Saturday, 7 November 2015

Why read The Sacred History of Being?

Why should you read The Sacred History of Being?  Our current cultural space has been shaped by a huge number of cultural developments which took place in the past. These developments stretch back to the origins of civilization, and so we are shaped by several millennia of intellectual and political struggles, changes in patterns of thought and language, and economic and physical invention.

So where we are might have turned out to be a very different place. Things are always in flux, and change so fast that we can see the process happening in the present – the world I grew up in has passed away, and very few of the things I was taught in order to equip me for life as an adult have turned out to be of any use. For example, I was taught to count in binary, aged eight, because the future was going to be a world filled with computers and computing. To do computing (then) meant the necessity of understanding and using binary notation.

It seemed like a good decision at the time. But the future is notoriously difficult to predict. We feel on surer ground when we look at the past, because the past is where real things happened, and we can know about those things. Those things do not change.

However our perception of them, and our knowledge of them, does change. Everything we think we know  colours our understanding of our past. So in a sense, our present is the result of what we think got us to this place. We are carrying a great deal of baggage, and much of it in practice is, like our understanding of the past, negotiable.

The Sacred History of Being is a book about our intellectual past. But it is also a book which also explores some aspects of how we came to think in the way we do about the earliest days of civilization.

Views of remote antiquity at the start of the 20th century were very different from those at the close of the century. The past can never be done and dusted in our understanding. But it is easy for scholars to think that we are refining our understanding of antiquity, and that we are, mainly by dint of massive advances in the sciences, able to be more objective and precise in our understanding. Archaeology has made huge strides over many decades, and we understand ancient languages which were entirely lost until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our capacity to date objects allows us a sense of perspective our ancestors did not have, and as a consequence we can arrange events in space and time with hitherto unheard of accuracy. We create typologies, we periodise, and we frame and reframe.

All of this however, is taking place within a changing series of assumptions about the past, many of which are not subject to endless re-examination and reframing. If these assumptions are false, to whatever degree, the refinement of our understanding of the past is the refinement is of an essentially fictitious picture.

The Sacred History of Being is about unpicking some of the key fictions which distort our understanding of the past.  

The main issues addressed by the book are:

The long standing effort by western scholars to utterly separate the patterns of thought of the east from those of the modern west. This has been underway since the Enlightenment, and to a large extent builds on the medieval understanding of Aristotle, and the logical apparatus he created.

The Ontological Argument, developed in the early modern period, building on arguments first mooted by St Anselm. The argument was promoted by eminent philosophers, including Descartes and Leibniz. The argument is supposed to provide a form of proof of the existence of God. The argument presumes some things which it ought to seek to explain, such as the framework of existence within which God is ‘proved’ to have existence. This mode of argument has been extremely damaging for our understanding of thought in antiquity. Plato did not argue like this, and nor did Aristotle.

Plato on the Divine and the nature of Reality. Because of the adoption of the Ontological Argument as a proof of the existence of God, there has been little attention given to Plato’s discussion of the reality of the Divine, and what it means. Much of the interest in Plato as a philosopher over the past two centuries has focussed on the question of whether or not he was engaged in research, or was otherwise teaching traditional doctrine. Much technical ingenuity has been wasted on this dispute, including the development of stylometry, devised in order to detect the order in which Plato’s dialogues were composed. The idea being if we could know this order, we could better understand the apparent changes of view, and know if he was engaged in research over his long lifetime. Those who argue that he was teaching traditional doctrine have had a very difficult time of it, since, as they admit, they have no idea what that traditional doctrine might be.

Plato’s idea of the Divine is not discussed by him as a piece of formal argument. But the details of such an argument are present in some of the key dialogues. These details have not been properly assembled by scholars because of the intellectual baggage they bring to bear on the question. The scholars  are looking for something which will make sense within the intellectual world which developed after Plato. Which is the intellectual world of the west.  It does make sense however within the kind of intellectual understanding of reality which was always current in the east, and in some places still is. The difference here between east and west, is that the east does not presume the existence of space and time apart from the reality of the Divine. When Plato is speaking of God, he is speaking of Reality itself, which is beyond space and time.  Plato’s doctrine is decoded in The Sacred History of Being.

The age of philosophy. The consensus view of historians of philosophy is that philosophy was invented by the Greeks, and as an essentially autocthonous development, uninfluenced by other cultures around the Mediterranean and the Near East. Despite the fact that Plato himself claimed that philosophy was very old. Plato and Aristotle were the first writers to write and publish extensive examples of abstract argument: To historians this is generally understood to indicate that they were the first to seriously engage with abstract thought. 

