Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Symmetry and Asymmetry in the Iconography of the Ancient Near East

Symmetry and Asymmetry

I first noticed a regularity (and accompanying irregularities) in images from the ANE a long time ago, and mentioned the phenomenon in 'The Sacred History of Being'. I described a number of images in detail because at the time I had no money to have the images copied (in the early eighties).  This extra labour turned out to have consequences. In compiling these descriptions I noticed that, where images possessed a symmetry, the same images often (but not always) contained some kind of breakage of the symmetry. It is easy to write this sort of detail off as carelessness on the part of the maker, but that attitude to what we are seeing just excuses us from trying to figure out the significance.

This kind of imagery is a legacy from the Neolithic. I've seen the same sort of pattern in iconography from Catal Hoyuk. So it seems to reflect a way of thinking which has had a long history. This does not mean that it is a continuous history as something which was always understood. But that this kind of image keeps turning up, means we should try to fathom what is going on with symmetrical images broken by asymmetries. At least before we decide the details of the images are unimportant.

I studied the ANE in London (89-92), not just because I was interested in ancient civilizations. My principal interest is the history of ideas (as my twitter feed illustrates). By the time I got there I'd come to the conclusion that the idea that philosophical thought was a creation of the Greeks, was in fact a scholarly construct. Much of my work since has focussed on demolishing this construct. The construct serves the function of removing the need for close attention to the details of rational thought before the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., because we know it isn't there: the Greeks were the first.

The Plenum

The idea that there is nothing worth discussing is obviously a major problem. Another major problem is that, in the west at least, an important concept has dropped out of our ways of thinking. This idea is the plenum. It is important for us to understand it because it was important in antiquity. If we discuss civilizations in the ANE without the knowledge that this was so, we are just studying  representations of the civilisations, convenient to our own way of thinking, rather than what is there to be understood.

What is the plenum? It is the idea that the physical reality in which we live is not reality itself. Reality itself is a primal fulness, beyond physical existence. The world of physical existence is therefore a kind of selective representation of what is possible, beyond space and time. The primal fulness has no physical existence, but it gives rise - in some way we do not understand - to the existent world. It is the other place. It is eternity. And it was a key idea in Mesopotamian civilization.

The Plenum in Mesopotamia

This idea underpins Mesopotamian religion, and the role of the King. The idea that reality itself lies beneath the world in which we have our existence is the reason why there are two creations in the Enuma Elish - the first an irrational one, before Marduk imposed order. This is why the first created beings are an irrational jumble of possible forms. All of the forms are present (at least in potential) in the plenum, but not everything which is possible is either desirable, or rational. So there is a second and rational creation, in which Marduk establishes order. That rational order is also described in the Enuma Elish,  in the form of his fifty names, and the description of his attributes.

This same idea of the plenum is the root of the Mesopotamian idea that destinies can be fixed. All possible destinies already have a reality in the plenum. But the gods, and their representatives on earth, have the power to fix the destinies, because of their close contact with the entity which contains the possible destinies. The plenum is most often referenced in terms of the Abzu. It is at the bottom of the sea, because the sea (as discussed in The Sacred History of Being) is an image of the primal fulness of the plenum - it appears limitless, it has no form, no shape, no colour.

The Abzu is also the place where all knowledge is to be had, and Ea/Enki is the lord of the Abzu. The earthly king strives to embody the attributes of Ea/Enki, and to be as wise as he is.

The plenum in Mesopotamia is also sometimes referenced as totality. That is what it is. Not the totality of the physical world, which is merely an earthly representation of it, but the totality of everything that is real. Hence Shamshi Adad I using the epithet 'King of Totality' (Shar Kishati) as part of the description of himself. According to Neoplatonist sources (more than one) a doctrine of totalities was taught in Babylon, and was supposedly brought back to Europe by Pythagoras. The doctrine is referenced (indirectly) by Plato.

