Saturday, February 20, 2016

Menander Speaks to Our Time

Jesus of Nazareth said, “Out of the heart of  man proceed evil thoughts.  These are what defile a man.”  The people of Palestine in the first century A.D. considered Jesus’ saying as new.  Some now say his words were God’s.  The people of Jesus’ time did not know, as most of us do not know, that something very similar was said four hundred years earlier in Athens by Menander.  He said, “All that defiles a man comes from within.”  Jesus said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s (sister’s) eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own?”  Menander wrote four hundred years earlier, “When you would say some evil of your neighbor, first think of all the evil in yourself.”  When Paul, the apostle, wrote, “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” he was, though he probably did not know it, directly quoting Menander.   

Bridges and Walls--Bridges connect, walls separate.
Menander was a comedian of sorts, a playwright, in ancient Greece.  He was able to speak the truth of life (of human nature) in a way only a few have done since.   He was, perhaps, the Athenian Shakespeare.  Unlike Shakespeare, however, Menander has mostly been forgotten and ignored.  To forget and ignore history and the persons who played a part in it is a tragic thing—and when we do it, as we are doing now in our society—we suffer severe consequences.  History, if unknown or unacknowledged, repeats itself!

Athens, the first democracy, was fading away in Menander’s time.  The people had lost the inner flame of free thought, of openness, of the genius that had spawned that democratic experiment.  In Menander’s time, they were a selfish people, concerned only for their own security, affluence and comfort.  The Athenians became small and absorbed in small personal matters.  There was no anger at what was taking place around them, no fire of conviction, no speaking out for truth.  Only that which touched them personally mattered and the wall they built around themselves  eventually destroyed the greatness that once was theirs.

Menander tried, but failed. The fire was gone. No longer could the Athenians grasp, just as we seem to be failing to grasp Menander’s truths:

“If a man can change a god to that which he desires, 
Then he himself is greater than the god.”

“No man is alien to me.  In us all 
There is one nature.” 

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