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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: Pagan Literature

Charming and Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland

In her Devices and directions: folk healing aspects of witchcraft practice in seventeeth-century Scotland (scroll down for full citation at the bottom of this post), Joyce Miller poses the question: “Why were charmers sometimes prosecuted for witchcraft? On the other hand, why were there so few?”

Miller is in something of a quandary. She wishes to insist (in fact, she does insist) that there were “intrinsic differences between witches and charmers,” but she finds that it is utterly impossible to keep the two separated. If two phenomena have large areas of overlap, as Miller concedes is the case with Witches and Charmers, then they can hardly be said to be “intrinsically different”.

In a future post I will try to disentangle all the zigs and zags that Miller is forced into as she attempts to to toe the party line while also trying to accurately describe Witches and Charmers in early modern Scotland. But for now I will just let her speak for herself:

The first question to address is: what was charming? Charming was one feature of witchcraft practice and belief, but not all charmers practiced witchcraft nor did all witches practice charming. In some cases one person’s charmer may have been another person’s witch. However, under what circumstances the questionable practice of charming could become the crime of witchcraft is difficult to establish categorically.

Witchcraft, sorcery and charming were all features of magic or preternatural power. Although magic had developed a negative meaning, this hostility increased as a result of witchcraft prosecution and theological developments, which stressed its irrationality and downplayed its cultural significance and relationship with religious belief. Since all three were aspects of magic, charming was therefore related to, and in some cases part of, witchcraft practice and belief, yet it was not entirely the same. It shared many of the same physical and verbal actions — the words and deeds — of witchcraft, but it was usually equal to, and opposite from, witchcraft. Unlike witches, who were labeled by others, charmers knew who they were and would label themselves as such. There was also a difference between the perceived source of power of the two groups and, very importantly, their intent. Witchcraft was demonic and malicious: charming was neither.

The authorities, and particularly the church, did attempt to include charming with the prosecution of witchcraft. In 1646 the General Assembly of the church attempted to extend the scope of the witchcraft act to include the charmers:

“Because our addresses to the oridinar judge for punishment of charming, it is informed to us that the Acts of Parliament ar not expresslie against that sinne, which the rude and ignorant ar much addicted unto; may it therfor please your lordships that the Act of the 9 Parliament of Queen Marie made against witches and consulters be enlarged and extended to charmers, or that such other course be taken as that offence may be restrained and punished.”

Throughout the period of witchcraft prosecutions in Scotland, individuals were investigated and interrogated for practising charming. However, at the local level, attitudes were varied. The two presbyteries that were examined closely demonstrate the variation in investigation and prosecution of witches and charmers that was seen in Scotland. The Haddington presbytery had a higher percentage of accusations of both witchcraft and charming — 83 per cent — compared to Stirling, which had only 17 per cent. Given that the estimated population of Haddington was approximately 1.75 times greater than Stirling this difference was quite remarkable. Eighty-seven per cent of those who were accused of demonic witchcraft were from the Haddington presbytery, and only 13 per cent from the Stirling presbytery. The figures for accusations of charming, however, demonstrate the complete opposite: 56 per cent of those who were accused of charming came from the Stirling area, and 44 per cent from Haddington. This illustrates that local conditions and habits appear to have influenced both the rate, and type, of accusation that was processed through the church rather than any national pattern.

The church punished the majority of charmers, but some were prosecuted for witchcraft if their charming actions were categorised as indicating demonic intervention. Local kirk sessions and presbyteries examined evidence of both accused charmers and their clients in order to ascertain whether or not the practice was demonic. But the church appeared to have great difficulty in deciding what to do with them. In October 1630 the Dalketh presbytery asked the sunod of Lothian and Tweeddale for advice about charmers, those who consulted them and also those who had been slandered with no evidence of practice. The synod replied, ‘those that are simple charmers and consulters suld be refered to their [own] repentance’. As for those who had been slandered they thought nothing of them. It would appear then that if the practiced was believed to be demonic, then civil intervention would be required, if not it could be dealt with at local level by the church and the individual’s own conscience. The whole area was clearly confusing. On some occasions the question of whether the practice was demonic or not, was decided by whether rituals had been used, and whether these involved the use of words and actions, either alone or in combination.
[pp. 91-92]

The issue of “whether rituals had been used, and whether these involved the use of words and actions, either alone or in combination” is taken up again by Miller a few pages on. The bottom line, according to Miller, is that if both ritual and words were used, then this could be taken as evidence of Witchcraft, as opposed to mere Charming:

The recurrent motifs or features in the charming treatments that were analysed in this may be categorised according to time, place and manner. The ritual could be carried out as a particular time of the day, week or year; at a particular place such as a boundary, crossroads, bridge or river; in a particular manner, perhaps in silence; or particular direction, moving sunwise, anti-sunwise or backwards. Further categorising motifs which were recorded included the use of words or spoken charms; the use of a particular type of water, or at a specific place; numbers; fire; the use of an object such as a shoe, mail, thread or belt; cutting of nails or hair; use of an animal; meally oats but occasionally wheat. Although charmers did not use the polypharmacy of orthodox medicine they still employed a wide variety of motifs.

Detailed research in local sources from the presbyteries of Haddington and Stirling between 1603 and 1688 has revealed almost 100 references to some form of charming. They have been examined for the use of ritual and words, either alone or in combination, or for the inclusion of other motifs. The use of a physical ritual was by far the most common feature, as nine out of ten treatments (92 per cent) included a reference to soem form of ritual or routine. Words were mentioned in 42 per cent of the charms. A third (38 per cent) used words and ritual together but in this sample, perhaps surprisingly, only 3 per cent used words by themselves.

Andrew Youl, who tied a live toad around neck of his sheep in 1646, told the church officials that he had not used any words along with this ritual. Nevertheless he was reprimanded by the Haddington kirk session and told that unless he stopped using the ritual he would be censured as a charmer. The Haddington presbytery decided that Adam Gillies and his wife were not witches because, although they had tied wheat and salt tot heir cows’ ears, they had not used any words and had merely been carrying out, in the words of the church authorities, an ‘ignorant superstition’. To a large extent these physical rituals appear to have been excused as having carried out through simple ignorance rather than deliberate transgressions. The use of ritual alone appears to have been regarded by the church and judicial authorities as charming not witchcraft. In this case the rituals or charming might be seen to have been superstitious practice continued through ignorance rather than outright deliberate, demonic practice.

There was some concern, however, that rituals could be used to conjure supernatural spirits or powers and were therefore still very much antithetical to Christian practice. As [Stuart] Clark [Thinking With Demons, Chapter 32] points out, the term superstition had a number of applications or definitions that were used by the church. Firstly, superstition was used to define that which was opposite to accepted religious practice. Secondly, it was used to denounce certain practices and habits as valueless, either because they were carried out excessively or in the wrong manner. In its third version, superstitions, or inappropriate worship, was associated with demonic worship. In general, its use was perceived as due to ignorance and lack of understanding rather than active rejection of the authority of the church. In 1581, parliament passed an act making it illegal to visit wells and participate in pilgrimages. In 1629 the privy council issued a similar proclamation. In the 1648 the Dunblane synod passed an ordinance which again urged the abandoning of ‘superstitious wells and chapels whereunto people resort’. It would appear, however, that the ordinary population did not respond immediately, or at all, to these proclamation. Despite the desire of the authorities to force the general populace to abandon these practices they continued to be important to many and so continued to be observed despite the threat of punishment. For those involved, an accusation of charming or ‘ignorant superstition’ was in many ways a better option than an accusation of witchcraft which might result in execution.
[pp. 97-99]

And, finally, here is how Joyce Miller wraps up her essay:

The remedies offered by charmers in the seventeenth century were as varied as the treatments prescribed by orthodox medicine, but both were founded on logical principles and experience. The treatments displayed a consistency of technique, belief and participation, which show that charmers and society had a solid cultural foundation for understanding the causes of disease and the efficacy of their healing practices.Knowledge and skill in charming was both passed on through generations and gained through empiricism, but the knowledge was neither arbitrary nor chaotic. The charms were founded on both cultural and religious or spiritual traditions; their similarity with pre-Reformation practice was certainly marked although their principles and origins are likely to have been even older. This does not imply that charming was simply an alternative religious belief system recognised by a small section of the population. On the contrary most of society practised and understood an amalgamation of beliefs. It was the organised church itself, not society, which incorporated certain beliefs and rituals for its own purposes and rejected others. The pre-Reformation church accepted pleas to saints or pilgrimages to holy sites to help relieve suffering, but the Protestant church removed these elements of worship or ritual as being too Catholic in meaning. It has been suggested that the Protestant church in Scotland caused a change in attitude towards the causes and cures of disease. The church wanted sufferers to turn to the comfort of prayer and personal contemplation and responsibility, rather than using charms or magic. The goal was to achieve an ideal godly state, but it is clear from the records that many of the ordinary members of the population were slower in abandoning a system which they had followed for generations and which provided comfort, hope and control. In the absence of access to professional healers and in the wider context of witchcraft belief, the practice of charming was mainstream, rather than alternative, medicine.

Witchcraft practice in seventeenth-century Scotland was complex and mystifying, both for the ecclesiastical and secular authorities and the population at large. Charming — or folk healing — was only one aspect of witchcraft, but was an extremely important one as it provided both spiritual and practical comfort. It provided society with a means to counter the threat of malicious witchcraft. Charming also demonstrates that contemporary definitions of witchcraft practice, in its broadest sense, were not fixed solely in demonic terms, but were at times fluid and dynamic. Indeed charming continued to be practiced long after the church and the law decided that witchcraft was no longer a threat.
[pp. 104-105]

Joyce Miller’s Devices and directions: folk healing aspects of witchcraft practice in seventeeth-century Scotland is chapter 6 in the anthology The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context edited by Julian Goodare, published by Manchester University Press, 2002.

Plato for Pagans: An overview

I am re-starting one of my perennial writing projects: Plato for Pagans. Let’s see how far I get this time!!

