WHOM THE GODS WISH TO DESTROY…..
By Phillip Trower
“Whom the gods wish to destroy….. they first make mad.”
I used to think this famous saying came from a Greek or Roman writer, only to discover recently
that it is now attributed to one or other of two 17th century European scholars.
In one edition of The Oxford book of Quotations a 17th century French scholar, Jacques Duport, is named as the
author, while in another authorship is tentatively attributed to an English writer of the same period, Joshua Barnes.
Since both can hardly have thought of the same words independently, one may have been quoting the other without
admitting it. Another possibility of course is that both had come across a genuine classical text unknown to other
Whatever the truth of the matter, the main point is that the words beautifully encapsulate the way the early Greeks,
from Homer to the great tragedians, thought about the relationship between God or the gods and the human race.
As Christians, we of course know that the Creator of the universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Father
of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ does not wish to destroy anyone. He wishes the sinner to turn from his wickedness
and live. He may punish to bring him or her to repentance. But that is different.
Nevertheless, the saying does seem to have a semblance of truth, in so far as it suggests that powerful men are
often responsible for their own downfall in so far as they become ‘mad’ in the sense of blind to the obvious.
It is not quite the same as tragedy as we know it in Shakespeare. Here, with the exception of Macbeth, our sympathies
are aroused because the protagonists are victims of relatively minor weaknesses and character faults, or of circumstances
beyond their control. There has to be an element of goodness or likeableness in them for us to feel the situation
is tragic. Who today would try making a tragedy out of last days of Hitler? A drama possibly. But a tragedy No.
In this I believe we see the influence of Christianity where misfortune is not always or even most frequently to
be seen as punishment. On the contrary it is more often granted as test, an opportunity to show faith and trust
which is the same as love.
This is where the Greek concept of tragedy mainly differs from ours. Their gods were a touchy lot, often at cross
purposes with each other, quick to take offense at any transgressions of their rights by humans and affronted above
all by the sin of hubris. Collins dictionary describes hubris as “in Greek
tragedy, an excess of ambition, pride etc. ultimately causing the transgressors ruin.”
Perhaps even better would be “presumption” or
So afraid were the Greeks of affronting their gods in this way that, on finishing their works, their painters and
sculptors, often left them with a slight imperfection, since it would be hubris to seek absolute perfection.
Where then is all this leading us to?
Taking the situation in most advanced western countries today, I am going to suggest that the
sin of hubris being as deeply embedded as it is in the whole secular humanist enterprise, many of our most influential
cultural and political leaders are going “mad” in the sense of blind to the obvious consequences of what they are
This does not mean that everything in the secular humanist enterprise is bad. Nor am I suggesting
that as individuals, secularists are not often be men of great abilities with, independently of what is harmful
in their beliefs and undertakings, qualities or natural virtues that one can only admire. However, where they do
have such qualities and virtues we can only describe as ‘stolen goods’ seeing that there is no basis for them in
their philosophy in so far as it is atheist. They cannot be derived from their philosophy. They come from two thousand
years of Christianty and what was best in Graeco-Roman culture.
Let’s take human rights or a fairer distribution of material goods for instance. Rights can only
be conferred by a Person --- a being who in some way transcends matter --- not by a mindless conglomeration of
matter and physical forces; and justice can only be practiced by persons, who equally in some way transcend matter.
Where then has the idea that we possess rights and should practice justice come from? Evolution?
But this is, like poor old Teilhard de Chardin, treating a process as a person. To say that human rights are built
into the process, in so far as societies which recognise human rights and act justly are more likely to come out
top in the struggle for survival, begs the question. Such a process demans a mind behind it.
All in all, the notion that the miniscule products of a cosmic evolutionary force whom we call human beings could,
without reference to a God or gods, turn what was once the stamping ground of dinosaurs into an earthly paradise
purely by their own efforts, would surely have been seen by the Greeks as hubris of the highest kind.
As for the subsequent ‘madness’ or blindness to obvious consequences, these seem to me most apparent in two areas
of the secularist agenda; the determination to turn as many of their fellow citizens as possible into atheists
like themselves and the promotion of recreational sex.
We know from Holy Scripture that there have always been atheists of some kind. “The
fool has said in his heart…. . ” But hitherto it has always been a minority standpoint,
the plaything of intellectual coteries or oddball outsiders. Mass atheism, on the other hand is something totally
new. It has never existed before. So to promote it without a much more rigorous examination of possible consequences
smacks of irresponsibility of the highest kind. Its like atomic physicists embarking on an experiment without bothering
to see whether it is going to start a chain reaction that will blow up the world.
