What Would God Be?

-- with a natural history of the gods

Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, 'When you come opposite to Palodes, annnounce that Great Pan is dead.' On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astonished and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place, he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them:  'Great Pan is dead.' Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar.

Plutarch, Moralia, Volume V, "Obsolescence of Oracles," translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1936, 2003, p.403.

εἴπατε τῷ βασιλῆϊ, χαμαὶ πέσε δαίδαλος αὐλά.
οὐκέτι Φοῖβος ἔχει καλύβαν, οὐ μάντιδα δάφνην,
οὐ παγὰν λαλέουσαν, ἀπέσβετο καὶ λάλον ὕδωρ.

Tell the king; the fair wrought house has fallen.
No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves;
The fountains are now silent; the voice is stilled.
It is finished.

Tell the king the fair wrought hall is fallen to the ground.
No longer has Phoebus a hut, nor a prophetic laurel,
nor a spring that speaks. The water of speech is quenched.

The Oracle at Delphi in answer to the Emperor Julian in 362 AD, or also cited as a statement to the Emperor Theodosius I, 393 AD, or to Julian by the Oracle at Daphne. The first translation is by Peter Hoyle, Delphi [Cassell and Company, London, 1967, p.142], who cites no source. The second translation is given by Michael Scott, Delphi, A History of the Center of the Ancient World [Princeton University Press, 2014, p.243, note].

Τὸ λοιπόν, ἀδελφοί μου, ἐνδυναμοῦσθε ἐν Κυρίῳ
καὶ ἐν τῷ κράτει τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ.

de cetero, fratres, confortamini in Domino
et in potentia virtutis eius.

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord,
and in the power of his might.

St. Paul, Ephesians 6:10

Wanaḥnu ʾaqrabu ʾilayhi min ḥabli-l-warîdi.
We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.

ʾal-Qurʾân, Sûrah 50, Verse 16

At the dawn of history, and in the religion of more recently attested, pre-literate peoples, there are gods. We get used to the idea of such gods portrayed in anthropomorphic or theriomorphic (i.e. animal) forms and embedded in mythological systems, but as we find them, this is not always the case. Gods can be associated with natural or fetish objects and exist with little in the way of mythological accounts. It is tempting to think that this is how they began, but we are likely to always be without relevant evidence, just as it will be difficult to know about the origin of language or of religion in general.

The major modern, organized religion that retains these early characteristics the most might be Shintoism in Japan, where there is no barrier to anthropmorphic representation but where the cult object in a Shinto shrine is usually a mirror, or, outside of shrines, some natural object or location. Similarly, although there is extensive and developed mythology about major gods, Shintoism boasts an almost limitless ("Eight Million") number of gods, few of whom have a mythological context or are visiualized apart from natural or fetish objects. Indeed, the Japanese word for "god," kami, is something many scholars are relucant to translate in that way, or at all. Even a major god, like Inari, remains in popular consciousness so indefinite that the sex of the god, or whether it is actually embodied in the sacred foxes of the cult, is a matter of confusion, or of disagreement between official doctrine and popular belief. All these characteristics, however, can already be discerned in the religion of Ancient Egypt, where elaborate anthropomorphic and theriomorphic representation and extensive mythological narratives exist alongside fetish objects and large lacunae in mythology. The temptation to imagine that gods are lacking mythological contexts just because of the losses and imperfections of the records is dampened by the example of Shintoism, where the problem of losses and imperfections doesn't arise. Other ancient and recent pre-literate religions, like those of Vedic India, Polynesia, or sub-Saharan Africa, provide other examples.

What function was originally served by the gods? The theory of Hume or Russell that religion began merely in fear implies that nothing else needed explaining about life, which is absurd, or that any other explanations can be handled by science, which is also absurd. But, fear or no, the gods simply explained everything. Why things are the way they are; why things happen the way they do. Anything that surpasses explanations of human agency gets covered by the gods. It is tempting to think of the gods as personifications of nature, and many of them are; but they are always much more than that. The gods as explanations of nature and natural events are one thing, something that we can easily think of as better explained, and so replaced, by science; but the form and meaning of human events and human life looms even larger and is not so easily replaced, or despised, in terms of alternatives, scientific or humanistic, suggested or adopted.

Thus, the vagaries of fortune and chance, which dominate life no less now than formerly, at least used to have an explantion -- the will of the often angry or arbitrary gods. Now they don't. The puzzle of creativity, its presence, absence, gain, and loss, formerly easily explained as the favor of the gods, or its withdrawl, is now inexplicable. If the events of the world often seem cruel, brutal, and arbitrary, well, human beings have been familiar with many such persons, including many such rulers, and it was no great leap to imagine the gods as of similar disposition. In the face of misfortunes, the favor the gods has clearly been lost, and the appropriate action was to gain or regain their regard. If the nature of the offense was unclear, and/or the appropriate propitiation unknown, shamans or oracles could be consulted for the answer.

Similarly, it was not just the gods. The personalities which, for the gods, must be imagined, inferred, or hallucinated, need merely be remembered when it comes to those who have died. With a person who, when living, already may seem larger than life, it is correspondingly difficult to believe that death could simply remove them altogether from subsequent events. Add to this the presence of the departed in dreams, or fortunate, or unfortunate, turns of events which might seem the characteristic work of the departed, and we would have no difficulty adding the dead to the number of other divine beings (Chinese , "spirits, demons, ghosts").
Even now, there are living religions, like Taoism and Confucianism, that are populated with deities which were, or are believed to have been, ordinary mortals, as with the Taoist god Bùdài ("Cloth Bag," Japanese Hotei) at right -- the Chinese Santa Claus. Indeed, in Buddhism, the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, of human origin, are spiritually superior to the gods that Buddhism inherited from its mother religion, Hinduism. And many religions, from the Roman to the Confucian to the Polynesian, seek both social legitimacy and divine assistance in cults of ancestors.

It is so easy now to think of all this as some kind of theory, or psychological projection, and of course its origins are lost to us, but the likely case is more that the worldview seemed so natural and obvious, once humans began wondering at things and imagining explanations, with no alternatives nearly so natural and obvious available, that nothing could have been easier. There is no telling how many tens of thousands of years passed in which such explanations were fully adequate to the demands of life and of human curiosity. People emigrated from Africa with their gods, arriving in Asia, Europe, Australia, the New World, and Polynesia, filling all the habitats of the Earth with religious views, customs, and institutions not so very different from each other -- testifying to their common ancestry. This already dates the origin of all that at many multiples the length of the history (c.5000 years) in which we first get records, names, and images of the gods. To despise all this now as merely exploded and discredited is both to credit ourselves with too much wisdom and to arrogantly belittle the many millennia in which human life functioned adquately in the light of nothing else.

