Mythos and Lógos in the Five Ages

One of the great Puranas of the Hindu tradition, the Śrimad Bhāgavatam, describes the decay of Dharma through the four ages or yugas. Readers unfamiliar with the term “Dharma” find themselves in an unfortunate situation, since it lacks a corresponding translation in English. “Tao” or “Lógos” might be adequate translations, but they too are without English counterparts. For the purposes of this inquiry, we can imagine “Dharma,” like “Lógos,” to mean something akin to “the ultimate ordering principle of the cosmos.” Alternatively, we could think of “the Dharma” as “the Good” in the manner that Plato describes it in the Republic. The Good is that which renders the world intelligible. This is in fact the same thing as “the ultimate ordering principle of the cosmos,” since order is what is intelligible to us and chaos is what is not. According to the account of the Puranas, by the time of Kali-yuga, the bull of Dharma stands on a single leg, having lost each of the others in the preceding yugas. The Kali-yuga, therefore, represents a bleak condition.

The Greek tradition tells a similar story of decadence. The fourth age was inaugurated by the wrath of Zeus (Roman Jove or Jupiter), who brought the third age to a close when he initiated a cataclysmic flood. Deucalion, like Noah of the Hebrew scriptures, was the name of the man who peopled the earth after the great deluge together with his wife Pyrrha. In fact, name “Deucalion,” or “Deu-kali-aion” means the same thing as “the aion of the goddess Kali.” Writing in the seventh century B.C., the poet Hesiod offers one of the most famous accounts of the the four ages of humanity. In Works and Days, the great poet writes:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronus (Roman Saturn) when he was reigning in heaven.*

In another work, which is perhaps his most famous, Hesiod tells how Cronus’ regency came to a close, and therewith the golden age as well. In Theogony, the poet recounts that Cronus “learned from Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (starry Heaven) that he was destined to be overcome by his own son.” In other words, who lives by the sickle falls by the same. In this manner, Cronus was foretold to be overcome just as he had first vanquished his own father, Uranus. Hearing the prophecy of his ineluctable fate, Cronus immediately set about trying to avoid it. Therefore, the king of the Titans and regent of the Golden Age adopted the policy of consuming each of the offspring that his wife Rhea bore him:

Hestia, Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronus swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods.

Unsurprisingly, Hesiod recounts that “unceasing grief seized Rhea,” upon which a desire for vengeance soon followed. Indeed, also in Theogony, we learn that Nyx (Night) and Eris (Discord) join to bear the siblings Oizys (Pain) and Nemesis (Retribution). Also, the Moirai sisters, “the Fates,” preceded Cronus’s reign, and would outlast it as well.

The designs of fate dictated that when Rhea was about to bear Zeus, she was resolved to controvert her husband’s practice. When Cronus approached, therefore, with the demand that the newborn Zeus should be delivered to his gullet, she sought the counsel of her parents, Gaia and Uranus “to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed….And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter.” It happened then that, in response to Cronus’ claim, Rhea gave him a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Hesiod continues:

Then [Cronus] took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.

Ultimately, the Moirai will have their way. As the prophecy foretold, Cronus’ fate is delivered upon him in the form of his son, who leads an insurrection against him:

The boundless sea rang terribly around, and the earth crashed loudly: wide Heaven was shaken and groaned, and high Olympus reeled from its foundation under the charge of the undying gods, and a heavy quaking reached dim Tartarus and the deep sound of their feet in the fearful onset and of their hard missiles. So, then, they launched their grievous shafts upon one another, and the cry of both armies as they shouted reached to starry heaven; and they met together with a great battle-cry.

Then Zeus no longer held back his might; but straight his heart was filled with fury and he showed forth all his strength. From Heaven and from Olympus he came forthwith, hurling his lightning: the bold flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame. The life-giving earth crashed around in burning, and the vast wood crackled loud with fire all about. All the land seethed, and Ocean’s streams and the unfruitful sea. The hot vapour lapped round the earthborn Titans: flame unspeakable rose to the bright upper air: the flashing glare of the thunder- stone and lightning blinded their eyes for all that there were strong.

