Appendix 2: Epicureanism & The Problem of Evil.

a) Epicureanism is named after the Greek philosopher Epicurus (c.341-270 BC). His works are now mostly lost, but his ideas are preserved in the works of other authors, notably the Roman poet Lucretius (c.99-55 BC), in his De Rerum Natura (translated literally as “Of the Nature of Things”, but sometimes as “Of the Nature of the Universe”.) Epicureanism is often confused with Hedonism and the “live for today” pursuit of pleasure, but actually this is a distortion of it: Epicurus advocated that the job of philosophy was to maximise the good and positive things in life (which of course does include the pursuit of pleasure) and to minimise the bad and negative – this last including not only freeing mankind from bodily pain and suffering, but also from the tyranny of superstitious fears and exploitation by priesthoods (an idea which resurfaced with devastating effect during the French Revolution, of course!) Many Epicurean ideas to be found in Lucretius certainly do foreshadow sentiments to be found in The Rubaiyat – principally that the gods, if they exist at all (5.1161f), take no part in the day to day running of the universe (2.1090f; 5.146f), which is, in effect, a machine running according to set, impersonal laws; also that the Universe is too full of imperfections to have been created by truly divine powers (5.195f). This materialistic outlook teaches that the universe of the senses is all there is (1.418f); that body, mind and spirit are inextricably linked (3.323f, 396f, 558f; 5.132f) – that they are born together (3.670f), develop together, decline together (3.445f), and finally die together (3.591-4); that there is therefore no life after death, just as there is no life before conception (3.864-9); and that the only Hell is created by ourselves here on Earth (3.978f) – it does not exist in some mysterious realm after death. Finally, on this earthly plane, simple pleasures are ultimately of as much worth as riches (2.20f); that it is therefore better to be humble than to be a king (5.1105f); and that death comes to kings just as it does to the rest of us (3.1024f.) Parallels for all of these things are readily to be found in The Rubaiyat, though there is much more to De Rerum Natura than this, for Lucretius, following Epicurus, also foreshadowed much modern science. For example, he posited the existence of atoms (1.497f) of a finite number of types (2.478f; cf. the Periodic Table of the Elements); he theorised that space is infinite (1.958f); that perhaps the universe as a whole is eternal, but that its present form may not be (5.235f, 351f); and his primeval “hurricane” (Ronald Latham’s translation of “nova tempestas”; 5.432f) even has a hint of the Big Bang Theory about it! Also interesting are his ideas on the plurality of worlds (2.1048f) and his recognition of the evolution and extinction of species (5.837f.) However his Epicurean reliance on reason and “common sense” – particularly his reliance on the evidence supplied by the five senses – as the best tools for unravelling the nature of things, does sometimes lead him astray – as, for example, with the spontaneous generation of animals (5.795f); with his idea that the diurnal revolution of the heavens may be powered by winds (5.509f); and that the Sun and Moon must be about as big as they appear to be (5.564f.) That the Earth is flat, stationary and situated at the centre of the Universe, with the Sun, Moon, Planets and Stars circling around it is, of course, the prime example of faulty common sense!

As a classically educated 19th century English gentleman, FitzGerald was, of course, very familiar with Lucretius, and even translated some for his own pleasure (I.601–603), saying that he found “whole pages of sad and grand thought and music, which make me like him more than any of the Latin poets” (I.607), but that it was all “not very Christian reading” (I.612). In a letter written at the end of 1867 (III.75), when he was talking about the forthcoming 2nd edition of The Rubaiyat, FitzGerald drew a parallel between Omar Khayyam and Lucretius: “Not that the Persian has anything at all new: but he has dared to say it, as Lucretius did.” 

Those with a taste for the curious might like to search out W. H. Mallock’s little book Lucretius on Life and Death in the Metre of Omar Khayyam (1910). The following verse (section 7, verse 4, p.41) is neat, and would surely have appealed to both Omar and FitzGerald:

Even if there lurk behind some veil of sky
The fabled Maker, the immortal Spy,
Ready to torture each poor life he made,
Thou canst do more than God can – thou canst die.

b) But getting back to Epicurus himself, rather than Lucretius, the so–called Riddle of Epicurus (otherwise known as the Problem of Evil) also foreshadows sentiments expressed in The Rubaiyat.