Indeed, the gods, spirits, and their insitutions can now conceivably be dismissed only because things have changed. Human consciousness changed, and the gods changed. At first, the gods and their realm only grew. As civilizations began and human society became larger, more sophisticated, and more organized, the representation of the gods, and of the dead, became themselves larger, more sophisticated, and more organized. We get the great cycles of myth, legend, and genealogy that become familiar in the earliest literature of many cultures, and which could be fixed for posterity in writing. Then we get a kind of revolution. If the gods stand for meaning and value, then they must be good. Where originally the gods were just like people, good and bad, the bad begins to get purged. The Egyptian dead come to be morally judged and awarded according to their deserts. The asuras in India become enemies and forces of evil -- demons -- defeated again and again by the gods, the devas. In Iran there is a similar differentiation, where the Prophet Zoroaster makes the daevas into the demonic forces of evil, while only one ahura remains, Ahura Mazda, the one God "Wise Lord," who repesents all goodness.

Speculation is that the moralization of Zoroastrianism influenced a similar process in Hebrew religion. Influence or not, the process occurred, though the God of the Old Testament always retained far too much personality to be rendered as consistently good as we find when Greek philosophers begin to purge wrong and irrationality from their gods. Socrates cannot believe that the god of Delphi (Apollo) would lie, that the gods would fight among themselves, or even that the gods would allow bad things to happen to good people. All that began earlier with Xenophanes, but Plato and Aristotle bring it to systematic completion. Christianity then can draw on the moralization of the divine of both Israel and Greece. As noted, Buddhism becomes a religion in which moral progress leaves the gods themselves behind. After a fashion, Hinduism does so also, since the devotionalistic Gods, like Vishnu and Shiva, represent Supreme Beings very different from the gods of the Vedas. So the old gods of India, as those of China under Confucianism, came to be demoted in favor of higher principles or more profound deities. They were lucky by comparison, where all the old gods of Sumer and Akkad, of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and of Celts, Germans, and Slavs, were all swept away into nothing by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the triumvirate of monotheism.

While this progress of moral vision was edifying and inspiring, it was not without its cost. The things that the willfullness and arbitrariness of the old gods could explain without difficultly, now become puzzling or really inexplicable. Where it was no difficulty for the old gods if the events of the world often seem cruel, brutal, and arbitrary, now responsiblity will laid at the feet of Beings who should have wanted, and been able to do, otherwise. The omnipotence and benevolence of God, while happy and comforting to contemplate, generates the Problem of Evil, that the evidence of the world and of events frequently would seem to contradict an omnipotent and benevolent agency. The remedy of a divine Plan, where deficiencies in our knowledge conceal the true causes and purposes of Providence, while covering the issue, and satisfying to philosophers like Leibniz, nevertheless leaves us without any actual explanation. Where faith is sufficient, this will be enough, but it lacks the responsiveness and positive logic of the old beliefs about the gods.

Meanwhile, a slow fuse lit by the Greeks burned its way towards an explosive alternative. From its earliest days, Greek philosophy began to see in Nature, not the direct effects of divine agency, but simply as the place of workings of blind and impersonal mechanisms. This began without any particular evidence of the truth of that approach, but gradually evidence began to accumulate that Nature was amenable to such understanding. The gods began to recede from Nature. Plato and Aristotle soon provide metaphysical theories that could remove the divine from the world altogether, in each case also reducing the gods to One, as all of Greek philosophy had always preferred one original principle, whether tangible or abstract, behind all phenomena. Unfortunately, the gods also tended to lose their personalities in this process, and the Deity of Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers was usually without any personality whatsoever. Aristotle's God, "thought thinking itself," was particularly removed, not knowing individiuals, and unequipped for spontaneous action, acts of will, or any extraordinary interventions in the world at all. It was a God little different from the impersonality and fixity of Plato's World of Forms. This process reflected a grave commitment to the "perfect fallacy," but it also seemed to work.

When Christianity came to dominate the Roman Empire, the process of depersonalization was retarded by the power of the Christian religious intuition -- the force of a Jewish God whose personality spilled from Biblical pages in a flood, together with the unimpeachable personality of a man who walked and taught in Galilee and was now regarded as God himself. An incarnated God, in the world and in history as a man, was for long a powerful and winning counterforce to an impersonal reality. But in time the Hellenizing pressure of the impersonal returned. Now its weapons had mutiplied, as the reach and sweep of modern science conquered ever larger realms of nature and life. Physics, astronomy, chemistry, and geology were bad enough, but the bitter sting of Darwin is still felt, resented, and battled, hopelessly, by the faithful. It is a pointless battle, which science cannot lose on its own ground, and where any gains for the attackers will only be discreditable reflections of political power. Meanwhile, both sides seem to overlook the fact that the exercise is irrelevant. The march of science in fact encounters unbreachable limits, already clearly perceived and defined by Kant.

The limits of science are the truths of being and value, i.e. those matters addressed by the disciplines of metaphysics, in the first case, and by the likes of ethics and aesthetics in the second. All the things that science generally must presuppose, like the nature of space and time, are where metaphysics simply begins. When scientists themselves wonder about the morality or usefulness of their enterprise, they must address ethical issues that are separate from the content of their disciplines. Because of this, the easiest thing for philosophers for whom science is their only interest -- like positivists, logical postivists, and other reductionistic deconstructionist, analytic, or linguistic theorists -- has been to dismiss metaphysics and ethics as impossible or even meaningless. Since with metaphysics and ethics go most of the traditional meaningful questions in philosophy, such philosophers can only congratulate themselves, in the midst of the sterile and hopeless desert they have made, on their maturity at no longer wasting their time on such things. That the life of others then goes on without the new nihilism is perlexing and annoying, but then it serves to confirm the vulgarity and ignorance of the masses. Unfortunately, once the nihilism spreads among the intellectuals, it is then turned on science itself, which is "deconstructed" into political privilege and oppression. Thus, the Revolution devours its own.

No, the reductionists prove nothing, save their own betrayal of philosophy, and their indifference to the human condition. Fancying themselves the apotheosis of humanism, they are in fact its opposite, the participants, not just of a new Sophistic, but of a new Scholasticism.

Meanwhile, we might wonder, have not the changes in history and consciousness in fact proven the case of these people? If the gods disappeared in favor of a God, or the Buddhas, does this not imply the truth of the reductionistic perspective? Aren't all these beings now simply figments of the human imagination? Well, that depends on what is really there. If the reductionistic case is a naturalistic and materialistic one, then it is only true if reality is nothing but natural and/or material objects, i.e. the gods or God can be reduced to something of the sort only if something of the sort is alone what is real. But, as a matter of fact, materialism is a false metaphysical doctrine, and naturalism is a false epistemological or semantic doctrine. The limits that Kant set on science left an open field in the transcendent. In the evolution of human consciousness, our understanding of what is there changes just as much as our understanding of nature changes. Now, this would seem contrary to what religions themselves have said. The gods speak to prophets and seers, telling them what the gods are like. God spoke to the prophets, telling them what he was like. Unfortunately, we do get these different accounts from different religions, and God seems to have come into the business relatively late in history and originally confined his revelations to a small number of isolated people. As Hume noted, the different accounts tend to refute each other, while the God of Abraham and Issac evidences, for a good while, a puzzling neglect of the majority of humanity.

