The full title of the book is The Wisdom of the Myths, how Greek mythology can change your life (2014). This is the second book by the French philosophy professor Luc Ferry that I have read and it is written in as equally beginner-friendly language and is filled with thought-expanding insights as the first book (A Brief History of Thought, see my review of it here).
The Wisdom of the Myths follows up in closer detail on one of the philosophical traditions that the author briefly discussed in his earlier work – that of Ancient Greece. More specifically, the author’s focus in this book is on revealing to his readers following three main views:
- understanding myth within its context – the case of how important it is to interpret the myths in line with their collective origin and respective social/cultural context of that collective, only then we can hope to grasp their deep insights as truly as possible;
- the link between myth and philosophy – the case of how ancient Greek mythology was the precursor and the foundation of the ancient Greek philosophy whose monumental ideas are influencing our Western cultures still today;
- philosophy as a secular spirituality – the case of how ancient Greek philosophy developed over time by taking up the crucial life questions from the myths, disenchanting them and offering its various responses without the support of gods.
Those who have an interest in mythology, history and especially the period of Ancient Greece will likely enjoy the first of the above three topics – Luc Ferry’s interpretations of various well-known myths. In his efforts to clarify the underlying wisdom of these collective stories (from their original perspective, as much as possible) the author looks at the core themes in the Greek mythology and uses accounts of several myths to support his arguments in 6 chapters:
- creation/birth of the universe (the Greek cosmos)
- creation/birth of all mortal creatures, including humans
- the idea that a good life is one lived in harmony with the cosmos, which is itself a balanced order, finding your “own, natural place” in it (the myth of Odysseus serves as an example here)
- the biggest violation against the cosmic order is hubris (anything to excess), which humans regularly succumb to and which robs them of the wisdom of the good life (stories of Sisyphus, Orpheus and Asclepius – the predecessor of Frankenstein – are considered here)
- the hero’s journey and his primary mission is to restore and maintain the cosmic order, to uphold justice (also tied to the wisdom of the good life) against disruptions of harmony (here reader meets probably the best-known heroes of Ancient Greece – Heracles with his labours, Theseus who fought Minotaur, Perseus who fought the Gorgon Medusa and Jason who ventured after the Golden Fleece)
- the difficult thought that justice (and return to cosmic order) spans across periods often much longer than a single person’s life and sometimes our denial of reality and short-sightedness will lead to suffering long after we are gone affecting those who have themselves done nothing to “deserve it” (a closer look is given here to the famous story of Oedipus paying attention to the broader context of his misfortune)
The other two principal views listed previously are developed by the author step-by-step throughout the whole book and brought to a persuasive conclusion in the last chapter of his work. Here, Luc Ferry brings mythology and philosophy face to face and shows how the latter flows out of the former, taking up the underlying core questions and offering its answers “without gods”. Just to give one example, here is how the author explains why it was important for the Greeks to place Dionysus on equal footing with other Olympians, although he is a god of wine, festivity, frivolity and violently intoxicated orgies, a god who reminds more of chaos rather than the cosmic order represented by the Immortals of the Olympus:
“/…/ this god of delirium will henceforth embody the need to take account of all that is different from, even opposed to, the calm, eternal, and divinely ordained universe /…/ – chance, confusion, contingency, heartbreak, and the other imperfections peculiar to the human condition.”Luc Ferry, from the reviewed book
For me, it was an illuminating, thought-expanding and captivating read. Its insights motivate me to more often take a broader perspective and remember that I am neither an island drifting apart from everyone nor a being of perfectly ordered harmony with full control over each ripple effect I might cause or participate in. I recommend this book to anyone wishing to explore and expand their views.