Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What are the metaphysical lessons of Homer’s world?

In his essay, The Birth of Philosophy: Thales and Homer, Stephen Hicks writes:

What then are the metaphysical lessons of Homer’s world?

First, naturalistic human agency alone does not cause events on earth. The gods and goddesses are active participants, and their desires, decisions, and actions are important: Zeus could have decided differently, Athena could have switched her affections, and, consequently, Hector’s fate and the outcome of the Trojan War could have been very different.

Second and closely related: In Homer’s world, the supernatural are the more powerful and important causal force. If the gods decide against something, it will not happen. And if the gods decide something will happen, it will. Human agency is a lesser power.

A third theme in Homer is that the gods and goddesses are often whimsical and divided among themselves. Zeus is often driven by his changeable passions. He gets into quarrels with Athena and the others. There is, consequently, no stable and predictable causal order in the natural world. (There is a notion of Fate operative in Homer, but it’s not consistent and its role is not clear — at least not to me.)

A fourth point worth mentioning concerns ethics in Homer’s world: humans worship the gods not because they are moral but because they are powerful. The gods are far from morally admirable and given to a wide range of vices and foibles. So what is the source and purpose of justice and other morally important realities? Concepts of right and wrong are not foreign to the gods, but the gods are not ethically clear or consistent, either in word or deed. And since humans are also not ethically clear or consistent, the place of morality in the universe is at best tenuous. Amoral power seems to rule both the natural realm and beyond.

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