(1/2) The Godlessness Of The Philosophers: From Beginning To End

Democritus (center) and Protagoras (right)
17th-century painting by Salvator Rosa Πρωταγόρας; c. 490 BC – c. 420 BC
  • “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be (Protagoras, On the Gods)”

Protagoras was a proponent of either agnosticism or, as Tim Whitmarsh claims, atheism, on the grounds that since he held that if something is not able to be known it does not exist. This reflects my own position of theoretical agnosticism but pragmatic atheism, since life clearly does not seem to reflect the hand of a responsible God (eg., hurricanes, three year old’s dead from cancer), but since an immaterial, supernatural being is unfalsifiable, who knows? I live my life as though immaterial goblins aren’t the cause of quantum gravity, since to live otherwise would be odd.

By God or theos Heidegger has in mind the notion of an arche that we find with the PreSocratics rather than the later Christian notion of a supernatural entity of faith.  This is why Heidegger says 

  • “Faith has no place in thought (Heidegger, Anaximander’s Saying in Off The Beaten Track, 280).”  

Exploring what Heidegger “faith-less-ly” understands in terms of theos (God) and theology, we read:

  • “In its formal meaning, pantheism means: pan-theos, ‘Everything – God’; everything stands in relation to God; [this means] all beings are in relation to the ground of beings. This ground as the One, hen is as ground what everything else, pan, is in it, in the ground. Hen kai pan. The One is also the whole and the whole is also the One … Hen kai pan, this followed Heraclitus’ fragment hen panta einai, Fr. 50, and was according to the spirit of the time the chosen motto of the three young Swabian friends, Schelling, Hegel, and Holderlin. (Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on Human Freedom, 68)”

So, for the Greeks theos is understood in terms of the event, movement.  Motion is characterized by a changing away from something, toward something else, which, as Aristotle sees it, need not involve a change of place, since the quality of something can change without it going anywhere. We say, for instance, the supremely beautiful woman is like Aphrodite incarnate, like Aphrodite presences through her.  Homer talks about the gods not appearing to everyone in their fullness (enargeis), with the example of Odysseus experiencing the full radiance of the goddess presencing through a woman, while the next person wasn’t experiencing her that way. Or, of a beautiful mansion we say “Now that’s a house!” though the next person may experience it to be presencing in a gawdy manner: The universal appears or manifests through the individual/particular.  Modern Analytic philosophy ignores the foundational concept of movement/presencing and so creates for itself the imaginary problem of transcendence when trying to understand how the universal applies to the individual. This doesn’t mean there is an extant goddess Aphrodite existing somewhere, we are just describing what the experience feels like (Phenomenology).  This is the sense in which Aristotle understands God in terms of movement as arche or originating principle, not in the later way Christian philosophers appropriated Aristotle. 

Characterizing the Greeks and gods, we read from Calasso:

  • But how does a god make himself manifest? In the Greek language the word theos, “god,” has no vocative case, observed the illustrious linguist Jakob Wackernagel. Theos has a predicative function: it designates something that happens. There is a wonderful example of this in Euripides’ Helen: “O theoi. theos gar kai to gigno’ skein philous”–“O gods: recognizing the beloved is god.” Kerenyi thought that the distinguishing quality of the Greek world was this habit of “saying of an event: ‘It is theos.'” And an event referred to as being theos could easily become Zeus, the most vast and all-inclusive of gods, the god who is the background noise of the divine. So when Aratus set out to describe the phenomena of the cosmos, he began his poem thus: “From Zeus let our beginning be, from he whom men never leave unnamed. Full of Zeus are the paths and the places where men meet, full of Zeus the sea and the seaports. Every one of us and in every way has need of Zeus. Indeed we are his offspring.”

So for example Holderlin speaks of the blueing of the sky after the storm where the contrast phenomenalizes that the sky is always blueing, just that this becomes conspicuous in contrast with the grey stormy skies. Similarly, when I turn down an unknown street looking for the yellow house, when I see it the yellowness leaps out at me, yellows, which it does so normally too to a lesser degree though we don’t usually notice the appearing.

It’s amazing that so long ago Protagoras basically summed up what we know about the divine, which we are now still struggling to catch up with.

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