How Joseph Smith Restored Greek Religion

December 4, 2003 | 17 comments
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I’ve been thinking of late about immortality and Mormonism. My question is whether or not you can be a Good Mormon and a Good Homeric Hero. I am unclear on the answer, but Moroni and John Taylor seem to suggest that for at least one Good Mormon being a Homeric Hero was just fine.

What do I mean? It seems that we have (at least) three concepts of immorality, which for simplicity I will call the Christian concept, the Hebraic concept, and the Greek concept. When Mormons talk about immortality, I think that we are generally talking about Christian immortality. We think about the resurrection of the dead and endless life in the hereafter. Immortality is about the triumph over death through the eternity of the soul and miracle of Christ’s atonement.

What I call the Hebraic concept goes back to the promise made to Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My understanding is that basically the ancient Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of the hereafter or the immortality of the soul. I don’t want to make this claim too strongly, and obviously Mormonism teaches that history since Adam on has been punctuated by God revealing greater light and truth to various prophets, separated by long periods of apostasy. On the other hand, it seems that the primary way in which the Old Testament (especially Genesis) conceptualizes immortality is about the propagation and continuation of posterity. We are immortal because our decedents (and thus some part of us) will continue in the world after we are gone to the dust.

For the Greek concept, I think of the heros of Homer. In the Iliad, Achilles or Hector achieve immortality because they do deeds of such greatness that their names will always be remembered by the poets. While the Greeks had some notion of the continuation of the soul after death, what really seems to have mattered was whether one’s life was sufficiently superb to merit a continuing memory. Of course, the Greek poets get in on this as well. Homer, like his heros, is remembered because his poem is a great and immortal deed. In the prologue to the Theogyny Hesiod explicitly states that his ambition is to write a poem that will insure the immortality of his memory.

So what does Mormonism do with these differing kinds of immortality? First, it seems that we embrace a kind of Christian immortality on steroids. Not only do our souls continue forever forward it time, they are also co-eternal with God in the past. Thus we have Christian immortality in both directions. We also embrace the Hebraic conception of immortality and integrate it with the Christian concept of immortality in our doctrines of sealing and eternal increase. In a sense, Hebraic immortality (the extension and continuation of family) becomes the justification for Christian immortality.

Which brings us to the Greeks. Mormons tend to not like Greek ideas. We get all suspicious about apostasy and the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. I am not so sure. On the first night that he appeared to Joseph Smith, Moroni told him that his name would be known for good and for evil among all nations. After their murders, John Taylor wrote of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, “They lived for glory; they died for glory; and glory is their eternal reward. From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified.” (D&C 135:6) All of this sounds Homeric and Greek to me.

Here is where I think Joseph restored to us something of Greek religion. Homer’s heros are theomorphic. “The godlike Achilles” is a man who can battle with gods and (at least against lesser gods) come off victor. For a good two and half millennia, monotheists have been smugly berating the Greeks for having such pathetically human gods. What is often forgotten is that they also believed in godlike human beings. Mormonism also offers us a vision of godlike humanity, although it is a vision that integrates both Christian and Hebraic ideas.

Now I have yet to figure out how we are supposed to dare for Greek immortality while at the same time exercising the Christian virtues of humility and meekness, to say nothing of the Mormon virtues of primary commitment to home and family. Still the possibility is tantalizing.

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17 Responses to How Joseph Smith Restored Greek Religion

  1. Adam Greenwood on December 4, 2003 at 7:49 pm

    Wow! I wish I’d thought of that. What an fascinating complex of ideas. I’ll have to integrate it into the post I’ve been mulling around on the manly virtues.

    You ask how Homeric fame is to be found while cultivating humility and quiet labor. The answer, I think, is one of the Dominical paradoxes–he who would be famous eternally must be willing to sacrifice that desire. Then he (or she) will achieve it.

  2. Clark Goble on December 4, 2003 at 8:54 pm

    Just to go along with what you say, as I’ve read more of the original neoPlatonists I find a strong echo of that in Joseph Smith. If we could call the neoPlatonists and the Stoics as the two big interpretations of Plato (ignoring Aristotle who I think was more original) then I think Joseph did offer a lot that was very Greek. However I also think he offered a lot that was uniquely Hebrew. What differs, I suppose is how they are reconciled.

