What can I do?

All you can do is what you can do

One of my favorite stories about the Ptolemies comes down to us from the Roman author Claudius Aelianus who compiled his Varia Historia or Historical Miscellany in the middle of the second century of the common era. According to Aelian (1.30) Ptolemy Philometor had a young companion named Galestes with whom he was deeply enamored. Although everyone remarked on the physical beauty of Galestes it was actually his deep wisdom and gentle spirit that had won Ptolemy over. Galestes was always at the side of his king and the pair especially liked to go out riding and hunting together.

Well, one day they were out on an adventure when Galestes spotted some young men who were being led off to the executioner’s block. These were troubled times in the land of Egypt. It seemed like there was constant turmoil – wars abroad and bloody insurrections at home. Many unfortunates had been driven from their land by poverty, drought, heavy taxes, conscription and gangs of violent youths who roamed the countryside causing untold trouble to the simple peasants. The king’s forces had attempted to reestablish civil order in the countryside, but often they were cruel and heavy-handed in doing so, succeeding only in making the situation worse for everyone.

Galestes looked at these youths, not much older than himself and yet with lives of bitter misery, poverty and desperation so unlike his own, and he felt pity for them. Certainly whatever crimes they had committed had been minor infractions which they had been driven to out of a lack of opportunity. He wanted very much to help them, but what could he do? He was only a boy, and though the king’s companion he had no real power of his own. Physically he could do nothing to stop the soldiers, nor did they seem inclined to listen to him. But still, he could not sit idly by and allow an injustice to be committed.

So Galestes turned to his beloved and pleaded with the king for the lives of the unfortunates. He reminded Ptolemy that he had power over life and death and that it was incumbent upon him as Pharaoh to see that justice flourished in the land. And by riding in on horseback to dramatically save the boys at the last instant people would be struck by the heroic image they cut and perhaps even compare them to the Dioskouroi. In troubled times such as these it was important to have a good image. Ptolemy was won over by Galestes’ words and so they rushed in and saved the youths from death.

This is such an important story, in my opinion, because it conveys one of the central tenets of Greco-Egyptian polytheism which is basically that each and every one of us, no matter how high or low our station in life, nor what gifts the Gods have seen fit to bestow upon us, have an important role to play in keeping this world of ours going.

You see, in the Greco-Egyptian conception of things the world is a beautiful, magical and well-ordered system. Harmonia is how the Greeks described this operation, while the Egyptians called it Ma’at. Basically two ways of saying the same thing, that the world depends on balance, order and symmetry. But the ancients were deeply conscious of the fact that this was not a permanent state. In fact this stasis was very fragile and prone to chaotic fluctuation, upheaval and dissolution. They lived with a constant reminder of this in their natural surroundings, for Egypt was essentially a narrow swath of fertile land carved out of the arid desert wastes by the Nile river. If the annual flood proved insufficient the crops would wither and there would be hunger and death. But on the other hand if the waters were too abundant then their fields would be swept away and their homes destroyed. Everything thus depended on a proper balance, neither too much nor too little. And this principle applied to all aspects of their lives. In fact the philosopher Aristotle had argued that all virtue was the middle ground or balance between two extreme types of vice. Thus bravery was the balance between cowardice and recklessness. This is a view that runs through a great deal of Greek and Egyptian ethical writing.

It isn’t difficult to see how these concepts play out in our lives. We are constantly bombarded by hostile forces from all sides. We work and struggle to carve out some measure of small happiness for ourselves, but it is a delicate thing, easily dashed to the ground and shattered to pieces. Very often it is a lack of proper balance which causes our calamity. We spend too much or give into our anger or addictive tendencies and before we know it the whole thing is unraveling around us. But when we’re thoughtful, temperate and disciplined we are better able to hold things together. For the ancients this was not just a bit of practical advice but a religious obligation as well. Because they recognized that all things are interconnected and when imbalance manifests on one level it goes on to affect all others. It’s easy to discern this in our social interactions. Who hasn’t watched a bad mood spread like a cold from person to person in an office, growing more intense and aggressive with each individual it affects? Often people will lash out or feel depressed for no good reason, simply because everyone around them feels tense and angry. The ancients understood that no man is an island and that everything we do has consequences, often in ways we cannot predict. Not just our actions but sometimes even our thoughts have the ability to influence the very fabric of reality, as science is only now beginning to recognize. Therefore the ancients held that it was imperative not only to lead a balanced, disciplined and wholesome life but that by doing so they could improve the world around them. This is an idea we find expressed as far back as the poet Homer who beautifully summed it up with the following words:

“The flawless king, God-fearing and ruling a numerous and doughty people upholds justice so that the dark earth will bring forth wheat and barley, and the trees become heavy with fruit, and the sheep and goats give birth without fail, and the sea provides countless fish. All this is a result of his good leadership, and the people flourish under him.” (Odyssey 19.109-14)

Though the king plays a vital role in this process he does not do so alone. Each of us must strive to uphold justice and bring balance to our portion of the world. Which is where the story that I opened with comes into play, since I’m sure many of you right now are saying, “What can I do? I’m just one person. I don’t have any power or influence. The problems of the world are too big. Even if I could fix some of them there are just too many. So what’s the point of trying anyway?”

