Monday, 20 April 2015

The West and the Other

This is a sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being:


In my middle twenties, after exposure to Taoist philosophical ideas and other philosophical systems of the east, I was struck by the way in which western ideas and modes of thought often seem to have been shaped in oppostion to the kinds of thought found in the east – almost as if western thought was a construct based on the avoidance of certain forms of thinking, and of certain areas of interest. [1] Western philosophical thought is (for example) not interested in questions of creation, having ceded all interest in these areas to physics and its related field of study, cosmology, as if this is an appropriate arena in which the physicists and cosmologists might usefully operate. Western philosophy is also not much interested in areas of reality which pass beyond an understanding based on truth tables.

The contemporary disparity and even antipathy between eastern and western philosophical approaches was obvious: what I did not then understand, at least with any clarity, was that a sustained campaign had been under way in the west to purge the western philosophical tradition of its connection with the east, and to remove, through source criticism and other means, as many instances as possible of eastern modes of thought. Thus accounts of connections between east and west, and the supposed journeys of Pythagoras, and Solon to Egypt and the Near East became ‘unlikely’, and it became possible to dismiss (for example) an eastern origin of the cult of the Kabiroi in Thrace, and also to remove semitic etymologies wholesale from the principal linguistic reference work of the classicists.[2] Examples of western thinking within categories of understanding and experience familiar to eastern civilisations are now conventionally termed ‘mystical’ rather than philosophical, and the writers of such texts were eventually abandoned to the theologians, who have – also as a result of the western enlightenment - suffered marginalisation in the west. This modern purification of the cultural development of Greece during the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C.E took place despite the fact that it was impossible to deny heavy cultural borrowing from Egypt and the Near East in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E., because of the sheer quantity of archaeological evidence. [3]

The narrative history of western philosophy created since the enlightenment has a marked aversion to an acknowledgement of eastern modes of thought within the western philosophical tradition during a period of two and a half millennia, so that the contemporary philosopher George Melhuish was able to write that in the whole tradition, including the Greeks, only six philosophers had explored the paradoxical aspects of reality. What has actually happened in the west is that the idea of philosophy has been redefined. What is eastern in the western tradition is not regarded as philosophy. And the eastern philosophical tradition, like the ancient intellectual tradition before the rise of classical Athens, is however generally regarded in the west as ‘not really philosophy’. No problem is encountered as long as the eastern tradition is not taught in western universities on the same footing as the western tradition, and it is in fact uncommon for the two to be taught together.

There have of course been more than six ‘western’ thinkers in two and a half millennia who have dealt with the notion of the universe as a paradoxical matrix, but most are nowadays not regarded as philosophical thinkers and writers. [4] It occurred to me that, if this process of marginalisation was the product of an antipathy to the eastern intellectual tradition, in that it was an antipathy to views of the universe in which the Aristotelian laws of thought were understood to be inadequate to articulate the nature of reality, then a similar process might be in play regarding the intellectual tradition among the presocratics in Greece.

This was the motive for looking again rather closely at the whole tradition of philosophy in Greece from its earliest manifestations up until the death of Aristotle. And rather than reviewing the material with the view of creating a coherent narrative enshrining a received view of the significance and place of the Greek intellectual tradition in relation to modern western conceptions of the role of philosophy, it was important to look for oriental modes of thought in the history of Greek thought.

Naturally since I was looking for a process in the marginalisation of aspects of the Greek intellectual tradition running parallel to the marginalisation of all things eastern, it was also important to look at the same time at the intellectual tradition in the ancient east. This study focusses on ancient Assyria, and its cultural parallels with ancient Greece. There are other parallels, of which I am well aware – the Greeks made great play of their interest in ancient Egypt, and their indebtedness to that culture in many significant respects. Though Egypt is mentioned from time to time, the main focus here is usually elsewhere. [5]

