Saturday, 22 July 2017

Concerning Cult Images

The following text was an appendix to the 2004 draft of what became The Sacred History of Being. Some informative texts from antiquity (such as this one) survive in part as quotations by other writers. In this case the original author was Porphyry, and it was quoted in an extensive work (the Preparation for the Gospel) by the industrious christian apologist Eusebius in the 4th century C.E. As I've shown elsewhere, Porphyry knew about the doctrine of wholes and totalities also understood by Pythagoras and Plato and others, and so he was well informed, and so gives an insight into the real significance of the practice of idolatry in the ancient world.

I first read this text around 1993, and it gave shape to a good deal of the writing which went into The Sacred History of Being during the next ten or so years. Eusebius' purpose in quoting the text was to show that much of the nature of earlier religion was a mere foreshadowing of the Christian revelation. My purpose in including the text as an appendix was to show that there was still much known of the nature of 1st millennium idolatry up until the closure of the philosophical schools in 529 C.E., and that their knowledge pointed to quite a different understanding of polytheism than the one we commonly associate with the history of Israel and its religious struggles, and the later Christian objections to the 'abomination' of polytheism. 

The appendix was removed while I was writing the final draft of the book between 2011 and 2014, in order to keep the text within manageable limits.

TY, July 22, 2017 

Appendix E: Concerning Cult Images (Porphyry) – extracts preserved in Eusebius’ the Preparation for the Gospel

fr. 1 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.7.1
I speak to those who lawfully may hear:
Depart all ye profane, and close the doors.

The thoughts of a wise theology, wherein men indicated God and God's powers by images akin to sense, and sketched invisible things in visible forms, I will show to those who have learned to read from the statues as from books the things there written concerning the gods. Nor is it any wonder that the utterly unlearned regard the statues as wood and stone, just as also those who do not understand the written letters look upon the monuments as mere stones, and on the tablets as bits of wood, and on books as woven papyrus.

fr. 2 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.7.2-4

As the deity is of the nature of light, and dwells in an atmosphere of ethereal fire, and is invisible to sense that is busy about mortal life, He through translucent matter, as crystal or Parian marble or even ivory, led men on to the conception of his light, and through material gold to the discernment of the fire, and to his undefiled purity, because gold cannot be defiled.

On the other hand, black marble was used by many to show his invisibility; and they moulded their gods in human form because the deity is rational, and made these beautiful, because in those is pure and perfect beauty; and in varieties of shape and age, of sitting and standing, and drapery; and some of them male, and some female, virgins, and youths, or married, to represent their diversity.

Hence they assigned everything white to the gods of heaven, and the sphere and all things spherical to the cosmos and to the sun and moon in particular, but sometimes also to fortune and to hope: and the circle and things circular to eternity, and to the motion of the heaven, and to the zones and cycles therein; and the segments of circles to the phases of the moon; pyramids and obelisks to the element of fire, and therefore to the gods of Olympus; so again the cone to the sun, and cylinder to the earth, and figures representing parts of the human body to sowing and generation.

fr. 3 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.9.1-5

'Now look at the wisdom of the Greeks, and examine it as follows. The authors of the Orphic hymns supposed Zeus to be the mind of the world, and that he created all things therein,containing the world in himself. Therefore in their theological systems they have handed down their opinions concerning him thus:'

Zeus was the first, Zeus last, the lightning's lord,
Zeus head, Zeus centre, all things are from Zeus.
Zeus born a male, Zeus virgin undefiled;
Zeus the firm base of earth and starry heaven;
Zeus sovereign, Zeus alone first cause of all:
One power divine, great ruler of the world,
One kingly form, encircling all things here,
Fire, water, earth, and ether, night and day;
Wisdom, first parent, and delightful Love:
For in Zeus' mighty body these all lie.
His head and beauteous face the radiant heaven
Reveals and round him float in shining waves
The golden tresses of the twinkling stars.
On either side bulls' horns of gold are seen,
Sunrise and sunset, footpaths of the gods.
His eyes the Sun, the Moon's responsive light;
His mind immortal ether, sovereign truth,
Hears and considers all; nor any speech,
Nor cry, nor noise, nor ominous voice escapes
The ear of Zeus, great Kronos' mightier son:
Such his immortal head, and such his thought.
His radiant body, boundless, undisturbed
In strength of mighty limbs was formed thus:
The god's broad-spreading shoulders, breast and back
Air's wide expanse displays; on either side
Grow wings, wherewith throughout all space he flies.
Earth the all-mother, with her lofty hills,
His sacred belly forms; the swelling flood
Of hoarse resounding Ocean girds his waist.
His feet the deeply rooted ground upholds,
And dismal Tartarus, and earth's utmost bounds.
All things he hides, then from his heart again
         In godlike action brings to gladsome light.

