Saturday, 18 March 2017

Logical Modality in Classical Athens



The following is a sketch of a paper on an alternative reading of the understanding of logical modality in ancient Greece. It isn't yet properly annotated and referenced, and is subject to significant revision in the near future. Treat it as a working paper. It discusses an issue which surfaced in SHB, but which was explored differently there. It may also be of interest to those who have read my book on Frazer, since what follows below discusses how Plato was understood before Frazer argued that he was guilty of  'intellectual error'. 

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We are accustomed to the idea that Aristotle was the first person to codify the laws of thought which have come down to us as the basis of what is now formal logic. For the most part these laws are formulations and refinements of what is essentially common sense, so we are not forced to imagine that no-one had any clue about logical thinking before Aristotle.  Plato for example, is not deficient in the logic of his thought processes because he came before Aristotle’s codification.

However there is much in ancient writing, earlier and later, and also in the pages of Plato, which is not easily intelligible as being based on the laws of thought, or even based on plain common sense. In fact the laws of thought appear to be contradicted, and often. Are these just deficiencies in clarity of thought? Or is there another logical modality present in these writings, not codified by Aristotle or anybody else, but which was understood in classical Athens?

First, it is important to be clear about what is the essence of logical thinking, as codified by Aristotle. Aristotle’s laws of thought are as follows:

The first is that a thing is itself and not something else. Which is known as the law of identity.
The second, the law of non-contradiction, states that a thing cannot be a thing other than itself, at least at the same time. Aristotle gives three definitions of the law of non-contradiction in his Metaphysics:

At the ontological level, he says that: "It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect" [1005b19-20]. Looked at from the psychological level, he says: "No one can believe that the same thing can (at the same time) be and not be" [1005b23-24).  Finally, in terms of logic, Aristotle claims that: "The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously" [1011b13-14].

The third is the law of the excluded middle. Meaning that a thing is either itself, or something else, not something in between.  He states it as a principle in the Metaphysics [996b 26–30], saying that “it is necessary in every case to affirm or deny, and that it is impossible that there should be anything between the two parts of a contradiction”.

This is not part of Aristotle’s manual of logical procedure, known as the Organon. The Organon codifies how the human understanding should deal with identifying and differentiating aspects of reality, reasoning, deduction, detecting false or misleading conclusions and specious modes of argument (the text on Sophistical Refutations is part of the Organon).

The Metaphysics is a text which employs the ancient practice of collection and division; of identifying the same, and what is different. We normally think of dialectic (which is the Greek term for this critical technique, perhaps most clearly illustrated in Plato’s Sophist) as what the Greeks did in the course of philosophical argument, but its original scope was much wider than that. The practice of collection and division was also used in Babylonia and elsewhere in the second millennium B.C.E. Which is why the Babylonians and the Assyrians created lexical lists of objects which had something in common, such the property of whiteness (scholars initially found the purpose of these lexical lists puzzling, and most still do). Marc van de Mieroop has recently published an intriguing study of the legal, divinatory, and literary texts, and word lists from Babylonia, which shows a strong adherence by the scholars to a logical understanding of what is the same, and what is different. Though he does not compare instances of the same and the different found in Babylonian literary texts and the word lists,  with discussion of the same and the different found in the pages of Aristotle. [‘Philosophy Before the Greeks’, Stanford, 2015].

The law of non-contradiction, as stated by Aristotle, isn’t actually provable, though he tried to demonstrate it. Many later philosophers have tinkered with the law, but its main use is as a guide to thinking, and it is useful to know, even if it is possible to give instances where it does not hold.

Plato had the concept of an inner and outer knowledge, which probably reflects something of a priestly understanding of both teaching and of reality. He referred to these grades of knowledge as ta eso and ta exo In the Theatetus. Which means that teaching operated at two levels – the exoteric and public level, and another which was esoteric in nature.

Esoteric knowledge is by definition obscure, and/or difficult to understand. Which is what the story of the prisoners in the cave in Plato’s Republic is all about. They see the shadows of reality on the wall before them, but not the reality itself. When they are released with suddenness, their reason is deranged by the experience. Instead they should have been released gradually, being shown details of reality first, without the whole of the shocking truth of reality being given to them all at once.  So Plato was engaged with both exoteric and esoteric understandings of knowledge. 
  
In Mesopotamia there was a similar division of the types of knowledge. We are told by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon (Seventh century B.C.E.) that the common run of men are ‘deaf and blind throughout their lives’. Exoteric knowledge of divine things would consist of the names of the gods, their epithets, and stories told of the gods. This superficial knowledge could be imparted by fathers to sons, and could be taught in the schoolroom, as sometimes is said in tablet colophons. The esoteric knowledge was kept secret by the initiates and the priesthood, and tablets relating to the mysteries of the gods would state that they were not to be read by the uninitiated.

Did Plato understand a different kind of logic invoked by him to understand the nature of reality? There are intimations in his canon that he understood pretty well the laws of thought that we find in Aristotle, but I think there is another pattern of logic present, and discussed at length, which entirely cuts across the three laws, and enables a quite different picture of reality. Whereas Aristotle’s laws of thought provide guidance for understanding what exists in the world of physical existence, what Plato tells us about is an esoteric doctrine, which explains what is hidden and obscure, and relates to the gods, and what is divine. As one might expect, the rules for the gods are different.

In the Timaeus Plato refers to a principle of wholes, or totalities. It is later mentioned by the Neoplatonist Porphyry as a Pythagorean doctrine, and Pythagoras is supposed to have learned of it in a lecture in Babylon, after the fall of the city to the Persians in 510 B.C.E. Since this principle of totalities or wholes is ascribed to Pythagoras, if this ascription is correct, then the latest date of the principle is therefore the sixth century B.C.E.

