Tag Archives: dualism

Lessons from Aesop’s Fables (#3): The Man and the Satyr

Fable:

A Man and a Satyr once drank together in token of a bond of friendship being formed between them. One very cold wintry day, as they talked, the Man put his fingers to his mouth and blew on them. When the Satyr asked the reason for this, he told him that he did it to warm his hands because they were so cold. Later on in the day they sat down to eat, and the food prepared was quite scalding. The Man raised one of the dishes a little towards his mouth and blew in it. When the Satyr again inquired the reason, he said that he did it to cool the meat, which was too hot. “I can no longer consider you as a friend,” said the Satyr, “a fellow who with the same breath blows hot and cold.”

Moral:1959.4559-MF[1]

Although originally used to reproach the innate contradiction of humankind or to warn against the friendship of dishonest people, this fable is profound enough to allow of a different interpretation pertaining to polytheists. The satyr here can be seen as the one at fault, because he does not understand the complex nature of existence and culture. Indeed, the satyr here can be best compared to monotheists who insist on absolute moral dualism and condemn the grey shades (i.e. relativism) of a polytheistic worldview in favor of an extremely biased black and white one. Just like the satyr, a monotheist would not comprehend (for example) why both Achilles and Hector, even though they fought against one another, are both considered noble warriors while also not being altogether perfect.

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To maintain stability, complex societies moralized their Gods?

A recent study has found that, in the course of history, complex societies throughout the world evolved a moral interpretation of their Gods, rather than the opposite. By moral it is meant the application of dualism, the rewarding of good and the punishment of evil. This does not suggest that duality of good and bad did not exist before, but that it became solidified and mandatory in its decrees and consequences, moving towards black and white rather than grey shades. Divine moralization of this kind occurs in a regular and predictable pattern: “we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people.” On the one hand, this seems reasonable because as social complexity increases, so do social problems; the more people there are, the more effort and management will be needed to keep them stable*. Therefore, the priesthood (whose task it was to officiate rituals and interpret signs) tended to support the moralization of the Gods in order to promote social harmony; perhaps the Gods themselves changed their behavior towards the changing society that worshipped them. But on the other hand, moralization can serve a political function for the upper classes at the expense of the lower. Moralization can only go so far before people notice a discrepancy among classes and groups. Thus, it is no wonder there is a connection between it and imperialism: “Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.” This realization makes me reflect on the content of this website. On one hand, I have been trying to promote a rediscovery of original religious traditions/ideas, together with distinct standardizations of those within distinct communities. But on the other, I have also moralized the Gods to a certain extent (mainly as far as indigenism is concerned) in order to solve the complex problem of how to revive polytheism nowadays in the most stable, effective and fair manner. Everyone would need to return to simple animism and the earliest form of society in order to do away with these instances of occasional cognitive dissonance. But such is complexity: it is both beautiful in its bounty and cruel in its confusion.

 

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* A notable example of this moralization is in Hesiod, who writes in the early Archaic period (around 750 BCE), at a time when the population and social complexity of Greece had increased greatly. The difference between his views and those of Homer, who is said to have lived a mere 50 years before, is striking. In Works and Days, Hesiod invokes Zeus several times as a God of justice who can right the wrongs of the oppressed and reform what Hesiod perceived to be a declining society.