Moses and Machiavelli

We all know the story of Moses and his liberation of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. Hollywood, especially, loves this story. Exodus offers so many cinematic moments – the infant Moses set adrift in the river and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses attacking the Egyptian taskmaster, God addressing Moses from the burning bush, the ten plagues and Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance, the parting of the Red Sea and destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, Manna from heaven, water from a rock, the deafening trumpet blast at Sinai and the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, the Levites’ slaughter of the unfaithful, the construction of God’s tabernacle, and radiant Moses aglow after looking upon God. God has more spoken lines and appearances in Exodus than elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and His relationship with Moses achieves unrivaled intimacy. Despite its sensational features, Exodus is addressed to thoughtful adults and prompts us to think hard thoughts about man, God, and nations.
The Exodus story is so well known that we are likely to think we understand what goes on in it. Let’s test that notion with the following observations:
1. Moses is a strange choice as liberator. Although born a Jew, Moses was raised as an Egyptian prince and was unaware of his origins. Moses has moral defects; in a rage, he murders an Egyptian taskmaster. Exiled from Egypt and from the enslaved Israelites, Moses marries Zipporah, a Midianite. When God from a burning bush calls Moses to his mission, Moses declines: “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). When Moses shows indecision, God supplies him with magic tricks – turning a staff to a snake — still, Moses demurs. Moses reveals shocking cowardice. “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?” he whines. He pleads incompetence: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now … ” (Exodus 4:10). A hero should be made of sterner stuff.
2. And then, we must consider the demeaning portrayal of the Israelites. We would expect the Hebrew Bible to portray the “Chosen People” in a heroic light. Historical narratives usually set off from a Golden Age when people were honorable and free from the corruption of the reader’s shameful time. In Exodus, however, the Israelites are corrupt, petty, mean-spirited, fickle, cowardly, disloyal, thoughtless, dishonorable, and stubborn. How can it be that Jews, notable for venerating the past, would fill their Scriptures with such a demeaning portrait of their forebears? Why would God choose such a rabble for His project in creating “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation?” Not only are the Israelites unworthy, they are also, from a practical point of view, an unlikely choice. The Egyptians would have proved more orderly, and reliable. How backward are these Chosen People? When Moses attempts to establish a judicial system, neither he nor any of his people knows how to proceed; Jethro, his sheep-herding father-in-law, offers advice that any of us could provide. Could the Lord have made a mistake in selecting these recently enslaved people?
3. It seems also that God is a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5), a petulant being who loses his temper (Exodus 32:10) when He does not get His way. If we take the scripture literally, God worries about other gods who compete for attention from humankind:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)

Is this God or the Godfather (“I wouldn’t turn against me if I were you.”)? Is He insecure, fearing being replaced by some other Creator of the Universe? Can it really be that He lacks confidence and an ethical character?
4. Worse yet, the Lord appears to be a bully. His threat to punish the innocent children of erring parents offends our sense of justice. Such a threat corresponds too well with a God who terrifies His people into submission:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us; or we will die.”(Exodus 20:18-20)
God does not reason with His people; He terrorizes them into compliance.
5. God appears so intemperate under pressure that He forgets His Covenants with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and also His historical objectives with this “Chosen People.” When the Israelites turn to worshipping the Golden Calf, God, in an apparent fury, proposes to exterminate His people. Moses, it appears, has to rescue God from a catastrophic error of judgment. If we accept the story as written, God seems to need both complete submission from His human chattel, but also the advice from Moses, his “consigliore,” who possesses a clearer head in a crisis.
6. And finally, we must make sense of Moses launching a bloody civil war in which 3,000 Israelites are massacred by their kinsmen. When Moses talks God out of His genocidal decision, the Lord decides, instead, to leave the matter in Moses’ hands. Not only does he punish the idolaters, but he convinces the faithful to slaughter those who betrayed Him. Even bolder is Moses’ claim that the Almighty requires this, citing a command that the Lord never issued. Like politicians before and since, Moses lies to accomplish what he would argue is necessary – ends justify means. No wonder that Machiavelli cites Moses as among the greatest political leaders in history.
Why Moses?
Moses trembles at the beginning and commands at the end; Exodus tells us how God educated a leader for His Chosen People. Exodus fits a familiar pattern; God selects His heroes from among the least (Jacob, Joseph, David, etc.), and He frequently finds them initially reluctant (Samuel, Isaiah). The case of Moses is somewhat different, however. Raised in Pharaoh’s court, Moses has a sense of entitlement. As an infant he was cared for by his Hebrew birth mother. So he acquires the strength of his royal upbringing and sympathy for the enslaved Israelites. When Moses, outrage by injustice, attacks and kills the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses settles into a placid life, a shepherd among the Midianites, content with obscurity and a simple life, with his wife Zipporah, their children, and his excellent mentor and father-in-law, Jethro.
From this lowly station, God molds Moses into a great leader. At first, Moses is reluctant. God supplies him magical powers and enlists Aaron, his more articulate brother, to help him. Even so, Moses feels overmatched. Nonetheless, soon Moses is standing strong against the god-like Pharaoh’s hard-hearted defiance. In time, Moses parts the Red Sea, invoking the Lord’s might; he turns the tide of battles with his staff; and later boldly requests to look upon God Himself. At a climactic moment, Moses assumes from God the reins of command and takes upon himself a desperate political decision. Exodus recounts the story of a hero’s creation, from modest shepherd to steel-girded leader of a nation selected by God for greatness. Facing mighty Pharaoh and parting seas, however, prove simpler than leading the wayward and rebellious Israelites.
Why the Israelites?
According to Exodus, the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt fifteen generations, long enough to have lost all sense of self-direction. Slavery is political, but it is also moral. In the wilderness, the Israelites demonstrate their childishness and confusion. They have seen the Lord’s power to free them from Pharaoh’s grasp — the tenth plague, killing all first born but their own and drowning Pharaoh’s mighty host — still, faced with hunger, the Israelites complain bitterly, telling Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
One can sympathize with their distress, but their complaint is dishonorable. The Israelites prefer the crude stew to their freedom. They are expert at whining. How could it be otherwise, after generations as slaves? The Israelites are least likely to become a holy nation. Why choose them? First, their miraculous transformation will testify to God’s grandeur; what is changing staffs into serpents compared with turning a slavish mob into a mighty nation? Second, the Israelites are helpless without God’s protection and more likely to accept God’s guidance whole-heartedly. The Egyptians are more civilized but less likely to cling to a demanding religious devotion. The oppressed and down-trodden embrace their path to freedom fervently. And, last, the Israelites’ rescue represents a model for all of humankind. Their resistance, ingratitude, and stubbornness characterizes our struggle, in all times and places, to accept God’s truth.
In story-books the Israelites would be noble in their suffering – as if suffering ennobles. Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments (1956) appeals to its democratic audience, wishing to venerate biblical ancestors and blame their troubles on unscrupulous politicians rather than on their own lack of discipline and courage. [1] Exodus, however, accepts neither the basic goodness of people, the ennobling effect of suffering, nor democratic values. The Israelites are crude and need to be addressed through threats and intimidation, to do what is necessary to save them from themselves. As the 23rd Psalm insists, we need a stern shepherd, ready to employ his “rod and his staff” because we are wayward and silly sheep.
All but overwhelmed by these “stiff-necked” (stubborn) people, Moses complains to God. How is he to lead such a rabble? When they beg for food, God provides Manna but also exacting rules limiting their Sabbath gathering. God provides, but the people’s self-discipline is feeble. Soon after, wracked by thirst, the Israelites again confront Moses: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst.” In exasperation Moses complains to God: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me” (Exodus 17: 3-4). Time and again, the people fail the test of faith, and Moses is discouraged by their disloyalty.
A Jealous God?
The Israelites could not have succeeded unassisted. God intervenes at Sinai to rescue this incipient nation. The Lord presents Himself in an unappealing way, but God knows how to be God better than we do. If God ran for office, few would vote for Him. His Commandments presume that people are ungrateful and enslaved to animal appetites, and that they require dire threats to listen to Him. We should not imagine, however, that God’s presentations of Himself reveal His nature. Instead, Exodus reveals only how God addresses this particular audience in order to rescue them from their confusion. The scene is rhetorical and not mystical. God’s appearance is stage-crafted to address the needs of these refugees of Egyptian slavery in ways they can grasp and respond to as He wishes. The Israelites are not capable of participating in a sensible discussion; they must be driven to freedom, like dumb and reluctant beasts.
God’s approach to the Israelites assumes several voices. He is a complex character and conceals His nature behind a series of masks. In Exodus 19, God instructs Moses on how to speak to the Israelites:
… tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3-6)
These words are encouraging and poetic — words of a loving God (“you shall be my own”), with the sweet promise of God’s devotion. God instructs Moses to speak kindly, and Moses gains ready assent from the people, but God knows this contract is fragile. Still, through sugared words God has gained their formal agreement and established the principle, if not the fact of reciprocal devotion.
Is God a Bully?
God’s next appearance is terrifying – thunder and lightning, smoke, and the trumpet’s blast. The people remain behind a barrier through which only Moses and Aaron may pass. Although consecrated with ritual cleansing, the Israelites may not approach God. The Lord announces the Ten Commandments in a threatening voice. God introduces Himself to His people as follows: “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me …” (Exodus 20:5-6). God does not reason with His people; He invites no mitigations. In Hebrew, His commands are abrupt (“No Killing”; “No Adultery”; “No stealing”). God’s presence is so horrific that the people beg Moses to keep God from speaking to them directly “or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Moses explains that this voice does not convey God’s essential nature but was chosen to help them hear and obey: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
God’s next voice, no longer angry, is precise and exacting. God specifies in tedious detailed the requirements for His tabernacle. Instead of poetry and passion we have the close minutia of small print. Readers may complain at this mind-numbing detail … and presented twice. [2] Why demand these endless specifications? God knows the Israelites are careless, unused to any discipline. Like us, they would prefer petty amusements rather than to organize a thousand pantry cupboards and keep a detailed inventory. Morality requires precise habits beyond even fervent beliefs. The care God demands in the construction of His tabernacle is essential for converting these disheveled people to freedom and holiness.
Does God lose His temper?
God’s fourth voice is unexpected. Betrayed by His people in their orgiastic revelry around the Golden Calf, God appears to lose His temper. He offers to “consume” them and appears to forget (1) His ancient Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; (2) His immediate project to transform this wayward people; and (3) His plan to impress all nations by creating a Holy nation. Meanwhile, Moses remains calm and patiently reminds God of His commitments. Can God’s ineptitude be taken at face value? Can God fall apart so completely that He has to rely on the help of a “mere mortal”? Something else must be happening here, something that makes sense once we recall Exodus’ project of educating a leader.
From the Burning Bush on, God has been constructing a leader. Moses at first requires magic and Aaron’s assistance; the miracles steel his resolve with Pharaoh; time and again Moses turns in confusion to God to manage his wayward people; God scripts His delivery of the law, so that Moses has only to deliver the His lines. Whatever Moses has done, has required the Lord’s assistance. While instructing the Israelites, God has also been educating a leader who can serve His purposes effectively.
Faced with the Golden Calf betrayal, God feigns helplessness. When God appears confused, Moses must take command. After Moses reasons with Him, God relents. Can God have forgotten His covenants? Can God not understand what Moses grasps so clearly? Can God lose His mind? When Moses descends from the mountain and, without God’s direction, resolves this critical problem of law and punishment on his own, he emerges as the leader God has been educating him to be.
God, to be sure, has good reason to be displeased. He tells Moses
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10)
God refers, humorously, to the Hebrews as “your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt,” as if Moses selected and liberated them from Pharaoh’s grasp. Calling them “this people” further estranges God from the Israelites. It is the speech a tyrannical CEO makes to shift responsibility for a plan gone wrong.
Even more remarkable Moses advises his unhinged Lord:
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)
If we read the Scripture in a simply literal way, we will conclude that God, omniscient and author of all Creation, has forgotten his plan and that Moses must step forward to provide God a basic lesson in geo-politics.

Moses and Politics
Urged on by God, Moses commits a stunning act of political manipulation. He gathers the faithful to him, all the sons of Levi, who are “on the Lord’s side” (Exodus 32: 26), and tells them a politically useful lie. He rallies them to arm themselves, “each of you [to] kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” Moses then lies in assuring them “that says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Exodus: 32:27). In fact, God never advised Moses to take this bloody course of action. Machiavelli will name Moses a model leader, precisely for his bold and fraudulent invoking of God’s sanction.
Moses confronts a crisis, and for the first time, all on his own. Moses has been unaware that the Israelites have violated the most precious Commandment. When Moses discovers the Golden Calf revelry, his reaction is what God feigned: “Moses’ anger burned hot…” (Exodus 32:19). In his rage, Moses smashes the tablets of Commandments and then, instead of consuming the people as God proposed, he has them grind their Golden Calf to powder, mix it with water, and consume their false god.
The Israelites betray their commitments. Even more embarrassing, it was Aaron, Moses’ brother, who permitted the people to violate God’s law. Aaron explains he had simply done what the people requested. Though Aaron knew that the people are “bent on evil,” he acceded to their request: “they said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us…’. So I said to them ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Aaron’s story is preposterous and recognizably human. Aaron fails because he does what the people ask him. Such complaisant leadership would condemn the Israelites to endless wandering — physical, moral, and political – and finally to extinction in the pathless and barren desert. [3]
The political solution is Moses’ own. He directs “the sons of Levi” to “kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Exodus 32: 27). The killing of “three thousand of the people” violates God’s Commandments. Worse yet, Moses tells his allies that the murders follow God’s decree – “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Exodus 32:27) when God never advised it. Moses does not mislead the people, he lies to them.
Exodus 32:25 justifies Moses’ extreme policy. The parenthesis reads “for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies.” The Israelites must display their adherence to the law to demonstrate God’s power; adopting the Golden Calf as God shows enemy nations how little control God exercises over those He cherishes. Still, their extinction would prove how deadly this God can be. Without purging the disobedient, the Israelites will be lost forever. They will destroy themselves by inviting attacks from their enemies and by endless internal dissension. Moses will not allow them to destroy themselves by disregarding God’s law. Faced with a terrible choice, Moses emerges as a fully armed political leader, ready to impose God’s will upon a people not yet capable of understanding the requirements of self-control in service to the redemptive trajectory of history. [4]
The Bible instructs alert readers concerning the dark corridors of history and challenges our happy belief about ourselves. The Israelites are devoted to their animal nature. Moses must punish that enslavement in order to commit them to higher tasks. We might wish the Bible errs in depicting human nature as debased and requiring dictatorial and devious leadership. We might want to argue that the Bible asks too much of us, and that a Holy nation is not possible, and that pain and trouble comes from asking too much of us. Exodus does not allow us to mistake the urgencies of history for a fairy tale of magical events and happy heroes – an airy romanticism of human goodness against all the evidence of history and our times.

