Notes Toward Olympus

A personal exegesis on Cleanthes “Hymn to Zeus”.

cleanthes

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,

The name of Zeus is not the name of a celestial “person”.  It is in fact a title, the etymological equivalent to the Latin “Deus”.  Zeus was often called “God of the gods” and the father of all.   He is not merely one deity among many, but God himself.

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,

The familiar story of his birth, how his mother Rhea concealed him from his father Cronus, who consumed a stone instead of his holy son, reveals his identity as the active creative force within the universe.  He is that which has conquered time – which time seeks to swallow but cannot hold, and in his power he forces time to vomit up all the other gods into the universe.  Yet creation also occurs within time (Cronus), and the fertile ground (Rhea) of being – hence his titanic parents.  Our God is not some abstract and distant hypothetical “creator”.  He is the force of creation itself. Therefore he is Law, since all things move according to the foundational creative energy.

Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you.
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.

Since our God is the active force within the world, we reject the so-called “negative theology”, which seeks to discover God through a removal of all “limiting” attributes and images.   Rather, we use all art and artistry as a fitting symbol of God, for those things that remind us of God move us closer to him, through participation with our own divine essence.

Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.

We praise God and the other deathless ones not because it is good for them, but because it is good for us to be brought closer to our highest nature.

The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.

Since all things follow their own first cause and nature, the world is ruled by providence.

So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.

The divine thunderbolt steers all things.  The stars are the great regulators of nature. This doctrine is expounded in great detail by Heraclitus.

O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.

Although the world is ruled by providence, we posses free-will.  When men misunderstand themselves, and their fellow man, and do evil, that is not the fault of God.  The possibility of error is but the price we pay for independence.

But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.

Yet even the possibility of error is part of the divine order and beautiful.  No great work of art, no great game or story, is without tension.

For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.

Existence is beautiful.  The world is divine.  We are not cast out of the majesty of God.  We are not alien from ourselves.  Even our most human and ordinary needs are part of the wonder of creation.

This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.

It is a misunderstanding of the nature of the world that leads men to evil.  If they would turn to wisdom, and live in accord with nature, they would have a good life.  Zeus does not “punish” in the human sense.  He is above such pettiness.

But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.

What makes these things evil is not the acts themselves, but misunderstanding them.  Fame earned through great deeds is the definition of nobility.  Wealth gained through orderly principles is harmony with yourself, the laws of nature, and society.  Pleasure is health and well-being of the body.  By themselves these things are indifferent – neither good nor bad, but to be intent on them, to seek to gain them AS IF they were good in themselves, and to sacrifice that which is truly good: godliness, principles, and the well-being of one’s character, that is evil.

They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.

By doing evil you do not harm Zeus, but yourself.  You defeat your own happiness.

O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.

Amen.

circa 1920: Jupiter, the Italian sky-god connected with rain, storms and thunder, who was identified with the Olympian Father of the gods, Zeus. A Colossal statue found on the shores of Lake Alba Longa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

circa 1920: Jupiter, the Italian sky-god connected with rain, storms and thunder, who was identified with the Olympian Father of the gods, Zeus. A Colossal statue found on the shores of Lake Alba Longa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Heraclitus On the Unity of All Things

heraclitus
All things resolve into Unity and from Unity resolve all things – binding wholes and parts, things combined and distinct, in harmony and disharmony.

Nature’s law is the Will towards Unity.

Wisdom is oneness with the purpose that steers all things.

To learn this, listen not to me but to the cosmic reason.

For of letters and writing the way is both straight and crooked.  Like the working of a loom, words go upward and back again, spin around and return, spiraling around their meaning like a snail’s shell.

Rising up, and coming down, we move on the same path.

Of this eternally existing order people lack understanding, both before and after they hear of it.  Everything comes to be through the universal reason, but even when it is spoken of plainly most people remain ignorant.  They do not notice or remember what they do when awake, just as if they were sleeping.

Thus it is necessary to seek out and follow the universal reason.  Although it is common to all, many act as if they alone had purpose.

You will never discover the limits of your soul by wandering, even if you tread on every path – so deeply do you partake of the cosmic mystery.

For the soul is a law of being that increases its own power.

