Thursday, 14 June 2018

Did the Greeks Invent Philosophy?

In addition to many non-specialist readers here who (I think) find the heretical line of argument in my posts interesting, there are also readers of this blog who are specialists in relevant fields, including classicists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, theologians, etc. I’m grateful for their interest, and the often well-informed comments and exchanges, both here and via email. But sometimes specialists are more interested in defending academic turf, than in the elucidation of their subject. I’ve recently had such an experience.

I chose to publish first in ebook format, via my own imprint, the Anshar Press. Partly because I anticipated a grim slog trying to find a publisher or an agent willing to take on a project which rejects several scholarly constructs which we use to make sense of our intellectual history. The most important of these constructs is the notion that the Greeks invented philosophy. The corollary of this is that there is no intellectual history worthy of the name before the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

This construct is a notion, and not a fact. It is not a fact because the evidence does not support it. If it is not supported by the evidence, why do people believe it?

Such a long tale to tell! So many interlocking reasons! I unpicked much of this construct in The Sacred History of Being (2015). A close reading of both Plato and Aristotle shows that the Greeks had a quite different understanding of what knowledge is from ourselves. They also had a quite different notion of how knowledge is acquired from ourselves, and Plato and Aristotle broadly agree about how it is done. It has nothing to do with the human senses, and physical experience. All knowledge was understood to exist in a supersensible and wholly transcendent realm. The soul was thought to mirror that transcendent realm, and therefore to offer connection with it. The upshot of this way of looking at things is that knowledge is accessed directly by the mind rather than the senses.

In the modern world we have turned this upside down entirely. We assume (and that is all that it is, an assumption) that all knowledge is necessarily mediated through sensory experience. It is understood through the categories of thought employed by the human reason, which (we imagine) reflect (in some way) the structure of the objectively real physical reality which exists outside our minds. This is a scholarly construct (one might even describe it as a scholarly compact) which has become a given since the European Enlightenment.

So we read Plato and Aristotle upside down, and effectively reject those parts of their writings which do not fit with our own way of understanding things. Our understanding of the main components of classical philosophy is therefore quite different from the understanding of philosophy in the Athenian Academy, and so scholars study classical philosophy outside its proper context. Worse, scholars have no idea what the proper context is, or why it might be important. As a result, many aspects of classics and the history of philosophy are necessarily problematic.

Something happened in addition to the development of a post Enlightenment over-reliance on common sense ideas about how we know things, and make sense of them. We lost a key ancient idea. That idea is the idea of the plenum. The plenum is that state of reality, conceived to exist beyond space and time, which stands behind the generation of space and time. Though it embraces the reality of space and time, it has no existence in space and time. It has no size, no location, and no properties other than being the wholly transcendental reality in which physical reality can exist. It does not move, it is not subject to change, it does not think in any way we could properly comprehend. It is what it is.

This is the idea behind Plato’s discussion of the form of the Good, and of a transcendental reality. It is an idea which has been understood (by some) for much of European history, and since classical times. But it has been much less understood since the Enlightenment. This is because it is an idea which runs counter to common sense, and which cannot make sense to us in terms of the realities of the world of things which have physical existence. Even if such a thing did exist, and was conceived to exist, it has been imagined that it would have no impact on the world of the senses and physical existence. As a consequence, it is, for the most part, treated as a matter of no importance.

This view is a mark of the poverty of the modern mind, even among the intellectually able. As I said, the plenum is that state of reality, which was once conceived to exist beyond space and time, which stands behind the generation of space and time, in which we have our existence. We may not be able to measure it, weigh it, discuss its form, etc., but if such a thing is responsible for the generation of the physical world, the concept deserves our attention. It was Plato’s principal concern. He was always looking to the ‘one thing’. And that one thing could be apprehended by the mind.

The Plenum can spoken of in different ways. It can be called transcendental reality, reality itself, Being, The One, Totality, etc. When I came to write The Sacred History of Being, I chose to use the term ‘Being’ through much of the text, because that was one of the terms Plato used. But I explored the different ways in which Being can be referenced. So a major purpose of writing the book was to explore the scope of a key idea in classical philosophy in something like its original context, and to restore its understanding. It remains a difficult concept to master, but we do ourselves no favours in not knowing what it means, and why it was such an important concept.

