Tag Archives: Divinity

Within our power

Human-divine relations were a preoccupation of the ancient Greek poetic tradition. Bred of awe and fear, the notion was persistent that nothing much could be done without the assistance or intervention of the gods.

Quotations in later authors illustrate the theme. For example, Theophilus, a second-century bishop of Antioch, uses a series of excerpts to show the variety and contradictions in the tradition (To Autolycus 2.8).

One of the authors he quotes is Simonides (late sixth – early fifth century BC), who says that no city, no mortal, can have excellence without the gods; God is all-knowing, all-planning, all-contriving (παμμῆτις), while nothing in human life is free from harm, nothing without misery (οὐδὲν ἀπήμαντον).

An attitude of dependence on divine power and influence naturally inspired prayer in time of need or danger, to gain a benefit or to avert an ill. Surely this was part of the divine plan, to drive humans to despair so that they would acknowledge their limitations?

Epicurus rejected poetry as a guide to theology and dismissed educational practices which taught students to absorb poetic notions of the gods into their way of thinking. Direct study of nature led to quite different conclusions, with important practical consequences.

Vatican Saying 65 suggests the obvious, that there are many things in life which people can organize for themselves without any need to seek supernatural assistance. Where, then, is the line to be drawn between what we can do for ourselves and what we may hope a greater power will do for us?

In Epicurean terms, there are only three large-scale factors at work affecting our lives: necessity (according to fixed universal conditions), chance (very variable), and human agency. The universe is big enough for the development somewhere of beings more advanced and happier than we are, but wherever they may be they do not intervene in our lives (they would not be as happy as they are if they involved themselves in our difficulties).

From undone shoe-laces to a warming planet, we can only blame ourselves if we fail to identify possible solutions and pursue responsible options.

Simonides: The fragment is translated in M.L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics), Oxford – New York, Oxford University Press, 1999/ 2008, p. 163 (no. 526).

Thoughts for the Day, September 20: ‘What one is able to supply for oneself it is pointless to ask for from the gods’ (Vatican Sayings 65).

Hark the herald

The story of Oedipus, the man who unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, is told by a number of ancient authors, including the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. In the Euripidean play The Phoenician Women we learn of some of the effects on the younger generation. (The women of the title are prisoners of war on their way to Delphi; they observe and comment on the action of the play.)

Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta. With a crime in his past and warned by an oracle that if he had a son the son would kill him, Laius exposed Oedipus on a mountain with a spike through his feet (hence the name ‘swollen-foot’). A shepherd rescued him and brought him up as his own son – salvation with a sting, for Oedipus, when later advised by the Delphic oracle that he would kill his father (and marry his mother), believed this applied to his rescuer and fled, but met and killed (in an act of road rage) his real father on the road to Thebes. There he married the widowed queen, his mother.

When the truth emerged, Oedipus could no longer act as king. The victim of a curse himself, he puts a curse on his two sons when (according to the Phoenician Women) they lock him away: one of them would kill the other. Rather than fight to see who would be king, the sons agree to divide the kingship between them, to take it in turns year by year, with the elder going first. But after a year Eteocles refuses to cede rule to Polynices, who goes into exile, marries the daughter of the king of Argos, and returns with a force to claim Thebes.

Jocasta is overjoyed to see him again. She embraces him and says how much she wants by word and gesture and dance to express her feelings of pleasure (Phoenician Women 304-317). She now hopes to regain ‘the delight of her old joys’ – a hope destined to be horribly thwarted as the drama proceeds.

Jocasta’s brother Creon had become king or regent after Oedipus, and he was now in charge of the defence of Thebes. His situation is further complicated when the prophet Teiresias says that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus for the good of Thebes, to appease the war god Ares, who had been offended by the city’s founders, from whom Creon and Menoeceus are descended. Menoeceus is also the name of Creon and Jocasta’s father, the father-in-law of Oedipus.

In the context of Epicurean philosophy, the name Menoeceus has very different connotations, being the name of a contemporary of Epicurus to whom the philosopher addressed a letter summing up much of his ethical doctrines. The date of the letter is unknown, but in general terms we can place it about a century or more after the death of Euripides. Athens had changed considerably by then; and yet awareness of old literature and myths persisted, and no doubt old associations of the name Menoeceus were not forgotten.

