Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Is there a God? Are there gods? A Roman writes.

So: I’ve been reading some Cicero. Mr Chickpea himself.

The main reason for this is a desire to improve my (believe me, deeply shoddy and underpowered) Latin. A little while ago I happened upon a gorgeous eighteenth-century Ciceronis Opera in a second hand bookshop, and, having bought it, I have been reading it. Which is to say, I have been reading some of it, leaning on translations as I navigate the Latin, in the hope that the latter will slowly pick up speed.

It’s odd how poor my knowledge of Cicero is, actually. It probably has to do with the sense of him as an anti-democrat, an aristocratic thinker and apologist for social and political authoritarianism. Has to do, that is, with my disinclination to sink into that swamp. I’ll say that my desire to fill the Cicero-shaped hole in my knowledge is not, I repeat, not a symptom of me swinging political rightward as I get older. At least, I don’t think so. But my hitherto partial Ciceronian knowledge is a handicap in lots of ways. For one thing, to quote Michael Grant, ‘the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language’ [Grant (ed) Cicero, Selected Works (Penguin 1971), 24]. For another, and just in terms of the language, he remade Latin, such that Roman and especially post-Roman neo-Latin became Ciceronian Latin, or else was fought over on specifically anti-Ciceronian lines. Who better to immerse myself in, if I want my Latin to improve?

At any rate, and I know full-well for nobody’s benefit but my own, I’m going to post a few bloggy reactions to the Cicero I’ve been reading, just to try and get them straight in my head. And I’m going to begin with one of his most famous works, On The Nature of the Gods. Voltaire thought this book, together with the Tusculan Disputations, ‘les deux plus beaux ouvrages qu’ait jamais écrits la sagesse qui n’est qu’humaine’, the two most beautiful books ever produced by the wisdom of humanity [‘Cicéron’, Dictionnaire philosophique (1764); Œuvres complètes (Garnier) 18:181]. Which is pretty high praise, really.

* * *

Let’s start with the title: ‘on the nature of the gods’. It suggests, of course: one nature, but many gods. Isn’t that a bit odd, though?

The book is in three parts, and dramatizes the conversation of four friends: Cicero himself (though he doesn’t contribute to the actual debate), an Epicurean called Gaius Velleius, a Stoic called Quintus Lucilius Balbus and an ‘Academic’ philosopher (as we might say today, a skeptic or antidogmatic thinker) called Gaius Cotta. In a nutshell the Epicurean thinks everything is made of atoms, the Stoic thinks we should respect tradition and always do the right thing, and the Academician wants to question everything.

The subject is: do the gods exist, and if they do, what is their nature and relationship to mortal affairs? All speakers answer the first question in the affirmative, but all disagree with respect to the other two. In Book 1 Velleius elaborates his own Epicurean theology, and then Cotta offers some criticisms. In Book 2, Balbus explains and defends Stoic theology, and in Book 3 Cotta offers a critique of Balbus’s arguments. Each of them has a different take on the ‘nature’ of the gods.

Velleius explains (1:50) that the Epicureans believe gods are made of atoms, like mortal beings, only a different sort of atom, more ethereal, a kind that bypasses our ordinary senses, but still leave an impression on the more delicate organs of apprehension of our souls. So we see visions of gods, although we don’t see actual gods with our eyes. And because the Epicureans believe in an infinity of atoms, that means they are logically compelled to believe in an infinite number and variety of gods. The Stoics believe in an affinity between human and cosmic reason, and that the universe is providentially governed by the divine. They also believe it’s ridiculous to imagine gods as having human form, and Balbus makes the case that the divine form is spherical [2:45], since the sphere is the most perfect shape. Cotta doesn’t think reason is all that, and pooh-poohs the Globular God hypothesis.

