Monday, 26 December 2016

The Enlightenment of David Hume

The Enlightenment agenda of the eighteenth century is based on the premise that human beings are rational beings in a causal world,  which can be understood by the power of mathematics, physics, and the other sciences and disciplines which are based on human reason. The power of reason, it was assumed, is necessarily more powerful than all other forces which may exist in the world, and in the human mind. If this assumption was correct, then it should be possible not only to detect and defeat what is irrational in the world, but to eliminate its presence altogether. At least for all practical purposes.

The prioritization of the power of reason in the eighteenth century was based on a disdain for many (even most) of the elements of human experience throughout the thousands of years in which we lived in a quite different world. That world was full of darkness and ignorance, built on the basis of faulty ideas and associations; on mythopoeic patterns of thought, utilising groundless notions of the powers in nature. A world peopled by gods who needed to be appeased, and who could be propitiated by ritual human action; full of magical thinking, with demons and devils lurking at every turn.

According to this view, there was no reason in the world, until the emergence of classical civilisation in southern Europe in the middle years of the first millennium B.C.E.

I have cast doubt on this picture elsewhere. Yet there are elements of truth to it.

The Enlightenment agenda was developed in the context of a new understanding of the critical power of human thought, and also of the sciences. Newton showed that causality was the key to our world, and mathematics was the necessary toolkit for gaining an understanding of how the universe works. Without Newton’s demonstration that mathematics could be deployed to describe the motions of the Moon and the planets, and the phenomenon of gravity as a universal force in the cosmos, it is doubtful that the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century would have had the character it had.

The Enlightenment engagement with the visible and physical reality of the universe depended on an intelligible order present in the world, expressed in terms of causal relationships, and that man could frame his relationship with that ordered reality through mathematical and scientific inquiry. In which case, the development of the sciences was effectively the deployment of the human reason, carrying with it no baggage from the past which might skew our understanding. Religion and theology had no place in this new dispensation, despite the fact that Newton spent much of his time engaged with religious questions (a fact almost entirely unknown during the Enlightenment). It seemed obvious that there was no meaningful order in religion, which was now thought of in terms of the chief species of superstition. There was also no basis for believing in the reality of the divine, and no way in which the idea could survive scientific scrutiny.

The French writer Denis Diderot, and many others, considered that human reason could order human life on the basis of the nature of reason itself. We didn’t need any of the things which now were deemed to be superstition or without any aspect of reason, which included many of the customary arrangements and practices in human society. In effect, the whole of the long history of civilisation became, to the savants of the Enlightenment, a sojourn in a world of stupidity and horror. The Enlightenment would build the world anew from scratch, and it would be about the improvement of the physical and intellectual condition of the human race.

This is the background to Diderot’s Encyclopedia – it reflected the new understanding of the world, and the principles on which the new world would be built. Diderot made an exception for the crafts and trades. In addition to the intellectual life of man, the organisation of societal and customary relations in human life, the crafts were part of the fabric of living and understanding. Swathes of the crafts and trades might once have been wrapped up in elements of folklore and superstition, and from the earliest times, but their practicality was what was important. So the crafts could be stripped of their ancient accretions and described and defined anew, as what they were in terms of their contribution to human life.

In short, the achievement of a wholly secular enlightenment, which is what the enterprise of the European Enlightenment was all about, required the thorough redefinition of the past, and what the elements of that past meant. The improved state of man required a wholesale rewriting of human intellectual and social history. Old ideas would end their days on the scrapheap.

In Scotland (although the enterprise began in France), Hume’s contribution to the Enlightenment was rather different.  Hume considered the idea that important aspects of the human reason could be understood by the introduction of the experimental method (as he understood it) into psychological subjects. He was essentially experimenting on himself, and exploring the scope and possibilities of his own thoughts. Whereas Diderot’s enterprise was to reshape the world in terms of a rational understanding of how things work, Hume was revising and rebuilding himself in terms of how the rational mind works.

Though Hume's approach was not wholly successful, some of his intuitions expanded our collective understanding of how we perceive reality – for example, his insight that we have no actual knowledge of the process of causation at all, and only a customary expectation of causal process, was a powerful one. We can describe causal processes, we can differentiate the nature of different causal processes, and we can formulate rules in connection with them, but we cannot know how causality itself operates, or even be sure that a perceived causal relation, often observed before, will obey the implicit rule the next time it is under scrutiny by us.

However, it is no longer clear that Hume was exploring his mental processes and understanding entirely within the framework of western secular thought, which is what the European Enlightenment was supposed to be about. In 2009 Alison Gopnik published an article in Hume Studies (Volume 35, Number 1 & 2, 2009 pp. 5-28) which suggested that Hume may have had an important encounter with Buddhist thought while residing and writing at La Flèche in France. Gopnik also wrote engagingly about her research (and its context) later on in an article in the Atlantic magazine (October 2015 issue).

This is the abstract for the article published in Hume Studies:

Philosophers and Buddhist scholars have noted the affinities between David Hume's empiricism and the Buddhist philosophical tradition. I show that it was possible for Hume to have had contact with Buddhist philosophical views. The link to Buddhism comes through the Jesuit scholars at the Royal College of La Flèche. Charles François Dolu was a Jesuit missionary who lived at the Royal College from 1723-1740, overlapping with Hume's stay. He had extensive knowledge both of other religions and cultures and of scientific ideas. Dolu had had first-hand experience with Theravara Buddhism as part of the second French embassy to Siam in 1687-1688. In 1727, Dolu also had talked with Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary who visited Tibet and made an extensive study of Tibetan Buddhism from 1716-1721. It is at least possible that Hume heard about Buddhist ideas through Dolu.
What is Theravara Buddhism? Theravara is a Pali word, with the literal meaning of the ‘school of the elder monks’.  There is a Pali Canon of the teaching of the Buddha, and Theravara Buddhism uses those teachings as the basis of its doctrines.  Theravara Buddhism is conservative in doctrine and in matters of monastic discipline. There is no other complete Buddhist canon of teachings surviving in a classic Indic language.

