Friday, 21 October 2016

A Berlin Conversation (Part One)

An extract from the book Destroy Nineveh! Wiping Out the Past (forthcoming). The conversations in the book concern how we often contribute to the destruction of the past through the means by which we try to make sense of it. The conversations are set between 2001 and 2016, in and around Berlin. The book is in six parts, and three extracts are available via this blog. 

TY, October 21 2016. 


A seminar room at Humboldt University in Berlin, less than ten days after the attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001. The room is one of those reconstructed after the immense damage to the fabric of the university, during WW2. To reach it you have to go up the main stairs from the ground floor in the main building, and pass a quotation on history by Karl Marx, in letters of gold incised in black marble, who was a student of the university. Since for most of the post WW2 period, the university was in East Berlin, the rebuilding of the university was controlled by the communist party – hence the prominence of the Marx quotation.  The quotation is ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’

Round the seminar table are around eight students, in addition to Dr. Sadiq Kishati, and Dr. Ralf Ganz. Dr Kishati is chairing a discussion, which should have been exclusively concerned with the nature of history, historical inquiry, the interpretation of evidence, and the models and paradigms in which history can be understood.  However the event of September eleventh has naturally intruded on the thoughts and discussion of the participants.

Dr Kishati asked if those around the table had heard about the remark about the twin towers, made by the avant-garde musician KarlHeinz Stockhausen. Some had, some had not. So Kishati repeated Stockhausen’s statement, which was to the effect that the assault on the twin towers was one of the greatest works of art ever made. ‘Naturally this has caused uproar, since the ‘work of art’ involved the death of thousands of people’. ‘It sounds an incredibly insensitive and inappropriate things for anyone to say, especially by an established artist, as Stockhausen is’ was the response from the far end of the table. Another student said ‘but then, he thinks he comes from a planet revolving around the star Sirius’. There was laughter in the room. 

Dr Kishati waited for the laughter to subside. ‘So he says,’ was his response. ‘But I wonder what you think he meant by the remark, however ill-judged it might have been to say it so close to the event?’ There was a short pause, and then a graduate student named Wolf Holliger began to speak. “It was a deliberate attack on something which cannot be directly attacked by a subversive organisation. Not in purely military terms. The World Trade Center buildings are emblematic of global capitalism. You can’t easily attack the idea of global capitalism, but you can attack something which symbolises it’. Kishati responded, saying, ‘so you think Stockhausen meant by describing the assault as a work of art, that it was a symbolic attack?’

Holliger responded in the affirmative. ‘And that makes it a piece of art – in Stockhausen’s mind at least, since art works with symbols, symbolic constructions, and symbolic acts. Plus the fact that it was captured on many cameras, meaning that the event has been represented in terms of images.’ ‘Indeed’, said Kishati. ‘And images which will haunt our imaginations.’ Kishati paused for a moment, and Doctor Ganz took the moment to remark that ‘the attack was clearly conceived in terms of spectacle, in a place occupied by millions of people who would see and experience the attack. It wasn’t about removing the function of the World Trade Center in global capitalism, but about showing that someone really hated either capitalism, or the US, which is the engine of global capitalism. Which means that since the function of the attack was symbolic, rather than representing a real and damaging attack on global capitalism, it might be considered as a piece of art.’

‘Ok’ said Dr Kishati, ‘We’ll take that as our starting point for today’s discussion. Mainly because the event can be understood as a representation of something beyond the act itself. Which is an aspect of the meaning of history. I think we have just witnessed something of immense historical importance, not just for the United States, not just for global capitalism, the people of the world, but, in the long-term at least, also for the perpetrators.‘

Kishati reached into a folder sitting on the table slightly to his left, and took out two or three sheets of papers. ‘We might begin be asking ourselves what our understanding of history is, given that there is an element of spectacle involved in it. Does anyone want to attempt a definition?’ He looked around the table, and saw no takers. Then after a few seconds, another graduate student, named Jan Schmollen, shifted in his chair, and began to speak. ‘Well we know it is about ordering information. It is also about asking questions, in consequence of the need to order information’
Kishati smiled. ‘That’s quite correct. Historical writing as we understand it began with the Greeks, and their word for it was ‘historia’, and it always implied both ordering and questioning patterns of information. Other earlier cultures wrote about events also, but it isn’t always clear the basis on which they are recording events. They are almost exclusively official and royal accounts of the actions and deeds of kings. However accounts written at different periods of a reign might relate past events in quite different ways, which is difficult for us to understand. The point does not seem to have been consistency, and what they understood to be to be true is often unknown to us.’