Astounding heat seized Chaos: and to see with eyes and to hear the sound with ears it seemed even as if Earth and wide Heaven above came together; for such a mighty crash would have arisen if Earth were being hurled to ruin, and Heaven from on high were hurling her down; so great a crash was there while the gods were meeting together in strife. Also the winds brought rumbling earthquake and duststorm, thunder and lightning and the lurid thunderbolt, which are the shafts of great Zeus, and carried the clangour and the warcry into the midst of the two hosts. An horrible uproar of terrible strife arose: mighty deeds were shown and the battle inclined. But until then, they kept at one another and fought continually in cruel war.

Zeus leads the Olympians to victory and the Titans are cast into the pits of Tartarus. There, beneath the earth they bound in a cage closed with an unbreakable brazen anvil. In Hesiod’s account in Works and Days, Zeus’ ascendancy to the throne of Mount Olympus initiates the decline of humankind. Indeed, Hesiod, finding himself born in the Age of Iron, laments his fate:

Would that I were not among the men of this generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.

Thus in Works and Days we find one story of succession, and in Theogony another. Either one by itself presents a coherent myth, but together they appear to be at odds. If we accept the characterisation of Cronus from Theogony, how can we reconcile with the fact that he presides over the Golden Age? Why would “wise,” “far-seeing,” “great” Zeus have created lesser races of men than Cronus, “wretch”? Ordinarily, one would simply accept them as two differing accounts, but this is a tall order since the two works are of one poet.

II

Hesiod hints at one possible answer in his account. In matter of fact, Zeus came to power through near patricide, which is hardly the hallmark of a noble inauguration. Hesiod further testifies to all manner of impulsive, lascivious, and tyrannical deeds of the king of Olympus, which hardly strike the reader as “wise,” “far-seeing,” or “great.” I have periodically wondered about this apparent contradiction since I first learned that Cronus, malevolent eater of his children, should also be the ruler of the Golden Age. At first, I merely accepted it as a discrepancy. I do not read myths in the same manner as I once did, however. For instance, I now read myths more than once, and not only in time, but also in meaning. By this I mean that, just as one first reads letters into words into sentences, etc…one must then read deeds, sufferings, and events into archetypes and meanings. History itself is a myth for just this reason: that its meaning remains concealed to those who are illiterate in its form of communication. In each reading, there stands a relation as letter to word, and the former is to the latter as sign to significance, or as parts to whole.

Obviously, to affirm that one had achieved the ultimate reading is a contradiction in terms, because a limit of understanding would have to be traversed to be delineated, which would imply that it was no limit in the first place. In short, a myth is a limitless well of knowledge. The measure of the vessel which we may draw withal is the extent of our own erudition and imagination. The reason for this is that we can read from a myth no more than we know to read for. (This is the first principle of Theoria-press.) I will not flatter myself, then, if I claim that Hesiod’s account of Zeus’ victory over Cronus also depicts a critical event in the universe evolution of the human psyche. This is not to reduce the former to the latter. Instead, the contest between regents parallels specific psychological relations, and both, in turn, embody the same archetypal dynamics, which are more real than reality itself because they are prior to it in time and also in logic.

Let us explore this relation further in an attempt to understand. In any given situation, friend and foe are a function of the narrator’s own allegiances, as a few minutes of conversation with most people will patently reveal. In the same vein, no one is unfamiliar with the idiom that the victor writes the history, as well as the principle that it means to indicate. Zeus having vanquished Cronus, we can expect, therefore, that it is the former’s account that Hesiod is beholden to record. Given Zeus’ character as his deeds testify to it, it can hardly come as a surprise that Cronus’ reign of harmony would have represented an oppression to the one telling of it. Good sense always appears oppressive from the perspective of arbitrariness. The theogonic contest of gods depicts the archetypal struggle between capricious desires and sound judgment. Such judgment necessarily feels onerous to the appetites because it is precisely the former’s purpose to moderate them.

