Our book group is discussing Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which traces modern secularism back to the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. Among the chief teachings of Epicureanism are that there is no afterlife and that the most important goal of human life is the gratification of the body. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am an opponent of Epicureanism. But I object to it not so much on traditional Christian grounds, on the basis that it denies the immortality of the soul. Rather, I criticize Epicureanism because, in both its ancient and modern varieties, it rejects the idea that human experience has a historical dimension.
In the West, there are broadly speaking two paths to defeating the onslaught of time and overcoming the oblivion of mortality. The Christian doctrine of the immortal soul teaches that to be saved is not only to be given the blessings of an eternal life but also to have one’s mortal existence be stamped with a divine and infallible meaning by the providence of the Creator. The Homeric view, by contrast, holds that the only way for human beings to conquer time is to achieve glory and renown. The only immortality, and the only significance, comes from writing one’s name into history by means of extraordinary acts of valor.
The Homeric path was not cast aside with the triumph of Christianity over pagan antiquity, rather it was preserved by Christianity as it widened the scope of acts that could be crowned with glory: the spiritual warfare carried out by ascetic discipline and acts of extraordinary charity and renunciation, in addition to acts of military valor. This desire for glory later became ensconced in the realm of culture in the figure of the great artist, whose works, though misunderstood by his or her contemporaries, would pass the test of time and receive the renown due to them by future generations.
It is striking to me the extent to which the idea of any work having some kind of trans-temporal significance is bound up with the Christian idea of immortality. Hardly anyone declares today the need to write for future generations, or expresses with confidence, natural to earlier periods, that a certain work of art would increase in importance with the passing of time. Could it be that in losing the Christian idea of immortal soul, we lose the confidence to imagine the future, let alone a future populated by people whose beliefs and practices might be wholly different from our own? Even our term expressing the capacity to maintain significance and weight over the course of time, “trans-temporal,” is redolent of feebleness and hesitation.
Do we need a belief in an immortal soul in order to be able to view ourselves acting in history, or to trust that there are certain actions that are worthy of being commemorated (I exclude the contemporary cult of victimization, if only for the fact that it does not honors people for anything that they actually did)? It negates the view prizes the active life, that human initiative and the unfolding of human powers are noble and laudable things. Instead, we seem stuck within a never-ending and empty present, filled with self-recrimination over the past and nameless dread over a blank future.
In a way, it could be said that my criticism of modern secularism is that it is insufficiently pagan, that is to say, modern secularism of the type espoused by Greenblatt and the American liberal establishment is still Christian, all too Christian, without the sobriety and discernment that Christianity was able to provide by preserving the vital elements of pagan antiquity. It could be said that our problem is that negating Christianity does not bring us back to the vitality and lively innocence of Homer, but rather enchains us in the morbid guilt of a post-Christian world that has not killed God but merely closed off memory and sterilized passion.