Friday, November 20, 2020

Evening Note for Friday, November 20

Thought for the Evening: St. Paul at the Areopagus

In his most famous speech, in Acts 17, St. Paul speaks to the people gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, apparently at the behest of the Stoics and the Epicureans. He begins his speech by saying that the Athenians were in everything divinity-fearing (deisidaimonesterous). When passing through he looked at the things worshiped (sebasmata), he had seen an altar inscribed to the Unknown God (Agnosto Theo). What they unknowingly (agnoountes) worship, Paul proclaims. The proclamation involves several claims:

(1) The God who made the cosmos and all in it does not inhabit hand-made temples;

(2) as He gives all life, breath, and everything, he is not cared-for (therapeuetai) by human hands as if he needed things from us;

(It's worth noting that this is precisely one of the issues that comes up in Plato's Euthyphro, which raises the problem that piety (eusebeia) cannot be caring (therapeia) for the gods because that would mean that it it would consist in giving the gods things they need.)

(3) God made from one every nation of the world, determining their times and bounds

(4) so as to seek God (zetein ton theon), that they might grope after (pselepheseian) Him and find Him (heuroien);

(5) and indeed He is not far from us, 'for in Him we live and move and are'

(The quotation is from Epimenides' Cretica, which is not extant, but which Paul also quotes in the letter to Titus. The likely context would have been the Cretan claim that the tomb of Zeus was in Crete, a claim that the ancient world found as thoroughly mind-boggling and impudent as we would if someone tried to sell tickets to God's grave. But Zeus, contrary to the lying Cretans, lives everlastingly, for in Him we live and move and are.

It is not an accident that Paul would be quoting Epimenides. From Diogenes Laertius's Life of Epimenides:

And when he was recognized he was considered by the Greeks as a person especially beloved by the Gods, on which account when the Athenians were afflicted by a plague, and the priestess at Delphi enjoined them to purify their city; they sent a ship and Nicias the son of Niceratus to Crete, to invite Epimenides to Athens; and he, coming there in the forty-sixth Olympiad, purified the city and eradicated the plague for that time; he took some black sheep and some white ones and led them up to the Areopagus, and from thence he let them go wherever they chose, having ordered the attendants to follow them, and wherever any one of them lay down they were to sacrifice him to the God who was the patron of the spot, and so the evil was stayed; and owing to this one may even now find in the different boroughs of the Athenians altars without names, which are a sort of memorial of the propitiation of the Gods that then took place.

Thus the altars to the unknown god(s) near the Areopagus were due to Epimenides.)

(6) and as some of your poets say, 'We are His offspring.'

(The quotation is from Aratus's Phaenomena:

From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood.

It cannot be an accident that, having begun with the reference to the Unknown God, Paul builds on Aratus's argument that we do not leave Zeus unnamed, i.e., uninvoked, and that He is not far from us. Recall Diogenes Laertius's description of the altars as 'altars without names'.)

(7) As we are the offspring of God, we ought not to confuse God with idols made by the skill and thought of man.

(8) God has overlooked times of unknowing (agnoias) but now commands everyone everywhere to repent,

(9) for He has set a day in which He is about to judge in justice,

(10) through a Man appointed, giving faith to all, having raised Him from the dead.

The Areopagus sermon sets a template for all Christian interaction with pagan philosophy, since these are the essential components on which a Christian must insist when interacting with pagan philosophy: first the three first steps that Christians have continually had to repeat in the face of opposition: God is the Creator (1), being Providence requires nothing from us (2), and all human beings are from Him and are one stock (3). Given this, we can recognize that God has made us to seek Him, and that pagan philosophy is a feeling after Him that can in a sense find Him because God is not far from us (4). Thus we must recognize the ways in which pagan philosophy is a groping after God, and ways in which it has found Him (which Paul does, 5-7). But here, of course, there is a break, because while pagan may find God in an unknowing way, Christians proclaim Him; the Age of Unknowing passes and God calls all to repent (8), for there is a final judgment (9) that has been set through a Man appointed to it, one in whom we believe because He was raised from the dead (10).

And, of course, the reaction people had to Paul is the reaction people always have to this. Hearing of the resurrection of the dead, some mock, but others want to hear more, and some join us and believe.

Various Links of Interest

* Samuel Moyn, You have misunderstood the relevance of Hannah Arendt

* Melas & Salis, On the Nature of Coincidental Events (PDF)

* Becca Rothfeld, At-will Employment is the Real "Cancel Culture"

* Taylor Patrick O'Neill, Doctor of Providence, discusses Julian of Norwich

* Ben Conroy interviews Jennifer Frey

* The Pink Trombone lets you play around with the sounds that a mouth can make.

* The town that was taken over by libertarians and then was taken over by bears. Bears always beat libertarians, I imagine; the perpetual flaw in libertarianism is not expecting bears.

* Alexander Rose on long-lived institutions.

* James Clark reviews Junius Johnson's The Father of Lights

Ashok on Descartes's comment about weak minds in the preface to the Meditations

Currently Reading

Richard Adams, Watership Down
Michael Flynn, Lodestar
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics and Politics