That restoration by itself makes the book potentially a valuable contribution to making sense of classical philosophy, and its actual origins. Provided of course that I have done the job properly, and not littered the text with misunderstandings and errors. Altogether, I spent nearly twelve years on constructing the text. I took the task seriously.

My background is unusual, in that in addition to my interest in Greece, philosophy and the history of ideas, I also studied Mesopotamian languages, history and culture. I was struck very early on in my studies by the range of evidence which suggested strongly that the Assyrians and Babylonians had a clear conception of the Plenum, and the idea of Being, and that there was a connection with their religion. One king even included the title ‘King of Totality’ in the string of epithets which described his importance. I realised that there was a level of cultural continuity between Greece and Assyria in particular in terms of ideas of the nature of reality, and also in terms of an understanding of moral action.

So, not only was The Sacred History of Being restoring clarity to our picture of classical philosophy, it provided something of a comparative cultural context for the emergence of philosophy in Greece. A comparative context which could be followed in Assyria back to the 14th century B.C.E.

Occasionally I send off letters to publishers offering to submit work which they might be interested in publishing. Sometimes they say yes, and ask to see the manuscript. That’s fine, whether they accept the manuscript for publication or not - they bothered to look at the work. You might think that a book such as The Sacred History of Being would generate a lot of interest among academic publishing houses which focus on philosophy, classics, religion, ancient history, etc. I noticed in April that a major academic publishing house had on their list a book which covered some of the later territory of The Sacred History of Being.  I drafted a letter describing my book and its scope, and included a commendation of the work from an eminent scholar (I’ve edited that out). I sent this mail to the appropriate editor at the publishing house on the afternoon of the 2nd of May this year, and offered to send the manuscript to them in PDF.

What happened? I got an email the very next afternoon, declining to look at the book, after consultation with other list managers. My work ­– possibly the most interesting manuscript they could receive in a month of Sundays – was rejected, sight unseen, by three people (specialists in classics, religion and philosophy). What was the reason given? The book did not fit the list. Which is standard code for ‘we don’t want your book’. What the real reasons were for the rejection I am afraid to imagine.

The point of posting the exchange is not to embarrass anyone, so I’ve blurred names and other information which would identify the publishing house. The point is that it is extremely difficult to get a hearing for radical scholarship from major publishing houses. And that manuscripts can be (and sometimes are) rejected without being looked at at all. Rejecting books with radical arguments without even a cursory review suggests that defending existing scholarly turf is a major part of the game. That’s not what it is supposed to be about. 

[click to expand the images].




I did expand on what some of the difficulties facing my project might be as far back as 2005. I drafted, slightly facetiously, a publishers internal memo outlining why such a book should not be published. You might want to take a look at that, since not much has changed since then. Keeping the Enlightenment Agenda Alive.



Sunday, 10 June 2018

Man and the Divine



This is my second collection of essays on philosophy and ancient history. Like my first collection, Understanding Ancient Thought, it expands further on the arguments of The Sacred History of Being, which appeared in November 2015. Most of the 22 chapters have appeared in draft form on my web site, and one first appeared on the web site of the Bibliographica Philosophica Hermetica, run by the Ritman Library in Amsterdam (‘The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World’). Man and the Divine replaces The Frankish Tower, which was slated to be my next book  Man and the Divine will be published this summer (2018).  


Many of the essays deal with the question of esoteric knowledge in antiquity, often from slightly different angles. ‘The Death of Socrates’ is one of those, a solicited response to one of a series of dramatized readings of famous speeches from history, staged by the Almeida Theatre in London in 2017. This reading was performed by Sir Derek Jacobi. ‘Distinguishing Belief and Faith’ began as a meditation on some text by Alan Watts, but which expanded into a chapter about who believed what, and why, in ancient Mesopotamia. ‘Polytheism, Monotheism, and the Cult of the Aten’, explores Akhenaten’s religious innovations in the Egypt of the 14th century B.C.E. These are still difficult to understand, but we are getting closer.

Modern scholarship generally steers away from the idea that there may be an esoteric level to the nature of reality, but approaches questions surrounding esotericism in terms of a division between those who argue that there is such an esoteric level of reality, and those who maintain that just because they can think of such a thing and give it names and descriptions, does not mean that there is genuine esoteric knowledge. The first group are sometimes described as ‘Essentialists’, and the second, as ‘Nominalists’. I dealt with this way of thinking in my book J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being. Frazer simply denied the idea that it was possible to say anything meaningful at all about a transcendent reality (Being), and consequently argued that Plato’s work was built on a fundamental error, through the conversion of an epistemology into an ontology.

