14th September 2002
It is, apparently, a problem for many males that when they retire they feel dissatisfied because ‘society’ does not value them any more. It is hard to see what ‘society’ as such can actually do about this, but it raises the question why anyone should want to be valued by society, especially one of the sort described week after week by, for example, that sober judge of human nature, Dr Theodore Dalrymple.
From Diogenes the Cynic (4th century bc) living in his wine-jar (not barrel) to the ascetics of the late Roman world atop their pillars, many ancients argued that not being valued by society was the only way to live. Diogenes rejects the concept of ‘society’ tout court, seeing true values and moral standards only in animals, primitive man, barbarians and the gods. The Epicurean Roman philosopher Lucretius (1st century bc) points out how sweet it is to remain immune to the mad passions that drive the majority to spend their life competing against each other, striving for status, struggling night and day to emerge top of the heap. Even the Stoic thinker Seneca the younger (1st century ad), who was for a time an adviser to Nero and as a Stoic was committed to the idea of public service for the public good, seems to think that withdrawal into a private life of study can be justified.
Asceticism — Greek askêsis, ‘training, practice, routine’, the belief that humans had an almost limitless potential for spiritual development through ‘exercises’ designed to transform the personality — had had a long pagan history before it became associated with Christianity. Among pagans, however, it was a practice for the educated rich, a ‘lifestyle’ statement they could afford to indulge. But for Christians, anyone of any class could renounce the world, the flesh and the Devil, or sell all that they had and give to the poor; hence the hermit (Greek erêmos, ‘solitary’) and the fascination with the desert, the powerful symbol of the renunciation of man as a social and civilised being. Not that everyone had to go that far: renunciation of the demon sex was often felt to be enough of a statement about one’s other-worldly perspective.
The assimilation of these and other practices awaited the conviction that only the teaching and traditions of a Catholic Church, under a pope invested with the authority of Christ, really counted.
Retire to your study; become a hermit; abjure sex; go to church — unlikely advice for the retired, perhaps, but anything must be preferable to pleading abjectly with ‘society’ to value you.
The USA and the Middle East are quite content to engage in commercial exchange, but seem incapable of using such transactions to realise any deeper cultural understanding, let alone interaction. In the ancient world the two frequently went hand in hand, especially when the Middle East was the ‘superpower’.
Ancient Greece is the ‘cradle of civilisation’ for the Western world, but what was the cradle of civilisation for the Greeks? The shaft-graves of Agamemnon’s Mycenae (16th century bc) tell the story, with their glass beads from Iraq, elephant tusks from Syria, jugs and vases from Egypt, drinking vessels from Egypt or Syria/Palestine made of Nubian ostrich eggs and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
So, too, does the great Iraqi epic of Gilgamesh, some 2,000 years older than the first voice of Western literature, 8th-century bc Homer. Gilgamesh is a hero, the son of a mortal father, Lugalbanda, and a goddess, Ninsun. Father stays out of the way, but mother plays a large part in his life, advising him and interceding on his behalf with the powerful god Shamash. Gilgamesh is strong, proud and impulsive, and as a result he causes the death of his dearly beloved companion Enkidu; he is prostrate with grief, etc.... Achilles is a hero, the son of a mortal father, Peleus, and a goddess, Thetis. Father stays out of the way, but mother plays a large part in his life, advising him and interceding on his behalf with the powerful god Zeus. Achilles is strong, proud and impulsive, and as a result he causes the death of his dearly beloved companion Patroclus; he is prostrate with grief, etc.... However the interaction actually came about, the first literature of the West is deeply indebted to the East.
For some 6,000 years the rich cultures of the Middle East, especially Mesopotamia/Iraq, fed into south-eastern Europe everything that was to make the Greek miracle possible: the cultivation of cereals, flax, vines and olives; pottery (hand- and then wheel-made); working in copper, then bronze and iron; writing on clay tablets, papyrus and skins; town walls; the harp, the lyre and the double oboe. They gave the Greeks their religious practices and gods, as the Greek historian Herodotus was only too happy to acknowledge, much of their cosmology, eschatology and astronomy, and the concept of treaties and law-codes. They....
But then it was so much easier in those days. Pagan gods were not on the whole jealous gods, imposing on their followers the exclusive demands typical of some of our more modern deities.