defending helen of troy
DEFENDING HELEN OF TROY
Though Helen of Troy appears most overamorous
to people condemning the way she left Men-
elaus for Paris, who found her more glamorous-
launching thousands of ships because she was a ten-
the Greeks would have recognized she was obeying
this imperative taught to her by Aphrodite:
follow love always, for any gainsaying
of sex is immoral, and in no way flighty.
She followed arete, not virtue, the ex-
cellence coming from acting in closest accord
with what the gods tell you. If they say, "Have sex, "
you have to obey or be fatally bored.
Arete (ἀρετή) , in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one's full potential. Sometimes translated as 'virtue, ' the word actually means something closer to 'being the best you can be, ' or 'reaching your highest human potential.' Arete in ancient Greek culture was courage and strength in the face of adversity and it was to what all people aspired.
Eric Ormbsy ("The God Return, " WSJ,12/31/10) reviews All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly:
For the ancient Greeks, the universe was filled with shining presences that reflected the passing moods of the gods. Each god had a privileged sphere: Mars presided over war, Aphrodite over sexual love, Hera over the hearth; Zeus was the lord of all the gods, the hurler of thunderbolts from on high; and so on for the entire rowdy pantheon. It has long been customary to dismiss these gods as mere stage presences, as convenient explanations for random catastrophes or as fall guys for human motives. Helen caused the Trojan War but, hey, 'golden Aphrodite' made her do it.
The authors of 'All Things Shining' will have none of this. Though both are professional philosophers—Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly at Harvard—they view the ancient Homeric gods as hidden presences still susceptible of invocation. Indeed, they hold out 'Homeric polytheism' as a solution to the 'lostness' of the contemporary world. They begin by stating that 'the world doesn't matter to us the way it used to.' They are concerned to elucidate why this may be so. But this is no bland academic exercise. 'All Things Shining' is an inspirational book but a highly intelligent and impassioned one. The authors set out to analyze our contemporary nihilism the better to remedy it….
The authors' general theme, and lament, is that we are no longer 'open to the world.' We fall prey either to 'manufactured confidence' that sweeps aside all obstacles or to a kind of addictive passivity, typified by 'blogs and social networking sites.' Both are equally unperceptive. By contrast, the Homeric hero is keenly aware of the outside world; indeed, he has no interior life at all. His emotions are public, and they are shared; he lives in a community of attentiveness. He aspires to what in Greek is termed 'areté, ' not 'virtue, ' as it is usually translated, but that peculiar 'excellence' that comes from acting in accord with the divine presence, however it may manifest itself.
Thus Helen of Troy may have been a bewitching casus belli—and her elopement with Paris may have led to the deaths of thousands—but in fact she was acting with areté; she showed herself to be in close attunement with Aphrodite, who demanded an obedience not only to herself but to the imperatives of the heart. The Greeks, including Helen's wronged husband, Menelaus, ultimately admired Helen for her amorousness. To condemn her for immorality, as later commentators and modern scholars have done, is to misunderstand the distinctive values of the ancient Greeks.
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