Friday, 23 September 2016

Remarks on the Telos (and other lost ideas)

There are many ideas from both the ancient world and from much more recent times which have died a death, so that it is virtually impossible for us to understand these concepts, even within their original contexts. Not all of these ideas are of equal value – some reflect only minor aspects of the world view of their time, or illustrate some particular application of a way of thinking in a single culture or place. Others however are of vital importance, not only for an understanding of the functioning of a culture in its own context, but also in establishing something of our own intellectual ancestry, and relation to our antecedents.

An example of one of the more important ideas which became lost, but mercifully has been recovered in modern times, is the neo-platonism which underpinned much of the thought of the  English renaissance. This was recovered largely by a single scholar in the 1920s (H Grierson), who rescued the metaphysical poets from the category of writers for whom (according to Dr Johnson’s understanding) ‘metaphor’ was the principal obsession. This discovery and re-evaluation stands behind the work of the Warburg Institute in London, between the immediate pre-war years, and the late 1950s, when the full extent of the importance of neo-platonism in the English renaissance was revealed by a number of scholars, including D. P. Walker and Frances Yates. Eventually the detailed understanding of these ideas resulted in the rediscovery of the importance of other related and interacting ideas in circulation within the same intellectual communities, including Hermeticism, pan-sophism, etc.

One of the reasons why ideas become lost is that they are so pervasive within a society that they remain largely unspoken, unarticulated, and undebated. It is not only the complextity of ideas, or their controversial nature, which may consign them to oblivion, but it might also be as a consequence of their success. At the point where an idea is no longer articulated, it is in grave danger of being forgotten, misunderstood, or translated into something quite other than its original shape and meaning.

An example of the latter, where a word undergoes a radical change of meaning, is the word ‘rational’. For us this word connotes thought free from an overarching body of institutional or religious ideas, yoked only to logical and methodical processes based at root on common sense and commonly agreed values which conform to a vaguely understood humanist agenda, which (it is believed) all reasonable human beings can agree on. 

But in Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word retained a quite different meaning. It meant that an idea or argument had a proper place within a philosophical or religious picture of the world (a notion at the core of the adoption of neo-platonist ideas by writers and artists in the English renaissance). Because it had its logical place, it could be considered rational, in a manner similar to the understanding of the rationality of a sequence of notes configured to belong correctly within the overall structure of a musical composition. 

In that sense Descartes picture of the world is a rationalist picture, in that it places its details within an overarching framework.  His principal innovation from the point of view of posterity is that he placed the idea of what is rational in a purely philosophical model of the world, rather than a religious one: God was effectively banished into a sphere of his own. 

By the middle of the eighteenth century the term ‘rationalist’ came to mean something quite different - it meant free-thinking, and required to be outside the confines of an essentially religious framework of ideas and preconceptions, relying on nothing more than the human capacity to think clearly, and to build on the work of other thinkers similarly untrammelled by what was now considered to be a wholly irrational pattern of thought. The mathematician Edmund Halley, for example, is reported to have said that the doctrines of Religion were unintelligible, and that Christianity itself was an 'imposture'. 

We can see the meaning of words and technical terms shifting around us all the time, if we take the trouble to notice. Sometimes these changes can cause real difficulties for our understanding when we find them in an unfamiliar context. We now find ourselves in a quandary when we are thinking about ancient Greek religion, which the scholar E.R. Dodds thought contained many expressions of the irrational (his most famous book is 'The Greeks and the Irrational’), since to the Greeks it is likely that the ‘irrational’ components of their religion were regarded as properly ordered, and in their proper place. The sacrifice of animals (for example) is clearly irrational within the context of a modern city-bound existence in which secular humanist values seem unquestionable. But I do not think it helps us to understand ancient Greek religion, or indeed any part of ancient Greek civilisation, to look at these in terms of a modern model of irrational and deviant psychology.

Again, the concept of humanism has undergone a certain amount of shape-shifting over the centuries. In the renaissance it indicated a complex of ideas opposed (to some extent, though not entirely so) to religious ideas of man and his place in the world, and a tendency to put the human (and the human experience) in the centre of things. However, this did not at the time imply any kind of normative agenda about what was truly human and what was not, or a rejection of a rational picture of the world.

