Greek Mythology

I recently watched another very interesting documentary from the History Channel, "Gods and Goddesses”, about Greek Mythology. Jotted down several items of interest…

The Greek Gods are diverse. They incorporated elements from the many cultures in Greece. But they are likewise distinct from the gods of non-Greek cultures. The myths were based on oral tradition until around 750 BCE. The popular belief is that Homer wrote the myths down. Homer was like the Greek Bible.

Fifty years after Homer, Hesiod created The Theogony which explains the creation of the gods. For Hesiod, the world began with a supernatural presence named Chaos. By Chaos, Hesiod meant emptiness, not disorder.

Love and war/sex and violence, are intricately linked in Greek mythology because ancient peoples felt that deeply passionate feelings were somehow connected in the human mind and in the human emotions. Great desires and great fears were somehow linked.

The Judeo-Christian creation story culminates in God’s creation of man who is given dominion over all the creatures on earth. But for the ancient Greeks, human-kind was of little consequence to the universe. According to Hesiod, the first race of man was gold (the Golden Age). Their lives were easy, crops abundant and they literally feast with the gods. Everybody was good and everybody was just. It was very much like paradise. But these people vanished without explanation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, life’s hardships are seen as a result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden. But for the Golden race of men in Greek mythology, there is no such reason for their disappearance. In Greek mythology, disobeying the gods isn’t as big of a deal as it is in the Judeo-Christian myths because the Greeks did not attempt an explanation of why life is so difficult as did the Judeo-Christian tradition.

After the golden race disappears, Zeus creates a race of silver. These people were not particularly evolved. They were babies forever, had a short maturity, a horrible old age, and disappeared under the earth. They were arrogant and did not worship the gods sufficiently. Next came the men of bronze who exterminated themselves thanks to constant warfare. And next come the men who live today. These are men of iron.

The explanation of the races is only for men. The first woman was sent to the earth as a punishment to mankind because Prometheus (who represents humankind) had tried to trick Zeus. Women are considered a beautiful evil. There is an emphasis on the threat that women pose. The beautiful evil that Zeus gives mankind is Pandora with a jar of evils that she accidentally opens and all of the evils of the world are let loose. She closes the jar as quickly as she can, capturing hope.

Hope is considered an evil because it gives you the delusion that you can control the future. Hope was left in the jar because it was ambiguous. Whether hope is good or bad depends on how humankind uses it.

Greek mythology never lets people off the hook. It doesn’t say, this happened because the gods willed it. It always has to do with something that humanity has done – some way in which human beings have provoked the gods.

The gods are not always ethical or honest and they don’t have to take the consequences of anything they do. The burden of acting ethically falls on human beings, not on gods. An example is the story of Pericles who was born of Zeus and mortal woman. The mortal woman was faithful to her husband so Zeus had to trick her into sleeping with him. Zeus’s wife Hera was so angry about the birth of Zeus’s son by another woman that she took vengeance upon Pericles. Zeus finally saved Perlicles from Hera’s wrath by making him immortal. This may have paved the way for the Apostle Paul to present Jesus to the Greeks. The notion that a Greek God could take on human form and look like one of us was already familiar to the Greeks. Pericles is not quite a Christ figure, but there are definitely elements that are similar. Especially in terms of Pericles’ suffering before ascending to his divinity.

Greek heroes are extraordinary, but not necessarily extraordinarily good. Oedipus is a Greek hero who kills his father and marries his mother. He blinds himself and seeks redemption. Much of Greek mythology was concerned with the conflict of father and son. This story raises and age old question: are the lives of human beings preordained? Or are they predetermined? At the end of the play, everything he has ever done has been pre-aligned. But he also made choices. Fate didn’t make him do what he did.

Fate was portrayed in the form of three goddesses. On the one hand, fate is three women whose names mean the weaver, the alloter, and not turning back. They weave a thread for each person’s life and determine when that person’s life is going to end. But on the other hand, fate is above the gods. Even the gods bow to fate. Oedipus was fated to kill his father and wed his mother. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have free will. It simply means this is what is going to happen. Human beings could control their own destinies and control a lot of the shots, but what they control is somewhat ambiguous. It is in this way the ancient Greeks came to terms with the fact that there were no guarantees in life.

The main difference between gods and mortals was that the gods could do as they pleased. They didn’t have to respect boundaries. But mortals had to respect boundaries and avoid excess. The gods were subject to the same passions and weaknesses of mortals and were in human form. But unlike humans, they healed quickly, they never died, they had incredible powers of strength and knowledge. The reason the gods are in human form is because the Greeks could not imagine a more noble form to attribute to the gods. They were not perfect, but they were not to be trifled with. If you set yourself up as equal to the gods, that was to invite disaster.

Apollo is the most beautiful male. He’s the perfect male but he falls in love over and over again and none of the women want him. So he attempts to rape girls. He’s more of a god of distance and rationality than a god of love. Apollo falls in love with Cassandra which directly impacts the course of history. Cassandra is a princess in Troy. Apollo says he will give her the gift of prophecy if she will sleep with him so she agrees and then rejects him. So Apollo makes it so that nobody will believe Cassandra’s prophecies. Cassandra tries to warn her people that the Trojan horse is a trick, but they won’t listen to her and this is how Apollo gets his revenge on Cassandra.

Dionysus is in stark contrast to Apollo. He’s the god of wine, vegetation, and the sea. He’s a god of fluidity. He’s a god who can induce madness on the individual. Your mind can turn to a fluid mush if you are under the influence of Dionysus through drink or some sort of religious ecstasy. Strong emotion is Dionysus. Formal expression is Apollo. Dionysus is the god of civic disorder but the god of imperial democracy. Apollo is the god of civic order. Dionysus is a god worshiped by women who are led out of their homes and up into the mountains where they dance and, according to men, drank a lot. Apollo is the god of reason and order. (Nietzsche was always pitting Dionysus against Apollo.)