All these multiple natures mean the title should really be De Naturis Deorum, ‘on the natures of the gods’ (indeed, I wonder that no Christian theologian has ever written about their single God and His multiple natures under the title De Naturis Dei). I find myself quite struck by this, if I’m honest. It seems to me that there’s something logically ‘clean’ (as it were) in believing in no gods, and similarly in believing in one God, but that once you believe in more than one then it’s hard for me to see why you’d stop at any particular number. Why a trinity of Gods, or a triform God augmented by many lesser semi-divine angels, saints and so on? Why not an infinity of gods? (Do even Hindus go so far?)

At any rate, the many natures of the gods result in many arguments in this book, and one of the striking things about it all is how little steer Cicero gives us as to which of these arguments are strong and which weak. We might think that, since Cicero identifies specifically identifies himself here as an Academic, and since Cotta is the book’s vocal Academician, that the structure of the whole is designed to lead to a Academic conclusion: the Epicurean speaks, and the Academic refutes him (Book 1); the Stoic speaks at greater length (Book 2), and the Academic refutes him at greater length (Book 3).

But this isn’t what actually happens. Discussion ends not because any firm conclusion has been reached, but rather because night has fallen and it’s time for the participants to go home. Cicero, who has contributed nothing at all to the discussion himself (and whom, except at one solitary point in 2:140, isn’t so much as mentioned by the other three) finally speaks up: ‘and when these things had been said we all went out separate ways, the upshot being that Velleius found more truth in the argument of Cotta, whereas to me those of Balbus seemed to be more probable’ (‘ac cum essent dicta, ita discessimus, ut Velleio Cottae disputatio verior, mihi Balbi ad veritatis similitudinem videretur esse propensior’ [3:95]). It’s quite a famous crux in studies of the book, actually. Here, all the way back in 1913, is Arthur Stanley Pease, puzzled:

Pease puzzled hot. Or maybe Pease puzzled cold. Indeed, it’s bothered people for thousands of years. Saint Augustine, in the De Civitate Dei [5:9], quotes this very passage to argue that Cicero was a secret atheist, but too scared openly to admit it, who is here trying to cover his arse by distancing himself from Academic skepticism with a pretend-support of the traditional state-friendly theism of the Stoics. Another explanation, popular with Enlightenment classical scholars, was that Cicero is here merely telling the truth: that Cotta does indeed have the better argument, and that as an Academician Cicero recognizes a duty to the truth as such over party affiliation.

We could expand this a little and suggest that it’s in the nature of the skeptic that s/he critiques rather than advances, that s/he is antithetical rather than, er, thetical; and, assuming he doesn’t want to deny the existence of the gods, Cicero’s only two options at the end are the Epicurean infinity of beings constructed of super-subtle atoms and the more conventional and traditional theology of the Stoics. I find myself wondering whether there’s a more subtle repudiation in this final touch: as if Cicero is saying ‘we can weigh and judge rational arguments, but true knowledge of the gods is not a matter of ratiocination but of the soul and the heart’. This, though, is not the general tenor of the De Natura Deorum.

Cicero’s discussion of the gods has, really, nothing to say about the personal, spiritual or mystical aspects of the topic. It is, we could say, not in the least a Protestant book: specifically, in the sense that Cicero is not interested in the individual’s personal relationship to the divine. The focus of all three of his speakers, whatever their differences otherwise, is on religion as a social and cultural iteration, and therefore on things like ritual, auspices and prophesy, things which will surely seem marginal to most modern-day people of faith.

Several speakers repeat the argument for the existence of the gods known as the ‘ex consensu gentium’. This is the argument that says, in essence: ‘a good reason to believe in gods is that pretty much everyone believes in gods’. Now, this (obviously) doesn’t present itself as a logically watertight proposition. It’s conceivable that most or all people might sincerely believe something untrue. But although you might expect me, as an atheist, to dismiss ‘ex consensu gentium’ as absurd in fact I have quite a lot of respect for it. I am conscious, as an infidel, that my position is eccentric in the strict sense. Most people (and from what I can see ‘most’ means an overwhelming majority of the global population) have one or other form of religious or spiritual faith. Of course it’s possible they’re all wrong, but possible isn’t necessarily the same as likely. It’s also fundamentally quite insulting to vast numbers of actual, thinking, feeling non-idiot human beings. I mean, a person can disbelieve in God without expressing haughty contempt for the majority of the other people with whom they happen to share the planet. It’s just not a trick many of the New Atheists have managed.

