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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Rise of the World Religions


Christopher Dawson begins Chapter VI of Progress and Religion, "The Rise of the World Religions," by situating these "world religions" within the context of “a cultural change of the most profound significance” that swept the civilized world in the first millennium B.C. This cultural change primarily involved a change of thought rather than of material culture, and was felt across the middle part of the world, from Greece through the Middle East, Iran, India and all the way to China--a geographical spread that lead Eric Voegelin to term this period "the Ecumenic Age.". Dawson associates this far flung cultural change with an outpouring of religious literature--“the writings of the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, of Buddha and the authors of the Upanishads, of Confucius and Lao Tzu”--and he seeks to find a common denominator. Thus, he poses the question: “What link can there be between the Hellenic vision of an intelligible universe or the ethical humanism of Confucius and the bloody rites and barbarous myths of the old pagan culture?”

In formulating his answer, Dawson first focuses (p. 100) on the violent upheavals that transformed the political landscape--invasions of the older civilized regions by “more warlike but less civilized” peoples who “destroyed the old theocratic order,” and introduced a “dual character” to the new cultures that arose, producing “a spirit of criticism and reflection.” The resulting cultural unease, and a corresponding idealization of the “vanquished order as a golden age,” says Dawson, gave rise to “a sense of moral dualism, an opposition between that which is and that which ought to be,” between the divinely ordained order of the cosmological societies (characteristic of Eliade's “archaic man”) and the new reality of human existence governed by brute force and strife. Under the impact of these new conditions the sacred ritual order of archaic man became “moralized and spiritualized,” focusing on justice and truth more than on ritual and ceremony.


In Dawson's view (p. 101) the connection between the sacred ritual order and the new religious culture is seen most clearly in China. In the new Confucian system the ancient Rites are not seen as “a matter of social etiquette.” Rather, they are understood as the manifestation of the “eternal order that governs the universe ... the Tao, the Way of Heaven.” For Dawson, the originality of Confucianism is that, in place of the idea of a magic efficaciousness gained by external adherence to the Rites, Confucianism calls upon man to adhere to the Rites internally. This Confucian call for “the renunciation of self interest ... and the merging of self in the universal order” brings to the Rites a new spirit of moral earnestness. The internalization of the Tao (the "way" that corresponds to cosmic order) by adherence to the Rites with a proper understanding and spirit is intended to bind Heaven and Earth, Man and Nature--and not incidentally King and subjects--together in cosmic harmony. Observance of the Rites with a proper spirit is virtue, and the ruler, the “Son of Heaven,” is called to practice virtue in this way so that the influence of his virtue will radiate outwards from him to the rest of society.

Dawson next briefly examines (p. 103) the Zoroastrian concept of Asha (Arta in Old Persian, obviously etymologically connected to the Hindu conception of Rita): truth, right, order. Here too he finds that this key conception in Persian religion was “originally a ritual conception.” Indeed, the concept “retained its close connection with the sacred [sacrificial] fire until the end.” Dawson contrasts the ethical development of this conception in Zoroastrianism with the attitude toward Rita in the Indian Brahmanic ideology, in which the sacrificial rite was seen as the ultimate force behind the universe. Whereas the Brahmanic ideology moved in the direction of magical manipulation of reality through ritual, in Persia Asha came to personify “divine righteousness,” best expressed through moral purity and truth. The “servants of Asha” cause the world to advance by their good works. We may remark here that the fundamental similarity to the Confucian conception should be obvious: man, by assimilating himself to the divine order, by spiritual interiorization of that order as represented in the sacred rites inherited from earlier stages of religion, can direct society toward harmony with the intended divine order--or, presumably, may cause a falling away from divine order into chaos by failing to act in accordance with the divine order.

A similar pattern of thought can also be found in Greek thought (pp. 103-105). Dawson quotes Heraclitus in support of his observation that “no less than the teaching of Confucius” concerning the Rites, the Greek concept of Dike (normally translated as "justice" or "righteousness") derives from “the idea that the law of social life must be a reflection of and a participation in the universal divine order which rules the universe, and which is manifested primarily in the order of the stars”:

Even the sun cannot exceed his measures, for if he does so the Erinyes, the handmaids of Dike, will find him out. 

Nor, as Dawson notes, is the reach of Dike limited to the physical universe, for Dike is

the one divine law by which all human laws are fed ... the thought by which all things are steered through all things. 

Now, for the Greeks, part of the law of Dike was the careful performance of the rites of sacrifice to the gods. The connection between the ancient Greek ritual order and the newer conceptions is provided by Hesiod:

When men follow justice the whole city [polis] blooms, the earth bears rich harvests, and children and flocks increase, but to the unjust all nature is hostile, the people waste away from famine and pestilence, and a single man's sin may bring ruin on a whole city. 