Zeus, therefore, is the whole world, animal of animals, and god of gods; but Zeus, that is, inasmuch as he is the mind from which he brings forth all things, and by his thoughts creates them. When the theologians had explained the nature of god in this manner, to make an image such as their description indicated was neither possible, nor, if any one thought of it, could he show the look of life, and intelligence, and forethought by the figure of a sphere.

But they have made the representation of Zeus in human form, because mind was that according to which he wrought, and by generative laws brought all things to completion; and he is seated, as indicating the steadfastness of his power: and his upper parts are bare, because he is manifested in the intellectual and the heavenly parts of the world; but his feet are clothed, because he is invisible in the things that lie hidden below. And he holds his sceptre in his left hand, because most close to that side of the body dwells the heart, the most commanding and intelligent organ: for the creative mind is the sovereign of the world. And in his right hand he holds forth either an eagle, because he is master of the gods who traverse the air, as the eagle is master of the birds that fly aloft - or a victory, because he is himself victorious over all things.

fr. 8 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.22-44

The whole power productive of water they called Oceanus, and named its symbolic figure Tethys. But of the whole, the drinking-water produced is called Achelous; and the sea-water Poseidon; while again that which makes the sea, inasmuch as it is productive, is Amphitrite. Of the sweet waters the particular powers are called Nymphs, and those of the sea-waters Nereids.

Again, the power of fire they called Hephaestus, and have made his image in the form of a man, but put on it a blue cap as a symbol of the revolution of the heavens, because the archetypal and purest form of fire is there. But the fire brought down from heaven to earth is less intense, and wants the strengthening and support which is found in matter: wherefore he is lame, as needing matter to support him.

Also they supposed a power of this kind to belong to the sun and called it Apollo, from the pulsation (palsis) of his beams. There are also nine Muses singing to his lyre, which are the sublunar sphere, and seven spheres of the planets, and one of the fixed stars. And they crowned him with laurel, partly because the plant is full of fire, and therefore hated by daemons; and partly because it crackles in burning, to represent the god's prophetic art.

But inasmuch as the sun wards off the evils of the earth, they called him Heracles (Heraklês) (from his clashing against the air (klasthai pros ton aera) in passing from east to west. And they invented fables of his performing twelve labours, as the symbol of the division of the signs of the zodiac in heaven; and they arrayed him with a club and a lion's skin, the one as an indication of his uneven motion, and the other representative of his strength in "Leo" the sign of the zodiac.

Of the sun's healing power Asclepius is the symbol, and to him they have given the staff as a sign of the support and rest of the sick, and the serpent is wound round it, as significant of his preservation of body and soul: for the animal is most full of spirit, and shuffles off the weakness of the body. It seems also to have a great faculty for healing: for it found the remedy for giving clear sight, and is said in a legend to know a certain plant which restores life.

But the fiery power of his revolving and circling motion, whereby he ripens the crops, is called Dionysus, not in the same sense as the power which produces the juicy fruits, but either from the sun's rotation (dinein), or from his completing (dianuein) his orbit in the heaven. And whereas he revolves round the cosmical seasons (hôras) (and is the maker of "times and tides,") the sun is on this account called Horus.

Of his power over agriculture, whereon depend the gifts of wealth (Plutus), the symbol is Pluto. He has, however, equally the power of destroying, on which account they make Sarapis share the temple of Pluto: and the purple tunic they make the symbol of the light that has sunk beneath the earth, and the sceptre broken at the top that of his power below, and the posture of the hand the symbol of his departure into the unseen world.

Cerberus is represented with three heads, because the positions of the sun above the earth are three-rising, midday, and setting.

