Cerberus, the Three-Headed Dog. An Allegory for What Ails Our Culture?

In ancient Greek mythology the dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to Hades (the misty and gloomy underworld, the abode of the dead), permitting anyone to enter but none to leave. Cerberus  is usually depicted as a three headed dog and some have tried to link this to his seeing the past, present and future. Cerberus’ name comes to us in a Latinized version from the Greek, where he was called Κέρβερος (Kerberos).

Now, when you and I think of dogs, we think of “man’s best friend.” But,  in the ancient world dogs were usually thought of as wild animals that ran in packs and scavenged at the edge of town. They were not as domesticated as today. And Cerberus incorporates not only the fearsome qualities of a wild dog, but was also said to have a mane, not of hair, but of live snakes! He was said to eat only live meat and was the offspring of Echidna, a half-woman, half-snake, and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant. Not the most pleasant of “dogs” to be sure.

You get the picture. In Greek mythology he welcomed you to Hades when you died and made sure you did not leave.

Cerberus  redivivus? – I thought of Cerberus today in a meeting where we discussed the triple threat facing our culture today, threats that  create  a significant challenge for the Church in preaching the Gospel. This meeting was with some of my brother priests in the Deanery and Cardinal Wuerl. The Cardinal spelled out what he sees as a three-fold challenge for the Church to overcome: Secularism, Materialism, and Individualism. The three-fold threat, the triple header, if you will, reminded me of Cerberus. I’d like to summarize some of our discussion at the meeting.

Hades, here and now – As a final  introductory note, recall that Pope John Paul II often described, with concern,  the Western World as a “Culture of Death.” Essentially what this means is that, in our culture we increasingly sees death as a solution to problems. If the child is inconvenient or “defective,” abort. If the old person is suffering and using lots of resources, euthanize. If there is injustice, use violent means such as war to restore it. If there is a serious criminal, kill him. If we want to do research, kill embryos. That others should die to make my life more pleasant, safe, or viable, fine!  And so forth.

This is the culture of death and it corresponds in our mythological reference here to Hades, the abode of the dead. And, as our culture descends and increasingly enters this Hades, this abode and culture of death, it is welcomed there by the three-headed dog,  Cerberus. Cereberus, or course is not real, but allegorical and he helps ensure our entrance and also our stay in cultural Hades by his three-fold threat of:  Secularism, Materialism, and Individualism.

1. Secularism – The word “secular” comes from the Latin Saecula which is translated as “world”  but can also be understood to refer to the “age” or “times” in which we live. What secularism does to pay excessive concern to the things of this world and to the times which we live. It does this in exclusion to values and virtues of heaven and the Kingdom of God. The preoccupation with the things of this world, crowds out any concern for the things of heaven.

Hostility – And it is not merely a matter of preoccupation, but, often, of outright hostility to things outside the “saecula” (world or age). Spiritual matters are often dismissed by the worldly as irrelevant, naïve, hostile and divisive. Secularism is an attitude that demands all our attention be devoted to the world and its priorities.

Backwards – The attitude of secularism also causes many who adopt  it to tuck their faith under worldly priorities and views. In this climate many are far more passionate and dedicated to their politics than their faith. The faith is “tucked under” political views and made to conform to them. It should be the opposite, that political views would be subordinate to the faith. The Gospel should trump our politics, our world view, our opinions and all worldly influences. Faith should be the doorkeeper. Everything should be seen in the light of faith. But secularism reverses all this and demands to trump the truths of faith.

Secularism is the error wherein I insist that the faith should give way when it opposes some worldly way of thinking, or some worldly priority. If faith gets in the way of career, guess which gives? If faith forbids me from doing what I please and what the world affirms, guess which gives way? The spirit of the world often sees the truths of faith as unreasonable, unrealistic, and demands that they give way, either by compromise or a complete setting aside of faith.

As people of faith, it should be the world and its values that are on trial. But secularism in us puts the faith on trial and demands it conform to worldly thinking and priorities.

Secularism also increasingly demands that faith be privatized. It is to have no place in the public square of ideas or values. If Karl Marx said it, fine. But if Jesus said it, it has to go. Every other interest group can claim a place in the public square, in the public schools, etc. But the Christian faith has no place. Yes, God has to go. Secularism in its “purest” form demands a faith-free, God-free, world. Jesus promised that the world would hate us as it hated him. This remains true and secularism describes the rising tendency for the world to get its way.