The cosmos was made by neither gods nor men, but always was and is and will be – like ever-living fire, flickering and rekindling itself forever.

This fire moves in an endless sea of alterations – half solid, half storm.  The solid is dispersed into the storm and measured out again, as it was before.

For a great thunderbolt steers all things.

This God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.  He changes as fire changes when it is mingled with various spices.  Men name the scents according to the various delights of each of them.

For God all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some things to be unjust, other things to be just.

What is in opposition is secretly linked, and the most beautiful harmony comes out of things in apparent conflict.  Individual striving is the father of all things.

This is like a bow or lyre: its form depending on a harmony of opposing forces.  Being at variance, it agrees with itself.

This hidden harmony is superior to what is visible.

The sun is commander and guardian of the cycles of changes and the seasons, which bring to light all things.

Human character grants no inborn purpose.  That is reserved for the Gods.

The Gods consider men, as men consider children.

Night-roaming wizards, drunken mystics, howling preachers, those frightened by death… by their customs people are initiated into mysteries less than holy.

They purify themselves in vain by staining themselves with blood, as if a man having stepped in dirt tried to wash himself in dirt.  They pray to objects, just as crazy people are observed talking to houses.  They do not know what gods and heroes really are.

In life we see death as an impenetrable nothing, but when sleeping all we see is sleep.

What awaits us in death we neither anticipate, nor can even imagine.

Life is a child playing, moving the pieces of a game.  Kingship belongs to this child.

A man’s divine fortune resides in his character.

All things are compensation for fire, and this fire in turn for all things, just as goods are exchanged for gold.

goldlightning

Friendship and the Political

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Political allegiance in the West has an taken on an aspect of religious devotion and fervor.  Perhaps because religion no longer occupies the same space within our society, we have simply replaced that “god shaped hole” in our hearts with the nearest available ideology?  To be sure, there is a messianic tendency at play.  I’ve fallen into it myself, believing if I just converted the right people the world could be saved, or at least stopped from getting much worse.  We have, after all, been told all our lives that we, the people, are the government – or at the very least determine its decisions.  Strange then that the government seems to do very little that we actually want, and a great many things we emphatically do not want.

All societies have systems of governance: methods of resolving disputes between members, adjudicating the use of common resources, and representing that society to the outside world.  All of these functions are predicated on the boundary between “us” and “not us”.  The political theorist Carl Schmidt laid out that the fundamental function of politics was the distinction between friend and enemy, including various degrees of neutrality or uncertainty.  This may seem harsh or overly militaristic to some, but if you consider it you will discover that no government decree can be meaningful without weighing on this distinction.  Hence the apocryphal quote attributed to George Washington, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” This shocks many middle class Americans because there are layers and layers of bureaucracy between their many transgressions and the application of force: notices, fines, extensions, court dates, etc… etc…  At the end of that process however there is always the threat of force or, to put it another way, the possibility of sliding over the line from friend to foe, from “us” to “not us”.

Yet in our real lives the distinction between “us” and “not us” is not political but rather personal.  Our family, our friends, our town, our work – these are our things.  It is on the quality of these things that our well-being depends.  It is within the system of these things that we are judged and remembered.  What dispute does the average American have with the average Chinese that requires the intervention of a massive bureaucratic apparatus? What common resources (other than Federally created ones) exist to be fought over between California and Florida?   Political discussions and symbols, especially in this age of the sound-byte, the re-post, the 128 character limit, take on the role of substitute tribal markers, but without physical substance.  They are purely symbols of conceptual, rather than actual, allegiance.  As such they may weigh on philosophy, but have very little to do with real politics – that is, the distinction between friend and foe, unless we let them.

This is one of the great side-effects of our bureaucratic age: that conceptual politics effaces the natural allegiances and friendships between men.  First political power is removed from its natural scope. No longer are disputes handled within the organic community in which they arise, on the smallest reasonable level.  Next political power is vested in agents entirely removed from the consequences of their decisions. A rotating cast of elected charismatics and disinterested pencil-pushers takes over functions that were once aristocratic and honor based.  This massive political apparatus, Nietzsche’s “coldest of cold monsters”, fails utterly to provide on a human scale that which politics must by definition provide – the ability to adjudicate friend and foe in complex and uncertain situations. As a result, the political process wells up in other spheres, out of its natural bounds, and ruins everything.  Activism becomes our final refuge. The demand of the perpetual infant replaces measured discourse, because discourse absent from power fails to satisfy the political need.  In truth, what is activism other than making enemies by choice, and seeking friends through conceptual alliance?

