Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Preface to 'The Sacred History of Being'

Arthur Lovejoy explored the long history of the idea of Being (particularly the associated idea of plenitude) in the cultural history of the West, from Plato to modern times, in The Great Chain of Being. In the process he created the discipline of the History of Ideas, which stands to some degree in opposition to the History of Philosophy. The latter is in thrall to the intellectual frame which was established by the Greeks and the scholars and compilers of the Hellenistic world, which has been endlessly refined since the renaissance, and significantly revised since the later rise of the research university in the mid to late eighteenth century. This intellectual frame is now protected by classics and philosophy departments worldwide. The History of Ideas by contrast is a discipline which has no a priori interest in maintaining the current status of any body of ideas, since it seeks to place ideas in their proper context, whatever their current context may be.

This book is an essay in the History of Ideas. It differs from Lovejoy’s extensive essay in that it inserts the idea of Being into the period extending from the middle of the second millennium BCE up until Plato and Aristotle, which is nominally the point at which the idea of Being begins as a subject of articulate discussion. The reason for inserting this idea into a period where it is not supposed to belong, is that the evidence for the existence of this idea is in fact clearly present, and in volume, and the existing arguments against the presence of an articulate idea of Being in antiquity before the advent of Greek philosophy are outdated and essentially baseless. Much ink and argument has been expended to keep the early first millennium intellectual world free of a coherent idea of Being, but the evidence indicates that this is an idea which was integral and underpinning to concepts of essential importance to Mesopotamian civilisation.

When the followers of Arthur Lovejoy entered the territory of the European renaissance in the middle years of the twentieth century, they found the territory practically deserted, except for art historians and literary specialists. They were not threatening established academic disciplines and reputations with this incursion, and as a result, have repaired much of the damage to our understanding of this critical period of our intellectual history, which had suffered centuries of neglect.

By contrast, the study of ancient civilization is laden with a number of established academic interests – classics, history, anthropology, philosophy, etc. The territory is relatively crowded. History in particular is a discipline with a heavy interest in interpretation, since it employs an approach to evidence which (historians believe) has a universal applicability, and so they are defending a methodological approach, as well as the interpretation of the evidence.

Plato is supposedly the first to rigorously engage with the idea of Being. He is one of our best sources for the understanding of ancient ways of thinking, and it is useful to read him carefully, and to follow the consequences of his arguments, since he wished to be understood, even if he expressed himself through necessarily obscure and technical language. Some of the esoteric doctrines turn out to be present in his text, once key aspects of his argument are properly grasped. This is true particularly in connection with his idea of the Forms, and his theory of knowledge.

It can be shown that his arguments about the Forms or Ideas are connected with the practice of the worship of divine statues, which connection should long ago have been made by scholarship. All direct documentation of the ritual for the installation of cult statuary in Greece has perished, even if we have, in cryptic form, an account of the rationale from Plato. However, through extraordinary good fortune,  rituals and incantations for the installation of cult statues in Assyria and Babylonia survive, so it is possible for us to examine these to understand how these cult objects fitted into a social structure focussed on knowledge of the divine (as was the case in both Greece and Assyria).

Assyria is, for a period of around a hundred and fifty years, the best documented civilization in antiquity. From it we have an invaluable record of the actual conduct of a ritual installation conducted by Esarhaddon, one of the last kings of Assyria. This tells us many things about how the process was understood, which otherwise we would have to guess at.

Idolatry has been very poorly served by historians and scholars of antiquity until recently. It seems in general that scholarship has been content to treat idolatry as a part of the ancient world which not only does not make sense to us, but was probably also an incoherent and wholly credulous nonsense to the ancients. In other words it is seen as the product of a primitive stupidity (urdummheit), bearing no relation to anything approaching reason, and we should not expect to make much of it. However Wittgenstein warned against this approach to evidence, particularly in connection with J. G. Frazer’s widely read (and critically outmoded) interpretation of ancient systems of belief. He suggested that perhaps if we understood the context of the beliefs, we would understand how these beliefs might represent what, at the time, would have been an intelligible response to that context. In any case it is arrogant of us to assume, a priori, that those who have quite different belief systems from ourselves, are foolish and misguided.

The idea of Being and its associated ideas represents a noumenal frame which can (and should) underpin an understanding of the phenomena of ancient religions in the Mediterranean and in the near East.  By this I mean that the idea of Being was common to a number of cultures in this area in the millennium and a half before the advent of the common era. The suggestion is, that it is possible to build phenomenal public religious structures, with distinctive and distinct imagery and liturgy, on the basis of a very similar set of discussions of the noumenal basis which a theory of Being provides. In other words, a number of cultural features which are held in common in states such as Greece and Assyria, such as polytheism, idolatry, sacrifice, divination, and so on, have their origin and their source of meaning in the common grasp of a theory of Being by the priestly classes around the Mediterranean and the near-east.

