What do the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween and Homer’s Odyssey all have in common?
Here’s my take on it.
- The Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings
Someone recently said to me, “Joe, you were a lawyer once. You understand evidence. You can see that all the evidence supports my position on this.” The person who said that to me could have been talking about the Kavanaugh hearings. Like so much media coverage of the hearings, this fellow thought of a trial as the evidence all points in one direction or the other . My answer to him was that if I’d learned anything in thirty years of bar membership it was that my mother was right: there are always at least two sides to a story, and the truth is generally somewhere in between. If juries heard only one side’s witnesses and arguments, every verdict would be unanimous. Is it any wonder that if you tell me what news source you follow, I can pretty well predict how you feel about the world?
In years of practicing law, I saw over and over again how witness testimony polarized over time. From the plaintiff’s perspective, the size of the wrong and the depth of the injury always grew, while from the defendant’s perspective, the strength of the alibi and the sense of indignation always did likewise. Add the way politicians and the media frame a case as pitting good against evil, and you have everyone asking which of the witnesses is lying. In this view, it has to be one or the other. When I said, about the Kavanaugh hearings, that I thought both witnesses were telling the truth as they saw it, people looked at me like I was some sort of crazed lunatic from outer space. The hearings, and especially the media coverage of them, left me shaking my head about what made them so typical of polarized American politics today: namely, a complete inability to empathize with the other side.
Yesterday, I came across a piece published last year in USA Today titled “5 Halloween Myths and Urban Legends, Debunked.” Myth Number 3 was titled, “Satan is the Reason for the Season.” While acknowledging that Halloween can be traced back to ancient Celtic harvest festivals, the article argued that the modern event has nothing to do with Satan, and never could have, as Satan is a Judaeo-Christian character that would have made no sense to the ancient Celtic polytheists who started those harvest festivals. The article also points out that All Hallow’s Eve is the first of three days Christianity devotes to remembering the souls of the Christian faithful. The religious origins of the modern holiday have to do with honoring the good dead, not the immortal Satan, the embodiment of evil
But when it comes to Halloween, like the Kavanaugh hearings, people are polarized. To many, Halloween will always be about pure evil. For many on both sides, there’s a complete inability to empathize with the other.
- The Odyssey.
My first exposure to the Odyssey was probably Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of the classical hero in 1954’s Hollywood version, Ulysses. While I don’t remember much of that movie, I feel sure that Kirk Douglas’s character must have been very heroic, in the modern sense of that word – which is to say, a particularly good and capable guy fighting the good fight against evil. My sense of the story has always been that the Cyclops, Poseidon and the suitors were monstrously bad while Odysseus wasn’t far shy of sainthood. I want to take this opportunity to rave about the new translation I just finished reading by Emily Wilson. It manages to be an amazingly easy and accessible read while maintaining the strict metrical qualities of the original. For the first time, I didn’t have to “study” the epic, I could just read it, and do so at the same pace I might read John Grisham or Dan Brown. As a result, I acquired a sense of the whole as I never have before. I strongly recommend her translation, whether you’ve read the epic before or not.
Wilson’s excellent and engaging translation gave me several new perspectives about the story. One is that the very name Odysseus can be translated as “hated” or at least “disliked.” He’s easy to hate because he’s not just duplicitous, he’s multiplicitous. There’s something for everyone to hate. In Wilson’s words, he is “a migrant…, a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero.” Wilson gives much attention to how a person can be so complex and multi-faceted, at once so hated and so loved. Her Odysseus is anything but the one dimensional champion of goodness that I grew up admiring. Perhaps we see ourselves in him. Perhaps that’s what allows us to empathize.
It has become common to dismiss the pagan gods as amoral and often wicked libertines that no thinking person could believe were real. Modern criticism of the Greek gods generally amounts to the argument that they are no better than us human beings. Wilson points out they’re essentially the same as powerful human beings except that they live forever, but morally and ethically, they’re no better than us. This strikes me as a natural criticism of deity if you’re comparing it to a God conceived of as morally perfect and all knowing. But have there been unintended consequences to conceiving of God as the embodiment of perfect goodness and omniscience? What have been the consequences of living with the aim of achieving such righteousness ourselves? What have I done by measuring my self-worth by comparison to a single, homogeneous and absolute goodness who has revealed Himself to me? Has it worked to make me self-righteous?
One reason I’ve always been attracted to Greek myth is that the gods DO behave like human beings. I’ve long felt that such portrayals allow us to see the consequences of our foibles in archetypal ways that can help us to avoid mistakes as effectively as a lot of sermons I’ve heard. At their cores, the modern worldview suggests that the difference between good and evil is apparent, and that life is simple: if we choose correctly, we’ll live forever in the home of the gods. In the old pagan worldview, life is a constant struggle to sort out the difference between good and bad; that even in the home of the gods, it can be hard to distinguish right from wrong; that sometimes, what seems good to one person (or god) seems bad to another. In this worldview, there isn’t any Grand Commission of Justice to tell us which is which.
