Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Second Attempt

with 4 comments

Well, that sounds portentious enough.

But let me tell you before I start–this morning, the document I’m using for the latest Gregor did something rather dramatic, so that it now only wants to print in teeny tiny letters, and I’ve been unable to fix it.   This pretty much blew up work for the day.

And no, knowing that I almost certainly did something to cause this is no help.  It’s been very frustrating.  I’m going to have to get one of mine to do something about this.  And I’m in No Mood.

But back to the article from yesterday, and the Rig Veda, and how it all hangs together.

Let me start with one of the comments on the Rig Veda post. 

JD said that he thought the religion of the ancient Greeks was like what I was talking about in the Rig Veda, and that Socrates complained of the immoral behavior of the Gods.

I would say that he’s right, probably.

My guess is that the type of religion displayed by the oldest hymns in the Rig Veda translation I have is a very early stage in the evolution of religion. 

My guess is that this is where religion starts, in what Carl Sagan called a “demon haunted world,” where the gods are many and more like ourselves than not.  They’re more powerful, though, and thoroughly capricious.  People on earth interact with them by trying to curry their favor and get their power for wealth and health and happiness.

If you read, say, Homer, the impression you get of Greek religion is very much like this. Robert called it a demand to maintain their turf, and that will do as much as anything.

The difference lies in the fact that neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey is scripture. 

In fact, as far as I know, no such scripture exists.  We have myths, but the myths we have come down to us as stories, not as sacred books.  And we haven’t a single line of liturgy, or hymns or rites or any other aspect of actual worship.  Homer tells us that somebody or the other prayed or performed a sacred ritual,  but he doesn’t give us the specifics of that ritual or tell us how to perform it ourselves.

By the time we manage to get information about Greek religion, it had already passed through that stage and become mostly a kind of quasi-shorthand for patriotism and civic loyalty.  We see it through the eyes of people who are already several times removed from that passionate, immediate intensity of desperation where simple survival depends on appeasing dark and capricious forces who can snap your life in two any time they feel  like it.

Of course, Hinduism did not remain at this stage of development.  By the time you get to the Upanishads, and even earlier (you can see it starting in the later hymns published in this volume), it is a religion almost obsessed with the moral and the long term consequences of the moral.  It is the religion of karma and of the transmigration of souls.

We probably  have no way of knowing if there was ever any scripture–as we understand the word–in Greek religion, or in the Roman religion that came after it. 

And what we have of other religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and even Buddhism–is also well beyond this stage.

Religion as we know it, not only now but through many long centuries, has been thoroughly ethicized–and where it hasn’t been, it has been discarded as a foundation for moral ideas.

We have Greek moral philosophy because the Greeks did not have religious morality in anything  but the most rudimentary sense. 

And the Greeks, in trying to give morality a secular foundation, found themselves forces to approach those questions through logic and reason. 

And by insisting on logic and reason, they ended up insisting that everything–including religion–make sense.

And it is this, this insisting on logic and reason and sense, that is at the core of the Great Conversation. 

In fact, without it there is no Great Conversation, and no Liberal Arts Education all these many centuries later.

And that brings me back to the Rig Veda

As far as I can tell, the Hindus maintained a policy of never throwing anything out.

Modern secularists complain that there are contradictions in the Bible, that there are two creation accounts in Genesis, say,  or that the reports of the apostles on what happened at the resurrection are not strictly the same.

But although that kind of thing does exist here and there, it is only here and there, and often has to be gone at with a lot of fancy footwork to produce a contradiction at all.  (Hint:  two accounts of an event that are not the same but are also not mutually exclusive do not make a contradiction.)

The Rig Veda, on the other hand, contains myriad contradictory versions of many different myths.  The gods existed before time, or they were born after time began.  This god killed his father, or he killed  his brother.  This other god had a child with his mother, or maybe with his sister.

The mutually exclusive details sit side by side and without explanation or rationalization.  There are commentaries on the Hindu scriptures, but I can find no equivalent of the rationalizing of detail and reconciliation that formed so much of the work of Jewish and Christian scholars from the time of the Roman Empire to the high Middle Ages.

It’s  kind of like Walt Whitman:  you say I contradict myself?  So I contradict myself.   I am large.  I contain multitudes.

The bottom line, however, is that without that rationalizing, without that reconciliation, without that insistance that things make sense, there is not only no Great Conversation, and no canon.

The Western Canon is Western, because it’s the record of human beings using reason and logic to try to answer the essential questions of human life on earth.  It is that even when the work in question is fiction or poetry or drama or even painting and sculpture and music.

And what abandons reason and logic in its totality is not part of the Canon by definition.


Written by janeh

June 4th, 2013 at 8:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Second Attempt'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Second Attempt'.

  1. I’m not disputing the definition, but I’d like to see it unpacked a little. Abandoning reason and logic in its entirety is, perhaps, a definition of “Dionysiac”—so maybe no Dadaist poetry. But what literature and poetry IS included? You can easily make a case for CANDIDE and ATLAS SHRUGGED, but I’d hate to see literature restricted to such. Do we get to keep the ILIAD? I’d say so, but Plato wouldn’t. I’d happily start reason and logic with Aristotle, but the Platonists might get huffy, and what DO we do with the Bible, which insists on reasoning which begins with divine revelation? What constitutes using reason in art? (I’d be happy to shuck Pollock and keep David, but I’m not sure what to do with Dali. How about Durer’s “Four Horsemen?”) Even trickier, what constitutes using reason and logic in music? I’ll happily chuck all the knocking over of chairs, and keep John Williams, but I’m not sure I can articulate why. To repeat, I like the restriction—mostly—but I have to have a better idea of how it plays out.

    As far as Greek religion goes, a “sacred book” may be a Hebrew thing in its beginnings, but if we’re looking for hymns, worship procedures and descriptions of divine activities, we have those. If you google “classical Greek hymns,” you do get a few, and of course non-philosopher Greeks DID believe that Homer was an accurate description divine behavior. We know—even back to Mycenean times—what was offered to the gods, and sometimes how. We’re a little hazier about the mysteries—but then that’s why they’re mysteries.


    4 Jun 13 at 5:27 pm

  2. Robert, you asked what we do about the bible which starts with divine revelation. That is really no different than science.

    Newton never proved his 3 laws of motion. They are really axioms or postulates. Einstein’s first paper on relativity starts with 2 unproven “laws” which he specifically calls postulates and follows the logic of applying them.


    4 Jun 13 at 6:49 pm

  3. Robert, I live in Canberra, the home of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” and never visit the National Gallery here without paying homage to what is certainly one of the most spectacular works of art I’ve ever seen. What does it mean? I wouldn’t have a clue, and I doubt Pollack wouldn’t either were he here to tell us.

    But it means something significant if only we could decode it.

    Oh, the public scandal and outrage when the then Prime Monster, Gough Whitlam, paid something like $2 million dollars for it back in the early 1970s. Until now he had the honour of being considered by most Australians the worst ever PM, but if he did nothing else worth doing, he deserves to be honoured forever for making that purchase. In dollars terms, its priceless these days


    4 Jun 13 at 8:35 pm

  4. Pardon the double negative.


    4 Jun 13 at 8:35 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.