Thursday, 10 January 2019

Philosophical Thought in Greece and Babylonia (III)

We can never know exactly when the idea of Being, or, as we may characterise it, the most abstract possible conception of the nature of reality, first entered human consciousness. It may have been an idea which was conjectured as long ago as the Palaeolithic period, or as late as the early Neolithic. 

However, for those who accept the western convention that the abstract conception of Being as the foundation of reality itself was first broached by the Greeks in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE., the very idea of its earlier presence in human consciousness is an absurdity. The Western convention explains very little, is not supported by the available evidence, but it serves the purpose of closing off from our consideration even the possibility of a much longer history of the idea of Being. And for the gigantic, sprawling edifices of Western philosophy and religion, this is, for the most part, a comfort.

Yet the evidence for a much earlier presence of the idea of Being in civilization is far from invisible, except to those for whom (prima facie) the idea of an earlier existence for the concept can have no reality. Historians are disabled in their critical understanding of antiquity by the fact that the contemporary episteme – the intellectual frame in which ideas can be thought and discussed - excludes the possibility that the idea of Being is truly ancient.

It was suggested in the late 19th century that the idea of Being was of no importance, since it was not possible to say anything about the nature of Being with any certainty: it was beyond having anything predicated of it. That alone made it possible for scholars to ignore the question of Being, whatever role it might have had in ancient cultures. The modern west had reached the point where ancient ideas made so little sense in terms of a modern understanding, that the idea of Being was simply passed by.
In antiquity the conception of Being was understood to be coterminous with reality itself. Hence the suggestion in the Babylonian ‘Enuma Elish’ that the dimensions of physical reality were stretched out of this primal and transcendent reality. In such terms, it is impossible to dismiss Being as an idea which does not need to be addressed. However, the idea of a reality beyond physical and sensory reality was effectively dismissed in the 19th century. What we could see, measure and weigh was the only reality we could engage with. What might lie beyond the scalar and vector values was not something which could be rationally addressed. In fact the conception of a transcendent reality disappeared altogether from the range of things which might be known and understood, at least in terms of real knowledge. If divines and mystics still wanted to talk about these things, they were free to do so. But their discussions were treated as so many varieties of nonsense, and were not worthy of consideration.

In antiquity, the infinite, or Being itself, was not seen as inaccessible. That is clear from the texts we have. But it does not mean that connection with the Infinite and Being was regarded as unproblematic. The difficulty was the result of a collision between the logic of the immanence of the divine, and earthly logic. According to the latter, it is impossible for the divine to intersect with physical reality, since something cannot be other than it is. At least according to Aristotelian logic. Plato can not be interpreted the same way.

As we cannot know the origins of monotheism, we cannot know the origins of polytheism. We have to accept that. It is too far in the past. And indeed, there may have been no single origin for polytheism; no identiable path by which the human mind and human experience shaped man’s encounter with a plurality of gods. Generally we imagine how polytheism came to be: as the result of political and social struggles in antiquity, with the creation of pantheons of gods, whose existence mirrors in large part, earthly experience of powers, exalted into entities who have their existences somewhere quite remote from human experience. They are in some way in notional control of all aspects of ancient life, and are often deeply unfathomable in both  their natures and in their behaviour. Therefore they give rise to a sense of awe and sometimes terror in the human mind.

This way of looking at the origins of polytheism assumes that there is no transcendental aspect to polytheism, and that polytheism is a phenomenon which precedes both the first discussions of the idea of Being, and the idea that there is a transcendental reality which was understood to stand behind the world of appearance.

These two propositions stand behind the modern interpretation of the meaning and function of the gods in antiquity, and both propositions were occasionally entertained in antiquity itself, particularly from Hellenistic times onwards. We assume that this way of seeing and understanding the gods, which is our modern understanding, was as correct then as it is now, even if other ideas were current about the gods, and how the human race might engage with them, as though they were truly real. For the anthropologist and classicist James Frazer, the idea of discussing Being, now as well as in antiquity, is nonsensical. It is an abstraction about which it is not possible to say anything. For Frazer, Being is an unattainable abstraction, and for all practical purposes, it does not profit us to discuss it in any way.