The moon, conceived according to her brightness, they called Artemis, as it were (aerotemis), "cutting the air." And Artemis, though herself a virgin, presides over childbirth, because the power of the new moon is helpful to parturition.

What Apollo is to the sun, that Athena is to the moon: for the moon is a symbol of wisdom, and so a kind of Athena.

But, again, the moon is Hecate, the symbol of her varying phases and of her power dependent on the phases. Wherefore her power appears in three forms, having as symbol of the new moon the figure in the white robe and golden sandals, and torches lighted: the basket, which she bears when she has mounted high, is the symbol of the cultivation of the crops, which she makes to grow up according to the increase of her light: and again the symbol of the full moon is the goddess of the brazen sandals.

Or even from the branch of olive one might infer her fiery nature, and from the poppy her productiveness, and the multitude of the souls who find an abode in her as in a city, for the poppy is an emblem of a city. She bears a bow, like Artemis, because of the sharpness of the pangs of labour.

And, again, the Fates are referred to her powers, Clotho to the generative, and Lachesis to the nutritive, and Atropos to the inexorable will of the deity.

Also, the power productive of corn-crops, which is Demeter, they associate with her, as producing power in her. The moon is also a supporter of Kore. They set Dionysus also beside her, both on account of their growth of horns, and because of the region of clouds lying beneath the lower world.

The power of Kronos they perceived to be sluggish and slow and cold, and therefore attributed to him the power of time (chronou): and they figure him standing, and grey-headed, to indicate that time is growing old.

The Curetes, attending on Chronos, are symbols of the seasons, because time (Chronos) journeys on through seasons.

Of the Hours, some are the Olympian, belonging to the sun, which also open the gates in the air: and others are earthly, belonging to Demeter, and hold a basket, one symbolic of the flowers of spring, and the other of the wheat-ears of summer.

The power of Ares they perceived to be fiery, and represented it as causing war and bloodshed, and capable both of harm and benefit.

The star of Aphrodite they observed as tending to fecundity, being the cause of desire and offspring, and represented it as a woman because of generation, and as beautiful, because it is also the evening star -
"Hesper, the fairest star that shines in heaven." *[1]

And Eros they set by her because of desire. She veils her breasts and other parts, because their power is the source of generation and nourishment. She comes from the sea, a watery element, and warm, and in constant movement, and foaming because of its commotion, whereby they intimate the seminal power.

Hermes is the representative of reason and speech, which both accomplish and interpret all things. The phallic Hermes represents vigour, but also indicates the generative law that pervades all things.

Further, reason is composite: in the sun it is called Hermes; in the moon Hecate; and that which is in the All Hermopan, for the generative and creative reason extends over all things. Hermanubis also is composite, and as it were half Greek, being found among the Egyptians also. Since speech is also connected with the power of love, Eros represents this power: wherefore Eros is represented as the son of Hermes, but as an infant, because of his sudden impulses of desire.

They made Pan the symbol of the universe, and gave him his horns as symbols of sun and moon, and the fawn skin as emblem of the stars in heaven, or of the variety of the universe.

fr.10 Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.11.45-.13.2

The Demiurge, whom the Egyptians call Cneph, is of human form, but with a skin of dark blue, holding a girdle and a sceptre, and crowned with a royal wing on his head, because reason is hard to discover, and wrapt up in secret, and not conspicuous, and because it is life-giving, and because it is a king, and because it has an intelligent motion: wherefore the characteristic wing is put upon his head.

This god, they say, puts forth from his mouth an egg, from which is born a god who is called by themselves Phtha, but by the Greeks Hephaestus; and the egg they interpret as the world. To this god the sheep is consecrated, because the ancients used to drink milk.

The representation of the world itself they figured thus: the statue is like a man having feet joined together, and clothed from head to foot with a robe of many colours, and has on the head a golden sphere, the first to represent its immobility, the second the many-coloured nature of the stars, and the third because the world is spherical.

The sun they indicate sometimes by a man embarked on a ship, the ship set on a crocodile. And the ship indicates the sun's motion in a liquid element: the crocodile potable water in which the sun travels. The figure of the sun thus signified that his revolution takes place through air that is liquid and sweet.

