Of Muses and Mises: A Prelude to Natural Philosophy
Pop quiz: who did Murray Rothbard call "the first Greek economic thinker"? Aristotle, you say? Plato? Nope. To quote Rothbard himself:
The honor of being the first Greek economic thinker goes to the poet Hesiod.
Now, Hesiod was a farmer-turned-poet in a backwater town in the Greek archaic period, so that's quite a compliment. But Rothbard is not the only smart guy who thought surprisingly highly of this fellow so ancient that, according to some, he was contemporary with Homer himself. Aristotle himself characterized Hesiod as something of a natural philosopher who couched his cosmological propositions in metaphorical and mythological language.
Hesiod's poems provided, along with those of Homer, the canonical systematization of ancient Greek mythology and religion. Yet, as Rothbard and Aristotle recognized, Hesiod not only gives us a window into the superstitions of antiquity. Strikingly, in Hesiod's writings, situated as they are at the dawn of the Western literary tradition, we have an artifact of ancient reason. His works evince a mind striving to work out the subtleties of natural and moral philosophy through the medium of mythology.
The economic thought that impressed Rothbard is to be found in Hesiod's didactic poem/farmer's almanac, The Works and Days. And the cosmological thought that impressed Aristotle can be found in Hesiod's poetical origin myth, The Theogony.
The Theogony is likely the work of poetry that made Hesiod's name. In The Works and Days, Hesiod tells of how he won a prominent prize for poetry, so it is plausible that he won by singing his Theogony. Hesiod says that he traveled from his hardscrabble hometown of Ascra in mainland Greece over to Chalcis, on the island of Euboea to
the games of wise Amphidamas where the sons of the great-hearted hero proclaimed and appointed prizes.
Now Amphidamas, a local big shot in Euboea, was dead at the time, so it might seem curious that he was still able to hold a poetry contest. But the ancient Greeks, dynamic folk that they were, thought that funerals were excellent occasions for such life-affirming pastimes. And don't let "poetry contest" make you think of black turtlenecks and goatees. These "poems" were epic storytelling musical numbers, sung very dramatically.
You can imagine the impression a rustic peasant like Hesiod would have made, taking the stage in front of a well-heeled crowd in a wealthy port town. But Hesiod assured his skeptical audience of his credentials in the proem (introductory passage) of his Theogony. He tells them how he received very special instruction from the most prestigious musical coaches imaginable.
It all started when he was tending sheep at the foot of Mount Helicon. Upon entering a clearing, he found to his astonishment nine unspeakably beautiful goddesses standing before him. These were the Muses, the divine patronesses of the rhythmical arts (what we call "music" in derivation from their name). It is by the grace of the Muses that the choir sings, the flutist trills, and the dancer twirls. One might call them the stage mothers of the universe.
The Muses proclaimed cryptically,
"Shepherd! Wretched thing of shame. We know how to speak false things as if they were true. But we know how to speak the truth, when we want to."
The Muses thus claimed to have divine persuasiveness ("to speak many false things as though they were true") and divine knowledge ("to utter true things").
There are two instances of the adjective "true" in the above passage as translated by Evelyn-White, but they represent two different Greek words. The first instance (from "false things as though they were true") is from the word etumoisin, a tense of etumos, which can also be translated as "real" or "actual." The second (from "to utter true things") is from the word alethea, a tense of alethes, which can also translated as "unconcealed." From this we can get the sense that the power of the Muses is to expound upon formerly concealed things: the mysteries of the universe. Hesiod tells us exactly how the Muses they taught him song in the following:
they breathed into me a heavenly voice with which to sing of things that were, that are, and things that have not yet come to pass.
(Ten Mises points to whoever can say which Lord of the Rings character says much the same thing as the last 14 words of that quote!)
Now, what did he mean by "breathed into me a heavenly voice"? Well that's how he got his "super-poet" powers: via divine inspiration. "Inspiration" (the translation of the equivalent Greek word used here) is actually derived from the Latin word "to breathe." The Muses literally breathed their "heavenly voice" into Hesiod. It was this inner voice that Hesiod cited as the basis of his authority to hold forth on hidden events in the past, present, and future.
