Limits of Human Knowledge


1 Introduction

Pagan antiquity never produced a philosophy or theory of hermeneutics which taught strict literalism, least of all when it came to myths. Consequently, the genealogies of Hesiod, the acts of the gods in Homer and all such things were always open to many interpretations, from the purely literary or rhetorical, to the rationalizing (by referring myths to historical events or natural phenomena), to the metaphysical. There did exist, however, a powerful stream of thought which held that one should accept the authoritative accounts and traditions regarding the gods, not because it could be demonstrated that they are true, but because (in epistemic terms) they lay outside of the reach of human knowledge or (in ethical terms) because critical investigation into divine matters was impious.

While this position of epistemic humility and deference to authority can be regarded as a form of piety, it does not allow us to distinguish between pious and impious thinkers. Every philosophy made some use of it. Plato famously rejected rationalizing interpretations of outrageous myths in the Phaedrus (favoring pious acceptance), but called on rational arguments to defend the existence of the gods. Against this, the Sceptics (both the Academy and the Pyrrhonists) saw rational arguments for dogmatic beliefs about the gods as inherently flawed, and composed many counterarguments – not with the aim of disproving their existence but of restoring an undogmatic, non-committal acceptance of conventional beliefs. The Epicureans too, so often unjustly maligned as atheists, seem to have been deeply concerned with the maintenance of traditional religious practices and expressions, judging the Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics to be overconfident innovators (see Philodemus, On Piety).

The texts translated here show how pious scepticism was employed in practice. Firstly, we see how Cicero, a follower of the sceptical Academy, justified (in the guise of Cotta) his use of rational arguments against the existence of the gods, while simultaneously claiming conventional piety. Secondly, Servius, a commentator on epic poetry, insists on the authority of the poetic tradition in the face of rationalizing constructions. Next, in a short letter, the famous 4th-century orator Libanius defines the appropriate attitude to marvellous accounts of the gods. We do not know the exact context of this letter, but it fits his general (and rather unusual) attitude towards myths, which is to take them all at face value and studiously avoid philosophical interpretation (in marked contrast to his student, the emperor Julian).

After these three short pieces I have excerpted, I translate a whole chapter of excerpts made by an ancient anthologist, John Stobaeus (ed. Wachsmuth & Hense). He was active in the early 5th century CE and influenced to no small degree by the Neoplatonic philosophy then in vogue (hence the equivalence of ‘divine’ and ‘intelligible’ in his chapter heading). But his compilation always shows a much broader view, closer to the commonsense of the polyphonous Greek literary tradition than to the doctrinal arcana of Platonic metaphysicians, or of any other discipline. That said, no careful reader of the present chapter could come away with the impression that Stobaeus has simply put together random texts on his chosen topic. Rather, he has woven ten pieces in verse (1–10) and twenty-three in prose (11–33) into a sort of philosophical essay in quotations, much as he does throughout his massive Anthology. It makes up only part of his interest that well over half the quotations are from lost works.

2 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.6–7; 9

He (Cotta) said: “Your (Balbus’) division was fourfold: first, you wanted to teach that there are gods, then what they are like (quales), thirdly that the cosmos is ruled by them, and finally that they concern themselves with human affairs. […]

“Now let us consider whatever is first, and if the first is that which is agreed upon by all except the utterly impious, and which no one could erase from my own mind, namely that there are gods – then, although I am persuaded of this by the authority of the ancients (maiores), you have taught me nothing about why it is so. […] And since you did not trust that this was as self-evident as you would like, you wanted to teach me that there are gods through many arguments. Now, for me, one thing was sufficient: that our ancestors (maiores) handed down to us that it is so. But you disregard the authorities, and oppose them through rational argument (or ‘reason’, ratio); thus, I am free to pit my reason against your reason”.

3 Servius, On the Aeneid 1.297

Servius auctus
Some say that there are four Mercuries: one the son of Jupiter and Maia, another of Heaven (Caelus) and Day (Dies), the third of Liber and Proserpine, the fourth of Jupiter and Cyllene. The latter slew Argus, and they claim that he, after fleeing Greece because of this (murder), introduced writing to the Egyptians.*

*For a fuller form of this catalogue, see Ampelius, Liber Memorialis.