In general, during the past two hundred years, scholarship has accepted that the creation described in Plato’s Timaeus involves a copy of reality, which contains the universe of movement and change. This argument was always a tease by Plato, indicated by his labelling it as a ‘likelihood’. It is however possible to show, through close analysis of Plato’s argument, that he tells us what he really holds about the nature of reality, and the relationship of the moving image of it to that reality. Which is that there is only subjective apprehension of aspects of Being, and nothing is fundamentally separable from Being. This interpretation is explored, in particular for its important implications for the theory of Forms, his neglected theory of vision, and the perceived relationship between epistemology and ontology in the ancient world. It explains a large number of things in the evidence which remains, which otherwise have no explanation, such as the emphasis on the power of the word, and the power to call the gods into existence.

Plato’s view of reality as ultimately subjective has a close parallel in the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley’s seventeenth century view, in which, similarly, there is no objective reality which can be established beyond our capacity to perceive.

So, this is a radical book.  It sets out to critique our view of the ancient past, which is essentially a complex consensus reality - reducing to meaninglessness many crucial and endlessly repeated details - through criticism of some of the many preconceptions and assumptions we use to understand the evidence. It also seeks to sketch out an alternative construction of the intellectual world of antiquity in both Greece and Assyria.  It isn't a book to be read by students studying for examinations. Though students of these subjects might like to read it afterwards for a significantly different background perspective.

The plan of the book is relatively simple. It is divided into three main parts. The first part explores the ontological argument from the early modern period (Bishop Anselm) up to Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century. Ontology is really about the study of reality, rather than about providing a proof of the existence of God, which is what the ontological argument is now understood to be. The point of the survey is to show that most of the discussion relating to the proof of the existence of God is poorly argued, and often based on loose and unreliable definitions. These arguments also don't deal credibly with the nature of reality, for the reason that the ideas of God under discussion aren't understood to have a bearing on the nature of reality itself. This is true even for Kant (for whom I have enormous respect), who understood better than most that the question of what reality is, depends on what the available categories of our understanding bring to the inquiry.

Discussion of Being and the nature of reality itself was much more sophisticated in the ancient world than anything produced since, though not written up as formal argument. Exploration of argument about the nature of Being in ancient Greece is the subject of the second part.  The history of Plato scholarship (only around two centuries old) is also critically examined. Currently split into two camps, the first arguing his thought developed over time, and the second arguing he was writing around a consistent but impenetrable doctrine, which is not explained in the texts. The former ignore many of Plato's statements and arguments in order to make their case. The latter are usually fighting a rearguard action, since it is hard to define what they are defending.

A third position is considered, based on a formulation which appears in Plato's Timaeus, whose implications have not been explored properly.  This formulation, in conjunction with discussion elsewhere in Plato's work, about whether reality is one or two,  necessarily promotes the idea that Plato was writing about a reality that is wholly transcendental in nature. That is, there is no real distinction between the ineffable and unchanging nature of Being, and the world of movement and change, the knower and the known, and that consequently, the latter world is an illusion. What is new here is the analysis of Plato's arguments, which provides support for the third position.

This has a bearing on Plato's discussion of the Forms. Both camps have made nothing of a key remark in the Sophist where the Forms are directly and unequivocally connected with divine statues. [1] The home of gods, but apparently devoid of thought or movement on earth. This remark connects Plato's discussion of Being with the ritual and theology of both Greece and the near East, and suggests (as Plato himself did) a great age for the practice of philosophy.

The role of Being in the 1st millennium BCE in both Greece and Assyria, and the evidence for it, is the subject of the Third Part.

A few notes on spellings. This is a cross-disciplinary work, which quotes from a wide variety of sources. Greek text has been kept to a minimum, and has been transliterated into roman letters, so it can be pronounced as it appears. A dash over a vowel indicates that it is long. Thus an 'ō indicates the omega, which is a long vowel, as in 'zōon.' Pronunciation of Sumerian and Akkadian words is not settled and secure, and since I've quoted from different writers, the same names appear in slightly different forms, such as Apsu/Abzu. I chose not to normalise these throughout the text. Shamash, here rendered in roman letters, will sometimes be found spelled 'Šamaš.' So 'š'  is vocalised as 'sh'. Other letters found in Akkadian are: 'ḫ'  which is pronounced as a roughly vocalised 'h', close to the 'ch' sound in 'loch';   'ṣ' is a dental sibilant, which should be pronounced 'ts' as in 'tsar'.

