Thursday, 1 June 2017

A Mesopotamian Perspective on the Origins of Philosophy

(An extract from correspondence with the philosopher Adrian W. Moore, concerning The History of the Infinite).

From: Thomas Yaeger
Sent: 16 April 2017 18:46
To: Adrian W. Moore
Cc: Thomas Yaeger 
Subject: A History of the Infinite, and The Sacred History of Being

Dear Adrian,

I still haven't got round to writing a compact review of your radio series on 'The History of the Infinite', but I will get around to it eventually. In the meantime the ten episode summaries have been accessed 1266 times as of this afternoon, which is not bad for a blog page on such a specialised subject.

When we were corresponding last autumn about the series, I didn't say much about myself. I have a background in philosophy, classics, and also ancient Near Eastern History. I studied mainly at UCL and SOAS. I was particularly interested in your series in order to understand how the question of the infinite in history is currently being handled by academia. The series gave me an excellent overview of that, for which thanks.

However, there are real problems with the current and conventional view of how the infinite was understood by ancient civilizations, the cultural function it served, its geographic spread, and who adopted it first. It doesn't look problematic from the point of view of those academics who specialise in ancient Greece and classical civilization, because they have grown up with the idea that the business of dealing with abstractions in a philosophical way is firmly established as a Greek phenomenon, and an incontrovertible fact.

Most of the evidence to the contrary never passes before the eyes of classicists and specialists in ancient philosophy, precisely because they are specialists in their subject. The evidence is elsewhere. In addition, we select the evidence which is available, in order to provide support for the current model of how the practice of philosophy started, how ideas of infinity and Being came to be discussed, and not to undermine that view. This process has been going on since the Enlightenment.

Since I studied Mesopotamian history, culture and thought, I have a different perspective. I spent quite a few years in careful study, and came to the conclusion that the origin of philosophy is not down to some autocthonous burst of intellectual genius in ancient Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries, B.C.E, but is the result of the development of patterns of though associated with divine cult around the Mediterranean during the 1st and 2nd millennia B.C.E.

So you have looked at the history of the infinite from the point of view of the established history of philosophy. I have looked at the history of the infinite from the point of view of other cultures around the Mediterranean, principally the Assyrian and Babylonian oikumene, and Israel. As a consequence, our pictures of the cultural history of the idea of infinity are radically different.

It is true that we have no formal discussion of philosophy from Mesopotamia as we find in the pages of Plato and Aristotle, but we know that the ideas of infinity and Being were present because so much information survives about Mesopotamian culture in the form of historical records, ritual texts, liturgies for their festivals, their art, iconography, sculpture, etc. And their extensive literature. These things give us many clues as to the meaning and purpose of divine cult in Mesopotamia. The questions and conjectures that underpin divine cult are philosophical ones about the nature of the infinite, the nature of reality itself, and of Being. 

In fact, it is philosophy in Greece which seems oddly isolated, as not being closely associated with Greek religious practice, and with the other phenomena which form part of their extensive cultural life – divination, augury, magic, sacrifice, the worship of divine images and statues, and the rituals of everyday life.

This isolation of philosophy in Greece from Greek cultic life is more apparent than real however. For 150 years in the 1st Millennium B.C.E. (7th and 8th centuries), Assyria is the best documented civilization in antiquity. Many things survive from there which do not survive elsewhere, such as rituals for the inauguration of divine images. We have none from Greece. Close comparison of these ritual texts with Plato’s discussion of the Forms, spread across several of his dialogues, shows that he is talking about a widely-spread philosophical rationale for divine cult, and in fact the theory and practice of idolatry. The parallels are very striking. 

I’ve written a book on the subject – The Sacred History of Being (2015). This looks at why we frame our intellectual history the way we do, and sketches out an alternative construction of that history.  I would be happy to send this to you, if you would be interested in an alternative view of the history of the infinite, which explores the idea in its original cultural context.

Currently it is available as an eBook, and can be read using Adobe Digital Editions (freely downloadable from Adobe’s website) which is available for a wide range of hardware platforms. It is around 3.5 mb in size, and travels well as an email attachment.

Best regards,

Thomas Yaeger

At 10:52 17/04/2017, you wrote:

Dear Thomas,

Many thanks for your message.  Yes, I would be very interested in receiving a copy of your book, and I thank you in anticipation.

Best wishes,

Adrian Moore

Episodes of my BBC Radio 4 series A History of the Infinite can be heard at:

Dear Adrian,

Ok then. The ePub format file is attached.

I would recommend reading the chapters in sequence on the first reading, since many of the chapters supply information which is useful for understanding subsequent chapters. As you will see from the chapter list, much of the Mesopotamian discussion is in part three.

The main purpose of the book is to bring to the attention of specialists in western philosophy, classics, and ancient history, the presence of  ideas in Assyria and Babylon which show strong parallels with those present in Greece. So the reader is at no point hit with a wall of cuneiform script. Or indeed, any at all. The quality of the writing has already been commended - I worked hard to make the text readable.

Take your time - you have other things to do, and I can wait until you are ready to respond. Thanks for your interest.

Best regards,

Thomas Yaeger.


(The ten thousand word summary of Moore’s BBC series on Radio 4 is available at:]

No comments:

Post a Comment