[1] Dathan, a sly and self-seeking demagogue, portrayed by Edward G. Robinson (famous for depicting urban gangsters), plays upon the people’s fears and leads them, like the wily Communist figure of that time’s pathology, to rebel against their true leaders.
[2] Exodus 25 – 30; and again Exodus 36 — 39:16. Readers may well feel they have endured forty years in the desert, having had to read these chapters with care.
[3] The Israelites’ offense is not theft or lying or adultery but instead worshipping animal gods. This is not just defiance of the law but denial of God. Modern readers would likely rank the social commandments – against murder, theft, lying, and false swearing — first; honoring parents and against coveting next; and the Commandments directed at honoring God and the Sabbath last. The First Commandment, however, anchors all the others. Without fear and respect for God, this rebellious people could not be trusted to adhere to God’s social morality on pragmatic grounds alone. And perhaps they will discover that “other gods” means putting anything before God – making money, gaining fame, devotion to family or tribe or nation, even perhaps devotion to our own self-glorifying religiosity.
[4] Jesus points to Moses’ dilemma in teaching the laws governing divorce. In Jewish law divorce is permitted (Deut: 24 1-4), and Jesus shocks the leaders of the synagogue by teaching that divorce was never God’s law, citing Genesis 2:21-25. Jesus insists that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19: 8). Jesus notes that Moses, for political reasons, yielded to the crude needs of his followers. Their stubborn insistence on retaining the right to divorce their wives would have prevented Moses from winning their consent to the new law.


Psalms — Drama of Our Troubled Faith

The Book of Psalms includes 150 poems written over several hundred years, roughly half a millennium, estimated from the 10th C. BCE until the 5th C. BCE. Although the Psalms are often attributed to King David, scholars doubt he had a hand in more than a few, if any at all. For Jews and Christians this anthology of poems constitutes a treasured resource for expressing the human experience — caught in a whirlwind of triumphs and calamities – as we encounter God’s immutable perfection. The range of these poems is surprising. We expect hymns celebrating God’s grandeur, and many Psalms do that. However, the Psalms also give voice to our wavering faith, our anger, our vanity, even at times to our despair. Even the 23rd Psalm, the one we know best, is harder-grained than we usually notice. The Psalms are poems, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, built upon the dramas of heart and mind. They are rhythmic and employ elevated and memorable language – all this is well noted. Less obvious, many Psalms contain artful little dramas, poignantly particular. The following essay explores a bouquet of psalms representing this range of themes and voices.
Psalm 23 (King James Version)
1: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3: He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The 23rd Psalm is as familiar as anything in the Bible. The Lord as shepherd is so tried and true that we are likely not to think about what shepherds do. The shepherd is kind but forceful. He makes sheep do what on their own they would not, even though it is good for them. And so we find the paradoxical praise for a kind of bullying that leads us to the abundance of life, the “green pastures” that hold all we seek, and the “still waters,” calm and running deep (unlike a babbling brook) that quench our souls’ thirst. We most appreciate such forceful care when we have lost our soul and His care restores it. How forceful must this caring be? It requires the shepherd’s rod and staff. Sheep are wayward and stupid, so the good shepherd must tug them and at times strike them to drive them to the right path. When we go wrong, we suffer for it; it is God’s reminder that we have strayed. Our afflictions indicate His careful guidance.

5: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Surprising, too, is the reward that comes from being in the right path. God prepares an abundant table for us, made all the sweeter because the speaker’s enemies must look on in bitter dismay. The special sauce is vindictive as the victorious Hebrew relishes his blessings completely by antagonizing his enemies with his joy. It isn’t enough that his own cup overflows with abundance but that the cups of his enemies are empty and broken. Although the King James Version imagines us dwelling “in the house of the Lord forever,” the ancient Hebrews had no concept of an eternal after-life. In Hebrew, the psalm says “for many days” sometimes rendered as “my whole life long.” Psalm 23, as most of the psalms, is less ethereal and more in-this-world than we usually suppose.

Psalm 19 (New International Version)
Psalm 19 is rich beyond measure and seems to belong to Hamlet or The Tempest. Psalm 19 is a celebration hymn, but also much more. This psalm is sure-handed, declarative, unflinching. Is God’s grandeur a mystery? Regard in wonder the miracles around us! In the night sky and in the cycle of day and night, God the craftsman demonstrates His skills. God’s creation needs no words but speaks a universal language. The poet’s spirit is aflame with what he sees.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

His images are bold, perhaps irreverent, veering close to Nature worship, forbidden to the Hebrew people: “In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” For the poet the sun races across the heavens with the power of a heroic young man; emerging from his marriage tent after a night of sexual delight, the hero runs his race in the celestial stadium. Poets are helpless against the proscriptions against graven images and against figuring God through our senses, the one world we know. God’s heaven demonstrates His creative force, as does our erotic and athletic joy. This secret language utters God’s handy-work, as the psalmist teaches us.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

While thankful for bodily joy, the psalmist then identifies a more surprising gift. The material world is a wonder, but God’s law is His greatest gift. The heathens know the glory of physical being, but God’s law makes us fully human and supplies the scaffolding for our freedom. The law, so often resented as limiting the freedom to be ourselves, is precious beyond measure: “refreshing the soul”; “giving wisdom to the simple”; “rejoicing the heart”; and “enlightening the eye.” The law, usually thought of as abstract and bloodless, has rarely been the focus of poetry. We may easily agree that the law encapsulates thinking that we, in our simplicity, could never invent for ourselves. Similarly, law entices us to think carefully about who we are and what we need. But how does the law “refresh the soul” and “rejoice the heart”? The answer lies in the lines that introduce these qualities; God’s law is “perfect,” “trustworthy”, “right”, and “clear.” The world we know swarms with possibilities, like pathways in the desert, we can go anywhere. Against this anxiety and confusion, God’s law is certain, tested, and comprehensible, and allows the psalmist perfect faith. The soul sinks easily into doubt; the perfection of the law revives the spirit with comforting reassurance. What better proof of a loving God; and how rarely do we notice! The law, of course, warns us of errors, rewards us when we follow the true path, and supports the best interests of individuals and the community. However, for the psalmist, the law represents treasure beyond wealth in gold; it is sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. In Psalm 19, the speaker thinks sensually, savoring the law’s sweetness on his tongue.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.

The psalmist knows our weakness. Despite the law, we go wrong: “But who can discern their own errors?” We are devious beings, lawyering God’s law to license our lawlessness. In our arrogance, we concoct laws for ourselves and misinterpret God’s laws, despite their perfect clarity. This is the source of our sinning; our inventive treachery.

11 By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

The prayer that closes Psalm 19 brings this observation into focus: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, /LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” The psalmist asks that his words and thoughts cohere so that neither casts a shadow of difference upon the other; only then would they be acceptable to God. This is the hard rock of being, of our redemption from lawlessness that would otherwise overwhelm us.

14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 39 (New Standard Revised Version)
God, our shepherd, burdens our lives. The speaker in Psalm 19 hungers for perfection, inspired by God’s skill and by His law. Contemplating the perfect language of things, the speaker must wrestle with the deviousness of consciousness and the gap between thoughts and words. A slip-shod life would be less troublesome; but once we grasp God’s magnificence and perfect coherence, how can we embrace something less for ourselves? Jews joke that they wish He had chosen others since bearing God’s demands for moral perfection is often also a torment. In Psalm 39, one of the darkest, the poet extends this complaint and implores the Lord to turn away and let him breathe. Psalm 39 indicts God for afflicting our bodies, leaving us ignorant of what this pain and terror means, and then inducing guilt for our justified complaints. Like Job and Ecclesiastes, Psalm 39 entertains the thought that our lives may be meaningless and that God may be more hindrance than help with our absurd mortality.

1 I said, ‘I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence.’
2 I was silent and still;
I held my peace to no avail;
my distress grew worse,
3 my heart became hot within me.
While I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
4 ‘LORD, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
5 You have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
they heap up, and do not know who will gather.
7 ‘And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool.
9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.

As with most poems, with Psalms we must ascertain setting and situation, the implied drama that makes the poet’s voice urgent and comprehensible. This Psalm’s narrative is peculiar and unsettling. Until well into the psalm, we do not know what drives the speaker’s intensity. Until verse 10, we do not know that the speaker has suffered a stroke, a scourge, a plague; a blow so disabling that he thinks now only upon his mortality and the emptiness of life. From the dizzying ledge of imminent extinction, life has no meaning: the wealth we gather so feverishly goes to others; our beauty is blasted by illness; we are poor sojourners challenged to find our way as aliens to an inscrutable God, like strangers in a foreign land.
From his sickbed, the speaker condemns the injustice of his suffering. He has been honorable towards God, keeping quiet his misery, in the presence of the wicked, who take pleasure in boasting a victory for their cynicism, and among the good, who might lose heart. He has remained dumb; understanding that his affliction is God’s doing and makes sense only in some way he cannot grasp. We are mist, a breath, mere vanity; we pass like phantoms, ghosts chasing empty desires. And what use is this bleak truth? Robert Alter’s translation captures the spare energy of the speaker’s grim fears:

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
To my cry hearken,
To my tears be not deaf.
For I am a sojourner with You,
A new settler like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
Before I depart and am not.

In distress, the speaker begs God to hear him. If God cannot explain this suffering, then the stricken man asks that He look away and dispel the sufferer’s feeling that he is sinful for complaining. God could at least let him breathe easy, relieve his anxieties before he vanishes.

10 Remove your stroke from me;
I am worn down by the blows* of your hand.
11 ‘You chastise mortals
in punishment for sin,
consuming like a moth what is dear to them;
surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah
12 ‘Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
do not hold your peace at my tears.
For I am your passing guest,
an alien, like all my forebears.
13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,

before I depart and am no more.’

Does this psalm provide consolation for those who suffer? While Psalm 39 captures the near despair of a man stricken inexplicably by God and may resonate with the grim experience of others, the poem leads to a bleak dead end. Relief comes only with his evaporation into nothingness, a torment better endured without God’s disapproving gaze.

Psalm 46 (King James Version)

Psalm 46 is a joyous battle hymn. It celebrates a warrior God who insures His people’s victory against enemy nations that seek their destruction. In its famous words: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption – none will inspire fear to a people God protects. The City of God rests safe amidst the tributaries of a great river; settled in bedrock, “she shall not be moved.”

1: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2: Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3: Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4: There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5: God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

But the focus of the hymn is martial and aggressive. Although “the heathen raged, [and] the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.” The promise assures that warfare ends in victory and peace: “He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.” The Psalm concludes in God’s own voice, assuring His people that the Covenant with Jacob remains firm and unchanging: “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” God promises that he will subdue the heathen nations and make them worship the one true God, bringing universal peace.

6: The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7: The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
8: Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9: He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10: Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11: The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Psalm 46 reminds us that the psalms are musical performances, choral and instrumental works, obviously of different musical treatment depending on their themes. As quiet, and inward, and steeped in odd tonalities as Psalm 39 would be, Psalm 46 is public and rousing, with thunderous instrumental support in a major key, as is our own “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The “Battle Hymn” in its brilliant imagery depicts God fighting alongside His human agents: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of Wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible Swift sword;…” Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics in 1861 to encourage the troops of the Northern Armies; the tune was already a popular marching song. Psalm 46 is mute on means; it asserts that the long arc of history belongs to God, and means and methods are beside the point. God will provide the five smooth stones, He will bring David to the battle field, and David will slay Goliath. Psalm 46 sings out its rousing confidence that the enemies of God’s people will be overcome, and the City of God will flourish.

Psalm 55 (Robert Alter Translation)

Psalm 55 is a troubled treatment of embattled Israel. The enemies are within the gates, and bitter factionalism has set the power-seekers against the pious. The speaker invokes God’s help against his antagonists who torment him and others who oppose the new regime. He suffers “fear and trembling” and wishes for the “wings of the dove” to escape his suffering. The wicked patrol the ramparts and practice everywhere their terror and deceit. The psalm depicts a “1984” totalitarian culture, where guile and threat have extinguished the voices of those who fear and respect the Lord. Worse yet, the source of the speaker’s hatred and fear is someone with whom he was once close, a friend who worshipped at the temple with him. In the psalm, the speaker addresses this traitor who betrayed their friendship and the community of the faithful.

