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Plato & Herodotus 12

Plato & Herodotus 12

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Julian Jaynes devotes an entire book to scrutinizing and explaining this shift, in The Origin of
Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
. I shall not argue in depth for accepting
the mechanism Jaynes hypothesizes to account for this change, nor the interpretation he puts upon
it; but that something happened about 3,000 years ago, around the end of the Bronze Age, is
witnessed across the board in the ancient world. Not only did military catastrophe befall nearly
every major city in the Mediterranean and Near East within a matter of decades (which leaves the
question, why?); the literary record bears witness as well7

. One can see God receding from the
pages of the Hebrew Tanach; the familiar God who walks in the cool of the evening in Eden,
wrestles with Jacob and assaults Moses with intent to kill, changes into a very different figure, a
lawgiver, an arbiter of destiny, both majestically distant, and intimately present but unseen. By
the time of Plutarch, the lament goes up that "Great Pan is dead," and the oracles, he tells us, have
fallen silent. This evolution remains almost completely to be accounted for, despite Hegel and
Marx, Aurobindo and Ken Wilber. The story here is only a small sub-plot. I cannot here delve
into the various mappings that have been offered of this trajectory of human development. But I
do contend that Herodotus and his tradition is aware of the development.

Eliade draws the distinction between myth and history as the difference between the cyclic
repetition of archetypal patterns and the occurrence of new events understood as unique. On the
one hand, the mythic world in which all events follow the template of the timeless story laid
down once and for all by the gods: the Hopis who tell the story in order for the year to begin
again, the planting and the journey that repeats always the same events; an echo of which one
hears even in the narrative of Passover-- "Why is this night different from all other nights?"-- and
the Paschal exultet-- "This is the night." (That liturgy has preserved these experiences is not
accidental; modes of action are further below the radar of critique than are texts). On the other,
the "profane" events which belong to the order of history, which, whether progressive or
meaningless is still "one damn thing after another." It is too simplistic to argue, as was once the
fashion, that "Greek" historical thought is "cyclic" and Biblical Hebrew thought "linear," but the
distinction does point to something. The emphasis upon the historicality of the Christian narrative
has always been claimed to set it apart from the religions of antiquity: the story of Jesus the
messiah is supposed to have happened not in the far-away Nifelheim or the ancient bygone, but in
a landscape whose contours are known, some days' or weeks' journey from the capitol city of the
Roman Empire, under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius and certain local officials. This is often
seen either as an enormous category mistake (the ancient response) or a lie to be actively denied
(the modern attempt to reduce Christianity to myth). Here I will not develop this argument, but
confine myself to underling the significance of Eliade's point: the importance of the notion of
historicality itself, which in great measure Herodotus himself created.

Herodotus stands on the threshold between these two worldviews, and in some fashion, he seems
to know this. His History--the first book of its kind, as was clearly not lost upon him-- is not just
a collection of digests of royal chroniclers' records. Herodotus is collecting an enormous amount
of information about the whole world. It is hard to avoid the impression that, like the Celtic


See, in addition to Jaynes, James Jugel, The God of Old; David Friedman, The Disappearance of God.



Bryan Carr

chronicler Nennius in the 9th century AD, he has "made a heap of all that [he] could find." The
worldview of Herodotus' ancestors, which took the oracles for granted and assumed the gods
were there, was passing away. This was partly from the impact of the critique made by thinkers
like Xenophanes ("if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpture like
men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they
would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own"); but truly, Xenophanes and
men like him were simply a symptom of a shift that was already underway. I suspect it was ill-
understood at the time, (nor have we got much better at unriddling it), but to think that it was
unnoticed is to insult our ancestors’ powers of observation. Probably then as now, some blamed
the gods (today we tend to say "history" or "progress" or "the way things happen,"), and some
blamed each other. My guess is that writing, more than any other factor, was at the root of the
trend—a hypothesis which was already suggested byPlato. I believe a careful reading of the texts
(and probably some other artifacts they made, if only they had survived) reveals that some
thinkers were using writing--the very thing that was slowly eating away at the habits of memory,
imagination, and oral language which underlay the experience of the mythic worldview--to
salvage what could be kept from the ruins left by the critique. To do this, it was not enough to
decry in overt language the waning of the gods. On their own terms, thinkers like Xenophanes
could not be gainsaid, for to engage with critical logical intelligence to prove that the gods existed
was impossible. In that sense, the gods did not exist. But it is possible to set up in language a
mechanism that can push the careful observer out beyond logic. Plato in particular is very clear
about the experiential dimension of his doctrine-- "it cannot be put into words," he insists in the
Seventh Letter, but depends upon a sudden realization a "spark" which leaps from one heart to
another. (If this is the doctrine of a arch-rationalist and hypostasizer of definitions, I'm a Pobble
without toes).