The term Evil here encompasses many things. Why does God allow natural disasters to occur which indiscriminately wipe out the lives of thousands at one fell swoop? After all, God must know that these events are going to happen, and yet he does nothing to avert them. Why did God create wasting diseases like motor neurone disease, senile dementia and innumerable varieties of cancer? Indeed, why does death even exist – why did God decree that we should be born only to die, and thence (as the Biblical Prophets so charmingly put it – eg Isaiah 14.11) to become the food of worms? Why so often in life do the wicked seem to prosper and the innocent to suffer? Why does God allow dictatorship, genocide and enslavement? After all, the perpetrators of these heinous crimes are God’s creation too! This leads to the associated Problem of Sin. In Christianity there are traditionally Seven Deadly Sins, and yet God created man knowing full well that he would commit all of them, and have to suffer Divine Punishment as a result. What form of Justice is that?

In The Rubaiyat, of course, FitzOmar repeatedly alludes to the baffling problem of Death (see particularly verses 61 & 62). He also alludes, in verse 63, to the problem posed by God’s creation of deformity. More noticeably, though, he is concerned with the paradox of God’s creation of Sin; that God has created traps that He knows we will fall into (verse 57).

But getting back to The Riddle of Epicurus,the Riddle is not to be found in Lucretius, but in a work by the early Christian author Lactantius (c.240-320AD), entitled On the Wrath of God (Chapter 13). The Riddle is also to be found, slightly earlier, in a work by the author Sextus Empiricus (c.160-210 AD) entitled Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Book 3, Chapter 3) (though the argument is not here attributed to Epicurus.) The Riddle is this: if there is evil in the world there are four possibilities: a) that God wants to banish that evil, but is unable to do so; b) that God doesn’t want to banish that evil, but would be able to do so if he wanted; c) that God doesn’t want to eliminate that evil, and would be unable to do so even if he did want to; and d) that God wants to eliminate that evil, and is able to eliminate it. The first three possibilities lead to unpalatable conclusions about God: a) that He is weak; b) that He is spiteful in some way; and c) that He is both spiteful and weak. As for d), if that is true, why does he not get rid of that evil? Why is it still here? Why is God allowing it?

The answer which Lanctantius gives to the Problem of Evil is that God is able to remove evil from the world, but that He chooses not to, because He has given Man wisdom by which to combat evil, and it is only through the use of that wisdom that Man can truly come to know God and attain immortality. Unless we experience evil, we are unable to appreciate good, and therefore unable fully to know God. (Compare the views of Rabbi ben Ezra in Appendix 8.) Voltaire, for one, was unimpressed by Lactantius’ solution, for, as he said in his entry “All is Good” in his Philosophical Dictionary, it rather assumes that God could only create wisdom by producing evil!

Lactantius’ solution to the Problem of Evil is only one of many offered. Some have attributed Evil to the Fall of Adam and Eve – human beings are deserving of punishment for their Original Sin, but nevertheless they can achieve redemption through Christ. This is all very well, but it does have us all being punished for our primeval ancestors’ sins, which sins God would have foreseen anyway, and this hardly seems just! Others have theorised that Evil arises from Man’s mis-use of God’s gift of free-will; evil has to be there for Man freely to choose good over evil; but that eventually Man will overcome evil, through Christ, and will thereby come to know and be at one with God. This too is all very well, in that it explains some of the world’s ills, but it hardly justifies a child being born with some fatal disease which will kill it within weeks; against which it is powerless; and before it has even had time to develop either free-will or wisdom, let alone use them! Another strand of thought is that the way we cope with the evils of this life is the way we earn our blessings in the life to come. This still leaves the terminally ill child as a seeming injustice, but a) the death of the child is an evil for the parents to cope with; b) the child does not have to suffer the evils of an adult life and goes, instead, “straight to the arms of Jesus”; and c) who is to say that what mere Man sees as an ‘evil’ is not for some indefinable good in the long term? (Compare Seneca’s thoughts in the notes on verse 63.) Many would see this as taking refuge in that old, and often unconvincing, adage that “God moves in mysterious ways”, but it is an answer of sorts, for why should God’s Plan be necessarily understandable to mere Man? Does it not show lack of faith – and thus virtue – to question it?