Until recent times, religion of some kind has everywhere been the principle force regulating social life, ensuring
that it remains reasonably orderly, with the higher religions sweetening it. One could say that the two foundations
stones of any civilisation worthy of the name are self control and respect for others. Even our democratic institutions
depend on them. But where are these going to come from without religion, or when the remaining influence of religion
in the hearts of the majority has been erased.
Even the economist Maynard Keynes, a dedicated self-confessed atheist, recognised this. “Our generation – yours and mine….owed a great deal to our fathers’ religion,”
he wrote to Virginia Woolf in 1934. “And the young… who are brought up
without it will never get so much out of life. They’re trivial; like dogs in their lusts. We had the best of both
worlds. We destroyed Christianity yet had its benefits.”
Sounds like our irresponsible atomic physicist, doesn’t it. What was going to happen when these benefits disappeared?
Like our secular humanist friends today, Keynes no doubt prided himself on his devotion to reason, but it seems
to me that in these matters he and they were of all men and women living then and now the most illogical as well
as culturally dangerous.
If we are not going to have to answer after death in some way for the manner in which we have lived in this life
there is simply no reason why we should not commit any of the capital sins or crimes that takes our fancy or why
a government should not do whatever it likes with its citizens either.
As Nietsche and Dostoyevsky both said in their different ways: “if God
does not exist anything is possible” --- anything eventually including the holocaust
and the gulag archipeligo. You don’t have to have been to Oxford or Harvard to see this.
The fact that more people don’t take advantage of the “liberty” a godless world view allows them is partly due to custom, partly to fear of punishment in this world,
partly to the fact that each of us has a moral conscience whether we acknowledge its existence or not. We are better
than we think.
When it comes to promoting recreational sex the blindness is still more mind-boggling. It is
true, as has often been pointed out, that sexual promiscuity is one of the most effective weapons in the secularist
war against Christianity. Encouraging the young to break the six and ninth commandments is the quickest and easiest
way of detaching them from their religion. But what about the social consequences? You would have thought men devoted
to reason would have given some thought to that too.
Instead it is as though the architects of the sexual revolution were living in outer space ruling the earth from
a different planet without any direct experience or knowledge of human nature except by hearsay from corrupt human
agents with an axe to grind. No one has told them they are dealing with the most powerful of human passions rather
than a pleasant passtime like playing cards or enjoying a good meal.
What could be better designed to disrupt social peace and genuine civilisation than the assault on the family combined
with a policy of keeping as many people as possible, via the media and other means, in a perpetual state of semi-erotic
stimulation. Has it never occurred to them that this is the area in which self-control and consideration for others
is most necessary if quarrels and ill-feeling are not to be maximised to a socially catastophic degree.
Linked to the above is encouraging the cult of using bad or filthy language in every day discourse and discussing
grossly indecent subjects in public. It is perhaps a secondary matter, but it is another de-civilising influence
with a tinge of ‘madness to it’.
It is usually justified as a symptom of honesty or of solidarity with ‘the working classes’ because
this is the way ‘they’ all supposedly talk, an explanation with a note, surely, of condescending snobbishness to
It is to be deplored not only because it’s immoral. It is harmful because it coarsens the minds, sensibilites and
judgements of those who indulge in it of whatever class. How can a thinker with a coarse mind handle subjects like
ethics, aesthetics or metaphysics fruitfully. Can we imagine Socrates tolerating it in his audiences.
Tragically many women have fallen for this ploy. In their quest for equality with men, they have
failed to see that equality does have to be sameness. I was recently at a lunch party where to my intense embarrassment
and astonishment, some elderly once well-brought-up English ladies embarked on a discussion about deviant sexual
practices and the meaning of various terms associated with it as if they had just come from a secularist sex-education
programme for young children.
I say ‘tragically’ because as a result of the fall, men have a natural tendency to be barbarous
in a way women don’t. At the level of manners and social conduct women have consequently been the great civilising
force throughout history. We have the confirmation of this in the portrait of the ideal wife in the Book of Proverbs.
All this is pretty dismal stuff and no one likes to be a Cassandra so it is fortunate that I
am able to end on a happier note. A short time ago I came across a hitherto unnoticed patch of blue in the clouds.
