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The Tragedy and the Paradox of Greek Civilization

by Vincent Kavaloski

They are old Dead White Males,
Embarrassing in their political incorrectness.
They built their greatness on slavery,
They were patriarchal and sexist to the core,
They idealized the warrior, and warred
Incessantly. They could be cruel and often
Despised mercy as weakness.
And yet – and yet
We are still fascinated by the
Shattered fragments of their tiny
Long-ago world. Why?
Perhaps we see reflected in them,
As in an old cracked mirror,
Our own subterranean psyches,
Our own repressed Dionysian
Obsession with power and violence.
After all, for many of us,
They are our cultural ancestors,
And, however much we might
Try to escape or disown them,
We are imprinted with the
Mark of their madness – and genius.
In order to understand our
Own conflicted nature
We must embrace them.
A return to the Greeks is a
Return to our own roots.

But there is something else.
At the very dawn of civilization,
In a rocky and harsh corner of the world,
Amidst the violence and domination that
Flourished everywhere, human consciousness
Took flight on the gossamer wings of poetry
And philosophy; and for one brief, beautiful
Moment, warriors set down their
Weapons and began a quest for
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
Through drama, dialogue, and debate.
They dreamed a Dream of Wisdom,
Virtue and Democracy,
Soaring high in the sky of the mind,
Pushing back the limits of what human
Beings could be. They built temples to beauty
And poems to love, created philosophy that
Pursued self-knowledge, and science
That probed the heavens and the earth.
Then the drums of war returned.
Suddenly it was all over. They could not
Live the dream they dreamed so well.
This is their paradox and their tragedy.

© Vincent Kavaloski 2020

Vince Kavaloski was a Professor of Philosophy and Integrative Studies. He was posthumously given the 2020 ‘Peacemaker of the Year Award’ by a Wisconsin organization. We publish this poem especially to mark his recent passing.

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