Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

The Archbeard of Canterbury has proclaimed that the tsunami disaster in Asia justifies people's doubts about the existence of any God, let alone a good one. If he needs comfort on the matter, Seneca (the millionaire philosopher and adviser to Nero, d. AD 65) will provide it.

Since the world and its gods were formed at the same time - when Uranus (Sky) mated with Gaia (Earth) - the gods and nature were inseparably linked. When nature therefore turned violent, that proved the existence of the god of that particular phenomenon - how else could nature act with such terrifying power? The question then was: why had the god so acted? The answer was usually that (s)he had been worshipped improperly or insulted. One prevented it happening again by correcting the error with a massive sacrifice. Since ancient gods were not thought of as loving, the logic was pretty sound - as far as it went.

Rationalists would have none of this. When in 430 BC a dreadful plague struck Athens, carrying off a third of its population (including Pericles), the historian Thucydides gave a stunning account of the onset and course of the disease in scientific, rational terms, pointing out, tartly, that prayers and oracles were helpless to stop it, and 'it seemed to be all the same whether you worshipped gods or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately'. …

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