Sunday, April 19, 2009

AtF: Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts

We left After the Flood yesterday with a fun bit of sophistry, wherein Cooper claims “we encounter this same absence of atheism or materialism in both Mesopotamia and early Israel, where records make no mention at all of any materialist thinker even by way of condemnation or refutation” and the observation that Psalm 14:1 says “'the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.'” He then makes a profound observation.
This, of course, presupposes the existence of such fools at the time the statement was written, ca 1000 BC, yet not a shadow of a controversy has come down to us that so much as hints that the prevailing creationist view was ever challenged or even questioned in the ancient Middle East, so strongly was it held to in that region of the earth at least. And that is a notable fact that no one, to my knowledge, has ever sought to examine. (6)
At one point during Jonathan Miller’s A Brief History of Disbelief Miller asked one of his guests this exact question. I forget who it was and I’m not in the mood to look through three hours of video just to find it at the moment. However, the answer was simple, concise, and made perfect sense. Publicly denying the existence of the gods would have been a really, really good way to get killed in the ancient world. It wasn’t a matter of, “Believe in [insert god here] that you may be saved from your sins and live forever in the golden halls.” It was more, “Sacrifice to [insert god here] so that the sun will rise tomorrow. Oh, and sacrifice to [insert other god here] or your enemies will overrun your lands, rape your wives, and carry your children off as slaves.” Basically, anyone who wandered about publicly doubting the existence of the gods would be seen as a direct and immediate threat to the community, branded a witch, heretic, or what have you, and killed. Atheism, in short, was not a good career move. Moreover, and this didn’t come up in the Miller interview that I recall, there really wasn’t a good alternative to creator god theories in the ancient world. Or any time up until about 150 years ago, for that matter. The closest you could really get to a completely naturalistic interpretation for the existence of the universe was something like the Tao. And since Cooper has already hopelessly mangled the Tao in to a “self-existing being” that exists “Outside this being,” I’m pretty sure he’s not going to get the subtle nuances of such things. This is how we ended up with deism, too. Until Darwin and the Origin of the Species, it was hard to come up with a good answer to the question, “If there is no god, how did we get here?” Of course, acknowledging such things would challenge Cooper’s thesis that everyone everywhere has always known about his relentlessly parochial concept of the divine. And I’m sure I’ve mentioned repeatedly that good historians drive towards their point without acknowledging any ideas or research that could possibly challenge their cherished beliefs. Anyway, his next target is, in fact, that ancient bastion of atheism: Greece. He starts with the Theogony of Hesiod, offering this quote:
'First of all the Void came into being Earth ...Out of the Void came darkness ...and out of the Night came Light and Day...' (7)
Wow! It sounds almost exactly like the Genesis account! But what are all those ellipses in the middle of the quote? If you’ll recall, ellipses tell me that, at the very least, more research is necessary. When I’m not feeling charitable they mean I’m pretty sure the author is trying to pull a fast one. Guess which option I’m choosing here. Once again, Cooper offers a bad footnote. Ancient texts are broken down in a similar fashion to the Bible, with at least chapter and paragraph notation, but often chapter and line or chapter, paragraph, and sentences all numbered. It’s inexcusable to use an ancient source and not give the coordinates to your readers. Cooper, of course, doesn’t give the coordinates. Fortunately, I did the leg work so you don’t have to. I’m pretty sure we’re looking for lines 116-138 of the Theogony. Just do an in-page search for "ll. 116-138" if you don’t trust me.
Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all (4) the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether (5) and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.
Cooper does begrudgingly acknowledge that there’s a slight discrepancy between his paraphrase and the full content of Hesiod’s work.
And yet it is immediately obvious upon reading the whole of the Theogony that Hesiod did not get his information from the book of Genesis. This is evident from his debased view of the Creator alone. (Lack of italics for Theogony his. Yes. You see that correctly. He italicizes Lao-Tzu, but not the title of a book.)
Also, if you’re, like me, scratching your head at the use of the word “debased” there, never fear. His next line makes it clear to us exactly what it means. He can’t resist moving forward in to a bit of creationist fan service.
But even though Hesiod's debased view may have been typical, and indeed understandable, for one who lived in a thoroughly pagan society, it was by no means a view that was shared by all his fellow pagans.
Those poor, benighted pagans. Bless their little hearts, they just try so hard. Fortunately for them, they had Xenophanes to show them the light. I’m sure it was quite a burden for that great white hope to the rest of the Greeks, who were otherwise consigned to an existence of darkness and torment.
'Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all the things which among men are shameful and blameworthy--theft and adultery and mutual deception...[But] there is one God, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought ...he sees as a whole, he thinks as a whole, he hears as a whole ...Always he remains in the same state, changing not at all ...But far from toil he governs everything with his mind.' (8)
Once again, I have no flippin’ clue about the origins of this quote if I stick with Cooper. Fortunately, the good people at Stanford University published an online encyclopedia of philosophy. Maybe they can shed some light on the quote. Turns out that we just don’t have much left of Xenophanes work and much of it comes from fragments of larger works or as quotations from others. This is a good thing to know. Fragment B11 shows that Cooper’s quote was accurate:
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)
It also completely ignores Fragment B12: they sang of numerous illicit divine deeds: theft, adultery, and mutual deceit. (B12)
This probably changes the complexion of the argument from, “There aren’t many gods but one,” to, “Why the hell do we sing praises to these thieving, deceitful, adulterous jerks?” It’s more social commentary, a la Voltaire than apology, a la Lewis. In another fragment Xenophanes says:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. (B16)
This may well be the oldest statement that we make god in our own image in the books, further supported by a later fragment in which he adds that horses and oxen would probably draw gods who look like horses and oxen. In looking for an ally in Xenophanes I think Cooper made a mistake. It’s not quite as obviously bad as that whole Lao-Tzu and the Tao thing, but pretty close. Right up there in the quote Cooper originally uses to introduce Xenophanes are the words “there is one God, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought.” This kinda-sorta implicitly rejects the idea in Genesis that Elohim created man and woman in Elohim’s own image. It introduces a concept much closer to Khabbala, or, dare I say it, Taoism. The impression is that Xenophanes’ Tao is external to the universe, so it’s not exactly Taoism. But we know so little about Xenophanes that it’s hard to say. I’d say we know enough, however, to say that Xenophanes would be surprised to get in to the pages of After the Flood the way he did. That’s enough for now. Next up: Cooper challenges Plato, Thales of Miletus, and Epicurus to a battle of wits. Something tells me he’s going to lose… Also, I’ll be spending Thursday through Sunday next at the Northlands Storytelling Conference. So I have no idea when the next After the Flood entry will be appearing. Consider yourselves warned.