More than just a poet, Hesiod's inspiration from the Muses made him something of a superhuman cosmologist, historian, and prophet all wrapped up into one. Plus, they gave him a nifty laurel-wood staff to signify his new exalted status.
Now all this "heavenly voice" talk may be a debit to Hesiod's "serious thinker" account. But, as Ludwig von Mises informs us, intellectuals deriving their intellectual authority from inspiration is a distressingly modern phenomenon:
All the sophisticated syllogisms of the ponderous volumes published by Marx, Engels, and hundreds of Marxian authors cannot conceal the fact that the only and ultimate source of Marx's prophecy is an alleged inspiration by virtue of which Marx claims to have guessed the plans of the mysterious powers determining the course of history. Like Hegel, Marx was a prophet communicating to the people the revelation that an inner voice had imparted to him.
Following his shout-out to the Muses, Hesiod really gets to the meat of his poem, delivering a history of the universe in the form of a genealogy of the gods (theogony being Greek for "birth of the gods").
In Hesiod's Theogony, as in much creation mythology, inanimate objects (like Earth), forces (like Love), and phenomena (like Night) are presented to a large degree as acting beings: they are anthropomorphized. Thus, the story Hesiod tells might seem to be dismissed as a superhuman soap opera: an interpersonal saga, in which the characters happen to have outlandish powers. However, the Theogony can also be viewed in a vastly different way.
Aristotle, who wrote some 400 years after Hesiod wrote his Theogony, made a sharp distinction between two classes of thinkers: theologi and physici. The theologi impute the causes of phenomena to personal, mysterious gods, the knowledge of whom is only accessible through divine revelation. In stark contrast, the physici look to impersonal, discernible forces that can only be detected through careful observation and reasoning.
The ranks of the theologi were supposed to be filled with poets, priests, and prophets. The ranks of physici were populated by scientific thinkers, starting (traditionally) with the Ionian philosopher Thales of Miletus, who lived after Hesiod. However, Aristotle made a possible exception for Hesiod. As mentioned previously, Aristotle surmised that, if you looked carefully, you could see Hesiod's true physici colors in his cosmological formulations.
Historian Will Durant would seem to agree. He notes, regarding Hesiod's Earth, Love, Night, and other dramatis personae:
We capitalize these names, but in Hesiod's Greek there were no capitals, and for all we know he meant merely that in the beginning was chaos, and then the earth, and the inners of the earth, and night and day and the sea, and desire begetting all things; perhaps Hesiod was a philosopher touched by the Muses and personifying abstractions into poetry; Empedocles would use the same tricks a century or two later in Sicily. From such a theology it would be but a step to the natural philosophy of the Ionians.
Thus, if you ignore the proper-noun treatment Hesiod gives to his objects, forces, and phenomena, what at first might seem like a fairy tale of love and strife between gods begetting children and blood will seem more like an impersonal account of attraction and repulsion between natural objects begetting generation and dissolution.
Let's proceed with Hesiod's own "In the beginning …," shall we?
First, he says, there was Chaos. Now, when we hear "chaos," we think of disorder and confusion. One person largely responsible for that is the sublime Latin poet Ovid, who characterized the primordial "Chaos" as a sort of cosmic cappuccino, with solids, liquids, and gases all intermingled in an amorphous blob.
But earth, and air, and water, were in one.
Thus air was void of light, and earth unstable,
And water's dark abyss unnavigable.
No certain form on any was imprest;
All were confus'd, and each disturb'd the rest.
But "Chaos" is sometimes alternatively translated as "Chasm," and that is closer to what Hesiod meant. This is not to say that Hesiod meant, "In the beginning there was cracked earth." Better not to think of earth that happens to be cracked, but rather the crack itself, the part where there is no earth.
Similarly, Lao Tzu characterized a path (tao) in a forest as the part where there is no forest. In other words, Hesiod was basically saying, "In the beginning there was void." Indeed, Chaos is also alternatively translated as "Void."
Aristotle thought Hesiod was onto something by placing Void at the beginning. He wrote,
the theory that the void exists involves the existence of place: for one would define void as place bereft of body.
