Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Enemy Within

Spock: "We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.
McCoy: It's the Captain's guts you're analysing. Are you of that, Spock?
Spock Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.
(Star Trek, The Enemy Within)
After my poem yesterday, one of my correspondents said of the stanza
Aiolos, O Guardian of the wind
Of storms across land and sea
Though mortal man has sinned
Pray not to let the tempest free
"Pagans don't recognize "sin". This is a very Christian point of view."
But I'd disagree with that. Modern paganism certainly often goes to some lengths to eschew the term "sin", probably because it has very strong Christian overtones, yet it would be a shame to jettison such a useful word, as well as its associated cognates in (for example) Roman - "peccata" and Greek "hamartia"
The English term "sin" by the way comes from Old English synn  and has connotations of "moral wrongdoing, offence against God, misdeed."
Whether it is a good term to translate the Latin "peccatum"   is another matter. The Latin lexicon gives "a fault, error, mistake, transgression, sin". From Ovid (for example) it is clear there can be a sense it which it is an offence or transgression against the gods. That is of course a very different idea from the Judeo-Christian idea of breaking divine law or "original sin".
Cults were growing up towards the end of the Hellenistic age which looked at how human beings behaved, and the imperfections in humanity. At the end of the age (336-145 BC), religions like Isis brought new gods from the east, as well as ideas about "moral pollution and reconciliation, equalising rich and poor, and making women more equal to men"(1); the cult "satisfied a feeling of helplessness and guilt".(1)
"Three or four hundred years before Christ, the 'mystery religions' penetrated Roman and even Greek society from the East, and gained huge popularity. From Egypt, where the splendours of the Pharaonic tradition stretched back thousands of years, came the cults of Isis and Osiris; while out of Persia came the cult of the sun god Mithras. They existed happily cheek by jowl with cults such as those of Attis and Adonis and a host of others, observed in Pagan Rome" (2)
And there is a clear cultic expression of sin and the need to expiate that sin which was noted in Juvenal, who was writing late 1st and early 2nd century AD:
"In the cult of Isis which was tremendously popular among women, there are suggestions of a strong element of penitence and a sense of personal sin requiring expiation. Juvenal famously mocks a devotee of Isis, who crawls in mid-winter on bleeding knees to break the ice and then to immerse herself three times in the Tiber. This attitude would not have gone down badly with the Medieval Christian penitents who, believing themselves born with a burden of sin, performed similarly uncomfortable feats."
In fact, Roman attitudes towards what we call sin and guilt were particularly complex:
"There were many factors: religious tradition defining certain acts as requiring expiation and admitting of it with its patterns of approval and condemnation; law with its determination of degrees of responsibility; a persistent conviction that public misfortunes were due to transgressions -- and this is bound up with a general human tendency to suppose that the scheme of things exacts its price for each transgression; the teachings of Greek philosophy; the increased moral sensitiveness appearing in late Hellenistic times; the special demands which Near Eastern cults made upon their votaries."
And we read in Propertius (Elegies 2.32 (written around 20 BC) )
Qui videt, is peccat; qui te non viderit ergo, non cupiet: facti lumina crimen habent.
He who sees you sins, therefore he who doesn't see you doesn't desire you: so the eyes stand guilty.
The notion of sin as offence against the gods also surfaces with the virgins and the eternal flame of Rome, and there it is connected with an idea of cultic purity:
"The six virgins who watched the eternal flame of Rome, which burned for more than a thousand years, were ordained at the age of seven and lived in pampered but secluded luxury. As long as they remained pure, they were among the most respected women in Rome. They could walk unaccompanied and had the power to pardon prisoners. If they lost they virginity, however they were buried alive with a burning candle and bread so they could stay alive long enough to contemplate their sins. Under Augustus they were rewarded with the best seats at gladiator contests, exclusive parties and feasts with sow's bladder and thrushes."(4)
The Latin  term "peccatum" has a range of meanings, but it is used for actual sins, sin-guilt (guilt as fact) and was known in pagan literature; as for instance in Cicero. There was a clear notion that you could offend the gods or other human beings. That's very clear in Ovid, who also talks about his "peccatum" in terms of sin as transgression against Augustus or Tiberius.
With Greeks, the term is "hamartia".
