The Things That Are Not There; The Book of Merlyn; On the Map

The Things That Are Not There, by CJ Henderson is hard-boiled private eye mashed with the Cthulhu Mythos. This is I guess the first of a series and ultimately this first story brings together a Doc Savage like crew of improbable people to fight the mythos. Not my cup of tea. More interesting was trying to figure out when it was set/written. It seemed contemporary, but there were no cell phones. Check pub date: 2006. Hmmm.... maybe it's set historical, but it doesn't read like something that's being set in a different time. And then Oriental is used to describe something that's not a rug. A deeper dive shows that it was first published in 1992 under a pen-name. Even that date is pushing it for unpreferred nomenclature.


The Book of Merlyn by TH White was originally a fifth book of The Once & Future King. On the whole, I think the publishers were right to 'exclude' it, though some of the best parts were inserted into the earlier parts of the book. It is a bit too polemical as an antiwar manifesto, as perhaps could only be the case when the pacifist White was facing WWII.

Pray for Thomas Mallory, Knight, and his humble disciple, who now voluntarily lays aside his books to fight for his kind.

The story, such as it is, is Arthur on the eve of The Battle of Camlann with Mordred, is reunited with Merlyn and some of his other animal tutors, who rag mercilessly on the human race for being horrible warlike monsters. The episodes of Arthur with the ants and the geese are here, and they fit somewhat better philosophically in this argument about warfare and nature, but are much better put into the Sword in the Stone, which I guess White did in later editions when it was clear 'Merlyn' was not going to be published at all.

The version I have is apparently the first publication of it in this form, published by the University of Texas from the TH White papers kept there. The introductory essays are also illuminating, particularly about White's sadistic streak that brings to mind Agravaine. Also, for an academic press, the illustrations by Trevor Stubley are surprising and excellent.


On the Map, by Simon Garfield

An enjoyable romp through mapmaking from the very beginnings to Google Earth and Skyrim. Lots of entertaining details.
mr. Gruff

Altered Behavior Changes Minds

From a Scientific American article on the 'self-domestication' of human beings to be hypersocial.

Love is a Contact Sport

Despite the evolutionary paradoxes of human nature, the perception of who belongs in our group is malleable. H. sapiens as a species has already demonstrated its capacity to expand the concept of group membership into the thousands and millions.

It can be extended further. The best way to diffuse conflict among groups is to diminish the perceived sense of threat through social interaction. If feeling threatened makes us want to protect others in our group, non-threatening contact between groups allows us to expand the definition of who our group is.

White children who went to school with black children in the 1960s were more likely, as they grew up, to support interracial marriage, have black friends, and be willing to welcome black people into their neighborhoods.


Most policies are enacted with the assumption that a change in attitude will lead to a change in behavior, but in the case of intergroup conflict, it is the altered behavior -- in the form of human contact -- that will most likely change minds. The self-domestication hypothesis explains why we as a species evolved to relate to others. Making contact between people of different ideology, culture or race is a universally effective reminder that we all belong to a single group called H. sapiens.
quantum Mechanic

Using your Baloney Detection Kit properly

Most of you know I spend quite some time battling the forces of ignorance and wrongitude in weird corners of the Internet. Young Earth Creationists, antivaxxers, climate change denialists, COVID-19 denialists, flat earthers, conspiracy theorists, Obama birthers, etc.

Often when I report on these shenanigans, I'll point out the errors in fact and inference that people are making, and make some comment like, "Haha, I know that you, Dear Reader, would never fall into such folly. Because, by virtue of being on my friends list, haha, no doubt you are right thinking and virtuous, and would never make such errors."

But I can't say that any more. Because it turns out some of you suck at critical thinking, and I'm here to call you out.

Maybe you were always a dunderhead, or maybe it's a symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome, or Russian disinformation, or the very nature of social media. But if the goal is to get to the Truth, you're not helping when you push falsehoods, even if you are on 'the right side'.  