(Vergil writes) “he born of Maia”, (meaning) Mercury; this is a circumlocution (periphrasis). Cicero, in the books On the Nature of the Gods, says that there are multiple Mercuries. But in an account of the gods (deorum ratio), we ought to follow the myths, since the truth is unknown.

4 Libanius, Letter 1313 (ed. Foerster)

To Sabricius.

Speak auspiciously (euphēmei) about the things that come from Athena, and believe that the gods appear in the shapes of humans (en anthrōpōn eidesi), and whatever you may hear, jump and clap! For critical inquiry (basanos) is appropriate to acts of human beings, but praise to those of the gods.

5 Stobaeus, Anthology 2.1

About those who interpret divine matters, and that the substantial (kata tēn ousian) truth of intelligible matters is ungraspable to human beings.

(1) From the Tantalus of Aristarchus

And there is equal chance of speaking well with this or not;
The investigation is equally weighted, and from the equal no knowledge derives.
For the wise know nothing more than the unwise
In these matters. And if one person speaks
Better than another, they are superior only in speaking.

(2) In the Philoctetes of Euripides

So how do those who are seated on rulers’ seats
Swear that they know the matters of the gods precisely?
The inventors of these speeches (logoi) are humans.
Whoever boasts to know about the gods,
Either really knows nothing, or speaks to persuade.

(3) In the Basket-Carrier of Anaxandrides

Compared to the gods, we are all stupid,
And we do not know a thing.

(4) Sophocles

But you cannot learn the divine matters, since the gods hide them,
Nor, if you could look upon them, could you examine them all.

(5) Philemon

Believe and revere the gods, but do not investigate!
For you will have nothing more than the investigation.
Do not wish to learn whether they are or are not,
But always revere them as if they are, and are near!
What they are, the gods do not wish you to learn.

*Grammatically singular throughout this quote, but the reference is to the gods as a genus.

(6) Menander’s Hypobolimaeus

It is quite difficult to understand what sort of thing Fortune is.

(7) Hesiod (Works and Days 42)

For the gods keep the means of life hidden from humanity.

(8) Pindar’s Paeans

What do you expect wisdom to be, by which
One man only surpasses another by a little?
For to examine the counsels of the gods does not belong to mortal mind.

(9) Iophon’s Bacchae

I also know this, even if I am a woman,
That the more someone seeks to know the matters of the gods,
The less will he know them.

(10) Simonides

Easily do the gods deceive the mind of humans.

(11) Demonax

When certain people where investigating whether the cosmos is ensouled, and also whether it is spherical,* Demonax said: “Do you busy yourselves with the cosmos (lit. ‘order’), but have no care for your own disorderliness (akosmia)?”

*Standard topics of philosophical debate or inquiry.

(12) Democritus

Do not desire to know all things, but do not be unlearned in all things!

(13) From Plutarch’s On Isis (On Isis and Osiris p. 382f)

For the souls of humans, which are encompassed here by bodies and affects, there is no communion with a god, except as much as one can apprehend by philosophy, and hold like a faint dream.

(14) From Plato’s Statesman (p. 277d)

It is difficult, o wonderful man, to properly indicate anything of the greater things without using comparisons. For each of us is at risk, as after seeing anything in our sleep, to forget it all again like a dream.

(15) From Plato’s Timaeus (p. 28c)

To find the maker and father of this cosmos is difficult, and for the one who finds him to show him to all is impossible.

(16) From Iamblichus’ On the Soul

How much better was it what Heraclitus believed, that human doctrines are children’s playthings!

(17) From Didymus’ On the Sects

It was from Xenophanes, who was playfully criticizing the rashness of others and his own caution at once, that there first came to the Greeks a saying worthy of recording, that “only a god knows the truth, / while opinion is given to all.” (18) For philosophy is the hunt and longing for truth. And some of those who do philosophy say that they can track down their prey, like Epicurus and the Stoics; others, that they are still searching for its culmination, as something that exists somewhere with the gods, and that wisdom is not a human possession; thus said Socrates and Pyrrhon.

