Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Unwritten Doctrine, Ancient Silence

Plato was quite explicit in the Timaeus that it was not possible to tell all men about ‘the Father of the Gods’. It follows from this that if, as in Plato’s case, doctrine comes from an understanding of the divine, then there must be an unwritten doctrine beneath the written texts which contains at least what makes sense to Plato himself, and perhaps an inner circle of peers or advanced students.*[1]

It is often assumed by students of antiquity that there is no special importance to be attached to remarks that certain items of information are to be kept secret and not imparted to the unworthy, and to the ordinary mortal. This assumption is based on the presumption that there was, and is not, anything about which it is impossible to speak of, before those not used to dealing with information about religion and the divine. This is a curiosity of modern times, in that the ignorance of theology among the moderns makes it impossible for them to credit the importance of theology in antiquity -  both to those who understood its subtleties and and those who didn’t.

In other words, it is assumed that what is proclaimed secret is not something which, within the culture in question, must necessarily remain secret (otherwise dire consequences might follow), but is something local to a particular cult or religion, and is an artificially created object of mystification, created for the benefit of the cult, to increase the aura of that cult, and to promote its ideology.

There is another possibility which should be considered, if only to clear up the scope of the phenomena we are looking at: if the priests in antiquity proclaimed that the secrets pertaining to the gods should necessarily remain secret, what might be the nature of such secrets?

Naturally it is not being suggested that all religious structures and institutions in antiquity would subscribe to what we might call ‘rational circumspection’ and a necessary element of secrecy. But it is important to explore the possibility that sometimes, and perhaps for the most part, as it might turn out if we look closely enough, these structures and institutions had what they understood as very good reasons for this way of operating. It is too easy to write off this aspect of ancient life on the grounds that of course they would say this kind of thing about themselves and their institution even if there were no rationality at all in the practice. Certainly ancient religious belief was as subject to political manipulation and machination as in the modern world, but it does not follow that there was nothing more substantial to the religions of the ancient world than a purely ideological tool for a power elite who believed in absolutely nothing (though it might be perfectly fair to suggest that modern power elites believe in nothing but power itself). 

If we presume the  ancients did not believe in the rational sense of their religion and their cultic practices, at least at some level, then a whole raft of other questions would need to be answered, We would have no way, for example, of fathoming why the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in order to gain a fair wind for Troy, was credible to an ancient audience, and made some kind of sense.

Clearly the truth is likely to lie somewhere in between the two extremes of belief and disbelief in the tenets and imperatives of ancient religion. But if we do not explore belief and its reasons in antiquity, we can never know detail of the level of rationality in ancient religion. This is not a problem, if, as is implicit in many modern studies of ancient religion, we assume that religion is at root an irrational response to the complexity of both nature and human society. The argument that there may be a rational component in ancient religions therefore can be understood as an attempt to elucidate the extent to which this might be true, and to challenge the conventional view that there is nothing of  the sort to be found there.

Plutarch gives some interesting information about Alexander’s intellectual background in his account of Alexanders career. He wrote that: ‘It would appear that Alexander received from [Aristotle] not only his doctrines of Morals, and of Politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they gave them, professed to reserve for oral communication to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with. For when he was in Asia, and heard Aristotle had published some treatises of that kind, he wrote to him, using very plain language to him in behalf of philosophy, the following letter’:
Alexander to Aristotle greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel in others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.*[2]
This is generally taken to be a reference to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. However at the time Plutarch was writing, perhaps the late 1st century C.E., or the early 2nd century,  it is likely that Aristotle’s Metaphysics had not surfaced as a published work. *[3] It is unlikely on this account to be a genuine letter. Nevertheless, the passage reflects the ancient perception of an agrapha, an unwritten and orally communicated doctrine underlying the public work of both Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Plato’s Academy.

What could possibly be of such importance to withhold, and from whom? The story of the prisoners in the Cave in the Republic of Plato gives the general outline of the problem. The simile involves a group of men whose only means of apprehending reality in a darkened cave is the shadows of things cast on the wall by the flames of a fire. For these men, there is no other reality. Were they to become aware of the fact that they were not seeing real objects, but only shadowy two-dimensional representations of real objects, this would cause them to have to restructure their picture of reality. The problem would be so much worse if they were released from the cave into the sunlight. Plato invokes the strength of the sun’s light as part of the simile, and suggests that the prisoners would have to look at the image of the sun via darkened pools of water, before attempting to gaze on the light of the sun directly (as if one would ever want to advise this).