Hamartia is variously translated as "tragic flaw" or "frailty" in English translations of Aristotle. This term is also found in the Greek portions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, where it is often translated as "sin." A more interesting translation--and possibly more useful--is "missing the mark." This suggests that the fatal flaw of the Greek tragic heroes was a failure to put themselves in accord with an often unsympathetic divinity. This strongly implies a failure by the character to live up to an archetypal (in the Platonic sense) pattern, the same pattern around which the cosmos is ordered: on earth as it is in heaven. (5)
What is certainly clear is that important ancient Pagan cultures such as Roman and Greek had an idea of "sin" but not in the terms of the specific meanings in Christianity, more as transgression, moral failure, etc.
But it easy to see how this came about as the meaning of "missing the mark" fitted very well with Christian ideas- "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Here Paul is clearly using the word in the sense of "missing the mark" which we find in Aristotle.
When we come to the Celts, and Druidry, it has been argued that they had no use for the concept of sin in any religious sense, and their laws looked instead at "living with honour" and placing payment of "honour prices" to resolve behaviour which would have been regarded as sinful.
Now Brehon Law may contain pre-Christian druidic customs, but we can't be sure of their separation. But even if we accept that, it is not clear that it was uniformly Celtic or druidic. Caesar, for instance, mentions that the Gauls have both premiums and fines for some criminal activity, but the death penalty for others. And it is uncertain if those fines are honour prices.
It is also unlikely that Law codes dealt much with sin. The Anglo-Saxons, under Alfred, followed Christianity, but there are no references to sin in that law code, but rather honour codes, e.g.
"Then is this: If a man be slain, we estimate all equally dear, English and Danish, at viii. half marks of pure gold; except the 'ceorl' who resides on 'gafol' land and their 'liesings;' they also are equally dear, either at cc shillings."
So how much we can rely on the lack of any mention of the term "peacach", for instance, in Brehon Law as indicating anything general about "sin" is debatable. Until later developments in the Middle Ages, with the developments of canon law, church courts, and "benefit of clergy", and the generally oppressive apparatus of the church, where matters became muddled, the legal and moral are kept separate, as they have become again today in England, for example, where there is no mention of "sin" whatsoever. You no longer get fined, or restricted from standing as an MP, because of your beliefs.
But outside of religion, has the concept of "sin" any value or that of "original sin, which was introduced by Augustine?.
"What is "original sin"? "Original sin" is the idea that the sinfulness of Adam and Eve, their prideful disobedience of God, has been transmitted to all humankind as their descendants. That is, before we actually do anything in life, we are born in a condition of sinfulness, a condition of estrangement or separation from God due to pride and disobedience. This is the human condition."
While the mythological trappings of "original sin" make no sense outside Christianity, there is a way in which the concept does make sense, but that is outside the realm of religion, and in the realm of science.
The theory of evolution teaches that we have a genetic inheritance, and the imperfections of the human condition - the ability to lie, cheat, make war, and destroy - in a way that other animals do not, suggests that the emergence of language and mind, which enabled us to take great evolutionary strides, comes with the propensity to behave in imperfect ways. In other words, our evolutionary background, which gives us our potential, also gives us a freedom to destroy ourselves, and all the other moral flaws which we see in society. As Stephen Jay Gould notes:
"Organisms are directed and limited by their past. They must remain imperfect in their form and function, and to that extent unpredictable since they are not optimal machines. We cannot know their future with certainty, if only because a myriad of quirky functional shifts lie within the capacity of any feature, however well adapted to a present role."
If this is a genetic inheritance, it seems unlikely that we can escape it, and nor, perhaps, should we wish to, as it would mean genetic engineering an idea of perfection, and according to the ideals of the engineer. As C.S. Lewis noted "what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.. If any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power"
I grew up on Star Trek, and the original series had a fascinating episode written by Robert Bloch called "The Enemy Within"  which has Kirk split into two by a transporter beam; it is a modern take on the story of Jekyll and Hyde, and what emerges is that we are flawed, but it is because of that part of our nature that we can be great as well: It's a good note to end on:
Kirk: I have to take him back inside myself. I can't survive without him. I don't want him back. He's like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, and yet it's me. Me.
McCoy: Jim, you're no different than anyone else. We all have our darker side. We need it! It's half of what we are. It's not really ugly, it's human.
Kirk: Human.
McCoy: Yes, human. A lot of what he is makes you the man you are. God forbid I should have to agree with Spock, but he was right. Without the negative side, you wouldn't be the Captain. You couldn't be, and you know it. Your strength of command lies mostly in him.
Kirk: What do I have?
McCoy: You have the goodness.
Kirk: Not enough. I have a ship to command.
McCoy: The intelligence, the logic. It appears your half has most of that, and perhaps that's where man's essential courage comes from. For you see, he was afraid and you weren't.

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