(19) From Plato’s Timaeus (29c–d)

Now if, o Socrates, in many long discourses about the gods and about the origination of the universe, we are not able to make these discourses wholly and entirely self-coherent and exact, do not wonder; and if we furnish discourses no less plausible than any other, we should be delighted – keeping in mind that both the speaker and you, the judges, all possess a human nature. As such, it is proper for us to accept a plausible myth* and to search no further beyond it.

*Also translated as “likely myth”.

(20) Bion

Bion said that astronomers are wholly ridiculous, since although they do not even see fish on the sea-shores, yet they profess to see them (i.e., Pisces) in heaven.

(21) Pindar

Pindar said that those who practice natural philosophy (physiologountes) “pluck the unripe fruit of wisdom”.

(22) From Serenus’ Memoirs

When Thales was gazing into heaven and thus fell into a ditch, his servant, a certain Thracian woman, said he had suffered this justly for looking into the things in heaven without even knowing what was under his feet.

(23) Diogenes

When a certain astrologer was displaying the stars, drawn on some tablet, on the marketplace, and said that these were the wandering stars (i.e., ‘the planets’), and (Diogenes of Sinope) heard this, he said, “Do not lie, my friend! For it is not those who wander (i.e., ‘are erratic, in error’), but these”, and pointed to those sitting around the astrologer.

(24) Ariston

Ariston (of Chios) said that, of the things investigated by the philosophers, some are concerning us, others are not concerning us, and others again are beyond us. Those which concern us are the subjects of ethics, but those which do not concern us are those of logic (dialektika), since they do not contribute to the correction of our way of life. Those which are beyond us are the subjects of natural philosophy (physika);* for they are impossible to know, and also do not fulfil any need.

*By most definitions, this would include investigation into the gods.

(25) Eusebius*

What the gods are like, one must not inquire into; it is best to believe intrinsically (autothen). For once the investigation is opened up, it may be that someone who supports the most unholy of ideas (logoi), that they do not exist, may prevail.

*Not the Christian or the Neoplatonist, but an author quoted only (but frequently) by Stobaeus.

(26) From Hermes’ work To Tat (=SH 1)

It is difficult to know (noein) the God,* but impossible to speak of him. For it is impossible to signify the incorporeal with the body; it is not possible for the perfect to be grasped by the imperfect; it is intractable for the eternal to associate with what is of brief duration. For the one is eternally, the other is taken away; and the one is in truth, the other is a shadow cast by imagination. And the weaker is not so far from the stronger, or the lesser from the greater, as the mortal is from the divine. And the distance between them dims the sight of the Beautiful (=the God). For bodies are visible to the eyes, and visible things utterable to the tongue; but what is incorporeal, unmanifest, shapeless and in no way consisting of matter cannot be grasped by our senses. I think, o Tat, I think that what is impossible to speak of, that is the God.**

*Referring to the First God; but Stobaeus may take it generically of the gods.
**A similar view, that the definition of the God is to be undefinable, is found in Marius Victorinus’ On Definitions.

