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The Gods Must be Crazy and So is Nature

I asked my students to write a paper explaining how Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony is a model of what a standard for nature is, what such a standard reveals about Hesiod’s view of nature or “the way things are”, and what is difficult about establishing a standard for how things are. I decided I would do this assignment, too, to give them a sense of what I am looking for and for an opportunity to continue blogging about Greek mythology.

In the story of the gods from Chaos to Kronos, Hesiod presents an account of nature in conflict with itself (Theogony 116-210, 452-506). If the gods themselves are each staking their claim for how things ought to be, and the gods are personifications of nature, nature seems to have competing standards. For example, for Gaia to be herself, she needs to be able to bring forth that which comes out of herself into the world. But Ouranos sees Gaia’s fertility as a threat to his domain so he shuts her down, prevents her from procreating (he keeps her from creating what is new). So Ouranos protects himself as the ruler uses force to establish himself. Thus, in the conflict between the standard that Gaia offers and the standard that Ouranos offers, force establishes Ouranos as the standard. But in response, force or further violence unseats Ouranos as the ruler and establishes Kronos. When nature is understood as competing forces, there seems to be no rest from the chaos. What this conflict shows is that nature needs a way of allowing its change personified by Gaia to emerge, but at the same time it needs some standard beyond sheer force to keep it in order. Hesiod shows that if the standard is only force, it is not a true standard for organizing the way things are. Something about the way things are will lead to a continued cycle of the re-assertion of a new claim to be the standard – not just the principle of the sea against the land, which then will lead to a push back from the land, but the principle of change against the principle of order.

As the king who rules with the lightning and thunder, as the king who is respected by those he rules because he maintains order while allowing the kind of change that is definitive of nature, Zeus is the ruler whose rule is recognized as legitimate. After he defeats the Titans, there is no new regime that tries to defeat Zeus. Even Prometheus’ affirmation of mortals is not an effort to assert a rule counter to Zeus, but rather a way of finding a space for mortals within the regime. (When I was in Greece, I spent a considerable time thinking about the difference between the order of the Olympian gods and the order of things when Gaia, the earth goddess, was still recognized as the chief goddess.  Thus, Ouranos seems to be the god who marks the shift from the rule of Gaia to the eventual rule of the Olympians under Zeus). Note how Hesiod’s story sets up a series of male paternalistic gods to allow nature to be nature within some order, but we are led to wonder if nature really was this way before Ouranos messed things up as I wonder about in this post.)

When this model of Zeus as ruler is held up as a model for a standard for nature, Hesiod shows that the standard both reflects and transcends that which it measures. Zeus stands beyond and outside the order since he doesn’t always seem to be within order. But since he is the sovereign, it is impossible to argue that he is outside the order because he is the one who judges what counts as order. So if you were to judge that Zeus is not a good standard because he acts against the proper order, you would have to invoke an order above Zeus, and then in an infinite regress, you would continue to invoke another proper standard to judge each one. Hesiod establishes Zeus as the order who is the order because he establishes it and is recognized as the rightful ruler. In this sense, Zeus seems to be the keeper of the pattern that keeps things as they should be, but he seems to transcend the pattern. Zeus establishes the order by putting things in their proper place and it is proper because he put it there and he is the one who the gods recognize as the legitimate ruler. As a standard for the way things are, the standard makes things orderly and things are judged as orderly when they are like the standard.

But if things are orderly because they are like the standard and the standard determines what is orderly, then nature itself does not seem to be a particularly necessary order. Nature as a ground seems arbitrary – the proper way for it to be is only to be itself. What it seems to be is changing. So the order of nature appears to be changing in a way that allows for order to remain. Where Zeus is the model for keeping that order, there is the sense that the order might become otherwise and need something that transcends it to which it submits. If nature has to submit to something to be nature, nature ‘s very nature appears to be that which tries to exceed its borders, that which tries to be other than what it is. Is change in nature a way of speaking of what exceeds its borders? The self-othering of nature?

Zeus as a standard illuminates the complexities not just of what a standard is – in a sense within the order it establishes and in another sense outside of the order – but also the complexities of the nature of what is ordered by this standard, the nature of nature. Hesiod depicts nature as that which tends to overreach itself, having borders, but needing to have those borders kept in place, characterized by change, and yet needing that change to be orderly. In this way, Hesiod has articulated the issues about nature that will concern the ancient Greek philosophers to come: the search for principles that allow nature to be ordered but changing, the notion that nature is not just stuff but principles of change, the question of whether there is a satisfactory principle for the way things are or whether that principle is arbitrary, and the question of whether nature itself is such a principle if it is in large part characterized by its capacity to change.

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