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In his book, 'The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can Change your Life,' Luc Ferry re-interprets some of the classic stories of western civilization from a secular humanist perspective. The interpretive lens he uses does not take away from the value of this book. Readers will still find his insights to be compelling.
He begins with a justification for the study of the classics; illustrating that like contemporary science, mythology helped the ancient Greeks make sense of the world around them, distinguishing mythological thinking from contemporary philosophy by emphasizing that ancient people did not perceive the universe as an object of knowledge but as a lived reality. Another theme he elaborated on was the ways in which metaphors derived from ancient myths continue to influence us today, and how modern philosophy evolved from the mythology of the Greeks.
Students previously exposed to Greek mythology will find Luc Ferry's analysis refreshing for it revolves around five essential themes established in his introduction. These themes include 1) the origins of the world and the establishment of order out of chaos, 2) humans situating themselves in a meaningful relationship to the cosmos, 3) the role of hubris and its madness which consists of 'a proud and chaotic revolt against the human condition as simple mortals,' 4) the heroes who struggled against the regrouping forces of chaos to maintain order, and 5) the existential question of how could a cosmos that is good and harmonious allow misfortune to strike?
In each of his following chapters Mr. Ferry elaborates on these themes. I immediately became engaged in his insights on the Greek theme of origins. For the Greeks Chaos was the first entity to enter the cosmic drama. Gaia, or the earth mother sprang out of Chaos, however, this necessitated a third divinity; Eros or love. Eros was not an individual god but a creative life force from which other lives sprang into being. To me, this notion of Eros sounds strikingly similar to the 'elan vital force' proposed by Henri Bergson in his classic 'Creative Evolution.' Here, Mr. Ferry also points out that in Greek mythology there is a progressive humanizing of the gods and also a progressive divinizing of men. Quoting, 'the first gods are utterly impersonal.. abstract.. faceless.. they simply represent cosmic forces that evolve progressively without any will, toward consciousness.' Mr. Ferry goes on to establish the geneology of the Greek gods illustrating the descent of Zeus from Uranus through Kronos.
After the cosmos is established the gods animate it with both creatures and man. However, man poses a particular problem to the cosmic order of things because his place is difficult to establish. According to Mr. Ferry the Greek answer to this question was that man must seek to live in harmony with the cosmos. Quoting, he states that 'a life lived in harmony with the cosmos - this is true wisdom, the authentic road to salvation, in the sense of saving us from our fears and making us thereby happier and more open to others..' and 'We must live in a state of lucidity, accepting death, accepting what we are and what is beyond us, in step with our people and the universe....' In contrast to Contemporary Science and Christianity, this emphasis on harmony was given even more importance than quests for immortality. Again, quoting Mr. Ferry, 'the ultimate end of human existence is not, as the Christians would come to believe, to secure eternal salvation by all available means, including the most morally submissive and tedious, to attain immortality. On the contrary, a mortal life lived well is worth far more than a wasted immortality......' His interpretation sounds similar to ecological perspectives, leaving me wondering how the current worldview and its quest for immortality became established, since it is based on the foundation of Greek myth.
Many stories of Greek myth dealt with those that challenged the order of things, rebelling instead of seeking to maintain harmonious relationships. The King Midas myth, and the myth of Sysiphus are examples of characters that revolted against their place as mortals. In each myth the characters are dealt with in a particular way. King Midas finds out that gold may not be as precious as he first thought. Sysiphus is compelled to roll a boulder for eternity as punishment for his hubris and trickery.
Even though order and harmony was established out of chaos, in the Greek worldview there was continuous synergy between the forces of order and those of chaos. Some amount of chaos was needed in order to maintain the flow of time. However, given the disruptive nature of chaotic forces, chaos had to be contained. Many heroes of Greek myth assisted in keeping the forces of chaos from disrupting order. The stories of Heracles and Theseus were two examples that Mr. Ferry focused on to emphasize this theme.
The myth of Oedipus was utilized to answer the existential question of why there is misfortune if the universe is essentially good and harmonious. Oedipus unknowingly and unwillingly fulfilled his fate. His story is full of tragedy in which his only sin was a brief moment of pride. Otherwise, Oedipus had essentially been a decent character. Thus, why did he meet so much misfortune? The Greek answer was that a curse had been placed on his lineage due to the sins of an ancestor. Another answer buried within this myth is of course the tragedy that is innate to the human condition, our awareness of our impending mortality; to which the Greeks response was to live their lives mythologically.
In his conclusion Mr. Ferry illustrates how the Dyonesian cult, with its emphasis on ecstasy, offered a counterbalance to Greek ideals of order. This cult became a safety outlet, like Halloween is for Americans, providing a celebratory view of life. It allowed for the expression of disruptive tendencies in a regulated manner, synthesizing the elements of order and discord. Dyonesius incarnated the festive and carnivalistic elements of Greek culture. Therefore Dyonesius rounded out the Greek worldview, offering a functional outlet to some forms of hubris.
In his survey of Greek myth, Mr. Ferry sheds light on the Greek worldview, making me contemplate differences between ancient Greek culture and our own. Yet, mythology is rich in metaphor, allowing for diverse interpretations. Critics may challenge some elements of Mr. Ferry's interpretations, and of course every reader finds something different in each text turning even the analysis of meaning into a subjective encounter. Nevertheless, critiques will not subtract from the value of this book. If nothing else, Mr. Ferry challenges us to question the stories that we have become familiarized with since we were children urging us on a quest to find hidden gems in that which we have taken for granted. This is why I find his perspective insightful.