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April 15, 2011

Three Minutes in the Sun

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The monuments, temples, and gravestones of ancient Greece, marble skeletons of a once thriving civilization, dot Greece’s modern landscape, and clutter its museums. In Greece’s heyday they were functional, facilitating access to the Gods. They testified to the people’s faith, and to a keen sense of balance and beauty. Now they contribute heavily to the country’s economic base by luring travelers and capturing tourist dollars. Is that the ultimate value of ancient artifacts? Are such stones simply souvenirs of previous civilizations, which modern society turns into profit ventures? I suppose it depends on whom you ask. For some, no doubt, the stones are just piles of rock, stone, and concrete impeding modern progress—a word by which we recent arrivals on the world scene render the past and its remains as somehow less significant in the light of the economic necessities of the present.

     But some years ago at the magnificent temple of Poseidon in southern Attica (Greece), I was struck differently. The temple was built in the fifth century B.C.E. in devotion to the Greek sea God Poseidon. It stands on a high promontory, near the edge of a steep cliff facing the open sea. Its gray-veined fluted columns, bone-like in the sun, are visible for miles to ships that pass below. Etched against a blue Grecian sky, it stands today as a reminder of the best qualities of the human spirit, and in tribute to the ancient Greek sense of symmetry and proportion. In some ways it attests the God-like nature of human beings, whose artifacts bring order to nature’s randomness, as God brought order to chaos in the act of creation. These symmetrical products of human hands bring striking regularity into nature’s casual course. Straight lines are a human invention; Mother Nature doesn’t make them.

     But these stone vestiges of the Greek past also remind us that we humans vanish as rapidly as wreaths of smoke from a dry cheap cigar. Just maybe the name recognition of our more famous will last a bit longer. But not even the names of our greatest will last forever. One day, when our own culture is a vague memory among our posterity, even the great names and their deeds will be lost. For example, the name of the Spartan general, Leonidas, is today no longer a household word, but his courageous stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E., at the cost of his own life and the lives of his soldiers, directly contributed to the preservation of Greek culture and the eventual rise of western civilization.

     These Greek stones also suggest that our own gravestones, monuments, and majestic skyscrapers, now a part of a living culture in America, are like those of ancient Greece, and are eventually destined for obsolescence—that is simply the way of Nations. They rise and fall with frightening regularity. Neither the ancient Greek stones, nor our own treasured monuments, will endure forever—for not even stones are impervious to the forces of wind and rain. Eventually, inscriptions chiseled into stone monuments fade, and then the stones themselves weather and disintegrate.

     In the final analysis, men are not Gods, and all the generous offerings of their hands to the Gods, their monuments, gravestones, and temples, like their own bleached bones, are so much hay and stubble disappearing in the wind. If there is a single lesson to be learned from Poseidon’s temple, the moral is in the stones: make the most of your three minutes in the sun.

From Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest? American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Wipf & Stock, 2009), 61-62

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:36pm

Consider: Preserving the relics of societies and cultures is a real problem for the farmers, and residents of expanding communities who are afraid to accurately report the finding of a pot, part of a statue, or arrowheads. They fear that the government, spurred by the museum lobby, collectors, and “historians” will put a fence around their land, and “protect” it for the benefit of those who want to contemplate vestiges of the past for three minutes in the sun.
Posted by Peggy... on 04/16/2011 at 7:40am