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Two Constructs of Paradise

Though Greek civilization is purported to be the basis of Western thought and culture, I am nevertheless struck by a great many cultural differences between the Greeks and us moderns. I suppose that I’ll write much more about this as I proceed with this blog. But today I am considering differing constructions of the Good Life.

The Bible begins with God. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” God is very much at the center of the Bible. He is flawless, blameless, and very much in control. He is without competition. He should not even be questioned. Though clearly a cherished creation of God (sans all the smiting), man is powerless and often foolish beyond reproach.

The works of Homer begin with man. Man is at the center of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both Men and Gods are flawed and foolish. Neither are omnipotent. Both must compete. Both are remarkably fallible.

Greek theology is essentially secular and humanistic whereas Christian theology is preoccupied with the Divine. Of course, there are secular humanist facets of the Judeo-Christian model and Divine aspects of Greek theology; I am posing a hypothesis of mutual exclusivity. But, so far as I can discern, and I proclaim no expertise here, this comparative analysis is valid.

This is not to say that one theological model is superior to the other. This is only to say that these are two very different theological paradigms, with significant implications.

But even more striking is the construct of Paradise in Greek and Judeo-Christian theologies. Paradise in the Bible consists of one man (Adam), who is later joined by one woman. This, friends, is as good as it gets. What is their punishment for betraying God’s will? They are cast into society. The ultimate punishment for man is that he is forced to live alongside other men in a community. This has been a pervasive theme in Western literature and philosophy for millennia. Rousseau argues that man is perfect by nature–that is, until society corrupts him absolutely. Jefferson was lauded for his preference for Monticello to Philadelphia. Emerson and Thoreau implore us to pursue self reliant individualism. Sartre’s hell is to be in the company of others for eternity. Helen and Scott Nearing stirred our souls when they abandoned civilization to homestead.

The ancient Greeks would find the Judeo-Christian Paradise to be absolute Hell. Greeks are, so far as I can discern, unabashedly pro-social.

You know those timeless closing film scenes where¬† a man, perhaps accompanied by his wife/girlfriend, drives off into the distance? Maybe he is finally fleeing an adverse circumstance. Maybe he just conquered something or someone and is driving away in triumph. If it helps, think of almost any Springsteen song (Thunder Road?). You know what I’m getting at, right? Just “getting away from it all”. I imagine an ancient Greek watching such a scene an thinking that this guy is nuts.¬† Why would someone just pick up and take off? How could you “leave it all behind”? They would tell Huck Finn to turn the boat around and go home where he belongs–that only a fool would reject society.

Greeks venerated community. They worshiped the demos, the People. They nurtured political life. They cherished kratis, to rule.

Man’s Paradise is among his fellow men taking part in the community. First and foremost, Greeks wanted to participate in the community and in the politics of their polis. Anyone who thought otherwise, according to Aristotle, was “useless”.

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