There’s little doubt in my mind that most of us would choose to live in a world where good and evil are clearly defined and labelled. But is the real world more nuanced and dependent on point of view than that? Wilson points out that Odysseus is offered a perfect and immortal life by Circe, but turns it down, choosing instead his mortal home in his mortal world. Is that why we can love him and hate him at the same time? There are good reasons the Bible has stood the test of time. I think there are good reasons the Odyssey has too.
So: What similarities do I see between the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween, and the Odyssey? For me, all three tell us something about the extent to which Platonic thinking about absolutes has changed the world. In the pre-Platonic, polytheistic world of Odysseus we could celebrates diverse and multiple perspectives; in the modern world, there must be a single and absolute truth distinguishable by its righteousness. In the Christian Era, we’re used to hearing the gods of Greek myth dismissed as either “immoral” or “amoral.” But in the Odyssey, Zeus is the god of justice and of hospitality toward strangers. One of the most constant themes is that the gods will not approve of mistreating strangers. It’s not that the Homeric gods don’t care about what’s good and right, but that (just like people) they don’t share a singular and unchanging view of what “goodness” consists of.
Of the many epithets applied to Odysseus (apart from being godlike), most begin with the prefix “poly-,” meaning multiple. Odysseus is “poly-tropos” (multiply turning), poly-phrona (multiply-minded), poly-meganos (employing multiple devices), poly-tlas (multiply enduring), poly-penthes (multiply-pained), poly-stonos (multiply-sorrowed) and poly-aretos (multiply prayed for.) In a sense, this multiplicity makes him all things to all people. It’s a big part of why he’s hated. He is also incredibly adaptable, assuming different guises and characteristics in different situations. His understanding of right and wrong is neither absent nor irrelevant – it is simply changing.
All our modern religious and political instincts tell us to condemn such inconstancy. We’re trained to think in terms of Platonic absolutes, of clear and perfect Goodness on one side and clear and perfect Evil on the other. We’re told we can identify the Truth and that we’re bound to adhere to it. If Professor Ford was telling the truth as she saw it, then Judge Kavanaugh had to be lying, as he saw it. If Halloween is not a glorification of the Judaeo-Christian God, it must be the work of Satan. If Odysseus is inconsistent from one day to the next, he must represent an inferior state of being because perfect people have to be constant, unchanging and right.
But is there a difference between being constant, unchanging and right, and being rigid, intolerant, and set in our ways?
I’m not advocating for a rudderless, amoral view of the world. Goodness is certainly worth striving for. But how can I know for certain I’ve found it, when others disagree with me about what’s good? Once again, I’m reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is worth a read for many reasons, but the concept I found most thought-provoking was Haidt’s view on the evolutionary origins of human reason. The traditional view is that the capacity for reason and logical analysis evolved in human beings as tools for reaching the best conclusions. In reality, Haidt suggests, human beings wouldn’t have survived unless they could form immediate judgments about things without reasoned analysis. (You can’t conduct a reasoned analysis of whether to run from a saber-toothed tiger or not.) But we are also social animals whose early survival depended on the ability to work together in teams. And to act as a team, we needed coordinated approaches. Haidt says our social survival depended on leaders able to persuade others to follow their judgments. According to Haidt, reason and logical analysis arose about the same time as language did, and they evolved for much the same social purposes: that is, not as tools of decision-making to help an individual determine what’s right, but as tools of persuasion to help convince others to go along with our judgments. (In the process, we convince ourselves that our judgments are right, too, but that’s a result, not a cause.)
In this view, all of human reasoning has its origins in persuading others, in post-hoc justification to support judgments already formed. If Solzhenitsyn and Haidt are right, then all the arguments between Professor Ford and Justice Kavanaugh, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, NPR and Fox News, Halloween enthusiasts and its enemies, and indeed, between you and me, have to do with persuasion, not with what either one of us has always revered as “reason.”
In this sense, maybe Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s truths are similar. Last year, I blogged about liking Halloween because it invited us to try out the worldview of a character we normally think of us strange, monstrous, or even evil. Maybe it isn’t bad that we put ourselves in the shoes of terrible others on Halloween. Maybe it’s okay to change our understanding of right and wrong at times, to try out new perspectives, just like Homer’s Odysseus did. Maybe multiplicity helps us empathize.
After listing the many (contradictory) traits her Odysseus exhibits, Emily Wilson writes, “immersing ourselves in his story, and considering how these categories can exist in the same imaginative space, may help us reconsider the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world.”
Maybe she’s on to something there?