‘One Egyptian pharaoh – or rather his scribes - wrote about a campaign in Syria in which he fought a great battle against the Hittites. He described it as a victory. This was the first contemporary account of the event to come out of the ground when scientific excavation had begun. Unfortunately for the pharaoh, eventually a Hittite account of the same battle emerged from an excavation, and related things differently, suggesting that the Egyptian king was lucky to escape with his life. It would be easy to assume that there was a heavy element of propaganda in the Pharaoh’s account of the battle, and quite possibly also in the Hittite account. At this distance it is hard to say what the difference in the accounts means. But they are quite different, so whatever the objective was in writing about the battle, it wasn’t about what we might imagine to be an objective account. They may have had no such concept.’

Kishati paused, and adjusted his spectacles on his nose. ‘However, the origin of historical writing might have been quite similar. The word ‘historia’ joins together a number of ideas which we do not automatically connect in modern times. Such as the importance of blood, which is often referred to in antiquity. By this I mean the importance of the family and family connections. This concept was often extended to social groups such as the gens, the clan, or the tribe. It was an important idea in Greece, in ancient Rome, and also in Mesopotamia and in Egypt.  The beginnings of historia therefore can be understood in terms of a response to the importance of social ordering which was understood in terms of blood relations.’

‘Ancient times were often violent times. There could be internecine warfare, war between tribes, or between groups of tribes. It could be war against an alliance, or a war to make an alliance possible; a war for resources, for trade, a war to enforce justice and rights, or to establish or reinforce power and prestige. Any number of things in fact. Often there would be several grievances wrapped together. And almost always the gods were understood to be involved in the struggle, as we can see strikingly illustrated in Homer’s Iliad. I will return to this aspect of what history is a little later.’

‘The point I’m making is that change was often an important aspect of life in antiquity. Change could happen because of the nature of personal relationships. Marriages, dynastic relationships, personal and tribal enmities, changes in climate, bad harvests, changes in regional power, the demand for tribute, and so on.’

Kishati paused for a few seconds. ‘Change needs to be explained, because it happened all around, and often it was an unpredictable phenomenon. The same is true today, but we use a different set of models and approaches in order to explain things which happen. We think our modes of explanation are generally more powerful and accurate than those in use in the ancient world, and in fact we use our tools retrospectively to understand what was going on in antiquity.’

‘We wouldn’t for example argue that if something bad happened in antiquity, it was because the gods were displeased for some reason. We wouldn’t look for some fault in ritual observance, nor would we look at a list of omens for a clue as to the intentions of the divine, as the Romans did. We wouldn’t look at the entrails of a sacrificial animal in order to gain an insight into the cause of the ill-fortune.’

‘Not only that, we would not look seriously at their contemporary understanding of the event, or their attempts to clarify and rectify the problem. All these things are simply nonsense, and so they are studiously disregarded by us. We look at the event and its context, and look for the kinds of causes which we expect to be operable in the modern world, and interpret accordingly. We look for the material, political and social causes which lie beneath most if not all public events.’

‘In doing so, we have effectively removed a key concept from consideration in the ancient world, which they understood to be intimately involved in change, and which they considered to be one of the causal factors of great importance to the conduct of human life.’

‘We have removed the divine. And we have removed the gods. That is an important step in making events, and the human story in antiquity, intelligible to us. But it means that we are not using the materials available to us to analyse the ancient world in terms which they themselves would have understood. They would have some grasp of what sense we make of their world, since essentially what we do is analyse the past in terms of Aristotle’s concept of the efficient cause, which is what we are doing when we explain things in terms of a materialist conception of the world. But they would have thought of this as a very limited mode of explanation, which is why they employed another three principle causal mechanisms. These other causal mechanisms are the formal, the material, and the final causes.’

‘There is no need to discuss the other causal mechanisms in any detail, at least not at the moment. We think we do not employ them, though we do. We simply do not single them out as causal mechanisms. It is important however to be clear that, though there is a material cause available to Aristotle, that is not the same thing as what we now understand as part of the materialist conception of the world. When we look at antiquity in terms of that conception, we are looking mainly at the efficient and physical cause of change. That is what we think lies beneath all change, though it may not be obvious to us unless we explore the evidence in detail.’

‘The upshot of the materialist conception of the world can be understood in different ways. One of these is the implicit assertion that everyone in antiquity was wrong as far as their understanding of the true forces acting in their world is concerned. That’s quite an assertion. We aren’t saying that they understood some aspects of their world, but hadn’t yet found their way to a modern interpretation of their reality. We are saying that they were for the most part plain wrong, and about most things. A world populated by gods, demons and spirits, replete with magic and ritual, and the worship of divine images, the sacrifice of animals, and the ritual examination of the entrails of sheep and other animals, in order to understand the will and intention of the gods, is a world of nonsense. And as it is nonsense to us, it was nonsense then too, though, for whatever reasons, they failed to understand this.’

