Ate and the Daemon: The Greeks Psychology of Life

Rereading E.R. Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational again after a few years… one of the best studies of the inner life of the mind as it touches base with body and psyche – the deamonic forces that drives us (Freud’s ‘das Trieb: Trieb connotes urge, impulse, impetus, and desire—what in motivational psychology is called drive”). All these various metaphors underlying the notion of the irrational moods we fall into, that drive us to do things against our own better interest, etc., Schopenhauer’s urge to life, the idiot god – the Will-to-live, Nietzsche’s Will-to-power or mastery, the excess that drives us like a puppet even as we regret ever after our immersion in its wake… the craven madness at the core of our loves and hates.

As Dodds traces this he approaches it through Homer’s epic in which the Greek concept or metaphor of ‘ate’ is central:

“Let us start from that experience of divine temptation or infatuation (atē) which led Agamemnon to compensate himself for the loss of his own mistress by robbing Achilles or his. “Not I,” he declared afterwards, “not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus and my portion and the Erinys who walks in darkness: they it was who in the assembly put wild ate in my understanding, on that day when I arbitrarily took Achilles’ prize from him. So what could I do? Deity will always have its way.” By impatient modern readers these words of Agamemnon’s have sometimes been dismissed as a weak excuse or evasion of responsibility. But not, I think, by those who read carefully. An evasion of responsibility in the juridical sense the words certainly are not; for at the end of his speech Agamemnon offers compensation precisely on this ground—”But since I was blinded by ate and Zeus took away my understanding, I am willing to make my peace and give abundant compensation.” Had he acted of his own volition, he could not so easily admit himself in the wrong; as it is, he will pay for his acts.”1

One of the interludes in my book on Ligotti will deal with the history of the drives (the daemon, mood, ate, urge, etc.) and their relevance to horror and the weird. I think we’ve all been driven to do things against our own better interests at one time or another. This impulsive, mad behavior is one of those aspects of the alien in us, that show forth our own inhuman being at its most central, tearing down the facade of Reason and Culture and revealing the insanity below the threshold of our physical and mental lives. We are puppets on the strings of irrational forces we seek to assuage and cover over with all our civilizational rhetoric, therapies, and delusions. At heart we are an alien monstrosity which will not accept its own insanity in the face of these dark forces that drive us, instead we delude ourselves with mythologies of Reason to hide and distract ourselves from this truth.

As Dodds puts it: “Always, or practically always, ate is a state of mind—a temporary clouding or bewildering of the normal consciousness. It is, in fact, a partial and temporary insanity; and, like all insanity, it is ascribed, not to physiological or psychological causes, but to an external “daemonic” agency.” This notion that rather than some internal psychic aspect that it was marked by the noumenal and external ‘dark powers’ of the cosmos is pertinent. Menos is another term that sheds light on ate:” When a man feels menos in his chest, or “thrusting up pungently into his nostrils,” he is conscious of a mysterious access of energy; the life in him is strong, and he is filled with a new confidence and eagerness.” This notion of menos leads to an influx of physical energy and strength in which a person is able to perform feats of Herculean effort with ease caught in the grip of this daemonic energy or fire. Ate as Dodds works through all the etymological associations in the Greek poets from Homer to the Tragedians speaks of this insatiable and irrational driveness which is both alien to the normal mode of rational being and yet is essentially a part of that alien core of our being. For Agamenon as Dodds senses there is this sense that his actions are those of a daemon, and “the action of the daemon is not moralized in any way: he seems to be simply an evil spirit, tempting man to his damnation”.

As such these alien forces from the cosmic regions beyond the balance and harmony that the Greeks so cherished as central to their conception of Heimarmene as the natura
order of the Whole by which from eternity one thing follows another, a sense of destiny or fate central to their notions of Reason or Logos that orders all things. To be tempted to step beyond the order of things, to set in motions forces that would upset one’s destiny, overturn one’s fate was to be tempted by ones “alastor or evil daemon”. This would lead to cosmic justice and punishment for hubris and overstepping one’s allotted place in the scheme of things.

Dodds insists that by the time of Aeschylus he did not have to revive the world of the daemons: it is the world into which he was born. In the age that lies between the Odyssey and the Oresteia, “the daemons seem to draw closer: they grow more persistent, more insidious, more sinister”. The Greeks took the daemonic seriously and as Dodds suggests “we should not dismiss this as “personification”: behind it lies the old Homeric feeling that these things are not truly part of the self, since they are not within man’s conscious control; they are endowed with a life and energy of their own, and so can force a man, as it were from the outside, into conduct foreign to him”.

Whereas from Homer to the Tragedians the daemons were external forces of irrationality and darkness for Plato they’d become tutelary powers of the mind itself (Dodds): “Plato picked up and completely transformed the idea, as he did with so many elements of popular belief: the daemon becomes a sort of lofty spirit-guide, or Freudian Super-ego, who in the Timaeus is identified with the element of pure reason in man. In that glorified dress, made morally and philosophically respectable, he enjoyed a renewed lease of life in the pages of Stoics and Neoplatonists, and even of mediaeval Christian writers.”

This inversion of the dark side of human nature into its opposite with the daemons transformed from furies and sinister forces driving humans by ate into divine madness for their hubris and excess seems to have arisen as philosophers began revising the irrational and explaining it away as part of their effort to internalize and tame the evil by way of conceptuality and Reason. Dodds puts this in the necessary relation between the older “guilt-culture” of the Homeric Greeks, and the “shame-culture” of Plato’s era as democracy and the slow decay of the aristocratic world fractured and war brought an end to that heritage. Dodds himself will end his survey of the early Greeks “guilt-culture” built on modes of horror, dread, and mystery which would give way to the Platonic worldview of light, harmony, and enlightenment, saying, lest “we forget that out of this archaic guilt-culture there arose some of the profoundest tragic poetry that man has produced. It was above all Sophocles, the last great exponent of the archaic world-view, who expressed the full tragic significance of the old religious themes in their unsoftened, unmoralised forms—the over whelming sense of human helplessness in face of the divine mystery, and of the ate that waits on all human achievement—and who made these thoughts part of the cultural inheritance of Western Man.”


  1. Dodds, Eric R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures) . University of California Press.

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