It is of course, very much older. It can be detected in the Iliad, in Bk 18, where Hephaestus makes objects which, on account of their nature, can pass into the counsel of the gods, and return. The principle may have been brought back to the west by Pythagoras after his spell in Babylon and the Levant, or it may already have been part of a body of ideas already well established in Italy and in Greece. The principle might be simply put, as ‘things which are total participate in totality’, in the same way that Plato declared that ‘greatness is participation in the great.’ But it is so much more important than a statement that wholes conjoin with one another. It is the essence of the ascent from image to image to an apprehension of the Good which Plato refers to in the both the Timaeus and the Republic.

Each of these images must represent or embody an aspect of what Plato referred to as ‘the Good’. Each of the images must allow the supplicant to pass from one to the other via their essential identity (i.e., in that each image represents an image or embodiment of an aspect of the Good). What varies between them is the degree of their participation in the Good. Plato is very clear that the viewer of the images must be able to pass along the chain of images in either direction. The chain of images is not therefore purely about gaining an understanding of the Good (meaning the divine, or Being itself), either in reality or figuratively. Passage through the chain of images is about both the transcendence of images or forms, and about the descent of Being into the world of generation, as a generative power.

Each of these images is a symballō, a conjecture, based on certain agreed ideas among the sacerdotal class, and different across cultural groupings. The images are thrown or struck together in order to reduplicate and re-energise the power and presence of divine Being in the human world. For man, this might be seen as an act of worship or observance of what is holy, but it can also be understood also as a form of theurgy.

Given what we are given to understand about the differences between the patterns of the discussion of ideas in the near-east and in Greece, it may be surprising to hear that Pythagoras learned about the principles of wholes through lectures in Babylon. We know that ideas were discussed publicly in Mesopotamia, if usually in the form of a debate which explored the relative merits of one idea against another. It is possible that a lecture was the source of his knowledge of this doctrine, but it may be more likely, given the importance Pythagoras himself attached to the distinction between ‘hearers’ and ‘students,’ Pythagoras learned of the principle of wholes and totalities in some other way.
In the Timaeus  Tim 30a-b, Plato speaks through Timaeus, saying:

For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter. For Him who is most good it neither was nor is permissible to perform any action save what is most fair. As He reflected, therefore, He perceived that of such creature as are by nature visible, none that is irrational will be fairer, comparing wholes with wholes, than the rational….
Plato, in using the phrase ‘comparing wholes with wholes’, is referring to the principle of wholes and totalities mentioned in Porphyry’s account of Pythagoras.

It is interesting that Pythagoras is said to have associated with the ‘other Chaldeans,’ after Porphyry mentions his conferring with the king of Arabia. The current academic view is that the Chaldean dynasties were essentially Arab dynasties, and that they were in control of Babylon at this time.  This helps to confirm the reliability of some of the detail in this important passage, written so long after the lifetime of Pythagoras. 

So what did Pythagoras take from his long sojourn in Egypt, and the near-east? Is his doctrine like Plato’s? Porphyry’s account tells us that:

He cultivated philosophy, the scope of which is to free the mind implanted within us from the impediments and fetters within which it is confined; without whose freedom none can learn anything sound or true, or perceive the unsoundedness in the operation of sense. Pythagoras thought that mind alone sees and hears, while all the rest are blind and deaf. The purified mind should be applied to the discovery of beneficial things, which can be effected by, certain artificial ways, which by degrees induce it to the contemplation of eternal and incorporeal things, which never vary. This orderliness of perception should begin from consideration of the most minute things, lest by any change the mind should be jarred and withdraw itself, through the failure of continuousness in its subject-matter.

To summarise: the principle of wholes can be understood as a logical modality which connects the world of the mundane with transcendent reality. The definition of transcendent reality in Plato (articulated by Socrates) is that it is a place beyond shape, form, size, etc., and occupies no place on earth. It is however the place where knowledge has its reality (the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ mentioned by Pythagoras). Connection with transcendent reality is possible by the likenesses to the transcendent which have existence on earth, such as things which are complete and whole, which therefore participate in the completeness and wholeness of the transcendent reality. Completeness and wholeness require (in the world of the mundane) delineation and limits, and so the limits and the extremes of things are also things which participate in transcendent reality.

The principle of ascent to the ‘eternal and incorporeal things’ is entirely a mental process, which does not involve any of the senses. It proceeds via chains of similitudes, both up and down, as a sequence of orderly perceptions. The goal is a form of communion with that which never varies, and which is always one and unchanging, as Plato tells us in the Sophist. The return from the communion with the Good delivers beneficial things, because the Good is the source of all knowledge.

Is this a logical modality? Yes it is. It is the inverse of what is implied in Aristotle’s three laws of thought, in that Aristotle is arguing that things are themselves and nothing else. And he suggests that similitude and likeness with other things is without meaning: no connection is opened to another level of reality. And that reason is only possible if the symbols we use in order to reason – words – have a one to one correspondence with the things we are talking about.

Aristotle knew his teacher’s work and views very well, and he spent many years in the Academy. So he would have been very conscious that he was contradicting Plato’s argument about ascending to knowledge via the Forms. Whether this was a serious assault on Plato, or just an argument which was intended to flush out the intelligent student, is a question which is very hard to answer.