The greatest of philosophers appears to corroborate such a reading in the Cratylus. Plato presents Socrates’ question of Hermogenes:

Do you not remember that he speaks of a golden race of men who came first?….Why, I suppose that he means by the golden men, not men literally made of gold, but good and noble; and I am convinced of this, because he further says that we are the iron race.**

In the Republic, Plato also provides a rudimentary schema of the soul, which he also exemplifies in the structure of the ideal polis. As Plato conceives it, the psyche (ψυχή) is composed of three parts:
logical, rational, or reasonable (logistykon, λογιστικόν),
spirited or emotional (thymoeides, θυμοειδές),
and appetitive or desiring (epithymetikon, ἐπιθυμητικόν).
Plato conceives of the well-ordered soul as the one in which the rational soul provides reasons for its deeds, and not rationalisations. In the first case, the rational soul adjudicates between pertinent motives; in the second, the motive is pre-determined emotively and the rational soul is beholden to carry it out. Concretely, this ordinarily demands that it orchestrate the logistics behind its execution.

The reader of a certain disposition may object to Plato’s conception and rather claim, in the manner of David Hume, that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”*** Indeed, the post-modern Zeitgeist represents an extrapolation of Hume’s view in many ways and in diverse fields of inquiry. That this is a fact, however, does not carry any normative weight. Indeed, Hume himself provided one of the best-known explanations for this with his characterisation of this is-ought division, which to this day is often referred to as “Hume’s Guillotine.” Thus, that a majority of people prefer to allow their emotions “free-rein,” as it were, does not establish that such is the standard of a well-ordered psyche, and in fact, it largely confirms our reading of Hesiod’s myths from above: Cronus’ rule represents a condition in which natural reason presides over the passions while Zeus’ rule represents the reverse. Furthermore, according to Plato’s description in the Cratylus, the golden race of humanity represents the first scenario and the iron race the second.

The Roman poet Ovid offers an especially expressive description of the latter:

Then the sailor spread his sails
to winds unknown, and keels that long had stood
on lofty mountains pierced uncharted waves.****

Deeds undertaken with no reason are likened to a ship with no course, and whose trajectory is determined by the whim of the elements and the ocean currents. Indeed, Ovid furnishes a bleak depiction of the Iron Age in Metamorphoses:

And last of all
the ruthless and hard Age of Iron prevailed,
from which malignant vein great evil sprung;
and modesty and faith and truth took flight,
and in their stead deceits and snares and frauds
and violence and wicked love of gain,
succeeded.

This characterisation stands in stark relief against the time of Cronus’ reign:

The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.

Thus, Ovid, Plato, and Hesiod appear to substantiate roughly the same mythical history, in which Cronus rules and Age of Gold, and in which Zeus’ victory heralds a sharp decline for men. Above, I posited a reading of this myth that sees the theogony as synchronic account and the successive ages as diachronic one. In other words, the theogony is presented from a standpoint that is situated in a particular moment in history while the human ages are presented from one that is not. If the latter is situated, it is situated ideologically and not temporally. If this picture is true, what does it mean? In other words, just as we read to the myths, and then from them to this conceptualisation, can we read again from hence into an higher understanding?

III

Just as four ages of humanity finds corroboration in the Hindu scriptures, no mythic characterisation of the fall of man can fail to invite comparisons to the story of Genesis. One may read of the place where the first couple dwelt:

The garden was watered by a river; it came out from Eden, and went on to divide into four branches. One is called Phison; it is the river which surrounds all the country of Hevilath, a gold-producing country; no gold is better (2:9-12)

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden of paradise, however, for tasting of the tree which brings knowledge of good and evil: “and their eyes were opened” (3:7). In the course of human evolution, few events are so definitive as this awakening to reflexive consciousness. To live in the garden means to subsist in the womb of nature; to rely on the instinctive wisdom that is the inheritance of all creatures. The expulsion of the original human pair from this garden means that, from that moment, what before was given as providence they will forthwith have to earn by their own hands. Natural reason is more perfect than human reason (imagine the instinctual intelligence that guides the migration of birds, for instance). God’s rejection of Cain’s offering in preference for Abel’s depicts this valuation as well in respect to art, which depends on human reason for its production (consider that wasps knew the secrets of paper-making long before men). Genesis indeed recounts that “Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground” (4:2). Cain is an agriculturalist and his offering, therefore, is wrought of his own labour by the designs of his own reason. Abel is a nomad and therefore retains his connection to providence from nature. Cain slays Abel just as the lifeline to natural reason was severed by the development of human intelligence. Indeed Cain’s son, Enoch built the first city, which, in juxtaposition with the garden of Eden, is a supreme symbol of this separation. Furthermore, Cain’s great grandson, called Tubal-cain, becomes a blacksmith and therefore represents the impulse of technology, which further intensifies this separation; a fact to which modern developments have rendered us keenly aware. Many today harken back to a simpler time, when the products of human science were not capable of incinerating the planet in a bang or simmering it in a whimper. In this manner, we can easily feel solidarity with Hesiod’s lament:

Would that I were not among the men of this generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards.

