What Can a Noble Pagan Teach Us?

In a post-Christian world, ancient wisdom is all the more impressive. It isn’t difficult to see why Dante referred to the ancients as “noble pagans.” Today the noble pagans have been supplanted by militant technocrats. Perhaps our touchscreen techno-culture atrophies our imaginative faculty, which C.S. Lewis believed was the seedbed of faith. We have little cause to consider the elements. With the touch of a button we conquer cold and heat. We hear of droughts, while our faucets are ever flowing. Hurricanes are blobs of colors on TV screens. We don’t even have to be smart anymore. We have phones for that. Yet, as Archbishop Sheen observed, the modern era is riddled with neuroses. What did the ancients know that we don’t?

They knew, as Hopkins phrased it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” There were gods for everything from lightning to door hinges. The ancients believed too much, the quality of superstition. Moderns believe too little, the quality of cynicism. But, a question arises. Is the belief that natural phenomena is in no way communicative of a Creator wiser than the belief that natural phenomena is divinized? Matthew tells us “you will know them by their fruits” (7:16). The ancients left us the Pantheon. We will leave Googleplexes.

A circularity of thought characterized the ancient world. It was a basic understanding that man did not create himself or his world. There was also the evident fact that nature, despite the occasional irregularity, followed a cyclical pattern. Living as close as he did to nature, man had to adapt himself to that pattern to survive. Neither a Celt in Scotland nor a Gaul in Gallia could take winter lightly. This is, in part, why the Church wisely placed the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity in late December. As the world turns dark and cold, the one who is light and warmth comes to us and guides us to new life, imaged in nature by Spring. A plague could destroy not only crops and cattle, but human lives and moral virtue as well, as Thucydides reports in his account of the Peloponnesian War. Starvation was not something one heard about happening to “uncivilized” people in a distant land. It was a constant consideration in Rome’s imperial policies. It’s not surprising, then, that in ancient literature we see man continually trying to appease the gods. I was reminded of this during a recent reading of Homer’s Iliad.

There is hardly a page in Homer’s epic that does not mention at least one divinity. The kings and great heroes of the Trojan War are continually sacrificing to one fickle divinity or another the thickest oxen, the fattest lambs, the choicest wine the earth has produced. Unlike our sleep-number, climate-controlled era, there was no escaping the divine presence in the ancient world because there was no escaping the power and beauty of nature. Everything from rivers and winds to grains and the sky was the work of some creative power in the ancient imagination, part of an idea the Greeks discovered: the kosmos, a sempiternal order. Man’s duty was to pattern his own life upon the pattern of the kosmos.

Even prayer itself was understood by Homer as a divinity, albeit a slow one, always following after Ruin.

For there are also the spirits of Prayer, the daughters of great Zeus, and they are lame of their feet, and wrinkled, and cast their eyes sidelong, who toil on their way left far behind by the spirit of Ruin: but she, Ruin, is strong and sound on her feet, and therefore far outruns all Prayers, and wins into every country to force men astray; and the Prayers follow as healers after her. If a man venerates these daughters of Zeus as they draw near, such a man they bring great advantage, and hear his entreaty; but if a man shall deny them, and stubbornly with a harsh word refuse, they go to Zeus, son of Kronos, in supplication that Ruin may overtake this man, that he be hurt, and punished.

The one who prays is spared, the one who does not is punished and ruined. What is interesting from a Catholic perspective is the link Homer sees between the human and divine constituted by prayer. Prayer opens man to the beneficence of the supernal deities, and reminds him of his dependence upon powers greater than himself. Prayer can restore the sempiternal order disrupted by ruin. What is also interesting is the very human quality expressed by Homer with regard to prayer. In his pride, man often waits until ruin is at the door before he finally humbles himself and prays. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Prayer is his last resort.

The ancient Hebrews had a similar understanding of prayer, in the sense that prayer was offered to prevent ruin. But, prayer for the Hebrews was also a form of worship. The Psalmist prays, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2). In Homer’s mind, prayer comes after deeds to mitigate unwished for consequences. We might think of Homer’s formulation as an ancient predecessor of the modern maxim “there are no atheists in foxholes.” For the Psalmist, prayer ought to precede action. Prayer ought to be offered so that one might avoid finding oneself in a foxhole. Also, prayer itself is now the sacrifice. There is no longer need for golden-horned bulls and goats. St. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17). One ought not wait to pray until disaster is upon one’s head. Like a broad “man-covering” shield in the Iliad, we ought to hold prayer up before us at all times.

Homer was wise to understand prayer as a link between the human and the divine. This is more than our modern scientists and technocrats are able to discern. Perhaps that is the benefit of understanding oneself as part of a kosmos, a teleological order, not a technological one. We should imitate the “noble pagans” in their ceaseless contemplation of the divine all around us. The world is, indeed, charged with God’s grandeur. But, thanks to the Incarnation of Christ, our advantage is that we know the one who orders everything on Earth and in heaven. We do not worship the kosmos, but the author of the kosmos, who reveals his power, beauty, creativity and order in all he has placed around us.

Tom Jay

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Tom Jay is a teacher at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a Title I parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas.

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