But I do have a solution to offer. You can learn how to think critically. And you can practice it and get better at it, until it becomes second nature. 'Oh sure, I know how to critically think', you assert. That's just what the flat earthers say who pick away at the arguments of the globetards. So the first, and possibly most important, lesson is this:

The baloney detection kit is not a weapon to be used on occasion to defeat the arguments of people you disagree with, it is a defense that should be always on to protect you from accepting something as true without sufficient evidence. Possibly even a statement you have already accepted, but should reconsider.

If you only pull out your baloney detection kit when you're trying to find some niggling detail in someone else's argument so you can safely ignore it and go on with your life, you are using it wrong. That's exactly what science deniers do. It's just a defense mechanism. Confirmation bias in action.

It's what conspiracy theorists do. Conspiracy theories are a short-cut to proper thinking. The real world is complicated; conspiracy theories are usually quite simple. But there is no short-cut to proper thinking.

The Baloney Detection Kit was the catchy (and work-safe) coinage of Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World. So you don't have to learn some aspects of critical thinking from me, you can learn them from him, either the full text of that passage, or this excellent condensed summary. But allow me to quote and amend a bit here.

These are all cases of proved or presumptive baloney. A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion—wonder, fear, greed, grief.  [to which I would add anger] Credulous acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that’s what P. T. Barnum meant when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic—however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.

...In the course of their training, scientists are equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. [my emphasis, it is always on] If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. ...

What’s in the kit? Tools for skeptical thinking.

What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and—especially important—to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true. [we should be particularly careful of our own biases]

To add to Sagan's kit of tools, I would suggest the related ideas of 'reserve judgment' and 'keep a long memory'. You don't have to decide right away if something is true or false. If the evidence is ambiguous or scant or of poor quality, you can just reserve judgment. But if it's an important issue, keep it in mind, and look for follow-up evidence.

Anyway, before I get to some cases where some of you fucked up and pissed me off, I'll describe my own fuckup.

Jussie Smollett. A gay black man says he is assaulted by "
two men in ski masks who called him racial and homophobic slurs, and said "This is MAGA country""

As a Trump-hating SJW, the story punched all my buttons and I was incensed. I don't know that I can accurately remember how much I believed the story, but I expect it was very close to 100%. It would seem to be (and has proved to be) a very stupid thing for someone to lie about. And we do want to not-ignore victims, if not quite automatically believe them. But despite my justifications, I believed something false. That's a mark in the loss column. I suck.

The usual racists and homophobes on the Christian Forums were more dubious straight from the get-go. I could have gotten huffy and not listened to them and called them racists and homophobes. But instead, I played the long game of 'keep a long memory'. Keep an eye on developments and see what transpires. And as I did so, strange details appeared, and I started tending back toward reserving judgment (because remember what Sagan said -- we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. My tentative acceptance was being challenged by new information. Once Smollett identified two black guys as the attackers, the needle had flipped in my mind. 99% one way had now moved to 99% the other.

OK, now to you dummies.

Case 1: Umbrella Man is an object lesson in 'reserving judgment' and 'keep a long memory'. No not this Umbrella Man. That's a totally different conspiracy theory. This one was the guy instigating rioting in Minneapolis in the wake of the George Floyd killing at the end of May. Early on, there was wild social media sharing of this fucking bullshit, I mean baloney. Anonymous texts from an anonymous person, posing as the ex-wife of Umbrella Man identifying him as a member of police. This is crap evidence. Did I get any thanks for pointing out that this is crap evidence? Of course not. It's just like telling a young earth creationist that Mount Saint Helens is crap evidence that the earth is 6000 years old. They don't thank me either.