Friday, 3 March 2017

Ocean and the Limit of Existence



For the ancient Greeks, Ocean was imagined as a band which circumscribed the world like a gigantic river. This idea is deeply rooted in the intellectual model of the world which stretches back to the time of Homer. The Greeks did not know with any certainty that there was indeed an ocean which bounded the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but the belief that it did so bound the land was an essential part of their picture of the world.

But the Greek concept of Ocean is so much more than the idea of the world being surrounded by a massive body of water, beyond which further travel was impossible to imagine or achieve. As the entity which bounded their world, it was understood to contribute to the world those things which only the limit of their reality could contribute. To Homer the ‘generation of all’ is the river Okeanos. R. B. Onians tells us that the river ‘surrounds the earth’, and is ‘associated with ‘mother Tethys. [1] Then he makes an interesting point about the usage of ‘genesis’ by Homer – he suggests that ‘genesis’ suggests ‘the process, or, in this context, the substance rather than the agent of generation. He says ‘that Homer uses it twice of the cosmic river and not elsewhere of gods, men, or animals, which are agents, ‘fathers’, [which] can scarcely be accidental. And indeed it is not accidental. The generative properties of Okeanos are qualitatively different from those possessed by gods, men, or animals, all of which are forms.
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Onians continues, saying that Okeanos ‘was believed to be a bond around the earth, apparently of serpent form even as Acheloos, the primal river or water, was conceived as a serpent with human head and horns.’ And that ‘the procreative element in any body was the psuke, which appeared in the form of a serpent’. Thus, Okeanos, ‘as may now be seen, the primal psuke, and thus would be conceived as a serpent in relation to procreative liquid… it can now be explained as the imagined primal cosmic psuke or procreative power, liquid and serpent’. Onians points out the striking similarity between this picture of the world and that found in Mesopotamia, where the earth ‘was encircled by the male element, Apsu, a serpent identified with or in water. With him was another serpent, Tiamat, ‘mother of them all,’’ referencing the Babylonian Epic of Creation. He points out that the Euphrates, thought of as a serpent, was ‘the soul of the land.’ The Mesopotamian concept of the Apsu also embraced the waters of the underworld, so it is easy to understand why among the Greeks, the ‘greatest and most awful oath for the blessed gods’ is, as Onians tells us, ‘by the water of the river of the underworld, the water, the water of Styx proper to the dead.’

It would be easy here to take a detour to explore the relationship between these ideas and the Ionian speculations which have come down to us refracted through the writings of Plato and Aristotle, and the commentators on these writings from the late classical world. There is clearly a connection between Ionian ideas of physis, or ‘as Plato interprets’ genesis, ‘generation’, in their discussions of the primary substance from which all developed. Onians reminds us that Thales argued that the primary substance was ‘water’, and that he thought that the world rested upon water, as well as being surrounded by it. He notes that Aristotle suggests that Thales reason for this view was that ‘he saw that the nourishment of all things is liquid and that the warm is born therefrom and lives thereby and that ‘the seed of all is wet by nature’; and he gives it as the opinion of some people that this view of Thales was the ‘very ancient’ view to be seen in the description of Okeanos and Tethys as ‘fathers of generation’ and in the swearing by the waters of Styx’.

We are dealing here with a very ancient body of ideas, which has strong parallels with ideas which can be found not only in Mesopotamia, but also in countries further east, in Persia and India. Onians also suggests that that the idea of Okeanos ‘is the same belief which underlies the doctrine of the Orphics [2] and of Pherekydes, [3] that the first cosmic power was Ophion or Ophioneus’ [pointing out that ophis means ‘serpent’] with his consort described as Okeanis, and that after a struggle with Kronos he dwelt in Okeanos or Ogenos.’ [4] Onians also points out that Philo derives Pherekydes’ teachings from Phoenician sources.’ As already discussed, Okeanos also appears in Homer as the border to the ‘Shield of Achilles’, as at its ‘outermost rim’. The same arrangement holds for Hesiod’s ‘Shield of Herakles.’

The snake-dragon in Mesopotamia is a prominent symbol down to the Hellenistic period. Interestingly it functions as a symbol of various gods, or as a magically protective symbol not associated with any particular deity. Snake gods of Mesopotamia, in particular Nirah, ‘seem to be the only fully animalian, non-anthropomorphic, deities.’ [5] If associated with the idea of the mythological implex of Okeanos, and consequently with the notion of generation (genesis) as opposed to mere fatherhood, one would expect the snake gods to be spoken of differently from other gods. On page 139 of Green & Black’s dictionary of Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, there is an interesting illustration, [6] which shows Gudea, prince of Lagash, (neo-Sumerian period), being introduced to the god Enki. This illustration is from Gudea’s own cylinder seal. It shows Enki holding flowing bowls, and the waters emanating from them form a circuit around him. The waters are below his feet, and cross his shoulders. There are three bowls under the seat of his throne; two flowing bowls are his footstool, and another stands behind his throne. Ningišzida has a hand on the bowl held in Enki’s right hand, and there is a lotus symbol emerging from the top of that bowl (a symbol of generation), in addition to the flow of waters. Enki is clearly immersed in the Abzu, which is the ground of Being, as is Okeanos in the Greek world. The circuit of waters is consonant with the idea of Okeanos circumscribing the world. Gudea, Lord of Lagash, is being introduced to the god Enki by his personal god Ningišzida, who holds Gudea’s left hand in his right hand, while he holds a flowing bowl held by Enki, with his left hand. Ningišzida has the serpent symbol, which in Greece is associated with Okeanos, emerging from each of his shoulders.