Ralf Ganz looked over to Kishati, and said: ‘I think you are talking about false consciousness’.Kishati looked across the table, and smiled. ‘I am indeed talking about false consciousness. Which is one of the explanatory mechanisms invoked by the creator of the materialist conception of the world, Karl Marx, to explain how it is that we find so many different modes of understanding among the human population. Most of which are nonsense, as we know.’

‘The idea of course is that whatever people actually believe about their world, they are actually functioning within an array of societal and physical forces which we understand in terms of materialism. That is Marx’s great advance, and his legacy to the modern world.’
Ganz looked over again, and began to speak. ‘That insight did not arrive all of a piece, and it is perhaps worth spending a few minutes about its origin’. Kishati signalled that he was happy to hand over to Ganz.

‘Most of you at this university will know that Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on the Greek philosopher Democritus, who was the inventor of an ancient form of materialism, which sought to understand reality in terms of the interplay of small objects which he called atoms. So we got a material conception of the world, and the very beginnings of atomic theory from the same person. So Marx was interested in materialism from his days as a student.’

‘The actual route by which we got Marxist theory is actually quite complicated, and involves an engagement with a body of ideas apparently wholly at odds with a materialist understanding of the mechanics of change in the world. The explanation for this may be that since Marx was looking, not just at the mechanics of change in the world, but wanted to create a doctrine in which man could be the principal agent of change, rather than an intellectual framework which merely provided an explanation of change.‘

‘Firstly, it is important to know that Democritus did not necessarily make a radical break with other Greek ideas about the world in creating his materialist theory. It is perfectly possible to understand it within a Parmenidean picture of the world, in which only one thing is ultimately real, and that one thing does not change, and is wholly transcendent of physical reality. But the physical world is filled with a near infinity of things, and Parmenides did not deny the evidence of our senses, except to say that the world of the many is a species of illusion.’

‘We do not dwell on that way of looking at things however, and prefer to understand the world in terms of an uncritical acceptance of the existence and reality of matter, and the physical forces which are associated with it. That is the principal difference between materialism in antiquity, and modern materialism.’ 

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Plato's Point of View

One of the greatest barriers to the understanding of Plato is that he is writing from a perspective quite different from our own. I say ‘our own’, because this perspective can be clearly defined as something which we, in our cultural continuum, implicitly accept (even if a number of individuals in that culture don’t). That is, we assume that what is real is what is physical. So when Plato was writing about what is metaphysical rather than the physical, he was writing about something extra, something beyond that physical reality. Sometimes this other level of reality is spoken of as a supersensible realm, in that it is beyond the world of sensory experience, and also beyond a comprehension which requires sense data.

This is not the way that Plato would have looked at transcendent reality. It is not something extra, superposed on physical reality and the world of sensory experience. It was there first, and had its existence before matter and sensory experience came to have existence.

This is the plenum, which I have discussed elsewhere. It is unlimited, and undefined. It is what must be there before anything is defined. It is neither presence nor absence. It can be thought of as the nothingness before the creation of anything, but to characterise it as nothingness is to misunderstand both what it is, and how it needs to be understood.

If the physical world did not exist, and so there was no such thing as movement, all that might be possible, in terms of a physical existence, and consequently movement, would necessarily exist in potential in that transcendent and undefined plenum. The evidence of our senses, and the categories of our understanding, tell us that the world of movement and change, illusion or not, has a certain level of reality, which has a certain mathematical regularity, which is one way to define something which has intelligible reality. All of that is necessarily present in the plenum, which is ever-present and unchanging, and devoid of actual movement. Of any sort at all.

From Plato’s point of view, the transcendent reality is the only thing which is truly real, and which is necessarily what it is, and not something other than it is. It is not a copy of anything. It is eternal in its nature, and is not subject to change of any sort.

The major difficulty in understanding Plato arises from the fact that almost all discussion in Plato’s canon of works is based on an abstract understanding of the transcendent reality. He is not trying to penetrate what is transcendently real from the point of view of physical or sensory reality, existing in time and space. Instead, he has an understanding of the nature of what is real, largely built on logical  and dialectical argument.

By this I mean the nature of reality itself can be approached and understood by questioning what it is, and what it is not, what properties it may or may not have, and how it stands in relation to the physical world. Questions such as ‘is reality itself one or many? If it is one, how is it the case that the physical and sensory world is full of things, and why is it represented to us in such a way?’ And the opposite question also makes sense: ‘if reality consists of the many, and not one thing, in what way can we understand reality as reality itself? Why should there be many things at the root of reality?’

Which is how the ancient consensus about the nature of reality came to be. This consensus was in place as early as the mid-second millennium BCE. But possibly much earlier than that.

