Bad Eggs

Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.

In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.

It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.

I Can Haz Edukashun?

Myths are alive and well. One of the most pervasive myths, along with the one that says clergy only work on Sundays, is the concept that educators take the summer off. Undoubtedly some do, but the summer is traditionally the time for professors to conduct research without having to break up their concentration with several classes a day. Those were the halcyon days. This morning’s newspaper slapped me like a fistful of razors as I read the story of Rutgers University’s president’s resignation. I knew about the resignation, but being fumblingly employed part-time by his mighty university, and having to take annual ethics training for the pittance I’m allowed, I blanched as I read these two sentences: “McCormick earns $550,000 a year as president and is eligible for a $100,000 yearly bonus, though he hasn’t taken the money in recent years due to the university’s budget troubles. Ralph Izzo, chairman of the board of governors, said he thought McCormick would be worth his [continued] $334,000 professor’s salary.” A few pages later the headline tells how Chris Christie, New Jersey’s cut and bleed governor, took a state helicopter ride to get to his son’s baseball game. Also, he wants to prevent state employees from making a viable living.

In this twilight zone of an educational nightmare, a guy with professional ethics training just wants to close his eyes and make it all go away. For what are we educating our young if not for greed? What professor is worth more than 100,000 dollars to any university? In the old days, back with ethics had intestinal fortitude, the term for such folks was “sell outs.” Is there really any drive for excellence at such pay scales? It is no wonder we are raising the “entitlement generation.” Actions used to speak louder than words. State-mandated ethics training has now corrected that little oversight. Higher education used to be about ideas; today it’s “show me the money.”

The truly sad part of all this is that we keep pretending. We preach the myth to a public easily pacified and crucify those who beg to differ. Back in my Nashotah House days a trustee once hushed me so that the board might listen to a student with “fire in his belly.” My belly’s a blackened cinder by now. Is anybody listening? Mythology, particularly in the Greek world, revolves around the concept of hubris. It is a concept with which modern university folk are clearly unfamiliar. It goes something like this: like most people I think I am better than others. In order to prove it, I’ll increase my blandishments until there is no longer any doubt. Is that Olympus straight ahead? I might as well take that as well!

I’d love to stay and lecture some more, but I’m apparently entitled to more state ethics training.

The Ides of March

In the days of ancient Rome, politicians as well as plebeians feared the interference of the gods. Auspicious days were ignored, even by emperors, at their own peril. In my Mythology class the concept of hubris frequently emerges. Generally thought to be excessive pride, hubris can take many forms. Whenever a mere mortal strives for godhood, however innocently, it must be punished. Julius Caesar, declaring himself emperor, had to face the wrath of the gods. The ides of March kept in check the ambitions of the powerful. In a world where the political become too powerful, the very phases of the moon step in to restore balance.

The ides seem to have their origin in the date of the full moon. The month of March, named after the god Mars, featured a military parade on the ides. Then, as now, political power is simply the form of government backed by the military. The history of human unrest, especially notable since the American and French revolutions when the common people shouted, “Enough!”, is where might is shown not to equal right. Pontiffs and presidents, enamored of firepower and its blandishments, appear like Caesar before their populaces, confident in their wealth and military backing.

The concept of hubris might once again be meaningful to a culture under siege. As pundits and politicians make bids for places of abusive power, confident that there is no one above them, ethics are reformed in their own images. Have they not become their own gods? We the people bow to their vision of what should be. How many political leaders retire to uncertain futures because their own pensions have been slashed and healthcare diminished? Those who care for them in their dotage are the very children whose educational funds they’ve slashed. Hubris? It behooves all of us to beware the ides of March. Most, like Caesar, will ignore the warning and don the purple. Those who read, however, will not anger the gods.

Et tu, Brutus?