And yet… Frazer himself noted that the idea of Being was clearly regarded as a proper subject for discussion by some of the earliest Greek philosophers – Anaximander, Hesiod, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras, for example, as well as for later figures, such as Parmenides and Plato. If the discussion of Being is a corollary of the emancipation of the human mind from irrational patterns of thought, normally imagined to be a major landmark in Greek civilization, the fact that there is a continuity of discussion around the idea of Being long before the development of the Athenian intellectual hegemony - via Plato’s Academy, and Aristotle’s Lyceum – is something which requires an explanation.
There is no such explanation available to be considered as long as we persist in the presumption that there is no conception of the ultimate abstraction of Being before the 5th century BCE, which even the Greek evidence contradicts. Greek genius? I cannot write that without a sense of irony. It is an explanation which explains nothing, but draws attention to the fact that either we have nothing useful to say about the intellectual achievement of the Greeks, or that we choose to remain within our modern episteme.

We also need to escape the notion that the intellectual achievement of the Greeks owed nothing to contact with other cultures – again a view based on the presumption that there was no concept of the ultimate abstraction of Being anywhere else before the Greeks. Isocrates credited the Egyptians with the discipline of philosophy. Aristotle indirectly referenced the Egyptians by suggesting that philosophy may have begun with a professional class with time to think, by which he clearly had in mind the Egyptian priesthoods. And we know something of the cultural contacts (both intellectual and commercial) that the Greeks had with Egypt. Solon visited Egypt and talked with the priests. Pythagoras did the same, and also spent time in Babylon. The historian Herodotus wrote extensively (if often inaccurately) about Egypt, and went so far as to claim that the names of some of the Greek gods came from Egyptian sources.

We also know now of the cultural impact of the empire of Assyria on Greece, partly through the close proximity of Ionia with the kingdom of Lydia, a client state of the Assyrians, and through the direct capture of Athens by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, some time around 700 BCE. There was a temple to Assyrian gods built in Athens, according to the Greek writer Abydenus, and so there would have been Assyrian temple personnel present for a significant period of time, during which there was the possibility of a significant exchange of ideas. We have long known that many notions of the presocratic philosophers echo similar Mesopotamian ideas. 

 ['Philosophical Thought in Greece and Babylonia' (IV) will follow shortly].

Thomas Yaeger, January 10, 2018

Sunday, 30 December 2018

What is Philosophy?

The word is made of two Greek components. The meaning of the first is obvious.  Sophos means ‘wise’ and was applied to those who had wisdom (’sophist’). It is comparable to the Latin ‘sapiens’, and both may owe their origins to the Egyptian ‘sp’, which has a range of meanings, including ‘to teach’.

We got both the word ‘philosophy’, and the practice of the discipline, via Pythagoras, who flourished in the sixth century. Plato spent much of his life criticising the philosophers who came after Pythagoras, known to us as the sophists, because they professed wisdom, but often had none. So apparently possessing a love for philosophy didn’t make you a philosopher. At least not in the eyes of Plato. The sophists may have come into being as a result of the success of Pythagoras. They often retooled ideas from the ancient near East, but with very little understanding.

Was there philosophy before Pythagoras? Of course, but the word had no currency. Who was practicing philosophy before the mid-sixth century BCE? Almost everybody. It is what priests used to do and is one of the things the ancient seminary was for (they also taught ritual observance, and administration). Philosophy is not the invention of Plato’s Academy. The Academy is modelled on teaching establishments around the Mediterranean, mostly associated with divine cult. Solomon’s Temple for example, was, among other things, a teaching establishment. The Pharisees and Saducees were the philosophically inclined who were associated with the Temple. They did not always agree on matters, but their role was to debate issues and to engage in rational conjecture.
Debate and questioning had always been a feature of civilisation, and we have records of some public debates from as far back as ancient Sumer (third millennium BCE). A close examination of the text corpora of Plato and Aristotle shows that the most consistent feature of their work is a concern with puzzles and paradoxes (the aporia). We have no texts by Pythagoras, but we have an extensive body of writing about his life and ideas stretching from Plato (fourth century BCE) all the way to the late Neoplatonists Porphyry and Iamblichus (third century CE). The same basic pattern of thinking appears in all of these philosophers, which is that the world cannot be known or understood purely in terms of sensory experience. This is because the world is full of puzzles, paradoxes, illusions and falsehoods. The genuine philosopher has to rise above these stumbling blocks in order to have wisdom. Real wisdom is therefore transcendental in nature. And everything is necessarily open to conjecture.

