Monday, 19 June 2017

Nineteen Meditations


Understanding Ancient Thought (published July 10, 2017). 

Nineteen meditations on our understanding of ancient history, on the importance of philosophical ideas in antiquity, and also on our understanding of the human mind, then and now.

The ancient world is often very mysterious to us, since its inhabitants thought within quite different models of reality. After the passage of two or three millennia, it is hard for us to make sense of the assemblage of information which has survived the enormous passage of time. Sometimes the nature of the evidence is problematic, and sometimes our approach to that evidence is the problem: we carry intellectual baggage which often makes it very difficult to know and understand what we are looking at.

In essence, this collection of essays attempts, as far as possible, to understand the ancient world within its original context, and to highlight where modern thought and the modern mind introduce obstacles to what can be understood.

Among the puzzling behaviours which Understanding Ancient Thought explores is divination, which was the attempt to find out the mind of the gods, what might happen in the future, or whether fortune might smile on an enterprise. There is a conceptual model underlying this behaviour which helps to explain why divination was practised widely, and the model can be understood if looked at from the appropriate point of view. In its proper context, it made some kind of sense.

Modern scholars have little interest in the role of esoteric ideas and doctrine in ancient models of reality. Partly this disinterest is because the esoteric is, by definition, kept secret and unknown, and partly because it is assumed that esoteric doctrine would have had no connection with abstract and universal ideas known to us, and therefore must remain unintelligible to us, even if we could disinter the details. The first of these appeals to the evidential invisibility of what is esoteric, and the second, to its irrational nature. Plato’s esoteric doctrine however is in plain view. We need to look for evidence, rather than presuming that it is not to be had.

The chapter ‘Being, Knowledge and Belief in Israel’ is an expanded version of one which appeared in The Sacred History of Being (‘The Idea of Being in Israel’) which looked at the body of Mesopotamian ideas about the gods and the divine through the extensive commentary on these ideas present in the books of the Old Testament, and in documents from Assyria. Supplemented by a new discussion of the problematic relationship between monotheism and polytheism in the ancient Near East.

Is Mesopotamian religion actually philosophical thought in disguise? ‘The Concept of the Plenum in Babylon’ argues that the description of Marduk in the Babylonian New Year Festival liturgy (The Enuma Elish) and the fact that the described creation was two-fold (it began before Marduk appeared, and was subsequently destroyed), indicates that their creation was understood to emerge from a plenum, in which all things potentially exist. This is an abstract and philosophical conception which is not supposed to be present in Mesopotamia in the early 1st millennium B.C.E.

The chapter ‘Pleroma, Cosmos, and Physical Existence' explores the kind of discussion that would necessarily underpin the idea of a plenum or pleroma as the root of physical creation in the ancient world.  The discussions closely parallel some of those later found in Plato, including the question of whether reality retains its nature after the production of a physical reality.

‘The Divine and the Limit’ explores the prominence of Janus in the ritual life of the Romans. In the songs of the Salii (‘jumpers’ or dancers) he was called the good creator, and the god of gods; he is elsewhere named the oldest of the gods and the beginning of all things.  The king, and in later times the rex sacrōrum, sacrificed to him. At every sacrifice he was remembered first; in every prayer he was the first invoked, being mentioned even before Jupiter. He is especially associated with the idea of limit, which is a preoccupation of a number of ancient cultures.

‘Logical Modality in Classical Athens’ is one of most important chapters in the book, since it argues that, though we have recognised only one logical modality for more than two millennia, there were in fact two. One of them was appropriate to earthbound existence; the other supplied a rational basis for contact with the divine. Anthropologists and historians have invented their own theories concerning the rationale in the ancient world for the practice of magic, sacrifice, divination, and the worship of divine images, etc. But these theories are based on entirely modern presumptions, and therefore mostly worthless. The Greeks supplied the correct explanatory rationale, and so did the Assyrians and Babylonians.  

The chapter ‘Sameness and Difference in Plato’ is a further discussion of the idea of the Plenum.  Philosophical writing about the divine in the west departed from the consideration of reality as something intricately bound up with a plenum during the Middle Ages, and as a result, philosophical argument about the divine, all the way up to the present day, deals poorly with certain issues, and no longer resembles the kind of argument about the divine found in ancient literature.

‘Shar Kishati, and the Cult of Eternity’ looks at the hypothetical core of the ancient understanding of Reality, and the theological implex of ideas which constituted Greek and Mesopotamian religion. The point of writing this chapter was to explore what was actually essential to that common body of ideas, and to get a better understanding of why it was important to the functioning of the ritual universe, in both Greece and Mesopotamia.

