Sunday, 22 December 2019

Books by Thomas Yaeger

The Sacred History of Being (2015).

Formerly argued by classical scholars to have been first discussed by the ancient Greeks in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., the articulate concept of Being can now be traced as far back as the middle of the second millennium, and the state of Assyria. 
The Greeks themselves had several stories about the origins of philosophy, a discipline which essentially deals with abstractions, including that it originated elsewhere, but that is not the received narrative. The consequence of this, is that all historians of ideas, when constructing their accounts of the intellectual development of man before the arrival of Parmenides and Plato, have had to negotiate the Greek invention of philosophy, and the corollary, that articulate discussion of the abstract concept 'Being' didn’t happen before this.

This can now be shown to be a faulty understanding, resulting in many absurdities. The Old Testament has examples where God declares his identity with Being itself (‘I am that I am’, better translated into English as ‘I am that which is,’ and ‘I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God', for example), but these are not regarded by scholars as evidence of a sophisticated discourse around the idea of Being. Instead these statements indicate inchoate ‘notions’ about the nature of god, rather than anything more profound. The statement in Malachi, however, that 'I do not change', is an explicitly philosophical understanding of the nature of God.
Published by the Anshar Press.  

When he was only twenty-four years old, James Frazer won a Cambridge fellowship with an essay on the development of Plato's theory of the Forms or Ideas (eidos). In this essay he argued that there was no overarching theory of Being in Plato's mind before he embarked on the writing of his dialogues, and that consequently differences in approach and discussion apparent in his work are the result of the development of his thought. He also argued that the very idea of Being is a barren notion, in that nothing can be predicated of Being. As a result Plato made a mistake, effectively conflating an epistemology with an ontology. 
Though the essay was written in 1879, it was not published until 1930, after much of his later work was done. Frazer became famous for his monumental study The Golden Bough, which explored a vast range of ancient and primitive myth and ritual. Here too he found intellectual processes founded in error. What was Frazer's intention in re-interpreting Plato against what Plato himself said, and his wholesale restructuring of ancient thought by reducing much of it to a pattern of error?
In sixteen sections, with prefaratory material and a conclusion. Over 23 thousand words, a preface, select bibliography, and extensive notes. Published Spring 2016 by the Anshar Press.  
A couple of related blog posts explore J.G. Frazer's discussion of Plato, and the implications for the writing of The Golden Bough. The two articles are synthesised together in a third article: Frazer and the Association of Ideas.

Understanding Ancient Thought (2017).

Understanding Ancient Thought is the third in a series of books which examines how we assess evidence from antiquity, and frame models to make sense of that evidence.  
The book consists of eighteen essays, which cover a number of subject areas which are in thrall to what Foucault described as an ‘episteme’. In other words, the way the subject areas are understood within the academy is in terms of what our cultural models, language and assumptions will allow us to understand. The actual evidence may suggest an alternative view, but it is not possible to see it, or to think it. At least until the paradigmatic frame shifts to another ‘episteme’.  
The main thrust of the book is that two hundred years of modern scholarship concerning the past has, for the most part, assembled a fictive and tendentious version of the ancient world. 51 thousand words. Published by the Anshar Press, 

Man and the Divine.  Published by the Anshar Press. ISBN 9780463665473. Available at Published in August 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. ‘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.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Reality and Perception in Plato's Academy

[a letter from June 3, 2019, written to a scholar interested in how reality was understood in the ancient world before the Greeks. There is quite a lot of evidence for that understanding in existence, in philosophical texts from the classical world, and also in literature and art from Greece and elsewhere. The clear commonalities present in ancient iconographic evidence have scarcely been addressed so far - present in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in ancient Anatolia, in Europe, and beyond. But they cannot be interpreted on a purely common sense basis. So they are, for the most part, not interpreted at all.

