Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Virtù of Heaven

Part of the difference, then, between the gods and the heroes seems to lie in the fact that the gods have a less active role in maintaining their awesomeness.  Being naturally able to leap tall buildings with a single bound is admittedly impressive, but not nearly as impressive as having worked out to the point where you can press 200, when you started with a measly 45.

Sorry, Superman.

But the difference between Homer’s gods and Homer’s heroes is not just a matter of who has to work harder to achieve their results; it is also about what sort of results are valued by whom.  There is a telling passage in the Odyssey in which, if memory serves, Odysseus turns to his patroness Athena and complains about lost family time (for which he is himself admittedly partly to blame).  And Athena, goddess of wisdom though she is, doesn’t get it.  She doesn’t get it because she is immortal, and the immortals don’t have the same concept of finitude that human beings have.  Rather like Hercules with his strong arm, they don’t always seem to see the consequences of their actions upon ordinary human beings; they cannot relate to them because they have not lived like them.

(This, incidentally, is one difference between the pagan concept of the gods and the Christian concept of God: Christians do not in fact hold that God needed to become man in order to fully comprehend his creatures.  But that is a topic best saved for another post.)

Because they do not have to experience the same set of limitations that human beings experience, the Homeric gods oftentimes come across as emotionally and morally stunted by comparison with their human contemporaries.  And this may not be a matter of appearance only: human beings, after all, seldom if ever attain heroic heights of character without having to go through some form of fire.

This is not to say that everyone who emerges from suffering possesses a kinder character.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; conversely, some spirits do seem to wither and become crabbed with extended adversity.  But (as the pirates say), the choice is up to you!  And there is no doubt that a naturally nice human being becomes not only far more interesting and but actually better for the trials they undergo.  I defy anyone to prefer Jane Bennet before she has gone through the wringer; Anne Eliot would have been just such another were it not for her backstory.  What both women have had—Jane at the end of her novel and Anne at the beginning of hers—is the opportunity to grow in virtue; in this (if only in this) they resemble Achilles and Odysseus at the ends of their respective epics.

But the gods never quite receive such opportunities.  When passing physical pain and embarrassment are the worst you have to face in the course of your immortal existence, it is not surprising that whatever moral fiber you had initially possessed at birth (or at death, if you ever were a human) is what you get to live (subsist?) on for the remainder of your aeviternity.  Not surprisingly, a fair number of the gods behave, when in straits of any sort, more like oversized babies than anything else.  Their intelligence, their strength, their will to power, and occasionally their loyalty (to especially loyal human beings) are oversized; they possess few other virtues.  Even their generosity tends to be quid pro quo.  They have, in fact, most of the virtues that Machiavelli would recognize and applaud, though perhaps a dash less foresight than he would prefer.  Their virtues are, in other words, mostly virtù in the Machiavellian sense.

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