Why do kings and genies hold a basket or pail, particularly in the vicinity of the Assyrian Sacred Tree? The banduddu is another symbol of the plenum - of all that is possible. One of the representations of the banduddu in the British Museum shows doves at each side. They are there because that primal reality, beyond space and time, requires to be laid out in a rational order, if life is to be possible. The doves symbolise the laying out of the fabric of the world and its dimensions, stretched out of the transcendent reality in which there is no space and time.

So the banduddu represents the all of reality itself, out of which the physical world is created. The other object is the mysterious pine cone. It represents (I think) an opposite to the banduddu, which is multiplicity. There is no multiplicity in the plenum. It is what it is. It does not move and it does not think. But the rationally created world is full of multiplicity and difference. The primal fulness is held in one hand, and the multiplicity of creation is held in the other. The king (or other divine power) is between the two extremes - between reality itself, and its physical representation. He has the power to shape the created world - to fix the destinies, and to create good order on earth. 

The king (or another divine power) is represented twice around the tree. The image is symmetrical. But the symmetry of the image is superficial, since it is broken by simple details. One being is shown bringing the pine cone close to the tree; on the other side of the tree, the opposing being is making contact with the tree. What is being represented here is the power of decision which both the king and divine beings possess. Which is the power of rational creation, and the establishment of good order in the physical world.

What is being represented is two separate states. The first represents the potency of the king, where it is the king being represented; the second represents the actualisation of the power which he has. So the image represents both the power of kingship, and the function of the king. Which is why there was such a representation behind the throne in Ashurbanipal's palace.

This implies that the king has a connection with reality itself. The tree is another image of that reality (reduplication of themes is a major part of ancient iconography). We can tell a lot about what it means on the basis of the way it is used in other contexts. Elements of the tree (alternating lotus buds, open and closed, etc.) can be used in pavements and porches, or used to mark the boundary between wall reliefs. So it represents a form of limit. The king accesses that limit, and because he has access to it, he has divine power. The limit is the plenum, because it is at the edge of physical reality. What is at the edge of physical reality is coterminous with divine reality.

"Enki's beloved Eridug, E-engura whose inside is full of abundance! Abzu, life of the Land, beloved of Enki! Temple built on the edge, befitting the artful divine powers!"  From 'Enki's journey to Nibru.' Black, Cunningham, Robson, Z lyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 2004, p330

This is why sacrifices used to take place mainly at sunrise and sunset, because at that moment representations of the divine crossed from one reality to another (crossing the horizon between earth and heaven). It was the most propitious time for connecting the earth with the world of the divine.

The installation of divine images in Babylon and Assyria involved limits also - part of the ritual took place in a garden next to a river bank, where the long reeds were conceived to reach all the way down to the Abzu itself. And the rivers were themselves divine (DINGIR.ID), because water was an image of the divine reality.

The first sage,  Oannes, emerges from the sea to impart knowledge to mankind, for the same reason.

Transcendentalism in Mesopotamia

All of this makes sense only if Mesopotamian religion (or more accurately, Mesopotamian divine cult), was transcendentalist in nature. Meaning that the Mesopotamians (or at least some among the scholars, the 'priestly' class, and certain privileged members of the artisan class) understood there to be at least two levels of reality, one of them transcendent of physical reality, which gave rise to the world of physical existence. And that is what is described in their rituals and liturgies. Once the idea is grasped of the initial plenum, which forever lies behind the physical world, much of the rest of Mesopotamian literature makes sense, or at least offers clues to what is going on. Without a grasp of that idea, we have no clue.

A classicist would be likely to object to the above on the grounds that a transcendentalist nature to Mesopotamian religion would imply a contemporary grasp of philosophical concepts, and the ability to frame complex arguments about abstract questions and the nature of reality. But the Greeks invented all of that in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E., so it is obviously wrong. They would follow up by saying that transcendentalist thought around the world does not predate the Greeks either. A history of transcendentalist thought has to start with the Greeks.

So we are back with the fiction. Transcendental thought is however the lynchpin of religious thought and practice in the ancient Near East. The denial of the presence of transcendental thought in the ANE has very little to do with the evidence which we have, and much more to do with the way the evidence is approached by us.

Further details concerning transcendentalism in the ANE can be found by following the links in the article Babylon the Great. There is also an article describing detail of the Babylonian creation which suggests a transcendentalist outlook: The Idea of the Plenum in Babylon. The importance of the idea of limit in Assyria is discussed in: The Threshold in Ancient Assyria. Links to articles on the importance of limit in general can be found in: At the very Edge: Marking Transition and Transformation in Antiquity. The properties and atributes of  Mesopotamian kingship are discussed in The Fifty Names of Marduk. A book, The Origins of Transcendentalism in Ancient Religion, is slated for publication in 2019.

TY, September 11, 2018

Thursday, 30 August 2018

At the very Edge: Marking Transition and Transformation in Antiquity

One of the principal themes of my work is the importance accorded to the idea and the function of limit in ancient thought. Discussion of the idea of limit (and the unlimited) can be found in early Greek philosophy, and limit is a key idea in both Mesopotamian and Roman civilization. However currently it is not a major focus of interest for scholars, and so its importance is scarcely understood. 

Here are pointers to seven texts which discuss the significance of the idea of limit in antiquity. 


'The Threshold in Ancient Assyria'. http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-threshold-in-ancient-assyria.html?spref=tw The chapter is based on pioneering research by the scholar Pauline Albenda.

[From The Origins of Transcendentalism in Ancient Religion (forthcoming)]


 'The Divine and the Limit' http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-divine-and-limit.html?spref=tw …  explores the prominence of Janus in the ritual life of the Romans. In the songs of the Salii (‘jumpers’ or dancers) he was called the good creator, and the god of gods; he is elsewhere named the oldest of the gods and the beginning of all things. The king, and in later times the rex sacrōrum, sacrificed to him. At every sacrifice he was remembered first; in every prayer he was the first invoked, being mentioned even before Jupiter. He is especially associated with the idea of limit, which is a preoccupation of a number of ancient cultures.

[From Understanding Ancient Thought (2017)]


Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/being-kabbalah-and-assyrian-sacred-tree.html  The Assyrian Sacred Tree appears to be associated with the ideas of divine being and also with the idea of limit. The explanation for such an association is that the Mesopotamians conceived divinity to be at the limit of that which is. The parallels between the Kabbalah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree were uncovered by the Assyriologist Simo Parpola in the 1990s. This was achieved using the god numbers which the Mesopotamians used to reference their gods. 

[an extract from The Sacred History of Being (2015)]


'Ocean and the Limit of Existence' http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com/2017/03/ocean-and-limit-of-existence.html?spref=tw There are similar ideas associated with Ocean in Europe and in the Ancient Near East. These parallels, and the concepts which underpin them, are explored in this chapter. 

[a full chapter from The Sacred History of Being (2015)]


'Remarks on the Telos (and other lost ideas)' https://t.co/FBciqYgSWk  We recognise only one cause in the modern world, which is the efficient cause. This is concerned with work, energy and power. In antiquity Aristotle described four causes, which are discussed here. Did Aristotle conjure these by himself, or were these concepts understood across the civilised world for centuries before Classical Greece?

[From the chapter: 'Aristotle’s Four Causes' in: Understanding Ancient Thought (2017)]


'The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World' http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-esoteric-conception-of-divinity-in.html  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.

[Some extracts from the essay: 'The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World', in Man and the Divine (2018)] 


'The Making and Renewal of the Gods in Ancient Assyria.' https://t.co/6CMNzMiGw2 We have good information about the installation and refurbishment of the gods in Assyrian temples from Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria before his son Ashurbanipal. Such operations were agreed (via diviners present in the workshop of the gods) with the relevant divinities beforehand (principally Shamash, the sun god), and the omens were cross-checked for accuracy. The full strangeness of what we now know renders a lot of previous anthropological interpretation horribly out of date.

[a full chapter from The Sacred History of Being (2015)]


'Installing the Gods in Heaven: the Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual' http://shrineinthesea.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-babylonian-mis-pi-ritual.html?spref=tw … This extract contains analysis and commentary on one of the surviving descriptions of the ritual found in Ashurbanipal's library during excavations. Boundaries and limits serve an important function at key moments of the three day ritual. 

[An extract from the chapter 'The Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual', from The Sacred History of Being (2015)]

TY, August 30, 2018

Sunday, 19 August 2018

The Time Bomb Under Archaeology

Text from the Spectator archive, November 14, 1970. The programme was broadcast on October 31, 1970 (the Spectator came out once a fortnight). An edited excerpt from their review of TV programming. It is coming up for fifty years since the programme was broadcast, and the 'time-bomb under archaeology' may be about to explode. There is new information.

Magnus Magnusson wrote and narrated an excellent programme about even older good old days, four thousand years ago, when some of the natives of these islands were 'prehistoric Einsteins.' Chronicle: Cracking The Stone Age Code (BBC 2) was about Professor Alexander Thom's study of megalithic mathematics and astronomy. Now seventy-six, Professor Thom, a retired engineer, has spent the past thirty years studying ancient stone circles. His measurements have demonstrated to his satisfaction that Stone Age man was no barbaric simpleton but erected stones in patterns founded on Pythagorean geometry two thousand years before Pythagoras.
Professor Thom discovered that stone circles all over Britain used a standard megalithic unit of measurement, precisely 2.72 feet in length. Using the crudest instruments, the Stone Age astronomer-priests were able to predict accurately various astronomical events, such as lunar eclipses.

Mr Magnusson suggested that Professor Thom's findings have put 'a time- bomb under archaeology.' Archaeological sceptics were given opportunities to voice their disagreement on the programme, but Thom appeared to be entirely undisturbed by expressions of dissent. Chronicle enterprisingly sent him to Carnac, a megalithic site in Brittany. His findings there fitted his British observations and demonstrated, as Mr Magnusson said, that 'there was an intellectual common market four thousand years ago.' Perhaps Malcolm Muggeridge is right,... when he says that our civilisation is in decline.

The original programme is currently available from the BBC Archive, and is an extraordinary time capsule from the time in which it was made. There was no consensus about the implications of Thom's work, or even that his suggestions about the basis on which the monuments were laid out were reliably rooted in Thom's phenomenological and statistical analysis.

Since then a resurvey of 300 of the monuments by Clive Ruggles, using a highly unorthodox and inconsistent methodology, has removed the need for archaeologists to engage with the implications of Thom's original study of the monuments. *1 This is because many of the things which Thom drew attention to are now understood by the archaeological community to be the product of a 'selection bias'. As the archaeologist Euan MacKie (who appears in the programme) has pointed out however, Ruggles resurvey was conducted in such a way that it could not possibly verify some of Thom's findings, such as the deliberate orientation of the monuments on foresights in the landscape, even if those findings were correct.

Thom was an engineer, mathematician, and an excellent surveyor. He detected some key components to the construction of the monuments, such as a near obsessive interest in whole numbers, and what appeared to be the use of pythagorean triangles in the laying out of the structures. Those aspects of the circles and ellipses he did not over-interpret, because he had nothing to go on. He reported on what he could see, and how the structures might have been laid out given those clear interests of the original designers of the monuments.

Being an engineer, and a mathematician, there were other things he must have noticed during his surveys, but for which he could offer no sensible explanation. And at the time this documentary was made, nobody else could have either. The phenomenological and statistical analysis of the monuments remains however as a remarkable body of work. There is more information in those surveys than meets the eye.

The interpretative frame has moved forward in the meantime. We know much more about the nature and origins of Pythagorean thought than we did - it is possible, for example, to understand Pythagoreanism as a way of thinking which is rooted in the consideration of natural puzzles. Such an interest necessarily has a bearing on the human response to such puzzles, which can be a religious response (and was, in the case of the later Pythagoreans). Many constants in nature are mathematically irrational, such as pi and phi, etc, which makes them a phenomenon of interest to those disposed to philosophical inquiry. These are staples of Greek philosophy. Such an interest also offers an explanation of how a Pythagorean way of thinking could have arisen so long before the advent of the Pythagorean sect we know from much more recent times.

1. Ruggles describes his resurveying work in a chapter in Records in Stone. His 'methodology', might have seemed to him to make sense at the time, but now it looks like what it is: an attempt to unsee a large body of unpalatable evidence for which the discipline of archaeology was entirely unprepared. It was about protecting an academic and cultural narrative, which then, as now, was firmly entrenched. [Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom, edited by C.L.N. Ruggles, CUP, 1988]

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Excellence and the Knowledge of Divine Things

[This is one of twenty-one essays in the book Man and the Divine, published in August 2018. The book is available in ePub format from leading retailers of eBooks, such as Barnes & Noble, Blio, Kobo, Itunes, Inktera, Smashwords, etc. Information about Man and the Divine can be found here]

There is a telling passage in the seventh section of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Alexander’, concerning esoteric thought. It is couched in interesting terms, which we rarely associate with things which are hidden because they are associated with divine things. Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon,
seeing that his son was easily led, but could not be made to do anything by force, used always to manage him by persuasion, and never gave him orders. As he did not altogether care to entrust his education to the teachers whom he had obtained, but thought that it would be too difficult a task for them…. he sent for Aristotle, the most renowned philosopher of the age, to be his son's tutor, and paid him a handsome reward for doing so. He had captured and destroyed Aristotle's native city of Stageira; but now he rebuilt it, and repeopled it, ransoming the citizens, who had been, sold for slaves, and bringing back those who were living in exile. For Alexander and Aristotle he appointed the temple and grove of the nymphs, near the city of Mieza, as a school-house and dwelling; and there to this day are shown the stone seat where Aristotle sat, and the shady avenues where he used to walk.
Plutarch opens his life of Alexander with a cheerful complaint about the sheer extent of the materials available to him to write on Alexander, and defends some of the necessary omissions by saying that he is writing a biography, and not a history. 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:
It is thought that Alexander was taught by him 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.
Plutarch references and quotes from several letters from Alexander, and from a diary, so it is likely that there were such things in circulation in Plutarch’s time, as well as the writings of his companions. Here he mentions Aristotle’s doctrines of morals and politics, which we would expect, given that he wrote extensively on these subjects (there is a volume on politics; he and his students compiled the constitutions of each Greek polis, only one of which has come down to us; and there are three different works on ethics extant, which are probably lecture notes compiled by his students); but he also references an esoteric level of teaching which Aristotle imparted – ‘those more abstruse mysteries… communicated orally and kept concealed from the vulgar’.

The esoteric is the opposite of the exoteric, or surface meaning of a doctrine. Plato’s teaching was also conducted at two levels, the inside and the outside, referred to as ta eso and ta exo in the Theatetus.

Plutarch however suggests by his wording that there is an esoteric level to an understanding of Aristotle’s teaching on both morals and politics, but the teaching of those mysteries are less abstruse.
How could we ever know what those abstruse mysteries might be? It would seem to be impossible. But the clue is in Alexander’s letter sent from Asia to complain about Aristotle’s publication of some treatises on these subjects. The letter is quoted as follows:
"Alexander to Aristotle wishes health. You have not done well in publishing abroad those sciences which should only be taught by word of mouth. For how shall we be distinguished from other men, if the knowledge which we have acquired be made the common property of all? I myself had rather excel others in excellency of learning than in greatness of power. Farewell."
This is a revealing answer. The objection is connected with the idea of excellence in learning and knowledge, and excelling in that knowledge, in order to be distinguished from other men. We can take from this statement, which places temporal greatness as a poor second to knowledge of abstruse things, that Alexander is referring knowledge of divine things, and consequently the principle of excellence itself.

This adds a whole new level to the endless references in the contemporary literature on Alexander to the question of whether or not he was divine by birth, whether he thought himself to be divine, whether or not he should receive divine honours, or if he was in pursuit of actual divinity.  In modern times the details and significance are not discussed as they were in antiquity, since scholars have no sense of how important such questions were at the time. We flatten everything into a discussion of the pursuit of power, status and political ideology. We have a glimpse here of the real context of Alexander’s understanding of what was important.

Plutarch gives the import of Aristotle’s reply to Alexander, saying that:
To pacify him…. [he] wrote …. that these doctrines were published, and yet not published: meaning that his treatise on Metaphysics was only written for those who had been instructed in philosophy by himself, and would be quite useless in other hands.
The emphasis is mine. So again, we have the assertion, this time from Aristotle, that there is an inside and an outside understanding of his doctrine, and accepts that details of both are in the text. He excuses this on the grounds that it was ‘only written for those who had been instructed in philosophy… and would be quite useless in other hands’.

So the clue is in the teaching of philosophy. Philosophy, at least when taught at an esoteric level, gives useful knowledge of what is excellent, and what is divine. Without philosophy, such knowledge is not to be had. This is a clear indication that philosophy and philosophical questions and puzzles were understood to lie behind doctrine and teaching concerning the divine.

Plutarch then goes on to illustrate Alexander’s interest in excellence, by suggesting that Aristotle:
… more than anyone else implanted a love of medicine in Alexander, who was not only fond of discussing the theory, but used to prescribe for his friends when they were sick, and order them to follow special courses of treatment and diet, as we gather from his letters. He was likewise fond of literature and of reading, and we are told by Onesikritus that he was wont to call the Iliad a complete manual of the military art, and that he always carried with him Aristotle's recension of Homer's poems, which is called 'the casket copy,' and placed it under his pillow together with his dagger. Being without books when in the interior of Asia, he ordered Harpalus to send him some. Harpalus sent him the histories of Philistus, several plays of Euripides, Sophokles, and Æschylus, and the dithyrambic hymns of Telestus and Philoxenus.
Again, Plutarch reinforces the importance of excellence to Alexander, saying that when he was a youth:
… used to love and admire Aristotle more even than his father, for he said that the latter had enabled him to live, but that the former had taught him to live well.
And living well is a main focus of Aristotle’s published work. Though the relationship later cooled,
he never lost that interest in philosophical speculation which he had acquired in his youth, as is proved by the honours which he paid to Anaxarchus, the fifty talents which he sent as a present to Xenokrates, and the protection and encouragement which he gave to Dandamris and Kalanus.
Philosophical speculation of course implies a degree of conjecture in discussion, and the fact that not everything is known or knowable by the merely mortal. Knowledge of the importance of excellence is however one way in which the divine can be approached, and that appears to have been an important component in Alexander’s mission.

This idea can be traced in Plato’s writing also. In the Protagoras, he suggests (through Protagoras) that the practice of philosophy is very ancient among the Greeks, and not something relatively newly invented. He suggests that it is widespread,
and particularly in Crete and Lacedaemon; and there are more sophists there than in any other country. 
Echoing Alexander’s view that philosophy, at least at an esoteric level, should be communicated only by oral teaching, in order that those who have studied philosophy should excel others in the knowledge of excellence, Protagoras says that:
They dissemble, however, and pretend that they are unlearned, in order that it may not be manifest that they surpass the rest of the Greeks in wisdom (just as Protagoras has said respecting the sophists); but that they may appear to excel in military skills and fortitude; thinking if their real character were known, that all men would engage in the same pursuit. But now, concealing this, they deceive those who laconize in other cities. [Protagoras 342a-b]
So the Cretans and the Spartans wished not only to conceal knowledge of excellence, but to conceal that they excelled in knowledge of excellent things. 

