Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Understanding Ancient Thought



My new book, which is now expected to be published July 10, 2017. 

This book is a compilation of nineteen essays drawn from a number of times and places. Some short, some long. All of them are meditations on our understanding of history (mostly ancient history), on the importance of philosophical ideas in antiquity, and also on our understanding of the human mind, then and now.

The ancient world is often very mysterious to us, since those who peopled that world believed different things. After the passage of two millennia, it is hard for us to make sense of the assemblage of information which has survived the enormous passage of time. Sometimes the nature of the evidence is problematic, and sometimes our approach to that evidence is the problem: we carry intellectual baggage which often makes it very difficult to know and understand what we are looking at.

In essence, this collection of essays attempts, as far as possible, to understand the ancient world within its original context, and to highlight where modern thought and the modern mind introduce obstacles to what can be understood.

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Current chapter list:

Divination in Antiquity was written in the latter stages of The Sacred History of Being. It was uploaded as a post to my website, and I promoted the essay by adding in brackets ‘and the sense it made’. Most people have no idea why divinatory procedures would ever have made sense in antiquity, but there is a sense to it, once the conceptual model in operation is grasped. This essay explores that conceptual model. 

Knowledge and Esoteric Doctrine concerns scholarly disinterest in the role of esoteric ideas and doctrine in ancient models of reality. Partly this disinterest is because the esoteric is, by definition,  kept secret and unknown, and partly because it is assumed that esoteric doctrine would have had no connection with abstract and universal ideas known to us, and therefore must remain unintelligible to us, even if we could disinter the details. The first of these appeals to the evidential invisibility of what is esoteric, and the second, to its irrational nature. Plato’s esoteric doctrine however is in plain view. We need to look for evidence, rather than presuming that it is not to be had.

Being, Knowledge and Belief in Israel is an expanded version of a chapter which appeared in The Sacred History of Being (The Idea of Being in Israel) which looked at the body of Mesopotamian ideas about the gods and the divine through the extensive commentary on these ideas present in the books of the Old Testament, and in documents from Assyria. The chapter also explored how Old Testament ideas about images were understood by the Christian writer Tertullian, in the early second century of the common era. Now supplemented by a discussion of the problematic relationship between monotheism and polytheism in the ancient Near East.

The Concept of the Plenum in Babylon argues that the description of Marduk in the Babylonian New Year Festival liturgy (The Enuma Elish) and the fact that the described creation was two-fold (it began before Marduk appeared, and was subsequently destroyed), indicates that their creation was understood to emerge from a plenum, in which all things potentially exist. This is an abstract conception which is not supposed to be present in Mesopotamia in the early 1st millennium B.C.E.

Pleroma, Cosmos, and Physical Existence explores the kind of discussion that would necessarily underpin the idea of a plenum or pleroma as the root of physical creation.  The discussions closely parallel some of those found in Plato, including the question of whether reality retains its nature after the production of a physical reality.

The Divine and the Limit explores the prominence of Janus in the ritual life of the Romans. In the songs of the Salii (‘jumpers’ or dancers) he was called the good creator, and the god of gods; he is elsewhere named the oldest of the gods and the beginning of all things.  The king, and in later times the rex sacrōrum, sacrificed to him. At every sacrifice he was remembered first; in every prayer he was the first invoked, being mentioned even before Jupiter. He is especially associated with the idea of limit, which is a preoccupation of a number of ancient cultures.

Logical Modality in Classical Athens finds that though we have recognised only one logical modality for more than two millennia, there were in fact two. One of them was appropriate to earthbound existence; the other supplied a rational basis for contact with the divine.

Sameness and Difference in Plato is a further discussion of the idea of the Plenum.  Philosophical writing about the divine in the west departed from the consideration of reality as something intricately bound up with a plenum during the Middle Ages, and as a result, philosophical argument about the divine, all the way up to the present day, deals poorly with certain issues, and no longer resembles the kind of argument about the divine found in ancient literature.

Shar Kishati, and the Cult of Eternity is a discussion of the hypothetical core of the ancient understanding of Reality as something which might be separated from everything else (in a Husserlian sense), though it does not mean that such a hypothetical core was separable 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.

