Thursday, 21 September 2017

Writing to Alvin Plantinga

I wrote to Alvin Plantinga on Sunday, 2nd of July 2017, concerning the ontological argument, which he has done so much to promote.

I imagine ... that you would be interested to see alternative arguments for the reality of the divine, were these to exist.
And they do exist. I spent many years assembling the arguments for the understanding of the divine in the ancient world. These are quite different arguments from those offered from St. Anselm onwards.
You are under no obligation at all to read my book, but it may be worth a look, if only to dismiss the arguments as threadbare, or even completely baseless. And in short order.
If you are interested in reading the book, I will send it to you either as an ebook or a pdf, according to your choice. You are under no obligation at all to respond, if you accept the book.
I didn't get a response from that, so I wrote again on 18th of July, 2017 

The ontological argument has obviously been important and highly influential over the past thousand years. But I argue that, in any of its instances, it is not sound, and does not resemble argument about the divine in the ancient world. I've written about this issue in detail in The Sacred History of Being, which was published in 2015. 
I think we have come to the end of a road with the ontological argument, which has profoundly influenced the history of philosophy, theology, and the development of anthropology. Ancient discussion of the divine was based on logical argument about the nature of a transcendent reality, which gave rise to space and time, rather than the more constrained question of whether or not God exists in a pre-existing and unexplained frame. Mesopotamia provides the intellectual background for the development of public philosophy in Greece. I will send you my book by email if you are interested in reading an alternative view.
Professor Plantinga was kind enough to accept the offer of a copy of my book, and a PDF was sent by email the next day. 

I followed up on the exchange on the 19th of September:

Some useful things can be taken away from the arguments in The Sacred History of Being. First of all, if the Divine and Reality are not artificially separated from each other (they are usually coterminous in eastern thought), then atheism is unreasonable and almost unthinkable. This separation is a characteristic of western philosophy, after the closure of the schools. Plato does not argue like this. Neither do the Neoplatonists. 
The importance of belief is less important when the Divine and Reality itself are not understood to be separate. In ancient religion (if we insist on referring to the phenomenon with that term, rather than using Cicero's more appropriate phrase 'cultus deorum'), belief was mostly beside the point, being subordinate to observance, if you understood the basis of what was being discussed. Belief is a phenomenon which assumes importance when a population does not know the traditional arguments concerning what is Divine, and the speculative and conjectural conclusions which might be drawn from those arguments.
This was the case by the time Anselm put together his version of the ontological argument. Faith is slightly different, since it isn't the same as blind belief, but signifies an understanding of why certain arguments are made, and an acceptance of the scope of what they suggest. The possibility of conjecture and discussion remains.
How does Plato argue about the nature of the Divine? He understood the Divine to be beyond physical space, and the dimension of time. Without shape and colour, or any other characteristic which could be easily understood by the human mind. However, and paradoxically, the Divine was capable of participation in the world, because some aspects of the Divine have exemplars on earth. Such as totality, greatness, perfection, completeness, etc. The  nature of the Divine emerges from a number of philosophical questions, such as: if the Divine is one, how is the many possible? If the Divine is one and beyond change, but God needs to make a copy of it in which movement is possible, has the integrity of the nature of the ur-reality been fatally compromised? If the one thing which we should all look to is, by definition, one and unchanging (see the self-description of God in the 3rd book of Malachi, where God says: 'I do not change'), how is participation in the world of movement and change possible? 
And so on. Frazer wrote these arguments off as 'popular questions of the day', with no more significance than that. A rational basis for belief, is I think, a contradiction in terms. If it is rational, then belief is unecessary. A key conclusion of The Sacred History of Being, is that the basis of ancient religion was the acquisition of knowledge of the Divine, and as a corollary, the acquisition of knowledge itself, since it was understood to be already present in the Divine (an idea most clearly expressed in Mesopotamian literature and liturgy).   
We lost almost all of that in the west, except in rhetorical and literary terms. But the evidence from antiquity does not support either the necessity of belief in religion, or the necessity of God possessing the property of existence within an unexplained and inexplicable pre-existence of space and time, The evidence from antiquity *does* support the reality of God, and the importance of the reality of the Divine in every aspect of human existence.
Of course if the Greeks did invent philosophical argument and sound logic, and no-one else around the Mediterranean and the ancient Near East was able to think about the Divine in such terms as far back as the middle of 2nd Millennium B.C.E., when they were building their accounts of the nature of reality, then this argument would be impossible to support. I would suggest instead, that the argument be reversed, as it can be, however much the classicists and the historians of philosophy would object to the loss of Greek intellectual primacy which would result.  