Whatever solution is offered by theologians, a blanket term for which is theodicy, the end result is to absolve God of the responsibility for Evil, and to shift the responsibility onto Man, or to absolve God by blaming the problem on Man’s failure to understand God’s Plan. This, of course, satisfies the theologians and the devout, but has a tendency to leave the rest of us – FitzOmar included – somewhat unconvinced.

A good example of the literature of theodicy is the Biblical Book of Job. Here, Job is represented as the archetype of the perfect and upright man, who both fears God and eschews evil (1.1 & 1.8). But at the prompting of Satan (1.9 ff & 2.4 ff), God allows various evils to be inflicted on Job, in order to demonstrate to Satan that Job has true faith. Job, then, typifies those whose faith is severely tested by the undeserved evils of this world – he asks why God is doing this to him (7.20; 10.2; 13.23); why God is treating him like some sort of enemy (19.11); and why God seems to allow the wicked to prosper but the innocent to suffer (9.24; 21.7.) The theological arguments against such complaints, by which God’s mysterious ways are ‘justified’ to Man, are represented by the various rejoinders to Job’s complaints, made by his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, and also, when they fall silent, by the young man Elihu. When couched in Biblical language, these rejoinders sound austere, but actually in many ways they are quite amusing, as, for example, when Zophar tells Job that, in effect, he shouldn’t complain so much as God is probably punishing him less than he deserves (11.6)! Or again, when Eliphaz tells Job that it is actually impious of him to complain to God at all (15.4-6) – to which Job replies that his friends are “miserable comforters” (16.2), asking them if they would still have the same attitude if they were doing all the suffering(16.4)! Of course, the Book of Job, unlike real life, does end happily: Job admits to having misunderstood God’s more mysterious ways (42.3), repents “in dust and ashes” (42.6), and has his fortunes restored twofold (42.10).

For an unusual look at theodicy, see Rev. R. Gregg, God is Love: a Theodicy in Verse (1904), an account of which can be found in Appendix 12f. For the related theological problems posed by the evils of the First World War, see Appendix 18.

c) Islam has similarly had to come to terms with the Problem of Evil, positing that evil only occurs in the absence of God – God is responsible for Good, but Evil is the absence of Good, and therefore the absence of God. But why does a good God allow this? The answer is: to test our worthiness (cf “some strict Testing of us” in verse 64.).Those who seemingly have everything, but do not use it to help others, less fortunate, in this world, will get their come-uppance in the next world, but those who bear their suffering in this world and yet retain their faith in God, will reap their rewards in the next world.See, for example, the articles “Good and Evil” and “Trial” in Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (2006), p.108-113;also the article “Persecution” in Oliver Leaman, The Qur’an – an Encyclopedia (2006), particularly p.493 thus:

“Therefore according to a normal interpretation of the Qur’an, it does not matter how much a person suffers in this world, as long as he or she is engaged, as far as they can be, in avoiding evil and furthering good. The joys and comforts of the life yet to come are greater, unparalleled and everlasting in comparison with the human sufferings of this life. The human sufferings of this present life are termed ‘a trial’ – a test, an evaluation and a validation to measure the success and strength of each human soul, its capacity to do good deeds. So, according to the Qur’an, all the negative events that we may have to go through in this life are actually tests and trials from God. If we pass the test by holding on to our faith and remaining patient, showing complete trust in God during the period of suffering, and we continue to do good deeds, and avoid evil thoughts and actions, then the end result is that God grants us boundless rewards in the next life.”

For Omar Khayyam’s philosophical work on the Problem of Evil, see Aminrazavi (as note 1h, p.35 & p.172-175.) As Aminrazavi points out, it is “interesting and ironic” that Omar the Philosopher absolves God, whereas Omar the Poet  accuses him, this contradiction leading to the suspicion that maybe there are two Omars involved.

d) Christianity and Islam have had to grapple with the Problem of Evil simply because their God is supreme, and though the Devil is responsible for much evil in the world, the Devil, as a Fallen Angel, is also one of God’s creations! Zoroastrianism suffers no such problem, for it accepts that Good, in the form of the god Ormuzd, and Evil, in the form of the god Ahriman, are coeval. That is, Ahriman is not a fallen creation of Ormuzd, but a deity in his own right. The world is thus seen as a battle-ground of these two opposing gods, it being believed that eventually, Ormuzd will triumph. See Walter Crane’s painting “Ormuzd and Ahriman” in Gallery 3D, Fig.5.

e) An interesting example of theodicy is provided by the Greek myth of Pandora. There are various versions of the story, but basically the world’s evils were trapped in a box which Pandora had been forbidden to open. Her feminine curiosity got the better of her, though, and she opened the box, thus releasing all the enclosed evils into the world to plague mankind. In other words, responsibility for the world’s evils is shifted from the Gods to Man – or rather, to Woman. It is interesting that in Genesis 3.6 the Fall of Man is also effectively a result of a woman’s curiosity – Eve’s curiosity about the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen.2.17).

