Monday, September 18, 2006

Cosmological convergence

Pelican contra Pelikan

«   A serendipitous interlude in the series, Genesis for the rest of us   »

The International Astronomical Union's fortuitous decision to name a dwarf planet after Eris, Greek goddess of discord, invites a brief discourse on the structural similarities between Eris's great mythological moment — the Judgment of Paris — and the two great temptation stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the fall of Adam and Eve and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Comparing these myths on equal footing suggests a universal hierarchy of moral attitudes toward human fallibility.

I freely admit that it seems odd for Jurisdynamics, a forum somewhat more closely attuned to genus Pelecanus than to Jaroslav Pelikan, to undertake this quest. But a cursory search of online sources reveals no effort to examine this instance of cosmological convergence. Someone ought to attempt to find the connection. Given this forum's desire to bridge naturalistic rationalism with romantic artistry, the task might as well fall to Jurisdynamics. I imagine that both Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner would approve.

In Greek mythology, the Judgment of Paris is at once culmination and commencement. The Olympic gods celebrated the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. But Eris was snubbed. In revenge, she threw a golden apple amid the celebrants. This Apple of Discord was inscribed, καλλίστῃ, "for the fairest."

Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple. Zeus, as wise as he was divine, punted the task to Paris, a mortal and a son of King Priam of Troy. All three of the goddesses came before Paris on Mount Ida. Each tempted Paris:
  • Hera offered to make Paris king of all Europe and all Asia.
  • Athena offered as much wisdom as the mortal mind could comprehend.
  • Aphrodite simply offered Paris the world's most beautiful woman.
Paris could not resist Aphrodite's bribe. The world's most beautiful woman was Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Aphrodite won the golden apple. Paris got Helen, the hatred of all Greece, and the divine wrath of Hera. Thus began the Trojan War.

For its part, the temptation of Christ is recounted in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke:

Temptation of Christ1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit 2 for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." 4 And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone.'" 5 And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours." 8 And Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'" 9 And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,' 11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" 12 And Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Matthew tells essentially the same story, but inverts the order of the second and third temptations (angels first, then kingdoms). For reasons I am about to make clear, I prefer Luke's order.

In concert, the Judgment of Paris and the Temptation of Christ set forth a hierarchy of physical, political, intellectual, and spiritual frailty:

PhysicalAphrodite: beautiful woman (i.e., sexual selection and reproductive success)Stone to bread (i.e., natural selection and survival)Esau, Rake's Progress, Paris
PoliticalHera: kingdoms of Europe and AsiaSatan also offers kingdomsEssentially all of law and political science
IntellectualAthena: wisdomFrom Genesis: forbidden fruit confers knowledge of good and evil and promises to make Eve and Adam "as gods"Eve, Nimrod, Faust
SpiritualCorrupt gods who unleash Eris, shuffle responsibility onto Paris, and ultimately let Greek and Trojan mortals sufferSatan's challenge that Jesus cast himself down and invoke the help of angelsOlympic gods, Satan

The story of Eris and the Judgment of Paris, relative to the stories of Eve's and Christ's temptations, comes closer to expressing the modal existence of humanity. The simplest temptations — those related to survival and reproduction — suffice to ensnare the vast mass of humanity. Those who prefer Hera to Aphrodite are the powermongers, with few exceptions the primary work of law. Succumbing to third-order temptation — intellectual temptation — comes dangerously close to aspiring to divinity. For this sin Eve and Adam are reduced to the basal level of seeking succor, sustenance, and sexual release — the very opposite of the divine knowledge of good and evil they had sought by eating forbidden fruit. The final form of temptation, spiritual, is so far beyond human reach that both Greek and Judeo-Christian mythology allow only superhuman creatures (the Olympic gods, Satan) to engage this sort of temptation and ultimately to succumb to it.

Image courtesy of the AbleOne Educational Network
This hierarchy of human temptations may explain why law seems so out of touch at once with the modal condition of humanity (physical temptation) and with humanity's highest attainable aspirations (intellectual, perhaps even spiritual, temptation). At our best we resemble Eve; for the most part, we do no better than Paris. But I freely admit that this impression may well grow from my considered belief, reached after nearly two decades of working in this discipline, that law severed from considerations of survival and reproductive success (on one hand) and from higher aesthetic aspirations (on the other) can scarcely inform our understanding of human yearnings and failures. As Paris readily — and rightly — understood, Hera fell far shorter than did her rival goddesses of deserving the title of "The Fairest," or καλλίστῃ.

Editor's note: This series continues with part 6, Three strikes.


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