At any rate, much more space is given over, in De Natura Deorum, to how the gods are than to whether there are gods. Velleius says ‘So: when all people naturally agree on something, that belief must necessarily be true; which means we have to accept that the gods exist’ (‘de quo autem omnium natura consentit, id verum esse necesse est; esse igitur deos confitendum est’ [1:44]). For Balbus the existence of the gods is so obvious that it ‘scarcely needs even to be argued’ (‘ne egere quidem videtur’ [2:4]). Doubting the existence of the gods is as stupid as doubting the existence of the sun and the moon, we are told.

I’ve come across modern, evo-psych versions of this argument: that religion must serve some valuable evolutionary purpose, or it would not have become so widespread or enduring a phenomenon (although this argument, of course, speaks only to the naturally selective benefits, not the spiritual truth, of such beliefs: if believing a lie had widespread evolutionary benefits, then we’d expect to see such belief bed-in irrespective of its mendacity).

Cotta, the skeptic, expresses a modicum of skepticism where this argument is concerned: ‘the question we are discussing,’ he says ‘is not whether people believe in gods, but whether gods actually exist’, (‘sed non id quaeritur, sintne aliqui qui deos esse putent: di utrum sint necne sint quaeritur’ [3:17]), and he tries to score a debating point off the fact that Stoics traditionally had a low opinion of the intelligence of ordinary people: do you, he asks Balbus, really want to rest your argument of the gods’ existence on the opinion of people you consider idiots? (‘opiniones stultorum’ [3:11]). But he’s not really arguing that case, for he also says intellego deos esse; quos equidem credo esse, ‘I do indeed realize that the gods exist, and I believe in their existence’. And he insists ‘for me it would be sufficient simply to say that this [belief in the gods] is the tradition handed to us by our ancestors’ (‘mihi enim unum sat erat, ita nobis maioris nostros tradidisse’ [3:9]). So he joins the other two in accepting ‘ex consensu gentium’.

I don’t mean to bog down on all this this, but something interesting is going on here I think. There are lots of different arguments, or at least lots of different assertions, about the gods in the De Natura Deorum: that they are made of a special kind of atoms; that an infinitude of them exist; that they regulate the heavens and the weather; they have the same shape as humans; that they aren’t made of atoms and don’t look like human beings (that they look, indeed, like spheres); that their existence is proved by divination and prophesy, that their existence is proved by the regularity of the seasons and the astronomical bodies; that human reason is part of the world-intelligence or cosmic order (a certain ‘principatus’ or unifying principle, ‘autem id dico quod Graeci ἡγεμονικ vocant’, that thing the Greeks call hegemony). Some of these arguments contradict one another, and in those cases presumably we, as readers, are being invited to assess which is stronger and which weaker. Take one example: Balbus thinks the stars are gods:

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around this argument; not because it’s complex, but because it’s daft. It’s as if Balbus were saying ‘this swinging pendulum, or these crashing waves, must be conscious because they are regular — unlike this unpredictable human being, this geezer here, my friend Steve, who acts in variously chaotic ways and is therefore non-sentient’. Steve! *shakes fist* Which is among the stupider arguments ever advanced by philosophy. Of course, it may be that this reaction is part of the larger heuristic offered by the book; that the argument here is so daft it throws us back on the original argument. After all, what does Balbus mean here by intelligentia? What about ‘planning’ (‘consilium’) — does that mean guidance, a consultor or adviser, maybe even a consul? Or does it just mean a plan, a structure or order, such as a physicist might attribute to gravity and the Big Bang? If the latter then maybe what’s being suggested is not so outlandish. Indeed, there have been many physicists for whom the real mystery of the universe is that there is anything called chaos in it, at all.