The power of the earth, both the celestial and terrestrial earth, they called Isis, because of the equality (isotêta), which is the source of justice: but they call the moon the celestial earth, and the vegetative earth, on which we live, they call the terrestrial.

Demeter has the same meaning among the Greeks as Isis amongs the Egyptians: and, again, Kore and Dionysus among the Greeks the same as Isis and Osiris among the Egyptians. Isis is that which nourishes and raises up the fruits of the earth; and Osiris among the Egyptians is that which supplies the fructifying power, which they propitiate with lamentations as it disappears into the earth in the sowing, and as it is consumed by us for food.

Osiris is also taken for the river-power of the Nile: when, however, they signify the terrestrial earth, Osiris is taken as the fructifying power; but when the celestial, Osiris is the Nile, which they suppose to come down from heaven: this also they bewail, in order to propitiate the power when failing and becoming exhausted. And the Isis who, in the legends, is wedded to Osiris is the land of Egypt, and therefore she is made equal to him, and conceives, and produces the fruits; and on this account Osiris has been described by tradition as the husband of Isis, and her brother, and her son.


At the city Elephantine there is an image worshipped, which in other respects is fashioned in the likeness of a man and sitting; it is of a blue colour, and has a ram's head, and a diadem bearing the horns of a goat, above which is a quoit-shaped circle. He sits with a vessel of clay beside him, on which he is moulding the figure of a man. And from having the face of a ram and the horns of a goat he indicates the conjunction of sun and moon in the sign of the Ram, while the colour of blue indicates that the moon in that conjunction brings rain.

The second appearance of the moon is held sacred in the city of Apollo: and its symbol is a man with a hawk-like face, subduing with a hunting-spear Typhon in the likeness of a hippopotamus. The image is white in colour, the whiteness representing the illumination of the moon, and the hawk-like face the fact that it derives light and breath from the sun. For the hawk they consecrate to the sun, and make it their symbol of light and breath, because of its swift motion, and its soaring up on high, where the light is. And the hippopotamus represents, the Western sky, because of its swallowing up into itself the stars which traverse it.

In this city Horus is worshipped as a god. But the city of Eileithyia worships the third appearance of the moon: and her statue is fashioned into a flying vulture, whose plumage consists of precious stones. And its likeness to a vulture signifies that the moon is what produces the winds: for they think that the vulture conceives from the wind, and declares that they are all hen birds.

In the mysteries at Eleusis the hierophant is dressed up to represent the demiurge, and the torch-bearer the sun, the priest at the altar the moon, and the sacred herald Hermes.

Moreover a man is admitted by the Egyptians among their objects of worship. For there is a village in Egypt called Anabis, in which a man is worshipped, and sacrifice offered to him, and the victims burned upon his altars: and after a little while he would eat the things that had been prepared for him as for a man.

They did not, however, believe the animals to be gods, but regarded them as likenesses and symbols of gods; and this is shown by the fact that in many places oxen dedicated to the gods are sacrificed at their monthly festivals and in their religious services. For they consecrated oxen to the sun and moon.


The ox called Mnevis which is dedicated to the sun in Heliopolis, is the largest of oxen, very black, chiefly because much sunshine blackens men's bodies. And its tail and all its body are covered with hair that bristles backwards unlike other cattle, just as the sun makes its course in the opposite direction to the heaven. Its testicles are very large, since desire is produced by heat, and the sun is said to fertilize nature.
To the moon they dedicated a bull which they call Apis, which also is more black than others, and bears symbols of sun and moon, because the light of the moon is from the sun. The blackness of his body is an emblem of the sun, and so is the beetle-like mark under his tongue; and the symbol of the moon is the semicircle, and the gibbous figure.

[1] Homer, Iliad 22:318

Thursday, 20 July 2017

What is Sacred, and what is Profane?

Questions which underpin the ancient world view:

The first question is the most profound of all, which is: why is there something rather than nothing?

How can the existence of the physical world be explained? It has patterns of behaviour (natural laws), but it is not clear where both the physical reality and its patterns of behaviour originate, and what sustains both.

A second question concerns the nature of the reality which underpins the reality of the physical world. Is it itself, or is its nature compromised by the emergence of a physical reality? This question is prompted by the idea that reality, in order to retain its essential nature, cannot be multiple, and cannot be subject to real change.