Not only is the similarity to Chinese and Persian thought clear, but the parallel to Israelite Deuteronomic ideology is particularly striking, for the reverse should also hold true: if nature smiles on the just and is hostile to the unjust, then ill fortune must be the result of sin and good fortune the result of virtue. The parallel of Torah (as expressed in Deuteronomic ideology) to Rita and Dike as a principle of cosmic order is also apparent. Unfortunately, Dawson does not address Israelite thought in this chapter, even though he references it at the beginning. This assumption of the uniqueness of Israelite thought must be judged a flaw in Dawson's presentation. Instead he completes his survey with an examination of Indian thought.

At this point, before proceeding to Dawson's consideration of the development of Indian thought, we may reflect on what we have seen to this point. As so far presented, Chinese, Persian and Greek thought show remarkable similarities as well as a very logical continuity with the archaic ontology of archetypes and repetition that Eliade describes. As Dawson summarizes (p. 105):

Thus in all the great civilization [sic?] from China to the Aegean, the beginning of the new movement of thought is marked by the appearance of the conception of a universal order which is both spiritual and material, at once the order of justice and the order of nature. 

Now, contrary to what Dawson suggests, the “conception of a universal order which is both spiritual and material” was not truly a new development. The archaic ontology has always viewed human existence as lived, ideally, in harmony with divine archetypes as a spiritual matter--archaic man's rites are not merely a matter of magic. What Dawson fails to fully articulate is that the really new development that we discover in this “ecumenic age” is an acute concern with the problem of evil. Archaic man and the new trans-civilizational wave of speculation agree that the universe is patterned on divine archetypes or laws, and that harmony with the divine order should be reflected in human society and personal life--which are also a product of the divine ordering power. It is not the actual structure of the cosmos as expressed in archaic ontology that is questioned--that structure is presumed by the new speculative systems. Nor is the new speculation concerned to explain the well known fact that man fails at times to conform to the divine order. Rather, what calls for explanation is the all too common experience that thoroughly evil men--as judged by the accepted standards under the archaic ontology--profit while those who do their best to follow the divine order of Dike suffer. This is the classic dilemma of Job. Job does not so much question the order of the universe itself; rather, recognizing that cosmic order and its dependence on God, he questions its justice. The Deuteronomic ideology, based in archaic thought, claimed that conformity to Torah should ensure good fortune, but this doesn't appear to be the case. Or, if it is the case, its workings are opaque to human reason, and that leads to intolerable uncertainty. This experience of man, the questioning of the justice of the cosmic order--or at least of the explanations offered by the archaic ontology--recurs over and over again in this period that Dawson is discussing, in China, India, Greece, Israel, and most other regions for which we have written records. It is, in fact, in every age, the ultimate problem for man.

Unfortunately, in switching his attention to Indian thought, Dawson tends to lose this thread. Thus he asserts:

The pioneers of thought did not rest content with the conception of an order immanent in the world, which manifests itself in the course of nature and the moral life of man. They sought for a yet higher principle, an absolute reality that transcends the order of nature and all limited forms of existence. This search for the Absolute found its earliest and most complete expression in India.

I believe Dawson is mistaken in this assessment. In the first place, the archaic ontology from which these later developments originated is not, as Eliade has demonstrated, a simple, world immanent “nature” religion. On the contrary, the archaic ontology of archetypes is the basis for the later development of highly structured “civilizations.” Nor was this new wave of speculation best characterized as “metaphysical” rather than moral or ethical in nature. As Dawson sets the terms, the Indian quest for the Absolute is motivated by a desire to attain communion with the true source of all that exists, almost like a sub-continental Thomism. And yet Dawson himself points toward the refutation of his own interpretation when he notes, at the outset of his presentation (pp. 105-110), that this trend in Indian thought developed from “the ritual magic of the Brahmanas.”

Now, the turn to “magic” is based in the archaic ontology of archetypes. It expresses the hope that the troubles of human existence can be somehow overcome or influenced by a closer, sympathetic assimilation to those archetypes and the gods that control our lives. The motivation is practical, but the theory is based in archaic ontology. We need to keep this in mind as we follow Dawson's account of the development of Indian thought, for it is my contention that the later speculative trend in Indian thought was motivated not by the experience of philosophia--love for the divine ground of wisdom, as Eric Voegelin describes it--but by the desire to escape an existence that was experienced as evil and opaque to human reason. Thus, the motivation is occasioned by the failure of archaic ontology to fully explain the problems of human existence, and the further failure of the ritual order to address these concerns on either a theoretical or practical level. The result is that an elaborate speculative system was developed in reaction to these shortcomings of the archaic ontology--and to magic practices rooted in it. The basic structure and truth of the archaic ontology is not so much questioned, as a way of bypassing it is sought. In this motivating desire we can see inarguable common ground with the other religious movements of this “ecumenic age,” which sought a resolution to the problem of evil that would be accessible to human reason. The Indian response is that the only resolution to the problem of evil is escape from existence--not, be it noted, by communion with the ground or source of all that exists.