There is a bibliography at the end of the book. Articles consulted are referenced in the footnotes.

Thomas Yaeger, Edinburgh, February 2015.

[1] In Lewis Campbell's edition of the Sophist, from 1867.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology

'Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia' - Marc Van De Mieroop. Princeton University Press, October 2015. 

Marc Van De Mieroop’s book is an exploration of how the Babylonians understood and processed their reality in the 1st and 2nd millennia BCE, long before the Greeks developed the apparatus of logical thought which we now associate with philosophy in the 5th century BCE.  Van De Mieroop chooses to call the Babylonian understanding of reality, which he describes in detail, ‘philosophy’. However what he is describing is, as he describes it, so far removed from what is understood in the west as philosophy, that it may be perplexing for the reader looking for the wider context of the development of the discipline in antiquity. It does not take Greek philosophy as its starting point, which might have seemed to be the obvious starting point. Instead, it proceeds with a phenomenological analysis of a variety of scribal processes, found in legal, omen and literary texts. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia’, so it will seem to someone picking up the book that we must be in cultural and intellectual territory familiar to us. We are not.

The book is divided into five parts and nine chapters. The first part is called ‘An Essay in Babylonian Epistemology’ and has one chapter, ‘At the Time of Creation’. This draws on the Enuma Elish (when on high), which is the liturgy of the Babylonian New Year Festival. Using this document, Van De Mieroop establishes his starting point, and the approach to the subject which he is going to take. Which is to argue that for the Babylonian scholar the text (and the process by which texts were created) was primary.

Part II, ‘The Order of Things’ (Les Mots et les Choses) has two chapters – the first gives a short history of the importance of the word lists in Babylonia; the second (chapter 3) is called ‘Constructing Reality’.

Part III ‘The Writing of the Gods’ has two chapters: ‘Omen Lists in Babylonian Culture’, and the second: ‘The Structure of Knowledge of the Universe’. This part of the book explores the idea that the Babylonians treated omens not just as divinations of the mind of the gods, but as encounters with a species of divine writing, which scribes and diviners could read and understand. This is a valuable part of the book, which ties together both the processes involved in scribal understanding of omens, and their understanding of the significance of the texts they produced in response to the omens.

Part IV is titled ‘The Word of the Law’, and the first of its two chapters look at the ancient law codes from the perspective of his argument. This chapter does illustrate clearly that the same kind of processes found underlying the construction of the literary and omen texts, also lie beneath the construction of the legal texts. The seventh chapter is ‘The Philosopher King’. It might be imagined that this chapter might contain some kind of comparison with Plato’s notion of the importance of knowledge to the Philosopher King, and how that knowledge might be acquired. Plato’s concept of the Philosopher King is mentioned briefly, but only to dismiss the idea that Plato was in the same cultural territory as the Babylonians, since Plato deprecated writing.

Part V, ‘A Babylonian Epistemology’ also has two chapters. The first gives an account of his understanding of Babylonian epistemology over historical time, from the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE onwards, until the cuneiform script ceased to be used or understood in the early years of the common era. The final chapter is titled: ‘The Conceptual Autonomy of Babylonian Epistemology’ and sums up Van De Mieroop’s argument that, for the Babylonians the text, and more importantly, the cuneiform script, was primary, and that processes by which the texts were created, whether literary, legal, ominous, or lexical lists, did not derive their importance from reference to things outside the texts and the script. The Babylonian construction of reality existed within the texts, and was generated by the process of writing.

Van De Mieroop therefore is not seeking to establish the philosophical nature of Babylonian thought by means of a comparison of Babylon literary, legal and divination texts and their contents, with similar documents from Greece, where these exist. In fact he does not engage in significant comparison with the intellectual output of Greece at all. ‘Philosophy before the Greeks’ is therefore a title which means, in the context of this study, something quite different to what it seems to mean. 

It is also the case that he does not attempt to define what philosophy is directly within the Babylonian context, but instead explores the concept through numerous examples, revealing a number of structuralist procedures employed by the scribes, and allows the logic and the consistency of scribal activity to emerge from these examples. We learn a lot about these processes, including instances where the processes contradict both human experience, and physical possibility. His conclusion from these is that they show that whatever meaning the resulting texts had was considered to reside in the texts, and so physical reality and possibility was not seen by Babylonian scholars as a legitimate constraint on the construction of these texts. 


