Editor's comment

Gilbert Murray was professor of Greek at Oxford and a distinguished scholar of the culture and literature of ancient Greece. His philosophical essays often use classical Greece history or ideas to illuminate modern life.

In this excerpt he advances the idea that humans are herd animals and religion is the groping of a lonely-souled gregarious animal to find its herd or its herd-leader in the great spaces between the stars.

An excerpt from his book,Five Stages of Greek Religion, can be found under the topic The idea of progress under the subtopic - a cautionary note on progress. It deals with our failure to accept reality.

Murray, Gilbert, Humanist Essays, Unwin Books Barnes & Noble, New York 1964 “The Stoic Philosophy” [abridged -500 words] – the groping of a lonely-souled gregarious animal

[After an extended discussion of the Stoic philosophy Murray concludes:]

A Friend behind phenomena: I owe the phrase to Mr. Bevan. It is the assumption which all religions make, and sooner or later all philosophies. The main criticism which I should be inclined to pass on Stoicism would lie here. Starting out with every intention of facing the problem of the world by hard thought and observation, resolutely excluding all appeal to tradition and mere mythology, it ends by making this tremendous assumption, that there is a beneficent purpose in the world and that the force which moves nature is akin to ourselves. If we once grant that postulate, the details of the system fall easily into place…

We seem to find, not only in all religions, but in practically all philosophies, some belief that man is not quite alone in the universe, but is met in his endeavours towards the good by some external help or sympathy. We find it everywhere in the unsophisticated man. We find it in the unguarded self-revelations of the most severe and conscientious atheists… It is very important in this matter to realize that the so-called belief is not really an intellectual judgment so much as a craving of the whole nature.

It is only of very late years that psychologists have begun to realize the enormous dominion of those forces in man of which he is normally unconscious. We cannot escape as easily as these brave men dreamed from the grip of the blind powers beneath the threshold. Indeed, as I see philosophy after philosophy falling into this unproven belief in the Friend behind phenomena, as I find that I myself cannot, except for a moment and by an effort, refrain from making the same assumption, it seems to me that perhaps here too we are under the spell of a very old ineradicable instinct.

We are gregarious animals; our ancestors have been such for countless ages. We cannot help looking out on the world as gregarious animals do; we see it in terms of humanity and of fellowship. Students of animals under domestication have shown us how the habits of a gregarious creature, taken away from his kind, are shaped in a thousand details by reference to the lost pack which is no longer there—the pack which a dog tries to smell his way back to all the time he is out walking, the pack he barks to for help when danger threatens.

It is a strange and touching thing, this eternal hunger of the gregarious animal for the herd of friends who are not there. And it may be, it may very possibly be, that, in the matter of this Friend behind phenomena, our own yearning and our own almost ineradicable instinctive conviction, since they are certainly not founded on either reason or observation, are in origin the groping of a lonely-souled gregarious animal to find its herd or its herd-leader in the great spaces between the stars.

At any rate, it is a belief very difficult to get rid of.