Cotta starts, but does not follow through, on this sort of reaction in his refutation of this Balbean argument.

But although Cotta (or Cicero) has here anticipated my first reaction to Balbus’s argument, he has done so in a way that raises more questions than it answers. The most obvious one, I suppose, is the hard distinction implied between ‘deus’ and ‘natura’. We need not go the full-on Spinoza and insist on the effective interchangeability of those two terms (‘Deus sive Natura’) to find ourselves wondering how Cotta can pretend to any theology that separates them out so sharply — especially in a book whose title involves connecting precisely these terms. ‘Quid aestus,’ Cotta goes on, ‘maritimi vel Hispanienses vel Brittannici eorumque certis temporibus vel accessus vel recessus sine deo fieri nonne possunt?’ (‘So can the sea-tides of Spain and Britain, with their regular flow, not operate without the power of a god?’), to which we might reply: but if natura, seas, stars and all, is one of the ways deus manifests …? Or, or, if natura isn’t that then what, you gods-believing man, do you take it to be at all?

Earlier I quote Pease, puzzled (in a pot, a hundred years old) as to why Cicero ends by siding not with his own Academicians but rather with the Stoics. Pease’s own conclusion, in the article quoted, was that the De Natura Deorum is not really interested in making a case for or against any school’s actual religious belief, but instead uses its account of different philosophic views on the subject of the gods in order to illustrate the Academic procedure, namely examining both sides of each question without dogma or preconception.

Academic philosophy was never the belief that all arguments are equally valid. Any such philosophical protocol must believe that some arguments are better than others. And perhaps it’s in this light that we should read Cicero’s endorsement: not that the Stoic arguments about the nature of the gods are, as it were, true; only that they are better than the Epicurean arguments. In the unwritten, unimaginable De Natura Deorum Volume 2 maybe Cotta could elaborate a positive argument for the nature of the divine, and Cicero could embrace him and endorse his every word.

* * *

If, unlike Cicero, I find myself more persuaded by (or, not: not persuaded, but perhaps engaged and fascinated by) the Epicurean sections, that says more about my current preoccupations at the moment. I’ve been thinking, for a couple of reasons, about Fantasy, and about the way what Fantasy has been feeds into what Fantasy is nowadays. And that means I’ve been thinking a little about the overlap between those stories humanity tells itself about gods on the one hand, and those stories humanity tells itself about myth, magic, imaginary realms, elves, dwarfs et tout ça on the other.

And now I’m wondering if the infinitude of Epicurean gods might be read as the infinity of possible imaginary, or more strictly imaginable, entities? It would be opening a door to reading De Natura Deorum as a treatise about Fantasy rather than about deity, about the relative potency and imaginative purchase of some as opposed to other Fantasy creations. Because, to return to the title, there’s a core emphasis here on plurality — of gods, of arguments, of possibilities — that reverts upon the imagination much more compellingly than upon the reality. The world in which we live is, after all; it remains the same, to adapt Phil Dick, regardless of what our mind thinks about it. There’s a monistic stubbornness to the laws of gravity, thermodynamics and entropy. Fantasy exists to create imaginary spaces in which we humans, trapped like bugs in the amber of actuality, can at least imagine a more bearable alternative, can at least mentally transcend where we are. Which leaves me wondering if there’s a nod towards what we might, anachronistically, call dialogism in Cicero’s pattern here. Diversity of testimony, such as is offered by Velleius, Balbus and Cotta, to be properly dialogic, needs to include not only different perspectives but perspectives of both, as it were, right and wrong. ‘Natura’ as physics is neither right nor wrong, it just is. But ‘natura’ as divine essence can be more or less sublime, more or less ridiculous, more or less right and wrong; and this is a book that dramatises that rather counter-intuitive, aesthetic truth. It is the nature of Fantasy.

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