Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature

Heroes of the City of Man: A Christian Guide to Select Ancient Literature - Peter J. Leithart Heroes from the City of Man, by Peter Leithart ***I have long disliked the contemporary habit of trying to force post-modern sensibilities on any literature that pre-dates the advent of Derrida. The practice of reading the classics from a Marxist/feminist/queer perspective to milk from them some evidence of white European male repression of everyone and everything is abominable and the accompanying theories garbage. I feel almost defiled anytime I come in contact with them. Reading Peter Leithart, therefore, is a refreshing, even a cleansing experience. Leithart, a professor of English at New St Andrews College, has written a number of books analyzing the works of different authors. He is unapologetically Christian, but he does not try to force a Christian reading on the literary works he analyzes. Like C.S. Lewis in his “Experiment in Criticism”, Leithart sets aside his prejudices to enter into the world of the author to see what the author is trying to say. He analyzes the evidence first, arriving at conclusions only after a thorough and careful reading. In “Heroes of the City of Man”, Leithart turns his attention to the poetry and drama of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The model for his analysis is derived from Augustine, in that he posits two cities, Jerusalem and Athens, the cities of God and Man. He writes as a citizen firmly established in Jerusalem and views the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans as products of Athens. He has no desire or intention to build a bridge between the two, and is content to observe Athens from a distance. From this vantage point, he examines the theology and morals of the Greeks and Romans, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, contrasting them overall with Christianity. He discovers some parallels, but the differences are far more numerous and striking.He begins with the “Theogeny” and “Works and Days” by Hesiod, which form a creation narrative and body of wisdom literature that parallel Genesis and the book of Proverbs. In the “Theogony”, Hesiod recounts the creation of the universe and the first tales of Greek mythology by tracing the lineage of the gods from their beginning. It is a tumultuous tale filled with every kind of violence and perversion. The Greek gods are a capricious, bloodthirsty and licentious group, murderous, adulterous and incestuous. Any system of morals or ethics derived from these myths could only be expected to follow suit. This is born out in “Works and Days”, which at its best could only be called the “anti-beatitudes”. Though both Genesis and Theogeny account for the creation of the world, Leithart demonstrates that the two could not be more different in their meaning.After Hesiod, Leithart examines the Trojan trilogy comprised of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. Greek and Roman heroism is the dominant theme running through these works, but their understanding of heroism is not what we might imagine. An ancient Greek hero placed his reputation as a hero as the highest good. It was to be pursued at the cost of all else. Even Hector, possibly the most noble of the heroes in these books, prizes his valor above the security of Troy. In the scope of the Iliad, it is his duel with Achilles more than any other factor that seals the fate of his home, even as it secures his status as a hero. Contrasted against the acts of Christ, whose death on the cross forever secured the safety of His beloved, such heroism becomes empty and meaningless.From poetry, Leithart moves to the drama of the Greeks, beginning with that most famous of Greek tragedies, the Oedipus cycle. In this, as well as the Oresteia, Bacchae, and Clouds, he discovers a world in which the gods are capricious, where justice is a matter of expedience, revenge a justifiable end, and education and philosophy empty, self-serving pursuits. It may seem from what I say that Mr. Leithart has nothing good to say about the ancient classics, but that is not completely accurate. His analyses are thoughtful and respectful, and he gives credit where credit is due. It is not that he finds nothing noble or admirable in the ancient classics. But as with the contrast between Hector and Christ, all of the nobility and beauty of the ancients pales in comparison with the great true myth of Christianity. As rewarding and fulfilling as it may be to read the ancient classics, perhaps the best they can ultimately do is stand as a negative example of the best that man can accomplish apart from the one true God.Having said that, I cannot give "Heroes" my wholehearted recommendation. Too often, Leithart appears to give the beauty of these great works short shrift. He writes as though he is suspicious of their aesthetic merits, as if someone might be seduced by their beauty and tempted to abandon Jerusalem for Athens. This view may not be completely baseless, but if someone were to make such a jump I would be more suspicious of their commitment to Jerusalem to begin with rather than the persuasiveness of the literature. It is for this reason that I can only award “Heroes of the City of Man” three stars. As a guide for Christians who are unfamiliar with the classics it is not without merit, but you would be better served by simply reading the classics for yourself.