So much of Plato’s argumentation is based on a point of view which we generally do not share in the modern world, and which is hard for us to fathom. Where Plato's work is taught, which is almost every major academic institution in the world, it is not taught or understood in terms of a range of arguments which apply to the transcendent reality, and questions of existence and the creation of a physical world which is full of both things and images. Instead, it is taught in terms of exercises in human thought, covering a vast range of subjects, including discussions of metaphysics, the ideas of beauty and justice, ethics and morality, of friendship and love, mathematics, geometry; even philology and etymology (in the Cratylus). It is taught in this way, since much of subsequent philosophical thought has its roots in Plato’s dialogues, even if we do not fully understand the point of view expressed in them.

So Platonic thought is taught in a fragmentary way, which Plato would not have understood, and the intellectual and logical roots of the dialogues are often treated as neither here nor there.

The tradition of studying Plato lay largely fallow after the collapse of the ancient world, and particularly after the closure of the philosophical schools in 529 C.E. This closure is an extremely significant event in history, though the destruction of the glories of the ancient world had been under way already for a considerable period (as far back as the argument with Caligula about putting images of Caesar in the temple in Jerusalem, recorded by Philo Judaeus, who was the man who drew the short straw). The closure of the schools tells us that the basis upon which the ancient world once argued about the nature of reality and physical existence was opposed by imperial power and its requirements, and that humanity was entering a period in which knowledge and thought were thoroughly deprecated.

Ideas of the importance of knowledge and what it is, and also what is meant by the divine, and the role of the divine for the human race, were now based on the requirements of the secular powers, and their political and ideological concerns.

Formerly, political power, and royal and imperial knowledge of the will of the divine and the gods, drew strength from the idea that there was a rational connection between the nature of reality and the divine, and the world of the here and now, the secular world of time, and of physical power (expressed eloquently by Homer, with the golden chain of Zeus stretching into the world, according to his will). Now the nature of reality was of no interest, and gave nothing to the secular powers. Whatever was left of the notion of a rational connection between physical reality and the divine ran the other way. Physical power and its preoccupations would now determine the kinds of discussions there would be about divine things.

We have been on this downward slide since the time of imperial Rome and its campaigns of conquest. It is one of the most powerful of Roman legacies.
The story of the occasional and partial reversals of this long intellectual and cultural slide has yet to be told coherently, and I am not going to undertake the task here. I will mention the reversal in the Italian renaissance, where Plato was understood rather differently than he is now. For example, it is useful to approach Plato through Marsilio Ficino’s understanding of his work, and also through the writings of Giordano Bruno.

So it is not that we have no alternative ways to approach Platonic thought; but we choose not to look at another approach, since we know what is real, and what isn’t. We think this is a rational view, and our own way of thinking, but it has been gifted to us as the result of political and ideological struggles long ago, which did not fear to destroy rational connection with a transcendent Reality, once understood as the reason why the physical world existed at all. 

Rewriting the History of the Human Mind: J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being

(Notes on J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being)

The argument of the book is quite technical, but it is easy to explain the nature of the argument, and why I came to write it. 

I studied ancient history and languages at UCL as a mature student in the early 1990s. Before deciding to study ancient history, I had a long standing interest in both art and philosophy, and in the art and thought of the European renaissance. I read the two volume edition of Frazer’s Golden Bough in 1987, and was struck by the fact that the idea of ‘Being’, which connects ideas of magic and religion in the European renaissance, principally among the platonists (Ficino, etc), was not discussed. At all. Not even to dismiss any notion of its importance as an idea.

I found this omission to be very strange. Being and its close partner ‘plenitude’ was important enough a cultural idea for A. O. Lovejoy later to later write about its extensive history in the west through two and a half millennia (The Great Chain of Being, 1936).

Frazer was extremely well read, and it seemed impossible that he did not know or understand the importance of the idea of Being in the history of civilisation.

Most readers of Frazer read The Golden Bough, and none of his other writings. At the time I knew of no other works. I wondered what else he had written, and if he had perhaps discussed the idea in another book. In which case the omission of a discussion of Being in the Golden Bough might be explained. Since I’m discussing thoughts about Frazer which occurred to me in 1987, there was no internet to search, so I did a trawl through his publications in the catalogue of the National Library of Scotland (I was living in Edinburgh at the time).

And there it was in the catalogue: ‘The Growth of Plato’s Ideal Theory’. A slim book emerged shortly afterwards from the stacks, first published in 1930, close to the end of his long career.

Frazer wrote this text as an essay in 1879, to compete for a fellowship at Cambridge. He won, and it is not surprising that he did. The essay is an extraordinary piece of work, and a tour-de-force by a twenty-four year old. It was clear from a cursory study of it that he knew the work of Plato inside out.

Plato of course represents the nominal beginning of the articulate discussion of Being in the western tradition. So Frazer certainly did know something of the history of the idea of Being, and the importance it formerly had in the ancient world. And long before he began to write The Golden Bough.