Here is the first head of Cerberus welcoming our culture to the abode of the dead. For, to make this world our priority  and let it over-rule  our faith, is to board a ship doomed to sink with no life boats on board.  With secularism,   our fascination and loyalty is primarily to the world, and this amounts to arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic. If the world is really all that matters then we are the most pitiable of men for everything we value is doomed and already passing away. Cerberus beckons.

2. Materialism – Most people think of materialism as the tendency to acquire and need lots of material things. It includes this, but true materialism is far deeper. In effect, materialism is the error that insists that physical matter is the only thing that is real, or existent. Materialism holds that only those things which can be measured on scale, seen in a microscope, or empirically experienced (through the five senses), are real. The modern error of Scientism flows from this which insists that nothing outside the world of the physical sciences exists or is real. (More on that HERE).

In effect, materialism says that matter is all that “matters.”  The spiritual is either non-existent or irrelevant to the materialist. This of course leads to the tendency to acquire things and neglect the spiritual. If matter is all that really matters then we will tend to want large amounts of it. Bigger houses, more things, creature comforts, are all amassed in order to give meaning and satisfaction to me.

In the end it is a cruel joke however since; All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Eccles 1:7). And again, Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. [It] is meaningless….. The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:10-12) But never mind, the materialist will still insist it is the only thing real or the only thing relevant.

The error of materialism is ultimately tied up in thinking that matter is all that exists and that man, a creature of matter and spirit, can be satisfied only with matter. Materialism denies a whole world of moral and spiritual realities that are meant to nourish the human person: goodness, beauty, truth, justice, equity, transcendence, truth courage, feelings, attitudes, angels and God. These are ultimately spiritual realities. They may have physical manifestations, to some extent, but they are not physical. Justice does not walk through the door and take a seat in the front row. Transcendence does not step out for a stroll, give a speech or shake hands with beauty. Such things are not merely material.

To deny the spiritual is to already be dying for the form of this world is passing away. To deny the spiritual is to have little to live for other than today, for tomorrow is uncertain and one step closer to death. The second head of Cerberus is materialism. He beckons us and draws our culture to live already in Hades, the abode, the culture of death.

3. Individualism – The error of individualism exalts the individual over and above all notions of the common good,  and our need to responsibility live in communion with God and others. Individualism exalts the view of the individual at the expense of the received wisdom of tradition. Individualism demands autonomy without proper regard to rights and needs of others. It minimizes duties toward others and maximizes personal prerogatives and privileges. It also tends to deny a balanced notion of dependence on others for human formation and the need to accept correction and instruction. Individualism also results in a weakening of the Church, schools and other institutions by neglecting our duty to take part in and, support them, crucial as they are to the flourishing of the human family. Just as we could not enter this world without God and our parents, so neither can we live fully in isolation from God and others.

Personal freedom and autonomy have their place and should not be usurped by government or other collectives. But freedom today is often misunderstood as the ability to do whatever I please, instead of the ability, the power, to do what is good. Freedom is not absolute and should not be detached from respect for the rights and good of others.

Excessive and mistaken notions of freedom have caused great harm in our culture and it is often children who suffer the most. Sexual promiscuity, easy divorce, abortion, substance abuse and so forth are an abuse of freedom and cause harm to children, and to the wider society that must often seek to repair the damage caused by irresponsible behavior.

Individualism is the third head of Cerberus. By it he beckons us to Hades, the culture of death, since by it,  he breaks down the ties that give life. So pervasive is individualism today that over 40% of people surveyed think marriage is passé. The result is death: contraception, low birthrates, abortion, and the children who are born are increasingly raised in the problematic settings of broken homes, daycare and poor discipline.

So here are, struggling with a culture of death in the West, (Hades) and our own Cerberus bids more of us enter. Pardon my figurative imagery, in this post. Allegorical Cerberus is not to be numbered among the ranks of “man’s best friend.” He’s a wild dog, scarcely trained at all. You will not be his master, he wants to be yours. Resist him, solid in your faith (1 Peter 5:9)

There are good things in our culture and some hopeful trends, among the young especially. We have discussed those here too. But allow today’s blog as a figure of what ails us. When we can name the demons they have less power over us.

