This is Part Three of A Berlin Conversation. A conversation between Drs. Ralf Ganz and Sadiq Kishati, set in March 2003, in a university office near the Unter den Linden in Berlin.
Sadiq: One of things I’d like to ask is, why is it that the Greeks were the ones who invented philosophy? Why not some other culture elsewhere, or even before?
Ralf: That’s a tough question to answer. A classicist might just refer to the genius of the Greeks and leave it at that.
Sadiq: That wouldn’t be a terribly useful answer.
Ralf: It isn’t. But it might just be the right answer. The Greeks were curious in a way which other cultures were not. There are no instances elsewhere of the kind of close analysis of the physical world that you find in the works of Aristotle for example. That kind of observational and analytical work in physics and in biology is new. How can that be explained without invoking the notion that they were more curious than other peoples? Aristotle doesn’t refer to previous workers in physics and biology, and doesn’t suggest that he is drawing on an existing body of research.
Sadiq: So there is no tradition of close observation of nature before the rise of Athenian philosophy?
Ralf: Not of that kind. Though Greeks a few centuries before the classical period did observe the nature of the seasons and write about it, and various other phenomena relevant to the practice of agriculture. The Egyptians were interested in being able to determine various points in the year by observing the sky, including the heliacal rising of stars, which is when a star rises just before sunrise. But all of that stuff was tied to ideas of the gods. With Aristotle he simply observed what he saw, and attempted to gain an understanding of what he was looking at through classification
Sadiq: How does Aristotle classifying what he is looking at give him an understanding of it?
Ralf: Essentially what Aristotle did was to compare and contrast. He looked at the whole animal, and also at the parts of animals. Some of these details would be paralleled in other animals, and in other animals the same parts would be quite different. So by collecting together the variety of details, he was able to group various types of animals together, and to define by description what those animals had in common.
Sadiq: So he was a forerunner of Linnaeus?
Ralf: In a sense. Linnaeus gave us a naming scheme in addition to a system of classification.
Sadiq: So Aristotle could define the difference between men and animals, between men and dolphins, the differences between dolphins and fish, etc?
Ralf: Man is an animal, but a two footed one. One which has four feet will not be a man. Aristotle was able to define what was essential in the definition of creatures.
Sadiq: So why did Aristotle want to create such a classification? Just to be able to describe the appearance of animals and the functions of their parts?
Ralf: Why does anyone want to understand anything? He was looking at the natural world, and was looking for likenesses and difference in what he saw. So he was looking for order in nature. And he found it.
Sadiq: And he didn’t see in that order anything to do with the gods?
Ralf: Not in the texts. You have to understand that philosophy as the Greeks understood it in the classical period was largely an attempt to understand the world outside what was divine. They didn’t necessarily deny a role in the world for what was divine, but it was not their starting point. You won’t find any connection with divine genealogies in Aristotle’s research.
Sadiq: I'm not sure I would agree. You are saying that the Greeks understood both philosophy and natural philosophy – which is what Aristotle was doing – as a secular activity?
Ralf: That wouldn’t be true, stated in that way. Aristotle, Plato and Socrates all discussed what the divine was. But only Aristotle looked in detail at the natural world. And treated his study in a secular way.
Sadiq: So we are back to curiosity again. Are you saying that there is no connection between Aristotle’s classification of the parts of the fauna of the natural world, and philosophical argument concerning the divine?
Ralf: That’s an interesting question. Not many people read all of Aristotle’s work. I know some of it. Generally scholars don’t assume that the various works of Aristotle are connected. When he was doing scientific work, he was doing science. When he was writing about ethics, his mind was on ethical questions, and when he was writing about metaphysics….. etc. etc.
Sadiq: I see. Do you think the assumption that Aristotle’s books don’t connect with each other is sound? I mean, the opposite assumption is often made about Plato’s work, despite the great differences between the dialogues in language, subject and style.
Ralf: That’s true. But Aristotle’s work is systematic in a way that Plato’s work is not. In fact some of it is written in such a cramped style that it looks like lecture notes. So each subject he treated was treated in a systematic way. There is no need to look for connections with his other works, since everything you need to know about the subject under his consideration, you will find in the treatise.
Sadiq: So it would not be true to suggest that Aristotle’s work was undertaken to support any kind of theological understanding of the world? I’m looking here for a way in which it might be tied together, and ‘theological’ is probably not the right word to use. What I’m suggesting is that a motive for undertaking so much observation of nature would be to understand something of the role of the divine hand in the world.
Ralf: The Greeks were polytheists. They had a supreme god of course, the great Zeus, but their theogonies are loosely constructed, and I don’t think they would have had a concept of ‘the hand of the divine’ as you put it, standing behind every detail of the animal world. The various gods in the pantheon were abstractions of forces and powers in the world, and as we all know, the Greek gods were often fighting amongst themselves. The gods could create, and could destroy, but the idea of a rational coordination of such forces and powers in order to create the physical world and its inhabitants would have seemed absurd to the Greeks.