In this manner, the Semitic account strikes an extraordinary resonance with the Greco-Roman one. Broadly speaking, both present a fall of humanity. Another resonance, which is less evident to a cursory consideration, however, is that they both present an evolution in the relation of the human to the divine. The Hebrew scriptures depict a falling off of humanity from its origin and from God, which the Jewish people periodically recapitulate throughout the narrative of the Tanakh. At the same time, the promise of a future Messiah sustains them through their exiles and tribulations. Compare the words of the prophet Isaiah for instance:

For our sakes a child is born, to our race a son is given, whose shoulder will bear the sceptre of princely power. What name shall be given him? Peerless among counsellors, the mighty God, Father of the world to come, the Prince of peace. (9:6)

Prima facie, the Greek tradition, bears no similarity in this respect. And yet on closer inspection, we discover that the theogony presents a descent or immanentisation of a certain divine principle: from Uranus “starry Heaven,” to Cronus, to Zeus “cloud-gatherer,” to Athena, Apollo, Dionysus, etc…, the successive generations present gods of increasingly personal character. With the last generation of Olympians, the tale of Theogony breaks off. Hesiod affirms that he lives under the reign of Zeus in the Age of Iron and he offers no further predictions. Indeed, the poet Plutarch, writing some seven centuries after Hesiod, describes the vacancy of the onetime god-inspired oracles:

Silence has come upon some and utter desolation upon others.*****

When a book comes to an end, the next chapter must be taken up in a new one. Plutarch discovers that a given account does not continue after its end. And yet, in Plutarch’s time, these two distinct traditions, which had developed in isolation, joined together with a divine spark, like the closing of a cosmic circuit. This must be the meaning of the New Testament; largely written in Greek announcing the arrival of the Jewish Messiah. The macrocosmic divinity has concentrated to the point of Incarnation. In Owen Barfield’s magnificent expression:

In the course of the earth’s history, something like a Divine Word (Lógos) has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created—so that what was first spoken by God may eventually be respoken by man.******

The Lógos, which once guided humanity from without as instinct, now whispers to us from within as conscience. For this reason, our evolution is in our own hands today; “the ultimate ordering principle of the cosmos” now depends on our willing participation.

*Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Evelyn-White, H G. Loeb Classical Library Volume 57. London: William Heinemann, 1914.

**The Norse tradition describes a similar conception in the Prose Edda: “That age was called the golden age, until it was lost by the coming of those women from Jotunheim.”

***David Hume writes in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739):
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

Gottfried Leibniz notes this fickleness of human motivation: “if geometry were as much opposed to our passions and present interests as is ethics, we should contest it and violate it but little less, notwithstanding all the demonstrations of Euclid and Archimedes.”

J. G. Fichte strongly expresses himself on this matter in a lecture delivered in Jena on Michaelmas 1794 :

That the Ideal cannot be manifested in the Actual world, we know as well as they do,—perhaps better. All we maintain is, that the Actual must be judged by the Ideal, and modified in accordance with it by those who feel themselves capable of such a task. Be it granted that they cannot convince themselves of this;—being what they are, they lose very little thereby, and Humanity loses nothing. This alone becomes clear, that they have not been reckoned on in the great plan for the ennoblement of Humanity. This will assuredly proceed on its glorious way;—over them will kindly Nature watch, vouchsafing them, in proper season, rain and sunshine, fitting nourishment and undisturbed digestion, and therewithal comfortable thoughts.

****Metamorphoses. Available at: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph.htm

******Plutarch, Moralia Volume V Loeb Classical Library “The Obsolescence of Oracles.” 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt)
Available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_defectu_oraculorum*.html)

******Saving the Appearances. Wesleyan Press, 1957, p. 127.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Hesiod says:

    Most excellent! Always love to see a great writing like this on the classics, decline theory, Bible, and perennialism.

    Liked by 1 person

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