Monday, 21 November 2016

Camera Obscura: Aristotle, Marx, and Ptolemy

This text constitutes the introduction to an essay I wrote for a university competition in 1992. The essay was titled: Mirrors of the Divine, and subtitled Aristotle's Teleological Model of the World and the Interpretation of Ancient History. The main part of the essay was built on three pieces of text I'd written during my course. 

The first of these texts looked at the origins, definition and significance of the Polis within the Greek model of the world. 

The second part looked at the Assyrian understanding of the significance of the Mesopotamian Adapa Myth for the role of the king in both the Assyrian state, and  in the royal Assyrian court. This was titled Standing in the Place of Ea: the Myth of Adapa and Assyrian Kingship in the Sargonid Period. It was in fact a truncated version of my E Paper essay on Assyria, minus the footnotes. The paper also floated the idea that there were parallels with Aristotle's notions of kingship in Mesopotamian texts concerning the king, though I did not make heavy weather of it. This paper is now on this blog, in its full form, complete with the original (extensive) footnotes.

I would make some changes to it now, on the basis of what I've read since, and an exchange of mail with a leading Assyriologist, though I think the overall argument remains sound. Some of the letters referenced in the paper have been re-edited and published in new volumes. Though these volumes are on my shelves (The State Archives of Assyria series), I haven't replaced the translations with new versions and references, since the new versions don't suggest required alterations to any of the interpretations I made of these letters. 

The third part of the main body of the essay was a study of the proskynesis debate in the court of Alexander. This was about the adoption of Persian customs as Alexander took over Persian controlled territories, including bending the knee to kings, which was not a Macedonian or Greek custom. I interpreted this dispute in the context of Alexander's conquest of an empire which understood its king to be 'king of kings', 'king of the four quarters', and 'king of the world.'

Of course the essay didn't win the prize, which was no surprise then, or now. I began the essay by taking aim at the sociological underpinnings of the modern study of history, which wasn't going to make many friends. But by that time I'd come to the conclusion that the sociological approach was itself a real obstacle to our understanding the evidence. One of the reasons I'd chosen to study history was to fathom why our understanding of the past seemed so convoluted, and sometimes just plain blind to what was in the record.  

I wrote the introduction very quickly, since I was rapidly approaching my final exams at the time. I've improved the English rendition where necessary, but the argument is as it was.


Is it the case that we are blinded to the importance of
certain kinds of evidence by our preconceptions? There is a
tendency among classical scholars to treat the rise of Greek
civilisation and its formal institutions (such as the polis) as
the rise of civilisation itself. This is not to say that classical scholars 
are entirely unaware of developments in the near east during 
the third and second millennia B.C., but that there is in their minds 
a feeling that somehow Greece is the only case worthy of study; 
the paradigmatic case to which all earlier
civilisations might have aspired, but could never have reached.

Greece is the successful case, the one in which intellectual and
 cultural patterns reached a perfection worthy of their interest;
 only in Greece were institutions developed which possessed an
 excellence of their kind, and it is the excellence of the object
of study, the soaring nature of the Greek achievement, which
justifies its isolation as an academic field.

Ancient historians, on the other hand, have a twofold problem:
 their subject tends to follow the demarcation lines set by the
classical scholars (and the archaeologists concerned with Greece
and Italy), so that both those concerned with classical
 civilizations and the Near Eastern specialists have more
difficulty than is necessary in drawing on the insights of 
 other areas of scholarship. Further, the disciplines of history and
 archaeology in general have imported the methodology and
attitudes of other intellectual fields; particulary from sociology.
The effect of this importation has reinforced the trend in historiography
away from bad nineteenth century habits, such as an undue emphasis on
the role of the individual, and an unhealthy concentration on the
interests and views of those who exercised power in the periods
in question.

These are pressures which may distort our apprehension and
 understanding of ancient civilizations. In the former case, the
problem is that the worth and significance of the object of study
 has to a large extent already been decided; in the latter case,
 the movement away from an unsatisfactory approach to historical
 problems has resulted in a number of key questions not being
asked and being rendered virtually unaskable.