Sadiq: Yet it might be the sort of conclusion you might come to as a result of the close observation of biological detail.
Ralf: Perhaps. But Aristotle is unlikely to have conceived of such a notion before he began his research. In other words, the notion might occur to him afterwards, but it can’t be the reason why he undertook the research in the first place.
Sadiq: So we are still no further forward. Aristotle was curious about the natural world. Perhaps we should return to my original question, which was ‘why were the Greeks the first to invent philosophy?’ If they did. We ended up discussing Aristotle’s research into biology. Is that a philosophical activity? If so, how is it philosophical?
Ralf: That’s a good question, but you still have the idea in your mind that all of his work is of a piece. At least in some sense. That isn’t the impression that most scholars of Aristotle have. He isn’t doing philosophy when he is examining the innards of a tuna fish, or exploring the bone structure of a dog’s foot.
Sadiq: So how do we define what philosophy is? If we can define what it is, we can understand something of the Greek achievement in creating the discipline.
Ralf: Ok. According to the historical record, the Greeks were the first people to attempt to understand their world through rational discourse. That is, to understand the world through the power of logical argument, rigorously applied to the subject in hand.
Sadiq: We've already touched on the limitations of discourse which is deemed to be rational.
Ralf: Quite so.
Sadiq: Even if they were discussing the divine, the divine would not enter into the argument except as a conjecture which was the subject of discussion.
Ralf: Yes. All other cultures would simply jump to the conclusion that the nature and powers of the gods were responsible for anything which was hard to fathom. The gods are pleased, the gods are angry, etc. How does the sun move across the sky? It’s mounted on a divine chariot of course, pulled along by horses. They would give the ensemble a name (Phaeton), and that would be their understanding of the phenomenon.
Sadiq: Are you saying that the development of philosophy represented a clean break with the past? Did the Greeks arrive at philosophical argument all at once, or is there a detectable development over time?
Ralf: Yes and no. The quality of philosophical discussion in the classical period is way beyond anything in the immediately preceding centuries. Scholars often use the writings of the presocratics (those which survive) as a way of constructing a history of philosophy before the classical period, but it isn’t very satisfactory. Many of the ideas discussed by the presocratic philosophers clearly have a near eastern origin, and were not the subject of the sort of rational scrutiny encountered in 5th century Athens. They often invoke the idea of a fundamental reality, such as that water is the primary substance, but don’t seek to support the assertions with any kind of rational argument. But these notions show that there was an interest in ideas in Greece long before the classical period. Quite how the Greeks got from there to the quality of argument found in Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum is unclear.
Sadiq: And the fact that many of the presocratic texts are found in the writings of Aristotle makes them a little problematic.
Ralf: You mean that they served Aristotle’s purpose? Yes. Aristotle did not write a history of philosophy as such, but he was keen to show the superiority of what he was doing.
Sadiq: What we find is that there is a great deal of systematic thought present in Classical Greece. And that logical argument was developed to the point where there was a systematic understanding of it as a tool for the understanding the world, which we might term the good use of logic, and its obverse, a systematic understanding how to argue in order to persuade the hearer, irrespective of whether or not the argument is logically sound.
Ralf: Their understanding of the modes of argument, good and bad, is one of the characteristics of Greek civilisation. Of course they didn’t think about logical argument in such simplistic terms. Persuasion was vitally important in what had been for centuries an essentially oral culture. Arguing with sophistry (as we now understand the term) would not necessarily be regarded as a bad thing. The point was to persuade the listener of the rightness of your case. If you used a few rhetorical tricks along the way, that would be fine.
Sadiq: Except that the use of rhetorical and sophistical tricks makes it possible to make the worse cause appear the better. It also means that argument is always suspect. The actual motive underlying an argument might be quite different to what the speaker suggests that it is. Everything needs to be unpicked, and subjected to an informed technical scrutiny.
Ralf: Which is why Aristotle wrote his treatises on Rhetoric and Sophistical argument. An essential part of the critical armoury of the Athenian citizen, who would hear lots of argument to persuade those with voting rights of the worth of a case.
Sadiq: So this is a peculiarly Greek thing, would you say? If we didn’t have the works of Aristotle, would we have any idea of the kind of intellectual sophistication of the Greek understanding of argument, both logical and illogical?
Ralf: I think it is peculiar to the Greeks. There is no parallel elsewhere for this level of understanding in the middle of the first millennium BCE. I wouldn’t divide the modes of argument into logical and illogical however. They involve different applications of argument. There is a very strict form of logic which cannot be escaped or gainsaid. And there are other forms in which the logic is subservient to the purpose of the speaker. The first of these is the kind of logic around the idea of identity, and of what a thing is. Aristotle defined three laws of thought, which is the strict form of logic. A thing is what it is, and not something else, which is the law of identity. Secondly, a thing cannot be at the same time what it is and its opposite. Thirdly, a thing cannot share in the properties of itself and the properties of something else, which is the law of the excluded middle. That is proper logic, which Aristotle appears to have been the first to formalise. Or at least the first to teach it.
