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We live in a pluralistic and capitalistic society where the guiding philosophical principle seems to be the open market system. No one holds a monopoly on truth, and old ideologies which had taken for granted their close and long-standing relationship with the authorities are finding that they must now compete with a multitude of newer and older faiths in order to win the hearts and minds of the people of today.
Television evangelists recognized this fact in the early 1980’s and began tailoring their message to the sensibilities of a broader audience, employing slick production values and charismatic talking heads who seemed less like manic prophets come from the Judaean wilderness and more like smooth Southern gentlemen hawking used cars as they espoused the Word of God. No longer was it sufficient to merely assert the truth-claims of the Gospel Message – now they had to sell the benefits of their religion and how it would positively impact the lives of the average man. Other religions followed suit – the extreme commercialism of McWicca as evidenced by the glossy-covered books with little substance to be found in most major bookstore chains, and the Kaballah centre’s attempt to market its red string bracelets and $5 bottles of Kaballistically blessed water to celebrities hungry for the next major fad are but two examples of this. (I could also mention Scientology in this context but don’t want to risk getting sued.)
Along this line of thought, one may naturally wonder how Hellenismos may compete in America’s open market on religion and what benefits may be had from accepting our faith.
In a word, what we offer is beauty. Ask the average person on the street what their first impression of ancient Greece is, and if they don’t answer ‘toga-wearing homosexuals’ chances are they’ll mention the beautiful marble statues or the ruined temples with their impressive columns still standing two thousand years later. If the person that you’re interrogating happens to be of the better educated sort, they will probably mention the epics of Homer, the great dramatic works of Sophokles and Euripides, the philosophic dialogues of Plato, or the body of myths which has informed and inspired the great minds of Western art down through the centuries. The artistic is intricately woven into our conception of the ancient Greeks because it was a fundamental part of their world-view. Art is man’s response to the beauty and harmony which surrounds him, a way to make sense of his experiences and share them with his fellows. It is interesting to note that the Greek word for the universe – kosmos – not only implies order and stability, but also beauty and ornamentation. They felt, deep in their bones, the fundamental beauty of the world which surrounded them – the fiery hues of the sky as the sun began its decline into the west, a natural spring bubbling along through a forest clearing, the human body in repose – and they sensed something divine in all of this: a world, as Thales of Miletos said, full of gods.
The gods could seem remote, dwelling far off on the distant heights of Mount Olympos, but more often the Greek experienced his gods as immediate presences manifest in the natural forces which surrounded him – Zeus thundering through the dark storm clouds, Poseidon riding the ocean waves on his mighty chariot, Dionysos present in the ripe fruit of the vine, Aphrodite and Ares stirring up emotions within the heart, leading either to love or destruction. No Hebrew ever spoke of his god in this manner – his voice may come from the burning bush, but the author of Exodus is clear to point out that Yahweh is not in the burning bush. Yahweh is so far removed from his creation that Newton could speak of the world as a machine so efficient that it made god redundant – and it is but a short step from there to Nietzsche’s terrible and prophetic proclamation that god is dead.
And what has the world become, completely divorced from the divine? It is a bleak place, full of hardship and ugliness. Everywhere there is a profound sense of emptiness and loneliness. Look at the cities which surround us and define our existence so much of the time: they are dirty, monotonous, ugly things, oppressive and stifling in their greyness and uniformity. The spirit rebels at such surroundings, and so street youth take spray-paint cans in hand and desperately scrawl their names and cryptic symbols across the bleak facades in a futile attempt to break up the monotony, to proclaim that they were here, that their life mattered in some small way. But without any deeper connection to the wellspring of creation, to the world of imagination, all that they can manage is their petty territorial tagging. It only serves to accentuate the bleakness of their surroundings, the bareness of their spirits.
Look at the popular culture which develops from such an environment. Interchangeable rap lyrics which extol the virtues of getting drunk and wasted, of acquiring extravagant amounts of wealth and surrounding oneself with shiny jewelry, tricked out cars, and booming sound systems. Women are reduced to bitches and hoes whose existence serve only to gratify the infantile and unimaginative lusts of gangstas. The broader popular culture is no better, dominated as it is by reality television whose contestants will demean themselves in order to win large sums of money, where celebrities are paraded about for no other reason than because they are wealthy and have celebrity.
Our culture lacks any deeper, defining morals, has no greater world vision, and allows itself to be manipulated and controlled by those who perpetuate the greatest atrocities in our name, with never a word of criticism, so long as our basic human needs are met, and the scoundrels can convince us that they are protecting our national security and traditional way of life. That seems to be what passes for the American Dream these days – a secure, if unfulfilling job, so that I can surround myself with things I don’t need, and watch amusing things on television until I finally keel over dead. No tough questions, no quest for deeper fulfillment or a richer relationship with one’s surroundings, no desire to accomplish great things and leave one’s mark on the pages of history.
