Readers of Homer’s immortal poem, The Odyssey, will be familiar with the following story. The hero Odysseus and his companions, on their perilous sea voyage from Troy back to their beloved island, land on an alien shore. Foraging for food, some men venture inland. Soon they come to a gorgeous dwelling, where Circe, an alluring female, offers them a refreshing drink. Alas, Circe is a sorceress and the drink a magic potion. As soon as they quaff it, a horrid transformation takes place. Bristles sprout from their limbs, they grunt, they grow pigs’ heads and bodies. Pitilessly, the witch then with blows drives her victims to a crowded and filthy sty, where they wallow in the mud. Having lost all memory of their former state, they now behave like real swine. Their minds, however, remain intrinsically human. [more]
It falls to wily Odysseus, warned by a god, to break the evil spell. The hero swings into action. Circe is seized and forced to reverse the enchantment. Shedding their bestial shape, the companions stand on their two feet again. Happily, they leave their pigpens. They rejoice in being, once again, human. All’s well that ends well… but does it?
I submit this is a cautionary tale for us today. Call it a parable. The idea of human beings being cheated of their humanity and being turned into something inferior and brutish may turn out to have surprising applications to our ultra-consumerist and ultra-materialist age.
There is nothing new in this, of course. Greek philosophy, divided into rival schools, included that of Epicurus, a philosopher whose chief principle was hedone, pleasure. Epicurus’ followers, after his death, went on to preach that humanity’s essential goal and overarching purpose was hedonism, or the search for sensual, physical fulfillment. Although Epicurus himself was far more sophisticated than his latter-day epigoni, his teaching was soon identified with an exaltation of the lower, purely animal aspects of human nature. Indeed, a Roman writer, to send up the hedonist brigade of his own time, coined an excellent phrase: ‘pigs of Epicurus’ herd.’
I wonder if Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had hedonism in mind when, in a recent address, he said that the culture that has established itself in Europe “represents the most radical possible contradiction not only of Christianity, but of all the religious traditions of humanity.”
Another significant aspect of Epicurus’ philosophy was his marginalization of the Divine. In this, he is also quite topical. Epicurus was technically no atheist. He did not deny that the gods existed. Rather, he maintained that their existence did not impinge at all on human life. His deities lived intermundia, in the gaps between planets, and were blissfully indifferent to what went on below on earth. In other words, they cared not a jot about the plight of men.
Does all this ring a tiny bell? The consumerist philosophies (though to use the word that used to mean “love of wisdom” is to dignify them too much) holding sway across the Western world, unlike Marxism, do not bother actively to deny the Divine. Instead, they effectively marginalize it. Through steadfast, relentless media advertising and propaganda, plugging the cult of Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Marks&Sparks, etcetera, they have managed largely to push spiritual values out of the human horizon. How diabolically clever indeed.