What does this tableau mean? It is Gudea’s own cylinder seal, so it is relaying an idea which Gudea wants to be understood abroad – at least to those able to understand the language of the image. It is difficult to establish exactly what the image means, but it seems to mean that Gudea is establishing a level of identity with Enki, so that he might be understood to have a connection with the qualities and properties of the Abzu and Enki, both of which are associated with rulership. Reading from right to left, the image is easier to understand: we have Enki, secure in the Abzu, establishing connection with the ground of Being to the god Ningišzida, who holds the hand of the supplicant ruler Gudea. Thus Enki is rewarding Gudea, mediated through Ningišzida, with the qualities of rulership, which have their source in the ground of Being.

The Akkadian name for the ‘vase with streams’ is hegallu, translated as ‘abundance’. This is a symbol which is often found in Mesopotamian iconography. Black and Green describe it as a ‘round-bodied, short-necked, flared-rim jar with streams issuing from its mouth’. The symbol is extensively used in the iconography from Mari, and in other places. The symbolism is often combined with fish swimming in the streams, and sometimes the fish stand in metonomously for the streams, so that the streams are implied rather than shown. The symbolism continued to be used into Achaemenid times. The gods Enki and Ea are often associated with this symbol, as are the various creatures of the Abzu. Black and Green note that the ‘vase with streams’ symbol does not stand for a particular god. Instead they interpret it to be ‘a general attribute of certain divine and semi-divine figures, perhaps
signifying fertility and abundance.’ This interpretation is the best possible in the absence of a proper understanding of the nature of the Abzu and its intellectual context. In fact the flowing vase is a symbol of generation and plenitude, and the latter quality enables the former property. [7] The Innin temple of Kara-indash at Uruk features relief decoration, in the form of a frieze of deities holding flowing vases. Interestingly they are recessed into the wall, so that they are in the wall, and do not project beyond the limit of the building. The whole design is a symbolic celebration of the idea of the properties of the limit. The bricks which separate the recessed figures are surmounted by the image of the flowing waters. These repeated symbols stand on stele or or kudduru [8] shaped objects which do stand proud of the wall (as do the symbols of the flowing waters). These objects are regularly used to signify ‘mountain’ (Shamash is often depicted rising above these, with the rays of the sun emanating from his shoulders). The symbol is usually referred to as ‘kur’, which can also mean a road or way. There is an illustration of two of these figures in Oates Babylon. [9] The representations of the symbol for mountain are reduplicated on the body of the figure on the right. Mountain may also be used as symbol of extreme height (the gods, if they are anywhere, are often supposed to be accessible through high places), in which case this reduplicates the idea of passing beyond a limit (in this case passing beyond the Abzu and coming into the world of existence). In Greece the idea of soul (psuke) is particularly associated with the upper body and the head, and I suggest that some such concept is indicated here. The symbols on the body of the left-hand figure may represent water in the form of wavy lines. Both figures have the upper parts of their bodies bisected by a line of brick parallel with the limit of the wall.

It is the establishment of a connection with the Abzu, which enables rulership. Without this connection, the rulership of the king is not legitimate. Connection with Okeanos is a close parallel of this form of legitimation: as the source of generation, Okeanos makes generation possible. Both Abzu and Okeanos represent the limit of reality, the point of division between the secular world and the divine world. Connection with the ground of Being, identified with this limit, is a connection with the world which is beyond this, a place conceived of as enshrining perfection and greatness. It is also therefore transcendent of this world, and in a sense contains the secular universe, though not necessarily in the same form.

Casting our minds back to Plato’s description of the Living Animal in the Timaeus, we should recall what he said about ‘soul’, which was that it was woven all through the world. We can look at this from more than one point of view. Soul appears to be a property of generated beings which has connection with the ground of Being, whether that be designated by the Abzu, Okeanos, or some other related term. It is this connection which gives generated forms their existence in the representation of reality which is the secular world. So in that sense, soul is woven through the world. But Plato has another idea in mind: Okeanos is woven through the world in that the earth is permeated by rivers, which also have the property of generating forms. In Mesopotamia, the rivers were considered to be divine, marked by the cuneiform sign DINGIR. A river would be indicated by the signs for DINGIR. ID. [10] It is likely that the notion that rivers were de facto divine in Mesopotamia derives from the assumption, vital within the intellectual model of the world, that they were connected to the Abzu, through which all things have connection with one another. [11]

1 Onians, R. B. The Origins of European Thought (about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate). Cambridge University Press, 1951.
2 Fr. 29 K.
3 B. 4 D.
4 This is of some bearing on Plato’s discussion of the Living Animal in the Timaeus, where time comes into being when the same and the different are placed at an angle to each other.
5 Black and Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992. p 166,
6 Op. cit. fig. 115, p139.
7 See Black and Green, Gods, Symbols and Demons of Ancient Mesopotamia. Oxford. p 184.
8 Kudduru is a form of boundary marker.
9 Op. cit. p88, figure 60.
10 These signs were used by both the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The signs are ideograms and are derived from the Sumerian lexicon. Akkadian texts are often laden with words and expressions which are written out in Sumerian textual forms, much as we might use Latin or French expressions in the course of writing or speaking.
11 The waters of the Abzu were understood to be of two kinds: the sweet and the bitter. These are easily understood as fresh water and sea water respectively.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Oannes and the Instruction of Mankind

 

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.

The Babylonian tradition is indeed that seven apkallu or sages lived before the flood. Their names are given in Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian ritual texts, as well as the seven cities from which they are supposed to come, though there are differing traditions within Mesopotamia about the sages and their origins which are difficult to reconcile.