Another curious case of shifting the blame onto Woman is provided by a story of the Blackfoot Indians of North America. The story is to be found in George Bird Grinnell's book Blackfoot Lodge Tales, originally published in 1892, though I here reference the 1972 reprint of it. In the story, Na'pi (Old Man) is effectively the Creator, who travels around making the mountains, prairies, rivers and so forth, until one day he decides to create a Woman and Child - from clay, as in so many myths to be found around the world (see the notes on verse 36.) After four days, the Woman and Child come to life, and they walk down to the river with the Old Man:

"As they were standing by the river, the woman said to him, 'How is it? will we always live, will there be no end to it?' He said, 'I have never thought of that. We will have to decide it. I will take this buffalo chip and throw it in the river. If it floats, when people die, in four days they will become alive again; they will die for only four days. But if it sinks, there will be an end to them.' He threw the chip in the river, and it floated. The woman turned and picked up a stone, and said, 'No, I will throw this stone in the river; if it floats, we will always live; if it sinks, people must die, that they may always be sorry for each other.' The woman threw the stone into the water, and it sank. 'There,' said the Old Man, 'you have chosen. There will be an end to them.'" (p.98-9)

Thus Woman becomes responsible for the permanence of Death!

f) There are a number of very ancient examples of theodicy,and complaints about the apparent injustices of the gods, to be found among the prayers of the ancient near east. In what follows, references are to Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament, hereafter ANET, edited by J.B.Pritchard (1969).

In a Sumero-Akadian “Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar”, a supplicant complains of his personal suffering despite his piety:

I am beaten down, and so I weep bitterly.
With “Oh” and “Alas” my spirit is distressed.
I – what have I done, O my god and my goddess?
Like one who does not fear my god and my goddess
I am treated. (ANET p.384)

Again, in a Hittite Prayer dating from the 14th century BC, one of the “Plague Prayers of Mursilis”, we read of the bewilderment of King Mursilis at the gods allowing a terrible plague to happen:

“What is this that ye have done? A plague ye have let into the land…..For twenty years now men have been dying…When I celebrated festivals, I worshipped all the gods, I never preferred one temple to another…But the gods did not hearken to me and the plague got no better in the Hatti land.” (ANET p.394-5)

Even the idea that the sins of the father are visited upon the sons is not new. Later in the same prayer the King says:

“Hattian Storm-god, my lord, (and) ye gods, my lords! It is only too true that man is sinful. My father sinned and transgressed against the word of the Hattian Storm-god, my lord. But I have not sinned in any respect. It is only too true, however, that the father’s sin falls upon the son. So, my father’s sin has fallen upon me.” (ANET p.395)

The King ends his prayer by appealing to the gods to let him know the reason for their displeasure, so that he can take steps to set it right – “either let me see it in a dream, or

let it be found out by an oracle, or let a prophet declare it, or let all the priests find out by incubation whatever I suggest to them.” (ANET p.396)

Another good example is the Akkadian text known as “I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”, which is in many ways a precursor of the Book of Job, discussed in b above. The hero of the poem complains:

I look around me: evil upon evil!
My affliction increases, right I cannot find.
I implored the god, but he did not turn his countenance;
I prayed to my goddess, but she did not raise her head (ANET p.434)

His suffering is apparently the result of disease:

The alu (disease, demon) has clothed himself with my body as with a garment.
Like a net, sleep has covered me.
My eyes stare without seeing.
My ears are open without hearing.
Faintness has seized my whole body. (p.435)

And yet:

No god helped, (none) seized my hand;
My goddess showed no mercy, she did not come to my side. (p.435)

