Thursday, 19 July 2018

The Greek Ontological Model in the 1st Millennium B.C.E.





This is a discussion of the ontology and theology of the Greeks, in the context of the 1st Millennium B.C.E. It is essentially an overview of where I was, written between 26 July and the 3rd of August 2003. I have revised some of the English, and excised a couple of short passages, but the argument remains as it was. It is quite a long read (around six thousand words), but some readers will find the discussion rewarding and worth the effort. It has a number of themes, but essentially it is a discursive account of Plato as a theological writer. 

It is divided into six sections, which I list here:

Abstract and Introduction
Where is the Theology of the Greeks?
Discovering Greek Theology
The Intellectual basis of Greek Theology
Magic and Ontology in Ancient Greece
Beyond Motion and Change


Abstract

This essay proposes a substantial revision to the current cultural model for the Greeks. It argues that we need to modify our picture of the ontological model available to the Greeks in this period, and consequently to adjust the corresponding ontological model we use to interpret the cultural significance of their religious thought and practice. It also attempts to rearrange some of the fractured pieces of the Greek cultural continuum into a more appropriate set of relationships.


Introduction


This essay is, in contemporary parlance, ‘left field’, in that it does not develop a current line of argument about Greek civilisation, but instead proposes a very radical re-interpretation of the Greek cultural phenomenon. It does this, not because the author wishes to wilfully and contrarily reorder the phenomenon, but because the author has been pushed toward a radical re-interpretation by the evidence itself for the understanding of ancient Greece over a period of twenty years: this evidence suggests that the ontology available to the Greeks themselves in the 1st Millennium B.C.E. was much more sophisticated than we have hitherto allowed ourselves to imagine. As a whole, the phenomenon of philosophy (and its sudden appearance) in Greece is problematic in its broad relationship to a number of aspects of the Greek cultural matrix (with which it has a number of clear connections), and there has been no recent serious attempt to address these issues. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine in what circumstances within the academic world of classics such radical re-interpretation would be possible. Plus there is the question of who has the responsibility and expertise to start playing around with the ontology of the Greeks – the philosophers or the classicists?

So this is a radical little text, dealing with a cultural no-man’s land, which is unlikely to find an orthodox home in a journal such as JCS or JHS, or any of the others. Too bad! It is nonetheless a serious piece of work which I think deserves at least a little attention, in that its radical re-ordering of the Greek cultural matrix  offers the possibility of understanding the theological background to the development of, for example, participatory democracy in Greece – the sort of background  scholars have suspected for some considerable time - but have been unable to explore. The reason it has not been possible to explore it (it is argued in this essay) is because the ontological model we attribute to the Greeks is not the one they had.

The essay also  proposes a new way of understanding the role of sacrifice among the Greeks, and has a few new words to say on Greek conceptions of participation and magic.


Where is the Theology of the Greeks?

Much of it is in the pages of Plato. Plato is a religious writer. His writings do not tell us, as the current orthodoxy generally holds, about a secular programme of philosophical investigation. Instead his writings tell us about the theology of the Greeks. This has not been recognised much in practice and in detail by scholarship – however the later commentators all the way up to Proclus wrote their commentaries on the basis that he was writing about theology. In the renaissance they read Plato very much the same way. However we do not ourselves currently have a conception of theology or of its history which comfortably allows us to see the ideas expressed in the dialogues as evidence of theology.

The later commentators have been dismissed as insignificant to the interpretation of Plato because much of what they wrote betrays ideas of eastern origin. In other words, their theological interpretation of Plato depends on ideas which are clearly drawn from eastern sources, and on that account  their interpretations are illegitimate as a means of understanding and interpreting Plato. On this account the later Platonists are designated by us as ‘Neoplatonists’. A distinction they would not have understood.

The presumption here behind the orthodox position is that both Greek religious and theological ideas and the ideas contained in Plato are autochthonous – i.e., they don’t belong within a common cultural matrix whose boundaries across Europe and the Middle East are difficult to define. Greek ideas are Greek, and Plato’s dialogues represent an expressly Greek (and essentially  philosophical) interpretation of reality.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the autochthonous nature of Greek ideas is the easy identification of religion as the outward expression of an inward theology.  While it is true that aspects of an outward religion may (and sometimes do) reflect details of an inward theology, it is also the case that there is no necessary and obvious connection between them at a formal level (this on account of the various purposes, many of them pragmatic, which underpin the show of religion).  In other words, it is not possible to guess the nature of the theology underpinning a religious literature and its iconography simply by analysis of those things.  It has (for example) been too easily assumed that Homer tells us what we need to know about Greek religion (Plato’s view of  Homer and the other poets is well-known). But, constructing a picture of Greek theology on the basis of the descriptions of the Gods and their actions in Homer results in a morally unsatisfactory result and a source of embarrassment - to the Greeks as well as ourselves. It is hard to imagine a people with the intellectual curiousity and power of the Greeks being happy to consider the Homeric epics as sufficient description and explanation of the world for any length of time, and for any serious purpose.

However, the contemporary view is that, since Plato is not writing about Homeric ideas of divinity, he cannot be telling us about Greek theology: therefore he is writing about a more or less secular programme of philosophical inquiry.

On the contrary, I repeat that Plato is writing about Greek theology, and that theology is part of a common body of philosophical theory and argumentation, orally maintained for many generations. Naturally it isn’t the case that all Greeks were familiar with the ideas which find expression in his pages, any more than a straw poll in an English street would reveal a picture of the central theological beliefs of the Church of England. But it is the case that Plato is writing about the theology of his culture, in that it reflects the body of doctrine shared by his peers.

What are the reasons for arguing that Plato is not writing about theology? Firstly, what Plato writes does not resemble closely what we now regard as theology. We don’t expect to encounter theology in a dialogue format. He deals with abstract arguments which, it seems, only occasionally admit of a theological interpretation. Discussions of the relationship between the one and the many are expressly conducted in terms of logic. And so these discussions are treated in pedagogical terms. It might be that an argument by Plato might be seen by a later writer as having a theological application, but that does not mean that Plato was discussing theology.

 Secondly, Plato is regarded as the apex of philosophical speculation in the ancient world. He did not invent philosophy, but to a significant extent invented the discipline which we now recognise as philosophy.  It is often assumed – because there appears to be no evidence to the contrary – that clear abstract thinking began with Plato. And clear understanding of ideas of infinity and the boundless, the currency of later theological speculations, also began with him (earlier philosophers such as Anaximander and Parmenides may have concerned themselves with such concepts and arguments, but they represent no more than the foreshadowings of what Plato would do. It isn’t real philosophy as we understand it).

In short, before Plato abstract speculation in the writings of the presocratics does not really count as philosophy. Certainly not as these speculations are  represented to us in the historical record. Before Plato, there is, it is assumed, no coherent logical argument about intellectual abstractions. It has been argued in fact that, before Plato, most speculation was carried out at the level of concrete images, and that concrete ideas alone were the currency of earlier ages in Greece and elsewhere.

During the past 150 years or so, the civilisations of antiquity, in cultural and intellectual terms, have been seen as a relatively new development, grown out of an ‘urdummheit’, or initial stupidity. This is not a difficult view to understand, if we do not separate out (as we now do not) the apparatus of public religious expression and the theology which gave it a legitimate life, since the credulity apparent in the ancient world, with its bizarre cults and practices, its sacrifices to the gods, its Hades and Sheols, its divine honours, suggests a degree of unreason. When read at face value, these practices do appear to indicate an intellectual capacity not yet fully formed.