Hearken, O God, to my prayer,
and do not ignore my plea.
Listen well to me and answer me.
In my complaint I sway and moan.
From the sound of the enemy,
from the crushing force of the wicked
when they bring mischief down upon me
and in fury harass me,
my heart quails within me
and death-terrors fall upon me,

Fear and trembling enter me, and horror envelops me.
And I say “Would I had
Wings like a dove.
I would fly off and find rest.
Look, I would wander far away,
And lodge in the wilderness, selah
Would make haste to a refuge for me
From the streaming wind and storm.”
O Master, confound, split their tongue,
for I have seen outrage and strife in the town;
day and night, they go round it on its walls,
and mischief and misdeeds within it,
Disaster within it,
guile and deceit never part from its square.
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me,
that I might hide from him.

The speaker calls down God’s vengeance upon those who have corrupted the peace and harmony of His law. The anger in the speaker’s voice is emphatic: “God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old.” But in the midst of this political condemnation, he returns to the heart of his dismay, the betrayal by a friend. His contempt and anger is vivid. The speaker wishes to keep his complaint general, but the pain of his friend’s treachery keeps erupting into his formal supplication to God: “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.” The speaker appeals to God to punish the enemies of His peace and civic harmony. However, his friend’s treachery rises up both as emblem of civil discord and main source of his bitter sorrow.

But you – a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we
shared sweet counsel,
in the house of our God in elation we walked.

May death come upon them.
May they go down to Sheol alive.
For in their homes, in their midst, are evils.
But I call to God,
and the Lord rescues me.
Evening and morning and noon
I complain and I moan,
and He hears my voice.
He has ransomed my life unharmed
from my battle,
For many were against me –
Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east,
who never will change and do not fear God.

He reached out his hand against his allies,
Profaned his own pact.
His mouth was smoother than butter –
and battle in his heart.
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords.
Cast your lot on the Lord
and he will support you.
He will never let the righteous stumble.
And you, O God, bring them down
to the pit of destruction.
Men of bloodshed and deceit
will not finish half their days.
But I shall trust in You.

The architecture of God’s law and justice constitutes the peace we seek in our personal lives. In the psalms, general and the specific converge; the law and our desires seek the same ends; the personal and the political cohere. The psalms express the human measure of the law; suffering humanity’s dawning recognitions of what this means in the depths of our emotions. The speaker of Psalm 55 wishes to focus his complaints within a formal framework. However, the betrayal of a friend, a man like himself, strikes him more poignantly than his friend’s betrayal of God. His friend and he grew up together, they prayed together in the temple, they were one person; and now this friend exercises terror and guile against him, having broken the covenant of God but, more important to the speaker, the covenant of friendship.

Psalm 137 Jewish Publication Society
Psalm 137 supports this essay’s argument. Psalms are poems, not only because they have meter and imagery and elevated thoughts and language but because they tell a story and express emotions vividly. We go wrong in sanctifying the Psalms so that the human drama is eclipsed by ethereal concerns. Psalm 137, for example, could be domesticated into a fervent statement of allegiance to Zion. But the force of Psalm 137 is its anger, and we can appreciate that anger only by reconstructing the circumstances of the poem, as the poem insists we do.
The Edomites, a ferocious ally to Babylon, have destroyed Jerusalem. The newly enslaved Israelites are being marched by their Babylonian captors to foreign soil. Along the way, their enemies require of their captives a rejoicing song, for which Israel is famous. The Babylonians were selective in choosing survivors of that holocaust, garnering people of talent in crafts and arts. This particular group is made up of musicians, carrying their lyres with them. They seem to be women since their curse is aimed at their counterparts, the daughters of Babylon. The request of the Babylonian captor is outrageous, and the speaker suitably enraged.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps.
For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The captives are bravely uncooperative; they hang their instruments in the poplar trees and refuse their new masters’ cruel request. They are adamant; the hand that would stroke the strings should wither, and the tongue that would sing should be disabled if they forget their love for Zion. This fierce attachment is more intense than any other source of joy or solace.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.
Remember, O the Lord, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem; who said: ‘Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.’
O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that repayeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the rock.

The psalm’s conclusion is ferocious. The revenge recalls specifically what they have witnessed; the murder of their infants, slaughtered before their eyes. The women bless those who will slaughter the children of Babylonian mothers so they will know what they have done. To preserve Biblical sweetness, some interpreters insist that the cruelty that ends Psalm 137 is not vengeance. But such a view transforms this powerful song of anger into bland piety. When we are done with holocausts, we can afford to mistake the ferocity and grief of Psalm 137.

Psalm 139 (National Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Scholars have attempted to group the psalms into categories – songs of praise, supplication, thanksgiving, wisdom, history psalms, royal psalms, Zion psalms, etc. This is helpful, but it obscures how much each psalm expresses its own drama. There is nothing like Psalm 137, and nothing really like any of the Psalms we have reviewed. Psalm 139, our last, is another special case, and a fitting summation of where all the Psalms are tending.
For those who ask where and what God is, Psalm 139 has much to tell. God is everywhere; in the womb that forms us, deep in our bones and hearts and mind. God is with us always, in our most private places. Before we utter a word, God knows what we will say and what we mean by it, even when we would prefer not to. God resides not only in our pious thoughts but in our hellish ones. When our thoughts lie in darkness, God knows what we feel and think, and judges us without evasion. God is the principle and the force of truth and of goodness, standing aside and judging our deviant selves. God upholds our better self, that part that knows we are going wrong even as we invent fine justifications for our self-betrayal.
LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.

You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be.

God is the perfect law, the way we are intended to live the best version of a human life. Psalm 139 gives voice to conscience, consciousness, and conscientiousness; that is, to the voice within that tells us the truth and fashions the will to carry it out. As in the other psalms, the speaker is human and therefore conflicted. He has sought to hide from God, to escape the burden of goodness and truth and fidelity. But he has found, with some frustration, there is nowhere to hide.

How precious to me are your designs, O God;
how vast the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands;
when I complete them, still you are with me.
When you would destroy the wicked, O God,
the bloodthirsty depart from me!
Your foes who conspire a plot against you
are exalted in vain.

God is everywhere and always, but most especially within, the deep reality that his ungainly self must somehow emulate and obey. He asks: “Probe me, God, know my heart; try me, know my thoughts. See if there is a wicked path in me; lead me along an ancient path.” This inwardness utters itself in constant battle against God’s enemies, those foolish enough not to recognize what is all around and in them. The psalmist speaks his truth; he owes God that.
Do I not hate, LORD, those who hate you?
Those who rise against you, do I not loathe?
With fierce hatred I hate them,
enemies I count as my own.
Probe me, God, know my heart;
try me, know my thoughts.
See if there is a wicked path in me;
lead me along an ancient path.

Psalms suffer from a respect so suffocating that they cannot be read and understood in the genre of their creation. These lyric poems have each of them a dramatic setting that provides them point and poignancy. They gain their power by representing the drama of being human, the speaker caught between aspirations to perfection and the travail of being incomplete and subject to ineluctable forces and incomprehensible events. As with all great poetry, the voices are distinct and the passions are familiar.

Athenian Democracy: the City and its Gods

We live with diminished expectations for our withered democracy. Visitors like de Tocqueville in the 1830s marveled at how well-informed Americans were and how energetic their discussions. Waves of immigrants arrived believing in the promise of a nation “of, by and for the people.” Democracy has been worshipped as a god, as if the concatenation of myriad views and desires would somehow produce truth and goodness. However, from the beginning, the Founders inscribed their misgivings into our Constitution and into state and local laws. If democracy requires a robust faith in the people’s trustworthiness, we have lacked that trust and now experience a robust skepticism. Without the imposing authority of the gods, the city belongs to the pride of its rulers and their quest for power and prominence. The city, even rational and democratic Athens, flies out of control and to its destruction.

Several signs of this healthy distrust are obvious in our history. In 1787 many were excluded from participation – women, enslaved people, transients, those lacking sufficient property – race, class and gender figured prominently in defining the limits of “the people.” One could argue that members of these groups lacked experience and a sufficient stake in outcomes to allow for reliable judgments concerning government. People only passing through or owning no property might make decisions without suffering the consequences. Women and enslaved people had limited experience directing their own lives let alone the fortunes of others.

Political philosophers have always suspected the competence of “the people.” The great many were thought either to be limited to a slavish condition and needing others to lead them, or incapable of the higher considerations of government and limited by nature solely to pursuing animal pleasures. The solution was to look for a wise and high-minded individual, a monarch or prince, to take command. When Moses went off to confer with God, the people erected a Golden Calf. In Plato’s Republic the demos embrace novelty and disorderly delights at the cost of sanity and justice. Machiavelli’s people are fickle and foolish and easily misled.

Even for those welcomed to participate in government, the Founders imposed limitations. The House of Representatives (the “people’s house”) was not a gathering of the people but of representatives. The Founders decided to limit representation; each Congressman to represent no more than 30,000 people. The pamphlet wars between Federalists and Anti-Federalists reflect this battle. The Federalists, the more “republican” side of the debate, distrusted the “people’s house” and pushed for a Senate made up of men of trusted worth, who could withstand the unstable passions of the great many. Although the Federalists established a separation of powers to diffuse governmental power across separate offices, even this appeared insufficient. Anti-Federalists demanded a Bill of Rights to defend the great many not just from the national state but from their intolerance towards one another.

Ideal Democracy is challenged on several fronts: the competence of the people; their participation; representation; administration; mutual tolerance and respect; defining the population … among others. At this late date the people’s will has become an artifact of advertising, polling, and media disguise as non-ideological. Finance, insurance, real estate, banking, the military industries, power companies, information enterprises, entertainment, and so on call the tune. The scale of these interests is expanding and is now global. A well-known financier referred recently to the great many as those “little people,” invoking the imagery of Swift’s Gulliver Travels, in a grotesque but not unjustified reference to an impotent citizenry.

Ancient Athens of the 5th century BCE provides our best example of an attempt at thorough-going democracy. While a city-state of no more than 200,000 residents at its height can hardly provide a model for modern nation-states, several notions may be instructive. Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” offers several challenging lessons on the glories and dangers when the city, in the name of the people, stands in for the gods.

Cleisthenes, and the Formal Structure of Athenian Democracy
The glory of Athens, in architecture and theater, in sculpture and philosophy, continues to amaze us. In one brief century, Athens rose from an agricultural town to dominate the Hellenic world. Pericles argued, and convincingly, that Athenian greatness resulted from its commitment to democracy, forging a self-confident community and unleashing the genius of its people. His “Funeral Oration” analyzes the advantages of democracy and defines its special qualities Yet Athens collapsed quickly after its brilliant century, the victim of plague and war, but also of a blight that lay at the heart of its experiment.

Athenian democracy begins with the rule of Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. He rescued Athens from Spartan efforts to establish a compromised aristocracy to rule the city. The Athenian people rose in violent protest. After this popular revolution, Cleisthenes took command. He reconfigured the original four clans into ten tribes, thus weakening the aristocratic elite. Residents of the town and its surroundings were identified as belonging to one of 139 “demes” (local neighborhoods). These were organized into 30 organizations, ten each in three categories (“trittys”) – open plain, coastal, or hill regions. The newly devised ten tribes each contained one “tritty” from each of the three categories. Without kinship, regional, or occupational commitments, each tribe was to be devoted instead to Athens as a whole.

The earlier reforms of Pisistratus in mid-6th century had assisted this plan. Pisistratus invested resources in developing the economic activity of farmers and artisans. This earlier effort had enriched Athens and developed a class of independent and self-confident producers. Once roused to their productive capabilities and experiencing economic independence, they were unlikely to go peacefully back into compliance with the interests of an aristocracy.

Cleisthenes’ plan for Athenian democracy was bold:
Population – citizenship was limited to adult males with familial ties to Athens. Estimates suggest 30,000 citizens (3,000 per tribe).
Participation – the Assembly would decide all public matters. All citizens were invited to participate and vote at its regular meetings. The meeting-place could accommodate 6,000 people, and citizens were seated on a first-come basis
Planning – the Council of 500, made up of 50 members from each of the ten tribes, would determine the agenda of issues for the Assembly to consider;
Political Competence – no Council member could serve more than two annual terms during his lifetime, thus assuring widespread familiarity with the workings of government. The Council appointed administrators to conduct ongoing affairs, such as public building and trade agreements, and selected officials to lead during a crisis, such as military defense of the city. The Council assessed the effectiveness of officials they appointed. Leadership within the Council of 500 rotated to each group of 50 during the ten periods it was in session each year;
Privilege – ancient prerogatives were to be disregarded; in its place, sharing the opportunity to rule and succeeding by merit became the primary considerations.

Cleisthenes, it appears, believed that history could be set aside to construct the world anew and on a rational/practical basis. The evils of our nature could be corrected by broad social awareness and subjecting all matters to wide debate. The versatility and extensive experience of the great many could outstrip the brilliance of any single individual or small group. The combined wisdom of the people would control the ambition for personal power. Indeed, Athens adopted a rule of ostracism, voting annually to determine whether any citizen needed to be exiled to protect the community. The need of the great many to find a hero to direct the people’s force would be absorbed in the business of governing and by the growing confidence of the people in themselves and one another.

Athens survived the Persian threat and the virtual destruction of the city in 490 BCE, and won a great victory in the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE). Emerging from decades of war, Athens took the lead of the Delian League, a confederation of Hellenic cities. However, the glory of Athens lay ahead (450-427 BCE) under the leadership of Pericles. And Pericles, as his contemporary Thucydides remarks, effectively bent democracy to his will and placed its talents and energies under his command. Athens became, as seems inevitable, a deformed democracy under the practical command of a single brilliant and cunning individual.