(Greek text: Θεὸν νοῆσαι μὲν χαλεπόν, φράσαι δὲ ἀδύνατον. Τὸ γὰρ ἀσώματον σώματι σημῆναι ἀδύνατον· καὶ τὸ τέλειον τῷ ἀτελεῖ καταλαβέσθαι οὐ δυνατόν· καὶ τὸ ἀίδιον τῷ ὀλιγοχρονίῳ συγγενέσθαι δύσκολον. Τὸ μὲν γὰρ ἀεί ἐστι, τὸ δὲ παρέρχεται· καὶ τὸ μὲν ἀληθείᾳ ἐστί, τὸ δὲ ὑπὸ φαντασίας σκιάζεται. Τὸ δὲ ἀσθενέστερον τοῦ ἰσχυροτέρου καὶ τὸ ἔλαττον τοῦ κρείττονος ‹οὐ› διέστηκε τοσοῦτον, ὅσον τὸ θνητὸν τοῦ θείου. Ἡ δὲ μέση τούτων διάστασις ἀμαυροῖ τὴν τοῦ καλοῦ θέαν. Ὀφθαλμοῖς μὲν γὰρ τὰ σώματα θεατά, γλώττῃ δὲ τὰ ὁρατὰ λεκτά· τὸ δὲ ἀσώματον καὶ ἀφανὲς καὶ ἀσχημάτιστον καὶ μηδὲ ἐξ ὕλης ὑποκείμενον ὑπὸ τῶν ἡμετέρων αἰσθήσεων καταληφθῆναι οὐ δύναται. Ἐννοοῦμαι, ὦ Τάτ, ἐννοοῦμαι, ὃ ἐξειπεῖν ἀδύνατον, τοῦτό ἐστιν ὁ θεός.)

(27) From Plato’s Timaeus (p. 48b–d)

We must consider the nature of fire, water, air and earth before the origination of heaven (i.e., ‘of the cosmos’), and their properties before this. For at present, no one has yet uncovered their origination, but as if people knew what fire, and each of these (four), are, we call them principles (arkhai), and posit them as elements (stoikheia, lit. ‘letters’) of the universe (to pan), when it is not even appropriate for them to be likened (to fundamental parts) as a matter of probability, in the manner of a syllable, by anyone who considers the matter even briefly.* But for now, let us proceed as follows. We shall not at this point speak about the principle of all things – or their principles, or whatever seems to be the case with them –, for no other reason than because it is difficult to explain my opinions in the present manner of exposition. So do not think I must lay them out! I would be unable to persuade myself that I am right to undertake such a great task. So, holding to what was said at the outset (=19), the force of plausible discourses, I will attempt to speak with no less plausibility than anyone – rather with more – about each thing and all things from the very beginning.

*The so-called elements are not the fundamental parts of the cosmos (like letters), but can be sub-divided (like syllables); and more than that, most of what people call fire is not even pure fire, but a mixture of the four, and thus not even as basic as a syllable.

(28) From Plato’s Critias or Atlanticus (p. 107a–b)

It is easier to seem to speak appropriately when you discourse about the gods to people, o Timaeus, than when you speak to us about mortals. For the inexperience and great ignorance which the audience has about the former affords great ease to someone who wishes to discourse about them.

(29) From (Pseudo-)Xenophon’s Letter to Aeschines (of Sphettus)

Hermogenes happened to meet me, and talked about all sorts of things. And when I asked about you, and what kind of philosophy you concern yourself with, he answered: the same as Socrates. When I too was living in Athens, I admired you for your mind. And as I began to admire you then, so I now, along anyone of those who have received wisdom, admire the consistency of your mind – for that, as I think, is the greatest sign of virtue – which that man has conquered; if it is even possible to call the life of Socrates that of a mortal.

Now, that divine matters are beyond us is clear to everyone; it suffices to revere (sebein) them (i.e., the gods) to the best of our ability. But what they are like (hoioi) is neither easy to discover nor licit (themiton) to investigate. For neither is it necessary for slaves to know the nature or actions of their masters, since nothing more than serving pertains to them. [Stobaeus here omits a sentence still found in a quotation by Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 12.14.]

For when, o Aeschines, has anyone ever heard of Socrates speaking about heavenly matters, or giving the advice to learn geometry (grammai) for the sake of improvement? And we know he had no understanding of music except for hearing it.* He persisted in speaking at every opportunity about what the noble (kalon) is, what courage, what justice and all the other virtues are. These things, at least, he called human goods; but everything else, he said to be either impossible for people to grasp, or to be akin to myths, playthings of the sophists in their supercilious discussions. And he did not speak about these things, nor did he consider practicing them. [Stobaeus omits another sentence found in Eusebius.]

*So Socrates had no time for the liberal arts.

