Recovering the Homeric gods

I was delighted to discover that Hubert Dreyfus once wrote a self-help book. I was particularly struck by his account of the Homeric orientation towards the world, strangely echoing Sloterdijk‘s Rage and Time yet in a completely different register. As Dreyfus and his co-author recount on pg 59-60 there was an openness to the world which the privacy of the liberal individual forecloses:

The Homeric Greeks were open to the world in a way that we, who are skilled at introspection and who think of moods as private experiences, can barely comprehend. Instead of understanding themselves in terms of their inner experiences and beliefs, they saw themselves as beings swept up into public and shareable moods. For Homer, moods are important because they illuminate a shared situation: they manifest what matters most in the moment and in doing so draw people to perform heroic and passionate deeds. The gods are crucial to setting these moods, and different gods illuminate different, and even incompatible, ways a situation can matter. The goddess to whom Helen was most attuned was Aphrodite; she illuminates a situation’s erotic possibilities and draws one to bring these out at their best. Achilles, by contrast, is sensitive to Ares’ mood—an aggressive mood in which opportunities to shine as a ferocious warrior become the most important aspects of the situation at hand. Other gods call forth other attunements. The best kind of life in Homer’s world is to be in sync with the gods.

There was a preoccupation with “those actions that one cannot perform on one’s own simply by trying harder: going to sleep, waking up, fitting in, standing out, gathering crowds together, holding their attention with a speech, changing their mood, or indeed being filled with longing, desire, courage, wisdom, and so on” which understood them as arising from outside us in an important sense. This suggests, as they put it, “we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot—and ought not—entirely take credit for” (pg 62).

I understand the point to be that existence is higher or fuller when things are acting through us rather than action arising from us, reflecting an involvement in our situation rather than a detachment from it. To reclaim the Homeric gods doesn’t necessitate polytheism but it does mean cultivating a sensitivity to the range of potentials inherent in each situation, overcoming what has gradually lost in modernity. It entails opening ourselves to the attunement we remain capable of if we resist the tendency to reduce the situation to the meaning we find in it and the significance it has for our purposes.

What is the world saying to us and can we hear it? I find it easiest to think about this in terms of nature, through those moments in which the mind’s chatter quietly fades away and there’s a sense of connection to the life around us. But this is just hearing, I’m not sure it’s listening as such. The difference is the action-guiding element, as attunement to the situation steers us in certain directions and leads certain propensities to arise within us that would not have come into being without that openness to the world. It doesn’t necessitate quiet and detachment because it’s not contemplative pondering, as much as it is a matter of leaning in (ha!) to our embedding in situations which by their character always trouble modern dichotomies of natural and social.

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