Tag Archives: Myth

Out of the mainstream

Epicurus received some sort of conventional education and so was in a position to comment on its strengths and weaknesses. We are told that as a schoolboy he was upset with his teachers because they could not explain a passage about Chaos in the poet Hesiod (see Theogony 116, 123), and this prompted him to turn to philosophy for answers. For this anecdote Diogenes Laertius cites the philosopher Apollodorus, a head of the Epicurean school in the second century BC, presumably a credible source.

According to Hesiod, ‘first there was Chaos’ (116). Next came Earth, Tartarus (the underworld) and Eros. ‘From Chaos came Erebus and black Night’ (123). Night united with Erebus (nether darkness) to produce Aether (the upper atmosphere) and Day. Earth of herself produced Heaven and Pontus (sea), and then united with Heaven to produce Ocean and a number of other deities, including Cronus, who was hostile to his father Heaven. Thus Hesiod uses myth and genealogy to explain the origins of the world – an unsatisfactory procedure from a scientific point of view, though informative for traditional attitudes and beliefs.

The use of Hesiod in early education, and popular familiarity with his poetry, are illustrated by a passage in a speech of the Athenian orator Aeschines delivered in 330 BC (Against Ctesiphon 135). In making a point against his opponent Demosthenes, Aeschines quotes seven lines from Hesiod’s Works and Days (240-244, 246-247), and says this is why we memorize the sentiments of the poets when we are children – so that we can make use of them when we are men. He also quotes the first two of these lines in another speech (On the Embassy 158).

For Epicurus, this culturally conditioned approach to education was not only inadequate but misleading. It was necessary to strike out in a new direction if people were to understand the universe on a scientific basis and adjust their lives successfully to the demands of reality. The old ideas did not provide a reliable guide for understanding the world or for understanding how to live a happy life.

In Epicurus’ view the habits and values of politics were similarly misguided and misleading. In fact, according to Vatican Saying 58, conventional education and politics together form a ‘prison’ from which people have to escape in order to live happy and successful lives.

Thoughts for the Day, September 13: ‘We must release ourselves from the prison of conventional education and political activity.’ (Vatican Sayings 58.)

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).

Philosophical insight

At the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan war is in progress and there is no victory in sight for King Agamemnon and his supporters from many Greek lands. To make matters worse, a plague has struck the army encamped on the shore. A priest of Apollo had come to ransom his captive daughter, but Agamemnon had refused his request and sent him roughly away, though the others were in favour of accepting the ransom. The priest went away and prayed to Apollo to ‘pay for my tears by your arrows.’

This meant plague, and Apollo came and let fly his arrows on the mules, the dogs and the men. After nine days of suffering Achilles called an assembly and proposed that they ask some seer, priest or reader of dreams why Apollo is angry and what they have to do to have him accept a sacrifice and ward off the pestilence. Calchas the seer rose and addressed the assembly. He was the ‘best of bird-diviners’ and ‘knew the things that were, and that were to be, and that had been before’ (lines 69-70); he had guided the ships to Troy by the prophetic powers given to him by Apollo (71-72), and could reveal oracles (87).

Calchas is pre-eminent among seers in Greek literature, standing first in the tradition and knowing past, present and future, as well as having a gift for reading signs and uttering prophecies. But this is poetry and myth. It is what human beings wished could be true. Today, thanks to rational enquiry into the nature of the universe, school students can know far more about the past, present and future than an ancient seer could ever have known.

Philosophical and scientific methods of analysis provide, in the highest degree possible, profound and accurate knowledge that eluded the merely poetic imagination. Thus in Vatican Saying 10 Epicurus could say that in philosophical discussion we can progress to matters of infinity and eternity and understand ‘things that are and things that will be and things that have been before.’

Thoughts for the Day, August 6: ‘Remember that, although you are mortal by nature and your time is limited, you have progressed in discussions about nature to questions of infinity and eternity and you have understood ‘things that are and things that will be and things that have been before’’ (Vatican Sayings 10).

