Category Archives: Philosophy

Rumor, Swiftest of All Evils in the World

Say what one will about mythology; there are times when it is an incredibly deep store of verifiable human knowledge drawn from experience and made more powerful through allegorization.

Take Virgil’s remark in Book IV of the Aeneid that as soon as Aeneas and Dido have, according to Juno, been married, immediately “Rumor flies through Libya’s great cities. Rumor, swiftest of all the evils in the world.”

Who is this Rumor? What happens if we pay attention to the mythology and not just assume we know what it’s saying because we know the English word?

As it turns out upon close inspection of Titan genealogies (how many of us ever really bother to look at those things, let alone learn the Titans as well as we know the Olympians?), Rumor is the cousin of the god Apollo, famously known as the god of Truth via prophecy. Apollo’s true words are frequently misunderstood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. By contrast, Rumor’s words are very easily understood, which is precisely why they cause so many problems. Ironically, both sets of words, the true and the false, operate on already existing desires within the hearers. 

Herotodus tells us how Croesus of Lydia wants to destroy the Persians. He asks Apollo’s Oracle if he should attack and if he’ll win. The Oracle tells him cryptically, “If you attack you will destroy a great empire.”  Exceedingly happy at his divinely-given fortune, Croesus attacks, but is himself defeated by the Persians. Angry at the Oracle for supposedly lying to him, he confronts it, reminding it that it told him he would win. To which the Oracle calmly replies, “You didn’t pay attention to the words I actually said. I told you that if you attacked you would destroy a great empire. You are the one who failed to ask which empire you would destroy.”

Thus does the god of Truth subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

Likewise, Apollo’s cousin Rumor flies forth proclaiming to all of Africa that Aeneas and Dido have contracted a marriage which is now blinding both of them to their respective royal duties, and so threatening everyone with disorder. Virgil’s phraseology here is interesting: “…terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth. Now Rumor is in her glory, filling Africa’s ears withtale on tale of intrigue, bruiting her song of facts and falsehoods mingled.”

The result of her mixed song, her spreading of reports to every itching ear, is that a petty African lord, Iarbas, who was already angry at Dido for spurning him, and so is easy game for Rumor, who “stokes his heart with hearsay, piling fuel on his fire,” finds himself”driven wild, set ablaze by the bitter rumor.” Iarbas then denounces Jupiter for allowing all of this to happen, asserting that Jupiter’s own temples are merely “hollow show,” which prompts Jupiter to compel Aeneas to leave Dido in order to pursue his destiny. Distraught Dido subsequently commits suicide, cursing all of Aeneas’ future descendants to eternal war with Carthage.

Thus does the goddess of twisted words subvert human plans because human folly hears only what it wants to hear.

The allegorized-mythological connection between truth and rumor points to surely one of the most profound human experiences. Words matter. Accurate reporting of words matters perhaps more. And in this light it is all the more interesting that Rumor is usually the Latin word “fama,” which also has the connotations of reputation and fame. Apparently the line between truth and lies can very, very thin.

It leaves the thoughtful person uncomfortably aware both of the necessity of moderating his speech and properly interpreting that of others. Human folly knows no bounds – there is no reason why even someone with “the correct worldview” in his head couldn’t easily fail to use words well or fall prey to the distortive power of Rumor while blindly believing he is only listening to the very voice of Truth Itself.

It also leaves the thoughtful person wondering whether reputations and fame are inevitably some sort of odd mixture of truth and lies – and so what that might mean for our epistemic and moral duty when we encounter fabulous reports reports, pro or con, concerning important people and events. I doubt there is anywhere that Rumor flies faster than on this great and powerful technological terror that we call the Internet.

Ontology 101

Ontology is “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is a “something” in the first place?
  • What kinds of “somethings” exist?
  • How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them?
  • What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?

A being is just a thing that exists. You are a being, I am a being, cars are beings, houses are beings, tables and chairs and pencils and footballs are beings, and so forth. Anything that exists is a being. Some beings exist outside of your mind (such as other people). Other beings exist only in your mind (such as unicorns and other products of your imagination).

What about God? God exists, right? Doesn’t that mean that God is a being? Actually, Christians think of God as being in a different class than all the things mentioned above. God is not a being. Rather, He is Being. What does that mean? To answer that question, we first need to discuss a few more terms that are used in ontology.

  • Immanent BeingTo say that a being is “immanent” means that that being exists inside the world. Immanent means “inside of.”
  • Transcendent BeingTo say that a being is “transcendent” means that that being exists outside of the world. Transcendent means “outside of.”
  • Finite BeingA finite being is a being that has limitations, such as size, weight, color, abilities, lifespan, and so forth. Another term for finite being is contingent being, which means a being that was made to exist by something else.
  • Infinite BeingAn infinite being is a being that has no limitations.

What does all of this mean? Why is it important? What relation does it have to how we as Christians think about God?