Not only do we not separate the forms of religious expression from the theological underpinnings, the same doctrine of ‘urdummheit’ (mercifully no longer an axiomatic premise in the study of the ancient world) has left us with no conception of an ancient theology, beyond whatever poor thing might be assumed (usually something convenient to our own assumptions) to lurk inside the outward show. It is not there, because it cannot be there -  the intellectual capacity necessary for philosophy and abstract theology was not developed until the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.


Discovering Greek Theology


We have to interpret the evidence of the past on the basis of what we already know about the world. How we pass beyond what we know to an understanding of something which, beforehand, we did not understand, is still a process which involves a degree of mystery. In some way the categories of our understanding have to be modified by the perplexing experience of evidence which takes us beyond the structures already established in our minds (and in the academic curriculum). Despite the best efforts of Francis Bacon to formalise the process of intellectual invention, we still cannot mechanise this, and cannot prescribe how it is that we go from one intellectual model of the subject in question, to a better one. But a better model is what is required.

The ancients (including Plato) have been accused of mistaking a subjective ontology for an objective one (Both J.G. Frazer and Benjamin Jowett approached Plato from this point of view). In other words, they were accused of making a fundamental mistake in their understanding of the world, and that this is the principal difference between us and them – by contrast we do not make this particular ontological mistake. Consequently it is all too easy for us to treat their conceptions as if they were struggling to deal with the kind of epistemological and ontological questions which are of importance to us, and which make sense within our own ontological model of reality – practical questions of understanding physical issues  – how do we know what a thing is, and understand its relations with other things in the world; how we understand and delineate ‘real’ (phenomenal) things; how we deal with things on a rational basis; how we avoid thinking about phenomena in faulty ways. And so on. When the Greeks address abstract metaphysical questions, such as whether the Good is one or many, we behave as if they failed to understand the limits of philosophical enquiry.

On the contrary it is we who traduce their ontology. They were not talking about the phenomenal world as an ontological structure (not until the advent of Stoicism as a doctrine and a practical view of life from the 5th century B.C.E. onwards, in both Greece and, it would seem, Egypt). They were talking about what they regarded as reality itself, which (they presumed) underpins the phenomenal world.

Though we cannot formalise the process of changing ontological models, we can say something about the process, and what it involves.  A subjective ontology is one which is held within the mind, and is assumed to describe to an accurate degree the reality which is being apprehended. Which in this case is the material and textual evidence from ancient Greece. Discovering the difference between a subjective and an objective ontology depends on observation of the limits of the subjective ontology in explaining what is observed. 

Where there is a discrepancy, there is likely to be a deficiency in (at the least) the ontological description. An obvious example of this phenomenon is the long-standing and highly successful account of the planetary motions by the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, which provided a reasonably practical  mathematical description of what was observed from the earth, but did not come close to describing the real motions of the planets. Even when the ontology is adjusted to more accurately describe the observed reality, it may be that the revised theoretical model only accounts satisfactorily for what is observed at the level of mathematical description, without actually addressing the real nature of the phenomena.  Sometimes no amount of revision of the description is adequate: sometimes the model has to be changed.

It follows therefore, that if the ontology we give the Greeks, and the ancients in general, is significantly faulty, then there ought to be evidence within both the written record, the monumental record, and the archaeological record, which is not easily (or at all) accommodated by the existing model. As a general description, the existing model may be satisfactory for our contemporary purposes, but it does not satisfactorily account for all the available detail, and more importantly, account for the significance accorded to the detail in the ancient world. For example, we often account for ancient religious belief and practice in terms of ideology and propaganda, but this leaves out a detailed accounting of the perceived intrinsic worth of these ideas in the ancient world, and their contemporary context. The presumption appears to be that it is simply uneccessary to address these details in such terms.

There ought also to be deformations in the history of the apprehension of the Greeks (their reception), as a result of the struggle to make sense of their civilization within the categories we choose as a means to understand it. There is of course such evidence. Martin Bernal has dealt with much of the history of the revised scholarly model of Greece developed from the eighteen-forties onwards, (and in an exemplary fashion) in the first volume of Black Athena, which was received more warmly by the academic community than might have been expected. However Bernal’s work was intended to open up the territory, not to close the book on a bad period for the study of antiquity in Europe. At the moment we are in an interesting place, in that the former model of antiquity created by scholars no longer holds sway, but most of its parts are still in place to stave off undesirable vacuum. Many questions need to be answered still about the development of the scholars model, and about the traduction of the intellectual world of antiquity which resulted. The evidence remains, but is now no longer securely framed by the labours of 150 years of scholarship which produced a collusive and fictional tale of ‘how it was’. The anomalies in the evidence are still a legitimate subject for academic enquiry. But now they should be apprehended as far as possible as they are., as they present themselves, and explained as far as possible in terms of the culture which gave rise to them.

Systematic study of this anomalous evidence ought to lead us to a more precisely tailored ontology for the Greeks and the ancients, by suggesting an alternative hypothesis upon which (all) the evidence might rest.  In the course of such a study we should remember that the anomalous nature of some of the evidence from ancient Greece arises from the curious way it sits within our own models of the past – not because this evidence is intrinsically intrusive, violating the cultural context in which it is found.

Some of the anomalies are within particular bodies of evidence. For instance, the Platonic dialogues, read as philosophy, contains many pieces of information which are not easily integrated within modern analyses of his work which see that work within the frame of a research or teaching programme, for which there is no evidence. There must have been teaching of some sort in the Academy, but we have no idea about the nature of that teaching, and all current models depend on retrojections of later notions about philosophical pedagogy in Greece.

The work of other ancient writers is similarly unhappy at being interpreted in terms of a model of philosophical activity which depends ultimately on later conceptions of what it is to do philosophy, and in which, through long practice, scholars have become comfortable with sidelining the context and much of the detail of the texts. Not to mention the now dubious practice of emendation which has gone on since the recovery of classical texts in the renaissance (cf Scaliger’s commitment to ‘extreme scholarship’ in the ‘reconstruction’ of Aristotle’s Greek from an Arabic translation).

 Other anomalies arise in details of description and practice. Some of these seem to be satisfactorily explained in terms of the ‘urdummheit’ model, in that they are explained in terms of the failure to be something like ourselves. Examples might be the use of oracles, the consultation of entrails, the notice given to omens and the practice of divination, the honour and worship directed at statues and images, as well as the worship of ancestors and the dead, the importance of liturgy and ritual, the emphasis on completion and perfection, the ubiquitous practice of animal sacrifice, the attribution of the sacred to inanimate things, and the prevalence of the view that the detail of the world is almost entirely conditioned by ends.

These things, which seem like a disparate array of ancient peculiarities (and are so treated by and large by modern scholars), are in fact tied together as a set of practices and phenomena by an underlying body of ideas. Within that body of ideas they make sense. The varieties of practice and phenomena are intelligible as the development of an intellectual apprehension of reality, in a manner paralleled by the development of ideas and practices in our own intellectual world.

This intellectual apprehension of reality is in fact what ancient theology is.

Much of this theology can be obtained through a careful reading of Plato’s Timaeus and the Parmenides. However there are other texts which contain rich information about the same body of ideas. Plato’s the Sophist and the Theatetus, and the Republic are others. Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption is another one of these works. The Enneads of Plotinus, despite their relatively late date, give perhaps the clearest picture of the theology shorn of the context of disputation found in the Platonic Dialogues.

