Understanding the relationship of the ancient Greeks with their gods could exalt our own life

In a world without gods, our life experience seems to be more impoverished than ever

And drunk with my madness I shouted furiously: «Beautiful life! Beautiful life!!"


One of the recurring themes of The Weddings of Cadmo and Harmony, the book that Roberto Calasso published in 1988, is the withdrawal of the gods of the world. For us, Western and modern, the likelihood is that this does not seem significant, but if so it is only because of the rationalistic autism in which we have been culturally trained for at least the last 3 centuries.

There was a time, however, when the experience of reality was necessarily mediated by the presence and influence of the gods. In The Weddings of Cadmo and Harmony, Calasso realizes that need among the Greeks, but the rest of his work can be read in light of this search in other territories. In the India of the Vedas, in Kafka's literature, in the Scherzi of Tiepolo, Calasso has followed the footprints of the gods to testify to their persistence - even though they are intended to expel our relationship with the world, the gods Still there.

From our skeptical rationalism we could answer that life can be lived without believing that it is accompanied by one or more powers that transcend and influence it. Living, for us, has an aura of self-reliance where there seems to be no place for anything outside of what we consider our own life, our choices, the very facts of living. We succeed, for example, and believe that such triumph is nothing more than a consequence of our own effort. Or the opposite: we suffer a setback and we may blame it for a lack of expertise or, in the most metaphysical resource we are capable of, a stroke of bad luck.

In the Greek world, however, the time came when human existence was inseparable from the divine presence. Type Calasso:

If we were to define, by an old habit, what God has been for the Greeks, we could say, using the standards of Occam: everything that separates us from the average feeling of living. “Together with a god he always cries and laughs, ” we read in Áyax . Life as a pure vegetative continuity, an opaque gaze that perches on the world, certainty of being oneself, although one does not know what one is: all this does not need God. Here comes the spontaneous atheism of the natural homme .

But when something indefinite and powerful shakes the mind and the fibers, it makes the bone cage tremble, when the same person, a moment before awkward and agnostic, feels altered by laughter and homicidal madness or by loving delirium or by the hallucination of the form, or it is discovered invaded by crying, then the Greek recognizes that he is not alone. There is someone by his side, and he is a god. Now the person no longer has that calm sharpness that he perceived in the mediocre states of existence, but that sharpness has migrated to the divine companion: bright and drawn in the sky is the god, nebulous and confusing is the one who has evoked it.

The exaltation of life: there was for the Greeks the foundation of their conviction. From bravery to tragedy, from love to rage, all the extreme points that we can find in the geometry of existence were determined, in the Greek world, by the intervention of a god.

And this is not just a philological and literary curiosity. The banishment of the gods in modernity implied the impoverishment of our life experience, an effect that could be reaching its peak in our time. What are, if not "mediocre states of existence", those constants in which so many people currently live: chronic fatigue, indifference, distraction, anxiety. Contemporary capitalism has imposed these "gods" not to exalt life, but to diminish it and keep the subjects in the sleepy docility that is convenient for them.

Towards the end, when Calasso narrates the mythical episode that gives name to his book, he glosses the last time that gods and men lived in a banquet: the nuptials between the Phoenician Cadmus and Harmony, the daughter of the illicit loves between Aphrodite and Ares . A wedding that was ultimately fatal, especially for the offspring of the spouses. "But what does the eternity of condemnation matter to those who proved in a second the infinite of enjoyment?", As Baudelaire wrote. In a similar sense, Calasso tells us:

Inviting the gods ruins relationships with them, but sets the story in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited is not worth living. It will be quieter, but without history.

Who is now surprised and taken by extraordinary emotions? Who, flooded with heroism, even without knowing well where it comes from, decides to listen to it and take heroic actions? Who allows anger to dominate him and lead him to defend what he thinks is his own? Who ventures into the unknown? Who is overcome by uncontrollable crying? Who accepts the joy that comes unexpectedly, fleeting, without trying to understand it, much less retain it? Nothing of that. Life has become for many in a meek mediation where everything that happens, happens without frights, under control, without variations of any kind.

A life that, if it seems without risk, is only because we strive to ignore the real danger of living like this: that it ends as a life without history.

Author's Twitter: @juanpablocahz

From the same author in Pajama Surf: Stop being who you think you are to live all the possibilities of your existence (the last lesson of Socrates in 'The banquet')

Main image: Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse (1896)