Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A little Greek is a dangerous thing

Today classical studies are enjoying a modest resurgence. For most of us, this means reading the classics in translation--at best. And (let’s be realistic) for many it is popular films like “Three Hundred” that do the trick.

Some people do remember bits of high school Latin. Nowadays taught mainly on the college level, Greek is a very rare accomplishment. Yet because scientific terms like “stratosphere” and “biology” are made up of Greek roots, most educated people have a sort of rough and ready set of terms.

This knowledge easily leads to overconfidence, and overconfidence not restricted to novices. An interesting case is that of the Swedish bishop and biblical scholar Anders Nygren (1890-1978). In his monograph “Eros and Agape,” first published in Swedish in 1930-1936, he analyzed the connotations of two Greek words for love, eros (sexual love)and agape (spiritual love), concluding that agape is the only truly Christian kind of love, and that eros (an expression of the individual's desires) turns us away from God. In the English-speaking world many are familiar with C.S. Lewis appropriation of Nygren’s pair. However, Lewis complicated matters by adding two other terms, philia and storge. Riffing off Nygren without acknowledgement, Pope Benedicts XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, held that both eros and agape are aspects of divine love. Alas, ancient Greek recognizes no hard and fast distinction among these this tangle of terms, though agape is preferred in the New Testament.

The Alsatian theologian Oscar Cullmann proposed another pair of terms that proved influential in the mid-20th century. In his 1946 monograph “Christus und die Zeit,” Cullmann asserted that the Greeks had two very different words to expresss the concept of time. One is chronos, the steady measurable procession that is tracked by human instruments and that we recognized as built into the structure of the cosmos. Contrasting with this, Cullmann held was the tern kairos, which designates the special character of a particular moment. When we are advised to “seize the time,” kairos is what is meant. Yet as the Scottish theologian James Barr showed, the Greek language shows no absolute contrast between the two. Language, at least, offers no warrant for Cullmann’s interesting dichotomy.

From his reading of Plato’s Gorgias, the political philosopher Leo Strauss imported a concept called “thumos,” defined as a kind of vigorous manly assertiveness. Indeed, the concept has been championed by Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield in his recent book “Manliness.” Straussians like Mansfield, would have it that the Greeks had a well developed concept of thumos, which we can access and use. They had no such thing.

What is common to all these appropriations from the Greek--eros, agape, philia, storge, chronos, kairos, thumos--is the confidence that when one appropriates such a word one is automatically connecting with a well developed system of thought. It would seem that the ancient Greeks, those clever fellows, did the work for us; all we have to do is access it.

Alas, these coinages are neo-Greek. They have only as much authority as the appropriators can attach to them. As we noted, the elaborate constructions of Nygren and Cullmann are fast receding into oblivion. This is also likely to be the fate of Mansfield’s deliverances.

The moral is this. Beware of Greek gifts, especially by those claiming to be experts.


Blogger kj said...

Being Greek-American, I've come to realize that moral on several occasions!
Love your blog.

9:09 AM  

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