|Marcus Tullius Cicero - From Wikipedia|
"When touchstone asks Corin in As You Like It, 'Has any philosophy in thee, shepherd?' Shakespeare means by philosophy not a system of abstract thought or a technical discipline of the schools but an attitude of mind which can best be described as 'idealistic'. Have you that spiritual dimension to your being, that mood of reflective inquiry and self-contemplation, that anxiety of mind to know the things spiritual in which is the true dwelling place of man?"
All ancient civilizations show a tradition of musing about God and religion and in some civilizations this reached into the higher echelons of philosophy and undoubtedly the Greco-Roman civilization was one of them. Of the Romans Marcus Tullius Cicero ( January 3rd BC - December 7th 43 BC) left behind an enviable body of work, both political and philosophical, and influenced many across the centuries "from St. Augustine and Dante to Voltaire and Alexander Hamilton". Having risen to become a consul in 63 BC Cicero was marginalized during the reign of Julius Caesar. It was then, in 45 BC Cicero wrote, "On the nature of Gods", an imaginary dialogue featuring an Epicurean, a Stoic and an academic debating the existence of God and his nature.
The selection in the book focuses on Quintus Lucilius Balbus (c100 BC) expounding on the nature of god or divinity. Translator Philip Freeman says the Latin word 'Deus' could be taken to mean 'divinity' or 'god' depending on context and thus render itself to very different meanings. Before Balbus could speak, in the fictitious debate that Cicero writes, Gaius Aurelius Cotta (124 - 73 BC), considered an academic, is invited to define his belief in gods. Cotta demurs saying that it is easier for him to "talk about what I disbelieve rather than what I believe". Hindu philosophy famously uses the principle of "not this, not this" (neti, neti). With that Balbus enters the dialogue.
Balbus says that the Stoic view of God has four parts. First, Gods exist; second, the nature of gods; third, how they govern the universe; and finally, their role in human affairs. On the question of existence of God Balbus uses an a priori approach and deduces that any contemplation of the heavens and nature around us should convince us, kind of axiomatically, that a higher intelligence "rules over this realm". Following such a line of logic he asks that the existence of the idea of God across the ages in the mind of man shows that time, the merciless sieve of useless ideas, has left behind this idea because it is valid and because god exists.
"Prophecies and premonitions of things to come", is to Balbus, "proof that the future is being revealed, shown, portended, and foretold to human beings". Then Balbus emphasizes the importance of propitiating to the gods and beseeching good omens before large undertakings like wars. "Generals", Balbus adds, brought about good to the country when they "followed religious practices". Comparing Rome to other nations Balbus says that there are things that Rome may excel at or be inferior to but when it comes to "religion, that is, the worship of the gods" they are "far superior". I wonder how would a Chinese or Hindu react to that?
The appearance of a comet, to Balbus and Roman society, foretold a calamity. Shakespeare makes Caesar's wife Calpurnia plead with him, on the ill fated ides of March, that bad omen foretells a calamity if Caesar where to go to the senate. Referring to the sighting of a comet Calpurnia tells Caesar, "the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes". Ancient Tamil literature speaks of sighting a comet before Mantharan Cheral Irumporai, a chieftain, dies. A historical fiction, Ponniyin Selvan, also refers to sighting a comet before the murder of a prince. Humanity, perhaps, has more in common than what divides us.
That comets exist and reoccur in intervals makes Cleanthes, a boxer turned philosopher and student of Zeno, argue for the existence of an intelligent power orchestrating it. Balbus, drawing up on Cleanthes, asserts, "the evidence of these celestial bodies should be enough to prove they are not the result of chance" but, "the result of an intelligent mind at work".
Cleanthes' and Balbus' idea of an "intelligent mind at work" governing the universe is central to the Judeo-Christian world that echoes even today in the evangelical war against Darwinian Theory of Evolution. God admonishes a grief stricken Job, in the Book of Job in Old Testament, "where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its measurements? Surely you know!" God then scolds Job for even thinking he knows how the world works and for questioning why the world works the way it works. Modern day deniers of Theory of Evolution have cooked up this theory of 'Intelligent Design' that is nothing but a Trojan horse for 'Creationism' based exactly on the premise that the universe could not be an accident but a purposeful creation of an intelligent Omniscient divinity.
Hamlet mused in a soliloquy,
"what a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals".
That human beings, endowed with reasoning and intelligence superior to all other living beings, should possibly be the culmination of all life sounds arrogant to Balbus. He feels, Chrysippus, a student of Cleanthes, "the heavenly bodies in their eternal order cannot have been created by man. Therefore, that which created them is superior to man". The very reasoning and intelligence that characterizes a human being ought to be the result of a creation of an even more superior mind. Socrates asks in Xenophon, "where did we acquire the minds we have". "Nothing without spirit and reason", Balbus quotes Zeno," can give birth to an animate and reasoning being". An evangelical Christian in America, today, echoes that same thought across the ages.
