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The Great Conversation: On Pillars and Puppets

The Apollo Belvedere, Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican City

 

When Pausanias, the traveler and geographer, visited the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in the second century A.D., the inscriptions in the forecourt were nearly a thousand years old. They read ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ and ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ: “Seek the mean in all things” and “Know yourself.” He seems to have been passing through, but the supplicants of Pythia, the priestess-oracle, had questions to ask. For centuries, visitors brought questions to the oracle: Where should we found a new colony? Should I plant olives or barley this year? Is this an auspicious campaign season to invade Mantinea? Will my reign be long-lived?

These were practical questions. But why all the practicality in this temple? Where are the theoretical and existential questions? Priests, shamans, and other intercessors of the gods (or God) have access to the authorities on Truth, don’t they? Well, those of the Greeks didn’t. Perhaps uniquely among deities, the Olympians were not the final authority on matters of truth. Essentially, they were immortal, powerful beings in the image of man, with all man’s foibles; they were petty and jealous and mean. They had passions, good and bad, which benefited and hurt them, in turn. They couldn’t predict the future and didn’t know everything, nor did they claim to, nor did they care to. To add to the trouble, they were (for the most part) aloof to the concerns of man. Yes, they used humans for entertainment, for pleasure, or to cause trouble for their rivals, but their abiding concerns didn’t coincide with those of humans.

“Philosophy is the last recourse when the oracles fail, the saints have grown silent, and when God has chosen not to reveal himself.” —Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D., Oxford University

So the Greeks of that age were left to their own devices and had to answer their own questions. Thus abandoned, they began to ask themselves: What kind of being am I? What kind of life is right for me? How should I govern or be governed? It was the religious disposition of the Greeks which called for a philosophical approach to the problems of life and mind. With their gaze upon the world, they turned their minds inward and exercised that one feature that liberates us from the fate of being puppets of the gods, of trends, of circumstance—Reason. Reason is the unique attribute of man; and its use, according to Plato, is the thing that makes us good.

This leads us back to those pillars of Greek culture carved on the pillars of the Temple. Know yourself. It’s a daunting task, but a worthwhile one to undertake, even if the journey is never complete.

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About David L. Smith

Columnist: Great Conversation. Passionate student of ancient history. Smith has a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from Yale, and is a radiologist. During his day-job he is more apt to write articles like: Disseminated Histoplasmosis in an Immunocompetent Patient. Seriously, that’s on his CV. Ugh.

3 comments

  1. And this is why I wanted you to contribute! ‘m looking forward to a sort of mini-masters class on the classics.

    The concept and phrase “Know yourself” is seemingly so simple but also utterly daunting. Especially today, when people are assaulted with thousands of messages telling them who they should be or why who they are is not good enough. It takes a certain dedication and conviction of character to turn inwards and forge one’s own path.

    While difficult, we are fortunate to able to benefit from the experiences of those who have come before us.

  2. Thanks, Keith. Knowing oneself is a difficult thing to do, and, as I suggested, surely few if any ever succeed. But we can get most of the way there with discipline and reflection. We’ll discuss more in the future.

    Also, a note on the above text: the link to the Perseus project is a little slow (that site has always been a little on the sluggish side for me) but worth it. If anyone clicks on the “puppets” link, be sure to go to the next part of the passage by hitting the right arrow so you can understand the entirety of Plato’s metaphor.

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