Best regards,  
Thomas Yaeger

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Babylon the Great (fourteen articles)

I've written much about Babylon and Mesopotamia over the years, and some of the essays appear on my blog, either as extracts or as full text. I thought it would be useful to pull most of these together for convenience in a single post. Collected here are fourteen articles, which amounts to a small book of material, even if some of the articles are just extracts. All of the full text can be found either in The Sacred History of Being, or Understanding Ancient Thought.

I've been using Babylonian and Assyrian cultures as a contrast with ancient Greek civilisation, and many cultural continuities can be detected, though classicists and historians still discuss Greece largely in autocthonous terms, as if the Greeks are entirely self-made, and therefore no meaningful comparisons between Greece and Mesopotamia are possible. This inability to see what is in front of them, and their unwillingness to read about Mesopotamian parallels, won't continue forever, because it is ridiculous. But a ridiculous state of affairs can continue for a very long time, particularly in academia, and particularly when a discipline is more of a worshipful church than a place of discovery and exploration. 

TY, September 20, 2017. 

The Fifty Names of Marduk  #An #Babylon #EnumaElish #Marduk #Mesopotamia #NewYearFestival  

An extract from 'The Fifty Names of Marduk', a chapter in The Sacred History of Being, published November 2, 2015, which explores the significance of Marduk, head of the Mesopotamian divine pantheon, on the basis of his description in the Babylonian New Year Festival liturgy.

....The relevant passage of the Enuma Elish begins by announcing ‘Let us proclaim his fifty names…. He whose ways are glorious, whose deeds are likewise.' The first name is of course Marduk. His first description identifies him as An, the Sumerian king of the gods, and describes An as his father, who ‘called him from his birth…’. This refers to the fact that Marduk was not present in the first chaotic creation, before reason and order was imposed. 

Shar Kishati, and the Cult of Eternity #Mesopotamia #Philosophy #Abstraction #Cult  

This is a discussion of the hypothetical core of the ancient understanding of Reality as something which might be separated from everything else (in a Husserlian sense), though it does not mean that such a hypothetical core was separable from the rest of the religious and theological implex of ideas which constituted Greek and Mesopotamian religion. The point of the exercise was to explore what was actually essential to that implex of ideas, and to get a better understanding of why it was important to the functioning of the ritual universe, in both Greece and Mesopotamia.

'Creation' (extract)   #Abyss #Belus #Berossus #Chaos #Creation #Heidel #Timaeus 

From The Sacred History of Being, which explores the Babylonian account of the Creation of the World. 
In both Babylonia and Assyria, plenitude could be represented by the waters of ocean. Before ordered generation arose from these waters, there was a primal chaos, which Mesopotamian scholars understood in terms of undifferentiated possibility. The Babylonian priest Berossus, who lived and wrote in Greek most probably during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, describes this primal chaos in terms which emphasise that it is a plenitude. 

The Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual #Babylon #Divinity #Installation #MisPi #Palm #Quay #Ritual #Rivers #Statues #Tamarisk 

An extract from 'The Babylonian Mis Pi Ritual', a chapter from The Sacred History of Being, It is a critical analysis of one of the most fascinating aspects of Babylonian culture - the inauguration of divine statues, and their endowment with divine powers.

'The new god is seated in the orchard, in the midst of the reed-standards on a reed-mat placed on a linen cloth. His eyes are turned toward sunrise. You go to the river and throw mashatu-meal into the river; You libate mihhu beer. You lift up your hand; and you recite three times each in front of the river the incantation, 'Apsu-temple, where fates are determined,' (and) the incantation 'Quay of the Apsu, pure quay;''

Mention of the 'Apsu-temple, where fates are determined,' and 'Quay of the Apsu, pure Quay,' represents a poetic reduplication of a single idea, which is the idea that both of them point to the ground of Being, of totality, where fate and destiny can be determined, since all knowledge is present in the Apsu, and that proximity to the Apsu is to be had at the river bank, since all rivers in Mesopotamia were accorded divine status, and therefore prefixed with the Sumerian determinative sign 'Dingir'.... 