Pericles, the Funeral Oration

Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a inquiry into the causes and events of the long struggle that pitted Athens against Sparta and its allies. [1] Pericles spoke at the conclusion of the war’s first year, at a moment promising Athens’ success. The funeral commemorating the war dead was a formal event. Pericles defines the character of Athenian democracy, identifying features we might overlook. He glosses over the strains that had already introduced one-man domination. Some of Pericles’ claims belie events Thucydides reports (especially the comment that conquered peoples gleefully accepted Athenian rule). Several features Pericles celebrates in his account of Athens’ glory for its destruction.

Pericles asserts that his speech cannot succeed. Some, he notes, will find his remarks praising the valor of fallen heroes inadequate; while others will envy the dead for receiving his ringing praise. Athenians hold conflicting attitudes and make independent judgments, even about a funeral oration. His rhetorical maneuver demonstrates Pericles’ cunning, praising his listeners for independent judgments while artfully directing their response.

Pericles makes a startling claim. While Pericles honors the founders of two generations ago for loving liberty, he praises their progeny for preserving their inheritance and purchasing “this our present dominion.” The previous generation expanded the city and increased its wealth. Even so, “we ourselves … have enlarged and so furnished the city with everything, both for peace and war, as it is now all-sufficient in itself.” Those who stand before him, Pericles asserts, exceed their forebears. This is a stunning claim. We are accustomed to “Golden Age” humility by which the present at best merely reflects the superior valor of ancestors. Founders are always portrayed as wise in their simplicity and dedicated to the best ideals. For Pericles, however, the present moment is the age for mythic deeds and heroes stand before him. None have been as inventive and energetic as his contemporaries, tasked with expanding Athens and reshaping the world in its image. Pericles fears no god’s reproof for these boasts.

Pericles explains how democratic institutions insure their victories. He reminds his listeners that Athenians think things through. Athens is great not because Athenians are inherently superior but because they have devised a superior form of social organization. The city derives its democracy, Pericles proclaims, from no previous model; Athens created itself. Democracy’s equality encourages and employs the strengths of all its citizens. Even so, Pericles distinguishes between legal equality in private concerns and a meritocracy in public matters. While poverty is no bar to public service, Athens is no communistic utopia. In place of mere rotation of officials, citizens are selected to serve the state because of merit. Citizens enjoy equal rights in private matters – in individual property concerns, for example; and citizens respect individuality and tolerate eccentricities among neighbors. “We do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes.”

Athens’ new aristocracy of talent and character is not based on wealth or family. The Council of 500 changed is membership annually. Perhaps as many as 45% of citizens would have served in the Council, and since the term limit was restrictive, leadership could never consolidate around a single person or small group. While this provision insured maximum participation, it could never use especially talented individuals effectively. By diminishing the powers of the Council of 500 and turning to executive appointments, Pericles devised a more concerted leadership over a city that was growing in size and complexity. Pericles transformed Athenian democracy into something more apparent than real. Cleisthenes’ plan could not accommodate what Athens had become, a city growing rapidly in size, wealth, and power, with new social strata, and with increasingly complex foreign relations. However, without the authority of the gods, nothing remained to restrain visions of further glory.

This new elite with special talents benefits the city. Their service allows the city to make best use of their talents and curtails individuals success in accumulating power, wealth or renown. Leadership is open to people from families without wealth or prominence. Athens has no contempt for poverty but only for poor people who make no effort to improve their circumstances. In other city-states, citizens who involve themselves with public affairs, without a special claim to do so, are thought of as meddling in matters that do not concern them. In Athens, however, “we regard him who takes no part in public duties not as unambitious but as useless.” In Pericles’ democracy, service to the state becomes the sole measure of worth.

Athens, Pericles insists, is also devoted to pleasure. While busying itself with matters of state, the democratic city also supports a delightful life for its citizens; “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy.” Athens offers annual games and religious celebrations to drive away sadness. The port of Athens abounds with the produce of the entire world. Having acquired a substantial empire, Athenians enjoy unrivalled wealth. Athenians, Pericles notes, delight in the splendor of their private homes and public buildings. Wealth and grandeur testify to democracy’s enterprising energies and cement the power of the state.

Famous for strict militarism, Sparta has been cast too easily as the fascist enemy of freedom-loving Athens. To be fair, Sparta had its own version of equality (one more inclusive of women). Sparta had kings, but men served the state in regimented and painfully equal ways. In Sparta a small group of citizens dominated a much larger work force of enslaved people (called “helots”). Helot labor, largely agricultural, served the city’s needs, but presented a constant threat of rebellion. To survive, Sparta trained its citizens harshly in the arts of warfare. Spartan men lived in barracks and in constant military training. They ate rough food and avoided pleasures to harden themselves for military exploits. Life’s amenities were sacrificed to the state. Mothers raised their sons to return from battle with their shields or upon them.

In contrast, a democratic culture, Pericles claims, arms itself for conquest and defense without militarizing its society. While Sparta focused on war preparation and all but abandoned the sort arts of a civilized society, Athens takes a casual approach. Athens chooses not to close its city to foreign visitors. A closed city loses the advantages of commerce and creates a climate of secrecy and fear. According to Pericles, there are no secrets to Athenian superiority in warfare, no tricks a spy might discover. Herodotus made a similar claim: free people fighting for what belongs to them are superior to enslaved warriors terrorized by the cruelty of their generals. While this could not be fairly said of Spartans, their militarized regime, Pericles claims boastfully, makes them inferior in battle despite the hard training. Strengthened by their devotion to their city, Athenian forces win battles even in the enemy’s homeland.

A democratic society, Pericles claims, cultivates the whole man rather than devoting all energy to warfare. The Athenian has time for reflection and thoughtfulness — and especially for discussion. Athens delays action until a plan has achieved settled agreement. Athens does not fear that thinking leads to weakness. Its philosophy consults action in the world and not in the clouds. Athenians love beautiful things; grand private houses and public buildings ease the mind and enlarge the spirit with admiration. In Athens, even craftsmen join the discussion and are thought poor citizens if they do not. Athenians after full discussion feel confident in going forth to achieve their objectives; “… in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point.”

At the heart of Pericles’ immodest claims lies the assertion that Athenian democracy has remade human nature. In the Homeric age, a hero leaps into danger, never counting the costs. Warriors are too manly for doubts and discussion; thinking undermines resolve. In the heroic world, the business of state belongs exclusively to aristocrats freed from a life of labor to devote themselves wholly to war-craft. Specialization, not versatility, insures power. However, Pericles boasts, “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.” In that Homeric world private goals, and not the shared strength of the community, fuel heroic action. In addition, Athens has proved that giving gifts creates loyal friends since ongoing praise for generosity cements friendships. Human nature is not made up of low grasping instincts. Pericles invites his audience to believe that the city has accomplished a new creation, the new man of Athens. Empire – Roman, British, and American — breeds such impiety.

For Pericles, Athens is the teacher for all Greek city-states. The Athenian represents a “new man” – think of the 19th century character Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. The Athenian is versatile – a warrior, a thinker, and a craftsman; a person of civil manners but fierce in battle – “his person disposed to most diversity of actions, and yet all with grace and decency.” The proof of these claims is Athens’ achievements and conquests – a pragmatic claim familiar to our no-nonsense culture. Athens conquers its neighbors, and the conquered welcome their conquerors. Subject cities join a larger empire and benefit from being associated with Athens. It is no dishonor to be beaten by worthy men; Athens represents the new way of things, a claim invented long before our own delusions and imperial arrogance.

The epic of Athens, Pericles claims, is one of deeds, not words. Future ages will know the grandeur of Athens through the long ages of her empire and the city’s splendor – “we shall be admired for a power … which requires no Homer to praise it … For by our courage we have opened for us all seas and lands and set up eternal monuments everywhere both of the evil we have done to our enemies and the good we have done to our friends.” Despite these broad claims, in five years Athenian grandeur will be dragged in the mud as they fling the remains of family members un-honored upon dismal plague carts trolling the city collecting the dead.

Pericles depicts the war dead as exemplifying the excellence of Athens. Their valor honors the city; and their deaths benefit the state for which fellow citizens have so much to be thankful. The democratic city has room for private enjoyments, but reality is served by public acts, and the full judgment of the worth of a man depends upon his service to the state, which is coterminous with the community. As the trial of Socrates will demonstrate twenty-five years on, the tyranny of the great many can be as totalitarian as that of any despot.

Pericles addresses citizens who are fighting in Athens’ wars, and his account of war’s horror is not scrubbed clean. To die well, warriors embrace fear and welcome death, even as events bring them to their moment of catastrophe — “putting the uncertainty of success to the test of their hope … relying upon themselves in the action, and therein choosing rather to fight and die than to shrink and be saved, they fled from shame, and committed their bodies to the battle; and so in a moment whilst fortune inclines neither way, relinquished their lives not in fear but in hopes of victory.” Pericles artfully urges his listeners to imagine that poised moment between panic and heroic action — “on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.” Their reward is not heaven or the praise of the gods but the honor accorded them by the city.

Those who perished died loving the city and not for wealth or monuments, or to be memorialized in public speeches. The city’s blessings were purchased with the lives of the fallen; their valor makes the rest love their city more – “… you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.” Athens’ victories advance human development, says Pericles. Those who die in battle need no tears; remorse is for those who had led tender lives and lacked fortitude. The city marks the height of human accomplishment; to die for this, Pericles exhorts his countrymen, earns the highest honor.

Pericles’ remarks defining the tasks of mourners shock us; they reveal even more the totalitarian undercurrent to this democracy. Mothers should realize that their dead sons are now beyond the reach of life’s shocks. Parents who are young enough should produce more children, to replace the fallen and to serve the city. The true test for citizenship is sending sons to battle: “For it is not likely that they should equally give good counsel to the state that have not children to be equally exposed to danger in it.” Children of the dead should take comfort in their fathers’ honor: while praise of the living breeds envy and resentment, honors ennobling the dead excite no jealousy. State rewards for valor insure that Athens will be the home of virtuous men. The city’s needs take precedence over personal grief.

Pericles describes a utopian aspiration; the self-sacrifice he urges requires rhetorical embroidery because it is neither immediate nor fully embraced; those whom Athens conquers curse their subjugation more than Athenian imperialism prefers to imagine; and Pericles himself constitutes a monarchical force at the epicenter of Athenian politics. The qualities Pericles praises – a well-schooled citizenry, merit ascendant over class and family, broad tolerance, a love for the good life, open discussion, versatility and pragmatic judgment, respect for service to the community, and the harmonizing of public and private concerns – are all features to which democracy aspires. Less clear is their cost in the totalitarian setting Pericles requires. When the city is god, no force can reach beyond it and no person can be free of it.

Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War refuses to editorialize on the fall of Athens. Instead, he describes reckless arrogance. The “Funeral Oration” should stand as a warning to our own imperial over-reaching. Athens is not the democracy it imagines; that democracy died with the neutering of the Council of 500 and the rise of new elites interested in admiring themselves in the mirror of the city’s grandeur. Athens treated its neighbors crudely and sometimes brutally – notably at Melos where the Athenians slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children when the city refused to surrender (asked why this massacre, the Athenians responded because they had the power to do it). The destruction of Athens is often attributed to the effects of a terrible plague that depleted the city and killed Pericles, but Thucydides tells the story instead of a city-state corrupted by visions of its own perfection and blind to the old forces of pride and cruelty masked by the gleaming surfaces of wealth and power. In ostracizing God’s truth, Athens guaranteed its destruction.

[1] All references are to the translation by Richard Crawley, published and revised in 1874.

The Holy Quran

The Holy Quran

The Quran is the guide to life, this life and the next, for a billion people. It is the most completely read book in the world and likely in world history. Muslims know the Quran with unmatched devotion. Unlike other scriptures in the Abrahamic tradition – the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament – the Quran presents itself as the direct word of God, revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and the fulfillment of all previous revelations. Muslims can recite long passages from memory, some capable of reciting all 114 Suras.

The challenge for non-Muslims is to read the Quran for purposes other than prevailing political controversies. It does no good, for example, to read the Quran to discover how much it matches modern western orthodoxies regarding women’s rights. Would reading the Hebrew Bible be productive if we read to decide how far that scripture disappointed our current sensibilities about homosexuality or peace between nations? What if we approach the Quran in a friendly manner, assuming that the devotion, respect, passion, and love accorded this book over so many centuries signals extraordinary intrinsic worth and an opportunity to expand our understanding of God’s Truth and what it means to be human?

Although the Quran stands by itself, it helps to understand its historical context. Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca into the Hashemite clan of the powerful Quraysh tribe. Although Muhammad was born to a family of merchant princes, his father died when the Prophet was an infant and his mother died during his early childhood. A paternal uncle raised him, and he became an able and respected businessman. At age forty, and finding no solace in the idol worship of his tribe, Muhammad retreated to a nearby cave to meditate during the month-long celebration of Ramadan. Emerging from a deep meditation, he was accosted by the angel Gabriel who demanded that he “recite” what the angel revealed to him. That recitation, carried on over more than twenty-two years (610-632 A.D.), is the Quran. Muhammad’s heavenly assignment produced a revolution in Arab history. His early preaching in Mecca, condemning idolatry gathered converts and brought first suspicion and then hostility from the Quraysh. Muhammad and his community fled to Medina, and found there a few brother Muslims but also hostile Arabs and a Jewish community whose alliances proved treacherous. The Muslims were victorious in a series of battles in which their fighting spirit and intensity won victories against great odds. In a few short years, Muhammad and his numerous converts returned to Mecca in triumph. One of the signs the Quran celebrates of God’s Truth are these improbable triumphs inspired by Muhammad’s faith and single-mindedness.

