“What is a God?”

Category: Ancient Learning > Paideia > Philosophy in Questions & Answers

1 Introduction

A common query in the question-and-answer texts concerns ho theos; this can be understood as referring to the gods as a genus, or to The God (i.e., the Stoic cosmic god, Platonic demiurge, etc.). The translation in each case is a best guess.

2 From John Stobaeus, Anthology 1.1.29a (ed. Wachsmuth)

(1) Θαλῆς ἐρωτηθείς. Τί πρεσβυτάτων τῶν ὄντων; ἀπεκρίνατο· Θεός, ἀγέννητον γάρ.
(2) Σωκράτης ἐρωτηθείς, Τί θεός; εἶπε· Τὸ ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀίδιον.
(3) Ἑρμῆς ἐρωτηθείς, Τί θεός; εἶπεν· Ὁ τῶν ὅλων δημιουργός, σοφώτατος νοῦς καὶ ἀίδιος.

(1) When Thales was asked, “What is the oldest of all beings?”, he answered, “A god, since they are something unoriginated.”
(2) When Socrates was asked, “What is a god?”, he said, “The immortal and eternal.”
(3) When Hermes was asked, “What is the god?”, he said, “The demiurge of all things, a most wise mind and eternal.”

2 Scholium on Iliad 2.18 (ed. Erbse)

Πυθαγόρας ἐρωτηθείς, τί ἐστι θεός, τὸ πάντων κρατοῦν εἶπεν.

When Pythogras was asked, “What is a god?”, he said, “That which rules all things”.

3 Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.22/60 (ed. Pease)

Roges me quid aut quale sit deus, auctore utar Simonide, de quo cum quaesivisset hoc idem tyrannus Hiero, deliberandi sibi unum diem postulavit; cum idem ex eo postridie quaereret, biduum petivit; cum saepius duplicaret numerum dierum admiransque Hiero requireret cur ita faceret, ‘quia quanto diutius considero,’ inquit ‘tanto mihi spes videtur obscurior.’ Sed Simonidem arbitror (non enim poeta solum suavis verum etiam ceteroqui doctus sapiensque traditur), quia multa venirent in mentem acuta atque subtilia, dubitantem quid eorum esset verissimum desperasse omnem veritatem.

Ask me what a god is or what they are like, and I will follow the example of Simonides: when the tyrant Hiero had asked him the this very question, he request one day for him to think; when, on the following day, he asked him the same, he requested two days; when he continued to double the number of days repeatedly and the puzzled Hiero asked why he did this, he said, “Because the longer I think about it, the fainter my hope (of reaching an answer) seems.” But I think that, because so many sharp and fine ideas came to his mind, Simonides – who is said to have been not just a charming poet but also a man learned and wise in other things – was in doubt which of these was truest, and so despaired of all truth.*

(*Cicero is thus presenting Simonides as a prefiguration of his own school of philosophy, the skeptical New Academy.)