In The Sophist, Plato presents us with a fundamental conundrum concerning the nature of reality, and how that reality is to be understood. The argument is framed as a logical one. But the key to it is altogether left out. Instead we are told that we must accept that it must be true that both movement and change, and the unchanging nature of the One, coexist in what reality is, otherwise we would be faced with choosing one or the other (essentially the argument of Heraclitus or the argument made by Parmenides). That is an impossible choice.

The logical basis of this argument can however be figured out, provided we jettison some assumptions along the way. Discussions by Plato across his dialogues offer some clues...]


I think you will be interested in this paper (link below). I remember analysing the structure of Plato’s The Sophist in 1994, but over time, I forgot about the argument it contains, or even that I’d made one. I batch-scanned a lot of paper documents in 2003, and the analysis of The Sophist was one of those. But I didn’t read it again until recently.

The original document is squibbish, was written quickly, and was never properly completed or edited. But, knowing what I now know, I’d found the essential arguments for the ancient priestly understanding of reality, all collected together in one literary work, without being entirely aware of the implications of that. It is a little eerie to read this document now, since it looks far beyond what I was sure of at the time.

What Plato is doing in The Sophist is what he did in many other dialogues (not all), which was to include reminders to those who had been trained in theological doctrine what was important, and to wrap this information up with more or less irrelevant speculation for the merely curious and uninitiated.

The discussion of the four outlooks on the nature of reality which feature in The Sophist represent discussions which took place in the ancient equivalent of the seminary (it is odd that we don’t have information about the existence of these institutions in ancient Greece, unless the Academy was exactly that). The importance of the discussion is that it establishes that the Real is essentially and necessarily paradoxical.

There is the idea of the One, and there is the experience of the many. If there is only the One, there is no life, movement or thought. If the many are real, then it is difficult to understand how there can be something like the One, which retains its nature, and abides.

Not everyone who participated in these discussions would have become a priest, because not everyone would have settled for position b), which, to some casts of mind, would have seemed to be deeply unsatisfactory. But acceptance of position b) is the one the priestly establishments were looking for in their candidates.

Why position b)? It is suggested in the course of the dialogue that it has to be accepted, in order to account for both our intellectual understanding of the nature of reality, and our experience of the world of movement and change.

That however is not a philosophical argument. Something is being glossed over at this point, and we have to look outside The Sophist to understand that. The answer to this problem is Plato’s concept of The Good, articulated by Socrates in The Timaeus.

Socrates said that the ultimate reality, whether it be termed the form of the Good, or given another necessarily inadequate name, does not reside in space - in fact the notion that things [which are truly real] have a place is described as

"a kind of bastard reasoning": we dimly dream and affirm that it is somehow necessary that all that exists should exist in some spot and occupying some place, and that which is neither on earth nor anywhere in the Heaven is nothing.

In The Phaedrus Socrates speaks of the region above heaven,

“never worthily sung by any earthly poet". It is, however, as I shall tell; for I must dare to speak the truth... the colourless, formless, and intangible truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned, holds this region and is visible only to the mind...

Which means that Socrates is referring to the concept of the plenum: the reality we experience a partial representation, a slice, of what is contained in the totality of what is possible. If the plenum itself is possible, then the experience of change and motion is also possible. But as a perception.

The point of position b) is that it recognises the paradoxical nature of reality, and that what is represented to us is a subjective representation of Being itself. There is only Being, and the experience of physical and secular existence is a partial view of what is contained in the plenum. We see what we see, but it is not reality itself. It is what we can see and understand.

Is this a purely Greek understanding? I think it isn’t. Pythagoras (according to the Neoplatonists) spent around twenty years in Egypt imbibing their doctrines, as well as having discussions with priesthoods in the Levant and Mesopotamia, while in the service of Cyrus. Some of that went into Plato’s work, according to the Neoplatonists, though there is also strong evidence (which I’ve discussed) that ideas familiar to Plato were already present in archaic Greece.

