man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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In "By the Waters of Babylon," what realization does John's discovery about the gods lead to?

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Obviously, John's discovery makes him revise his religious beliefs. The ancients were neither "gods nor demons" but men. Religious edicts can no longer be justified on the basis of their divinity, and John clearly intends to violate some of the old laws. In the last paragraph of the story, he notes the city's name, and indicates his intention to take others into the city. In the first paragraph of the story, we're told that such actions have been "most strictly forbidden."

But John's realizations extend beyond the immediate theological implications. When he thought the ancients were gods, he regarded their achievements as beyond the reach of human beings. For instance, consider what he says about his dream—the dream where he witnesses a busy New York street at night:

"As I looked upon them and their magic, I felt like a child—but little more, it seemed to me, and they would pull down the moon from the sky.  I saw them with wisdom beyond wisdom and knowledge beyond knowledge. And yet not all they did was well done—even I could see that—their wisdom could not but grow until all was peace."

He perceived imperfection in the gods, but nevertheless believed they possessed "wisdom beyond wisdom." Their intellectual and technological feats appeared to be unattainable by mortals.

After his discovery, John indicates his intention to study the writings of the ancients and use this knowledge to advance society. ("We must build again.") He now believes it is possible to achieve some of the feats of the ancients. In fact, he even thinks it is possible to improve on their record—to follow in their footsteps without making the same mistakes. This is supported by John's analysis of what the ancients might have done wrong:

"[I]t is better that truth come little by little. I have learned that, being a priest. Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast."

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In "By the Waters of Babylon," after John's journey, what key insight does he have about the gods?

On the journey itself, near the end, he comes across a man, sitting in a chair in one of the buildings.  From this, and all of the other clues that he picks up on his journey, John learns that the gods "were men -- they went a dark road, but they were men".  He realizes how advanced they were, but also how they destroyed each other.  This is significant information, considering who they have been revering for so long were just men, like them.

The true key insight arrives when he gets back from his journey.  His dad asks him to tell him everything,and once he does, his father states, "Truth is a hard deer to hunt. If you eat too much truth at once, you may die of the truth."  He is basically saying that the people have been living a certain way, and believe certain things, and the information that John holds would change everything for them.  So, his dad recommends that the "the truth should come little by little"  to their people so that it doesn't crash their entire world around them.  John agrees, stating that "Perhaps, in the old days, they ate knowledge too fast", which is what helped cause their downfall.  This insight is probably the most profoudn of the story, and John realizes that the great knowledge that he possesses must be given in small doses, as the people are ready for it, and can show they can use it wisely.

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