A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).

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