Tuesday, September 6, 2016

TFBT: Ferry Prologue, One, and Two

I am reading "The Wisdom of the Myths" by Luc Ferry; in English translation from the French.  I must admit a bias here.  I am very fond of French literature, Casanova and Dumas being favorites. 

And I must admit, in the epic debate of Iliad versus Odyssey I’ve always favored Achilles’ epic.  I prefer to think that can have a choice in our destiny rather than being buffeted by the winds of misfortune.  Ferry has a different thought here.   Because of the beauty of his writing and skill as a story teller, I have suspended my disbelief and follow his arguments carefully to whatever rocky cliff slammed by gray waves.  Ferry appears to be more of a philosopher than mythologist.  Hence his unique perspective.   After a brief prologue on this subject Perry begins his work the same place the second great work in Western literature begins;

"Odysseus...pining for home and wife; the Nymph Calypso, a goddess of strange power and beauty, had kept him captive within her arching caverns"

I’ve seen three ways to interpret this scene. 
1)  In my youth, the image of Odysseus gazing across the sea towards home and Penelope seemed so romantic.  
2) After reading the Memoirs of Casanova several times and attending HeroesX I had a different perspective on the tears of Telemachus' father.  I thought that Odysseus was at this moment pondering the choice of Achilles; comfortable long life or unfailing glory.  Odysseus might brag that his "fame extends all the way to heaven."  But without a homecoming he would never attain that unfailing glory, he would be forgotten.
3) Perry offers a third motive.  “What Odysseus’ refusal (of immortality on Calypso’s Island) contains in a nutshell is a definition of the life well lived from which we begin to glimpse the philosophical dimension of the myth. Following Odysseus we must learn to prefer to condition of mortality in accord with cosmic dispensation, as against an immortal life doomed to what the Greeks termed hubris.”  Page 8

There is a code phrase in Ferry’s quote; “cosmic dispensation”[i] this is the distribution of rights and privileges among Zeus’s and allies after they defeated the Titans.   For ‘whoever was unhonured by Cronus and unprivileged, he Zeus would set him in the path of honour and privileges as was right and just.”  Specifically in this case the settlement between gods and men at a place then called Mecone.  “To each must be allotted his fair share and it is only by such means that the order established will remain stable.” [ii]

Ferry postulates a universe where each generation of gods does what it can to stabilize the cosmos.  Gods and men alike fight the monsters intent on destroying everything.  That said, he acknowledges that without the cosmos “will ossify and all life, all history will disappear.”   Hence, I suppose Dionysus is added later to the cosmic dispensation and the twelve 

As Jenny Strauss Clay demonstrates likewise in “The Politics of Olympus” the cosmic dispensation must be based dike, justice.  According to Ferry, justice is “absolutely essential to Greek Myth; it is always through justice that one gains one’s ends, ultimately, because justice is fundamentally nothing more than a form of adherence to, adjustment to, the cosmic order (dispensation).  Each time someone forgets this and goes against the rule of order the latter is in the end restored destroying the interloper.

Ferry put a lot of effort into proving these points in the prologue and first two chapters.  He studies each war amongst the gods.  He provides some amazing insights into the myths of Midas and Pandora along the way and brings us back to man’s place in the cosmic dispensation and the fragile balanced cosmos it created.  Ferry says of man;

 “We all know that on the temple at Delphi, the shrine to Apollo, s inscribed on of the most famous mottoes in the whole of Greek culture; “Know Thyself.”  The injunction has nothing to do with practicing what I called introspection, as is sometimes assumed today, in other words the attempt to know your innermost thought and unmask our unconscious self.  It is not a question of psychoanalysis. 

In other words to “know thyself” is to know your natural place in the cosmic dispensation.   To not know your place is to commit “hubris” in other words – revolt against the (cosmic dispensation) established through the wars of the gods.”   Hubris for those that don’t know is the ultimate sin in Greek Mythology, no easier way to get a lightning bolt.  Ferry, a philosopher and “secular humanist” promises a lot of peace and happy ever-afters, if we (Iron Age folks) just learn to accept our natural place.

