Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cosmicism, Tragedy, and Greek Mythology

In the Western world (the one that’s still led largely by American culture), we learn in public school about the ancient Greek myths of Zeus, Perseus, Sisyphus and all the rest. It turns out that the reason for this isn’t just historical. Greek religion and philosophy are foundational to the “free world” of our Western civilization, but the conservative, nature-loving Greek ethos is also currently a fashionable way of making sense of secular humanism. Life-affirming new atheists and hedonists or neo-teleologists like Richard Carrier, Sam Harris, and Massimo Pigliucci need to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, between the anachronism of a theistic defense of morality and the horror of the cosmicist suspicion that life is absurd.  

The Ancient Greek Myths

Both Plato and Aristotle were virtue ethicists, meaning that they thought that happiness is our ultimate goal and that to achieve that goal we need to learn to excel in certain ways. Excellence requires a balanced character so that we avoid emotional extremes and make wise practical judgments. Their preoccupation with balance, harmony, virtue, and self-restraint was endemic to ancient Greek culture as a whole. As Luc Ferry explains in The Wisdom of the Myths, you can find these themes throughout Greek myths which predated the Presocratic philosophers. From the birth of the gods and the creation of the cosmos and of humankind, to the warnings about hubris and the celebrations of heroic battles for justice, the Greek mythos was founded on respect for the natural order, due to the assumption that this order is a metaphysical compromise between the lethal extremes of supernatural stasis and chaos.

The cosmogonic myths tell of how the cosmos was forged in epic wars between forces of order and chaos and specifically between Gaia and Uranus, the destructive Titans, monstrous Cyclopes, and the more creative and stable Olympians. According to these myths, Cronus the Titan betrayed his oppressive father, Uranus, castrating him and creating the conditions for the birth of a new generation of gods. Cronus and his sister Rhea create this new generation, but Cronus gobbles them all up to prevent a similar rebellion against him by his progeny. His child Zeus escapes and overthrows Cronus, freeing his siblings, the Olympians, as well as the Cyclopes and other chaos monsters from Tartarus, who reward Zeus with the gift of the lightning. That added power enables Zeus to prevail in the war against Cronus and the Titans, the outcome of which amounts to the current cosmic settlement. Ferry emphasizes the “profundity of the existential problem that begins to take shape in the crucible of this first and original mythological narrative.” The point is that
all of existence, even that of the immortal gods, will find itself trapped in the same insoluble dilemma: Either one must block everything, as Uranus blocked his children in the womb of Gaia, in order to prevent change and the attendant risk that things will deteriorate—which means complete stasis and unspeakable tedium, such as must ultimately overwhelm life itself. Or, on the other hand, to avoid entropy one accepts movement—History, Time—which includes accepting all the fearful dangers by which we are most threatened. How, henceforth, can there be any equilibrium? This is the fundamental question posed by mythology, and by life itself! (59-60)
Hubris is the arrogance arising from ignorance of our proper place in the world, which misleads intelligent creatures into attempting to overreach, to transcend their nature or station. The myths of Asclepius, the model for Doctor Frankenstein, of Sisyphus who is punished for playing a trick on Zeus, and of Prometheus who is punished for attempting to perfect part of Zeus’ creation all warn that pride leads to our downfall. The gods reestablish the cosmic order as soon as anyone attempts to disturb the equilibrium. Heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason, by contrast, fight for justice which is likewise interpreted as balance, as in the figure of Dike, Lady Justice, who was depicted as carrying a physical balance scale. Heroism for the Greeks was a means to immortality through merited fame, whereby the hero escapes the oblivion of the masses who never so memorably distinguish themselves by their actions and who are thus doomed to become anonymous shades in Hades. The greatest heroes fight “in the service of a divine mission, in the name of justice, or dike, in order to defend the cosmic order against the archaic forces of chaos, whose resurgence is an ever-present threat” (248). These heroes are demigods, half-human and half-divine, and so their attempt to immortalize themselves isn’t hubristic.

According to Ferry, the good life for ordinary humans is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus shows himself to be a wise, self-made man as he lives in harmony with the cosmic order. Odysseus is cunning in that he possesses instrumental rationality, meaning that he focuses on the narrow questions of how to get what he wants, because he takes for granted what he is and where he’s going. That is, instead of trying to alter his nature, he understands and accepts his finitude and sets himself the task only of figuring out how most efficiently to achieve his human goals, namely those of returning home after the Trojan War and of reuniting with his family. He demonstrates his lack of hubris by resisting the temptations—by the Lotus-Eaters, the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso—of immortality or renunciation of the world (forgetting Ithaca and abandoning his voyage home). 

