Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Insights from Greeks: The Evolution of Morality and Religion


All cultures have their notions of religion, morality and the supernatural. Religion is most commonly based on dogma and defines morality. Divine powers are someone you turn to in your hour of difficulty or need because they can do things that you can’t. I am going through an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey, set in eighth century Greece. Couldn’t help but compare how our thinking has evolved on the subjects.

First interesting insight is about religion. Religion in Homerian Greek (and more so a few centuries before that) is primarily based on rituals and ceremonies than on dogma and doctrines based on nature of God and man.  As a result it is flexible and open to interpretation. Gods aren’t the upholders of morality, just beings which can be approached by mortals. God’s are not beyond their vices either. (I can’t help but draw a parallel with certain aspects of Hindu religion). But in the Homerian Greece Gods are more moods than powers. When Aphrodite (the Greek God of love) shines on Helen, that emotion overpowers all her decisions and actions to the extent of her leaving her husband and child for another man. Homer’s protagonists of do not make a choice against the will of Gods. They don’t engage in deliberation to act. They go with the flow. In fact those with the power to choose against the will of Gods are actually bad people (the suitors). Professor Dreyfus, who teaches a psychology course based on the poem at University of Berkeley, says that Homer believes that those who go with the emotion actually lead a fuller life.  (He was kind enough to reply to my mail almost immediately. Bragging Time – I finished the full podcast series.)

Also thought provoking is the Greek idea of morality which (at least till then) is very tribal. Friendship, though more valued than love, is an alliance based on mutual advantage. Humanity – supposed to be an instinct today – is an aspiration, often forsaken under forces of passion and interest.  An average Greek (not the philosopher) owes service to a friend as much as he owes pursuit and injury to an enemy. Mercy, compassion and reasonableness are special graces than necessary duties.

I can’t help but contrast with the thinking of today. My first instinct is to lean towards the right to making one’s own choices. I also believe that the choices have to be deliberated e after weighing the pros and cons, including how one’s actions affect other people. I am also guilty of assuming fairness, compassion and reasonableness are fundamental traits defining us as a species. The idea that less than 2000 years we thought completely differently is an eye-opener.

I thought more about the Greek notion of morality and realized it follows naturally with going with the flow. Ancient Greeks were not afraid of acting on their first instinct. It can even be said that they were less hypocrite than people of today. But I am still not ready to believe that world would be better place if all us of did that. 

PS: That we seek divine help in difficult times is another human weakness I guess.

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