Lessons from Aesop’s fables (#5): The Astronomer

Fable:

An astronomer used to go out at night to observe the stars. One evening, as he wandered through the suburbs with his whole attention fixed on the sky, he fell accidentally into a deep well. While he lamented and bewailed his sores and bruises, and cried loudly for help, a neighbor ran to the well, and learning what had happened said: “How now, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?’ Astrologue

Moral:

This fable serves to show the importance of grounding one’s religious inquiries and concerns. Too much intellectual or spiritual activity that seeks to transcend the real world or the common good of people is not only selfish, but also futile and harmful. Besides, does it really matter how the stars are situated, how the whole universe came about, or how the “divine principle” operates beyond the senses? No, these philosophical and theological things are small concerns and pedantic trifles to the ordinary person who cares far more for the fruits of real & stable community, harmony between people & nature, the knowledge of history & culture, and indeed the revival & preservation of traditions.

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Lessons from Aesop’s fables (#5): The Astronomer

  1. K

    Some of the philosophical logic that passed from Greek antiquity up to the Renaissance confuses me. For example, Kepler’s cosmological model was shackled to those ideas. Or the insistence(upheld by the Catholic church) that the Moon and other such bodies are perfectly spherical. The philosophers said they were spherical, because the sphere is the most perfect shape, therefore things in heaven must be spherical.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Agreed, The seeds of such inquiries go back to our old friend Hesiod (you may have noticed my previous post, where I place him in the section for cosmotheism) but the movement that promoted intellectualization of religion began formally with Thales. In fact, I read somewhere that this fable addressed him in particular, and if this is actually true, then no wonder. Much like the Babylonians, he was too occupied with the heavens (he predicted a solar eclipse) as well as natural elements and this is how the double-edged sword of science was first unsheathed. It seems to be that Thales, in searching for something simpler like animism (to make sense of a bigger world), he instead arrived at ever growing complexity with material monism. As much as I would like to blame him as a rich wiseacre of the middle class, knowing the changing circumstances of the times (even elsewhere, hence the Axial Age) makes me understand his innovations as an inevitable error that also carried with it new benefits. The same could be said of philosophy in general. This is my opinion on science: I see the human sciences of sociology/anthropology, archaeology, and history (along with the life sciences of zoology, geology and botany/ecology) to be quite useful, though mostly in a practical sense, whereas all others are (I am afraid) more or less useless and even harmful for us and for nature. In particular, biology, chemistry, astronomy, calculus, and physics have made us go too far and think of ourselves too highly as a species. So, if it were asked, has science on the whole been worthwhile in spite of its many erratic ways, I would say yes, though only insofar as we are willing to use what we already know to serve nature and rediscover ourselves; this has yet to be carried out and I am not too sure if it will ever be until it’s too late or (by some miracle) polytheism gains great power and enforces necessary adjustment. I have often implied in this site that true polytheism is not only a conceptual and ritual means to connect us to simpler times, but should also constitute a practical way of life that matches with the same. I can’t see how a modern and urban practice of polytheism would be fruitful, or indeed any different in its purpose from popular entertainment and anti-depressant pills.

      Like

      Reply
      1. K

        What bothers me about such assumptions about perfect spheres and how the heavens must be is that it imposes ideas on the world without any reference to how things actually are. That is the biggest fault I can find with philosophy, particularly of the idealist or platonic type. But even materialists(American Epicureanism like you called it) do this. Scientists often do it. I think of the search for some equation that explains everything, or the idea that all forces can be reduced to just one thing. Whenever the universe turns out not to be tidy and comprehensible in human terms, many scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers are frustrated. So far there have been a lot of disappointments in the quest to explain everything.

        I talked to someone once where I criticized something Plato said. In Republic, Plato made it clear that he did not like Homer’s mention(through Achilles) of the jars of Zeus, where ills and blessings are kept and from whence they are distributed. Plato insisted that the gods could not be responsible for the ills, or even have a part in allotting them. Homer had to be wrong. But Homer was just stating that which reflects actual life experience. Good and ill are in the world and part of every life, and surely the gods have some part in that. It is just how the world is, and anyone can see that if they occasionally look around and watch for wells.

