Classical Literature, the Gods, and Metaphysical Desire


In December I finished teaching a course on classical myth and literature for undergraduates. We read a variety of texts and from a variety of time periods. Among the works we studied were The Odyssey; Sophocles’s remarkable play Antigone; Ovid’s setting of the Greek myths, Metamorphoses; another work treating metaphorical and spiritual transformation, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass; the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; and two works treating the matter of Dionysus— but from wildly different perspectives—Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae and Aristophanes’ wickedly funny Frogs.

The thing that most struck me this time is that all of these works—epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, comedy, meditation—speak directly to the unpredictable dynamics between gods and men and to the duty incumbent upon the earthbound to have a proper relationship to the gods. Odysseus, for instance, in addition to his goal of returning home and restoring the integrity of his family, strives throughout Homer’s text to likewise restore the integrity of his relationship to the gods. Often he sacrifices animals to the undying ones, pours libations of wine and makes gifts of oil to accompany his prayers. In Antigone, for another example, the title character, the daughter of the tragic king Oedipus, sacrifices her life in order to not compromise her responsibilities to her dead brother, arguing that her allegiance to the gods and their decrees concerning burial of kin supersedes her responsibilities to the State—even when the Head-of-State is also a kinsman. Indeed, all of the works we studied last semester could be interpreted as imaginative documents delineating the relationship of humanity to divinity.

But, as anyone familiar with this literature could notice, a right relationship to the gods is not simply a matter of praying, or love, or self-acceptance, or even the proper performance of ritual. Suffering, also, seems to be an important aspect of the formula. I think it is important to acknowledge this. Too often, I think, people pursue a spiritual path as a way to escape pain, as a way to heal themselves of their physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds. That’s the promise made by too many unscrupulous spiritual teachers, anyway. Religion, in general, doesn’t try to make promises that we will avoid pain, only that we can learn from or, perhaps, draw closer to God because of it. As people who pursue this path eventually discover, along with the gifts of consolation and assurance, come trials and, invariably, pain, as Homer, Apuleius, and, undoubtedly, Marcus Aurelius tell us. Repeatedly.

We are broken, brothers and sisters. Wherever we direct our gaze, we look upon brokenness. But that very brokenness—like Odysseus’s long lamentations at the shore of the sea, like Antigone’s grief over the dead Polyneices, like Lucius’s despair over remaining an ass in Apuleius’s story—awakens in us a desire for God. This desire is itself a new kind of pain—which the Song of Songs and the medieval mystics articulate in the language of love: of the pain of his absence countered by the delight found in the presence of the Beloved. But even the having is characterized by pain. This is metaphysical desire, which, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “is like goodness—the Desired does not fulfill it, but deepens it.”

Often throughout the course of Odysseus’s wanderings—when he hears stories of his deceased friends or thinks of his home and family—the hero gives himself to tears. These tears are due, clearly, to unsatisfied desires: Odysseus cannot reach his family and his friends will not return from the Realm of the Shades. Perhaps his life would be easier did he not have occasion to cry. But it wouldn’t be better.

Behind our desires lies the desire. We often, sadly I think, try to escape desire because it implies suffering. Some mistake this for “spirituality,” when it really amounts to a kind of metaphysical abdication. Better, on the other hand, to seek the desire behind the desire, the source of the mystery, the fountain of tears, but also of life.