This conservative Greek ethos duly appears in the teleological ethics of Plato and Aristotle, who taught that the good life for us means excelling according to our “form” which in turn flows from the ultimate Good in nature or from a divine Final Cause to which everything is attracted. Stoicism also expresses the ancient Greek ethos, since according to Stoics wisdom consists in accepting the present moment as it presents itself in reality, and recognizing our limited control over the world, restricting our efforts to regulating the inner world over which alone we can be sovereign if we master our thoughts and feelings. Our proper aim is to develop a will that’s in accord with nature, and we accomplish this in the Odyssean manner, by learning how the world actually works, and improving our instrumental rationality for the purpose of being happy with our position in the natural order. Wise people thus display not mere abstract knowledge, but a calm demeanor since they’ve mastered their unrealistic fears and longings and so they’re immune to suffering—although not exactly from misfortune.

Tragedy and Cosmicism

While rejecting the Greek myths as having literary value at best, new atheists such as Richard Carrier, Sam Harris, and Massimo Pigliucci assume much of the Greek foundation of Western philosophy. Carrier and Harris are science-centered, “wily-Odyssean” utilitarians who assume that happiness is our ultimate goal in life, while Pigliucci accepts also virtue ethics and the teleological and Stoic perspectives.

But there’s a problem: the ancient Greek ethos is flawed, and the flaw is anthropocentrism. To be sure, we can reformulate its tenets in philosophical rather than mythical language, but the principles of ancient Greek ethics will still be naively human-centered. True, the Greeks weren’t as naïve as Christians who presume that God made the world just for us. The Archaic and Classical Greeks were more naturalistic in believing that we have only a limited role to play in the universe, albeit perhaps a pivotal one. But the conservative principle of preserving a cosmic balance between order and chaos is indirectly human-centered, because it assumes that the most worthy equilibrium is the status quo in which we emerge to play our part in the cosmic drama. Here again is Ferry to lay out the crux of the Greek myths:
If the cosmic order were perfect, if it were indeed characterized by a faultless and immutable equilibrium, time would simply come to a stop, which is to say all life, all movement, all history. And even for the gods there would be nothing more to do or see. From which it is clear that primordial chaos, and the forces that it periodically causes to erupt, cannot and should not disappear completely. And humanity—with all its vices and its generations succeeding one another indefinitely as a consequence of Pandora, whose legacy is that men are now “truly” mortal—is likewise paradoxically indispensible to life. It is a magnificent paradox, which we might rephrase thus: there is no life without death, no history without succession, no order without disorder, no cosmos without a minimum of chaos. (162)
Humans, then, are indispensible because we have rational and irrational tendencies. We have the capacities to preserve and to upset the natural order, and so we matter to the cosmic balancing act. The Greek myths are frank about the benefit of humanity to nature, since they maintain that the gods keep us around because we amuse or honour them by worshipping them and caring for their shrines. But even if we lay aside the polytheism and religious defense, there’s no reason to assume that the natural order that makes human life possible is good and worth fitting into, such that hubris becomes the arch-vice. What the Greek ethos does is add a normative dimension to the anthropic principle. According to this principle, the universe must be compatible with that which is obvious, namely the existence of the conscious creatures who observe the universe. Intelligent life couldn’t have evolved without a certain balance between order and chaos, which allows for space and time and change. But instead of merely registering that fact as a matter of amoral causality, the Greeks based their ethics on this naturalistic outlook. Thus, this natural order became the highest good, from which it follows that our ultimate aim as a species is to play our proper part in that order.

What threatens this ethos is the more uncompromising naturalism that you find in modern existentialism and in H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Nietzsche, for example, believed that nature itself is amoral and that we can deem the world good only by an arbitrary act of willpower. Lovecraft allowed that the universe might have some cosmic purpose, but he took the upshot of science to be that our role in the universal development is so miniscule that to appreciate our value in the cosmic scheme is to lose all sanity as well as any scrap of our dignity. However, the more subversive view of nature is found also in the latent humanism of ancient Greece, as in the atomism of Epicurus and the tragedies of Sophocles. The atomists inferred atheism and thus the subjectivity of morality, and concluded that we should strive to please ourselves in the limited time we have while we live, with no illusions about some metaphysical grounding of our animal habits.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, as Ferry appreciates, the tragedians seemed to recognize the dead end of Greece’s cosmic perspective. The tragedy of Oedipus presents us with the problem of evil, which threatens to reduce Greek myths and philosophy to absurdity much as the books of Job and Ecclesiastes allow Jews to wink and nod when pondering the merit of their religion. Oedipus is caught up in a series of accidents that lead to his downfall. He does nothing to deserve this end, which makes it a matter of fate. He’s doomed to suffer, to unknowingly kill his father and marry his mother, which leads him to tear out his eyes in horror, because that’s what inhuman, impersonal nature evidently had in store for him. There seems no higher justice that can excuse this absurdity, although Ferry attempts to reconcile his exhaustive analysis of the teleological basis of the Greek myths with the disquieting implications of the Greek tragedies.

