Friday, 28 April 2017

Ancient Conjectures, and Fictive Intellectual History



The following text is an extract from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Abstract Conception in Greece and Assyria. It concerns the question of whether or not there was a philosophical basis for the development of religious concepts in antiquity, informing ritual, liturgy, divination, sacrifice, and the worship of images; and therefore, as a consequence, philosophy was not the exclusive possession of the Greeks in the 1st millennium B.C.E. 

This argument of course turns the received view of the historical relationship between religion and philosophy upside down: we like to think that the development of philosophy was a practical response to religion as it became an outworn and irrational phenomenon, which preceded a more scientific approach to phenomena and nature. If such a sequence is in fact falsely inferred, and undermined by the evidence, then we have some rethinking to do.

The extract references both my earlier book The Sacred History of Being, and the contents of the forthcoming volume.

Thomas Yaeger, April 28, 2017 



What has been argued in part one of the book is that ideas of Being, of the nature of reality, and the divine, were once understood in terms of conjecture about the reality (or otherwise) of the one and the many. These follow on from the initial question, which is: why is there something rather than nothing? Plato’s argument, following on from propositions made by Parmenides, who declared that we should look only to the one, and that only the one truly exists, is the most sophisticated of all discussions in antiquity concerning why there should be something rather than nothing.

Plato argues that we should always look to the ‘one true thing’. This is different from saying only the one exists, or only the one is truly real.

J.G. Frazer was very dismissive of Greek questions concerning the one and the many, saying that they constituted ‘popular questions of the day’. The argument of Parmenides remained entirely undiscussed.  But then he argued that questions concerning Being were entirely barren, since nothing could be predicated of Being.

This of course is a spectacular instance of intellectual blindness, by which the richness of the intellectual matrix of ancient Greek thought was spirited into nothingness. We like to see Plato’s discussion of Being as the surfacing of a human capacity to grapple with abstract ideas, and the marker of our emancipation from irrational ideas about the world and the gods. For Frazer, Plato was as guilty of intellectual error as any of his contemporaries, as well as his predecessors.

In late Hellenistic times, there seems to have been a very poor grasp of the context of the development of philosophy around the Mediterranean. Nods were made toward the notion that the discipline of philosophy might not have been first developed in Greece, including (tellingly) at the beginning of Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Philosophers.  Plato after all argued against the idea that this was so in the Protagoras, saying that it was of a great age – perhaps contemporary with the arrival of peoples from Egypt, who settled in the Peloponnese, and in also Crete. 

He also presented Solon in discussion with Egyptian priests in the pages of the Timaeus, who found the Greeks very young, and not conversant with knowledge ‘hoary with age’.  Aristotle (in his Metaphysics) presented the common sense view that philosophy was first developed in a place where there was a leisured class, with the time and resources to think about philosophical questions. He may have had Egypt in mind, since Egypt had professionalised priesthoods. 

Later philosophers such as Porphyry suggested that key parts of Pythagorean doctrine came west to Greece from Babylon, in the late sixth century (Plato references details of this doctrine, without connecting it explicitly to Pythagoras). We have also seen that aspects of that doctrine can be found elsewhere in Herodotus (concerning Solon), and also in Homer’s Iliad (Book 18), where a number of key details associated with the doctrine are run together in close order, without being explained. 

The former Priest of Bel at Babylon, Berossus, moved to Athens, probably during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus in Egypt, and wrote about Babylonian history and philosophy, describing their system of knowledge as based on an initial plenum, using the image of a sage emerging daily from the sea, granting knowledge to man about the sciences, agriculture, and the practical arts.

