Nonbelieving Literati: Julian  

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


I tried not to read the other Nonbelieving Literati essays as I wrote this, but I did sneak a peek at the essays at Evolutionary Middleman and No More Hornets. John pointed out something I didn't know as I was reading the book, that Priscus was most likely written in as a character to express the author's point of view.

As I was reading the book I became interested in the characters and endeavored to find more about them, and though I could find a great deal about Libanius, Priscus was more difficult. And now reading John's explanation for Priscus, the pieces click into place.

I enjoyed the exchange between Libanius and Priscus a great deal. Julian's words I found frustrating. There was so much he could have done, but in the end he only substituted one religion for another. I think Priscus expressed it best in his commentary:

Julian speaks continually of his love of Hellenism. He honestly believed he loved Plato and reasonable discourse. Actually, what he craved was what so many desire in this falling time: assurance of personal immortality. He chose to reject the Christian way for reasons which I find obscure, while settling on an equal absurdity. Of course I am sympathetic to him. He dealt the Christians some good blows and that delighted me. But I cannot sympathize with his fear of extinction. Why is it so important to continue after death? We never question the demonstrable fact that before birth we did not exist, so why should we fear becoming once more what we were to begin with? I am in no hurry to depart. But I look on nothing as just that: no thing. How can one fear no thing? p.90-91
Of course not existing before birth is more of a Western religious tradition, and his argument largely does not apply to Eastern religions, but I still find a lot of meaning in his words. I don't want to die, but I accept it. I accept that I won't go on as anything else after my physical death. One day I'll be forgotten as if I never existed and it doesn't bother me.

But Julian had his spots of brilliance where he expressed philosophy and religion in terms that I think many liberal Christians embrace today, as he argued with Christian priests:
"After all, as educated men, we should realize that myths always stand for other things. They are toys for children teething. The man knows that the toy horse is not a true horse but merely suggests the idea of a horse to a baby's mind. When we pray before the statue of Zeus, though the statue contains him as everything must, the statue is not the god himself but only a suggestion of him. Surely, as fellow priests, we can be frank with one another about these grown-up matters." p.338
Why is it difficult to accept ancient religious writings as myths written by men who were trying to explain the world around them and how humans fit into that world? Surely in 3000 years our own writings on science will look just as much like myths as our understanding grows. That doesn't mean that these men weren't wise or didn't hold that kernel of truth, but that they didn't have the knowledge we have now or the knowledge we'll have in the future, if our species continues.

We build on knowledge. That's our evolutionary advantage. When knowledge is lost it's a tragedy. When knowledge is rejected it's a sin. I know that's going to be taken out of context. I don't mean there aren't things we shouldn't do, that there aren't things that are wrong. What I mean is that's it's wrong to reject knowledge because it questions our preconceived ideas about the world.

We use metaphor today when teaching. Why is it any different in ancient texts? We make mistakes, follow incorrect leads, and sometimes completely misunderstand what we're studying. Was it so different with men in the past? I cling tightly to preconceived ideas sometimes. But I hope that I'll continue to learn and question and grow despite my prejudices.

And mostly I hope I'm never to stubborn to hold onto something that I want to believe, simply because I want to believe it as Julian did. As Priscus said:
Incidentally, in his description of that seance with the Etruscans he omits my remark to him, "What is the point of listening to soothsayers, if you won't believe what they tell you" But Julian was very like the Christians who are able to make their holy book endorse anything they want it to. p.422

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7 comments: to “ Nonbelieving Literati: Julian

  • Paul
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 9:49:00 AM CDT  

    "We build on knowledge. That's our evolutionary advantage. When knowledge is lost it's a tragedy. When knowledge is rejected it's a sin."

    That's a sparkling gem, Ordinary Girl! Thank you for that!

  • John - Evolutionary Middleman
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 1:48:00 PM CDT  

    I agree with Paul 100%! It was one of the lines from your great post I was all set to quote here.

    You know, I get a lot of hope from Exterminator's little Nonbelieving Literati project. I've been a middle class atheist for 35 years and felt like I was the only one out here (nearly all of my family, work and social contacts have been believers - in one thing or another). I think there were probably more people like me than I realized "back in the day", but there are certainly a lot of articulate atheists in 2007.

    I haven't been coming to Ordinary Girl's blog long enough to realize what a talented writer she is, and I keep making the same discovery at many free thinking blogs.

    I also really liked the whole paragraph prior to the lines quoted by Paul. Great stuff!

  • Spanish Inquisitor
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 3:00:00 PM CDT  

    John, I agree with you about your hope for this little project. I find that reading other blogger's takes on the same book I read to be a fascinating and enlightening exercise. I learn more from other's perspective than I ever did reading the book myself.

    I think I'll skip writing about "Lamb" and just read everybody's essays. :)

    Good Job, OG! I too, avoided reading the Exterminator's and John-Evo's posts before I finished mine.

    But on that Priscus thing, I though Vidal said in the introduction/prologue that he put Priscus in Gaul with Julian, even though it was unlikely that he was actually there, which implies that in all other scenes he would have been actually there.

  • ordinarygirl
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 3:23:00 PM CDT  

    "But on that Priscus thing, I though Vidal said in the introduction/prologue that he put Priscus in Gaul with Julian, even though it was unlikely that he was actually there, which implies that in all other scenes he would have been actually there."

    You are right, of course, but by the time I came to know the characters, that was forgotten.

    I do this weird thing too with time. If I don't look at a clock I don't recognize that time has actually passed. It gets me in a lot of trouble in the mornings when I'm trying to get out the door for work!

  • Spanish Inquisitor
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 5:52:00 PM CDT  

    "You are right, of course, but by the time I came to know the characters, that was forgotten."

    Yea, but you got it from John, so let's blame him. It's all his fault. :)

  • The Exterminator
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 11:44:00 PM CDT  

    Nice essay, OG. But the problem for today's world is: what exactly is knowledge? Religious nuts would claim that they're the only ones who have true knowledge. You and I -- and probably everyone else reading here -- laugh uproariously at that idea, because obviously those godpushers have little knowledge of anything, not even of their own mythology. But I'm sure the most rabid fundies would say that their knowledge is somehow "truer" than ours. I would be inclined to substitute the word "learning" for "knowledge," because at least it implies a state of progression, rather than a mere repository. But ultimately, I think we'd have to add the adjective "scientific" to reflect what we think of as knowledge.

    To weigh in on the Priscus thing: He was, indeed, a "spokesperson" for Vidal. There's usually at least one character in each of Vidal's history books who approximates (although doesn't reflect 100%) the author's own viewpoint. But those characters are often drawn from real historical personages. The Priscus who appears in Julian was a philosopher and colleague of the emperor's. (You can find info about him by clicking on yinyang's link.) Apparently, Priscus was not that uncommon a name. There are a few of them in Roman history. Wikipedia's Priscus is not our Priscus.

    Now that I think of it, Priscus would be a great pseudonym for an atheist blogger. Care to change the name of your blog to "Tales of an Ordinary Priscus?"

  • John - Evolutionary Middleman
    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 12:36:00 PM CDT  

    Exterminator said: "I would be inclined to substitute the word "learning" for "knowledge," because at least it implies a state of progression,"

    Unfortunately, the "godpushers" (as you call them) use this word too in reference to their "knowledge" i.e. "We had a bible study group last night and we were learning about why the 10 Commandments still apply to us, but the punishments do not". So I agree that we mostly have to use the two word phrase "scientific knowledge".

    Thanks for clearing up the "Priscus problem". Apparently I was only half right. I would like to learn more about "our" Priscus so i'll go look at Yinyang's link.

 

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