Ferry points out that, for the ancient Greeks, later generations sometimes have to suffer because of the sins of earlier ones, because nature can’t course-correct at the drop of a dime, as it were. Destiny intervenes in Oedipus’s case, because his ancestors had turned the world upside down, compelling the gods to rectify the situation, but their solution can sometimes take a long time before balance is more fully restored. (The balance is never ideal, because chaos is always threatening to reassert itself with horrific, destabilizing eruptions of “unnatural” possibilities.) “This is why,” says Ferry, “we must in effect retrace the entire history of Thebes since its foundations by Cadmus if we are to grasp the roots of the misfortunes that strike Oedipus.” For example, “Cadmus wedded Harmonica, who, despite her name, was herself already the fruit of certain discord, being the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, a rickety and forbidden pact between love and war (not least because Aphrodite was officially married to Hephaestus…)” (355). And so on and so forth, the point being that we can expect tragedies to befall anyone at any time. As Ferry writes, “no more than the rain chooses to soak this or that individual but falls indifferently on the good and the bad, the misfortunes that strike individual men are by no means always merited. That is the way of things, simply, about which we can do nothing, for these afflictions are an essential part of our human condition: that of mortals plunged into a life and a history that entails at every turn the possibility of an error with which we must learn to come to terms” (357).

The problem, though, is that the more convoluted the causality involved in the destiny of those who come to grief, the more accidental and absurd the cosmic panoply seems, in which case we might doubt the wisdom of assuming the goodness of the overall order. Thus, Ferry adds that the original spectators of these tragedies must have felt “that this whole saga is frightful and that reality itself is not to be trusted or embraced for being willed and determined by the gods under such terms as these. Put differently,” he asks, “how to reconcile Greek wisdom—considered as love of the real and as reconciliation with the present moment—with the tragic impulse that goes contrary to it and encourages the thought that, even if determined by the gods for ultimately harmonious ends, the world is a thoroughly intolerable place for many of us?” (362). If we dispense with the latter religious dogma and assume there are no human-friendly deities setting things aright, the cosmicist doubt only increases. The notion of cosmic “harmony” or “balance” is, at any rate, a mere metaphor deriving from music theory or from the ancients’ short-sighted observation of regularity in the paths of stars and planets. If the tragic perspective leaves us with just impersonal, unjust cause and effect, that is, with chance and necessity which doom or gift us indiscriminately for no higher reason, the ancient Greeks were poised to adopt a version of our cynical “postmodern” perspective.

Ferry tries out a few solutions to that problem of reconciliation, his best being what he calls the latent humanism in the Greek tragedies. This is why Oedipus tears out his eyes, just as Job cried out against God in righteous indignation, because neither accepted his fate as just. As Ferry writes, by Oedipus’s 
very public suffering—which contains no discernible amor fati [love of fate], or embracing of the present—he revolts, he protests, he cries out that something is wrong. His daughter Antigone goes even further and, in more extreme form, takes up the torch on his behalf. Not that either of them questions—at least not explicitly—the universe in which they find themselves plunged: on the contrary, Antigone states clearly that she belongs to her family and can do nothing about it. And yet there is a false note. These individuals are formidable: Oedipus is wise, intelligent, kindly, honest; Antigone is courageous, loyal, faithful to her ideals (which are of the highest order)…and yet they are crushed. (365)
if Oedipus and Antigone become heroic and, in a positive sense, legendary figures—for us as, originally, for the Greeks—then this is because they testify, like no other personages, through their suffering as such, to what is singular about the human condition within the cosmic order. Here we can sense the early ferment of a humanism to come. In the same way as Prometheus, in Aeschylus’s play, revolts against the gods in the name of men, the spectator of Sophoclean tragedy cannot but start thinking, however obliquely, that this world must be changed, improved, transformed—and not merely interpreted. What is certain is that there is a glitch in the scheme of things, and that it has a name.
This glitch, for Ferry, is us, that is, the call for us to fulfill our subversive potential, given especially the atheistic and absurdist implications of philosophical naturalism. Instead of surrendering to the natural order, Antigone pleads for a “morality of the heart,” for an interrogation of the way of the world. “And it is this that is properly human in her character: that it is not reducible to order, not assimilable either by the gods or by the cosmos.” This promethean humanism, which puts our subjective good above the alleged objective good of nature, would of course bloom many centuries later with the European Renaissance, the American Revolution, and the Enlightenment. Ferry notes the relevance of Prometheus, since “it was indeed Prometheus who, according to Plato, was the first to see humankind as starting from nothing but capable of achieving everything, including a rejection of the appointed order of things” (366).