The essence of Greek theology is an intellectual apprehension of the ground of reality, of the ultimate reality, as being beyond all categorisation and apprehension. This ultimate reality, though one, is also twofold, in that while it gives rise to all subsequent manifestations and shadows of its nature, it also remains as itself, abiding and unseen; above all participation in the world it generated.

This is the both the ultimate reality and the ultimate target of intelligence. It is both unformed and the repository of all possible forms. It is chaos in a sense, in that it is beyond all human reduction to order, but it embraces all reality in potential.

It is also the ultimate ground of power: the source to which all things must look for renewal. All intermediary sources which can renew the power of an entity, practice, phenomenon or idea, also draw power ultimately from the principal source.

It is also the place where the same and the different meet. All distance is collapsed in the ultimate ground of reality. Opposites are one, and the most distant objects are in the most intimate contact. The beginning and end of time are conjoined and inseparable.

This is the essence of the ideas enshrined in Greek theology.

Initiation into the theology was by the method illustrated by Plato in his dialogues – through the insufficiency of logic and argument to pin down the ultimate reality as other than something which utterly transcends the categories of human description and understanding, and which is in fact beyond all description and all understanding.

This is the core of an ancient practice of dialectic. In itself there is little about it which can be said to be exclusively Greek, except insofar as we have great evidential detail through Plato. However, traces of the idea echo through the religious beliefs and iconography of the Greeks, once you know what to look for. It is the common occult substratum which binds together some of the most important aspects of Greek civilization.

Greek civilization, its key literature, its art, its ritual, its religious beliefs, is underpinned by a range of ways of thinking, ways of interpreting, ways of conceiving, ways of operating, and consequential ends, which all owe their validity to the common occult substratum of theology. The occult substratum did not give rise to these modes of thinking and operating (it appears to be - at least to an extent - ‘hard-wired’ into our conceptual apparatus), but informs them with meaning which they would scarcely have without it (French classical anthropologists have done excellent work in unpicking Greek cultural practice without any conception that, at some very deep level, a sophisticated philosophical model underpinned the details of festivals and rituals). 

Initiation into the substratum, or even slight knowledge of its existence and content, would, for the Greeks, inform life, art and belief in an extraordinary way: it would be amplified and vivified in proportion to the degree of understanding of the ideas involved in the cultural apparatus. Most Greeks were however uninformed about the real nature of their culture’s theological background, but they nevertheless had a grasp of some of the consequential details, without understanding their origin in the depths of a complex and (in certain senses)  unified body of  discursive ideas about the divine.


The intellectual basis of Greek Theology

If the ultimate ground of reality is as revealed (essentially negatively) in Plato’s dialogues, and in the Enneads of Plotinus, then a number of  fairly obvious logical inferences will be made.

Firstly, this ultimate ground of reality is the principal subject of religious awe, honour and worship. Other entities may have a claim on priestly worship, but only in so far as they participate in the ultimate ground of reality. However, much of the imagery, conception and narrative in religion is accidental rather than essential, in that it arises in response to human credulity, vanity, and political requirements. Religious establishments pay a price for their existence in the world, and paying honour to accidental divinities is part of that price. Creating them (even setting them up in heaven, which a skill of the theurgists)  is another part of that price.

Secondly, the nature of the model in which the ultimate ground of reality is the complete collapse of not only the categories of perception, but also the ultimate ontological collapse of the categories of reality and existence, means that the ground of reality is, despite appearances, immanent to all things, whether abstract or concrete.The ultimate ground of reality can be emulated and invoked; can be summoned, and made near.

Thirdly, it follows that contact with the ultimate ground of reality is a matter of apprehension and understanding – a matter of ontological models and ontological nous: of knowing, and knowing what you are doing.

Fourthly, for the foregoing reasons, it is immensely important that the ultimate ground of reality be recalled and invoked to the greatest degree by the wise, and be made proximate in the world to the utmost. Not as a merely pious observance, but as a vital part of religious activity. The arguments leading up to the insight that the ultimate reality is a place which transcends the logic and order of the physical world, where things which happen seem to be impossible within the logic of that physical world as explored within the Platonic dialogues (motion and change), mean that the ultimate ground of reality makes difficult or even impossible things possible. Contact and transaction with that ground of reality is therefore imperative if temporal power of any kind is desired.


Magic and Ontology in Ancient Greece

Numerous theories of magic have been given some kind of life since the late nineteenth century. The one which has had the most influence is of course Frazer’s theory of sympathetic and contagious magic. It is not clear from The Golden Bough in which the theory is described that other possibilities have been discarded. However other possibilities have been discarded. Wittgenstein objected to Frazer’s general picture of ancient society on the grounds that it made ancient man stupid; unable to make distinctions between fallacious notions and plausible ones, which are  (as we think) relatively easy for us to make. 

In Frazer’s prize-winning late nineteenth-century essay on the development of Plato’s theory of Ideas, it is clear why other possibilities are not considered: for Frazer Plato’s ontology is merely a projection of subjective categories, and not in any way a proper apprehension of reality. The reason for this judgement is that Plato is not concerned with the same realities as Frazer – i.e, epistemological questions about the physical reality which is the concern of the scientific and technical enterprise of the late nineteenth century (he makes this view explicit). Plato’s ontology is about what Plato considered (subjectively) important, and is not subject to falsification. Frazer as a consequence did not consider the Parmenides to be an important dialogue from the point of view of understanding Plato’s philosophy, and considered that many of the questions discussed in that dialogue (and elsewhere), were merely ‘popular questions of the day’.

There is some truth in the proposition that Plato’s ontology is not subject to falsification. If Plato’s ontology is erected on the basis of an earthbound logic applied to abstract questions, rather than observation and experiment, then it cannot be subject to falsifcation in any strictly scientific sense. But we are not concerned here with a scientifc sense of falsification, but rather a logical one. The ontology  (essentially a theory of Being) which emerges from the dialogues of Plato is expressly an ontology which is apart from any human and earthbound interest – it may be about ‘the Good’, but that ‘Good’ is not necessarily good in any terms a human being can easily understand. This ontology does not feed any human, subjective and pre-existing model of reality – instead (to the consternation of scholars looking for a purely pedagogical purpose to the Platonic dialogues) it violates it to the maximum degree. The arguments explored in the course of the dialogues often destroy the validity of views and opinions which seem to be plain common sense.  The logic used to reach these positions necessarily invalidates itself in the course of argument, and the nature of the ultimate reality 'established' as a result of these arguments expressly violates any subjective and pre-existing ontology in the mind of the inquirer. Therefore the charge that Plato confounded a subjective ontology with an objective one is unfounded.

As for the Frazerian theory of magic, which he seemed to think was applicable to the ancient world as well as to the ’savages’ who peopled nineteenth century anthropology, it is expressly based on Locke’s seventeenth century theory of the association of ideas (Frazer’s world view was thoroughly enlightenment and Lockean)  – it presumes the absence of  a model of reality based on an ontology which has a theory of Being as its core. It is an appropriate theory therefore if the the notion that Plato was dealing in theology is imaginary.  However if the Platonic theology is not imaginary, then the Frazerian theory of sympathetic and contagious magic is not appropriate for an analysis of the world of ideas in Greek antiquity.
Magic outside the world of the credulous depends for its possibility and efficacy on an ontology which makes participation possible. We do not have to accept this logic, but it is important to understand that magical relationships between things were considered to be a consequence of the ontology which supports participation between things which are separate at the level of physicality. Magic may be practiced by those who know little or nothing of the ontology which gives the practice plausibility and its logic. However those who know of the basis of the logic in the ontology have greater power because they know what they are doing (cf Plato’s remarks on magic performed by prophets and diviners in the Laws).