Some of the essays discuss something of the background to the writing of The Sacred History of Being. It was important to produce a concise and focussed argument, and many interesting discussions had to be put to one side in order to achieve that. The Sacred History of Being represents the core argument. What I have written elsewhere is best understood in terms of a sequence of extended footnotes to that book.

The final essay, ’Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind’, is necessarily more speculative than the others, and deals with the British Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, when the building of megalithic structures was at its height. It makes comparisons with Greek and Mesopotamian notions of the importance of the sky in ancient religious thought.

Approximately 57,000 words. Available in ePub format.


Each of the 22 chapters is summarised below:

The Enlightenment of David Hume.  Though Hume's empirical approach was not wholly successful, some of his intuitions expanded our collective understanding of how we perceive reality – for example, his insight that we have no actual knowledge of the process of causation at all, and only a customary expectation of causal process, was a powerful one. We can describe causal processes, we can differentiate the nature of different causal processes, and we can formulate rules in connection with them, but we cannot know how causality itself operates, or even be sure that a perceived causal relation, often observed before, will obey the implicit rule the next time it is under scrutiny by us. However, it is no longer clear that Hume was exploring his mental processes and understanding entirely within the framework of western secular thought. This chapter is based on intriguing research by Alison Gopnik.

The Death of Socrates. It is a puzzle that, in the midst of a thoroughly polytheistic culture in Athens, with its plethora of gods, its many cults and priesthoods in the service of those gods, that both Socrates and Plato could speak of ‘god’ in the singular. Our difficulty here is the result of a modern understanding of the significance of polytheism, which sees the phenomenon as the inevitable precursor to monotheistic belief, which excludes other gods from consideration, or credibility. For modern scholars, polytheistic belief in ancient Greece was something which developed, higgeldy-piggeldy, out of a plethora of local and tribal deities, much embellished with myths about their lives and actions, which served important social functions, but which had no universal meaning, and were not rooted in a model of reality which embraced consideration of what the nature of reality itself might be.

Bertrand Russell and Philosophy in the West. Russell discussed the philosophical outlook of George Berkeley, the late 17th/early 18th century Divine, in his History of Western Philosophy, as it emerges from a conversation between two characters in a dialogue, Hylas and Philonous. This comes to a rather eastern flavoured conclusion, that the reality of the world involves cosmic mind, and that its physical nature is of very little importance. Bertrand Russell summarised part of this dialogue, but lost interest in the argument when it became an argument about theology, and about the divine. He was after all writing a history of western philosophy, and not a history of all varieties of philosophy. But I’m interested in the relationship between philosophy and theology in the west, and also the relationship between western philosophy and eastern philosophy. And Russell’s book won’t tell you much about either of those, because he wasn’t interested, and it wasn’t important. 

The Irrationality of Atheism, Atheists do not deny the existence of the world, its laws and properties: they just argue that the concept of God is not required to accept the world, and to have an understanding of it. But this leaves them at a loss to explain how the world came to be, and why it should have come into existence.

Richard Dawkins and Deism. Modern atheism is actually dependent for its nature on the ontological argument, and the terms in which it is framed. Meaning that eight hundred years of argument about the nature and existence of God underpins the point of view of those who regard themselves as atheists. Dawkins makes a distinction in ‘The God Delusion’ between theism and deism. Theism is a pattern of belief which enshrines the idea that the Divine is responsive to man, and his rituals of worship and prayer. It is a pattern of belief dependent on the idea that God can act in the world.  By contrast, deism contemplates the idea that a creator God has existence, and necessarily created the world, but that he is not active in the physical world beyond that. This essay argues that Dawkins is in fact a modern deist rather than an atheist.

Contra Plantinga. Alvin Plantinga was kind enough to accept a copy of The Sacred History of Being. I sent two supplementary emails which outlined the implications of its criticism of the traditional ontological argument, whose function is to support a rational basis for belief, which are reproduced here.

