C.S. Lewis was mentioned in the lecture today, which reminded me, of all things, of a song from a 90s teen movie. The movie is She’s All That (Pygmalion in high school, not stellar), and the song is ‘Kiss Me’. It’s a silly love song (…and what’s wrong with that?…), but I like it and find it touching. Anyway, the band responsible for this ditty is Sixpence None the Richer, and they are named after a passage from Mere Christianity, a book that set the man we know and love as the creator of Narnia in the role of lay theologian. The passage, in this case, is a metaphor. A boy asks his father to give him sixpence, so he can buy a present…for his father. The father is happy to receive the gift despite gaining no corporeal benefit by it. Lewis’s analogy is that man should serve God humbly, because He is the source of their ability to do so in the first place (giving us the resources to serve just as the father gives his boy the sixpence). Which brings me to lines 1105-1159 (pg. 62-63), where the Chorus waxes contemplative about the gods.
Now, I read this passage as the Chorus coming to a painful realization about fate, divinity and life itself (I’ll try to refer to it/them in the singular from here on in, as they’re more of a construct representing the older, male, established citizens of Athens that defined the culture). The Chorus starts by invoking the laws made in heaven, not earth, controlling and limiting their actions, laws made not by men, but deathless gods. Think about this for a second: the laws that govern the lion’s share of expectations and standards, to which dozens of rituals and sacrifices are made, and to which the penalties include both human damage (exile, death) and the looming fear of divine retribution (lightning strikes, plagues), are being made by immortal dilettantes who rarely if ever are in a position to feel any of their consequences.
If you think this sounds like tyranny, it seems like the Chorus agrees with you, as in the next set of lines they describe the arrogance of these dictators and hope for their fall, and quickly back up to ask for solace as honest men. The supplication to Apollo (the god of medicine and plague, who would be theologically responsible for the illness ravaging the city) seems more sarcastic at this point, as these (presumably) honest men get riled up about how evil men can escape retribution, while they’re living in terror.
Then, the chorus has its Batman moment. The realization where they look at the situation and go ‘hey, I can do something’, specifically just refuse to waste their time on the gods that are jerking them around. They even go so far as to question the authority of Zeus, which is miles past stupid and verging into suicidal in a world where divinely-empowered lightning strikes are a justified fear. The ending line is the ultimate challenge: ‘nothing of the gods stays’. If immortals aren’t capable of making their actions last, what does that say about their competency, or their existence?
The Chorus’ impression of faith, then, seems like the reverse of Lewis’. They pay their tributes, sacrifice their animals, give their time to rituals of devotion, all to continue going about their lives, constantly praying for boons from entities to whom they may as well be overgrown mayflies. They give and they give, and the gods may not even care, because what can humans do? I read this as the kind of life-shattering revelation that comes with questions like “Have I ever really loved my wife?” “Have I wasted my life on this job I hate?” “Have I failed as a father/husband/brother/son?” The Chorus has paid their tribute, and from this passage, it seems that they want their money back.