Sadiq: That begs the question which I asked! If we didn’t have the works of Aristotle, would we have had any idea that these things were formally taught in Greece, and were part of the intellectual armoury of the Greeks?
Ralf: Ok. We don’t know for sure. And we don’t know if we could tell that these things were taught.
Sadiq: It seems that one of the things which defines the nature of Greek civilisation is something which might have been present in other cultures too. That is the survival of their teaching materials, as well as some of their literature. That is one of the things which makes them special to us, and other cultures seem less special and interesting. We know that there were formal debates held in the near East long before the rise of classical Greece. Some of them were recorded and have survived. Usually in the form of the discussion of the properties and virtues of one thing against another. Say, the virtue of the palm, compared the usefulness of a goat. Or the plow against the axe.
Ralf: That’s interesting.
Sadiq: But we don’t know anything about a formal training which might lie beneath these debates. You can tell some things about these debates at a phenomenological level, but that doesn’t clearly indicate anything beyond the fact that the performance of these debates was prized in ancient education in the east.
Ralf: Though it does show that argument towards some purpose was prized. And skill in that was probably important in the life of scribes and scholars. Particularly for the practice of law. It may be that such skills were developed informally, through the holding of these debates. Even now lawyers sometimes practice their skills in mock cases in mock courts, before they are called to the bar.
Sadiq: But we know that lawyers get a formal theoretical training which supports their practical experience. And we know the importance of formal education in the near east. Many of the cuneiform tablets which have survived come from ancient classrooms.
Ralf: But systematic education? Or just a general education in the literature of their civilisation?
Sadiq: Mathematics was a highly prized skill. I find it hard to imagine that there was not some kind of systematic teaching standing behind the specific mathematical problems which have survived. Though we have no formal treatises from the near east which talk us through the principles of mathematics or geometry or algebra.
Ralf: No Euclid.
Sadiq: If they had the equivalent of Euclid we have not found him yet. Perhaps we are looking in the wrong place, or for the wrong kind of evidence.
Ralf: Would we not know the name of someone who wrote a systematic treatment of an important subject such as mathematics?
Sadiq: Not necessarily. We often find the names of scribes or asipu priests who were responsible for the copying of tablets, which happened often. But rarely if ever the original author.
Ralf: Why would that be?
Sadiq: We have many tablets and inscriptions which claim to be authored by kings and by diviners. Kings and diviners had a special relationship with the gods, and so who they were and what they did was regarded as important. In a sense, all important things were understood to be authored by the divine, or to emanate from the divine. Knowledge itself was regarded as having a divine origin.
Ralf: So the name of the mediator might be attached to a document, but not the actual author?
Sadiq: The actual author being the divine which stands behind specific instances of things.
Ralf: An interesting idea. Does that mean that literary or religious texts were fixed? Were they exactly copied by the scribes?
Sadiq: Sometimes they were. But not always. Often they were reworked to reflect changing circumstances, a changed hegemony, or to reflect the rededication of a temple. Knowledge was something which needed to be found out. It was not something which was just given to the human race. It was associated with extreme difficulty, and was difficult to access. So there was a divinatory aspect to finding things out, which meant that the process was understood in terms of a dialogue between the understanding of the scholar, and the divine.
Ralf: And of course there are strong parallels with that understanding in ancient Greece. But why the association between knowledge and the idea that it has to be dug out of information. I mean, we know that is how it is anyway, but why should it be associated with divinity, to the point where knowledge was considered to be divine property?
Sadiq: A good question. Aristotle reflects the idea of knowledge being both difficult and a property of the divine in the Organon, where he describes paradox. Paradox means ‘according to opinion’. Not all opinions make sense when subjected to logical analysis: an idea may involve what appears to be a contradiction, without actually containing a contradiction. So it is possible for an idea which appears to contain a contradiction to be logically sound. By saying this he was referring to the fact that human understanding and divine understanding are different. An increase in our understanding may resolve the paradox.
Ralf: Was he arguing that divine knowledge does not contain inconsistency and contradiction?
Sadiq: I think that he was. The divine is what the divine is, and isn’t something other than it is. So he is arguing that the divine is, in its essence, subject to, or at least consistent with, the laws of thought. Though how it might look to us, especially if we have an imperfect understanding of the evidence, as though it has properties which contain contradictions.
Ralf: So many of the problems in understanding, and in acquiring knowledge, is a consequence of the human point of view?
Sadiq: Yes. Much like the myth of the cave, which is outlined in Plato’s Republic – where we are and the limitations of our circumstances, both physical and intellectual, are constraints on our understanding. Plato argued that the prisoners in the cave are analogues of the normal human condition, and see only the shadows of reality, cast on the walls of their cave by the sun (the image of the Good in this myth), rather than reality itself. Since they see only the shadows, they mistake the shadows for what is real. In that position, were they to be suddenly released into the light of day, they would experience extreme disorientation, and be unable to make any sense of the new information presented to them. The only way to release the prisoners without throwing them into confusion and anger, would be to present them with the image of reality itself, reflected in dark pools, so that reality was not revealed to them all at once.