The Quran includes 114 Suras, or steps; however, their arrangement is complicated. The Suras are of unequal length — from Sura 2, which comprises almost one-fifth of the entire work, to Suras of three lines of verse. The longer Suras are made up of sections which change subject abruptly. Some Suras represent Muhammad’s earliest days in Mecca and others his later embattled days in Medina; some are meditations, while others focus on law-giving and organizing a new society.

The Quran, however, is not organized to present historical progression. It is not a history book but a revelation from God of what is required of us. It helps to understand the Quran as having three faces: (1) the longer and later Suras setting legislation and treating practical matters such as business investments and contracts, property rights and inheritance, and legal process; (2) several Suras telling stories, usually re-interpretations of Hebrew Scripture (The Sura “Joseph” is the most extensive); and (3) visionary verses – in an impassioned voice carried by propulsive rhythms and sonant music. The Quran carries its readers from the practical to the mystical, from witnessing a contract to witnessing our embattled lives, from the glory of the beginning to the grandeur, terror, and rapture of the cataclysmic end.

The Quran warns those who refuse to understand God’s requirements. The tone is urgent, often vengeful. Gabriel commiserates with his Prophet because so many refuse to grasp this revelation. The Hebrew Bible, Gabriel notes, is riddled with confusion and half-told stories. What can we expect from a compendium of texts from different times and places, many authors, and an unclear account of God’s law? In addition, the Hebrew Bible, so focused on ritual and legalisms, muddles God’s message in inconsequential detail. These complications lead in turn to theological wrangling, burying God’s requirements under scholarly and schismatic argumentation, serving the pride of commentators rather than God’s Truth. According to the Quran, it is no wonder the Jews strayed from God’s purposes when their scriptures lack authority and precision.

The Christian Scriptures are similarly derivative, the four Gospels having been written decades after the events by authors who depended upon hearsay and fables. Worse yet, the New Testament commits a grievous error in asserting the divinity of Jesus (’Isa). God requires no anointed intermediaries; in the Quran’s view, such a claim sins against logic. When God wants something done, He speaks and it is done. Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet who grasps God’s Truth and explains how to know Him. A brilliant teacher, Jesus clarifies the confusion of Jewish laws and rituals and exposes those who exalt themselves in God’s name. Still, Jesus offers only a clouded account of God. The Quran, in contrast, delivers God’s Truth directly in a single, coherent expression. Gabriel conveys what God wants us to know; Muhammad, recites what he has heard; and humankind finally knows what God wants and how the drama of our lives is fashioned.

Gabriel reports God’s anger at those who deny the validity of this final revelation. Allah spoke to the Jews and then to those who became Christians. Yet, when a perfect rendition of those marred messages is finally offered to humankind, Jews and Christians, in their pride and confusion, reject it. They ought to welcome this complete revelation, but instead they mock it and plot against its messenger. The Quran’s anger is directed especially to the “People of the Book,” as the Jews are called. Jews resent that this final revelation is brought to the Arabs and not to God’s chosen people. The Jews have become disputatious, specializing in elaborate evasions from the simplicity of God’s demands. Gabriel provides amusing accounts of these evasions and promises fierce retribution against those who lawyer with the dictates of the Almighty. Tribal arrogance, the need to maintain the clerical power structure, and individual pride at the skill of disputation make these people incapable of grasping simple truths. Jesus’ teachings simplified the 613 laws of the Sinai revelation to two – love God and love your neighbor. The Quran identifies a single commandment – “Submit” (in Arabic, “Islam”).

The Quran’s account of Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael dramatizes this confrontation. Gabriel reminds us that Abraham was not a Jew since the Jewish nation had not been constituted. Abraham was a man of desert peoples, chosen and tested to exemplify the simple truth of Man’s relation to his Creator. Demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s dearest, God insists that Abraham submit. Man must have, even against all calls of mind and heart, complete faith in God. This one command reveals the core truth, without which all else is insignificant. Was it Isaac or Ishmael who was to be sacrificed? The Quran remains oddly mute. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, according to the Hebrew Bible, and ultimately the progenitor of the Arab peoples. Gabriel reminds us that – correcting the tribal tilt of the Hebrew Bible – Ishmael was also beloved and that father and son joined in constructing the Kabah, the house of prayer still standing in Mecca at the center of Muslim devotion. The Quran reveres both sons as prophets, teachers, and the father of nations. Gabriel corrects this tribal privileging and makes God’s choosing a proof of a universal rather than a proprietary plan for revelation and salvation.

The later Suras, from Muhammad’s Medina years, express dismay and disappointment at the refusal of the Jews to embrace this new revelation from their God. Not only had they rejected Gabriel’s message, but they joined the enemies of emerging Islam to crush it. The hostility expressed by Gabriel towards this betrayal seethes with contempt. Muhammad’s military response to the defection of the Jewish community of Medina was to slaughter all the men and send the women and children into slavery for violating agreements and siding with Muhammad’s enemies. Gabriel recalls that the Jewish people were always ungrateful and ready to retreat into idol worship. For the Quran the Golden Calf incident expresses all that is wayward and dishonorable in humankind. Even with Moses to lead them and after witnessing numerous miracles, the Jews embrace idolatry. Gabriel recalls the harsh response of Moses and the mass slaughter of those who turned their backs on God. These objects of God’s special care consistently failed the test of holiness and honor. God’s redemption of humankind surely required a different approach.

While the Quran holds Islam to be the true religion, the new message teaches tolerance towards those faithful to God as their traditions portray Him. Some Jews have kept faith with God, maintained humility, and resisted the allure of power and riches, have satisfied their obligation to the poor and distressed, and have kept to their devotions with a pure heart. Some Christians have resisted schismatic theologizing and the idolatry of God in a human figure; they, too, observe the essential truths of submission to God and service to ones fellows. Even in these deformed scriptures, God’s Truth shines through for those who see properly.

To Christians the Quran’s teachings will appear overly engaged with this world. The New Testament envisions an imminent apocalypse. Jesus assures his listeners that some will see the coming of God’s Judgment. Why bother with family and children, with property and inheritance, when this world will soon melt away? The New Testament, therefore, establishes few practical laws for society while both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran see the necessity of regulating behavior in this sinful and distorted world. The Books of Moses specify rules governing marriage and property and settling disputes, as well as dietary laws and regulations of personal hygiene. The Quran does the same.

Gabriel insists that ritual observance is secondary to devotion to God. God requires fasting during the month of purification. However, if you are sickly and fasting would harm you, God is Merciful and never wishes us to injure ourselves. God sees no problem in our succeeding in this world, so long as pursuit of wealth does not detract from our obligations to treat others compassionately and submit to God in all things. The Quran denounces those who live solely for riches, but wealthy people can earn paradise as readily the poor. Similarly, the Quran teaches that God does not require abstaining from sexual intercourse during the month of purification. Our sexual desires belong to God’s plan; denying this nature does nothing but harm us. The law of retaliation also illustrates Islam’s practicality. If you are done an injury unjustly, you must retaliate; otherwise you will harbor bitter feelings that damage you.

The David and Goliath story figures prominently in revising codes of peacefulness. David exemplifies the victory of faith over fear; most would avoid the dangers of war, either to be injured or to injure others. Rather than belittle this human feeling, the Quran argues instead the occasional need to relinquish peacefulness to defend the community. Submission requires overcoming fear and embracing David’s faith that God protects pious warriors. The Quran demonstrates psychological realism and accommodates human nature to God’s demands.

While these accommodations may blur some certainties, the Quran draws sharp lines in critical matters. Only by submission to God do we fulfill our nature, give our lives meaning, and shape our community. Willfulness, pride, and subjection to this world’s temptations will otherwise destroy us. I recently asked a Muslim friend, a young woman, how the Quran benefits her, and she identified four items: the Qur’an (1) makes me feel safe knowing that others around me have received moral instruction to control their sinful desires; (2) helps me recognize sinful thoughts in myself and protects me against my acts and thoughts that would disrupt my soul’s peace; (3) gives me confidence that this turbulent world leads to the next world where everything is in harmony (this helps me keep my soul in tune); and (4) keeps me safe in the loving embrace of Allah. God’s demands, while not easily met, are not complicated: “Those that have faith and do good works, attend to their prayers and render the alms levy, will be rewarded by their Lord and will have nothing to fear or to regret” (p. 41). * Like Jesus’ simplification — Love God, love thy neighbor – Islam’s demands are straight-forward.

The Quran, nevertheless, foresees dangers everywhere. Its harsh tone in many verses reflects a realistic assessment of human waywardness. The pious community is beset by enemies. In his earliest days, Muhammad confronted idolaters. The Quraysh had introduced stone deities into the Kabah constructed by Abraham and Ishmael. Instead of one God who transcends understanding, idolaters prefer golden calves. In contrast, intellectuals cannot resist complicating God’s message in the pride of their own wit and willfulness. The priests resist relinquishing their powers and privileges in the service of a God they have made useful to them. Hypocrites seem pious, but defy the holiness of their public faces in their devious hearts. Jews resent God’s messenger, offended that God would announce Himself to others. Worst of all apostates recant their devotion to Islam, usually for political or social convenience. Gabriel foresees the dangers of schism, where God is forgotten in the cacophony of proud adherents to specialized interpretations. Gabriel assures Muhammad that disbelievers have already been cursed by God and that nothing can change them. Like Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened, God has tricked these enemies into false confidence. The Quran addresses those whose faith needs strengthening to face Islam’s enemies.

To counter these threats, the Quran assaults those who breed confusion. The Quran contains severe warnings and delicious mockery: its literary brilliance is in conveying this harsh disfavor and joyful condemnation. The Quran resembles Dante’s Inferno, not only in depicting hell’s fearful torments but also in vividly depicting the behavior that earns the damned their eternal pain. The Quran has long been noted for its poetic excellence. When Gabriel challenges those who doubt the Quran’s authenticity to emulate its literary excellence, this is no empty boast. The poetic achievement shines particularly in the earliest Suras from the Meccan period. My own favorite is “Clots of Blood”; any of the last twenty Suras demonstrate the Quran’s poetic economy and vivacity. But the Quran’s literary excellence is more than sound and rhythm; its visionary imagination and Gabriel’s triumphant voice shine everywhere.

The Quran’s depictions of sinners in hell are seasoned with malice and glee at their come-uppance. They “will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge” (4:56). When the sinner awakens into the terror of the next world, he realizes his dreadful mistake: “when he called for help, every hardened sinner came to grief. Hell will stretch behind him, and putrid water shall he drink: he will sip but scarcely swallow. Death will assail him from every side, yet he shall not die” (14:15-16). Gabriel assures us: “we will call them to account in company with all the devils and set them on their knees before the fire of Hell: from every sect we will carry off its stoutest rebels against the Lord of Mercy. We know best who deserves to be burnt therein” (19:70).

Triumphant vengeance motivates these lurid descriptions and the gleeful anticipation of justice served:

The hour of Doom is drawing near, and the moon is cleft in two. Yet, when they see a sign, the unbelievers turn their backs and say: “Ingenious sorcery!”

They deny the truth and follow their own fancies. But in the end all issues shall be laid to rest.

Cautionary tales, profound in wisdom, have been narrated to them: but warnings are unavailing.

Let them be. The day the Crier summons them to the dread account, they shall come out from their graves with downcast eyes, and rush towards him like swarming locusts. The unbelievers will cry: “This is indeed a woeful day!”

[An account follows of the warning signs sent to the generation of Noah of the impending flood.]

This We left as a sign, but will any take heed? How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning!

We have made the Koran easy to remember: but will any take heed?

[The city of] ‘Ad, too, did not believe. How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning. On a day of unremitting woe, We let loose on them a howling wind which snatched them off like trunks of uprooted palm-trees. How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning!

We have made the Koran easy to remember: but will any take heed?        (The Moon, 54: 1-23)


The moon cleft in two is a shocking image, like Othello’s cosmological disorders portraying his catastrophe. The deft sketch of the unbelievers’ disdain, depicted in a brief gesture and contemptuous phrase, and the narcissism of preferring their own fancies, followed by the irony of “wait and see what that will get you” show literary skill. “Let them be” is brilliantly terse – No need for rescuing unbelievers; their fate is sealed. The sketch of damned souls awakening on the Judgment Day is comic, in that Dantean way, as is their cry of dismay, “This is indeed a woeful day,” the decorous equivalent of “Oh, shit!” The repeated antiphonal phrases build to a terrific crescendo: “We have made the Koran …” and “How grievous was My scourge ….” The Sura, “The Moon,” is simply one instance of Quranic wit and literary power.

Much of the force of the Quran’s argument is poetic. In addition to terrors of hell for unbelievers and lush gardens for the faithful, many signs of God’s blessings anchor the Quran’s argument. The proof of God’s existence requires no theological casuistry: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alteration of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean with cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which He revives the earth after its death, dispersing over it all manner of beasts; in the disposal of the winds, and in the clouds that are driven between sky and earth; surely in these there are signs for rational men” (2: 164-165). “It was He that gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light, ordaining her phases that you may learn to compute the seasons and the years” (10: 5). “This present life is like the rich garment with which the earth adorns itself when watered by the rain We send down from the sky. Crops, sustaining man and beast, grow luxuriantly; but, as its tenants begin to think themselves its masters, down comes Our scourge upon it, by night or in broad day, laying it waste, as if it did not blossom but yesterday. Thus do We make plain Our revelations to thoughtful men” (10: 23-26).