Oannes and the Instruction of Mankind #Berossus #Telos #Origins #Civilisation #Apkallu   

The Babylonian writer Berossus (possibly a Greek form of the name Bēl-uşur), took up residence in Athens, after having been a priest of Bel in Babylon in the late 4th century/early 3rd century B.C.E. He wrote a three volume work, Babyloniaka, unfortunately now lost, which was a study on the culture and history of Babylonia. Alexander Polyhistor made an abridgement of this work in the first century B.C.E., also lost. However this abridgement was available to the christian writer Eusebius (4th century C.E), and also Josephus in the first century C.E. The passages which they quoted from Polyhistor and a few other authors survive. As Black and Green write, “Akkadian mythological and historical texts found in modern excavations have largely confirmed the authenticity of the tradition represented by Berossus.” [1] This includes the tradition of the Seven Sages, preserved in the account by Berossus (in his first book) of the eight creatures, beginning with Oannes and concuding with Odakon, which emerged from the sea bringing to man the civilising arts, including agriculture. His second book covered the history of Babylonia from the ‘ten kings before the flood’, through the Flood itself. 

Standing in the Place of Ea: The Adapa Discipline and Kingship in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.  #Ashurbanipal #Assyria

This extensive article (10k words) explores the role of the King in ancient Assyria, as the vizier of the god Assur. He was trained in the Adapa discipline, which is related to the myth of Adapa. He was required to be skilled in crafts, spear-throwing, scholarship, mathematics, divination, etc., and to excel other men, as chosen for the role by Assur. Thus he would emulate the knowledge and power of Ea, the divine sage whose home was the Abzu, the abyss at the root of creation.

A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology
#Cuneiform #Structuralism #Philosophy 

'Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia - Marc Van De Mieroop. Princeton University Press, October 2015.

Marc Van De Mieroop’s book is an exploration of how the Babylonians understood and processed their reality in the 1st and 2nd millennia BCE, long before the Greeks developed the apparatus of logical thought which we now associate with philosophy in the 5th century BCE. Van De Mieroop chooses to call the Babylonian understanding of reality, which he describes in detail, ‘philosophy’. However what he is describing is, as he describes it, so far removed from what is understood in the west as philosophy, that it may be perplexing for the reader looking for the wider context of the development of the discipline in antiquity. It does not take Greek philosophy as its starting point, which might have seemed to be the obvious starting point. Instead, it proceeds with a phenomenological analysis of a variety of scribal processes, found in legal, omen and literary texts. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia’, so it will seem to someone picking up the book that we must be in cultural and intellectual territory familiar to us. We are not.

'The Idea of Being in Israel'. #image #religion #philosophy #theology #aniconism #Tertullian 

A sample chapter (in draft) from the Sacred History of Being:This chapter looks at the body of Mesopotamian ideas about the gods and the divine through the extensive commentary on these ideas present in the books of the Old Testament.... The chapter also explores how Old Testament ideas about images were understood by the christian writer Tertullian, in the early second century of the common era.

….within the hierarchy of Mesopotamian ritual, the lengthy performance of washing the mouth of the temple statue is the most solemn, most sacred and most secret of rituals. This conclusion is reached from consideration of the special circumstances of the performance of the mis pi, the investment of time and resources, and the goal of the ritual. This ritual calls upon all the knowledge and spiritual know-how of the ritual specialists to transfer the deity from the spiritual world to the physical world. It requires the most expertise in ritual matters and accomplishes the epitome of ritual possibilities actualising the presence of the god in the temple.

The introductory remarks on the cult Image are prefaced with a quotation from James Preston, which is worth repeating here:

Through the study of icons and their construction we are able to perceive some of the most vital impulses underlying religious experience. Sacred images are products of the human imagination – they are constructed according to systematic rules, and then they are infused with sacrality and kept “alive” by highly controlled behaviours intended to retain the “spirit in matter”. An analysis of this process of constructing sacred images, and the corollary process of the destruction, reveals to us something paradoxical and intriguing about human religion. 

The Idea of the Plenum in Babylon  #Babylon #AncientHistory #Plenum #Creation    

This article argues that the description of Marduk in the Babylonian New Year Festival liturgy (The Enuma Elish) and the fact that the described creation was two-fold (it began before Marduk appeared, and was subsequently destroyed), indicates that their creation was understood to emerge from a plenum, in which all things potentially exist. This is an abstract conception which is not supposed to be present in Mesopotamia in the early 1st millennium B.C.E.