The immodest goal of this endeavor is to provide a basic introduction to the writings of Plato for modern readers with little or no background in ancient philosophy. There is no shortage of books on Plato and ancient philosophy, but there is a near total absence of such books written from a perspective that treats Plato as a Pagan philosopher, which is what he was.

The format will be a series of commentaries on 17 of Plato’s dialogues:

Volume I:
Socratic Philosophy as a Way of Life and Death

The Life of Socrates
The Death of Socrates
The Teachings of Socrates

Volume II:
The Ascent of the Soul


What follows is the beginnings of an explanation for what I have in mind for the first section of the first volume on The Life of Socrates.

The Charmides, Laches and Lysis are generally considered to be “early”, “Socratic” dialogues. As such they are accepted by modern scholars as closely reflecting the teachings of Socrates. They are also shorter and more accessible than many of the dialogues that will come later in the series.

Plato’s dialogues often raise a very specific question of the form “what is X?”, and the three dialogues I have chosen to begin with are no exception:
The Charmides asks, what is temperance (sophrosyne)?
The Laches asks, what is courage (andreia)?
The Lysis asks, what is friendship (philia)?

In addition to having, at least on the surface, easily identifiable subjects, the first two dialogs also have a very straightforward relationship to important events in Socrates’ life (and in the history of Athens). The Charmides occurs just after the Battle of Potidaea in 432. The city-state of Potidaea had attempted to revolt against Athenian rule, but they were soundly defeated by the Athenians. Socrates, then aged 37, fought heroically in this battle and his exploits are even recorded in the famous account of the battle by Thucydides. The Laches occurs just after the Battle of Delium, in the year 324, when Socrates was now 45. Once again Socrates fought with distinction and bravery, but the battle itself was a significant defeat for Athens. This is also very close to the time of the birth of Plato.

Like many of Plato’s dialogues, the “dramatic date” of the Lysis is much less certain than that of the Charmides and Laches. The Lysis highlights the intense love and devotion that Socrates enjoyed among many of Athens’ youths. This is also one of Plato’s more maddeningly (some have even said perversely) aporetic dialogues: one concept of friendship after another is taken up, analyzed, and then rejected, so that at the end Socrates himself declares that even though they are all good friends (Socrates, Lysis and the other youths) “as yet we have not been able to discover what a friend is!”

This final declaration of the Lysis highlights one of the central themes of Platonic philosophy: surrounded by friendship we are yet unable to understand what friendship is. The same is true for temperance, courage and all of the others X’s that Plato presents in the form of “what is X?”: beauty (Phaedrus), love (Symposium), justice (Republic), piety (Euthyphro), death (Phaedo), knowledge (Theaetetus), pleasure (Philebus), and so forth. Sometimes the question is a bit more subtle, such as “can virture be taught?”, the question of both the Meno and the Protagoras. In general, though, the method is the same, especially for the earlier dialogues: one by one various answers to the question at hand are at first presented with some optimism, but then inevitably found wanting until at last a state of aporia is achieved.

Aporia means far more than mere “puzzlement”. Socrates’ intention is always to show us that we do not truly know what we think we know. With his disarmingly intimate style of philosophizing, he draws out of his interlocutors their theories and assumptions about everything from love to death, and in the end shows that whatever knowledge we might have thought we possessed was false. This, in Socratic philosophy, is the beginning of genuine wisdom.

Pythagoreanism: the personal is cosmological

[This is the fourth part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

Carl Hufman is one of the most important contemporary scholars of Pythagoreanism. While no writings of Pythagoras survive (and probably none ever existed in the first place), Huffman has produced editions of the extant fragments from the writings of the early Pythagorean philosophers Philolaus and Archytas, which are of inestimable value to anyone with any interest in Pythagoreanism.

Here is how Huffman describes the cosmology of Pythagoras (from his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry — Huffman also wrote the entries for Philolaus and Archytas):

It remains controversial whether [Pythagoras] engaged in the rational cosmology that is typical of the Presocratic philosopher/scientists and whether he was in any sense a mathematician. The early evidence suggests, however, that Pythagoras presented a cosmos that was structured according to moral principles and significant numerical relationships and may have been akin to conceptions of the cosmos found in Platonic myths, such as those at the end of the Phaedo and Republic. In such a cosmos, the planets were seen as instruments of divine vengeance (“the hounds of Persephone”), the sun and moon are the isles of the blessed where we may go, if we live a good life, while thunder functioned to frighten the souls being punished in Tartarus. The heavenly bodies also appear to have moved in accordance with the mathematical ratios that govern the concordant musical intervals in order to produce a music of the heavens, which in the later tradition developed into “the harmony of the spheres.” It is doubtful that Pythagoras himself thought in terms of spheres, and the mathematics of the movements of the heavens was not worked out in detail. But there is evidence that he valued relationships between numbers such as those embodied in the so-called Pythagorean theorem, though it is not likely that he proved the theorem.

Pythagoras’ cosmos was developed in a more scientific and mathematical direction by his successors in the Pythagorean tradition, Philolaus and Archytas. Pythagoras succeeded in promulgating a new more optimistic view of the fate of the soul after death and in founding a way of life that was attractive for its rigor and discipline and that drew to him numerous devoted followers.

Pythagoreanism, then, is a way of life, and both Plato and Aristotle refer to Pythagoras as a “founder of a way of life” (see Huffman’s online article). In this way of life there is no separation between ethics and cosmology, just as there is no separation between the nature of the human soul and the nature of the Cosmos and the Gods. The ethical principles that human beings should strive to implement in our lives reflect the moral order that can be observed at work in the cosmos. And in the same way, the human soul internally mirrors the external order of the cosmos and, therefore, the fate of the soul is bound up with our progress in aligning our lives with the cosmic order.

Christoph Riedweg (a Professor of Classics at the University of Zurich and Director of the Swiss Institute in Rome) is another scholar of Pythagoreanism. His Pythagoras: His Life and Teachings is now available in English. Here is how it begins

A peculiar kind of splendor surrounds the name of Pythagoras of Samos — a splendor probably due in no small measure to the fact that in his person enlightened modern science seems happily fused with ancient wisdom teachings and insights into the mysterious interconnections of the world. The first is presented by the Pythagorean Theorem that we all learn in school, a² + b² = c², … as well as by Pythagoras’ recognition of the mathematical character of the basic musical concords. The transfer of these musical proportions to the cosmos (the “harmony of the spheres”) and the use of music for therapeutic ends, and the transmigration of souls are key terms for the second aspect. Pythagoras has a guaranteed place not only in musicology, mathematics, and the history of science but also in the history of philosophy and religion….

Pythagoreanism’s tight integration of the cosmological and the personal is very similar to the Indian conceptions of Rebirth and Karma, as can be seen in what the modern Hindu sage Sri Aurobindo says here:

The one question which through all its complexities is the sum of philosophy and to which all human enquiry comes round in the end, is the problem of ourselves, — why we are here and what we are, and what is behind and before and around us, and what are we to do with ourselves, our inner significances and our outer environment. In the idea of evolutionary rebirth, if we can once find it to be a truth and recognize its antecedents and consequences, we have a very significant clue for an answer to all these connected sides of the one perpetual question. A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge, — this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity. But we have to look at it in the right focus, to get its true proportions and, especially, to see it in its spiritual significance more than in its mechanical process. The failure to do that rightly will involve us in much philosophical finessing, drive on this side or the other to exaggerated negations and leave our statement of it, however perfect may be its logic, yet unsatisfying and unconvincing to the total intelligence and the complex soul of humanity.
[Rebirth and Karma, pp. 35-6]

Aurobindo is describing the Hindu concept of “evolutionary rebirth” which is remarkably similar to the Pythagorean concept of metempsychosis, the quintessential idea associated with the Pythagorean view of the “fate of the soul”. The close kinship of Pythagorean metempsychosis with Hindu karma/rebirth is further demonstrated by the very practical dietary conclusion that both traditions reach: the ethical necessity of vegetarianism.

Writing half a millennium after Pythagoras, Ovid produced a poetic explication of metempsychosis and vegetarianism that is a monument to the impact of Pythagoreanism throughout Greco-Roman culture. In the concluding book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pythagoras himself appears after being introduced as

…. the first
to speak against the use of animals
as human food, a practice he denounced
with learned but unheeded lips.
[Book XV, Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is used throughout in the following.]

And then Pythagoras himself begins to speak, and his very first words are

O mortals, don’t contaminate your bodies
with food procured so sacrilegiously.

After a long and passionate exhortation to vegetarianism, Ovid’s Pythagoras proclaims that “I’ll reveal the truths of heaven, all the oracles that highest wisdom holds.” Central to what Pythagoras now reveals is that

all things flow; all things are born
to change their shapes. And time itself is like
a river, flowing on an endless course.
Witness: no stream and no swift movement can
relent; they must forever flow; just as
wave follows wave, and every wave is pressed,
and also presses on the wave ahead;
so, too, must moments always be renewed.
What was is now no more, and what was not
has come to be; renewal is the lot
of time.

But this is still just a very general statement about the constant state of becoming that is the essence of the physical universe. A little further on, Pythagoras/Ovid gets down to details:

Just so, our bodies undergo
the never-resting changes: what we were
and what we are today is not to be
tomorrow. Once we were but simple seeds,
the germ from which — one hoped — a man might spring;
we dwelled within our mother’s womb until,
with hands expert and wily, nature willed
that we not lie so cramped in narrow walls…

But even this is only birth, not yet is there mention of rebirth. The poet/philosopher goes on to describe the arc of life from birth to old age, but then, at death’s door as it were, he suddenly returns to the broader theme of impermanence in general — as opposed to mere human mortality. Indeed, we are now told that “[n]ot even things we call the elements persist”, and this serves as an introduction to a brief digression on the transformations of “earth, water, air, and fire”. Pythagoras is obviously shifting back and forth between, on the one hand, the personal, individual experience of life, death and impermanence, and, on the other hand, the infinite dance of beginningless and never-ending transformations as seen from a cosmic perspective.