This requires some explanation. In some spheres ‘humanism’ referred principally to a way of living and understanding, and belonging to the civilised tradition, rather than to any particular body of ideas which a humanist might hold. A humanist might therefore (for example) study the outward form of speeches of Cicero in order to take on the values and attributes of the great Roman lawyer and orator, on the principle that acquisition of the outward form of a thing has as its corollary the acquisition of its inner core. This procedure is in stark contrast to someone working within the expressly intellectual tradition which Cicero also belonged to, who would study the ideas in his works, rather than focus on the outer form in which they were expressed.

Other important concepts have changed radically over the centuries. The concept of the ‘soul’ is now almost unintelligible to almost all, except as a vague notion of ‘essence’. Whereas it used to be a term used with technical precision. (Plotinus is of course unread these days, except by a small band of specialists and some interested lay readers). The Egyptian idea of the Ka clearly bears some conceptual relation to the idea of the soul among the Greek writers, but it has been difficult for scholarship to draw out parallels between the two, since neither of the concepts is properly understood.

Mathematics and Geometry too, had, to the Greeks and others, a strangely intimate relationship with religion and theology, of which we have only the slightest glimmer of an  understanding. Worse, we are generally unable to tackle the problem, since we cannot easily bring ourselves to consider theology as something which has technical aspects. 

We might, for the purposes of scholarship, investigate some pointless minutiae of ancient cultic life, created and maintained by a priesthood with time on its hands, and little capacity for logical and practical patterns of thought (the Sumerians and the Babylonians sometimes referred to the Gods in their documents in terms of numbers, so that such and such a god would be ‘6’, another would be ‘9’ etc, which suggests a very practical relationship with their divinities). But we would not expect it to make any kind of sense to us. 

Yet another idea which we now understand only vaguely, denuded of its former technical importance, is the concept of ‘completion’. There has been very little study of this concept across cultures in the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean during the past 150 years of scholarship, which is perhaps a little odd. This is because it is an idea which is found as part of a complex of related concepts in all of these cultures, and might therefore reasonably be considered as part of a framework for useful comparison between these cultures.

Another related idea, of equal importance, which has been completely passed over as a means by which the significance of ancient cultural ideas might be understood, is that of the ‘telos’. Like ‘completion’, the concept of the ‘telos’ is shared across cultures in antiquity, and should allow useful comparisons to be made between disparate cultures. However it too is hardly understood. In fact It is fair to say that it is not at all understood, except as a term deprecated by the sciences ever since the end of the seventeenth century.

But this idea of the telos too has undergone subtle and far-reaching changes in its long history. The concept of the ‘telos’ or final cause in science from the seventeenth century onwards is quite different from that understood in antiquity. In order to illustrate the pervasive and often unspoken influence of this idea in the ancient world, it is necessary first of all to explain what it meant to the ancients, rather than to nineteenth century zoologists keen to avoid (among other things) the final cause as part of the explanation for the variety of animal forms in the world.

Almost all modern discussions of the telos (where these exist) derive ultimately from Aristotle’s consideration of the subject. The telos and the final cause he discussed as part of a suite of explanation for why things are the way they are. So the final cause, the end to which something is moving, or what it is that has caused it to begin to move, is part of the explanation of why it is the way it is, why it is composed of the elements it has, why it is configured as it is, why it is functioning in the manner in which it does, why it has certain inclinations and appetites, and so on. The other components of the suite are the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the material cause. These should not be regarded as wholly distinct in character from the final cause as modes of explanation, since they depend on the same underlying idea. Understanding the other kinds of cause actually helps to understand the idea of the final cause, and so these causes will be discussed also.

Aristotle used the image of the house (oikos) to help illustrate the idea of the telos, though it is not a particularly good example with which to discuss this philosophical idea. The house is something which is built in order to achieve certain things: it has a final form, which, when reached, allows it to be called a house. It is composed of certain things, and when these are assembled and arranged in the proper order, the house is complete. Before it is assembled and its elements are arranged in the proper order, the house has only a potential existence. It might come to be, and will only make sense when it does come to be, but unassembled it has no existence.