One of the most interesting ways to deal with this was advanced by C.G. Jung in his provocative book, Answer to Job. Jung's thesis was that as we change, God also changes. The development of religion is thus both a human development, morally and conceptually, and a divine development, morally and metaphysically. This may go further, however, than is necessary, If the divine is inherently inconceivable, as a Kantian would tend to think, then its development is empirically real, but more a matter of appearance than transcendent reality.

Jung's thesis of the developmental interaction of God and humanity violates a significant monotheistic intuition about God:  that he is independent of us. However, this not quite what people used to believe about the gods. The gods rather needed us. In creation myths, humanity was often made to serve the gods. And the gods appreciated the service. In India, the gods are unhappy when something interferes with the offerings made to them. The dead are often even more dependent. They may be postively miserable without the offerings of their descendants. Woe to the ancestors who end up without descendants. We discover in China (or, for that matter, Rome) that even adoption can take care of this. Blood descendants are less important than someone to maintain offerings.

Monotheistic religion, however, is not without divine interaction with the human. Abraham is the friend of God. An extraordinary expression. The Bible is a chronicle of agreements or "covenants" that God makes with his prophets, beginning with the assurance to Noah that another Flood will not be sent. Christianity takes this a bit further. Jesus is the interaction of God and Man within one person. And it is not always an easy interaction, as we see in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This history of interaction can be explained as due to the immaturity and then growth of humanity, but there is no doubt that the evolution of the perception of the divine is what it looks like from the side of representation. From a Kantian point of view, the "representation makes the object possible" in terms of the phenomenal world. So as a kind of empirical object, God evolves, in Jung's terms, with humanity. Monothesistic belief, of course, is that the real God, the transcendent God, is beyond such changes, or any need for interaction. Jesus existed before the Incarnation, as the eternal Logos. But was Jesus human as well as divine before the Incarnation? Did he have a physical body? It is difficult to answer yes. His body was created in the womb of Mary. Mary is not eternal. She is (to Ephesian orthdoxy) the Mother of God. So Jesus has not existed in Eternity in just the same way that he has existed since his conception in Mary.

In all of this, there emerges another Kantian principle. It isn't just that the transcendent is inherently inconveivable but that the attempt to conceive transcendent objects inevitably generates contradictions. These are the Antinomies. A God that is expected to be both transcendent and immanent, human and divine, good and willful, perfect and purposeful, complete but with potential, rational and arbitrary should not be surprising. If the question here is:  What would God be? The simplest answer is:  Contradictions.

Ordinarily, contradictions imply falsehood. That is pretty basic logic. Thus, the Problem of Evil can simply be used as an argument against the existence of a God. If God is benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, then he would know about evil, would want to do something about it, and would be able to do something about it. Indeed, he should already have done something about it. So if evil exists, one or more of these attributes of God must be wrong -- or God simply doesn't exist. Freedom doesn't fix that up. Yes, maybe Hitler was free and responsible for his own evil. But God would have known the choices Hitler was going to make -- if omniscience implies foreknowledge -- and he could have simply refrained from creating him. Who benefited from Hitler's creation? Not Hitler. He ends up in Hell. Certainly not his victims, who died in terror and horror. The idea that all this gratuitious evil must serve some higher and larger "plan" comes to seem lame or offensive.

But what if, as Kant believed, the conception of transcendent objects, and their contradictions, is necessitated by reason? Are there transcendent objects that, in some important sense, we clearly cannot do without? (-- setting aside for the moment whether we can do without God). Well, yes. The universe is such an object. Kant's very first Antinomy, of Space and Time, involves one of the most fundamental questions of cosmology, whether space and time (and so the universe itself) are finite or infinite. For long there was hope that Einstein had taken of the matter, but this has not worked out well and the original problem still seems to be around. On empirical evidence alone, it may be impossible to determine whether the universe is finite or infinite.

The universe, as a whole, is, indeed, a transcendent object -- something we never perceive, experience, or observe. And there is something else, from logic itself. Bertrand Russell (joined by Leonard Nelson and others) began discovering paradoxes in Set Theory, at the foundations of mathematics. These created contradictions in the project of deriving arithmetic from logic. The solution to the problem was to keep sets from getting "too big." The paradoxes could then be avoided. One set that is definitely "too big" is the set of all sets, the Universal Set. Set Theory thus can happily use the Empty Set, which contains nothing, but it cannot use the opposite, the Universal Set, which contains everything. This is as Kant might have imagined. The conception of Everything, like that of the universe (which is everything), generates an Antinomy.

If we simply employ the logical principle that a contadiction implies falsehood, we might therefore join the Sophist Gorgias in his argument that nothing exists. For most of us, this is not likely to happen. But we cannot simply set aside the principle, which works fine in most matters. Indeed, where we get the problem is just with transcendent objects. With God, the question might be more like:  Why bother? What does a conception of God do for us?

Well, the most important issue is what the gods were always for, and that was meaning. And the fundamental part of meaning is, in Greek terms, the Good and the Beautiful. I have argued elsewhere that a theory of value requires a theory of the transcendent. Both Plato and Kant would agree with that. Value is not supported by merely empirical knowledge or a naturalistic epistemology or ontology.
Deus Numinosus Optimus Maximus;
Numinous God, Best and Greatest
Numen; Mysterious, Eerie, TerrifyingBeatum;
Where Kant wisely gives us few details about God (since he thinks that a positive metaphysic is impossible), Plato doesn't give us a God at all. He gives us the Form of the Good. That the Form of the Good was later folded into God by Aristotle and the Neoplatonists, however, could not disguise its impersonal and rigid nature. This was at odds with the intuitions of any actual religions, whether pagan or Judaic. As I have noted, this helped kill off ancient religion; and in the modern, secular world, it continues to kill religion. But, I believe, Plato made a mistake. This was, as already referenced, the "perfect fallacy," i.e. the elimimation of potential, power, and change from the conception of a transcendent object. Aristotle, despite impressions, also made the same mistake. His God, although a conscious agent, nevertheless was drained of potential (as being perfectly actual) and, indeed, personality. The Aristotelian and Neoplatonic principle that God does not know individuals was a source of trouble in Islam and something that could only rather arbitrarily excised, with other embarrassments, in Christian (mainly Thomist) theology.