The texts of Plato are full of trap-doors and jokes which are meant to fall open and allow you a
moment when you see that more is going on than rational argument, and more than can be done
with rational argument
. But Plato is not the only one who does this. 8

Another and equally important point Eliade highlights is the interplay of mythical and
cosmological cycles. At the New Year celebrations when the old order is passing and being
regenerated, Eliade finds many indications that the historical residue of the year is discarded for
the mythical essence. The calendar is thus the site of an intersection of astronomical and seasonal
prediction and ritual observation. The new year-- which comes often at one of the spokes of the
solar cycle, whether solstice, equinox or cross-quarter day-- is a time of ritual purgation of sins
and of historical "particularity," as the mythical archetypes are reasserted against the mundane
specifics of ordinary events. The time of this purgation often also coincided with the extra-
calendrical time. Frazer surmised:

We infer with some probability that the sacred Twelve Days or Nights at midwinter
derive their peculiar character in popular custom and superstition from the circumstance
that they were originally an intercalary period inserted at the end of a lunar year of three
hundred and fifty four days for the purpose of equating it to a solar year reckoned at three
hundred and sixty-six days.9

Eliade has more recently reiterated this; but equally important as the calendrical aspect of the
argument is the psychological or sociological; for the myths and rituals Eliade explicates all
indicate a kind of purgation or purification associated with the New Year rites; in short, a


I follow Leo Strauss here, as an exegete reading "between the lines;" though I do not interpret such esotericism as
Strauss does, nor believe with him that this art was ever lost. (Nietzsche, for instance, clearly writes esoterically.)


Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. IX, ch 8 sec 2; p 342



Bryan Carr

katharsis. This brings us back to Plato, for the moment of realization Plato speaks of, the "spark"
leaping between teacher and disciple, is very akin to the katharsis Aristotle names as the function
of tragedy, but it is a moment, not merely of purgation, but of realization: there is a positive
content to it, not just an evacuating. Herodotus' narrative shows Croesus attaining just such a
realization, at the most extreme moment of his personal tragedy.

The answer about lamb and turtle was the first of four oracles Croesus received from Delphi. The
second came in reply to his query as to whether he could expect success in war with the Persians:
"If Croesus attack Persia, he shall destroy a great empire." The third oracle, in response to further
inquiry, told him that "When a mule shall become king of the Medes, then run away, on the
pebbly shore of Hermus—be not ashamed." This Croesus took to prophecy a laughably unlikely
event-- as if the oracle had said Croesus should worry only "when Hell freezes over." Finally, an
oracle is reported which came in response to his asking how to help his surviving, younger, son,
who was born mute. The answer was, "Do not seek to hear this longed-for voice, even the voice
of your son; for the day he speaks will be a day of sorrow."

Croesus' attack on the Persians was a disaster; the great empire he destroyed proved to be his
own. Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, was of mixed parentage (like a mule sired by a donkey on a
mare). When the final catastrophe was upon him, his city in flames and his palace overrun,
Croesus, not caring whether he lived or died, did not bother to defend himself even when a
Persian soldier was about to kill him. At that moment, his mute son cried out, "Do not kill
Croesus!" and the soldier, who had not known his target was the enemy king, stopped, to take
Croesus prisoner instead.