The blog page which points to the paper (‘Magic or Magia? Plato’s Sophist’) is at: The link to the file is at the foot of the page. The article has its own DOI, and resides at the Zenodo archive (CERN).

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Around Black Athena (1990), Seminar Two (Tim Cornell)

This is an extract from my notes made at the second seminar in the series ('Representations of Carthage'), held on the 25th January 1990 in the Institute of Archaeology at UCL. There is a full set of notes for the entire seminar series, except for the first, which I missed because I didn't catch sight of the poster in time (no web in those days). The volume (Around Black Athena: the Origins of Graeco-Roman Culture) is under pressure from other work in progress, but it will eventually arrive. TY.


[Introductory preamble: Last week set up the central themes of this conference and on Martin Bernal’s book. Bernal has set the agenda. Now we explore different directions, and try to explain the pressures on our understanding, and on historiography].

Tim Cornell began by saying that he was not speaking as an expert on Carthage. After reading Bernal’s book he wondered if there was a hidden truth in it. Perhaps there was an unconscious and systematic attempt to overlook Carthaginian culture. It is definitely a neglected area. Within the format of the study of the ancient world, there are few general books on Carthage.

Cornell mentioned the names of a few authors (Warmington, Picard), who use a standard sort of treatment of their subject. Like books on the Etruscans, there is a standard menu – an outline of the format: date, colonizations and contacts, wars in Sicily with the Greeks. And then the Punic Wars, and the final destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE. This format indicates that Carthage is of interest insofar as the Carthaginians had dealings with the Graeco-Roman world. I.e., Carthaginian culture is somebody else’s problem. Carthage is an earlier foundation than the Greek colonies. Timaeus argued that Carthage and Rome were founded in the same year (i.e., the Dido story). Punic war seen as war against the Carthaginians.  Modern scholars identify with the Romans. A product of the sources being from outside, and hostile. Is there a hidden programme here? Archaeology, especially since the end of WW2, has done little to redress the balance. Especially concerning the Punic Wars. Stresses an impoverished culture. Often the evidence is interpreted in the light of literary sources.

The Carthage we have is a stereotype. Aristotle is an ancient exception – in his Politics he admired their constitution, but the account of this is lost. Polybius also regarded it well, though he was critical of it. We know that there were pro-Carthaginian accounts also written in antiquity. Now lost. Plautus wrote on the subject of Carthage, shortly after the Hannibalic War, but it presents the Carthaginians in a most unsympathetic way. In general they got a hostile press, and this is also true of modern works. Stereotypes in modern works include (1) racism and antisemitism, and (2) orientalism (as discussed by Said).

For (1) the ancient prejudices involve the stereotype of the Carthaginians as intelligent, but in a mean and self-serving way. Expressed in terms of cunning and trickery. They were notorious to the Romans for treachery. For ( 2), they were dependent on trade, and are shown as greedy and corrupt by Polybius, who contrasted the Romans and the Carthaginians, and attributes a leaning to bribery and corruption to the latter.

They were also depicted as capable of great courage in certain circumstances, but essentially unwarlike, which was seen as a weakness. They failed to press their advantage. (Diodorus). They were interested in commerce rather than war. Cicero said that this destroyed their will to fight. This was illustrated by their use of mercenaries. Note the contrast between Hannibal and the opposition and lack of support from the government at home. The Romans thought of him as a worthy enemy (this view is presented more by modern writers than in antiquity).

Some writers suggest that the Carthaginians were not actually Phoenician. This racism was not in the ancients for they treated subject peoples harshly (Spaniards). [Bk10.36]. Polybius says harsh on subject people in North Africa – they doubled city taxes, and took half the crop [Whitaker – Carthaginians land imperialism late 4th century]. No tribute from Sicily until quite late. 

