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Raphael's School of Athens

“The worldview that underlay the New Testament was so different from that of the Greeks and the Romans as to be almost its opposite. It was a worldview that stressed not excellence of public achievement but the adventure of a personal journey with God, a lifetime journey in which a human being was invited to unite himself to God by imitating God’s justice and mercy. It was far more individualized than anything the Greeks had ever come up with and stressed the experience of a call, a personal vocation, a unique destiny for each human being. The one God of the Jews had created the world and everyone in it, and God would bring the world to its end. There was no eternal cosmos, circling round and round. Time is real, not cyclical; it does not repeat itself but proceeds forward inexorably, which makes each moment—and the decisions I make each moment—precious. I am not merely an instance of Man, I am this particular, unrepeatable man, who never existed before and will never exist again. I create a real future in the present by what I do now. Whereas fate was central to Greeks and Romans, hope is central to Jews and Christians. Anyone who doubts the great gulf between these two worldviews has only to reread the speeches Hector makes to Andromache (in Chapter I) and to realize the impossibility of putting such speeches on the lips of any believing Jew or Christian:

And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—
it’s born with us the day that we are born.”


From chapter 7 of Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.

Any loyal visitor to this blog will be aware that much of my reading over the past year has orbited around the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem. Fideism, which has been the most compelling idea I have encountered in that time, explicitly locates itself in the murky terrain between — or above — faith and reason. I’ve not forgotten that I’m past deadline on some paragraphs about this subject and the other central themes of the past year, and I can only excuse my laziness by saying that part of my distraction has come in the form of Cahill’s incredible book.

I find this particular section pretty intriguing, and though I’ve been mulling it over for the past few days, am not exactly sure what to make of it. In the context of Cahill’s entire narrative it takes on some added shadows and contours, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll merely supplement it with a selection from Arthur Schlesinger’s biography of Robert Kennedy, in which he writes the following about Robert’s spiritual response to his brother’s death:

As John Kennedy’s sense of the Greeks was colored by his own innate joy in existence, Robert’s was directed by an abiding melancholy…

The fact that [Robert] found primary solace in Greek impressions of character and fate did not make him less faithful a Catholic. Still, at the time of truth, Catholic writers did not give him precisely what he needed. And his tragic sense was, to use Auden’s distinction, Greek rather than Christian—the tragedy of necessity rather than the tragedy of possibility; ‘What a pity it had to be this way,’ rather than, ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.’

Hence, the Greek emphasis on fate, which was the foundation of Robert’s reflexive view of the world, absorbed tragedy as an unavoidable consequence of the unchangeable cards one is dealt in life. On the contrary, the Christian perspective, with its emphasis on hope (and its cousin possibility), assessed negative events with an eye to past decisions and potential future choices: not only could it have been different, but I now can choose how to react.

Read another fragment from Cahill’s book:

Greek SymposiaPartying with the Greeks