Apollodorus has preserved a fragment of Berossus, which tells us that the first of the Chaldean Kings was Alorus of Babylon, followed by Alaparus and also Amelon who came from Pantibiblon, followed by Ammenon the Chaldean. In the reign of Ammenon, the sage Oannes appeared from the sea.  [2]  Polyhistor gives us detail drawn from Berossus about this appearance, after Berossus describes the Babylon of those times as: a great resort of people of various nations, who inhabited Chaldaea, and lived without rule and order like the beast of the field’:

In the first year there made its appearance, from a part of the Erythraean sea which bordered upon Babylonia, an animal endowed with reason, who was called Oannes. (According to the account of Apollodorus) the whole body of the animal was like that of a fish; and had under a fish’s head another head, and also feet below, similar to those of a man, subjoined to the fish’s tail. His voice too, and language, was articulate and human; and a representation of him is preserved even to this day.

The fishtailed images found upon the slabs of Assyrian Palaces and on cylinder seals are representations of this first sage, preserved even until our own much later day. The appearance of Oannes in ritual contexts with the King or the Sacred Tree, or both together, tells us that the earliest days of mankind are being recalled, and that an element of re-enactment or revitalisation is being invoked in these images.

Polyhistor’s account of Berossus’ first book continues:

This Being in the day-time used to converse with men; but took no food at that season; and he gave them an insight into letters and sciences, and every kind of art. He taught them to construct houses, to found temples, to compile laws and explained to them the principles of geometrical knowledge. He made them distinguish the seeds of the earth, and shewed them how to collect fruits; in short, he instructed them in every thing which could tend to soften manners and humanize mankind. From that time, so universal were his instructions, nothing material has been added by way of material improvement. When the sun set it was the custom of this Being to plunge again into the sea, and abide all night in the deep; for he was amphibious.

Creatures which were amphibious were of interest in antiquity because they could inhabit more than one world, as Oannes does here. Not only can he live and breathe under water, and converse with man in the daytime, but he is equipped with what is clearly divine knowledge – the knowledge of writing and of various sciences and arts, house-building, the founding of temples (and implicitly the worship of the gods), law, geometry, botany. The order of the sciences and arts is interesting here, in that house-building comes before the founding of temples, and knowledge of the law comes after the knowledge of the founding of temples. This reflects a conflation of a likely sequence – men will have built houses before they embarked on temples and the development of law and geometry – with a theoretical sequence of the founding of temples and the worship of the gods, the knowledge of whom will have given rise to the knowledge of law and its importance, and the application of the idea of law to the measuring and demarcation of space using the techniques of geometry. The development of botanical knowledge, and the division of the parts of nature, represents the application of the idea of demarcation to the world of plants, as the precursor to agriculture.

The softening of manners is not the thing of principal importance here, but something which is absolutely necessary – it is impossible to have an organised population, subject to reason and the law, able to build houses and temples, and most importantly worship the gods, if they are not free of the daily struggle for survival, in which they are not distinguished in any significant way from the beasts of the field.

The instructions which came from Oannes are described as ‘so universal’, that nothing of any significance ‘has been added by way of material improvement’. These instructions are clearly divine and the product of divine knowledge, and came from the gods by way of the Sage Oannes, who rests in the sea. Recalled here is the shrine of the god Ea/Enki, the ‘broad-eared’ one of wide learning, which is at the bottom of the Apsu, among the sweet waters. The image of the obverse of our world is doubled by associating the return of Oannes to the deep at sunset, where the sun leaves our world in darkness. The human race is illuminated only when Oannes is on land, and conversing with us. It is also of some significance that the point is made that Oannes does not eat ‘at that season’, but receives his sustenance at some other time – implicitly while he is below the waters of the deep, in the place of Ea/Enki, in the Abyss, where all good things which may be had have their ultimate origin.

Polyhistor’s account also tells us that ‘Oannes wrote concerning the generation of mankind; of their different ways of life, and of their civil polity’. Berossus gives the purport of what he said:

There was a time in which there was nothing but darkness and an abyss of waters, wherein resided most hideous beings, which were produced of a two-fold principle. Men appeared with two wings, some with four and with two faces. They had one body but two heads; the one of a man, the other of a woman. They were likewise in their several organs both male and female. Other human figures were to be seen with the legs and horns of goats. Some had horses’ feet; others had the limbs of a horse behind, but before were fashioned like men, resembling hippocentaurs. Bulls likewise bred there with the heads of men; and dogs with fourfold bodies, and the tails of fishes. Also horses with the heads of dogs: men too and other animals, with the heads and bodies of horses and the tails of fishes. In short, there were creatures with the limbs of every species of animals.

Here Berossus describes the properties of the Abyss. It is unilluminated and full of waters which contain beings whose characteristics and properties are not defined by any of the rules which apply on the earth – men have the feet of horses, some have wings, some have two heads, male and female. Bulls have the heads of men, horses have the heads of dogs, etc. These are not ‘seeds of the earth’, but of a realm in which the demarcations and separations in the animal kingdom of the earth are collapsed together and mixed to an infinite degree. In some ways the situation can be paralleled with the disorder in the life of man before the appearance of Oannes from the waters of the sea: the fact that this description follows on immediately from that account suggests this quite strongly. And as the beasts of the field were the precursors of a humanized mankind, so the Abyss is the precursor of another creation, in which order is given to the ‘seeds of the earth’. Berossus says that these creatures, plus ‘fishes, reptiles, serpents, with other wonderful animals…..assumed each other’s shape and countenance’  my emphasis . This is an image of a dynamic chaos, in which everything is intermingled; all possibility is here, and nothing is absolutely separate from anything else.