Ralf: So reality is a problem in itself for human beings, in that it can look both problematic and profoundly unreal if the viewer is exposed to it without the right intellectual apparatus?
Sadiq: Yes. And the appropriate intellectual baggage provided by a proper education, to enable a proper understanding of what is being presented to the viewer.
Ralf: I think what you have said means that reality is problematic and unreal even for those with a proper education as you put it. Just that their education means that the experience of reality does not throw them into a state of confusion and anger. They know that the apparently paradoxical way in which reality presents itself to them, and the extreme difficulty of understanding the knowledge which can be acquired by the study of reality, is just a consequence of the difference between divine and purely human understanding.
Sadiq: I agree. The difficulty is always present. Which is why the skilled inquirer, the knowledgeable scholar, is so important to the ancient cultures of both east and west. Interpretation is inevitable. Interpretation is everything.
Ralf: It seems to me that what you are saying is, that while the nature of reality may be consistent with the laws of thought, from our point of view, it may appear to be full of paradoxes and contradictions. And that it is inevitable that this is the way in which it presents itself to us. Or at least, that is how it must look to us in some degree.
Sadiq: Indeed. From our point of view, it must appear to be foaming and churning in its nature, though it is what it is, and does not foam and churn with paradox and contradiction.
Ralf: We haven’t, however, defined with any clarity, what reality itself is.
Sadiq: That’s because we’ve approached the question from the point of view of the human perspective. From the point of view of the necessity of the education of the human mind. You can understand the idea of resolving apparent contradictions and paradoxes without having a concept of reality, or even the notion of reality being entirely consistent with itself.
Ralf: You mean that the human mind can climb up to an understanding of reality from things which it has come to understand in the here and now?
Sadiq: Up to a point. At least it is possible to have the idea that, if it is possible to resolve these difficulties in the here and now, it might be possible to imagine the end point of a continual ascent through apparent contradictions, to the nth degree of the chain. Whether you could actually arrive at a clear and distinct notion by following such a procedure is problematic. It’s like imagining infinity as the end point of an infinite series. There is no end point to an infinite series, so it is impossible to arrive at infinity. As a mathematician will tell you.
Ralf: So is infinity real, and is reality identical with infinity?
Sadiq: That might be to limit the nature of what reality is. It is reality first, without the definition of limit. But if you started to look at the likely properties of reality, an unlimited nature might be one of those.
Ralf: That’s a very Greek perspective.
Sadiq: It is. But as I said, if we don’t have documents from other cultures which show a systematic understanding of various subjects, it is very hard to tell if that is an illusion created by the absence of these documents, or alternatively, near eastern cultures conducted education largely or entirely without formally organised treatises.
Ralf: The consensus view has been for many years that the near-east took a different path when it came to teaching students.
Sadiq: That is the consensus view. But that is all it is. The basis of the view was formed before the tablets and the inscriptions came out of the ground. Greece was being promoted to a dizzying cultural superiority from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. There is a very interesting question there which needs to be addressed. Why was ancient Greece being prioritised in this way, when there was little evidence with which its cultural achievement could be compared and contrasted?
Ralf: I think you have answered your own question. Since there was nothing to match its achievements, at least in terms of available evidence, it became the benchmark of civilisation and intellectual development.
Sadiq: That is true. But, if the assessment of Greece as superior to the cultural production of other civilisations was being conducted wholly at a rational level, some degree of reassessment should have been part of the study of classics as the materials from other cultures began to emerge from the ground. Calling the discipline ‘classics’ does suggest that there wasn’t much conception that the cultural status could or should be open to question. That didn’t happen.
Ralf: There is a whole raft of things established for Greece which make it reasonable even now to assert the cultural superiority of Greece. The use of a formal and defined logic in intellectual argument, as we have discussed. The creation of formal and systematic treatises on a range of subjects, also as discussed. We can add other things to the list of things which can be taken to indicate that they held first place among the cultures long before the evidence for the cultures of the near-east started to emerge.
Sadiq: What sort of things do you have in mind?
Ralf: Their supremacy in sculpture, and also in aesthetics. The quality of their literature, their development of the idea of ethics, of justice, their appreciation of beauty, both in literature and in art. Their achievements in mathematics and particularly in geometry are also peerless.
Sadiq: That is a good list of what the Greeks can be understood to have excelled at. You might also add that they seemed to do it entirely by themselves. As if the genius of the Greeks somehow emerged from the soil of their country.
Ralf: I think that the idea that the cultural development of Greece was autochtonous is less prevalent than it was.
Sadiq: I will concede that. But that is only the case because the argument that it was wholly a Greek phenomenon eventually became untenable through the archaeological discoveries on the Greek mainland, which showed that there had been a lot of cultural exchange with the east and with Egypt, mainly in the seventh and eighth centuries BCE. What came to be labelled the orientalising period.
Ralf: Yes. There was a great deal of exchange between the world of the east and Greece, but we only know this from what has been recovered through the archaeology. So what we know about is objects found in the soil, and evidence of the influence these imported objects had on the cultural production of the indigenous population. We know virtually nothing about the importation of ideas from the east.