Following from this is the idea that reality must be beyond measure, beyond size, beyond existence in physical dimensions, be uniform in its nature, be complete, and also without limitation.

The implication of this view is that the physical reality which we experience represents a point of view of the transcendent reality. It is not real, but a representation or a medley of representations of what reality itself is.

It follows that all things, past present and future, are contained, as potencies, in the nature of reality itself. They are possible points of view. All things which have happened, and all things which may happen, are there.

It follows also, that, given this point of view, all knowledge of past present and future, all possible states of reality, are also present in reality itself.

This description of reality itself is a description of the plenum, which is something which contains all things. Not because it is a collection of things, but because it is, as it is, an undifferentiated whole.

This is the reality which was understood to underpin physical reality in the ancient world (at least by those of the sacerdotal class who had the leisure to discuss such questions).  It transcends everything physical, measurable, definable.

Ancient accounts of the creation of the physical world however suggest that the created world was in chaos at its beginning. What does this mean?

It means that, by whatever means the plenum gives rise to the physical world and its realities, by itself it cannot give rise to a rational creation. Its creations are not defined by anything approaching reason.

Ancient cosmogonies reflect this. The Enuma Elish from Mesopotamia has two distinct levels of divine beings. The first group is present during the initial creation, and the second group is responsible for the second and rational creation. The first group of gods are not gods after the pattern of the second group. The king of heaven does not have a name in Mesopotamia, or rather his name is his description (Anshar). It is two words joined together – ‘heaven’ and ‘king’. In the Mesopotamian context both heaven and the king were understood as representations or images reality itself – representing some of the properties of the plenum.

In a sense therefore, the initial gods are simply gods which must be latent in the nature of reality itself, whether or not there is a rational creation underway. There must be a heaven, and there must be a king of it, if there is to be anything else. And somehow the first creation has to be destroyed, if there is to be a rational creation. The gods who are present during the first creation are there to serve the purpose of making it possible for there to be a rational creation.

It would be argued that we know these gods are real because we are now living in a rational creation. They also give rise to the gods who preside over the rational creation, and who have the power and authority to order the cosmos, and human society.

In the Enuma Elish, Marduk is the king of the gods, and his properties are described. Each aspect of Marduk has a name, as well as a description, and each of those names represents a god. So in effect, the description of Marduk is a collection of the divine powers of all the gods.

Each of the divine names of Marduk has a description, and each of these descriptions explains the particular form of rational and good order in the world, over which they and Marduk preside. So each of the 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 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 excellence is complete in itself, is whole, is at the apex of what is possible, and involves knowledge of the divine on account of its perfection. The performance of these excellences recalls the perfection and completeness of the plenum, and reinforces the presence of the divine in the world. 

Which brings us to another question asked in antiquity: can the divine be present on earth, within the world of physical reality? In terms of its representation, yes, since there are many things which share properties with the divine. The ideas of the limited, and that which is without limit, that which is perfect, whole and complete in itself; beauty, justice and good order, greatness, etc. The list can be extended. Hence the importance attributed to these properties in the ancient world.

But can the gods have existence and reality in the physical world, without compromising their essential nature. Evidently this was considered to be possible, though always a matter for some conjecture.

Why was it considered to be possible? This brings us to the most astonishing and subtle part of the ancient picture of reality. We need to return to the question of whether or not reality retains its nature on the creation of physical reality. It is easy for us to imagine that physical reality is here, with us, and the transcendent world of the plenum is somewhere over the horizon. But that would make the physical world a partial copy of the transcendent world, which would make reality more than itself. It would be multiple rather than single and simply itself. 

At this point, the human race made an enormous leap of understanding. Few would understand it fully and properly, but it stands behind the creation of civilisation and the great intellectual structures of the ancient world which we refer to as religions. The leap involved the recognition that, if reality was to retain its integrity and nature, then it could not stand behind a copy of itself. And if it could not stand behind a copy of itself, then there is no copy. If there is no copy, then the reality and the representation of it on earth are one and the same thing.

Many would have baulked at this idea. But the logic is impeccable. Further, there are several conclusions which can be – and were, drawn from this understanding.

The first is that all things on earth are representations of reality itself. We may not easily read them as such representations, but nevertheless, that is what they are.