Distinguishing Belief and Faith. Modern scholarship has a track record of making easy assumptions about the continuity of religious ideas and patterns of practice, and the accompanying social compacts. At the time the Assyrian palaces, temples and cities were being dug from the sand and soil in northern Mesopotamia, it was assumed that the relationship between the royal and temple establishments could be understood in terms of a modern division between church and state. This notion turned out to hold very little water on close analysis. It is also the case that belief is not a conspicuous feature of ancient religions.

Logic, Sophistry, and the Esoteric in Ancient Education. Both Plato and Aristotle's writings contain arguments which either don't make clear logical sense within themselves, or in the context of the rest of the work. Sometimes the clues to the meaning of arguments are present elsewhere in the canons of both Plato and Aristotle, and some of them clearly involve an esoteric level of understanding. The whole body of their outputs need to be taken on board in order to grasp the meaning of individual works. This is usually not done with the works of Aristotle: his Historia Animalium is read by biologists and specialists in animal taxonomies, but usually they read little else of his work.

Beyond Mathematics and Geometry.  The process of separating ourselves from an interpretation of the world in terms of simple apprehension is driven initially by the practical necessities of our existence. But this process does not need to stop there. Intelligence consists in being able to adjust the categories of our understanding so that we do not mistake one thing for another. It is a mental development which might have no end. This is essentially how Kant understood human intellectual development, which he framed (in his Prolegomena) in terms of a general theory of a priori concepts, not based on empirical sense data, or even a mathematical or geometric understanding of anything in the world.

Evading the Infinite: A Review of A.W. Moore’s ‘History of the Infinite’.  This chapter is a critical response to Adrian W. Moore's radio series 'The History of the Infinite', broadcast in the autumn of 2016, and his book 'The Infinite', published in the early 90s. His treatment of the subject hardly references Plato at all. Adding Plato to the discussion changes the way in which the argument should be framed. Adding persuasive Mesopotamian evidence to the discussion shows how off the mark the argument is. The actual infinite is the principal source of ancient ideas concerning the divine, not Aristotle's potential infinite, so Moore's argument concerning our knowledge of God is forced to take refuge in the quasi-mystical Calvinistic idea of a 'sensus divinitatis'. His argument also makes it impossible to understand Kant's treatment of religion.

The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World.  In my twenties, I was struck by the strong interest the ancients had in the idea of limit – in art, architecture, philosophy, and ritual. This interest did not much seem to engage modern scholarly attention, with a couple of notable exceptions. Initially I had no idea at all what the significance of the idea of limit might be, and no idea where pursuing it would take me. Or that it would lead to a book it would take me four years to write, and which would reframe my understanding of human intellectual history in the process.

Unwritten Doctrine, Ancient Silence. It is often assumed by students of antiquity that there is no special importance to be attached to remarks that certain items of information are to be kept secret and not imparted to the unworthy, and to the ordinary mortal. This assumption is based on the presumption that there was, and is not, anything about which it is impossible to speak of, before those not used to dealing with information about religion and the divine. This is a curiosity of modern times, in that the ignorance of theology among the moderns makes it impossible for them to credit the importance of theology in antiquity -  both to those who understood its subtleties and and those who didn’t.

Ancient Conjectures, and Fictive Intellectual History. Plato argues that we should always look to the ‘one true thing’. J.G. Frazer also argued that questions concerning Being (‘the one true thing’) were entirely barren, since nothing could be predicated of Being. This of course is a spectacular instance of intellectual blindness, by which the richness of the intellectual matrix of ancient Greek thought was spirited into nothingness. In antiquity, nods were made toward the notion that the discipline of philosophy might not have been first developed in Greece, including (tellingly) at the beginning of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Philosophers.  Plato after all argued against the idea that philosophy was invented by the Greeks in the Protagoras, saying that it was of a great age – perhaps contemporary with the arrival of peoples from Egypt, who settled in the Peloponnese, and  also in  Crete.

What is Sacred, and what is Profane?  Each of the divine names of Marduk, the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon,  has a description, and each of the lesser gods can be understood as abstractions of aspects of the rational creation. They represent excellences in the world. Marduk represents the sum total of these. This is the clue to understanding much of the ancient understanding of what the divine is. Each described excellence resembles reality itself in terms of its properties. The excellence may serve social functions, as does a skill or specialism, but it should be performed for its own sake. The performance of these excellences recalls the perfection and completeness of the plenum, and reinforces the presence of the divine in the world. 