Sadiq: The importation of objects from the east is not surprising. The Greeks established their entrepots – their trading posts in the Levant and on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, while the Phoenicians traded on the Iberian coast. This does not mean that classics no longer believes in an autochtonous cultural development in Greece. Just that it is now something which happened afterwards – in the period before the rise of classical Athens.
Ralf: Indeed. But you cannot show that the Greeks imported ideas from the near East along with the objects. What they did after the orientalising period seems to have been a wholly Greek phenomenon. Perhaps influenced by what they took from eastern cultures, which might have included a number of ideas rather than objects.
Sadiq: That’s the view of the classicists. But we have ignored so far the second millennium BCE in our conversation. The critical exchanges between east and west may have occurred then, rather than in the first millennium. It may be that the differences between Greece and the east are to some extent an artefact of looking at Greece mainly from the point of cultural contact in the first millennium, where the evidence is limited.
Ralf: The evidence for contact in the second millennium is very limited too!
Sadiq: In terms of archaeological evidence, yes. But there are other forms of evidence. Such as the borrowings from near-eastern languages, and from Egyptian in particular. There are various aspects of the Greek language which point to early borrowings from other established civilisations around the Mediterranean and in the near east.
Ralf: Can you give me an example?
Sadiq: I can give you several. The Greek word for wisdom, ‘sophia’ may have been borrowed from the Egyptian term which means ‘teaching’, which might be vocalised as ‘sba’ or ‘spa’. And the esoteric cult of the Great Gods in Samothrace, which Herodotus was unwilling to tell us much about, the Kabeiroi, clearly has a near-eastern origin, since the semitic trilateral root ‘kbr’ means ‘great’. By themselves these two examples do not amount to much, but there are so many more examples. Many of which were known by scholars in the nineteenth century. I collect old dictionaries of Greek, and it is striking how much discussion of linguistic parallels and borrowings has been let slip.
Ralf: Michael Astour attempted to demonstrate early borrowings by the Mycenaeans in terms of the content and shape of Greek myth. It didn’t cut a lot of ice with scholars.
Sadiq: You mean his Hellenosemitica? There were so many unspoken and unexplored things in that book. Possibly because he understood that its essential thesis – that Greece was plugged into the cultural milieu of the 2nd millennium and not at all isolated from it – might be unpopular with its target audience. It is easy to dismiss his argument because so much depends on things which the classicists have chosen to write out of the record.
Ralf: Which things?
Sadiq: The credibility of the references to colonisations. The reliability of statements to the effect that the names of gods come from somewhere else, and the dependency of mythic structures on near eastern models. Things which, to the classicist, were essentially figments of the Greek imagination.
Ralf: Classicists have to make critical choices about the quality of the evidence they are considering. It’s the same in any scholarly discipline.
Sadiq: That’s true. But the motive for making judgements isn’t something which always exists apart from any kind of scholarly bias. Indeed, that’s why they weigh the quality of evidence, because the Greeks sometimes expressed a discernible bias concerning their own culture and history. What I’m interested in is why the classicists have had to reframe their own subject, their own focus of interest, in order that it can be properly understood.
Ralf: You might want to think about that process in terms of a normalisation of the data. You said at the outset that you were trying to make certain things fit together, and that it was difficult to do this. The classics scholars were faced with similar issues when their subject and discipline was first formalised. They had an imperfect set of texts available to them at first, and of variable quality. So the first thing they had to do was to collect together what still existed, and could be recovered, and to produce critical editions which were sound enough for scholars to use. That was a normalisation of the data for the field. They also had to develop a critical understanding of the context in which these materials were produced and consumed. There are lots of accounts of the history of Greece which were produced in the classical and Hellenistic worlds, but not all histories are of equal value. They don’t always agree with each other, which is what you would expect. So it was necessary to make decisions about what had value, and what was of more doubtful value.
Sadiq: I grant you all of that. But it should be a process which is always taking place. Source criticism is perfectly sound in principle, but there are certain assumptions built into the practice of classical scholarship which suggest the existence of an understanding that certain judgements necessarily trump others.
Ralf: Perhaps it would help our discussion if you expanded on that.
Sadiq: Ok. As we have discussed, the scholarly compact understands the rise of Greek culture essentially as an autochthonous development. That the Greeks developed an understanding of poetry, philosophy, art, sculptural form, justice, mathematics, geometry, and so on, which was massively in advance of other cultures. That this presentation of Greek culture is not a consequence of an accidental bias in the survival of evidence. That it is a feature of classical scholarship that it is possible to make sound judgements about what is, and is not of value to an understanding of the source materials. That it is not a valuable exercise to compare and contrast Greek civilisation with other cultures, and certainly not in detail, because that would not be to compare like with like. That normalisation results in an objective presentation of the evidence. Normalisation of the evidence of course produces no such thing. The evidence remains as messy as it was – it is just that we choose to use a redacted version of that evidence instead. Such as a critical version of an important text; a redacted understanding of what is and isn’t reliable in terms of the Greek discussion of Greek history; a redacted version of the Greek understanding of poetry, art, justice, philosophy, and so on. In other words, that there is an essential core of what Greek culture is, and that essential core can be disinterred from centuries of accretion and decay, and form the basis of the discipline of classics.
