If we think of genius as an exclusive club, we can say that Leonardo, Shakespeare, and Einstein were members of this club. It might seem that genius is a fine thing. But if we say that Hitler, Mussolini, and Marx were also members of this club, then we might think that genius isn’t morally better than the average person, isn’t happier, and doesn’t have a more positive impact on the world.
We can imagine Hitler, Lenin, and Osama bin Laden at the same age, at the age of 18 or 20, looking for a meaning in their lives, looking for a mission. If a healthy philosophy could have reached them at that impressionable age, it could have steered them in a positive direction. Instead, they latched onto an unhealthy philosophy, and their energies were channeled in a destructive direction.1
Philosophy can be a positive force, the strongest positive force in the world. Genius is a force, too, but it isn’t a positive force unless it’s imbued with a positive philosophy.
When the economist Thomas Sowell was 18 or 19 years old, he was living alone in Harlem, finding work wherever he could. It was 1949, and the economy was in recession.
|I finally got a part-time job [Sowell writes in his memoirs], working at night in a machine shop on the lower east side. I knew where to buy day-old bread for 5 cents a loaf and a jar of jelly for 10 cents. That and water constituted my meals. There was not enough money left for me to take the subway both ways, so I walked to work from Harlem all the way down to just below the Brooklyn Bridge — about eight miles.2|
The subway cost 5 cents, so he was walking 8 miles to save 5 cents.
Nowadays we hear a lot about inequality, but we don’t hear much about frugality. If there were more frugality, there’d be less inequality. The case of Thomas Sowell shows that anyone, from any race or class, can improve their situation by frugality, hard work, and self-discipline.
I can relate to Sowell’s frugality. A couple years after graduating from Harvard, I lived in a room about the same size as Sowell’s room. I applied for a job at Harvard as a janitor. Eventually I found work as a security guard, earning about $3.25 an hour.
I was able to save a substantial part of my income because I lived frugally. My rent was only $130 a month; I felt that I could earn my monthly rent in a single week. I didn’t buy cheap bread, as Sowell did, I bought cheap flour and made bread. I would no sooner buy coffee at Starbucks than I would take a vacation to the moon. But nowadays people pay $4 for coffee at Starbucks, then complain about inequality.
Saving money is hard work. It takes as much self-discipline to save a dollar as it takes to make a dollar. Nowadays people don’t want to live frugally, they’d rather take money from the rich, or borrow it from the Chinese, or print it. Instead of bequeathing savings to posterity, we bequeath enormous debts to posterity, trillion-dollar debts.
Sowell was a fan of Ed Banfield, who was one of my professors. After Banfield died in 1999, Sowell wrote an obituary. The obituary began,
A giant has died — a giant in an age of pygmies: Edward C. Banfield, best known for his book The Unheavenly City. This classic analysis of urban problems remains as fresh and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1968. If anything, its incisive analysis is even more urgently needed today, to cut through the fashionable fallacies and political cant that dominate discussions of urban problems and policies....
The fundamental problems of the urban underclass [Banfield argued] were neither economic nor racial, but cultural....
The urban riots of the 1960s were seen by others as uprisings of the oppressed, but Banfield titled one of his chapters “Rioting Mostly for Fun and Profit.”3
Jesus didn’t emphasize family ties, family responsibilities. Jesus said, “Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”4 As I argued in my book of aphorisms, Christianity liberates the individual from the family.
In ancient Greece, guilt was inherited, a son was accountable for his father’s sins. “The family was a moral unit, the son’s life was a prolongation of his father’s, and he inherited his father’s moral debts exactly as he inherited his commercial ones.”5 You would be punished for your father’s sins, even for the sins of your great-great-grandfather. You would be punished, not by human justice, not even by divine justice, but by Fate itself; the sin involves its own punishment, “the debt exacted its own payment.”6 One of the themes of Greek literature is punishment inflicted on the living for the sins of their ancestors.
In contrast with antiquity, Christianity emphasizes “the individual as a person, with personal rights and personal responsibilities.” Another difference between antiquity and Christianity is that antiquity views the gods as powerful and pitiless, cold and remote, while Christianity says it’s natural for God to pity and love man, and it’s natural for man to love God. Aristotle said that love (philia) between God and man is impossible.7 For Christianity, on the other hand, the love between God and man is central to religion. This must have been one reason why Christianity attracted adherents, and eventually displaced pagan religions.