Having reminded us (of what we knew even before we were born, according to Plato’s “doctrine” of anamnesis) that birth, death, and all other forms of transformation are not just our own personal fates, but the fate of all that is, Pythagoras reveals the connection between impermanence and immortality:

There is no thing that keeps its shape; for nature
the innovator, would forever draw
forms out of other forms. In all this world —
you can believe me — no thing ever dies.
By birth we mean beginning to re-form,
a thing’s becoming other than it was;
and death is but the end of the old state;
one thing shifts here, another there; and yet
the total of all things is permanent.

I think there’s nothing that retains its form
for long: the world itself has undergone
the passage from the age of gold to iron.
And places also change: for I have seen
what once was solid land turn into sea,
and what before was sea turn into land.
Seashells lie distant from the oceanside;
old anchors have been found on mountain tops,
and waters flowing down the slopes have made
plains into valleys; and the force of floods
has carried mountains down into the sea;
what once were marshlands have become dry sands,
and lands that once were parched are now wet marsh.
Here nature has new fountains flow, and here
she blocks their course; the tremors of the earth
at times make rivers rush, at times obstruct
and curb a stream until it’s seen no more.
The Lycus, swallowed by the yawning earth,
emerges at a point far off, reborn
in other guise; the Erasinus’ flow
is swallowed by the soil and glides along
beneath the earth until it surfaces —
a mighty stream — in the Argolic fields;
and, discontent with its old banks and source,
in Mysia the Caicus changed its course;
whereas the Amenanus, bearing sands,
at times will flow through Sicily and then,
at other time — its sources blocked — dries up.

Ovid’s Pythagoras goes on (and on – remember, this was long before cable) stating and restating this strangely positive teaching of impermanence and immortality, but he eventually decides that perhaps he has finally succeeded in driving the point home, or that perhaps his audience is in danger of loosing sight of the forest for the trees:

But lest I gallop far beyond my reach
and, so, forget what I had meant to teach,
know this: the heavens and all things beneath
the heavens change their forms — the earth and all
that is upon the earth; and since we are
parts of the world, we, too, are changeable.
For we’re not only bodies but winged souls;
and we can dwell in bodies of wild beasts
and hide within the shapes of cows and sheep.
And so, let us respect — leave whole, intact —
all bodies where our parents’ souls or those
of brothers or of others dear to us
may well have found a home; let us not stuff
our bellies banqueting, as Thyestes.

And so finally the connection between metempsychosis and vegetarianism is laid out in no uncertain terms. Thyestes, of course, was famously tricked into eating the cooked flesh of his own sons. And the fact that he did not realize this at the time made it no less horrific when he discovered the truth (as we all inevitably must)!

1. To learn more about Pythagoreanism in general, in addition to Riedweg’s book mentioned above also check out The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie and David Fideler, and also Charles Kahn’s Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism: A Brief History.
2. The striking image at the very top of this post is from the cover of Mary Zimmerman‘s 2002 Metamorphoses: A Play. Zimmerman’s theatrical adaptation actually doesn’t mention either Pythagoras or King Numa, the person being addressed by Pythagoras (although they were both, naturally, included in all their Ovidian glory in the complete free-verse translation by David R. Slavitt, which was the basis for Zimmerman’s play). However, Zimmerman did insert the story of Eros and Psyche, which is not in Ovid at all but is rather from our old friend Apuleius of Madaurus! And of course Apuleius’ book, from which the story of Eros and Psyche was taken, was also titled Metmorphoses
(the story is found in Books Four, Five and Six). When asked why she put Eros and Psyche in the play Zimmerman’s very reasonable explanation was simply that “I love it [ApuleiusEros and Psyche] so much I just had to put it in.” As far as I know no one has asked why she took Pythagoras and King Numa out, but I suspect that a long harangue on vegetarianism was not what she had in mind for the play’s ending.

On the Emperor Julian’s supposed admiration and emulation of Christian "charity"

In their anthology The Paganism Reader, editors Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey introduce the Emperor Julian’s “Letter to a Priest” by claiming that it provides evidence for the contention that “Julian attempted to give Pagan religions an improved theological footing and a social conscience….” [p. 22]

Even Rowland Smith, a scholar with a far deeper understanding of Julian than Clifton and Harvey, feels compelled to state that in that same letter, Julian “showed himself ready to take a leaf from the Christian book” because of his exhortations concerning the practice of philanthropy [p. 111 of his Julian’s Gods].

However, it is clear from what he actually wrote in that letter (as opposed to how others have chosen to characterize what he wrote), as well as from the known history of Pagan philanthropy itself, that Julian never believed, nor had he any reason to believe, that Paganism was lacking in any way in it’s traditions with respect to philanthropy. Rather, Julian clearly believed, and rightly so, that philanthropy is an ancient Pagan virtue long predating Christianity, not something that Pagans had to “copy” from the Christians.

Julian states, among other things, that “we ought to share our money … with the helpless and the poor so as to suffice for their need.” And he also asserts that prisoners “have a right to the same sort” of philanthropy as the poor. In addition, hospitality should always be shown to strangers. Julian then quotes Homer: “from Zeus come all beggars and strangers.”

Julian states that he is “wholly amazed” when he observes a Pagan who “sees his neighbors in need of money [but] does not give them so much as a drachma.” This amazement is due to the fact that “from the beginning of the world”, Zeus has been called “the God of Strangers”, “the God of Comrades”, and “the God of Kindred”. Julian also emphasizes that “every man is akin to every other man”, and that as important as differences “in habits and laws” are from one culture to another, nevertheless “the sacred tradition of the Gods”, by which all humans are akin, is “higher and more precious and more authoritative” than the differences among human beings, for “we are all descended from the Gods.”

At the end of this letter, Julian show just how little he admires or seeks to emulate the Galileans (or “take a page from their book”). For Julian compares the “charitable” Christians to

those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them twice or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves, and that which for the moment seemed sweet, proves to be bitter for all the rest of their lives…

So just where dxactly did the idea come from that Julian admired and sought to emulate the Christians because they had a “social conscience” which Pagans, up to then, had lacked?

In his “Invectives Against Julian” Gregory Nazianzen (330-390 AD) claimed that Julian’s religious policies consisted largely of imitating “things that evidently belong to our constitution” and “things that he admired in our institutions. ” Among the things that Gregory claimed as Christian inventions admired and imitated by Julian were charity, the establishment of places of meditation, relief work among prisoners, the building of inns and hospices for pilgrims, the establishment of “schools in every town, with pulpits and higher or lower rows of benches, for lectures and expositions of the heathen doctrines… .” and so forth. [First Invective, paragraphs 110-11]

A little later Gregory refers to Julian’s supposed emulation of the Galileans as “this wonderful copying of theirs, or rather their parodying as it were on the stage.” [para 113]

To get an idea of what kind of man this Gregory was, in those same Invectives he bitterly laments the fact that Julian was not murdered as a child, and Gregory maligns those who saved the life of the six year-old Julian when his father and brothers were being slaughtered, while praising the Christian Emperor Constantius (317-361), who ordered the slaughter (of members of his own family!) and whose only fault, in Gregory’s eyes, was that he didn’t go far enough! [First Invective, para 91] In fact, Gregory, even while praising Constantius as “the most celebrated of all the sovereigns” still feels compelled to criticize him for “mak[ing] a mistake highly unworthy of his hereditary piety” in allowing the child who would become Julian the Apostate to live. [para 3]

Gregory’s mentality is further illustrated by the fact that he criticizes Julian for … not killing Christians: “[H]e begrudged the honor of martyrdom, and for this reason he contrives now to use compulsion and yet not seem to do so.”!! [para 58]

This is the man whose opinions modern day “Pagans”, like Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, are aping when they claim that Julian was an admirer and imitator of the Galileans. Since “Pagans” like Hutton and Clifton have no qualms when it comes to questioning the validity of Julian’s Paganism, why should anyone hesitate to question the validity of theirs?

(1) The translations from Julian’s “Letter to a Priest” are taken from the Loeb Classical Library’s The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume II, which can be downloaded in pdf format from googlebooks. Volume I is also available from googlebooks.
(2) The translations of Gregory’s Invectives are taken from C.W. King’s Julian the Emperor.
(3) The idea that Paganism found itself in need of a theological overhaul in order to be able to compete intellectually with the religion that gave us Jerry Fallwell is dealt with by an earlier post on Ancient Pagans and Theology: Did They or Didn’t They?.
(4) More on philanthropic traditions among ancient Pagans can be found in another post: Pagans, Christians and Charity.
(5) Also see these three posts: Contra diZerega, Contra diZerega Part Deux, and Liberte, Egalite, Apoplexie, dealing with the general theme of whether or not ancient Pagans lacked a “social conscience”.

The mysterious case of the totally bogus Epicurus quote

If you do a google search on the following words (without quotes):

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but unable?”

you will get over 2 million hits. Most of those hits ascribe these words to Epicurus, who is supposed to have posed the above question concerning “God”. The only problem is that Epicurus never wrote any such thing, and, in fact, directly contradicted the sentiment expressed in that question.

The quote actually comes from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. More specifically it is found on page 134 of the 1907 edition of Hume’s Dialogues (look here and search for the word “malevolent”).

Hume has Philo, one of the fictional speakers of his Dialogues, say the following:

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered.

Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

Why does Hume attribute something to Epicurus that the philosopher never thought, said or wrote? The problem is traceable to the “Church Father” Lactantius who wrote the following:

You see, therefore, that we have greater need of wisdom on account of evils; and unless these things had been proposed to us, we should not be a rational animal. But if this account is true, which the Stoics were in no manner able to see, that argument also of Epicurus is done away. God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?
[De Ira Dei, Chapter 13]

It is easy to produce quotes from Epicurus and also from other reliable sources, to show that Epicurus and Epicureans rejected precisely what Lactantius attributes to them.

