The goddesses Eris

On Wednesday we had a all-college seminar with an excerpt of Nietzsche on Hesiod, Homer, and the Hellenic idea of the competition. Hesiod wrote that there are two goddesses of Strife (Eris), one of brutality, a daughter of Night, and the other of competition, created by Zeus. The Eris of competition pits athletes and craftsmen and so on against each other in jealousy, so that each wishes to be above the other, but so long as it is a competition they will primarily strife to run faster or create better pots, to prove that they are better. But nobody can be too much better, or the other Eris steps in and causes mayhem, because the tension of competition has been broken – it’s no longer itself when there’s no possibility that any of the competitors may pull ahead. So a person may as well be ostracized from a community for being singularly successful as for actually doing something wrong. The one Eris must be satisfied so that the other does not visit with her unbounded brutality (that’s the problem with Alexander in N’s opinion; he rampaged across Asia because to find a worthy opponent he had to invent a competition with Achilles).

So the tutor said: if we don’t hold the Eris of competition in sufficient standing, or give it sufficient outlet, according to N. the other Eris will show through as the only real god; the reality that lies behind everything else. And there are two ways to deal with that (other than bringing back Zeus’ Eris): to become savage like Alexander, or to be melancholy, grow weary of living, and see life as a punishment like Orpheus (I don’t know the story of Orpheus, though, so I’m not certain what that means). He suggested that according to N. Christian culture is more or less Orphic – that seems likely because, well, we know how N. feels about Christian morality.

Hobbs cites as the primary reason why the Leviathan (the government, not the book) is so important is that “men might not grow weary of their lives” through having to constantly wage war with each other in order to protect their lives and property. His State of Nature sounds surprisingly similar to Hesiod’s first Eris, but rather than setting up polities in competition with each other for something more symbolic, the Leviathan enforces laws so that anyone reverting to the State of Nature is himself crushed. Locke has a more hopeful vision of the State of Nature; for him it is not identical with the State of War, but can easily degenerate into that, because everybody has equal right to punish infractions against themselves or their property, which they see as an extension of oneself, but for him as well mitigating Strife is perhaps the greatest reason for forming a civil government.

For obvious reasons I can’t agree with N. that Eris came before Agape, or is more fundamental to reality, but I find some of his suggestions intriguing nonetheless, as when he writes:

From Childhood, every Greek felt the burning desire within him to be an instrument of bring salvation to his city in the competition between cities: in this, his selfishness was lit, as well as curbed and restricted. For that reason, the individuals in antiquity were freer, because their aims were nearer and easier to achieve. Modern man, on the other hand, is crossed everywhere by infinity, like swift-footed Achilles in the parable of Zeno of Elea; infinity impedes him, he cannot even overtake the tortoise.

I’m not certain where I’m going with this, but like I said, it seems intriguing. I don’t know how Hobbes can be Christian and still hold that Strife is the most fundamental thing in human nature: I suppose he must believe in something like Total Depravity. I started writing on it because of my last post: do even most of our churches believe in promoting noble actions, sanctity, virtue, excellence? They seem too busy running after some demographic or other, and too satisfied with the idea that we’re already saints, all evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the Church isn’t orphic as N. might claim, but our civilization verges on it. “What do I do with myself now?” That generation of “emerging adulthood” Christianity Today was writing about seems to ask that quite a bit – they adamantly do not want a house in suburbia with a little plot of green grass and a wife who stays home and cooks from scratch. A couple of people I was talking with last night want some land out in nature somewhere to grow stuff on and be at least partially self-sufficient; that seems like a somewhat common wistful dream. But I also wonder if something they might want as much as anything is noble action, human excellence, and to know what that is?


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