The adoption of Greek myths as a symbolic language by Hellenistic and Roman culture is an important aspect of European intellectual history, one that should not be regarded as “atural” or “expectable” in any sense. The Hellenistic despots, and still less the Romans, were not Greeks and did not live in the same spiritual or intellectual world that gave rise to the worship of Zeus and Pelops at Olympia. But because these cultures developed certain tendencies of earlier Greek intellectuals, particularly the tragic poets and later the philosophers of classical Athens, to universalize the Greek myths and to use them as a symbolic language in which to debate great ideas, it has proven all the easier for later cultures to follow suit and even to expand upon this project. As a result, the Greek myths have continued to enjoy in later times an important place in intellectual discourse of all kinds. In the remaining weeks of the course, we shall consider briefly the place of Greek mythology in medieval and modern thought, sampling the uses that have been made of the Greek myths in the realms of religion, philosophy, education, psychology, anthropology, natural science, pop culture, and the arts.
The distinction between paganism and Christianity is a convenient basis for differentiating between antiquity and the medievalism, but it is misleading as well. For several centuries before the closing of the Academy and the foundation of Monte Cassino, Christians and pagans had been living in a state of sometimes peaceful, sometimes turbulent coexistence characterized by attempts at self-definition that saw pagans incorporating elements of Christianity and other mystery religions into their own belief systems and social practices, while Christians both conformed to and eagerly adopted various elements of pagan culture either for the sake of personal social advancement or to enhance the intellectual stature of their religion as something comparable to pagan philosophy. This exchange produced some remarkable immediate effects and some important long-term consequences. Chief among these, for our purposes, is the fact that medieval culture must be considered not merely the replacement of pagan antiquity by a uniformly Christian world-view, but rather as a hybrid that contains important elements inherited from both classical pagan and early Christian culture.
Currently it is fashionable to consider the Renaissance not so much as the rebirth of antiquity as the beginning of what is called the “Early Modern” period. It is, indeed, a transitional period, and shares important characteristics with previous and later epochs. Although the criteria for dating the Renaissance are not clear-cut, the period may be roughly dated from about 1300–1600.
In fact, the main charcacteristics of modern thought germane to our purposes derive from the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and from subsequent intellectual movements. The Enlightenment is characterized by a privileging of human reason over religious belief. Although Christianity and other religions remain important social forces in Western culture to this day (and in some ways, more important forces than in the recent past), the intellectual history of Europe traditionally considers religious belief to have been a much more characteristic mode of thought throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period before the Enlightenment.
Unlike earlier Christian interpretations of the Greek myths, which attempt to read pagan mythology as a prefiguration of the truth that Christians believe was revealed by Christ, modernist interpretations typically read the Greek myths as keys to a truth that does not emanate from God, but resides in an essential human nature. The tools by which such interpretations are constructed are largely psychological or psychoanalytical in nature, but the anthropological study of contemporary “primitive” cultures has also played an important role.
Finally, in recent times there has been a resurgence of “paganism” as a kind of counter-cultural religion that answers to the spiritual needs of its practitioners in ways that more established, culturally approved religions seem not to do.