This is the abyss from which Oannes emerged. And emerging from this, he instructed mankind. This implies some kind of connection between the state of the abyss and the knowledge of the sciences and the arts, and of the nature and worship of the gods. Berossus concludes this passage by saying that ‘Of all these were preserved delineations in the temple of Belus at Babylon’, so there was obviously some constructive point to the contemplation of these composite animals, and the condition and properties of the abyss. Unfortunately this temple was taken to pieces by Alexander during his brief stay in the city, so we cannot look at these images in particular.  [3]  We should not forget that Oannes is himself a composite creature, with the head of a fish and the head of a man, the body and tail of a fish, and the feet of a man – the body and head of a fish mark him as an inhabitant of the sea and the abyss, which is a reflection of his access to the knowledge of the sciences and the arts. He has the voice of a man, and so can communicate with the inhabitants of the earth.

Why should the abyss be accounted the source of knowledge about the sciences and the arts? If the abyss is an approximation, another image of the telos, of the final nature of reality in which all things are contained, and from which all things unfold (even if through the mediation of a copy, a moving image of eternity), then it is all too obvious why the sciences and arts should be associated with the abyss. Ultimately everything which the human race wishes to know and to understand is already present in potential form in the primary reality. Access to it is the question, not whether or not it exists.

This is one of the principal reasons why the teleological perspective on the world has held such a fascination for the powerful and the educated throughout history. The concept of the telos suggests that all things are possible, and that all knowledge is accessible to man, through ritual, through contemplation, and through study. It also suggests that knowledge and understanding can be formalised (a concept with which we are now estranged), so that it is possible to determine the will of the divine, and to arrange the world according to a divine order.

It is also worth pointing out that not only is this understanding that human knowledge is the result of communion with the divine through repeated and enhanced access to the cause of causes, the telos, but the account of the gift of the sciences and the arts which Berossus gives is itself an image which, through the act of its contemplation, amplifies access to the telos.







[1]   ‘Berossus,’ in Black, Jeremy, and Green, Anthony - Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, 1992. The text of Berossus can be found collected together in I. P. Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 2nd edition, 1832.
[2] The passage is lexically interesting: Berossus says that in the time of Ammemnon… ‘appeared the Musarus Oannes the Annedotus from the Erythaean sea.’ ‘Musarus’ and ‘Annedotus’ do not appear to be Greek words.
[3] It was Alexander’s intention to rebuild it, but he died before the rebuilding began.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria





This is a discussion of the argument and significance of The Sacred History of Being, published in November 2015. 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. 

***
The argument of The Sacred History of Being is complex and necessarily discursive, since its purpose is to uncover an ancient implex of ideas which was almost always discursively expressed, whether in the course of argument, in the formation of myth, liturgy, or ritual, and was, for the most part, conjured in terms of images. The argument however has a clear focus, which is the consistent reference point of these images - that which does not change - and secondarily the body of ideas which grew up around this notion of a reality which is beyond all merely human understanding.

We know that this idea was pursued in Greece, in particular by Plato, who was 'always looking to the one thing.' This 'one thing' has been very difficult for students of Plato to disinter, since it seemed to be hedged about with logical difficulties which, not least, cast considerable doubt on the possibility of there ever being something which could be referred to as the 'one thing.'

This difficulty isn't simply the result of the coy and often allusive way in which Plato discusses the relationship between the world of change and the world of unchanging reality. It also has something to do with us, and the weight of cultural baggage which we bring to bear on certain questions. We read Plato with many assumptions.

It is also the case that we do not read Plato (or any Greek philosophical writer for that matter) in cultural context. The Platonic canon is about philosophy, and philosophy is currently treated, almost universally, as a subject which can be abstracted from its original context without any significant damage to its meaning or worth. What that original cultural context is, is difficult to determine.
I have attempted to turn this assumption on its head. The Platonic canon belongs very precisely in its cultural context, and we do damage to our capacity to understand both Plato, and the culture to which the canon belongs, by breaking these connections without any grasp of what is lost.

The culture of Greece in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E is generally interpreted by classicists in terms of something which happened in isolation from other cultures around the Mediterranean, because it is assumed that the culture of Greece is, in essence, an autocthonous development. The loss this creates for our understanding of all of the cultures of the first millennium B.C.E - including Greece itself - is colossal. Greek intellectual life is relatively well documented when compared with other cultures around the Mediterranean; but rather than using one to illuminate the other, the classicist and philosophical communities assume that they are so far apart, no meaningful comparisons can be made. 

 I have attempted to stand this assumption on its head too, by comparison with aspects of the culture of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Some key details of Greek thought and religious life, which are entirely missing from the record, are documented in Assyria (and in Babylonia) in the mid-1st millennium B.C.E. In writing about the Forms, Plato is, as a key passage indicates to us, also writing about divine statuary and their cultic function. The Forms, as discussed in the canon, reflect a hierarchy which leads to the contemplation of the 'one thing.' This one thing Plato referred to as 'The Good'. This is the ground of Being, or reality itself. All of the Forms participate in some way in Being, and represent aspects of it. Being is conceived by Plato to be the home of real knowledge, and this knowledge can be accessed via the hierarchy of Forms, contemplated in the mind. The Forms represent perfect or ideal approximations to the perfection of Being itself, and provide the access route.