The sect originated in Sri Lanka, but is now found in many places around the whole of Southeast Asia.

Theravara Buddhism has some interesting ideas about the nature of causality (Pratītyasamutpāda). Causality, or the idea of cause and effect, is one of the most important ideas in Buddhism as a whole, as well as to the Theravara branch. It differs from western notions of causality, in that it understands cause and effect in terms of ‘dependent co-arising’ (which is what Pratītyasamutpāda means). In the Pali Canon, a differentiation is made between ideas of ‘root cause’ (hetu), and ‘facilitating cause’ (pacca). Effects are brought about by a combined interaction of these two causes. Much of the logic of Buddhism is based on this view of causality.

The significance of this is that it provides explanation of the nature of suffering, and provides an understanding of how suffering may be escaped. This notion of causality also provides an obstacle to patterns of thought which argue for absolute and unquestionable beliefs concerning reality itself. The understanding is that the removal of a cause of something, will also remove the result. The logic of this way of looking at causality is that there is a path which can end both suffering and aimless existence (Samsara, which term can mean ‘wandering’ or ‘world’).

This is of course a very different conception of causality from the one we understand in the west. And it is an old idea. That cause produces an effect because a property belongs to something (svadha) appears in Vedic literature, which takes the idea back to the 2nd Millennium B.C.E., and is found in the Rigveda and the Brahmanas. Pratītyasamutpāda doctrine is more complex however, since it does not involve a single causality. The doctrine involves instead an indirect conditioned causality, and a plural causality.

Hume’s famous image of our understanding of causality is of billiard balls, and how their behaviour can be predicted. This is the Newtonian model of causality. Hume’s insight was that though we could describe and predict their behaviour, we had no idea what was actually behind the behaviour on the billiard table. We know how they behaved a year ago. And how they behaved a week ago. But we have nothing but customary experience to indicate that the same behaviour will happen today.

In Buddhism, the concept of causality implies a plurality of causes which co-originate phenomena. So one thing implies another. This is the basis of the idea of Karma, where the causes can co-originate phenomena both within lifetimes, and across lifetimes. So, what happens in one life can create the necessary conditions which may result in rebirth in another realm of existence for a different lifetime. This is based on the idea of a ‘dependent co-arising’

Peter Harvey argued in 1990 that Pratītyasamutpāda is an ontological principle. Meaning that it is a theory which can provide an explanation for ‘the nature and relations of being, becoming, existence and ultimate reality’. All that stands by itself is the state of Nirvana. Everything which has existence and multiplicity does not not stand alone, but depends on and arises from pre-existing states. When they cease, other dependent states arise. It does not matter whether we are talking about physical or mental states. ‘Dependent arisings’ therefore have a causal conditioning. In which case,  Pratītyasamutpāda is the basis of the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality itself. It is Buddhism’s ontology.

So dependent origination is deemed necessary and sufficient according to the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda. In Majjhima Nikaya this idea is expressed as follows:

When this is, that is; This arising, that arises; When this is not, that is not; This ceasing, that ceases.

If Hume had discussions with the Jesuits at La Flèche about Buddhist ideas concerning the nature of reality, he may well have encountered Buddhist views on the nature of causality. In which case, his observation of the unfathomability of the nature of causal relations becomes extremely interesting.  He may have understood that the Buddhist view of causality is an ontological one, in that it understands the nature of causality in terms of ‘this being so, that being so’, and does not require the concept of a creator god, a transcendent creative principle, or the notion of a first cause of any kind. This kind of concept of causality refers to conditions created by a plurality of causes that necessarily co-originate phenomena. It is what happens when you do not simply have the one thing, but a multiplicity of entities, which have properties of their own.

So it is possible that Hume’s lack of interest in Plato (he wrote one page about Plato in his volume of Essays), does not mean he had no substantial interest in ontological questions, but perhaps that he understood ontology to be a matter of causality, rather than a transcendent creative principle, about which we might be able to say very little. This does not make Hume a Buddhist by any means, and I am not suggesting that he was. But it does suggest the possibility that there is a hinterland of Hume’s thought and influences still to be explored.

Are there obvious parallelisms between Hume’s thought and Theravara Buddhism? ‘Dependent arisings’ with causal conditioning, of course, need to be established and understood if suffering is to be avoided. In Buddhism, this becomes a key function of scholarship and the priesthood. If there is some condition or state which is unwanted, that state is caused by the pre-existence of something else, and to alter that state involves the removal of the thing which pre-exists. This opens up a whole realm for speculation about ‘why this is so’, and ‘why this is not so’, using the concepts of root cause, and facilitating causes. It is also a way of understanding which is necessarily conjectural in approach, inimical to any belief system which has a fixed mindset, or postulates absolute beliefs about the nature of reality. Within such an intellectual model of how things are related, things can be conjectured to be the case, but relationships can also be analysed, and disputed. So Theravara Buddhism has a form of scepticism built in to the way it deals with reality (the schisms in early Buddhism point to this characteristic very strongly).

Which is where we find the intellectual outlook of Hume. Sceptical, with no absolute beliefs about the nature of reality. Prepared to inquire into the limits of human understanding, but not to attach himself to any thought which has not been critically examined, and which, even so, must always and necessarily remain a matter of conjecture. 

