Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Preface to 'The Sacred History of Being'

Arthur Lovejoy explored the long history of the idea of Being (particularly the associated idea of plenitude) in the cultural history of the West, from Plato to modern times, in The Great Chain of Being. In the process he created the discipline of the History of Ideas, which stands to some degree in opposition to the History of Philosophy. The latter is in thrall to the intellectual frame which was established by the Greeks and the scholars and compilers of the Hellenistic world, which has been endlessly refined since the renaissance, and significantly revised since the later rise of the research university in the mid to late eighteenth century. This intellectual frame is now protected by classics and philosophy departments worldwide. The History of Ideas by contrast is a discipline which has no a priori interest in maintaining the current status of any body of ideas, since it seeks to place ideas in their proper context, whatever their current context may be.

This book is an essay in the History of Ideas. It differs from Lovejoy’s extensive essay in that it inserts the idea of Being into the period extending from the middle of the second millennium BCE up until Plato and Aristotle, which is nominally the point at which the idea of Being begins as a subject of articulate discussion. The reason for inserting this idea into a period where it is not supposed to belong, is that the evidence for the existence of this idea is in fact clearly present, and in volume, and the existing arguments against the presence of an articulate idea of Being in antiquity before the advent of Greek philosophy are outdated and essentially baseless. Much ink and argument has been expended to keep the early first millennium intellectual world free of a coherent idea of Being, but the evidence indicates that this is an idea which was integral and underpinning to concepts of essential importance to Mesopotamian civilisation.

When the followers of Arthur Lovejoy entered the territory of the European renaissance in the middle years of the twentieth century, they found the territory practically deserted, except for art historians and literary specialists. They were not threatening established academic disciplines and reputations with this incursion, and as a result, have repaired much of the damage to our understanding of this critical period of our intellectual history, which had suffered centuries of neglect.

By contrast, the study of ancient civilization is laden with a number of established academic interests – classics, history, anthropology, philosophy, etc. The territory is relatively crowded. History in particular is a discipline with a heavy interest in interpretation, since it employs an approach to evidence which (historians believe) has a universal applicability, and so they are defending a methodological approach, as well as the interpretation of the evidence.

Plato is supposedly the first to rigorously engage with the idea of Being. He is one of our best sources for the understanding of ancient ways of thinking, and it is useful to read him carefully, and to follow the consequences of his arguments, since he wished to be understood, even if he expressed himself through necessarily obscure and technical language. Some of the esoteric doctrines turn out to be present in his text, once key aspects of his argument are properly grasped. This is true particularly in connection with his idea of the Forms, and his theory of knowledge.

It can be shown that his arguments about the Forms or Ideas are connected with the practice of the worship of divine statues, which connection should long ago have been made by scholarship. All direct documentation of the ritual for the installation of cult statuary in Greece has perished, even if we have, in cryptic form, an account of the rationale from Plato. However, through extraordinary good fortune,  rituals and incantations for the installation of cult statues in Assyria and Babylonia survive, so it is possible for us to examine these to understand how these cult objects fitted into a social structure focussed on knowledge of the divine (as was the case in both Greece and Assyria).

Assyria is, for a period of around a hundred and fifty years, the best documented civilization in antiquity. From it we have an invaluable record of the actual conduct of a ritual installation conducted by Esarhaddon, one of the last kings of Assyria. This tells us many things about how the process was understood, which otherwise we would have to guess at.

Idolatry has been very poorly served by historians and scholars of antiquity until recently. It seems in general that scholarship has been content to treat idolatry as a part of the ancient world which not only does not make sense to us, but was probably also an incoherent and wholly credulous nonsense to the ancients. In other words it is seen as the product of a primitive stupidity (urdummheit), bearing no relation to anything approaching reason, and we should not expect to make much of it. However Wittgenstein warned against this approach to evidence, particularly in connection with J. G. Frazer’s widely read (and critically outmoded) interpretation of ancient systems of belief. He suggested that perhaps if we understood the context of the beliefs, we would understand how these beliefs might represent what, at the time, would have been an intelligible response to that context. In any case it is arrogant of us to assume, a priori, that those who have quite different belief systems from ourselves, are foolish and misguided.

The idea of Being and its associated ideas represents a noumenal frame which can (and should) underpin an understanding of the phenomena of ancient religions in the Mediterranean and in the near East.  By this I mean that the idea of Being was common to a number of cultures in this area in the millennium and a half before the advent of the common era. The suggestion is, that it is possible to build phenomenal public religious structures, with distinctive and distinct imagery and liturgy, on the basis of a very similar set of discussions of the noumenal basis which a theory of Being provides. In other words, a number of cultural features which are held in common in states such as Greece and Assyria, such as polytheism, idolatry, sacrifice, divination, and so on, have their origin and their source of meaning in the common grasp of a theory of Being by the priestly classes around the Mediterranean and the near-east.

