In a previous post on the topic of mythos and logos, I discussed the evolution of ancient Greek thought from its origins in imaginative legends about gods to the development of reason, philosophy, and logic. Today, every educated human being knows about the contributions of Socrates, Plato, Euclid, and Pythagoras. But the ancient Greek religion appears to us as an embarrassment, something to be passed over in silence or laughed at. Indeed, it is difficult to read about the enormous plethora of Greek gods and goddesses and the ludicrous stories about their various activities without wondering how Greek civilization ever managed to accomplish the great things it accomplished while it was so mired in superstition.
I am not going to defend ancient Greek superstition. But I will say this: Greek religion was much more than mere superstition — it was about devotion to a greater good. According to the German scholar Werner Jaeger,”Areté was the central ideal of all Greek culture.” (Paideia: The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I, p. 15). The word areté means “excellence,” and although in early Greek history it referred primarily to the virtues of the warrior-hero, by the time of Homer areté referred more broadly to all types of excellence. Areté was rooted in the mythos of ancient Greece, in the epic poetry of Hesiod and Homer, with the more philosophical logos emerging later.
This devotion of the Greeks to a greater good was powerful, even fanatical. Religion was so absolutely central to Greek life, that this ancient pre-industrial civilization spent enormous sums of money on temples, statues, and religious festivals, at a time when long hours of hard physical labor were necessary simply to keep from starving. However, at the same time, Greek religion was remarkably loose and liberal in it’s set of beliefs — there was not a single accepted doctrine, a written set of rules, or even a single sacred text, similar to the Torah, Bible, or Quran. The Greeks freely created a plethora of gods and stories about the gods and revised the stories as they wished. But the Greeks did insist upon the fundamental reality of a greater good and complete devotion to it. I will argue that this devotion was responsible for the enormous contributions of ancient Greece, and that a completely secular, rational Greece would not have accomplished nearly as much.
In order to understand my defense of ancient Greek religion, I think it is important to recognize that there are different types of knowledge. There is knowledge of natural causation and knowledge of history; but there is also esthetic knowledge (knowledge of the beautiful); moral knowledge; and knowledge of the proper goals and ends of human life. Greek religion failed in understanding natural causation and history, but often succeeded in these latter forms of knowledge. Greek religion was never merely a set of statements about the origins and history of the universe and the operations of nature. Rather, Greek religion was characterized by a number of other qualities. Greek religion was experiential, symbolic, celebratory, practical, and teleological. Let’s look at each of these features more closely.
Experiential. In order to understand Greek religion — or any religion, actually — one has to do more than simply absorb a set of statements of belief. One has to experience the presence of a greater good.
The first picture above is of a 40-feet tall statue of the Greek goddess Athena in a life-size recreation of the ancient Greek Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. The second picture is a depiction of the probable appearance of the statue of Zeus at the Temple of Zeus in the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, the site of the Olympic games.
Contrary to popular belief, Greek statues were not all white, but often painted in vivid colors, and sometimes adorned with gold, ivory, and precious stones. The size and beauty of the temple statues was meant to convey grandeur, and that is precisely the effect that they had. The statue of Zeus at Olympia has been listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. A Roman general who once saw the statue of Zeus declared that he “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person.” The Greek orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue of Zeus would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.
Symbolic. When the Greeks created sculptures of their gods, they were not really aiming for an accurate depiction of what their gods “really” looked like. The gods were spirits or powers; the gods were responsible for creating forms, and could appear in any form they wished, but in themselves gods had no human form. Indeed, in one myth, Zeus was asked by a mortal to reveal his true form; but Zeus’s true form was a thunderbolt, so when Zeus appeared as a thunderbolt, he incinerated the unfortunate person. Rather than depict the gods “realistically,” Greek sculptors sought to depict the gods symbolically, as the most beautiful human forms imaginable, male or female. These are metaphorical or analogical depictions, using personification to represent the gods.
I am not going to argue that all Greek religion was metaphorical — clearly, most Greeks believed in the gods as real, actual personalities. But there was a strong metaphorical aspect to Greek religious thought, and it is often difficult even for scholars to tell what parts of Greek religion were metaphorical and what parts were literal. For example, we know that the Greeks actually worshiped certain virtues and desired goods, such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks used personal forms to represent these virtues, and created statues, temples, and alters dedicated to them, but they did not see the virtues as literal personalities. Some of this symbolic representation of virtues survives to this day: the blindfolded Lady Justice, the statue of Freedom on the top of the U.S. Capitol building, and the Statue of Liberty are several personifications widely recognized in modern America. Some scholars have suggested that the main Greek gods began as personifications (i.e., “Zeus” was the personification of the sky) but that over time the gods came to be seen as full-fledged personalities. However, the lack of written records from the early periods in Greek history make it impossible to confirm or refute this claim.
Celebratory. Religion is often seen as a strict and solemn affair, and although Greek religion had some of these aspects, there was a strong celebratory aspect to Greek religion. The Greeks not only wanted to thank the gods for life and food and drink and love, they wanted to demonstrate their thanks and celebrate through feasts, festivals, and holidays. Indeed, it is probably the case that the only time most Greeks ate meat was after a ritual sacrifice of cattle or other livestock at the altar of a god. (Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, p. 402) In ancient Athens, about half of the days in the calendar were devoted to religious festivals and each god or goddess often had more than one festival. The most famous religious festival was the festival devoted to Zeus, held every four years at the sanctuary of Olympia. The Greeks visited the temple of Zeus and prayed to their god — but also held games, celebrated the victors, and enjoyed feasts. The Greeks also held festivals devoted to the god Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. Drink, music, theater, and dancing played a central role in Dionysian festivals.