TY, December 26 2016. Some unfortunate typos corrected, April 2, 2018.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Living Animal: Aspects of the Function of Statuary among the Ancient Greeks

This is a scan of a research proposal which was completed on the 19th of December 1994, while I was living and working in Oxford. I have been on this path a long time. This was one of two proposals submitted, to different institutions. Neither of the proposals were funded, which isn't really surprising. If this case could be made successfully, it would up-end the history of philosophy, and place its origins in a cultic context. Which is the core argument of the book I published in 2015. 

It is interesting to look at this proposal now, and to see that I confined the parameters of the research (at least within the proposal) to Greece. But I had by this time seen and studied the Mesopotamian rituals for the installation of divine statues. The information contained in those documents, together with  the philosophical discussion in Plato's Sophist mentioned in the proposal, allowed me to infer that Plato knew the logic and ritual for the installation of a divine statue in Greece, and that his writing about the Forms had as much to do with divine images, as it did with a purely abstract argument about how an individual might approach 'The Good'. 

Of course there is no dispute that the Greeks had statues of the gods, and that they gave their observances and respect to the divinity of these images, within their various cults (I choose my words carefully here). However no ritual for the installation of divine statues survives from ancient Greece, The eminent scholar Walter Burkert has gone so far as to declare that the absence of these rituals in the record indicates to us that there were no such rituals for the installation of divine statues in Greece. That's quite a claim, since if an elaborate three day ritual was considered necessary for such an installation in Mesopotamia, and there was no parallel elaborate ritual for the creation of divine images in Greece, that would make the Greeks seem cavalier about the matter. The Greeks were rarely cavalier about their gods. 

There is little about this proposal which I would change after twenty-two years. It was on the money, in suggesting that the origin of philosophy was in cult practice, and the logic which underpinned it (which seems very strange to us). This is utterly anathema to classical scholars, who prefer a fictional and largely secular origin for its beginnings. 

Thomas Yaeger, December 5, 2016

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind

Some notes on the cultural context of Stone Circles, and the function of observations made with them.

How could we ever understand the function of these objects, in the absence of any contemporary account? Archaeology and scholarship have been applied to the problem of these mysterious objects, but we are apparently still none the wiser. When it was first noticed that these objects were in some way astronomically aligned, that was a step forward, but in fact the observation did not advance us much in understanding the function of the monuments. They mark rising and setting points, and other extreme positions, and so there is the possibility of a calendrical function.

It is hard however to imagine that keeping tabs on the seasons was a principal function of these objects. You don’t need to observe the heavens in any detail in order to know it is time to sow, and time to harvest. If you want to know the length of the year, this can be established with simple observation. After that you could tell that you were in midwinter or at midsummer, at least until the precession of the equinoxes and the imperfection of the quarter day at the end of the year gradually moved things out of kilter. And so leap years would be invented to keep the seasons roughly where they should be, and intercalary days and months would be introduced where necessary over longer periods of time. All this has been done elsewhere, and through time, in the context of relatively basic observations.

The work of Alexander Thom, who surveyed the megalithic monuments in Britain over a period of more than 40 years, from the 1930s onwards, confirmed to those of us with eyes to see, that indeed the circles have a serious astronomical function. He also confirmed that the circles, with their observational platforms and their distant farsights, often on hills and mountains many miles away, have in many cases, a fearful precision about them, whether these farsights mark the rising and declination of the principal stars, the rising and setting of the sun at different points in the year, the solstices and the equinoxes, and the peculiar movements of the moon at various points during the 19 year metonic cycle.

The main objection of the archaeological community to the acceptance of this view of the circles as sophisticated tools for the observation of the heavens and its movements is two-fold. The first is that there is nothing (beyond what these objects seem to show) which suggests to us that the megalith builders and their contemporary culture was concerned at all with precision. The second is that, even if the circles can be shown to mark certain astronomically precise points, we have no clue at all about why the megalith builders would want to do this. We have no understanding of the function and purpose of such observations, and so we can say virtually nothing about either the purpose of the monuments, or about the culture which gave rise to them. In other words we are no further forward in our understanding.

This two-fold objection is sound, at least from the archaeologists point of view. We have no contemporary description of anything at all from the time and culture of the megalith builders. We have no understanding of their intentions, and no understanding of the function of the circles, and it is unlikely that archaeological interpretation by itself will reveal these things to us. It seems to be gone altogether, and all we are left with is insupportable speculation. Perhaps it would be best to draw a veil over this apparently anomalous aspect of the past, since we can have no understanding of it.

Yet we do know that other cultures had a concern with precision, and with precise measure. Egypt is well known to have had such a concern, at least during some parts of its history, as the orientation of its temples show. Precision is a feature of Mesopotamian civilization, as exemplified in Babylonian mathematics; and Hebrew literature also contains precise descriptions of objects. Ancient Greece likewise understood precision (akribeia), exemplified in the design of the Parthenon.

What does this concern with precision mean? We can start from what we know, and throw off what we only think we know about the Neolithic mind. One of these presumptions is that intelligence and intellectual sophistication is relatively new, and that consequently these things are not to be found in the Neolithic period. If we presume instead that it is present, and in fact it is not, we will know our mistake soon enough. If we presume that intellectual sophistication is not present, and in fact it is, we will be left with the intractable puzzle we are attempting to solve.

I have argued elsewhere that, for both Greece and Assyria, the heavens, and what the heavens represented, were of particular importance for cult practice. Plato is clear that the heavens represent an image of divine Being, also spoken of as the ‘Living Animal’, created out of the materials of other gods, by the demiourgos (the ‘Living Animal’ is created by the Demiourgos rather than by God directly, so that there should be not too much of the divine present in the world). He is also quite explicit that the body of the ‘Living Animal’ was created with precision.