In general, during the past two hundred years, scholarship has accepted that the creation described in Plato’s Timaeus involves a copy of reality, which contains the universe of movement and change. This argument was always a tease by Plato, indicated by his labelling it as a ‘likelihood’. It is however possible to show, through close analysis of Plato’s argument, that he tells us what he really holds about the nature of reality, and the relationship of the moving image of it to that reality. Which is that there is only subjective apprehension of aspects of Being, and nothing is fundamentally separable from Being. This interpretation is explored, in particular for its important implications for the theory of Forms, his neglected theory of vision, and the perceived relationship between epistemology and ontology in the ancient world. It explains a large number of things in the evidence which remains, which otherwise have no explanation, such as the emphasis on the power of the word, and the power to call the gods into existence.

Plato’s view of reality as ultimately subjective has a close parallel in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley’s seventeenth century view, in which, similarly, there is no objective reality which can be established beyond our capacity to perceive.

So, this is a radical book.  It sets out to critique our view of the ancient past, which is essentially a complex consensus reality - reducing to meaninglessness many crucial and endlessly repeated details - through criticism of some of the many preconceptions and assumptions we use to understand the evidence. It also seeks to sketch out an alternative construction of the intellectual world of antiquity in both Greece and Assyria.  It isn't a book to be read by students studying for examinations. Though students of these subjects might like to read it afterwards for a significantly different background perspective.

The plan of the book is relatively simple. It is divided into three main parts. The first part explores the ontological argument from the early modern period (Bishop Anselm) up to Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century. Ontology is really about the study of reality, rather than about providing a proof of the existence of God, which is what the ontological argument is now understood to be. The point of the survey is to show that most of the discussion relating to the proof of the existence of God is poorly argued, and often based on loose and unreliable definitions. These arguments also don't deal credibly with the nature of reality, for the reason that the ideas of God under discussion aren't understood to have a bearing on the nature of reality itself. This is true even for Kant (for whom I have enormous respect), who understood better than most that the question of what reality is, depends on what the available categories of our understanding bring to the inquiry.

Discussion of Being and the nature of reality itself was much more sophisticated in the ancient world than anything produced since, though not written up as formal argument. Exploration of argument about the nature of Being in ancient Greece is the subject of the second part.  The history of Plato scholarship (only around two centuries old) is also critically examined. Currently split into two camps, the first arguing his thought developed over time, and the second arguing he was writing around a consistent but impenetrable doctrine, which is not explained in the texts. The former ignore many of Plato's statements and arguments in order to make their case. The latter are usually fighting a rearguard action, since it is hard to define what they are defending.

A third position is considered, based on a formulation which appears in Plato's Timaeus, whose implications have not been explored properly.  This formulation, in conjunction with discussion elsewhere in Plato's work, about whether reality is one or two,  necessarily promotes the idea that Plato was writing about a reality that is wholly transcendental in nature. That is, there is no real distinction between the ineffable and unchanging nature of Being, and the world of movement and change, the knower and the known, and that consequently, the latter world is an illusion. What is new here is the analysis of Plato's arguments, which provides support for the third position.

This has a bearing on Plato's discussion of the Forms. Both camps have made nothing of a key remark in the Sophist where the Forms are directly and unequivocally connected with divine statues. [1] The home of gods, but apparently devoid of thought or movement on earth. This remark connects Plato's discussion of Being with the ritual and theology of both Greece and the near East, and suggests (as Plato himself did) a great age for the practice of philosophy.

The role of Being in the 1st millennium BCE in both Greece and Assyria, and the evidence for it, is the subject of the Third Part.

A few notes on spellings. This is a cross-disciplinary work, which quotes from a wide variety of sources. Greek text has been kept to a minimum, and has been transliterated into roman letters, so it can be pronounced as it appears. A dash over a vowel indicates that it is long. Thus an 'ō indicates the omega, which is a long vowel, as in 'zōon.' Pronunciation of Sumerian and Akkadian words is not settled and secure, and since I've quoted from different writers, the same names appear in slightly different forms, such as Apsu/Abzu. I chose not to normalise these throughout the text. Shamash, here rendered in roman letters, will sometimes be found spelled 'Šamaš.' So 'š'  is vocalised as 'sh'. Other letters found in Akkadian are: 'ḫ'  which is pronounced as a roughly vocalised 'h', close to the 'ch' sound in 'loch';   'ṣ' is a dental sibilant, which should be pronounced 'ts' as in 'tsar'.

There is a bibliography at the end of the book. Articles consulted are referenced in the footnotes.

Thomas Yaeger, Edinburgh, February 2015.

[1] In Lewis Campbell's edition of the Sophist, from 1867.

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