These considerations then would lead us to suppose that place is something distinct from bodies, and that every sensible body is in place. Hesiod too might be held to have given a correct account of it when he made chaos first. At least he says:
"First of all things came chaos to being, then broad-breasted earth," implying that things need to have space first, because he thought, with most people, that everything is somewhere and in place. If this is its nature, the potency of place must be a marvellous thing, and take precedence over all other things. For that without which nothing else can exist, while it can exist without the others, must needs be first; for place does not pass out of existence when the things in it are annihilated.
Thus Hesiod, according to Aristotle, inferred the preexistence of space as a necessary implication of the existence of matter. Hans-Hermann Hoppe might agree with that statement but clarify that ultimately space is a necessary implication of the "action axiom": "Spatial knowledge is also included in the meaning of action. Action is the employment of a physical body in space."
Nothingness was a hot topic among the philosophical set in ancient Greece. Thales of Miletus purportedly said the biggest thing in the universe was space, because it contains all things. Parmenides of Elea based much of his philosophy on the alleged impossibility of empty space. And Democritus of Abdera said that all, in reality, was "atoms and the void."
After space, Hesiod next introduces matter when he says, "next came unmovable Gaia," or "unmovable Earth." Now, you may object, as Galileo allegedly did to the Roman Inquisition, "E pur si muove!" ("Yet it moves!"). But Hesiod didn't know the Earth moved. He, like everyone else in his time, thought the sun, stars, and planets moved around the Earth.
Next came Tartarus, or the underworld. Tartarus means "deep place." It has its own name, but it could also be thought of as just a part of the Earth (Gaia).
And then came Love (Eros)! As you may have guessed at this point, this is not necessarily the kind of love that is followed by "marriage and the baby in the baby carriage." Again, Aristotle thought Hesiod might have meant something more cosmic than that. He wrote,
Hesiod says:First of all things was chaos made, and then
Broad-breasted earth …
And love, 'mid all the gods pre-eminent,
which implies that among existing things there must be from the first a cause which will move things and bring them together.
Aristotle carefully analyzed causes. Two of the four causes he considered were (1) the Efficient Cause (that which brings a change about), and (2) the Final Cause (that for which a change is brought about; i.e., a goal).
In Mises's works, these two notions generally correspond, respectively, to (1) Causality/Mechanism, and (2) Teleology/Finality.
Now the "attractive cause" that "Love" represents would be an "efficient cause" if it were some purely mechanical force, like gravity. But then it might be a "final cause" if somehow Hesiod's cosmic entities really desired each other in some way. Note that the latter would not disqualify Hesiod as a scientific thinker in Aristotle's eyes. In fact, Aristotle's own cosmology was suffused with finality. For example, he wrote of "the love that moves the stars."
Mises, on the other hand, did not adopt a teleological interpretation of the cosmos. For him, the absence of finality was the characteristic mark of "nature," just as the presence of finality was the characteristic mark of human action. According to Mises, as far as we can tell with our senses and reason alone, it is not love, or any other kind of purpose, that makes the material world go round.
"We do not know of any final causes operating in what we call nature."
Action is a category that the natural sciences do not take into account. The scientist acts in embarking upon his research work, but in the orbit of natural events of the external world which he explores there is no such thing as action. There is agitation, there is stimulus and response, and, whatever some philosophers may object, there is cause and effect. There is what appears to be an inexorable regularity in the concatenation and sequence of phenomena. There are constant relations between entities that enable the scientist to establish the process called measurement. But there is nothing that would suggest aiming at ends sought; there is no ascertainable purpose.
Another way of interpreting, in a generously naturalistic fashion, Hesiod's initial triad of "Chaos, Earth, and Love" might be "space, matter, and energy."
And so the first cause, Love, introduces change into the material universe. This first change is a birth: one entity arising out of another. Love induced Chaos to become the universe's first mother. And out of her came Erebos, or Darkness: the first baby in the universe. Now, you might object, along with Roger Bacon, that it is inconceivable for darkness to be "born," as darkness is just the absence of light. But Hesiod didn't know that. He thought of darkness as a material black mist.
