Thursday, March 22, 2007

Personification as Religion

I heard a very cool lecture about play called Phaedo written by Plato about his hero, Socrates. Yeah, I know. There’s no way that a play by Plato can be just fun, right? And the star is Socrates, so that seems a double whammy. But it was only one lecture and I figured I could zone out during a workout and just listen to it again later. It turned out to be a great story. Socrates is the star. He's about to be killed for annoying the politicians and he has a couple of groupies hanging out with him. They can't figure out why he's so happy. So he tells them. And along the way builds a story about being completely sure that good and evil are linked to some sort of consequences in the afterlife. The story is simultaneously fantastic as pure relaxing entertainment and, yes, thought-provoking--even if you're trying to avoid thinking and just focus on the story.
Anyway, Socrates is sure that there must be consequences for whether you pick good or evil while you're alive. It dawned on me that if you lived in Socrates' time and believed him...and if you wanted to "market" that idea to the masses, you'd be far more successful if found a way to personify that good/evil/consequences thing. (Certainly more successful than Socrates who was put to death for his trouble.) This had an obvious link to some earlier thoughts about personification of the Republican and Democratic parties. To personify good and evil, you might want someone to be behind the scenes matching actions to consequences. And this is, after all, pretty much the definition of God's job in most faiths (well, after you get past creation of the universe, stars, planets, plants, animals, mankind, etc.). Unless you want God to be simultaneously good and evil, you might also want a Satan, but there could be a lot of disagreement on his role. As abstract a concept as God is, it would certainly be dramatically more concrete than just "good and evil." That might work for a few thousand years. But you know humans. They eventually get jaded, so as a good marketer you need to make the concept more concrete again. You'd want to bring the authority figure down to earth, figuratively and perhaps literally. So you need Jesus. At least initially appearing human, but by all accounts, pretty stand-offish. So you know where this going, right? Over time, you need to get more concrete. Hey, instead of an esoteric son of a carpenter, how about building on a trader, business person…even a military leader? Like, say, Mohammed? This is a crude storyline based on only one dimension of persuasion. And I certainly don't know the true role in the universe of these influential entities/deities. But it's staggering to me that at even such a superficial level you can derive the origins of Christianity and Islam from the simple words of an old, dead Greek guy and one good marketing rule of thumb.

All in all, if you agree that it's compelling to personify the idea you want people to accept--and there's plenty of modern proof this is true--it's a short hop to use Socrates' ideas of good and evil to derive the need for a more concrete being with which to identify good, that is, God…and then Jesus…and then Mohammed…and others who in recent centuries have tried to put themselves in that pantheon. It's like all of religion since the Greeks can be interpreted as marketing for Socrates' view of absolute good and absolute evil. This is a lecture…and story…not to be missed. I'm going to get off religion as a topic soon, but it's obviously a pretty fertile area for pondering.

1 comment:

JollyRoger said...

Excellent and concise explanation.

One finds in later chapters of almost any holy tome attempts to make the religion more acceptable to the everyday folk. And I noticed in both the Koran and the New Testament that there is an almost visible level of rising anger as you go through the books. This tells me that the writers were getting more and more frustrated with people not flocking to buy into what they were selling.

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