Sappho’s Problem with Evil: And Why Do Gods Refuse to Die?

Sappho says, death is an evil, the gods have so judged, for if death were good, then they too would die.

Sappho on the Gods

(Greek courtesy of Aristotle via Aristotelis Ars Rhetorica, Oxford, 1959)

According to Aristotle, these are the words so penned by ancient Greek lyrical poet Sappho (c. 610 — c. 570 BCE). In terms of philosophy, her argument has always struck me — first for its flawed premises, and second, for its ability to overcome its flawed premises and demonstrate a coherent and logical accusation against the act of dying. Or against the gods.


Her argument can be summed up as follows:

If dying were a good thing, then the gods would die. But because they do not die, dying must not be good.

We encounter the problem with her premises, however, when we realize she’s working under the assumption that the gods are indeed good. Therefore, we are left with two competing arguments*: 1) Sappho’s argument makes sense, or 2) there’s another, more sinister truth, which is:

If dying were a good thing, then the gods would die. But because they do not die, the gods must be evil.

In other words, either dying is evil, or the gods are evil for refusing to die.

Sappho was addressing a conceptualization about the gods that still exists today: namely, omnipotence. In other words, the gods have unlimited power. Surely this extends to the power to choose to die. To illustrate this, Sappho was incorrect about one thing; Chiron died by transferring his immortality to a human. He exercised his powers in a manner sufficient to cause his own death. In the Abrahamic religions we have a god with the very same abilities. Omnipotence necessarily implies god can choose to die, but he refuses to die while allowing every single living thing to die in his stead.

But wait! Didn’t Jesus die?

Well, did Jesus actually die? With the exception of Achilles (and a few other gods that escape me), dead gods do not generally survive to talk about the state of being dead. And they don’t come back to life. If Jesus died then his living physical body would not have flown to the heavens. If Jesus had died, then he would be dead. Dying and then coming back to life is not the same as dying. The guarantee of life after death negates death.

Of course, the bible tries to find an answer to this problem with death: Certain humans too will share immortality in some unknown future. But that says nothing for the vast majority of us. Indeed, going back to Sappho’s original argument, the argument that some humans will live forever while others die says more about the god they worship than it does about whether or not death is good or evil.

Sappho’s conclusion that death is evil brings up a lot of questions about the Abrahamic religions’ problem of evil. If god was so good, then god would choose to die, wouldn’t he?

*The reality is, however, that we have other syllogisms about death that better reflect reality. This post disregards the limits of our knowledge about death and focuses instead on arguments made in the metaphysical context.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
This entry was posted in Atheism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sappho’s Problem with Evil: And Why Do Gods Refuse to Die?

  1. Linuxgal says:

    As much as I would like to root for Sappho ( 😉 ) I don’t see anything that doesn’t die, from mayflies to redwoods to galaxies. I certainly don’t see any immortal gods. So not to die is actually an evil. You would always be outside looking in as life swarms about its business, like a stone smuggled into a nest of bird’s eggs.

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