Le Polythéisme et l’emploi au singulier des mots θεός δαίμων dans la littérature grecque d’Homère a PlatonBy GILBERT FRANÇOIS. (Bibliotheque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Universite de Liège, Fasc. CXLVII.) Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1957. Pp. 374+19.In the entire range of ancient Greek literature from the Homeric poems to Nonnus one encounters the singular noun (ὁ) θεός in passages where it does not refer to a god that is named in the context. Scholars have differed about the meaning of the singular of this word in many of these passages. Some have seen in this use of theos a monotheistic tendency and have rendered it “God,” and it plainly has this meaning in some philosophical writings. Others, insisting that the Greeks were thoroughgoing polytheists, argue that in most such passages the singular refers to a particular god whose name the writer either does not know or does not care to mention; they therefore translate with “the god” or “a god.” For some passages they are certainly right; for a good many others such an interpretation seems forced. Still other scholars interpret (ho) theos as a collective singular in many of these passages. Among them is Gilbert François, who has devoted a fairly big book to a thorough and painstaking study of every passage of Greek literature from Homer to Plato in which the singulars (ho) theos and (ho) daimon are used without obvious reference to an individual deity; and along with these singulars he studies every occurrence of the substantives to theion and to daimonion.
François shows that in most passages where the unspecific theos and daimon occur the singular is equivalent to (hoi) theoi and (hoi) daimones, when these plurals mean all gods or all supernatural powers together. It is used exactly as “man” is used in English as a collective singular to mean “mankind” or “(all) men.” Theos, therefore, often means “godkind” as simply another term for all the gods in one, divinity in general. Taking one by one every Greek author who lived and wrote before 350 B.C., he shows by quotation of parallel passages, as often as possible from a single work of the author concerned, that again and again (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi are used to express identical thoughts, and that no distinction can be made between them. Often singular and plural alternate within a single passage or argument, both obviously indicating one and the same divine power, the totality of gods. Especially when the gods are described as rulers of the world, controllers of fate, dispensers of justice, or as intervening in human affairs, the singular is often used instead of the plural not as much as the plural by most authors, it appears, but often enough by everyone. In reference to the gods as objects of cult the plural predominates, but the singular is found as early as the Homeric poems and is in- creasingly employed thus in later times.
Not in every instance, however, is theos meaning “godkind” collective in sense; opposition’s case, even when it is an sometimes the sense is generic (as in reference to qualities that a god has as god) or abstract (divinity as an abstract term). The plural may also be used generically and abstractly, so that here too singular and plural are parallel. Aside from Xenophanes, Plato, and one or two other philosophers, no Greek writer before 350 ever uses the singular to mean “God” as the one deity of the world or to mean a supreme being that rules over inferior gods; and even these philosophers often use the singular in a collective or generic sense in the manner of other writers. The development of the collective sense of theos, says François, is a linguistic, not a theological, phenomenon.
The singular and plural of (ho) daimon are often used exactly as those of theos; when they differ the former are usually either more impersonal, referring to supernatural power in general, or refer to supernatural beings inferior to gods.
Since prose writers are as likely as poets to use either the singular or plural of theos and daimon when they refer to the gods collectively, it is apparent that the choice of singular or plural is not dictated by the exigencies of meter. Presence or absence of the article with theos and daimon has no significance when the word is used without reference to an individual god: either theos or ho theos may mean”godkind.”
François’ argument is convincing; his careful, thorough, and well-reasoned study proves his thesis that unspecific theos and daimon have in most, instances a collective sense. His method is necessarily the close discussion of one passage after another, with a summary of conclusions at the end of each chapter; his book is pretty much a series of explications de texte. Of such a book we can demand only soundness and completeness and these we have. We cannot insist that it be entertaining too: it is not designed for armchair reading. Nevertheless the book is a bit too prolix, though this fault is largely due to François’ generosity in dealing with alternative interpretations. He constantly hears the opposition’s case, even when it is an imaginary opposition. In instances where his collective interpretation of (ho) theos is obviously right, he will give full consideration to a bare possibility that the singular could refer to an individual god, even though nobody has ever adopted the specific interpretation nor is likely to. François’ argument would have been more effective if the book had been reduced by one third.