Several methods have been devised, more or less unconsciously,
in order to isolate Greek civilization and its institutions from
 contamination; these need not be listed or discussed here. What
is important is that the polis is often treated as though it is a specifically
 Greek phenomenon, to be understood only within the Greek context;
 and that it is necessarily something which arose from that
particular context alone. Comparison with other cultures is
regarded as illegitimate beyond certain limited bounds. Either
connections are de facto not there, or in cases where connections
 are very apparent, obvious conclusions are often treated as a priori
unsound, if they threaten the autochthonous model of Greek civilisation.

What is allowed is the retrojection of the supposed universal laws which
underpin the development of human society, and which must have
 underpinned all social and political structures since their first
creation. Scholars look for these, and the precise details of the
cultures under scrutiny do not so much give rise to theories as
 to their place and meaning, as lend support to the universality
 of the retrojected picture of cultural development.
Much of our view of the development of Greek (Athenian) politics
between the 7th and 4th centuries comes from Aristotle; from two
works on politics: the Politics itself, known from antiquity, and
from the Athenian Constitution, recovered from Egypt at the end
 of the last century (1890s). The Politics tells us of what sort of
political ideas could be thought in the context of the fourth
 century in Athens (particularly in conjunction with the Republic
of Plato, the Statesman etc,). It also gives some comparative
information about other constitutions, such as the Cretan, the
 Spartan, and of particular interest, the Carthaginian. Other
sources are few: apart from inscriptional evidence, there is
little apart from the writings of Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and
 Thucydides to draw upon for the early development of the Greek
conception of the polis. Each of these sources has to be used
with care, for the very simple reason that the writers themselves
often did not fully understand the evidence they were trying to

In the case of Aristotle for instance, it is most often understood by 
scholars that he portrays the polis as (in practice) a development 
towards democracy (which was not seen as positive by
Aristotle). Whereas (for Aristotle, in the Politics, at least)
the true struggle is the need to balance the conflicting
interests of the rich and poor: seemingly what has always
 underpinned the development of society and its institutions. The
recognition of the necessity of observing the true nature of this
struggle is taken to be a mark of Aristotle's empirical approach
 to data.

That the reforms to the institutional arrangements within the
archaic polis might have been intended to broaden democratic
participation, or even to balance the forces at work within its
structure, these possibilities are currently rejected by historians, who 
see instead a series of reforms designed to support established power (or
insufficient evidence either way). This approach appears to
provide an adequate explanation for the major reforms for which
 we have evidence: the reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes, and to a
lesser extent, that of Ephialtes.

Thus, the developments are understood to be broadly explicable
in terms of what are taken to be “universals” (i.e., this is how
human beings behave when the chips are down): in terms of the
human interest in power and the creation of ideological
 constructs to support the pursuit of power and its maintenance.

Naturally it is not a matter of dispute that what human beings
do in critical circumstances and in daily life is shaped by their
surroundings and events (amounting to at least one half of a
dialectical equation). It is often argued however, that the
pattern of ideas in which men operate is the product of their particular 
circumstances: the various forces, physical, social, economic; and is
 therefore to be understood as an extension of
the material dynamic on which the society is based: i.e., we
should concentrate our attention on those factors which
contribute to the make up of human culture and institutions which
are universally true and which operate in all the different kinds
 of organisation which can be created. In other words, we should
 study the material dynamic.

This way of looking at things seems to be axiomatic.  Though in
 fact it bears as much necessary relation to the actual practice of
historians as the theoretical pattern of scientific methodology
does to the way scientists actually work. However, the
theoretical basis of the methods of modern historians does have
an effect on the way things are done. This is because the model
is fundamentally beyond testing. 

Though few historians are now marxist in any significant sense, 
part of the legacy of the marxist input into the development of the
modern study of history is a thoroughgoing materialism among
scholars. The acceptance of the material basis of reality is so
complete that it seems beyond question that Marx's observation
must be right, that the evidence must bear out the truth of the
material interpretation of the world, even if all the evidence
 appears to point in the opposite direction. Hence Marx's use of the
metaphor of the  ”camera obscura”: if we don't see how it fits, we
haven't looked hard enough. If the picture looks as if it is
 upside down, then it is not the case that the theory is wrong,
it is just that we have failed to get to grips with the
complexity of the reality presented to us. This means that,
whether or not the materialist interpretation of history is in fact true,
it cannot be tested, certainly as long as we are prepared to
admit limitless complexity in the interpretation of the evidence.