Assyria too possessed the ultimate abstract idea of Being also, some considerable time before Plato wrote about the idea. We know this because of the close relationship which has been established between the structure of the Kabbalah and the Assyrian sacred tree, which is represented many times in royal palaces and on seals. The Assyrians regarded the pursuit of knowledge as an essential component of kingship, which we know about from several sources, including a personal account of the scribal training of Ashurbanipal. The wider training of the king involved the pursuit of excellence in various skills. The king was understood to represent divine Being on earth.

'Looking to one thing' was also essential to the Assyrians, since they too conceived that knowledge resided in transcendent Being, which, they called by many different names. One of the principle images of Being is the undersea Abzu, the home of Ea, the god of wisdom. This is the place where generation is made possible, and where the destinies are determined. Assyrian rituals for inaugurating divine statues invoke the beginning of creation in the Abzu, and feature a long series of images which repeatedly point toward this idea of Being. And in order for a statue to become a living being in heaven, it must be (and is) granted the wide knowledge of Ea himself.

Plato's account of the creation involves the use of an image of Being as a pattern for the generation of the world. This image of Being was used by the Demiourgos to pattern the heavens, with its constellations and moving planets. It is therefore striking that the making of a divine statue in Assyria involves a ritual which exposes the statue to the heavens in order that it may have knowledge of the divine. The parallel Babylonian ritual goes into more detail about the aspects of the heavens which impart divine knowledge to the new god.

In both Assyria and Greece generation is associated with the sea. In both cases the sea is understood as an image of the limit of reality - Okeanos, the encircling ocean in the case of Greece, and the upper and lower sea, in the case of Assyria. It is the limit which is significant, and which gives rise to the image of it. Plato has much to say about the transcendent realm of The Good, in which Forms can have no location, size, shape or colour. The limit appears as the site of generation in Assyrian ritual in the form of the riverbank, which was regarded as the gateway to the Abzu and its threshold. Similarly therefore, in Assyria, generation is understood to emerge from a place which has no location, size, shape or colour. The pure reeds of the riverbank are stated to have their roots in the Abzu.

The precise nature of the cultural relationship between the cult of knowledge in Greece and in Assyria, is currently unclear, apart from the obvious parallels. It will take time and effort to clarify this. But we do know that another important philosophical idea was held in common both in Greece and in Mesopotamia, and we know the nature of the doctrine which emerges from it.  This is the doctrine of wholes or totalities, which we are told was acquired by Pythagoras while he was in Babylon. This doctrine concerns how ideas and forms can participate in one another. It seems like a small thing, outside its proper context. But the doctrine has huge importance in understanding ancient philosophical theology, and indeed in knowing that it existed at all. Anything which is whole, or total in some respect, was understood to participate in wholeness or totality itself. Being was understood in both cultures as a form of totality. In fact in both cultures, it was understood as the entirely transcendent form of totality.

Plato employs this doctrine in his account of the creation, and it is the means by which it is possible for one thing to pass into another, as he tells us. So the creation of wholes and totalities is of key importance. The Forms are wholes, and point to the totality at the root of reality.

It is possible to understand the consequence of the presence of this idea in Mesopotamia, because it is possible, with some teasing out, to understand the consequence of its presence in Greece. Which is that if the ground of Being is transcendent totality, then all other things which possess totality are in some way connected with it, and can be understood as representations of it. This is part of the logical basis for the creation of divine statues. But only part.

The transcendent totality is a plenitude, but it is ungenerated, and so it has no size. It contains the potential for all creation. It is one alone, because otherwise it would be other than it is. And yet Plato speaks of God creating a copy of Being, after which the world was patterned. If a copy of Being was created, then Being would be divided, not whole, and not what it is. It would have been subject to change, which is contrary to its very definition. And yet if it does not exist in the world of change, then it can do nothing. Movement and thought would be impossible. This would be a disastrous state of affairs for any cult which placed knowledge at the heart of Being.

Plato's argumentation about Being is unlike any other from Anselm onwards, in that he identifies Being with the nature of reality itself. Anselm and Descartes speak of supposed properties and attributes of the divine, but since they are attempting proof of the reality of God (framed in terms of some kind of existence), rather than proof of the realness of reality, there is an implicit and unaddressed separation between the divine and the nature of reality in their arguments. There is no sense in either case that the divine is absolutely dependent on the nature of reality.

Plato does not tell us how the paradox of one Being, who is necessarily two for the generation of the world of movement and change, and therefore not real Being, is resolved, nor does he resolve for us the question of whether or not the unchanging divine can be present in the world of movement and change.  What he does do is to proceed with the discussions, on the basis that it is necessarily so, that, somehow, the generated world is patterned after a representation of Being;  and that it must be the case that the divine can, somehow,  be present in the world of movement and change.

If we turn over in our minds the idea that the world is patterned after Being, without its essential nature being compromised, which is totality, alone and undivided, there is only one possible rational logical solution: that the world of movement and change is not, in reality, separated out from the nature of Being. What we see are aspects of Being itself, represented to us in various ways which are available to our capacity to perceive.

Language here does not serve us well, but essentially the logical conclusion must be that, if the essential nature of Being is to retain its integral nature, the world of movement and change is illusory. It has no reality apart from Being. Indeed, there is no such thing as existence 'apart' from Being: Being and the generated world are in some way coterminous.  The world we see and live in is a perception, no more and no less, contained entirely within unchanging Being, and composed of elements and aspects of Being. It is a perceptible world, rather than real; an immensely complex illusion generated within a reality which has no location, extension, shape or colour.