In the story of the Cave, the sun is the image of the Good, the Form of Forms, and the ultimate source of all representation and experienced reality. Plato, by means of the story of the Cave and its inhabitants, is illustrating his view that reality is an extremely complex phenomenon, and that it cannot be understood easily without preparation. Were the complexity of reality, or rather its understanding, to be introduced baldly to men unprepared for what they were about to hear and see, they would be unable to comprehend it for what it was, and might attack those who were leading them out of the Cave into the sunlight.*[4]

Anyone who has explained technical or abstract information - which is to some extent counterintuitive in nature - to someone who has a narrow and concrete understanding of the world and its parts, will understand something of the problem which Plato is addressing here. Explaining to an untutored musician that (for example) the modern piano keyboard has actually been detuned to make the full range of polyphonic composition possible, is likely to produce an adverse reaction, despite the fact that it is quite true. The reaction is likely to  be complete disbelief, so used have we become to the tuning of the equal-temperament keyboard.

This of course is a relatively trivial example. The Good in the writings of Plato is a transcendent concept, beyond any earthly exemplar, and extremely difficult to communicate even to an educated and informed audience. Plato is clearly signalling that, beyond the simple difficultly of explaining the nature of reality to those who, for whatever reason, have been brought up with a weak and threadbare account of it, there is a necessary and unavoidable difficulty in understanding the concept of the Good and that the difficulty inheres in the nature of the Good.

The Good, as defined in the work of Plato, is taken to be Plato’s own conception. Clearly it has something to do with the nature of the divine, though Plato is often read as if he is speaking purely philosophically, whatever that might mean in the context of ancient Greece. The Good is, as Plato discussed the concept, not something which we expect to find in earlier contexts. The remark of Christ in the Gospels that none should be called ‘Good,’ but God is of course made several centuries later, and in a milieu where Greek philosophy was familiar, *[5] but when, in the book of Genesis, God looked upon his handiwork at the end of the first week of creation, ‘he saw that it was good.’*[6] Genesis represents a redaction of earlier texts, probably compiled in the fifth century B.C.E., in the time of the Persian domination of the near East. Scholars blink at this reference, and do not see what is there in the text.*[7] No rational philosophical concept is involved.

The only public lecture Plato ever gave was on ‘the Good’. It was not a great popular success, and treated the subject in such a mathematical way that the audience had great difficulty in understanding what he was talking about.*[8] We might be on the right track by suspecting that Plato had no intention of being understood by the bulk of his audience, and that the matter of his talk was not intended for the ears of the multitude, in the same way that, contrary to popular opinion, the public utterances of Christ as reported in the Gospels were not intended to be understood to those who did not have the ‘ears to hear’. 

As already mentioned, Plato explicitly said in the Timaeus that it would be impossible to explain the ‘Father of the Gods’ to men. This was partly for the reason that the transcendent nature of the divine is beyond our capacity to put adequately into words, but also because, as illustrated in the story of the Cave in the Republic, the uninitiated individuals who cannot apprehend the nature of the Good directly live in a world of phantoms and illusions. Their reason is necessarily clouded because of that fact, since it must be impossible to come to sound judgements on the basis of a procession of phantoms bearing no constructive and causal relationships with one another. 

So Plato’s attitude to the ordinary citizens of Attica, of Greece, and of the wider world, was dismissive: they had no constructive contribution to make to the elucidation of the nature of reality, and it would be hazardous to give them details of the nature of the Good, since there could be no way of predicting what they would do with that information. They might even wish to imprison or kill those who might be foolish enough to wish to release them from their prison world of dreams and false opinion.

We know that secrecy was an important part of Greek cult, though much of religious life in Greece seems very open in comparison with other parts of the ancient world. Exclusion was an important aspect of religious practice in Greece as it was anywhere else – certain groups would not be allowed to attend religious worship, or at certain times, just as in Attica certain groups were excluded from participation in the political life of the polis. Yet the rites of the Olympian Gods have not come down to us, which makes discussion of Greek religious life very difficult for scholars, who are reduced to talking in the most general terms about the meaning of the Olympians to the Greeks. We do know about civic responsibilities in connection with the cults of the Gods, often from later periods than the classical, and from Greek cities in Anatolia during Hellenistic times, in the form of liturgies which had to be paid for by prominent individuals within the community, in order to cement their participation in both the cult and the life of the city. 

From the point of view of a purely sociological analysis of ancient Greek culture, this information is perhaps more valuable that the detail of the liturgies themselves – however here we are looking at the ideas which form the basis of religious life. We do have hymns to the gods which were an important part of ritual in the mystery cults. These mostly come from Roman Egypt, and have late features, as might be expected. But otherwise they tell us something of the likely importance of a wide range of Gods in cults which were well established in the early history of Greece, say from the time of Pythagoras to Herodotus. 

