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Commentary

Chapter 6: The Nature of the Gods


Herodotean themes are the themes of Greek tragic literature: fate, god, and guilty mortals, who by their actions try to avoid their destiny, only to further its fulfillment. Most significantly, Croesus, like Oedipus, can learn through sin and suffering to triumph against adversity and win reconciliation with god. There is not a single Greek tragedy that does not echo either implicitly or explicitly the admonition of Solon, “Never count a person happy, until dead,” with its twofold connotation: the happiness of human life cannot be judged until the entire span of that life has been lived, and death is to be preferred to the vicissitudes of life. Herodotus, like most Greek writers and artists, takes his philosophy from Homer. In the last book of the Iliad (see MLS, Chapter 19), Priam, the great king of Troy, comes alone as a humble suppliant to the Greek hero Achilles, in order to beg for the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has killed. In the course of their interview, Achilles who has also suffered much because of the death of his beloved Patroclus, divulges his conclusions about human existence:

No human action is without chilling grief. For thus the gods have spun out for wretched mortals the fate of living in distress, while they live without care. Two jars sit on the doorsill of Zeus, filled with gifts that he bestows, one jar of evils, the other of blessing. When Zeus who delights in the thunder takes from both and mixes the bad with the good, a human being at one time encounters evil, at another good. But the one to whom Zeus gives only troubles from the jar of sorrows, this one he makes an object of abuse, to be driven by cruel misery over the divine earth.

The once great Priam will soon lose everything and meet a horrifying end and Achilles himself is destined to die young. His fatalistic words about the uncertainty of human life are mirrored in the sympathetic humanism of Herodotus and echoed again and again by the Greek dramatists who delight in the interplay of god and fate in human life and the tragic depiction of the mighty fall of those who were once great.

Jack Miles, a former Jesuit, provides a pulitzer prize winning study of the anthropomorphic God of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Old Testament). His literary portrait depicts God as a fictional character with many facets. See especially pp. 397–408. To show that his contention is true, Miles retells the biblical story by presenting “the various personalities fused in the character of the Lord God” as separate characters. The result is a tale that reads very much like Greek and Roman mythology.

Yet there is no need to retell the story of the Tanakh polytheistically in order to reveal the essential similarity between the God of the Hebrews and the Greek Zeus. It is true that the Tanakh illustrates an absolute monotheism that appears more all-pervasive and relentless than that of the Greeks. Yet if we modify the major contention of Miles that for the Hebrews “all depends on a frighteningly unpredictable God” to read “all human happiness and misery depend on a frighteningly unpredictable God” we are describing the god of Homer and Herodotus.

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