The consequence of this - and this is the crux of the matter - is that though Being retains its essential unchanging nature, and remains always purely is what it is, the generated world must have a double nature. That is, the world of generation is finite, and contains finite things, but it also necessarily contains things which are infinite. These things which relate to the infinite are the completions and perfections, and the other things which participate in the ground of Being. As finitudes, as conceivable images, they belong in the generated world as representations of the divine reality. Considered as representations of Being, they represent what we can understand of the divine, but they must necessarily also be Being itself, and be able to pass in and out of Being. Though we necessarily perceive these images as representations, unless we have profound knowledge of the divine.

It turns out therefore that we can add Plato to the list of ancient philosophers who were addressing reality as a paradoxical phenomenon. That changes quite a lot. It changes our understanding of the Greek mind, and our understanding of Greek culture.

We get some idea of the logic of divine images, their creation and worship, from this perception of reality and the world we live in as a paradoxical matrix. Things necessarily exist in two potential states. Secular and divine. Finite and infinite. Changeable and unchangeable. Sacred and Profane. These two states exist at the same time. It is a matter of understanding, which allows us to know that what belongs to the secular world, is also divine; that what is finite is also infinite; that what is subject to change also belongs to the realm of the unchanging; and that we can find elements of the sacred in the profane.  And, since the world of change is an illusion, so too are living and generated beings.

Formerly I've contrasted reality itself with the world of existence, which is, according to this way of looking at things, not truly real. It is sometimes useful to look at this contrast the other way round, in which the transcendently real world is the only one which has existence. This makes it possible to characterise the world of space and time as one which does not have real existence, only the appearance of existence to us.

However real things and people seem to be in space and time, they come to be and pass away, and do not abide. We think it has real existence of a kind because it has a form of consistency about it, in that physical laws exist and operate in it, and mathematics and geometry apply. This makes it possible to understand it in terms of a form of reality which has the property of objective existence, which is not dependent on mind. Mind observes it, according to this view, but it has existence apart from mind. 

Which brings us to the concept of necessity (anangke), which is key to the understanding of the natural world and the cosmos in Greece. Things which come to be and pass away are subject to it, as well as the objects which move in the heavens. Necessity refers to that force which determines how things behave which are not subject to the operation of the human will. So plants come forth and bloom, human beings are subject to divinely determined fate and destiny, and the planets move inexorably along their paths in the sky. The world of generation is characterised by the presence of necessity: it is a mark of things which have been generated, as opposed to those things which are aspects of unchanging Being.  But this property of the finite is necessarily determined by the infinite, as things which are finite are generated by it. They are patterned accordingly.

Greece shares with Assyria the notion that fate is all powerful, and that the destinies of both men and gods have been decreed at the moment of creation. In both cases however, fate and destiny are decreed by the transcendent divine, for the reason that the world of movement and change is an illusion contained within unchanging Being itself. It necessarily contains within it the start and the finish of all things which may take place in the secular view of reality. And Being determines these, according to its nature.

Maintaining this view of the division between the real world and the world of illusion, it follows that only the properties and attributes of Being are truly real, and truly existent. So, Being itself is real and existent, and its representations are also real, owing to their possession of its properties and attributes (by virtue of the fact that they are wholes and totalities, etc.). According to this view, things which have come to be are patterned after Being itself, and the Forms, which have divine properties as representations of Being.

In assembling lists of things which are pure, which have a common property, or a genealogy of the gods with their properties laid out as epithets which define their perfections and responsibilities, ancient scholars were also listing those things which they understood to be real and to have real existence, and which pointed to the place of creation. By contrast the world of generation contains mainly approximations to those truly real and existent things. These approximations to what is real however can be made perfect by skill, application and the pursuit of divine knowledge, and perfection and divine status can also be accorded to things and individuals by those who already have this knowledge.

By a short extension of this idea, it follows that those beings who live in the generated world have their true existence somewhere else. They are born into existence according to their destiny, and leave at the appointed time. Looked at from this point of view, death can be understood as a return to the place where the essential nature of the individual has its reality.

None of the foregoing implies belief of any sort. All of it may be teased out of the argument Plato makes about the nature of reality. This outlook is best understood as a doctrinal view, based on logical and philosophical discussion. It would have been subject to questions from neophytes and other philosophers; and would have been occasionally refreshed by interaction with those who understood similar doctrines from other places and cultures.

The normative view of religion in Israel for the first half of the first millennium B.C.E is that there was present a form of monotheistic culture and belief, engaged in a struggle with polytheistic ideas within Israel, and with Israel's neighbours in Mesopotamia. In fact we know almost nothing of religion in Israel in that period: there is no solid evidence which can give us reliable information. According to the redacted documents in the Old Testament, dating from the middle years of the  first millennium, it is clear that there was a protracted political struggle taking place for hearts and minds at some point, but most of the objections to polytheism seem to relate to experience of Mesopotamian religious cult and their ideas concerning the gods. Much of this valuable information may therefore post-date the Babylonian exile. 'Thou shall have no other gods before me' might be understood as a purely Israelite sentiment. However, 'I am that which is,' and 'I do not change,' (Malachi) references a philosophical notion of the divine, which we can now see is present in the context of the Mesopotamian divine pantheon.

Parts two and three of The Sacred History of Being were written first, with the umbrella title of 'Being and Representation in Greece and Assyria.' I came to realise in the course of writing that it was important to make it clear that later discussions of the divine in the early modern period were addressing a much more limited set of concepts of the nature of the divine, though these also represented an important subset of discussion of the nature of Being in Greece and Assyria. This early modern discussion represents a significant obstacle in understanding ideas about the divine in the ancient world.
Thomas Yaeger, 9th April 2015.