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Our scale does not allow us to observe the vastness of the Earth or the universe, nor minute, microscopic elements, without the aid of certain tools. One of them is history itself, which has the virtue of being able to affect us even though, as expected, it belongs to a time to which we can’t go back. The past, in other words, is not a heap of stages we overgrown, but the soil from which the present blossoms.
I’m saying all this because, despite the enormous distance separating us, the Hellenic peoples established our vision of illness. Nowadays, when we read about the anxiety instilled by breathing a bad air, sent by the gods – miasma – it is all but impossible to extricate that thought from those of us in the year 2020 – and the ongoing one – who have been haunted by the presence of a virus that knows no borders.
To write this text, Joaquín asked me to use as a reference one of the most beautiful, and stunning, images that we’ve been left by the pandemic: it shows Pope Francis blessing Rome and the world under the melancholy light of a cobalt, cloud-laden sky. Only a monsignor is with him at Saint Peter’s Square, reaching out to a lifeless space, in a harsh, relentless rain.
The sense of helplessness triggered by this picture can hold great significance to a believer, but it also says a lot of things to those of us who are atheists, namely that there are tiny particles floating in the air which our scale doesn’t allow us to see: a virus which, by the time this text has been published, will have claimed the lives of nearly two million people, collapsing healthcare systems and the economy of a vast majority of nations with it. The climate of insecurity created by the consequences of this pandemic is shared by almost everyone. A part of society will find shelter in political and medical decisions – the vaccine is the philosopher’s stone of the secular world – while others will also find solace in the idea that this tragedy obeys to a purpose dictated in a world that’s not our own.
Distant as they might seem to us, the Hellenic peoples irrigated with their thought the ground from which the three Abrahamic, monotheistic religions sprang: the constant experience of injustice – just as under Athenian oligarchy as under Spartan martial society – spawned the belief in restorative justice in heaven. In the face of contagion and becoming cursed, characteristic of the lower classes (of the helots, the slaves), some balance appeared: the universal desire for purification. The fear of the gods’ concealed designs, their whims and rolling of the dice, could only become bearable through kátharsis, a cleansing that was not merely magical, but moral. For the first time in the West, the ideas of contamination and sin are merged into one. From then on it won’t be enough for hands to be clean. The heart – the faith or ideology – must also be clean.
There was, however, an often forgotten Ionian thinker, who fought these old popular wisdoms and his time’s conventional superstitions: Xenophanes of Colophon. He was the first to exercise destructive criticism to the civil religion of Homer and Hesiod, the great mythological pantheon in which gods looked way too much, in shape and behaviour, like mortals. Xenophanes concluded that if gods too got drunk and committed adultery – and, also, as many myths told, were envious of what we did – they couldn’t be treated as such; it wasn’t possible that human endeavour had a damaging effect on deities. No god worthy of their name could possess our flaws and mistakes, succumbing to our weaknesses. So Xenophanes concluded that were was no such thing as an Olympus, no supernatural forces moved by hatred or jealousy, no corrupt or capricious deities. There was just one god, and that god, in shape or thinking, looked nothing like us.
That is enough of an important turning point to note that from his philosophy stemmed two opposing trends which were to divide the long march of thought: materialism (mocking popular beliefs, he said that if the ox could paint, their god would look like an ox) and more abstract metaphysics, Platonism and Aristotelianism, which are both at the heart of the frostiness of Yahweh and Allah, imperceptible and unfathomable.
However, Catholicism kept in the figure of Christ the lost function of mythology, the visible side of a god who, being of flesh and blood, was able to enjoy and suffer and was, therefore, closer and more apprehensible to mortals. It’s interesting that one of the major thinkers of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, issued such a harrowing warning, one that believers themselves tend to overlook: “Every passion belongs to something existing in potency. But God is completely free from potency, since He is pure act. God, therefore, is solely agent, and in no way does any passion have a place in Him”.
There’s an element in the scene at Saint Peter’s Square which both believers and atheists take into equal account: a stormy air with a merciless force, indifferent to suffering, hovers above.
Ángel Álvarez Gómez, La Suma contra los gentiles de Tomás de Aquino, Alianza Editorial, 1998
Alain Besançon, La imagen prohibida, Siruela, 2003
Carlos Carrasco Mez, La tradición en la teología de Jenófanes, Byzantion Nea Hellás número 29, 2010, pp. 55-72
E.R. Dodds, Los griegos y lo irracional, Alianza Editorial, 2019
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)