Correcting the original error, however, requires a recognition of the Antinomy. Aristotle was not going to allow a God to be both absolutely actual and absolutely powerful, since the former implies that he has done everything that can possibly be done, while the latter requires that he can do more. On rare occasion, we find a philosopher, like William of Ockham, willing to bite the bullet and assert that the Law of Non-Contradiction does not apply to God, who can then effect with his omnipotence real contradictions. But William of Ockham had a bit of an escape from this. As a Nominalist, he did not believe that universals were inherent in reality. So contradictions in thought may govern our thought, but as conflicts of concepts (which embody universals) they do not necessarily govern reality.

Kantian medicine can be a bit stronger than that. Kant himself would have thought that contradictions occur mainly because of our ignorance. Hence, his "Postulates of Practical Reason" resolved the Antinomies for God, Freedom, and Immortality. I think his original insight was better, that the contradictions are inherent to reason, and that rational evidence of a sort to resolve them is impossible -- after all, Practical Reason did not resolve the Antinomy of space and time, let alone the Problem of Evil. God's ability to effect contradictions, or to be contradictions, reveals, not a limitation or a division in our knowledge, but a limitation and a division to reality. Within the world, the real world, we get rationality and non-contradiction. In the transcendent, however, the world fades away. Not all at once. If meaning and value are the presence of the transcendent, there is plenty about them that is rational and systematic. But not everything. If part of what is meaningful for us is a purpose to our life, we can get that, but asking for purposes beyond purposes is something we can only push so far. Purpose, as I have considered elsewhere, is something that, after a fashion, ultimately defeats itself. But there, as elsewhere, we simply end up with another Antinomy.

What would God be? Well, whatever we need for a meaningful world. But we are going to have trouble putting that all together if we want to explain everything about the world -- what everything is for, why evil exists, etc. -- or to explain everything about everything. I suspect there are things we need to know to live meaningful, good, and beautiful lives, and many other things that we do not. Thus, Jesus did not describe heaven, nor the Buddha Nirvana. Yet each described a task to do, standards to follow, and a Way to salvation. This seems to me the sum of the Law and the Prophets.

Infantile Atheism

God as Love

The gods of Euripides

Euripides & the Gods, by Mary Lefkowitz

Philosophy of Religion


Home Page

Copyright (c) 2006, 2010, 2015, 2021 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

What Would God Be? --
with a natural history of the gods, Note

The source cited by Scott is H.W. Parke and D.E.W. Wormell, The Delphic Oracle, Volume II, The Oracular Responses [Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1956, #476, p.194]. The Greek text is given by Parke and Wormell, with no translation, and in turn is attributed to Philostorgius, "from book 7 of the [Church] History (Berlin ed. p.77, 1.18)," with the passage repeated by Cedrenus (ed. Bekker), where Bekker evidently attests the dative singular βασιλεῖ of βασιλεύς instead of the non-standard (or dialect) βασιλῆϊ in Philostorgius. Otherwise, we seem to see Doricisms (παγάν for Attic πηγήν, "spring, fount, stream") in the text, which may reflect the Northwestern dialect of Delphi.

The original text of Philostorgius is lost but has been "reconstructed" from an epitome by Photius and some other fragments. If this means that the Greek text of the oracle is from Photius, it is an extraordinary tribute to the Patriarch; but I can't tell from the discussions I have seen so far. I now see that Delphi is not mentioned under the treatment of Philostorgius in the Bibliotheca of Photius. And an edition I have of the epitome, the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius, translated by Edward Walford [1855, Aeterna Press, 2015], does mention Delphi in Book VII but unfortunately not in the form given by Parke and Wormell. Instead, in the account of the reign of the Emperor Julian, what we get is:

After the translation of the relics of the martyr Babylas, the heathen oracles, beginning with that at Delphi, gave forth some predictions and prophecies; the good providence of God permitting them to speak, but turning to shame the reverence and respect paid to them by their worshippers. For the more diligently the heathen sought to get answers from their deities in order to find a just cause for paying to them divine honours, the more they were compelled by Divine Providence to discover their weakness and powerlessness for truth; for the answers which they uttered were shown to be false and without fulfilment. [p.44, boldface added]

Thus, far from having Delphi announce the end of its history, Philostorgius has it continue to prophecy, all allowed by God in order that the prophecies discredit themselves. This edition of Philostorgius, however, does not cite its primary source; and some attention is thus warranted to the "Berlin ed." of the Greek text referenced by Parke and Wormell.

Return to Text

God as Love

ἀγαπήσεις Κύριον τὸν Θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου.

diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo
et in tota anima tua et in tota mente tua.

Love the Lord your God in all your heart
and in all your soul and in all your mind.

Matthew 22:37

ὁ Θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν
Deus caritas est.
God is love.

1 John 4:8

The Christian thesis is that "God is love." This means, at least, that God loves everyone, even, as we are told, the worst sinner, welcoming all to salvation, however derelict they have been (hence the parables of Jesus about the "Prodigal Son" and the "Eleventh Hour"). This seems like the kind of thing, like the Problem of Evil, that strikes many as difficult to confirm with any evidence. Disbelievers might scoff at the idea, or accuse Christianity of hypocrisy (it is not loving to condemn sinners to Hell), or argue that socialism, for instance, is the more effective vehicle of love. But what else would love mean?

It is often noted that the Greeks had three different words for "love," although there are actually four, at least. The common impression is that people with many different words for something (like the Eskimo/Inuit for "snow" -- although this may be a myth) have paid a lot of attention to the matter and have made significant distinctions. We might wonder then why the Hawaiian only has one word, "aloha," for love; but Hawaiian actually had many other words, which are simply not remembered in Local English. At the same time, love does not always seem to loom so large in Greek civilizaton. But let's have a look.

The words the Classical Greeks used the most were ἔρως, érôs, and φιλία, philía. Érôs we have no difficulty remembering as physical love and its pleasures. Philía is now less familiar but was of equal or greater importance to the Greeks. We see its import when we realize that the Greek word for "friend," φίλος/φίλη, phílos/phílê (masculine/feminine), is related to it. Indeed, the words for "friend" in English and German, "friend" and "freund," are from the same root, the root we see in the name of the Germanic goddess of love, Freya. Both English and German preserve an old active participle ending, -nd, cognate to the similar ending in Latin:  -nt, as in "agent," from agens/agentis, "doing." "Friend" in Romance languages draws on the Latin word for "love," amor. Thus, "friend" is amicus/amica in Latin, ami/amie in French, etc. Everyone, it seems, thought that friendship involved love. Indeed, the Greek didn't always carefully distinguish between érôs and philía. Plato's Symposium is about érôs, but his argument is clearly that physical love is less than, and should merely lead to, a higher love, which involves beauty beyond the physical, and leads to the contemplation of the Forms.
Plato's own thesis is what helped separate érôs from philía in the first place, since the Greeks previously had every expectation that philía could have a physical component.

