We of the 21st century are a people of the dream, engaged in constant self-transformation. The dreams we pursue are usually of better, sometimes of different. If I am poor, I want to become rich. That’s the American dream. If I am an outcast, I demand equality. That was the dream of Martin Luther King.
Limits are never acknowledged. Costs are equated with injustice. We believe reality to be soft and pliable, a construct that can – and should – be easily deconstructed to harmonize with the desires of the will.
Yet there’s a penalty to be paid for embracing the proposition that reality must conform to private dreams. We often feel uncertain of who we are or where we stand. We are distrustful of spin from politicians and the media, afraid of “identity theft” and false-identity web predators, desperately hungry for authenticity, fixity, clarity – elements of that reality we, with our modern dreams, have claimed to transcend.
Worse: because billions are dreaming the same dreams, they collide with one another, block one another, and force the dreamer to awaken to the fact that he is a limited, bounded creature most of whose hopes will never come true. In past times, that was a truism that suffused human existence with sadness. In ours, it is cause for much frustration and shouting.
A people of the dream will be condemned, always and necessarily, to the Age of the Rant.
I’m presently researching the works of the ancient Greeks, and I have been struck by how fundamentally unlike us they were on this question.
The Greeks felt reality as a crushing weight on their shoulders. Transformations required divine interference, and were seldom happy occasions. King Midas and his donkey’s ears, inflicted by the god Apollo, can stand as a fairly restrained example.
The world was ruled by “fortune,” “the gods,” or “necessity,” so that even the most cruel and unjust events formed part of a mysterious moral balance. Truth was thus to be accepted on its own harsh terms, not ours. Spin and propaganda were considered insults against the sacred order of things: hubris. They would bring down retribution.
Oedipus was innocent in his motives. He belonged to the most applauded modern category: victimhood. Yet Oedipus never spins his story, never plays the victim, but proclaims with a certain pride, “Of all men, I alone can bear this guilt.”
The Greeks, arguably the most brilliant people in history, were unwilling to imagine themselves other than they were. They were a people of the flesh: and it may be useful to explore the conditions that shaped their identity.
To begin with, Greek city states were miniscule. You could get a quorum of the Athenian assembly with only 6,000 citizens. Most cities were much smaller than Athens. Your nation was like your neighborhood: it was impossible to get lost in the crowd.
Greek life was lived outdoors and in public. Citizens exercised naked and marched next to one another in the battle line. You knew where you stood with everyone else. Everyone else knew where you stood, too. Fakery was futile.
The classical Greeks are often portrayed as idealists rather than realists, but what we call idealism to the Greeks meant mastery at an extraordinarily high level of excellence. This ideal rested on reality: truth was beauty, and truth was given, not dreamed. For the individual, this must have meant a tragic foreclosing of possibilities.
The Athenians of the time of Pericles abounded with genius, but lacked silence and solitude. Public life swallowed the private person to an extent that makes Jeff Jarvis look like a desert hermit by comparison. Purely personal expression, beyond very tight boundaries, was frowned upon as subversive and quickly punished. Socrates suffered this fate – so did his beloved Alcibiades, a very different personality. The oracle’s admonition, “Know yourself,” translated into something like “Understand your limits and live within them.”
For that there was a good reason. Existence was precarious. City states were poor and weak, war was a constant, and defeat often meant that your city got wiped off the map – the men massacred, the women sold into slavery. Thus the state’s survival had to be ensured before personal business could be attended to. Every male citizen was a soldier, no matter how refined his intellect. The playwright Aeschylus was a hero of Marathon. Socrates was admired for his endurance while on campaign.
Consider the contrast with modern life. Our actions are cushioned by political and economic developments that would have astounded the Greeks. We hand off to others the power to run our government, the duty to fight our wars, then we expect, as a birthright, to enjoy personal security and affluence. When we fail, we suffer a spell of individual unhappiness: nobody dies. So it doesn’t really matter whether we are right or wrong about the nature of reality. We can afford to dream.
In the unforgiving environment that shaped the Greeks, getting reality wrong was fatal. The stories they told harped constantly on that theme. Whoever dreamed of happiness would be rudely awakened. Whoever rose too high would be brought low. Dream bowed to fate, and fate, they knew, was perverse.
A profound sense of tragedy, impossible for the modern mind to comprehend, darkened every aspect of Greek life.
Because we float as transient tourists over a playground world, we come to crave authenticity. The citizen of Athens or Sparta enjoyed a totally authentic existence, but felt pinned to the earth by his own flesh. He had conquered political freedom, first of our species to do so – but individually he was a prisoner shackled to that cruel jailer, fate.
From Plato to the Stoics, Greek moral philosophy can be understood as a series of desperate attempts to escape into metaphysics from the narrow prison of reality.
Study with an innocent eye the youthful faces that stare at us out of the Elgin Marbles. They are exquisitely beautiful, but stamped with the sneer of cold command. They lack something – some quality we latter-day people of the dream find essential to social life. They seem devoid of sympathy.
The agony of truth and the aspiration to mastery were expressed by the Greeks in an unparalleled burst of genius, but also, and regularly, in sickening displays of brutality. Our Athenian, for all his brilliance, celebrated his victories with a massacre of enemies. He abandoned his imperfect offspring to die – a state policy of Sparta’s, heartily endorsed by Plato. It was Plato, Athenian aristocrat, archetype of the philosopher (“lover of truth”), who recommended cross-breeding citizens “like watchdogs” for desirable political characteristics.
I think the outcome of this biological program would have looked much like the young athletes of the Elgin Marbles.
In the end, I believe, the Greeks became what they most condemned, and failed by their own measure. A pitiless realism was an unrealistic arrangement for community life. The triumph of the flesh meant war to the death against all rivals, internal and external. In their moment of greatness, as individuals and as a people, the Greeks were stuck with what they were. It was impossible to advance, to move beyond.
No nation equaled them in talent, or could defeat them in battle. That didn’t matter. Like all doomed tragic characters, Greek civilization destroyed itself.
For us, danger threatens from the opposite direction. Our lives are personal dramas. We are endlessly fascinated with our internal states. Reality, as I have noted, is expected to yield without a struggle to our emotional requirements: that’s the millennial dream of transformation. When the world fails us, we are outraged, and in our rage we smash and batter at whatever happens to be in our way, without a thought for consequences.
Already truth is becoming alienated from facts. We want reality to be as we command it to be. That is another way of saying that we, too, are escaping into metaphysics, though in a far less rigorous and innovative way than the Greeks. They were system-makers, while we just play at make-belief.
The modern dream was once – maybe still remains – a mighty engine of progress. Unlike the Greeks, we could move beyond ourselves. We could rise higher and reach for private happiness without incurring hubris or deserving punishment by god or man.
But reality is our common ground. The flight into fantasy ruptures every social bond and leaves us vulnerable to those who, in the Greek manner, feel earth-bound and flesh-bound, and play the game of life authentically, for keeps. Our viral outrage, torn loose from reality or any tolerance of the human condition, must in time transform the dreamer into his own assassin – the nihilist – and the dream of self-betterment into a nightmare of barbarism and bloodshed.