The Greeks believed human beings had a soul which they called Psyche. Psyche means breath. Psyches in the underworld have no consciousness. Hades was the ruler of the underworld but he did not inflict punishment as did the Judeo-Christian Satan.

Plato criticized traditional literature because he didn’t think the gods acted like gods. Plato had a problem with how the gods acted – raping women, ravaging humans, etc. He believed the gods should represent something more perfect and other-worldly.

Rome absorbed Greek religion in the third century BCE. They took over the Olympian symbols and realigned their gods with the Greek gods. They assigned them Roman names and Roman characteristics so the Greek pantheon became the Roman pantheon.

Christianity found connections in Greek and Roman mythologies, primarily through Paul. Notions that had developed in Platonism were brought into Christianity to make it more palatable to the educated class in the Roman-Greco world. The Christian belief that Jesus was the son of a god but born of a mortal woman resonated with the Greeks. Christianity cannot be wholly attributed to the Greeks, but the Greeks most definitely laid the ground work.

The Greek world had shifted to a sort of monotheism with the advent of philosophy. Aristotle and Plato were critical of the traditional religion and preferred the idea of an all-knowing power of perfection. Paul was familiar with this shift to monotheism as is apparent in Acts 17:22-28:

    Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

     The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

The traditional Greek word for sin meant “to miss the mark”. If you go too high, you are living beyond human expectations. If you go to low, you are not living up to them. So what sin meant was that you weren’t living up to who it is you are.

Greek myths say something very complicated about the world. They speak to a sort of optimism and pessimism at the same time. They speak to the nature of reality and the nature of life – what is important and what we ought to care about. They are timeless treatments of big human questions of personal morality against the morality that is imposed by the state or ruling class who can potentially get by with more than those who aren’t in power. How do you negotiate your behavior?

We are left with the feeling that we don’t know who these gods are or what they are. But we know there is some huge force out there that is controlling our lives and that we have to keep an open mind to what the force is doing. That is why the ancient Greeks can speak across 3000 years of history.

The Little Philosophy Book by Robert Solomon

The Little Philosophy Book is an excellent little book and easy to read. I read it in one sitting. It’s probably overly simplistic for people who are already well-versed in philosophy. But I found it extremely helpful.

Here are my sketchy (and somewhat lengthy) notes…

Socrates flirted with the idea of a soul that would continue thinking after death and thought this soul must have existed before the body. This caused him to speculate about a world more perfect than this one. He is said to have looked forward to an afterlife where he wasn’t encumbered with problems of the body and could just think and philosophize.

The Daoists and Confucians – rejected the idea of an individual soul in favor of the Dao, the way. The way is not an individual path nor is it a set of rules and directions. It is what one does. Confucians believed that the dao is followed by being respectful of the customs of one’s society, honoring parents, and being good citizens. The Daoists, on the other hand, told strange stories about thieves, bums and outcasts to puncture the pretensions of high society. They said that to live “naturally” required the rejection of social posturing and ambitions. The dao depended on natural instincts, imagination and intellectual and conceptual thought.

Hinduism – we are not individuals, we are part of the One. There are many different gods that are different manifestations of one and the same god, who in turn is a manifestation of brahman, the One. Atman is universal consciousness (not individual consciousness or an individual soul) that embraces us all and is one with brahman which is the reality of the entire universe.

Greece & Middle East – single reality with many manifestations which leads to a question that frames both western philosophy and science today: What is the nature of the universe? What is the nature of everything? The term “uni-verse” has within it an implication that is rejected by other cultures, like the Chinese. It assumes the world has a single, all encompassing order.

Buddhism said that both individuality and the universe as a whole are something of an illusion. There is no brahman, no atman, and no individual souls. Buddhism was not a life denying philosophy. Quite the opposite. It was a joyful, peaceful philosophy, much like Daoism. There is no distinctive separate self. The self, like the universe as a whole, is impermanent and ever changing.


The One in the Middle East

  • Amenhotep IV first developed the idea of one God above all others in Egypt (Aten)
  • Zoroaster (Zarathustra) defended the idea of one God above all others in Persia .
  • Several Hebrew tribes claimed to have “the one true God” (Yahweh). This God was said to be transcendent – outside of the natural world.
  • Hebrew Philosophy later joined with Greek philosophy to support the idea that there was another world that was very different than the imperfect world in which we live.
  • Christianity further developed these ideas and said the Hebrew God had been made manifest in a historical person.



We may be conscious, but we are very rarely aware of our own consciousness. It is by way of consciousness that we are aware of the world, but we are are through it, not of it. Indian philosophy has a good metaphor for this: the atman (all encompassing consciousness) is the eye that cannot see itself.

Reflective consciousness allows us to be rational. The ancient Greeks said that rationality is the key to being human. Clearly, our rational ability is the source of many of our most remarkable abilities but it is also the source of many of our most puzzling problems. The ability to distance ourselves from our perceptions, emotions and desires creates the problem of knowing when to stop distancing ourselves.

Descartes moved the question, “What is consciousness?” to the center of western philosophical thought which has created many of the problems philosophers think about ever since. He called consciousness unextended substance and thought it was one of the most basic sorts of things in the universe.

One of the enduring problems of contemporary philosophy is how does the physical brain cause us to have experiences?


Cosmology & Cosmogony

The question, “Where did the Universe come from?” is raised frequently. But the term “uni-verse” has a hidden prejudice. It assumes it is all one thing rather than a great many different and perhaps disconnected things. Therefore, many philosophical traditions reject such questioning. Although it may have changed radically over time (and, in fact, change may be its underlying principle), it makes no sense to ask how it all came about.

