20 September 2006

On the Difficulty of Understanding Papyri

There seemed to be an elementary confusion in Patricia Curd's review of a recent book by Gábor Betegh on the Derveni papyrus (DP).

Here are two views:

(i) True belief leads to right conduct. Someone who understands the true doctrine of the cosmos as a consequence acts properly.

(ii) Right conduct leads to true belief. Someone who purifies himself by right conduct as a consequence will be able to grasp the true doctrine of the cosmos.
Which does the author of DP endorse? I haven't read the book, but from the review--if we accept Betegh's interpretation--one would guess (ii):

Betegh suggests that the Derveni author sees a link between cosmology and eschatology. Proper understanding leads to proper conduct. The lines of column 5 point to this:

Overcome by fault and by pleasure as well, they neither learn, nor believe. Disbelief and lack of understanding [?are the same thing]. For if they neither understand, nor do they learn, [it is not possible that they believe] even when they see . . .

Betegh explicates,

Moral betterment is a precondition both for piety and gain in knowledge about the divine. This assertion . . . can be taken as an intellectualised interpretation of the need for purification before initiation . . . as one gains knowledge about the divine, that is, as one understands the way the divinity governs the world, and hence takes up the correct cognitive attitude towards it, one naturally, by the same gesture, assumes faith in it as well. Piety and comprehension of the nature and functioning of the god are two aspects of the same state of mind.
Yet Curd goes on to speak as if what DP teaches is (i):
This view of the relation between understanding and religious piety is not peculiar to the Derveni author. It is present in Xenophanes, and in Heraclitus. ... In Xenophanes and Heraclitus, incomplete understanding of the nature of the gods and the cosmos leads to impious acts (or useless ones, especially in the case of Xenophanes). In Heraclitus, sound thinking is the greatest virtue (DK 22 B112), and he criticizes conventional religious practices insofar as those practices are based on wrongful understanding (B5, B14, and B15) [my emphasis]
I find it curious that Betegh devotes so little space to Empedocles. (There is a short discussion on pp. 370-372, at the very end of the last chapter.) In Empedocles we find exactly the sorts of connections that Betegh needs for his interpretation of the Derveni author's intentions. The new Strasbourg Empedocles material refutes the traditional view that Empedocles wrote a physical poem and a religious poem that have little to do with one another. [Curd at this point refers to her own excellent work on this topic, including a paper published in the BACAP Proceedings.] For Empedocles, genuine knowledge of cosmology is necessary for proper religious belief: knowledge is the key to understanding the Divine and living correctly through all the returns of one's daimon. [my emphasis]
A small point, perhaps. Yet someone who was wanting to be convinced that DP was philosophically interesting might wish for this at least to be made clear.

The next step, I suppose, would be to explain how the DP author might have thought that an upright life makes someone especially fit to grasp the deep truth, that Zeus castrated his father, swallowed his father's severed phallus, and then committed incest with his mother.