This is one of the principal themes of Plato’s Republic, and many of his remarks in his other works are essentially footnotes to his argument that wisdom is obtained by rising through a sequence of images (aka the ‘Forms’ - the illusory and the false) to the transcendent realm of ‘The Good’ in which all things meet and agree. The Good has no existence in time and space, and no properties to speak of, except that it contains all knowledge which is to be had (the Babylonians had the same idea, and called it the Abzu, or the abyss). The philosopher may then descend from ‘The Good’ via the Forms, and bring back knowledge of the transcendent reality to man. And the solution to many puzzling things.

Of course when Plato talks of ‘The Good’, he is talking of the Divine. But if  he had indicated that he meant God, he would have suffered the same fate as Socrates. He does clearly indicate however, at one overlooked passage in the Sophist, that he is talking of divine things.

Where did Pythagoras get his idea for a school of philosophy, and where did his philosophical ideas come from? Abydenus (a pupil of Aristotle, who appears to have been able to read and translate Akkadian documents written in cuneiform script) is the earliest writer to mention that Pythagoras spent several years as a soldier in the service of the Persian king Cyrus, and travelled with him on his campaigns around the Near East. And that wherever he went, he made a point of visiting establishments devoted to the gods. And asked questions. We know he was in Babylon at one point, and seems to have attended a public lecture there. He also visited religious establishments in Lebanon and upper Syria, in Arabia, and also Egypt (he didn’t get a very respectful response in Egypt, and was passed down the chain of divine establishments to the least important, before he received answers).

So much of Pythagorean doctrine, passed on to Plato, probably via the three books on Pythagorean ideas offered for sale by Philolaus, had its origin in establishments devoted to the gods. Pythagoras was the head of a religious cult as well as a philosopher, which is an important detail which is often ignored. We separate out religion and philosophy, because they are so different from each other now. But this was not the case in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, and not the case for the two millennia before that.

This is why it is important to understand the nature of ancient civilizations, since it is nearly impossible now for us to understand what philosophy once was, and what it was understood to be for. It is also nearly impossible for us to understand the nature of religion in the past, since we habitually and uncritically regard it as essentially the same as it is now, just with different personnel, different regalia,  and a plethora of bizarre ritual practices, many of them murderous.

Philosophy is about asking questions, and conjecture about how reality makes sense beyond purely physical descriptions of the world, and beyond mathematical and geometric understandings which don’t actually address the question of what the world is, and how it works. Reality is transcendental. It cannot be understood without addressing its transcendental nature.

Among the fundamental questions which lie at the heart of ancient philosophy are: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ And: ‘Is reality itself one, or many? If it is one, how is there a multiplicity of things in the world?’ Another question, which is addressed, but not answered by Plato: ‘If this world is not reality itself, is it a copy? And if it is a copy, is reality now two, and therefore not itself?’ The whole agenda of ancient philosophy is addressed by the following question: ‘If this world is not reality itself (and clearly it is not), what is it that we experience, and why?’

Thomas Yaeger, December 30, 2018.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Philosophical Thought in Greece and Babylonia (II)

The conventional wisdom, at least since the European enlightenment in the eighteenth century C.E., is that the phenomenon of monotheism is an idea which emerged from a preceding general inclination to polytheism among the human race. It is also conventional wisdom that we know of no instance of a monotheistic religion before the instances which are regularly cited to support this narrative. This emergence is short on evidence, and the evidence we have is less than clear in terms of context and implications, but is nevertheless a key assumption for historians of thought, and for theologians. It is assumed that the appearance of monotheism represents a negative and critical reaction to aspects of polytheism, and marks a great leap forward in human thought.

The evidence comes entirely from religious contexts, but this does not seem to matter. It is a great leap forward whether or not you are religiously minded, a professional theologian, a historian of cultural ideas, or even an outright atheist, because it marks the arrival of the ability to think in abstract rather than concrete terms. After this, it was possible for human beings to think in terms of universals rather than in assemblages of essentially unconnected particulars. It does not matter how the change is dressed: the human race was emancipated from an irrational concern for personification of natural forces, and the other ways in which a religious pantheon, or a sequence of genealogies, might have been built.