ElderChild said...

Creation's Genius has revealed The Creator(GOD, Great Spirit, Father,,,) throughout time.

So it is that those with "eyes to see and ears to hear" yet today fellowship with The Creator, and could be more "see" HIM in and of HIS Creation than "see" Him who merely read, yet never experience those "colored marks written on a dead tree" that are bound in a book.......

Thankfully The Creator(GOD, Great Spirit, Father,,,) HE yet speaks to HIS Children.......

Is anyone listening?

Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(religion) that is of this world.......

Anonymous said...

I think Cooper just got himself the rich, white, Western European trifecta: co-opt a foreign culture, misinterpret what you find, and ignore anything you don't like!

Publicly denying the existence of the gods would have been a really, really good way to get killed in the ancient world.An excellent point. It could also be a lack a primary sources- to my knowledge there aren't a lot of personal letters or diaries that survive from ancient Mesopotamia. Cooper is effectively arguing from ignorance, here. Imagine what you'd conclude about American society if all you had to go on were a few official documents, laws, and the inscriptions on our public monuments...

Geds said...

to my knowledge there aren't a lot of personal letters or diaries that survive from ancient MesopotamiaI'd be surprised if there were more than a handful. The vast majority of people throughout history were completely illiterate. And that includes ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel (I include Israel because there's this idea that always got pushed in church that the Jewish people were completely literate and boys all learned to memorize the Torah at their fathers' knees, whether their father was a rabbi, mason, or day laborer. Not true).

Also, the bar for "literate" was pretty low. In a lot of cases if you could write and recognize your own name you were considered literate.

Plus there's the problem that if you get far enough back in to Mesopotamia you're talking cuneiform writing. You, uh, you can't really write a letter in cuneiform...

Anonymous said...

You, uh, you can't really write a letter in cuneiform...

Yeah, and on clay tablets, too. Imagine the postal fees. And how would you store your old letters? I don't think they'd all fit in a box under the bed.

PersonalFailure said...

dude- what's with you and the trolls . . . and why aren't they over at my blog?

I swear- I'm SO much more offensive than geds, who's hardly offensive at all.

hapax said...

Imagine what you'd conclude about American society if all you had to go on were a few official documentsThere's actually been some wonderful work done on reconstructing the weltanschaungen of "ordinary" illiterate folks in the late medieval period through the use of transcripts of heresy trials. I'm thinking of Le Roy Ladurie, Carlo Ginzburg, and similar researchers.

Admittedly, you're not going to come up with rational materialistic empiricists, any more than you would in Classical Greece (Aristotle might approach that, but nobody had the mental vocabulary to construct such a mindset, really.) But you do find a glimpse into the wonderful variety of ways real people shaped their worlds.

When I teach medieval philosophy, I sometimes use the example to my students of learning to read. Once you've done that, you simply can't force your brain to look at a roman typeface and NOT make sense (or at least try) of the squiggles and marks on the page. Even looking at, say, Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese ideograms, you *know* somewhere that there is a meaning conveyed beyond the shape of the brushmarks.

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there..."

It is equally impossible to try and force a modern Creationist / Evolutionist mindset on Sumerian epic poetry.


Geds said...

You just reminded me of something, hapax.

I unknowingly read one of the best books ever on the subject of the study of history when I was probably in grade school. It's a book called Motel of the Mysteries by David Macauley. The book takes place some hundreds or thousands of years after the United States is suddenly buried under an avalanche of junk mail. The main person is this Howard Carter-esque archaeologist who accidentally uncovers a perfectly preserved sacred burial chamber and goes through to catalog all of the items inside and illustrate the burial rituals of the lost American civilization.

