The Asses’ Ears of Modernism and Post-Modernism

July 16, 2020 Updated: July 20, 2020

In my previous article on King Midas, we found that the Midas Touch proved to be a curse—the automatic consequence of the hubris of Midas.

King Midas (if you remember the myth) recognizes a prisoner brought before him as Silenus, the stepfather of the disrupter god Dionysus, and Midas not only releases the prisoner, but he also honors him with feasting and drinking. Dionysus, extremely grateful, offers Midas an incredible gift, namely, anything he would like to have. This open-ended offer is immediately abused by Midas, who thus reveals his hubris. Without hesitation, Midas asks for the golden touch.

Everything he touches does indeed become gold—everything. The folly of hubris in the case of Midas is that his request is out of all proportion to the benefit he had delivered to Dionysus. And it’s also hubristic in its essential nature, since we now have a man with godlike power. Furthermore, the gift itself destabilizes the order of the cosmos, and so life itself. How could it not—his touch turning everything to gold?

We remember that hubris in Greek thinking was the worst “sin” of all, the equivalent of the Christian notion of the sin of pride. Hubris is when human beings either ignore or deliberately disobey the gods. And when they do, a terrible retribution is as bound to follow as night follows day.

In one sense, Midas’s hubris is shown in his violation of the god Apollo’s two maxims: first, “not too much,” clearly Midas requesting this much gold violates that injunction. And his second is “know thyself.” This latter injunction is often taken by the contemporary personal development movement as meaning: Discover yourself, become more self-aware, and so grow as a person.

The Greeks—and Apollo, the god of music and poetry, truth, healing, the sun and light, and more, however—didn’t see it that way. For them, knowing yourself meant knowing your place in the scheme of the cosmos: that you were mortal, not a god, and that, therefore, you submitted to their higher powers in all aspects of your life.

This idea is not unique to Greek classical thinking. The ancient Egyptians expressed it thus in their “Book of the Dead”: “All the world which lies below has been set in order and filled in contents by the things which are placed above; for the things below have not the power to set in order the world above.” And the Old and New Testaments testify to the same thing, as does the Chinese “I-Ching”: “They [the ancient peoples] put themselves in accord with the Tao and its power and in conformity with this laid down the order of what is right. By thinking through the order of the outer world to the end, and by exploring the law of their nature to the deepest core, they arrived at an understanding of fate.” Here, fate is what the gods ordain.

A Universal Witness

There is, then, a virtual universal witness to the concept of walking humbly with God, and to deviate from this path is to bring down punishment. Now in the case of Midas, we saw that Dionysus was pretty lenient in terms of his treatment of him. Midas simply had to wash himself in a particular river and the gift–curse–was removed. Probably why the treatment was so lenient had to do with the fact that Midas was a true worshiper of Dionysus and his cohorts. It was perhaps mildly amusing to Dionysus that Midas behaved as he did.

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In the Nathaniel Hawthorne version of the Midas myth, Midas’s daughter turns to a golden statue when he touches her. Illustration by Walter Crane for the 1893 edition of “A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.” (Public Domain)

But the thing is, Midas clearly learned nothing from this experience, for the hubris and the folly accompany him to his next, and disastrous, exploit, which is almost as famous as his golden touch.

Here, Midas is to learn that hubris before the god Apollo has much graver consequences.

The Hubris of Midas

That Midas was a devout follower of Dionysus is shown by the fact that when he succeeded to the throne of Phrygia, he promoted the worship of Dionysus. It was onward from this point that Midas witnessed the musical contest between Apollo and, some say Marsyas while others say Pan, but the identity here is not significant. Marsyas was a satyr—a male attendant of the god Dionysus, often naked, and known to be bestial and boisterous. Pan was the god of shepherds, flocks, and fertility, or the “goat-god.” Like Dionysus, then, both stand as antagonists in their antinomian and bestial aspects against all that Apollo represents.

Both challenged Apollo’s musical supremacy, and a contest was arranged in which Tmolus, a river god (sometimes called a mountain god), would be the umpire. Apollo would play his lyre, and Pan (and Marsyas too) would play the pipes. Interestingly, we see that we are talking about the contrast between the carefully controlled plucking of musical notes with mathematical precision versus the coarser charm of an instrument that one roughly blows into.

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Apollo in a red cloak, the god of music, gestures to Midas, the king of Phrygia. Midas, with donkey’s ears, in “The Judgment of Midas,” circa 1640, by Jan van den Hoecke. Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection). (Public Domain)

Taking the Pan version of the event, all who heard both musicians unanimously gave the verdict to Apollo: His music mesmerized them all. All, that is, except Midas, who loudly and “dissonantly” (a good word in this context) declared his preference for Pan’s playing, claiming the verdict was unfair!

This act of incivility, this aesthetic lapse in taste, this predilection for the grosser–this act of hubris before the god–could not be allowed to go unpunished.

As Ovid put it, “Apollo couldn’t allow such insensitive ears to preserve their human appearance,” and so Midas’s ears are transformed into asses’ ears to manifest his stupidity.

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“The Judgment of Midas,”1601–1602, by Abraham Janssens. (Public Domain)

This is the beginning of the end for Midas, for it is as a direct result of this punishment and his attempts to conceal it that he ends up ordering the death of his own barber—a form of judicial murder—and subsequently, miserably killing himself by drinking bull’s blood (thought to be arsenic). Note the bestial aspect yet again.

Midas and Modern Art

But I think what is important about the story is its relevance for today. It can be summed up in Plato’s dictum: “To love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful in an educated and disciplined way.” And that is what art (in its widest sense) was and is, at least until the 20th century. But now—alongside the political bestialities of communism and fascism—we have developed a taste for the brutish and the bestial in art too. More exactly, art reflects the falseness of the prevalent ideologies. For, put politely, as Tom Stoppard said, “Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”

Everywhere we look we find just such art, and nowhere better summed up than by Andy Warhol’s candid comment: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Wow! Who’d have thought that? We are almost back here to Midas’s golden touch—that surely was art too!

We think of the recent “shredding” of Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon,” which, incredibly, according to art “experts,” added 50 percent to its value, meaning it was now worth in excess of $2.4 million.

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Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” version in South Bank. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

To think like this is entirely Dionysian and represents the gathering forces of chaos and disorder that undermine society and all right order. The opposite of this might be something like what the English artist Stanley Spencer noted: “One might never be able to conceive what Heaven is like, but nevertheless the contemplation of it is, I think, the greatest thing of all for the creative artist.”

Imagine that! Our contemporary artists, musicians, and poets “contemplating heaven” as the source for their inspiration? What we are talking about here is the transcendent: some “thing” bigger than humanity, or mankind, or humanist and secular utopias, some thing whereby we approach the deep truths of human nature and the human predicament.

French philosopher Luc Ferry said, “Worth noting especially is that it is through music—the cosmic art above all others since it relies entirely upon a structure of sounds that must, so to speak, ‘rhyme’ or accord with one another—that the cosmos is saved.” This is the high view, the high position, that is represented by Apollo and his art.

Midas represents the corruption of taste, and so of values, which if the myth is to be believed—and I believe it—suggests that for all those mini-Midases of today, it won’t end well; there are dark consequences for all those abandoning themselves to the Dionysian god. As Midas discovered for himself.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.