Who Will Appear Before the City? (Divination in Sargonid Assyria)
#Assyria #Divination #SunGod #Haruspicy 

Twenty divinatory texts from Ancient Assyria, assembled for the purposes of a commentary on the logic and purposes of ancient divination, and the parallels with the installation of divine images in Mesopotamia. All of these texts are drawn from The State Archives of Assyria, vol 4 (Queries to the Sun God), by Ivan Starr.

The texts, where we have them near complete, are generally in two parts. The first specifies the query, with a precision that some readers may find startling. The inquirers wanted clarity in the responses, not a vague intimation of the future. The second describes the reading of the condition of the liver, entrails and whatever other organs were inspected by the haruspex (diviner), but rarely gives an interpretation of the reading. This absence of interpretation of the inspection changes around the time of the reign of Ashurbanipal, as does the standard text in which the inquiries were couched.

The commentary for 'Who Will Appear Before the City' is in preparation, and is likely to appear in 2019.

What is Sacred, and what is Profane?  #Holy #Divine #Finitude #Infinity #Creation #God #Gods #EnumaElish #Religion 

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.

Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree #Assyria #Kabbalah #Abstraction #Mesopotamia 

Ann extract from the chapter 'Being, Kabbalah, and the Assyrian Sacred Tree' in The Sacred History of Being.

Stylised trees were part of the iconography of religion in ancient Mesopotamia, as far back as the fourth millennium. The symbol, as it interests us here, dates from around the middle of the second millennium B.C.E. At about that time there is a new development of the symbol of the tree. The Late Assyrian form of the Tree appeared during the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I, of the thirteenth century B.C.E. The rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the first millennium spread the symbol throughout the Near East, and it survived until the end of the millennium. This form of the tree is the one most familiar to students of Assyriology and those who have visited the Assyrian galleries in the British Museum, with its garland of cones, pomegranates, or palmates surrounding either the crown of the tree, or its trunk. The importance of this symbol is made clear by the fact that it appears on royal garments, jewelry, official seals, as well as the royal wall paintings and sculptures found in the royal palaces. Indeed in the famous throne-room of Ashurnasirpal II (now in the British Museum), it is the central motif, standing directly behind the throne.

Parpola argues that the Tree symbol in Assyria had a dual function in Assyrian Imperial art. As well as symbolizing the divine world order which the Assyrian king maintained, it could also relate to the king, resulting in his portrayal as the Perfect Man. This would account for the prominence of the Tree as an imperial symbol, providing legitimation for the rule of Assyria, and justification of the king as absolute ruler. 

Concerning Cult Images (Porphyry)  #Cult #Religion #Philosophy #Images #Interpretation #Thought #TheGods #Porphyry 

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.

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. By contrast, 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.

Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria #Forms #Idolatry #Philosophy   

This is a discussion of the argument and significance of The Sacred History of Being. The essential argument of the book is that, in both Greece and Assyria, knowledge was conceived to exist in Being itself, and as a consequence, all true knowledge was knowledge of the Divine. The cultural apparatus of both states can be understood to have been built on that conception.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Library Access!

My current ebooks Understanding Ancient Thought, The Sacred History of Being, and J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being, have been uploaded to the British Library via their portal for electronic legal deposit.

In the near future, these books will appear in the various electronic catalogues of legal deposit libraries in the British Isles  - The British Library, The National Library of Wales, The National Library of Scotland, Trinity College Dublin,  Cambridge University Library. and The Bodleian Library in Oxford. Subsequently, details of these books will be available from the catalogue aggregators WorldCat and Copac.  OCLC's WorldCat is the place to go to find which local institutions have copies of books you want to consult

These books will be available to consult free in these institutions, if you can visit one of them and register as a user. They will not be available for loan of course, but many students will  be able to access them without having to buy a copy.

TY, August 31, 2017.

As of September 6, 2017, the books are listed in the main catalogue of the British Library. Search on 'Yaeger, Thomas'. The listings will spill out to the other catalogues in the British Isles in due course. Below is a screenshot of the result of the search.

TY, September 6, 2017

As of September 12, my books are also listed in the catalogues of the National Library of Scotland (search by title), The Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library (via iDiscover search) ,  and the Copac, and WorldCat catalogues (search on Anshar Press).