In his letter to Monoeceus, Epicurus states very clearly that

[T]he greatest evils happen to the wicked and the greatest blessings happen to the good from the hand of the Gods….

And Epicurus further states that the Gods visit evil on the wicked and blessings on the good because the Gods “take pleasure in men like themselves, but reject as alien whatever is not of their kind.”

In fact the Epicurean explanation of the origins of evil bears no resemblance to the idiotic “paradoxes” dreamt up by Lactantius. To an Epicurean, death, first of all, “is nothing to us.” Physical pain, second of all, is, when intense, of proportionately short duration, and, therefore, bearable; or if of longer duration of proportionately less instensity, and, therefore, also bearable. Cicero has Torquatas, his Epicurean spokesperson in De Finibus (the link is to the Annas/Woolf translation, which is reviewed here) state this basic principle succinctly:

“[O]ne must have a strength of mind which fears neither death nor pain, for in death there is no sensation, and pain is either long-lasting but slight, or intense but brief. Thus intense pain is moderated by its short duration, and chronic pain by its lesser force.

Torquatas also tells us that

The root cause of all life’s troubles is ignorance of what is good and bad.

And, moreover, that

There is never any reason to do wrong. Desires which arise from nature are easily satisfied without resort to wrondoing, while the other, empty [ie, not “natural”] desires are not to be indulged in since they aim at nothing which is truly desirable. The loss inherent in any act of wrongdoing is greater than any profit which wrongdoing brings.

Therefore, genuine evil is of our own doing, and has nothing, whatsoever, to do with the Gods. Even when the Gods punish the wicked, this is not evil, but is Just, and for the common good of humanity.

The Epicurean perspective is that what most people imagine to be evil is not really so, while that which is genuinely evil only happens to us because of our own ignorance. And this ignorance itself is completely curable. One may, obviously, disagree with the Epicurean position on the causes and cures of “life’s troubles.” But Lactantius, David Hume, and modern-day know-nothing atheists do not have the slightest idea of what the Pagan philosophy of Epicureanism actually teaches. They dishonestly create a fabricated Epicureanism, complete with fabricated “quotes” from Epicurus, for their own delusional purposes.

Many thanks to Darlene, whose very interesting comment on one of the previous posts on Pagan Theology was the inspiration for me to dig deeper into this “quote” from Epicurus.

"Those that are most stubborn and unbending She assails…."

[This is the first of a series of posts on the question “What is Paganism?“]

Each year the American Historical Association presents its Award for Scholarly Distinction, selecting from among “senior historians of the highest distinction in the historical profession”. In 2001 the award was given to Ramsay MacMullen, who was described by the AHA as “the greatest historian of the Roman Empire alive today.”

MacMullen’s area of specialization is “social history”, and, in particular, the religious transformation of the Roman world from Paganism to Christianity in the 4th-8th centuries AD, on which he has written six books-length studies, the most recent of which is, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 which was published in March of 2009.

The other five books are:

Voting About God in Early Church Councils 2006

Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries 1999

Paganism and Christianity 100-425 C.E. A Sourcebook 1992

Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) 1986

Paganism in the Roman Empire 1981

Especially crucial for an understanding of the nature of the process of Christianization is his Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. The first chapter of that book is titled simply Persecution, and MacMullen provides his own summary of its contents:

describing the determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate all religious alternatives, expressed in the silencing of pagan sources and, beyond that, in the suppression of pagan acts and practices, with increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement

The subject at hand is the question: what is Paganism? But what, if anything, does the relentless Christian persecution of Paganism well over a thousand years ago tell us about the nature of Paganism itself? Put another way, how does the “the determination of the Christian leadership to extirpate” Paganism, and the “increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement” brought to bear (to act on that determination), shed light on the object of such an formidable onslaught?

To begin to answer that let me first turn to Plato’s great masterpiece of Pagan Cosmology, the Timaeus. At the beginning of that dialogue Socrates recounts having, just the day before, discussed with his friends the ideal human society (most, but not all, readers of Plato have always assumed that Socrates is referring to the conversation recorded in the Republic). Today, however, Socrates, looking back on the previous day’s conversation, opines that

I feel rather like a man who has been looking at some noble creatures in a painting, or perhaps at real animals, alive but motionless, and conceives a desire to watch them in motion and actively exercising the powers promised by their form. That is just how I feel about the city we have described. I should like to hear an account of her putting forth her strength in such contests as a city will engage in against others, going to war in a manner worthy of her, and in that war achieving results befitting her training and education, both in feats of arms and in negotiations with various other states.

It might seem like an odd request, perhaps even bizarre, perhaps even demented: having described an ideal society, now let’s see how this ideal society fares in warfare with other societies? One is tempted to wonder whether any society that engages in warfare can really be considered ideal in the first place. But consider more precisely what Socrates might be saying, or at least broadly implying: an ideal society, if ever one were to come into existence, would very likely still have to defend herself from other, non-ideal, societies.

Socrates’ desire to “hear an account of her putting forth her strength” brings to mind something that Seneca wrote four centuries later in his essay On Providence:

Among the many fine sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one, which I have just heard; it still rings in my ears. “No man,” said he, ” seems to me more unhappy than one who has never met with adversity.” For such a man has never had an opportunity to test himself. Though all things have flowed to him according to his prayer, though even before his prayer, nevertheless the Gods have passed an adverse judgement upon him. He was deemed unworthy ever to gain the victory over Fortune, who draws back from all cowards, as if she said, “Why should I choose that fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power – he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face. Let me look around for another with whom to join in combat. I am ashamed to meet a man who is ready to be beaten.” A gladiator counts it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory. The same is true of Fortune. She seeks out the bravest men to match with her; some she passes by in disdain. Those that are most stubborn and unbending she assails, men against whom she may exert all her strength. Mucius she tries by fire, Fabricius by poverty, Rutilius by exile, Regulus by torture, Socrates by poison, Cato by death. It is only evil fortune that discovers a great exemplar.

Seneca and the Goddess Fortune go Socrates one better, for at least he had wished to see the ideal state prevail in its struggles, but the Goddess knows that the most worthy “count it a disgrace to be matched against an inferior”. The Gods, according to Seneca, “draw back from all cowards” and “seek out the bravest men”, and the Gods show their favor by exerting all their divine strength against such worthy mortal heroes, who thereby are given the opportunity to transcend that which is merely human and show themselves as “great exemplars.” That most would eagerly avoid such an “opportunity” is precisely the point!

To fully make my point I must let Seneca continue, as he describes how Fortune shows her “favor”, and how those who are most worthy distinguish themselves in adversity:

Is Mucius unfortunate because he grasps the flames of the enemy with his right hand and forces himself to pay the penalty of his mistake? because with his charred hand he routs the king whom with his armed hand he could not rout? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he were warming his hand in his mistress’s bosom?

Is Fabricius unfortunate because, whenever he has leisure from affairs of state, he tills his fields? because he wages war not less on riches than on Pyrrhus? because the roots and herbs on which he dines beside his hearth are those that he himself, an old man and honoured by a triumph, grubbed up in cleaning off his land? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he loaded his belly with fish from a distant shore and with birds from foreign parts? if he aroused the sluggishness of his loathing stomach with shell-fish from the eastern and the western sea? if he had game of the first order, which had been captured at the cost of many a hunter’s life, served with fruit piled high around?

Is Rutilius unfortunate because those who condemned him will have to plead their cause through all the ages? because he was more content to endure that his country should be robbed of him than that he should be robbed of exile? because he was the only one who refused anything to the dictator Sulla, and when recalled from exile all but drew back and fled farther away? “Let those,” says he, “whom your ‘happy’ era has caught at Rome, behold it. Let them see the forum streaming with blood, and the heads of senators placed above the pool of Servilius – for there the victims of Sulla’s proscriptions are stripped – and bands of assassins roaming at large throughout the city, and many thousands of Roman citizens butchered in one spot after, nay, by reason of, a promise of security, – let those who cannot go into exile behold these things!”

Is Lucius Sulla happy because his way is cleared by the sword when he descends to the forum? because he suffers the heads of consulars to be shown him and has the treasurer pay the price of their assassination out of the public funds? And these all are the deeds of that man – that man who proposed the Cornelian Law!

Let us come now to Regulus: what injury did Fortune do to him because she made him a pattern of loyalty, a pattern of endurance? Nails pierce his skin, and wherever he rests his wearied body he lies upon a wound; his eyes are stark in eternal sleeplessness. But the greater his torture is, the greater shall be his glory. Would you like to know how little he regrets that he rated virtue at such a price? Make him whole again and send him back to the senate; he will express the same opinion.

Regulus, for those who don’t know the story, was a Roman general who wasn’t satisfied with attacking the Carthaginians on the ground in Sicily and and in naval battles: he wanted to take the fight to Carthage itself. Taking it upon himself to put his own ideas into action, he won several victories in Africa during the First Punic War but was eventually defeated in battle and taken prisoner. However, other than capturing a high-ranking Roman general, things were going very badly for the Carthaginians and they soon sued for peace, hoping to stop the fighting before things got even worse, and, in particular, they hoped to use Regulus as a bargaining chip. They even sent Regulus to Rome to present their terms for peace, on the condition, to which he swore an oath, that he would return, still a captive, to Carthage if the truce were rejected by the Romans. The Carthaginians assumed that Regulus would thereby be highly motivated to argue their case.

But Regulus wanted to smash the Carthaginians once and for all, and he did not want to see them buy time when he knew their position to be extremely vulnerable. And so when he arrived at Rome he spoke before the Senate and urged them to reject the Carthaginian proposal, despite the personal consequences for him that would follow. In fact, the Roman Senate was inclined to accept the deal offered by Carthage, but Regulus argued long and hard until he had convinced the Senate to reject the truce offer and continue the war.