        I also remember some author of antiquity criticizing how Tyche/Fortuna was depicted as blindly handing out wealth. It may have been a Christian writer. They sure had a problem with that. But who tells the truth, the critic or the image of Fortuna? Lady Luck does not pay heed to who you are, or your circumstances, or even your worth. This is just how things are. Anyone who has a run of good luck can just as easily see it all go away, or even reverse. Criticizing this is kind of like criticizing fire for burning things or water for taking the shape of its container.

        The past two weeks have been pretty bad for me. I was run ragged for a while. But I have had ideas. I am still working on writing things, and still have that aspiration for a blog or webpage. One idea I have considered is a sort of article showing that the “omni” ideas found primarily in Abrahamic theology cause all sorts of problems, and removing such assumptions avoids those problems. These ideas have their source from the “head in the clouds” type of philosophy that you often criticize.

        Omnibenevolence is ill defined and creates other problems when combined with omniscience and omnipotence(problem of evil). Omnipotence itself is hard to define, and also causes logical problems(the rock paradox for example). Omniscience creates problems with free will(including divine free will) and begs the question about how an omniscient being could know if it actually knows everything(unknown unknowns and all that). Eternally unchanging and impassible makes for a deity that cannot interact with anything(that requires change), respond to anything, or be affected by anything.

        All those assumptions combined create a kind of arrogant attitude where someone refuses to acknowledge a deity that does not conform to their preconceived human ideas. One holding those assumptions won’t worship anything that is not absolutely perfect, as if humans are in any position to make such a judgment. I have heard that from Christians before, that they would not worship even their own god(or gods) if he wasn’t perfect(which of course they say he is). Even the concept of “perfect” is vague and ill defined. Can anyone say what that actually means? It seems to always lead to question begging, assumptions dressed up as logic, and special pleading.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Melas the Hellene Post author

        These are good points. Philosophers are often guilty of dogmatism and idealism that are too removed from reality to be useful, too complex to put in practice or understand and indeed too specific to be considered important. Plato’s theory of Forms, his Demiurge and One dichotomy, and many points in the Republic are some of the worst ideas ever invented, being either totally useless or harmful. Christianity would have been a mere provincial movement without the influence of his ideas. The attempt to simplify everything by reducing into one large category ironically causes plenty of inconsistency and contradiction, leading to skepticism and radicalism. The absolute hierarchical ideas that you call “omni” are strong examples of this as you describe. And I don’t like that the philosophers very often prefer intellectualization to ritualization, logic to metaphor (as we can see between Plato and Homer) and theory to practice. Nevertheless, after all this is said, the philosophers do sometimes raise serious questions to reflect on, even if their own conclusions aren’t the best. Philosophers were conjured out of difficult times and changing circumstances. I like Plato’s and Aristotle’s idea of a small state (a community of 5000 people) but this wasn’t so much an invention as an inspiration from “barbarians” who lived more simply. Marx was likewise inspired by earlier and less complex societies and we know (in spite of his mistakes) what kind of a transforming world he was living in. We all agree that the world needs to halt its rapid progress and think for a moment about its situation before proceeding headlong. But how do to this is the essence. We can always improve on the imperfect efforts of philosophers.

        Like

      3. K

        I spent a long time studying Christian origins. Used to keep up with the literature on it a lot more than I do now. I eventually focused more on the origins of Judaism because I thought that would have a solution to the puzzle.

        One important piece of information I am sure you have never heard of is that there was a pre-Christian Jewish idea floating around that Isaac actually was sacrificed by Abraham, and his blood being shed redeemed future generations of Jews. Isaac was then resurrected. Put that in with the apocalypticism and fallen angels mythology(think the Book of Enoch), the development of the idea of Satan, and the martyrdom ideology promoted in the Books of Maccabees, the “son of man” figure in Daniel and Enoch(overlaps with apocalypticism again), messianism(found in the prophets and interpreted into them by commentators), anti-Temple sects like the Nazoreans and the Dead Sea sect, and you already have a lot of ideas found in early Christianity.