He cannot understand this, since he has led a pious life of prayer and supplication, with appropriate sacrifices to the gods. Yet it seems that

What is good in one’s sight is evil for a god.
What is bad in one’s own mind is good for his god.
Who can understand the counsel of the gods in the midst of heaven? (p.435)

The hero, though, recognises that mere man can never understand the gods:

The plan of a god is deep waters, who can comprehend it?
Where has befuddled mankind ever learned what a god’s conduct is? (p.435)

He retains his faith in the face of despair, though, and in this instance, as in Job’s, the hero’s faith is justified, for after a sequence of dreams promising deliverance, the god Marduk cures him: “The root of the sickness he pulled out like a plant.” (p.436)The text ends in a fragmentary state, but its final message is a clear triumph for the gods: “glorify Marduk!” (p.437)[A good account of this poem, under the title “The Righteous Sufferer”, can also be found in H. & H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy (1964), p.227ff. A related Akkadian text can be found in ANET p.596-600.]

Finally, a section of “The Babylonian Theodicy” is typical of ancient man’s puzzlement at the mysterious ways of heaven:

Those who do not seek the god go the way of prosperity,
While those who pray to the goddess become destitute and impoverished.
In my youth I tried to find the will of my god;
With prostration and prayer, I sought my goddess.
But I was pulling a yoke in a useless corvée.
My god decreed poverty instead of wealth (for me).
A cripple does better than I, a dullard keeps ahead of me.
The rogue has been promoted, but I have been brought low. (ANET p.602)

Interested readers might like to pursue the “Sumerian variation on the ‘Job’ motif” (ANET p.589-591) and the cheerily titled, “Dialogue about Human Misery”, sometimes called “the Babylonian Ecclesiastes” (ANET p.438-440.)

Our last example of ancient thought comes from Philip Freund's book Myths of Creation (1964), and it deals in a very unusual way with those bodily and mental imperfections which the gods seem to inflict on the innocent for no apparent reason. (These days we would put them down to genetics, of course, but then since the gods are responsible for that too, the theological problem remains!) The account is Sumerian , and Freund tells us that "it has only recently been discovered and translated." Unfortunately, he doesn't give a source for it, and at the time of writing I am unaware of one. Be that as it may, Freund's account reads thus:

"The Goddess of the Primeval Sea, like the other deities, is tired of having to work for her daily food. Why not use clay to fashion a race of men who can serve them? Then the gods need never work any more.

The heavenly clan carry out their task at a drunken banquet. Nimnah (sic), Mother Earth, tries her hand and shapes six unsuccessful types of human beings: one is a woman who cannot give birth, and another a creature who is sexless. Enki, God of the Sea and Wisdom, grows angry at these failures and takes the clay in his fingers but turns out a creature weak in body and spirit, which explains why the world is full of misfits. This still does not satisfy the inebriated gods, and a long dispute follows, after which the creation of man is finally accomplished." (p.93)

The creation of Man from Clay is a familiar theme, of course (see the notes on verse 36), and indeed Freund's chapter, in which the above account occurs, is entitled "From Magic Clay". The link with FitzGerald's verse 63 - "What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?" - is striking, and needs no elaboration. [Note: Though I have been unable to find a book or journal source for Freund's account, a version of the myth can be found on the website:]

g) Many Omarian parallels from Classical Literature can be found in the main essay and in the verse by verse Notes on FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, but there are many more ancient examples. Just as we find notions of theodicy in the ancient world, as exemplified in section f above, so too we find Omarian / Epicurean scepticism about life after death, plus carpe diem thoughts, which long pre-date the likes of Horace, let alone Omar. Here we concentrate on parallels from ancient Egypt and Babylonia, beginning with a so-called Harper’s Song, the original of which dates from perhaps as early as 2000 BC. This particular one – the Harper’s Song from the Tomb of King Intef – was innovative in that it broke away from the traditional Harper’s Song, whose purpose was, in the words of Miriam Lichtheim, “to sing a praise of death and of the tomb, and to reassure the owner of the tomb about his fate.” (Ancient Egyptian Literature (2006), vol.1: the Old and Middle Kingdoms, p.193.) Instead of following the traditional model, though, this song “lamented the passing of life and urged enjoyment of life while it lasts” and “went so far as to cast doubt on the reality of the afterlife and on the usefulness of tombs.” Whoever wrote this song, then, was the Omar of his day.

