Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Fathoming the Transcendent in Assyria: Writing The Sacred History of Being (II)

There was a fairly advanced draft of the Sacred History of Being under way in 2003-4. Around this time I became aware of Simo Parpola's paper of 1993 on the Assyrian Sacred Tree and its relationship to the Jewish Kabbalah. In late 2004 I wrote to Parpola to ask if I could have an offprint of the article, since I was living and working for the University of Bath at the time, which did not take classical and near eastern journals. He was kind enough to send a copy to me, along with some related materials.

I read the paper thoroughly. It is quite an extensive paper, which may have worked against a successful reception. But it is a landmark paper, exploring its subject in depth. It even includes a useful typology of the appearance of the sacred tree.

I realised  that, if the argument of Parpola's paper was correct, then it was plain to understand that there was an understanding of the idea of Being in Ancient Assyria, and that the presence of the image of the sacred tree was a key marker of its presence. And since the image of the sacred tree can be traced back as far as the 14th century BCE, then it would be likely that the idea of Being existed in Assyria as far back in time.

The reverse engineering Parpola did on the Kabbalistic sacred tree in order to discover its possible relationship to the Assyrian Tree was breathtaking. The chance of the operation working if there was no cultural (if not lineal) connection between them was very small.

In essence, Parpola had provided a proof of abstract thought before the speculations of Plato and Aristotle in classical Greece. And had pushed its existence back into the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE.

I wrote back to Parpola, telling him what I thought he had done. He agreed with the implications, which he hadn't foregrounded in his 1993 paper.

His paper was discussed at an Assyriological conference that year, and was published in the Journal of Near Eastern studies (aka JNES, for the uninitiated). So no classicist or historian of philosophy or ideas was likely to see it, never mind take on board its argument. So a little later, I suggested that I might write another article based on his paper, specifically aimed at philosophers and historians. Parpola agreed that this would be a good idea, but that I shouldn't feel obliged to do it.

We exchanged some email during the course of 2005. I asked if he had written anything else in the same area, and if he could recommend other work which might fill out the background to his approach. Again he provided this information, which resulted in an expensive buying spree on eBay and Abebooks, and a lot of reading.

 This was a critical time, because I was intending to move on. I'd been interviewed for a position in Edinburgh.  I found out I'd been successful when I was standing at the baggage carousel in Bristol, which is the nearest airport to Bath. So from July 2005 I was preparing to pack and move. I had a draft version of the article by the middle of 2005, which I sent off to Helsinki. I forget exactly when I sent it, but it will have been before the end of September, which is when I moved. I also sent a copy of  'Context and Variation in the Representation of the Assyrian Sacred Tree'.

The paper in response to Parpola's 1993 paper had the title 'Ontology and Representation in Assyria and the Ancient Near East' (ORAANE). It was written in two parts. The first of these was unproblematic, and consisted of an analytical summary of what Parpola had done, while drawing out the implications for the history of ideas. The second part was more speculative, and concerned the nature of Mesopotamian theology and how they might have arrived at the notion of a transcendent divinity. I suggested that they might have inferred something of the kind by means of some kind of inductive argument, and drew a parallel with Descartes argument for the reality of the divine.

That was a mistake. Maybe the Assyrians did entertain argument of this sort about a supreme being: at some point, and in some circumstance. But the cartesian conception of the divine was completely opposed in nature to the Assyrian conception of the divine, in that, for Descartes, God existed in a place which did not  have any impact on man and his existence. God was nonetheless important for Descartes, in that he argued he could be sure of his existence and capacity to think only on account of the reality of God.

On the 4th of January 2006 I received a raft of material from Simo Parpola. It contained detailed and useful comments on both ORAANE and the context paper. It also contained a new translation and transliteration of an important and extensive passage in the Annals of Ashurbanipal. I'd seen this some fifteen years earlier in a translation dating back to around 1898, which was at that time the most recent translation into English available. It is the passage in which Ashurbanipal himself discusses the importance of scholarship, skill and excellence in all things related to the practice of kingship. It also indicated the importance of knowledge to the king, and his knowledge of divine things.

I did not completely rewrite the paper, but incorporated some changes. In early 2006 I began an exchange with one of the editors at the Journal of the History of Ideas in Philadelphia. He confirmed that they would be interested in a paper on the proposed subject. The paper was sent off.  The paper was accepted, but the journal wanted some changes to the citation conventions, and a reduction in length (from more than 9000 words).

By now (mid 2006) I realised that the parallels with Descartes' arguments about the reality of the divine were incorrect and actually wide of the mark. So I needed to shorten the article, and provide an alternative line of argument as to how the Assyrians came to have an understanding of a transcendent divinity, which embraced all other aspects of the divine. Though I wrote a lot of drafts during early 2006, I found that I had no satisfactory alternative line of argument. So the paper was abandoned.

Of course I realise now that the problem was the attempt to shoe-horn the Assyrian conception of divinity into a pattern of thought mainly developed during the early modern period, which is what we understand as the ontological argument. I was attempting to do this because that's still the way we tend to think and argue about divinity in the west. I was also looking for a pattern of philosophical or theological thought which might underpin Assyrian conceptions of the divine, because of the importance accorded to knowledge in their understanding of it.

I found the solution, but only after a hiatus of three whole years, and after a great deal of reading and rumination. The first part of the argument contained in the ORAANE paper is more or less unchanged, and appears as one of the chapters in the third part of The Sacred History of Being. In many ways the unsatisfactory second part of the argument in that paper is now replaced by the rest of the book, which emerged as a response to the difficulty in fathoming the Assyrian concept of transcendent deity, and the pattern of thought which underpins it.

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