In which case astronomy is important for the understanding of divine Being. An infamously unintelligible passage in Plato’s Timaeus talks about the perception of images being possible only because the soul already contains exemplars of these. If the heavens represent an image of divine Being, then all other images are poor imitations, and we should direct our attention principally to the heavens. The soul represents the heavens most closely, and in antiquity was notionally the part of us which is most connected to the divine. It is the soul which recognizes divine knowledge when it is presented to it.

In ancient Assyria, part of the ritual for creating an image of a god (thereby conferring divinity on the object) involves the image being exposed to the sight of the heavens. As a god, it needs to have perception of Being, of which it is an aspect. We have this ritual from the reign of Esarhaddon (7th century BCE), who was the predecessor of Ashurbanipal, one of the last Assyrian kings, and the owner of the famous palace library, much of which is now located in the British Museum.

In the Republic, Plato argues that the philosopher should ascend to the idea of the Good, which is another way of referencing the idea of transcendent Being, by a series of connected images, without specifying what those images might be. These images, as imperfect representations of Being, are subject to change. Matters are complicated by the fact that the things which are imaged are also subject to change. Thus both subjective impression and objective reality are subject to change and uncertainty.

In his dialogues, Plato shows that most arguments about the nature of the ultimate reality fail – particularly in his dialogue most concerned with Being, the Sophist. Here the participants in the dialogue agree to accept that a communion between man and the divine must be granted to exist, even if it cannot be argued certainly to be the case. The necessity of this communion is vital to religion, otherwise it is not possible for man to connect with the divine, and therefore he would be powerless in the world in which he finds himself.

A key characteristic of ancient religion was that it entertained conjecture regarding knowledge of the gods. Plato refers to this in his discussion of the divided line in The Republic. We cannot know Being itself directly. We cannot know the lesser gods directly either, but we can understand some of the characteristics of these gods, though full knowledge is necessarily beyond our understanding. We can approach some limited understanding of Being via the images and descriptions of the lesser gods however, which is one reason why they were deemed to have some kind of reality.

This limited set of characteristics and properties emerges from thorough and precise discussion of the nature of ontology (Being), as the focus of human conjecture. This is quite clear in both Plato and also in what we know of the teachings of Pythagoras. The paradox of knowledge is the consequence of the idea that all knowledge is present in the divine, and that we only have knowledge because we have a soul. In other words, we can have knowledge as the result of the divine having a presence in us already.

Since the divine is transcendent, there must be only a limited set of properties of the divine which can have exemplars in the world of appearance (the mundane earthly world). These properties cannot be things which have no meaning or permanent reality in the divine world. Thus one would not expect arbitrary sizes and colours, for example, or things which are changeable and impermanent. Since the reality of Being is at the extreme of our understanding, and is in itself necessarily an extreme, those who would look for things on earth which are exemplars of the divine would look for things which were in some way extreme, and which exist in conjunction with other things which participate in the divine extremity.

In both Greece and Assyria (I suggest), during the inauguration of divine statues, the statues, which are treated as markers of divinity on earth, representing and, in some instances, creating divinity through the will of the inaugurators, were pointed at the sky at a key point in the ritual. This is so that the statues could see (and know) Being, as represented by the heavenly bodies. In the ritual from Nineveh, the gaze of the statue is pointed at different parts of the sky and different parts of the horizon, in a precise sequence.

So we have an understanding of what was understood to be taking place in such a ritual, once we have a clear understanding of the model of reality in which the ritual served its function. There is evidence from Mesopotamia that this conceptual model was in existence at least as far back as the eighteenth century B.C.E.

It is possible that this model of reality, essentially established through logical argument, was very widely spread, and was not confined to the near East, and was in fact something like a standard view for those who had the time and the liberty to think about such matters.

The evidence from the megaliths makes the importance of the sky very clear. The hypothetical argument to be tested here, is that also in Britain and around the megalithic world, the sky was seen as a representation of divinity, of Being. As an image of the divine, it was an image of totality itself.

The megalithic observatory, or temple, according to this hypothesis, was a device to embody aspects of divinity, of Being, actually in its structure, in the same way in which the gods in Mesopotamia might be invited to occupy their representations on earth.

What about this representation of divinity might qualify as capable of representation on earth? Not the motion of the planets in themselves, since they appeared to be subject to a degree of arbitrariness (with the exception of Venus). The most obvious candidates for the establishment of extreme rising and setting points were the Sun and the Moon – the most prominent aspect of the heavenly representation. The equinoxes would also be of interest, since these represent the points at which the Sun and Moon pass along the path of the ecliptic and cross the celestial equator.

The doctrine of totality is common to both Pythagoras and Plato, and also surfaces, much earlier, in Assyria, as far back as Shamshi Adad I, who reigned in the eighteenth century B.C.E. One of his titles was: ‘King of Totality’ (Shar Kishati). This doctrine makes it clear that many aspects of the world have something of a double nature: Plato argued for example that ‘greatness’ implied participation in ‘the great’. Likewise the divine reality is total, and participation in the divine reality implies the presence of a form of totality in whoever was regarding the heavenly representation of the divine. The sacred is, in some respects, always present in the secular. Both Pythagoras and Plato held that things only come to be by wholes through wholes.

We can now make a preliminary list of things which, if we assume an intellectual sophistication, born of a culture familiar with logical argument, would perhaps have been of particular interest to observers who were part of megalithic culture:

Extremity, Totality, Perfection, Completion, Invariance, Integral (whole) numbers, The incorruptible, Greatness, Rising, Setting, Beginning, Ending, Duration, Periodicity,  Points of transformation.

This list illustrates the sort of abstracted interest I propose the megalithic builders had in aspects of the world, which interest follows from the conceptual model of reality which I have described. All of these have exemplars on both the earth, and in the sky. These characteristics would, within this conceptual model, have been understood to provide points of contact, and a bridge to the divine.