It’s difficult in western thought to conceive of the universe as having always existed and having never come into being. But it is just as strange to think in terms of the universe as having been created. What came before it? Nothing?

Science and religion come at cosmogony (how the world came into being) differently. Science asks how the world originated (big bang, etc.). Religion is more interested in why the world exists (what is the purpose of it all).

Cosmology asks what the universe is like.

  • Hindus – the world is identical with God (Brahma) and is conscious
  • Most cultures prior to belief in a single God believed the world to be animated by spirits (conscious)
  • According to Genesis (Jewish monotheistic view) – the world is distinctly different from God
  • Current cosmology does not view the world as animated or conscious, but rather as a resource for our own needs and entertainment. It’s not viewed as an independent living thing in its own right. (Solomon says this realization should come with some embarrassment to us.)


Subjective Idealism & Physicalism

Since the 17th century, the main cosmological or metaphysical debate in the West has turned on whether or not the universe should be thought of as physical or material or spiritual, as mind-dependent.

  • Subjective idealism – there is nothing but minds and ideas. George Berkely said “to be” is to be perceived” – subjective idealism (if you aren’t being perceived by other people, then you are being perceived by God. The tree falling in a forest would be heard by God. (This is similar to the Vedic idea that ultimate reality is consciousness.) Subjective idealism understands reality as ultimately spiritual.
  • Physicalism – there is nothing but physical matter. What we call “the mind” and “ideas” are manifestations in the brain. Our lives today are largely defined by technology, technology depends on science, and science discovers the laws of nature. The idea that there are phenomena that science cannot explain is contrary to the working assumption of scientific research, namely that everything eventually can be explained by science and ultimately by the physical sciences. At stake is the idea of objectivity, and consequently, the very possibility of finding out the truth. Objectivity is what is true of the object. But because we see things through our own experience and perceptions, we can only approach objectivity insofar as we can eliminate our various opinions, perceptions and subjective preferences.
  • The demand for objectivity makes sense only if we assume that there actually is a way the world is. Likewise, the laws of nature assume that everything can be explained according to certain standards and those standards are to be found in the physical sciences. Physicalism assumes that the truth is something beyond all experience, evidence, and opinions and that being objective is the most realiable way of finding the truth. What is true, in turn, is the way the world really is.


The Problem of Subjectivity

Subjectivity cannot be eliminated from the search for objectivity. Contemporary physics has discovered that the observer may be as important as what is observed. (The observer affects what is observed.) Likewise, an anthropologist cannot ignore the effect his presence has on the people he studies.

The whole point of science is to try and explain what previously had been inexplicable. Nothing should be excluded from the domain of science, but at the same time, not everything needs to be explained and not every explanation needs to be scientific. Sometimes, the facts of the matter are not as important as are the aesthetic experiences.

Religious beliefs are more like aesthetic beliefs. They are not literally true, but they are not false either.


Fatalism & Determinism

Do we have free will or are our lives determined by fate, the gods, God, or natural causal factors like genetics, neurochemistry, environment, etc.?

Fatalism – events and outcomes are pre-figured. What happens is what is supposed to happen.

  • Greeks – moira
  • Chinese – ming
  • Hindus & Buddhists – karma
  • Christianity – predestination
  • 17th century science – determinism based on natural causes

Of these, determinism has been the greatest challenge to our idea that we have choices and are free to make them. In the deterministic view of the universe, human actions are events in nature that are subject to the laws of nature.

How can we act with some freedom of choice and be responsible for what it is we do when science can explain whatever happens in the world with causal explanations? Predeterminism, for instance, only says that major events in our lives are predestined. Determinism says that even the smallest events in our lives are determined.

Is the experience of choosing adequate proof that we choose. Or is the experience of choice an illusion?

  • Baruch Spinoza – denied that we make genuine choices. Said our experiences are like a stone being flung through the air imagining that it has free will.
  • David Hume – even if we have the impression of an inner mental “oomph” to set an action in motion, we do not experience the causal connection between the “oomph” and the action (as we do not experience any causal connection between the cause and its supposed effect). This suggests the experience of “willing” is unconnected to the act that follows.
  • Twentieth Century – discoveries in science brought determinism into question but these discoveries still don’t support free will. If the world is indeterminate and governed by chance, then behavior is the result of random occurrences, including random occurrences in our brain.
  • Compatibalism – the idea that our choices are both free and determined and not at all incompatible.



Just because we do what it is we want to do does not mean we are choosing our behavior freely. Our behavior is motivated – we do what we want to do. But a good deal of our urges and desires are determined by childhood traumas over which we have no control and may have repressed. Likewise, a good deal of animal behavior is hardwired and what we do because we are compelled to do it and not because we freely choose to do it. We don’t often choose our wants and desires.

Doing what we want to do is free only if you want to want what you want. We have to be able to step back from our actions and desires to reconsider them. That we can do this is essential to our freedom and is a feature of consciousness.

But what if these second-order deliberations are another form of determinism? How do we know if we are the kind of person who can chose to act on what we want?

Kant thought determinism was true in the realm of science and nature but claims this has nothing to do with our freedom which is a function of the rationality of our choices.

Sartre – agrees with Kant that from the first-person perspective, we can distance ourselves from causal influences. But he doesn’t care if the choice is rational or not (he argues that it is completely irrelevant to the question of whether we are free or not). He claims our freedom is absolute not in that we can do anything we want, but that as long as we are conscious, we have choices, no matter how restricted the situation – even if it is just a choice of attitude. Our burden of responsibility for the world is therefore, immense. We are responsible not only for our own actions and their consequences, but also for the fate of the world. Our fate is in our own hands.