In modern times the only cause we allow (at least in terms of ‘cause’) is the efficient cause. In other words the direct action of constructing the house and its elements – the labour of making the bricks, cutting the timbers, erecting the frame, putting on the roof tiles, etc. It is about work and energy: the kilojoules of effort necessary to complete the task

The other causes make more difficulties for the moderns. The formal cause seems to be drawn from another realm of explanation altogether, since it seems to imply that like gives rise to like. Thus a human being gives birth to a human being, and a lion gives birth to lions. This is probably the origin of the idea of formal cause. In the context of the construction of a house, this mode of explanation has to be reshaped considerably. Thus, a brick-maker is the creator and formal cause of the bricks which go to make up most of the fabric of the house. And likewise, the baker is the formal cause of bread. In both these examples, it is obvious that the craftsmen are also the source of the work involved in the making of bricks and bread. 

It is interesting to speculate that this very simple mode of explanation lies behind the creation of a large number of craft gods – when the human race began to engage in the creation of things other than offspring, this simple rule would necessarily be augmented to include human handiwork. The augmented explanation requires that the brick-maker, the baker, the weaver, be agents or vessels of the formal cause of each of the crafts. And so they become emblematic of their crafts in the abstract. In ancient Assyria, a number of religious officials had titles which were craft related, and the training of the crown prince for his future kingship involved the development of skills in various crafts ('with the bakers he did the baking' which we find in the annals of Ashurbanipal, who became king of Assyria in the late 7th century BCE).

Before the Classical period in Greece,  we have no evidence for the discussion of the four causes as causes. This absence of evidence however is not evidence for the absence of the causes as explanatory modes. For example, the four causes underpin the scene in Book xviii of the Iliad, where Hephaestus is working metal to create statues animated by the gods. He is a craftsman, and is depicted as highly energetic in the practice of his craft. Some of the objects he makes are by the very nature of their design able to enter the councils of the gods, and to return of their own accord. So the final cause (the telos), efficient cause, material cause, and the formal cause are all implicit in this scene.

Three of the four causes which refer to processes (the telos, the efficient and the formal cause) are implicitly attested often in the cultural record. The telos or the end is a common concept in ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, most often expressed in the context of mythological, religious and theological texts ('the King is in his Horizon' is a not uncommon trope in Ancient Egypt). Both the material and efficient causes are ideas which have to be clearly known to any culture which has to muster, organise and calculate manpower and effort, and material resources. Also the organisation of agriculture, metalwork, glassmaking, breadmaking, weaving, and the other crafts. The fourth, the material cause, is also implicitly present in ancient writings, since the function of a thing is largely co-terminous with both the material with which it is made, and the form after which it is modelled.. All these things were part of the responsibility of kings in the ancient Near East and Egypt, and elsewhere. 

Since  much of the activity in the ancient world is about the amassing of materials, the creation of precious and sacred objects, the organisation of work, and the ritualised association of things created by means of the first three of the causes, with the fourth, the telos, or what is divine, we can see the material, the formal, the efficient and the final cause in nearly all aspects of ancient civilisation. 

These causes were understood, in essence as outlined by Aristotle, long before his time. We do not need to find texts in Assyria or Egypt which discuss these causes in the way that Aristotle did. We will not find them, because the structure of society was different in those places, with a much more stratified nature, with knowledge and esoteric thought at the top of the structure. Explanation was rarely written down (though ritual and liturgy sometimes were).  Instead, we need to interpret the evidence which is presented to us in order to understand what is actually there to be seen. 

Of the four causes, only the final cause absolutely requires philosophical insight for its understanding. Hence the idea of the final cause is the most interesting from the point of view of developing an understanding of the world of ideas in antiquity: if the idea of the telos is present, then philosophical discussion of the nature of reality is also present. The idea of the telos makes no sense unless it is understood, and it presents a number of problems for anyone attempting to understand the concept. Gaining understanding, and the solving of logical problems, is what philosophy was all about. 

No comments:

Post a Comment