Carthage was not interested in imperialism abroad in the 6th and 5th centuries, but they were interested in alliances (Etruria, and Rome). Protection for trade. Warfare in Sicily was perhaps originated by the Phoenicians and was prosecuted together (hence mercenaries). They did not use coinage till late. Not specifically Carthaginian. Hence perhaps a failure to follow up this advantage. Only in the third century did they carve out provinces, coinage, tax and mercenaries – the harshness of the Carthaginians noted in Polybius is to this period and circumstances, and is not seen as a racial characteristic.

They were servile to those who were stronger (college porter obsequiousness and arrogance). Plutarch said they were ”a hard and gloomy people”, etc. Cruelty was a frequent charge -  punishments included crucifixion (the torture of Regulus, etc). Their cruelty was demonstrated by their regular holocausts of children and the killing of prisoners in a sacrificial manner. There is a brutal account in Diodorus of indiscriminate killing – severed heads on javelins, etc.

The vices are seized on by modern detractors, who add others which are modern. There is some basis in the sources, but the tone of the passages is misleading – antisemitism and vulgar orientalism. The sources show no disgust at the physical appearance of the Carthaginians among the ancients.  Other modern notions arise from modern passages with no source warrants. It is a feature of orientalism that orientals are specifically given to religious fanaticism – Hindus, Etruscans, etc. It is taken as a sign of the eastern character {See Warmington). However there is no evidence in the sources for an especial religiosity among the Carthaginians (quantification of religiosity is meaningless anyway). There is a christianizing evaluation of oriental religiosity in some of the sources. Observers (Philo of Byblos, Tertullian) had their own axe to grind. Cult practice is prominent in surviving sources, but there may be a bias in the survivals.


Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World (full text)

This article was first published in the Newsletter of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in December 2015. In October 2019 the website went down, and hasn't come back up. So I'm posting the full text of the article here in the meantime. It covers both the subject of The Sacred History of Being, and also something of how the book came to be written. In 2018 the article was published as a chapter in Man and the Divine.

TY, October 30, 2019.


 “Enki’s beloved Eridug, E-engura whose inside is full of abundance! Abzu, life of the Land, beloved of Enki! Temple built on the edge, befitting the artful divine powers!”
From: ‘Enki’s journey to Nibru.’  (Black, Cunningham, Robson, Zόlyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 2004, p. 330)

The Sacred History of Being (2015) is about philosophy and its origin in the context of ancient cultic life. As such it argues that philosophy as a discipline is very old, as Plato himself said in the Protagoras, and that it was not invented by the Greeks.

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 reshape my understanding of human intellectual history in the process.

There is a standard form of image from the earliest years of civilization, which consists of two opposed figures, standing on either side of an object. The object can be a tree, an altar, a table heaped with produce, lotus blossoms, animal foreparts, loaves, and so on. The opposed figures can be human, animal, god or genie. This kind of image can be found throughout the archaeological record of the Ancient Near East, and in Egypt.

Questions arise from the ubiquity of this image, which appears in the context of those who had great power in the world, and also in funerary contexts, particularly in Egypt. It appears prominently in royal contexts in Assyria and in Babylonia. The image can be traced back as least as far as the settlement at Çatal höyük, now in modern Turkey, dating to some eight or nine thousand years before the present.

What does this image mean? It is nowhere explained, but clearly had some kind of explanation at some time, even if its transmission in later centuries was enabled simply by its status as a traditional iconographic element. Why is it so prominently displayed, so persistent throughout time, and apparently not discussed in the cultures in which it appears?

Some details of esoteric lore were written down in the Ancient Near East – the colophons of the relevant tablets make it clear that the contents were for the initiated only. The ritual procedures for the installation of divine statues in Assyria and Babylonia survive, together with some incantations which were part of the ritual. These tell us about the ritual, and the elements involved in the ritual – the thigh of a ram, best beer, mashatu-meal, and sacralised reeds, plus information about which stellar constellations and planets a statue was to be pointed at as part of the installation; and about the selection of craftsman’s tools which were disposed of as part of the ritual (enclosed in the ram’s thigh, and deposited into the river), in order to remove their responsibility for making divine images (not a thing for mortals to undertake).