‘The Harmony of the Soul’ is a chapter which explores the idea of Justice discussed in Plato’s Republic, and argues that the pursuit of special excellences by individuals, in terms of skills, and moral and intellectual virtue, without reference to the activities of other individuals, was understood to result in a harmonious arrangement of society.  They are joined together as a consequence of the fact that each of the virtues is perfected. A parallel notion of the virtue of special excellences in ancient Assyria is discussed in the chapter ‘Standing in the Place of Ea’, so it is not an exclusively Greek pattern of thought.

‘Synoikismos and the Origins of the Polis’ discusses what we know of the idea of the polis, which, according to accounts collected together in this chapter, appears to have been patterned according to a conception of the divine. Unless there was some common danger they would not come together in council with the king, but each individual polis would govern itself.

It is striking how similar notions arise in quite different places. ‘Teotihuacan and the river of Mercury’ explores the symbolic function of this highly reflective metal, recently found inside a tomb in Mexico. It is known, on the basis of historical records, to be present also inside the Qin tomb in China, and to be serving a similar function. The chapter finds parallels with such ideas elsewhere (mirroring the heavens to provide connection between transcendent reality and the earthly world) in both Greece and in Mesopotamia.

Sometimes the important bit of evidence which will enable us to make sense of something is present, but not recognised, because the scholar is asking the wrong questions, and possibly asking questions within the wrong analytical paradigm. In fact there is a very large quantity of material available to scholars which can tell us much about the intellectual life of the ancient world, but because of the contemporary intellectual and cultural landscape, with its relatively inflexible interpretative structures, developed over many years, it simply cannot be seen for what it is. Worse, if the evidence is present but indicates counter-intuitive conclusions, it is unlikely ever to become part of the discussion. Better to grasp at straws. ‘Beyond the Religious Impulse’ looks at a case where the interpretative frame gets in the way.

‘Frazer and the Association of Ideas’ Like other scholars, then and now, Frazer did not recognise the other logical modality in classical Athens, though he read the relevant texts. Instead, he devised an explanatory mechanism of his own. This was based on the phenomenon of the association of ideas, argued by John Locke in the seventeenth century as a description of how we think. Applying this to human behaviour across history and cultures, he concluded that much human activity could be understood in terms of intellectual error. It is true that the phenomenon of the association of ideas is real enough. But it isn’t the basis of religious life in antiquity.  Anthropology has been on a faulty track since the discipline was invented.

We recognise only one cause in the modern world, which is the efficient cause. This is concerned with work, energy and power. In antiquity Aristotle described four causes, which are discussed here. Did Aristotle conjure these by himself, or were these concepts understood across the civilised world for centuries before Classical Greece? ‘Aristotle’s Four Causes’ looks briefly at the applicability of these to patterns of thought and behaviour in the ancient world before the development of philosophy in Greece.

Is religion about belief, or is it about something else? Again, what they said in antiquity is not the same as what is said now about the phenomenon. ‘Cultural Parallels and False Narratives’ discusses our understanding of what religion is, the etymology of the word (including Cicero’s definition), and compares the Hindu concept of religion with those of Greece and Rome. The evidence makes more sense if we talk instead in terms of divine cult.

Reading Plato closely and then turning to the scholarly work on Plato written during the past two centuries can be a disorienting experience. ‘Plato’s Point of View (and why we think he doesn’t have one)’ discusses modern scholarship on Plato, which sometimes seems entirely deaf to his own words.

The book concludes with two chapters on ancient Assyrian concepts of kingship, scholarship, virtue, sin, and the meaning of the Adapa myth:

‘Standing in the Place of Ea’ explores the role of the king in ancient Assyria, as the vizier of the god Ashur. He was trained in the Adapa discipline, which is related to the myth of Adapa.  He was required to be skilled in crafts, spear-throwing, scholarship, mathematics, divination, etc., and to excel other men, as chosen for the role by Ashur. Thus he would emulate the knowledge and power of Ea, the divine sage whose home was the Abzu, the abyss at the root of creation.


‘Paradox in the Myth of Adapa’ is a chapter which grew out of an exchange of communication with Simo Parpola about the significance of the myth of Adapa. Adapa is the last of the sages in Mesopotamia, created to be a model for the perfect man, and to serve as the template for kingship, There are several counter-intuitive details in the poem however, which are hard to explain.

The book is around 53k words, is written with the minimum of jargon, is properly documented, and with around 10 pages of end notes. Probably it will change your life. Available in ePub format. 

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