This is how Ferry ends his book, and it amounts to an admission that there’s no reconciliation, after all, between the teleological framework of the Greek mythos and the absurdist, tragic perspective. We can submit to nature or we can satanically rebel against the world, but we can’t do both. The Greek mythos preaches the conservative, prudent option of bowing before the gods and searching for excuses for how their exploits in managing the natural “order” are often humiliating or catastrophic for mere mortals like us who seem instead to be the only intelligent creatures around. The Greek tragedies hold out the progressive, disaffected option of “hubristically” assuming the role of humans-who-would-be-gods and who thus shoulder the responsibility to remake the world in our image. With modern science and technology, capitalism and democracy, secular humanism and consumerism, we have in effect opted for the latter path, although few of us understand the tragic implications of our “individual freedom.”

Crypto-Satanism and the Glory of Anti-Nature

Let’s look a little closer at the two standpoints to clarify the conflict. For the ancient Greeks as well as the modern utilitarians and neo-Stoics, we ought to be happy, as is our supposed right because nature grants us this potential. This kind of morality is naturalistic in the modern context, because it substitutes natural rights for divine ones, despite the fact that the original formulations of this morality were polytheistic rather than philosophical. Nature is supposed to be inherently good and even the Greeks’ sophisticated, philosophical answer as to why that’s so is human-centered. The present natural order is taken to be better than a lapse into some static or chaotic arrangement, and the reason for that assessment can only be the presumption of the anthropic principle combined with the alleged self-evidence that we deserve to live, in which case any world that makes us possible is itself not just causally necessary but favourable. Again, the myths expressed this argument by personifying the natural conditions of our emergence and so making mental projections of us out to be crucial to cosmic evolution.

Plato and Aristotle de-personalize the ultimate causes and speak of them as being intrinsically perfect, but they don’t explain why the source of abstract forms is “Good” (Plato) or why a self-sufficient, immaterial mind that thinks only about itself ought to be desired by everything in nature (Aristotle). The implicit reason for Plato seems to be the proto-Gnostic one that his sun-like Good and source of all multiplicity is worthy because of our connection to it; specifically, we’re trapped in an inferior, transitory plane of material copies of the eternal Forms, and we carry the potential for goodness in so far as we can contemplate deeper reality and “remember” our metaphysical basis. The implicit reason for Aristotle seems to be the more parochial one that he’s biased in favour of philosophy, and because human philosophers can’t be entirely self-sufficient because they depend on society for their protection and nourishment, they can only dream of being able to philosophize on a permanent basis without having to sully themselves with noble lies and the business of earning a living. In either case, however cosmic or metaphysical the philosophical narrative, the logic of ancient virtue ethics reduces to the presumption that we matter and thus that our preconditions are good in hindsight.  

Carrier, Harris, and Pigliucci won’t appeal to any such grand narrative, but are more likely to declare that happiness is self-evidently our ideal state. For example, Carrier identifies moral facts with what we would in fact most want (namely happiness) were we rational and in possession of all the relevant information, while Harris alleges that we can’t imagine a better world than the one in which pleasure vastly outweighs pain. The reason new atheists typically assume the brute factuality of happiness as our highest good, even though they’re bereft of metaphysical or theological rationales, is that they can hear the cosmicist knocking ominously at their back door.  This is to say that they’re well aware that science has removed us from any central position in the universe, so that the only valid form of the anthropic principle is the weak rather than the strong one.

The weak form states that the universe exhibits fine-tuning in that it cosmically selects for intelligent creatures as a matter of fact, meaning only that as a matter of evolutionary (if not logical) triviality, intelligent creatures can naturally emerge only in a universe capable of eventually producing them. By contrast, the strong form (in Barrow and Tipler’s discussion) adds an imperative to our emergence as though nature were trying to produce us as its highest goal. This stronger form is a hangover from the quasi-theistic content of the original Greek formulations of this kind of teleology or fine-tuning. If intelligent life only mindlessly evolves, thanks to indifferent processes that happen here and now to favour life but need have no human-friendly end in view, and we refrain from shamelessly presuming that we’re noble creatures who deserve to come into being, we have no reason at all to call the natural preconditions of life "good."