Practical. When I was doing research on Greek religion, I came across a fascinating discussion on how the Greeks performed animal sacrifice. Allegedly, when the animals were slaughtered, the Greeks were obligated to share a portion of the animal with the gods by burning it on the altar. However, when the Greeks butchered the animal, they reserved all the meat for themselves and sacrificed only the bones, covered with a deceptive layer of fat, for the gods. It’s hard not to be somewhat amused by this. Why would the powerful, all-knowing gods be satisfied with the useless, inedible portions of an animal, while the Greeks kept the best parts for themselves? The Greeks even had a myth to justify this practice: allegedly Prometheus fooled Zeus into accepting the bones and fat, and from that original act, all future sacrifices were similarly justified. As devoted to the gods as the Greeks were, they were also practical; in a primitive society, meat was a rare and expensive commodity for most. Sacrifice was a symbolic act of devotion to the gods, but the Greeks were not prepared to go hungry by sacrificing half of their precious meat.
And what of prayer to the gods? Clearly, the Greeks prayed to the gods and asked favors of them. But prayer never stopped or even slowed Greek achievements in art, architecture, athletics, philosophy, and mathematics. No Greek ever entered the Olympic games fat and out-of-shape, hoping that copious prayers and sacrifices to Zeus would help him win the games. No Greek ever believed that one did not have to train hard for war, that prayers to their deity would suffice to save their city from destruction at the hands of an enemy. Nor did the Greeks expect incompetent agriculture or engineering would be saved by prayer. The Greeks sought inspiration, strength, and assistance from the gods, but they did not believe that prayer would substitute for their personal shortcomings and neglect.
Teleological (goal-oriented). In a previous essay, I discussed the role of teleology — explanation in terms of goals or purpose — in accounting for causation. Although modern science has largely dismissed teleological causation in favor of efficient causation, I argued that teleological, or goal-oriented, causation could have a significant role in understanding (1) the long-term development of the universe and (2) the behavior of life forms. In a teleological perspective, human beings are not merely the end result of chemical or atomic mechanisms — humans are able to partially transcend the parts they are made of and work toward certain goals or ends that they choose.
We misunderstand Greek religion when we think of it as being merely a collection of primitive beliefs about natural causation that has been superseded by science. The gods were not merely causal agents of thunderstorms, earthquakes, and plagues. They were representations of areté , idealized forms of human perfection that inspired and guided the Greeks. In the pantheon of major Greek gods, only one (Poseidon) is associated solely with natural causation, being responsible for the seas and for earthquakes. Eight of the gods were associated primarily with human qualities, activities, and institutions — love, beauty, music, healing, music, war, hunting, wisdom, marriage, childbirth, travel, language, and the home. Three gods were associated with both natural causation and human qualities, Zeus being responsible for thunder and lightning, as well as law and justice. The Greeks also honored and worshiped mortal heroes, extraordinary persons who founded a city, overthrew a tyrant, or won a war. Inventors, poets, and athletes were worshiped as well, not because they had the powers of the gods, but because they were worthy of emulation and were sources of inspiration. (“Heroes and Hero Cults,” Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, pp. 100-14)
At this point, you may well ask, can’t we devote ourselves to the goal of excellence by using reason? There is no need to read about myths and appeal to invisible superbeings that do not exist in order to pursue excellence. This argument is partly true, but it must be pointed out that reason in itself is an insufficient guide to what goods we should be devoted to. Esthetics, imagination, and faith provide us with goals that reason by itself can’t provide. Reason is a superb tool for thinking, but it is not an all-purpose tool.
You can see the limitations of pure reason in modern, secular societies. People don’t really spend much time thinking about the greater goods they should pursue, so they fall into the trap of materialism. Religion is considered a private affair, so it is not taught in public schools, and philosophy is considered a waste of time. So people tend to borrow their life goals from their surrounding culture and peer groups; from advertisers on television and the Internet; and from movie stars and famous musicians. People end up worshiping money, technology, and celebrities; they know those things are “real” because they are material, tangible, and because their culture tells them these things are important. But this worship without religion is only a different form of irrationality and superstition. As “real” as material goods are, they only provide temporary satisfaction, and there is never an amount of money or a house big enough or a car fancy enough or a celebrity admirable enough to bring us lasting happiness.
What the early Greeks understood is that reason in itself is a weak tool for directing the passions — only passions, rightly-ordered, can rule other passions. The Greeks also knew that excellence and beauty were real, even if the symbolic forms used to represent these realities were imprecise and imperfect. Finally, the Greeks understood that faith had causal potency — not in the sense that prayers could prevent an earthquake or a plague, but in the sense that attaining the heights of human achievement was possible only by total and unwavering commitment to a greater good, reinforced by ritual and habit. For the Greeks, reality was a work-in-progress: it didn’t consist merely of static “things” but of human possibilities and potential, the ability to be more than ourselves, to be greater than ourselves. However we want to symbolize it, devotion to a greater good is the first step to realizing that good. When we skip the first step, devotion, we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to attain it.