But we find no discussion of the rationale of the installation ritual. Or discussion of the rationale of any other ritual which they documented. This suggests that there were levels in the esoteric life of Assyria and Babylonia: that the ritual details were important to record to ensure consistency in the performance of the ritual, but the meaning of the details, and the underlying rationale for the ceremony were transmitted orally, and never committed to writing.

The image with the opposed figures standing around a ritual object is clearly an image whose meaning and function was too important to record in a temple or palace document. In which case it might appear that we can never know what it signified, and why it was so important.

But, it is not so. Assyriologists have explored this image as it appears in the Mesopotamian context, and have made some headway in understanding the scope of its significance. They have established that, in terms of the iconography, the Sacred Tree may stand in for the King. In other words, the two ideas were understood to represent the same thing. The contemporary understanding of the nature of the role of king in Assyria was that he was the Regent of the god Ashur on Earth, and therefore the king represented an emulation and image of the Divine on Earth.

But why a tree? The tree can stand in for the king, because of two further ideas which are connected in the definition of what the king is.

The contemporary scholarly definition of the Divine in Assyria, framed it as the source of all excellences and perfections, and all knowledge.*1 Hence the importance of excellences and perfections of the life of the king, as we find recorded in the Annals of Ashurbanipal in the late 7th century B.C.E. (found in the ruins of his palace at Nineveh at the end of the nineteenth century). As Ashur’s representative on Earth he excels in military skills, in throwing the javelin, in horse riding, in the use of weapons; in divining the will of the gods through divination by oil, and other arcane skills; also in scribal excellence and mathematics – he is able to read the ‘obscure and difficult to master’ texts written in Sumerian ‘from before the flood’. And so on.

The excellence and perfection of the king’s skills were understood to place him in proximity to the god Ashur. He is thus at the limit of what a mortal may do and be; as Ashur is at the limit or zenith of Reality itself. Ashur is Reality itself. That the Tree may stand in for the king suggests that it was understood also as an esoteric and symbolic representation of the idea of limit, taken to the nth degree, and also of Reality itself.

Much of the discussion found in Plato concerns the nature of what he calls ‘The Good’. The Good is in a sense the Crown of Creation, and it is the target of human attention because of that status. He refers to the Good rather than ‘God’ because he is talking about the ultimate abstraction, which has commerce with other abstractions – as he says, ‘things pass into one another’. The Good is perfect, complete, whole, and the ultimate source of justice, good order, beauty, wisdom, and all the other abstract concepts which have some form of existence in the temporal world. He is careful to say (through the words of Socrates) that this ultimate Reality, the Form of Forms, has ‘no shape, size or colour’. In its nature it wholly transcends physical reality.

Plato’s Republic tells of the craft of passing from the contemplation of one Form to another, entirely intellectually, and without distraction, with the intention of eventually arriving at the contemplation of The Good. The man returning from this journey comes back with knowledge beyond the scope of any wisdom to be found on the Earth.

The Platonic discussion of the Forms is treated by modern scholars as a species of literary fiction. Meaning it has no detectable connections with cultural activity in Greece, or in any other part of the civilised world in the two millennia before the Common Era. But Plato is very clear that it is important to look to the ‘One Thing’, the ur-Reality which underpins the world of the here and now. So he is talking of a conception of God, which gives rise to all other things which may be understood by the mortal mind, though the ultimate abstract conception of Reality may lie forever beyond human understanding.

How old is this conception of the Divine? If the Divine is understood to have its reality at the limit of physical and perceptible reality, and to be the most abstract of abstractions, historians of philosophy would say this notion was first discussed in Classical Greece. If on the other hand, the iconography of the two opposed figures, facing a ritually significant object between them, represents the most abstract conception of limit, beyond any physical instance, then this conception of the Divine is thousands of years older than the middle years of the 1st millennium B.C.E.

