‘What daimōn drove you on?’

Understanding Divine and Human Agency in Ancient Greek Thought and Intellectual History


Alexandre Johnston (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa) [alexandre.johnston@sns.it]

Rebecca Van Hove (Collège de France/Université de Liège) [rebecca_vh@hotmail.com]

For most of history, people have considered both gods and humans to have the power to act in the world – to be agents capable of shaping the past, present and future. Often, they have also perceived future events as determined in advance, inevitable both for gods and humans. Ancient Greece was no exception: in many surviving texts, most notably in Homeric epic, Herodotus’ Histories and tragedy, events are regularly ascribed to human, divine and fatal agency, often juxtaposed in striking ways. Thus, Homer’s Patroclus claims to have been slain by a combination of gods, fate, and humans (Il. 16.845-50) while Aeschylus’ Orestes describes his imminent matricide as the work of his own hands and daimones (Cho. 436-7).


Scholars, theologians and philosophers have struggled to understand this apparent over-abundance of causes, particularly their relationship to one another and their implications for individual human responsibility. Since the mid-twentieth century, the dominant paradigm in classical studies has been that of “over-determination” (or “over-/double motivation”). E. R. Dodds borrowed over-determination from Freudian psychoanalysis to describe situations in which a supernatural agent accomplishes its purpose “indirectly” through the action of a “direct”, human agent. Albin Lesky used “double motivation” in his efforts to counter Bruno Snell’s claim that Homeric man lacked psychological agency, arguing instead that in Homer as in later Greek literature and thought, divine and human causation coalesced so that the human agent “appropriates” the divine purpose as his/her own.


Although these concepts are widely used, there has been no sustained attempt to examine them critically, or to unpack their roots in philosophical and theological debates on “free will” and the conflict between freedom and necessity. They are often used indiscriminately and there is little consensus on what they actually mean. The metaphor of “layers” or “threads” of causality (human, divine and/or fatalistic) is common, but what are we to do with these layers? Some scholars detach the human and divine strands and understand them as incompatible, a product of religious inconsistency; others rank them in order of importance, giving priority either to divine or to human explanations, thus seeing humans as hapless victims in a divinely staged play, or making them entirely responsible; others seek reconciliation, viewing events on the divine plane as an alternative expression of human psychology, inspired by the Heraclitean maxim ἦθος ἀνρθώπῳ δαίμων (DK B119). In discussing the fates of Achilles, Oedipus or Croesus, one or another view is often adopted tacitly, with a passing reference to the established theory of “double motivation”, but with little regard for the dramatic or rhetorical context at hand. Yet the implications are profound, both for our understanding of ancient religious thought, and for the interpretation of the foundational stories of Greek literature.


To many, “over-motivated” thinking seems to embroil Greek thought in irreducible contradictions, incomprehensible to the contemporary, secular mind. Yet today we remain adept at moving between different types of causal explanation, which range from the macro-level (e.g. cultural/social/economic forces in the “background”) to the micro-level (e.g. individual motives or unconscious psychological or neural dispositions and “trigger events”). Many people nevertheless retain strong intuitions about how to ascribe responsibility. While the interaction between different types of causal explanation in Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian literature has attracted a great deal of attention, these are issues that have to be negotiated by all cultures – both theist and secular – whether explicitly or implicitly.


This panel will bring together scholars from various disciplines (Classics, Ancient Near Eastern and Old Testament studies, Theology, Philosophy and Intellectual History) to consider the ways in which divine and human causality interacted in the ancient world, focusing on archaic and classical Greece, while also considering examples from ancient Near Eastern, Hebrew and Christian literature. It will also explore the intellectual history of thought about “over-motivation”, charting the ways in which people have approached these issues over the last five centuries, and exploring how these interpretations are entangled with more modern philosophical and theological concerns.


Papers which address the following questions are particularly welcome:

- How is the relationship between human and supernatural causation represented in Greek literature from Homer to Herodotus and Sophocles?

- What role do ideas of divine omnipotence and omniscience play in the treatment of human responsibility?

- What are the implications of divine intervention for human autonomy and responsibility? How does this affect our reading of the narratives in question?

- Do any particular authors or scenes provide clear indications of how the relationship between divine and human causation is to be understood?

- Can we generalize about Greek “over-motivated” thinking, or did authors play around with causality and responsibility, adopting different “theologies of causation” according to personal inclination and literary context?

- Can new approaches to ancient literature, such as cognitive theory and mind reading, shed light on interactions between human and divine agency? 

- How do ancient philosophers and theologians self-consciously reflect upon these issues? Do they view it as a problem, as modern scholarship does? Can their responses help us to understand epic, tragic and historical narratives?

- To what extent can the combination of divine and human agency in Greek literature be paralleled in other cultures and religions?

- How have later ideas – particularly Christian notions of “free will” and Idealist debates on freedom and necessity – influenced the reception of Greek causal thinking? To what extent do these later notions have their roots in Greek thought, and how do their proponents approach this Greek genealogy?

- Leaving aside divine/fatal causation, where else in ancient Greek thought can we see comparably “over-motivated” thinking about causality?

- What is the logical status of ancient “over-motivated” thinking? Are human, divine and fatalistic causation logically compatible or should this be chalked up as another example of the “irrationality” of religious thought?

- How comparable are more contemporary forms of “over-motivated” thinking, familiar to the modern, secular mind, with those of the ancient Greeks?

For Questions /  Contact us at: cech@ci.uc.pt

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