The two instances which are taken to show the emergence of monotheistic patterns of thought are:

 1):  the Hebrew insistence that Yahweh stands alone, and that ‘there is no other god beside me’. This insistence dates – in textual terms - back to the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E., since we know, largely from internal evidence,  that the text of the Old Testament was heavily redacted in the fifth century B.C.E., and reflects the views of what appears to be the victorious ‘Yahweh only’ faction in a long-running theological and political struggle concerning the nature of the Hebrew religion.


2): The religious revolution which is supposed to have been wrought by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century B.C.E., in which the plethora of divinities and the religious cults attached to them were replaced with the worship of the god ‘Aten’ alone.

I wrote extensively about Hebrew monotheism in the chapter ‘The Idea of Being in Israel’, in The Sacred History of Being (2015), and the influence of Mesopotamian ideas of divinity (principally Babylonian) on Hebrew thought. There are many clear references to Babylonian concepts in the Old Testament, often in the form of parodies. The Hebrews certainly encountered Babylonian religious thought and practice during their exile in Babylon. The extent to which this was a significant influence on their thought and practice before the period of exile is hard to determine however, since there is very little evidence to illustrate the nature of Hebrew religious thought before that time, both in terms of datable textual references, and archaeological remains. We do not know whether polytheism was a Hebrew practice in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, because there is no unequivocal evidence remaining for that period.  Other individuated Hebrew gods are unknown to us in the textual and archaeological records, though there are references in Hebrew texts to the worship of both foreign and Canaanite gods (Baal being one of the most conspicuous). Yahweh is however sometimes referred to as ‘El’, and occasionally with the plural form ‘Elohim’. Which might be taken to imply a multiplicity of gods.

There is a great deal of evidence however which shows that argument about the nature of the divine took place, and some of that may have been prompted by the importation of foreign deities and foreign cult practices. These arguments, and their potential implications for the nature of Hebrew thought about the divine, were also discussed in ‘The Idea of Being in Israel’.

This argument about the nature of the divine is rarely read by scholars in terms of a philosophical debate. There is no connected discussion available to us relating to these conjectural debates, if that is what they were, and scholars are disinclined to address the detail which does exist in terms of a philosophical understanding of the divine.

As for Akhenaten’s religious revolution, some biblical scholars have argued (over many years) that Moses brought monotheism to the Levant at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and that there is a lineal connection (of some sort) between the supposed monotheism of Akhenaten, and the Hebrew conception of Yahweh. We are told in the Pentateuch that Yahweh is the one true god, but, as already mentioned, these are texts which were redacted in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E. These texts reflect the interests and beliefs of the victors – the ‘Yahweh only’ group.  The truth may be quite different. Since we have no reliable evidence for Hebrew conceptions of the divine in the first half of the 1st millennium, what can be said of their conceptions of the divine in the second half of the second millennium B.C.E.?

In any case, are we clear about the difference between monotheism and polytheism? To adherents of the idea that the passage from polytheism to monotheism represents a cultural evolution, the answer is obvious: monotheism is a move away from local and tribal gods, and a move towards a grander and more abstract conception of the divine. However imperfectly understood. This eventually led to the development of articulate discussion of the philosophical nature of the divine among the Greeks.

But this narrative is entirely based on the two examples discussed above, and our understanding of what was going on in both cases is very thin. It is possible to impose the narrative of a cultural evolution on these examples, and this is what is done. But there is no conclusive evidence that this narrative represents the actual cultural dynamics at play in the second and first millennia  B.C.E. 

I’ve already shown in my essay ‘Polytheism, Monotheism, and The Cult of the Aten’ *1 that Akhenaten did not set out to obliterate the cults of the traditional gods of Egypt, and that there is no evidence that Akhenaten’s worship of the Aten attracted early hostility from the traditional cults. This does not mean that there was no tension between the new cult and the other priestly establishments. We do know that in the end, both Akhenaten’s supporters, and the priests of Amun, were enthusiastically hacking out references to their respective divinities from the monuments. But we have very little unambiguous information about how this situation came to pass.