    By that I mean that the Christianity of the apostasy took the God of Plato and Plotinus (the “One” or the “Good”) and made that equivalent to the Hebrew God. This fundamental decision in large measure followed the gnostic heresy despite a careful rejection of anything that couldn’t be reconciled in some fashion to the scriptures. (Which the gnostics were far less inclined to do) I think that many of the resultant doctrines led to many of the problems that Mormons perceive in Christianity.

    In a way they made God into what was “dead,” leading down the genealogical line most of us are familiar with in Nietzsche. Inexorably this led to the modernist perspective on God found in Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel and to it being very hard to accept this kind of God.

  3. Randall Paul on December 5, 2003 at 12:54 am

    Nate: The Christian / Greek crossover text and poet is Paradise Lost by Milton. Besides his interanl use of the Homeric forms in the poem, he boldly states that he wants the Holy Ghost (Muse) to inspire him to reconcile the ways of God to man! At the commencement he claims he is inspired, and that he is writing the greatest English poem ever. (Imagine Babe Ruth pointing to the stands to show where he will hit a bases loaded Homer (sorry) the FIRST time he ever went to bat in the big leagues. . . and then doing it. That was Milton. And for all we know that was Homer too, by the way with the Iliad.) That Milton pulled it off poetically places him among the Greek immortals.

    By taking us through a War of the Gods over the creation of godlike mankind Milton returns to the great megamyth: men are somehow gods. This conflict was the Mesopatamion myth and of course the Greek myth and the apocraphal Hebrew and Christian myths.

    Generally speaking, you have isolated what I called in my dissertation the three salvations that must be together for any of them to be fully capable of eliciting eternal joy : Individual Salvation (Greek: A glorious history, run the race, finished the course, have the crown), Kinship Salvation (Hebrew: A glorious posterity, a blessing of procreating the self with another and endless seeds), and Friendship Salvation (Christian: A glorious admiration and recreation of abundance among what Jesus called his friends.) Marriage is so central to the three salvations because it combines individual stories to become Our Story of Glory. It combines genes to procereate children and to socialize into kinship relations. It is the (when it really works) also a haven for all the joy of friendship.

    The reason J. Smith and his doctrines are so rich is that they understand all these salvations need each other for a fullness of joy. The temple worship places these in perspective. We have yet to receive the fullness of revelation respecting Heavenly Parents, but when we do (Section 140 of the D&C?) another great and important truth will show the fullness of the gospel. The Catholics and many other religious traditions developed strong feminine divinities (yes, Mary is a goddess if there ever was one . . . might as well say it out loud and pray to her) to fill the obvious hole in the story. So J. Smith was cut off a bit early in 1844, but the church is pregnant by him and has begun to deliver full story by placing Heavenly Parents at the top of The Declaration to World on the Family a few years ago.

    Yes, the poet’s story is that which moves the heart, and makes our pasts seem valuable. When we get our voices back in the next life, we will all sing our stories like Homer. Or read them out of books of remembrance that delight us with their power. (I will be hiding under a mountain when mine is read, but some will be glorious tales.)

  4. Jeremiah John on December 5, 2003 at 1:35 am

    Clark’s comments underline a fundamental ambiguity–between Homeric Greek, which depicts a Bronze Age agrarian society in a developed but early stage of Greek poetry; and Platonic (or even NeoPlatonic!) Greek which comes out in opposition to that heroic tradition. In between you have the ‘beautiful Greek soul’ of the golden age of Pericles, which is distinct from either. The best known literary example of this stark contrast is Socrates’ comparing himself to Achilles in the Apology. The irony is that Socrates is about as Homeric as he is traditionally pious; he’s turning Greek culture on its head with his “mission from the god”.