The Assyriologist Simo Parpola has shown that there is a connection between the Kabbalah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree. Each of the Mesopotamian gods was associated with a divine number, and sometimes they were referenced in documents by their number alone. He was able to reconstruct the Assyrian version of the Kabbalistic tree, populating the sefirotic nodes (understood in the Middle Ages as divine powers and qualities), with the key Mesopotamian divinities, their properties and numbers.

The Kabbalah enshrines a philosophical notion of transcendent divinity in the concept of the ‘en sof’. It has been assumed by modern scholars that this is an imported idea, perhaps borrowed from Gnosticism in the early centuries of the Common Era. If in fact the idea of the ‘en sof’ was in the Assyrian version of the Sacred Tree, then we understand something new and profound about Hebrew ideas of divinity from the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E. onwards.  The relationship between the Assyrian and Jewish Sacred Trees which Parpola has been able to show, by itself pushes a philosophical conception of the Divine back to at least the 14th century B.C.E., which is when the representation of the Assyrian Tree first appears.

This philosophical equation of the idea of limit with what is transcendent is an important factor in ancient religious ritual. In Mesopotamia the ritual installation of divine statues took place in locations with clear boundaries, including riverbanks and quays, and a key part of the ritual involved a temple threshold, as the surviving texts tell us. These boundaries were understood to have proximity to the primal reality, the Abzu, house of Ea/Enki, in the sweet waters at the bottom of the sea. Reeds used in the ceremony were spoken of has having their roots in the Abzu. The association of limit with ritual performance tells us something about the logic of the installation: the rites serve to make the images one with the company of gods in Heaven. The statue becomes itself Divine by its exposure to repeated representations of Divinity in the course of what was described in Mesopotamia as the ‘most sacred and secret of rituals’.

A great age for a philosophically conceived notion of Divinity, coequal with Reality itself, makes it possible to make much sense of many otherwise obscure texts and inscriptions which have been excavated over the past two centuries.  The determination of classicists over two centuries (since the European Enlightenment) to downgrade and deny the connections between Greek civilization and other civilizations around the Mediterranean and the Near East, both in classical times, and in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., has made it very difficult to make sense of both Greek philosophy, and the intellectual life of the other cultures of the ancient world. The Greeks accorded the Egyptians the status of philosophers, and Plato represents Solon having conversations with Egyptian priests in the Timaeus, who had knowledge ‘hoary with age’.  But archaeological excavation in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, and the recovery of thousands of texts, made possible the idea of writing something like The Sacred History of Being.

The structure of the book is relatively simple. There are three main parts. The first begins with reflections on philosophy, both ancient and modern. This goes some way to explain how I came to pursue this project. The second half of the first part discusses the ontological argument, which has its origins in the early modern period, which has come to be the principal way in which the reality of Divinity is discussed. We have made it very difficult to understand ancient theological ideas by promoting the ontological argument to its current status.

The second part explores Plato’s writing, and the strikingly different way in which Divinity was discussed. It also explores wider Greek thought, and earlier instances of the kind of understanding of Reality found in Plato.

The third part examines ideas common to Greece, Israel and Mesopotamia, plus the significance of the Assyrian Sacred Tree for the scholars of the Assyrian royal court, and the significance of the Jewish Kabbalah, which descends from parallel Mesopotamian ideas. Two of the chapters in part three work through the Mis Pî tablets from Nineveh and Babylon, which describe the ritual for the installation of images of the gods, and discuss the significance of the ritual.

1 The Babylonian scholar Berossus, former priest of Bel, who wrote about Babylonian culture and religion after moving to Athens,  tells us of the encounter of the first legendary sages with an emissary of the Divine. The emissary granted them knowledge of the arts and crafts, of husbandry, and the apportioning of land.