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216 – When the gods descended into the world…

For two thousand years, we have read the Greek classics. We have done so in a peculiar fashion. Their gods were central to their worldview. We discarded their gods, which we despised as mere idols. In doing so, we’ve lost much of the deeper meaning that attached to the gods. We have misread the Greeks. What did the Greeks mean with this ongoing interference of the gods from on high?

Take the Iliad. We read the poem as a glorious epic about great heroes: Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, Diomedes, and Odysseus. Each of them has a god for or against him. In the end god’s hand, not the hero’s skill, is decisive in battle. Sometimes gods squabble over the fate of a human, making him a hapless victim. Poseidon wants Odysseus dead, but is not allowed to kill him outright. Athena wants him to reach Ithaca, but can’t move him there. Odysseus must endure this battle of wits and wills among the gods. The lesson is clear. The gods are arbitrary; chance rules life as background to all heroic action.

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The Greek fought pitched battles against each other. The rule was “winner take all”. Historians have put forth economic reasons for this peculiar behavior.[1] The Greeks were farmers – HANSON argues – and had no time for protracted warfare: agricultural chores beckoned. The Greeks considered war a distraction and kept it short. I am not sure. Cicero argued strongly that properly propitiating the gods was a prerequisite for a “just” war.[2] In appealing to the gods before going into battle, the pagans were inserting the reality of chance into their decision to fight a war. Let the dice roll: only once and conclusively – on the field of battle.

Sophocles dramas often end with deus ex machina. A god appears on the scene and dictates the outcome to the characters. The author settles the head-on conflict of values – in Antigone it is between her role as sister and that of citizen -, not by argument, but by chance (in the form of the god’s will). We find this resolution most disconcerting. We want to know which side is “right”. The author keeps his counsel on the matter of “truth”.

The Greeks made the point about the role of chance not once, but “squared”. The Moirai – the Fates – were “a power acting in parallel with the gods and ruled over them. Even the gods could not change destiny.”[3] The gods remained themselves subject to chance even as they took on the role of chance.

The gods play dice with human lives, is the message, and there is nothing men can do. Chance rules human lives. Seeking the causal root of outcomes is pointless. This emphasis on chance is not innocent. It limits human responsibility to attitude and inner conviction. Chance – which the Greeks anthropomorphized as the gods – is responsible for the outcome. Consequently, no personal guilt attaches to outcome. The Greek world was “no fault”. Justice could be restorative rather than retributive.[4]

Belief in the overwhelming force of chance makes closure possible and unassailable.  After a battle, the losing side need not blame itself, or seek revenge. Blame the gods, is the message; and get on with the business of living. Recrimination does not help. Rebellion to the new lot is senseless.

There is another dimension to the need for closure in a well-functioning society. Society is partially the product of the past. Does society have responsibilities to the past? A society survives and changes when it is free of its past, i.e. is allowed closure with respect to it. The living must not be bound by contracts with the dead, which they cannot renegotiate or recuse.

The Judeo-Christian tradition too accepts God’s will in this world – but with a striking and novel twist. Now an all-powerful and benevolent God is involved. He shapes the world in accordance to His will. Not only: His revelation makes us workers in His vineyard, and obligates us to fulfill His will – a millennial task. God may be mysterious, but He always acts for the person’s own good, whether she understands it or not. It is his duty to seek “the truth” of God’s will, or the transcendent truth (if one is of the secular persuasion). We have introduced the concept of “truth”; we have evacuated the role of chance. In so doing, we have inadvertently destroyed society’s greatest asset – its capacity for closure. Truth brooks no closure. Truth is eternal. So is the covenant with God. Hell is proof that closure is no longer possible.

The vote is the proxy for the chance of battle in deliberative democracy. It does not establish who is wrong or right. Pragmatically, the vote brings the deliberations, which could go on forever, to a close. It sets the stage for political action. The Roman adage: vox populi, vox dei harks back to the role of the gods, here incarnated in “the people”.

The metaphor is treacherous. After battle winners and losers went their separate ways. The victors were free men, the losers were slaves. In a democracy winners and losers go on living together as free men. The political world divided needs to be “made whole” again. The democratic process requires reconciliation, which is more than closure. An appeal to the “common good” may favor reconciliation, asking the winners to make the political world whole again. Furthermore, the vote is temporary and comes with the restorative expectation of alternance.

Currently, political partisanship in some countries risks undermining the democratic process. Part of the reason is contingent: after the grand “age of choices” the social and economic systems are converging. Political debates mainly mask struggles for power. Power, like truth, brooks no closure – it aims to perpetuate itself as caste.

Part, however, is the obsession with “truth”[5] – an attitude which comes with the Judeo-Christian worldview (and its secular avatar). The vote no longer signals undirected adaptive change. The vote is one stage on the quest for heaven’s “truth”, or drift into hellish “error”. The path is directive and prescriptive. Each side views defeat at the polls as straying from the path toward its truth. Each side views defeat as heresy, calling for retribution rather than restoration.


[1]           Victor Davis HANSON (1989): The western way of war. Infantry battle in Classic Greece. Hodder & Stoughton, London.

[2]           CICERO: De Officiis. I,38.

[4]           William Ian MILLER (2006): Eye for an eye. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge shows the etymological link between “peace” and “payment”.

[5]           In the US the „literalists“ believe that the original and “true” meaning of the US Constition can be ascertained. It is akin to “judicial archeology”. Archeology implies something that is dead and buried, while the Constitution is a living thing.


03 March 2013
2 replies
  1. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    I like your idea that truth,
    I like your idea that truth, in relegating chance and its pantheon of Gods to the wings of superstition, should have undermined our capacity for closure. I wonder whether our frustrated need for closure is what has promoted the importance of political apologies in our times, and how this fits with your argument about retribution and redress?

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