Having given his word of honor, Regulus returned to Carthage, where he took great pleasure in watching the expressions on the Carthaginians’ faces as he delivered the news himself. As his reward the Carthaginians tortured him mercilessly, tearing off his eyelids and encasing him in an iron chest lined with spikes. Seneca approvingly tells us that Regulus was just the kind of man who, if brought back to life and all his wounds healed, and if then brought back before the Roman Senate once again, “he will express the same opinion”! The First Punic War ended in 256 BC, the year after Regulus’ death, with Rome seizing control of Sicily and thereby replacing Carthage as the supreme naval power in the western Mediterranean. Regulus was immortalized for his indominatable spirit by such writers as Horace, Aulus Gellius, Augustine of Hippo, Aurelius Victor, Rudyard Kipling, as well as, of course, Seneca.

And so when the Christians savagely persecuted all those who persisted in worshipping the old Gods with “increasing harshness and machinery of enforcement”, how did the Pagans fare in this test? Many did as the many always do: they kneeled before their new masters and pledged allegiance to the new religion. And then there were the few who followed the examples set previously by Pagan heroes such as Regulus, Rutilius, Cato, and Socrates. These Pagan diehards were not mentally imbalanced fanatics seeking out martyrdom. They were women and men who knew the Gods in their hearts and could not betray their Gods simply because they could not, and would not, betray themselves.

Contra Atheos, Part Deux

A Gentlemen’s Agreement
In the last few years of his life, Marcus Tullius Cicero single-handedly produced a small library of works on philosophy including two major works on ethics, one on epistemology, two on religion, and some others, at least of few of which are no longer extant. These works were intended to popularize Greek philosophy for Romans, in their own Latin language. While some of these works are lost, many of them survive complete or nearly so, which is sadly not the case with the overwhelming majority of all philosophical works produced throughout ancient history. As important as Cicero’s works were at the time, they became even more valuable during the Middle Ages, when knowledge of Greek all but vanished from western Europe, but Latin continued to be the language of culture, literature, science, and philosophical discourse right up to the early modern period (Isaac Newton’s revolutionary scientific insights were communicated to the world in Latin, for example).

As mentioned, two of the surviving philosophical works of Cicero’s were on the subject of religion. In writing on religion Cicero was quite typical of ancient philosophers. In fact, the deep interest that philosophers in general took in that subject is directly reflected in Cicero’s writings, which are in dialogue format in which members of different schools of philosophy present their views. Although himself a member (and even a spokesperson in some sense) of the Academic school, Cicero shows great sympathy for the Stoic position, and this is especially the case when it comes to religion.

One of the key things that most philosophers from most of the schools agreed on was the existence of many Gods, or, more precisely, many Goddesses and Gods. This is not really surprising since Greek and Roman philosophers were not practitioners of some separate religion of their own, but rather were co-religionists with their fellow Pagans, and as such they believed in and worshipped the same Goddesses and Gods as everyone else. It should (almost) go without saying that as philosophers they of course examined religious ideas much more carefully than the average Pagan did, but as Cicero’s writings demonstrate clearly, the religiosity of Greek and Roman Pagan philosophers was of a piece with that of the societies in which they lived.

P.A. Meijer has written a book on Stoic Theology (also see the BMCR review here) which shows conclusively and exhaustively that the Stoics (going back to their founder, Zeno, in the early 3rd century BC) believed in the same “traditional” Goddesses and Gods as their fellow Pagans, and that they wrote extensively on the “nature” of the divine. Unfortunately, as in the case of most Stoic writings, these earliest theological investigations survive only as scattered fragments, and the great importance of Meijer’s book lies in his meticulous collection and systematic presentation, combined with thoughtful commentary, of the surviving evidence. There is no doubt what this evidence shows: that the Stoics, from Zeno forward, were adherents of the same religious traditions as other Pagan Greeks and Romans, and, in particular, they believed in a (great) multiplicity of deities.

What is true of the Stoics concerning religion is just as true of the other major schools: the Platonists (including the Academics), the Aristotelians, and the Epicureans. They were all agreed on the existence of many Goddesses and Gods, and the words of Epicurus speak for them all: “There are Gods, the knowledge of them is self-evident.

Greek and Roman philosophers (that is to say, the progenitors of modern western intellectual culture, the very people who gave us not just the word “reason” itself, but our very conception of it) were widely agreed, then, that the belief in many Goddesses and Gods is the natural and proper state of affairs for humanity.

What then are we to make of those who insist that we must choose between one God or no God? If Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Cicero, Posidonius (whose calculations of the circumference of the earth, made prior to 50 BC, formed part of the scientific rationale for Columbus’ voyage in 1492), Epictetus, etc, were right, then such a choice is wholly unnatural. But if they are right and it is indeed unnatural, well, how do the Christians and Atheists get away with it?

Until quite recently the answer was all too simple. Rome became a monotheistic theocracy in 381 AD, and over 14 centuries later European nations were still putting people to death for crimes such as heresy, apostasy, and blasphemy. It should be pointed out that prior to the coming to power of the Christians, dozens of different religions were practiced in the Roman world and religious tolerance was the rule, although the rule was not without exceptions, a situation that changed utterly with the process of Christianization. Indeed, it is far from clear when (or even if) it actually became legal to worship more than one God (let alone Goddesses!). Greek law to this day still forbids the conversion of Orthodox Christians to any other religion. In the United States, the religious traditions of Native Americans were not recognized as being protected under the first amendment until the 1970’s.

During World War II, Winston Churchill frequently portrayed Britain as the defender of Christendom, and declared in June, 1940, “The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization.” This in spite the fact that Germany was just as Christian a nation as Britain. Four years later when FDR made his radio address on D-Day, he led the nation in prayer to “Almighty God”.

I think the examples of Churchill and Roosevelt are quite helpful in understanding our present day spiritual “two party system” of Christians and Atheists in the west. By the 1940’s people were no longer being put to death (or even put in jail) for religious crimes in the US and Britain, but one and a half millennia of theocracy had left a deep impression on the western psyche, even in those societies that (now) prided themselves on their “freedom of religion”. A look at the history of freedom of religion over the last 500 years in the west is especially revealing. For one thing we find that for most of that time the concept of religious freedom was very tightly limited to the “freedom” to choose from among different forms of Christianity.

From the 4th century onward, Christians had drummed an “us versus everyone” mentality into peoples heads and hearts. The pervasiveness of the “Christianity or nothing” paradigm is illustrated nicely by one of the greatest Renaissance scholars of the 20th century, P.O. Kristeller, who shares his opinions about Paganism and Christianity in the Italian Renaissance here:

Many historians of the last century tended to associate the Italian Renaissance and Italian humanism with a kind of irrelegion and to interpret the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as expressions of a religious revival which challenged and finally defeated the un-Christian cultures of the preceding period. The moral ideas and literary allegories in the writings of the humanists were taken to be expressions, real or potential, overt or concealed, of a new paganism incompatible with Christianity. The neat separation of between reason and faith advocated by the Aristotelian philosophers was considered as a hypocritical device to cover up a new atheism, whereas the emphasis on a natural religion common to all men, found in the work of the Platontists and Stoics, was characterized as pantheism. This picture of the supposed paganism of the Renaissance which was drawn by historians with much horror or enthusiasm, depending on the strength of their religious or irreligious convictions, can hardly be dismissed as the result of later legends and preconceptions. In part it may be traced to charges made against humanists and philosophers by hostile or narrow-minded contemporaries, which should not be accepted at their face value.

Most recent historians have taken quite a different view of the matter. There was, to be sure, a good deal of talk about the pagan gods and heroes in the literature of the Renaissance, and it was justified by the familiar device of allegory and strengthened by the belief in astrology, but there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults. The word pantheism had not yet been invented, and although the word atheism was generously used during polemics during the later sixteenth century, there were probably few real atheists and barely a few pantheists during the Renaissance. The best or worst we may say is that there were some thinkers who might be considered, or actually were considered, as forerunners of eighteenth-century free thought. There was then, of course, as there was before and afterwards, a certain amount of religious indifference and of merely nominal adherence to the doctrine of the Church. There were many cases of conduct in private and public life that were not in accordance with the moral commands of Christianity, and there were plenty of abuses in ecclesiastic practice itself, but I am not inclined to consider this as distinctive of the Renaissance period.
[from: Renaissance Thought and its Sources by P.O. Kristeller, p.67]

Notice how Kristeller moves effortlessly and seamlessly between Atheism, Paganism, and generic “irreligion”, and he even throws in pantheism for good measure. It’s a lot like hearing Dick Cheney trying to explain, to this day, the “connection” between Iraq and 9/11: the message is clear enough, but there’s really no there there. All Kristeller wants to do is to convince us that there was no such thing as Paganism during the Renaissance, merely degrees of religiosity, with the only religion being Christianity. What I quote is about one half page of a 16 page chapter titled Paganism and Christianity. Kristeller not once mentions the relevant fact that people were being put to their deaths at this time convicted of the crime of “reviving pagan cults”, and that the people he is talking about, writers and philosophers, lived very public lives and committed their ideas to writing in public. Therefore to claim surprise that none of these writers ever published a condemnation of Christianity and a justification of Paganism is simply an act of breathtaking intellectual dishonesty.

At one point Kristeller openly lies, and this is precisely when he proclaims that “there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults.” As everyone even remotely familiar with the subject knows, the epicenter of Renaissance philosophy was the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was modeled directly on the last publicly functioning Pagan religious institution in Greco-Roman world, the Platonic Academy in Athens. It is not possible that Kristeller was unaware of the openly Pagan nature of the Athenian Academy, for this was the very reason that it was (infamously) ordered closed by the emperor Justinian in 529. Kristeller was also fully aware of the fact that the head of the Florentine Academy was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and that Ficino publicly acknowledged a Pagan, Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon (c.1355-1452), as the inspiration and catalyst for the decision to found the Academy in Florence.