A megalithic circle might therefore be conceived as a representation, in an abstracted form, of the perfection of the heavens, and of Being itself. It would demonstrate its perfection to those who had the understanding to see this for themselves, and would mark the extreme points of the movement of the heavenly bodies. It would be constructed only using integral values, derived where possible, proportionately, from the movement of the heavens in relation to the earth. It would be built out of the most incorruptible materials (most often stone), and where possible, the stone would remain unworked, as something which, in its natural state, already possessed commonality with divine Being. The stones would be large, since their largeness by itself represents unworldliness, and another commonality with Being. The arrangement of the stones would be the way in which this commonality would be reduplicated and intensified. Heavenly cycles would be embodied in the structure where possible, together with indications (in some cases) of their duration.

As we know from the studies made by Alexander Thom, the stone circles were built on the basis of various sizes of Pythagorean right-angled triangles, and laid out with ropes of precise length. The construction process was designed and executed in such a way that the circumference of the circles, whether truly circular, egg-shaped, or flattened, would always be an integral number of the units used. This interest in integral numbers seems to have been universal among the builders of the circles.  The connectivity the integral numbers opened to Being is the reason why this was important.

We are told by Julius Caesar (in his Gallic Wars), that the Druids, at the time of his arrival in Northern Europe, taught astronomy and mathematics, and held to a doctrine akin to Pythagoreanism. In fact this section of the text seems to belong to the Roman equivalent of the CIA factbook, so it is probably a fairly accurate assessment by those in Rome whose job it was to collect useful information about cultures around the known world, into which Rome was expanding.

There are strong parallels between the ideas of Plato and Pythagoras as has already been noted, and Plato is reputed to have made significant efforts to obtain texts from the Pythagoreans. Both regarded the world as the product of mind: both the transcendental realm of Being, and the world of appearance. So there is, at a conjectural level, a series of connections between the divine world and the world of appearance, which can be discovered. All other stories about the world are mere likelihood. Modern scholarship on Greek philosophy stops short of this understanding of Greek thought. Plato’s highest level of reality is never explored, and even the approach to it is left shrouded in mystery.

The presence of an articulate idea of Being explains aspects of Mesopotamian theology and ideas about creation, as well as illuminating aspects of Homer’s Iliad, which of course precedes both Plato and Pythagoras by several centuries. There are strong parallels between Greek and Mesopotamian ideas of Being, which I have explored elsewhere. Both cultures practice theurgy (though the term does not make an appearance until much later), and the theoretical basis for this is similar, in that the twofold aspect of creation makes it possible for workmen (under the direction of the king, who in himself embodies several aspects of divinity in his official position) to have their sacred aspect initialized, so that they can set up gods in heaven. They can do this because they have had divinity put upon them by the king who is directing operations, in conjunction with instructions from his diviners. This is possible because they already possess divinity and connection to the divine, though ‘they are blind and deaf’ to this understanding throughout their lives, as Esarhaddon tells us.

Thus, they, like everyone else, and the world, are representations and images of Being, and the divine reality.

What I suggest Plato is doing, during a period of intense cultural crisis in Greece, is transmitting in writing, in a scrambled and elliptical fashion, key aspects of a Bronze Age philosophy, which has its roots in the Neolithic in both Europe and the near East. The transcendental doctrine which is enshrined in his work is actually in plain sight to anyone who can follow his reasoning that all the merely likely stories are just that: no more than likely. The single argument which is not a mere likelihood, is counterintuitive, paradoxical, and beyond common sense. And it remains a matter of conjecture. This argument about the nature of the world used to be the apex of learning and knowledge. Reality is transcendental, and neither subjective or objective. Nothing lay beyond this fundamental understanding of the world.

If this argument is correct, then we can know what Neolithic man was up to, and in some detail. In short, for the intellectually sophisticated in the Neolithic period, the heavens represented, as for Plato much later, a moving image of eternity. To measure the parameters of this moving image of the divine was to know God, and to have knowledge of divine things.

What was once a complete and deafening silence is now filled with many voices. We can never know the words they used, but we can know what they talked about, since anyone who talks about Being, and the connections between Being and the world of appearance will talk about the same things, and come to the same sort of conclusions. Some of these arguments have a practical upshot in the creation of sacred sites. They would look for extreme points in the heavens, since the heavens comprise a representation of the divine. The extreme points of the motions of the heavenly bodies represent a connection between the extreme of Being, and the secular world.

The principal concern was the nature and reality of Being, and the nature of reality itself. All  philosophical instruction would have been designed to lead the neophyte, by dint of the repeated failure of argument to establish any solid and reliable conclusion within the confines of common sense, to the conclusion that the reality that we perceive is essentially transcendental in nature. And that the nature of the divine is a conjecture which must be held as just that, a conjecture. Anything less and it becomes an opinion, which isn’t real knowledge.

Many practices in the ancient world emanate from this perspective on reality. Sacrifice is one. The origin of the idea is that something which has been completed is connected with the divine, which is also complete. Even if the termination of life is artificial and precipitate. The idea is also reflected in the conversation between Solon and Croesus in Herodotus, where Solon, in response to Croesus, says ‘call no man happy until his end’. Divination by entrails also is based on the same idea, that by inspection of the entrails of an animal whose life has been ‘completed’ (even now we may say ‘totalled,’ to mean something utterly ended), something of the divine can be understood.


[The BBC Chronicle documentary from 1970 - 'Cracking the Stone Age Code', on the work of Alexander Thom, is available to watch (complete) by clicking on the image at the head of this article.] 

Thomas Yaeger, November 26, 2016

This article eventually gave rise to another article which focussed particularly on the pythagorean aspects of the Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. This new article uploaded on March 5, 2018,  'Patterns of Thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in Britain' is perhaps the place you want to go next.