We have arrived at our current impasse in our understanding of the ancient world to some significant extent because of an enlightenment inspired redefinition of the meaning of philosophy. One of the functions of this study is to reorient the term ‘philosophy’ so that we may understand once again the nature of our intellectual history. The enlightenment, despite its name, sought to expel many things into shadowlands, rather than bring them into the light: part of its purpose was to close off aspects of our collective intellectual history which, in the eighteenth century, were seen as irrational and foolish. The confident and forward-looking minds of the enlightenment wished to transform these undesirable aspects of our intellectual legacy into the misshapen and disordered products of primitive minds, making them into pathologies. It did not occur to the savants of eighteenth century Europe that, if aspects of the Greek tradition seemed incomprehensible and barbaric, characteristics shared with most of the intellectual tradition of the near east, this might be because something very complex and very subtle was going on. Instead, they assumed that the incomprehensibility of the ancient world, the baffling nature of much of its literature, iconography and cults, was the result of an incipient and endemic incoherence, the absence of rational modes of thought, and even the downright stupidity of ancient peoples.

 After some two hundred years of critical scholarship, some of which has pushed whole rafts of material into an outer darkness in which such materials cannot be readily used as comparative evidence for the study of other stages of the same civilisation, the available evidence for recasting our model of antiquity and its intellectual life is in disarray. The Neoplatonists have nothing to tell us about Greek philosophy or religion in the classical period, the texts of Plato can tell us nothing about the nature and detail of Greek religion (and nothing about theology – as we now understand it, since it remains to be invented); Homer and Hesiod remain principal sources for an understanding of the Greek view of the Gods. [6] The evidence for the existence of a philosophical outlook in other cultures around the Mediterranean, both textual and archaeological, which has surfaced since the early nineteenth century, remains unsubject to any significant degree of comparison. Greece is the great source of intellectual influence, but (it seems) did not itself participate in the intellectual life of the world during its high period. [7]

Contrary to prevailing understanding, the practice of philosophy can be detected in art, literature and cult, and a philosophically grounded theology of the world predates the application and adaptation of Greek philosophical concepts to the creation of Christian theology in the first centuries of the modern era; and these more ancient theologies are rooted in what is in fact a philosophical analysis of, and discourse concerning, the nature of reality.






[1] In the west it seems absurd to describe Taoism as a philosophical system. We think of systematic thought as necessarily having Newtonian mathematical rigour based on unambiguous axioms. Thus Taoist thought is, for the western mind, to be bracketed with mystical thought – a mode of speculation shorn of precision and clarity. In fact however, Taoist thought proceeds on the assumption that there is an important difference between the way in which reality presents itself to us and the nature of reality itself. Taoism simply assumes that  reality cannot be reduced to  unambiguous description. It is systematic in that every aspect of Taoist thought derives from the understanding that the nature of reality in itself necessarily transcends its presentation.
[2] The etymologies disappeared from the ninth edition of Liddell and Scott’s dictionary, during a much overdue cull of linguistic speculation which had accumulated in the work.
[3] This period is known as the Orientalising period, and is explained in terms of the Greeks looking outward before the Greek genius refashioned what it had acquired into something properly Greek. Whatever that might mean.
[4] They needn’t be listed here, but many within the western mystical tradition fall into this category. Nicholas of Cusa is one of the most interesting and intelligent of writers during the past two millennia, but it is possible to study philosophy in a western university without even a cursory examination of one of his texts. Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy omits any mention of him. Because of his high position in the Catholic Church he is regarded as a theological writer.
[5] In fact the initial exploration of the possibility of a detectable presence of the theory of Being in cultures antecedent to Greece focussed heavily on Egypt, which is the culture most often explicitly referred to by the Greeks as the source of philosophy as well as religion among the Greeks.
[6] There is an interesting divergence between historians and anthropologists in terms of the way evidence is used. Historians of the ancient world are the inheritors of the division between the classical world and the later Hellenistic and Roman periods, erected by the classicists. The anthropologists by contrast bring a different set of preconceptions and scholarly tradition to the same material, and cheerfully make comparisons between classical, Hellenistic, and neo-platonic ideas. As long as they don’t infer anything about the textual and cultural dependencies of one to the other, they don’t get into trouble.
[7] That is, Greece within the classical period tends to be treated as if it is a purely autochthonous ferment of ideas, entirely uninfluenced by the world of the ancient Near East, Europe, and North Africa. This was once a more serious isolation than is now the case, since it is now recognised that the evidence will not in fact support it, but an underlying anxiety about the purity of the Greek achievement still remains.

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