Secondly, if all things are representations of reality itself, which is infinite, then all things in the physical world which have the properties of finitude, also are infinite.

Thirdly, the representation of space and time and difference is an illusion. These things are not real, but simply represent what is actually real in such a way.

Fourthly, if divinity is equated with the nature of reality itself, then all things are divine, whether in Heaven or on Earth.

The fifth conclusion is that since it is apparent that not everything on Earth is infinite as we encounter it, even if it possesses the property of infinity, along with reality itself, then everything on Earth has a double nature. It is both sacred and profane.

The sixth conclusion is that holiness, divinity and infinitude are properties which can be put on and taken off like a garment (the Sumerian concept of the Mes instantiates this idea).

The seventh conclusion is that we have no independent reality of our own, and that the world is the property and creation of the gods. Our perception of it is just that. We can understand it as a wholly secular phenomenon, or we can recognise and understand it as the property of the divine.

The eighth conclusion is that, in order to have good order in the physical world, we need to strive to become holy, acquire knowledge of divine things, and to do divine things, for divine things are possible on the Earth. This is the origin of the idea of sacralisation, which is the putting on the quality of divinity. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

The significance of the chapter on Plato's theory of Being

One chapter in The Sacred History of Being is particularly difficult to understand as presented. It is the way it is because it concerns an argument by Plato concerning the nature of reality, and whether or not divine things can have a presence in the world. It also concerns how such a presence should be understood. The chapter is an assemblage of Platonic argument,  scattered through a number of dialogues. I'm not aware of any other attempt to reconstruct Plato's discussion of the nature of reality, so the job needed to be done. 

The chapter can be understood as a reconstruction of how Plato might have discussed the nature of reality with those of his students deemed to have the ability to grasp the esoteric understanding of Being. It is a reconstruction based on references in his writings, which documents in detail the sources I used.  This documentation allows the argument to be discussed critically by those who have not been on the same path as I have over the past twenty years or so. 

Though the chapter is a difficult read, it is not that difficult to explain. In conversation with a reader recently, I provided a short explanation of the nature of the chapter, and its significance for the overall argument of The Sacred History of Being. It concerns the belief that divinity could be present in inanimate objects, and whether reality itself is necessarily one. And the consequences which necessarily follow from such discussion. 

I wrote:
The chapter which explores Plato's theory of Being is the most difficult chapter in the whole book, without question. But it is crucial to an understanding of the overall thesis. I recommend skipping forward to read the postscript, and the chapter on Pythagoras and Totality, which explain  something of the context and significance of Plato's argument.

I can however tell you what the significance of Plato's argument is, once all the pieces are put together (which is what I did in that chapter). One of the central mysteries of the ancient world is how and why did they believe that inanimate objects could be considered to be divine? Modern anthropologists are forced to argue that they believed this because of intellectual error. The chapter shows that in fact the belief that an inanimate statue could house the divine was based on a logical argument, which Plato references at various points in his canon (most crucially in The Sophist). The logical conclusion of the argument is simply that the world in which we live has a double nature. The world is a plenum which presents to us a partial picture of reality (because we are finite creatures and not infinite). The real world (the fulness, or the plenum) cannot move without compromising its nature. So reality is not subject to change. There cannot be a finite world and an infinite one, which would also compromise the nature of the plenum.

The conclusion which must be drawn, though not overtly and clearly expressed by Plato, is that on purely logical grounds, the finite world is an illusion, and a representation of the unmoving plenum which appears to contain movement. That is its double nature. It is both infinite and finite at the same time.

This is the reason why it was possible to understand an unmoving statue as a god: because it is both infinite and finite at the same time.

The overall argument of the book is to this effect - hence the examination of Mesopotamian rituals for the installation of divine statues toward the end of the book.

So the ancient belief in the divinity of statues was not the result of careless thought or a primitive stupidity, but the result of careful argument about the nature of reality itself, in both Greece and Assyria, and elsewhere. This places philosophical thought (dialectical argument) at the root of religious cult, rather than a separate and unrelated discussion of abstract questions, with no bearing on thought concerning the gods.

I hope this helps with your understanding of the argument.

Best regards,


Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The World Turned Upside Down

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