On the contrary, the cosmicist urges, we have grounds for suspecting the opposite, that we would be horrified by the ends of cosmic evolution if we could fathom them. Instead of inferring nature’s goodness because of its evolutionary relation to us, we should start from the assumption that our emergence is accidental so that we’re alienated from the universe instead of being obligated to submit to the natural order. If every particle pops out of quantum chaos for no reason, having thus no basis for gratitude towards its conditions of possibility (supposing a particle could feel such a thing), we too should reflect on the logical gap between “is” and “ought.” All that we care most about—mentality, society, family, reason, culture, pleasure, hobbies, purpose—mean nothing to the wider world. We popped into being because of natural, indifferent regularities that happened to kick in at our time and place, and that natural order will eventually turn against us, making our survival impossible. Why is there any such thing as natural creativity? We don’t know, but if we did, says the cosmicist, the answer would shock and humiliate us. The new atheists therefore assign the wrong value to the natural conditions and forms that indeed permit us to be happy (or angst-ridden). We prefer to be happy, to the extent that we succumb to our ignoble penchant for cowardice, but truly wise people are horrified by the godless universe. The preexistent world, therefore, isn’t simply good. To call it that is to perpetuate a noble lie, at best, to soothe the slumbering masses. Instead, the amorality, indifference, and mindlessness of our natural causes ensure that those causes ought to appall us.

In any case, regardless of what we say to ourselves or in public when we attempt to boost our confidence, sell mass-marketed books, or attract young minds to our philosophy seminars or podcasts, the modern world evidently is disgusted with nature. Our allegiance to Satan, mythically speaking, is palpable. Witness the fact that we’re collectively opposed to the wilderness at every turn. We are the executioners of organic life forms (and perhaps the gods of artificial varieties). We’re implacable in furthering our business of replacing green places with grey ones, as it were, the natural with the mechanical, the world’s strange living-deadness with our noosphere. Just to take one example out of tens of thousands that are available in late modernity, we’re now infamous for dragging lone trees out of their communities which we call forests, so that they can adorn our suburban lawns and live, it turns out, a much-diminished life. Trees and plants aren’t entirely unaware and they flourish when in the company of other members of their kind. So just as most of us are guilty of exterminating or enslaving most land animals, we’re perpetrating a similar holocaust against plant life.

Although few of us admit it, our “liberated” way of life presupposes not virtue ethics, Stoicism, or even hedonism, but cosmicism. We’re all progressive in our hostility towards the natural order, in our urgency to replace not just all mindless parts of the world, but the subhuman ones with artificial extensions of ourselves. We say we want to be content with the real world, but we know in spite of our bluster that only godless nature exists and that intelligent life is anomalous and therefore absurd. We don’t fit into nature, nor should we try to, because we needn’t honour a universe that can’t care about anything. Of course, we should fear nature as our true, monstrous deity, but there’s no honour in being a zombie creator. And to say that history is better than stasis or chaos is to presume that we’re of ultimate concern, which is preposterous. The Greek myths are thus terrific fictions but philosophically dubious. Greek tragedy, however, does highlight the paradoxical kind of satanic or promethean humanism or “progressivism,” according to which anti-nature, not the natural status quo, is the highest good.


  1. Wow you would really enjoy Charles Uptons " The System of AntiChrist" , he's a Catholic turned Sufi mystic
    Cheers !

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. At first glance, it looks like Upton is a traditionalist like Julius Evola or Rene Guenon. Just to clarify, Upton seems to demonize postmodernism in the cheap, childlike way, by taking satanism to be something other than a literary symbol or a rhetorical tactic. If he thinks Satan or the Antichrist is historically or theologically real, his views have nothing to do with mine.

      Modernity is clearly satanic in the sense that it's a Promethean rebellion against our naive conservatism and our nature worship and traditional notions of divine prohibitions. But "Satan" is only a literary device, not the name of a real person. Ditto for "God" and "Christ."

  2. Hello Ben,

    As a longtime reader of your blog I have always understood your view to be that humans reject the inhuman world in the sense that they seek to replace it with artificial worlds (noosphere and technosphere, etc.) even though we know our quest is almost certainly doomed on the cosmic timescale.

    I read this article a few days after finishing reading Hobbes' Leviathan, and what struck me was that you seem to be saying here that the Satanic or Promethean character of modernity involves not only all that, but also a rejection of what Hobbes would call the laws of preserving our own natures (the laws of nature) because of the manifest inhumanity of the universe in relation to us.

    You seem to claim that as in Antigone, the modern world's struggle against the indifference of the natural order is actually consciously (or nearly consciously) suicidal. We destroy the systems which support human life on earth in order to achieve a brief moment of glory as masters of a planet and defiant venturers beyond it. In punishment our descendents will perhaps be tied to a much more barren planet in which perhaps pollution or radioactive waste eats at their liver rather than Zeus' eagle as in the story of Prometheus.