Yet another difference between antiquity and Christianity is that antiquity viewed evil in a physical way, evil was contagious like a disease, you needed ritual purification to wash away evil, you needed catharsis to wash away miasma. Your motive, your heart, doesn’t matter. For Christianity, “sin is a condition of the will, a disease of man’s inner consciousness.”8 But for antiquity, evil/crime is physical pollution, and “operates with the same ruthless indifference to motive as a typhoid germ.” The crime of Oedipus makes him “a polluted outcast.” To avoid the pollution of murder, you tell the condemned man to take hemlock himself, you don’t give him hemlock.9
While there are differences between antiquity and Christianity, the transition from antiquity to Christianity was gradual, late antiquity overlaps with early Christianity. We can find traces of Christianity in late thinkers like Plato. Nietzsche called Christianity “Platonism for the masses.”10
Greek rational philosophers began to separate the individual from the family. Dodds says that Plato was “certainly no admirer of the family.” Among the later Greeks, there was a “relaxation of the family bond,” and this is apparent in Greek law. Family life began to have “internal tensions.” Paternal power, patria potestas, was no longer absolute and unquestioned. “With the rise of the Sophistic Movement, the conflict became in many households a fully conscious one: young men began to claim that they had a ‘natural right’ to disobey their fathers.”11
Among the Hebrews, as among the Greeks, the primitive doctrine of inherited guilt was fading. Ezekiel says, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.”12 But traces of the old belief linger among the common people, and in the New Testament, a blind man prompts the question, “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”13
The later Greeks began to view evil/crime as a moral issue, rather than as physical pollution. They began to feel that you couldn’t wash away evil by a ceremony of catharsis. “Not until the closing years of the fifth century do we encounter explicit statements that clean hands are not enough — the heart must be clean also.”14
Homer’s heroes are bold and confident, but later heroes — Sophocles’ heroes, for example — are weighed down by guilt, by fate, by the ill-will of the gods. Oedipus, for example, is weighed down by guilt, a man of sorrows. One scholar spoke of, “an undeniable growth of anxiety and dread in the evolution of Greek religion.”15 The stories of Oedipus and Orestes were “recast... as horror-stories of bloodguilt.”
Any sort of success or happiness is thought to awaken divine displeasure, and lead to a downfall. Divine jealousy is phthonos, divine anger/punishment is nemesis. As Gilbert Murray said, “It is a bad look-out for anyone in Greek poetry when he is called ‘a happy man.’”16
Success leads to complacency (koros), and complacency becomes arrogance (hubris).17 In the eyes of the historian Herodotus, phthonos was “the underlying pattern of all history.”18 (One thinks of the successes of Napoleon and Hitler, which were followed by downfall. Ian Kershaw called his two volumes on Hitler Hubris and Nemesis.)
In the Archaic period (the period after Homer), Zeus is no longer arbitrary power, Zeus becomes an agent of justice, punishing the guilty. Likewise, the destructive force called ate is moralized, and becomes punishment for wrongdoing, something it almost never is in Homer. It became a proverb that “all virtue is comprehended in justice.” Often the guilty themselves weren’t punished, but rather their descendants. Zeus seems more intent on punishments than rewards.19
Dodds speaks of the “haunted, oppressive atmosphere in which Aeschylus’ characters move.” The mood is darker than in Homer’s works, there’s “a new accent of despair, a new and bitter emphasis on the futility of human purposes.”20 But Aeschylus doesn’t stop with despair, he tries to move through despair. In the Eumenides, he tries to show the world of evil daemons “transformed through Athena’s agency into the new world of rational justice.”
Dodds translates most of his quotations into English, but he keeps many terms in the original Greek, so I’m glad that I know some Greek letters. Here’s a chart of the Greek alphabet.
Here are some Greek terms that Dodds uses, with the page number where they appear. I’ve typed the Greek letters without accent marks.
A good book often calls our attention to other books. Dodds mentions numerous anthropologists, some of whom I hadn’t heard of:
Dodds also mentions some eminent classicists, such as
Dodds often quotes a psychologist named Abram Kardiner, author of The Psychological Frontiers of Society, The Traumatic Neuroses of War, My analysis with Freud: Reminiscences, etc.
