Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Arrival of the idea of Being

[This is a sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being]

We can never recover the first instance when it occurred to someone that the character of living experience might be determined by the nature of reality itself, and that this exalted reality had a quite different nature to that manifested in the world of sense and experience. In other words, that the nature of reality was something quite other than that which could be determined by common sense. However it is possible to show that this kind of insight is not uncommon, and that it even can occur to a mind entirely unprepared for it by education, either in the present day, or in the past.

Many accounts of these odd insights into a different order of reality are presented in terms of mystical experiences, in which some aspect of the divine is encountered, or a strange exultation is experienced, or the entirety of the world is seen to be encompassed by a single grain of sand. But not all perceptions of the other nature of Reality present themselves in such poetic images.

This is a study of an idea: an idea which (I argue) underpins much of religious belief both in the present and in the ancient past, and the relation of religious ideas to the practice of philosophy, principally in the form of dialectical inquiry. This, expressed in one of a multitude of ways, is the idea of ‘the end’, the ‘telos’, of ‘completion’, and the nature of the ground of reality. The reality which simply is, and which does not move – and cannot move without breaching its integrity, is in essence the completion of completions, the end of ends, and was so understood. This is Being.

What is the essence of this theory of Being, from the point of view (first of all) of the historians of philosophy? Essentially they argue that it is a development of the concept of existence apart from its specific instances. That is, what it is to be, or to be real, in the abstract.[1] The appearance in text of the abstraction of the idea of Reality from specific, concrete instances, is read by modern scholarship as the first indication of the capacity for pure abstraction, so that for the first time it is possible to talk about things – concepts – which can have no specific instance, such as Being, Reality, Beauty, Justice, etc., but which, conceptually speaking, can be understood as lying behind specific instances. These questions are first clearly evidenced in the works of the Greeks: among the Presocratic philosophers, and most fully developed in the dialogues of Plato and the treatises of Aristotle.

This book does not deviate significantly from the contemporary scholarly idea that a theory of Being concerns existence apart from specific instances, and also key questions about the nature of reality in the abstract. It does however differ from the view of the historians of philosophy in that it does not read the first appearance of explicit discussion of the nature of Being and of Reality as the marker of its first discussion. Rather such evidence is just what it is: the first explicit discussion which we have available to us – created in a very specific set of circumstances. There is suggestive evidence that questions of Being were already current in the ancient world, and that the writings of the Greeks sometimes show their debt to these earlier sources.

Though framed as a historical study of its subject, this study is not intended to be definitive: we must walk before we can run, and such a history would be premature [2]. It is instead an exploratory survey of the cultural importance and pervasive scope of the idea of the end as a technical concept, a concept with a grammar and syntax of its own, which can be traced back (in iconographic, literary, and metrical terms) beyond the earliest direct documentary evidence. As a pioneering work, it is subject to errors of interpretation and detail, as all such works are. However, it would be disastrous for the progress of scholarship if the fear of making errors were to prevent the discussion of difficult subjects. I am sufficiently confident of the soundness of the general thesis to present it here, in a form refined by nearly thirty years of study.

By 1987 I understood that there was an important connection between the idea of kingship and completion in both Mesopotamia [3] and in Egypt [4], and was intrigued by the fact that completion was similarly an important idea in Greek philosophy, and, in the writings of both Plato and Aristotle, was also associated with kingship. Yet philosophy was supposed to be a Greek creation, without significant parallel conceptions in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The importance of the concepts of completion and the limit in antiquity are inadequately explained by the scholarship of the past two centuries. The presence, the ubiquity of these concepts, reflected in some way at all levels of society, and across the whole range of ancient civilisations in the Near East and in Europe, implies the ubiquity of a teleological model of the world. In Greece itself, it is possible to trace the existence of this model at least as far back as Hesiod and Homer, which means the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., some four or five centuries before Plato and Aristotle, in whose works the concepts of completion and the telos form the backbone of many arguments.