Abstract thought is in fact very old. But historians of human culture have to tip-toe around the philosophers and classicists insistence that before the classical period, nobody engaged in the practice of philosophy, and abstract thought was probably beyond human capacity. Even if the Greeks themselves said the Egyptians were philosophers (The Egyptians were another casualty of the Enlightenment enthusiasm for locating the origins of philosophy in mid-1st millennium B.C.E. Greece).

How old is Pythagorean philosophy? Older than Plato, certainly, dating apparently to the late sixth century. Pythagoras did not write, but some of his followers did – principally Philolaus, who published three books, which are said to have been sought by Plato. Several writers have written about some of the core doctrines. One of these, the doctrine of Totalities, Pythagoras is said to have learned about in Babylon, about the time of its fall in 510 B.C.E.  Plato writes about it. Porphyry writes about it much, much later. However it is clearly the explanatory mechanism for a passage in Bk XVIII of the Iliad in connection with Hephaestus. So, it is early, precedes Pythagoras, and it surfaces obliquely but unmistakeably in a piece of classic Greek literature from several centuries earlier. It may be however that Pythagoras did learn it in Babylon. But then, that would suggest that the doctrine of Totalities was not Greek. It isn’t.

The Mesopotamian understanding of the doctrine of Totalities underpins where The Sacred History of Being goes next. Which is an examination of a number of key features of Mesopotamian civilization. Including an examination of parallel ideas shared by Greece and Mesopotamia. The Enuma Elish contains reference to ideas relating to the gods which were also shared in Greece. The arrangement of the gods and their names in that document clearly shows the practice of collection and division, which is the foundation of Greek philosophy. Otherwise known as the practice of dialectic. Ideas of Ocean are also explored in both civilisations.

The History of an Abstract Divinity. The Sacred History of Being argues that the historical development of monotheism in Israel should be understood in terms of a protracted philosophical dispute about the nature of the Divine, amidst a vicious hegemonic power struggle in Israel. The  chapter is called ‘The Idea of Being in Israel’. The case is clear: there are philosophical aspects to Yahweh. He is beyond representation because he is that which is, and he does not change. Like Plato’s God, he has no shape, form or colour. He is one, not many. The history of aniconism and opposition to idolatry in Israel stems from this intellectual struggle to engage with the god who is wholly transcendent, and therefore identical with Reality itself.

As a consequence of the known redactions of Biblical texts after the Babylonian exile, we find we know nothing certain about cultic activity in Israel for the half millennium before the return from exile. Except that representations were not always reviled.

Which leads on to the next subject, which is the relationship between the Jewish Kabbalah of the late middle ages, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree. The Assyriologist Simo Parpola showed the essential identity of both concepts in 1993. It used to be assumed that the Kabbalistic Tree owed something to Gnostic belief in the early 1st millennium C.E., and so the fact that it enshrined an abstract idea of Divinity was not a problem for the history of philosophy. If it is also related to the Assyrian sacred tree however, which has archaeological evidence supporting its presence in the mid-second millennium, then the assumption that abstraction was beyond human beings in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. falls to pieces. Parpola’s argument is discussed in the course of the text.

The argument which was used to support the idea of a deity beyond shape, form, or colour in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. was not the ontological argument of our middle ages, but was essentially similar to Plato’s argument in the Classical period. Which explodes the notion that the Greeks invented philosophy: the Assyrians were there first.

The Logic of Idolatry. It used to be the case that Idolatry was seen as a stage of cultic worship which preceded monotheism, and had no connection with it. But it is clear from the evidence that this was not the understanding in ancient Mesopotamia (as it is not the understanding now in contemporary Hindu culture in India). The garniture of the universe, as described by the prophet Enoch, was understood to be the creation of God. But he argued that particular instances and images could  mislead people as to the true nature of God. This was part of the Hebrew assault on other gods. We absorbed this view of idolatry at a very early time in western intellectual history, and have not subjected it to any significant amount of rational or critical analysis.  

Idolatry in the 2nd and 1st millennium B.C.E. used images as part of a chain of abstractions to lead supplicants to the transcendent god, as Plato described in his ‘literary fiction’ about the Forms. It was an intellectual discipline, which has been wholly lost. The importance of these images stemmed from the fact that the supreme deity was ultimately beyond all form and representation.  It was a discipline designed to allow the supplicant to approach transcendent deity.

Ten good reasons to read The Sacred History of Being. Many more questions are explored along the way. The thesis of the book is radical, thought-provoking, properly documented, and offers fresh perspectives on the past. Though all of it is of scholarly interest, the book is clearly written, makes few concessions to scholarly jargon, and is aimed at an interested lay audience.

Thomas Yaeger, November 7, 2015. Text revised March 3, and July 26, 2016.

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