"The human condition is to suffer and die," believed the ancient Greeks in Homer's time. That didn't mean that suffering and dying were the only things that humans did. Far from it! But the author of the Iliad and Odyssey and father of western literature repeatedly emphasized mortality as the one essential distinction between gods and people. A human's time was finite and a god's was infinite -- and that was the real difference.

E.L. Rouvelas is chairman of the law firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in Washington, D.C. He has taught business ethics in Greece, where he is Vice Chairman and Trustee of the American College.

Indeed, a lot less separated gods and men in Homer's time than in our own. His gods were playful, funny, vain, jealous, arbitrary and mischievous; just like us. They argued, competed and hurt each other's feelings. Again, like us. Homer's gods intervened regularly and directly in human affairs and often made a mess of things. They were usually to blame for a man's bad luck and everyone knew it. By contrast, God now is all-wise and always perfect. The blame for whatever goes wrong -- from the fall out of Eden to events in our daily lives -- is always ours.

Polytheism died in the West long ago. The Olympian gods headed by Zeus were renamed by the Romans but pretty much ended there. Our own omniscient, omnipotent God -- whether Jewish, Christian or Moslem -- is not their descendant. He and monotheism have triumphed, driving out all other gods before him. But the single essential dividing line between man and god -- immortality -- remains intact.

A New Pantheon

So the revelation of a new polytheistic pantheon bestriding the Earth and exercising enormous powers over men and events came as something of a shock. Shocking, too, was the recognition that these immortals were often irresponsible and acted a lot more like Homer's gods than our own. Finally, it was a surprise that their immortality was revealed not in heavenly pronouncements or theological texts but in the gray, dull verbiage of corporate law. Peering carefully at the charter of any modern multinational corporation produces a stunning revelation. Its term or duration is "infinite." In other words, it is "immortal." In Homer's terms, it is a god!

Besides immortality, modern corporations share other attributes with the ancient gods. They take many forms and can change forms instantly and at will. They can be in many places at the same time, moving easily from mountaintop to seashore and across natural and national boundaries.

If some attributes of modern corporations seem vaguely divine, their power over people's lives is indisputably god-like. They make and break our fortunes, put our lives at risk, move us around the world and generally control human destinies. They shape every element of mortals' lives: where we live, what we eat, when we sleep, who we fight, what we do for entertainment and, increasingly, how we think, feel and behave.

Religious awareness throughout history often stemmed from the inabilty to imagine or consider ourselves or our surroundings without acknowledging divine influence. Today, corporations clearly pass that test. It is virtually impossible to look at ourselves or our surroundings without seeing their omnipresent influence or to imagine how life would be without them.

Corporations Develop Ethical Codes

Modern corporations are behaving like gods in another way. Inexorably, they are developing and imposing their own moral and ethical codes. This is ironic since they were born initially to avoid responsibility, which is the very essence of limited liability. Initially, (and in some instances even today), they sought refuge in those places that imposed the fewest legal and ethical obligations. However, gradually, a new paradigm has arisen. Corporations, like other gods before them, are creating and articulating their own moral codes. These are intended not to escape responsibility but to uplift and enhance the character and actions of their employees or adherents.

The Johnson & Johnson Credo, of many decades duration and made famous by the Tylenol poisoning episode, is perhaps the most venerable and famous of these ethical codes. Today almost all the Fortune 500 Companies as well as their European counterparts have detailed and elaborate credos that articulate their obligations to customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. They often set forth affirmative positive obligations that are more demanding than the proscriptive Ten Commandments. The companies have workers, suppliers, and customers in many countries and many cultures. But a corporation needs a uniform ethical value system just as surely as it needs a uniform language and uniform system of accounts. So the companies can be seen as proselytizers of their own global ethos that transcends boundaries of states and cultures.

The growth of media, mass computing capability and public ownership make secrecy increasingly difficult and corporate ethical lapses are harder to hide. In the public glare, failure to comply with a company's own ethical standards can result in swift punishment of its sales or stock price and in orders of magnitude far greater than the penalties the law prescribes. In contrast to cumbersome government regulation, with time-consuming procedures and safeguards, the corporate credo can be a far more dramatic, rapid and effective ethical enforcer.

Finally, the new corporate gods fulfill another requirement that mankind has imposed on gods since the beginning of time: they are entertaining! However different from each other Jehovah, Zeus and the other gods may have been, they were all apt subjects for wonderful stories, whether told around primitive campfires or in high tech Hollywood productions. Today's corporations fill that bill as the literature and media dealing with their mergers, acquisitions, foibles, failures, and stock prices demonstrate. Watching the corporate pantheon demonstrate all the range of activities and emotions that made Homer's gods celebrated is just plain fun. Where their adventures and escapades will take us over time is impossible to predict. But it won't be boring.