Morality and Ethics

Kant – Morality is one kind of consideration (“doing the right thing”). Questions about happiness and satisfaction of desire are another. What satisfies or doesn’t satisfy are described as “good” and “bad”. Moral judgments are described as “right” and “wrong”. Moral judgments are categorical, what makes us happy is hypothetical. For Kant, the principles of morality were categorical imperatives. What is right for one is right for all. What is wrong for one is wrong for all. This sort of absolute thinking is typical of Hebrew morality, but Kant didn’t defend this position on religious grounds, he defended it on rational grounds. He believed it was unmistakable to anyone who thought about this issues clearly.

Utility (Utilitarianism) is the the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The Kantian position is, “lying is wrong”. Are there no situations where lying is “right”? If a rapist wants your child, would it be wrong to lie to him about where she is? Perhaps what is more important than the general rule is the consideration of the outcome. The more appropriate deciding factor might be the consideration of whether everyone will be better off or worse off by your choice. (It is not enough that you be personally better off because this could potentially lead to all sorts of abominable acts.)

John Rawls – said the greatest good for the greatest number of people left out justice. A society that maximizes over-all happiness and well-being for the greatest number might nevertheless be unjust – especially if the benefits and advantages are secured only at great cost to those who are less advantaged.

Ethics of Virtue – Focuses on the character of the person doing the action. Goes back to Aristotle who said that having good character is that you want to do the right thing and that this will make you happy. Enjoying the right thing is the true test of virtue. Virtue ethics rejects the conflict of self-interest and doing the right thing.



What if there are no universals? Then even if everyone agreed on a core set of values, there would be no way of proving the superiority of this view over any other. There would be no final argument against cruelty, mass murder, torture, etc. You’d have to yell louder or create a bigger army than your opponents. But this isn’t satisfactory.

This is becoming one of the more pressing philosophical and practical questions of our times as cultures become more interdependent.

Nietzsche said that ethics was subjective and that we view questions of right and wrong and good and bad from our own perspective. We formulate these perspectives based on our aspirations – either from the perspective of master morality or a slave morality. Nietzsche admired the Greek ideas of virtue and excellence which he considered to be an ethic of self-confidence and mastery of life. On the other hand, the Hebrews had been slaves and so their ethic was about mutual support and defensiveness. Nietzsche said that what most people consider morality is not universal. It is a way of engaging with the world based upon our particular sense of insecurity. A good person, according to slave morality, is someone who doesn’t do anything wrong, but their lives may be boring and mediocre because “being good”, for them, is thought to be more important than self-confidence and life-mastery (virtue and excellence).

The understanding that ethical perspectives differ from culture to culture can be overcome through an appreciation of our differences which we can come to understand by talking with people from different cultures and traveling. But if we see the world only in terms of human values, then what about all of the other living beings in the world? How do we account for the needs of other species? What about plants? What about the earth.

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

I started Holy the Firm after I finished Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, yesterday and finished it today. It’s a short little book but dense. I liked it better than Pilgrim although I am glad I read Pilgrim first. Holy the Firm seemed much more down to earth to me even though Pilgrim was all about earthy things.

I actually have more thoughts on this book than I did Pilgrim, too. I don’t really think these are spoilers, but be warned…

Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong – come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”

For some reason, I was under the impression she was a Roman Catholic. But this seemed very Calvanistic to me. So I looked it up and sure enough, she was raised Presbyterian. She didn’t convert to Catholicism until the 1990s. Pilgrim and Holy the Firm were written in the 1970s, long before her conversion. This is the typical Calvanistic struggle of believing that nature is evil. No matter how intune we are with nature, if we were brought up with that depravity of man thinking, we’re going to have a hard time reconciling the problem of evil. (It’s difficult to reconcile in Catholicism, too – but it presents a different version of the problem within Catholicism.) Dillard doesn’t resolve it in this book although she comes up with a lot of interesting ideas.

I do thinks she is right that the lower churches have a sort of wisdom the higher churches don’t. This is a huge generalization but I’ll throw it out there anyway because I think it fits with what Dillard is saying: people in lower churches go to church to express their experience of death and pain while people in the higher churches go to try and make themselves immune to it. Wisdom doesn’t come through the avoidance of pain. It comes with the acceptance of suffering.

There is a great documentary called "Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus" made by some British guys who went deep into the American south and filmed what it was like to live there. It’s absolutely fantastic. The thing about the extremist religious element in the south is that it is nothing like corporate fundamentalism. Corporate fundamentalism is as intentional as is any major marketing endeavor. But the religious fanaticism of the deep south is far more like an artistic expression than it is business like or controlling.

Dillard writes:

Scholarship has long distinguished between two strains of thought which proceed in the West from human knowledge of God. In one, the ascetic’s metaphysic, the world is far from God. Emanating from God, and linked to him by Christ, the world is yet infinitely other than God, furled away from him like the end of a long banner falling. This notion makes, to my mind, a vertical line of the world, a great chain of burning. The more accessible and universal view, held by Eckhart and by many peoples in various forms, is scarcely different from pantheism: that the world is immanation, that God is in the thing, and eternally present here, if nowhere else. By these lights the world is flattened on a horizontal plane, singular, all here, crammed with heaven, and alone. But I know that it is not alone, nor singular nor all. The notion of immanence needs a handle, and the two ideas themselves need a link, so that life can mean aught to the one, and the other.

This, to me, is the typical Christian struggle (Catholic or Protestant). If you revere nature and think God is within it, how do you balance that with a monotheistic world view that says God is separate from his creation? If you value nature and are Christian, at some point, you have to entertain this struggle. There is no way around it. Pantheism throws the absolute out the window altogether. Monotheism makes nature evil. Of course we can talk about Panentheism now, but clearly Dillard is one of the thinkers who was bringing that sort of understanding into focus.