The Harmony of the Soul explores the idea of Justice discussed in Plato’s Republic, which argues that the pursuit of special excellences by individuals, in terms of skills, and moral and intellectual virtue, without reference to the activities of other individuals, was understood to result in a harmonious arrangement of society.  They are joined together as a consequence of the fact that each of the virtues is complete and perfected. A parallel notion of the virtue of special excellences in ancient Assyria is discussed in the chapter ‘Standing in the Place of Ea’.

Synoikismos and the Origins of the Polis discusses what we know of the idea of the polis, which appears to have been modelled according to a conception of the divine. Thucydides tells us that, from the time of the first kings down to Theseus (the legendary founder of Athens, whose name is probably related to the verb tithemi, "to set in place") the people of Attica always lived in (their own) poleis; unless there was some common danger they would not come together in council with the king, but each individual polis would govern itself. Theseus did away with the multiplicity of poleis and their separate councils and governments.

Teotihuacan and the river of Mercury explores the symbolic function of this highly reflective metal, recently found inside a tomb in Mexico and known, on the basis of historical records, to be present also inside the Qin tomb in China, and finds parallels with such ideas (mirroring the heavens to provide connection between transcendent reality and the earthly world) in both Greece and in Mesopotamia.

Beyond the Religious Impulse Sometimes the important bit of evidence which will enable us to make sense of something is present, but not recognised, because the scholar is asking the wrong questions, and possibly asking questions within the wrong analytical paradigm. In fact there is a very large quantity of material available to scholars which can tell us much about the intellectual life of the ancient world, but because of the contemporary intellectual and cultural landscape, with its relatively inflexible interpretative structures, developed over many years, it simply cannot be seen for what it is. Worse, if the evidence is present but indicates counter-intuitive conclusions, it is unlikely ever to become part of the discussion. Better to grasp at straws.

Frazer and the Association of Ideas Like other scholars, then and now, Frazer did not recognise the other logical modality in classical Athens, though he read the relevant texts. Instead, he devised an explanatory mechanism of his own. This was based on the phenomenon of the association of ideas, argued by John Locke in the seventeenth century as a description of how we think. Applying this to human behaviour across history and cultures, he concluded that much human activity could be understood in terms of intellectual error. The phenomenon of the association of ideas is real enough. But it isn’t the basis of religious life in antiquity.

Aristotle’s Four Causes We recognise only one cause in the modern world, which is the efficient cause. This is concerned with work, energy and power. In antiquity Aristotle described four causes, which are discussed here. Did Aristotle conjure these by himself, or were these concepts understood across the civilised world for centuries before Classical Greece?

Cultural Parallels and False Narratives discusses our understanding of what religion is, the etymology of the word (including Cicero’s definition), and compares the Hindu concept of religion with those of Greece and Rome. The evidence makes more sense if we talk instead in terms of divine cult.

Plato’s Point of View (and why we think he doesn’t have one) Plato’s main concern was what was truly real, which remained necessarily unchanging and itself, and therefore could not be present, at least as itself, in the world of the here and now. This is not however, how Plato is understood or represented by modern philosophers. There are two main schools of thought: the first is that his position is consistent throughout his work, but his work is shaped by an unknown agrapha (unwritten esoteric doctrine). The second is that his work represents a discursive exploration of philosophical questions, which comes to no firm conclusion.

Standing in the Place of Ea explores the role of the King in ancient Assyria, as the vizier of the god Assur. He was trained in the Adapa discipline, which is related to the myth of Adapa. He was required to be skilled in crafts, spear-throwing, scholarship, mathematics, divination, etc., and to excel other men, as chosen for the role by Assur. Thus he would emulate the knowledge and power of Ea, the divine sage whose home was the Abzu, the abyss at the root of creation.

Paradox in the Myth of Adapa is a chapter which grew out of an exchange of communication with Simo Parpola about the significance of the myth of Adapa. Adapa is the last of the sages in Mesopotamia,  created to be a model for the perfect man, and to serve as the template for kingship, There are several counter-intuitive details in the poem however, which are hard to explain.



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Details about how to buy the book are available at the foot of the static page for the book.


Updated 29 May, June 12  2017 and June 17-18, 2017.

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