As they say, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. This lie about wicked policeman guy flew for most of two months, until we found out the truth, that Umbrella Man was a white supremacist asshole. Even when we knew that the particular policeman pointed out in the bullshit had an alibi, the believers implausibly sidled over to "well, it wasn't him, but it was some other cop". How can that even make sense, you chowderhead? Your bullshit evidence fingered a particular cop by name. How does he suddenly morph into a random cop based on the same evidence? If OJ didn't do it, it doesn't mean some other NFL running back did it. It only makes sense if you've been infected by some kind of conspiracy theory. A simplification of a complex world. Something like ACAB.

Now let's get something straight. Just because I don't believe All Cops Are Bastards, doesn't mean I believe All Cops Are Beneficial. Both are simplifications of a complex reality. To presume I do would be to commit the fallacy of a false dichotomy

Case 2: Lynching in Palmdale?

in the middle of June, Robert Fuller, a black man, was found dead hanging from a tree in Palmdale, California. It was initially considered by the city as "an alleged death by suicide."

My initial response was "A terrible thing, but I hope the initial determination of suicide holds up, because the alternative is horrible."

So because I hoped this was right, I went looking only for evidence that confirmed this opinion. WRONG!!!

I reserved my fucking judgment, and (because this was an important issue) I kept a long memory.

Meanwhile, other similar cases emerged in the news, possibly because the media became sensitive to the topic, including that of Malcolm Harsch which had happened even earlier in Victorville. And soon, the story was being spread through social media -- by some of you, my lamebrained friends, that these were lynchings being perpetrated by or at least covered up by the police. Medical examiners are practically police, so we shouldn't listen to them either. Ultimately the unsourced information that spread like wildfire was that 5 black men hanged from trees had been ruled suicides. As snopes notes, it's not even clear who these 5 men are supposed to be. But for some that can be identified, further evidence has come to light, and they are in fact almost certainly suicides.

In the case of Harsch, video evidence of the event emerged and the family was satisfied. “On behalf of the family of Malcolm Harsch unfortunately it seems he did take his own life.”

Robert Fuller had a history of suicidal ideation. 

This one left a note.

I confess I know less about the NY case than the CA ones, but as far as I can tell, the family has quietly accepted it as suicide.

So what was the evidence that these were lynchings in the first place? It seems to me that the only 'evidence' that they weren't suicides was the fact that the police said they were suicides. That's some fucked up conspiracy theory bullshit right there.

Case 3 Oh god the stupid thing about anarchists is too stupid to even talk about. But suffice it to say my comments received as warm a welcome as I usually get from flat earthers. AAABastards/Beneficial is just as terrible a short-cut to thinking as ACABastards/Beneficial.

But for all these cases, the truth finally got its shoes on weeks, even months, later. So please stop spreading bullshit based on poor evidence. Even if. ESPECIALLY IF it punches your buttons. Because that's where you are vulnerable. Sometimes there is a conspiracy. Those Russian disinformation specialists are not imaginary. Their job is to punch your buttons. 

Work on that baloney detection kit.
mr. Gruff

Book & Videogame medley

Jesmyn Ward (I really liked her Sing, Unburied, Sing) edited The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which was chosen for a different book club. The book is an homage to Baldwin's the Fire Next Time, incorporating poetry and essays generally on the topic of race.

On the whole, it didn't captivate me or reveal anything that hasn't been made obvious to anyone paying the least amount of attention. I will point out my particular favorite:
'The Dear Pledges of Our Love': A Defense of Phillis Wheatley's Husband, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. It's something of a literary detective story and I feel a definite kinship to the author. Wheatley is recognized as the first African American to publish a book of poems. The literary gossip that has come down to us is that her husband was no good. But Jeffers finds this rests really on the recollection of one woman, who may have had her own axe to grind, much as some views of Washington are colored by Parson Weems' fanciful storytelling.


Witchmark, by CL Polk, won the World Fantasy Award, and I did enjoy it quite a lot. It had a little vibe of Deryni with magic users hiding among ordinary folk. A dribble of steampunk. A dash of gay romance. Aristocratic skull-duggery. Not quite enough for me to absorb the full trilogy.


