“Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.”
Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote those lines in 1866 in “Hymn to Proserpine.” If he returned from the Elysian Fields today, he would see no reason to alter his conclusion. Flipping through the channels of cable television, Swinburne would find the TV series “A.D.” (about early Christianity), “Killing Jesus” (based on the Bill O’Reilly book) and dozens of cheaply-produced shows about the supposed historical or scientific basis of this or that tale in the Bible. The Weather Channel has run a program entitled “Top 10: Bible Weather,” described thus: “Weather stories from the Bible are compared to modern-day weather catastrophes.”
If Swinburne turned to the news channels, he would learn that the Muslim fanatics of ISIS and al-Qaeda and other groups seek to restore Christianity’s sibling rival Islam in its medieval purity, while the region from the Maghreb to Central Asia is torn apart by a proxy war among Sunni and Shia Muslims. He might even see a videotape of jihadist iconoclasts ransacking a museum and destroying heathen idols, in the way that Christian monks vandalized the Library of Alexandria and murdered Hypatia.
And Swinburne would discover, to his despair, that probably no more than one Brit or American in a hundred thousand knows who Proserpine or Hypatia were.
The near-total collapse of the legacy of Greco-Roman civilization, as a living part of the cultural inheritance of Americans and others in the West and the world, is a tremendous cultural event—a sort of intellectual mass extinction. It was also probably inevitable.
In retrospect, it was amazing that any elements of Greek and Roman culture survived the spread of Christianity and Islam in the area of the former Roman empire, the imperial successor to Hellenistic civilization. For many Christians and Muslims through the ages, the books and idols of heathen idolaters have been worthless or dangerous and deserve to be destroyed.
In the Christian West, the Greco-Roman heritage was spared total destruction, in part because of Saint Augustine’s metaphor of “looting the Egyptians.” Just as the Israelites were allowed to plunder Egypt for necessities as Moses led them to the Promised Land, so Christian believers were licensed to take what was useful from pre-Christian philosophers and orators. The study of Latin and Greek, mostly by clerics and scribes in the Middle Ages and later by aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, kept poets like Vergil and Horace alive (Roman literature was better known in Western Europe than its Greek predecessors, for a millennium after the fall of Western Rome).
Greek and Roman culture acquired a new function in the West, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—chiefly as a source of Beaux Arts ball disguises for various ideas and value systems. Some of these were rooted in ancient philosophy, like Epicurean atomism and social contract philosophy. In other cases, the prestige of ancient Greece and Rome could be invoked by those who rejected Christian theology and ethics.
But the habit of disguising modern innovations in classical costume was dropped by the 20th century. America’s Founders and the French Revolutionaries used classical imagery to break with monarchy and state Christianity. But modern democratic nation-states have little in common with Greek city-states or the Roman republic, apart from their use of terms like “senate” and “citizen.” The late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was perhaps the last U.S. politician who would invoke Cicero and inveigh against Caesarism on Capitol Hill.
Atheists today no longer need to furtively circulate copies of the letters of Epicurus or the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Sexual countercultures, too, have dropped their Greco-Roman costume-ball disguises. Internet pornography has destroyed the once-flourishing market among well-to-do men for paintings and sculptures of nude or lightly-clad nymphs (or kouroi in the case of gay men). The fraternity toga party may be the last flickering ember of this version of classicism.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the champions of utilitarianism had already defeated those who sought to preserve the centrality of Greek and Latin in liberal education. In the Anglophone world, the disciplines of “English” and “Literature” were created about a century ago as a kind of classical education in the vernacular for the masses. But working-class and middle-class students who want jobs that pay well have deserted liberal arts majors for business, finance and other utilitarian degrees. And who can blame them? They are not eighteenth-century British aristocrats who find it clever to sprinkle a few classical quotes into speeches, after they have inherited their seats in the House of Lords as well as their rural estates from their fathers.
Even Greco-Roman mythology has fallen on hard times. In the nineteenth century, European nationalists sought to revive, or sometimes fabricate, local tribal mythologies and folk cultures, to replace what was viewed as an alien Mediterranean civilization. The Germans resuscitated the Nibelungs and the Volsungs and the Finns adopted the Kalevala as their national epic.
In Ireland, William Butler Yeats sought to create an indigenous, non-Christian Irish national culture by reviving long-forgotten Celtic myths and heroes. He failed. Every Irish citizen and Irish-American in 2015 knows who Saint Patrick was. Very few could identify Cuchulain.
Similar attempts at reviving pre-Muslim paganism have backfired in the Muslim world. The Shah’s attempt to celebrate pre-Muslim Persian culture helped to stoke the hatred of the Ayatollah Khomeini and others. The assassin of Egypt’s president Sadat, Khalid al-Islambuli, shouted, “I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death.” The attempt of some secular Turkish nationalists to play up the Hittites as a non-Muslim basis for national identity fizzled out. The present leadership of Turkey has turned away from Kemalist separatism in favor of a Muslim identity for the country.
The real winners in the mythology wars have been neither ancient Greek divinities nor pagan European gods, but the “superheroes” of DC and Marvel comic books: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and the rest. Hercules, like the Marvel comic version of Thor, has a cultural afterlife in the company of the Hulk and Wonder Woman. But the other Olympians seem to have disappeared into the Orwellian Memory Hole, along with Cicero and Caesar, Homer and Virgil, Pindar and Horace.
What remains, following the mass extinction of the Greco-Roman legacy, is a twenty-first century civilization which is an odd mix of the hypermodern and the medieval.
Enlightenment scientism is the common culture of government and advanced industry, in Europe, the Americas and Asia alike. Its outward symbols are modernist glass office towers and abstract paintings which, unlike Beaux Arts pediments and pilasters, lend themselves to an emerging global society because they are not identified with any premodern regional civilization. Nationalism and religion and other kinds of sub-global identity are frowned upon, as retrograde. Praise attaches to what is global, innovative, progressive, scientific.
But this abstract, rationalistic society does not satisfy the need of many individuals for communal identity. The failure of secular ethnic nationalist efforts to revive pre-Christian or pre-Muslim tribal identities has provided to an opening to religious identitarianism in both the West and the Muslim countries. In the Western world, liberal variants of Christianity and Judaism are losing adherents, while orthodox and fundamentalist denominations are increasing their share of a shrinking religious population. Among Muslims purist and revivalist versions of both Sunni and Shia Islam are similarly enjoying renascences.
The disappearance of readers who can identify Proserpine is not a cataclysmic loss, in the grand scale of things. And neither is the end of the practice of using Greek and Roman motifs to justify various things, from science to free love to democracy, which can be defended without any need for a disguise.
But at its best, a liberal education informed by Greco-Roman literature and history provided a humanist perspective on the world as an alternative to that of Enlightenment rationalism and religious orthodoxy. In the absence of that humanist worldview, the global landscape of the third millennium, contested among utilitarian technocrats and religious sectarians, will be a barren and dispiriting place.