25/30 Days of deity devotion

Asclepius has always been benevolent in hearing my prayers. I must add that I’ve never asked him to do anything outside his sphere of power, and I’ve never asked him to do anything “miraculous”. My prayers tend to be along the lines of, “Please help me get through this. Please bless my doctor and the all my caregivers with skill, wisdom, and compassion.”

This question asked by the 30 Days of Deity Devotion meme today touches on the theological problem of,“Why wasn’t my prayer answered?”, and the philosophical dilemma, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Prayer is a tricky thing. One of my favorite tales of Heracles is about a wagon driver in antiquity whose cart rolled off the road and into a ditch. The wagon driver immediately prayed to Heracles to help him. A voice from the heavens replied, “Put your shoulder to the wheel first and, if that doesn’t work, then you may call on me!” It seems like hubris to ask a divinity to work a miracle when an obvious solution is at hand. “Oh, Zeus! Hand me that screwdriver!”

It’s been recognized throughout human history that bad things do happen to good people.  It’s the theme of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first work of human literature. The ancients recognized that some things, like death, are the common lot of all mortal beings. Other things occur through random chance, which Tyche/Fortuna assigns indiscriminately, or are allotted to us by fate or destiny at .

The study of this problem was taken up by the philosophers, who called this field of inquiry “theodicy”, from the Greek Theos, “god”, and dikē, “trial”.

Seneca saw the occurrence of bad things as an opportunity for the virtuous person to prove their virtue. Without ever having faced adversity, no one really knows if their virtue is superficial or deep.

The Stoics believed in not wasting energy on things that can’t be controlled, and embraced a virtue called apatheia, not allowing oneself to be controlled by events or emotions.

In Enchiridion, Chapter Five, Epictetus wrote:

People are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, or it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion that death is terrible.

In Book five of the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius said:

Live with the gods. Those who live with the gods constantly show that their souls are satisfied with that which has been assigned to them, and they do all that their daemon wishes, which Zeus has given to every person as their guardian and guide, as a part of themselves. And this daemon is each person’s knowledge and reason.

Personally, I believe that, when bad things happen, the least helpful thing to ask is “Why did this happen?” The most important question is, “What can I do to make things better?” While taking even the most basic steps to help ourselves when something bad happens shows the quality of our character, taking action means even more when something bad happens to another person.The ancient philosophers were mindful of this. Socrates said, “The highest realms of thought are impossible to reach without first having attained an understanding of compassion.” Plato, too, believed compassion to be a virtue: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Seneca wrote, “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.”

Which brings me back to Asclepius.

Around 70 BCE, a stela was put up in Glytheion, a city in Lakonia, honoring a Spartan physician named Damiadas, who is called “a servant of Asklepios.“ Damiadas was hired by the city as a public physician, and he was paid a salary to provide healthcare to the residents of the Glytheion. The stele cites his zeal and honorable conduct in the practice of medicine, his wisdom and education, and recognizes him for treating everyone on an equal basis, whether poor or rich, slave or free. When the city experienced a financial crisis, Damaidas volunteered to continue to provide his services to the city, free of charge for the rest of the year, “exceeding the requirements of justice [and] giving a [great] demonstration of nobility and goodness and of kindness.” In gratitude, Glytheion made him an honorary citizen and benefactor, with all the rights and honours that entailed.

The ancients believed immortality was achieved through the fame of great deeds, and we frequently hear the message that a heroic life is the way to achieve that kind of renown. The life of Damiadas shows that good character and compassion were regarded as highly as heroism, and it is a message worth remembering.

Image: Asclepius statue, Trikala, Greece Photograph: Vicky Tsavdaridou via Flickr

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