Erebos was born along with a sister who would become his wife: Nyx, or Night. Night was often shown as a woman in a chariot who "wore" her husband (Darkness) like a great big cloak. When Night came to the land, riding her chariot, she would pull her husband (Darkness) over the earth like a great big tent. Night brings darkness, literally. Nyx thus can be thought of as a force of nature: darkness's principle of motion/change. Darkness and Night, then, were the universe's first husband and wife, brought together by Love.
Together, Darkness and Night had a son and daughter: Aether, or Brightness, and Hemera, or Day. Aether took after his father and was a shapeless mist, but he was a bright, glowing mist. As you can imagine, father and son had their differences. Hemera took after her mother and was a chariot-driving force of nature. She felt that her brother (who was also her husband), Aether, deserved to cover the earth.
Thus began an eternal rivalry. Every dusk, Night (Nyx) arises in the east, driving her chariot and covering the bright blue dome of the sky with the mists of her husband Erebos, thus chasing Day (Hemera) into the west and then down into the underworld (Tartarus). Soon, the whole sky is covered with darkness. But her victory is temporary, for at dawn Day emerges again from the east on her chariot, scattering the mists of Erebos in revenge, and driving them westward into the underworld, to reveal her husband Aether once again.
And so, according to a mythological interpretation of Hesiod, the ongoing cycle of days and nights is really a cosmic battle between the first two married couples in the universe.
Night had other children whose names and natures matched the dark quality of their parents: Doom, Fate (as well "the Fates" and "the Destinies"), Death, Blame, Distress, Indignation, Deceit, Old Age, and Strife. We've all met badly behaved kids, so imagine the "terrible twos" of this brood! However, Night also bore Sleep, Dreams, and Fondness, so perhaps family night wasn't all that bad. Night's child Strife in turn gave birth to Toil, Forgetfulness, Hunger, Pains, Murders, Slaughters, Quarrels, Lies, Lawlessness, Recklessness, Oath, Combats, Battles, Disputes, and Tales, thus establishing an extended family that perhaps set the tone for many future family reunions.
Now Chaos, through Night, had a teeming (if dreadful) clan, but Gaia was still all alone. So, urged on by Eros, she gave birth to Pontos, or the sea. She also created out of herself a husband, Ouranos, or "starry heaven." Heaven and Earth mated and had several children, later to be called the Titans. Each Titan represented some element of the cosmos. Some of them paired off as mates, and then in turn gave birth to related elements.
One of the Titans was Okeanos, whence we derive our word "ocean." But we're not talking the "seven seas" here. What we think of as "ocean" is already represented by Pontus. Okeanos was a huge freshwater river that encircled the earth, and which, according to Theoi.com, was
the font of all the earth's fresh-water: including rivers, wells, springs and rain-clouds. … Okeanos' wife was Tethys, the nurse, who was probably thought to distribute his water to the earth via subterranean caverns. Their children were the Potamoi or River-Gods and Okeanides, nymphs of springs and fountains.
Now, the Titans that follow are more abstract than Okeanos, Tethys, and their body-of-water children. However, these two Titans and their offspring play important and very animated roles in later myth.
For example, in one of the more action-packed scenes in Homer's Iliad, the river Xanthus itself is represented as a god who engages in one-on-one combat with Vulcan, god of the forge. The river gets the worst of it, as he is pretty thoroughly torched by the Olympian.
Then he turned tongues of fire on to the river. He burned the elms, the willows, and the tamarisks, the lotus also, with the rushes and marshy herbage that grew abundantly by the banks of the river. The eels and fishes that go darting about everywhere in the water, these, too, were sorely harassed by the flames that cunning Vulcan had kindled, and the river himself was scalded, so that he spoke saying, "Vulcan, there is no god that can hold his own against you. I cannot fight you when you flare out your flames in this way; strive with me no longer. …
He was boiling as he spoke, and all his waters were seething.