So the mystery had deepened. He knew Plato’s arguments about Being and the importance of these for a philosophical understanding of the world. And he also knew, or should have known, that Plato had defined two different kinds of magic in the Laws, one of which was explicitly drawn from the idea of Being itself (the passage is quoted in the book).

I engaged with the argument of his essay very closely. And it became clear what he was doing. There are three major themes in the essay. The first of these themes is how the human mind understands objects and ideas which are presented to it. As a disciple of John Locke, he understood human thought in terms of the association of ideas, which was one of Locke’s major contributions to philosophy. So when Plato spoke of ‘Being’ and related concepts, Frazer understood him to be falsely imagining that, what he could conceive of, therefore had some kind of objective reality. As a result, he was converting a discursive epistemology into a false ontology. Plato made this ‘mistake’ over and over again.

A second major theme of Frazer’s essay is the notion that Plato did not have a logically coherent and doctrinal definition of Being at the time he was writing his dialogues. Hence, the apparent changes in Plato’s point of view when dealing with questions concerning ultimate reality, can be explained in terms of a process of development. In short, he changed his mind, according to where he was in terms of his intellectual progress. As a result, much of Frazer’s essay is critically concerned with the contemporary discussion of the order in which the dialogues were composed. This order was supposed to be established on the basis of style, and the sequence in which various questions in the dialogues were discussed and apparently dismissed. One of these questions involved the plausibility or otherwise of what Frazer called ‘Plato’s Ideal Theory’ (his theory of the Forms). Then as now this procedure was inconclusive, and the order of dialogues proposed by Frazer is as problematic and unconvincing as any other which has been proposed.

The third theme does not occupy much space in his essay, since his conclusion is that the whole subject of the idea of Being is not worth discussing, since, as he says, ‘nothing can be predicated of Being’.

This is a staggering assertion, given the amount of words which have been written on the idea of Being over the past two and a half thousand years. Frazer takes his cue for this both from Locke’s doctrine of the association of ideas, and from the apparently unresolved questions about Being which appear in the Platonic dialogues. For Frazer, there is simply nothing to say on the question of the reality of Being.

This nearly clears up the mystery. But it leaves us with another mystery. It is one thing to come to the conclusion that nothing sensible can be said about the nature of Being; it is another to then entirely ignore the discussions about Being which had been taking place across the entire period of time covered by The Golden Bough, and also to ignore the fact that the nature of Being had in the past been understood to underpin ideas about magic and religion.

Not only did he not engage with these ideas, he wrote about the human race as if there never had been an idea of Being in support of the phenomenal aspects of human culture.

The consequence of this is that, for more than forty years, what Frazer was writing was a species of literary fiction, resulting from a Lockean reinterpretation of the evidence. Thus, The Golden Bough is essentially a study of human culture, with one of its most important and perennial features written out, and replaced with another understanding of how things came to have meaning: the idea that the vastness of human experience was, for the most part, built on mistaken notions of sympathy and contagion.


An early samizdat-style text of Thomas Yaeger’s J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being was available on the web for about six years as a series of linked HTML files, from January 1999 to 2005. This is the first time it has been formatted as an eBook, and given a formal commercial distribution.

Title: J.G. Frazer and the Platonic Theory of Being
Author: Thomas Yaeger
ISBN: 9781310105470
Published by the Anshar Press, April 4, 2016
Format: ePub format eBook

Size: 23 thousand words. 

Title of this article amended Jan 24 2017, to more clearly distinguish it from another more concerned with the philosophical background to The Golden Bough. TY.

Monday, 17 October 2016

'Shar Kishati' and The Cult of Eternity

This is part of a chapter from the draft of The Sacred History of Being which was under way in 2004. The chapter did not make it through to the final version which was published in November 2015, though I did write about the same things in the published version, in slightly different terms. I had moved on considerably in those eleven years.

Trying to separate out key aspects of Greek and Mesopotamian models of Reality, as I did here,  was something of a methodological conceit, and the discussion of the hypothetical core of the ancient understanding of Reality as something which might be separated from everything else,  doesn't mean that such a hypothetical core existed apart from the rest of the religious and theological implex of ideas which constituted Greek and Mesopotamian religion. The point of the exercise was to explore what was actually essential to that implex of ideas, and to get a better understanding of why it was important to the functioning of the ritual universe in both Greece and Mesopotamia.

So this text should be understood as a snapshot of how I was approaching the ancient data, and the different points of view I was exploring, as part of the study in 2004.

Essentially what I called in this text the 'Cult of Eternity' revolves around the 'Doctrine of Totalities', which is mentioned in connection with Pythagoras, is described by Plato, mentioned by the Neoplatonists, and is also referenced in a Nag Hammadi text. We know the doctrine was known in Babylon, and it is possible that Pythagoras learned of it while he was there. It is in fact a logical modality, though currently it is not recognised as such. It can be argued that this logical modality underpins the entire intellectual edifice of Mesopotamian thought, and much of the philosophical thought in ancient Greece, from Pythagoras onwards.