For both Plato and Aristotle, the idea of completion is firmly associated with idea of the telos, and both ideas are involved in the definition of the Good, which is how these philosophers referred to the concept of absolute Being.[5] It is of course possible to accord importance to limits and ends without the presence of a teleological view of the world in support, and therefore the presence of a theory of Being. Even in such profoundly secular times we mark our passage through life with moments of explicit boundary crossing and transformation. However, where the terminology of limits and ends is used in a way which adapts the concepts to people, actions, objects, buildings, etc., then something more profound is involved.[6] Aristotle, for example, would speak of bricks existing for the final cause which was the house they complete; and Plato famously said that an individual existed for the sake of the end, and not the end for the sake of the individual. The context of this kind of usage, where these concepts form part of a coherent implex[7] of technical ideas, is what is of interest here.

A problem which has to be confronted however, is the axiomatic presumption of the scholarly, philosophical and theological communities that the concept of Being was not significantly understood before Socrates, and the assumption that it first receives forensic public discussion in the pages of Plato.[8] For instance, Henri Frankfort (et al.) in Before Philosophy, makes no mention at all of the concept of Being, or of a theory of Being, until the close of the book, where the legacy of the human intellectual adventure is being discussed. The index features three mentions of ‘Being,’ all referencing this final section. [9]

The reason why it is presumed that man thought about the world without a theory of being before the rise of classical philosophy is twofold – firstly, since the nineteenth century, there has been a general presumption that man has been refining his intellectual faculties, with the corollary being that the cognitive act of abstraction was less well developed in antiquity than it is now. Thus conceptions in antiquity were necessarily of a concrete nature.

Secondly, there is in existence apparently no theoretical discussion of theological matters (at least identifiable as such) of the kind which we find in the pages of Plato, or in the theologians of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. This absence is taken, of itself, to indicate that in the early first millennium B.C.E. the philosophical discussion of theology, or matters related to theology, (such as the characteristics of ‘the One’, or ‘the Infinite’, etc.) was not practised at all, and that in all probability, was beyond the intellectual capacity of ancient man. [10] In short, the presumption of the presence of a theory of Being behind ancient discourse upon the world, in the form of myth ritual, symbol and icon, has no place in our approach to an understanding of antiquity. Not even as a hypothesis.

There is an important blind-spot in philosophical writings of the modern period however. This blind-spot can be characterised as an unwillingness or inability to address the possibility that reality might best be understood as a paradoxical matrix, in either contemporary discussion, or in earlier times. Writers in the 17th century say things like: ‘it is obvious that nothing can come from nothing’, and seem happy to rest on the assumptions of common sense. [11]

The essence of this common-sense approach is the assumption that the Aristotelian laws of logic – that a thing is itself; that a thing is either itself or something else; and that a thing is not something other than itself – are applicable in discussion or theorizing about the nature of the ur-reality underpinning the world of everyday experience, of description, including mathematical description, and that the world of everyday common sense experience and our understanding of it is in no way affected by the ur-reality and its properties. [12]

This is a strange assumption, and must seem so to anyone familiar with the religions and philosophies of the east which have their origins in antiquity. But the assumption is there. Plato's work does not enshrine paradox. We assume that we know this for sure because of Plato's demolition of the contradictions apparent in the argument of Parmenides about the One. If he demolished these arguments, he himself cannot have held such views about the nature of reality, in any shape or form. Yet he says very similar things in various parts of his extensive canon. He also explicitly says that certain characteristics of the forms allow them to 'pass into one another'. 

Pass into one another? It is obvious that this doctrine is not at all compatible with the Aristotelian laws of thought. Scholars have not been very alert to the fact that Plato is sometimes playful and mischievious by seeming to hold different views in different dialogues. It isn't simply,  as has been asserted, a matter of our lack of knowledge of the chronology and the development of his thought over time. He is trying to get us to think about what he is saying. What he appears to be saying is that, at one and the same time, ideas of the nature of reality are demolished by the use of logical argument, and yet these same ideas are nevertheless the case