Also not forgotten were the old preoccupations with gods and oracles, vengeance and cursing, death and destruction. These were enduring themes that still had the power to stir up fear and superstition. Epicurus set himself against the old tales and the beliefs and behaviour that went with them. Basing his views on a scientific understanding of reality, he rejected traditional beliefs and sought to replace them with a practical and realistic outlook.

Where the old stories threatened doom, Epicurus offered hope; where they emphasized the inexorability of fate, Epicurus emphasized the human capacity to organize life by the power of reason; where they told of unending cycles of conflict and suffering, Epicurus presented a straightforward theory of pleasure and happiness; where they dealt in tangled relationships human and divine, Epicurus provided a philosophy of life set in the context of an abundant nature and a material universe.

A key part of the new dynamic was the role of friendship as a source of confidence and security. According to Principal Doctrine 27:

Having friendship is by far the greatest of the things which wisdom organizes for the happiness of one’s whole life.

According to Vatican Saying 78:

The highest concerns of a high-minded person are wisdom and friendship, of which one is a mortal good, the other immortal.

Friendship brings assurance (Vatican Saying 34) and hope (Vatican Saying 39).

In the Phoenician Women, Jocasta could dance about in delight and think of a renewal of old joys, but her hopes were forlorn where human hearts were hard and the gods hostile. Epicurus preached a different message entirely. As Vatican Saying 52 indicates (quoted below), friendship is the herald of an outlook that recognizes the good things that nature supplies and responds with gratitude. Friendship itself is thought of as dancing around – the same word that occurs in the tragedy, used in a different setting now – and this time the dance is one of a delight that spreads around the world.

Thoughts for the Day, September 9: ‘Friendship dances around the inhabited world calling us all at this very time to be awakened to thankfulness.’ (Vatican Sayings 52).

Dreams are a natural phenomenon

At the beginning of the second book of the Iliad, Zeus decides to do honour to the warrior Achilles in the war against Troy and to achieve this hits on a plan which he then begins to put into effect. He dispatches a ‘baneful dream’ (οὖλον ὄνειρον, line 6) to King Agamemnon with a false message: the immortals on Mount Olympus are now of one mind and will give the Achaeans victory over the Trojans, and the city of Troy will fall. The dream, conceived of as a creature addressed by Zeus, went and stood at the sleeping Agamemnon’s head in the likeness of the trusted figure Nestor, and delivered the message. On waking, Agamemnon summoned his men but told the dream first to the council of elders. Among them was Nestor himself, who declared that they might have deemed the dream false if it had been reported by someone other than the trusted Agamemnon.

In dealing with dreams, the issue of trust was a daunting problem. How much trust could be placed in dreams? On what basis could they be reliably interpreted? To what extent might they contain true prophecies? The literary evidence encouraged belief in dreams as bearers of important messages, but also raised doubts as to how far dreams could be trusted. On a traditional view, one could not afford to disregard dreams in case they were significant, but one had to be careful not to misunderstand their meaning. A professional interpreter of dreams (ὀνειροπόλος, ὀνειροκρίτης etc.) could be called in to advise, but there might still be a great deal of room for anxious uncertainty.

Natural philosophy stepped in to allay all these concerns. Aristotle sought to explain dreams as the remnants of waking sense impressions. As we find in Vatican Saying 24, Epicurus explained dreams in terms of the atomist structure of the universe: every object gives off a thin film of particles (hence we are able to see things when their emanations strike the eye) and very fine emanations can penetrate into our thoughts and present themselves as what we call dreams. Emanations could come from near or far – they could even come from divinely happy beings dwelling beyond the earth in inter-cosmic spaces. Hence in dreams we can see a great variety of images, human and otherwise. None of this means that the dream itself is divine or prophetic; quite the opposite. A dream is evidence of the emanation of atoms, a phenomenon accessible to scientific description.

Modern scientific explanations are necessarily more advanced, but the principle remains that a scientific understanding of the human organism must be brought to bear to place the phenomenon of dreams accurately and reliably in the overall scheme of things – the objective which Epicurus had in formulating his theory. Sound scientific enquiry replaces superstition, exposes false information and dispels unnecessary fears.

Thoughts for the Day, August 16: ‘Dreams do not have allotted to them a divine nature or prophetic power, but occur through the impact of emanations’ (Vatican Sayings 24).