Intentionality, Conjecture, and What is Holy. Intentionality explains why the ancients created a multiplicity of gods. If the divine itself cannot by definition be completely defined and understood, at least certain properties and attributes can be understood. These can therefore be defined and named as ways of accessing the divine. This does not at all conflict with the idea that the reality of the divine is in question. Instead this view argues that there is in fact a subjective component in the reality of the divine, at least insofar as it is possible for us to have commerce with it.

Excellence and the Knowledge of Divine Things. Plutarch opens his life of Alexander with a cheerful complaint about the sheer extent of the materials available to him to write on Alexander. So the details which are in his essay are there because he regarded them as important in showing Alexander’s character, his disposition, and the content of his mind. On the basis of his sources he says that it is thought that Alexander was taught by Aristotle not only his doctrines of Morals and Politics, but also those more abstruse mysteries which are only communicated orally and are kept concealed from the vulgar: for after he had invaded Asia, hearing that Aristotle had published some treatises on these subjects, he wrote him a letter in which he defended the practice of keeping these speculations secret.

Egypt in the Shadows. Since the European enlightenment, the influence of Egypt on the development of abstract and philosophical thought has been deprecated. Yet, as Martin Bernal showed in the third volume of Black Athena,  many Greek words have plausible etymologies from Egyptian. It is also the case that several of the concepts used by Aristotle in his philosophical writing were known to Egyptians nine hundred years before his time, such as the idea of completion (it is connected with the idea of birth in Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten, which dates to the fourteenth century BCE). There is also abundant evidence for the existence of philosophical thought among the Hebrews in the books of the Old Testament.  Yahweh is described as ‘the first and last, and beside me there is no God’. His name (minus the vowels) is a variant of the verb ‘to be’, which suggests that his isolation is due to the fact that he was understood to be Being itself.

Polytheism, Monotheism, and the Cult of the Aten. The Aten is first mentioned (to our knowledge) in the Story of Sinuhe, which dates at least as far back as the twelfth dynasty, where the dead king is described as uniting with with the sun-disk in the heavens. Akhenaten’s iconography never shows the god in anthropomorphic form – instead the Aten is always shown as the sun disk with rays of light extending from it, with hands at the end of each ray. The Sun god was considered to be neither male nor female, but both simultaneously, an idea which was reflected in the depiction of Akhenaten in sculpture and reliefs. His full title however was ‘The Ra-Horus who rejoices in the horizon, in his/her Name of the Light which is seen in the sun disk’. We find this full rendering of the Aten’s name on the stelae placed around Akhetaten, which was Akhenaten’s newly founded capital. Sometimes the full name was shortened to Ra-Horus-Aten, or just ‘Aten’. Since two of the names of Akhenaten’s god refer to the sun (Ra being an older name for the sun god), it seems that some kind of intellectual synthesis of older ideas had taken place.

Cultural Continuity in the Ancient World, and Bernal’s Black Athena. Martin Bernal’s intention was take ancient Greece out of its exalted orbit above all other civilizations, and root it in what he assumed to have been a cultural continuum around the Mediterranean sea from at least the mid-2nd century B.C.E up until the classical period of Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Bernal pointed to the evidence within the texts of the 1st millennium which suggested cultural continuities with ancient Egypt – all dismissed by the classicists in favour of evidence in texts which could be interpreted as suggesting the opposite. Bernal’s attempts to establish cultural continuity with the civilizations around the Mediterranean were hampered by the fact that myths are not simply encodings of historical and political change, and that the exchange of words between linguistic groups is, by itself, weak evidence for cultural continuity.  He was correct to guess at the existence of the cultural continuity, I think, but ill-equipped to establish such a thing. To do this requires moving things around – particularly re-anchoring the relationship of Greek philosophy to patterns of religious belief and cult practice; and the establishing of the relationship between Greek patterns of religious belief and cult practice to parallel ideas and behaviour in the Near East and in Egypt.


