Thursday, 10 November 2016

Map and Territory: Representing Ancient Thought

These are the ten most read articles during the past month (October 11 - November 10, 2016). Three of them were posted in September and October 2016. Nine of these articles deal with the categories of understanding we bring to bear on ancient cultural ideas. These categories have a huge bearing on our capacity to understand what we are looking at.

'Shar Kishati' and the Cult of Eternity.There is no dispute that there was a concept of eternity in antiquity, long before the Greeks. But if we don't register that it was a fully-formed rational concept, rather than a muddled notion about what might lie beyond the here and now, then we cannot understand what eternity represented in antiquity. We say that the concept of a wholly transcendent eternity could not have been part of a rational understanding, because there could have been no such understanding of it before the advent of philosophy in Greece. So we read antiquity in terms of our own understanding. This article explores the role and function of a 'cult of eternity' in the civilizations of antiquity. It was a chapter in the draft of The Sacred History of Being written in 2003-4.

Remarks on the Telos (and other lost ideas).The telos is another idea whose significance in antiquity is scarcely understood. It is an abstract concept, which often surfaces in ancient literature. It is not understood as an abstraction however, since the logic behind its importance is more or less invisible to us. As a result the telos is again treated as a muddled notion about the nature of the world, rather than a rational concept which has consequences for our understanding of antiquity. 

Plato's Point of View (and why we think he doesn't have one). What did Plato think about the nature of reality? I wrote this article as a consequence of a discussion with a reader. The study of Plato is riven with two principal approaches (discussed in The Sacred History of Being), each of which enshrines preconceptions - the first presumes that Plato's canon is a record of research, and the second that the canon contains a coherent body of doctrine, though it is difficult to understand what that doctrine is, because of the discursive and often wayward form of the Platonic dialogues. Each of these schools of thought  have in common that they treat the dialogues as reflecting a process of teaching. What was Plato teaching? How human beings ought to think about the world? How human beings might gain an understanding of a supersensible reality underlying physical reality?

In fact Plato proceeds from an understanding of the world of ideas (which transcend physical instances) to the world of physical reality, rather than the other way around. This understanding of the world of transcendent ideas is based on logical argument. The doctrine is based on a logical understanding of ideas and their relationships with each other, considered apart from their instantiation in physical reality. This means the contemplation of the ideas apart from scalar and spatial properties. 

Physics and the Origins of the Universe discusses the limitations on physics by the exclusive use of the efficient cause as an explanatory mechanism. In antiquity there were four principal causes available to explain reality, including the idea of the telos (the final cause). The idea of the plenum formed an armature for the four causes. 

Questions and Answers isolates a number of issues which are discussed in The Sacred History of Being.

Sameness and Difference in Plato discusses the need for reality to come to a relationship with itself, if a physical world of multiple entities is to come into Being. This idea is the basis of the interest in the undefined dyad in antiquity.

The Sweet Song of Swans is an article (presented as an extract from the rather long chapter in The Sacred History of Being) which discusses Plato's writing process, and the use of stylometry in the modern analysis of his work (principally by those who wish to find development in the sequence of dialogues), and how Greece came to be the home of philosophy, after classicists denied the description 'philosophers' to the ancient Egyptians.

A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology considers the recent work of Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks, published in October 2015, which interprets three principle classes of Babylonian literature entirely in structuralist terms. By doing so, the author argues that reality and truth existed for the Babylonians only in the texts. So a problematic way of understanding cultural production, devised at the turn of the twentieth century by a single scholar, and obviously not known by the Babylonians, becomes the lens through which Van De Mieroop 'understands' Babylonian thought.

Looked at from this point of view, questions leap out, such as,  what is the place of the Babylonian gods? Where is the logic of the Babylonian worship of their gods? Where are the ritual actions? Where are the sacrifices? Why did they do anything at all, beyond the reading and interpretation of the texts? 

Cultural Parallels and False Narratives is an article which explores the problematic nature of religion in the first millennium BCE, and how little is present which we would now regard as religious. How the change happened in later centuries is explored. Ancient religion is compared with current Hindu thought and practice, which has remained more or less unchanged since the first millennium BCE.

Thomas Yaeger, November 10, 2016

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