Not much of this was of use to the Enlightenment agenda, which preferred to look at the development of philosophy in Greece as the first beginnings of a rational understanding of the world. And so the information was deprecated and ignored. The phrase ‘I doubt that’ is a dangerous one in the classics community. It is a way of saying ‘this is not the consensus view of scholars and the profession’. Usually no discussion follows, since the opinion is usually an opinion of the worth (or otherwise) of evidence. Scholars weigh evidence, and they do so (they are convinced) with better tools than were available to ancient scholars. The judgement is fitted to modern requirements. So, as a result, it is clear that it is unlikely that Solon visited Egypt, and that Pythagoras visited Babylon. Tread carefully, or your credibility as a scholar may be in doubt.

Thus, the scholarly consensus is that philosophy is an autochthonous development. Why in Greece? The ‘Greek Genius’ won’t cut the mustard any more, at least by itself, but I have heard it said by people who should know better. But during the high days of the Enlightenment, and the beginnings of what became the fully-fledged discipline of Classics, that is what the scholars wanted. Something pure and out of the orbit of other cultures, which, by definition, had no philosophy or anything which would measure up to something like rational thought.

Sometimes history is built backwards. It isn’t just a matter of looking to the historical record and starting from that. History always has been in part about critical scrutiny of sources and judgements, even among the Greeks. But as Bernal pointed out in the first volume of his Black Athena, the critical revision was wholesale, with the purpose of creating a representation of the true origins of European civilisation as it entered the period of the Enlightenment.

That was the agenda. To reinterpret the past, and in terms of a rational and enlightened understanding of the world. Hence, Diderot wrote not just about ideas and philosophy in his Encyclopedia, but also about the arts and crafts. The latter may have been wrapped up with myth, folklore, and superstition, but they were still essential to the rational life of man, so these were also added to the Encyclopedia. Everything from the past which served some purpose, or which could be made to serve some purpose within the rational enlightenment model of reality, was critically examined, and reworked to fit what was intended to become a new understanding of man and his place in a new world of reason. A new understanding of how man might live.

As I point out in the chapter ‘Logical Modality in Classical Athens’ there are in fact two logical modalities present in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle is mostly (though not always) concerned with the modality which has come down to us as the basis of formal logic. Plato is clearly aware of this modality, but, though no scholar has dared to identify the other modality as logical, it is. It is simply that to us, it does not describe relationships which should be described as logical. Plato thought otherwise, and talks about this logical modality often, in the Republic and in the Timaeus. It is connected with the doctrine of wholes and totalities, and is the basis of explaining how things may participate in other things, which is not a pattern of ideas which fits with Aristotle’s general understanding of logic.

Why is this important? Simply put, it matters because it is the basis of the Greek understanding of how transcendent reality relates to secular and physical existence, which was a matter of great significance in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.  The doctrine also underpins the understanding of both transcendent reality, and the idea of the immanence of the divine. It also points to a rather strange conclusion about the nature of the reality in which we live and think.

It might be imagined therefore that this would be the subject of a great deal of scholarship. In fact there is very little on the subject. The dialogues in question have been written about endlessly over the last two centuries, but, though Plato’s discussion is noted, the fact that it is a form of logical modality is not acknowledged, and the conclusions which might follow from treating it as such, do not follow, and are therefore not discussed. It is treated as it is presented – as mathematical and geometrical metaphors for how things might possess some form of congruence with each other.

As I wrote in the chapter ‘Sweet Song of Swans’, there is very little appetite for attempting to understand Plato in his own terms. When he talks about transcendent reality, this is treated as some sort of literary fiction, which has no necessary properties of its own. When Plato talks about the Forms, this also is treated as a species of literary fiction, which Plato himself demolished in his Parmenides and in the Sophist. Wnen Plato discusses the soul, it turns out that it is something which has the property of being connected with the Form of the Good, and so knowledge is acquired by the activation of that connection. We have forgotten what we knew (apparently) through the shock of physical birth, but it is possible for us to reacquire this knowledge.  Deriving all knowledge from the Form of the Good is also seen as a bafflingly impenetrable notion, since he talks about ascending purely in the mind from Form to Form, and then descending back to the world of physical reality, Form by Form, and says this is the only way to acquire genuine knowledge.

