Saturday, January 10, 2015


Who is Responsible?

Denys L. Page (1908-1978), History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), pp. 301-302:
In most of the transactions of his life Homeric man felt no need to philosophize about causes and effects. It was only in exceptional circumstances, and especially when things went wrong, that questions of responsibility arose; and the question was answered in uncommonly clear and consistent terms. There were obvious reasons why man could not be held accountable for unwise actions, for conduct contrary to his own interest, such as might involve breach of the code of honour or law. Such things are done under the influence of emotions which take possession of the mind, destroying the judgement; and if you ask, who put the madness into the mind, who created those emotions, the answer must be that it was not man who was the creator of his mind. Thoughts and emotions come into the mind, whether suddenly or slowly, as if from outside; man does not acknowledge, because he does not feel, any personal responsibility for their coming. There is therefore no choice but to assign to supernatural agency what cannot be explained in rational terms. There are in the world so many things which man did not create and does not control: in the sphere of human conduct, for example, the results of an action often turn out to be different from what the action was designed to achieve; responsibility for the actual results, in such a case, cannot be assigned to the human agent, whose intention has been frustrated. What no man has done must be ascribed to superman. Man does not create his own madness: nor can he foresee the consequences of what he does, however sane. The creator and foreseer must be outside and beyond him: in the last resort, they are embodied in the supreme power of the universe, in the will of Zeus. It is only Zeus who can foresee the results of all or any actions; and foreknowledge of course implies prearrangement. This is the heart and soul of Homeric thought: that the life of man proceeds in conformity with a prearranged plan; each has his Moira, his share in the scheme of things, his allotted portion. He can only do what destiny has predetermined for him; and only Zeus knows what that is, or whither it will lead. The ultimate responsibility for all actions lies not with man but with the agency which assigned his destiny to him; and the workings of his destiny within the individual may be uncomfortable and inconsistent,—even the wisest is exposed to the sudden access of supernatural passions which invade his understanding and take possession of it.

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