    Do you really mean to say that this sort of self-destruction is really in some sense superior to a more moderate, careful quest for mastery of the cosmos along the lines of the Odyssean approach to achieving goals? I am of course starting from the pragmatist (and Hobbesian) perspective that holds that while it might be that the goodness of human goals from the view from nowhere is philosophically dubious, there is nothing dubious about those goals being good to humans, and on the other hand it seems hubristic to think that humans could even possibly abnegate our parochial perspective to such an extent that our goals become less human-centric. I don't see how this satanic rush for power, or even the aesthetic perspective, is any less anthropocentric than living in accord with the laws of sustaining our own nature, or how anything else could be either. The distinction between the Odyssean and Promethean approaches as you describe them then, seems to me to be merely a longterm perspective vs a short term perspective. We can trudge along towards greater and greater sustainable power carefully, or we can burn briefly in glory and extinguish ourselves after burning up all our fuel. What is superior about the second approach? If we follow Hobbes in claiming that the God revealed by nature, who appears personal to humans because they are social creatures, "declares" it a law of nature to seek peace (in Hobbes' sense of the term, closer to Pax Romana than to pacifism), and places violent death as the natural(istic) punishment for transgression of the law, why is it naive to obey, even if that God is objectively impersonal? The natural punishments accrue all the same, and I am unsure where the honor is in self-destructing as a response to the world's indifference to our preferences. The logic here appears similar to hari kari.

    I say this all combatively, but I wouldn't raise the challenge at all except that I generally find your views very formidable and well-founded, and after digesting the article for a few days, I am still not sure whether I have misunderstood your basic point, just don't understand your line of argument in favor of it, or disagree with your actual view.

    My apologies if any of that is poorly written, I am a bit low on sleep at the moment.


    1. You’ve presented me with an interesting challenge for clarification. I believe I see the source of the problem.

      First of all, no, I don’t advocate a short-sighted, careless and suicidal attempt at transcendence, as opposed to the careful and rational aspects of the Odyssean handling of nature. This is why I reject antinatalism, because I’m in favour of preserving the anomaly of our species. What I reject in Homer and Greek mythology isn’t the wisdom of being careful enough to avoid self-destruction (if that avoidance is possible). Instead, I reject the dehumanizing lie of Greek mythology which sustains that conservatism. The problem is the anthropocentrism, because it conflicts with cosmicism. So the question is how to sustain technoscientific progress or instrumentalism (the rational getting of what we want) so as to facilitate our existential authenticity as opposed to subduing the masses with myths that falsify our relation to nature. I’m opposed to anthropocentric stories because they’re clichéd and they foster arrogance and other such vices. Now, ancient Greek culture is complicated, as emerges in Ferry’s book and in the above article, because the Greeks had their myths but also their tragic poems and plays. If Odysseus could have sought to return home with a tragic mindset, as opposed to conceiving of his mission as a God-given duty to maintain cosmic order, to work with the gods as opposed to creating a new, transcendent world, I’d have no problem with him.

      Hobbes also complicates matters because his writing is confused or unclear on some of these issues, as you can see from the encyclopedia article linked below (see sections 4.a and c). (I don’t discuss Hobbes in the above article, but I do say something about him elsewhere, also linked below.) The question about Hobbes is whether his naturalism entailed that we’re robots or that we have the capacity to transcend the animal life cycle. This was the same issue that stood between Scott Bakker and me. I think we should oppose natural regularities in so far as they’re commonplace or repulsive, and that includes human nature. But here we encounter a semantic issue, which is the difference between metaphysical naturalism and nature (wilderness) as it figures in the distinction between “natural” and “artificial.” Metaphysically, everything is natural in so far as it’s indirectly or directly explained by scientific methods. Thus, our capacity for transcendence, for creativity, artificiality and revolt against the wilderness would be part of the living-dead flow of nature, since it would derive from our brain which will one day be fully explained by cognitive scientists. But that broadest sense of “natural” becomes clumsy since it precludes us from taking note of the virtual miracle of artificiality, of the existential rebellion against the undead world, that is, against the world that’s only mindlessly creative and that thereby mocks sentient creativity with its simulations of intelligent design that surpass our works and thus disgust enlightened folks by reminding us of life’s absurdity and tragedy.

