Hierarchy and Delphi


I heard an observation recently (can’t recall where) that came up during the president’s visit to the Middle East and Europe regarding the fight (you notice how automatically one falls into martial language) against terrorism, to wit that “the pope has connection to the Source Code, whereas Trump has connection only to the display.”  Or words to that effect.  The implication being that the pope is in a better position to deal with terrorists since he understands what can make them commit horrible actions while claiming to be part of a religious tradition.  He can be proactive, whereas Trump can be only reactive.

This got me thinking, naturally, about the Oracle of Delphi.  (Wouldn’t you?)  The way it has been explained is that there were a number of stages in the process of receiving a pronouncement from the god Apollo (“not many”), and that at each stage there is the possibility of error.¹  (Any similarity to the four stages of Plato’s Divided Line is probably not coincidental.)  They are:

Absolute=Apollo, the god itself, the changeless One, all possibilities, the source code, divine language
The Oracle= the mouthpiece for the Absolute, can read the source code, frequently incomprehensible (as is source code to most of us)
The priest=the interpreter of the oracle, translates the source code into the common language
The scribe=the historian of the oracle, the words, the poet, neatens the pronouncement into dactylic hexameter (or used to)

So you can see that there is a chain of trust here, and that there is also the great possibility for fraud.  It is a testament to the Oracular tradition that it lasted so long and was so revered by the Greeks.

It is analogous I think to the way scientific discoveries are made known.  No one denies that there are laws which govern the behavior of matter in the universe; we can call this the Source Code, and it can be substituted seamlessly for the Absolute.  Scientists spend their careers trying to discover and quantify this code, and then speak to each other in abstruse scientific journals about their discoveries.  And they have their own priests and scribes who take these discoveries and translate them into language that you and I can (or should) understand.  (Sometimes these are the same people: see Neil de Grasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.)

The words that are ultimately given by the oracle to the supplicant are often not what they wanted to hear, or are vague enough to cover a range of possible outcomes.  For example, in 480 BC, when Athens asked how to deal with the coming Persian invasion, the message was to put their trust in the “wooden wall.”  This was interpreted by Themistocles as being their naval fleet, which in fact did defeat the Persian fleet and saved the city.  (After a fashion: Athens was burned by the Persians, but they were able to rebuild.)

So we can see that putting a question to the oracle was a real leap of faith.  One had to have great trust that the oracle was a truth-speaker, and be prepared to follow her advice wherever it led.  Perhaps the main difference between the oracle and the pope is that the former was answering questions about specific situations, whereas the latter is bound by “papal infallibility;” in other words, he must not say anything to contradict any former popes and imply that they were wrong.  The pope is building a dogmatic tradition, a body of belief building on other persons, whereas the oracle is just giving advice.

But actually not just giving advice.  By coming to ask a question, a supplicant was reaffirming the connection of the individual to the god, although at several hierarchical steps removed.  It was an acknowledgement that each person can have access to the gods by following the proper rituals.  This idea lives on today, especially in the Protestant world of course, where each believer can pray directly to the Absolute.  But making a pilgrimage to Delphi required much more in the way of planning and resources, and was not done casually.  It usually required the resources of the whole demos; to believe that the question was sufficiently important, to sponsor the questioner for the months the journey would take, and to implement the action when he returned.  It was an implicit acknowledgement that there was a Source Code, and that it could be expressed in a form comprehensible to human beings.

The trouble arises when individuals try to claim the code for their own, when they stop seeing it as a universal principle on which the entire world runs, and try to justify their own limited interpretation.  When they use it as an ideology to create duality rather than unity.  Once this process has begun, there is no way to put it back in the bottle and it must just run its course, hopefully without too much destruction.

¹Or as Plutarch (who was for a time a priest of the Oracle) says:

I imagine that you are familiar with the saying found in Heraeleitus (sic) the effect that the Lord whose prophetic shrine is at Delphi neither tells nor conceals, but indicates. Add to these words, which are so well said, the thought that the god of this place employs the prophetic priestess for men’s ears just as the sun employs the moon for men’s eyes. For he makes known and reveals his own thoughts, but he makes them known through the associated medium of a mortal body and a soul that is unable to keep quietior (sic), as it yields itself to the One that moves it, to remain of itself unmoved and tranquil, but, as though tossed amid billows and enmeshed in the stirrings and emotions within itself, it makes itself more and more restless.  (De Phythiae Oraculis, section 21)