Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

Ψ

A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

Ψ

More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

Religion, Fear, Power

Crucifixion by Diego Velázquez (17th century). Public Domain

I told you a few times I do not want to talk about religion though I have to contradict myself because I’ll ponder religion a bit today together with a few concepts dancing around it.

“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear” argues Sir Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not A Christian, a lecture delivered on March 1927 and published on that same year.

“It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death […].”

Bertrand Russel, from book cover “The Quotable Bertrand Russell”. Fair Use

“In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it”.

“The real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.”

ψ

Interesting what Russell says about fear, a crucial factor, probably, in the birth of religion.

There are other aspects though. If it is because of fear that we create and accept a great almighty father that protects us, an ally, as Russell says, fear is also fear of hell, fear of divine punishment.

This is why we obey to catechism and to the clergy. We are not focusing here so much on the reasons why religion was born. We are rather focusing on power.

Gutenberg Bible. GNU Free Documentation License

I don’t believe it is by chance that the fear of God is one of the fundamental concepts the Old Testament reshapes in thousands and thousands of different ways. The fear of God is the true guide of every virtuous man, argues the Bible tirelessly.

An idea that wouldn’t be conceivable today, if it weren’t for the suspicion, a strong suspicion, that fear is still used nowadays in exactly the same way as it was in the past: to make us weak and obedient.

ψ

An American friend meant something similar when talking not of religion but of mass media.

“You look at newspapers and almost every headline is scary. Here, there, scary, scary ….”.

A tragic example is the way George W. Bush and the neocons have implacably exploited the horror produced by the atrocious attack to the Twin Towers.

Twin Towers attack. Public Domain

Italian version