The question for Dillard, as it is for all pantheists and panentheists, is whether God touches anything. She asks, “Is anything firm or is time on the loose?” It’s possible I don’t fully understand her question, but if I do, I think it is the wrong question. I used to ask something similar: If God is in everything and we are God, what happens if the universe comes to an end? Does God come to an end, too? I had been brought up with the idea of an external God in the Calvanistic tradition. Methodists were not Calvinists, but nevertheless I was brought up to believe God was good, we were bad, and he could kill us all off if he wanted and would go on just fine and dandy, probably better without us. We were to love God, not God’s creation. But if you change that and say that God is God’s creation, then what becomes of God if the creation dies? I think that is very similar to what Dillard is asking – is anything firm or is time on the loose?

Dillard wants nature to be “real” even though she recognizes everything as “transluscent”. She still wants the Absolute even though she can’t quite make sense of it. She writes,

These are only ideas, by the single handful. Lines, lines, and their infinite points! Hold hands and crack the whip, and yank the Absolute out of there and into the light, God pale and astounded, spraying a spiral of salts and earths, God footloose and flung. And cry down the line to his passing white ear, “Old Sir! Do you hold space from buckling by a finger in its hole? O Old! Where is your other hand?” His right hand is clenching, calm, round the exploding left hand of Holy the Firm.

This Holy Firm is an idea that she says comes out of Esoteric Christianity (mystical Christian traditions).

It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale,’ and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute, at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.

I think this gives her is a way through the middle of monotheism and pantheism. It allows her to hold on to an idea of an Absolute although she clearly has an almost pagan view of the world. It’s probably some of the first panentheistic musings in western Christian thought after the advent of rationalism and Protestantism. What interests me is that Dillard claims Eckhart and other Catholic mystics of the middle ages were pantheists. I wonder if the mystics were more comfortable with the illusory nature of reality and didn’t need nature to be “real” in the same way those of us who have been brought up in rationalistic societies do?

I also wonder if Native American Spirituality has within it this same sort of struggle with nature as evil? I don’t know enough about it to know for sure, but it seems to me they wouldn’t because they have so many gods and a lot of them are trouble makers. I think this struggle probably comes specifically out of western idealism which adopted Greek philosophical abstract idealism. Our ancestors were raised with an abstract God that was “good”. The Enlightenment got rid of “God” in favor of rationalism but maintained the abstraction.

Anyway – I loved this book! It’s so beautifully written and extremely personal. Her interest in Roman Catholicism is apparent in both Pilgrim and Holy the Firm. But both books feel very Protestant to me. Catholicism just doesn’t have that same struggle of nature being evil that Protestantism has. It’s far more pagan, in a sense, and much more open to mysticism. Ecumenical efforts have been merging a lot of Catholic and Protestant idealism together since the 1960s so the differences aren’t as extreme as they once were – especially now. And this has been both good and bad. But I can understand why Roman Catholicism would have appealed to Dillard more than the Calvanistic religion she was brought up in.

I’m definitely going to have to read one of her more recent books and see if she managed to come to a more satisfying resolution.

Fear and Trembling – Problema II

We are currently making our way from Texas to California. We left at midnight yesterday in order to get through the most boring leg of the trip while the kids slept (or tried to sleep). We’ve made this trip many times and it is incredibly scenic, but long! It always takes us right around 24 hours with minimal stops. We have my daughter’s little Chihuahua/Pekingnese on this trip with us so have been having to make stops for her, too. But we amazingly made it to the Arizona/California border around 8:00 our time (6:00 California time) and so I am typing this in Yuma, Arizona. I honestly couldn’t wait to finish up Dreyfus’ lectures on Fear and Trembling and was afraid if I waited until after our vacation, I wouldn’t finish. So I listened to the last one tonight and took notes even though I am utterly exhausted.

These may be a little bit cryptic, but my understanding is aided by writing them so here goes…

Why would it be true, if we followed Hegel, that faith has always existed because it never existed? Hegel thinks faith is the interior, lower immediacy. The stuff of the lower immediacy has always existed and if faith is lower immediacy, then faith has always existed. However, if all you have in your philosophy is lower immediacy and mediation, then faith as higher immediacy has never existed.

The puzzle is to do something that you can’t understand but feel called upon to do. Dreyfus offers an example…

Suppose a child is raised in Nazi Germany and raised with the Nazi philosophy from the time he was very young until he had reached adulthood. He believes that Jews are the biggest threat to civilization – inferior, dangerous. It is every good person’s duty to get these people exterminated. But let’s say he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be Jewish. It is his duty to turn her in. This is the rational, ethical, thing to do. Instead, he hides her. It is inconceivable that he could protect one of these sub-human creatures, yet he does it without even really understanding what it is he is doing, but does it feeling it is the best he could do even though it is inconceivable.

What is important is what it meant to the person doing it. What is important is the state of mind of the person doing it. And what they are doing is paradoxical. The main thing is that the people of a lower immediacy can’t resist what it is they are doing. They feel compelled to do it.

If you can’t resist it, it is a compulsion. and not a movement toward the Knight of Faith. One of the main ways of misunderstanding Fear and Trembling is wondering whether Hitler, Raskolnikov, and Charles Manson are Knights of Faith. Kierkegaard is on to this misunderstanding and has a way of determining whether they are Knights of Faith or not.

One way is by realizing that in order to be Knight of Faith, you have to be free not to do what it is you do. Raskolnikov (from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) is a perfect example of this. The Knight of Faith respects the universal. He feels the tension that he is doing something wrong. Raskolnikov is a vagrant genius who thinks he can do whatever it is he wants, but he doesn’t respect the universal. He doesn’t recognize that he is doing something wrong. (Neither does “M”). (We are all part-Greek. Whether we realize it or not is another matter.)

