Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The World Turned Upside Down

  1. People believe many of the things they believed in antiquity, but the frame which gives them meaning has shifted.
  2. The modern approach to understanding is to deal in discrete and measurable entities, and their combinations. In the ancient world, they were more interested in understanding the part in relation to the whole.
  3. How this reversal came about is complex, and the process is not yet complete. The ancient world view is essentially a teleological perspective, in which the final cause of everything has an impact on all significant things in the world. In this world view, facts are intimately associated with values.
  4. Teleology has been expelled from our sciences, because it is regarded as a baseless principle, and not a real cause at all.
  5. Losing the teleological perspective from modern science is generally regarded as a great advance, freeing us from superstitious notions about purpose, whether in evolution of animals and other creatures, and also frees us from reading the hand of the gods in events. In our world, though artists and poets frame things otherwise, there is no moral connection between facts in themselves, and values. The deficiency is supplied by law and a rational understanding of society. It is the real purpose of the European enlightenment.
  6. However the success of the enlightenment enterprise creates a difficulty for us in understanding the ancient world. It makes it incomprehensible to us in its own terms, and it has become a very strange place.
  7. To simplify the difficulty, the enlightenment scholars imagined they could discern the real driving forces in ancient society, which were not necessarily clear from the texts and the archaeological evidence. This meant grading the evidence from antiquity in terms of its real meaning, and giving precedence to particular interpretation. This process became an important part of classical scholarship.
  8. Latterly, ancient history largely has been taught in terms of Marx’s economic model of reality (even if Marx was not often mentioned), in which everything is explained in terms of material and economic pressures operating on society. I was taught the history of the ancient near east entirely in this way. Many interesting aspects of the ancient world consequently were downgraded in importance, and some were not mentioned at all (we shall return to some of these). Since all ancient societies were deemed to be explicable in terms of this materialistic model, assessment of each culture was reduced to ‘how well did they do?’ Moral judgements were not encouraged.
  9. We need to look at how ancient societies understood themselves. A number of ancient writers concerned themselves with what we need to understand, including Plato and Aristotle. .Some of the details can be reasonably inferred, and can be added to the picture if they both inform the evidence, and are supported by the evidence.
  10. It has been noted that ‘completed action’ is of great importance in the ancient world, principally in the context of ritual. Why is this? It implies that ‘incompletness’ is a negative thing. Completeness was a characteristic of the gods. This is true whether we are considering the head of a pantheon, or the lowliest member of it. All are regarded as complete in themselves. It is a characteristic of divinity.
  11. We are used to thinking that it is the detail, the narrative of the ritual which ought to have been considered efficacious by those participating in the ritual. The detail and the narrative are important, but it is the completion of detail and narrative which are regarded as achieving the desired result.
  12. The Sumerian god Ea is the god of the waters of the Abyss. He is depicted in iconography as sitting enthroned in the deep. He is in the same place as the subject of his lordship. The kings of Babylon had themselves depicted sitting on the rolling sea in a ritual context, in order to, as we would have it, be associated with Ea, his responsibilities and characteristics. Thus their kingship is connected with the world of the divine.
  13. This however is to see the image within the ritual as a metaphor. It is much more than a metaphor. If the ritual is performed correctly and completely, not only is the king standing in the place of the god, the completeness establishes an essential identity with the god.
  14. This is a hard idea to follow.  We should recall that much of the cultural trajectory of the 1st millennium BCE in the Mediterranean and the Near east revolved around the pursuit of political hegemony, which would be achieved through overturning control of the highly theocratic Assyria. The Persians took it, and then Alexander. And Alexander styled himself a god.  To run Assyria was to represent the will of the divine on earth.
  15. Modern historians see this pursuit as the seeking of the trappings of divine kingship, which can then be used as part of the propaganda of the hegemony, thus buttressing it. But this is to slip past what might have been the understanding at the time, among ruling elites.  There was a long-standing discussion in the ancient world about whether or not a man could be a god, and how that transition might be effected.
  16. We need to look at the range of causes understood in the ancient world. We have good detail about the causes understood by the Greeks, through Aristotle. These were: formal, material, efficient, and final. The final cause is the ultimate teleological explanation. The formal cause, in the case of a statue, would be the idea of the statue, the material cause would be the wood, bronze or ivory out of which the statue is to be made, the efficient cause is the sculptor who gives the form to the statue, and the final cause is the reason or end for which the statue has been created.
  17. Each of these causes contributes to the completion of whatever it is that is being made. The final cause of an entity might not be framed in terms of an ultimate final cause – Aristotle describes the bricks of a house existing for the purpose of creating a house – but its completion would conjoin it with the ultimate final cause. We know that the completion of a sacred building was treated as a very serious matter, on a par with the proper completion of a performed ritual. Likewise the decommissioning of a sacred building was as important an act as its creation (in Mesopotamia very often marked by completely backfilling the structure).
  18. These ideas stretch back to the Bronze age and most likely far beyond, even if their formalization in writing dates from the fourth century BCE in Greece. The perfecting of objects, whether through refinement of their form, their material, the craftsmanship of their execution, their size (microliths and megaliths), through the purpose of the object, or through the birth and death of living things, can be identified in both archaeology, and references in texts.
  19. Aristotle in ‘On Coming-to-Be and Passing Away’ gives an interesting perspective on the relation of mundane reality to a more enduring reality. Forms come to be and pass away into something else. There are areas of stability, but essentially all mundane things he understood as alterations of something else.
  20. In his ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ it becomes clear that his teleological perspective means that moral action has implications for the status of the agent. He concludes that a principal characteristic of the gods is contemplation, and that the end result of achieving the intellectual virtues is a state of contemplation by the agent. We can take this characterization of the gods with a pinch of salt, in that it would not have offered much incentive for his pupil Alexander, but Aristotle does suggest that this is at least a form of emulation of the divine.
  21. Looking at the two works together, we can see that in his former work his view is that mundane reality is woven out of a supersensible reality which is transcendent .And he argues in the second  that the end of the moral life is a state of immobile contemplation.  Which again is a state which transcends mortal existence.
  22. This transcendent reality, it seems, does not have any obvious relation to mundane existence, since it is beyond change, and does not allow action. It is the supersensible reality from which mundane reality somehow emerges as a subset of possibility.
  23. It is only possible for this to happen (according to this line of argument) if the transcendent is connected in some way with the world of the mundane. Living form, judgement and decision are only possible in the mundane world, through common properties with reality itself. The importance of the connection with the supersensible world cannot be overestimated, and this is achieved through completions. 

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