The Song begins by noting that one generation must pass to make way for the next; that Kings and Nobles lie in their tombs, but where are they who built those tombs? Gone – and where to? The writer of the Song says that he has listened to the words of the wise in these matters, but where are they now? They are gone too – their houses have crumbled away, and it is as if they had never been! As for the life beyond, in a clear precursor of FitzOmar we read: “None comes from there, / To tell of their state, / To tell of their needs, / To calm our hearts, / Until we go where they have gone!” (ib. p.196) So, the writer of the song urges us, why not live for today: “Follow your heart as long as you live! / Put myrrh on your head, / Dress in fine linen, / Anoint yourself with oils fit for a god” (no mention of drinking wine here, though!), for when Death comes, complaining won’t do you any good, for Death listens to no-one. The Song’s refrain is worth quoting: “Make holiday, / Do not weary of it! / Lo, none is allowed to take his goods with him, / Lo, none who departs comes back again!” (ib.p.197)

But if the living are not urged to drink wine in the foregoing song, they are in another song which Lichtheim quotes in her commentary (ib.p.195): “I have wept, I have mourned! / O all people, remember getting drunk on wine, / With wreaths and perfume on your heads!” And just as Omar’s verses were regarded as impious, so too were these sceptical Harper’s Songs, for they generated rejoinders which poured scorn on “extolling life on earth” and “belittling the land of the dead.” (ib.p.195) [For more on Harper’s Songs, see also the Song from the Tomb of Neferhotep in Lichtheim vol.2 (the New Kingdom), p.115-6; also Lichtheim’s article “The Songs of the Harpers” in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol.4, No.3 (July 1945), p.178-212, and Edward F. Wente’s article, “Egyptian ‘Make Merry’ Songs Reconsidered” in the same journal, vol.21, No.2 (April 1962), p.118-128. The Song of Intef also appears in ANET p.467.]

Much later than the above is the Stela of Taimhotep, a monument set up by her husband when she died at the age of only thirty in 42 BC. Mostly the text recounts the events of her life (it is sometimes referred to as the Autobiography of Taimhotep), but it contains the following plea to her husband to live his life to the full, even though she is gone:

Oh my brother, my husband,
Friend, high priest!
Weary not of drink and food,
Of drinking deep and loving!
Celebrate the holiday,
Follow your heart day and night,
Let not care into your heart,
Value the years spent on earth!

The land of the dead, she says, is a land of sleep and darkness, and “those who are there sleep in their mummy-forms” – they do not wake up to see their brothers, fathers, and mothers, and their hearts have forgotten their wives and children. As for Death:

All those that he calls to him
Come to him immediately,
Their hearts afraid through dread of him.
Of gods or men no one beholds him,
Yet great and small are in his hand,
None restrains his finger from all his kin.
He snatches the son from his mother
Before the old man who walks by his side;
Frightened they all plead before him,
He turns not his ear to them.
He comes not to him who prays for him,
He hears not him who praises him…

The translation is again from Lichtheim, vol.3 (the Late Period), p.62–3.

As regards the closing of “youth’s sweet scented manuscript”, now, in chapter 12 of the main essay I quoted Mark Twain’s Age – A Rubaiyat, and its classical precursor, Juvenal’s 10th Satire, on the subject of old age. But long before even Juvenal, the same complaints were made in The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, the original of which perhaps dates from as early as 2200 BC. With old age, the text complains, “Feebleness came, weakness grows, / Childlike one sleeps all day. / Eyes are dim, ears deaf, / Strength is waning through weariness, / …/ The bones ache throughout./ …The nose clogged, breathes not, / Painful are standing and sitting.” All in all, “What age does to people is evil in everything.” (Lichtheim, vol.1, p.63; also ANET p.412.)

Moving to ancient Mesopotamia, now, perhaps its best expression of the carpe diem philosophy is contained in its most famous classic, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which in part represents, as Thorkild Jacobsen characterises it, a poem of “the Revolt against Death” [Before Philosophy (1964), p.223.] It dates from around 2000 BC.