Taken literally (which, again, is not necessarily appropriate with Hesiod), this particular kind of teleological interpretation of material phenomena is called "animism," which Mises discusses in Human Action:
Both primitive man and the infant, in a naive anthropomorphic attitude, consider it quite plausible that every change and event is the outcome of the action of a being acting in the same way as they themselves do. They believe that animals, plants, mountains, rivers, and fountains, even stones and celestial bodies, are, like themselves, feeling, willing, and acting beings. Only at a later stage of cultural development does man renounce these animistic ideas and substitute the mechanistic worldview for them.
Here is the rest of the Titan roll call. All the following descriptions are quoted from the excellent website Theoi.com.
THEIA was the Titan goddess of sight (thea) and shining light of the clear blue sky (aithre). She was also, by extension, the goddess who endowed gold, silver and gems with their brilliance and intrinsic value. Theia married Hyperion, the Titan-god of light, and bore him three bright children–Helios the Sun, Eos the Dawn, and Selene the Moon.
PHOIBE (or Phoebe) was the Titan goddess of the "bright" intellect, wife of Koios, "the inquirer." She was the third goddess to hold the Oracle of Delphoi which she gifted to her grandson Apollon on his birthday. Phoibe's name was associated with the Greek words phoibos, "bright" or "radiant," phoibaô "to purify" and phoibazô "to give prophesy.
KOIOS's alternate name, Polos ("of the northern pole"), suggests he was the Titan of the pillar of the north. His brothers Hyperion, Iapetos, and Krios, on the other hand, presided over the west, east, and south respectively. Koios, as god of the axis of heaven around which the constellations revolved, was probably also a god of heavenly oracles"
MNEMOSYNE was Titan goddess of memory and remembrance and the inventress of language and words. As a Titan daughter of Ouranos (Heaven), Mnemosyne was also a goddess of time. She represented the rote memorisation required, before the introduction of writing, to preserve the stories of history and sagas of myth. In this role she was represented as the mother of the Mousai (Muses), originally patron goddesses of the poets of the oral tradition.
THEMIS was the Titan goddess of divine law and order–the traditional rules of conduct first established by the gods. She was also a prophetic goddess who presided over the most ancient oracles, including Delphoi. In this role, she was the divine voice (themistes) who first instructed mankind in the primal laws of justice and morality, such as the precepts of piety, the rules of hospitality, good governance, conduct of assembly, and pious offerings to the gods. In Greek, the word themis referred to divine law, those rules of conduct long established by custom. Unlike the word nomos, the term was not usually used to describe laws of human decree.
RHEA was the Titanis mother of the gods, and a goddess of female fertility, motherhood, and generation. Her name means "flow" and "ease." As the wife of Cronus (Time), she represented the eternal flow of time and generations ; as the great Mother (Meter Megale), the "flow" was menstrual blood, birth waters, and milk. She was also a goddess of comfort and ease, a blessing reflected in the common Homeric phrase "the gods who live at their ease (rhea)."
With most of the Titans, as well as the terrible children and grandchildren of Night, we have gods personifying, not only material entities (as does Okeanos), but also abstract notions like time, law, and strife. By personifying abstractions, he also substantializes them. And so we have here an early incidence of "hypostatization," a practice which, as Mises claimed, continues to plague philosophy. "The worst enemy of clear thinking is the propensity to hypostatize, i.e., to ascribe substance or real existence to mental constructs or concepts."
Plato's "theory of the forms" is an example of hypostatization run wild.
We have just met the Uranides (elder Titans), children of Heaven and Earth. Gaia had a few children besides the Titans, however. Gaia also gave birth to the Cyclopes (one-eyed giants) and Hecatonchires (hundred-handed giants). The Cyclopes represented thunder and lightning, and the Hecatonchires represented windstorms.
Ouranos was displeased at the sight of these misshapen children, and so he stuffed them painfully into Gaia's belly. In revenge, Gaia convinced her son Cronus to overthrow his father. Helped by some of his siblings, Cronus castrated his father and took his place as ruler of the universe.
A "nonmythological" retelling of the Theogony up to this point might be as follows.
First there was void (Chaos). Then earth (Gaia) and attractive/generative force (Eros) came to be. Then out of void came a dark gas (Erebos) charged with its own motive energy (Nyx). Out of that came a bright gas (Aether) charged with its own motive energy (Hemera).
