According to the philosopher Eric Voegelin, there are no more than four fundamental modes of theoretical speculation. Voegelin identifies these four fundamental modes as: cosmogony, anthropogony, theogony, and historiogenesis. These modes speak, respectively, of the genesis of the universe, the genesis of human beings, the genesis of the divine, and the genesis of society. Unsurprisingly, modern science speaks to these four respective fields of speculation. But yet it is unable to unify them all into a meaningful whole. Consider modern science’s fragmentary four:
First, the Big Bang is how modern science grasps cosmogony.
Second, evolution is how modern science grasps anthropogony.
Third, quantum field theory is interpreted by some as a scientific explanation that could replace God. Quantum field theory, on this interpretation, functions as a comprehensive theogony in which a mathematical “God” plays dice so that the universe can self-create its own existence by way of a multiverse of possibilities.
Fourth, modern intercultural historiography has discerned that every culture likes to think of itself as central to world history: every culture composes myths that reduce history to a linear narrative; moreover, in that linear narrative, the narrating culture gets to play the starring role. This fourth genre of speculation is the peculiar genre of myth that Voegelin dubbed “historiogenesis.”
But if modern science’s approach is thusly fragmented, what can we learn from the ancients about how to unify our theoretical speculations? If we take Hesiod’s poetic cosmology, as a prime example, we may see how, unlike the necessarily fragmented narratives of modern science, Hesiod embraces all four fields of theoretical speculation. In particular, we see how Hesiod integrates the four modes into a meaningful whole by focusing on human psychology.
Hesiod’s historiogenesis of “the ages of man” tells a tale of masculinity developing through the golden age, the silver age, the bronze age, the heroic age (the age in which human women suddenly appear), and the iron age. In contrast, Hesiod’s cosmogony is a tale of female parthenogenesis that takes us from the embryonic void, to the big bang of feminine Gaia, who is then succeeded by Eros.
Both of these modes, historiogenesis and cosmogony, via their respective masculine and feminine symbols, are the backdrop to the Hesiodic theogony in supplying its gender-themed inner motivation: the competitive battle between fathers and sons over the appropriate role of wives in the cosmos. The Hesiodic theogony ends with the justice of Zeus making room for the equal intelligence of the feminine.
The anthropogony of Prometheus’ theft of fire from Zeus focuses on Prometheus’s felix culpa which symbolizes the central role of competition in human affairs. We learn that competition is held in check only by Zeus’ design of the complementarity of the sexes. For it is only that complementarity, Hesiod implies, which can defuse the mimetic undifferentiation of the wildfire competition in the first three ages. Zeus thereby ushers in the heroic age.
But the iron age and the heroic age, i.e., our time and the time of our ancestors, are nevertheless ambiguous times. True, Pandora is the crown of creation, but her womb is the jar that can unleash children who bring evil, in the very same sense as they do in the Theogony, where Zeus had to engage in Oedipal rivalry for kingship.
Uniting historiogenesis with anthropogony, Hesiod’s ages of man symbolize the evolution of consciousness of an individual male through the stages of life: golden = infant; silver = adolescent; bronze = angry young man; heroic = just married; and iron = old age in which, after life’s honeymoon stage is long past, one muses on justice, both human and divine.
Uniting cosmogony with anthropogony, when Hesiod gives what seems to be a primitive physical description of cosmogony, he is really describing four stages of human experience: first, being in the womb (the Void); second, being born (aware only of mother, Gaia); third, experiencing mother’s absence (Tartarus, the state of deprivation of the surface—i.e., the physical appearance—of broad-breasted Earth); and fourth, finally acquiring, by experiencing the desire for mother’s return, the experience of oneself as an individual apart from the mother. The eros of this fourth stage is thus distinctively personal; i.e., desire is mine. Anybody’s personal narrative thus shows every individual as a veritable microcosm of the macrocosm found on the cosmogonic surface of Hesiod’s narrative:
First of all, Chaos (the Void)
came spontaneously into being. But then came
the broad-breasted Earth (Gaia).
She is ever the steadfast abode for those
immortals who live on the peak
of snowcapped Olympus.
Then came dark Tartarus (the Underworld)
underneath the ground’s wide path.
Then came Eros (Desire), who is
the most beautiful of the immortal gods.
She loosens limbs.
For all gods, for all humans,
heartfelt Desire subdues
even earnest intent and careful deliberation.
(Hesiod, Theogony 116–122, trans. C.S. Morrissey)
But Hesiod’s poem does not begin with this cosmogony. Before this passage, Hesiod had begun his poem with Mount Helicon and the Olympians, in a story that culminated in telling of Zeus’s intercourse with Mnemosyne. This is the theogonic event that generated the Muses.
The traditional formulaic invocation of the Muses which we find, for example, in Homer, is here in Hesiod transformed into a symbolic depiction of the theogonic role of song. Hesiod’s musical prelude to the genesis of all of creation may then be taken to unite all his other speculations because of the supremely transcendent origin of song:
The Story of the Muses; or, Nine Carefree Nights
You, O Muses of Olympus, are
the daughters of Zeus, who holds the aegis.
In Pieria, she lay with your father,
Zeus, and she gave birth,
she, your mother, Memory (Mnemosyne).
Guarding the fields of Freedom (Eleuther),
she lay with him to forget her troubles
and to take a break from all her cares.
For nine nights, strategic Zeus
(he made good use of his time) lay with her,
far away from the immortals.
In the sacred bed, he made his ascent.
But then the year went on.
The seasons turned, around
the passing months. A length of days
She gave birth to nine daughters. Like her in mind,
only for the song in their hearts
do they care. They do not carry
a competitive spirit weighted with cares.
(Hesiod, Theogony 52–61, trans. C.S. Morrissey)
Voegelin comments on this passage:
“For Hesiod, the source of truth about reality, to be sure, is divine figures, the Muses. But the Muses are not the Olympian gods; they are generated by Zeus, far from the Olympians, in his union with Mnemosyne. The source of the truth is trans-Olympian and the Zeus who generates the Muses is himself a god who has been born although he does not die. Moreover, what the Muses sing about the reality that includes the gods is sung primarily not to men but to the gods themselves, and especially to a Zeus who seems to be not quite conscious of his powers and position as the divine ordering force in reality. For Hesiod, Zeus is no god unless there is a divine reality Beyond the gods.” (Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966–1985, 392)
On the one hand, the divine reality beyond the Greek gods is thus a monotheistic reality: the One whom we would recognize as the one true God of the Bible. Zeus and the gods of myth correspond, on the other hand, to the role of the angels in creation. In this role, the war between the good and evil spirits (angels and demons) is a titanic struggle echoed, and refracted with partial rays of truth, in mythical literature, like that of the account in Hesiod’s Theogony of a war in heaven.
Hesiod has many speculative insights in his poetic philosophical theology, but most interesting of all is his insistence on the unifying role of song in creation. For Hesiod, song is the supremely divine framework in which the angelic drama can be told. That drama is the story of good winning the battle against evil.
The cosmic truth about creation, it seems, can only be fully intimated in the song of the poet who unites all modes of speculation with this one overarching vision. For it is only in such a song that the fragmentary modes of theoretical speculation can be made into a whole. The whole cannot be truly and entirely represented with anything less than the whole story.
This essay was originally published in The Imaginative Conservative on November 25, 2015.