Though I agree in general with François’ thesis and conclusions and find his interpretations sound, his zeal has led him astray in his interpretation of a few passages. He is often more logical than the writer whose work he is discussing. In considering the phrase κατὰ δαίμονα καὶ τύχαν which appears in Diagoras, Fragment 2, he maintains (p. 84) that daimon means divine power rather than fate or destiny, since fate and chance are mutually exclusive, whereas the divine power and chance are not. He supports his argument by pointing to the recurring θεὸς καὶ τύχη. The Greeks did not distinguish so sharply as this between fate and chance, or between the divine will and either: the three concepts, and the several Greek words which indicate them, run together. Diagoras’ phrase is simply a redundant expression like “trusting to luck and Jesus,” where the two terms mean essentially the same thing to the speaker. And what does che sara, sara refer to, fate or chance? Diagoras’ phrase recurs in the same or similar form and means the same as κατὰ δαίμονα or κατὰ τύχη alone, both everyday expressions. The reason one does not find κατὰ θεὸν καὶ δαίμονα, the nonappearance of which François uses as an argument, is that such a phrase did not establish itself in idiom. Again, since the gods’ will and fate were constantly identified, it is hardly true that the former concept is less contrary than the latter to chance.
In several other instances François’ excessive logicality leads him to put too much meaning into commonplace idioms. In dealing with σὺν (τῷ) θεῷ, σὺν (τοῖς) θεοῖς, he finds, or looks for, meaning for the noun from the logic of the context, exactly as when he finds the noun used in the nominative or accusative case as the subject or object of discourse; thus he gives the dative of these phrases varying interpretations according to the possible meanings of the noun. He is right that singular or plural form makes no difference to the phrase; but the phrase is colloquial and is used without much regard to the literal denotation of theos: it is “with God’s help” or “with good luck,” which, colloquially, have the same use, and therefore the same meaning, in English. σὺν θεῷ, in fact, differs not at all from σὺν τύχη θεοῦ, τύχη θεῶν, etc., phrases which François also treats much too literally. Of course, a pious person like Xenophon, having used the phrase σὺν θεῷ several times, may justify himself by a discourse on the gods’ omniscience and wisdom (Hipp. 9. 8f.).
In considering the oath formula πρὸς θεῶν καὶ δαιμόνων (p. 192, n. 1), quoted from Andocides and Isaeus, François says that the second noun must refer to inferior divine beings, distinct from the gods. I hardly think so; formulae, especially those which have a legal character, are likely to be redundant, for example, “‘goods and chattels,” “men and citizens.” Even in τους οὕτε δαιμόνων οὕτε θεῶν ὅπιν έχοντας (Herod. 9. 76. 2) the disjunction should not be pressed too hard (p. 201, n. 1): at most δαιμόνων includes more than θεῶν.
In the Politicus, Timaeus, and other late dialogues Plato distinguishes between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi: the singular refers to the supreme being, ho megistos daimon, the plural to the inferior gods who deal directly with mankind. [In fact, one of the most striking examples of Plato completely obliterating all distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi, and even theoi kai theai,occurs in the Timaeus at 27b-c, as I have discussed in an earlier post. Therefore the implication that Plato’s “late dialogues” make a systematic theological distinction between (ho) theos and (hoi) theoi is utterly without merit. But then again, nearly any argument based on the “devlopmental model” is bullshit from the get-go. Otherwise I do not have any strong feelings about that subject.] François holds (pp. 272f.) that even here Plato slips sometimes into traditional usage without regard for the distinction which he has made, that, for instance, at Pol. 274D εκ θεῶν refers to the supreme being. There Plato’s Stranger, referring to the time when the supreme god abandoned his direct rule over mankind, uses the plural instead of the singular. But does not Plato refer here to both the supreme being and those gods to whom he had assigned the task of helping him govern the world and who abandoned the world when he did? Again in the Timaeus François believes that the difference established between the supreme being and the inferior gods in respect to the number of the noun is often disregarded. In 44E-47C both singular and plural are used in the account of the creation of men, a task which the supreme god had assigned to his subordinates. Why cannot the singular refer to the supreme god under whose authority and plan the other gods act ? In a philosophical discourse we are justified in assuming consistency unless we are forced to give it up. At Pol. 274C παρὰ θεῶν should not be rendered “by the gods (par les dieux)” but “from gods”; the reference is to the gifts that particular gods of the present order, for example Prometheus, gave to man.