Here is probably the most secular song ever written. It is deconstructionist, nihilistic, atheistic, anarchistic, and materialistic. And most Christians sing along with it on the radio with narry a thought. (Pay attention to the lyrics, they are terrible). It is surely a song emblematic of the age of the triple header threat. Cerberus would be proud.

15 Replies to “Cerberus, the Three-Headed Dog. An Allegory for What Ails Our Culture?”

  1. Having taught political philosophy on six occasions at the university level, I can attest that students “light up” once we get past Plato and Aristotle, and read Machiavelli (Secularism & Materialism), Locke (Individualism) and the Federalists (hints of Materialism–it is about institutions and not the soul). Finally thinkers who speak their “language” and give sophisticated arguments to cover their contemporary American version of narcissism and decadence! I say the last part with gentleness and humility since I shared their views until a few years ago… I would also add Hume and Montesqueiu, but the students never quite “got” those thinkers…

    Let me also add that whenever I’m mystified by fruitlessly talking to an average American about the real Christ, I always think to myself, “They think like an American, not like God…” BTW, I am proud that America does have so many of the faithful who bask in God’s shower of graces and put up the good fight (unlike poor Europe).

  2. Christ has an answer for all three.
    -Being in the world but not of the world
    -Sell all you have and come follow me
    -Deny yourself and carry your cross
    It seems rather simplistic but it works for me.

  3. I think one would have to search far and wide to find anything that, in so few words, so succinctly and effectively pierces the secular cultural veil and unmasks the errors of our day. The imagery of characters from Greek Mythology is intriguing. Somehow I see Cerberus, the three headed dog as a kind of Anti-Trinity; Echidna, a half-woman, half-snake as the Anti-Madonna; and Typhon, a fire-breathing giant as the cultural Anti-Church or Anti-Christ?

    Yoko and John, sum it all up nicely by exhorting us all to join them in desiring a false peace on earth without God which brings to mind:

    Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. (Matthew 10:34) and
    Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation. (Luke 12:51)

  4. Msgr. Charles, I was very surprised at the end of your essay. I’ve heard the song many times, but never paid much attention to the lyrics before. Actually, I had to do a search to find what Lennon was saying, because I couldn’t hear it clearly. I suppose I listen to many songs and watch many things in the media without really analyzing the meaning of what I’m seeing and hearing. Thank you for your analysis.

  5. “many are far more passionate and dedicated to their politics than their faith.” Hear, hear! It has often struck me and made me intensely sad that many Catholic commentators seem to devote more time to justifying their particular political agenda, right or left, than to following the faith. Politics may have its role to play in our lives, but essentially it belongs to the world, and not to the Kingdom of Heaven.

  6. I was in high school when Lennon was murdered (1981?). I have no idea where I was nor what I was doing when I heard that he’d died. Not that I didn’t care, exactly, but to me Lennon was someone who’d gone wayyyy “out there.”

    Something about the reaction to Lennon’s death didn’t sit well with me then, as did the reaction to Elvis’s death in 1977. I was appalled at those who acted as if these deaths were the end of the world. Perhaps I suffered from early-onset curmudgeonism? It wasn’t until some years later that I understood what REALLY bothered me was that these pop-music icons were worshipped.

    1. I had a similar reaction to the news that Curt Cobain had commited suicide. (Actually, my first reaction was “Who?”. But then I was told by a co-worker that he was the lead singer of Nirvana (I think)). Of course he never really attained the same status as Elvis or Lennon, but I was in Seattle at the time, and it was big news there.

  7. Those who reject Catholicism/Christianity for other “Values” continue to feel an emptiness, a void in their lives. They will find something else to worship: substance abuse, other types of idols. Some suicides among people who seem to “have it all” are an indication of this. Do you think that the late singer Michael Jackson was “happy” with all of the drugs that he seemed to need in order to sleep?
    St. Augustine says that Our hearts are ever restless until they rest in (God). Our human nature is designed to hunger for Him, and we reject that at our peril. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his very self?
    Also, Jesus says in both Matt: 25 and Luke (the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) that we will be judged, inter alia, on how we have responded to those in need. One cannot be aware of this and remain a complete Individualist.

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