I have taken the liberty of re-Englishing some of the text, but the argument is as it was.

Thomas Yaeger, October 17, 2016

Defining the Cult

Why characterise the beliefs of some elite groups in Greece and
Mesopotamia as cultic, rather than considering them simply as elite groups
functioning within the social and institutional structures of these cultures?

The reason for this is quite simple: the belief system of these elite groups is at variance
with aspects of the more broadly based belief system of the culture in which the cult is
embedded. The cult in question enshrines a pattern of belief which is shared by a small
and influential group; it has great meaning for that group, and it informs
almost every aspect of their lives. It has all the characteristics of
individuated cults – liturgy, ritual, festival, sacred objects and images, etc. It
also has a secret at its core, which is often a feature of individuated cult*1.

It is not strictly a secret society however – or at least we have no reason to
believe that it functioned entirely in secret. This does not mean that it functioned in
public – rather that it functioned as an elite club, occasionally admitting new members,
according to merit. Thus, it would be possible for individuals outside the group to
know something of its existence, and perhaps to know individuals who belonged to the
group, as well as perhaps knowing the time and place of ritual, etc. But these individuals
would not know any significant detail of the cult, either in terms of practice or belief.*2
 It is a secret society however in terms of it having secret aims and beliefs, and a
restricted membership.

Its function was religious. The detail of what was involved and the belief
system which underpinned this activity is the focus of this study.
In essence what we have uncovered is a way of thinking of some
importance in history. It underpins the historical development of many
ancient religions, even if it is not itself older than these religions, or is not
native to the region in which the religions grew up.

It needs a name, if we are not always to be returning to the details of its nature
and influence in order to indicate its involvement. I have decided to call this
phenomenon the ‘Cult of Eternity’, since it is clear that emulation of the nature
of eternity is the principal goal of this school of thought: the source of the cult is
the understanding of the importance of invariance above all else, and the members
of the cult are focussed on eternity. Eternity is a concept which all important
religions - of which we have knowledge - have.

We are not talking here about an organisation with physical and intellectual
continuity across both time and the geography of the ancient world when
we talk about the ‘Cult of Eternity’: what we are talking about is a way of
thinking which might have been transmitted by contact between elite groups
over large geographical distances, but which, alternatively, might as easily
come to exist at a certain place and time whether or not such actual contact
has occurred. If it can arise as a notion spontaneously in the mind of one
man, then it has arrived within the culture in question.*3

If it subsequently informs the theological and religious structures of that culture,
then that form of cultic belief is of importance to the understanding of that culture,
and its dynamics.

It must be understood as a cult in the sense that it involves a shared set of beliefs,
understandings, and practices belonging to a small group within ancient cultures.*4
The true nature of these cultic beliefs were not understood – and perhaps not even
 suspected outside of members of the royal court, and some parts of the priesthood.

Notwithstanding the fact that we can often trace the ideas of the cult in the
art and literature and language of a culture, where elements associated with
the cult have shaped the outward form of the institutional religion, the
nature of the core ideas of the cult, then as now, make it very unlikely that
any but a small group of people with control of the political and religious
hegemony could hold these beliefs.

The Pattern of Belief

What is the essential nature of this cultic belief? It can be stated quite
simply, though its difficult passage through history has been as a
consequence of the fact that its essential nature it is so easy to miss, and to
lose, without any sense that something important has been lost.

It is lost when the understanding that the doctrine enshrines images which
are understood as recollections of the ur reality, turns into the notion that the
images themselves, whether in ritual or narrative or poetic form, represent
the matter of the cult, rather than pointers and paths to the real goal of the

In essence the central belief of the cult is that reality itself is utterly
transcendent of all the characteristics and properties of earthly existence.
The divine, as a consequence of this understanding, is understood as
entirely beyond our human ability to grasp, except in terms of a crude
inversion of the categories normally employed in our understanding. This
idea of reality is conveyed and referred to by means of a number of images
– these may be actual images, through descriptions of images, through
ritual, through narrative, and through mythic and poetic constructs.

One of the key concepts of this cult is the distinction between the secular
and the eternal. Most of the desirable (and as Robert Graves might say,
‘nostalgic’) characteristics of reality are imaged in the idea of the eternal. It
does not move, does not participate, but simply is itself. The moving image
of eternity, which we have seen is of central importance in the Greek
version of the doctrine of the cult, is the one which does participate in
generation, which does move. Significantly, it is itself described as an
image, since it, along with all the elements of secularity within the moving
image, is an approximation, a metaphor to the all but indescribable and

The second aspect of this pattern of belief in a completely transcendent ur
reality, is that there are certain areas of earthly reality which are closely
connected with the ur reality. These areas are the limits or boundaries of
things. A characteristic of a limit or a boundary is that it is the place where
something passes into something else. In this place, the utter limit of
something is no longer what it is, but is the place between what that thing
was (whatever it was) and the thing which is beyond. In other words, the
boundary or limit is a no-man’s-land in terms of categorical understanding.
In consequence, it resembles very strongly the nature of the divine.

