Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Epimenides, Or Religion Without Metaphysics

This week I've been reading and re-reading Howard Wettstein's The Significance of Religious Experience and, at the same time, talking with my friend John Kaag about creativity and wonder in Peirce and the other classical Pragmatists.

At the end of his Cambridge Conference lectures of 1898, Peirce quoted a phrase from the Book of Acts, ch 17.  The phrase is "live and move and have our being."  It appears in a speech by St. Paul, the only time the Greek Testament records a Christian conversing with philosophers.  Paul quotes two Greek writers in that speech, Aratus and Epimenides.

The citation of Epimenides is relevant to the Areopagus, the place where Paul is speaking, as I have written elsewhere.   Paul quotes Epimenides' poem, the Cretica, in which Epimenides says of Zeus. "In him we live and move and have our being."

Epimenides had been summoned to the Areopagus several centuries prior to Paul's visit.  The Athenians were suffering from a long plague and none of their sacrifices had ended it.  As Diogenes Laertius recounts,* Epimenides suggested that if their sacrifices to the gods they knew were not availing them, perhaps they should sacrifice to an as-yet unknown god.  

The difficulty is that if you don't know the god, how do you know what the god wants?  What are the proper prayers?  What are the right sacrifices?  Who should make them?

Epimenides' solution appears to have been to confess ignorance and then to engage in the ritual to the best of his knowledge.  In the absence of settled doctrine, he leaned on human practice.  As Epicurus once pointed out, (see the very first line in Epicurus's Principal Doctrines) if your god gets angry about that sort of thing, it's probably not a god worth worshiping anyway.

To put a positive spin on that, consider how the Epimenides story ends: he directs the sacrifices, and the plague ends.  And the Athenians leave the altars to an unknown god on the slopes of the Areopagus, where Paul finds one centuries later.  Maybe, just maybe, it's possible to pray without knowing everything about God.  And maybe, if there's a God, that God knows we don't know much about God at all, and is okay with that.  Maybe religion is, as Wettstein suggests, like mathematics, something we can engage in even in the absence of settled knowledge about the underlying metaphysics.  I hope so.

Foreground: Agora of Athens; Background: Acropolis (L) and Areopagus (R) of Athens.

I took this photo from the temple of Hephaestus on the West end of the ancient agora of Athens.  The ruins in the foreground are the old marketplace and civic buildings.  At the top left is the Acropolis and the Parthenon; just to the right of the Acropolis is the Areopagus, which currently hosts no buildings, though if you look closely you can see some tourists walking around on the hill.  Presumably Epimenides built his altars on the slope leading up to the Areopagus.  According to the story in Acts, St Paul preached first in the agora and then on the Areopagus, walking up past an altar left by Epimenides. 

* We also find reference to the altars erected by Epimenides in Pausanias (I.i.4); and in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius.  Lucian's Philopatris alludes to it as well, but it is possible that he is referring to Acts 17.  Epimenides is quoted more than once in the Greek scriptures; he is also quoted in Titus 1.12.

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