With this in mind, et's examine Dawson's account of Indian thought in more detail. Dawson begins by contrasting the ritualism of the Brahmanas with the later and more "spiritual" thought of the Upanishads. Having conceded that Upanishadic speculation is based in the Brahmanic ideology of the sacrificial ritual, Dawson in the very next paragraph reverses course and suggests that the Brahmanic ideology is itself based on “that vague and obscure intuition of transcendent being (p. 105)” that Dawson sees as the basis of primitive religion, the Orenda and Wakan of the North American Indians. For, says Dawson, the Brahman was originally seen as the ultimate principle or force behind the universe and later, through speculation on the sacrificial ritual, came to be identified with the “priestly formula or spell.”

Now, Dawson earlier identified the starting point of development in Indian religious thought as the concept of Rita, and this concept, as Dawson himself noted, was intimately connected with the ritual of the sacrifice. In this respect Indian thought was no different, as we have seen and as Dawson has documented, from Greek, Persian, Chinese and Israelite thought. There is no need to appeal to “that vague and obscure intuition of transcendent being,” for in fact the archaic ontology of archetypes, which represents the early reflections of man on the nature and origin of reality, is the basis for the subsequent speculation. Moreover, by proceeding in this manner, by postulating a “vague and obscure intuition,” Dawson also fails to take into account his initial explanation at the beginning of the chapter, namely, that this entire development of thought was occasioned by the period of invasions of civilized regions by less civilized peoples. Dawson's account of Indian thought makes it appear as if the development of Upanishadic speculation from the Brahmanic ideology took place in an historical vacuum, the product of a pure intellectual quest. In fact, both Upanishadic and Confucian thought developed during periods of conflict among numerous warring kingdoms and republics, times of great social unrest. Dawson clearly has in mind an overall theory of a development of human thought that progresses from a "vague intuition to an explicit creative monotheism--or at least prefigures or points toward such a result--and he wants to fit Indian thought into that theory as a partial progress in that direction. However, postulating “vague spiritual intuitions” does violence to the actual facts. Moreover, concern for the problem of evil is a universal human concern; while “times of troubles,” periods of civilizational turmoil and great suffering, commonly raise this problem in acute form, they are not a sine qua non. Similar concerns were raised in Greek society at the height of Greek civilization and success, nor does the Book of Job appear to have been occasioned by a civilizational crisis.

At any rate, according to Dawson the supreme achievement of Upanishadic speculation was the identification of the ultimate principle, the Brahman, as Atman or Self. The Atman, says Dawson, “is essentially a spiritual reality, which transcends all finite modes of being.” But here too Dawson is lapsing into vague expressions--"spiritual" and "finite" are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In Christian thought the soul is a finite, spiritual substance. What is crucial for Dawson, however, is that this concept of the Atman leads Indian thought to devalue all the goods of the earlier religion--the gods, the sacrifice, knowledge of the rites. The supreme good becomes unification of the soul with the Atman, “which alone can free man from the penalty of rebirth (p. 107).”

This last phrase makes clear what is at stake. The "penalty of rebirth" is part of the law of Karma, the conception by which Indian thought had sought to resolve the problem of evil. According to this conception, men are continually reborn in a new incarnation to a higher or lower level of existence depending upon their actions in their previous life. Thus, while a person may appear to have profited by evil, or conversely have suffered for doing good, the apparent injustice is resolved by their subsequent reincarnation or rebirth--the evil person in a more degraded form and the good person to a higher position. It is a perfectly logical solution, but also perfectly devoid of any experiential basis. It is a willed solution, motivated not by the experience of philosophia but by man's overpowering desire to make sense of his life, even if that means legislating meaning rather than discovering meaning. At the same time it testifies to the common human conviction that there must be a meaning to existence.

