for how Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, in spite of his determination to avoid that preordained Fate.
Today we are more likely to think in terms of global forces (social and economic) that gallop over the well-being of individuals who don’t have the ability to defend themselves. We probably don’t think of our own powerlessness to fundamentally change things as being due to either fate or subterranean psychological tendencies. And we probably attribute at least some of our distress to having to witness the suffering in our communities and not be able to do anything about it. Like the role of the ‘chorus’ in Classical Greek plays—which gives voice to the community’s awareness that things are not going well for the play’s characters—many of us lament how people with power are hijacking the ‘commons,’ ignoring the homeless and victims of mass shootings, and don’t seem motivated to set things right.
But whether it’s fate, psychological compulsion, or capitalism run amuck, most of us would agree that our society is dominated by forces that are rarely kindhearted, spiritually evolved, or respectful of Mother Earth on whose health all of life depends.
A Message of Hope from Another Time
There is a play by Sophocles which explores whether, and in what ways, an individual is free to act independently of the global momentums that are always carrying us toward the future. And there is a moment in this play when unexpectedly, shockingly, a new perspective breaks into the open—like a race horse suddenly breaking free from the rest of the field at the Preakness. But all that really happens is that a young man refuses to be the mouthpiece for the ‘inevitable,’ which everyone around him considers it pointless to resist.
I first heard about Philoctetes, this play by Sophocles, in a book by Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow, which celebrates, using examples from both life and literature, how personal affliction can be associated with extraordinary ability. Wilson’s book is named for an archer who is tormented by a festering foot and who has carried the bow of Hercules since Hercules became a god.
To the modern ear (at least to mine), Philoctetes is not the protagonist in this play; nor is Odysseus. The character who evolves into something greater is Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.
There is a moment in this play that must strike the modern reader like a bell ringing a message of hope, revealing the possibility that human beings are free to choose their own path. Even though Neoptolemus may not be able to avoid his destiny, nor dissolve the global conditions in which he lives, he is free to set sail in another wind than the howling gales of dysfunction that seem to rule this world, then just as they do now.
Neoptolemus has been dispatched by Odysseus to deceive Philoctetes in order to get him to step on board and be taken to Troy. Odysseus knows full well to stay out of sight of the man he marooned on this island—when the powerful archer’s cries of pain were demoralizing the Greek army on their way to battle. Now, years later, he has returned to this same island and has instructed Neoptolemus to tell the long-suffering Philoctetes that the walls of Troy have already fallen and that they are on their way home to his beloved Achaean Peninsula.
Neoptolemus is going along with his assignment. After all, his captain has commanded him to tell this lie; and Fate—through the Oracle at Delphi—has said that Troy will only fall when Hercules’ bow and the son of Achilles are both at the foot of Troy’s ramparts.
How could he do otherwise than to comply with forces which are clearly too large for any one individual to successfully assail?
But then something happens. And in that moment a new sensibility, a new vision of what it means to be a human being, arises: Neoptolemus’ conscience steps around those global forces and thereby causes them to take notice.
The Future Is Not Fixed
Perhaps Neoptolemus hears the gulls wheeling overhead, sees the pain of long exile in Philoctetes lonely face, and his heart is moved. He tells Philoctetes that he has been lying to him, that the walls of Troy have not fallen, and that the Greek ship is not really there to take him home.
In the space of a hummingbird’s wingbeat, Philoctetes has strung his bow and a quivering arrow tip is searching for the merest hair on Odysseus’s head. We can be sure that Odysseus is now crouching even lower behind his boulder! And out of this boulder, Hercules now steps to tell Philoctetes that he must indeed go to Troy because, as prophesied, this is the only way that the walls of Troy can be breached; and only when Troy has fallen can the Greeks, including Philoctetes, finally return home.
So what’s different about the role of fate in this play from, say, the inability of Oedipus to avoid wedding his own mother as it was foretold that he would? Fate still prevails in the lives of both the Greeks and the Trojans. Fate still circumscribes any individual’s attempt to act independently of what it has been determined must happen. It takes Hercules stepping out of a rock for Philoctetes to lower his bow. It takes an intersession from Mount Olympus to persuade him to continue on to Troy (on the very ship from which General Odysseus sentenced him to his years of isolation on this forsaken island), but isn’t the word of the oracle still revealed to be from a higher ‘reality’ than the impulses—moral or otherwise—of any one individual?
“A Pang of Conscience”
George Gurdjieff used this phrase to identify what he claimed is the last remaining capacity for modern humans to escape the insanity that grips us (as we pronounce ourselves to be the pinnacle of consciousness and rationality). And when Neoptolemus honestly responds to the shared humanity of the exiled man before him, he experiences a ‘pang of conscience.’
When he speaks from his heart, the power of compassion is able to dissolve a falsehood that appeared to be ordained by fate. And once this falsehood gives way, mutual understanding is free to flow among individuals who had until then been sworn enemies.
Is this not the situation in which our modern, polarized world now stands? This world from which genuine dialogue has virtually disappeared?
Photo at the top of the page by Phanatic.