Even without the Platonic element, ordinary language now easily recognizes friendship as something distinct from erotic relationships. We enjoy the company of our friends, for their conversation, for mutual interests, for companionship and doing things together. The value of friendship is that we do derive pleasure from it. Friends whom it is no longer a pleasure to see are on the way to no longer being friends. Friends become lovers when then pleasure in their company becomes a sexual pleasure. As with friendship in general, lovers with whom the sexual pleasure ceases are on their way to no longer being lovers. Friends who become and then cease to be lovers may also cease to be friends altogether, if the loss of intimacy results in painful associations that preclude even the pleasures of friendly company.

Friendships and even loves can endure beyond, even endure far beyond, the deprivation of pleasure because, through duration, they tend to become something more. They become a kind of moral attachment. Indeed, love can become marriage, which may endure until death without the persistence of physical pleasure, or even friendly pleasure. This brings us to kinds of love beyond érôs and philía. The first would be στοργή, storgé, which is love as the affection that parents feel for children, or even rulers for citizens. So storgé is clearly not erotic, but it is intimate. It can even be expanded to φιλοστοργία, philostorgía, "tender love, affectionateness," with a double tap of non-erotic love words. On this page, we even see that as a proper name, Φιλοστοργίος, Philostorgíos, the author of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius [note].

Then we get the preferred New Testament term:  ἀγάπη, agápê. If érôs and philía involve connections that derive from pleasure, a simple distinction is that in agápê, like storgé, the pleasure derives from the connection. A foundational case in that respect is family. One does not chose (alas?) one's relatives. But from relatives a particular meaning and pleasure is derived different in kind from the meaning and pleasure one derives from friends. Old friendships, indeed, gain more meaning when the friends become rather like relatives -- and rough equivalents of family may be involved, like a history as schoolmates or soldiers or workers together. And erotic love, of course, can translate directly into becoming next of kin, not to mention parents of children, where the connection is, in a profound way, chosen, but the particular person who appears is not, as such, chosen for what they will be like. While we have storgé for close and strong familial ties, agápê seem to be a more generalized form of this, as "brotherly love," which goes beyond actual brothers.

A connection that is given, beginning with a moral attachment, can become the basis of love. Although it hopefully becomes a source of pleasure, it persists whether there is pleasure or not. Instead, a moral obligation may override a great deal of displeasure. Screaming children on a hot afternoon may make one wonder why such beings were invented, but few parents deny loving their children over such exasperations. It is a love that values, not pleasure, but the other for their own sake. Indeed, when one hopes to be loved, does this mean we simply want to be a source of pleasure? Not that alone. We like being valued for ourselves, through thick and thin. Someone who merely values us for pleasure and drops us when that passes would seem to merely be using us. Many kinds of friendships and loves may have little more in them than that, but it seems like a shallow kind of love. Agápê, then, is the element that is not self-directed, but other-directed, and not just for family but beyond that. It values not what is in us, the pleasure or the experience, but what is in the other, their pleasure and even well-being. In this kind of love, the desire is for the happiness of the other. It may even involve self-sacrifice. The love of children, through storgé, is to enable them to grow and flourish. Being successful at that itself produces pleasure and happiness, but this is an externality -- i.e. something surplus, an extra. Agápê generalizes beyond children and relatives, to a concern for others that means anyone.

Agápê as a moral attachment independent of pleasure or feeling may enable us to deal with a difficult issue. Jesus says "Love thy neighbor as thyself," ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν, Agapéseis tòn plêsíon sou hôs seautón [Matthew 22:39 -- verbal form of agápê], and Confucius simply says, "Love others" [Analects XII:22]. At one level this is impossible. Feelings are not a matter of will and cannot be commanded. The idea that they can be is a moral fallacy, here defined as judicial moralism. The fallacy can lead to many false implications, as I believe it does for Jesus. Both Jesus and Confucius, however, are using their injunction for something both more basic and correct, to creation a foundation for moral regard. We are to love others, not as érôs or philía, but in terms of the moral attachment of agápê. Thus, it is not actually how we feel about them, but we must recognize the terms of the relationship that is given, and of the moral attachment. The moral attachment is the respect we owe to everyone, regardless of any other relationship or attitude we may have towards them. Again, this is confused by some of what gets said.

Thus, at Analects XII:5, the lament of a student who is without brothers is answered by the assertion that all good men are brothers. Yet this would not comfort most people in Chinese history, or anywhere else. It is difficult for anyone to regard random strangers, or even neighbors, with the same feelings that friends or family evoke. But we can keep the issues separate by keeping in mind the causal difference between érôs/philía, and storgé/agápê. As we move in the latter from the relationship to the feeling, we must ask first what the relationship is. To "love" a person simply as a moral attachment, i.e. have a moral respect for them, may give rise to certain feelings, but this will be lesser and secondary, both to feelings about friends and family, and to the moral attachment and duties that a person as a person imposes, i.e. not, as John Locke says, "to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions." Whether or not agápê in Jesus or Confucius leads to judical moralism, a truth can easily be salvaged from it, and that is the truth of the moral attachment and regard owed to all those protected, as persons, by moral duty. The Nietzschean doesn't believe in such a thing, but then we know to be careful in our dealings with them.

Because of this, Kant can define "loving others" as simply meaning to have a morally good will. But there ends up being rather more to this in Kant also, since he asks "What can we hope?" Well, we certainly hope for love, both as érôs/philía and as storgé/agápê. If there were a God who loves us, it would be nice if he has good feelings about us, or derives pleasure from the contemplation of us, but it is rather more important that he excercises the more substantial regard, i.e. the duties, that go along with agápê. There is nothing worse in the empty Existential universe than not to mean anything to anyone else. Indeed, where "Hell is other people," relationships with others are worse than being alone. But to most people, I believe this would seem twisted and aberrant (like, indeed, the life of the man who said it). The ideal is the causality going both ways, with the pleasure of érôs/philía and the regard of storgé/agápê.

In the metaphysics of this, I originally took love and hate to be the fundamental forms of value, which are the positive transcendent content of the subject independent of any objects or ends. While I originally analyzed that in terms of will, as Kant interpreted "loving others" in terms of good will, it becomes a different matter when we are concerned about meaning. It isn't just moral regard that creates meaning in life, it is the positive regard, the emotion, the feeling that is the content of actual joy and happiness.

