Violence in the Ancient World

Despite an unknown number of studies and untold billions spent on research, the jury is still out on whether violent behavior is instinctual or learned.  Society today is quick to blame violent representations on movies and television and video games with igniting violently deviant behavior in the spectators.  Perhaps those who make that connection have a point.  After all, since earliest days of recorded narratives, history has been nothing but a continuous bloodbath punctuated by the very occasional and short-lived cease-fire.  Aggression has been the rule; peace the exception.  However, where does one draw the line between pernicious representations of violent conduct and dramatizations meant to educate, uplift and enlighten?  Violence, often cruel and bloody, permeates the pages of the Old Testament and The Odyssey, and while it is generally lacking in Antigone the effects of violence, nonetheless, is a subtext of practically every line.   Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any of these great hallmarks of literature without thinking of the often extreme violence contained within.

Whether that violence is directed toward others, God or oneself, however, a reader is almost certain to recognize that these acts are not meant to titillate or provoke further violence, but rather to present an imitation of reality from which a valuable moral lesson can be gained, and it exactly this “old-fashioned” manner of belief that a work of literature can touch the soul that separates the classics from their modern counterparts.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his book The Republic, famously railed against poetry precisely baecause of its imitative quality and the danger that audiences not knowing the difference between reality and illusion would take illusion as their guide to life.  In many ways Plato’s fear seems to have infected modern writers.  The rise of postmodernism has coincided with a seeming fear of authors expressing a genuine care about something.  Irony and detached self-consciousness have replaced the old world aspects of writing from the heart with a desire to affect peoples’ live for the better.   What separates The Odyssey as told by Homer from its recently filmic restaging O Brother, Where are Thou?, isn’t such things as setting, plot, characters, etc.  The real difference lies in the genesis of the act of writing.  Homer wished to tell a grand epic full of adventures, sex and violence that would teach his readers how to live a better life.  The violence in such acts as the stabbing out of the cyclops’ eye, or the furious battle between Scylla and Charybdis are genuine and frightening and infuse the reader with actual danger.  The film by the Coen brothers, as good as it is in its own right, contains not one single moment in which life is held in the balance and the viewer is demanded to answer the question: What would you do if you were in this situation?  When Abraham holds a blade over his son and is prepared to sacrifice him for the love of God; when Antigone leaves for her cell complete in the knowledge that she has no future other than suicide; all the violent actions in these books points to one thing, regardless of who the violence is directed against.  That one direction is, simply, to try make the reader a better person after he has finished reading than he was before he began.  And the belief that such a thing is possible is today merely another topic for postmodern irony.

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