The Quran requires us to be grateful for God’s bounty in creating our lives, the life around us, and a rich setting for our spiritual drama. What argument does a sensible person need, more than the following: “By one of His signs He created you from dust; and, behold, you became humans and multiplied throughout the earth. By another sign He gave you spouses from among yourselves, that you may live in peace with them, and planted love and kindness in your hearts, ..”? Among other signs, Gabriel notes “the diversity of your tongues and colors” and “lightning, inspiring you with fear and hope, ..” (30:19-24). God blesses us with these natural phenomena, but also with the poetic imagination to understand what they tell us about His purposes: “It is God that drives the winds that stirs the clouds. He spreads them as he will in the heavens and breaks them up, so you can see the rain falling from their midst. When He sends it down upon his servants they are filled with joy, though before its coming they may have lost all hope” (30: 48-49). The rain refreshes the earth, but its theatrics address us in spiritual communication, God’s message to our struggling souls. The rain is a gift, and so is the power to grasp the metaphor and make spiritual use of it.

Gabriel’s assurance of resurrection is no less poetical: “Does man think he will be left alone, to no purpose? Was he not a drop of ejaculated semen? He became a clot of blood; then God formed and molded him, and gave him male and female parts. Has He no power, then, to raise the dead to life?” (75: 39-40). If resurrection is a miracle, so is our existence to begin with. We emerge from an immense darkness, so why suppose this will not happen again?

Western readers struggle with the Quran. The poetry is too fervent, and the narratives imprecise and scattered. The Quran seems disorderly. The revelations it recites, however, are each complete in themselves. Neither the mind of God, nor the events that prompt these revelations can be tamed by the literary demand for historical or logical coherence. Those who shaped the Quran resisted imposing order upon the ineffable. Ordering the Suras merely by inverse length defies the impulse to impose our parochial sense of meaning.

There is, however, another problem with our narrative expectations. Hebrew Bible stories contain complex moving parts. The stories of Joseph and his brothers, or the biography of King David, unfold over many pages, with clear characterization, motivation, and rises and falls of plot. The stories are embedded in history, carefully located in time and place. We begin in the beginning, the skein of time and consequence unfolding reliably. Christian gospels offer a biography of Jesus and the arc of a powerful story. The Quran, although containing some extended narratives, resists this architecture.

Gabriel assumes we know the previous scriptures. The Quran adds details to familiar stories; some are consequential, as in the accounts of Abraham and Ishmael, and others add intrigue to stories we know, as in Potiphar’s wife’s assault on Joseph, or infant Jesus teaching from the cradle. However, these narratives try our patience and resemble intrusive commentaries. Even Joseph’s tale, seems rushed and incomplete. The Quran’s intent is too urgent for story-telling. Cosmic lessons have no time for story-telling. God writes with ink that fills the seas many times over, but the point is to get to the point – submit to God, say your prayers, perform good works, and fear the day of reckoning.

Quran stories share a common plot: unbelievers mock God’s warnings and then pay a terrible price for their arrogance. Noah’s story figures prominently. God chooses Noah to warn the people of the impending flood; the people respond with derision; the flood, then, takes them by surprise and drowns them for the sins. Unbelievers think they are clever, but God is far more clever than they can imagine and entices them to their destruction. The joke is on those who think they are so funny. Devils lead them into sin, often usury and accumulating riches; narcissistic, they mistake their fancies for God’s Truth; hewing to tribal conventions (Plato’s cave of illusions) deafens them to God’s message; and pride in their own intellect allows them to imagine they can construct their own laws of life – this plot of come-uppance, the shocked discovery they have been wrong about what matters most, provides the story-line. The Quran has one story to tell, the story of urgent warning.

The Quran’s humor is surprising, given its grim message. The story that provides the majestic Sura “The Cow” its name, for example, is amusing. God requires the Israelites to sacrifice a cow and Moses makes the request. However, leading Israelites – wealthy, and devious, and expert at lawyering — are reluctant to lose the cow. To delay, they request several specifications – a great absurdity, given the request’s source. What kind of a cow, they ask; what color, they query; but which one exactly, they ask, does “your God” demand? Only after Moses outwits them do they relent and, in humiliation, perform the sacrifice. Sometimes the humor lies in an ingeniously apt detail. God, for example, does not miss one atom of what occurs in this world, not the weight of a single date pit. Literary wit appears also in wise sayings: “Each soul is the hostage of its own deeds” (74: 44); “For every soul there is a guardian watching it” (86: 4); “The life of this world is but a sport and a pastime” (47: 36); “He whom God guides is rightly guided; but he whom He confounds shall find no friend to guide him” (18: 17); “Many are the marvels of the heavens and the earth; yet they pass them by and pay no heed to them” (12: 105); “Do not be led by passion, lest you swerve from truth” (4: 135). These crisp sententiae, appealing to the imagination, make wisdom memorable.

Enjoying the Quran requires something other than the comforts of sustained narrative. The Quran demands hyper-alertness appropriate to its urgency. Because its format is episodic — with shards of narrative, bursts of poetry, richly evocative sayings, deft depictions of things unseen, the thunderous voice of God’s angel, and sweet evocations of this world’s beauty (each erupting unexpectedly) — the reader must weigh every word and never relax into the dreamy pace of stories. Time is not a moment in a narrative but always right now, right here, with the message sharpened to awaken us from earthly slumber.

Urgency, defiance, gleeful anticipation of the undoing of others is the continuing message. Sadly, the embattled circumstance of the original Muslim community continues to produce mayhem and catastrophe today. While there are comments supporting tolerance – “Believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right – shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret” (2: 62) –others promote violence against those who resist the one true faith – “He that chooses a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him and in the world to come he will surely be among the losers” (3: 86), and “Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you” (2: 191) – as well as the many aggrieved statements identifying Jews as the enemy of Islam. The Quran insists on recalling the old bloody challenge to Islam’s message, and today that ferocity fuels fundamentalist mayhem. The destruction of Christian churches and of Ahmaddiyah mosques in Indonesia is only another dark chapter in violence and intolerance. The deadly confrontation of Sunni and Shiite drowns the Arab world in blood. As with other faiths, Islam has failed to overcome what the Quran most fears; that heresies and wrangling over theological differences will lead to bloodshed.

While the Quran serves poorly as a guide to peace, the Hebrew Bible also reflects an embattled history and a call to violence. If anything, the Hebrew Bible, because of its narrow ethnic focus may present greater problems and has justified violence in the past and today. The Bible’s Tower of Babel tale depicts human diversity as a curse; the Quran praises God for having created many human tongues and colors.

The West attacks the Quran for its treatment of women. True, in apportioning rights and legal remedies, the Quran differentiates between men and women. However, we should recall that the Quran emerged when women had no such rights anywhere. Women are to receive a lesser portion in inheritance; however, they do have a right to property. They can divorce their husbands. They have status in judicial matters. They are protected from abuse, both physical and emotional. And most important, the Quran enforces a code of modesty on men and women that protects both from violence to others and one’s self. None of these provisions existed in the United States until well into the twentieth century, and in some matters, not even today. Also, the Quran protects women while avoiding the puritanical strictures that haunt Anglo-Saxon societies. Sex is a joyful gift of God and comfort to both men and women – “… they are a comfort to you, as you are to them” (2: 187). The attack by pornographic cultures upon Islamic modesty is ignorant and hypocritical.

The Quran guides the lives of a billion people and has a treasured place among classic works that explore our nature and our fate. Here Jacob and the Angel wrestle again. Do we become victims of our lusts for power and pleasure? Will we be led into confusion by our narcissism, our endlessly inventive fancies, and the pliability of our intellects? Or will we accept the challenge to struggle for God’s Truth, for pure souls and healthy communities? The Quran reminds us that there are countless ways to squander God’s blessings, and this struggle, this Jihad, can be won only by fortitude and fierce attentiveness.

* The quotations are from N. J. Dawood, The Koran, Penguin Classics, 1993. Muslims do not consider a translation to be their holy book but instead an interpretation. The Quran exists only in Arabic. This does not differ from the outlook of orthodox Jews for whom the Hebrew Bible exists only in Hebrew.

Imagining Many Gods: Sappho and Homer

Imagining Many Gods: Sappho and Homer

The ancient writers – were they like us, or were they different? Perhaps people are people and their ancient problems continue to be ours today. But suppose what is common for us would be alien for them, and their experience unfathomable to us? If they were really different, then our self-understanding could turn out to be limited, maybe even nonsensical. Studying the past could be unsettling if not dangerous. I prefer the second option. It means the ancients have something to teach us about ourselves, and some of these things may turn out to be beyond our common understanding.

The ancient Greeks worshipped many gods. We are likely to be familiar with the Olympian Deities. Still, it is easy to become confused; each has both a Greek and a Roman name – most prominently, Zeus (Jupiter); Hera (Juno); Poseidon (Neptune); Hades (Pluto); Aphrodite (Venus); Ares (Mars), Athena (Minerva), Hermes (Mercury), Hephaistos (Vulcan), Apollo (Phoebus Apollo), and that dangerous new-comer Dionysus (Bacchus). The ancients took their gods seriously, both in official ceremonies conducted in central locations by the state, but also in the small village world and at the private hearth. In a pre-technical world, when so many matters were beyond the control of human beings, propitiating the gods seemed sensible, and was as effective then as now.

We believe we are monotheists, and even atheists in our time vigorously deny the existence of only one god. However, were aliens to study us, they might well conclude that we worship many gods, just not officially. Money, power, celebrity, creativity, sexual pleasure, the delight in violence, sociability, and celebration of ourselves, all would appear in our Olympian roster … with that august fellow called “God” lagging behind as a ponderous after-thought. That God – the Abrahamic One God – is all about restraint (although sometimes resembling Zeus, when loosing his fateful lightning), and about the world beyond (when not dictating policy to politicians in this world with unquestionable authority). We may not be so far from polytheism as we think. What would our world be like if we worshipped directly what we worship in our minds and hearts and actions?

To find some answer, I have looked at the poets … Sappho and Homer, both from before the birth of philosophy. They write from a time when our deities had not yet been subjected to demands for rationality, before the time when human beings decided to set the laws and boundaries on what gods could be about, both in their own behavior and in what they could demand from us.

Sappho was born in the seventh century BCE, two centuries before Socrates required the gods to adhere to moral and intellectual consistency and several more before Christianity had consigned most of human nature to the devil. In Plato’s Republic Socrates condemns what we have come to call the Greek Myths because they portray gods doing immoral and irrational things. In this account, gods or God (Plato calls it “the good”) are bound by a code of rational and decent behavior. Goodness and righteousness, then, are the gods of God. Christianity takes this further by insisting that human nature is corrupt and whatever is excellent in us is worthless without the sanction of Jesus’ teaching. The lesson of 1 Corinthians 13 condemns our human powers and accomplishments as mere “tinkling cymbals and sounding brass” compared with caring for one another and maintaining faith in God. What can we learn from a world before these adjustments and revaluations? If we were devoted to these old Greek gods, what would our lives be like?

Sappho and Devotion to Aphrodite

The library at Alexandria once held nine volumes of Sappho’s works. Her poetry was well known throughout the Mediterranean; but little survives. Some think the early Christian Church destroyed her works. Whatever the truth of that, we have Sappho’s works, once so popular, only as a half dozen reconstructed poems and several dozen fragments gathered from potshards and mummy wrappings. By happy accident, one Sappho poem was preserved in its entirety but only because the rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus used it in a textbook as an example of excellent expression.

In our monotheistic world, Greek gods have become decorative or merely a manner of speaking by which pre-scientific peoples explained the unexplainable. We delight in those gods and tell stories of them to our children to excite their imaginations before they settle down to the real work of managing a cost-estimated reality. Still, we retain hints of their powers. Aphrodite (Venus) and her cupids, and not merely on Valentine’s Day, haunt our dreams, both night and day. Ares (Mars), the god of war, directs our national policy far more forcefully than the teachings of Jesus do. Indeed, Ares seems to provide our business ethic, too, where warfare and deadly combat provide the metaphors for getting ahead. And we invite God to strike us dead – presumably with one of Zeus’ (Jupiter’s) lightning bolts – when we protest our truthfulness, even when we know God records all infractions and postpones our punishments until the Day of Judgment.

Occasionally, it may occur to us, as it did to Wordsworth in his sonnet “The World is Too Much with us,” (1805) that these gods were real and alive to ancient people. The speaker in Wordsworth’s poem imagines that the gods lived in a richly embellished world where our inner experience shared force with all creation, and where the natural world, peopled with Olympian figures, was personified without embarrassment. Before the soul became spiritualized, and bodies demoted to mere means of transportation for the spirit, gods spoke to us. In that world all was invested with the energies and intelligences of fabulous beings, and every hill and stream told a story that made them and us magical.

To recall, Wordsworth’s speaker, in his disgust at having a mind framed by the bland “getting and spending” of his commercial time, bursts out:

Great God! I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea.

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


The speaker yearns for a primitive imagination that sees and hears the ocean gods instead of calculating beach-front rentals as a sensible person would. It is not clear in the poem whether the speaker completes his journey back to the vital perceptions of ancient times. His wish is hemmed in by a subjunctive “So might I,” by the limiting realization of “glimpses,” and by the moderation of “less forlorn” rather than the simple and affirmative “happy.” However, the speaker is convinced that these gods drove the forces of nature and were once real and palpable to us.

The young woman in Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” has that sort of mind. She summons the goddess, who recalls for the poet their intimate relation to one another. Translations vary, but they all emphasize the humorous intimacy between the young woman and the goddess, two girls of like mind conspiring together:

Undying Aphrodite on your caparisoned throne, Daughter of Zeus and weaver of ruses—

Now I address you:

Queen, do not hurt my heart, do not harry it

But come as before when you heard and you hearkened

A long way away,

And leaving behind the house of your father, harnessed a golden chariot winged

By your beautiful swans,

Beating and whirring across the sky,

Bringing you down to the unbright earth –

So suddenly there:

Mistress, the smile of your undying features

Asking me what was it troubled me this time?

What made me call you

This time? What was my desperate heart wanting done?

