Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World

The December issue of the Ritman Library Newsletter has published an article on the significance of the Assyrian Sacred Tree, which I wrote in late November 2015. It can be found at:

The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World.

Here are a some extracts:

The ideas of an ur-Reality in both Assyria, and in the writings of Plato, are strangely similar.

"....Plato’s Republic tells of the craft of passing from the contemplation of one Form to another, entirely intellectually, and without distraction, with the intention of eventually arriving at the contemplation of The Good. The man returning from this journey comes back with knowledge beyond the scope of any wisdom to be found on the Earth.

The Platonic discussion of the Forms is treated by modern scholars as a species of literary fiction. Meaning it has no detectable connections with cultural activity in Greece, or in any other part of the civilised world in the two millennia before the Common Era. But Plato is very clear that it is important to look to the ‘One Thing’, the ur-Reality which underpins the world of the here and now. So he is talking of a conception of God, which gives rise to all other things which may be understood by the mortal mind, though the ultimate abstract conception of Reality may lie forever beyond human understanding.

In Assyria, the excellence and perfection of the king’s skills, described in Ashurbanipal's Annals (late 7th century B.C.E.), and in letters to the king, were understood to place him in proximity to the god Ashur. He is thus at the limit of what a mortal may do and be; as Ashur is at the limit or zenith of Reality itself. Ashur is Reality itself. That the Sacred Tree may stand in for the king suggests that it was understood also as an esoteric and symbolic representation of the idea of limit, taken to the nth degree, and also of Reality itself."

The article suggests that both bodies of thought are rooted in the same concept of an ur-Reality.

The point? Philosophy is much older than we think it is, and its origins can be found in ancient divine cult. Divinity was a philosophical concept, rather than the product of human credulity. We can trace this concept in time by studying a technical aspect of the concept of the divine, which is the ancient preoccupation with limit. 

[Feb 7, 2016]


The Ritman Library is also known as the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, and is based in Amsterdam. 

Two relevant posts which might be of interest are available on this blog - the first is an extract from an article in The Sacred History of Being on the subject of the Assyrian Sacred Tree and its significance; the second is a discussion of the idea of limit in the Roman social and cultic context, The Divine and the Limit.

Thomas Yaeger, December 31, 2015.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Van De Mieroop, M.: Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. (eBook and Hardcover)

How interesting that this book should show up almost at the same moment (within days!) as The Sacred History of Being! The argument isn't the same, and focuses on Babylonia. But both works see the development of philosophy by the Greeks as the result of the collapse of the 'Cosmopolitan System' in Mesopotamia in the 1st Millennium B. C. E.  The Sacred History of Being focusses on intellectual life in Assyria, Israel, and in Greece.

Van De Mieroop has cottoned on to the importance of the use of lists in Mesopotamia, which is one of the most important ways of entering the Babylonian scholarly mindset. The chapter list suggests he has not explored the idea of divinity in Mesopotamia in any depth.

Van De Mieroop, M.: Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. (eBook and Hardcover)

The cover blurb for the book says:

"There is a growing recognition that philosophy isn’t unique to the West, that it didn’t begin only with the classical Greeks, and that Greek philosophy was influenced by Near Eastern traditions. Yet even today there is a widespread assumption that what came before the Greeks was "before philosophy." In Philosophy before the Greeks, Marc Van De Mieroop, an acclaimed historian of the ancient Near East, presents a groundbreaking argument that, for three millennia before the Greeks, one Near Eastern people had a rich and sophisticated tradition of philosophy fully worthy of the name.

In the first century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily praised the Babylonians for their devotion to philosophy. Showing the justice of Diodorus’s comment, this is the first book to argue that there were Babylonian philosophers and that they studied knowledge systematically using a coherent system of logic rooted in the practices of cuneiform script. Van De Mieroop uncovers Babylonian approaches to knowledge in three areas: the study of language, which in its analysis of the written word formed the basis of all logic; the art of divination, which interpreted communications between gods and humans; and the rules of law, which confirmed that royal justice was founded on truth.

The result is an innovative intellectual history of the ancient Near Eastern world during the many centuries in which Babylonian philosophers inspired scholars throughout the region—until the first millennium BC, when the breakdown of this cosmopolitan system enabled others, including the Greeks, to develop alternative methods of philosophical reasoning."


[See also my analytical review of Van De Mieroop's book in the blogpost: 'A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology', published May 21, 2015 at:]

Saturday, 26 December 2015

'Exterminate all the Idols' (Blogpost by Wouter Hanegraaff)

Exterminate all the Idols:

"I have long been puzzled by the fact that whereas one can easily fill a library with academic books about “magic”, there are so few systematic studies of “paganism” as a category in the study of religion and even less that focus on what was traditionally seen as the core practice of pagan religion – “idolatry”. The rare exceptions to this rule, such as Moshe Halbertal’s & Avishai Margalit’s Idolatry(1992), focus mostly upon Judaism. One searches practically in vain for authoritative monographs about the notion of idolatry and its significance in monotheist religions generally.
And yet, that significance is enormous. ....."

"...monotheism defines its very identity not so much by its focus on One God (after all, it shares the focus on one deity with many “pagan” religions, and normative Christianity believes in a triune deity, not to mention angelic hierarchies and so on) but by its radical and uncompromising rejection of pagan “idolatry” – the worship of gods incarnated in images or statues – as the unforgivable sin par excellence. The history of how idolatry has been discursively constructed as monotheism’s “other” in the history of the three “religions of the book”, and the real-life effects of that discourse, should be a major concern for scholars."

Creative Reading: Perspective 2016

A depressing but accurate account of the current state of Western culture by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. How quickly things can change in a relatively short span of time!

Creative Reading: Perspective 2016: The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I fe...