‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Atheism as Monotheism


I've been reading Gray's recent book on atheism. I'm not sure why I don't like Gray more; part of me thinks I ought to. He's smart, winningly pessimistic, wide-ranging and his interests overlap with mine to a large extent. Something's missing, there, for me; though I'm not sure what it is.

Anyway, near the beginning of this Empsonian volume Gray says something that intrigued me. His line is that ‘atheism’ as a term ‘does not amount to very much. It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god.’
There is precedent for thinking of atheism in these terms. In the ancient European world atheism meant a refusal to participate in traditional practices honouring the gods of the polytheistic pantheon. Christians were described as “atheists” (in Greek, atheos meaning “without gods”) because they worshipped only one god. Then as now, atheism and monotheism were sides of the same coin. [Gray, Seven Types of Atheism, 2]
I'd not heard this, and it intrigued me. So I looked into it. So far as I can see it's not true: nobody in the ancient world used the word ἄθεος to describe people who worshipped only one god. But I don't suppose Gray simply made the fact up; I daresay he found it somewhere. I'm interested to know where. [Update: in the comments below, my friend Alan Jacobs shows that Gray didn't just make it up, and provides the sources after which I ask]

Liddell and Scott define ἄθεος as meaning ‘without God, denying the gods, esp. those recognized by the state’. They specify the last bit because their first reference is to Plato's Apology 26c, where Socrates asks Meletus:
I am unable to understand whether you say that I teach that there are some gods, and myself then believe that there are some gods, and am not altogether godless and am not a wrongdoer in that way, that these, however, are not the gods whom the state believes in, but others, and this is what you accuse me for, that I believe in others; or you say that I do not myself believe in gods at all and that I teach this unbelief to other people.
Meletus says ‘that is what I say, that you do not believe in gods at all’ and Socrates replies ‘you amaze me, Meletus!’

L&S also cite Cicero's judgment of Diagoras, known as ‘Diagoras the Atheist’, from De Natura Deorum, iii 37: ‘a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts to Diagoras and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?”’ Atheus ille qui dicitur says Cicero, which seems fair enough. Then again, Diagoras was not a popular fellow in his native Greece. He was, notes J M Robertson, ‘charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.’

L&S go on to cite examples of the word as meaning ‘godless, ungodly’ and ‘abandoned of the gods’. There's a poem by Bacchylides (his eleventh ode) where Hera drives the daughters of Proteus mad by forcing them to disbelieve in the gods, a strange sort of punishment, one might think, for a god to inflict on a mortal: ‘while still virgins, they entered the sanctuary of the purple-belted goddess, and said that their father far surpassed in wealth the golden-haired consort of holy, widely powerful Zeus. In anger at them, she put a twisted thought into their minds, and they fled to the wooded mountain with terrible screams, leaving behind the city of Tiryns and its god-built streets’. At the end of the ode, Hera reverses her judgment and cures the girls of their μανιᾶ ἀθέων, their ‘atheist mania’ or ‘atheist madness’, and in return they (wisely, I'd say) ‘built her a sanctuary and an altar right away, and stained it with the blood of sheep, and set up choruses of women’ [this is Diane Arnson Svarlien's 1991 translation]. L&S also note that the word might be used adverbially ἄθεως, to mean ‘by the anger of heaven’ ‘in most unholy wise’. In all this there's a clear semantic field for the word: atheism is an ill-advised disbelief in the gods, perhaps a madness, certainly inauspicious and unholy.

9 comments:

  1. As far as I know, we only have Christian sources for this, but in the Martyrdom of Polycarp the crowd cries out for Polycarp to be killed because he is an atheist. And Justin Martyr, in his first Aopology, devotes some considerable space to refuting the charge that Christians are atheists. "Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity."

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  2. Also, Jan Bremmer's essay on "Atheism in Antiquity" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism has some interesting material on who got designated as atheist in the ancient world.

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  3. I just learned from revisiting Bremmer that Julian the Apostate not only accused Christians of atheism but claimed that they inherited their atheism from the Jews.

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  4. Alan, thank you! You have answered my question, backed-up Gray's assertion and done the work I should have done. Maybe I should find myself a copy of The Cambridge Companion to Atheism.

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    1. Well, I count that as a good day's work. Time for a nap.

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  5. This is utterly random, but just before Christopher Marlowe was murdered he was being investigated by the Privy Council on charges of atheism and blasphemy, and I always remember one of the claims that the informer Richard Baines made about Marlowe: “He affirmeth that Moses was but a juggler, and that one Hariot being Sir Walter Raleigh's man can do more than he.”

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    1. Yes, Burgess talks about this in his Dead Man in Deptford, which is certainly worth reading if you haven't. Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I.

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  6. It's easy to read the Diagoras story and think "go Diagoras" - his mindset sounds very much like what we now think of as atheism, or scepticism if we want to work around the A-word. The Bacchylides citation suggests that this might be a mistake; in that story not believing in the gods entails an awful lot more than a simple(?) straightforward(?) sceptical materialism. Perhaps 'scepticism' is the way in; perhaps not believing in 'the gods', for the Greeks, was something like going all the way with Humean scepticism, i.e. genuinely not believing that there was any predictable regularity at all to the world. Which would tend to land you in an existential crisis even now. (Sartre talks about this at some length in La Nausée - from memory, "nature doesn't have laws, she only has habits - and she could change those tomorrow".)

    Another stray thought - I read somewhere (probably a pamphlet) that certain words appear in the language in anathemata (grammer) of people's opponents long before they're adopted as positive descriptions. "Atheist" was one: at the time Marlowe was being denounced as an atheist, there were no atheists and nobody really knew what it would be like to be an atheist. (Bloke said. In pamphlet.) "Anarchist" started life similarly, and then "nihilist" - although that one never really took off like the other two.

    Either way, I'm afraid Gray is all wet.

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    1. The thing that really strikes me about the Bacchylides poem is that disbelief in the gods is something forced on you by the gods. That's got a lovely Kierkegaardian twisted irony to it, I think. Otherwise, I agree with you: there's lots of evidence from Greek philosophy and culture that you were 'allowed' (as it were) to be as skeptical as you liked about lots of things: was the sun a stone, are there atoms, do oracles work etc, but not allowed to make arguments perceived as disruptive of political order. Then it's the hemlock for you, Soccy my friend, no matter how much you insist that you believe in the divine. 'Atheist' was more like radical anarchist, in both a political but (as you say) also in an as it were realist sense, like insisting that we can breathe water or something. Those religious rituals are there for a reason.

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