In the Renaissance those who were enthused by the writings of Plato understood there to be an ontological basis to the principles of association between objects, and presumed that this was understood by the Greeks. This has been seen to be implicit in the texts of the dialogues at various times in the history of their critical interpretation. Almost none of the contemporary academic discussions of the ancient world depends on the existence of an ancient ontology which is based on a sophisticated theory of Being.

The study of the thought of the ancient world requires that our understanding of ancient theology and ontology is clarified, so that we understand that, whatever Plato or other authors may say, we should not presume that they are making the kind of mistake which Frazer and his successors suggested that they made. The ancient ontology may be faulty, but whatever might be wrong with it, plain stupidity is not the souce of the fault.

In attempting to understand the subtle distinctions between the varieties of religious ritual, craft and art, and understand where an action, statement, formula or construction is shaped by an ontology and its understanding rather than some other cause, we might follow Aristotle in looking at the cultural production of the past in terms of four separable causes – the ontological (or final cause), the efficient, the formal and the material. Cultural productions which depend on a theory of Being are productions which are those produced in the context of an ontological theory, and an understanding of that theory. It matters little whether that understanding is accurate and well-informed or not – what we are looking for is the tell-tale signs in the production which mark these items as evidence of a contextual theory of Being. 

It is however quite common for these tell-tale signs to appear in periods where there may be no understanding of ontology at all – in which case the physical evidence tells only something about the intellectual history of its origins. For the understanding of the intellectual stature of those times, other evidence is necessary.


Beyond Motion and Change 

The theology which makes participation a vital part of the universe (since the One gave rise to the Many) also in some of its arguments suggests participation (and motion and change) to be impossible (cf. the argument in the Sophist about whether or not forms may participate if they are unchanging). At a certain point in the development of theological ideas, therefore, a premium would be placed on the devising and isolation of methods in which participation with the ultimate ground of reality would be maximised without motion and change. In other words, importance would be placed on the development of techniques to make participation efficacious which did not depend on motion and change - two things which appeared to be illusory. Hence the ideas of completion and perfection became central to religious practice.

 The ideas of completion, perfection, limit, and end were closely associated. They were however not the same, though they could, according to standard practice in ancient Greece as elsewhere in the ancient world, stand in for each other metonomously, or metaphorically. Participation was made emphatic by achievement of these states. As Aristotle wrote, each end is the thing for which its component parts exist. There are many ends for which things exist, but there is one ultimate end for which all exists (Plato made this idea explicit by saying that ‘you exist for the end, and not the end for you’). By extension, it is clear that the lesser ends exist for the final end of all things (the Good, or the ultimate ground of reality). Each end has characteristics in common with the ultimate ground of reality, and this is a mode of participation with that ground.  Thus, the limit of a thing, or the reaching of its end, or the completion of an action, or the achievement of a perfect excellence in anything is in effect, within the ontological model which depends on a theory of Being, the opening of a high-road to the ultimate ground of reality.

This is suggestive of a deep-seated unity behind a number of disparate phenomena. Excellence, declared by Aristotle to be something performed for its own sake, now has a clearer rationale (one which was always implicit in the Ethics where he makes clear that the highest virtue is contemplation, which makes men like the gods – at least according to the argument of his book). An excellence performed is implicitly performed for the most perfect excellence, and can be seen as an act significant in the context of a theory of Being. A property of the transcendent end is emulated by the performance of the excellence, and a bond is thereby established. Excellence has an explicit theological context to Aristotle, and is not confined to the secular world.

This leads us to the idea of ‘binding’ as it was understood at the time of Ficino’s revival of Platonism. Several concepts cluster around this idea, which is closely related to the ideas of participation and joining, and ‘harmonia’. Binding is the act of  opening a connection with the ultimate ground of reality through the establishment of a mode of participation, and by so doing, the agent of the action enters territory where possibility of thought and action are magnified. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including the precise performance of an appropriate ritual, the performance of an appropriate sacrifice - at the appropriate time, for the appropriate reason, and to the appropriate divinity (amplified by multiplicity of sacrifice, or by a more acceptable victim), the correct and complete recital of a liturgy, the consultation of an oracle, the honouring and workship of a god according to the proper styling (the god having a special kind of completion as a an attribute). The correct and appropriate distribution of the shares in the sacrificial animals among the community is also the performance of a special (as opposed to the ultimate) excellence.

The act of sacrifice itself represents the act of ‘binding’ within the ontological model. That is, whereas it has been presumed that the act of sacrifice is to be interpreted as an act of giving to the god, and receiving in terms of the distribution of the parts of the body of the sacrificial animal (as it must have been interpreted by those not privy to the ontological justification in antiquity), in fact it can be understood as a form of completion given to the animal at the crucial moment of slaughter.















Monday, 25 June 2018

Books by Thomas Yaeger at Bargain Prices in the Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale!


10th Annual Smashwords 2018 Summer/Winter Sale!

July 1, 2018 - July 31, 2018

All three of my books sold through Smashwords will be heavily discounted during the month of July, so this is a chance to pick up a bargain! The catalog for the sale goes live at one minute past midnight on July 1 Pacific time, and expires 11:59pm on July 31. Clicking on the image of each book's cover below will take you through to the Smashwords page for it. Clicking on the title will taken you to a blog page giving further details.

During the sale period the price at Smashwords is the discounted price. Prices at Itunes, Barnes & Noble, Blio, etc. are not discounted.


The Sacred History of Being (2015), is available during the sale period at 75% off the full Smashwords price!


Formerly argued by classical scholars to have been first discussed by the ancient Greeks in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., the articulate concept of Being can now be traced as far back as the middle of the second millennium, and the state of Assyria. 
The Greeks themselves had several stories about the origins of philosophy, a discipline which essentially deals with abstractions, including that it originated elsewhere, but that is not the received narrative. The consequence of this, is that all historians of ideas, when constructing their accounts of the intellectual development of man before the arrival of Parmenides and Plato, have had to negotiate the Greek invention of philosophy, and the corollary, that articulate discussion of the abstract concept 'Being' didn’t happen before this.

This can now be shown to be a faulty understanding, resulting in many absurdities. The Old Testament has examples where God declares his identity with Being itself (‘I am that I am’, better translated into English as ‘I am that which is,’ and ‘I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God', for example), but these are not regarded by scholars as evidence of a sophisticated discourse around the idea of Being. Instead these statements indicate inchoate ‘notions’ about the nature of god, rather than anything more profound. The statement in Malachi, however, that 'I do not change', is an explicitly philosophical understanding of the nature of God.
Published by the Anshar Press.  

Reader responses to The Sacred History of Being are documented by the Rolling Thunder page.


J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being (2016) Is available during the sale period at a 50% discount from Smashwords.