        The Hellenistic aspect consisted of taking Greek philosophical language and applying it to Judaism, extensive use of allegory( with the development of Midrash and Pesher around the same time). Most pertinent to Christianity was Alexandrian Jewish circles allegorizing the Torah. We see this most obviously in Philo. The laws and taboos found in the text were spun out into all sorts of intellectual interpretations, often quite removed from their original purpose. Josephus mentions this, that some Hellenized Jews said that if the “true meaning(allegorical interpretation) of the Torah” had been found beneath the surface, why follow the literal directives found in it? Some Jews started to consider their taboos obsolete and stopped observing them, probably to fit into the Hellenized world they lived in. This pertained to the dietary and purity laws of the Torah. Philo goes out of his way in several treatises to insist that, though the “true meaning” of the Torah is found in spiritual allegory, Jews still need to follow the letter of the law as well. Philo wanted to combat that view while getting to keep his allegory too.

        Midrash and Pesher, I do not consider to be Hellenistic influences. At least not directly. That sort of thing comes with a culture of texts and literacy among the educated classes. What they amount to is spinning out new interpretations of older texts. If you look into Chinese culture as an example, once that had a culture of literacy among elites(often influenced by Confucian ideas, but not always) they started coming up with all sorts of commentary and interpretation of their Five Classics(the core of old Chinese literature, equivalent in some respects to a Bible of sorts). It got to the point where to study the Book of Odes was in practice studying old canonized commentaries on the Book of Odes. What on the surface is a love song in archaic Chinese was through commentary transformed into some moralistic injunction. It was no different than what the rabbis were doing to the Jewish texts. The philosophers were doing about the same to the canon of accepted Greek texts as the Greeks became a textual culture.

        I admit that philosophy had a role in spawning various new religions of late antiquity, including Christianity. I am also starting to look into Buddhist links. It is obvious that Buddhism went into making Manichaeism(more influential than Christians like to admit), and the Christian writers and the philosophers of the time were aware of Buddhism. Buddhists were all over the ancient world, Middle East and Mediterranean included. The reference to a Coptic text talking about Brahmins being the 500 in one of the listed resurrection appearances shocked me so much when I heard of it recently that I started looking for more about it. Hermann Detering also drew a link to Buddhism.

        https://www.academia.edu/14193439/The_Buddhist_Solution_to_the_Q-Hypothesis

        http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2013/01/27/the-natsarene-religion-pt-2/

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Melas the Hellene Post author

        It is quite remarkable that the Jews originally believed that Abraham went through with the sacrifice of his son. This seems to be yet another pagan custom of the early Jews, akin to what the Phoenicians are known to have done. But as you point out, the Hellenistic Jews (and perhaps as early as their return from Babylon, if there is any Zoroastrian influence to be found) spiritualized and allegorized these stories just as the Greeks had done earlier with Homer’s. This is all evidence of the extensive influence of Axial Age ideas (broadly called “philosophy”), and I would not be surprised if some sort of link is found between Buddhism and Christianity. The Jewish Essenes come to mind as well as Apollonius of Tyana; and this may have been an addition to existing influence since the time of Pythagoras. As for the Chinese “spinning out new interpretations of older texts”, this is an important feature of the Axial Age change of thinking. Under “cosmotheism” in my previous post, I mentioned that it resulted from a growing middle class (educated & urban) and their desire to reform the old ways. You’ll find this study on the Axial Age interesting: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4802742/

        Like

      5. K

        I ought to have commented on that previous post, but I just never got around to it. I did like your chart though. I thought for a bit about there heathenry would fall. Where do you think it belongs?

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Melas the Hellene Post author

        No harm; comment at your leisure. In answer to your question, Germanic polytheism or “Heathenry” has gone through all four stages, much like most other European religions that were ancient and are now revived. During the new experiences and expansion of the Late Antiquity Germanic invasions and the later Viking Age, a change seems to have occurred (owing to the larger worldview) that perhaps corresponds to the shift from “politheism” (in a tribal sense) to “koinotheism” (in a national sense). As for modern Heathens, although they consist of tribalists and universalists, both are generally cosmotheists (globalization perhaps necessitates this). Nevertheless, a few groups are seeking more koinotheism (while still remaining basically cosmotheists) like the Asatru Folk Assembly or, in the case of Hellenism, the YSEE.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s