How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by NK Jemisin pulls together 20+ short stories by the multi-Hugo-winning author. They are quite varied and a lot of good ones. Despite the provocative title, the content is not 100% racial justice warrior-bard (not that there's anything wrong with that).


Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has one great thing going for it -- immersion in the Star Wars universe. Yes, you get to be a Jedi and have a droid sidekick, and yes it is awesome. That said, there are some really annoying bits, like these parts where you slide on ice or whatever and die in a pit a hundred times in a row (if you're me, anyway). Also, I actually found the game too hard. This is the first game I can think of where I had to bump the difficulty down.


But getting some melee practice in was good for segueing to Ghost of Tsushima. I'm not finished with it yet, but really enjoying it from beginning to end. If Fallen Order let you be in your own SW movie, this puts you into an epic samurai film. Glorious look and feel, and some of the rethinking of game mechanics is clever. Instead of having a map with radar to lead you to your goal, the wind blows in that direction, and you can follow the scatter of cherry blossoms to your destination.
pWNED!!! by Science

Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira

 A murder on the moon, amid increasing tensions between the US and Chinese helium mining operations. Tempers escalate, and now [Trump's] Space Force is stationing soldiers at a mining base. How can our ex-soldier/facility manager keep his own crew safe and deescalate war on the moon? There are some good scenes and tension, but this does feel like a first novel (which it is). And occasionally it veers into militaria and you wonder, 'Is this one of those 'science fiction' books that is really thinly veiled jingoistic military fantasy?' It's actually not jingoistic, but there are just some jarring edges where a slight fascination with the military becomes weirdly obtrusive to the story. Also the general outline of the future world history is unrealistic, but fortunately largely off-stage. Slight thumbs down from me.
pWNED!!! by Science

The Scientific Attitude, by Lee McIntyre

 subtitled: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience

I was maybe suckered too much by the subtitle, hoping for some good hulk smash of nonsense, and didn't read the fine print before buying. McIntyre is a philosopher of science, and so much of the book is more about not-solving the demarcation problem, i.e. how do you tell science from nonscience. In the main, I'm sympathetic to his treatment. It's just not a question that keeps me up at night.

As much as I've seen creationists and other pseudoscientists approvingly quoting Popper and Kuhn, I'm glad McIntyre craps on both of them. Or at least craps on Popper and what people generally think Kuhn said.

I say he not-solves the problem, because he doesn't find a 1-to-1 definition that would include all science and exclude all non-science. And I agree with him that this is probably a fools errand.

But he does find something to help, what he calls "The Scientific Attitude", and this is something that is found in science (but not exclusively in science). So one might be able to bake cakes with the scientific attitude, but that doesn't necessarily make baking a science. On the other hand, if you can show that a creationist is NOT adopting the scientific attitude, then we know that her version of creationism is not science. 

In brief, phrasing things somewhat my own way, if you're doing science, then the ultimate decider is the universe. The scientific attitude is to be humble in the face of empirical data. If the data slays your theory, the scientific attitude is to take it with good grace, and modify your opinions and ideas, rather than trying to modify the data (fraud) or ignore the data (denialism) or play pigeon chess (pseudoscience).

He addresses how economics and the other social sciences could make better use of the scientific attitude (without having to become particle physics in the process). This is probably the most thought-provoking chapter of the book.

And he does hulk smash some stupidity, which is always agreeable.
mr. Gruff

Death Stranding

 Death Stranding is hard to describe, possibly even hard to love, but I found it lovable. Yes, if you've heard that you mostly go around schlepping stuff from place to place, that's quite true. But that's not all... there's also a nonsensical story that unrolls in long cut-scenes. There are some points in the end-game where the cut-scenes were so obtrusive, I longed to schlepp some things from place to place.

OK, I'm not selling it, I can tell. But if you're up for something really well-made and really out-of-the-box, this is it.