And your: “Whom shall I this time bend to your love?

Who is it Sappho

That’s doing you wrong? For if she’s escaping

Soon she’ll be chasing: if she’s refusing

Your gifts, she shall give them.

And, if she’s not loving, soon shall she love you,

Like it or no.”… Oh, come again now:

Let me go loose from this merciless craving.

Do what I long to have done: be my own

Helper in battle.                                                  (trans. Paul Roche)


This lyric makes its point through contrasts. Aphrodite inhabits a brilliant world of “golden” chariots and must be invoked to abandon her “caparisoned throne” (poikilothrone) to descend to our “unbright earth.” Aphrodite is the “Daughter of Zeus” (establishing her honorable Olympian heritage), but she is also a “weaver of ruses,” (doloploke) a trickster of the heart. Invoked by her devoted Sappho, she is “So suddenly there,” and an intimate and humorous conversation ensues.

The poem’s voice shifts from Sappho’s imagining to the goddess speaking. Aphrodite playfully mocks poor Sappho. The goddess is immortal, her features undying (athanatos); the human lover lives in time, in ragged and demeaning repetition. The goddess makes this clear; she has been on this mission before: “what was it troubled me this time? What made me call/This time? .. “Whom shall I this time bend to your love?” The repetition of “this time” (deute) marks a comic exasperation in Aphrodite, the Olympian witness to a human heart captive to vagrant passions. The further question “Who is it Sappho/That’s doing you wrong?” contrasts a wise older sister who, with gentle humor, understands distressed desire. Though playful and mocking, the goddess sympathizes with poor pouting Sappho who counts it a moral wrong if her beloved fails to respond immediately. Though expressed gently here, to be gripped by desire is to abandon judgment and in petulance to imagine harm where there is none.

Sappho seeks to have Aphrodite cast a spell on the beloved so that she too will be gripped by desire, whether that is good for her, or whether the torment she will feel is in any way deserved. Only these ruses can free Sappho from “this merciless craving.” In another poem, Sappho provides this description of desire’s torment:

Your magical laughter – this I swear –

Batters my heart – my breast astir –

My voice when I see you suddenly near

Refuses to come.

My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire

Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing

With my eyes, and all that I hear

In my ears is a hum.

The sweat runs down, a shuddering takes

Me in every part and pale as drying grasses,

Then, I think I am near

The moment of dying.                                  (trans. Paul Roche)

The goddess has no interest in the welfare of the beloved but only in playing those tricks by which desire triumphs. Neither of these conspirators is honest and just, for there is only one way to transcend this unbright earth, and that is through the transforming power of desire. Sexual desire is Sappho’s religion, Aphrodite is her goddess, and love is the remedy for the dullness of our days and for the sour recognition of our mortality.

Aphrodite is one of the dozen great forces the Greeks celebrated in order to understand themselves. We can think of these twelve gods as something like the zodiac’s distribution of character types. If so, the Greeks appear willing to accept both the joys and pains that come with exclusive devotion to any one of these mighty beings. Our horoscopes, in contrast, allow for mixed types in profusion and usually do not require us to pay the stern price for the unalloyed gifts of nature. As Nietzsche protested, moralism exalted restraint and exiled all competing principles in order to elevate moral consistency (at the service of the good of the community, sometimes expressed as the state) not above competing virtues but as the only good. This means that all human potentials other than that of moral consistency and the authority of administered goodness are condemned. Nietzsche mocked this narrowing of the palette of values. If Aphrodite is to be eclipsed by the need for administrative order, the world turns gray and dismal. Banish Sappho, and banish all the world.

Odysseus and Athena

If the Church did set out to outlaw Sappho’s poetry, it should not surprise us. The Greek gods represent human nature in all its variety, each kind of soul (or personality) supported by a god or goddess to whom the devotee could give her or his all. Some of us are Ares (Mars) people, some belong to Hephaistos (Vulcan), and some, like Sappho, are children of Aphrodite (Venus). Think of Odysseus and his relation to Athena (Minerva). Athena is devoted to Odysseus because he dedicates himself to her without reserve. He has an “Athenan” soul. He is quick-witted, a master strategist, an aggressive man who keeps calm, even in the face of terrifying monsters. What Athena weaves in fabric, Odysseus weaves in plans for action. Who of us could invent, while gazing into the horrifying face of Polyphemus (the Cyclops), the remarkable trick of calling himself “No Man”? Such craftiness is beyond human powers, except for a human assisted by his personal goddess. This undivided devotion makes Odysseus what he is, both his stunning prowess and also his troubled restlessness. He possesses a hero’s character, one that serves neither the welfare of his crew, the safety of his family, or the needs of Ithaca. His brilliance is to be the man he is.

Let us pause to recall the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops from Homer’s The Odyssey (Book IX). Coming upon an unfamiliar group of islands, Odysseus decides to leave behind eleven of his ships. He then selects twelve of his best warriors to go exploring. They come upon an empty cave, clearly inhabited by a shepherd who produces cheese in great abundance, and help themselves. When this shepherd returns, Odysseus and his crew are horrified to discover that he is the one-eyed giant Polyphemus (“much spoken of”). The Cyclops drives his flock inside, and then blocks the entranceway with an immense stone, trapping the intruders inside. Polyphemus soon discovers his unwelcomed guests, seizes two of them by the legs, dashes out their brains, and devours them. The brave crew is terrified and can see no way to escape their cannibal captor. Their command of their courage and their wits is not improved when, upon awakening, the Cyclops breakfasts upon two more crewmen before shepherding out his flock to graze and then carefully resealing the mouth of the cave.

Although others have abandoned their wits to terror, Odysseus remains cool and sets about devising a plan. His solution demonstrates just why he is the favorite of Athena, goddess of strategic warfare and weaving. This pairing of skills might first strike us as strange, one so masculine and the other associated with domestic tasks, but they are intimately related. For the pattern to appear in any complex tapestry, the weaver must be able to foresee, hundreds of threadings ahead, where the emerging pattern will go. Similarly, a plan of battle is a weaving of men and materials into the most demanding reality. Odysseus is Athena’s favorite precisely because he is so skilled at strategy; and because he is so skilled, Athena guides his fate in the world. His superb potential is realized fully with the assistance of his goddess. Put another way, the cunning demonstrated by Odysseus in defeating Polyphemus exceeds the capability of all but a very few in history. He is that one among us — think of your childhood gang of friends — who says, “I know what we can do,” and is correct while the rest of us stand by in confusion. How can we account for this precocity? Surely, our capable friend is favored by Athena and is learning to perfect this aptitude, which is the gift of the goddess. How else account for such prowess, executed by a mere mortal like ourselves?

Looking about the cave, Odysseus notices a sizable log, still green with sap, and orders his quaking crewmen to sharpen one end to a keen point, and then harden the point over a blazing fire. But his crewmen could well ask: “what good is that?” Polyphemus is a giant of immense strength, and no bulky weapon of this sort can be wielded effectively by puny mortals. His crew cannot be encouraged when after the Cyclops returns at the end of his day, he finishes off his meal by devouring two more of Odysseus’ men for dessert. Well fed, and happy with his pantry of human delicacies, Polyphemus enjoys Odysseus’ obsequious gesture in offering him a fine wine brought from afar. The crude shepherd delights in this delicacy and graciously rewards his guest, Odysseus, with a special gift. When Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, Odysseus tells him his name is “no man” (“me tis” in Greek). Having drunk his fill, Polyphemus reveals his malice; the gift will be that “me tis” will be eaten last, and the monster roars with laughter at his grim trickery. Things appear hopeless, especially if we have forgotten that sharpened stake, but Odysseus has not.

When the giant, having enjoyed Odysseus’ gift, collapses into drunken slumber, Odysseus orders his men into action. Shouldering the huge log, they plunge its smoldering point into the single eye of the Cyclops. In agony, the blinded giant rushes from his cave bellowing for assistance from his Cyclopean neighbors. But all he can tell them is that “no man” (me tis) has injured him, and so his neighbors depart. Next morning, Odysseus and his men leave by grasping the undersides of blind Polyphemus’ rams so he cannot detect them as they escape. The least alert reader will marvel at the wit of “no man” whose adopted name in Greek (“metis”) also means “cunning” (“Metis” is also the name of Athena’s mother). How can we fail to marvel at the super-human, god-given powers of someone who grasps his identity so firmly?

Homer adds an intriguing coda to this tale. Odysseus may be Athena’s favorite, but in the end he is no match for her excellence. Once he and his men have made their escape, Odysseus in his pride cannot resist attaching his name to this triumph. Riding the waves at what he thinks a safe distance, prideful Odysseus announces his identity to the enraged giant. It was not “no man” who did this, he shouts, but “Odysseus” (“The bringer of pain”). Tracking Odysseus’ location by his boastful voice, Polyphemus rains giant boulders down upon the Greek ships, nearly sinking them. Informed of his crafty antagonist’s identity, Polyphemus appeals to his father Poseidon for revenge. Poseidon (Neptune), the powerful god of the sea, then punishes Odysseus by delaying his return home to Ithaca for ten years. Masterfully cunning, Odysseus is also human; he cannot resist the boasting that taints his otherwise perfect strategy.

Tennyson surely had it right when he distinguished between the souls of Ulysses (Odysseus) and of his son Telemachus. While Telemachus shows his excellence by his devotion to guiding his people

Discerning to fulfill

This labor, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and through soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good


Ulysses prefers to have

Become a name:

For always roaming with a hungry heart

For Ulysses, his son’s devotion to civic order and justice is excellent. Telemachus has the perfect soul to rule in Ithaca. Still, Ulysses prefers matching his wits against the overwhelming forces of nature and its titanic gods. He is driven by a need to assert his raging self, even in the face of the unknown and of all but certain destruction beyond the edge of the known world … “to go where no man has gone before.” Tennyson reminds us that Dante’s Christianity had condemned Ulysses for his false rhetoric; still he helps us recognize what perfect religious devotion to ones divinity means. Like Sappho’s, Odysseus’ dedication to his god is both brilliant and dark.

Homer’s God

We find elsewhere in Homer a very different kind of soul and devotion. In Book One of The Iliad Homer recalls a festive gathering of the Olympian gods. While they dine on the nectar only gods can taste, we notice that these immortals are waited upon by a limping figure, Hephaistos, who though a god himself, is diminished by his injuries. The story of his humiliating injury, at the hands of Zeus, is cruel and sad and evokes our sympathy. Hephaistos had the misfortune to find himself caught between his mother Hera and the rage of Zeus towards his saucy wife. In attempting to protect her, Hephaistos is hurled from heaven in a fall so profound it takes three days. He is crippled ever after and doomed to serve the needs of the more luminous beings that populate Olympus.

Homer’s account poses Hephaistos as a noble being, and the mockery directed at him by his glorious superiors is hateful and mean:

[Hephaistos] spoke, and the goddess of the white arms Hera smiled at him,

And smiling she accepted the goblet out of her son’s hand.

Thereafter beginning from the left he poured drinks for the other

Gods, dipping up from the mixing bowl the sweet nectar.

But among the blessed immortals uncontrollable laughter

went up as they saw Hephaistos bustling about the palace. (Bk I, 595-600)

(Trans Fitzgerald)

His service to them, as well as his broken gait, makes him an object of ridicule. Homer underscores how unjust this is when he tells us that these cruel aristocrats in their exquisite leisure retire to palaces Hephaistos built for them:

Afterwards, when the light of the flaming sun went under

they went away each one to sleep in his home where

for each one the far–renowned strong-handed Hephaistos

had built a house by means of his craftsmanship and cunning. (Bk I, 605-608)


We may wonder how Hephaistos could serve as a divinity that excites ones soul to emulation and provides strength to guide one’s life and actions. He is lame and unpleasant in appearance and has been reduced to humble servitude to the superior gods. And yet, Hephaistos is a divinity, and has won the devotion of none other than Homer himself. Hephaistos, the god of craftsmanship, is the god that Homer follows. We like to think that poets benefit from their muses, those wispy beings that inspire them. However, Homer knows that poets execute a craft as demanding as silversmiths and sculptors and metal-workers at their forge. Like Hephaistos, Homer possesses the extraordinary powers to lend the appearance of life to mere objects of his magical craft.

Homer introduces Hephaistos at the conclusion of Book One of The Iliad, a position of emphasis seemingly unsuitable for a mere mention. Hephaistos does not re-appear until the critical moment (Book 18) when Achilleus, enraged by the death of his beloved comrade Patroklus, forsakes his brooding and decides to re-enter the war. Patroklus had been wearing the battle-armor of Achilleus, and Hektor, a Trojan hero of prodigious strength, has carried the armor away as a prize of war. Achilleus tells his mother, the river goddess Thetis, that he accepts his doom, the fate that he will succeed in killing Hektor but will die soon after. Thetis, who cared for the injured Hephaistos when he was tossed from the heavens out of Olympus, travels to Hephaistos’ dark underworld workshop to enlist his help in fashioning new armor for her son. Homer then devotes 130 lines (Bk. XVIII, 478-608) to describing the embellishments of the famous shield of Achilleus.

While many have commented on this brilliant passage, the point is to link the skill of Hephaistos with Homer’s own. Multiple sets of people appear on the shield, each engaged in a separate drama. In one panel, two cities are depicted. One celebrates a marriage festival:

They were leading the brides along the city from their maiden chambers                                                        under the flaring of torches, and the loud bride song was arising.

The young men followed the circles of the dance and among them

the flutes and lyres kept up their clamour as in the meantime

the women standing each at the door of her court admired them.

Surely there is magic here. The figures are seen, but in addition they are heard, and they are also in motion, and they interact with one another. What skill is required to bring these inanimate figures alive!

