Classical Wisdom Weekly - Part 3

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The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by on April 28, 2022

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus
Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.

Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition

by on April 27, 2022

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Etruscan art
Detail of two dancers from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi
Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up to the Greeks and a foreshadowing to the Romans. But casting this ancient society as a sideline character might not do them enough justice.
Indeed, despite the importance of Etruria (the wider region of the Etruscans) in its context as a link between the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, modern thought considers Etruscan civilization ‘far superior to the traditional picture of a poor relation of Greece and a mysterious prelude to Rome.’
This new found appreciation of the Etruscans can be most clearly seen in its art and architecture – and distinguishing where they leave off from the Greeks and create their own individual style.

Did Constantine Really Convert?

by on April 25, 2022

By Natalia Klimczak
Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However, legends and archaeological evidence suggest a different story– it seems that Constantine had a secret about his faith which was hidden for centuries.
Constantine built many churches. He celebrated the faith in one (Christian) God and his son Jesus by creating many of the greatest churches of the world, including: St. Peter’s in Rome, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, The Eleona on the Mount of Olives, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and others.
***Editor’s Note: St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius II in the 6th Century, which replaced the original 4th Century structure which had indeed been built by Constantine. This is to say that the current St. Peter’s Basilica is not the one built by Constantine.***

Has Technology CHANGED Us? 

by on April 25, 2022

The scene was cliche. It was a sunny fall afternoon in New York City and the construction workers were taking their break. Then a stunning woman came down the street…. Not just pretty, but Big Apple gorgeous and dressed… flatteringly
As she passed the construction workers, I waited for what I thought was the inevitable. But to my surprise there were no catcalls, no whistles or provocative comments. Wow, I remember thinking, perhaps the whole #metoo thing really affected things… maybe this younger generation is much more respectful… maybe culture has changed! 
Certainly wouldn’t want to be distracted up there!
And then I realised it was because the entire row of workers were glued to their phones. They didn’t even notice the beautiful woman. 
She also did not notice not being noticed… because she too was staring at her phone. So perhaps culture has changed… just not in the way I had originally thought. 

War and Greek Tragedy (Part Three: Euripides)

by on April 25, 2022

by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Euripides is unique among the three tragedians in that, unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, there is no historical record that he ever served in the Greek military. Admittedly, Euripides was able to describe actual battle techniques in Phoenician Women and Children of Heracles, despite the lack of a record of him fighting in any battles. Hanson argues that it is probable that Euripides would have seen military service like his contemporary Sophocles; while there may be no hard evidence that Euripides ever served in combat, he did live through all but the final two years of the Peloponnesian War. In any case, this conflict led him to question his society’s martial values, while also showing him the toll of war upon civilians and returning soldiers.
Euripides lived under the dark specter of constant warfare, and his plays are correspondingly dark in their realism. Apart from being critical of established values, Euripides also subverts those values in reaction to contemporary events. Tritle writes that “…the outbreak of extreme violence [i.e. the Peloponnesian War] in 431 [BC] may have energized Euripides”, who is believed to have written the violent Medea in that same year. As city-states that had formerly been allies against mutual enemies like the Persians turned against each other, and Greek soldiers went off to war against those who had once been their countrymen—all of which suggests a confusing loss of values and morality—it seems fitting that Euripides would write a play in which a character feels justified in murdering her own beloved children in order to hurt her unfaithful husband. Each main party in the conflict, Athens and Sparta, could be viewed as harming their own blood relatives—their fellow Greeks—in order to inflict petty harm against the other. Euripides’ most popular play may never have come to be if not for the war that served as a historical backdrop to it.
This was not the only instance of military events influencing the playwright. The defeat of Athens at the Battle of Delium, as Hanson says, “helped shape Euripides’ developing disgust over the war—and his growing propensity to use his drama to critique contemporary culture even in Athens’s darkest hours”. By the time of the writing of Orestes, Euripides, who had witnessed over two decades of Greeks killing Greeks, goes so far as to condemn war as “‘a friend to lies’”. Even as he questioned Athenian values, Euripides used his stagecraft to declare his own firmly held anti-war beliefs while the world around him continued to crumble.

Aristotle: Happiness is an Activity

by on April 24, 2022

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“For contemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.” ~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Our five-week-long inquiry into ancient moral philosophy naturally culminates with Aristotle and his philosophical text known as the Nicomachean Ethics. As we will see, Aristotle asserts ideas that are reminiscent of the Stoics, putting emphasis on attainment of virtue within our lives. However, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle does not rely on a divine cosmology to make his case. Instead, he leans heavily on formalized logic (something he is credited with discovering) and what might be considered a rudimentary form of the scientific method.
At the opening of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks us “…what kind of thing is pleasure?” A notion that we might take for granted, it is very essential to Aristotle’s moral philosophy that we adequately answer this question.