Peter J. Leithart, “Heroes of the City of Man”

I read this book because Louis Markos, in his book From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (discussed in a separate post on this blogsite), writes: “I must acknowledge right off the bat that there is already an excellent book offering a Christian look at Homer, Virgil, and the Greek tragedians,” and then cites the book discussed in this post. Markos continues that his and Leithart’s books “complement rather than overlap each other. Leithart looks more with the eye of a theologian and Bible scholar (he is particularly adept at uncovering the chiastic structures of ancient literature) …. Leithart focuses more on background and narrative structure [rather than characters, themes, and symbols] …. Finally, … [Leithart’s] work is a bit more reluctant than my own to embrace the ancients as full pre-Christian writers from whom Christians can learn truths that will deepen and enrich their faith.” So I got a copy of Leithart’s book and read it.

Leithart devotes a chapter each to the Theogony, Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and then to four Greek plays, one each by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. There are endnotes for each chapter and suggestions “For Additional Reading” at the end of the book (works by C.S. Lewis, Wendell Berry, Simone Weil, and Bernard Knox, among others), as well as “Review Questions” and “Thought Questions” within chapters, but no index. The book has an introduction (“The Devil Has No Stories”) that is fairly long (27 pages), especially when you consider that the book’s two major sections also each have an introduction (9 pages for “Ancient Epic” and 6 pages for “Greek Drama”). Leithart is a playful writer (see, e.g., the penultimate sentence on page 32, and 211 n.4) and enjoys, especially, jokes at the expense of Bill Clinton (72; see also 115, 163); the book came out in 1999, so comparisons between our randy then-leader and the randy leader of the gods is perhaps unsurprising.

Here’s how the author himself describes his book (14):

Heroes of the City of Man is a book about Athens by an author who resides contentedly in Jerusalem. One of the foundational assumptions of this study is that there is a profound antithesis, a conflict, a chasm, between Christian faith and all other forms of thought and life. Though I appreciate the sheer aesthetic attraction of classical poetry and drama, I have no interest in helping construct Athrusalem or Jerens; these hybrids are monstrosities whose walls the church should breach rather than build. Instead, I have attempted to view Athens from a point securely within the walls of Jerusalem.

An accurate view is possible in spite of the great gulf fixed between the two cities. We have the technology. And, I believe there is profit to be had from this exploration of foreign territory. The purpose of this introduction is to describe the technology and to enumerate some benefits of deploying it.


There’s way more Athens than Jerusalem in this book: Each chapter is a detailed discussion of a classical work, with a few sentences then mixed in that relate it in some way to the Bible and Christianity. You’re not wasting your time if you read this book, since it’s a good summary and discussion of some of the foundational classics of Western civilization, but what I’m not sure that most readers will gain much Christian insight.

Markos is right that Leithart has a lot in here that purports to identify chiastic structures (I have to say I’m not sure what the point of this is, and that it’s possible to stretch that identification); he’s also right that Leithart is more skeptical about what Christians can find to follow in the classics.

On that last point, I would add that one is struck more with how different the pagans’ worldview is from the Christians’ than with the former being Lewisian “signposts” to the latter. I noted this when I read the last few lines of the chapter on The Bacchae (361):

It is important to notice what kind of insight is offered here. Wisdom is not related here, as Christian wisdom is, to faith and trust in God. We cannot trust this god; by definition, we cannot rely on him; what kind of man would love him? Euripides offers another kind of wisdom: He warns against the fresh and horrifying surprises he springs. Terror of an unpredictable god, not fear in the biblical sense, is the beginning of Dionysian wisdom.

See also 293 (“From a biblical perspective, Aeschylus, like Hesiod, highlights a profound flaw in the Greek worldview, for both show us that the power of the Olympians and the health of their cities depend on an alliance with the powers of darkness”). In the same vein, I’ll note that the key to the chapter on the Iliad is this sentence (92): “C.S. Lewis said that beneath the surface of Homer’s worldview is not so much sadness as despair, especially despair that the world will ever be different” (92; Lewis is cited throughout — e.g., 36, 39).

But I also add that this does not mean a Christian cannot learn much that is worthwhile from the classics. Just as a Christian physician can learn important lessons about the human body from a pagan text, so can Christians learn about the human mind from those texts. In the last sentence of his introduction to the section on Greek drama (280), the author writes: “Though these writers do not arrive at a Christian view of society, they effectively expose some of the flaws and dilemmas of the Greek city-state, and therefore help Christians refine our own thinking on these matters.” The classics are worth reading on their own terms, and for Christians for no other reason than showing what Christianity was replacing and was up against. And of course great art can be produced by non-Christians, too.