      So Hobbes says we’re machines and egotists, but the bulk of his account recognizes the opposite, which is that we we’re miraculous (anti-natural) in our ability to transcend our base nature (what I’d call our undead, animal side), and to act as godlike artists. Those living in the state of nature are the true robots, whereas with the social contract we rise above “the natural” in the second, non-metaphysical sense. That is, we create an artificial world that’s opposed to nature-as-wilderness. This artificial world of the social contract is supported by myths of morality (to support the anomalies of altruism and self-sacrifice) and absolute sovereignty—except that instead of concealing how society works with noble lies, Hobbes is modern in revealing the unsettling truth to the masses who aren’t ready for it, which would be Leo Strauss’s criticism. For Hobbes, the sovereign has only natural, not divine rights.

    2. You distinguish between Odyssean and Promethean approaches, but I don’t think that’s the right distinction exactly (unless you mean “Promethean” to be synonymous with “Satanic,” which it’s not in the context of Greek mythology). Mind you, both Prometheus and Satan are punished for violating the established order, according to the myths. But the issue, again, is the anthropocentric assumption of obsolete myths (mass fictions). In Greek mythology, Prometheus figures in a cautionary tale against rebelling against the natural order. In that respect, I’d put Prometheus in the same category as Odysseus, Aristotelian ethics, and Daoism. Hobbes might be in the same boat, if you read him as being a vulgar naturalist and a Philistine who denies the virtual miracle of human creativity. The problem for these naturalists is that our inner nature is paradoxically free to create higher, anti-“natural” orders governed according to special laws that take account of their emergent properties. The fact that the universe is carved up in this way (not just on Earth and in human societies) makes metaphysical naturalism somewhat empty, as I’ve argued (link below). The chaos or irrationality of subatomic doings makes them as free as us, in some respect, which is why nature isn’t static but evolves different orders of being (from physics to chemistry to biology to sociology, etc.). Still, natural creativity is monstrous whereas ours is honourable, given the standards of tragic heroism.

      But if we’re talking about “satanic wisdom” or the gambit of creating a new world in defiance of nature-as-wilderness (or as consisting of clichéd regularities), then yes, we should recognize that there’s no guarantee that this adventure is viable. In the context of neoliberalism, technoscience and instrumental reason (utilitarianism, which leads to mass consumerism and population growth) do seem self-destructive, which is the environmentalist’s point. I often describe that fact without prescribing it. I would prefer a sustainable form of existential rebellion, but because of the “satanic” nature of our undertaking, we should recognize our tragic potential; we’re up against a monstrous universe, and history is a high-wire act.

      The basis of your question, then, is the ambiguity of Odysseus’s rationality. Even satanic rebels against the natural order should be wise enough to attempt to avoid self-destruction. In that sense, we should be instrumentally rational. But that’s not really what instrumentalism is about, according to the Frankfurt School (link below). The hidden point of instrumentalism is that the masses think only of means, leaving the choice of ends up to the masters of society (as in Marx’s view of the ideology supporting the social superstructure). So Odysseus succeeds in reaching his family and his home and in resisting the temptation to transcend that animal mission (to be godlike or posthuman), but in that respect he’s left the choice of his ultimate values up to Greek culture, to the anthropocentric myths that serve mainly the power elites of his day (as opposed to women or the slaves, for example).

    3. So what I reject in the story of Odysseus isn’t the goodness of the fact that his rationality makes for a sustainable enterprise. I’m opposed instead to the counterfactuality of the myths that dictate his main goals in life. Odysseus cares about returning home to his family because he knows his place according to ignoble social conventions, which he accepts. According to the myths, he lacks the hubris to attempt to transcend his station and to threaten the world with chaos. This conservatism is opposed to social progress, to novelty, and thus to art. Greek mythology is all about social stasis, the wisdom of maintaining the status quo. But the real status quo is the Hobbesian state of nature in which we function as animals or as deluded automatons. I would prefer a sustainable, more enlightened way of life that needn’t resort to myths that conflict with cosmicism (that is, with the upshot of philosophical naturalism).

    4. What you've said here clarifies your article for me greatly.

      As far as Hobbes, I think the view that he was a vulgar naturalist in the sense that he denied the virtual miracle of human creativity is a common misreading. If you start from Hobbes' definitions in his introduction and first part of his Leviathan, and interpret everything he says afterward in those precisely defined terms, it can be seen that for him any system which takes in external data and uses it to make decisions which draw it "toward" some inputs and "away" from others, satisfies his definition of an animal. Among other things this implies that an algorithm for buying and selling stocks automatically is as much an "animal" as any biological creature, and on the other hand that every large animal is itself composed of smaller animals such as organs, which we know now are composed of even smaller animals known as cells. Just as all of these cells combine to form what in relation to them, if they could understand, must seem the mortal god of the human body, so too can human animals unite in a state, in doing so ceasing to be merely themselves by becoming also the cells of a greater animal. Of course this greater animal (in terms of power) is itself guided by a merely human will, but nonetheless it is made in a virtually miraculous defiance of the status quo, and it provides us with the peace necessary to seek goals greater than mere survival and conflict, such as art, literacy and science.

