On praying for a miracle
To the editor:
Religion of ancient Greece is different from other religions. The Olympian gods are not supremely omnipresent, omnipotent or omniscient. They are quarrelsome, temperamental, egoistic and suffer from much of the same flaws as mankind. They seem to have a hand in the destiny of men, but not entirely. Zeus, in Homer’s “Odyssey,” laments:
Ah how shameless — the way these mortals blame the gods
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share.
The gods, it seems, more or less shape the fate of men, but the men compound their miseries, and seal that fate, on their own merit.
Furthermore, even when it is in their absolute power to intervene in the affairs of men, the gods do not do so fully, and only provide motivation and assistance. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Athena Pallas supports Odysseus but will not do all the work for him. In an example of this, Athena exhorts Odysseus to be brave and go into the palace of King Alcinous to seek help in getting home to Ithaca:
You go on inside. Be bold, nothing to fear.
In every venture, the bold man comes off best,
even the wanderer, bound from distant shores.
Athena will not change King Alcinous’s mind with her powers; man must meet god in the middle.
Greek culture acknowledged the power of the Fortune’s Wheel in the lives of men. However, it balanced any tendency towards fatalism with the expression of confidence that man still has power, however limited, to shape his destiny. In their quest, men should look not to the gods, unless they plan to bear most of the labour. This balance between fate and self-determination, and divine help and self-reliance, is the genius of the Greek mind. Send your prayers to the providence, they said, but do not expect them to be answered; and in the rare instances that they are answered, they will be only if the prayer is accompanied by effort. Ask not for a miracle; seek your good from thine own self.
One only has to ask oneself, how closely this matches their experience of reality, to judge whether the Greek conception of the divine was more sophisticated than most modern religions.