Of course, as you'd guess from the title, what he's actually discovered is a motel room.

My favorite professor out at Western started out History 320: Ancient Greece by having us read Motel. That was our baseline for attempting to understand ancient Greece. We also more or less ran with a constant refrain that whenever something was labeled as having "religious ceremonial purposes" that actually meant "we don't know what the hell this is."

My mother, who had bought me the book lo those many years ago and loved it, was delighted to learn that I had a professor who used it in college. 300 level, no less...

Leigh said...

Geds: I LOVE Motel of Mysteries! My mother had it and let me read it when I was a kid, and I fell in love it (plus I was about 12 and the woman wearing the toilet seat was awesome). I haven't met many people who have heard of it.
Sorry to hijack the comments...

Fiat Lex said...

Right on. This guy, with his trying to figure out whether ancient peoples were creationists or evolutionists in the modern sense. It's like asking if refugees on boats trying to reach the Florida Keys are Democrats or Republicans. When they get there, they might turn out to be one or the other. But while they're still in the water they don't give a damn about that stuff.

So yeah, I wasn't there. But seems to me the really old-school gods came from more something more like desperation. A god was anything that might kill you and your entire family at any time and you didn't know how it worked or why it was there. So you pretend it's a person, 'cause you can sometimes bargain or beg or bribe people not to kill you. Or maybe a god was one of the few things in life that didn't frequently kill your family and friends, so you pretend it's a person so it can maybe help you out with all those other things that are trying to kill you.

So yeah, everybody who gave enough of a shit about being alive to try and be part of a social group with culture wouldn't go around saying, "nah, the so-called 'gods' don't even know we exist, and we're all gonna die whether we pray to them or not, and praying to them doesn't actually do anything except maybe make us feel better sometimes." Not only because it would be rude or controversial, but because it would be freaking obvious.

It's like a scene in a movie, the characters are all sitting around the bed of some terminally ill character, and for a few minutes they all pretend their dying friend is going to be fine, and they'll all get to go off and have one more grand adventure together. Then the dying friend laughs at how foolish they're being, then everybody else laughs even though they feel they shouldn't, and they all reaffirm their friendship and camaraderie some more.

Seems to me in ancient times, people had to have a little bit of that weird "we know it can't possibly be true but we have to believe it because there isn't anything else" optimism all the time. Because life was really hard. So if somebody goes around blaspheming against your gods, it's like they're telling you you might as well give up now and let the wolves eat your children. Because the whole point of having the gods is to give you a reason to hope that the wolves will continue not eating your children, even though you have very little control over the movements of wolves.

Or something.

jessa said...

My apologies for feeding the possible troll that everyone else has mostly ignored, but is anything ElderChild wrote there the slightest bit coherent to anyone? I'm no dummy, I actually slip into each author's idiolect rather easily, but I can barely tell whether what "side" he is on. I also fail to see what anything he wrote here (or tried to) has to do with your post.

I'm pretty sure that is a big downfall in evangelism. ElderChild has come here and, completely unprovoked and irrelevantly, decided to evangelize. I remember being at church and being told that we should basically turn every conversation we have with a nonChristian into evangelism. Um, no. I'm pretty sure that does the Gospel a disservice--I thought that even when I earnestly wished I could save everyone from eternal damnation. That and "making friends" with nonChristians specifically in order to evangelize them. No, that is not nice. That is the sort of evangelistic tactic that goes directly against what the Bible says about human relationships, even in the context of evangelism.

I'm sorry this was all troll fodder rather than a response to your actual blog.

Geds said...

It's no big deal, jessa. I'm guessing that ElderChild there won't be back. He seems like a drive-by evangiposter to me.

I have no idea what the goal is, though. Everything in it is gibberish to me and you might have noticed that I'm fluent in Christianese and evangelese. My guess is that I'm supposed to read that and think, "Oh, interesting. I wonder if he has more to say," then go to his blog.

Not gonna happen.

It's kind of like this guy who occasionally pops up and calls bullshit on me for a claim that I made back in August that George Lucas has no real concept of the conflict between good and evil. I mean, he's basically left the exact same comment on the exact same post three times. I actually did go to the guy's site. The first thing I saw was Star Wars fanfic.

It amused me.

Rhoadan said...

We also more or less ran with a constant refrain that whenever something was labeled as having "religious ceremonial purposes" that actually meant "we don't know what the hell this is."

Possibly true, but certainly plausible story that I read in a magazine once. A museum had some disk shaped artifacts with holes in the middle, labeled "unidentified religious items" or words to that effect. A woman visiting the museum took one look at them and said, "Those aren't religious items, they're spindle whorls." The museum staff didn't believe her until she produced a spindle of her own and demonstrated how it worked. See, the whorls had been made of stone or some other durable material and shafts had been made of wood which had rotted away. Replacing the shafts made them quite usable.

The magazine? I think it was either Piecework or Handspinner.

Rhoadan said...

The point I was trying to make there, was that sometimes a different point of view can provide unexpected insights. The archeologists who collected those artifacts were all male, and apparently none of the museum staff were hand spinners.