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Examining human destiny: Ancient Greece vs Judeo-Christianity

Published on 03 March 2013
Updated on 03 April 2024

For 2000 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.

Odysseus and his companions taking flight from the cyclops Polyphemus
Odysseus and his companions taking flight from the cyclops Polyphemus while being protected by the female demon Vant (Dutch National Museum of Antiquities).

The Greek fought pitched battles against each other. The rule was winner takes all. Historians have put forth economic reasons for this peculiar behavior (see The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson). 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 (see On Duties, Book 1, by Marcus Tullius Cicero). 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: Blame it all on the gods

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. The gods themselves were subject to ‘chance‘, even as they took on the role of chance.

The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos by Giorgio Ghisi
The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos by Giorgio Ghisi. The role of the Moirai was to ensure that every being, mortal and divine, lived out their destiny as it was assigned to them. For mortals, this destiny was represented as a thread spun from a spindle. Clotho (Spinner) was responsible for spinning the ‘thread of life’, Lachesis (Allotter) measured the length of the thread, and Atropos (Inevitable) cut it (Wikimedia).

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 anthropomorphised 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 (in Eye for an Eye, William Ian Miller shows the etymological link between ‘peace’ and ‘payment’).

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.

Judeo-Christians: The ‘truth’ of God instead of ‘chance’

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. His revelation makes us workers in His vineyard, and obligates us to fulfill His will. 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 and 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.

Vox populi, vox dei

Voting acts as a 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 (‘the voice of the people [is] the voice of god’) harks back to the role of the gods, here incarnated in ‘the people’. The metaphor is deceptive. 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 divided political world 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.

Elon Musk reinstates Donald Trump’s Twitter account
Elon Musk reinstates Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

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’1, an attitude which comes with the Judeo-Christian worldview (and its secular avatar). Voting no longer signals undirected adaptive change. It is just 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 In the USA, the ‘literalists’ believe that the original and true meaning of the US Constitution can be ascertained. It is akin to ‘judicial archeology’. Archeology implies something that is dead and buried, while the Constitution is a living thing.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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