The Tangled Thread: Universals in History. The liturgies and the description of ancient rituals have been published and translated, and their signifcance and meaning have been discussed by scholars. But they make difficult reading for the reason that they involve a different set of preconceptions from those understood by Mesopotamian scholars. It is hard to break through to an understanding of what was understood to be going on. The Mesopotamians employed ideas which they considered to be universally valid, such as all wisdom being present in the Abzu, and that the acquisition of knowledge depended on some kind of ritual engagement with Ea and the Abzu. And that the good order of the world depended on man's relation to the world of the divine. Since the European Enlightenment however, we have adopted another set of universal notions, which do not depend at all on the reality of the divine and the gods. In fact it pushes such notions into the shadowlands of unreason. So there is little inclination among scholars who specialise in Mesopotamia to spend time trying to makes sense of things which they regard as intrinsically unreasonable.

The Age of the Lord Buddha. Scholars acquiesce in the convention  that an articulate and technical understanding of the idea of Being was first broached by the Greeks in the middle of the 1st Millennium BCE. It follows therefore that all references to the divine in the ancient near east before that date are not articulate and technical references, but notional and inchoate. The consequence must be that we can learn nothing useful about ancient intellectual processes and concerns from these notions, since they are beliefs entirely unsupported by rational argument. This would come as a surprise to many ancient cultures, if they were still around. The date of the Buddha's floruit for western scholars is much closer to our own time than it is for scholars in the east. We place him around the 5th century BCE, since there is clearly an interest in universals in the texts. The Puranas provide a chronology of the Magadha rulers from the supposed time of the Mahabharata war, and Buddha is supposed to have become enlightened during the reign of Bimbisara, the 5th Shishunaga ruler, who, according to this chronology, ruled between 1852-1814 BCE. His birth date may have been 1887 BCE.  Chinese scholarship has long maintained that Buddhism came to China from India around 1200-1100BCE.

Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind. The evidence from the megaliths makes the importance of the sky very clear: in Britain and around the megalithic world, the sky was seen as a representation of divinity, of Being. As an image of the divine, it was an image of totality itself. The megalithic observatory, or temple, according to this hypothesis, was a device to embody aspects of divinity, of Being, actually in its structure, in the same way in which the gods in Mesopotamia might be invited to occupy their representations on earth.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Tangled Thread: Universals in History




This piece of text was the original (and short) opening chapter to the draft of The Sacred History of Being which was on my desk in 2004. I was toying with a number of possible titles for the book at the time, and the favoured title of the moment (June 2004) was The Shrine in the Sea. This was because there was a large focus on the Mesopotamian idea of the Abzu, home to Enki/Ea at the bottom of the sea. Ea was the broad-eared Mesopotamian god of wisdom, and all important things were understood to point back, in the end, towards the Abzu. Hence, the inauguration of divine statues required that the Abzu be closely referenced in liturgy and ritual, and the inaugurations took place where there was physical proximity to objects with symbolic connections to the Abzu, such as quays and river banks (all rivers in Mesopotamia being considered divine [DINGIR.ID]), and the thresholds of temples. These details (and the rituals themselves) are discussed in detail in the closing chapters of The Sacred History of Being.

The liturgies and the description of the rituals have been published and translated, and their signifcance and meaning have been discussed by scholars. But they make difficult reading for the reason that they involve a different set of preconceptions from those understood by Mesopotamian scholars. It is hard to break through to an understanding of what was understood to be going on. Given the enormous passage of time since these rituals were devised, that is perhaps not surprising. 

But there is another level of difficulty which we have created for ourselves, and in relatively recent times. The Mesopotamians employed ideas which they considered to be universally valid, such as all wisdom being present in the Abzu, and that the acquisition of knowledge depended on some kind of ritual engagement with Ea and the Abzu. And that the good order of the world depended on man's relation to the world of the divine. 

Since the European Enlightenment, we have adopted another set of universal notions, which do not depend at all on the reality of the divine and the gods. In fact it pushes such notions into the shadowlands of unreason. So there is little inclination among scholars who specialise in Mesopotamia to spend time trying to makes sense of things which are intrinsically unreasonable in nature. 


***

In an age where both ideas of realpolitik and the centrality of ideology and different varieties of determinism (philosophical and economic in particular) are assumed by professional historians to be the constants in history which eluded our predecessors, it is easy to introduce suppositions into historical analysis without any sense of violating the proper context of the evidence. I will deal some of the difficulties in the course of this book. For now it is enough to mention the difficulties which stand between us and the use of evidence which does more than fit the pieces crudely into a pattern of meaning conformant with expectation, or at least fits within the parameters of what we are prepared to countenance as a credible model of the past.