[1] The study of Being is often referred to as ‘ontology’. It has two aspects – discussion of the nature of Being itself, and discussion of the ways in which we might understand the nature of Being. For those of an idealist tendency, it is often used to mean the study of the properties of Reality.  In modern times what we casually refer to as having existence (the raven, the cat, the table, etc.) have no real existence to the idealist, since these things do not (and cannot) have the properties and characteristics attributed to what might be referred to as the ground of true Being – the underlying Reality behind a world of appearances.
[2] Much of the evidence discussed in this book concerns the 1st millennium B.C.E. Professional historians and archaeologists are well aware that the history of the 1st millennium is a great deal less clear and certain than the lay public thinks, and therefore currently it would be extremely difficult to produce a satisfactory narrative account of the history of ideas in the 1st millennium B.C.E.
[3] The Akkadian term for king is ‘šar’, which also is a technical term indicating a completion. Herodotus was familiar with the Babylonian ‘Saros’ measure.
[4] Completion is a concept which appears in Akhenaten’s ‘Hymn to the Aten’, in connection wth both the birth of a chick from its shell, and the rising of the sun above the horizon on its daily voyage around the sky. Divinity is indicated in Egypt by the enclosure of the royal name in a cartouche, which is a representation of a length of rope, similar to that used to mark off an enclosure, a temenos, the foundations of a temple or city, or anything which has real being or existence.
[5] ‘Being’ was discussed as an abstract concept using the term ‘ontos’. All instances of Being were understood to be subsumed in the Good as the supreme end, for which all other ends exist. As such individual instances of Being were formal resemblances of the absolute Being upon which they depend for their reality.
[6] A modern illustration of the difference might be the way we refer to a head of state. We would have no difficulty referring to this person as the ‘head of his country’, or as ‘the political apex of his people’. We might also speak of him as ‘first among equals’, without quite understanding the origin of that phrase. But we would not speak of him as ‘perfected’, as ‘completed,’ or even 'the image of the divine.' Neither would we speak of him as the final cause of various actions and statuses in other individuals. Yet this is precisely how the ancients often speak.
[7] The use of the term ‘implex’ is borrowed from Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, Macmillan, 1969. The authors used this term to refer to a body of concepts related to each other, but difficult to separate in a sequential or narrative structure. Rather they related to each other in the way in which a series of variations on a theme might form part of a fugue.
[8] The same is held to be true of the idea of infinity. The reason we have any discussion of these ideas from Greece at all is the result of a rare separation of philosophy and religion in Attica.
[9] Frankfort, Henri, (Mr & Mrs); Jacobsen, Thorkhild; Wilson, John.A., Before Philosophy, Chicago, 1946 [original title: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man]
[10] In the late nineteenth century and up until at least the last third of the twentieth century, this historic absence of the philosophic discussion of the divine was often seen within the frame of human evolution, so that the absence was explained in terms of our subsequent biological development toward a capacity to think in abstract terms. There never was any biological evidence for this, and no-one would mount such an argument today. Nevertheless, the idea of an intellectual development within historic time remains, at least as a cultural phenomenon. There was also a racist presumption that the Orient differed from the Occidental nations in their capacity to do philosophy at all. Within such a model of reality, there is both a disincentive to look for traces of philosophical thought in the ancient East, and an ever-present need to downgrade whatever traces are actually found. I recall a few years ago an Egyptologist stating that a symbol which had for some time been taken to indicate an unlimited number (i.e., the idea of infinity) meant no such thing, but rather a concrete conception of a limited (but very large) number. He was probably correct to say this. But it was clear that his purpose was to dismiss the idea that the Egyptians could have conceived the abstraction of infinity. The enlightenment notion of the primitive stupidity of ancient peoples took root before a single hieroglyphic text was deciphered, and it is at least a little odd that the judgements of scholars without access to a single word of ancient Egyptian are often borne out by subsequent research.
[11] John Locke is the case in point, who wrote this in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690); he regarded it as common sense that nothing could be generated from nothing. William Law expressed a similar sentiment. In both cases the assumption is that the Aristotelian laws of logic hold in a realm which is defined as transcendent of our own. This is a rather big and somewhat illogical assumption.
[12] Aristotle himself identified that insight involved the transcendence of a paradoxical situation, so that passing beyond an apparent contradiction resulted in understanding.

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