This is the great lie of Isfet, of chaos and uncreation. That quiet whisper in the back of your head that tells you that you’re powerless, you’re small, that you don’t matter, that there’s no point to any of it. Bullshit.

While it’s certainly true that Ma’at is a fragile and at times imperfect thing, fighting against the world’s tendency to split apart at the seams – that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible or that we have no part to play in increasing order and putting things back on a firm foundation. Even if we’re not capable of great things, even if we can’t solve all of the world’s problems, we can do something and every little bit matters. Which is what the story of Galestes shows us.

He was just one powerless boy and yet he refused to be cowed into inactivity. He saw a wrong being perpetrated and though all he was capable of was speaking out against it, he did that and his words prompted Ptolemy Philometor into action. (Which is actually quite an impressive accomplishment when you consider how this Ptolemy normally acted!) And yes, perhaps in the end all that they accomplished was a small thing, the saving of a couple lives which were themselves of little consequence – this is not the stuff of history, the stuff that brings about lasting change in the world. But think what it meant to those young men and to the families who loved them. Their world was certainly changed forever!

And that’s the thing. You have no idea how big of an impact you can have on the life of another person. A kind word or act of casual generosity can pull them back from the brink of despair, show them that there are people out there who still care, reasons to keep going. Or maybe something you create will inspire others, help them put the pieces together or encourage them to do something extraordinary on their own. Religiously, something you do or say can even help people find their way to the Gods. And even if your acts do not cause great changes they may still be necessary to keep something important going.

I see this all the time in religious organizations and groups. There are often a handful of people who get the lion’s share of attention. This is because they have a charismatic personality or a commanding way with words, because they are capable of exceptional spiritual feats or have an intimate relationship with the Gods. A person just starting out or of average skill and gifts sees this and feels terribly inadequate as a result. How can they possibly compare? What could they conceivably have to offer when they aren’t as smart and talented, when they so often feel clumsy, shy and never have fantastic visions or heart-to-heart conversations with the Gods? Such people feel out of place, worthless, inconsequential.

This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. If a group is made up only of these attention-grabbing superstars it is going to crumble faster than a sand-castle on the beach. A strong group needs its rank and file, people with organizational skills, competency, folks who know how to take care of all the little details and will be there doing that even through the rough times. Think about an ancient temple. It didn’t just have ecstatic prophets and eloquent philosophers hanging out in the courtyard. There were also the people who swept the floors and cleaned up the remains of the sacrifice, people whose job it was to procure the items for sacred use, the weavers and butchers and farmers that worked temple lands, there were the priests whose job was to dress the idol or light the lamps, others who answered the questions of curious pilgrims or made sure the dancers and other entertainers got paid on time, etc. etc. etc. Not to mention the common worshiper who came to pray to the God and leave their humble votive offering behind. Without all of these different and necessary positions the temple could not function properly and the Gods could not be honored in the manner that they deserved. Therefore no matter who you are or what skills you possess you are needed if your community is going to continue and thrive.

Even if all you’ve got to contribute is your warm body, that’s still something of value because there is strength in numbers. Plutarch illustrates this principle beautifully in his Sayings of Kings and Commanders. Upon his deathbed the Skythian king Skiluros summoned his many children who had been squabbling amongst themselves, each hoping to succeed their father on the throne. He passed around a bundle of rods that had been lashed together, encouraging each of his children to try and break them. None were capable of doing so and when the bundle returned to him Skiluros proceeded to remove the rods one by one and easily shattered them. From this he hoped to show his children that when many persons are united and work towards a common goal they are much stronger and likelier to meet with success than those who attempt to go it alone.

So instead of worrying about what you don’t have or can’t do as well as others, look within and see what skills and resources you have to contribute. Then give to the Gods and your community whatever you can because even if it is small and humble it is at least something and grows in potency when added to the offerings of others. By doing so you are making your corner of the world a better place and causing Ma’at to flourish. And if all of us did our part everywhere think what amazing things we could bring about!