Indeed, Plethon is one of the unassailable examples that we have of a genuine bona-fide fifteenth century Pagan, and one who was explicitly devoted to “reviving Pagan cults”. Many modern scholars, including supposedly Pagan scholars such Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, have tried to claim, lamely, that Plethon was not “really” a Pagan, but merely an eccentric Christian with an obsessive interest in antiquarianism. But noted Renaissance scholar John Monfasani, who was one of Kristeller’s students, has this to say in his essay on “Platonic Paganism in the 15th century” (Monfasani consistently misspells Plethon’s name as “Pletho”, but that is another matter….):

There is no new Christian Pletho yet to be discovered. The Pletho we have is the Pletho that was. And that Pletho was not an orthodox, or for that matter, an unorthodox Christian; nor was he an overly enthusiastic antiquarian. Rather he was an unequivocal neo-pagan.

… Pletho claimed that he was restoring the authentic pagan religious creed and ritual (the “theologia prisca”, Ficino would say) taught by true philosophers and lawgivers from Zoroaster through Plato and the Platonists. I see no reason not to believe that Pletho meant what he said; that he believed not only in the one supreme god, but also in the supercelestial gods, the subcelestial gods, and the demons, which fill his chain of being between the supreme god and man, and which he talked about time and time again. I take him at his word that he wished his prayers and hymns to these gods to be sung in accordance with the calendar he had devised; that he affirmed the eternity of the world, the unchallenged determinism of divine fate, and the transmigration of souls from body to body; and that he rejected as ridiculous the Christian notions of intercessory prayer, resurrection and paradise.
[from: Reconsidering the Renaissance, pp. 51-52]

In other words, Plethon believed in Pagan Gods, prayed to those Gods, celebrated those Gods according to a Pagan calendar of holy days, believed in a Pagan cosmology, etc. Hey – it sounds like maybe he really was a Pagan after all! And not really all that hard to find, providing one is actually looking.

Many scholars have lately tried to change their tune, somewhat, from Kristeller’s crude fabrication that it is impossible to find any real Pagans during the Renaissance, to the claim that, well, OK, there might have been one or two Pagans – but nobody paid any attention to them. The fearless leader of this effort should probably be considered James Hankins, who devotes some effort in his two volume Plato in the Italian Renaissance to arguing that Plethon’s Paganism, in particular, had no effect on anyone, anywhere, really.

But before proceeding to shed some light on the reception of Plethon by the possible Pagans of the Italian Renaissance, let me return to Marsilio Ficino for a moment. Ficino is the grand prize of the dueling perspectives on whether or not the Renaissance was a Pagan phenomenon. Ficino, as Cosimo de’ Medici’s hand picked head of the Platonic Academy in Florence, is, arguably, to Renaissance philosophy what Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, combined, are to Renaissance art. At any rate, he is a much contended over feather for either the cap of the Pagans or the Christians. The fact is that Ficino publicly identified as a Christian, and was even a priest. But does anyone believe that every (or, for that matter any) government official in the People’s Republic of China is a sincere true-believing Marxist? Common sense tells us that mere professions of faith are rendered worthless when adduced in an atmosphere of repression, to state the painfully obvious.

We do know that Marsilio Ficino was a deeply religious man, and that his religiosity was much more heavily influenced by Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus than it was by Jesus, Peter and Paul. We also have a biography of Ficino written just seven years after his death, in which we are told quite clearly that he was a “Paganus” at least until the age of 42. In fact, his biographer, Giovanni Corsi, informs us that Ficino originally planned his monumental work Platonic Theology to be “almost a model of the pagan religion”. But then, Corsi assures us, nothing less than a “divine miracle” occurred, the result of which was that “whilst he was still in his forty-second year from being a pagan he became a soldier of Christ.”

If we take Corsi at his word then we see a clearly Pagan Ficino, carrying on the theological mission of Plethon, only to suddenly, miraculously, see the error of his ways, and then return to the flock with the rest of the sheep. But even if we completely discount the authenticity of Corsi’s claim, we nevertheless still have the claim itself. One assumes that Corsi’s intended audience would at least accept this claim as within the realm of the conceivable, which would mean that the idea of Pagans walking the streets of Florence, with Marsilio Ficino among them, was conceivable for those living at the time, even if that lies beyond the comprehension of many (but certainly not all) so-called experts in the Renaissance today!

On the other hand if we take an open minded, yet skeptical, view, we might conclude that the most likely part of Corsi’s story to be untrue would be the 180 degree theological bat-turn of a man who had devoted his life up to that time to the revival of Pagan religion and philosophy. There are as many reasons for feigning such a “conversion” as there are for someone suspected of being a capitalist roader (or whatever they call them these days) in the Peoples’ Republic of China to suddenly proclaim a newfound and deeply heartfelt love and admiration for Marx and Mao.

But now I wish to return to Plethon and his supposed lack of influence as a Pagan. I will call as my first and only witness a person who goes (well, nearly) unmentioned in Hankin’s 847 page study, the current go-to scholarly source for those who are eager to poo-poo any notions of Renaissance Paganism (as Ronald Hutton wishes to do in his Witches, Druids and King Arther, see especially chapter 4, The New Old Paganism and chapter 5 Paganism in the Missing Centuries). The person in question is Sigismondo Malatesta (1498-1553), who, among many other noteworthy achievements, was the first person ever personally, by name, officially and preemptively condemned to Hell by express order of the Catholic Church (usually such decisions are considered to be left up to the discretion of God and/or Jesus, and that not until the Day of Judgment). If for no other reason than that, he can hardly be thought of as an unknown figure to students of Italian Renaissance history.

Malatesta was an aristocrat whose ancestral family seat was the city of Rimini. In addition to being notorious for the great enmity which the Church, and the Pope personally, felt toward him, Malatesta is also known as something of a military adventurer, which was not an unusual past-time for a 16th century aristocrat. During one expedition he managed to, temporarily, rout the Turkish forces on the Greek Peloponnesian peninsula. He took the opportunity to disinter the remains of his hero, George Gemistos Plethon, and transport those remains from Mistra back to his native Rimini.

Malatesta re-interred Plethon’s remains in a “Church” that he had had built, which the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as the “wonderful temple of San Francesco at Rimini, the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches….” The Tempio Maletestiano, as it is often referred to, is “virtually emptied of Christian symbols” according to Joscelyn Godwin, who describes the Temple in some detail in his The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. The Temple contains not only the remains of the notorious Pagan Plethon, but also shrines, altars, statues and chapels honoring the Goddess Diana, the Sybills, the Muses, the God Saturnus, the astrological Planets and Signs of the Zodiac, and so forth. Much of the Temple’s design is based on a work of the Pagan philosopher Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, which, in turn, is based on a scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus first lands back home in his native Ithaca, and visits a sacred Cave.

I have only just scratched the surface here, but hey, this is just a blog post, right, so what do you expect? What I hope I have made clear is that (1) one can, if one wishes, find plenty of evidence of Pagans and Paganism in the Renaissance, and (2) therefore those who insist otherwise, and/or who sheepishly admit that there might have been some Pagans but that these had no “influence”, are driven by something other than the facts. What drives them, in my opinion, is their adherence to the false dichotomy of “Christianity or nothing.”

You see, those who deny or minimize Paganism in the Renaissance wish to give the impression that by the 15th and 16th centuries it was impossible for anyone born and raised in Christendom to believe in the Old Gods of Pagan antiquity. But the posthumously discovered secret writings of Gemistos Plethon, on the basis of which Monfasani declared him an “unequivocal” Pagan, begin with the “unequivocal” declaration: “The Gods really do exist.”

OUR present situation, early in the 21st century, is the natural result of the centuries of monolithic thought control on all matters of religion and philosophy that characterized the vast bulk of western history from the fourth century AD until all too recently. In the process Christians sought to, and succeeded in defining religion in terms of their one, and only one, “God”. Whether a person is “religious” or not, in the west, is generally thought of in terms of one’s thoughts on this “God” of the Christians.

Fortunately, Christians no longer have the power to blatantly and openly impose their religion directly on others, as they did for one and half millennia. But those who, during that time, remained spiritually chained crouching in the dark have lost much of the use of their limbs and their eyes, so to speak, and, as is intended by such torture, most of them have had their spirits broken: they no longer even remember what it means to move freely, or to see the light. The result is as horrific as it is predictable. Is there anything more tragic than a slave who does not wish for freedom, a prisoner who’s only desire is to continue to live in his or her familiar cage? Human beings are by nature adaptable and malleable, and so while belief in many Gods was “self-evident” to Epicurus, and most others, 2300 years ago, today things are far less clear, at least to most of those in the west.

The New Atheists show their true colors by their eager perpetuation of the spiritual two-party system. Christians and the New Atheists have reached a gentleman’s agreement concerning the terms of the debate on religion, terms that can be summed up in a simple question, a question that brings to mind the Inquisitor’s sneer: do you believe in “God”, or not?

The most corrosive (and least gentlemanly) aspect of these terms is that the coercive nature of the historical process of Christianization, combined with the repressive nature of Christendom from the fourth century AD until well into the early modern period, is to be considered as normative for all religions, indeed, for Religion itself.

When Christianity is accused of systemic intolerance it may be impolite or politically incorrect to say so, but it is historically accurate. That does not mean that every, or even most, individual Christians are intolerant. Consider for example the issue of torture and other acts of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. To say that the US Military has a systemic problem with torture does not mean that most, let alone all, members of the US military are wannabe torturers. In fact, a “systemic” problem means precisely a problem with the institution itself and with the leadership, as opposed to a problem with individuals.

As is to be expected, many Christians disagree (often vehemently) with the statement that their religion has a systemic problem with intolerance, and it is even common to hear the counter-charge that such statements themselves smack of intolerance and religious bigotry. On the other hand, Christians are often far more comfortable with the blanket accusation that all religions are intolerant! This accusation suits both the Christians and the Atheists rather well. For the Christians it allows them to hide behind the “everyone else does it” argument, while also simultaneously promoting the “Christianity or nothing” paradigm. The Atheists love the “all religions are created equally intolerant” routine because it allows them, without presenting any proof, to paint all religions with the same brush of intolerance as Christianity.

