Unintentional Consequences

David Cowles

Jul 12, 2021

Since I was 12 years old, I have found Greek Mythology baffling. What exactly is the role of the gods? I told my grandchildren that the Greek gods are like our Super Heroes, but even that analogy didn’t totally satisfy me. Now, more than half a century later, I think I’ve figured it out (with a major assist from Oswald Spengler). In Ancient Greece it is the gods who act, not the people. Individuals go through the motions, but their intentions are meaningless and their actions entirely without effect.

Since I was 12 years old, I have found Greek Mythology baffling. What exactly is the role of the gods? I told my grandchildren that the Greek gods are like our Super Heroes, but even that analogy didn’t totally satisfy me. Now, more than half a century later, I think I’ve figured it out (with a major assist from Oswald Spengler). In Ancient Greece it is the gods who act, not the people. Individuals go through the motions, but their intentions are meaningless and their actions entirely without effect.


Consider Oedipus. He goes through some of the most horrible experiences imaginable. But in no sense were the actions that led to these consequences intentional. In our culture, no jury would convict him of any crime. Not so in Ancient Greece. There guilt is imputed to him even though he lacked intent, or even consciousness, of what he was doing. In much the same way as salvation is imputed to us by God, regardless of our actions, according to Luther and Calvin, so guilt is imputed in Greek Mythology.


Consider Troy. It was not the soldiers who determined the ebbs and flows and ultimately the outcome of this 15 year war; it was the gods.


Compare this to the contemporary story of Job. Job is punished gratuitously but guilt is never imputed to him (except by his “Consolers”). We never doubt that Job is a good and just man, not in any way deserving of his trials. We evaluate Job as we would anyone today. If only he had had access to “the Innocence Project”. Not so, Oedipus. Sophocles encourages us to consider him guilty. THAT is the tragedy: that a man can be judged guilty of a crime he did not intend and of which he was entirely unaware.

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