Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically


Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.


In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)


The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.

Related links

Roman reviews

John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it.
(Irrationality: The Enemy Within, page 48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, and nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data from hundreds of experiments, which show just how vulnerable the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which supposedly ‘rational’ human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes.

By the end of the book, Sutherland claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read this book in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of of reading early Christians history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

Rereading Irrationality now, 20 years later, after having brought up two children, and worked in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children; and I have seen so many examples of corporate conformity, the avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise.

But to have all these errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic, was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty logical fallacies i.e. errors in thinking. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes.

Cognitive biases are, in most cases, far harder to acknowledge and often very difficult to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment, specifically, the acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

At a more disruptive level, people might be alcoholics, drug addicts, or prey to a range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data to begin with, and b) lack the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, and in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. Most people irrationally believe that they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions

Sutherland tricks the reader on page one, by asking a series of questions and then pointing out that, if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since the questions didn’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error

All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in new patients, who don’t have it. Because the erroneous diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men. The prominence effect.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, making those products – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit. It is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the availability error is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect

First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds about a candidate for a job in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect

In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they’ve recently been presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect

People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although, of course, there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising, which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product being marketed.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect

Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence people. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. The samples with clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks, despite the identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation

People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.


  1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions.
  2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.


People project onto neutral phenomena, patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. This is compounded by –


Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. And this is axacerbated by –

Group think

People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one that you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases

When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment

People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation

People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –


The Milgram experiment proved that people will carry out any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.


Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment

You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75% of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see and know is wrong – because everyone else did.

Sunk costs fallacy

The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence

Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm to their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is:

  1. to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and
  2. to try to disprove your own position.

The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error

Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor-Observer Bias

Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves: we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect

Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the profound cultural errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Elsewhere, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, ‘the liberal fallacy’: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias

People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem 

These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true.

People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error

People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.


Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.


In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.


Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


A problem with Irrationality and with John Allen Paulos’s book about Innumeracy is that they mix up cognitive biases and statistics, Now, statistics is a completely separate and distinct area from errors of thought and cognitive biases. You can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make terrible mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not and do not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on, are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they are so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume.

Briefly, common statistical mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers


My suggestion that mistakes in handling statistics are not really the same as unconscious cognitive biases, applies even more to the world of gambling. Gambling is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games. The subject has been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. A practical point that emerges from Sutherland’s examples is:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3: 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.

Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on, is slowest of all. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us our brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:


Humans are just tremendously suggestible. Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative. Everyone is easily suggestible.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Same people, but their thought patterns have been completely determined by the questions asked: the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details, like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underlying many of them is this simple-or-garden observation: that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.


Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.


  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour Sutherland quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help wondering whether the digital age has solved, or merely added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking which Sutherland catalogues, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

On the other hand, out of date though the book in many ways is, it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar? He states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation against climate change was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.


The books also has passages where Sutherland gives his personal opinions about things and some of these sound more like the grousing of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging.

He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors as a profession, who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients, and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

Sutherland thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185).

He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle- and upper-middle-class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186).

Surprisingly, he criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215).

In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

Sutherland really has it in for psychoanalysis, which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half-way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own grumpy personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated by the whole educational experience, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

His book, like all books of this type, is targeted at a relatively small proportion of the population, the well-educated professional classes. Most people aren’t like that. You want proof? Trump. Brexit. Boris Johnson landslide.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Reviews of other science books



The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution


Particle physics


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