When he was only twenty-four years old, James Frazer won a Cambridge fellowship with an essay on the development of Plato's theory of the Forms or Ideas (eidos). In this essay he argued that there was no overarching theory of Being in Plato's mind before he embarked on the writing of his dialogues, and that consequently differences in approach and discussion apparent in his work are the result of the development of his thought. He also argued that the very idea of Being is a barren notion, in that nothing can be predicated of Being. As a result Plato made a mistake, effectively conflating an epistemology with an ontology. 
Though the essay was written in 1879, it was not published until 1930, after much of his later work was done. Frazer became famous for his monumental study The Golden Bough, which explored a vast range of ancient and primitive myth and ritual. Here too he found intellectual processes founded in error. What was Frazer's intention in re-interpreting Plato against what Plato himself said, and his wholesale restructuring of ancient thought by reducing much of it to a pattern of error?
In sixteen sections, with prefaratory material and a conclusion. Over 23 thousand words, a preface, select bibliography, and extensive notes. Published Spring 2016 by the Anshar Press.  
A couple of related blog posts explore J.G. Frazer's discussion of Plato, and the implications for the writing of The Golden Bough. The two articles are synthesised together in a third article: Frazer and the Association of Ideas.



Understanding Ancient Thought (2017), is available during the sale period at 75% off the full Smashwords price!



Understanding Ancient Thought is the third in a series of books which examines how we assess evidence from antiquity, and frame models to make sense of that evidence.  
The book consists of eighteen essays, which cover a number of subject areas which are in thrall to what Foucault described as an ‘episteme’. In other words, the way the subject areas are understood within the academy is in terms of what our cultural models, language and assumptions will allow us to understand. The actual evidence may suggest an alternative view, but it is not possible to see it, or to think it. At least until the paradigmatic frame shifts to another ‘episteme’.  
The main thrust of the book is that two hundred years of modern scholarship concerning the past has, for the most part, assembled a fictive and tendentious version of the ancient world. 51 thousand words. Published by the Anshar Press, 
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Thomas Yaegers next book, Man and the Divine: New light on Man's Ancient Engagement with God and the History of Thought, is expected to be available in August, at full price, shortly after the Smashwords sale concludes. Published by the Anshar Press. ISBN 9780463665473. It is now available to pre-order at Smashwords https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/872542. Publication date August 12, 2018.





Many of the essays deal with the question of esoteric knowledge in antiquity, often from slightly different angles. Essays include:
The Enlightenment of David Hume.  Though Hume's empirical approach was not wholly successful, some of his intuitions expanded our collective understanding of how we perceive reality – for example, his insight that we have no actual knowledge of the process of causation at all, and only a customary expectation of causal process, was a powerful one. We can describe causal processes, we can differentiate the nature of different causal processes, and we can formulate rules in connection with them, but we cannot know how causality itself operates, or even be sure that a perceived causal relation, often observed before, will obey the implicit rule the next time it is under scrutiny by us. However, it is no longer clear that Hume was exploring his mental processes and understanding entirely within the framework of western secular thought. This chapter is based on intriguing research by Alison Gopnik. 
Richard Dawkins and Deism. Modern atheism is actually dependent for its nature on the ontological argument, and the terms in which it is framed. Meaning that eight hundred years of argument about the nature and existence of God underpins the point of view of those who regard themselves as atheists. Dawkins makes a distinction in ‘The God Delusion’ between theism and deism. Theism is a pattern of belief which enshrines the idea that the Divine is responsive to man, and his rituals of worship and prayer. It is a pattern of belief dependent on the idea that God can act in the world.  By contrast, deism contemplates the idea that a creator God has existence, and necessarily created the world, but that he is not active in the physical world beyond that. This essay argues that Dawkins is in fact a modern deist rather than an atheist. 
Mathematics and Geometry.  The process of separating ourselves from an interpretation of the world in terms of simple apprehension is driven initially by the practical necessities of our existence. But this process does not need to stop there. Intelligence consists in being able to adjust the categories of our understanding so that we do not mistake one thing for another. It is a mental development which might have no end. This is essentially how Kant understood human intellectual development, which he framed (in his Prolegomena) in terms of a general theory of a priori concepts, not based on empirical sense data, or even a mathematical or geometric understanding of anything in the world. 
Evading the Infinite.  This chapter is a critical response to Adrian W. Moore's radio series 'The History of the Infinite', broadcast in the autumn of 2016, and his book 'The Infinite', published in the early 90s. His treatment of the subject hardly references Plato at all. Adding Plato to the discussion changes the way in which the argument should be framed. The actual infinite is the principal source of ancient ideas concerning the divine, not Aristotle's potential infinite, so Moore's argument concerning our knowledge of God is forced to take refuge in the quasi-mystical Calvinistic idea of a 'sensus divinitatis'. His argument also makes it impossible to understand Kant's treatment of religion. 
The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World.  In my twenties, I was struck by the strong interest the ancients had in the idea of limit – in art, architecture, philosophy, and ritual. This interest did not much seem to engage modern scholarly attention, with a couple of notable exceptions. Initially I had no idea at all what the significance of the idea of limit might be, and no idea where pursuing it would take me. Or that it would lead to a book it would take me four years to write, and which would reframe my understanding of human intellectual history in the process. 
Unwritten Doctrine, Ancient Silence. 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. 
What is Sacred, and what is Profane?  Each of the divine names of Marduk, the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon,  has a description, and each of the lesser gods can be understood as abstractions of aspects of the rational creation. They represent excellences in the world. Marduk represents the sum total of these. This is the clue to understanding much of the ancient understanding of what the divine is. Each described excellence resembles reality itself in terms of its properties. The excellence may serve social functions, as does a skill or specialism, but it should be performed for its own sake. The performance of these excellences recalls the perfection and completeness of the plenum, and reinforces the presence of the divine in the world.  
Intentionality, Conjecture, and What is Holy. Intentionality explains why the ancients created a multiplicity of gods. If the divine itself cannot by definition be completely defined and understood, at least certain properties and attributes can be understood. These can therefore be defined and named as ways of accessing the divine. This does not at all conflict with the idea that the reality of the divine is in question. Instead this view argues that there is in fact a subjective component in the reality of the divine, at least insofar as it is possible for us to have commerce with it. 
Excellence and the Knowledge of Divine Things. Plutarch opens his life of Alexander with a cheerful complaint about the sheer extent of the materials available to him to write on Alexander. So the details which are in his essay are there because he regarded them as important in showing Alexander’s character, his disposition, and the content of his mind. On the basis of his sources he says that it is thought that Alexander was taught by Aristotle not only his doctrines of Morals and Politics, but also those more abstruse mysteries which are only communicated orally and are kept concealed from the vulgar: for after he had invaded Asia, hearing that Aristotle had published some treatises on these subjects, he wrote him a letter in which he defended the practice of keeping these speculations secret. 
Cultural Continuity in the Ancient World, and Bernal’s Black Athena. Martin Bernal’s intention was to take ancient Greece out of its exalted orbit above all other civilizations, and root it in what he assumed to have been a cultural continuum around the Mediterranean sea from at least the mid-2nd century B.C.E up until the classical period of Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Bernal pointed to the evidence within the texts of the 1st millennium which suggested cultural continuities with ancient Egypt – all dismissed by the classicists in favour of evidence in texts which could be interpreted as suggesting the opposite. Bernal’s attempts to establish cultural continuity with the civilizations around the Mediterranean were hampered by the fact that myths are not simply encodings of historical and political change, and that the exchange of words between linguistic groups is, by itself, weak evidence for cultural continuity.  He was correct to guess at the existence of the cultural continuity, I think, but ill-equipped to establish such a thing. 