The solution is to put things back into their proper place.  Conceptual struggles must be grounded in philosophy, not politics.  Politics is influenced by and dependent upon philosophy, not the other way around.  Politics qua politics should be engaged in on the local level, if at all, and intrusions from distant bureaucrats treated with all the contempt and loathing reserved for a foreign occupier, for that is what they actually are – foreigners, strangers, not us, the enemy.   For us, and our kind, if we are inclined to the political we should seek it out where it matters.  Before we make common cause with strangers on some televised stage, can we make it with the people in our actual lives?
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Full Circle

Europa

“Whenever you experience mental vacillation, cast your mind back to the Greco-Roman mentality as it was before the second century.”

– Montherlant

“In the first place, paganism is not a ‘return to the past.’  It does not consist of what could be called ‘one past versus another’… It is not a manifestation of a desire to return to some kind of ‘lost paradise’ (this is rather a Judeo-Christian theme), and even less… to a ‘pure origin’.

Contemporary paganism does not consist of erecting altars to Apollo or reviving the worship of Odin.  Instead it implies looking behind religion and, according to a now classic itinerary, seeking for the ‘mental equipment’ that produced it, the inner world it reflects, and how the world it depicts is apprehended.  In short, it consists of viewing the gods as ‘centers of values’… and the beliefs they generate as value systems: gods and beliefs may pass away, but the values remain.

Far from being confused with atheism or agnosticism, it poses a fundamentally religious relationship between man and world – and a spirituality that appears to us much more intense, much more serious, and stronger than what Judeo-Christianity claims for itself.  Far from desacralizing the world, it sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word; it regards the world as sacred – and this is precisely, as we shall see, the core of paganism.”

– Alain de Benoist

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Contra Hume

Allan_Ramsay_-_David_Hume,_1711_-_1776._Historian_and_philosopher_-_Google_Art_Project

David Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, presents a refutation of the argument from design, sometimes called the teleological argument.  This argument suggests that a transcendent creator exists based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the world.  It is perhaps better known today as the “watchmaker argument”, the idea that if one comes across a watch on the beach, with its intricate and obviously purposeful construction, it argues that somewhere there must exist a watchmaker: a being or beings capable of applying intentionality to blind extended matter.   Hume’s refutation of this argument is upheld as definitive, and a principle herald of the modern view of nature, as the desacralized and random interactions of blind and non-perceiving substances.  Does, however, this argument hold up under scrutiny?
Hume’s refutation has the following structure:

If a creator exists, he is like the builder of a house.
If a house is not perfect, it is the builder’s fault (he is imperfect).
Therefore if the world is not perfect, it is creator’s fault (as he is also imperfect).

The world is, in fact, not perfect, therefore the god, the creator, is not perfect.
The idea of an imperfect god is absurd.
Therefore, the world does not have a creator.

There are several places where this argument could be attacked. Most obviously, we can wonder what Hume means by “perfect”. It is true that many things which happen in the world are not to our liking, but this does not necessarily point to the imperfection of the world. It could be read exactly the other way around. It may be that our wants and likings, which run counter to the world, are in error. If we were to bring our desires in line with the world, our grounds for complaint would disappear. Perhaps it is not the world that is at fault for our condemnation, but rather our judgements? If our opinions about the world depend on our judgements, and our judgements are entirely up to us, does it not follow that whether we see the world as perfect, or imperfect, is within our control?

This raises the larger question of just where we get out ideas of perfect and imperfect. A house may be judged faulty by comparing it to another house, but by what standard can we judge the world? As this world is the only one of which we presently have direct experience, (since we are in fact part of it) we have no standard against which to measure, aside from our own imaginings. Hume’s argument depends on a suppressed premise running something like, “Perfection of the world means fully meeting all of my wants and expectations. But clearly if anything is absurd in Hume’s argument, it is this unstated assumption. The world cannot admit to all the wants and expectations of every single person, as these wants and expectations are often contradictory.

