Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cicero and Job: De Natura Deorum

I have a bit of insomnia, so I decided to finish reading Cicero's De Natura Deorum ("On the Nature of the Gods"), and, having just taught Job not too long ago, the following passage caught my eye:

Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot, or he can do so and is unwilling, or he has neither the will nor the power, or he has both the will and the power. If he has the will but not the power, he is a weakling, and this is not characteristic of God. If he has the power but not the will, he is grudging, and this is a traight equally foreign to God. If he has neither the will nor the power, he is both grudging and weak, and is therefore not divine. IF he has both the will and the power (and this is the sole circumstance appropriate to God), what is the source of evils, or why does God not dispel them? (De Natura Deorum 3.65; Trans. P.G. Walsh)

Unfortunately, this passage appears in a portion of the MSS that is riddled with lacunae. Just after this passage, there is such a blank, so who knows how the discourse was taken from here. Perhaps there was no answer (the speaker is actually proceeding in a Socratic-like method of elenchus, and, therefore, is more deconstructive than constructive). In fact, perhaps the true answer is that there is no answer. About thirty sections later, the same speaker says:

This is about all I have to say about the nature of the gods. My purpose has been not to deny their existence, but to make you realize how hard it is to understand it, and how problematic are the explanations offered. (De Natura Deorum 3.93)

Thus, I doubt the speaker, who was just breaking down all the previous arguments, primarily Stoic ones, has offered a solution, but just shown how all previous solutions fail. This all reminds me a lot of Job. The book of Job, perhaps in its current form about 500-600 hundred years older than Cicero's text, has its title character cry out:

Why do the wicked live on,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their children are established in their presence
and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are save from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them. (Job 21:7-8; NRSV)

Job goes on and on and on about this. This all stands in contrast to his own position of being blameless and yet suffering:

Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heaey despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and undersand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the great ness of his power?
No; but he woudl give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. (Job 23:2-7)

Job, here, is seeking redress with God, God being the source of his suffering (through God's agent, the Accuser). In fact, Job is seeking to take God to court. What many find confusing is the end part...Job seeking to be acquitted by his judge. My students, for example, assume this judge is God. But God cannot be both judge and defendant. And God clearly is meant to be the latter. Instead, Job seeks relentlessly and without result to find a judge, an arbitrator, between he and God. But the power differences and the fact there is none more powerful than God, means that there can be no such arbitration. In fact, there can be no impartial judge between Job and God, since people will assume God to be in the right (JOb 13:1-12). Indeed, as Job cries out earlier:

For he is not mortal, as I am, that I might answer him,
that we should come to trial together.
There is no umpire [arbitrator] between us,
who might lay his hand on us both. (9:32-3)

Ultimately, Job suggests that God acts arbitrarily or unjustly:

For he crushes me with a tempest,
and multiplies my wounds without cause. (Job 9:17)

Job is willing to walk where Cicero dares not. He is willing to go where Cicero fears: bad things happen to the blameless and good things to the bad because God is arbitrary and unjust! If this were not clear enough, note the following lines:

know then that God has put me in the wrong,
and closed his net around me.
Even when I cry out, "Violence!" I am not answered.
I call aloud, but there is no justice. (Job 19:6-7)

While Job pushes the envelope in speech and thought to a position that overturns all previous understandings of justice and wisdom (that punishment is due to sin, and so on and so forth), and while the author/s of Job are radical thinkers willing to overturn entire thought systems in a single example, Job does end up largely where De Natura Deorum does as well: in complete inadequacy of understanding and aporia. God overwhelms Job when he speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. Understanding itself is overwhelmed and thwarted. Incomprehensibility is highlighted. Elihu says it best, I think:

God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend. (37:5)

Great things, yes, but great and terrible things. For, as the readers, we know one thing no one else knows in the text: Job suffers because God made a bet with the Accuser. Job, I think, is far more radical in its thinking than Cicero, more willing to push the envelope and imagine an unjust god, even if retreating in the end. Yet, ultimately, all discussions of the gods or god collapse into non-rational incomprehensibility.

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