Thursday, 14 June 2018

Did the Greeks Invent Philosophy?

In addition to many non-specialist readers here who (I think) find the heretical line of argument in my posts interesting, there are also readers of this blog who are specialists in relevant fields, including classicists, archaeologists, historians, philosophers, theologians, etc. I’m grateful for their interest, and the often well-informed comments and exchanges, both here and via email. But sometimes specialists are more interested in defending academic turf, than in the elucidation of their subject. I’ve recently had such an experience.

I chose to publish first in ebook format, via my own imprint, the Anshar Press. Partly because I anticipated a grim slog trying to find a publisher or an agent willing to take on a project which rejects several scholarly constructs which we use to make sense of our intellectual history. The most important of these constructs is the notion that the Greeks invented philosophy. The corollary of this is that there is no intellectual history worthy of the name before the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.

This construct is a notion, and not a fact. It is not a fact because the evidence does not support it. If it is not supported by the evidence, why do people believe it?

Such a long tale to tell! So many interlocking reasons! I unpicked much of this construct in The Sacred History of Being (2015). A close reading of both Plato and Aristotle shows that the Greeks had a quite different understanding of what knowledge is from ourselves. They also had a quite different notion of how knowledge is acquired from ourselves, and Plato and Aristotle broadly agree about how it is done. It has nothing to do with the human senses, and physical experience. All knowledge was understood to exist in a supersensible and wholly transcendent realm. The soul was thought to mirror that transcendent realm, and therefore to offer connection with it. The upshot of this way of looking at things is that knowledge is accessed directly by the mind rather than the senses.

In the modern world we have turned this upside down entirely. We assume (and that is all that it is, an assumption) that all knowledge is necessarily mediated through sensory experience. It is understood through the categories of thought employed by the human reason, which (we imagine) reflect (in some way) the structure of the objectively real physical reality which exists outside our minds. This is a scholarly construct (one might even describe it as a scholarly compact) which has become a given since the European Enlightenment.

So we read Plato and Aristotle upside down, and effectively reject those parts of their writings which do not fit with our own way of understanding things. Our understanding of the main components of classical philosophy is therefore quite different from the understanding of philosophy in the Athenian Academy, and so scholars study classical philosophy outside its proper context. Worse, scholars have no idea what the proper context is, or why it might be important. As a result, many aspects of classics and the history of philosophy are necessarily problematic.

Something happened in addition to the development of a post Enlightenment over-reliance on common sense ideas about how we know things, and make sense of them. We lost a key ancient idea. That idea is the idea of the plenum. The plenum is that state of reality, conceived to exist beyond space and time, which stands behind the generation of space and time. Though it embraces the reality of space and time, it has no existence in space and time. It has no size, no location, and no properties other than being the wholly transcendental reality in which physical reality can exist. It does not move, it is not subject to change, it does not think in any way we could properly comprehend. It is what it is.

This is the idea behind Plato’s discussion of the form of the Good, and of a transcendental reality. It is an idea which has been understood (by some) for much of European history, and since classical times. But it has been much less understood since the Enlightenment. This is because it is an idea which runs counter to common sense, and which cannot make sense to us in terms of the realities of the world of things which have physical existence. Even if such a thing did exist, and was conceived to exist, it has been imagined that it would have no impact on the world of the senses and physical existence. As a consequence, it is, for the most part, treated as a matter of no importance.

This view is a mark of the poverty of the modern mind, even among the intellectually able. As I said, the plenum is that state of reality, which was once conceived to exist beyond space and time, which stands behind the generation of space and time, in which we have our existence. We may not be able to measure it, weigh it, discuss its form, etc., but if such a thing is responsible for the generation of the physical world, the concept deserves our attention. It was Plato’s principal concern. He was always looking to the ‘one thing’. And that one thing could be apprehended by the mind.

The Plenum can spoken of in different ways. It can be called transcendental reality, reality itself, Being, The One, Totality, etc. When I came to write The Sacred History of Being, I chose to use the term ‘Being’ through much of the text, because that was one of the terms Plato used. But I explored the different ways in which Being can be referenced. So a major purpose of writing the book was to explore the scope of a key idea in classical philosophy in something like its original context, and to restore its understanding. It remains a difficult concept to master, but we do ourselves no favours in not knowing what it means, and why it was such an important concept.

That restoration by itself makes the book potentially a valuable contribution to making sense of classical philosophy, and its actual origins. Provided of course that I have done the job properly, and not littered the text with misunderstandings and errors. Altogether, I spent nearly twelve years on constructing the text. I took the task seriously.

My background is unusual, in that in addition to my interest in Greece, philosophy and the history of ideas, I also studied Mesopotamian languages, history and culture. I was struck very early on in my studies by the range of evidence which suggested strongly that the Assyrians and Babylonians had a clear conception of the Plenum, and the idea of Being, and that there was a connection with their religion. One king even included the title ‘King of Totality’ in the string of epithets which described his importance. I realised that there was a level of cultural continuity between Greece and Assyria in particular in terms of ideas of the nature of reality, and also in terms of an understanding of moral action.

So, not only was The Sacred History of Being restoring clarity to our picture of classical philosophy, it provided something of a comparative cultural context for the emergence of philosophy in Greece. A comparative context which could be followed in Assyria back to the 14th century B.C.E.

Occasionally I send off letters to publishers offering to submit work which they might be interested in publishing. Sometimes they say yes, and ask to see the manuscript. That’s fine, whether they accept the manuscript for publication or not - they bothered to look at the work. You might think that a book such as The Sacred History of Being would generate a lot of interest among academic publishing houses which focus on philosophy, classics, religion, ancient history, etc. I noticed in April that a major academic publishing house had on their list a book which covered some of the later territory of The Sacred History of Being.  I drafted a letter describing my book and its scope, and included a commendation of the work from an eminent scholar (I’ve edited that out). I sent this mail to the appropriate editor at the publishing house on the afternoon of the 2nd of May this year, and offered to send the manuscript to them in PDF.

What happened? I got an email the very next afternoon, declining to look at the book, after consultation with other list managers. My work ­– possibly the most interesting manuscript they could receive in a month of Sundays – was rejected, sight unseen, by three people (specialists in classics, religion and philosophy). What was the reason given? The book did not fit the list. Which is standard code for ‘we don’t want your book’. What the real reasons were for the rejection I am afraid to imagine.

The point of posting the exchange is not to embarrass anyone, so I’ve blurred names and other information which would identify the publishing house. The point is that it is extremely difficult to get a hearing for radical scholarship from major publishing houses. And that manuscripts can be (and sometimes are) rejected without being looked at at all. Rejecting books with radical arguments without even a cursory review suggests that defending existing scholarly turf is a major part of the game. That’s not what it is supposed to be about. 

[click to expand the images].




I did expand on what some of the difficulties facing my project might be as far back as 2005. I drafted, slightly facetiously, a publishers internal memo outlining why such a book should not be published. You might want to take a look at that, since not much has changed since then. Keeping the Enlightenment Agenda Alive.