The great irony is that today the New Atheists will defend Christianity against those who believe, as Voltaire did, that the systemic intolerance of Christianity is not a general feature of all religions. If one attempts to defend Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, classical Paganism, etc, by arguing that these religious traditions are tolerant as a general rule (as for example the historian Ramsay MacMullen has argued with respect to Roman Paganism), one will confront Atheists rabidly insisting that such a distinction is unfair to the Christians, and that the only fair-minded position is to treat all religions equally – as equally evil, violent, and intolerant, that is!

[The pie chart is from adherents.com. Quick: what early 80’s video game does it remind you of?]

The varieties of sceptical thought, Part Five: Overview of the Trial of Socrates

Backwards Timeline for the Trial of Socrates:

~389 BC Plato writes the Apology
399 trial and execution of Socrates
403 General amnesty declared for crimes committed during the Tyranny
403 Overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants
404 The Thirty Tyrants come to power
404 Final surrender of Athens to Sparta ends the Peloponnesian War
405 Obliteration of the Athenian fleet in Battle of Aegospotami
415 Massive Athenian naval expedition to Sicily ends in disaster
415 Desecration of the Herms
~417 AristophanesThe Clouds
421 Peace of Nicias
422 Battle of Amphipolis
424 Battle of Delium
431 Beginning of Peloponnesian War
432 Battle of Potidaea

The trial and execution of Socrates came during the tumultuous years following the collapse of the Athenian Empire. In 405 BC the Spartans destroyed nearly the entire Athenian fleet and the following year the decades-long Peloponnesian War between the two most powerful Greek city-states came to an end with the surrender of Athens. This was followed by the imposition of a new government in Athens, comprised of men hand-picked by the Spartans, the so-called Thirty Tyrants. Under this regime many Athenians were forced into exile, and hundreds were condemned to death. A state of civil war ensued, and soon the Thirty Tyrants were in turn overthrown in 403 and replaced by a new government controlled by a resurgent “democratic party” made up largely of recent exiles under the leadership of Thrasybulus. Although a general amnesty was declared, Socrates’ powerful enemies were able to whip up popular sentiment against their nemesis by making him a scapegoat for Athens’ ruinous reversal or fortune. According to Diogenes Laertius Socrates was “the first philosopher who was tried and put to death.” After the execution, also according to Diogenes Laertius, “the Athenians immediately repented of their action”, and all those who had been behind bringing Socrates to trial were themselves either sent into exile or put to death.

Unfortunately, some people have the mistaken impression that Socrates was some kind of semi-legendary figure who might not have even existed at all. In fact, Socrates is one of the most well-documented persons in all of ancient history. Take his execution, for example. Plato lists 12 people by name who were all present with Socrates when he drank the hemlock in his prison cell (Plato himself was not there). These are all historically attested persons who really were Socrates’ students, and at least six of them wrote surviving (if only in fragments) philosophical dialogues recounting Socrates’ teachings. In addition we have the far more extensive writings of two of Socrates’ more famous students who were not there when he was executed: Xenophon and Plato.

We know the names of Socrates’ father and mother (Sophroniscus and Phaenarete) and even their probable professions (stone-cutter and midwife, respectively), the names of his children (Lamprocles, Sophroniscus and Menexenus), and we also know the name of one of his wives (Xanthippe), and possibly of another one (Myrto), although sources differ on the number and order of Socrates’ marriages. We do not know for certain the year of his birth but there is no doubt that he died in the year 399 BC.

Concerning the trial itself, in his The School of History Mark Munn writes that

The indictment of Socrates is well attested in several contemporary paraphrases, and is reliably quoted by Diogenes Laertius, at second hand, from a work by Favorinus of Arelate, a sophist of the early second century CE who consulted the text of the indictment still preserved in the official archives of the Metroon at Athens. It reads as follows:

Meletus son of Meletus of Pitthus has written a sworn indictment against Socrates son of Sophroniscus of Alopece as follows: Socrates commits the offense of not acknowledging the Gods acknowledged by the state and of introducing other new divinities. He commits the further offense of corrupting the young. Penalty proposed: capital punishment.

Plato’s Apology, which recounts Socrates’ trial, was written within a decade of the trial itself, therefore many of those who read it when it first appeared had been alive at the time or were even present at the trial (as Plato tells us he was). R.E. Allen’s assessment of the historicity of Plato’s Apology is, in part, as follows:

Plato’s Apology purports to represent a historical occurrence, namely, the speech which the historical Socrates made at his trial. It is a natural question, and one often asked, whether Plato’s representation of that speech is historically accurate.

A kind of conventional wisdom has grown up as an answer. It claims that the Apology represents sheer idealization of the master’s life, that it is a fiction. I believe that within such limits of proof as the subject matter admits, this answer is provably mistaken. As a matter of best evidence, the Apology should be admitted as essentially accurate to historical fact.

By saying that the Apology is essentially accurate I don’t mean that it is a word-for-word presentation of Socrates’ speech…. [T]here is good reason to suppose that the Apology is not a stenographic report, even though Plato takes pains to indicate that he was present and heard the speech (34a, 38b), something he does nowhere else in the dialogues…. [T]he Apology reproduces the general substance of what Socrates said and the way he said it….

There is no good evidence that the Apology is inaccurate. There is good evidence that the Apology is accurate…. This need hardly occasion surprise. Plato could have had no good reason for presenting an account of Socrates’ defense which was at variance with the facts to an audience thoroughly familiar with what Socrates had actually said. This point, indeed, applies in general to the early dialogues. Given that Socrates cared deeply to know what piety and other virtues are, and knew that he did not know, his ignorance would have prevented him from denying the charges brought against him. It follows that Socrates could have made essentially the speech which Plato presents, and perhaps he could have made no other.
[Allen 1984, pp. 76-78]

In his defense speech, Socrates states that he must counter two types of enmity against him. First there is the long-standing hatred of him among many of his fellow Athenians, and second there are the specific charges brought against him by three citizens, Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. Although Socrates does not say so explicitly, the specific charges against him were simply a means to and end, namely, The Elimination of Socrates, as Mark Munn titles the section of his book devoted specifically to the trial and execution of Athens’ most famous citizen. Socrates does come pretty close to stating this, though, when he points out that one of the charges against him is that he had “introduced new Gods”, while one of his accusers, Meletus, accuses Socrates (during the trial itself) of believing in no Gods whatsoever, with the clear implication being that the specifics of the charges are of little or no concern to the accusers, who simply want to exact vengeance against their enemy, Socrates, by any means necessary.

Just how dangerous these times were, and how poisonous the intellectual climate had become, is darkly foreshadowed by these words of Thucydides, writing about the factional conflicts that rocked the city of Corcyra near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, almost three decades before Socrates drank the hemlock:

Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence, became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. [3.82.4]

Further reading on the trial of Socrates:

The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 1 by R.E. Allen

The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates by Mark Munn

Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens by Arlene W. Saxonhouse

Life of Socrates by Diogenes Laertius

Socratic Studies by Gregory Vlastos

Plato and the Socratic Dialogue by Charles Kahn

The Athenian Empire by Russell Mieggs

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader by Perez Zagorin

The Athenians and Their Empire by Malcolm F. McGregor

Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Trial of Socrates by Tom Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith

Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Plato’s Apology of Socrates by CDC Reeve

The Unknown Socrates: Translations, With Introductions and Notes, of Four Important Documents in the Late Antique Reception of Socrates the Athenian [this is a realy fascinating book from Bolchazy, also check out the book’s listing at Amazon, which let’s you “look inside”]

[NOTE: I put a lot of wikipedia links in this post – but I checked them all out and they seem pretty good. There is, however, a specific wikipedia entry on “The Trial of Socrates” which is mind-bogglingly evil (and I am not providing a link to it – but it’s easily found for those who have an interest in evil-ology). It sounds like it was written by some people whose only regret is that Socrates isn’t alive today so that they could kill him all over again. The wikipedia entry for Socrates, though, is reasonably good, by wikipedia standards.]

The Varieties of Sceptical Thought, Part Four: Richard Popkin

Richard Popkin’s seminal The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle is rare gem of a book for anyone interested in the history of ideas. But don’t take my word for it!

From Richard Popkin’s obituary in the UK Guardian:

The History Of Scepticism revolutionised the received picture of both the history of philosophy and the history of science, by demonstrating the influence, in the century before Descartes, of ancient Greek sceptical arguments about the impossibility of knowing God and the world.

In making his case for this central contribution to the development of modern science and philosophy, Popkin gave attention to the intellectual context of the time, especially the role of religious disputes in the take-up of philosophical scepticism deriving from the discipline’s Greek founder, Pyhrro. Instead of treating the history of science and philosophy as a series of breakthroughs by canonical figures, Popkin sought to view the thought of the past from within its own framework.

His history brought him international recognition and was translated into four languages. He expanded his thesis in later editions of the book (most recently in 2003), and in The High Road To Pyrrhonism (1989), which took the story through to David Hume. His interest in the contribution of non-philosophical strands (especially religion) to the history of philosophy led to pioneering studies of the interaction of Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, and of topics such as kabbalism and millenarianism.

From Popkin Non-Scepticus by Brian Copenhaver, which in turn is from The Legacies of Richard Popkin, edited by Jeremy D. Popkin:

Part of the force that drove Popkin’s monumental achievement was human and social – his dazzling gift for talking to people and convening them for hundreds of projects, conferences and publications of great and enduring influence. But what he achieved intellectually is deeper and wider than that. His range was enormous, of course, centering on French, Dutch, English and Jewish thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but reaching forward to twentieth century politics in this country and back to fifteenth century religion and philosophy – to the Italian Renaissance. In fact, his influence on the historiography of Renaissance philosophy was profound.