The second panel depicts a complex war narrative, including an elaborate account of strategies and their devising: one scene gives way to another in a complex thread of implication and result. Given that this narrative must be contained within a limited space or the shield would become too immense even for Achilleus to manage, we are hard pressed to know how this could be done. The details of the battle alone show the shifts of fortune as victory tilts from one side to the other. In the end Homer tells us: “All closed together like living men and fought with each other/ and dragged away from each other the corpses of those who had fallen” (540-541). Although these figures are depicted in brass and gold, they are “like living men” and extend their efforts to arduous battle. Unlike Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where the figures are static and their motion and imagined sound happen only in the mind of the viewer, the figures on the shield of Achilleus are blessed with sound and motion and acquire the space for a complex narrative.

Who but a god could accomplish such magic? Homer himself has done just that in The Iliad, where a portrayal of reality unfolds before us in mere words. Through Homer’s craftsmanship we experience all the drama and motion of the “ringing plains of windy Troy”: the sound and mayhem of battle, the inner worlds of those who die, the glory in the taste of victory, and the acid of humiliation for those who fail the test of courage. Hephaistos is lame and disfigured and yet creates gods and heroes out of metal and fire. Homer, a blind poet, makes his heroes live again and makes us see them.

Gods among us

Sappho creates brilliant poetry by embracing the goddess Aphrodite, without restraint. Odysseus triumphs over monstrous giants and the menacing vengeance of Poseidon by shaping himself, as much as a human being can, to the powers of Athena. Homer’s devotion to Hephaistos, the humiliated god of craftsmanship, allows him to fashion his brilliant poem and make his narrative, his characters, and the drama of his scenes come alive, as if by magic. None of these devotions are anything like those advanced by Christianity. For the Christian world, these devotions resemble Faustian pacts with devils by which human beings trade their immortal souls for super-human powers.

It must be that the Greeks looked about and noticed among them individuals who possessed extraordinary skills and powers. How account, in our world, for a Michael Jordan who appeared to have the power of flight and perfect agility, levitating beyond gravity? Isn’t it clear that Hermes lifts him and blesses him with extraordinary agility? To what god did Picasso pay his devotions to ensure that every stroke would fascinate us? Do we really believe that Hephaistos did not hover above the head of Steve Jobs? What price did Aphrodite exact to allow Norma Jean Baker to enthrall a generation as Marilyn Monroe? What would your life be were you able to identify which god of human powers resides in you and commit to that god with absolute devotion?

The tradition that Christian authorities destroyed the writings of Sappho is certainly plausible. Her poetry was erotic and immoral. Her fierce dedication to Aphrodite swept aside all other matters, such as fairness to the object of her desire and her own stability and consistency. The cunning powers of Odysseus to trick others by his words, earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno, not far from Satan himself, the father of lies. The energy of his restless seeking, and the construction of his own heroic self, count for nothing in the Christian world where humility and service to God and others is paramount. The artist devoted solely to art becomes a mad scientist in the Christian world, as in Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Aphrodite rewards Pygmalion for skillfully investing stone with the force of his longing; in our world, Dr. Frankenstein is punished for reaching with technical skill beyond the world God made.

As noted earlier, the core Christian statement of this hostility to the gods of the ancient world and their power appears in 1 Corinthians 13. This magnificent rhapsody by Paul celebrates caring (charity; love) above all else. The power of rhetoric, so prized among the ancients, is worth little; speaking “with the tongues of mortals and angels” has no value if caring is absent. “Prophetic powers” and understanding of “all mysteries and all knowledge” is worthless without the humble acceptance that all human knowledge is imperfect and will be eclipsed by a forthcoming revelation. Aggression, self-confidence, heroic self-assertion fade to insignificance compared with “faith, hope, and charity.” Christianity celebrates the comfort and stability of the community under God’s law of perfect love, and rejects the assertions of heroic self-seeking, whether the field is war, the arts, the pursuit of knowledge, or pleasure.

Were the Greeks religious? They slaughtered prized animals to offer them to these gods (once they stopped sacrificing their children); they made perilous journeys to distant sacred sites; in frenzies, they sometimes mutilated their bodies; they built elaborate shrines at great costs, supported a powerful priesthood; made life choices based upon auguries; and solidified communal values in deeply felt rituals. Is this religion or fairy stories?

Sappho’s devotional poetry, then, poses serious challenges for us, her late and alien readers. What does it mean to devote oneself without restraint to Aphrodite? While we hope our political and military leaders are steeped in goodness, we expect them also to be cunning strategists, able to face down the monsters that threaten us. In the creations of our most gifted artists we are offered the opportunity to participate in perfection. What does it cost us to respond without limit and without regard for life’s conveniences and the normal orderly protections of moderated desire? How do we imagine respect for a fellow human being who is a daughter, or son, of Aphrodite, Athena, or Hephaistos? In the face of these differences, we are forced to consider what has become of our gods and goddesses. And who are we without them? In the absence of such gods, what things or thoughts or powers can make our unbright earth shine? And how would we worship them?

Seminar 3 Notes — Cien Sonetos and Translation

Neruda Seminar 3   Neruda’s “100 Sonnets of Love” was written in the 1950’s to his third wife, Matilde.  He married her in the mid-1950s after an affair while he was still married to Delia del Carill, the wife of his days in Europe and a woman twenty years his senior. However, Neruda delayed the publication of these personal love poems until Delia’s death out of respect for her.

Veinte Poemas de Amor (1924) and Cien Sonetos de Amor (1960) have long been the favorites among Latin American readers as opposed to the popularity of his political poetry in the US (Neruda became popular during the anti-war years in the US for his Marxist and insurrectionary poetry). In Cien Sonetos Neruda adopts the traditional 14-line sonnet form. However, he is not bound by its traditional logic (the octave setting the problem; the sestet providing an answer). As usual, Neruda’s approach is less contained by rules than responsive to the force of feeling and the unwinding of metaphor.

While considering five of his sonnets, we also talked about the challenges of translation. Sometimes Neruda employs language within the idiom of his Chilean Spanish; word-for-word often misses the point (e.g., if the words say he misses her aroma, does that mean her perfume, or the perfume of her?); if we take the most general dictionary meaning, we may miss a network of metaphor (as in the network of nautical metaphors in Sonnet 58) that depend upon secondary meanings – also, you wouldn’t want to downplay that puma in “Tengo hambre”, whose deadly prowl sharpens that understanding of “hambre”; sometimes English makes available a more vivid meaning (as in the translation of “angles” for “esquinas”, literally corners, but better in the gambling phrase of “knowing the angles”); finally, there is the matter of Neruda’s habits – when he uses “entre tus columnas” (sonnet 12) he means “between your thighs”, which he does in several other poems. A good translator must be alert to all these matters and more, translation being an art of its own.

We began by talking about Neruda’s reliance on the South of Chile, which is already the south of Latin America, and his strong memories of Temuco, his little town, and the forests he loved. Mathilde, unlike the more sophisticated Delia, came from southern Chile and from the poverty Neruda knew and trusted, and “Vienes de la pobreza de las casas del sur” (Sonnet 29) evokes this world they share. Here the Araucanian  gods have perished and have not been replaced by the conqueror’s God but instead by the recognition of the force of nature the lovers share. Neruda recalls their poverty. The piggy bank of tears, her mouth that did not always enjoy bread or sweets, and the hard work of their mothers, both imaged as doing the wash “en su cielo” together. “Cielo” is one of those words that move in several directions of meaning (sky, heaven, but also that heavenly sky of that particular Chilean world). The poem ends with two stunners: the simplicity of his choosing her, and the warmth of the term “campañera”, best left untranslated into English that could never evoke its tone of meaning.

“Entre los espadones” (sonnet 58) also yields good results from a biographical reading.  Here Neruda comments on himself as an outsider in the highly competitive world of European art circles. Critics snap at his heels; he pays them no mind. In the octave Neruda has some fun with nautical references, some of them explicit and others recondite. The references grow from his homeland, that South past which there is nothing but archipelagoes, small islands, and the wild arctic sea. To figure how out of keeping he felt with the vicious world of European literary criticism, he sees himself as a foreign sailor in a strange city. He does not have a map, but worse, he does not know how the city works, the angles. He has brought with him a wheezy accordion, a relic of his wild sea-side world of poverty and rough song. The accordion, with some holes in its wind-box from long wear, is depicted as a low-pressure, or stormy instrument. Things come at him in waves “rachas” (storm systems) of crazy rain, the rain of the tropics. He inherits, too, the slow ways of the South; and all these things “set the course” (determinaron) for his ragged and wonderful life, his “corazon silvestre”. The English translator cleverly keeps the network of nautical metaphor going by figuring “almacenes” (warehouses) as “dockyards” of his childhood, as he traces his way back to a world of comforting memories, including “donde mi vida se llenó con tu aroma”, where my heart was filled with the perfume of you. The closing line, so often a strategy of these sonnets, introduces a surprise. Matilde has not been mentioned, yet everything about this experience, his muse, his motivation as a poet that allows him to disregard his fashionable critics, is her.

In “tengo hambre por la boca” (sonnet 11) Neruda creates a portrait of savage love. In the first quatrain we might for a moment think we have a quite conventional love complaint. The lover wanders the streets in the night, starved and hungering for his beloved. However, there are disturbing ripples here. Is this hunger the usual love’s madness or is there something more. Is this hungering for her mouth and her hair picturesque or something more sinister? The translator opts for “prowl” “por las calles”; the lover is disquieted by the breaking of dawn, even as he listened intently for her footsteps through the day. Into the second quatrain the lover hungers to eat her skin, like cracking into an almond still intact. The image is peculiar and calls up a memory of breaking the almond in two with our incisors; it seems a bit too tactile for a lover’s soft imaginings. The emphasis on “wanting to eat” his beloved, his prey, continues into the sestet in growing specificity. Now it is the sunlight flaring from her beautiful body; and then the fleeting shadow of her eyes as her looks flicker uncertainly. The hunter has an uncanny precision in sensing his prey. And in the last lines we understand the full force of these suggestions. He is sniffing the air for her scent and hungering to devour her hot heart (a Valentine?) “como un puma en la soledad de Quitratúe”, like a puma prowling the desert waste of the jungle of his wild South.

Some fans of poetry do not like this kind of intense close reading where we pay complete homage to the writer and his craft. Some prefer using the poem as a Rorschach, a springboard to their own imaginings, free from the poet’s craftiness. I prefer tracking the artistry of Neruda rather than drawing upon my own meager bank of imaginings. I assume he has something to teach me I don’t already know.

Neruda: Sonata and Destructions

SONATA Y DESTRUCCIONES     Residencia in la Tierra I

DESPUÉS de mucho, después de vagas leguas,
confuso de dominios, incierto de territorios,
acompañado de pobres esperanzas
y compañías infieles y desconfiados sueños,
amo lo tenaz que aún sobrevive en mis ojos,
oigo en mi corazón mis pasos de jinete,
muerdo el fuego dormido y la sal arruinada,
y de noche, de atmósfera oscura y luto prófugo,
aquel que vela a la orilla de los campamentos,
el viajero armado de estériles resistencias,
detenido entre sombras que crecen y alas que tiemblan,
me siento ser, y mi brazo de piedra me defiende.

Hay entre ciencias de llanto un altar confuso,
y en mi sesión de atardeceres sin perfume,
en mis abandonados dormitorios donde habita la luna,
y arañas de mi propiedad, y destrucciones que me son queridas,
adoro mi propio ser perdido, mi substancia imperfecta,
mi golpe de plata y mi pérdida eterna.
Ardió la uva húmeda, y su agua funeral
aún vacila, aún reside,
y el patrimonio estéril, y el domicilio traidor.

Quién hizo ceremonia de cenizas?
Quién amó lo perdido, quién protegió lo último?
El hueso del padre, la madera del buque muerto,
y su propio final, su misma huida,
su fuerza triste, su dios miserable?

Acecho, pues, lo inanimado y lo doliente,
y el testimonio extraño que sostengo,
con eficiencia cruel y escrito en cenizas,
es la forma de olvido que prefiero,
el nombre que doy a la tierra, el valor de mis sueños,
la cantidad interminable que divido
con mis ojos de invierno, durante cada día de este mundo.

Sonata and Destructions

After so many things, after so many hazy miles,

not sure which kingdom it is, not knowing the terrain,

travelling with pitiful hopes,

and lying companions, and suspicious dreams,

I love the firmness that still survivives in my eyes,

I hear my heart beating as if I were riding a horse,

I bite the sleeping fire and the ruined salt,

and at night, when darkness is thick, and mourning furtive,

I imagine I am the one keeping watch on the far shore

of the encampments, the traveler armed with his sterile defenses,

caught between growing shadows

and shivering wings, and my arm made of stone protects me.

There’s a confused altar among the sciences of tears,

and in my twilight meditations with no perfume,

and in my deserted sleeping rooms where the moon lives,

and the spiders that belong to me, and the destructions I am fond of,

I love my own lost self, my faulty stuff,

my silver wound, and my eternal loss,

The damp grapes burned, and their funereal water

Is still flickering, is still with us,

And the sterile inheritance, and the treacherous home.

Who performed a ceremony of ashes?

Who loved the lost thing, who sheltered the last thing of all?

The father’s bone, the dead ship’s timber,

and his own end, his flight,

his melancholy power, his god that had bad luck?

I lie in wait, then, for what is not alive and what is suffering,

and the extraordinary testimony I bring forward,

with brutal efficiency and written down in the ashes,

is the form of oblivion that I prefer,

the name I give to the earth, the value of my dreams,

the endless abundance which I distribute

with my wintery eyes, every day this world goes on.

[tr. Robert Bly]