Sunday, 10 June 2018

Man and the Divine



This is my second collection of essays on philosophy and ancient history. Like my first collection, Understanding Ancient Thought, it expands further on the arguments of The Sacred History of Being, which appeared in November 2015. Most of the 21 chapters have appeared in draft form on my web site, and one first appeared on the web site of the Bibliographica Philosophica Hermetica, run by the Ritman Library in Amsterdam (‘The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World’). Man and the Divine replaces The Frankish Tower, which was slated to be my next book  Man and the Divine will be published this summer (2018).  


Many of the essays deal with the question of esoteric knowledge in antiquity, often from slightly different angles. ‘The Death of Socrates’ is one of those, a solicited response to one of a series of dramatized readings of famous speeches from history, staged by the Almeida Theatre in London in 2017. This reading was performed by Sir Derek Jacobi. ‘Distinguishing Belief and Faith’ began as a meditation on some text by Alan Watts, but which expanded into a chapter about who believed what, and why, in ancient Mesopotamia. ‘Polytheism, Monotheism, and the Cult of the Aten’, explores Akhenaten’s religious innovations in the Egypt of the 14th century B.C.E. These are still difficult to understand, but we are getting closer.

Modern scholarship generally steers away from the idea that there may be an esoteric level to the nature of reality, but approaches questions surrounding esotericism in terms of a division between those who argue that there is such an esoteric level of reality, and those who maintain that just because they can think of such a thing and give it names and descriptions, does not mean that there is genuine esoteric knowledge. The first group are sometimes described as ‘Essentialists’, and the second, as ‘Nominalists’. I dealt with this way of thinking in my book J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being. Frazer simply denied the idea that it was possible to say anything meaningful at all about a transcendent reality (Being), and consequently argued that Plato’s work was built on a fundamental error, through the conversion of an epistemology into an ontology.

Some of the essays discuss something of the background to the writing of The Sacred History of Being. It was important to produce a concise and focussed argument, and many interesting discussions had to be put to one side in order to achieve that. The Sacred History of Being represents the core argument. What I have written elsewhere is best understood in terms of a sequence of extended footnotes to that book.

The final essay, ’Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind’, is necessarily more speculative than the others, and deals with the British Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, when the building of megalithic structures was at its height. It makes comparisons with Greek and Mesopotamian notions of the importance of the sky in ancient religious thought.

Approximately 57,000 words. Available in ePub format. ISBN 9780463665473.


Each of the 21 chapters is summarised below:

The Enlightenment of David Hume.  Though Hume's empirical approach was not wholly successful, some of his intuitions expanded our collective understanding of how we perceive reality – for example, his insight that we have no actual knowledge of the process of causation at all, and only a customary expectation of causal process, was a powerful one. We can describe causal processes, we can differentiate the nature of different causal processes, and we can formulate rules in connection with them, but we cannot know how causality itself operates, or even be sure that a perceived causal relation, often observed before, will obey the implicit rule the next time it is under scrutiny by us. However, it is no longer clear that Hume was exploring his mental processes and understanding entirely within the framework of western secular thought. This chapter is based on intriguing research by Alison Gopnik.

The Death of Socrates. It is a puzzle that, in the midst of a thoroughly polytheistic culture in Athens, with its plethora of gods, its many cults and priesthoods in the service of those gods, that both Socrates and Plato could speak of ‘god’ in the singular. Our difficulty here is the result of a modern understanding of the significance of polytheism, which sees the phenomenon as the inevitable precursor to monotheistic belief, which excludes other gods from consideration, or credibility. For modern scholars, polytheistic belief in ancient Greece was something which developed, higgeldy-piggeldy, out of a plethora of local and tribal deities, much embellished with myths about their lives and actions, which served important social functions, but which had no universal meaning, and were not rooted in a model of reality which embraced consideration of what the nature of reality itself might be.

The Irrationality of Atheism, Atheists do not deny the existence of the world, its laws and properties: they just argue that the concept of God is not required to accept the world, and to have an understanding of it. But this leaves them at a loss to explain how the world came to be, and why it should have come into existence.

Richard Dawkins and Deism. Modern atheism is actually dependent for its nature on the ontological argument, and the terms in which it is framed. Meaning that eight hundred years of argument about the nature and existence of God underpins the point of view of those who regard themselves as atheists. Dawkins makes a distinction in ‘The God Delusion’ between theism and deism. Theism is a pattern of belief which enshrines the idea that the Divine is responsive to man, and his rituals of worship and prayer. It is a pattern of belief dependent on the idea that God can act in the world.  By contrast, deism contemplates the idea that a creator God has existence, and necessarily created the world, but that he is not active in the physical world beyond that. This essay argues that Dawkins is in fact a modern deist rather than an atheist.

Contra Plantinga. Alvin Plantinga was kind enough to accept a copy of The Sacred History of Being. I sent two supplementary emails which outlined the implications of its criticism of the traditional ontological argument, whose function is to support a rational basis for belief, which are reproduced here.

Distinguishing Belief and Faith. Modern scholarship has a track record of making easy assumptions about the continuity of religious ideas and patterns of practice, and the accompanying social compacts. At the time the Assyrian palaces, temples and cities were being dug from the sand and soil in northern Mesopotamia, it was assumed that the relationship between the royal and temple establishments could be understood in terms of a modern division between church and state. This notion turned out to hold very little water on close analysis. It is also the case that belief is not a conspicuous feature of ancient religions.

Logic, Sophistry, and the Esoteric in Ancient Education. Both Plato and Aristotle's writings contain arguments which either don't make clear logical sense within themselves, or in the context of the rest of the work. Sometimes the clues to the meaning of arguments are present elsewhere in the canons of both Plato and Aristotle, and some of them clearly involve an esoteric level of understanding. The whole body of their outputs need to be taken on board in order to grasp the meaning of individual works. This is usually not done with the works of Aristotle: his Historia Animalium is read by biologists and specialists in animal taxonomies, but usually they read little else of his work.

Beyond Mathematics and Geometry.  The process of separating ourselves from an interpretation of the world in terms of simple apprehension is driven initially by the practical necessities of our existence. But this process does not need to stop there. Intelligence consists in being able to adjust the categories of our understanding so that we do not mistake one thing for another. It is a mental development which might have no end. This is essentially how Kant understood human intellectual development, which he framed (in his Prolegomena) in terms of a general theory of a priori concepts, not based on empirical sense data, or even a mathematical or geometric understanding of anything in the world.

Evading the Infinite: A Review of A.W. Moore’s ‘History of the Infinite’.  This chapter is a critical response to Adrian W. Moore's radio series 'The History of the Infinite', broadcast in the autumn of 2016, and his book 'The Infinite', published in the early 90s. His treatment of the subject hardly references Plato at all. Adding Plato to the discussion changes the way in which the argument should be framed. The actual infinite is the principal source of ancient ideas concerning the divine, not Aristotle's potential infinite, so Moore's argument concerning our knowledge of God is forced to take refuge in the quasi-mystical Calvinistic idea of a 'sensus divinitatis'. His argument also makes it impossible to understand Kant's treatment of religion.

The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World.  In my twenties, I was struck by the strong interest the ancients had in the idea of limit – in art, architecture, philosophy, and ritual. This interest did not much seem to engage modern scholarly attention, with a couple of notable exceptions. Initially I had no idea at all what the significance of the idea of limit might be, and no idea where pursuing it would take me. Or that it would lead to a book it would take me four years to write, and which would reframe my understanding of human intellectual history in the process.

Unwritten Doctrine, Ancient Silence. 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.