A great many books outside of the Bible that you read as part of literature classes were written by pagans. (A pagan is someone who believes in many gods rather than just one God.) In pagan religions, the gods and goddesses are beings who exist inside the world. They are immanent beings, not transcendent beings. The only real difference between the gods and human beings in pagan religions are that the gods are a lot more powerful than the human beings. Otherwise, like human beings, they are limited, finite beings.

The God of Christianity is very different from all pagan gods. The God of Christianity is infinite, not finite. Unlike the pagan gods, our God is both transcendent and immanent. Because He made the world, He exists outside the world (Genesis 1; Psalm 90:2; Ephesians 1:4). Yet He also exists inside the world (Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24).

What these things mean is that the Christian God is not just a being. He is not like all the other things that we call beings. He is not like you and me and houses and cars and tables and chairs and pencils and footballs. Nor is he like beings of your imagination, like unicorns. And He is utterly unlike all the beings that pagans called “gods.”

According to classical Christian thinkers, God is not just a being. Rather, God is Being. All other things that exist exist imperfectly and with limitations. God exists, but unlike all other things that exist He exists perfectly and without any limitations. All other things that exist have being, but God is Being. This means that all other beings are dependent on God. In classical Christian literature, particularly philosophical works, there is a whole class of arguments for the existence of God known as ontological arguments because they focus on this issue of being.

In Genesis 1, the Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” By itself, this verse does not prove that nothing existed before God created the world. But when we add to it John 1:3, we find that “Through Him [Jesus Christ] all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

The Apostle Paul writes, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Hebrews 11:3 tells us that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” God made everything out of nothing (see the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in Chapter 20). Thus, everything that exists is dependent (or contingent) upon him.

Ontology is a very important part of any worldview. What a worldview says about ontology affects what it says about all kinds of other issues, including how human beings know things and what is the destiny of all things. Some worldviews do not emphasize it much, but at the bottom of any claim that they make about the world is some kind of ontological assumption.

Philosophy 101

The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophia (wisdom), so it means literally “love of wisdom.”

Philosophy begins with asking questions. When we start to reflect upon – that is, to think seriously about – ourselves and the world that we live in, we quickly realize how BIG everything is and how SMALL we are. We realize that we do not know very much at all, and that certainly we do not know as much as we like to think we know!

Something you will come to appreciate as you get older is the saying “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know.” Once we realize that we do not know very much, we are in a position to start asking questions about the things that we do not know.

Many people believe that Socrates (469 B.C.–399 B.C.) was “the father of philosophy.” Socrates was famous for saying that true wisdom consists in knowing that you do not know. He was also famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

According to Socrates, most people do not know most of what they think they know. In fact, most of what they think they know consists of prejudices that they have not exposed to the light of inquiry on the basis of reason.

According to Socrates, most people regularly confuse appearance (what only seems to be the case) with reality (what actually is the case). By asking questions and exploring them to try to find answers, Socrates encouraged people to think philosophically – to seek true wisdom rather than just what seemed to be wisdom.

Philosophy does its work by means of reason. Philosophy starts with our ordinary, daily experiences, asks questions about them, and tries to logically figure out the answers to the questions. Philosophy is, therefore, concerned with matters that we can figure out for ourselves – that is, matters that we do not need special guidance from God to figure out..

Using Socrates as a model, we can see that for the Greeks, philosophy was defined simply by three statements:

  • “Know yourself.”
  • “Do not do anything to excess.”
  • “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Like all the wise men of the Bible, Socrates knew that he was not much at all, and that most of what he thought he knew was wrong when compared to God’s knowledge. In this sense, philosophy is something that all Christians can and ought to be interested in, for it is a path to wisdom. When you follow this path, you will know, with Job, that a human being is “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2) You will also realize the truth of what God said to Job about how pitiful Job’s knowledge was: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

Also, recognizing that you do not know puts you in a frame of mind to learn things because you do not think that you already know. If you already know something, do you try to find it out? Of course not. Only by recognizing that you do not know are you ever able to start trying to find out. This is the beginning of a philosophical way of thinking. Scripture teaches the same thing: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1).

The second point of philosophy is “Do not do anything to excess.” When you know that you do not know, you will also be prepared to live your life avoiding excesses. Too much food, too much playing, too much working – all of these are excesses. Scripture tells us to control ourselves, which means, among other things, to avoid excesses (Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 21:7; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:10-12, and others).

Philosophy can help teach you to understand the difference between the mere appearance of Good and the reality of Good. You will often find that what appears to be Good to you the first time you look at it is not what really is Good. More often than not, the things that only appear to be Good will be excesses of one kind or another, while the thing that really is Good will be something moderate, something that is not extreme.

The third and last principle of philosophy teaches you to live your life with an attitude of examining everything to see whether it is true or false. You cannot know yourself and avoid excesses if you do not examine your life carefully and weigh your experiences in this life in the light of principles that come from a higher place than this life. The Bible tells us the same thing:

  • Philippians 4:8 – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”