Why this Pattern?

Why do these properties of both the ur reality and of boundaries and limits
have such importance for those involved in the cult? Because the ur reality
is the place of generation, the place of the ur decisions – the principal
separations and divisions of eternity, the place of ultimate completion – the
ur of all and everything. Like the soil of the original home of a tribe, packed
into its ritual altar, its ‘first earth’, eternity is the place and condition of
resort when change, joining, sundering, enhancement, and judgement are
required. The devotee of the cult can, by means of its rituals and discipline,
both travel there, and bring eternity to the here and now.

The tribe need not have a theory of being to know the importance of ‘first earth’,
and it is not necessary for there to be a theory of being behind the existence and
importance of the practice. However it is clear that the concept of an ur
reality has abstracted to the nth degree many of the simpler notions which
occur to man, and brought them together, as Solon suggested to Croesus, ‘to
arrive at the proper time and agree’.*5 Where we find many clues to the
existence of this abstracted and rarified vision of the other in one or several
cultures, we cannot ignore these clues without damaging our capacity to
understand the cultural processes at work.

One of the problems which historians face in studying the ancient world is
the problem of studying patterns of belief which, are full of the practice of things
which have become reprehensible or meaningless - magic, witchcraft, divination
and sacrifice. To the modern scholar, these are credulous beliefs, without
foundation in anything which makes sense to the rational mind, and so the
historian is expected to have no sympathy wth the patterns of thought involved -
beyond that necessary to explore the social and cultural dynamics of these beliefs
in the material under examination. It is of course perfectly possible to write an excellent
study of a belief system without the writer sharing that belief system, but, for the
sake of professional credibility, it is important that objectivity – the ‘not sharing’ in
the belief system under study – is visible and public. Hence there is a tendency for
historians to avoid as far as possible discussion of beliefs and the intellectual undertow
of ancient practice, and where they find it necessary to engage with it, they usually
describe rather than analyse.

The difficulty of a historian is therefore very great, if we attempt to bring in
from the cold the common practice of the ancient world, and its intellectual
origins within a pattern of cultic belief and ritual. If it is more like what we understand
 than we (formerly) understood, and belongs to the known tradition of understanding
the world in terms of the relationship between being and the world of becoming,
then a danger emerges that the work involved might seem like a rehabilitation rather
than an objective study.*6

Who would be safe? The objectivity of a discipline can mean that the object of
study is preferred lying dead on the dissecting table, rather than as something whose
whole nature requires study as a living thing: the object is studied as an ‘it’ rather than as
 a ‘thou’. Where its dynamics are explored, these are often framed within modern
models of the forces at work in social structures, since these are the product of rational
discussion over many decades, and give us the tools and approaches to understand social

But is this really adequate as an approach? The cultures of the ancient world once lived,
and it is important to look at them as living things, driven by by their own will and
concerns. Looking at these cultures as supported and vivified by the powerhouse of a
theory of Being allows us to understand what it is that shapes them, and to understand
the connections between that powerhouse and more distributed and diffuse practices and

The cult itself is sustained by the inner logic of its belief system. Based on the
understanding of the importance of the concept of the eternal, it shares
serveral features with the religion in which it functions as the intellectual
core, supplying access to the functional aspects of the ur reality. Serving in
this way, it has a technical language, and technical logic. Much of this, particularly in
the fine detail, is lost to us within Mesopotamian culture, and we must also use non-textual
evidence as part of the recovery technique. But sometimes it peeps out at us, utterly
 inexplicable within the now traditional modes of interpretation which are applied to
near eastern  civilisations.

One example of this is the Akkadian phrase ‘Shar Kishati’, which was applied to Assyrian
Kings in the 1st Millennium B.C.E. The phrase literally means: ‘King of
Totality’. This makes very poor sense outside of the context of a cultic model
for the importance of the king – the phrase does not specify the nature or context of
the totality – whether it is to be understood as a totality of nations, of peoples, or even of
the world.