    But the legacy of Greece that survived Alexander was Socratic or Platonic, not Achillean. If you want to see a somewhat *Platonic* form of heroism look at Virgil’s figure of Aeneas. More importantly, Plato had a good point about both Greek gods and their heroes! If being godlike means being powerful but also capricious, destructive, and having an arrogant disregard for the most basic moral norms of society (like those governing burial of the dead), then I don’t care how godlike Achilles is, that’s not the kind of god I want to be. I tend to agree with the way Milton portrays the Greek gods, and their heroes, in Paradies Lost–that they are a lot more like devils or demons than gods. BTW, there is one somewhat Christian or Mormon part of the Iliad, but it’s not Achilles or any other of the ‘godlike heroes’, I’d say it’s the death of Sarpedon, Zeus’s son, and Zeus’s reaction to it.

    Another problem is that in the Homeric view of the afterlife, the dead are shades or shadows, and, well, the afterlife stinks except for the *very* few (like Heracles) who are made gods when they die. Heroes are godlike in mortality, miserable and half-alive after death. Mormons hope to be the reverse–sinning but repentant and humble servants in this life, godlike or on the way to it in the next.

    Both Mormons and traditional Christians hold humility (very un-Greek, however you slice it) as a virtue. But I also think that a certain kind of Christian heroism is not exclusive to Mormonism. And yet we don’t have to go to Homer for comparisions of people who lived for a certain kind of ‘glory’. The way Paul talks about his own missionary work is very often heroic, and in the Catholic tradition the superhuman virtue of the saints operates in tension with Christian humility. But in these cases it’s a uniquely *Christian* heroism that is much more like Joseph Smith, as when Paul understands his “thorn in the flesh” as a messanger of Satan, but something that is important for him “lest [he] be exalted above measure”.

  5. Kaimi on December 5, 2003 at 7:51 am

    Very interesting idea, Nate.

    One possibility is that the three concepts may be linked, especially if we consider the “as God is, man may become” statements. How best to have innumerable posterity? Become a God. Similarly, in the plan of salvation death is really kind of irrelevant, and the ultimate Homeric glory would be to be praised _forever_ — again, become a God. However, I don’t think this fully unifies the ideas — there is just too much discussion on glory and praise of men.

    In particular, it seems to me that this theme comes up in hymns (where it is probably a natural fit anyway). Particularly Mormon hymns that emphasize earthly glory include the obvious “Praise to the Man” with the Earth lauding his fame, and millions knowing him. Also, I have always been fascinated by the earthly-glory aspect of “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” which seems dominant. Of all of Jesus’s attributes, his earthly glory seems one of the less significant. (In fact, that entire hymn seems to have the tone of a religious, class-reunion comeuppance story, of the “You didn’t date me when you had the chance to, and now I’m a millionaire” type. I think comeuppance is probably Homeric, as that term is being used here).

  6. Adam Greenwood on December 5, 2003 at 9:48 am

    I think, Kaimi, you underrate the importance of vindication in the Second Coming. It has always attracted believers because it is the great day of putting things right, including giving respect to those who deserve respect and obloquy to those who have earned it. At that day every knee shall bow and we will see that we were right.

  7. clark on December 5, 2003 at 2:29 pm

    One problem with these broad kinds of strokes is that there isn’t *a* Greek. The Epicureans for instance are just as Greek as the Platonists were. Greek thought in the popular mind has the reputation for being anti-materialistic yet the Epicureans and Stoics were extremely materialistic with many views close to modern ideas. Even Aristotle was far more of a materialist than the platonists. And what about the pre-Socratics? In a way speaking of “Greek thought” is about as meaningful as speaking of “American thought.”

    Having said that though the question of the Greek and Hebrew in one reminds me of similar questions (and books) about Derrida. Of course the parallels are quite different. But this desire to see one as the unification of two (apparently) opposed traditions is strong. One wonders if this isn’t some Hegelian remnant in history that wants to reconcile the thesis and anti-thesis. And, in a way, I suppose that lines up with Joseph’s own thought.

    Regarding Kaimi’s comment on Jesus. While his mortality might from one perspective be the “less significant,” from a human perspective I think it the most significant. Indeed I think it was traditional Christianity’s feeling very uncomfortable with the humanity of God that led to many tendencies. (i.e. many human qualities are denied of Christ)

  8. Adam Greenwood on December 5, 2003 at 2:58 pm

    Randall,
    your Story of Glory reminds me of Frost.