TY, September 12, 2017

As of September 19, my books are listed at Trinity College Dublin Library (search by title). 

TY, September 19, 2017

Thursday, 24 August 2017

An interview with Thomas Yaeger

As published at Smashwords, August 24, 2017. It is an updated version of the one which was uploaded in November 2015.

What are you working on next?

I've just finished 'Understanding Ancient Thought' (published August 20, 2017), which is intended as a companion of sorts to 'The Sacred History of Being' (published in 2015). It is much more discursive in style, and (I think) an easier read. I'm now working on a volume which looks at the same body of ideas, but within a later time frame. It is an interesting story of survival: all the way through the neoplatonists and up to the Italian renaissance. And not much written about since then. It should be available around summer 2018.

What is the story behind your first book?

There are two stories about it. The argument of 'The Sacred History of Being' runs counter to much modern speculation about the origins of philosophy. This isn't down to me being contrarian and vexatious for the sake of it, but because when you look closely at the evidence, the consensus model doesn't hang together properly. The book is both an analysis of what is wrong with our agreed picture of the origins of philosophy, and a preliminary attempt at a reconstruction of a history of the subject which is more likely, and which makes more sense of the evidence.

The second story is how I came to write the book. It started from very little things: I'd been interested in philosophy for many years, and was familiar with Plato and Aristotle, the Sophists, and Greek philosophy in general, I found in a book on Ancient Egyptian literature by the eminent German Egyptologist Adolf Erman, a translation of Akhenaten's Hymn to the Aten, which invoked the idea of completion. I was familiar with that idea from Aristotle, where the concept is a key part of his understanding of how the world is put together. But Aristotle belongs to the 4th century B.C.E. Akhenaten belongs to the *14th century* B.C.E. That's a thousand years or so of difference. How could this be?

That was the start of the project, though I had no idea at the time that I was already in motion, and no clue as to where the project would take me. I had no map. I ended up studying ancient history in London, in order to have a map. There is a story to be told about that. I've addressed part of that story already on my blog and in the course of the book, but a full account of the twists and turns on the way to the writing of The Sacred History of Being might be useful to other researchers who find themselves starting on something completely new.

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?

I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a place which has had its fair share of writers. R.L. Stevenson came from Edinburgh, and wrote about dual or conflicted personality more than once, and the city itself is a bit like that. It has a dark side. So what you see often isn't the whole of what is there. How complicated things can turn out to be when you start to unpick them! I learned that while living in Edinburgh.

What motivated you to become an indie author?

I wanted to cut out a number of filters that usually stand between writers and the public. I worked as a magazine editor for five years, and also contributed articles to a number of other magazines, So I know the importance of copy-editing. But I wanted to avoid editorial compromise with the structure and focus of the book I was in the process of writing. Taking the indie route gave me that level of control.

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?

Research. And figuring things out. A lot of things emerge from the act of writing up research. As D'Arcy Thompson pointed out, when you assemble pieces of information, they will tell stories about each other. So you find out things that you didn't know were there.

Who are your favorite authors?

In fiction: George Orwell; Hermann Hesse; Robert Graves; Lewis Carroll; and Frederik Pohl.
In non-fiction Michael Harrison (author of 'Fire from Heaven'.), partly for his style of writing, Thomas Kuhn (the Structure of Scientific Revolutions); Jean Seznec; Alan Watts; Cicero; and Carl Jung (particularly for his book on 'The Nature of the Psyche'). 
When did you first start writing?

I started to create small comics when I was at primary school. At secondary school as part of a project I wrote a thirty page essay about Rembrandt, and later for my own interest I wrote a gazetteer of the solar system, which was about fifty pages long. I remember also working with someone at school on a paper about statues in Edinburgh, which was fun to research. We found out how good the Central Public Library was as a resource for all things Edinburgh. There was other stuff too.

Describe your desk

It depends on what I'm doing at the time. The basic kit is a laptop, printer, a jar of pens and pencils, and a radio/cd player. It is a gatefold table, and if I'm consulting a lot of books I will fold it out to accommodate them. In the winter there will be a lamp next to my desk.

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?


When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?

Listening to music or watching movies, particularly film noir from the 40s and 50s. Cooking is a pleasure. Food and movies with friends

.Published 2017-08-24.