Radhakrishnan, like other anthropologists, reasons that "when man is delivered from imminent peril, or realizes his utter dependence on the mighty forces of nature, he feels the reality of the presence of god. He hears the voice of God in the tempest and sees his hand in the stilling of the wave". God asks Job, as Radhakrishnan would've known, "who enclosed the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb?" "Naturalism and anthropomorphism seem to be the first stages of the Vedic religion" says Radhakrishnan and quotes Chrysippus, "the Sun, Moon and Stars and Law and Men who have turned into Gods".
|Chrysippus: Image Courtesy Wikipedia.|
A striking parallel between the Greco-Roman worldview and the Hindu theology is the primacy assigned to fire. Heat has a tendency to destroy but heat within the human body and the sun is nourishing to life, a life preserver, a life giver. The Rg Veda, Radhakrishnan quotes, assigns to Agni, the Hindu god of fire, a primacy as creator.
Balbus goes further in reasoning that since the sun and stars are "born in ether" untainted by man or earthly objects, are purer. And to Balbus, it is axiomatic, sun and stars have a life and their movements are volitional. They "move of their own free will and due to intelligence and divinity". A Hindu astrologer would applaud that sentiment. When Balbus says, "intelligence depends on food we eat. Stars live in ether nourished by vapors of land and sea...pure food" we see stunning parallels to Hindu beliefs concerning purity of food and its effect on human intelligence.
On a side note, Radhakrishnan's acclaimed "Indian Philosophy" constantly draws parallels between Hindu and Indo-Iranian and Greek beliefs. Varuna is characterized in Rg Veda as omniscient, "knows the flights of the birds in the sky" and "not a sparrow can fall without his knowledge". The author of Book of Job would've been surprised at the oneness of vision. "Dyaus", to Radhakrishnan, "is not merely an Indo-Iranian deity but an Indo-European one. It survives in Greece as Zeus, in Italy as Jupiter".
Speaking on the purpose of man's existence Balbus says, "humans have emerged for contemplating and imitating the universe. We are certainly not perfect, but we are part of perfection". In his Hibbert lectures Radhakrishnan says, "In a metaphor common to the Upanishads and Plato every unit of nature is a microcosm reflecting in itself the entire all-inclusive macrocosm".
Balbus, having offered all the above arguments, concludes, "To sum up, the existence of the gods is so abundantly clear that I regard anyone who denies it as out of his mind". Tamil poet Bharathi, drawing upon a Vedic tenet, asks the reader to "believe" and "believing is indeed the path". ("நம்புவதே வழி என்ற மறை தனை நாம் இன்று நம்பிவிட்டோம்". "நம்பினார் கெடுவதில்லை நான்கு மறைத் தீர்ப்பு")
"Dream of Scipio" is the concluding part of a 6 part political work, "On the Republic", by Cicero written between 54-51 BC. Only the Dream of Scipio is now available. The Dream is a fictional encounter between Scipio Amelianus (185 BC - 129 BC), known for his destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic war, and Scipio Africanus (236/235 BC - 183BC), his grandfather and legendary general who had defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama.
The younger Scipio meets the elder Scipio in heaven in a dream and is taken upon a tour and lectured about the purpose of life and futility of glory. The elder Scipio advises that he who serves his country will be exalted and those who serve the country will find a place in heaven like the father and grandfather of younger Scipio. When the younger Scipio asks if heaven is the destination then why not he die and come sooner. He is admonished by the elder that the body that houses the soul of man is god's gift and only god can decide when the body dies. We see here the seed of Biblical injunction against suicide.
Mocking a life in pursuit of glory the elder Scipio cautions that glory will not "will not climb the Caucasus Mountains, which you see down there, or swim across the Ganges River over there? No one in the far eastern lands or the remote west or the northern or southern regions will ever so much as hear your name....Even among those who do know us, how long will your memory last?" "Place none of your hopes in human rewards. Let virtue herself by her own allurements draw you to true honor". "Keep striving and know this, that you're not mortal, only your body....The true self of each person is the mind. Know therefore that you are god". Here's an echo of 'That art thou'. The lines of H.W. Longfellow bears quotation here:
Amidst the tour the elder Scipio speaks of nine spheres and music emanating from melodious movements. One is reminded of Pythagoras's theory of the music of spheres.
What do we make of all this? While science has overturned all of the above what these reflections reveal is the aspiration of human spirit to understand life's purpose. While theology deems it impossible that our Earth could be an accident science teaches us that it is precisely that.
Will Durant, writing on the purpose of philosophy, quotes Cicero, "There is nothing absurd but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers". Hamlet admonishes his friend Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horation, than are dreamt of in your philosophy". But then, as Durant teaches us there are pleasures in philosophy for only philosophy keeps alive the eternal human impulse of wanting to understand. For all his mocking of philosophy Cicero best exemplifies the spirit of Robert Browning that Durant gives as a reason for philosophy, "Life has a meaning, To find its meaning is my meat and drink".
After the assassination of Julius Caesar the triumvirate including Mark Antony pursued not just Caesar's assassins but their political enemies too and Cicero had invited the wrath of Antony. On 7th December 43 BC Cicero was executed. "On Antony's instructions his hands, which had penned the Philippics against Antony, were cut off as well; these were nailed along with his head on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum". Thus ended the life of one of the greatest Romans.
- "How to Think About God: An Ancient Guide for Believer and Nonbelievers" -- Marcus Tullius Cicero; Selected, translated and introduced by Philip Freeman. Princeton University publication.
- The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant
- An Idealist View of Life - S. Radhakrishnan
- Indian Philosophy - Volume 1 - S. Radhakrishnan
- Dream of Scipio https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somnium_Scipionis