Listing entries tagged with Greece

Pleasure v. Religion

posted on 10.18.2006 at 6:59 PM

Don't want to leave that noxious statement by Hitler at the top of the blogpile too long, so I'll elevate a discussion of the anacreontic attitude -- "sha, la, la, la, la, la live for today" -- from the comments. It is my thesis that in this attitude, which can be traced back to an Egyptian song more than 4,000 years ago, is a piece of the positive idea of atheism for which I am searching. For it puts the emphasis on earthly (and earthy) life and its wonders not on some putative, presumably perfect post-life.

JM reminds that we "post-ancients" are still sha-la-la-la-la-ing today. I certainly agree that this impulse to Have Pleasure Now ("and don't worry 'bout tomorrow") survives -- as obstacle, nightmare, tug or goal. Probably louder in (certain parts of) the culture now than it has been since the days of the Carvaka, Epicurus, the Cyrenaics and Anacreon himself (all of whom will get to sing their "alluring" songs in my book).

There is much that is alluring in this attitude, though I guess it is hard to build a life upon (even for members of the Allman Brothers Band). Efforts certainly are made to channel, contain, repress the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, but that doesn't mean this attitude would otherwise be so wild and free that it might avoid being encrusted with contradictions -- some having to do with the likely arrival of "tomorrow," some having to do with the fact that other people, with their own wants and desires, are required for the achievement of certain much-prized pleasures. Schisms have developed among anacreontics on the relative merits of physical pleasures, mental pleasures and the mere absence of distress.

Still, having a bit of fun -- now -- does seem an important component in a life strategy. And it does seem a mostly irreligious component.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:59 PM | Comments (3)

George W. Bush

posted on 10.01.2006 at 11:57 AM

There has been some dispute lately about just where the current US president stands among the supernaturals. We have, of course, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' suggestion that Mr. Bush is "El Diablo." But other observers see the self-described "Decider" as fitting more gently into a religious context. Here is Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times:

In Bob Woodward's highly anticipated new book, "State of Denial," President Bush emerges as a passive, impatient, sophomoric and intellectually incurious leader, presiding over a grossly dysfunctional war cabinet and given to an almost religious certainty that makes him disinclined to rethink or re-evaluate decisions he has made about the war.

I'm not sure the "almost" is necessary in the phrase I italicized above, as has been noted here before. Certainly, one of the great gifts of religion has been certainty. Here is the first major Christian theologian to write in Latin, Tertullian, having a go at those wishy-washy Greek philosophers (whom the Christians would, soon enough, put out of business):

Wretched Aristotle...taught them dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing...self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them....

Mr. Bush settles questions. (The Republicans even pass laws to make sure everyone knows they are settled.) And I'm naive enough to remain shocked that questions could be so badly settled with so little reliance upon wisdom and reason, with such terrible consequences for this country -- and the world -- at this time.

The devil often appears as "the opponent" of religion. But, as history has taught, it is the partisans of religion -- with their obstinate, at some point unreflective certainty -- who so often muck things up.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:57 AM | Comments (2)

Death -- Part IV

posted on 08.18.2006 at 11:54 AM

What might/can/should a nonbeliever think about death? JM commented that I am too hasty in suggesting that atheists "find death pretty tough" -- possibly tougher than believers find it?

Here are some related comments from some very early kind-of, sort-of or not-really atheists (all characters in the second chapter of my book):

Gilgamesh (after his buddy dies)...

What my brother is now that shall I be when I am dead. How can I rest, how can I be at peace? Despair is in my heart.

Egyptian song from the third millennium BCE...

Let these things fade from your thoughts. Weeping does not save the heart from the grave.

Anacreon (Greek poet)...

My closing years pass by in haste/Soon I no more sweet life shall taste.

Koheleth in Ecclesiastes...

What a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!


Accustom yourself to the thought that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil reside in sensation, but death is the removal of all sensation.....There is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life....The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:54 AM | Comments (12)

Author Seeks Advice -- 2

posted on 08.10.2006 at 6:48 PM

Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.

I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):

Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.

Two questions:

1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)

2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (9)

Darwin and Thucydides

posted on 06.20.2006 at 7:22 PM

The obvious way to organize a history is, duh, chronologically. But, being an ambitious (or pretentious) fellow, I've had this notion that I might run another thread through this history of disbelief, that I might tell the story of the great nineteenth-century British atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, while I'm doing the history. Why (beyond ambition or pretense)? Because this extended biographical sketch would, presumably, give the reader a longer narrative to hang on to as the history follows disbelief from India to Baghdad to Spain to Amsterdam and eventually to Manhattan -- pausing for shorter narratives along the way. Readability, in other words.

I had a thought on how this might actually work while in India many months ago. The key being a connection in the second chapter -- which tracks disbelief in Egypt, India, China, Greece -- between Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, and Charles Darwin. Neither was a particularly aggressive critic of religion. My argument would be, however, that both benefited in crucial ways from the critique of religion that had gained force in their time. Could Thucydides have written his history, with its remarkable absence of supernatural explanation, without the corrosion of the Greek religion caused by the Sophists, among others? Could Darwin have written (or published) Origin of the Species without the attacks on religion of Shelley and Charles Bradlaugh, among others. Making this case would, thus, get Bradlaugh into chapter two.

That's what I'm working on now. It may very well be a bad idea -- especially since jumpiness is a potential problem. And, as usual, I've got to write it to have any idea whether I'll like it.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 7:22 PM | Comments (11)

What Nonbelievers Might Believe In

posted on 05.16.2006 at 1:21 AM

Leonard_Cohen.jpgHow about this quote from Leonard Cohen?

"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?

Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?

What light?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:21 AM | Comments (8)

Thales and the Gods

posted on 03.23.2006 at 12:49 PM

Thales, who lived from about the 620s BCE to 546 BCE, may have been the first of the great Greek natural philosophers, which may make him the first of the great Greek scientists. He came up with a theory of earthquakes. He may have predicted an eclipse. He thought the primary element was water. Did Thales believe in gods?

Nothing Thales wrote, if he wrote, survives. Aristotle, perhaps based on Plato, attributes to Thales the view that "everything is full of gods." Here is the argument that Aristotle got Thales' view wrong -- that Thales probably believed (along with Sam and Dave) in soul; that he believed everything to be full of "soul," which he connected to motion; but that his natural philosophy was mostly devoted to making the gods redundant. It's an argument that would elevate Thales, a formidable figure to begin with, to a rather distinguished place in the history of disbelief. However, there doesn't seem any way to pin it down...

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)