It's interesting to me that an important theme of the game is a very pro-social message of help and cooperation that comes across as affecting and sincere. Not only to help the NPCs in the game, but also fellow players, with whom you can tangentially interact. They don't appear in the world, but structures and thingummies that they build in the world show up in your own and vice versa. And there's some gamification to it in the form of 'likes' a la social media. If someone uses a ladder you placed to scale a cliff, you get a like.

I could attempt to summarize more of the game, but I think it's best as a new world to be explored. Just go jump in.

You Look Like A Thing And I Love You / The Witchfinder's Sister

 You Look Like A Thing And I Love You, by Janelle Shane

The book seems to be a reworking of material Shane has shared in her AI weirdness blog. On the one hand, it shows, on the other hand, it makes for light entertaining reading.

I was a little disappointed that the scope of the book focuses on various flavors of machine learning AI (as opposed to symbolic or strong AI). Of course, the latter is a super hard problem, but it's of infinitely more interest.

But the book does reinforce the idea that machine learning AI is terrible and terrifying. If you set it the task of winning at chess and other games, it does an amazing job, because it's easy to 'reward' the program with victory or points. But when the goal is to teach an AI to, for example, act as a customer service agent, or identify what's in a picture, or drive a car down the street, it's harder to train them when the victory condition is 'act like a human would act'.

So the book is a compilation of more or less hilarious and horrifying failures of AI. The basic idea is to train your AI to absorb training data and make a bajillion connections so that it can spit out more of the same. The problem seems to be that we're bad at setting tasks, bad at giving clean data, and bad at making the original judgments the AI is trying to emulate. One of the common examples is text generating AIs, where you train your AI on recipes or Harry Potter novels and let it make up its own once it gets the hang of it. Another common thing of the sort is the autocomplete or Google's help in finishing your search request, which is how "Why won't my parakeet eat my diarrhea?" became a thing. Once the AI randomly latched onto that as a cromulent phrase, people making google searches also latched onto it. That's some serious click bait there. And thus the problem. The Google AI takes those clicks as 'rewards' that it is very accurately predicting what people were going to ask.

But mostly they're just odd, like the motto hearts Shane recently posted:

Other examples look at trying to decipher what's in a picture. For training data, the AI used people-generated descriptions of pictures and then went number crunching away. Now ask yourself, honestly, how many times have you described a picture by saying, "It has zero giraffes in it." probably never. But if there were a giraffe in the picture, you'd probably be likely to mention it. So the AI has seen a few pictures that are described as containing giraffes, but it has never seen a picture described as having zero giraffes in it. The result is that the AI often declares that there are giraffes in pictures that do not contain giraffes.

This kind of bias in the sample has real-world consequences as well. An AI trained to make hiring or loan application decisions turns out to be very good at modelling the human-generated data and discriminating against the same kind of people the employers and banks do. Since the AIs are rather opaque black boxes, it's hard to root out such bias, since we don't really know what the AI is paying attention to.

A related example from driving. The researchers thought they were teaching the AI to keep the car in the middle of the road, and not driving off the sides. Instead, they seems to have taught the AI to keep the green grass at fixed locations on either side of the field of view. When the car went onto an overpass, the green disappeared and the car was flummoxed.

Great, amusing read that shines a light on some important issues as inevitably medical and financial data gets churned through AIs like this.


The Witchfinder's Sister, by Beth Underdown

I found this a disappointment. Matthew Hopkins was an English witch-finder who had a brief, but very nasty career. I was ready to get my hate on, but the Hopkins of this novel does not seem to much resemble the original. As the title suggests, the book follows Hopkins' [entirely fictional] sister Alice as she returns to join his household after she is widowed. There are dim family secrets that slowly get winkled out, but the action stays on Alice, so much of the witchfinding occurs offstage. It does provide a slow excruciating crescendo as our narrator gets ever more closely involved with the witchfinding and the deplorable details emerge.

