triumph of reason over religion / by IKB

The following are some notes, some thoughts on something that I would love to explore and expound on more clearly, more elaborately. But seeing that I do not have my books with me, I am unable to delve into this subject with the ardor and intensity it requires. Alas I will briefly and rapidly go through this thing that I choose to call an exploration into the triumph of reason over religion in Greek society.

In the Homeric epic, the Iliad, the gods interact on a continuous basis with the mortals. These gods are the equivalent of the Hebraic god, one who seems to take personal interest in the lives of the people that are described in the Bible. The Greek gods are not above the fray, in the Iliad, they partake in the battles between Trojans and Achaians; in the Odyssey, the absence of the gods is more noticeable as is the absence of the Judeo-Christian god in the New Testament. As to how to explain this sudden lack of participation by the deities, I am unable to opine. But Homer, as far as the Iliad goes, demonstrates the role the gods play in quotidian life. The Uranian gods are in effect transformed into mortals, save for the fact that they reside on Olympus and are immortal. But in every other aspect, they are mortal and perhaps to a greater degree, for the gods seem to experience human emotions intensely. As far as the Iliad is concerned, religion, represented by the gods, is intertwined with human society. They are inseparable.

In Herodotus, one begins to see the triumph of reason over superstition, i.e., religion. As Herodotus relates his Histories to his audience, for the Histories were meant to be read in the agora, whenever he mentions an anecdote in his digressions, he will more often than not add a disclaimer. He lets the listener be the one to decide if the anecdote is true or not. It is amazing that Herodotus does not take as being indisputable truth the things he was told by those individuals he interviewed in order to produce his Histories. So it is up to the listener to believe or not to believe that a certain people in the Caucasus eat their deceased. Herodotus allows his listener to decide what is true and what is false. In Homer, one is not allowed this luxury, at least Homer does not seem to give the impression that the thing he is reporting, i.e., the Trojan War, may in fact be a fictitious event.

Of course the separation, the subjugation of religion by reason is only begun in Herodotus. It is up to the philosophers to continue this process that seems to be unstoppable. Unfortunately it is not so, for somehow the Western world falls victim to that hideous thing that a Jewish sect became, i.e., Christianity. As to why Europe, possessing such a rich tradition of philosophy, turns away from the truth, decides to return to that cave where one is only able to see shadows, images of truth, that is an interesting question that I am afraid I shall not address here. Though I must confess that I am curious to know why Europe was able to succumb to barbaric religiosity, to anti-human ideas that found something laudable in the denial of the self, of one’s humanity. Was the political situation in the Roman Empire so dire that Constantine was willing to make the Empire the Lamb? Was the standard of living of the masses so desperate as to make the promise of a Heavenly Kingdom desirable? I shudder to think …. though I know that at one point, people were committing suicide en masse in order to go to this Heavenly Kingdom. Something must have been wrong with society if unverifiable lies/promises were more conducive to action than life itself.

While Herodotus asks the listener to rely on his instinct to decide what is what, the gods are present on occasion. Habit is hard to break, but the progress Herodotus makes in the process to establish reason is wonderful. And yes, habit is a difficult beast to conquer. Perhaps this is why Herodotus does not remove the gods completely and make his Histories, which concern human events, rotundly human-centered. Man is not so keen on letting tradition go. He will put up a fight and even though he knows that his traditions are erroneous and antiquated, they give him such comfort, such delight that he is unwilling to part without a struggle. Thus, the gods must be kept in the equation until society is able to finally part away with shadows. Man is still too weak, stick suckling on the milk of an irrational system whose complexity is unnecessary and absurd! One must ween him ever so slowly off this penurious myth.

