Revisiting Ovid’s story of Baucis and Philemon

Visiting a town in Phrygia, during a fierce rain storm, Mercury and Zeus, disguised as beggars or travelers, knocked on people’s doors, asking for shelter. They visited one hundred homes and were treated rudely by all – exactly what they expected, based on the rumors of inhospitality they had heard about this town.

Though they were very poor and lived in a rustic cottage, only Baucis and Philemon admitted the gods-dressed-as-beggars and feasted them.

Because of their kindness and hospitality, they were spared the gods’ wrath, and they watched from a distance as the town was destroyed by a flood at Zeus’ bidding.

Why was the whole town (save Baucis and Philemon) destroyed? Zeus was angry because all the people who turned them away were “wicked.”

Let’s look at this logic.

Rule according to Zeus: every man in this town is wicked. Perhaps allegorically every man in the world is wicked – consider the story of Prometheus as evidence of the generality of this rule in Zeus’ mind.

Exception: people like Baucis and Philemon.

If every man in this town is likely wicked, then the rude and inhospitable people of the town were prudent in not admitting the beggars, because in all likelihood the beggars are wicked too, and the beggars might have robbed them, maybe even raped the women, and/or killed both the men and the women.

Baucis and Philemon were kind but imprudent.

Is kind and imprudent really admirable? Is goodness reducible to kindness and imprudence? And is wickedness reducible to rudeness (or just unkindness or inhospitality) plus prudence?

I would rather be prudent and kind, and if I accept Zeus’ rule, I too would fail to admit the beggars, but I would certainly not be rude, and would feel comfortable giving them money to ease their pain in lieu of food and shelter, and of course directions to the nearest shelter. Does that make me wicked and worthy of death?

The emotional overreaction, the unkindness and injustice of the gods deserve special mention, but it is just not done. Death is way too harsh a punishment for people’s rudeness, when they were being prudent and fearful of strangers. Were there not also some other kind people like Baucis and Philemon who should have been spared? If there is a shelter in the town, are not those who run the shelter, and those who contribute resources to run it, also kind people?

Zeus and Mercury visited one hundred homes. They sampled the townspeople, and stopped when Baucis and Philemon showed them great kindness, and they probably sampled the town wrongly – it is likely that their sample would have been a lazy, statistically invalid convenience sample, a simple convenient cluster sample, of door-to-door in just one neighborhood, not a random sample of the entire town, or a random sample of clusters within the town.

However, let us assume that the sampling was done randomly. A sample of 101 houses of the town’s people by Zeus and Mercury that turned up one house with two kind people suggests that the town probably contained some other kind people. A crude first estimate, based on random sampling: if the town had a population of P houses, on average there may be P/101 houses with people roughly as kind as Baucis and Philemon. There may even be some kinder people (depends on where Baucis and Philemon were on the normal distribution curve). Let’s ignore the statistical complication that the gods’ sampling was probably clustered and convenient rather than simple random or random clustering and realize the take home lesson that in all likelihood the town contained other kind and imprudent people.

If this story sounds familiar, yes, it is like the story of Lot and his wife, only Yahweh is even crueler than Zeus – he turns Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for looking on the destruction of their city, while Zeus and Mercury spare Baucis and Philemon, despite their looking at the terrible destruction of their town by a flood.

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