We might usefully compare this situation with the career of the epicyclic
 interpretation of planetary motions. The system arose as the
result of a suggestion by Plato to his pupil Eudoxos that he
 devise a mathematical description which saved the evidence. This
he did, employing circles because, since the planets were divine,
and since what is divine is necessarily possessed of perfection
and completion, no other motion would be appropriate for them.
 This model of the world survived the renaissance (being used by
Milton as the frame for ”Paradise Lost”, despite the fact that he
was well aware of developments in the understanding of planetary
motion) precisely because it provided a satisfactory description
of what was happening in the sky. 

In one sense, this example is the inverse of the problem with the 
materialist interpretation of history, for the  Ptolemaic system 
arose according to its nature in order to preserve an idea, the idea 
that circles, perfection and the divine are inextricably linked with one
 another. Whereas the materialist interpretation of history arose
as a reaction, if not to a prevailing orthodoxy, then to a
 pattern of ideas, and was supposed to destroy a political arrangement
 in the world which he regarded as inextricably linked with these
 philosophical notions. By inverting these, and revealing that they were
the product of false consciousness, it followed
that the political structures must fall (once everyone understood that 
his analysis was correct). 

In another sense however, the situation is the same: materialism, 
shorn of its marxist connotations, is still a pattern of ideas, and has 
become associated with our understanding of history. Therefore it
 functions  as an orthodoxy, and orthodoxies are not in the
business of hacking at their own validity during every minute of
 their existence.

Of course it is not necessary to have to abandon a materialist
perspective in order to deal with a quite different model of reality
 which appears to have been normative in antiquity, from the near east
to the Mediterranean lands. We can regard their alien "mindset"
as the input of the irrational; we can look at this (from the
point of view of the universality of the material dynamic) as the
intrusion of error and misunderstanding of the ideological
function of roles and structures, if their behaviour and
understanding is not consistent with the material dynamic.

In fact their perception was the inverse of materialism, as
Marx's materialism was consciously an inversion of
Hegels'exaltation of the world of spirit: they saw their culture
as an ephemeral manifestation of the divine with the divine
condition as the target. The truly real belonged somewhere else
in the universe, and mankind, the earth and all visible and
tangible things were bad copies and third rate adumbrations of
the genuine article.

We, on the other h and, find it difficult to deal with this way of
looking at things. What I am concerned with in this essay is their
perception of how things operated and
how that ”perception" influenced their actions and decisions; their
institutions and beliefs. I.e., to examine the superstructure of
the dynamic (which, unlike the Marxists, they took to be its root).

The principal difficulty with ancient evidence is that it belongs
to a world which was understood to function teleologically: that
is, the evidence was produced by people who saw their world as
being suspended from the divine, and who, when attempting to
explain events, chose their facts according to the requirements
of this model of the world. We, in attempting to understand the
production of ancient cultures and the textual evidence of
ancient authors, make of it what we can, and look for evidence
which remains valid whatever kind of model of reality is being
employed. But to know that we do this successfully, we have to
understand the nature of the model which filters both the
character of ancient cultural production and the selection and
arrangement of data in ancient texts.

I argue that we cannot easily disengage "neutral" evidence from
what remains: indeed that very little "neutral" evidence remains
at all, and that to piece together evidence which seems to
support, say, a developmental and evolutionary picture of events,
which in fact belongs to a teleological argument, is to misuse
the data.  There is no great public neutral reality in ancient
history, beyond the fact of the textual and archaeological
remains (and even that is often problematic). All the evidence is
shaped by both material laws (in antiquity understood as the
strictures of necessity and craft) and the input of contemporary
intellectual apprehensions of what it is that reality means.
Thus, in order to get to grips with antiquity we have to grasp
both ends of the dialectical interplay: the material dynamic and
the intellectual model of the world, the ancient teleology.

The fact that historians can provide a plausible description of
what is going on using a paradigm essentially based on the
perceived reality of the Aristotelian efficient cause (rather
than the final cause), does not mean that the events have been
understood and explained. A description is just that: it has no
essential connection with what is actually happening (just as the
Ptolemaic cosmology was a description and not an explanation,
with no essential connection with the real processes operating
in the solar system). If we allow endless epicyclic emendations
because the basic theory is assumed to be axiomatically correct
and therefore explanatory, we have confused description with 
explanation. To explain antiquity we require to take cognisance
 of  all of the real forces at work. 

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