This was an address given by that distinguished Catholic lady, Professor Mary Ann Glendon to the Pontifical Academy
of Social Sciences at a meeting to commemorate the 50th anniversay of Pope John’s encyclical Pacem in Terris. (
O.R. 9th May 2012).
Her topic was “the role of religion in the quest for peace”, a subject, she says, to which “in most academic environments, I daresay, the typical reaction…would be a condescending smile.” One wishes the reaction would remain a condescending smile. Most of the well-known new atheists like
Hitchens and Dawkins shout or shouted at the top of their voices. “Religion
is the main source of strife, hatred, intolerance and almost everything else bad in the world you can think of.”
(How, after the achievements of the two great 20th century atheisms, German and Russian, any one can say this without
being dismissed as not worth serious attention or fit for a psychiatric ward says a lot about the impartiality
of some of our cultural elites in so far as they support the new atheists).
However, “far more interesting, in my view,” says Professor Glendon, “are the works of another group of self-described
non-believers like Jurgen Habermas and Marcello Pera who view the advance of secularism ---especially anti-Christian
secularism--- with alarm. They have expressed grave concerns about the political and social costs of neglecting
a cultural inheritance in which religion, liberty, and law are inextricably intertwined.”
“Thinkers like Habermas”, she
continues --- “I call them the ‘rueful non-believers’—are the true ‘new
atheists’, because they are the ones who have looked ahead on the road toward a world without God and do not like
what they see. For example, one factor that led Habermas to worry about the loss of the Judaeo-Christian heritage
was concern about biological engineering and the instrumentalisation of human life. A leading political leftist,
he stunned many of his followers with his full-throated affirmation of the importance of that religious heritage
to everything liberals hold dear.”
Habermas is incidentally what could be called a ‘dialogue-partner’ of the Holy Father’s in his apostolate to unbelievers of good will. Nevertheless “it would be just as mistaken,” Professor Glendon adds, “to suppose that the secularization narrative has lost its power merely because religion
has failed to wither away on schedule.”
To have one’s view of secularism as one of the greatest present threats to world civilisation confirmed by two
such eminent thinkers as Habermas and Professor Glendon is certainly gratifying as well as reassuring.
Also encouraging is the news that secularists are finding Christianity a harder nut to crack
than they had expected. In 1963, the year Pacem in Terris appeared,
Professor Glendon tells us, prominent secularists were already predicting the all but complete disappearance of
religion by the end of the century. “By the 21st century, the sociologist
Peter Berger was telling the New York Times in 1968, “religious believers are likely to be found only in small
sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” It’s like Maynard Keynes
conceited claim that he and his chums had already destroyed Christianity back in the 1920s and 30s. To Berger’s
credit, he had the humilty thirty years later to retract his forecast. “The
assumption that we live in a secularised world,” he is reported as saying, “ is false. The world today… is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places
more so than ever.” What that means, he admitted, is “that
a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists…. is essentially mistaken,”
--- an admission worth keeping in mind, when reading current predictions of this sort.
One is remined of Belloc’s characterisation of atheism as a “vulgar dwarf” repeatedly trying to push its way up into the halls of philosophy and as repeatedly being pushed out
and down. Let’s hope this is what we see beginning to happen again.
I trust this does not sound too ill-mannered towards our opponents; I refrain from the word enemies.
I mean likening their philosophy to a ‘vulgar dwarf.’
In this unavoidable culture war it can be difficult to get the right balance between truth and of charity --- an
acrobatic feat in which we can hardly do better than follow the Holy Father.
All will be well, I would say, provided we do our best to keep love as our innermost motivation.
Love is the great antidote to bitterness. Bitterness and anger, except in genuine prophets, are nearly always counter-productive.
(This does not exclude satire, rightly handled. Chesterton is a good example.) The best test of anger is to ask
oneself “am I enjoying it or not.”
Should we fail the test, we can again take comfort from Belloc. Somewhere he says that if, in defending the faith,
we sometimes unintentionally give blows below the belt, God understands because he knows how difficult it is not
to, in a really tough fight.
Finally it is helpful to remember that without our secularist friends realizing it, we owe them
a big debt of gratitude. In so far as they speak ill of us falsely we are to rejoice.
Why? Our reward will be greater in heaven.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2012
Version: 23rd July 2012