Ralf: I fundamentally disagree. You are making it sound as if the classicists are looking for something at the core of Greek culture which is solid and unchanging. They make no such assumption. Critical study of the evidence is always taking place. It is true that some things are regarded as essentially settled, and not the focus of much contemporary interest. That can change according to new discoveries, new lines of approach, and developments in other related fields, such as anthropology or linguistics.
Sadiq: I’m not saying that they are looking for a core of Greek culture in the objective world, and one which does not change. In fact the classicist often doesn’t return directly to the raw materials of the classical model, because there often is no perception of a need to do that. What is constant is that they believe that the essence of Greek culture is discoverable by the classicist, that they have discovered it, and that their discipline is about the business of unfolding it for the world. It isn’t the case that there is an essence of Greek civilization which is not subject to change, but there is a priesthood in existence which is tending the phenomenon. The priesthood knows what the classical is. Classicism is essentially about the development of the classicist, and always has been. As you know there is strong connection between the rise of humanism in the European renaissance, and the development of the discipline of classics. Both were understood in terms of the intellectual and moral development of man. What I’m suggesting is that the classical world lives in the minds of the classicists, and that the bit of the subject which is supposed to have an objective reality, is no such thing.
Ralf: You are suggesting, I think, that the re-evaluations which take place within classics are about aligning the concept of classics with what we imagine it to be in our minds? If that changes, there has to be a corresponding change in the model of reality which supports what we imagine classical Greece to be?
Sadiq: That is something like what I mean. But the understanding of what classics is, and its concerns, does not change much, so there is often little friction between the established model of the classical world, and the idea of the classical in the minds of scholars.
Ralf: I think that’s probably just as outrageous a suggestion as the idea that there might be an objective changeless core to classical civilization!
Sadiq: It may be that there are scholars of classical Greece who honestly believe that the Greece that they understand was a cultural exemplar beyond all the others, and that what they are learning about it is improving their understanding of what Greece was. On the other hand, there may be others who believe that they are extracting the essence of what was present in Greece, though hidden, in the manner perhaps of an alchemical reduction, revealing what is there to be found. It is also possible that both ways of thinking about Greece could exist in the same mind.
Ralf: Obviously there is an element of the observer’s point of view involved in the approach to ancient Greece. But then there always is, irrespective of the subject in question.
Sadiq: Yes, of course. But the understanding which is brought to bear by the classicist contains assumptions which are specific to the discipline of classics. And I think those assumptions are more important than any of the materials which the scholars work with or study.
Ralf: It seems we are straying once more into the territory established by Martin Bernal in Black Athena. If the assumptions of the scholar, or of the discipline collectively, are more important than the evidence itself, then you have a case for saying that the subject is a fabrication. Of a sort. He of course argued that the source of the effort to fabricate the culture of Greece was a developing Eurocentric racism, wrapped up in a proto-romantic notion of European cultural superiority. Are you arguing for a fabrication based on the same basis?
Sadiq: It’s an interesting argument, which seemed to be more transparently true at the time the first volume of the set came out in 1987, than it does now. It fits in very well with the deprecation of colonialism and its consequences after world war two. It is easy to run together a Eurocentric racism with the development of commercial empires from the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the fifteenth century onwards, all the way through the long history of British colonialism and the exploitation of subject territories by the British from Queen Elizabeth the First (when the Spanish lost their edge to some extent) up to the carving up of Mesopotamia after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War one. The nineteenth century scramble for Africa – Belgium, France, and the British in particular – was a naked exercise in colonial exploitation of both people and resources. I think it is important to see things this way round. The exploitation is the thing the empires want. The racism is something which develops in its train. The expression of power needs its justification. Eurocentric racism became part of the justification.
Ralf: I see. Do you mean it was not present before the scramble for empires?
Sadiq: Not as an important component in shaping how people behaved and thought. Those who have not studied European history in detail are often surprised to find that there was an absence of anything resembling the modern nation state in the middle ages. That isn’t how things worked. Most of the power structures which existed were based on tribal groupings and their extensions. There was rivalry between these groupings. But tribes aren’t peoples or races. There was a consciousness that different groups of people looked different, spoke different languages, and had different patterns of thought and behaviour. Sometimes political power was invested in a key group – a family or even an individual. It could hang around for hundreds of years, or vanish in ten. So political power was not vested in racial groups. To think like that would have made no sense. There was no such conception. Enmity would have been directed at the group with which you had a political or economic or religious dispute. Hostility was not something which made any sense in terms of vast and inflexible generalisations about other human beings. That is relatively new.
Ralf: Yet the Greeks regarded everyone who wasn’t Greek to be a barbarian. That’s a pretty supremacist view, don’t you think?