Plato is fantastic and quite god-like in his writings. Simply put, he is a genius. And being a genius, one can accept that he realized that the gods must be kept – society needed them. But this was not to stop him from developing his system. The gods could be kept, but they needed to be declawed – robbing them of any power. The crypto-Platonist, i.e., Aristotle, achieves this declawing to a far greater degree. In his Republic, which concerns man, the the fastidious issue of the gods is given a quick overview. Zeus is no longer that shape-shifting, virile manifestation of man’s desires. The guile-weaving potentate is forced to retain his body, for why would god, being god and thus possessing the perfect form, defile himself by taking the form of something else and by consequence, something inferior. In effect, Plato negates those stories of woman-loving Zeus. Also god also wants the good (the good being defined as that which is good to the soul) and performs only good. This is in conflict with the gods portrayed in Homer and the tragedians, e.g., Sophocles, Euripides, etc. Plato thus seems to produce his own gods, that are nothing like the Greek gods of the past and on this creation of his, he bestows the name of these old gods. So the gods are retained in his system though they are a new type of gods and for all effects, possessing a nature that essentially removes them from the communion with human life.

As for Aristotle, though a pragmatist and therefore ostensibly anti-Forms, he demonstrates signs of a crypto-Platonist. This is true in his dealings of the good man, for it seems that for Aristotle, the goodness of this good man is not dependent on the polis. His goodness is almost divinely instilled (Socrates also seems to place responsibility for the distribution of greatness on the gods, having no explanation for as to why some men are great while others are mean and petty). Yet Aristotle says that man is god or beast without the polis – does this mean that man requires the polis to possess this quality, to possess his ‘manness’? But the good man and his goodness lie outside of these, but one would not say that he is a god! much less a beast! For the good man in all truth, seems to appear on the scene and his goodness is recognized by the denizens of the polis (in the good polis at least) and thus he is made to rule. Thus signals to the idea that this goodness possessed by this man lies outside of the polis, that it is something Form-like that transcends everything. Perhaps his goodness is divinely given. The good man appears to be capable of continuing to be good without the city. He is good even before he comes to the city! But good can only be achieved if one has others to bestow the good … so the good man possess a goodness that is Form-like. At least this a conclusion that one may reach in trying to make sense of his goodness vis-à-vis the polis.

So one must infer that the gods, for man will as if by nature turn to some superior being in order to make sense or something that he is unable to explain for whatever reason. But the role of gods is more clearly defined in Aristotle and he performs a coup de grâce! Like Plato, Aristotle removes the gods from daily life and restricts their action to contemplation; for contemplation is an action, apparently. But what is contemplation, this said action? Contemplation is the contemplation for the sake of contemplation. It is an action laking action for contemplation for the sake of contemplation is not activity. It is a motionless act, not an act at all. It is inexistence. The gods are placed in their heavenly abode where they contemplate and in effect they are completely nullified. Man is allowed to keep his gods but they have no function whatsoever. In the polis, the man of action is preferred to the man of contemplation, for the latter does nothing … contemplation becomes a name for nothingness. Voilà, one is allowed to retain the gods but only in name. Their function is reduced to contemplation which in itself is nothing.

The process started by Herodotus is completed by Plato and Aristotle. The philosophers, by removing the gods from the society of man, free man. They liberate him by making him be responsible for his actions. No longer is there a god compelling man to act. Even in the Iliad one can see that the issue of fate and destiny are superficialities that are superfluous. Achilleus is responsible for his actions but chooses to abdicate responsibility for no-one likes to be responsible as much as he can help it. His actions demonstrate that although he functions under the façade of destiny, he is the one that has the final say on what actions he takes. Even though Zeus orders him to return the body to Priam through Hermes, Achilleus need not heed this command. In the request there is nothing about dining with Priam and being nice to the old man.

Sadly man is liberated from superstition and given self-mastery over his self (not himself but his self as the self that belongs to him) but such power is too much for man. Thus he is content with abdicating the responsibility to a deity, which is what the Judeo-Christian religions allow for. Man is no longer responsible for his actions, they are a result of god and his divine plan. As to the issue of liberty, i.e., free will, it is contradictory and somewhat confusing. How can man have liberty when god has already decided what is to occur? Then again, how can one expect to make sense of an irrational system such as the ones produced by Judaism, Christianity, Islam and all the other errors that have sprung from these?

Gad! Who knew that the Greeks were existentialists! Marvellous.