More significant than individual difficulties however, is the complex interaction of one with the other, and the successive layers of these interacting obstacles to our understanding. Any age has a body of beliefs, sometimes contradictory and multiple, and differing across social groups, societies and nations, which are essentially assumed. They are not often examined closely (if at all) because they have the special status of commonly held truths. Not common in the sense that they are base or full of superstition, but common in that they are either tacitly agreed, or it is agreed that it is permissible or even desirable to hold these beliefs. These beliefs vary from age to age. These patterns of belief change – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

We have, since the enlightenment in Europe, created a body of ideas which is designed to support  our world and its perspectives with a theoretical underpinning. That underpinning is, in broad terms, rationalism. We are by and large so sure of the rightness of our ways of thinking, particularly in the modern Western world, that we have now elevated rationalism to a place above all other perceptionsof the world, in the whole of history*.[i]

This can be understood as the culmination of the rationalist and humanist agenda of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rationalists and humanists understood themselves to be struggling under the deadweight of accumulated belief and superstition, as well as the institutions and powers which drew their authority from the religious structures dominating the intellectual landscape. Drawing on the intellectual models of nature which developed during the seventeenth century, the rationalist perception of the world constantly sought to describe reality in terms of the laws of physics and mechanics. Nature became something which could be the subject of operations, rather than an outward expression of the mystery and character  of the divine. The latter construct was ignored. Descartes picture of the world shut this aspect of reality out as unneccessary for the analysis of the world, without significant argument in favour of this beyond the assertion that the world of the divine need not be invoked in order to explain the physical world.

The severing of this link had enormously beneficial results in terms of the development of the sciences in general – matters were simplified enormously if all that was being considered was what could be measured, counted and weighed; and there was no imponderable interference from the intrusion of the divine.

However it was not the case that the world of the divine had been shown to be of no account in the development of an understanding of nature – the exclusion of this aspect of reality was simply decreed, since it had been decided that it was unnecessary for our understanding of the natural world.

As the sciences progressed, the quality and power of the descriptive models of nature created supplied, for all practical purposes, the proof that a knowledge of the world of the divine was unneccessary for an understanding of nature. Thereafter, the divine became, in the world of the sciences, something to be scorned, as a relic of the days when the human race lived in a state of irrational superstition. The scientific and rational model of understanding nature then clarified its identity partly in opposition to the patterns of thought which it sought to escape. The next logical step was to try to supplant the models of the world in which the divine was deemed to function as creator or agent. This was in essence the eighteenth century enlightenment agenda.

After the eighteenth century, the idea of the divine and its associated technicalites became less and less interesting to study. In the early twenty-first century, it is a matter for the philosophical specialist working principally with materials created during the Christian era, or for the credulous. And within academia, the consideration of the divine outside this is verboten in close detail - though it may be studied in anthropological terms, in terms of social dynamics, or in terms of human pathology - for the simple reason that it is axiomatic that a philosophically grounded theology of the world dates only from the application and adaptation of Greek philosophical concepts in the creation of Christian theology in the first centuries of the modern era.

Christian theology has always appeared weak to the rationalist world by dint of its appropriation of Greek philosophical ideas for its intellectual support, since the enlightenment enterprise itself traces its own foundations to the Academy and the Lyceum. It is hard therefore to defend Christian theology against an argument coming from specialists in its own intellectual background.

However, a sophisticated, technical theology arriving from beyond the cultural arc stretching from Ancient Greece to the parlours and salons of the eighteenth century would be unwelcome to both rationalists and Christian theologians, since it might reframe the origins of both the rational world view and of Christianity. The hypothesis explored in this book is that just such a philosophical theology existed in the ancient world, and that it is, by close analysis of the evidence, possible for us to understand many of its details, as well as the intellectual background it provided to both the development of philosophy in Greece, and the origins of Christianity. 









[i] in a manner reminiscent of the elevation of the Roman Republic above all other constitutional forms by Polybius, so that the Republic was not subject to the forces (it was understood) other states were subject to [the ancient world understood several models for state constitutions, and Aristotle had arranged them into a cycle. Rome fitted into this, but at some point they decided that they had transcended that cycle, and that (essentially) both Rome and its constitution were eternal].



Thursday, 31 May 2018

'I and Thou'. Anthropology and the Presumption of Primitive Intellectual Error in Antiquity.