Popkins most important book – one of a multitude – is his History of Scepticism…. The first edition, Popkin writes, “was submitted to two major academic presses … [but] turned … down on the grounds that it was not sufficiently philosophical”; it appeared nevertheless in 1960, followed by a second edition in 1979 and a third in 2003. Evidently it was sufficiently readable.

Popkin’s very compelling story, according to the title of the first edition, goes From Erasmus to Descartes; but the second edition goes From Erasmus to Spinoza; and the third From Savonarola to Bayle. Once the apocalyptic Florentine friar appeared in Popkin’s title, the Italian Renaissance of scepticism had finally made the headlines of Anglophone historiography. That alone was newsworthy, given the previous record of oblivion, both for Renaissance philosophy and for scepticism.

If you still need help forgetting the Renaissance, read almost any history of philosophy written in English before Schmitt’s Cambridge History became influential. One such work, first published in 1914, was still in print when Popkin was teaching at Iowa and Schmitt was studying at Columbia; this was A History of Philosophy by Frak Thilly, a Kantian who taught at Berkeley. In a book of 677 pages Thilly’s Renaissance rates fewer than two dozen, including one whole paragraph on scepticism – mainly on Montaigne.

Otherwise, scepticism was chiefly a Greek affair for Thilly, and thus stuck in antiquity. In the modern period, Berkeley gets just one paragraph to refute it. Pierre Bayle gets twice as many to expose inconsistencies in religion and work his “potent influence on Hume.” but Thilly’s Hume is the Third Person of the British Empiricist Trinity and thus immaculate against such stains. Hume has his doubts about cause and effect, of course, and about knowledge of the external world and other such items, but we are not told that these worries are “sceptical.” the word enters Thilly’s main account of Hume only in an affecting digest of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, where “in spite of these skeptical reflections, Hume declares that it hardly seems possible that anyone of good understanding should reject the idea of God …. How seriously these remarks are to be taken …. the reader is left to decide for himself.”

That was where scepticism stood in the awareness of Anglophone philosophy when Popkin awoke it from its dogmatic slumber…. [pp. 5-7]

From A Rebours: Richard Popkin’s Contributions to Intellectual History by Allison P. Coudert, also from the same volume: The Legacies of Richard Popkin:

I met Dick at the Clark Library in 1984, where I worked up the courage over several days to give him offprints of two articles. At that point I had no reason to think that Dick would be any different from most accomplished academics, someshat loathe to take handouts from unknown scholars, especially ones working on esoteric subjects like Kabbalah and witchcraft. But, as I quickly learned, Dick’s skeptical and inquisitive bent inclined him to question prevailing wisdom and Whiggish interpretations when it came to understanding the past. Like two other great scholars of the twentieth century, Gershom Scholem and Frances Yates, he saw himself as something of an archeologist, digging deep in what he has described as the “marvelous and varied intellectual world or swamp which lies beneath our present thinking” to ferret out little known figures, whether they be neglected persons from the past or unrecognized scholars of the present. It was at the margins, in the writings of ignored and neglected figures, that Dick found ideas now seen to be central to our understanding of the transition from the early modern to the modern world….

In thinking how to define Popkin’s contributions to scholarship I was struck by the family resemblance that exists between his work and that of two other distinguished scholars I referred to earlier, Francis Yates and Gershom Scholem. In significant ways all there were “heretics” inasmuch as they went against the grain of accepted scholarship by emphasizing the centrality of what other scholars had marginalized, denigrated, or ignored. As I mentioned, Dick was fascinated by what he referred to as the “swamp which lies beneath our present thinking.” Scholem had a similar penchant for delving into uncharted regions. He was convinced that one had to excavate traditional history to get to the truth hidden below the surface, and he discovered sources of this hidden truth well beyond the borders of orthodoxy….

Yates shared this same conviction that true history was subterranean. Like Popkin and Scholem, she saw herself as an archeologist, whose excavations among the ruins of the past revealed the truth that lay beneath what she described as “superficial history.” … Yates pursued the theme of “lost” history throughout all her work….

When one thinks about the factors that drove Popkin as well as Scholem and Yates to direct their historical investigations to areas beyond the borders of orthodoxy, biography becomes important. In his two autobiographical essays Popkin describes himself as by nature “rebellious.” He rebelled against his parents’ dogmatic liberalism, anti-religion, and communist world view. This rebelliousness continued at Columbia, where he rejected John Dewey’s intrumentalism and Frederick Woodbridge’s naturalism. It wasn’t until he discovered Sextus Empiricus that things began to fall into place. As he says in a passage that makes both Francis Bacon and Karl Marx jump to mind:

In my own case, I guess that I feel perpetually an outsider and an outcast ready to smash intellectual idols at any time. An intellectual anarchist might describe this view, who feels the common human bond would be revealed if our intellectual chains were broken and our deceptive glasses removed. Theories would be seen as myths with no supra-human dimension. Only the supra-human experience found in religious experience and aesthetic experience transcends this. But any interpretation puts one back in Plato’s cave looking at shadows and illusions.

[pp. 15-20]

[P.S. I’m still working on an overview of the trial of Socrates, but it might be a day or two before it’s ready.]

The varieties of sceptical thought, Part Three: Socrates’ advice to the jury

Socrates’ advice to the jury
In his speech to the jury, Socrates provides three arguments against fearing death:

(1) Fearing death is cowardly and shameful.
(2) One should always do what is right, whatever the consequences, even if it means facing death. (Plato’s Republic is devoted primarily to defending this position.)
(3) We do not know what death really means, but if we fear death that implies we think we know what death is, and to think one knows what one does not know is “the worst kind of ignorance.”

These three separate arguments are all intertwined in Socrates’ speech: We do not know what death is, in particular we do not know whether it is good or bad, but we do know that acting unjustly and/or cowardly is wrong. Therefore we should always act in accordance with justice, and we should never do what we know to be wrong, even at the risk of death.

While explaining his own lack of fear of death in this way, he encourages the jury to fear for themselves, lest they do harm to themselves by acting unjustly:

I think that what I am going to say will do you good: for I have something more to say, at which you may be inclined to cry out; but I beg that you will not do this. I would have you know that, if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Meletus and Anytus will not injure me: they cannot; for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure a better than himself. I do not deny that he may, perhaps, kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is doing him a great injury: but in that I do not agree with him; for the evil of doing as Anytus is doing – of unjustly taking away another man’s life – is greater far. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly. And that I am given to you by God is proved by this: – that if I had been like other men, I should not have neglected all my own concerns, or patiently seen the neglect of them during all these years, and have been doing yours, coming to you individually, like a father or elder brother, exhorting you to regard virtue; this I say, would not be like human nature. And had I gained anything, or if my exhortations had been paid, there would have been some sense in that: but now, as you will perceive, not even the impudence of my accusers dares to say that I have ever exacted or sought pay of anyone; they have no witness of that. And I have a witness of the truth of what I say; my poverty is a sufficient witness. [30c-31c]

Nothing could be less “skeptical”, in the way that word is so often misused, than Socrates’ haughty advice delivered so scornfully to those who in theory stand in judgement over him. Such talk is obviously not intended to “make friends and influence people”!

For over 2400 years now (Socrates was executed in 399 BC) some people have wondered why it was that Socrates chose to antagonize the jury, rather than putting on a more conventional defense. In fact, the jury vote was close enough to strongly suggest that if Socrates had been less confrontational and less condescending, he most likely would have been acquitted.

But Socrates could not be other than Socrates. He conducted himself at his trial just as he had always done, at least since the day he received “the command of the oracle”, as he understood it, to examine himself and his fellow Athenians. This cannot be over-emphasized: Socrates could not act differently simply because his life was now at stake. And he explains exactly why that is so in the speech itself.

In fact, Socrates won’t even lower himself to explicitly refute the charges against him! Instead of directly countering the charge of impiety, he raises the question (using R.E. Allen’s paraphrase): “Does one or does one not acknowledge the Gods of the City … if one doubts … certain of the terrible stories told about them?”!! And instead of directly answering the charge that he corrupted the youth of Athens, Socrates poses the question: “Does one corrupt the youth by expressing … doubts?”!! Socrates’ “defense” amounts to his open declaration that he does not genuinely know whether the charges against him are true or not, because we do not know with certainty what piety and virtue are – but Socrates insists that this is just as true for his accusers and judges as it is for him. In fact, Socrates makes a central point of his argument that he is superior to his accusers and judges precisely because he knows that he does know these things – whereas they believe that they do!

As R.E. Allen explains it, Socrates does not present a “defense against the charges” so much as he makes his own “counter-claim”. Socrates has, in effect, put his accusers and the members of the jury on trial, and he has convicted them, to their faces, of “villainy and injustice” (as Allen puts it). And just in case there is any doubt about what he really thinks, he tells them all that he has nothing to fear “for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure a better than himself”.

The Apology is one of the greatest works in the history of rhetoric. But this is philosophical rhetoric, which is only interested in arriving at the truth, not in winning an argument. And one cannot arrive at the truth unless one begins with the acknowledgment that one does not yet know the truth. In contrast there is what R.E. Allen calls “base rhetoric” which begins with the assumption that one knows the truth already, and such “base” rhetoric is employed only to cajole others to one’s own position. Very often base rhetoric is also called simply sophistry, and one of the hallmarks of sophistry, in this negative sense, is that a skilled sophist is able to convince people that a case that is truly weak is really strong, and vice versa:

“Socrates does not state but shows the difference between base rhetoric and philosophical rhetoric and shows also that the difference is not merely a matter of form. The verdict of the Athenians indicates that, just as Meletus and those around him do not know what piety and impiety are, so the Athenians do not know what sophistry is, or what it really means for the stronger argument to be strong. Standing at a distance, they cannot tell the dog from the wolf. What is shown is not said, and cannot be said except to those who have learned to see and need not hear it.” [Allen 1984, p. 73]

Whew! I’m really just starting to scratch the surface. In the next installment I will back up a little and give a more general overview of the Trial of Socrates. It occurs to me that I might be assuming more knowledge than most people are likely to have…..