One of the book’s better classical-Christian comparisons is found on pages 194-95, and I have to note that this is precisely at the book’s center — just where someone using a chiasmus would place the core message:

In many ways, the story of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca reflects themes of the gospel story. The king comes in “disguise” to his own kingdom to reclaim his throne and is mistreated by the nobles of the kingdom. He suffers their mockery and persecution silently, but then reveals himself in power and glory in a day of “resurrection.” Even Odysseus’s vengeance against the suitors who have been preying on his bride find a parallel in Jesus’ “coming” to Jerusalem to destroy the harlot that drinks the blood of his bride (Matthew 24; Revelation 17-18). Still, the two stories diverge subtly. In the gospels, Jesus submits not only to mockery and rejection but even to death, and in His death He achieves His victory. Odysseus, operating by the Greek heroic ethic, suffers silently for a time, but only until he has an opening to take savage vengeance against his persecutors. True, Jesus eventually carries out vengeance against His enemies, but on the cross [H]e prays for their forgiveness. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” is not part of Odysseus’s vocabulary. The cross is not a weapon in his arsenal.

The comparison of Greek versus Jewish “blood feuds” is good, too (284-85). On the other hand, in one instance I have to say that I found the Greek approach preferable to what Leithart says Jeremiah and Jesus wanted (90-91, with regard to surrendering politically and militarily to the pagans).

And I’ll note that to me the comparison that is most apt from the New Testament is of that traveling man Paul with Odysseus, and from the Old Testament is of that badass Samson with Achilles (Markos likewise agues that the Old Testament character most like Achilles is Samson, and makes a startling but interesting argument that each has Christ foreshadowings).

A couple of other thoughts of my own, prompted by reading the book. First, from today’s conventional moral perspective, Rome is between Greece and Jerusalem. And second, prompted by the play “Clouds,” there’s philosophy — and then there’s the Incarnation. Also, we see in that play that the Greeks, too, had arguments about the young, especially when under the sway of intellectuals, rejecting (traditional) god(s).


Here’s the book’s concluding paragraph (388; see also 382-83):

Christians must refuse to make a choice between Sophistry and Philosophy. On the one hand, Sophistry, which questions all customs and traditions from atheistic assumptions, threatens, as Philosophy perceives, all moral order. As Dostoevsky puts it, If God is dead, all is permitted. But Christians must agree with Sophistry that Greek mythology provides no sound guidance for living a righteous life. How, as Sophistry asks, can we expect mortals to exercise self-control if the chief of the gods is a philanderer? Moral order cannot be established by just any old god, certainly not by an adulterer like Zeus. Though he pointedly shows up the weaknesses of the various viewpoints, Aristophanes provides no ultimate wisdom or vision of human life. For that Christians must turn to their own book and their own city. As St. Augustine recognizes, only that city that worships a holy, trustworthy, and faithful God can flourish.

And I’ll conclude by noting a few other noteworthy passages in the book.

  • The author makes the point (35-36, carryover paragraph) that, if we believe Scripture to be true, we should not be surprised that there are echoes of Genesis, in particular, in ancient creation myths. See this link:
  • Relatedly, he writes (69-70):

This story of a violent succession of gods is not an invention of Hesiod. In a number of details, Zeus’s story, especially his triumph over Kronos, closely follows myths from the Ancient Near East, that is, the world of the Bible. In recent decades, classical historians have increasingly acknowledged the similarities between Ancient Greek artistic styles, language, myths, and rituals and those of the Ancient Near East. As the Swiss historian Walter Burkert put it, the Greeks of the seventh century B.C. (700-600 B.C.) experienced an “orientalizing revolution,” a revolution from the East. Hesiod stands close to the beginning of this period, and his work shows more obvious signs of Eastern influence than Homer.

(I would add the point that we should not minimize the similarities between Greek and Near Eastern pagan origin stories, and we also should not minimize the differences between them and Hebrew origin stories. )

  • There’s good paragraph (279, beginning “Sometimes …”) discussing the ramifications of the Greek gods being in some sense in competition with human beings, whereas our God is not. See this link:
  • This is similar to a point the author makes earlier, contrasting Zeus’s reluctance to share secrets that empower human creativity, versus Yahweh “pour[ing] His creating spirit upon creatures” as, in Exodus 31:1-11, when He “tells Moses that He has given artistic skill to Bezalel and Oholiab so that they can make the tabernacle and its furnishings.” See this link:
  • I also like the concluding paragraph of the chapter on The Bacchae, discussing the Christian balance between labor and celebration (341). See this link: