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Greek Myth and the Donum Superadditum

This post is something of a lark, apropos (maybe?) of some of Peter’s recent writings on nature and supernature, and also (maybe?) of Steven’s on Adam and evolution.

There is a stream, which can be called progressivist, in the Greek mythic tradition in which man as originally constituted was lacking in particular gifts that allowed him to rise from mere animality to a more exalted status: man was as a beast and deficient in himself, and he needed additional divine gifts in order to attain to a truly human, or humane, life. For the Greeks, man’s more exalted status was normally of a this-worldly nature and so the gift took the form of technology, symbolized especially in the possession and use of fire. Fire is that element that connects man not only to the divine through burnt sacrificial offering (and simultaneously separates man–homo sacrificans–from the divine as recipient of sacrifice) but also divides him off from beasts, who enjoy none of the advantages this techne provides, whether in cuisine (cooked meat, baked bread, etc.) or in technology more broadly (metalworking, etc.).

Two places in which one can find this Greek view, which is evolutionary in cultural if not biological terms, are in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound1and in the Homeric Hymn to Hephaistos, the Greek god of fire.

Early in Prometheus Bound, Prometheus claims to have helped mankind by sowing in them “blind hopes” (that is, he “stopped mortals from foreseeing doom”) and then gave them the gift of fire. Later, he elaborates on his gifts:

But man’s tribulation,
that I would have you hear–how I found them mindless
and gave them minds, made them masters of their wits.
I will tell you this not as reproaching man,
but to set forth the goodwill of my gifts.
First they had eyes but had no eyes to see,
and ears but heard not. Like shapes within a dream
they dragged through their long lives and muddles all,
haphazardly. They knew not how to build
brick houses to face the sun, nor work in wood.
They lived beneath the earth like swarming ants
in sunless caves…  (442-53, tr. David Grene)

Prometheus goes on to say that he taught man agriculture, mathematics, language, shipbuilding, medicine and pharmacology, the arts of prophecy and of oracles, and the proper method of sacrifice, among other things. Man, in this view, did not know how to interact with or communicate with the gods by nature, but had to be specially taught at some later time–man had to progress from a lower state in creation to a higher one.

The same view of natural man as animal (though without the religious ramifications) is found in Homeric Hymn 20, to Hephaistos:

Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaistos, famed for his inventiveness,
who along with grey-eyed Athena taught glorious crafts
to men on the earth, who formerly
used to live in caves on the mountains like wild animals.
But now, because of Hephaistos, famed for his skill, having learned crafts,
they easily lead their lives for the full year
free from care in their own houses.
But be propitious, Hephaistos, and grant me excellence and happiness. (tr. Susan C. Shelmerdine)

I do not mean, of course, that there is a necessary connection between man as naturally deficient (whether in religious, cultural, or any other terms) and an evolutionary view of origins. But the two do go together in this particular strain of Greek thought, even if what we find here is a specifically (poly-)theistic kind of evolution, insofar as there is something lacking in originary, natural man-as-animal.

In any event, the one thing that the Greek gods could not provide was a remedy against death. This is made clear in the famous first choral ode of Sophocles’ Antigone. The chorus, after praising the inventiveness of man and his technological domination of nature, goes on to say this:

[Man] has a way against everything,
and he faces nothing that is to come
without contrivance.
Only against death
can he call on no means of escape… (393-7, tr. David Grene)

They have no compelling account of the origin of death, or of its vanquishing; and in this respect they are blind guides. As Augustine writes in the Confessions on the “books of the Platonists”:

There I read, not of course in these words, but with entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”. But that “he came to his own and his own did not receive him; but as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons of God by believing in his name,” that I did not read there….[T]hat “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” I did not read there….[T]hat “he took on himself the form of a servant and emptied himself, was made in the likeness of men and found to behave as a man, and humbled himself being made obedient to death, even the death of the Cross so that God exalted him” from the dead…–that these books do not have….[T]hey do not contain that “at the right time he died for the impious,” and that you “did not spare your only Son but gave him up for us all.” (Confessions VII.ix (13)-(14), tr. Henry Chadwick)

For righteousness, faith, death and life, the first and second Adam: John and Paul are instructors and counselors much more trustworthy.

  1. The authorship of the play is disputed, but I shall refer to it as Aeschylus’ for convenience

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

2 replies on “Greek Myth and the Donum Superadditum

[…] Last week I referred to the “progressivist” strain in Greek cultural thinking, which was associated with Prometheus and which tracked a general advancement of mankind from his earliest days to the present. But there is another strain as well, the “primitivist” one, in which the history of mankind is described as a general decline over time from prosperity and happiness to suffering and wretchedness. The most famous example of this latter phenomenon is found in Hesiod’s “Myth of Races” (Works and Days 106ff., influenced by Near Eastern predecessors): here the history of mankind begins with the golden race; this is followed by the silver, the bronze, the race of heroes (in many ways a reprieve from the badness of the foregoing), and the current race, that of iron. Hesiod predicts eventual destruction for this race too at the hands of Zeus, but not before they have reached the height of injustice: […]

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