Friday, November 27, 2009

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea and St. Augustine

Awhile back a friend was telling me how much he loved City of God by St. Augustine. History judges it to be great, but 1/3 of the way through, it isn’t making my short list. Much of it is my own shortcomings. I don’t know Roman history well enough to get some of his references and I’m not interested enough in Platonic thought to unravel his arguments where I currently find myself. My fault, not the saint's. Apparently I'm not as smart as my friend. I didn't need Augustine to know that fact.

City of God is a defense against those who blamed Christians for the crumbling of the Roman Empire. His defense of Christianity starts with dismantling the religious and philosophical climate of the day. I may get into Augustine’s work at another time; maybe I won’t. But he spends a good bit of time highlighting the debased morals of the Roman gods. “What does this have to do with Sailing the Wine Dark Sea?,” you ask.

Thomas Cahill has written a series of books he calls the “Hinges of History.” I loved the first, How the Irish Saved Civilization. I wasn’t as fond of The Gifts of the Jews – more liberal outlook on the OT than I’m comfortable with. His third is Desire of the Everlasting Hills, which is about the life of Jesus. I haven’t read that one. This summer I finished Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. I linked it to Augustine and moral decline because, whether it is a fair picture or not, Cahill paints the ancient Greeks as a bawdy, promiscuous culture. I’m not speaking of nude statues, but the crude poetry he highlights, including men seducing young boys. While much of the high art was a celebration of the human form (specifically male, women were almost always clothed as virginity and chastity were highly honored for women), private art had its share of lewdness. And, perhaps as Augustine laid it out, Cahill denotes the degradation of art as correlating with the fall of Athens from prominence.

But there’s more to this book worth noting – and some of it very good. Cahill talks about Greek warriors and how their style of warfare are honored by influential military strategists and historians of our day. He shares how stories like the Odyssey were hundreds of years ahead of their time in identifying the emotions of one drawn to their home – something possibly dismissed at its time. Ancient Greeks identify the petulant Achilles as more a hero than the honorable Odysseus. He also talks about governance. He opens each chapter with a description of pertinent literature, highlighting key texts. Since I recently read the Oresteia, which he refers to in the book, I’ll save political comments for the post on the Oresteia.

When I think of Ancient Greece, I can’t help but think of philosophers above all else. Cahill surveys Greek philosophy in 50 pages. It is a nice, brief survey that spends a bulk of the time, after a brief discussion on pre-Socratic philosophy, on Socrates and Plato before moving on to Aristotle and some others. Cahill talks about the groundbreaking thinking, but also notes the arrogance, assuming Plato would be, either explicitly or hypothetically, be dismissive of democracy and women adding any value to society. For all the lofty thoughts, there are some pragmatic issues that mar their intellectual heroics.

After reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, it made its way to my give away/sell back stack in my office. I’ve now moved it back to my Bible Backgrounds section on my bookshelf. Do I recommend it? Not heartily. There are better books, but it isn’t a total loss, either. Quite a help, aren’t I?

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