Croesus' story is all about the intermixing of good fortune and bad, woven together so tightly as
to be impossible to separate. The exclamation of Croesus' son does indeed come on a day of
tragedy for the king, but it also saves his life. A second exclamation--his own--does so again.
Cyrus prepared a stake and a pyre for the execution of Croesus by burning. The flames had
already been lit when Croesus was seen to be speaking--one word, uttered three times, as if to
himself: "Solon. Solon. Solon." Cyrus had his interpreter ask Croesus why the king said this
word. Croesus replied, eventually, that it was the name of a man he wished could converse with
every king; and, upon being further pressed, told what Solon had advised him. Cyrus, realizing
that Croesus had gained wisdom, was moved to pity him and tried to have the fire put out; but it
was only when Croesus beseeched Apollo in prayer that the skies darkened and rain extinguished
the pyre. Thereafter, Herodotus says, Croesus served Cyrus as his counselor-- thus beginning the
cycle again.

Historians tend to think that Croesus was executed, and that the story of his being saved is a
remnant of a mythological story. Which it may well be; for the point here is that Herodotus is
weaving together aspects which the mythical worldview assumed with new elements conforming
more to the critical stance he cultivates. He is careful to discriminate between what others report
and what he has seen himself, and often voiced opinions about "what really happened" and what,
on the other hand, are idle tales. On the other hand, he assumes a vast number of associations and
images of thought from the past-- a vast linked cosmology that takes for granted not only the gods
but the interconnectedness and mutual relevance of different aspects of the whole cosmos. The
story of Croesus illustrates this quite clearly. Croesus' doom is "the nemesis of the gods" which
comes upon him, a feature of a cycle of causes which seems to describe the Greek tragic
worldview in general. This cycle has been distilled by critics; I do not know any single source
which clearly outlines it in each particular, but the outline is clear from Theognis and Sophocles,
and the fact that it is very similar to the outline of events found over and over in the Old
Testament indicates that it is probably a feature of the ancient world generally. First comes koros,



Bryan Carr

fullness, satiety. Then come hubris, pride, then ate, a term that means variously delusion, fury,
appetite. Sometimes there is a sin, hamartia, a word two thousand years of critics have made a
centerpiece of Aristotelian theory even though he mentions it only twice in the Poetics. Quick to
follow is nemesis, the divine vengeance of the gods for overstepping the bounds assigned to
humanity. And in response to this one finds ones proper humility. Implicitly, one might feel
satisfied, a sense of koros again. This cycle is implicitly traced in Herodotus over and over; but it
is named explicitly in Croesus' last advice to Cyrus. This occurs as Cyrus is pursuing the forces of
the Queen Tomyris; Croesus advised him, against the counsel of the other advisors, to press on
and continue the advance, into enemy territory. This proved to be Cyrus' death, though again the
gods seem to have had their share of responsibility; they sent a dream to Cyrus warning him that
his death was to come; but, says Herodotus, Cyrus misinterpreted it. However, it is one figure in
Croesus' final speech to Cyrus that is of interest here: "if you feel yourself to be a man, and a
ruler of men, lay this first to heart: that there is a wheel on which the affairs of men revolve, and
that its movement forbids the same man to be always fortunate."

This is the Wheel of Fortune, which has gone on to Boethius, Dante, the Carmina Burana,
Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Tarot Deck, and a television game show. It is the summation and
recapitulation of the lessons which are implicit not only in the whole Croesus cycle, but
repeatedly in the Histories as a whole. Cicero speaks of this wheel, and indeed the name of the
Roman goddess Fortuna is thought to derive from Vortumna, "she who turns the year" (compare
"vortex" and "autumn"). There are fragments from Sophocles and poetry from Pindar that
indicate that the Greeks explicitly identified this cycle with chance, or with the Moirae or fates.
Of course, the wheel of the year is the sun's turning through the twelve signs of the zodiac. The
staying power of this image is very strong; even by the time of the first documented Tarot decks,
in the early 1400's, it remains an established trope, appearing as one of the major trump cards.
Later, after the image's position in the deck is settled (it is the 10th trump in most Tarot decks) the
wheel comes to be flanked by the four cardinal signs of the zodiac-- Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and
Aquarius--as does Trump 21, the World card; but this association is not a recent innovation, for
the link between the wheels and these figures is traceable not to the speculations of Renaissance
magi but to the vision in the first chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw the wheels
within wheels, ranged between four beasts: Bull, Lion, Eagle and Man. These four signs are the
signs of the solstices and equinoxes at the time of Ezekiel, and these cardinal points of the year
(though, because of precession, not always these zodiacal signs) are also aligned with important
points on the tone circle by both Ptolemy and Manilius.

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