Friday, July 5, 2013

Wisdom's Full Circle: the Good Book

Age plants more wrinkles in the mind than the face - Proverbs 5:11, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by AC Grayling
I've been recently reading the works of Norman DeWitt, an Epicurean writer whose research inspired and served, in great part, as the foundation of much of the work that we're doing now with the Society of Epicurus.  Dewitt has as thorough an understanding as we're capable of having today of what it was like to be an Epicurean in antiquity and presents the ideas of Epicurus accurately and from an Epicurean perspective.  One of the main problems we have with the ancient sources is that they're mostly indirect and often hostile.

It becomes quite obvious when we read DeWitt's assessment of Epicureanism that ancient Christians borrowed liberally from Epicureans: they acquired the Catholic sacrament of confession, which was originally not guilt-based but a tool for accurately diagnosing the diseases of the soul in the therapeutic process of applied philosophy.

They also developed the tradition of writing epistles to individuals or groups of people for didactic purposes, where the epistle was meant to be read and shared with the entire community and to be used in the teaching mission.  A recent revival of this tradition was Lucretius' Epistle to the Objectivists.

Christians would not have appropriated the epistolary didactic style from the Epicureans if they had not admired its usefulness and value.

It's a curious fact of history that Christians borrowed from Pagans and philosophers and that now, those that identify as humanists are imitating styles that have been thought of as Christian for the last 1,700 years at least.  AC Grayling's writing of a humanist Bible is the perfect example.  The humanist Bible, which makes not even one reference to God or to the supernatural but utilizes Biblical and Quranic styles of editing and writing, is an excellent example of how these literary traditions are recycled for every era.

The Good Book has its moments: it really does evoke that sense of wonder and reverence for wisdom's consolations that the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada and other scriptures sometimes inspire.

Many of the proverbs in the Christian Bible were inspired by the Maxims of Ptah-hotep, an ancient Egyptian philosopher of whom most Christians know nothing.  Many of the ancient and sometimes barbaric laws in the Old Testament were drawn from the Code of Hammurabi, the Sumerian predecessor.  The Good Book is, then, just one more in a chain of wisdom traditions, perhaps the one that is most relevant appropriate for our scientific era.  As the book of Ecclesiastes itself makes known from the get-go: "Nothing is new under the Sun".

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