Pythagoras’ own doctrines were taught as part of the life of an exclusive cult, and Herodotus mentions various cults in the course of his history. However, each time he makes reference to an important piece of cultic practice of some significance for his narrative, he makes it clear that he is not divulging that practice in the text, but is relying on the reader (or listener, if the text was being read in public, as it seems to have been at the time of its composition). He says something like: ‘those who are familiar with the mysteries of the Kaberoi at Samothrace will know what I mean’. This is of course extremely annoying for modern scholars, who at one and the same time know that there is some interesting reference being made, and that they have no idea what it is. So there is (or rather was), an esoteric reading of the text possible, as opposed to the surface reading which we now have to make, except in the rare cases where we can supply the deficiency.

Clearly the esoteric reading of the Histories of Herodotus made sense to his readers, and made the work richer in antiquity than it is now.

If we move forward in time to the neo-Platonist Porphyry, who was a pupil of Plotinus, and look at his work on the images of the Gods, we can see that the same imperative of secrecy operates. Porphyry uses the conceit of a discourse within the precincts of a temple, in order to explain something of the import of images within a sacred context. Those who have only profane knowledge are asked to leave, which says loud and clear that there is another level of understanding, a sacred understanding of religious imagery beyond that available in the world of common opinion.*[9] Of course Porphyry is delivering this imaginary discourse in the form of a written text, which is not subject to the kind of restrictions possible in the context of a guarded temple. So Porphyry’s text has to do two things at once: it has to reveal and not reveal at the same time. Going back briefly to the supposed letter from Alexander to Aristotle, found in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, it is interesting to read Aristotle’s supposed answer to Alexander, in which he defended his action in publishing the esoteric doctrines of the Lyceum in the full light of day by saying precisely that they were ‘published, but not published.’ In other words, Aristotle was claiming (in Plutarch’s text) that though the text of the Metaphysics or whichever work it was) contained information relating to the esoteric doctrines of the Lyceum, communicated formerly in person to Aristotle’s pupils, it did not publish the doctrines in a form in which they were to be properly understood.

The question might be asked in that case (if this exchange of letters was real, rather than being a way in which Plutarch could make clear his attitude to the nature of Aristotle’s Lyceum, and a supposed esoteric level of Alexander’s imperial mission), why were the doctrines published at all? The same question might be asked of Plato’s writings, since he makes it very clear within the corpus that the invention of writing as a means of communicating important information was a great disaster, since formerly memory had been cultivated, and memory was of great importance to the understanding of the world.

Our natural response to esoteric levels of meaning is, in the absence of clear and overt information about these levels of meaning, to pass over these levels as absent, and of no consequence to us and our understanding. Both Plato and Aristotle published their texts as an aide-memoires of sorts,*[10] principally for those who already had an understanding of the doctrines being alluded to in the course of Aristotle’s text.  We do not have this kind of intimate association with the doctrines at the heart of these texts, and so it would seem to be utterly impossible to penetrate whatever these doctrines might be. *[11]

We do not get a sense of foreboding from the works of Aristotle. They are methodical and practical, and Aristotle himself is entirely invisible throughout his corpus. The opposite is true of the works of Plato. In a number of them we gain a picture of his outlook on the world. Sometimes his views are expressed through the words of his master Socrates, but often it seems that Socrates did not say these words – the description of Socrates by Xenophon for example makes him look like a completely different individual. It is important to remember that Plato’s works are literary creations, and not records of real conversations and discussions, and so Socrates sometimes says things in the course of an argument which the real Socrates might not say – it is Plato himself talking. If we were to summarise Plato’s outlook on the future of the world, we would say that he felt that the human race was ignorant, both of the nature of reality and of its own history, vain about its contemporary achievements and the state of life, and that even that class of human beings who had formerly possessed an understanding of the nature of reality, of the relationship between eternity and the secular world which was a mere moving image of eternity, of the sages relationship with ideas and images, and the Good, were forgetting the true import of the doctrines which had been imparted to them, or perhaps they were being supplanted in public life and esteem by those who had the outer form rather than the inner core, and hardly anyone knew of the difference anymore.

Consequently, it is easy to understand why Plato would write his doctrines down. The former method of transmission was failing, perhaps in the face of the sophists, huckstering wisdom around Greece – making it a competition between the arguments of individuals rather than as he might have conceived of it,  a collective and binding braid of understanding built up over centuries, and perhaps millennia.