How can real knowledge be acquired in this way? Why should Plato argue like this?  How can any of this make sense to us?

It makes very little sense to us, because we have lost the original doctrinal context of his discussions, and we are not that interested in attempting to recover what we can of that context, even for the purposes of a better scholarly understanding of what he is talking about. So the study of Plato languishes in the seminar room, taught and discussed from generation to generation by people who have no clear idea of what Plato meant. Books and papers are published, which clear up a minor detail here, discuss another one there, but do not leave us much the wiser.

 We can understand the range of existing discussion about Plato in terms of what scholars do not or cannot understand about Plato, and their attempts to fit what they think they understand about his work into some kind of modern intellectual and critical frame. It is their minds, and the categories of their own understanding which are problematic, not the obscurity of Plato’s ideas.

Other than that, reading Plato at least serves to teach us something about how we used to think, and how we may think, even if we understand very little of what he is saying.

One of the principal reasons we cannot easily understand Plato is down to the loss of an understanding of that alternative logical modality. So a major concern of this book is to restore knowledge of it, and a basic comprehension of why it is important. Not just for our understanding of Plato himself, but also for our understanding of his cultural context; the context in which philosophy was understood to be of inestimable value; and also for an understanding of some very strange things about the ancient world, which are all the stranger because (it seems) they made sense in antiquity (sacrifice, divination, idolatry, prophecy, omens, oracles, etc.).

One of the most valued books in my library is Religion & Magic: Approaches and Theories. The author is Graham Cunningham, who is a specialist in the ancient Near East. Anthropology is a relatively young discipline, though crowded with many points of view. Cunningham’s book covers the whole range of these, at least in terms of summarising the views of those who first suggested those theoretical approaches. He divides the approaches into several sections, which are 1. German pioneers, 2 Early Intellectualist approaches, 3 Emotionalist approaches, 4 Phenomenological Approaches, 5 Structural Functional Approaches, 6 Symbolic Approaches, 7 Recent Intellectualist Approaches, 8 Structural approaches, 9, Cognitive Approaches, 10, and finally Feminist Approaches.
All of these approaches were developed and used without any meaningful distinction being made between ancient cultural phenomena and cultural phenomena of modern times. I write carefully here, since there are unpleasant assumptions in the discipline of anthropology, which have not yet been rooted out entirely. Anthropology was founded in the early nineteenth century, and the presumptions of the time are necessarily locked into the work of the pioneers. Many of these presumptions are still implicit, and can be called into the light of day if you scratch the modern anthropologist in the course of discussion. The fact is that an unfounded equation was early made between the cultures of antiquity and the world of the primitive and the savage in the modern world (which the Classicist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson referred to as ‘running folklore to the death’).
So Cunningham’s book covers two centuries of thought about culture, civilization, religion, magic and ritual. All premised on the assumptions, understanding and categories of knowledge of those living and working in those two centuries. Nothing about those matters is covered from earlier centuries. It is as if the study of human culture, human thought, and the nature of man himself, began only in Hegel’s study, and nothing of worth came before Hegel.
I could digress here, and lay out what came before in detail, but that is for another time. I will allow myself to say that Plato had something else to add to the pot, which is not covered in Cunningham’s survey; the Neoplatonists (who thought of themselves as Platonists, but we will not let them be what they are) would have had added the same thing to the pot, as would some of the early Gnostic writers.
 The Platonists of the Italian and English Renaissances understood what Plato was writing about, at least for the most part, and would be shocked that, not only do we not understand Plato, but that we have chosen to explain human culture in terms of a fundamental stupidity about the way reality works, and with a complete disregard for the way the human mind was once understood to engage with that reality.
In short, religion is seen by all anthropologists and sociologists  in negative terms (at least professionally – what they choose to believe in private is a separate matter), as something baleful and poisonous to human culture and human thought, except to the extent that religious belief provides social cohesion, ideology, and rules of social behaviour.....
A full chapter list for Abstract Conception in Greece and Assyria is available.

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