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The Philosopher Kings... a comment

Back in November (this is how long it’s been since I’ve posted) I ran into papersky at Windycon, and chatted with her about the reaction she’s gotten to The Philosopher Kings. One amusing comment was, “why did Apollo have to do that (horrible thing)?” to which her answer was, “because that’s what really happened!” Which got us both laughing, because it’s what “really happened” in the classical mythology.

The other, more serious issue, is that she has been criticized for being anti-Christian in the book. That one, I took more seriously, because I confess that was my first reaction as well. Except… I know her, and I know that isn’t true.

What is true, is that the POV characters through whom we see the story — especially Apollo — are, of course, anti-Christian. In one sense, it is the fallacy of mistaking a character’s opinion with the author’s opinion.

But there’s more going on than that. In fact, once you realize that we’re seeing just about everything that is happening from the POV of a pagan god, then this attitude is not only understandable, but necessary to the plot.

Because, the fact is, we naturally are given Apollo through the most positive light possible; we see him through himself and his family and friends. And at the end of the day, he really does do (horrible thing). And the fact that he does it, is also completely correct from who he is and where he comes from.

As to the relationship between the pagan and Christian worlds, I was suddenly reminded of what G. K. Chesterton had to say in Orthodoxy… which I reprint here.

Nature worship is natural enough while the society is young, or, in other words, Pantheism is all right as long as it is the worship of Pan. But Nature has another side which experience and sin are not slow in finding out, and it is no flippancy to say of the god Pan that he soon showed the cloven hoof.

The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural.  A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Man of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bull's blood, as did Julian the Apostate.

The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.  Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped.  Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously. If they are, we end where the pagan nature worship ended. Because the earth is kind, we can imitate all her cruelties. Because sexuality is sane, we can all go mad about sexuality. Mere optimism had reached its insane and appropriate termination. The theory that everything was good had become an orgy of everything that was bad. (from Chapter V, The Flag of the World)

And later:

It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy.  Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere.  Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided.  And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens.

The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity.  But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin.  To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea.  When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold.  Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly.  Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. (from Chapter VIII, The Romance of Orthodoxy)


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2016 09:01 pm (UTC)
I think Jo-the-person's attitude toward Christianity comes through a lot more accurately in he Sulien books: the have been some pretty awful people throughout history who have called themselves "Christian", but, on the whole, the fundamental morality of Christianity is really solid, and, long-term, better for more people than the ideas of most things that preceded it.

Knowing Jo, that's the lens I read PHILOSOPHER KINGS through -- Matthias had come up with a particularly nasty thing which he was calling "Christianity", but it didn't line up with what most people would consider "Christianity", and once you removed Matthias and a few other people, you'd end up with a Christianity that was a lot more sympathetic.
Jan. 15th, 2016 07:26 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth
I'm afraid I have not read any of the works under consideration here, and am certainly not qualified to launch into a discourse or debate about any of it. I would, though, like to point out that I am your friend, your fan, and an actively practicing Pagan. I like to think that I am living proof that in 2016, it is possible to be Pagan and to be healthy, smart, science-minded, good-hearted, and kind. For that reason, I am hurt whenever I see/hear/read someone I respect making sweeping characterizations of Pagans as unnatural or barbaric or simple or stupid. It is no more appropriate or fair to paint all Pagans with that broad brush than it is to say that all Christians are white supremacists or all Muslims are terrorists based on the actions of a few horrible people.

I am myself a recovering Christian-basher. I was hurt badly and often enough by people who called themselves Christians that I started down the path of believing they were all the same kind of small-minded and mean-spirited jerks that the handful of them who hurt me were. I learned better, and now I neither bash other people for their religious beliefs nor do I tolerate such bashing from anyone around me. Would I be out of line in requesting the same consideration for myself?
Jan. 18th, 2016 08:49 pm (UTC)
Context is everything. To clarify, my comment is not on religion but on literature.

In particular, what I am commenting on is a modern author's take on a very ancient cosmology... twice removed from modern paganism, at least. My point is that her modern portrayal is curiously consistent with a 100 year old take on that same far-removed cosmology.

The paganism that Chesterton was writing about, 100 years ago, was not even that practiced in ancient Greece 2400 years ago, but a version well before classical times... the folklore that went into the classical stories.

I think it's very good writing for Jo to have her Apollo character be anti-Christian. I don't take that to mean either that Jo, or modern pagans, are anti-Christian.
Feb. 11th, 2016 02:04 pm (UTC)
Chesterson's The Eye of Apollo also relevant
In terms of similar literary treatment, Chesterton's protagonist Father Brown squared off against nominal Apollo-worshipers in The Eye of Apollo. In Philosopher Kings, my sense was that Apollo's antagonist was not opposed on religious grounds, but on personal ones. Some of the nominal Christians were portrayed as doing some of the uglier types things that have sometimes been done, while others were horrified. In The Eye of Apollo, all of the cultists were villains or fools, and the arguments were more directly about religion. But I think I am starting to understand the literary point. I thought at first that it was that stories are told from the perspective of the protagonist, but maybe it is more that the reality of the story world is suited to the POV of the protagonist. Interesting idea.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )