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.

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