Athens and Jerusalem

The Victorian poet and essayist Matthew Arnold spoke of the twin influences of Greek thought and Christianity as the legacies of Athens and Jerusalem. This weekend I am running a little workshop for a just-retired colleague, whose field of expertise is Plato and Aristotle, so I have been thinking somewhat about Arnold’s division.

In my own case, Jerusalem came early and forcefully. Although long a non-believer, I had a deeply Christian (Quaker) childhood and that marked me. Above all, I am conscious of my own inadequacies, my limited nature, and also of the fact that we are put on this earth for a purpose, to use the talents that the Lord has given us, to work. I confess that there are days when I do wonder if my feelings are not also, perhaps primarily, that I grew up in just-post-War Britain, of the first generation offered universal, free, secondary education and the means to take advantage. (My father, at least as bright as I, left school at 14.) My parents and my teachers drummed constantly the message that, however well I did, there were higher mountains to scale, and that the way forward was by unremitting toil. Childhood was a job.

It all sounds a little haunting in its way, and it is. But whatever its source, it is deeply Protestant. And it is obviously not all bad. I love my work and the rewards that it brings. When a class goes well, as I think was the case of my two classes last semester – a grad course on social constructivism and an undergrad philosophy and film course – it is a real joy. When a student’s dissertation suddenly catches fire, it is just wonderful and well worth the hours of reading and rereading – again last semester I had a student, stalled for several years, read an article, get really, really mad, and within six months we had a terrific piece of work. And there is nothing like a research idea that works out. Actually there is. A research idea that doesn’t work out and you find out that the reason is that there are deeper and more important ideas lurking.

Yet, a full life needs more. The balance for me, Athens, came when I was away at boarding school – thanks to bursaries given generously by rich, Quaker, chocolate manufacturers – and in the Sixth Form (grades eleven and twelve) I was introduced to Plato’s Republic. I am not a student of Greek philosophy, but no work before or since has had so great an influence on my life and thinking. I have taught it countless times, and I always tell my students that there are some works against which we are measured. The Tempest (choose your favorite), Don Giovanni (sorry, no choice here), and the Republic.

Of overwhelming importance to me is the beginning of Book Two, where Plato (through his mouthpiece Socrates) tackles the question of why one should be good. Surely both here on earth and in the hereafter, the bad can buy or bribe their way to happiness and status. (Think Super PAC’s!) Plato responds that he sees goodness as involving a kind of inner harmony; one’s soul is in some sense balanced. (The use of “soul” here is not the Christian sense, although Christians like Saint Augustine were much influenced by it. It is more the overall human psychological makeup – intellect, emotions, appetites.) Only the person in control of oneself is good and obviously only such a person is truly happy.

You might ask what this has to do with goodness, but one sees it at once when one recognizes that the person who thinks “self,” “self,” “self,” is not really a balanced human being. It is our nature to be social and interactive. And truly when you think of the unhappy people one knows, one thinks of people who tend to be all-absorbed with their own needs and rights and so forth. Conversely, people always trying to cheat or grab or whatever tend not to be truly happy people. Think of the arch fiends of history. There are many predicates to apply to Hitler, but “happy” is not exactly one that springs at once to mind.

Without being prissy, Plato has been my lifelong guide. Giving and sharing with family and friends and students and colleagues has reward beyond measure. Getting things right in this way is the route to true inner happiness. (Although remember, I never do enough!)

Athens and Jerusalem. Arnold could see the essential difference. Christianity, following Judaism, is a system of rules and ordinances. This you must or must not do. You must work hard, because the Lord will be really mad at you if you don’t increase the number of talents. Greek thought is more one of finding an inner perfection, a right state of mind. Without this, you will not flourish properly as a human being. For me, it’s never been a question of “either/or but not both.”

As Matthew Arnold knew, it’s not a bad combination for a life. But I sure am glad that I didn’t have to go with Jerusalem alone. Not even the prospect of eternal salvation makes that a worthwhile bargain.

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