In fact there is another narrative available concerning Akhenaten’s religion of the Aten which has not so far received much attention. Why is this? The existing narrative supports the simple idea of the development of monotheism as a form of reaction to what had become unacceptable aspects of polytheistic belief.  This narrative has a great hold on scholars, even if not all the available evidence provides clear support for it. The other narrative about Akhenaten’s religious revolution suggests something quite different – that the worship of the Aten was not just a newly minted preoccupation of Akhenaten, and to lesser extent his father, but that his revolution was an attempt to restore a very old body of thought in Egypt.*2

If that is the case, then the modern narrative we have constructed, on the basis of a very partial understanding of the evidence, will necessarily collapse. For one thing, monotheism will have been shown to be very old, and indeed be an Egyptian way of thinking about reality which stretches back to the earliest dynasties. For another, the idea of a cultural evolution from polytheism to monotheism will no longer be tenable, if monotheism is an idea which is thousands of years old. And in addition, if monotheism has an extensive history in Egypt, alongside an equally extensive history of polytheism, we would need to ask, ‘how could this be?’

2 Discussed in 'The Horizon of the Aten' (forthcoming). 

['Philosophical Thought in Greece and Babylonia (III)' will follow shortly]. 

Thomas Yaeger, December 26, 2018.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Philosophical Thought in Greece and Babylonia (I)

"…. yet dualism was able to reign for so long, thousands of years after those truths of the whole were irrefutably established"

 I’m not sure how much of my work you have read. It isn’t obligatory for anyone to read any of it at all. However there were many more subjects dealt with in my first book (The Sacred History of Being) than the chapter listing suggested. It was designed to be worth reading, but it isn’t constructed as a through narrative. It can be read like that, but the structure is actually fugal: echoes of the same ideas come up throughout the text in different guises.

One of these ideas is the significance of what is ’whole’ in ancient thought, and the role it seems to have played in the development of ancient religion (the connection between physical and transcendent reality, a matter of great importance to the ancients, was understood to be made possible through the nature of wholes and totalities). Another is the idea that the nature of reality can only be one, otherwise the integrity of reality would be fatally compromised. A third idea which plays a part in this fugue is the irrational nature of the ur-reality. We see this fundamental irrationality expressed in physical reality through the irrational nature of mathematical constants. The closer we look at the building blocks of physical reality – geometry, mathematics and physics – The more we understand that these actually point back to an ur-reality which is deeply irrational. However large parts of physical reality can be described and modelled in terms of geometry and mathematics. A fourth question is discussed – if reality is necessarily one, otherwise the fundamental nature and integrity of that reality is rendered impossible, how is it that the universe in which we live is full of multiplicities and things which are different from each other? How can this be if reality is one?

The fourth question is closely allied to one of the most profound questions which can be asked, which is ‘how is it that there is something rather than nothing?’ This question was asked in antiquity, as it is still sometimes asked. But the answer to that question received a more intelligent response in antiquity than it does now. We know about its importance not so much from direct references, but from the fact that that ancient writers become very coy when discussing matters of creation, and often do not give satisfactory answers. Most historians simply assume that this is a reticence surrounding the particular doctrine of particular cults, and that the phenomenon does not point to a way of thinking about the generation of the physical world which is rooted in philosophical questions about what reality is. Instead they dismiss the importance of reasoning in connection with the creation of the physical world as having nothing to do with universals, because (‘as any fule know’) that kind of abstract thought was absent from the human race until the advent of the Greeks.

One of the ways to test this assumption is to assume, for the purposes of argument, that the opposite might be true: that bodies of thought before the Greeks are actually built on abstract and universal propositions derived in the course of philosophical inquiry. And mostly on a basis of logical thought. The results which emerge from this approach are often quite startling: a great deal of thought from before the time of the Greeks starts to make sense. And strong parallels emerge (another one of the themes of The Sacred History of Being) in the Babylonian liturgy of the New Year Festival (the Enuma Elish), between early Greek and Babylonian/Assyrian thought.