"Philosophy before the Greeks is a sophisticated, erudite, strikingly original, well-argued, and richly documented study that will stand alone in ancient Mesopotamian studies." - Benjamin Foster, Yale University. That is a barbed accolade.

The first chapter of the book is available from Princeton University Press, at:

[See also my first short post about this book, in December 2015, at:]

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Idea of Knowledge in the Ancient World

Ten articles on the idea of knowledge as it was understood in the ancient world, as they were tweeted:

Nick Zacharewicz @NickSCZach (Jan 9, 2017)
"A great source if you're wondering how ancient peoples thought."

Divination in Antiquity (and the sense it made) #Telos #Divination #Sacrifce #immanence

To know about important things in the ancient world it was understood you needed to have insight into the mind of God. The process of gaining that insight involved the technique of divination, and the paying of due honour in the form of sacrifice.


'Whose right is it to make Gods?' The Idea of Being in Israel #Assyria #Israel #gods #images #idolatry #divinity

How can man make gods, and know the will of the gods? This was a live question in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, and it is still a problematic notion. It is a main focus of my book The Sacred History of Being, and this is a chapter from it.


The Fifty Names of Marduk #An #Babylon #EnumaElish #Marduk #Mesopotamia #NewYearFestival 

How the gods were characterised in the New Year Festival liturgy in Babylon. The pantheon reflects knowledge of the Divine. A chapter extract from The Sacred History of Being.


A Metaphysic beneath Theology? 'The Divine and the Limit' #Janus #liminality

The Divine and its aspects does not have to be represented in the form of images, but can be represented in terms of abstract ideas (the end, the limit, the completed, etc).


The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World
 #Assyria #Limit #Reality

How knowledge of the Divine was understood and represented in ancient Assyria (this extract points to the whole article which appeared in the Ritman Library Newsletter for December 2015. The article is freely available).


Understanding Ancient Religion: Cultural Parallels, and False Narratives #Hindu #Rome #Janus #Religio #Temple

Is ancient religion in general about knowledge and observance, rather than belief? If the history of the meaning of the term 'religio' is explored, our modern understanding of it falls apart.


Mesopotamian Polytheism, and the cult of Monotheism: Knowledge and Belief in Israel #Israel #Mesopotamia #Politics

It is possible to read the emergence of monotheism in Israel as a prolonged theological and philosophical controversy, in which the nature of a deity without form, colour, and shape, similar in nature to ‘the one thing’ that we should look to, as referenced by Plato, is debated.


Post-Enlightenment Plato, and That Which Cannot Move. #Plato #Gottingen #Reality #Philosophy #Universe #gods

How we have misunderstood the real history and function of philosophy, which had its origins in the 'cultus deorum', and which was based on the idea that man should strive for an understanding of the Divine. Post enlightenment philosophy is about an understanding of the world apart from knowledge of the Divine.  Which is why the ancient world is so hard for us to understand.


How Egypt lost Philosophy - in 'The Sweet Song of Swans' #AncientEgypt #Gottingen #Philosophy #Enlightenment

Egypt used to be regarded as the home of philosophy and the knowledge of Divine things. Not any more. Extracted from the chapter 'The Sweet Song of Swans' in The Sacred History of Being, published in November 2015. 


Logic, Sophistry and the Esoteric in Ancient Education #Aristotle #Plato #Logic #Sophistry #Esoteric #Philosophy

Truth and fiction in the education of the young. Finding those who could think for themselves.

TY, May 5, 2016

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Thomas Yaeger's Tweets for May 4, 2016

Today's scheduled tweets on the blog, which focus mainly on Mesopotamia. The Archaeology, Ancient History & Philosophy page is updated according to changes in the RSS feed sources:

Scheduled for:12:30pm · 4 May 2016
Archaeology, Ancient History & Philosophy Feeds: #Archaeology #AncientHistory #Philosophy

Scheduled for:2:31pm · 4 May 2016
The Fifty Names of Marduk #An #Babylon #EnumaElish #Marduk #Mesopotamia #NewYearFestival

Scheduled for:5:33pm · 4 May 2016
The Idea of the Plenum in Babylon #Babylon #AncientHistory #Plenum #Creation

Scheduled for:8:36pm · 4 May 2016
'Creation' (extract)  #Abyss #Belus #Berossus #Chaos #Creation #Heidel #Timaeus

Scheduled for:11:38pm · 4 May 2016

Understanding Ancient Religion: Cultural Parallels, and False Narratives #Hindu #Rome #Janus #Religio #Temple