Within the context of a cult which has the pursuit of eternity at its core, the epithet
makes perfect sense: totality is one of the ways in which eternity may be
spoken of, since the eternal is the undivided and undifferentiated ur reality,
before the creation, the moving image of the same. The phrase ‘King of the
Four Quarters’ similarly does not refer (except where made explicit) to
earthly power and hegemony. The ‘four quarters’ refer to a division of the
ur reality or totality made by the cult, in which the properties of kingship
are defined in terms of different images of his transcendence over the

These images are connected with the bull, the ram, the eagle, and
man. Other combinations of images are possible, and  found, but these
four are the principle ones. Very often aspects of these animals are brought
together in images of the King and of the sages, so that the leg of the king is
overmuscled to invoke the strength of the bull; his cloak is feathered in
order to invoke the power and clarity of vision of the eagle*8, and he wears
a torque around his arm whose ends are marked with ram’s heads, a
favoured animal for the purposes of enquiry by divination. The human part
of the quartet represents intelligence and the rational part of the soul.

That this totality of the four quarters is something to which limits and
borders are closely associated is clear from the fact that the quartet of
images is often combined in the sacred winged bulls, found situated within
the limits of palaces and temples, marking the gateway between the
precincts of the palace or temple, and the outside secular world of movement
 and change.

Notes -

1 We are familiar with the existence and importance of the indivuated Greek cults,
which eventually assumed an enormous importance in the later Roman Empire.
Herodotus sometimes mentions these cults, but makes offhand references to the
nature of the rites performed in thse ceromonies, saying ‘those who have experienced
 them will know what I mean’. The details were secret from the uninitiated. We do not know
about the details of the cult of the Great Gods, the Kabiroi at Samothrace, on account of
this reticence on the part of Herodotus. As for Mesopotamian cults, we know that the whole
religious edifice functioned more or less as an assemblage of individuated cults. Those in
the lower levels ofsociety were simply not admitted to cult buildings at all, far less being
admitted to worship or to participate in ritual. So far however, it has not been considered as a possibility that the whole thing was held together by a cult which might be restricted to an
even smaller group, initiated into a cult whose ideas reflect a different kind of
intellectual picture of the world

2 Of course there are exceptions to this rule. The journalist Richard Carlile gained access to
Masonic ceremonies and documents in the early years of the 19th century, and wrote
extensively about this cult. Though he was pilloried for his efforts at the time, it was not
long before his ‘Manual of Masonry’ was being used in preference to official texts by the
members of the craft – indeed, one of the two copies I own has clearly been marked by
someone learning the rites of the craft.

3 The question of the routes by which the ideas of the cult have moved around is
nevertheless interesting, and in some instances it is possible to point at likely nodes
of contact and exchange. However this question is beyond the scope of this book.

4 I have defined the belief in the importance and efficacy of eternity as a cult for two
principal reasons. The first is that this belief is clearly necessarily confined to a small
group or network of individuals, for the simple reason that the nature of some of the
beliefs belonging to the cult would be anathema to the wider population. Talking of a
divine nature which has none of the properties of earthly existence could easily be
misunderstood as atheism. The second reason for defining this pattern of belief as cultic is
that, during the first millennium B.C. E., the belief system was more often than not
accompanied by cult ritual.

5 Those who invite for example the pre-eminent anthropologist of the ancient
world, Walter Burkhert, as keynote speaker to a conference on the subject, are perhaps
 unconsciously exhibiting similar behaviour to tribal elders who place ‘first earth’ at the
core of their cultic life.

6 We are familiar with the Platonic tradition, which, through a number of twists and
turns, is more or less continuous as a body of ideas in the west during the past two
and a quarter millennia. It isn’t a tradition which is continuously active, in that it is not always worked within, and sometimes it has lain fallow. However we can trace a continuous tradition
based on the original Platonic corpus all the way from classical Greece to modern times.
And sometimes this tradition has actively shaped institutions and patterns of belief.

Examples of the powerful influence of this tradition include the neo-Platonist writings, the
take-up of Platonic ideas within the court and intellectual life of the Italian Renaissance,
and its particularly fertile influence in the English Renaissance of the late sixteenth
century. What is being suggested here is that a similar pattern of tradition existed in the
ancient world before Plato, and that the Platonic writings, rather than instituting something
entirely new, refashion an existing tradition of arcane cultic ideas, passed on largely
through oral means, within small and select groups within institutions which offer a
conducive and receptive environment for these ideas. Plato therefore is one highly important
node in the tradition, particularly because he is deliberately trying to pass on a body of ideas being threatened by a wholly secular view of the world.

7 If it is faulty to approach ancient societies which are replete with magical practice as
supported by a theory of being which informs much of the detail of its belief and practice,
then we will find out our error soon enough: we will find no evidence to support the claim
which is not inexplicable by other means. Some of the key pieces of evidence in this book
have no explanation in terms of existing interpretative schema: they are not treated as
evidentially significant, even when they clearly absorbed much of the ancient economy, as
well as the time and intellectual focus of the elite of the society in question.

8 Most probably the feathered cloak also is intended to conjure the idea of the king
functioning in another world, as the eagle can exist on land, but has its true existence
 in the air