Another thing which historians of ancient thought do is to assume the simplest interpretation of the details of ancient religion is likely to be the correct one. So, the gods have a variety of origins – deified individuals, local totemic deities, and the personification of the powers of the natural world. Storm gods and Sun gods are a gift for this kind of interpretation. But again, the assumption can be tested by assuming the opposite: that there is some kind of philosophical basis to ancient gods within particular cultural groupings. The parallels across several cultural groups in the ancient world are often striking. Close examination of the rituals for installing gods (where we have them) are particularly revealing. Are these rituals designed to install gods on the earth, or in some transcendental realm, such as Heaven itself? Very few specialists deal with these materials, because the answer to that question is quite clearly the latter.  Yes, there is a carefully crafted image of the god on earth, in his temple, but it was understood by the Mesopotamians to be a particular image of the god on earth, who has his essential reality in Heaven.

 So what is going on here? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the craftsmen undertaking the work are granted a temporary divinity, without which they could not create a god. And afterwards, their divine status is removed through another part of the ritual, and they make public denial of their involvement in the creation of the god. Historians (with one or two exceptions) have no idea of what the basis of such a notion of granting temporary divinity might be. And so these rituals are generally passed over in any discussion of Babylonian and Assyrian civilization, in favour of the more conventional view that the gods are personifications of natural powers, and so on.

Nothing is explained by avoiding the uncomfortable nature of the evidence. Addressing the evidence is the only way to understand what is involved. There are several clues, such as the description of Marduk as the totality of the gods, in the Enuma Elish (in the section known as ‘The Fifty Names of Marduk’). Each of the descriptions of the fifty gods is a humanly crafted definition of what they represent, and their importance for the good order of the world. As the totality of the fifty, Marduk is the head of the pantheon of gods. He represents the whole of Mesopotamian divinity.

Is Marduk therefore reality itself? The answer is both yes and no. The Enuma Elish contains descriptions of two creations – the second rational, the first irrational. And Marduk is not present during this first creation. The first creation is described as a hail of composite creatures, with the bodies of animals and the heads of men. It is destroyed because it is irrational. Marduk then creates good order in the world so that man may live, stretching out the surface of the earth and creating the places of refuge (implying that he was responsible for the creation of ordered space and the physical dimensions as we know them).

So, as in other ancient descriptions of creation, there is a stage in the process which is difficult to fathom, and which participated in irrationality, and in chaos.

The Greeks were cautious in their discussions of the arche, at least in public, probably for this very reason. They sometimes passed over this stage altogether in silence, in their divine genealogies. But this evasion tells us that their conception of reality was that reality was a plenum, and that it was not, in itself, good. A well ordered world emerged from that initial state of reality, through the presence and action of the gods. In Mesopotamia, the gods had the power to secure the good order of the world through the ‘fixing of the destinies’. The Greeks had a similar concept, in the three fates.

The Sacred History of Being contains an extract from a discussion of the complexity of our understanding of the One by the Platonist Thomas Taylor, who was a contemporary of Shelley and William Blake. Taylor's text outlines the difficulty which surrounded the discussion of this subject in antiquity. After quoting the text, I wrote that Taylor’s comments show:

…how far Platonic argument about Being and the One can be pushed, and also [shows] how far Plato understood the limitations of argument about Being, and knowledge itself.
This is a thousand miles beyond the level of sophistication of discussion of the nature of reality by Anselm and by Descartes. In practice their discussions of the subject lack clarity, and actually never proceed beyond ideas and notions associated with Being. So the ideas of 'Greatness' and 'Perfection', which figure in Plato's dialogues as attributes of Being, are the core of their arguments, and the limits of their conception of the Divine.
Another reason for including this text is that it shows just how dangerous this doctrine is, and that its dangerousness was fully understood in antiquity. If an ultimate ineffability is wrapped around the idea of Being, and it cannot be fathomed or known, it is easy for the 'idiotical ears' to assume that their religion is a pious fraud based on a doctrine which has at its core no divinity at all. 
The primal chaos at the heart of Being of course makes perfect sense within a model of the world in which the difference between the subjective and objective is ultimately an illusion. We participate in Being, and in creation. Reality is what we make of it. Without such an understanding of this model of reality, the description of Being and reality served and discussed in the ancient temple school could only mean to 'the idiotical ears' that the priesthood held that there is no god.

TY, December 21, 2018.