Thomas Yaeger, March 6, 2018

Monday, 21 November 2016

Camera Obscura: Aristotle, Marx, and Ptolemy

This text constitutes the introduction to an essay I wrote for a university competition in 1992. The essay was titled: Mirrors of the Divine, and subtitled Aristotle's Teleological Model of the World and the Interpretation of Ancient History. The main part of the essay was built on three pieces of text I'd written during my course. 

The first of these texts looked at the origins, definition and significance of the Polis within the Greek model of the world. 

The second part looked at the Assyrian understanding of the significance of the Mesopotamian Adapa Myth for the role of the king in both the Assyrian state, and  in the royal Assyrian court. This was titled Standing in the Place of Ea: the Myth of Adapa and Assyrian Kingship in the Sargonid Period. It was in fact a truncated version of my E Paper essay on Assyria, minus the footnotes. The paper also floated the idea that there were parallels with Aristotle's notions of kingship in Mesopotamian texts concerning the king, though I did not make heavy weather of it. This paper is now on this blog, in its full form, complete with the original (extensive) footnotes.

I would make some changes to it now, on the basis of what I've read since, and an exchange of mail with a leading Assyriologist, though I think the overall argument remains sound. Some of the letters referenced in the paper have been re-edited and published in new volumes. Though these volumes are on my shelves (The State Archives of Assyria series), I haven't replaced the translations with new versions and references, since the new versions don't suggest required alterations to any of the interpretations I made of these letters. 

The third part of the main body of the essay was a study of the proskynesis debate in the court of Alexander. This was about the adoption of Persian customs as Alexander took over Persian controlled territories, including bending the knee to kings, which was not a Macedonian or Greek custom. I interpreted this dispute in the context of Alexander's conquest of an empire which understood its king to be 'king of kings', 'king of the four quarters', and 'king of the world.'

Of course the essay didn't win the prize, which was no surprise then, or now. I began the essay by taking aim at the sociological underpinnings of the modern study of history, which wasn't going to make many friends. But by that time I'd come to the conclusion that the sociological approach was itself a real obstacle to our understanding the evidence. One of the reasons I'd chosen to study history was to fathom why our understanding of the past seemed so convoluted, and sometimes just plain blind to what was in the record.  

I wrote the introduction very quickly, since I was rapidly approaching my final exams at the time. I've improved the English rendition where necessary, but the argument is as it was.


Is it the case that we are blinded to the importance of
certain kinds of evidence by our preconceptions? There is a
tendency among classical scholars to treat the rise of Greek
civilisation and its formal institutions (such as the polis) as
the rise of civilisation itself. This is not to say that classical scholars 
are entirely unaware of developments in the near east during 
the third and second millennia B.C., but that there is in their minds 
a feeling that somehow Greece is the only case worthy of study; 
the paradigmatic case to which all earlier
civilisations might have aspired, but could never have reached.

Greece is the successful case, the one in which intellectual and
 cultural patterns reached a perfection worthy of their interest;
 only in Greece were institutions developed which possessed an
 excellence of their kind, and it is the excellence of the object
of study, the soaring nature of the Greek achievement, which
justifies its isolation as an academic field.

Ancient historians, on the other hand, have a twofold problem:
 their subject tends to follow the demarcation lines set by the
classical scholars (and the archaeologists concerned with Greece
and Italy), so that both those concerned with classical
 civilizations and the Near Eastern specialists have more
difficulty than is necessary in drawing on the insights of 
 other areas of scholarship. Further, the disciplines of history and
 archaeology in general have imported the methodology and
attitudes of other intellectual fields; particulary from sociology.
The effect of this importation has reinforced the trend in historiography
away from bad nineteenth century habits, such as an undue emphasis on
the role of the individual, and an unhealthy concentration on the
interests and views of those who exercised power in the periods
in question.

These are pressures which may distort our apprehension and
 understanding of ancient civilizations. In the former case, the
problem is that the worth and significance of the object of study
 has to a large extent already been decided; in the latter case,
 the movement away from an unsatisfactory approach to historical
 problems has resulted in a number of key questions not being
asked and being rendered virtually unaskable.

Several methods have been devised, more or less unconsciously,
in order to isolate Greek civilization and its institutions from
 contamination; these need not be listed or discussed here. What
is important is that the polis is often treated as though it is a specifically
 Greek phenomenon, to be understood only within the Greek context;
 and that it is necessarily something which arose from that
particular context alone. Comparison with other cultures is
regarded as illegitimate beyond certain limited bounds. Either
connections are de facto not there, or in cases where connections
 are very apparent, obvious conclusions are often treated as a priori
unsound, if they threaten the autochthonous model of Greek civilisation.

What is allowed is the retrojection of the supposed universal laws which
underpin the development of human society, and which must have
 underpinned all social and political structures since their first
creation. Scholars look for these, and the precise details of the
cultures under scrutiny do not so much give rise to theories as
 to their place and meaning, as lend support to the universality
 of the retrojected picture of cultural development.
Much of our view of the development of Greek (Athenian) politics
between the 7th and 4th centuries comes from Aristotle; from two
works on politics: the Politics itself, known from antiquity, and
from the Athenian Constitution, recovered from Egypt at the end
 of the last century (1890s). The Politics tells us of what sort of
political ideas could be thought in the context of the fourth
 century in Athens (particularly in conjunction with the Republic
of Plato, the Statesman etc,). It also gives some comparative
information about other constitutions, such as the Cretan, the
 Spartan, and of particular interest, the Carthaginian. Other
sources are few: apart from inscriptional evidence, there is
little apart from the writings of Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus and
 Thucydides to draw upon for the early development of the Greek
conception of the polis. Each of these sources has to be used
with care, for the very simple reason that the writers themselves
often did not fully understand the evidence they were trying to

In the case of Aristotle for instance, it is most often understood by 
scholars that he portrays the polis as (in practice) a development 
towards democracy (which was not seen as positive by
Aristotle). Whereas (for Aristotle, in the Politics, at least)
the true struggle is the need to balance the conflicting
interests of the rich and poor: seemingly what has always
 underpinned the development of society and its institutions. The
recognition of the necessity of observing the true nature of this
struggle is taken to be a mark of Aristotle's empirical approach
 to data.