To us Plato’s admiration of the Spartans has always seemed rather improbable, since we have followed the account of the Spartans written by Xenophon which reveals nothing which supports the idea that the Spartans were superior in philosophy – nor even that they were interested in the practice. 

What advantage could they gain for themselves by restricting public understanding of their practice of philosophy? The exchange between Aristotle and Alexander gives us the clue. It is about the knowledge of excellence, and of divine things which is attained through the practice of philosophy. The use of the word ‘wisdom’ in connection with the Spartan practice of philosophy is significant: we are accustomed to keeping philosophy and religion apart in the study of the past; however ‘wisdom’ is a concept which appears in ancient sources in the context of both philosophy and religion. If the practice of philosophy among the Spartans was in some way connected with their religion, and perhaps their model of reality, this would supply an explanation of their reticence, and the general reticence of Greeks in discussing religious matters.
Plato’s Protagoras tells us that the Lacedaemonians have imitators, who imitate only surface details because they have no knowledge of their real interests and skills.
But the Lacedaemonians, when they wish to speak freely with their own sophists,… expel these laconic imitators, and then discourse with their sophists, without admitting any strangers to be present at their conversations. Neither do they suffer any of their young men to travel into other cities, as neither do the Cretans, lest they should unlearn what they have learnt. But in these cities, there are not only men of profound erudition, but women also. And that I assert these things with truth, and that the Lacedaemonians are disciplined in the best manner in philosophy and discourse.
Protagoras also tells us that:
…if any one wishes to converse with the meanest of the Lacedaemonians, he will at first find him, for the most part apparently despicable in conversation, but afterwards, when a proper opportunity presents itself, this same mean person, like a skilled jaculator, will hurl a sentence worthy of attention, short, and contorted; so that he who converses with him will appear to be in no respect superior to a boy. That to laconize, therefore, consists much more in philosophising, than in the love of exercise, is understood by some of the present age, and was known to the ancients; they being persuaded that the ability of uttering such sentences as these is the province of a man perfectly learned. Among the number of those who were thus persuaded, were Thales the Milesian, Pittacus the Mitylenaean, Bias the Prienean, our Solon, Cleobulus the Lindian, Miso the Chenean, and the seventh of these is said to be the Lacedaemonian Chilo. All these were emulators, lovers, and disciples of the Lacedaemonian erudition.’ [342b-343a]
Protagoras reminds us that the Spartans…’assembling together, consecrated to Apollo the first fruits of their wisdom, writing in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi those sentences which are celebrated by all men, viz. “Know thyself”, and “Nothing too much”’. He tells us this in order ‘to show that the mode of philosophy among the ancients was a certain laconic brevity of diction’  [343b]

Of course it is always possible that this is an elaborate jest on Plato’s part: attributing a philosophical inclination to a people famous for a disinclination to the mental life. Yet many Spartan pronouncements are very famous (those in the preceding footnote included), and of course the Cretans are memorialized in the philosophical conundrum ‘All Cretans are liars: I am a Cretan’.

Socrates was forced to drink the poison Hemlock after being found guilty of both corrupting the youth of Athens and of atheism. The first charge is related to the second in that he was sowing doubt among the youth of Athens about the existence of the gods. In other words, the sin of Socrates was seen among his peers as one committed against the religion of the Athenians. 

If so, it would appear that we owe our knowledge of the practice of philosophy in Greece to the fact that in Attica, in the middle years of the first millennium B.C.E., the practice of philosophy was somehow prised free from its religious context, in that we have a very public show of philosophy from the presocratics onwards. That philosophy was understood to be, however, not entirely beyond the scope of the arbitration by the religious authorities, is shown by the charges brought against Plato’s master Socrates, and the severity of the judgement against him. 

[Text uploaded May 27, 2017]