Hume could counter that our very ideas of imperfection are themselves an example of a flaw, for why would a perfect creator form unhappy (or potentially unhappy) creatures? But this also rests on assumptions about what the ultimate purpose of our existence, which are going unstated. An athlete’s training, for example, is not judged good by how little it taxes him, but rather on how much it challenges him while still remaining in his power to accomplish. If the world exists as a kind of test or proving ground, its perfection would in fact require some degree of challenge and unpleasantness. In short, perfection only has meaning in reference to some standard of the perfect, and Hume is not revealing his – quite possibly because he has not examined it and is simply importing it from a secularized version of Christian morality.

Another place this argument could be attacked is in its initial analogy comparing the creator god to a human architect or builder. A human creating a house stands entirely outside the creation, and while this is similar to the role of the Abrahamic god, it is entirely different from the Stoic God which is both within and, at some level, synonymous with creation. The analogy here would be much more like comparing God to the intelligence of a living body, rather than an abstract being entirely outside an inert material entity. An argument based on the lack of perfection in the universe could still be constructed using this cosmology, but it would be far less convincing. We understand that embodied intelligences are not entirely free to shift the material of their bodies around to meet every contingency. This is yet another place that Hume’s metaphysical assumptions are revealed. The Greek mythic and philosophic tradition does not necessarily assume that the Gods must be omnipotent in order to exist. As parts of the whole, they are also constrained by the universal order.

A pagan reader might suggest therefore that only Abrahamic monotheism is disproved by Hume, and Greek philosophy is more than adequate to respond to any challenges he raised. While this is entirely reasonable, an astute Christian or Jew could counter that not even biblical monotheism is called into question by Hume, but only a very particular and largely secularized reading of it. All the major Abrahamic faiths admit to some degree in the fallen state of mankind and the world, and have lengthy and sophisticated mythologies which explain how this is possible even with a perfect creator. This concept of a “fall” from a perfect deity to an imperfect world would also not be unfamiliar to Gnostics and neo-Platonists. Even absent the appeal to a fallen world, human agency and freewill could explain our unhappiness. Hume’s argument is therefore peculiar. He wants to take the Abrahamic model for the divine and subject it to critical analysis, but outside the rest of the monotheistic ideology from which it is derived. In this he is following larger trends in western culture which lie outside the scope of this essay. What is certain however, even after this very cursory analysis, is that while Hume’s argument does reveal a very particular form of metaphysics to be logically inconsistent, it does not rule out the idea of intelligent design as such, nor the existence of god or gods which are not designers per-se, but powerful determinative forces and beings.

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A Stoic Mnemonic in Hexameter

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All beings chase their own good
Will rising from judgements,
Of all things in the world,
Our success or failures.

Happiness is our choice,
Virtue ever close to hand.
Mind is always up to us,
And with it our emotions.

To live in harmony
With all sacred nature,
Means first and most of all
Being joyous in your self.

For excellence in action,
Regardless of outcome,
And steadiness of soul,
Lie always in our power.

Selections from Seneca’s “Moral Letters”

seneca

trans. Robin Campbell

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. (Letter 2)

The spirit and the intellect cannot be of different hues. If the spirit is sound, if it is properly adjusted and has dignity and self-control, the intellect will be sober and sensible too, and if the former is tainted the latter will be infected as well. (Letter 114)

If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person. (Letter 94)

‘No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificance creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination. Superstition is an idiotic heresy: it fears those it should love: it dishonours those it worships. For what difference does it make whether you deny the gods or bring them into disrepute? These are things which should be learnt and not just learnt but learnt by heart.(Letter 123)

I do not agree with those recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if he must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s. (Letter 28)

Give your whole mind to [philosophy]. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves. Would you like to know what the actual difference between yourself and the gods be? They will exist for longer. (Letter 53)

I’m suffering severe pain you may say. Well, does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion? In the same way as the enemy can do far more damage to your army if it is in full retreat, every trouble that may come our way presses harder on the one who has turned tail and is giving ground. (Letter 78)

We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to – just what you’ve got room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want. The more the mind takes in the more it expands. (Letter 108)

The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing. (Letter 7)

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole. (Letter 77)