Ekstasis and Wisdom, or Why Athena is Beside Herself

So, the Athena of the title of this blog stands as a symbol of the rational, philosophical, technical, and (the inevitable) strategically combative aspects of this blog. She is, above all, sound-minded and reasonable.

In fact, sound-mindedness was a high value in the ancient world, and this value shows up in the New Testament as well, as we can see in the many positive uses of words with the σωφρο– root.[1] Being sound-minded was not just an intellectual virtue, it was a moral marker. The opposite was to be out of your mind (usually because of intemperate indulgence in emotion), lacking self-control, or even (in the case of the two gospel uses listed below in note 1) to be possessed. The opposite of sound-minded was to be “ecstatic.” Ekstasis means “standing outside [one’s self],” hence its frequent translation in the past as “beside yourself.” Ekstasis was the realm of the irrational, the mystical, the prophetic, and the oracular.[2]

One might imagine that the New Testament would paint ekstasis in a negative light since it stands as the opposite of the well-regarded sound-mindedness. There are times when both the noun form and the verb form can mean, essentially, out of one’s mind, as when Jesus’ family are concerned that he is “beside himself” (Mk 3:21), but usually it means to be amazed to the point of being out of your mind with awe such that you are without reason, particularly in the face of the miraculous.[3] It can also mean a mystical vision or supernatural revelation, the kind that God gives to dislodge God’s followers from entrenched ideas.[4] So it seems that these are opposites in some sense, but complementary opposites. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Cor 5:13). These opposites need each other. Paradoxical though it maybe, Athena needs to lose her mind sometimes just as much as the Oracles need rationality and technē to pull their shadowy pronouncements into beneficial usefulness. Hopefully this blog can tread that line—or perhaps swing that pendulum—aright.[5] Sometimes you have to stand outside to have the right perspective on being inside.

[1] A probably-not-exhaustive list: Mk 5:15, Lk 8:35, Acts 26:25, Rom 12:3, 2 Cr 5:13, 1Tim 2:9, 1 Tim 2:15, 1 Tim 3:2, 2 Tim 1:7, Tts 1:8, Tts 2:2-6 (four times), Tts 2:12, 1 Pet 4:7.

[2] If the ecstatic had had a patroness for the Greeks (as Athena was for the rational and sound-minded), it might well have been the Oracle at Delphi (and her kin elsewhere, the Pythia)—the prophetic and oracular priestess of the ancient world.

[3] Mt 12:23; Mk 2:12, 3:21, 5:42, 6:51, and 16:8; Lk 2:47, 5:26, 8:56, and 24:22; Acts 2:7, 2:12, 3:10, 8:9, 8:11, 8:13, 9:21, 10:45, and 12:16. The words with a θαυμά- root aren’t included here, but the connection is not unimportant especially in its seeming overlap in the NT with the terms we’ve been discussing here and its positive use in philosophical literature. Look for a blog post in the future on this topic.

[4] Acts 10:10, 11:5, and 22:17.

[5] Since a good deal of this blog will be about interpretation, some readers may wonder why we have not invoked Hermes, since we are fiddling around with such things. Well, all I can say is, it’s been done, and those with ears to hear will have already realized he has been the patron here of no small bit of thievery in these first two posts. Though I prefer to think of it as standing on the shoulders of giants.


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