When most people think of the ancient Greeks, they think of them in terms of civilization, democracy, heroism and individualism. In truth, the Greeks were a race torn between genius and insanity. The large columns and marble slabs that we see in Athens would have, in their day, been surrounded by crowds of people selling, shouting, defecating and jostling. The pillars themselves were actually painted garishly in different colours, or etched with graffiti, making ancient Athens seem more like the Hammidiyah Souk in Damascus or some place like Mexico city or Cairo. In the Hammidiyah, in front of the giant Ummayad Mosque, you find Roman ruins surrounded by a bazaar built by the Ottoman Turks in front of a Muslim mosque that was once a church and before that was once a temple to a Roman god, located at the heart of what we now call Syria, just another new kingdom in the scene of world history. CD players blare out the latest religious anthems, stalls sell all manner of foods and goods and boys wheel around large hauls of merchandise as they take it from one place to the other. This is what we must have in mind when we think of the ancient Greeks, along with their learning and high culture. It is the stink of sweat which reaches us when history comes alive.
As a person deeply interested in history, society and how it changes, it struck me early on in my studies how utterly insignificant man is in the scheme of things. Like grains of sand, each and every individual thinks they are making their mark, yet they will be forgotten and it will be as if they never were. It was with this mindset that I first came across Nietzsche's ideas about art and culture. Friedrich Nietzsche mentioned the Apollonian and the Dionysian in Greek culture. The Apollonian signified the commonly believed view of Greek civilization, knowledge, learning and virtues with its expression in Greek drama as tragedy. As for the Dionysian, it is the wanton, libidinous and hedonistic aspect of a civilization finding its best expression in comedy and farce. I got the impression whilst reading this that the Dionysian is the escapism of a humanity which would be too depressed to look at its condition and the futility of it all. Instead it chooses to loose itself in partying, sex, drugs and 'rock'n'roll'. The answer seemed to lie in the tragedy and hardships of the Apollonian, in the recognition of the infinite and the infinitesimal.
The Apollonian tendency in our psyche, this engrained or cultivated tendency, pushed us to seek out philosophy, to learn and enlighten ourselves. and to try to find a way to distinguish the universal from the particular and the meaningful from what seemed meaningless. If nothing meant anything, then what is this we see before us? Why is it this way and not that way? The questions begin, and then our understanding of the relation these objects can have with us, and then how we ourselves gain knowledge of them, before beginning to ask that age old question, "Why are we here?". If the answer, as Sartre tells us, is nothing more than a deafening silence, and mankind were truly crying out in vain, then nothing has meaning. Nietsche transforms into Foucault, which translates into over-educated, arrogant post-graduate students who have no manners, no respect and no conception of what it means to live well or to do well. There is no moral framework for them to cling to, and so they attach themselves to infantile popular expressions of what morality is, expressions inherited from the last coherent framework that Western civilization had of 'right' and 'wrong', the struggle between fascism and communalism or liberalism, then the struggle between communism and capitalism. Within this flimsy cobweb, no actions or decisions have consequences nor any moral worth. The cycle returns back to the Dionysian as a despaired Apollo returns to the sun.
In this tired, frankly depressing, helenistic view of history, I found only despair and anguish. When I reflected on the matter, I found that the expressions of European culture and civilization, whilst beautiful in some aspects, were also deeply frightening, morbid and gloomy. The Gothic cathedrals, the gargoyles, the darkness of it all was truly soul crushing. Last year on a visit to Spain I had gone to an exhibition on the work of Goya, a Spanish artist who had witnessed Napoleon's invasion. He seemed to me to exemplify in many of his works this morbid Western phobia of death and this frightening view of life. Goya's painting of a dead duck comes to mind when I write this. I contrasted this with the ethereal beauty, lightness and innocence of the architecture I had seen in Andalusia; the Mosque of Cordoba and the Hambra palace in Granada. It was this contrast which struck me. The Hellenistic world was dying, and it was the wave of Islam which came to give a despairing human society a renewal of purpose in what it meant to be human, to live and to relate with others. Outside of the cycle of Hellenistic Apollonism or Dionysion escape, there was the otherworldly Quran. The old way of life lived on, with all its tragedy, triumph and passion, but stabilised with a faith - Islam.The tragic impulse in our psyche becomes our longing for rest and nearness to Allah, the early Muslims followed the Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet) by crying when reading the Qur'an. Crying for the profoundness, for grasping the infinite if only briefly, and then, once the crying was done, being thankful for the opportunity to live and to live well. I cry sometimes, and afterwards I always feel better, as if the pent up rage and sadness for whatever has upset me has just been lanced. The calm and acceptance which comes afterwards are like a mercy from an emotion which only minutes before threatened to drive me insane. The balance, the "Sirat al Mustaqeem" (straight path) becomes the focus of life, to tread between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, to work for this life as if I lived forever, and the afterlife as if I were to die today, in the words of the Prophet Muhammad. In this daily struggle, or jihad, I found my purpose and sanctuary from despair. I understood the Qur'anic words, the mercy to the worlds (رحمة للعالمين) and Allah's calling those who followed His Qur'an as the people of the "middle way".
Ramadan is knocking on our doors, and this is the state of my mind I wished to share as I welcome yet another visit from this friend. I wish everybody a beautiful and insightful Ramadan - albeit a bit earlier than usual.