      Similarly, I think the claim that Hobbes saw humans as egotists can be misleading. Hobbes indeed claims that good and evil are subjective, and our opinions regarding them derive from our individual appetites and aversions. He goes on to claim that certain appetites and aversions derive from the universal laws of preserving our own natures, including seeking peace and keeping covenants made, which rationally imply the necessity of a State to safeguard our nature better than we could alone.

      But Hobbes also sees humans as having very diverse personal appetites and aversions, and for him they are bound together primarily by the fact that all of them require us to be alive and secure in order to pursue them (he sees inclination toward suicide as a madness, again according to his very particular definition, which basically reduces to the view that no one can trust such a person to remain peaceful towards others, since they lack the motive of self-preservation, and consequently they are also enemies of the sovereign). The point being there is nothing in Hobbes account which presupposes that humans are only self-interested, only that they must be so to some extent in order to be trustworthy, and in order to pursue any other goal, altruistic, artistic or otherwise. E.g. even artists must eat, or else they will not at any rate produce much art before expiring.

      I agree though with your criticism of Odysseus' concern for ignoble social conventions as his highest and ultimate goal. I think what confuses me is that Antigone does indeed provoke her own death in order to briefly challenge the gods and the decree of the king, and Oedipus tears out his eyes. I see your point that they recognize something is wrong, but they also destroy themselves in the process of registering their protest. The question then is under what circumstances, if any, the wily and pragmatic means of Odysseus should be abandoned in favor of the absolute stand on principle of Antigone, even if such a stand means accepting one's own death as a consequence?

      Similarly, should Oedipus have accepted the necessity of all things, with Spinoza and perhaps like Odysseus, and merely done his best to rectify his absurd and terrible situation, rather than tearing out his own eyes in anguish?

    5. I haven't read Hobbes in years, but that article which refreshed my memory points out that Hobbes is inconsistent on these points, which is what I said above.

      You say there's nothing in Hobbes that indicates he thought everyone is self-interested, but the article furnishes this quotation: "I obtained two absolutely certain postulates of human nature," he says, "one, the postulate of human greed by which each man insists upon his own private use of common property; the other, the postulate of natural reason, by which each man strives to avoid violent death" (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory).

      So it looks like he can be read in different ways, but I suspect you're right, that the reductive interpretation is oversimplified. Materialistic science was new in his day, so at times he might have been overenthusiastic in supporting it.

      I'm not committed that Oedipus's or Antigone's solutions to tragedy (self-destruction or self-mutilation) are ideal. What matters here is that they've outgrown anthropocentrism and have acquired the transhuman perspective of life's tragedy. Oedipus's tearing out of his eyes suggests to me a horrific moment of enlightenment, not a punishment of himself as though his endpoint was all his fault, as though fate and causality hadn't brought him there with indifference (or to right prior wrongs in Thebes and thus reestablish cosmic balance). Likewise, I've spoken positively of degrees of asceticism or of withdrawal from conventional routines to remind ourselves that the world is absurd and that our primary mission is anomalous (anti-natural).

      Instrumentalism or pragmatism makes sense only in considering the means, not our ultimate ends. The prior question is whether we should be conservative (as in ancient Greek teleology) or progressive (satanic or promethean) in our overall outlook. These ultimate, philosophical goals are chosen by a leap of faith or by cultural character or something like that, not by pragmatic calculation (contrary, for example, to Pascal's wager). But once we settle on a philosophical perspective, we can be wily and Odyssean in achieving those ultimate goals.

      For example, we can paradoxically attempt to make our anti-natural rebellion sustainable, thus combining elements of conservatism and progressivism. We can be conservative in not wanting to destroy ourselves, but for progressive reasons since we'd be indispensable in representing sentient disgust with nature's mindless indifference to our survival.

      What should Oedipus have done? The damage was already done, but what strikes me as crucial is that he went through a stage of horrific recognition. I've said that "enlightenment" or the gaining of a philosophical perspective begins not just with awe but with horror for our existential predicament and with disgust with the world and the masses.

      But theoretically, what should someone do if they find themselves by chance or mistaken identity in such an absurd situation as Oedipus's? After horror should come comedy. Ideally, everyone involved should laugh off nature's nonsense, and then they should work together to create something new and superior, such as a kingdom that isn't fated to pay for wrongs done by their ancestors. But if you don't first tear out your eyes, as it were, you likely don't comprehend the enormity of your situation. I've written about horror or angst as the philosopher's calling card, as proof of having entered the esoteric circle. But as Nietzsche said, the hero overcomes.