But the motivations provided by the backstory conflict with what we know of the real Hopkins, and the author toys with witchcraft being real, which seems like a bizarre step. If people really can and do magically murder people, it's worth finding them out. The tragedy of the witchhunts is that it was all bullshit.


Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh

An interesting survey of Greek thought through the lens of 'atheism' from the earliest Greeks to the advent of Christian Rome.

The religion of the Greeks was a very different kind of thing than Christianity, so 'atheism' or 'impiety' meant something very different as well. For the Greeks religion was more practice and performance, rather than theological litmus tests.

Atheism was not really a word that people self-applied, but it (like now) was used more to denigrate your political or philosophical enemies. For that reason, and the lack of complete sources, Whitmarsh has to pick his way through the surviving bits and epitomes and satires to try to draw a picture of ancient Greek philosophical atheism. There's not much there there, but he does a good job showing the threads that remain.

Anyway, some of my random notes:

It is said that while another man was marveling at a series of temple dedications put up by survivors of sea storms, Diogenes retorted that there would have been many more if the nonsurvivors had also left dedications.

Atheists: snarky jerks for 2500 years.

What the Greek epics were not, however, were theological or liturgical works. Excerpts might be performed at festivals, but there is no evidence that they were used in a specifically ritual context. The performers themselves were not priests but rhapsodes, specialist singers known for their showy dress and gesture. These might claim to be divinely inspired (as the rhapsode Ion does in Plato’s dialogue of the same name), but their aim was to thrill, inspire, and instruct, not to fill their audiences with a sense of the godhead. Relative to Israel and other cultures of the ancient Near East, Greece handled its national literature in a strikingly secular way (from a monotheistic perspective).

Theagenes associated Apollo, Helios (the sun god), and Hephaestus with fire, water with Poseidon and the river god Scamander, Artemis with the moon, Hera with the air (the two words are anagrams in Greek: ēra and aēr). He also saw gods as oblique ways of talking about human faculties: Athena signifies the intellect, Ares folly, Aphrodite desire, Hermes reason. In the fifth century BC, Metrodorus of Lampsacus decoded Homer’s text systematically into a symbolic representation of the world. The original texts of Theagenes and Metrodorus are now lost, but in 1962 an allegorical commentary on a now lost mystical poem based on Hesiod, dating to the late fifth century, was discovered near Thessaloniki: the surprise discovery of the so-called Derveni papyrus opened a window onto the ingenious practices of the early allegorists.

While not necessarily atheistic, Whitmarsh points to some healthy skepticism: 

Here he is, for example, on centaurs: What is said about the Centaurs is that they were beasts with the overall shape of a horse—except for the head, which was human. But even if there are some people who believe that such a beast once existed, it is impossible. Horse and human natures are not compatible, nor are their foods the same; what a horse eats could not pass through the mouth and throat of a man. And if there ever had been such a shape, it would also exist today.

"This is the grave of Hippo, whom Fate made equal in death to the immortal gods."

Was Anaxagoras an atheist? There is nothing anachronistic about this question. In the late 430s, he was put on trial for “impiety,” on the grounds that he denied the divinity of the heavenly bodies (which he undoubtedly did). This may have been the first time in history that an individual was prosecuted for heretical religious beliefs. Although he escaped, he retained a reputation for impious thought. Socrates, at his own trial, had to remind his jurors not to confuse him with Anaxagoras.

On the Sacred Disease, however, argues that the illness can be explained by factors that are entirely internal to the human organism. “It appears to me,” writes the author in the introduction, “to be in no way more divine or sacred than other diseases; it has a natural cause, from which it originates, like other illnesses. People consider its nature and its cause as divine out of ignorance and wonder.”