I doubt that Herodotus used the masculine singular ho theos to designate a goddess, as François,following Linforth, maintains (p. 324). Kleobis and Biton, after serving the goddess Hera, were rewarded with death in Hera’s temple (1. 31). Solon, who is telling the story to Croesus, interrupts it to remark that ho theos demonstrated by the event that death was better for man than life. It seems to me that ho theos does not refer specifically to Hera, but to the divine power in general, the gods collectively; here as elsewhere Herodotus draws from a particular story a conclusion about the gods and their relation to men. François, so strong an advocate of the collective sense of ho theos, has refused to adopt it here where he could very well have done so. At 2. 133 King Mykerinos of Egypt received a prophecy from Buto, where the goddess Leto had an oracular shrine, that he would die in seven years; he then sent a message of reproach τῷ θεῷ. François refers the noun to Leto. But what is Mykerinos’ reproach? That his father and grandfather, who had committed grave crimes against the gods, nevertheless lived long lives; whereas he, a pious king, had to die soon. That is, Mykerinos’ reproach is directed to the gods, not specifically to Leto, who was their mouthpiece. At 1. 105 I would read
ή θεός with papyri and Longinus. At 6. 82. 1 the second ho theos can hardly refer to anyone but Apollo.
François, like everyone else, interprets to daimonion of the Apology as Socrates’ inhibiting voice, except at 40A, η ειωθυια μου μαντική η του δαιμονίων: here he translates “Mon avertissement coutumier, celui de la Puissance surnaturelle” (p. 287). He argues that elsewhere to daimonion is equivalent to το (του θεού) σημείον, and that in 40A the latter phrase cannot be substituted for the former. The genitive phrase has given trouble to editors, some of whom have bracketed it; François, however, accepts it. But why must the genitive be differently interpreted from the nominative ? Interpreted as to semeion, it may still depend as a genitive upon mantike, “divination through (by means of) the demonic sign.” Notice Herod. 2. 57. 3, των ἱρων η μαντική, “divinationby means of victims,” as Rawlinson translates it. The genitive alone is equivalent to the prepositional phrase seen in την δια των ψηφων μαντικην (Zenob. 5. 75). Therefore η φωνή του δαιμονίων may stand at Theages 128E. Though Socrates’ daimonion manifests itself as a voice, the genitive may be interpreted as a defining genitive. We may also question the argumentof François and others that if it is a sign or voice it cannot also be a kind of spiritual entity. Remember that we say both that conscience is a voice and that we hear the voice of conscience. In saying this I am by no means accepting P. E. More’s interpretation of Socrates’ daimonion as conscience (the inner check); I am merely pointing an analogy. Certainly Socrates’ daimonion was something more alien to its host than is conscience.
Finally, François (p. 140), dealing with an anonymous tragic fragment, translates εις μουνος ανθρώποις θεός, κτλ., by “C’est une seule et unique divinit6 qui a alloue aux hommes, etc.” This seems to indicate an only God rather than the gods collectively. Better, “God (i.e., godkind) is the one and only (power) that has granted to men, etc.”
These objections and disagreements are not intended to depreciate the worth of François’ treatise, which does a great service in demolishing every support for theories that the ancient Greeks had a monotheistic tendency. There is no monotheism in Homer or Pindar or Aeschylus or Herodotus; there was certainly none in cult. Only certain philosophers, by a process of reasoning about the divine nature, arrived at monotheistic conclusions. On the other hand François shows that we need not always force the singular theos into a reference to an individual god.
The book is provided with useful appendixes, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of the several words with which the book is concerned, the other of passages. A general index would have been useful too.