After watching the movie Agora, where the story of the life, passion, and death of philosopher Hypatia–who was murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics during the fourth century CE–is narrated, I became much more cognizant of the importance of the Library of Alexandria as a symbol of pre-Dark-Ages scientific advancement and of the importance of having humanist narratives of history.
The Good Book: a Humanist Bible, in addition to being a collection of philosophical wisdom, contains interesting portions of history. In particular, it narrates the lives of five secular personalities: the lawgivers Lycurgus (of Sparta) and Solon (from Athens), Pericles (also from Athens), Cato and Cicero (of Rome).
Of Lycurgus, I learned that although he enacted harsh discipline (chapter 10), he was no chauvinist: he advanced the equal treatment of women and enacted laws against jealousy and expanding the possible parental arrangements available to people. His progressive values also found expression in notions of free same-sex love which were entirely non-controversial in his day.
And though this sort of love was approved among them, yet rivalry did not exist, and if several men’s fancies met in one person, it was rather the beginning of an intimate friendship in which they all jointly conspired to render the object of their affection as accomplished as possible. – Acts 11:3-5
The Humanist Bible has been criticized, like the Jewish Bible, for being too provincial. It’s true that it’s a Westerner’s Bible and focuses on the Roman and Greek world almost exclusively, but not without due criticism of the Greek city-states. We find praise of Spartan discipline, but also criticism of its collectivism, avoidance of foreign ideas, xenophobia, and the mistreatment of helots–foreigners who worked in the polis.
Of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, we learn that he was a trader, traveler, and poet. In the process of evaluating his legal prescriptions, Acts 16:28-33 raises questions as to whether laws serve to change human behavior. This is a quite interesting question, and one for which I do not yet have a clear answer. In my piece on the Public Tables, I discuss some of the other considerations presented regarding Solon.
An interesting insight into how lawyers and rhetors see the world is found on Acts 20:1-3, where we are advised by the philosophers of the state to rename things in order to to make evil things sound innocent: tributes can be called customs, a whore can be a mistress, and a jailed man can be put in a chamber. The philosophers of the polis, however, do not only and always work for the elite. They sometimes also work for the mobs: debt-relief is less menacing to the ruling classes than jubilee, although they both mean forgiveness of debts.
Another interesting feature about the Book of Acts is that it introduces the origins of the legend of Atlantis (24:11), which was originally related to Plato by Solon, who heard from it in Greece, as well as the origin of the the term draconian laws from the narrative about the tyranny of the ruler Draco (chapter 21).
Pericles is introduced as a big-headed (literally) Athenian ruler who learned music from Damon the Rhetor and studied under Anaxagoras. He also constructed great public buildings and a convicted member of the one percent. He hated very openly the idea of the rich and noble mingling with the commoners.
He utilized his power arbitrarily to his convenience: after most of his family died in the plague, he abolished laws that required Athenian citizens to have two Athenian parents. In this way, he was free to choose an heir of his preference to bestow his large estate upon.
During the reading of Acts, I realized that AC Grayling wrote the book as literature and as history, and not necessarily as moral guidance in all cases. I had difficulty, initially, understanding why he would choose someone as apparently prosaic as Pericles for this book, then I struggled even more with why he chose to include someone as ignoble as Cato. I hear that the book of Histories (which I haven’t yet read) is full of even more violent and immoral tales than this one which are reminiscent of the Game of Thrones series.
Was the author trying to mimic the indecency of the Old Testament? Did he deem slavery, genocide, violence, and abuse of one’s inferiors as having didactic value? Maybe he’s saying that philosophy and secularism have also committed attrocities, just as the peoples of the book have. In Acts 55:6, after discussing Cato’s diatribe against people who are fat and lazy, Grayling says that fools never profit from meeting sages but that wise people profit from meeting fools because they learn how not to behave. Perhaps by this exercise of exegesis, we can excuse his choice of personalities worthy of scripture.
Cato the Elder, aka Cato the Censor was known for his austerity and economy. He was a greedy slave-owner who even sold his old slaves once their productivity waned and abused them for serving food carelessly. He is praised in the book for being an idealized husband and (together with his son) for his military exploits, his occupation of Spain and conquest of Lacedonia, and some of his military strategy is discussed. Elsewhere, he banished a philosopher for getting youth to care less about war.
It is here that I attempted to imagine what the Epicurean elders would have made of the Humanist Bible, and in what ways the Humanist Bible is not of use to those of us committed to Epicureanism, as war is not considered a wholesome profession in our tradition and soldiers are not worthy of praise. Philodemus, for instance, in his work On Death spoke of how soldiers in battle die like cattle.
Cato implemented price controls as a frugal measure and would be abhored by lovers of the free markets. As Censor, he functioned as the Roman version of the Muslim religious police, meddling in people’s private affairs and ensuring that everyone followed societal rules of propriety. The highlights of Cato’s sayings were the Sheeple Meme and his “I’d rather be asked why I don’t have a monument than why I do“.
As for Cicero, he was a lawyer, orator, and philosopher who studied under Philo the Academic. He acted as praetor during the days when Catilene and his evil friends plotted revolt and had Lentulus arrested for wanting to kill all the senators. He was given to self-praise and frequently mocked others. As a result of the animosity that naturally results from living a public life and having public enemies, he was exiled and the narrative later has him returning triumphant to Rome. Unlike Cato, he favored a humane treatment of inferiors, but the Good Book never calls for the abolition of slavery or for any discussion that might be framed within the context of civil rights, as we understand them today.
His house had no porter, and from early in the morning he stood or walked before his door to receive those who came to offer salutations. He is said never once to have ordered any of those under his command to be beaten with rods, or to have their garments rent. He never used contumelious language in his anger, nor infliected punishment with reproach. – Acts 81:8-10
In his old age, the narrative goes on to explain that Cicero married a young rich woman to pay off his debts, and later divorced her after his daughter died. The murder of Julius Caesar by Cassius and Brutus is related and the book comes to a close.
This has been thus far the least philosophical of the books in the Humanist Bible. I’m generally not into reading history, however the Book of Acts was a much more enjoyable read than I expected and awakened interest in reading history, as long as it’s written by expert narrators who know how to weave gossip, intrigue, plot-twisters, and interesting historical side-notes and references like the Atlantis one, which I was familiar with but surprised to find here.
Click here for the official Society of Epicurus review of the Good Book