Sadiq: Is it? My understanding is that the term ‘barbarian’ is essentially an onomatopoeic word for how the language of foreigners sounded to their ears: ‘bar-bar’. So originally it just indicated the speech, and indirectly the speaker of a foreign tongue.
Ralf: But it is very dismissive to label speakers of all other languages as ‘not Greek’.
Sadiq: Perhaps not. We have come to understand it as a marker of the Greek self-perception of a cultural supremacy. And indeed later on ‘barbarian’ became an insult. Particularly among the Romans. There is no question that a supremacist attitude was always built into Rome’s imperial ambitions, but not so for the Greeks. The change in the use of the term happens around the time of the rise of Macedonia, and ‘barbarian’ is a term of deprecation at the time of Alexander. You can see this as part of the objection to the bowing and kneeling episode during his conquest and attempted assimilation of the east. Alexander’s generals objected to bowing and kneeling as something that the peoples of the east did, not good Greeks.
Ralf: That objection to proskynesis could be interpreted as the consequence of a Greek sense of their superiority over the Persians and other eastern civilisations.
Sadiq: It could be so interpreted. But that is to read more modern perceptions back into antiquity. The Greeks had won many battles over the eastern kingdoms, and indeed the Persian empire as a whole. So in a sense, Alexander was king of the world and king of kings. Why should the Greeks adopt the manners of those who they had defeated?
Ralf: Perhaps because of what he had conquered. Not just this kingdom and that kingdom, but the entire edifice of the Persian empire, which understood that whoever was at the head of it was a king of kings. When Alexander conquered Persia he acquired the empire, and became its head. He had not been fighting to destroy the Persian empire, or to acquire booty and tribute, but to get control of it - to be the Great King in the place of the Persian king.
Sadiq: Indeed. So the manners and customs of the Persians and their allies were part of a culture which had effectively ruled the world through its system of satrapies, and could be seen as an essential component in the nature of that power. Hence the adoption of Persian dress, and Persian manners. Unfortunately not all of Alexander’s generals saw what Alexander was doing in such terms, and simply read the changes as Alexander giving too much influence to the Persians.
Ralf: Indeed. What Alexander was up to in acquiring the Persian Empire is still a problem for scholars. One writer argued some years ago (Tarn), that he was attempting to unify all mankind. That’s one way to read it, but it doesn’t make sense of a lot of the detail.
Sadiq: It doesn’t. Most of those who have an interest in the Persian empire have an interest because the Persians were the great antagonist to the Greeks. So their understanding of the Persians, and of the Greeks is seen in terms of that adversarial relationship. So study of the Persians tells you something about the Greeks, and vice versa. They don’t usually have any sense of what the Persians owed to their imperial predecessors, the Assyrians. There is not a lot of direct evidence for the interaction between the Greeks and the Assyrians, though we know there was significant interaction – so much that Herodotus could promise a book about Assyria, which either he didn’t write, or it has not survived. As a consequence of this lack of information about the relationship between the Greeks and the Assyrians, classical scholars generally don’t study the Assyrians or any aspect of Assyrian culture.
Ralf: Do we have much information about what the Persians owed to the Assyrian Empire?
Sadiq: Yes and no. Again, not much direct evidence, but a great deal of indirect evidence.
Ralf: Such as?
Sadiq: We don’t have much in the way of Persian texts, so much of what we know about the empire comes from Greek sources. Most of which have been collected together in Amelie Kuhrt’s The Persian Empire: Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period. Not all of it is there, but most of it. One day perhaps a massive trove of documents may come out of the ground telling us direct detail of the administration of the empire, and its politics and religion. But we do have massive numbers of tablets from Assyria, and to a much lesser extent from Babylonia, particularly for the two hundred years immediately preceding the collapse of Ancient Assyria at the hands of the Babylonians and the Medes. Then about a hundred years later (in 510 BCE) the Persians captured Babylon. So we can infer quite a lot about the Persian version of the empire based on the detail we have for the Assyrian empire.
Ralf: I see.
Sadiq: The Assyrians ran things in a slightly different way, which involved much more fighting – often annual fighting – but they also ran subject territories in the manner of the Persian satrapies, usually with a governor who they had put in place. Or otherwise client kings and tribal chieftains. They got their tribute through annual razzias, where that was necessary. There seems to have been always some tribal group or grouping which was restless and spoiling for a fight. So warfare was a key component of Assyria’s civilization.
Ralf: As it was for Persia.
Sadiq: Indeed. But the Persians liked to control territory. Their satrapies covered territory – provinces, which their governors had the responsibility to control. Irrespective of which tribal or political groupings were in the satrapy. So the Persians controlled both the cities and the territory around them. In Assyria, the kings controlled the cities mainly, but not necessarily the surrounding territory. Hence the client kings and chieftains, who had that responsibility.
Sadiq: A digression. I remember one lecturer talking about the development of town planning in the ancient near east. A lot of early cities don’t show much of it. You have the citadel with its palace, a temple or temples, administrative quarters, a garrison, etc. And that is about it. The rest is higgledy-piggledy. No ordered development. You can read that as a failure of planning in the earliest days, which indeed is how it is usually read by archaeologists.
