Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Keeping the Enlightenment Agenda Alive



The core of the following text was written in 2005 as a short promotional introduction to the draft of The Sacred History of Being, which was written in 2003-4. That draft remained incomplete. The text of SHB which became the published version in 2015 is significantly different in detail, though the essential argument is the same. In the form of an internal memo by a publishing house editor, the following rehearses some of the reasons why the book should not be published

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Not many writers would consider writing a book such as The Sacred History of Being. It presents an argument which is apparently wilfully at odds with the received intellectual history of mankind, and which attempts to undermine certain hitherto unchallengeable assumptions about religion and philosophy. It is so radical in fact, that it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the author either cannot be serious, or is perhaps actually mad.

The title is a clear guide to the content of the book: it is about the history of the idea of Being, focussing in particular on its manifestations in the Mediterranean and near-Eastern worlds of the first Millennium B.C.E. But whereas it is axiomatic in both the history of philosophy and and the history of religion that the abstract conception of Being first became a subject of discussion among the pre-Socratic philosophers, and reached its culmination in the pages of Plato,  the author of this work argues that both philosophical concepts and modes of philosophical thought were present in both Greece and Mesopotamia much earlier (the argument focuses particularly on Ancient Assyria). Before the advent of the Greek philosophers, religion was, according to the conventional model, without much rational aspect, and best understood as an improvement on a mental outlook in which magical thought might have been dominant.

This is an area of our intellectual history which is so well wrapped up that it seems unneccessary to give the argument further house room. Let us be plain about the established position of academic scholarship in this area: there is no evidence that there were philosophical discussions in ancient Mesopotamia along the lines of the Greek model. There is no evidence of a significant Mesopotamian input into the development of Greek philosophy. There is no evidence of philosophical concepts and terms in the textual remains of the Ancient Near East. The author may show considerable chutzpah in arguing a philosophically informed basis to ancient religion, and that there is an important cultural continuity between the intellectual history of Greece and ancient Assyria, but if the facts to support such conclusions were available to scholars, the implications would be so enormous that we would already know this information.

What are the key points which it argues? It argues:

That philosophy has its origins in religion and cult activity, and that this relationship is identifiable in the documentary and iconographic record.

That the presence of a teleological world view (i.e., Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, etc.) before the conventional period in which a theory of Being was developed among the Greeks, implies the presence of a theory of Being among the Greeks before that conventional period. The idea of a final end or limit towards which things tend is a close correlate of  the idea of Being, and a marker of its existence in the intellectual discourse of the time.

That the importance of completion in Plato and Aristotle is not an innovation. Completion is a concept  central to the ancient religions and cults both of the ancient Near East and Egypt. The idea of completion is part of the implex of ideas surrounding the idea of Being.

That theology based on a discussion of the nature of the divine is not something which was developed after Plato and Aristotle, but was part of the intellectual bedrock of ancient religions.

That the discussion of the one and the many, the great and the small, the divisible and indivisible, the limited and the unlimited in both Plato and Aristotle is not purely secular. These arguments were understood as part of the apparatus necessary to elucidate the nature of the divine.

That the idea of the sacred is not something built up over generations of irrational cult activity, irrationally revealed, and embroidered by the generations which follow on, but a concept which is dependent on the idea of Being.

That the idea of the formal cause was a key concept in antiquity, and lies beneath Plato’s characterisation of the world as series of images which hark back to the principal concept of the Good, which is the ultimate source of these images. Other cultures, including Assyria and Egypt use images systematically as part of their religious and cult life.

These are extraordinary ideas. Extraordinary! 

Thomas Yaeger, March 26, 2005. Edited May 28, 2016, and significantly modified September 7th 2016. 

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