You are ruled out as a Knight of Faith if you don’t respect the ethical and ruled out if you do respect the ethical, but think you have a better one. (Like Hitler.)

How does it feel to be a Knight of Faith? Not good. You feel anguish. The person suspending the ethical feels anguish all the time. Abraham cannot be mediated which can also be said as he cannot speak because there is no language for that which cannot be mediated. You have to both respect the ethical and be willing to break it.

In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard writes “God is that all things are possible and all things are possible is God.” This is Kierkegaard’s way of trying to get you out of thinking of God as a supreme being, or as the creator, or object you can love. It is Johannes de Silencio in Fear and Trembling who loves God in this way and thinks of God as a supreme being, not Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, that is far too Platonic. You don’t need the sort of God we tend to as a God, once you realize Jesus was God. When you get a religion that has produced the God-man, you don’t need to have a relation to the supreme being. Jesus can do everything for you that God could do for you. Once God becomes man, access to God as a supreme being is cut off. Either there isn’t access to a Supreme Being or there is but you can’t find it. And it doesn’t really matter.

God “should be” the calling. But there isn’t anyone doing the calling. There is simply a fact about the way the world is and how people are. Also, through God all things are possible. Otherwise, God as the calling would only lead you to the recognize it rationally. You have to be willing to live in a way you don’t understand.

God is some kind of absolute relation to the absolute which comes in and says, your defining commitment is impossible. This is the vulnerability of the defining commitment. There is something that you can’t understand or control or predict that can take your defining commitment away from you. It requires that you give up your defining commitment if you are being reasonable. The third function of God is to be the sword hanging over the head of the beloved.

(1) God is the calling. (2) God is the thing that limits the unconditional commitment and makes it dangerous. (3) And it is the God is that all things are possible atmosphere that makes it possible for you to stick with your unconditional commitment in the first place.

You need faith in order to be able to act in a way you don’t understand. To do what is impossible. To go against the ethical while knowing that you are doing awful things in the name of the ethical while knowing that it is the best you can do.

For Kierkegaard, the church is a big enemy because it is corrupted by philosophy.

What does it mean that Abraham is able to get a new Isaac? What would it be like to get a new ethical? To get a new ethical is to go through the cultural suffering, whatever it takes, in such a way that you change the ethical.

Third Man (1949)

The Third Man is another film Dreyfus had the class watch to help explain Kierkegaard’s existentialism in Fear and Trembling. Luckily, my library had it. Fascinating film. Here is what Dreyfus had to say about the movie:

Starting from the end…

If the movie had ended with Anna and Holly walking off together in the sunset, it would have been a dumb movie. But it ends with Anna walking right by Holly as though she can’t comprehend him. She and Holly can’t even be considered diametrical opposites because diametrical opposites would be in the same dimension. It’s as though they don’t even exist in the same dimension at all.

Holly represents the Greeks. He is honest, sensible, sober (usually) and true except not necessarily harmless. That he always tells the truth is what makes him dangerous. Three deaths are thanks to his honesty.

Harry is happy to see Holly but he is also OK with killing him. Holly is genuinely his best friend. Harry is fun-loving and dangerous, but dangerous in a different way than Holly. He is ruthless and selfish, although he does care about Holly and Anna. But he is ready to kill anyone in order to save his own skin. Nothing has a higher authority than his own life. Harry is ready to turn Anna over to the Russians and Anna knows it. In order to save his own skin, he’s even willing to give her away. To be a sinner is to be totally self-loving and totally self-centered. All affections are conditional (definitely not unconditional). Betraying someone you care about is an absolute sin. It’s even worse than lower immediacy.

If you don’t believe you can be joyful in this life, then you are in despair even if you believe you can be joyful in an after-life. Harry is already in Hell and in despair. He can’t get out of the sewer. He is trapped in Hell.

The Ferris Wheel scene: The top of the ferris wheel is the ethical. Harry says the Russians kill people on principal, why shouldn’t I? This is a detached ethical perspective. At the bottom of the ferris wheel where we realize Anna is willing to be betrayed by Harry is the religious dimension. She has an unconditional commitment to Harry.

Holly is not religious at all. He doesn’t believe in anything, doesn’t even know what believing in something is. He looks nice, but is actually poison. Anna lives at the highest place in her building which also represents the religious dimension. Anna respects the ethical and doesn’t want to see harry again – especially after she realizes Harry has killed children. But she can’t turn him in. She won’t betray him.

This is the teleological suspension of the ethical. She believes in the ethical, thinks it is terrible he has killed kids. But when authority comes, her unconditional commitment to Harry trumps the ethical. She says she loves him and she can’t to do anything to harm him. Nothing Anna does can be turned into the universal ethical. She defines her life, the universal ethical does not define her. Again -there is nothing worse than betraying the one you love, yet this is incomprehensible to the ethical.

Like the woman in "Hiroshima Mon Amour", Anna says she wants to be dead, too. The woman in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is a Knight of Resignation. But Anna is different even though she looks the same. In grief, people are bound to sound like a Knight of Resignation. Their world has just been smashed. But the question is – if your lover has died, what movements are you going to make?

Anna lives in a world where everything comes out alright. She is not tragic. It is obvious that Anna is going to get through her grief and suffering and get a lover after a while. Harry has now become a part of her. He’s in her. But as a temporal and finite lover, she is over him. At the beginning of the film, she throws dirt on his grave when she thinks he is dead. At the end of the film when she knows he is dead, she won’t throw dirt on it. Holly does the opposite. He is totally out of sync with her.