As I considered "what would God be?" above, I ended with the Platonic Good which can be rendered into God by the addition of power and personality. But the Platonic Good is, without a doubt, an object. What I have always regarded as more fundamental than objects, the pure sensation that is the beginning of what I call "positive transcendence," would be nothing other than the sensation, the emotion, and the pleasure of love. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the meaning of life, as an intrinsic good, both to love and to be loved, as érôs/philía and storgé/agápê, to pursue for ourselves what is good and to respect others. It is not enough that God would be good, with power and personality, but that God would embody, indeed be, the ontological reality of love. This doesn't answer the paradoxes and perplexities of our being in a world of blind causality and random events, but it certainly gives us something to do, and, as Kant says, to hope.

What Would God Be? -- with a natural history of the gods

The gods of Euripides

Philosophy of Religion


Home Page

Copyright (c) 2006, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

God as Love, Note;
The Fours Loves

[4] Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη, οὐ ζηλοῖ, ἠ ἀγάπη οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται, [5] οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ, οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἐαυτῆς, οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν, [6] οὐ χαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συνχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ· [7] πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.

[4] Love is patient, love is kind; love is not jealous, or boastful, or proud; [5] love is not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentlful; [6] it does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices in the truth; [7] love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13

Before I came across the name of Philostorgius and looked up its meaning, I was unfamliar with the Greek word στοργή. I had not noticed it in any reading, and the entry for it in the Liddell and Scott Greek Lexicon, even the Unabridged version, is brief. Most people reading the Classics know about φιλία and ἔρως, whose contrast is frequently discussed. And you cannot read the New Testament without finding ἀγάπη, which is the principal word for "love" there. But then to find a fourth word for love, well, who knew that the Greeks were so worked up about it.

We may not think of the Romans as great lovers, and Latin doesn't have the same variety as Greek. As roots, amor and caritas seem to about exhaust it. Caritas is the Biblical translation of ἀγάπη; but I'm not sure that στοργή even comes up.

We might expect Hawaiian to be a language of love, although most people only know aloha, which also functions for "hello" and "goodbye." But Hawaiian actually does have several words for love (e.g. 'ano'i, nipo, kāunu, puni, etc.), some more explicitly romantic or sexual than others; but the others don't seem to have made it into Local English, and we don't seem to find learned discussions about the differences between them.

So imagine my surprise when I was reviewing the commercials shown for the 2020 Superbowl football game. Suddenly there was a video that began,
"the Ancient Greeks had four words for love." It showed the words both in Greek and, remarkably, in an accurate transcription on the screen. It ran through the words in the order shown at left, with images for friends, family, and lovers, and then, finally, for ἀγάπη, "most admirable," showing people caring for others, called "love as an action," taking "courage, sacrifice, strength." All this seemed about as likely as finding a Catholic nun at a strip club. Towards the end, I thought it would turn out to be a message for a religion or a charity, like the Salvation Army, but the organization was actually an insurance company, New York Life, which called its commercial "Love Takes Action."

I could not imagine that this sort of treatment had just come out of nowhere, and so I figured that it must have been done before.
Indeed, C.S. Lewis had written a book, The Four Loves [Harcourt Brace, 1960, HarperOne, 2017]. The treatments, however, were not the same. For one thing, the order of the presentation was different, which perhaps is not so important. Most importantly, however, although Lewis titled his chapter on ἀγάπη "Charity," which might fit the New York Life description, his concern was entirely for the religious, Christian meaning of the word. With the New York Life commercial, there was not a hint of religion, let alone Christianity. To Lewis, ἀγάπη is love that derives from God, and is love of God. But God here is invisible to New York Life. Although it is impossible that ἀγάπη could have been discussed in the past without at least mentioning its New Testament context, such a reference now might offend atheists, or others, who are not now to be offended, certainly not by a public corporation based in Moscow on the Hudson.

But that is the spirit of our age. Freedom of religion is not enough. It is to be driven from public life, although it does have a presence there, as a target for mockery. But not Islam, of course. But there is more. What is "most admirable" is not piety, worship, devotion, or contemplation but some kind of action, looking after others. While a Christian life might well include that, as does the Salvation Army, the basic motive and transformation of self is something else. But politically correct culture demands some kind of activism as the essence of goodness and even, to the extent allowed, religion. This is what often infuriates Christians, to see faith and worship deleted, if not disparaged, while political activism, often for misconceived, destructive, and traditionally immoral causes, is elevated.

In those terms, the New York Life video is mild, modest, and restrained. The question that does arise is what an insurance company has do to with ἀγάπη, however interpreted. An insurance company is not a charity, and the help it provides in living our lives is certainly compensated with a reasonable profit margin, at least. Political activists are actually unlikely to be enthusiastic or even sympathetic. A recent movie, Hell or High Water [2016], about how a bank provided a reverse mortgage to an old woman with no income and unsupportive sons, presented the bank as engaged in some kind of evil exploitation -- so that the sons were justified in robbing the bank and using the money to pay off the mortgage after their mother died. It was a good movie (with the marvelous Jeff Bridges), and the sons were not above moral reproach (one murdered a likable policeman); but the premise that reverse mortgages are wrongful, and the bankers using them wicked, was never called into question. Jeff Bridges, left with a dead partner, was poised to perhaps solve the case, but with no more realistic chance of doing so than the sheriff in the equally good but pessimistic, if not nihiistic, No Country for Old Men [2007].

The treatment of love by C.S. Lewis opens into greater dimensions. Key to his argument was that the "natural loves," i.e. Affection, Friendship, and Eros, are imperfect, incomplete, and subject to corruption unless completed by divine love, i.e. ἀγάπη, "Charity." Thus, Affection in a family can become selfish and exploitative. It is the duty of parents to nurture, but also to let go. Some are disinclined to do so. A mother may end up doing things for family members that don't need to be done, and that they don't want done, but that, in good conscience, they cannot refuse. This does not make for domestic happiness. A kind of case that Lewis doesn't consider but that is an extreme example of this is the disorder of "Munchausen by proxy," where a parent secretly causes an illness or injury in a child just to be seen as caring and loving in attending to the illness or injury. This can even lead to the death of the child. And it can then be repeated with the next child. A striking fictional example of this is in the classic movie The Sixth Sense [1999].

Friendship can involve friends whose common interest is crime. Or friends can become a clique that revels in its exclusiveness and superiority. This can have broad social consequences when the clique may be an actual aristocracy or social class. Yet Lewis begins his analysis with reflections on how the matrix of Freindship originally would have been useful social groups, like hunters. Lewis professes ignorance of what would correspond among women, but perhaps his life at Oxford did not expose him enough to the society of women. The sewing circle, in traditional female society, or a group of women cooking for company, would match the society of hunters in similar comradery and common purpose. How the friendship of women would differ from those of men has been examined in various ways, for instance by Deborah Tannen. Lewis, however, is sensible that friendships between men and women become more likely in a modern life where they share some of the same goals and occupations. Thus, the literary circle to which Lewis belonged, the "Inklings," was de jure exclusively male but had a de facto female member, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) -- someone who is of interest in these pages for her discussion of the ethical principles embodied in Dante'e Divine Comedy, which Sayers translated.