That the reforms to the institutional arrangements within the
archaic polis might have been intended to broaden democratic
participation, or even to balance the forces at work within its
structure, these possibilities are currently rejected by historians, who 
see instead a series of reforms designed to support established power (or
insufficient evidence either way). This approach appears to
provide an adequate explanation for the major reforms for which
 we have evidence: the reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes, and to a
lesser extent, that of Ephialtes.

Thus, the developments are understood to be broadly explicable
in terms of what are taken to be “universals” (i.e., this is how
human beings behave when the chips are down): in terms of the
human interest in power and the creation of ideological
 constructs to support the pursuit of power and its maintenance.

Naturally it is not a matter of dispute that what human beings
do in critical circumstances and in daily life is shaped by their
surroundings and events (amounting to at least one half of a
dialectical equation). It is often argued however, that the
pattern of ideas in which men operate is the product of their particular 
circumstances: the various forces, physical, social, economic; and is
 therefore to be understood as an extension of
the material dynamic on which the society is based: i.e., we
should concentrate our attention on those factors which
contribute to the make up of human culture and institutions which
are universally true and which operate in all the different kinds
 of organisation which can be created. In other words, we should
 study the material dynamic.

This way of looking at things seems to be axiomatic.  Though in
 fact it bears as much necessary relation to the actual practice of
historians as the theoretical pattern of scientific methodology
does to the way scientists actually work. However, the
theoretical basis of the methods of modern historians does have
an effect on the way things are done. This is because the model
is fundamentally beyond testing. 

Though few historians are now marxist in any significant sense, 
part of the legacy of the marxist input into the development of the
modern study of history is a thoroughgoing materialism among
scholars. The acceptance of the material basis of reality is so
complete that it seems beyond question that Marx's observation
must be right, that the evidence must bear out the truth of the
material interpretation of the world, even if all the evidence
 appears to point in the opposite direction. Hence Marx's use of the
metaphor of the  ”camera obscura”: if we don't see how it fits, we
haven't looked hard enough. If the picture looks as if it is
 upside down, then it is not the case that the theory is wrong,
it is just that we have failed to get to grips with the
complexity of the reality presented to us. This means that,
whether or not the materialist interpretation of history is in fact true,
it cannot be tested, certainly as long as we are prepared to
admit limitless complexity in the interpretation of the evidence.

We might usefully compare this situation with the career of the epicyclic
 interpretation of planetary motions. The system arose as the
result of a suggestion by Plato to his pupil Eudoxos that he
 devise a mathematical description which saved the evidence. This
he did, employing circles because, since the planets were divine,
and since what is divine is necessarily possessed of perfection
and completion, no other motion would be appropriate for them.
 This model of the world survived the renaissance (being used by
Milton as the frame for ”Paradise Lost”, despite the fact that he
was well aware of developments in the understanding of planetary
motion) precisely because it provided a satisfactory description
of what was happening in the sky. 

In one sense, this example is the inverse of the problem with the 
materialist interpretation of history, for the  Ptolemaic system 
arose according to its nature in order to preserve an idea, the idea 
that circles, perfection and the divine are inextricably linked with one
 another. Whereas the materialist interpretation of history arose
as a reaction, if not to a prevailing orthodoxy, then to a
 pattern of ideas, and was supposed to destroy a political arrangement
 in the world which he regarded as inextricably linked with these
 philosophical notions. By inverting these, and revealing that they were
the product of false consciousness, it followed
that the political structures must fall (once everyone understood that 
his analysis was correct). 

In another sense however, the situation is the same: materialism, 
shorn of its marxist connotations, is still a pattern of ideas, and has 
become associated with our understanding of history. Therefore it
 functions  as an orthodoxy, and orthodoxies are not in the
business of hacking at their own validity during every minute of
 their existence.

Of course it is not necessary to have to abandon a materialist
perspective in order to deal with a quite different model of reality
 which appears to have been normative in antiquity, from the near east
to the Mediterranean lands. We can regard their alien "mindset"
as the input of the irrational; we can look at this (from the
point of view of the universality of the material dynamic) as the
intrusion of error and misunderstanding of the ideological
function of roles and structures, if their behaviour and
understanding is not consistent with the material dynamic.

In fact their perception was the inverse of materialism, as
Marx's materialism was consciously an inversion of
Hegels'exaltation of the world of spirit: they saw their culture
as an ephemeral manifestation of the divine with the divine
condition as the target. The truly real belonged somewhere else
in the universe, and mankind, the earth and all visible and
tangible things were bad copies and third rate adumbrations of
the genuine article.

We, on the other h and, find it difficult to deal with this way of
looking at things. What I am concerned with in this essay is their
perception of how things operated and
how that ”perception" influenced their actions and decisions; their
institutions and beliefs. I.e., to examine the superstructure of
the dynamic (which, unlike the Marxists, they took to be its root).

The principal difficulty with ancient evidence is that it belongs
to a world which was understood to function teleologically: that
is, the evidence was produced by people who saw their world as
being suspended from the divine, and who, when attempting to
explain events, chose their facts according to the requirements
of this model of the world. We, in attempting to understand the
production of ancient cultures and the textual evidence of
ancient authors, make of it what we can, and look for evidence
which remains valid whatever kind of model of reality is being
employed. But to know that we do this successfully, we have to
understand the nature of the model which filters both the
character of ancient cultural production and the selection and
arrangement of data in ancient texts.

