Daily Archives: July 17, 2011

Talking statues

In his Life of Camillus, Plutarch recounts how Camillus proposed to take an image of Juno from a city he had vanquished and carry it back to Rome — “and the statue, they say, answered in a low voice that she was ready and willing to go.”

Commenting on this rather unlikely story, Plutarch writes:

Other wonders of the like nature, drops of sweat seen to stand on statues, groans heard from them, the figures seen to turn around and to close their eyes, are recorded by many ancient historians; and we ourselves could relate divers wonderful things, which we have been told by men of our own time, that are not lightly to be rejected; but to give too easy credit to such things, or wholly to disbelieve them, is equally dangerous, so incapable is human infirmity of keeping any bounds, or exercising command over itself, running off sometimes to superstition and dotage, at other times to the contempt and neglect of all that is supernatural. But moderation is best, and to avoid all extremes.

Plutarch was clearly no fool, and even in this passage he shows a degree of skepticism and a hesitancy to believe every far-fetched tale he hears — but even his “moderation” would seem extreme today, when no respectable thinker would dream of receiving stories of talking statues with anything other than contemptuous dismissal. What accounts for this striking difference in perspective? Why did someone as obviously intelligent, thoughtful, and well-educated as Plutarch take talking-statue stories seriously, whereas essentially all intelligent people today would judge them to be beneath our consideration?

Often such differences can be attributed to the cumulative progress of science. Many men of genius have lived and worked, and countless experiments have been performed, in the centuries that separate us from the ancients, and these discoveries have been passed down to us. When we read, say, Aristotle on the four elements, we can safely dismiss his theories — without undue arrogance and without dismissing Aristotle himself as a fool, but with a humbling sense of “There, but for the grace of Lavoisier, go I.”

This, though, is not such a case. On this particular topic, no great discoveries separate us from Plutarch. No new light has been shed. There never was a time when men in their pre-scientific ignorance did not understand that statues are incapable of speech. (If anything, our experience should make us more open to the idea of talking statues, since we routinely hear human voices coming from phones, doors, dolls, and other inanimate objects without visible organs of articulation, whereas Plutarch would never have heard a human voice coming from anything but a human being.)

Plutarch makes it clear that he was perfectly familiar with all the “modern,” “scientific” objections to the idea of talking statues. In his Life of Coriolanus, he relates how some women erected a statue of the goddess Fortuna,

which the Romans say uttered, as it was putting up, words to this effect, “Blessed of the gods, O women, is your gift.” These words they profess were repeated a second time, expecting our belief for what seems pretty nearly an impossibility. It may be possible enough, that statues may seem to sweat, and to run with tears, and to stand with certain dewy drops of a sanguine color; for timber and stones are frequently known to contract a kind of scurf and rottenness, productive of moisture; and various tints may form on the surfaces, both from within and from the action of the air outside; and by these signs it is not absurd to imagine that the deities may forewarn us. It may happen, also, that the images and statues may sometimes make a noise not unlike that of a moan or groan, through a rupture or violent internal separation of the parts; but that an articulate voice, and such express words, and language so clear and exact and elaborate, should proceed from inanimate things, is, in my judgment, a thing utterly out of possibility. For it was never known that either the soul of man, or the deity himself, uttered vocal sounds and language alone, without an organized body and members fitted for speech. But where history seems in a matter to force our assent by the concurrence of numerous and credible witnesses, we are to conclude that an impression distinct from sensation affects the imaginative part of our nature, and then carries away the judgment, so as to believe it to be a sensation: just as in sleep we fancy we see and hear, without really doing either.

Plutarch seems more skeptical here, and his attitude closer to a “modern” one, but the resemblance is superficial. Where a modern would dismiss the story as pure delusion or fabrication, Plutarch accepts that a voice was really heard; he feels that history forces his assent on this matter. All he disputes is that the voice was actually physically produced by the statue; the goddess must have caused her voice to be heard by some other method. This is far from being a skeptical dismissal of the whole story; many a biblical literalist probably takes a similar approach to the story of Balaam’s ass.

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Plutarch accepts the talking-statue story based on “the concurrence of numerous and credible witnesses” — evidence which carries very little weight with us moderns, at least when it comes to things we are predisposed not to believe in. I am vaguely aware that even today there are reports of statues of the Virgin Mary weeping and groaning and perhaps, for all I know, talking as well. I don’t take the stories seriously enough to have bothered to find out any details. It’s not that I dismiss the reports because I know the witnesses are superstitious and uneducated; rather, I assume the witnesses are superstitious and uneducated because of the nature of what they report. (As if that “uneducated” were even relevant! As if only educated people could understand that statues don’t talk!) Most people react similarly to UFO stories and such.

When Plutarch heard a seemingly incredible story from seemingly credible witnesses, he put more weight on his judgment of the witnesses than on his judgment of the story, and was willing to reconsider the latter in light of the former. We moderns tend to take a more Humean approach, seeing some things as so inherently unbelievable that no human testimony can have such force as to prove them. Ask yourself, is there anyone you trust enough that you would believe him if he told you a statue spoke to him? Anyone at all?

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What separates us from Plutarch is, I think, the legacy of monotheism — which, unlike Paganism, is founded on a commitment to unbelief. The first of the Ten Commandments demands not belief but a rejection of belief — not “Thou shalt believe in God,” but “Thou shalt have no other gods.” Granted, this was probably originally intended as an injunction to mere monolatry — the exclusive worship of one God without necessarily denying the existence of others — but as Christianity interprets it, it is indistinguishable from the Muslim creed that (with one exception) there is no god.

Christians have no choice but to dismiss the stories quoted above because they are committed to disbelief in the reality of Juno and Fortuna. They have no such commitment to disbelief when it comes to ghost stories, UFO abductions, and the like — but once one has acquired the habit of casually dismissing testimony which doesn’t fit readily into one’s view of the world, it’s natural to take that approach to any problematic testimony, even if it’s not religious in nature.

Plutarch balked at just assuming that everyone who said the statue spoke was either dishonest or crazy; we take it for granted. But what else do you expect in a culture where even being a believer requires an uncompromising commitment to skepticism? We are given three options: (1) be a skeptic and dismiss all supernatural claims, (2) be a “believer” and dismiss almost all supernatural claims, or (3) be a new-age fruitcake and abandon all pretense of critical thinking. The atheist quip, “I just go one god further,” is right on the money — but it would have made no sense in the Pagan world.

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