But, as in the case of Porphyry’s work On Images, many centuries later, Plato would have to ‘publish and not publish’ at the same time. This is, if the case, the source of much of the difficulty with understanding Plato, in that he is alternately revealing and obfuscating the proper matter of his work.

If Plato was impelled to write down the doctrines of the Academy, however allusively and obscurely, because he felt the traditional pre-literate tradition of the transmission of wisdom from sage to pupil was falling apart, then Aristotle’s justification would be inadequate. There simply would be too few informed readers to make the effort worthwhile. Which leaves one possiblity in Plato’s mind: that it should be possible for an intelligent but uninformed reader to reconstruct the doctrines from the information available within the text.

This returns us to the proposition that the exclusiveness and secrecy associated with religious cult in ancient history might have a rational basis, in that certain things are not communicated directly, because such communication is likely to lead to misunderstanding, and possibly the persecution of those who discuss these ideas.  Obviously a concealment by Plato of doctrines within a text could not be a purely mechanical process, in the form of an acrostic or some other word or mathematical puzzle, in that such a device could easily be deciphered by an individual possessing cleverness rather than insight. The doctrines would have to be concealed with much greater subtlety.

The subaltern tradition of the interpretation of Plato, from the neo-Platonists in the late Roman Empire, through Nicholas of Cusa,  to the renaissance neo-Platonists of the Italian city states, and the late-eighteenth century re-examination of Platonism by the scholar Thomas Taylor, depends on an alternative interpretation of the writings. For the past three centuries these interpretations have been deprecated as faulty – in the case of the renaissance appraisal of Plato the deprecation is so great that until the middle years of the twentieth century it was simply too embarrassing to include the sojourn of philosophy at the court of Ludovico Sforza in the history of philosophy. *[12]

These interpretations of the Platonic canon are now acceptable for scholarly discourse, though they still remain subaltern in nature. No tenured historian of philosophy would dare suggest that these subaltern interpretations of the doctrines of Plato, despite a strange and unnerving consistency,  are on an equal footing with the modern consensus view, which centres around the notion that Plato is not retailing a traditional discourse about the nature of reality, but instead is exploring for the first time a number of philosophical problems, including the nature of the one, the nature of the many, eternity, being, non-being, participation, etc. 

The modern academic historian of ancient philosophy is in a very tricky position. The later role of Plato and the neo-Platonists is now an accepted part of the currency of discussion of the rise of science in Europe. For the last fifty to sixty years, a great deal of valuable work has been done, centering initially on the Warburg Institute in London, to show that, rather than science and scientific method emerging as a consequence of inspired individuals working against the grain of their credulous time, in fact science emerged from a complex braid of ideas in play from the Italian renaissance in the 15th century onwards, all the way up to the early years of the 17th century. 

So now the renaissance philosophers can and do appear in histories of philosophy, with their hermeticist and Christian-cabalist ideas acknowledged, their mathematical magic, their alchemical writings, their fascination with biblical prophecy, their necromantic rituals, their scryings, their conversations with angels, allowed as part of the birth of the scientific outlook on the world. The sequence of developments in the period  – not always linear – has been examined in detail, and we now have a good understanding of the process – so much so that reference to the magical and cabalistic interests of the early figures in the history of modern science is part of the common currency of discussion.

For the early history of philosophy in classical Greece, by contrast, there is no clear background to the emergence of most aspects of what is termed philosophy, even according to the broadest definition of the term. Much of the history of philosophy in Greece is based on the discussion of the ideas of the presocratics and the sophists in the works of Plato, and also in the Metaphysics of Aristotle. 

A late source, no more than a compilation made in the early years of the modern era,  is also mined by historians (Lives of the Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius). The resulting picture, painstakingly stitched together over a period of around two centuries, has been refined again and again, so that we understand as obvious that there was a chaos of competing and barely philosophical descriptions of reality and the world among the pre-Socratic philosophers, that the sophists would make the worse cause seem the better, and that Plato either invented or refined the technique of dialectic which often appears in the dialogues to be practised by his master, Socrates. 

After Plato comes his most famous pupil, Aristotle, who finally formalised logical thought, rooting it in three principles – the law of similarity, the law of the excluded middle, and the law of non-contradiction. And from this crucial formulation, science as we understand it became possible. 

The background of Greek culture seems a little superfluous to this picture. This is despite the fact that it is easy to recognise religious ideas of both Greece and the near east in the materials which are attributed to the presocratics. And more particularly in the writings of Plato himself.

