Plutarch’s essay On Socrates’s Personal Deity (593A-594A) contains an idea that I find appealing. He proposes that every man has a “personal deity” that looks out for him and helps him in a time of need.
We can think of this deity as a kind of guardian angel.
The personal deity is an experienced attendant-god or demi-god, who is well-versed in the struggles of life. He now watches over the struggles of mortal man, and every now and then reaches down to help those he believes are deserving of his aid.
The idea here was that deities did not just help anyone:
When men are trying to swim ashore, people standing on land just watch in silence while they are still out at sea, far from land; but when the swimmers get close, the people run along the shore and wade in to get beside them, help them verbally and physically, and get them out safely.
This is how deities act: while the sea of circumstances overwhelms us and we are exchanging bodies like so many rafts [i.e., going through successive reincarnations], they leave us to struggle on our own and keep at it, as we try to survive and reach a safe harbor by utilizing our innate virtue; but when a soul has endured challenge after challenge with grit and determination, through countless incarnations, and now that its tour is coming to an end, draws near the inhabitants of the next higher realm, sweating profusely from the danger and the effort involved in its emergence, God does not forbid its personal deity from helping it, but allows any deity which sets out to help to do so.
Each deity sets about saving the soul in its charge by encouragement, and when the soul gets near enough it listens to the deity and is saved. However, any soul which does not do as it is told is deserted by its deity and abandoned to its own wretched fate.
Elsewhere Plutarch tells us more about this idea of the “personal deity.” He says:
A man who loves horses does not care equally for every member of the species, but always selects a particular one as best and singles it out for special training and preparation and affection; and our superiors brand those of the human herd, so to speak, who are the best, and count them worthy of singular, special lessons, whose disciplinary effect is not conveyed by reins or curbs but by communication by means of signs of which the common herd is completely unaware.
I mean, most dogs don’t understand hunting signals, and most horses don’t understand equestrian signals: only those that have been given lessons quickly recognize what they are being commanded to do by a casual whistle or tongue-click and set out their duty.
You know how athletes who are too old for training never quite lose their enthusiasm for winning and for physical exercise, but love watching others train and give them advice and run beside them; in the same way those who, thanks to their mental virtue, have finished with the trials of life and have become deities do not altogether discount the affairs, debates and interests of this world, but look kindly on people who are exercising themselves for this same goal, share their aspirations towards virtue, encourage them and, when they see that the struggle has almost reached the objective, that they are within striking range, they assist their urgent strivings.
I very much hope that this is true. I often feel like I could use a bit of help or encouragement, now and then.
So I continue forward, one foot in front of the other, to show myself worthy of aid, just in case a deity is watching.
Read more in Sallust.
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