So let those who are refuted cease, or come to what is plausible, those people who do not approve of Socrates, although the god (Apollon at Delphi) attested to his wisdom while he was alive; and who, when they slew him, did not find redemption for their regret. And, how noble!, they fell in love with Egypt, and the prodigious wisdom of Pythagoras; and their excess and inconstancy toward Socrates were proved by a love of tyranny, and a Sicilian dinner-table for a bottomless stomach replacing a frugal way of life.*

*A swipe at Plato, who made use of (Egyptian and Pythagorean) ideas about natural philosophy in his works, and went to the court of a tyrant (i.e., monarch) on Sicily.

(30) In Xenophon’s Socratic Memorabilia I (1.1.11;13–14)

He (Socrates) was not in the habit of discussing the nature of all things (or, ‘of the universe’) in the way that most of the others did, by considering the condition of the cosmos, as it is called by the Sophists, or by what rules (lit. ‘necessities’) each of the celestial phenomena arise; rather, he would point out that those who think about such things are acting stupidly. […] He would wonder that it was not obvious to these people that it is impossible for humans to discover these things, since even those who had the grandest notions in speaking about them did not have the same beliefs as each other, but were equally mad in each others’ view. And as, among people who are mad, some are not even afraid of what is fearsome, while others are frightened by what is not fearsome; some sense no shame in saying or doing anything in public, while others do not wish to go out among people at all; and some honor (timan) neither temple nor altar, nor any other of the divine things, whereas others revere (sebesthai) even stones, random pieces of wood, and animals; in the same manner, among those who concern themselves with the nature of all things, some think that being is only one (hen monon to on), while others think the number is infinite in its multiplicity; while some believe that all things are forever moving, others think that they are never moved at all; and some, that all things are originated and destroyed, others, that nothing is ever originated or destroyed.

(31) Arrian’s (Discourse) of Epictetus to someone discussing essence

“What does it concern me”, he (Epictetus) says, “whether beings consist of atoms, of immeasurables (ametra), or of fire and earth? For is it not enough to learn the essence of evil and of good, the measures of desires and avoidances, and further of impulses and repulsions, and to order the affairs of your life by using these as your standards? While being glad to leave things that are beyond us alone, which are perhaps incomprehensible to human understanding – or, if someone should determine that they are for the most part comrepehensible, still, what use is there in their being comprehended? Must it not be admitted that those who treat these things as indispensable for philosophical reasoning busy themselves in vain? Or is the commandment at Delphi, ‘Know Yourself’, redundant?”

“It is not,” he says.

(Epictetus:) “So what is its import? If someone commanded the leader of a dancing-troupe to know himself, would they not, if they heeded the command, say that it is to pay attention to the co-dancers and their harmony with each other? And if a sailor? And if a soldier? Now, do you think that the human being was made for itself or with a view to community?”

“To community.”—“By whom?”—“By Nature.”—“Which is what and of what character?”—“Such that it rules everything.”—“And it is comprehensible or not?”—“These things are no longer necessary to concern ourselves with.”

(32) From Porphyry’s On the Styx

The opinion of the poet (Homer) is not, as one might think, easy to grasp. For all the ancients expressed matters concerning gods and daemons symbolically (di’ ainigmōn), and Homer too rather hid matters concerning them, by not discoursing about them directly, but employing the things he says to indicate other things. Of those who have attempted to unfold what is expressed in subtext (di’ hyponoias) by Homer, the Pythagorean Cronius seems to have done so most adequately; nevertheless, in most cases, he adds material foreign to the subjects he has laid out, since he is not equal to the ideas of Homer, and he has striven to attribute his own opinions to the poet, not the opinions expressed by the poet himself.

(33) (?Pseudo-)Xenophon

The gods who accomplish the greatest deeds most rarely manifest themselves to humans. For with the one who can shake all things while remaining at rest, it is manifest that he is someone great and powerful; but what he is like in shape is unmanifest. Not even the Sun, who seems to be all-manifest (or ‘all-radiant’): he does not allow anyone to behold him, as it seems, but if someone shamelessly gazes at him, their sight is taken away.