Do Not Strive for the Life of the Immortals

The philosopher Patrick Lee Miller has an intriguing new book out—Becoming God—which I’ve been privileged to follow from the dissertation stage some time ago. It’s a daring philosophical argument wrapped up in a close reading of ancient texts. In the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus, he finds an alternative to the most cherished axiom of philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to the modern analytic school: non-contradiction. Today, at The Immanent Frame, I interview him about the book as well as about some implications it has for thinking about Christian theology.

One theme that runs through Becoming God, though, is the one suggested in the title—that for its Greek practitioners, philosophy was a way of reaching (and not simply, as I say above, “thinking about”) the divine. Here’s a whiff of the interview:

NS: Is Heraclitus reminding us—as some might chastise—that secularity carries in it the arrogant, even dangerous aspiration to become a god?

PLM: If he is reminding us of this, then so too is nearly every other pagan Greek philosopher. Many of them saw philosophy as a quest for divinity. First, though, we have to be clear what we mean by “secularity,” as before, reminding ourselves of the threat of anachronism when we’re using it to discuss ancient Greeks. With that proviso, though, we can ask something like this: Was Reason untethered to traditional religion liable to promote megalomania? There were certainly advocates of traditional Greek piety who said so. Pindar, for example, wrote: “Do not, my soul, strive for the life of the immortals.” His warning came in the midst of the story of Bellerophon, who plummeted to his death after attempting to reach the dwelling of the gods on his winged horse.

The Greek philosophers largely ignored the warnings of the poets. Their arrogance—which we see reflected in modern philosophers such as Nietzsche or Heidegger—makes us nervous, and rightly so. We become still more nervous when we detect it in our political leaders. The French revolutionaries substituted a statue of Reason for the altar in Notre Dame, right around the time that heads started to roll. That said, there was a parallel arrogance in the Divine Right of Kings, which arguably caused as much suffering as has revolutionary zeal, so I’m not so sure the secular version is any worse than its religious counterpart.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.