Which brings us to all those fools who hope better than this ragged world Prometheus screwed up for us.  King Midas for one was always other-reaching, never knew his place.  Ferry asks for us, “How can the judgment of a poor imbecilic like Midas be of any concern to Apollo, a sublime deity?   Because he must of necessity combat hubris in all its forms” in order to protect the fragile cosmos created by the cosmic dispensation.

We will hear more on this in the coming chapters. 

[i] Ferry’s translator uses several variations on this phrase and for the cosmos- universe-divine order.  I’ve stuck to this phrase for consistency sake.
[ii] Ferry’s translator says “fair share”; “appropriate share” might be more accurate.


  1. As my scientific advisor liked to say, "They think that you must know your place, and this place is under the linoleum".
    I agree with Russell that the Greeks preached moderation, but in fact they were not moderate in anything, and this was why they were great.
    Can you imagine an Achilles who knows his place? I wonder what, according to Ferry, is our natural place that we should accept.
    In the Prometheus Bound, Oceanus tells Prometheus to "know himself", a piece of advice met with the disdain it deserves IMHO. I have modernized it (and somewhat improved it) as "Look at yourself first!".
    You once wrote that tragedies were cautionary tales, showing what we mustn't do. At the same time, however, most viewers start to sympathize with the tragic hero at least a bit. Even when he is a jerk like Sophocles' Ajax. Whom do you prefer, Ajax or Athena?

  2. Maya,

    I will keep reading and see where Ferry takes me. He started chapter three saying that Odysseus' only desire was to get home. Hmm, I recall his overwhelming desire was for "gifts". Which is why he didn't get home much sooner.

    As to Ajax versus Athena; Ajax might be a fool, but he's my kind of fool! Stay home, an unloved virgin, never to have a spouse or child, always stuck taking care of my father's household, no more than an unpaid housekeeper? I don't think so Athena!


  3. I've just read your conversation with Harlemswife. You wrote that "Phthia was NOT Achilles natural place to be. He had another destiny." I doubt it. You once wrote that nobody composed a poem about the alternative Achilles who chose to remain in Phthia. I think that maybe someone should, though such choices rarely make good plots.

    The Iliad does not go so far to say that remaining in Phthia would have been the right choice - it does not give answers. However, it does ask the questions.

  4. Maya M,

    According to the "Cypria" and several subsequent oracles Achilles was born for this moment. (Okay, so his cousins or son could have fulfilled the role.) Aegithus stayed home and we know his story


  5. I must correct myself: indeed, given Zeus' and Themis' and Hera's and Athena's and Poseidon's plans, for Achilles to remain at home would be "hyper-moron". Actually, in a better world, he would never have been born. He tells his mother in Scroll 18:

    "Mother, Olympian Jove has indeed vouchsafed me the fulfilment of my prayer, but what boots it to me, seeing that my dear comrade Patroclus has fallen... I have lost him; aye, and Hector when he had killed him stripped the wondrous armour, so glorious to behold, which the gods gave to Peleus when they laid you in the couch of a mortal man. Would that you were still dwelling among the immortal sea-nymphs, and that Peleus had taken to himself some mortal bride. For now you shall have grief infinite by reason of the death of that son whom you can never welcome home - nay, I will not live nor go about among mankind unless Hector fall by my spear, and thus pay me for having slain Patroclus son of Menoetius."

    Emphasis mine; Achilles understands it on some level. He also realizes that "Olympian Jove" and "the gods" have started it all, though he immediately redirects his anger to Hector, a fellow victim of Zeus.

    About Aegisthus - he is portrayed in a very biased and unsympathetic light, in order to look worse than his adversaries who killed either their daughters or their mothers. Nevertheless, as a discussion at Hour25 once concluded, Clytemnestra (assisted by him) was apparently a better ruler than Penelope, who could not keep under control even her own home.

    Look at the Trojan side: Who remained? - Hector, Laocoon. Who moved? - Helenus. Who looks better?