A starry firmament (Ouranos) erupted out of the Earth, as well as salt water (Pontus). The firmament came to hold the earth down, and celestial matter from Ouranos was compelled by the attractive force to shower down upon the Earth.
This process generated 12 phenomena, including time (Cronus) and its motive force (Rhea), fresh water (Okeanos) and its motive force (Tethys), inquiry (Koios), intelligence (Phoebe), mortality (Iapteus), natural order (Themis), memory (Mnesomyne), and sight (Theia).
The same process later generated storms (Cyclopes being the lightning and thunder and Hecatonshires being the winds), which became entrapped within the earth. Time itself brought a halt to this process.
Taken thus, Hesiod's Theogony exemplifies many important strands in the history of natural philosophy. In it, there is no one special creator, and no single instance of creation. Instead there is a gradual process of generation and change.
Of course for all his systematic and rational presentation, Hesiod still had his "Time" entity literally castrate his "Sky" entity with a sickle. His audience expected the interpersonal saga of epic poetry, and this perhaps necessitated that his cosmic powers have distinctly human characteristics.
Picking up the story, Cronus and his wife Rhea then had a number of children. It was foretold that one of his children would overthrow him as he overthrew his father. So Cronus ("all-devouring time") ate each of his children as they were born. The only one who escaped was Zeus, whom Rhea hid away.
After Zeus grew to manhood, he forced his father to vomit out his siblings, still living. Zeus and his siblings (the Olympians) then fought Cronus and the Titans in the "Titanomachy." The Olympians finally defeated the Titans after Zeus released the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires from the underworld, who then aided him.
Zeus finally won complete ascendancy over the world by defeating Typhos, a monster created by Gaia to avenge the entrapment of her children.
Zeus then became lord of all. Zeus can be thought of as the god of the state, as Hesiod explicitly states in the Theogony that "princes are of Zeus." So it is very interesting that after gaining his throne he promptly married Themis, ("Natural Order") and with her fathered the Hoirae (Hours), "who mind the works of mortal men," namely Dike, or Uustice; Eirene, or Peace; and Eunomia, or Good Laws.
This might be interpreted as Hesiod saying that the state, paired with natural order, gives rise to justice, peace, and law. And this would coincide with the very adulatory words Hesiod uses to describe princes in the Theogony:
whomsoever of heaven-nourished princes the daughters of great Zeus honour, and behold him at his birth, they pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and from his lips flow gracious words. All the people look towards him while he settles causes with true judgements: and he, speaking surely, would soon make wise end even of a great quarrel; for therefore are there princes wise in heart, because when the people are being misguided in their assembly, they set right the matter again with ease, persuading them with gentle words. And when he passes through a gathering, they greet him as a god with gentle reverence, and he is conspicuous amongst the assembled: such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.
One can see in Hesiod's other great poem, Works and Days, how Hesiod changes his attitude with regard to magistrates after some of them confiscate his property. An old saying goes, "A conservative is a liberal who just got mugged." Well, it'd be more apt to say that a (classical) liberal is a statist who just got expropriated. But that's for another essay!
The Theogony of Hesiod, although it is a mythological poem, can be seen as something of a prelude to natural philosophy. It may be argued that the same could be said, to a limited extent, about all myths about the origins and workings of the universe, and that this stems from man's perennial quest to understand the world around him. It makes sense that the mythological cosmic poetry of Hesiod would have a particularly noticeable flavor of naturalism, since he was a member of the ancient Greek culture that only a century later would give rise to the world's first completely secular and nonmystical natural philosophies.
Below is a web comic I have created exploring the themes of this essay.Chrome users experiencing glitches with this comic can click here.
 "Of the Origin of Homer and Hesiod, and of their Contest," sacred-texts.com.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1. Ovid and the other writers may have confused Chaos with the primeval, undifferentiated mud of the rival genealogy of the gods attributed to Orpheus, which in turn may have been influenced by the Mesopotamian conception of the world's primal state as an undifferentiated mass:
When on high heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being
"Enuma Elish," Babylonian poem from the 18th century BC
 Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, "Some Preliminary Observations Concerning Praxeology Instead of an Introduction."