Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Transcendental understanding of Reality

I’ve settled on the term ‘transcendental’ to indicate a pattern of thought in antiquity which understands reality itself (whatever that may be) as a principal concern, and as something which, as it is, transcends mundane earthly reality.

Within this pattern of thought however, earthly reality has properties and characteristics which have counterparts in the divine world. If 'God is Great’ for example, there are earthly examples of greatness, and so greatness is understood to be a property held in common between the worlds. What is held in common was understood by those of a transcendentalist persuasion to offer a connection between the worlds.

In essence the transcendentalist outlook holds that Being, or the ultimate reality, is both transcendent and immanent.*1 This means that this transcendentalist view of the world represents a paradoxical understanding of reality, in that the divine both transcends mundane reality, but is also at the same time present in every aspect of that reality. The connections between reality itself and earthly reality are not obvious, and often not easy to discover. The undiscoverability of the connections is an index of the distance between the worlds. Yet it is possible to discover connections between the worlds. Reading the mind of the divine was a major concern in antiquity, since interpreting divine intention conferred knowledge and earthly power.

Using the term ‘transcendentalist’ loosely echoes Immanuel Kant’s eighteenth century view of man’s place in the world: while everyone else was arguing for the pursuit of the experimental method, he was arguing that our understanding of the world depended on the categories of human understanding and judgement, at least as much as it did on what seemed to be outside us. And that we should understand those categories properly in order to develop a genuinely scientific understanding. His transcendental philosophy was based on the idea that we needed to get away from the idea that there necessarily was a world outside. He argued this way, since whatever reality actually is, it is complicated, since we can’t know what anything is in itself, only how it appears.

This didn’t translate or develop into a radical Kantian understanding of theology however, and he simply argued that his transcendental philosophy left sufficient uncertainty about the world for religious faith, and a notion of god. He imagined (as nearly everybody in those days did) that faith and belief in god were eternally part of man’s religious apparatus.*2 It isn’t the case.

I’m suggesting here that the core of Kant’s argument, that reality necessarily transcends our understanding, was something of a common currency among elite circles (the ones with the time and liberty to think) all around the world in antiquity. The contemplation of reality and its perplexities was the way they achieved a transcendental understanding. And, such contemplation was not in any way dependent on either faith or belief. That transcendentalist understanding is best understood as having been built on a thorough scepticism.

Working on or with the gods (theurgy) is often thought of these days as some obscure form of theological insanity practised by the neoplatonists and a few other groups in the dying days of the Roman empire. However close examination of Mesopotamian theology shows that this view is wrong. It’s an idea deeply embedded in Mesopotamian civilisation, and in their stories of creation.*3

It is also built into Plato’s account of the creation of the cosmos.*4 The practice of theurgy is a corollary of the transcendentalist outlook, since if reality is transcendent of us, but we are also paradoxically part of it, then human will and intention are important to the way in which the world is framed.* 5

According to this way of thinking, there are processes which we can use to enhance what we have in common with divinity. Most often this was expressed in terms of gaining knowledge of the divine, since the supreme divinity was necessarily the fount of all knowledge (both Plato and the Mesopotamians concur on this point). If theurgy is an important component in early religious practice, it tells us something about how much knowledge was prized at the time, and also something of the scope of that knowledge. Unlike homeopathic magic, which theurgy sometimes resembles, the practice of theurgy is entirely dependent on an understanding of Being for its use. *6

1 This idea is a principal marker for the presence of an understanding of Being in a culture. It is hard to imagine how such a view could arise except as the result of sophisticated logical discussion of the nature of reality. The idea defies common sense, and is counter intuitive. No-one has so far provided a satisfactory explanation of how such a perspective might arise. The view that the divine is at once transcendent and immanent is not much discussed by scholars, despite the fact that it is clearly present in much of the evidence. It is even present in Christianity, but it is shied away from, and left as a divine mystery. Christ is clearly God incarnate ('the kingdom of God is within you'), but instead he is presented by the Church as the 'son' of God, since there are too many problems for (what is in reality) a secular organisation in dealing with the idea of an incarnate god. They were less shy about this paradox in the bronze age.
2 Kant wrote his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone in 1793, without realising that, having written the Prolegomena to any future Metaphysic (1783), and The Critique of Pure Reason, (1781) he had come close to retracing man's early intellectual steps. He was interested in early man, in a Rousseau-ish kind of way, and in 1783 had published a short essay on the subject – 'The Conjectural Beginning of the History of Mankind'. This was principally concerned with exploring the earliest development of manners and morals, rather than that of the abstract reason.
3 It can be found in the Enuma Elish ('When on high', which is the liturgy of the Babylonian New Year Festival). There are two creations described in this text – the first is a purely chaotic creation. The second is explicitly an orderly and rational creation, subject to the will of Marduk, the head of the pantheon of gods. We have this important document more or less entire (across different versions), which is useful.
4 In Plato's Timaeus.
5 In The Secret of the Incas by William Sullivan, it is argued that the Incas were attempting to turn back the precession of the equinoxes, in order to preserve a heavenly bridge which they imagined gave them access to the divine world. The subtitle of the book is: 'The War against Time.' They came to the view that they could turn back time because of a transcendentalist understanding of reality, and the place of the Incas within it. It is a completely counter-intuitive outlook.
6 J.G. Frazer doesn't deal with religious or magical ideas which might be associated with the concept of Being in the whole massive expanse of The Golden Bough. His background was in classics, and what he was doing throughout his huge enterprise was interpreting the pre-Greek human understanding of the world in terms of a fundamental error – that things were associated with each other through contact and resemblance (contagious and sympathetic magic). For him magic is a plain mistake, and he does nothing in The Golden Bough to indicate that there was ever any other view of the matter in human history. Frazer wrote The Growth of Plato's Ideal Theory as far back as the 1870s (though the essay was not published until 1930), so he had already dealt with Plato, arguing that he had converted a subjective understanding of the world into an objective one. He had therefore a perception of the double track of subjective and objective ideas in Plato, but as a disciple of John Locke, he was never likely to grasp the transcendentalist nature of Plato's arguments.

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