Dodds also quotes a historian named Christopher Dawson. Dawson was well-known in the 1920s and 1930s; T.S. Eliot regarded him as an important thinker. Dawson might be compared to Spengler and Toynbee since Dawson wrote “macro history,” “grand narratives conducted at the level of a civilization.” Wikipedia describes Dawson as an independent scholar, but he held various academic positions; in 1947, Dawson delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Dawson was Catholic, and often wrote about the history of the Catholic Church. He rejected the view that the Middle Ages were a period of regression or stagnation. “He argued that the medieval Catholic Church was an essential factor in the rise of European civilization.”
Dodds frequently mentions H. M. Chadwick, who was an historian of early literature, oral literature. Chadwick wrote historical works like The Origin of the English Nation, and literary works like The Growth of Literature. Chadwick often collaborated with his wife, Nora K. Chadwick. As a young man, Chadwick was inspired by Paul Du Chaillu’s The Viking Age. H. M. Chadwick should not be confused with the brothers Chadwick, Owen and Henry.
|1.||I don’t regard bin Laden as a genius. I mention him because he shows how a person can latch onto an unhealthy philosophy, and impact the world in a negative way, and because he shows that this can happen today, not just in past eras. back|
|2.||A Personal Odyssey, Ch. 3, p. 58 back|
|3.||Sowell is often called a student of Banfield, but this must be an error. Wikipedia says that Sowell graduated from Harvard in 1958. It also says that Banfield began teaching at Harvard in 1959.
I see no mention of Banfield in Sowell’s memoirs. Sowell majored in economics, while Banfield was in the Government Department. In his memoirs, Sowell takes a dim view of Harvard, and leaves the impression that he found nothing to admire there. I think Sowell knew Banfield (he calls Banfield “one of the gentlest of men”), but perhaps he knew him outside the classroom.
|4.||Matthew, 12:50. Jesus also said, “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”(Matthew 10) back|
|5.||E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. 2, p. 34 back|
|6.||Dodds, p. 34. Dodds speaks of, “a mysterious dynamic nexus, the menos ates, as Aeschylus calls it, binding together crime and punishment.”(p. 38) back|
|7.||Dodds, p. 54, footnote 38 back|
|8.||Dodds, p. 36 back|
|9.||p. 55, footnote 44 back|
|10.||Beyond Good and Evil, Preface back|
|11.||p. 47 back|
|12.||Dodds p. 53, quoting Ezekiel 18:20 back|
|13.||Dodds, p. 53, footnote 26, quoting John 9:2
Dodds writes, “The liberation of the individual from the bonds of clan and family is one of the major achievements of Greek rationalism, and one for which the credit must go to Athenian democracy.”(p. 34) back
|14.||Dodds, p. 37 back|
|15.||p. 44 back|
|16.||Dodds, p. 52, footnote 13 back|
|17.||“Homer’s princes bestride their world boldly; they fear the gods only as they fear their human overlords; nor are they oppressed by the future even when, like Achilles, they know that it holds an approaching doom.”(p. 29)
“The gods resent any success, any happiness, which might for a moment lift our mortality above its mortal status, and so encroach on their prerogative.... The notion that too much success incurs a supernatural danger, especially if one brags about it, has appeared independently in many different cultures and has deep roots in human nature.”(pp. 29, 30) back
|18.||p. 44 back|
|19.||“We hear much about inherited guilt, little about inherited innocence; much about the sufferings of the sinner in Hell or Purgatory, relatively little about the deferred rewards of virtue; the stress is always on sanctions.”(p. 35)
Dodds says that religion was originally separate from morality. “Religion and morals were not initially interdependent, in Greece or elsewhere; they had their separate roots.”(p. 31) Religion may have come, Dodds says, from man’s relation to the world as a whole, while morality may have come from man’s relation to other people.
When I discussed Werner Jaeger, I wrote, “The battle-cry of the common people was Diké (Justice). Jaeger speaks of ‘the long succession of Ionian epigrams and poems which extol Justice as the basis of human society.’” In the Iliad, on the other hand, justice is rarely mentioned. Dodds says that this preoccupation with justice “seems to be a distinctive mark of guilt-cultures,” as opposed to shame-cultures.(p. 54, footnote 34) back
|20.||Dodds, p. 30 back|