MORNING COFFEE 17 - crown and thorn

by Susan Weber

You know how astronomers tell you to look off to the side of the star you want to see, especially a dim one? Averted vision works because of how our eyes and nervous systems process light.

I’m reading The Greeks: A Great Adventure, Isaac Asimov’s particulate array of ancient warriors, poets, and tyrants making their manly marks on history. Asimov is great at personalizing details, the bulk of which I’ll forget even so. Why read it then? It’s fascinating. I’m curious. My sister recommended it. I want to live in Greece. Lots of reasons.

A book as rich and friendly as this one averts my attention just enough to shed light on questions I didn’t know to ask. This is unexpected and fortuitous.

Take Athenian King Codrus fighting off invaders from the north in 1068 B.C. When the oracle tells him that the army whose king dies first will win the war, he lets himself be killed to protect Athens. Asimov doubts it ever really happened, but the story of the hero who dies to save the many is a favored meme in our day too. Mr. Spock, anyone? And even as I’m looking straight at King Codrus' shining act, my brain sees a question in the periphery. Why do we glorify sacrifice when most of us, a majority that includes me, would not be caught dead laying down our lives for a bunch of hapless strangers? For friends and family, maybe—even that’s optimistic—but for the rabble like those fickle and selfish Athenians? The human aversion to and romanticizing of the ultimate sacrifice is a theme some fiction writer might want to broach one day.

Or, take this odd fact. Asimov reminds us that the erudite Ancients held large portions of the populace in bondage. Greek slave owners were horrendously cruel. Our countrymen’s long subjugation of human “property” had nothing on the Greeks. But the ubiquity of man’s inhumanity draws attention to a certain dim question, hovering just off stage. If we the so-called civilized are so enthralled by the virtues of freedom, how do we square that with our capacity to brutalize slaves and to dehumanize the progeny of slaves even now? Side by side, the blazing star, the smoldering denial. We want to identify with a noble king and shove the wretched slave from the parapets. Out, damned spot! Tarnish someone else’s virtue with your odious truth.

Sometimes I wonder if idealism is the intellectual vanishing trick we do to delude our unbearably accurate consciences. This theory is flickering as I turn the page to the next astonishing Grecian feat.

Photo by Tanya Dedyukhina CC BY 3.0