Monday, 10 March 2014

Consensus about the past

The Sacred History of Being blog is about both the history of philosophy, and the wider history of ideas.

The history of philosophy is now rather well defined by scholars, and by consensus, it has its proper beginning in Greece in the middle of the first millennium BCE. We are talking here about the recorded discussions of Socrates, the dialogues of Plato, and the systematic works of Aristotle.

Before that thinkers had more or less vague notions about the nature of reality and the world.  So the presocratic thinkers were not thinking with the same kind of clarity and acuity shown by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The presocratics are granted the description 'philosophers' because they are treated as part of the intellectual tradition in Greece which led up to the great achievements of the 5th century BCE and beyond. But their work is by comparison vague, imprecise, and sometimes apparently without logical basis.

The presocratics sometimes borrowed ideas from other cultures elsewhere in the mediterranean and the near-east. These foreign ideas are not regarded as in any way philosophical, partly because they emerge from the theologies and religions of peoples who incorporated unintelligible and irrational notions into their various (and colourful) understandings of the world.

Looked at from this point of view, the work of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle represents the clarification of what thinking itself is. It also represents the beginning of the clarification of the limits of human understanding - defining both what we may know and speak of, and what we cannot know.

Before this process began, in which thought itself was clarified and turned into a vital tool for a proper understanding of the world, the human mind was adrift in a sea of phantoms and irrational beliefs. Consequently there is little that we can now know about the intellectual life of earlier cultures except in anthropological, social and pathological terms.

That at least is the consensus view. Like many consensus views, it has a lot to recommend it, and much of it is unobjectionable. But it has been subject to challenge both in general and in its detail, particularly from the early years of the twentieth century onwards. This is because, whatever the merits of the consensus, it has resulted in  the distortion of the shape of the cultures of the ancient world, and particularly in the shape of the ancient mind, as we conjecture it. There are many questions about the ancient world which we cannot answer, simply because we have subjected antiquity to distortion for the purpose of a scholarly and teachable consensus.

The Sacred History of Being blog is a forum for some radical reformulations of questions about antiquity, and is particularly concerned with ancient ideas about the divine, especially when expressed in terms of religious liturgy and in art.

The blog also serves as an outrider to the book: The Sacred History of Being (forthcoming 2015), which looks at ideas of the divine both in Greece and in earlier cultures, and restores the proper shape of some of the cultural dynamics in the ancient world.


I've created a page of RSS feeds on Archaeology and Ancient History, which I will add to when I find interesting stuff.