Ancient Conjectures, and Fictive Intellectual History. Plato argues that we should always look to the ‘one true thing’. J.G. Frazer also argued that questions concerning Being (‘the one true thing’) were entirely barren, since nothing could be predicated of Being. This of course is a spectacular instance of intellectual blindness, by which the richness of the intellectual matrix of ancient Greek thought was spirited into nothingness. In antiquity, nods were made toward the notion that the discipline of philosophy might not have been first developed in Greece, including (tellingly) at the beginning of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Philosophers.  Plato after all argued against the idea that philosophy was invented by the Greeks in the Protagoras, saying that it was of a great age – perhaps contemporary with the arrival of peoples from Egypt, who settled in the Peloponnese, and  also in  Crete.

What is Sacred, and what is Profane?  Each of the divine names of Marduk, the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon,  has a description, and each of the lesser gods can be understood as abstractions of aspects of the rational creation. They represent excellences in the world. Marduk represents the sum total of these. This is the clue to understanding much of the ancient understanding of what the divine is. Each described excellence resembles reality itself in terms of its properties. The excellence may serve social functions, as does a skill or specialism, but it should be performed for its own sake. The performance of these excellences recalls the perfection and completeness of the plenum, and reinforces the presence of the divine in the world. 

Intentionality, Conjecture, and What is Holy. Intentionality explains why the ancients created a multiplicity of gods. If the divine itself cannot by definition be completely defined and understood, at least certain properties and attributes can be understood. These can therefore be defined and named as ways of accessing the divine. This does not at all conflict with the idea that the reality of the divine is in question. Instead this view argues that there is in fact a subjective component in the reality of the divine, at least insofar as it is possible for us to have commerce with it.

Excellence and the Knowledge of Divine Things. Plutarch opens his life of Alexander with a cheerful complaint about the sheer extent of the materials available to him to write on Alexander. So the details which are in his essay are there because he regarded them as important in showing Alexander’s character, his disposition, and the content of his mind. On the basis of his sources he says that it is thought that Alexander was taught by Aristotle not only his doctrines of Morals and Politics, but also those more abstruse mysteries which are only communicated orally and are kept concealed from the vulgar: for after he had invaded Asia, hearing that Aristotle had published some treatises on these subjects, he wrote him a letter in which he defended the practice of keeping these speculations secret.

Egypt in the Shadows. Since the European enlightenment, the influence of Egypt on the development of abstract and philosophical thought has been deprecated. Yet, as Martin Bernal showed in the third volume of Black Athena,  many Greek words have plausible etymologies from Egyptian. It is also the case that several of the concepts used by Aristotle in his philosophical writing were known to Egyptians nine hundred years before his time, such as the idea of completion (it is connected with the idea of birth in Akhenaten’s Hymn to the Aten, which dates to the fourteenth century BCE). There is also abundant evidence for the existence of philosophical thought among the Hebrews in the books of the Old Testament.  Yahweh is described as ‘the first and last, and beside me there is no God’. His name (minus the vowels) is a variant of the verb ‘to be’, which suggests that his isolation is due to the fact that he was understood to be Being itself.

Polytheism, Monotheism, and the Cult of the Aten. The Aten is first mentioned (to our knowledge) in the Story of Sinuhe, which dates at least as far back as the twelfth dynasty, where the dead king is described as uniting with with the sun-disk in the heavens. Akhenaten’s iconography never shows the god in anthropomorphic form – instead the Aten is always shown as the sun disk with rays of light extending from it, with hands at the end of each ray. The Sun god was considered to be neither male nor female, but both simultaneously, an idea which was reflected in the depiction of Akhenaten in sculpture and reliefs. His full title however was ‘The Ra-Horus who rejoices in the horizon, in his/her Name of the Light which is seen in the sun disk’. We find this full rendering of the Aten’s name on the stelae placed around Akhetaten, which was Akhenaten’s newly founded capital. Sometimes the full name was shortened to Ra-Horus-Aten, or just ‘Aten’. Since two of the names of Akhenaten’s god refer to the sun (Ra being an older name for the sun god), it seems that some kind of intellectual synthesis of older ideas had taken place.

Cultural Continuity in the Ancient World, and Bernal’s Black Athena. Martin Bernal’s intention was to take ancient Greece out of its exalted orbit above all other civilizations, and root it in what he assumed to have been a cultural continuum around the Mediterranean sea from at least the mid-2nd century B.C.E up until the classical period of Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Bernal pointed to the evidence within the texts of the 1st millennium which suggested cultural continuities with ancient Egypt – all dismissed by the classicists in favour of evidence in texts which could be interpreted as suggesting the opposite. Bernal’s attempts to establish cultural continuity with the civilizations around the Mediterranean were hampered by the fact that myths are not simply encodings of historical and political change, and that the exchange of words between linguistic groups is, by itself, weak evidence for cultural continuity.  He was correct to guess at the existence of the cultural continuity, I think, but ill-equipped to establish such a thing. To do this requires moving things around – particularly re-anchoring the relationship of Greek philosophy to patterns of religious belief and cult practice; and the establishing of the relationship between Greek patterns of religious belief and cult practice to parallel ideas and behaviour in the Near East and in Egypt.


The Tangled Thread: Universals in History. The liturgies and the description of ancient rituals have been published and translated, and their signifcance and meaning have been discussed by scholars. But they make difficult reading for the reason that they involve a different set of preconceptions from those understood by Mesopotamian scholars. It is hard to break through to an understanding of what was understood to be going on. The Mesopotamians employed ideas which they considered to be universally valid, such as all wisdom being present in the Abzu, and that the acquisition of knowledge depended on some kind of ritual engagement with Ea and the Abzu. And that the good order of the world depended on man's relation to the world of the divine. Since the European Enlightenment however, we have adopted another set of universal notions, which do not depend at all on the reality of the divine and the gods. In fact it pushes such notions into the shadowlands of unreason. So there is little inclination among scholars who specialise in Mesopotamia to spend time trying to makes sense of things which they regard as intrinsically unreasonable.

The Age of the Lord Buddha. Scholars acquiesce in the convention  that an articulate and technical understanding of the idea of Being was first broached by the Greeks in the middle of the 1st Millennium BCE. It follows therefore that all references to the divine in the ancient near east before that date are not articulate and technical references, but notional and inchoate. The consequence must be that we can learn nothing useful about ancient intellectual processes and concerns from these notions, since they are beliefs entirely unsupported by rational argument. This would come as a surprise to many ancient cultures, if they were still around. The date of the Buddha's floruit for western scholars is much closer to our own time than it is for scholars in the east. We place him around the 5th century BCE, since there is clearly an interest in universals in the texts. The Puranas provide a chronology of the Magadha rulers from the supposed time of the Mahabharata war, and Buddha is supposed to have become enlightened during the reign of Bimbisara, the 5th Shishunaga ruler, who, according to this chronology, ruled between 1852-1814 BCE. His birth date may have been 1887 BCE.  Chinese scholarship has long maintained that Buddhism came to China from India around 1200-1100BCE.

Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind. The evidence from the megaliths makes the importance of the sky very clear: in Britain and around the megalithic world, the sky was seen as a representation of divinity, of Being. As an image of the divine, it was an image of totality itself. The megalithic observatory, or temple, according to this hypothesis, was a device to embody aspects of divinity, of Being, actually in its structure, in the same way in which the gods in Mesopotamia might be invited to occupy their representations on earth.

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Page updated July 13 and 16, 2018.