The good ethical is represented by Calloway. Holly isn’t the good ethical because he’s a sort of vigilante. He thinks he can act on his own without the establishment. Calloway comes across as callous but he isn’t. He’s professional. He says his job is to keep people from getting hurt. Death is at the bottom of everything and this should be left to the professionals. It isn’t about heroism. It’s about keeping people from getting hurt. He is aware of evil. Being naive about evil, like Holly, is dangerous. Holly is an extreme version of naive.

Anna is faced with the conflict of protecting a mass murderer out of love of bringing her lover to justice. From either perspective, the other is wrong and they can’t be reconciled. But for Calloway, the ethical is always the ethical.

Dreyfus says that Orson Welles (who played Harry Limes) came up with the following line on the spot – that it wasn’t written into the script:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock …”

This is perfect because it further emphasizes that the movie doesn’t have a clear up or down.

Anna and Holly can’t understand each other. Anna says that he is wrong about Harry and that he is wrong about everything. He’s got everything upside down and is a fool for thinking she would turn Harry in. He’s also a fool for thinking that, because he is the sheriff of Santa Fe, he can just come in and clean things up, kill the criminal, and walk off into the sunset with the girl.

Anna is glad that Harry is dead, but she would never betray him. Holly turned out to be even worse than Harry. Harry was a murderer, but Holly was a betrayer. What Anna and Holly represent are two utterly incompatible perspectives. They are so different, they can’t even come into conflict.

So Anna walks past Holly and doesn’t even look at him. And of course, Holly doesn’t understand it at all.

The end.

Fear and Trembling – Problema I

Continuing on with notes from Dreyfus’ Lecture on Fear and Trembling….

In "Problema 1", Isaac goes from representing the object of Abraham’s defining commitment to an ethical dilemma. Kant thought there were ethical universal principals. Problema 1 is set up as though we agree with Kant – that the same Ethic exists everywhere and that there is one universal that applies to everyone, everywhere. Kant claims the ethical task is to abrogate his particularity so as to become the universal.

Kierkegaard writes:

Faith’s knight knows on the contrary that it is glorious to belong to the universal. He knows it is beautiful and benign to be the particular who translates himself into the universal, the one who so to speak makes a clear and elegant edition of himself as immaculate as possible, and readable for all; he knows it is refreshing to become intelligible to oneself in the universal, so that he understand the universal and everyone who understands him understands the universal through hin in turn, and both rejoice in the security of the universal. (p. 90)

The only alternative to the universal is doing your own thing and making an exception of yourself. According to Hegel, the ethical is what makes you intelligible to everybody. It is how you make sense to yourself and everyone else. It doesn’t have to be universal, but there does have to be some sort of shared understanding of “good” and “bad” within groups, cultures, etc.

While the Greeks distinguish between heroes and slaves, for instance, the Medieval Christians distinguished between sinners and saints. They each had a different ethical language. A saint is more like a slave from the Greek point of view. From the Homeric point of view, non-violence would have been considered totally pathetic. But from the Medieval Christian view, heroes are sinners because they do not have humility – they think they are their own authority. (In Dante, the heroes all turn out to be in Hell.)

After Kant and until recently, the distinction between “good” and “bad” was mature or immature. Kant said that rational human beings are mature because they took responsibility for what they did and could justify their behavior. It was immature and childish to believe it was the Pope or Prince who tells you what to do. Nobody tells you what to do except your own morality. You have to be autonomous.

This distinction is not so important anymore. Today, the distinction is primarily between whether you are healthy or sick (or perhaps perverted or natural).

Kierkegaard wants to keep the achievements of Greek philosophy. He thinks it’s a good thing that there is a shared moral public vocabulary that tells us what is good and bad, right and wrong, worthy and not worthy. You don’t have to believe in an absolute right and wrong.

In the ethical view of life, then, it is the particular’s task to divest himself of the determinant of interiority and give it an expression in the exterior. Whenever the particular shrinks from doing so, whenever he wants to stay inside, or slip back into, the inner determinant of feeling, mood, etc. He commits an offence, he is in a state of temptation. (p. 81)

Kierkegaard wants to have the best of both worlds and to keep the achievements of Greek philosophy. But he runs into a problem in that the Greek tradition has no understanding, whatsoever, that there can be an unconditional commitment that makes them an Individual with a capital “I” and especially that the unconditional commitment trumps the ethical. You can’t put these two traditions together but you can put them in relation to one another and this saves the ethical.

Then faith’s paradox is this, that the Individual is higher than the universal, that the Individual (to recall a theological distinction less in vogue these days) determines his relation to the universal through his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute through his relation to the universal. The paradox can also be put by saying that there is an absolute duty to God; for in this tie of obligation the Individual relates himself absolutely, as the Individual to the absolute…. if this duty is absolute the ethical is reduced to the relative. (p. 82-83)

Whenever you see God , you should write in something like “your calling” or “your vocation”. It’s not like God is actually calling, but there is something in your life that is absolute for you.

Faith goes against the ethical – both from Kant and Hegel’s understanding.

The paradox of faith is this, that there is an interiority that is incommensurable with the exterior, an interiority which, it should be stressed, is not identical with the first [that of a child], but is a new interiority. Recent philosophy has allowed itself without further ado to substitute the immediate for ‘faith’. If one does that it is ridiculous to deny that faith has existed through all ages. Faith in such a case keeps fairly ordinary company, it belongs with feeling, mood, idiosyncrasy, hysteria and the rest. So far philosophy is right to say one should not stop at that. But there is nothing to warrant philosophy’s speaking in this manner. (p. 81-82)

Interiority can be associated with moods, idiosyncrasy, hysteria, obsessions, etc. or with an unconditional commitment. You can’t put an unconditional commitment ‘out there’ for it to be understood intelligibly any more than you can do so with moods, hysteria, etc. But moods, obsessions, etc. are of a lower immediacy while the unconditional commitment is of a higher immediacy. The immediate has existed forever and if faith has to be put in the immediate, then it has to have existed through all the ages. There has never been anything special called “faith”.

