29 September, 2006

On faith and doubt

Plutarch's Pythian Dialogues (early second century) are, to my mind, one of the most sublime products of literary antiquity: they exist in that delicious limbo between literature, at least as it was understood then, and philosophy—a sort of classical version of Thomas Browne's miscellanies. There are three of them—'On the E at Delphi', 'On the Obsolescence of Oracles', and 'Why the Oracles are No Longer Delivered in Verse'—and they can be found in Volume 5 of the Loeb Moralia. The essays are delightful for their free associations and pleasant style, and also for their hesitation between rigour and dreamy mysticism, speculation and sceptical doubt.

Especially interesting in this regard is the 'Obsolescence'—a modern translation is online here, and Philemon Holland's delightful 1603 rendering here. It begins with an argument over methodology: can one infer the great from the small? It ends with a striking contrast: the narrator confronts scepticism about the oracle—that perhaps it is only an intoxicating exhalation from the earth—with a profession of faith, and an early statement of the Argument from Design. Between these poles, the gamut of belief and doubt is traversed again and again. Cleombrotus relates at length the elaborate cosmology of a prophet living by the Red Sea:
He said that the worlds are not infinite in number, nor one, nor five, but one hundred and eighty-three, arranged in the form of a triangle, each side of the triangle having sixty worlds; of the three left over each is placed at an angle, and those that are next to one other are in contact and revolve gently as in a dance. The inner area of the triangle is the common hearth of all, and is called the Plain of Truth, in which the accounts, the forms, and the patterns of all things [λογους και των ειδη και τα παραδειγματα] that have come to pass and of all that shall come to pass rest undisturbed; and round about them lies Eternity, whence Time, like an ever-flowing stream, is conveyed to the worlds. . . This is the tale I heard him recite quite as though it were in some rite of mystic initiation, but without any demonstration or proof of what he said.
Cleombrotus admits that there is absolutely no argument for this picture, and his interlocutors express further doubt. The narrator then reveals that the prophet was a phoney, for the fancy is not even original to him:
The number of his worlds convicts him [of stealing], since it is not Egyptian nor Indian, but Dorian and from Sicily, being the idea of a man of Himera named Petron. Petron’s own treatise I have never read nor am I sure that a copy is now extant; but Hippys of Rhegium, whom Phanias of Eresus mentions, records that this was the opinion and the account of it given by Petron.
Notice that the narrator admits his personal ignorance on the subject, being very careful to describe exactly how he knows of Petron—and that he values the written over the spoken word. Cleombrotus is in thrall to hearsay and folklore; he has earlier related a story told to him by 'Aemilian the rhetorician', about the mysterious death of Pan:
Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, not known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said "When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead."
Thamus does so, and is sent for by Tiberius. All is done through word of mouth, and this constitutes (in Cleombrotus' world-view) an acceptable criterion of truth. It is telling that among those present are witnesses who assent to the truth of the story, because they too have heard it from Aemilian. Faith in the spoken word is a key theme here, because this dialogue, like its companion-pieces, concerns the role and significance of speaking oracles in a decadent age.


The oracle is central to another Western classic: Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-53). The third book is about prophecies and how to interpret them—Panurge consistently misreading every form of divination he consults—and the fourth and fifth books involve the picaresque quest for the Oracle of the Holy Bottle (Dive Bouteille), whose final command is merely: Drink! Rabelais, like Plutarch, lived at a time when epistemological issues were absolutely paramount among religious communities—Calvin and Luther had sprung up, scholars had begun to interrogate the Greek New Testament, and steps had been taken (especially in medicine) towards the scientific revolution of the next century. Rabelais had been a doctor and a Franciscan monk: the conflicts of doubt and faith, the written and the spoken word, must have been foremost in his mind.

It is little surprise, then, that Rabelais refers to Plutarch's 'Obsolescence of Oracles' four times in Book Four of his novel. Two of these references are perfunctory: Chapter 27 mentions some fantastical numeric calculations in the Greek text, while Chapter 58 cites the ventriloquist spirits known as the Euricles. But there are more important fruits. Chapter 28 recounts the death of Pan almost verbatim from Plutarch's text, and Chapter 55 recalls Petron, the 'Pythagorean philosopher'. Both episodes are transformed. For Pantagruel remarks on the story of Pan:
For my part, I understand it of that great Saviour of the faithful who was shamefully put to death at Jerusalem by the envy and wickedness of the doctors, priests, and monks of the Mosaic law. And methinks my interpretation is not improper; for he may lawfully be said in the Greek tongue to be Pan, since he is our all. For all that we are, all that we live, all that we have, all that we hope, is him, by him, from him, and in him. He is the good Pan, the great shepherd, who, as the loving shepherd Corydon affirms, hath not only a tender love and affection for his sheep, but also for their shepherds. . . The time also concurs with this interpretation of mine; for this most good, most mighty Pan, our only Saviour, died near Jerusalem during the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Pantagruel is echoing Eusebius, Preparatio Evangelia, 5.17:
So far Plutarch. But it is important to observe the time at which he says that the death of the daemon took place. For it was the time of Tiberius, in which our Saviour, making His sojourn among men, is recorded to have been ridding human life from daemons of every kind.
Thus Rabelais imports a pagan myth into a Christian context, and uses it for his own ends. What about Petron? Rabelais adduces the philosopher's story as one explanation of a bizarre phenomenon: Pantagruel's ship encounters words frozen in the air, and ringing in his men's ears. Referring to the Plain of Truth, the giant states that:
the words, ideas, copies, and images of all things past and to come resided there; round which was the age; and that with success of time part of them used to fall on mankind like rheums and mildews, just as the dew fell on Gideon's fleece, till the age was fulfilled.
Everything after the first 'age' has been added by Rabelais—the words falling upon mankind, and the age to be fulfilled. These are Christian additions: the falling words suggesting the word made flesh of John, and the fulfilment of the age evoking all manner of Christian chiliasms. In an age afraid that a knowledge of Greek would tear apart the Church, Rabelais revives the Greek Plutarch, and also the Greek Eusebius, to neutralise the threat: the old stories, far from casting doubt, serve only to underline the beliefs of a modern faith.


Sir G said...

I like this post as much as I liked the last one.

Liras said...

Rabelais, how much I love him. I often take one or another of his works with me, as my traveling reading.

How correct you are in your assessment that the old faiths only support the new.