The hero Gilgamesh has led a life untouched by Death until his brother-like friend and companion Enkidu dies, At this point Gilgamesh becomes obsessed by death, and sets out on a quest for immortality. After being granted permission to pass through the gates of Mount Mashu, which are guarded by two fearsome scorpion-like beings, “half man and half dragon”, Gilgamesh reaches the Garden of the Gods, which is located by an Ocean, “the Waters of Death”, beyond which lives Utnapishtim, the only mortal ever granted eternal life by the gods. Now comes the bit of the story which is of the greatest interest for Omarians: in the Garden of the Gods, Gilgamesh.meets Siduri, “the woman of the vine, the maker of wine”, who addresses him thus (I here quote the old Penguin Classics translation by N.K.Sandars, page numbers referring to the 1966 edition.):

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to ? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” (p.99)

Now of course it is difficult for us today to know the precise significance to the Babylonians of the presence, in this part of the story, of Siduri, “the woman of the vine, the maker of wine”, for she is also a goddess of wisdom, but clearly there are some very tempting possibilities for Omarians! Incidentally, in ANET p.89-90 she is Siduri “the ale-wife”, as she is in Silvestro Fiore’s Voices from the Clay (1956), p.177-8, and in the more recent (2003) Penguin Classics edition of the Epic, translated by Andrew George, she is Shiduri “a tavern keeper” (p.76), but it is clear that whatever translation one uses, drink is associated with a carpe diem approach to mortality: “Drink! – for once dead you never shall return.”

But to return to the Epic, later, when Gilgamesh has succeeded in crossing the waters of death, and meets Utnapishtim (who is, incidentally, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah), Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh a lesson in human transience:

“There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure? ….. From the days of old there is no permanence. The sleeping and the dead, how alike they are, they are like a painted death. What is there between the master and the servant when both have fulfilled their doom? When the Annunaki, the judges (of the dead), come together, and Mammetun the mother of destinies, together they decree the fates of men. Life and death they allot but the day of death they do not disclose.” (p.104)

Here, as well as the transience of earthly life, we have an early reference to death as the great leveller, treating rich and poor, exalted and humble, master and servant, equally – all “alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d / As, buried once, Men want dug up again.” [Compare also the quote from James Hervey’s Meditations among the Tombs in Appendix 12d; also the similar notions expressed in Robert Blair’s The Grave in Appendix 12b and in Fred Emerson Brooks’ The Gravedigger in Appendix 12e.]

Following on from this, readers may recall references in this archive to two episodes from Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, both of which feature the character Menippus, and both of which are relevant to death as the great leveller. In the first, featured in the notes on verse 10, Menippus is asked to judge the looks of the skeletons of the formerly handsome Nireus and the formerly ugly Thersites, but is forced to declare them both reduced to the same equally repellent state by death. In the second, featured in the notes on Gallery 8E (re. Fig.6), Menippus is shown the skull of Helen of Troy, and feels compelled to ask, “for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece?” The first of these has a curious Babylonian antecedent in “The Dialogue of Pessimism”, which can be found in W.G.Lambert’s book Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960), p.139ff. The dialogue – which perhaps dates from as early as 1250 BC – is between a master and his slave, the master announcing to his slave that he is going to do various things, but in each case, changing his mind, and announcing that he isn’t going to do it after all. The comedy of the dialogue is that the slave approves of his master’s proposals both when he says he will do something, and when he changes his mind. The bulk of the dialogue is of no particular interest to us here, except in the episode in which the master decides he will perform a public benefit for his country, of which the slave approves, but then changes his mind, at which point the slave says, “Do not perform, sir, do not perform, / Go up on to the ancient ruin heaps and walk about; / See the skulls of high and low. / Which is the malefactor, and which is the benefactor?” (lines 75-8, p.149.) [The text also appears in ANET p.438, and is discussed in Before Philosophy p.231-3.]

Also of interest in Lambert’s book is the text of “Counsels of a Pessimist”, a text which, alas, is badly damaged. As Lambert says, “The sense of the first three lines is lost, but 5-10 unmistakably preach the transitory nature of all human life and activity.” (p.107) Certainly lines 9-10 read thus: “[Whatever] men do does not last for ever, / Mankind and their achievements alike come to an end.” (p.109) [The date of this text is very uncertain, but since it came from the library of Ashurbanipal, it cannot be later than the reign of that king (7th century BC), and may be considerably older.]

h) For theodicy and Omarian thought in China, see Appendix 21.


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