Tag Archives: Poetry

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).

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.)