Michael Lurie revisits Greek pessimism with Nietzsche

On March 27 Michael Lurie, classicist and current fellow at the National Humanities Center, whose studies and research have included Greek literature and religion and theology in classical Greek philosophy, gave a lecture entitled “Not to be born is best. The Greeks and Pessimism, or Was Nietzsche Right?”

In this lecture, Lurie discussed the concept of Greek pessimism and the work of Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche in exploring a relatively ignored field and idea. The concept of Greek pessimism and the starting point of Lurie’s work, the choral ode in Sophocles’ work “Oedipus at Colonus,” is a topic brushed under the rug by many classicists and philosophers.

“Surprising as it may seem neither this passage nor the choral ode it is taken from have received much attention in the 20th century,” Lurie said. “Most studies of “˜Oedipus at Colonus’ manage not to mention this passage at all and those who do only do to dismiss it as random and insignificant and to deny any relevance to it or our understanding of Sophocles in general.”

The choral ode explores the notion of death and dying stating that to mankind, death is by far the best solution to the world we live in.

Lurie quoted Sophocoles when he said, “Not to be born comes first by every reckoning; and once one has appeared, to go back where one came from as soon possible is the next best thing.”

This passage, Lurie explains, is silenced by the more popular notions on Greek classical studies, something Nietzsche and Burckhardt would later come to challenge.

“Classical scholars conspire to keep their silence, determined not to dispose the young and innocent minds of ever so cheerful students to such a gloomy and subversive thought,” Lurie said. “As it is, ignorance is bliss; yet this silence becomes deafening.”

The exploration into the idea of Greek pessimism came from Burckhardt with later expansion from Nietzsche in his famous work, “Birth of Tragedy.”

“It was Burckhardt in his groundbreaking lectures on Greek cultural and societal history that rejected positivist historiography in favor of a new concept of Greek history while Nietzsche developed what he called the “˜Age of Greek Tragedy,'” Lurie said. “They both argued that Greeks were the true original pessimists that perceived the world we live in as the worst of all possible worlds.”

Lurie went on to explore other works of the Greeks that expand on the idea of Greek pessimism, from Homer’s “Odyssey,” to the work of Semonides. These works, which he cites as examples of the notion of Greek pessimism, are often in contrast to the more Platonic concepts and Plato’s denial of tragedy.

“The concept that God is morally good and incapable of evil is a newly radical idea invented by Plato,” Lurie said.

To senior philosophy and classical studies double major Austen Hall, the lecture was not only engaging, but also convincing and sound.

“I thought Dr. Lurie was an engaging lecturer due to his energy and thoughtful explanations,” Hall said.  “He constructed, in my opinion, a pretty convincing argument for the claim that pessimism is not merely a modern phenomenon, providing ample evidence from classical Greek literature to support his claims.”

Lurie’s work was not simply an exploration of a negative and depressing idea, but rather a complex different look at an incredible culture.

“Also, I really liked how Dr. Lurie made a point to avoid describing pessimism in a negative light or equating it with fatalism; instead pointing out that this predominantly pessimistic worldview gave rise to one of the most influential cultures in history,” Hall said.

Lurie was named a National Humanities Fellow for 2013-14 year as an independent classics scholar.