Athens vs. Jerusalem, Part I

Athens vs. Jerusalem, Part I

Before anything else, let me say that I am not a philosopher or the son of one, so these thoughts aren’t refined or couched in honeyed phrases that sound important, heavy and deserving of respect on that basis alone. These thoughts here, they’re of the gut, born from hours of thinking at random spots (the street, the bathroom, the perfect slight moments of absolute clarity right after I’ve ejaculated) but lacking a sophisticated way of argumentation that university professors like to prattle about endlessly.

These here, are just words. Words that come from my own complaints, exasperation and confusion.

So, what words do I have to say? Let me ask a question, point blank: who had the superior civilization, the Greeks or the Jews?

A Church Father—Tertullian, I think it was—once asked: what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Now, the glory of Athens by this time, in the first century of the common era (don’t mind those “BC” and “AD” designations) was well spent. The glory of the city of Pericles was centuries over; the Athenian Empire now a warning to history rather than controlling the seas of the Aegean. But Athens, sweet, sweet Athens, is the word we use to sum up the classical era of the Greeks, and of Western civilization: philosophy, art, drama, comedy and the beginning of what we now call scientific inquiry. Athens! Birthplace of democracy, razed to the ground by the bastard Persians, rebuilt, besieged, afflicted with plague, killer of Socrates, training ground for the Romans in their attempt to become civilized. Athens as enduring symbol has survived the test of time so that we all know what to think when we say the word.

The Greeks themselves? Impossible to govern, always fighting with each other but managing to stave off the superior forces of the Persian Empire before giving in to Rome when all the energy was sapped with civil wars and stupid conflicts that devastated entire generations. But what was to endure from these superstitious people and their Olympian gods? The seeds of our incredible knowledge, our desire to know without merely saying “God did it, I believe it, that ends it.”

Now, let me ask of Jerusalem: what do you have to show? Where is your Plato, your Thucydides? You look at Athens with its cruelty, backstabbing and its democracy and you compare it to Jerusalem, wait! Why bother? In Athens, we have a single man, Plato, writing an entire treatise on the ideal society, asking about what is good and laying the foundation of philosophy. In Jerusalem, we have endless tales of the correct way to slaughter a bull, a heifer or other animals to propitiate sin. Of the need to kill a wayward son if he doesn’t obey his parents. Of a command to exterminate an entire town—no, no, that probably never happened because the priestly writers were projecting their blood fantasies on an earlier time to explain their captivity by the Babylonians. But still! The bloodcurdling destruction, the unending superstition that permeates sacred scripture. Answer me this: what philosophy do you derive from this? What art of governing do you detail with the endless Temple rituals and the bringing of sacrifices and their pleasing odors?

But didn’t Athens also bide by its superstitious ideas? Yes! The reading of entrails, omens in the sky, the hallucinations of the Oracle at Delphi, animal sacrifices. No shortage of primitivism here! Yet consider for a moment: if the desert god of the Hebrews is the one, true supreme being, why aren’t his laws more sublime, more clear than those of Plato? Why does Moses ceaselessly cajole and threaten the people of Israel about not shaving their heads, eating certain kinds of foods and avoiding others, or adjuring them against the wearing of clothes made of two types of material? The Sophists of Athens would have eviscerated this nonsense with one elegant phrase in Greek! Epictetus developed more ethics than Moses ever would show (except for those brilliant flashes, I do admit: justice, justice shall you pursue) and taught his students to learn. Even this, more admirable than the lauded ethics of the Hebrew prophets!

Jerusalem gives us no science, no democracy, no philosophers of any kind, but we supposed to consider it sublime and holy because she is the dwelling place of the one, true god. The sophistication of Athens suffers under the primitive ideas of Jerusalem because the god of the Jews has decreed it so.