I argue that we cannot easily disengage "neutral" evidence from
what remains: indeed that very little "neutral" evidence remains
at all, and that to piece together evidence which seems to
support, say, a developmental and evolutionary picture of events,
which in fact belongs to a teleological argument, is to misuse
the data.  There is no great public neutral reality in ancient
history, beyond the fact of the textual and archaeological
remains (and even that is often problematic). All the evidence is
shaped by both material laws (in antiquity understood as the
strictures of necessity and craft) and the input of contemporary
intellectual apprehensions of what it is that reality means.
Thus, in order to get to grips with antiquity we have to grasp
both ends of the dialectical interplay: the material dynamic and
the intellectual model of the world, the ancient teleology.

The fact that historians can provide a plausible description of
what is going on using a paradigm essentially based on the
perceived reality of the Aristotelian efficient cause (rather
than the final cause), does not mean that the events have been
understood and explained. A description is just that: it has no
essential connection with what is actually happening (just as the
Ptolemaic cosmology was a description and not an explanation,
with no essential connection with the real processes operating
in the solar system). If we allow endless epicyclic emendations
because the basic theory is assumed to be axiomatically correct
and therefore explanatory, we have confused description with 
explanation. To explain antiquity we require to take cognisance
 of  all of the real forces at work. 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Map and Territory: Representing Ancient Thought

These are the ten most read articles during the past month (October 11 - November 10, 2016). Three of them were posted in September and October 2016. Nine of these articles deal with the categories of understanding we bring to bear on ancient cultural ideas. These categories have a huge bearing on our capacity to understand what we are looking at.

'Shar Kishati' and the Cult of Eternity.There is no dispute that there was a concept of eternity in antiquity, long before the Greeks. But if we don't register that it was a fully-formed rational concept, rather than a muddled notion about what might lie beyond the here and now, then we cannot understand what eternity represented in antiquity. We say that the concept of a wholly transcendent eternity could not have been part of a rational understanding, because there could have been no such understanding of it before the advent of philosophy in Greece. So we read antiquity in terms of our own understanding. This article explores the role and function of a 'cult of eternity' in the civilizations of antiquity. It was a chapter in the draft of The Sacred History of Being written in 2003-4.

Remarks on the Telos (and other lost ideas).The telos is another idea whose significance in antiquity is scarcely understood. It is an abstract concept, which often surfaces in ancient literature. It is not understood as an abstraction however, since the logic behind its importance is more or less invisible to us. As a result the telos is again treated as a muddled notion about the nature of the world, rather than a rational concept which has consequences for our understanding of antiquity. 

Plato's Point of View (and why we think he doesn't have one). What did Plato think about the nature of reality? I wrote this article as a consequence of a discussion with a reader. The study of Plato is riven with two principal approaches (discussed in The Sacred History of Being), each of which enshrines preconceptions - the first presumes that Plato's canon is a record of research, and the second that the canon contains a coherent body of doctrine, though it is difficult to understand what that doctrine is, because of the discursive and often wayward form of the Platonic dialogues. Each of these schools of thought  have in common that they treat the dialogues as reflecting a process of teaching. What was Plato teaching? How human beings ought to think about the world? How human beings might gain an understanding of a supersensible reality underlying physical reality?

In fact Plato proceeds from an understanding of the world of ideas (which transcend physical instances) to the world of physical reality, rather than the other way around. This understanding of the world of transcendent ideas is based on logical argument. The doctrine is based on a logical understanding of ideas and their relationships with each other, considered apart from their instantiation in physical reality. This means the contemplation of the ideas apart from scalar and spatial properties. 

Physics and the Origins of the Universe discusses the limitations on physics by the exclusive use of the efficient cause as an explanatory mechanism. In antiquity there were four principal causes available to explain reality, including the idea of the telos (the final cause). The idea of the plenum formed an armature for the four causes. 

Questions and Answers isolates a number of issues which are discussed in The Sacred History of Being.

Sameness and Difference in Plato discusses the need for reality to come to a relationship with itself, if a physical world of multiple entities is to come into Being. This idea is the basis of the interest in the undefined dyad in antiquity.

The Sweet Song of Swans is an article (presented as an extract from the rather long chapter in The Sacred History of Being) which discusses Plato's writing process, and the use of stylometry in the modern analysis of his work (principally by those who wish to find development in the sequence of dialogues), and how Greece came to be the home of philosophy, after classicists denied the description 'philosophers' to the ancient Egyptians.

A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology considers the recent work of Marc Van De Mieroop, Philosophy Before the Greeks, published in October 2015, which interprets three principle classes of Babylonian literature entirely in structuralist terms. By doing so, the author argues that reality and truth existed for the Babylonians only in the texts. So a problematic way of understanding cultural production, devised at the turn of the twentieth century by a single scholar, and obviously not known by the Babylonians, becomes the lens through which Van De Mieroop 'understands' Babylonian thought.

Looked at from this point of view, questions leap out, such as,  what is the place of the Babylonian gods? Where is the logic of the Babylonian worship of their gods? Where are the ritual actions? Where are the sacrifices? Why did they do anything at all, beyond the reading and interpretation of the texts? 

Cultural Parallels and False Narratives is an article which explores the problematic nature of religion in the first millennium BCE, and how little is present which we would now regard as religious. How the change happened in later centuries is explored. Ancient religion is compared with current Hindu thought and practice, which has remained more or less unchanged since the first millennium BCE.

Thomas Yaeger, November 10, 2016