Thursday, 30 April 2015

Beyond the Ontological Argument: Writing The Sacred History of Being (III)

In late 2009 I started to look again at the project, with a new understanding of what needed to be addressed. There is a new chapter list from that time, and also another from 2010. There was a little writing done in late 2010, but not much. The writing side of the project began again seriously on the 3rd of January 2011, with a strict weekly word count, which I stuck to for most of the year. I still had a day job, so I was writing for several hours, either in the evening, or the early morning.

I wrote about the main subject of The Sacred History of Being, which of course is the understanding of transcendent reality in the ancient world, and its relationship to philosophical thought. But I also wrote about the difficulties and obstacles which make it hard to understand  ancient ideas, and to explain them with clarity. Some of this material remains in the text, but a great deal of it was removed, in the interest of clarity and the avoidance of tedium. This material will be made available separately. Some of it will appear here - the discussion of  Marx and the use of a historicist approach to the understanding of antiquity isn't in the book for example, but it does fill out some of the wider background to The Sacred History of Being.

Pointedly, I did not write about the Ontological Argument. But my new understanding of its severe limitations did inform the discussion of questions about reality in the two parts of the book which were under way, which looked at Greece and Assyria respectively. Once those two parts were largely constructed, I turned to the Ontological Argument  sometime in 2012. Discussion of it and its limitations forms the second section of what is now the first part of the book.

Ontological argument ought to be about the nature of reality itself, rather than a particular aspect of it. Attempting to prove the existence or reality of God on the basis of purely logical and a priori argument is about proof and existence within a known and perceived frame of reality, which is presumed to be real, though we have no knowledge of what it is and why it presents itself to us in the way that it does. So ontological argument for the most part isn't about reality at all, but some part of that reality, and argued in terms of the properties and attributes which that part may or may not have.

The concept of God is discussed within either the reality we know in terms of space and time, or else existing in some other place beyond the limitations of physical reality. In either case the physical frame of space and time is taken as a given.

In classical antiquity this would have seemed to be a barbarous and crude way to argue about the divine. When they talked about reality, they meant reality itself, not some particular representation of it. And that reality was coterminous with Being. In other words, divine Being was presumed to be at the root of all the forms of reality which can be represented. It was reality.

Ancient ideas about divinity therefore need to be understood in their original context, or at least in as much of it as we can muster. A thorough understanding of the varieties of the ontological argument will not tell us much that is useful about ancient conceptions of the divine.

So this part of The Sacred History of Being should be understood as a demolition of the usefulness of the ontological argument, as we understand it. It wasn't the most interesting thing to write. But in the course of writing, I was reminded that there were ancient misunderstandings of the nature of divinity also, on the basis of the way in which the divine was spoken. If the divine is one and indivisible, for example, how is it that there are hundreds of gods, and not one?

I had a workable draft by 2013, which I'd begun to talk about. There were a few things that still needed to be done, and I was overdue with the detailed analysis of three ancient texts. More time for writing became available however, which was good. I decided to move house too: also good. But inevitably it was a massive upheaval, stopping all work from October, and one which meant that the project needed to be suspended for a while, and in a way which would mean that it could be restarted again as soon as possible.

It took three months to pack my books. I separated out everything was relevant to the project, and boxed them first. Four metre-wide shelving units worth. All of these went into one room in the new flat. I moved at the end of December 2013.

I was ready to function again in a rudimentary way by April 2014. Though there were many other distractions for most of the rest of the year. A new house is something you find out lots about during the cycle of the seasons, and sometimes you have to respond: when the dandelions burst into life; when the ants decide to occupy the subterranean spaces beneath the flagstones in front of your door; and  which bits of the house are not easy to work in because of the blaze of sunlight on your laptop screen, etc. I built this blog by the summer. I wrote a new chapter on Plato, 'The Sweet Song of Swans', after discovering an important article by Jacob Howland. I completed a paper draft in November (now long superseded!). I finished the overdue text analyses in December. At around the same time I also re-edited some parts of the argument.

The early part of  2015 saw the electronic text brought into line with the paper edit, where that made sense. Not a straightforward process when the electronic text has moved on! I also spent time experimenting with conversion tools for producing ebook file formats, and checking the footnoting, paragraphing, and special characters in the text.

Parts two and three can be read in a number of different ways. But essentially the discussion is of a common intellectual substrate, shared by Greece and Assyria, which lies beneath the strikingly different cultures. The nature of that substrate is explored initially through the writings of Plato, and the Greeks in general.

The contention is that Plato, in writing about the Forms or Ideas, was actually telling us something of extraordinary importance about Greek theology, and the role and function of divine images. I've referred elsewhere to the fact that Plato explicitly uses a phrase associated with the worship of the gods in the course of discussion of the Forms.

The source of the idea of the nature of reality, of Being itself is referred to by Plato in many places, but never fully explained. And there is a related question he asks, about a most fundamental matter, but does not answer. The answer can be guessed, though professional philosophers are not in the business of guessing. So we have had nearly two hundred years of scholarship devoted to Plato, which has explained very little.

I guessed the answer, though as it turned out, I knew the answer already from a different context. It can be demonstrated that the same question lies beneath Mesopotamian ideas about the nature of reality, as expressed in the liturgy of their New Year Festival, and in other sources. It is the reason why there are two creations - the first chaotic, and the second, rational.

Thomas Yaeger, 30th April 2015

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