Philosophy has of course been redefined. In the twentieth century it experienced a transformation into its narrowest definition in the history of the subject. Now it is almost exclusively concerned with the limits of its own discourse, and with a logic-chopping approach to the development and use of symbolic language.*[13] All of which is based on the three axiomatic laws of logical thought, despite the fact that a small number of eminent philosophers within the european tradition of philosophy have explored the concept of a paradoxical reality. 

This is not a major problem however, if the subject as a whole has turned away from questions of ultimate reality towards questions of method of logical analysis. And indeed philosophy now has nothing to do with the former core interest of philosophers, having conceded questions of the nature of the world to scientific study, for which they imagine themselves to provide a metric of clear thought; and also to theologians, for whom they have little respect, since Wittgenstein defined their territory as beyond the legitimate scope of rational thought. 

So the discussion of the background of Greek philosophy is not of much interest to professional philosophers in the twenty-first century. Historians of philosophy should be interested, but of course the connections between Greek philosophical ideas and the contemporary cultural background aren’t really anything to do with philosophy

Fortunately there are other scholars out there, for whom the modern straightjacket which has been embraced by the discipline of philosophy is no impediment to their interest in the cultural background to the rise of philosophy in Greece. The creation in the mid-twentieth century of the area of study known as the history of ideas, brought together a number of scholars from different disciplines to address the impact and dynamics of ideas in culture and thought.

However the relationship between Greek philosophy and its cultural background remains obscure. There is a tendency to picture philosophy as something which emerged from a background of superstition and credulous belief, and therefore the detail of the cultural background is not of great importance. What is important is the development of philosophy, and its emergence is evidence of the intellectual strength of those who managed to emancipate themselves from the folly of religious belief.

[1] That Plato had an unwritten doctrine is not itself an unusual view among Plato scholars – over the past hundred years a large proportion have taken this view – Paul Shorey being an example. However reasons for holding that Plato had an unwritten doctrine vary. Mostly the view arises because otherwise it is difficult to find coherence in the Platonic corpus. So the idea of an agrapha arises as something which contains the missing pieces in the structure.
[2] Plutarch Lives: Alexander.
[3] There is an excellent account of the progress toward publication of Aristotle’s manuscripts in the Penguin edition of his Nicomachean Ethics. Like almost all of Aristotle’s works which we possess, this work appears to be constructed out of notes made by Aristotle himself, or by his students. At least one passage in the Nicomachean Ethics clearly duplicates the content of another, if not in the same words, which suggests strongly an imperfect collation of notes by several hands by a student editor.
[4] This is a clear allusion to the fate of Plato’s teacher Socrates, who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens.
[5] Christ may allude to the story of Socrates and the cup of Hemlock in the Gospel of John.
[6] Book of Genesis.
[7] Of course the determinant of what meaning is intended by the reference to what is Good is the context. And the context of a creation by the separation of waters and the creation of a vault of heaven does not immediately suggest the presence of a philosophical level.  Near eastern kingship employed both the concept of the Good in terms of a final cause with which the King sought to be identified, and the mastery of the forces of chaos and order, symbolised by the disposition of the waters of the Apsu.
[8] Cherniss, Harold.
[9] Though there are important differences in the doctrines of Plato and the neo-Platonists which it is important to observe in discussion, both Plato and the neo-Platonists were at one with respect to the idea that understanding was a property of the divine, and that lesser mortals, the uninitiated and merely common, were lesser beings precisely because of their greater distance from understanding.
[10] Plato’s account of the importance of memory makes it clear that any unwritten doctrine would be unlikely to be committed to writing, and therefore written documents must make sense as allusive texts.
[11] The Cambridge History of Early Medieval Philosophy mentions this difficulty, referring particularly to the works of the Neoplatonists. The presence of an esoteric background is acknowledged, but since there seems to be no way in to this background in the absence of a key, the only course of action is to evaluate the material in terms of the surface text. A.C. Lloyd, The Cambridge History of Early Medieval Philosophy.
[12] The coverage of the Italian renaissance by Bertand Russell in his History of Philosophy represents a bizarre attempt to give the period some kind of credit, without dealing in detail with the important figures. The section resembles a desperate lift from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
[13] In fact the symbolic language of the logicians is anything but symbolic. Rather it is semiotic language – the whole point of logical language is to remove the last trace of ambiguity in statements, making it as far removed as possible from the language of human interchange. This is far from a futile activity: the machine this text was written on is a direct consequence of the development of a language of mathematics and propositions by (in particular) Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (Principia Mathematica), on which Turing built as a pupil of Wittgenstein at Cambridge in the 1930s, where he wrote his famous paper on intelligent machinery.

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