In the case of the first book of On Piety, the scroll had also been cut in two, and the halves had been catalogued separately, and later generations had been unaware that the two belonged together. To make matters worse, several fragments, and all the early drawings, had been spirited away from Italy to Oxford. The reunited and reconstructed text, which was published in 1996 by Dirk Obbink, is one of the great achievements of modern classical scholarship

Religion as social control:
There was a time when humans’ life was unordered, Bestial and subservient to violence; When there was no reward for the noble Or chastisement for the base. And then, it seems to me, humans set up Laws, so that justice should be tyrant And hold aggression enslaved. Anyone who erred was punished. Then, when laws prevented them From performing open acts of force, They started performing them in secret; and then, it seems to me, Some shrewd man, wise in his counsel, Discovered for mortals fear of the gods, so that The base should have fear, if even in secret They should do or say or think anything. So he thereupon introduced religion, Namely the idea that there is a deity flourishing with immortal life, Hearing in his mind, seeing, thinking, Attending to these things and having a divine nature, Who will hear everything said among mortals, And will be able to see everything that is done. If you plan some base act in silence, The gods will not fail to notice.


The specifics of Diopeithes’s decree probably came (via Craterus or someone like him) from the records in Athens’s own official archive. It seems genuine enough.6 The decree targets two kinds of criminality. The first is not recognizing (nomizein) the gods. The Greek word is ambiguous and can suggest either their ritual worship or belief in their existence. Perhaps this ambiguity was intentional, so that prosecutors could use the law to sweep up both those who were derelict in their fulfilment of religious obligations and those who held heterodox beliefs. This would fit with the corresponding extension of impiety from the sphere of ritual into that of belief. The second activity outlawed is “teaching doctrines regarding the heavens,” which might seem at first sight a completely different issue.


As the narrative progresses, we come ever closer to the beating heart of Panchaean society, the temple of Zeus Triphylios (“of the Three Tribes”) that stands on an acropolis. Euhemerus has much to say about the beauty and the grandeur of the temple. But, he says, it concealed a surprise: a golden pillar, inscribed with a record of the deeds of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. The inscription revealed that the Olympian gods were originally human beings and an exceptional generation of rulers of Panchaea. It was Zeus himself who traveled around the world and instituted his own cultic worship. In other words, Panchaean society is sustained by a religion based upon the worship of a “god” who is no more a god than you or I.

Lucretius’s Epicurus is a crusader not so much against rituals and state institutions as against the false beliefs that oppress us with fear of death, punishment, and the afterlife. Liberation will be found not in smashing organized religion (no Epicurean ever suggested that) but in rejecting the received, mythical view of the gods as aggressively vengeful and accepting that in the materialist view of things they have no influence over our lives.

In the myth, his fleet had been stayed by a calming of the waters, which Artemis had imposed because Agamemnon had killed a deer on land sacred to her. “Such is the terrible evil that religion was able to urge,” concludes Lucretius: “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” one of the poet’s most famous lines (Voltaire, for example, sent it to Frederick II of Prussia in 1737 when urging the cause of secularism). Lucretius’s point is that this misunderstanding of the shifting nature of wind (which he explains elsewhere in purely material terms) is more than simply an error. When we fail to understand the truth about nature, and more particularly when we substitute religious for scientific understanding, terrible consequences can ensue.


Essentially, Stoicism taught that happiness is achieved not by pursuing appetites but by living according to nature: one’s own nature, but also that of the universe itself. Everything that happens in the universe is directed toward the best outcome; our duty as individuals is to discern, as best we can using our rational powers, what that outcome is and to bend our lives toward facilitating it.

The doxography of atheism is particularly significant because of the relative marginality of atheism in antiquity. To be an atheist was, for most, to be a member of a virtual rather than a face-to-face community. There were no real-world schools of atheism that allowed one disbeliever to engage in dialogue with another. It was doxography alone that offered that network, linking together disparate individuals and weaving together their disparate beliefs into a shared set of doctrines that collectively made up a philosophy of atheism.

As a whole, Pliny’s disquisition suggests that the idea of deity is a human construction. “God,” he says at one point, “is one mortal helping another.” We make our own divinity through our behavior toward others.