Of what can go wrong in romantic love, Eros, there is a vast literature. Lewis is correct to note that Eros, of course, can exist without sex, and sex without Eros. A problem with Eros, particularly when it is indeed consumated with sex, is that it tends to fade. The saying is that, "The first kiss is magic; the second intimate; the third routine." When the thrill of sex thus fades, some people decide that love is over with and that it is time to move on. Thus, a durable marriage requries that Eros be supplemented by Affection. Friendship would also help, but is not essential. Indeed, in traditional societies with arranged marriages, the relationship will begin without any kind of love, whose development is only to be hoped for. Eros may not even be regarded as necessary -- to the Troubadors it was not seen as even possible in marriage.

The bond of an arranged marriage is intially a moral and/or a religious one. Lewis does not explicitly address this; and in a generalized form, we could say that the potential evils of all the kinds of love are best corrected with moral reflection -- it would certainly stop the "partners in crime" cases of criminal lovers, friends, or, as can happen, families. But if this is an oversight by Lewis, it cannot be avoided with the remedy he does address, which is the love, and the morals, contributed by the Christian religion. There, the reasonable argument is that all "natural loves," from sex to friendship, can only be completed and perfected when they draw on the supernatural source of all love, namely a God who is himself Love.

There is, indeed, nothing supernatural about an advertising pitch from an insurance company. Nevertheless, their ad is beautifully done and inspires reflection, including reflection on the clashes between religion and politics that we can see in the background. I might also reflect that I've never had any particular reason to associate "love" with any insurance company.


Return to Text

The gods of Euripides

Demeter, Ephesos Museum, Vienna
ὣς εἰποῦσα θεὰ μέγεθος καὶ εἶδος ἄμειψεν γῆρας ἀπωσαμένη, περί τ᾽ ἀμφί τε κάλλος ἄητο· ὀδμὴ δ᾽ ἱμερόεσσα θυηέντων ἀπὸ πέπλων σκίδνατο, τῆλε δὲ φέγγος ἀπὸ χροὸς ἀθανάτοιο λάμπε θεῆς, ξανθαὶ δὲ κόμαι κατενήνοθεν ὤμους, αὐγῆς δ᾽ ἐπλήσθη πυκινὸς δόμος ἀστεροπῆς ὥς. βῆ δὲ διὲκ μεγάρων,

With these words the goddess [Demeter] changed her form and stature, thrusting old age away; beauty wafted all about her, a lovely fragrance spread from her scented dress, and a radiance shone afar from her immortal body; flaxen locks bestrewed her shoulders, and the sturdy house was filled with a brilliance as of lightning as she went out through the hall.

"To Demeter," Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocryptha, Lives of Homer, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2003, p.54-55.

In 1969 I was taking a class in reading Greek texts at UCLA. One of the things we read was the play Heracles by Euripides. A friend in the class (Katharine Free, now Emeritus at Loyola Marymount) and I used to argue with the professor (Frank Lewis, now Emeritus at USC) about what Euripides believed about the gods. We understood the professor to say that Euripides simply did not believe in the gods at all. The play discredited the gods, and thus discredited belief in the gods. Euripides thus would join the Sophists, who sometimes actually did not believe in the gods -- as Socrates says in the Apology, about the reputation of philosophers, "for their hearers [e.g. of his accusers] believe that those who study these things do not even believe in the gods." Our argument was that Euripides obviously did believe in the gods, since the gods do things in the plays of Euripides, things with terrible consequences; it is just that what the gods do is not very comforting to conventional ideas about what the gods, or God, must be like.

From plays like Heracles, Hippolytus, and The Bacchae, we get a well rounded, consistent view of the gods. The gods are real, the gods are powerful, but, unfortunately, our well being is not one of their goals. Indeed, this not unlike the picture of the gods that we get in much of ancient religion. The gods have very human personalities, for better or worse, bestow their favors when they are pleased, and withdraw them, or visit disasters, when they are displeased. They live their immortal lives, next to which our existence is ephemeral and insignificant. This is celebrated by Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom it is the only truly satisfying theodicy in the history of religion. The gods are great just because they genuinely enjoy their lives, and they live them to the full, with all the quarrels, fights, adulteries, and excesses of any confident, irresponsible, and indulgent human adults. If the rich and powerful could avoid trouble with the law, as indeed they often can, they would or do live lives like this -- a matter of great fascination in the popular media.

But mere humans better watch out. In the Hippolytus and The Bacchae neglect of the requirements of the gods can result in appalling events. Thus, Hippolytus, a devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis, vows to preserve his own virginity and purity out of devotion to her. This seems sensible in relation to the advances of his stepmother Phaedra, but it puts in on the wrong side of the goddess Aphrodite, for whom respect requires sexual activity. In the end Aphrodite kills Hippolytus, and Artemis can only promise vengeance for Hippolytus on Aphrodite's next lover -- Artemis, like her brother Apollo, inflicts silent death by her arrows. Thus, as in much of Greek mythology, mere mortals are caught in the middle, at great cost, of disputes among the gods (the classic case being the Trojan War, which begins as a trivial dispute among the gods).

In the greatest play of Euripides, The Bacchae, we also have a character, King Pentheus of Thebes, trying to maintain certain moral standards. He is scandalized by the behavior of the devotees of the god Dionysius, the Bacchae, whose orgiastic rites violate all propriety. Unfortunately, the god will not be denied, and in the end Pentheus is killed and decapitated by his own frenzied mother. In the 1981 movie My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, both playwrights, are having dinner. Andre recalls how once he wanted to stage The Bacchae and provide an actual human head to be circulated among the audience. Fortunately, this did not happen, but one wonders if this was a real ambition of the real Andre Gregory. It would not be consistent with the conduct of Greek plays, where shocking events take place off stage. Nevertheless, the events of The Bacchae are shocking and could easily be represented in their full horror in any movie version of the play. The power of the god is manifest with a grisly force far beyond what we see in the Hippolyus.

There is thus in Euripides no escaping the gods. Personal devotion and the standards of propriety are irrelevant. There is something owed to Aphrodite or Dionysius which can only be neglected or opposed at one's great peril. To modern judgment this might well be grounds for disbelieving in such gods. However, it was an innovation of Greek philosophy, of philosophers like Xenophanes and Socrates, to see the gods, not only as immortal, powerful, and happy, but also as good and wise. It is a subsequent, modern development to take this as a reducio ad absurdum of the existence of the gods, or of God, at all. If the gods were good, they would protect us; and in great measure this does not seem to happen. The Mighty Hand of the LORD brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, where they were forced to make bricks without straw, while the same God seems to have left Judah, and many others, to die in Nazi death camps, without a hint of miraculous rescue. Thus, those who at least did not lose their lives in the camps nevertheless often left having lost their faith in an apparently indifferent God.