Homer: The relevant lines may be read on the Perseus website, together with an English translation by A.T. Murray (1924), quoted in the first two paragraphs above.

Tantalus aloft

Both myth and science were evolving in fifth-century BC Athens, and coming into collision. The death of Socrates in 399 is perhaps the best known instance from that general period of public animosity towards a disturber of orthodox beliefs. A case with more specific scientific content was that of Anaxagoras, apparently around 450; according to one source his claim that the sun was a red-hot mass of metal was treated as grounds for a charge of impiety (Sotion, Succession of the Philosophers, cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 2.12).

The concept of the sun as a whirling mass, and not a god, is consistent with Anaxagoras’ theory of the universe as matter set in motion by mind. In his view, there was an original uniform mixture containing the materials of all things in minute quantities infinitely divisible (hence not atoms) and evenly distributed. Mind set matter in rotation and by physical principles small quantities were progressively aggregated to form the world as we know it. Every object contains portions of everything else, so that bread contains flesh and wood contains fire, each thing being distinguished by the proportions which it contains. In the rotation denser things congregate at the centre – hence the formation of the earth – and less dense things are further out, including air and aether (fire), although these are within the denser things as well. The heavenly bodies are fiery stones suspended by rotation of the aether (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 1).

Could such a view, based on observation and physical theory, be regarded as compatible with reliance on myth?

If we examine the fifth-century Athenian tragedians, we find that the stories of myth are laden with ethical theory. In Euripides’ Electra, for example, in which a son and daughter feel justified in killing their mother to avenge the death of their father but are overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, issues of right and wrong, guilt and punishment, fate and destiny, are explored with reference to the will of the gods and traditional tales. Electra and her brother Orestes are themselves part of myth, descendants of a family in which patterns of guilt and punishment have been repeated down the generations, since the time of their great-great-grandfather Tantalus, son of Zeus.

It was said that Tantalus, having offended the gods, was condemned to suffer everlasting hunger and thirst, ‘tantalised’ by disappearing water and unreachable fruit. According to another version, a rock hung above his head, constantly threatening to fall (a fate like that of Damocles). In Euripides’ Orestes, a sequel to the Electra, Tantalus is imagined as hanging high in the air with the rock above him, and Electra wishes that she could ascend to her ancestor and find consolation in telling him of her plight (lines 4 ff., 982 ff.). Ancient scholia connect Euripides’ description of the stone mid-way between earth and heaven with the system of Anaxagoras, and interpret the stone as the sun. Ruth Scodel agrees that the concept and terminology reflect Anaxagoras’ explanation of heavenly bodies, but argues that the stone above Tantalus is analogous with a meteorite above the earth, meteorites having a distinctive place in Anaxagoras’ astronomical views.

On this reading, Euripides’ treatment integrates science and myth. The family of the Tantalids are made part of the reinterpreted cosmic order; mythical concepts are relocated in a world-view influenced by scientific theory. When science reinterprets the observed world, myth survives by inhabiting the new world afresh.

It could be said that this was always the case in Greek myth: real-world observation and imaginative fancies go together. Mount Olympus is a real mountain, but also the home of the gods; a mountaineer might discover no signs of divinities on the mountain-top, but somehow this would not disturb the myth. Elemental forces and human personalities can be combined: Castor and Polydeuces are powers in the air that calm storms at sea, but also participants in the drama at the conclusion of Euripides’ Electra. Tantalus is the reputed ancestor of a cursed family, but can just as easily be imagined as a figure beneath the sun, or in company with a threatening meteorite.

Epicurean explanations of the universe cut through this combination of fact and fancy by denying that supernatural powers exist. Lucretius is forthright in responding to the myth of Tantalus: there is no Tantalus fearful of the boulder in the air; but there are people in this life fearful – without any justification – of the gods and impending doom (On the Nature of Things 3. 980-983).

Ruth Scodel, ‘Tantalus and Anaxagoras’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 88, 1984, 13-24.