Ralf: You don’t think that is the case?
Sadiq: No. If you put yourself into the mind of an Assyrian king, which we can do because we have texts which tell us a lot about them, and how they thought about the world in which they were living, we can understand that part of the function of the king was to make order out of chaos. That’s how the world is – a place of chaos which has order imposed on it, at least up to a point. Assyrian theology describes an annual battle between the head of the pantheon Marduk (later known as Bel) battling the forces of chaos, as represented by the demon Tiamat. This combat formed a crucial part in the ceremony of the New Year Festival in Babylon. Tiamat is represented in the form of a fierce winged creature with talons, faced by the King. Sometimes chaos is represented by the sea, by rolling waves. And the king’s mastery over the forces of chaos is shown by him sitting on his throne, mounted on a dais, in the middle of a rolling sea.
Ralf: I see.
Sadiq: So in a sense Alexander had taken control of an imperial franchise, started by the Assyrians, and refined by their successors, the Persians. By conquering it he became the master of the empire, and stood in the same relation to the godhead as did the Assyrian kings. Alexander was the recipient of a divine mandate, and charged with the responsibility of imposing order on the world, as the head of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk, also did.
Ralf: So are you saying that the mission of Alexander was religious?
Sadiq: Not as we would understand it. But he had an understanding of the proper relationship between an all-conquering king and the divine. Plus the responsibilities that went along with that relationship.
Ralf: How is that not a religious mission as we would understand it?
Sadiq: Because the mission does not depend on a particular religion. Alexander is able to pass from Greek patterns of religious thought to those of the east. How he is able to do this is an interesting question. Part of the proskynesis debate revolves around the fact that not all of his companions were able to understand this transition, and how it might be possible. And what it might be for.
Ralf: So, how was it possible, and what was it for?
Sadiq: As I said, he stood in the same relation to the godhead as the kings of Assyria did. For some reason he understood that concept, either because he had imbibed eastern ideas, or perhaps because the basis of these ideas was current in Macedonia and Greece, at an esoteric level. Alexander is quoted by Plutarch as writing to his teacher Aristotle on the publication of the Metaphysics, that Aristotle had published esoteric knowledge in that book, which perhaps he should not have published. Some of the ideas discussed in the Metaphysics not only underpin Greek ideas about the nature of reality itself, but also Mesopotamian ideas about the nature of reality, as we now know from texts recovered from their temples and libraries.
Ralf: The picture you are painting of the ancient intellectual world is quite different from the one which is present in my mind. It seems to me that you are suggesting that there are theological structures present in the ancient world which differ from what has been transmitted to us by ancient writers. How can that be?
Sadiq: It is no mystery that the world was divided in antiquity into what was on the outside, the exoteric, and what was on the inside, the esoteric. The question is, what have scholars made of it, and why? Many scholars choose to ignore what is esoteric, on the grounds that, since it is hidden, we cannot have knowledge of what that esoteric understanding involved. So the business of the classicist is to make sense of what is made available in the historical record, and not to indulge in futile speculation about what is not properly documented, and which may never have made any sense at all.
Ralf: That isn’t an unreasonable attitude. You can only work with what is susceptible to an understanding. Just as in the modern world, there is much that doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense, and probably never did. There isn’t a lot of point in spending time and a career looking at something which was not based on anything which might be rationally understood.
Sadiq: But it means that we make presumptions about the rationality of ancient thought on the basis of what does not make sense to us, or what appears to be missing from the literary record. There is a danger here that both of these are presumptive judgements. Not everything which might make sense to us presents itself to us in an intelligible form, and very few scholars have a grasp of the significance of the legacy of all of the elements of ancient literature. Do we know the difference between something which appears to make no sense, and something which does not make sense? If things do not make sense to us, how can we understand the full range of what has been transmitted in the ancient literature which has survived to our own times?
Ralf: That is clearly a danger for scholars. So you are suggesting that some of what was once esoteric, has in fact been transmitted to us. But because of some of our presumptions about the nature of the ancient world, and what they would and would not talk about, as well as the sheer quantity and diversity of ancient literature, we have been misled into thinking that we cannot know some things which in fact it is possible for us to know?
Sadiq: The esoteric has indeed been transmitted to us. And in multifarious forms. But we do not see it for what it is. The ancients were very bad at keeping secrets.
Ralf: How so? Secrecy was of great importance in the ancient world. From what you have said about Plato’s myth of the cave it would seem to have been of supreme importance, otherwise society could fall apart.
Sadiq: Yes. But you have to understand what they were protecting, and the model of reality in which it was necessary to keep it secret. The esoteric understanding of the world was necessarily secret, because it was arcane, and difficult to understand. It suggested a reality different from the one in which most people lived and functioned. The danger of disorientation was always present when the esoteric understanding was discussed.
Ralf: So what were they protecting, and if it was so important, why were they so bad at keeping their secrets?