    “Our venture in revolution and outlawry
    Has justified itself in freedom’s story
    Right down to now in glory upon glory.”

  9. Jeremiah John on December 5, 2003 at 5:33 pm

    True enough Clark. Even the way I described the Greeks was simplistic. Even American thought is much more unified in my mind, though it may not seem so since we are in the middle of it.

  10. Nate on December 5, 2003 at 5:36 pm

    I also agree that Greek thinking was multi-faceted, etc. etc. The title was meant to be provocative, and I realize that I am isolating one ver small part of Greek culture.

  11. clark goble on December 5, 2003 at 7:09 pm

    I don’t think American thought is that unified either. At least not in intellectual matters. There is still a strong current of superstition and mysticism. Some people are very pragmatic. Others are far more idealist. While there are some sweeping differences between us and say Europe, the fact is that I think there is more diversity now in America than there was say during the Renaissance.

    I suppose it is just something I’ve been considering given this attempt in philosophy the past few years to discuss thinkers in terms of the Hebrew and Greek mind.

  12. Jim on December 5, 2003 at 8:08 pm

    If “Greek” and “Hebrew” are anything more than metaphors loosely based on features of Old Testament thinking and 5th century B.C. Greek philosophy, then they are a mistake. Nevertheless, the metaphors are useful for talkinga bout some general tendencies and alternatives within our culture.

  13. Clark Goble on December 6, 2003 at 3:17 pm

    I think the problem with this “greek” vs. “hebrew” thought is that Greek in conceived of as the “language” of modern science and Hebrew is conceived of as the “language” of scripture and spiritual phenomena. This divide is then “contaminated” by writings by several LDS writers on how Greek philosophy brought about the apostasy. In effect the dichotomy then becomes “Greek = bad” and “Hebrew = good.”

    The problem with this view is, of course, that Nephi isn’t exactly positive towards the Hebrew way of speaking and thinking, considering it at best unnecessarily complex. Likewise when Greek is connected to either science or apostasy it involves far more than a metaphor and often a distortion.

    I recognize not everyone does this and that sometimes the taxonomy can be helpful. (It’s certainly been helpful for me at times) But I guess I’ve just become aware of the dangers when I see the metaphors and taxonomy put to uses they ought not.

  14. samuel ray on December 11, 2003 at 12:59 pm

    ok back to the fundamental nature of god. that “you are the temple of god and the spirit of god is within you” lightly mentioned in the accepted new testament, but a fundamental to the gnostics and the greeks.. contrast the eastern catholics where it is man’s responsibility to follow the will of god, not to define/invent/limit/expand god, since god’s nature (pardon the limit) is eternal and not subject to man. eternal life seems to have the same shroud, the desire to accept god’s knowledge of us as we really are, verses our immediate need to exist in the eyes of other men. can we trust god, or do we need to rely on the raster refresh of the flesh. to see the same conflict in brother joseph is not suprising. can we accept the greek rationalization and still follow the christ?? i suppose that would push us from homer and the heros to plato and the vox publicae, but then what do i know, never read greek, and latin only poorly. and kebrew is almost a hot chocolate drink, that is to saw “what we loose without the context.

  15. samuel ray on December 11, 2003 at 1:13 pm

    can’t resist a twist on m. greenwood’s note about the 2nd comming–“to put things right” -> “a reason to put things off”

  16. A. Greenwood on June 7, 2005 at 1:45 pm

    More on reconciling Greek heroism with Christian humility (i.e., our aspirations to deity with our acknowledgement of Deity):

    I think the difference is that Greek heroism is solitary, whereas the kind of heroism we aspire to is always binary–I am exalted in God and He in me. Or, one might say, the difference is that fame for the Greeks was the plaudits of the many and a repute that went down into history. For us fame is the plaudits of the One and a repute in eternity. ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant,’ etc.

  17. A. Greenwood on July 7, 2005 at 9:15 am

    “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men, and their story is not graven on stones over their clay, but abides everywhere without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives”

    -Thucydides