[This is a section from Thomas Yaeger’s book J. G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being, published by the Anshar Press in April 2016.]


4.1. The problem of the authentic Socrates may reside mainly with ourselves: we make a clear distinction between ethical issues and matters of ontology. A proper reading of Aristotles's Ethics however, shows quite clearly that ethical issues were not distinguished in this way by Plato's pupil. The anabasis of the soul described in that work implies at the least a metaphorical emulation of the condition of the divine*[37]. The whole universe is conceived by Aristotle as a moral hierarchy from insect to the Good, and we do well to recall the passage in the Timaeus where Plato speaks of a similar hierarchy, ascended and descended according to the moral worth of the individual in life:

...by virtue of necessity... their bodies are subject to influx and efflux, [and] these results would necessarily follow, - firstly sensation that is innate and common to all proceeding from violent effections; secondly, desire mingled with pleasure and pain; and besides these, fear and anger and all such emotions as are naturally allied thereto, and all such as are of a different and opposite character. And if they shall master these they will live justly, but if they are mastered unjustly. And he that has lived his appointed time well shall return again to his abode in his native star, and shall gain a life that is blessed and congenial; but whoso has failed therein shall be changed into woman's nature at the second birth; and if, in that shape, he still refraineth not from wickedness he shall be changed every time, according to the nature of his wickedness, into some bestial form after the similitude of his own nature...*[38].

 4.2. It has been argued, essentially following the Frazerian model of antiquity, [Before Philosophy, Henri Frankfort, et al.] that, among ancient cultures the world was conceived as a place populated entirely by entities, so that relation with the things in the world was essentially understood in terms of "I" and "Thou": subject and object, whether animate or inanimate, were understood to belong to the same generic category. But this presumes - for reasons which seem quite sound to us - that in fact the subjective and objective worlds are generically different. Thus, it would seem that to parallel epistemological processes with ontological ones must be to make an error. The implication of this view is that, at best, the ancients failed to formalise the difference between the two realms, and, at worst, that such a distinction never occurred to them.

4.3. If it is true that the ancients never came to grips with the distinction between the realms of the subjective and the objective, and therefore the distinction between the animate and inanimate, then it must follow that the ancient perception of the nature of the world must have been altogether in error (to which Wittgenstein objected), and the earliest part of human history may be legitimately characterized, with Frazer, as a childhood. The supposed failure to distinguish between the processes of the subjective and objective realms means that we can read the past as a struggle for the acquisition of the skill to do so: all arguments form part of an unplanned sequence, a blind upward groping toward the light of understanding. Whereas if the yoking of the subjective and objective realms owes its origin to the reasoned idea of the final cause, the concept of a final completeness of the world in which everything has its place and function, then we cannot with confidence interpret dialectical arguments or the evidence of human activity in antiquity as part of a blind anabasis, an improvised ascent to a rational understanding. This for the simple reason that these arguments and actions took place within a context in which the basic rational frame was already taken for granted. The importance of this is hard to overstate.

4.4. For now, the attempt to disinter the evidence for the unwritten history of the final cause as an idea is close to impossible: for, though the idea of the final cause might be admitted in the writings of earlier authors (Herodotus, Histories, Bk. I.30-33, already quoted, much of Homer, etc.), it is not understood to be intimately bound up with the view of reality which emerges from the Platonic corpus. Hence, evidence of the earlier history of the idea of the final cause is not of itself evidence for Platonism as a body of work emerging from an older pattern of ideas. Instead, the final cause is treated by critics as a traditional element within a radical programme of inquiry. By contrast, I argue that the Platonic teaching was not an exploration of reality by means of dialectical enquiry involving the use of traditional elements; but that Plato crossed well-rehearsed territory, probably with arguments more or less of his own construction.

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[37] interestingly, in defining the action of the gods as passive contemplation, Aristotle reproduces the extreme Parmenidean form of Plato's Ideal theory, in which the Form of the Good is unchanging and unchangeable. In Bk. X of the Ethics Aristotle characterizes the activity of the divine as contemplation. The gods are living beings from whom all forms of activity have been removed. "...if a being lives, and action cannot be ascribed to him,... what remains but contemplation? It follows, then, that the divine life, which surpasses all others in blessedness, consists of contemplation". (Nic. Eth. X. 8. 7., F. H. Peters trans.) [38] Tim. 42a-c