Hellenismos stands in opposition to this by asserting the central value of beauty. Beauty is truth, a reflection of things as they authentically stand and also their relationship to higher powers and an exalted, visionary order. When one encounters beauty it changes the person, because beauty is attended by desire and we come to desire the beautiful, wanting more of it, no longer satisfied with that which is not beautiful. It compels us to follow it, to sacrifice the mundane and superficial in order to possess it, causes us to look within and make changes within ourselves in order to both be worthy of the beautiful and to better represent it, and we start to infuse our vision with it, causing us to behold the beauty that surrounds us, where before all seemed dark and depressing.
When we look at the things that the ancient Greeks considered beautiful, we see how important their religious world-view is today. As I said earlier, the Greeks were keenly aware of the beauty of their natural surroundings. When you value beauty you desire to preserve and ensure its continuity for future generations. You don’t pour your filth into rivers, pave over sacred groves in order to build parking lots, turn the air black and un-breathable out of carelessness and avarice. Instead you live in harmony with your surroundings, honoring its beauty as sacred, divine, as worthy of being cared for as one’s own beloved parents.
Regarding the human body as beautiful, the Greeks went to great lengths to ensure its health and robust vigor. At the center of every city, even in colonies as far away as Turkey and India, was the gymnasium where men would come to work out. Even older people such as Sokrates made a point of visiting the gymnasium every day in order to stay in shape. Most festivals had their agon or competition in which races, wrestling, boxing, discuss-throwing, dancing, etc. played an important role. Every four years men would travel from all parts of the known world, even calling temporary halts to wars, so that athletes could compete at the Sacred Games at Olympia – a tradition that has carried over, albeit modified somewhat, into the modern world. Science and medicine were highly valued in ancient Greece, the birthplace of rationality. Physicians, who considered themselves descendants of Asklepios, traveled from village to village or tended temples such as that at Epidauros, curing ailments, mending broken bones, and prescribing regimens of diet and exercise in order to ensure optimal health and the beauty of the body.
These regimens were taken to an extreme at Sparta where the whole populace lived a disciplined, barracks-like existence, eating a thick black gruel, and spending their time training for war and perfecting the body – even the women, a thing unthinkable to the Athenians. While an extreme example, the Spartans were hardly alone in their veneration of the body and striving for its perfection. We see just how pervasive this ideal was in numerous statues of handsome young boys at the peak of fitness, the panegyrics praising successful athletes, and even in the lives of Greece’s greatest creative spirits: Plato, who was famous first as a boxer, and then as a philosopher, Aiskhylos who wished to be remembered primarily as a soldier and in fact made no mention of his career as a man of letters in his epitaph, and Sophokles, who composed his greatest tragedies at the age of 90. No wilting hot-house flowers, no sickly ascetics torturing their flesh in the deserts were the ancient Greeks! In fact, they had such veneration for the beauty of the human body that they could think of no better way to express the transcendent beauty of the gods than to depict them in human form. For what in the world is more beautiful than man, the measure of all things?
But, of course, for the Greeks it wasn’t enough to simply make the outside beautiful and neglect what lay within. That would have been like offering a man an ornately sculpted golden chalice – filled with brackish water and mud. So, even as the young men trained their bodies in the gymnasia, their fathers were sure to place their minds and spirits under the careful guidance of tutors who would instruct them in poetry, music, philosophy and rhetoric. For the true man is one who is well-rounded, who could be just as comfortable at a dramatic competition as he was hanging out with his friends in the agora or carrying arms against the Persians. The Greeks excelled in the arts. Even today, Homer’s poems are unmatched in their beauty, complexity, and ability to stir the passions that lie deep in the breast and give wings to the imagination, allowing it to soar to the very heights of Olympos. The plays of the dramatists are still being performed, the vase-paintings and architecture of the period are still marveled at.
This was the world that the Greeks surrounded themselves with, in which they lived and thrived. Aristophanes’ comedies were not simply mindless entertainment. They grappled with the same profound questions as Plato’s dialogues. They are peppered with all kinds of contemporary political and religious controversies. They are fond of sly word-plays, clever puns, and outright sophistry. And the ancient Athenians had no problem following along, and in fact thought those plays best which challenged their basic assumptions and really made them think hard about current issues. Imagine a modern playwright getting away with lampooning a popular political figure the way that Aristophanes does! And yet, for the ancient Greeks who saw the beauty in thought, who didn’t want to sit passively by, but be actively engaged with their art – it was the norm, not the exception.
Just as beautiful as a young boy athlete or a choral ode on stage were the ethical philosophies and law-codes of the ancient Greeks. Fundamental to both was the concept of harmony, of submission to a natural and transcendent world-order. The criminal is one who puts himself outside of this order, who is intemperate, unable to control his desires, thinks only of himself and never of how his actions will impact his neighbors or the larger community. Lust, avarice, wrath – these are all emotions which disturb the tranquil calm of the spirit and disfigure the body. One sees how truly aberrant these are when depicted by art – grotesque and tormented figures in stark contrast to the normal conventions of Greek art which are serene and elegant, the quintessence of beauty.
So, when a stranger asks, what benefit is there in adopting Hellenismos, what is the essence of your religion? answer him Beauty, and know that it is the sublimest of faiths, worthy of the greatest respect, infusing and ennobling all aspects of life, and that without this sense of the beautiful, existence becomes a travesty worthy of the greatest contempt.