The frequent indifference of the gods, however, would surprise few in ancient religion, and certainly not Euripides. The gods have their own lives to live and enjoy. It can help us to attract their favor, but we also run risk of losing that favor or inciting their wrath. The innovations in belief of Xenophanes and Socrates set the gods up to be discredited by events. Hence the rejection by Nietzsche of gods like those of Socrates. But Nietzsche was also unhappy with Euripides. The reason for that we get in the Heracles. Heracles, the son of Zeus, has returned from his Labors covered with glory and honor. He has not, however, escaped the wrath of Hera, who is jealous of Zeus's adulteries and bastard children, like Heracles. So Hera visits a madness on Heracles (whose name, ironically, means "the fame of Hera"), and he kills his wife and children. Zeus does nothing in response, and Heracles is thrown back on the comfort of his human father, Amphtiryon. Thus, it avails Heracles nothing that he is the son of a god; and, like Hippolytus and Pentheus, he is caught in the middle of the disputes and grudges that exist among the gods and have nothing to do with us [note].

Consequently, Euripides sees the value of human life as occurring separately from the gods. Morally indifferent to us, the gods are thus morally discredited, despite their very real existence, power, and danger. It is now common to see moral value as derived from religion and so, ultimately, from God. Nietzsche believes this himself, which means that his self-interested and brawling gods discredit the very existence of traditional altruistic, Judeo-Christian morality. However, although Plato shared the views of Socrates about the gods, his metaphysics made provision for value entirely independent of the gods. The Good thus exists separately, at the summit of the World of Being, where we have the Forms of things, including living things, but not those living things themselves, not even the gods. This reflects another feature of the theology of Socrates and Plato:  goodness is not created by the will of the gods; but the gods instead conform themselves to what is independently good. This is not something amenable to the monotheistic religions, and attempts in the Middle Ages to continue a Greek sensibility, and limit the Will of God, in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, tended to be rejected by orthodox opinion. Nothing exists prior to, beyond, or superior to the Will of God. This results in a certain paradox, if one then wants to believe that God is good; and only Islam faced it in the most logically consistent way:  "God does what He wishes," أَللّٰهُ يَفْعَلُ مَا يَشَاءُ, ʾAllâhu yafʿalu mâ yashâʾu () [Qurʾân, Surah 3:40 or 3:35]. Nevertheless, even Islam does not seem wholly indifferent to God being good and just.

The theology of Euripides could easily coexist with the metaphysics of Plato. This is what Nietzsche did not like. But this can also just be the beginning of another unusual take on religion, C.G. Jung's Answer to Job. There we have a God who is not originally always good and just, and is really much like the other gods of ancient religion, but who grows, morally, because of interaction with human beings, culminating in the idea that God must become a man, Jesus, in order to morally redeem, not humanity, but divinity. This startling theory has not caught on in any version of Christianity, but it definitely has its own internal logic. Nevertheless, even if appealing, it suffers from the difficulty that the conduct of God does not otherwise seem to have changed. God may be love, and Jesus may have redeemed the mistreatment of Job, but in the 21st century God still fails to appear at the slaughter of innocents or refute the lies of the powerful.

All in all, the behavior of the gods of Euripides is what seems to match our real experience the most closely. But why gods at all? Have we need of any such hypothesis? Again, Jung has a suggestive take on the matter. The gods of Euripides are forces that we must take into account in human life lest they cause great damage. To Jung, such forces are "archetypes" in the Unconscious. Being a Kantian, Jung sees the Unconscious extending beyond our own minds into the reality of things-in-themselves. The forces represented by Aphrodite or Dionysius thus are not merely psychological; they derive from levels of reality not evident in the phenomenal world. As with Jung's God as an archetype, these things can function independently, and even function as personalities, i.e. as personal gods, yet still owe something of their nature and their existence to the Kantian "conditions of a possible experience." Thus, in our experience, they become phenomenal gods, even if there remains a disconnect between the blind causal doings of the world we perceive and beliefs that develop about these divine beings. But this is something already familiar from Kantian philosophy, where the Moral Law imposes a requirement, the Categorical Imperative, to do right, that is incongruous and even impossible in the conditions of mundane life. It is, as Schopenhauer says, "like a meteorite, sprung from an order of things different from that which prevails here." The gods, or God, are also just such a meteorite. The meaning they convey is not that of morality or even mundane good fortune, but the peculiar meaning of religion, the meaning of numinosity, a mysterium tremendum, that reality is sacred, and not just "atoms and the void." Even the gods of Euripides, despite their indifference, cannot be objects of indifference to us. It is thus, overall, a challenging doctrine. The consolations of life may depend, as for Heracles, on our humanity, but then we are not alone with our humanity in the universe. There is something going on beyond the blind pinball game of physics and chemistry, and we better pay attention to it, or else. Thus, Jung believed that the denial of the Unconscious by those he called the "super rationalists" could result in a reaction, a reaction of forces kept out of conscousness and left in their own blindness, a reaction that consequently will manfest all the ferocity of the irrational and the primal -- a reaction, indeed, rather like the one that rendered Pentheus limb from limb, a reaction that then looks like a great deal of what went on in the history of the 20th century.

Euripides & the Gods, by Mary Lefkowitz

"The Impiety of Socrates"

What Would God Be? -- with a natural history of the gods

God as Love

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2008, 2016 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The gods of Euripides, Note

It is striking that Euripides reverses the course of events in this story from that of the traditional myth. Originally, the Labors of Heracles were his penance for having killed his wife and children. Despite having been driven mad by Hera, which we might think would exempt Heracles from blame, he nevertheless must endure a punishment. Or there is another way of looking at it. The worst thing about murder to the Greeks may have been the pollution created by it. This is why, as we note in Plato's Euthyphro, murder cases go to the King Archon's Court, where religious problems are addressed. Thus, the penance of Heracles is to work off the pollution. It doesn't matter that the crime was not his fault; he still spilled the blood. If it was really his fault, indeed, he might have deserved death.

The reversal of the story by Euripides is certainly for dramatic effect. Having finished his Labors, Heracles stands at the height of his fame and truly seems to be the equivalent of a god among men. In an instant, all of this is entirely exploded, and Heracles loses his family, his fame, and all of the relationship to the gods, particularly Zeus, that he thought he had enjoyed. He is reduced to a mere mortal, alone and forsaken. His only solace will be from other humans.

Return to Text