Seen from this perspective, it is clear that Buddhism is essentially a technique designed to short circuit the painful, lengthy working out of Karmic Law in Hinduism. As the Buddha said, “One thing only do I teach...sorrow and the ending of sorrow.” Buddhism claims simply to offer the most direct path to that object, without subjecting the underlying Upanishadic speculation to a truly fundamental critique. Taoism, too, shares a similar dynamic. Confucianism calls for a drawn out, lifelong struggle with no definitive resolution to the problem of evil, whereas Taoism seeks simple escape from a world of illusion, seen as a “cosmic nightmare (p. 113).” Buddhism and Taoism amount to spiritual techniques to short circuit the protracted "orthodox" solutions.

Now, in line with his theoretical predilections, Dawson sees in Upanishadic and Taoist speculation a doctrine of Pure Being, “a higher spiritual principle, which, itself unchanging, is the source of change, is the source of all that exists.” There may be a certain degree of truth in this assessment, but it must be emphasized that Dawson here is reading a Western, Christian, meaning into these essentially salvational, non-metaphysical, systems. Most especially, the clear lack of any understanding of the analogy of being and existing in Upanishadic and Taoist speculation means that there can be no meaningful relation--beyond purely speculative, will driven assertion--between man and any such principle of “pure being.” Indeed, the principle (if such it can be said to be) is explicitly said in the ancient texts to be utterly impersonal. Ideologies of escape are essentially counsels of despair and nihilism and can only be fantasies born of desperation.

In the remaining pages of the chapter (pp. 113-121) Dawson ties together the preceding threads of thought and, in particular, traces the trends of Greek and Hellenistic thought in the centuries before Christianity. He begins by noting the survival in India and China of the archaic ontology, embodied in ritual. Such survival was also true in the West, as we will note with regard to Plato. In this respect, Dawson emphasizes the prevalence in the Hellenistic world of doctrines of transmigration and reincarnation which are strikingly similar in expression to Eastern versions, and correctly notes the salvational character of such speculation. For example, Dawson cites “the Orphic discipline of salvation by which the purified soul attains to release from 'the sorrowful wheel' of continued reincarnation,” as well as the example of Empedocles, who “regarded human life as the penalty of former sin, and sought, like a Jain ascetic, to obtain release by the scrupulous avoidance of injury to any living creature (p. 114).” Dawson also notes the close connection between the Empedoclean (and, basically, Parmenidean) notion of “pure being” as a “perfect sphere,” unchanging in its “solitude,” and Chinese and Indian “recognition of a higher reality which transcends all change and limitation.” We certainly do not insist on Dawson's understanding of these expressions, but the cross cultural similarity of expression is both striking and suggestive.

Dawson next attempts to link Plato to this “metaphysical principle of pure Being (pp. 114-117).” However, it is unclear in what sense we can characterize this speculation as “metaphysical” in any recognizably Christian sense (the word itself was not known to or used by Plato). In fact, as Dawson observes, this Pure Being of Empedocles is seen as the source of the universe only in the sense that it is part of a cosmic process of “accursed strife”--a notion that is itself strikingly similar to Taoist cosmic speculation: “O master, my master! Thou who destroyest all things without being cruel, Thou who doest good to ten thousand generations without being kind...” We must insist on the very real difference between cosmic speculation of this sort based on desire for escape, and the reflective insight of true “metaphysics” on the Thomist model which is based on the experience of philosophia and the analogy of being.

Moreover, Plato is properly viewed as a far more conservative figure than Empedocles and the other Hellenistic seekers after cosmic salvation and deliverance. As Mircea Eliade observed in The Myth of the Eternal Return, Plato is actually best seen as the preeminent philosopher of the archaic ontology, rather than a speculator on cosmic salvation. Yes, it is true that Plato's notion of anamnesis bears some similarity to other salvific doctrines of reincarnation, yet it is better understood as a type of mythic construction which is intended to facilitate understanding when true insight is not possible. Most importantly, Plato's doctrine of ideas or forms is clearly drawn from the archaic ontology of archetypes. It is this focus of Plato on the forms or archetypes rather than on deliverance or salvation that explains the intellectualism that Plato bequeathed to the West. It is this link between Plato and archaic ontology that explains why Plato--unlike many of his Neoplatonic successors, and contrary to Dawson's assertion (p. 115)--does not turn away from “the many-coloured changing world of experience.” This, too, is why Plato's Myth of the Cave is not primarily an expression of the unreality of the world, as embraced by Taoists or Buddhists, but a plea in favor of the more balanced archaic ontology against the dissolvent skepticism and power seeking of the Sophists. Aristotle is in this respect a far truer successor to Plato than the Neoplatonists, and while both Plato and Aristotle were children of their age and were influenced by speculation on cosmic cycles it is their essential conservatism with regard to archaic ontology that explains their commitment to the world of men.

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