This is a continuation of the previous post where we have narrated three episodes each containing an example of the Greek fear in gods’ envy.
What is this envy? Well, since the Greek gods lived an eternal and blissful life they watched with an envious eye men who were too prosperous and happy, hence they humbled and punished them, hence men were afraid to express their happiness too loud, lest some envious god might spot them and hit.
The 3 episodes also showed that in modern Greece and some parts of Italy, especially in the South, people’s minds can still contain elements of the antique Greco-Roman culture. Italians do not believe in these gods any more (well, deep inside who can say that,) but there are still people here who are afraid of expressing satisfaction when something is going very well, lest ill luck might whack them (it is to be noted that the Italian coastal South was first colonized by the Greeks – Magna Graecia – , and only later assimilated by the Romans).
Andy, an Englishman living in Milan, thus commented: “I find it strange how Italians, for all their religion, are so superstitious. And your post shows how not much has changed in all these years.”
Well, is this fear a superstition? Probably, but superstition after all is an irrational belief, so I wouldn’t oppose religion and superstition, they appearing to me to be the same (Andy agrees: see below his comment).
Moreover, superstitious or not, it is a fact that Italians were civilized long before Christianity arrived. So they are still a bit pagan at heart even though they captained the spread of the Christian religion. Hard to understand, I know, but true in my opinion.
Andy, together with Indian Falcon and Ashish – two other aficionados of this blog – also found incomprehensible this attitude of the Greek gods. “Is something who is so envious worth being cared for..?” wondered Falcon.
I know this envy seems only negative – I replied. Men shouldn’t be too happy since gods only should be happy: it sounds mean, no doubt (read later about these gods’ amorality). The positive thing underlying all this, however, was that it lead to a common people’s wisdom, kind of a tendency towards a moderate life (in a good sense). For the upper classes it was also a matter of style, of behaving without ostentation or vulgarity. There was some arrogance in Polycrates’ life, so he died a terrible death: this is somewhat a lesson. When Greece began its decadence someone wrote: “modesty and virtue are now powerless, lawlessness rules and men do not strive any more against gods’ envy”.
In other words, this fear of gods’ envy was like a regulation valve. It helped, together with other elements, to develop temperance and the good style in life. Classical Greece (V cent. BC) was a civilization based on an admirable equilibrium. The golden mean. A concept we frequently get back to.
Another point is that the Greek ancient gods were amoral and whimsical. They didn’t care much about good and evil. Weirdly enough this had a good effect as well. Men didn’t think gods were morally perfect while men full of iniquity, and, since they could not count on these whimsical gods’ help, men had to make their own destiny and had to believe in their worth. Western man thinks instead that he is corrupted and a sinner from the beginning (original sin) and that only God can save him.
[The Renaissance only by developing humanism and humanitas has mitigated this belief by stressing both man's worth and freedom. Incidentally, the Renaissance origin, Italy, and its deep meaning, the rediscovery of the classical world, are not fortuitous, how can they be, they representing like survivals of the ancient world popping up again not only as mere imitation]
Finally Greek men were not striving to be good just because they expected a reward from god(s) or feared their punishment. Given such unpredictable gods, when men were good they were such because they really wanted to, not for any other external reason.
Human Mind like a Museum
As a conclusion, we’ll expand a bit something we said about our country. There are areas of the Italian South which are still developing and which contain more than elsewhere precious elements of our ancient culture. In short, they are like a museum.
I would add that every man’s mind is like a museum, no matter where he comes from, since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards, though without an inventory. This Magister said many years ago. He said we should make such an inventory. To criticise our mind – he explained – is to make such an inventory.
Knowing thyself, a Socratic principle, seems therefore still valid today.