We shouldn’t wallow in our feelings, moods, superstitions, etc. You want to get over this. In fact, you have to get rid of it in order to have an unconditional commitment. Public intelligibility is necessary to get to higher immediacy. Philosophy is important, but it can’t understand becoming an individual in this sort of higher immediacy and this is the most important thing to understand. Faith and Being are the Exception and are higher than the Ethical.

This understanding saves philosophy, but it likewise throws the Greek thinking that mediation is the highest thing up against the Judeo-Christian tradition which thinks the unconditional commitment is the highest. And this is what leads to the conflict in our culture.

When Abraham is killing Isaac, it is both the best thing he ever did and the worst thing. It’s paradoxical. It’s necessary to go against the ethical (Judeo Christian) but ethical is the highest thing according to philosophy (and therefore the worst thing Abraham did.)

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac; but in this contradiction lies the very anguish that can indeed make one sleepless; and yet without that anguish Abraham is not the one he is. (p. 31)

Only he who is willing to lose the defining commitment can keep the defining commitment – this is one kind of anguish. Only he who can go against the ethical can really achieve things in this life.

In Greek philosophy, telos (to be ethical) is the highest goal. The Judeo-Christian tradition says the highest goal is unconditional commitment (the Individual).

If the highest thing requires you to go against the ethical, then can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical? In Greek philosophy, the ethical is the telos and is the highest goal. Kierkegaard is the first and last of the existentialists to take the Greek side seriously.

I’ve already written about some of this but for the sake of sticking with the lecture, I’ll provide it again…

The Greeks had a way of dealing with something like the Abraham-Isaac story. Agamemnon goes out to fight the Trojan War but gets stranded on an island and can’t go on. The Soliders are revolting and people are getting sick. The prophet tells him that unless he kills his daughter, he can’t go on this mission to get back Helen and conquer Troy. According to Joe Tussman (Dreyfus’ peer), nobody has ever tried to understand why the prophet told Agamemnon that he has to sacrifice the daughter to get to war. What Tussman thinks is that if Agamemnon is willing to send all of these other young people to war, he has to be willing to have one of his own children killed. Agamemnon sees this is right and kills his daughter and the people think it is terrific. He is admired as a hero for it. He has sacrificed his parental love for a higher ethical.

Abraham’s whole action stands in no relation to the universal, it is a purely private undertaking. While, then, the tragic hero is great through his deed’s being an expression of the ethical life, Abraham is great through an act of purely personal virtue. (p. 69)

If Bush isn’t willing to sacrifice his child, then he has no right to sacrifice anyone else’s child. It’s intelliglble. It is possible that Kierkegaard was gay. We don’t know that this is true, but let’s assume it is. In terms of what is considered to be worthy and unworthy in Kierkegaard’s day, gays would definitely be not worthy. They would be seen as sick, perverse, and all things bad. So let’s say that Kierkegaard is in love with John and tries to describe to himself his relationship to John and tells himself it is over a lower immediacy, disgusting, wrong, etc. This tendency to think of the relationship in this way is the temptation. What is a temptation for the Knight of Faith is the ethical. The trial is the attraction of the universal.

More Thoughts on Kierkegaard & Abraham

I think I’ve got a better handle on this now after listening to more of the Dreyfus lecture. He gave a good example:

It is quite possible that Kierkegaard was gay. It doesn’t really matter if he actually was gay or not, but just imagine that he was gay in 1850 Copenhagen. What would the ethics of the culture have been at the time in terms of gays? Likely that they are sick, perverted, queer and all kinds of other bad things.

So let’s say that Kierkegaard was in love with a guy named John rather than a woman named Regine and John was Kierkegaard’s unconditional commitment (rather than Regine). What would he have to describe to himself about this relationship in terms of the times? That the relationship is sick, disgusting, wrong, and everything that has to do with a lower immediacy. But he knows that his commitment to John is not of a lower immediacy, it is of a higher immediacy. So high, in fact, that he is willing to go up against the ethical to maintain his commitment to it.

The temptation for a Knight of Faith is the ethical!!!! And the trial is created by the attraction of the universal.

Kierkegaard offers the example of the pagan chief who is expected to sacrifice his daughter as being different than Abraham sacrificing Isaac (assuming Abraham’s sacrifice was not a communal sacrifice) because what the pagan chief does is for the good of the community. Another example appears in Greek literature through Agamemnon.

Agamemnon is going out to fight the Trojan War but gets stranded on an island and can’t get there. Meanwhile, the soldiers are revolting and people are getting sick. The prophet tells him that the only way he can go on and help rescue Helen and conquer Troy is to sacrifice his daughter. So he does and the people rejoice. Why do they rejoice?

It’s like telling Bush that if he is going to sacrifice the children of other people, then he should likewise be willing to sacrifice his own daughter. This is the universal ethic. If it is good for one then it has to be good for all, including the leader. We can all agree with that. It’s perfectly intelligible.

But Kierkegaard contends that what Abraham is going through is different because killing Isaac is not going to be something that is met with public approval. I still disagree here. I think it is very likely something that would have not only been met with public approval, but was publicly expected. It is very likely that child sacrifice was the norm back then. But I don’t think this contradicts what it is Kierkegaard is saying because if child sacrifice is an ethical expectation, then to make the decision to not sacrifice your child is going against the “universal” ethic (by Hegelian standards) and remains an unconditional commitment to your child and therefore a matter of higher immediacy rather than lower immediacy.

So my question from the yesterday is answered. Either way, if what Abraham is doing is culturally sanctioned or not, it continues to be an unconditional commitment to Isaac and therefore a “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

This stuff is so cool!!!! I’m really loving the existentialists!