Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Early Development of Greek Thought

Demythicization—a term that Mircea Eliade uses—was a movement that gained significant cultural momentum in Greece. Eliade uses this term to refer primarily to the the intellectual reaction against the literary myths concerning the gesta of the cosmogonic gods, the young gods. Whereas the cultic devotions of popular Greek religion dated to time immemorial, an intellectual elite began to view the adventures and misadventures of the young gods, especially in their more purely literary elaborations, as unseemly and absurd. Increasingly attempts were made, beginning with the Ionian thinkers of Asia Minor, to find a single unifying principle of the cosmos. Their efforts are characterized by intellectual passion and reforming zeal, including the rejection of mythical accounts of the gods, yet there remains a clear link to the archaic ontology. 

The same is true of the rejection of the “pagan idols” by certain of the Israelite thinkers. Their scorn was directed at deities such as Ba'l and the mother goddesses, the Israelite/Middle Eastern counterparts to the cosmogonic young gods of Greece, Zeus and the Olympians. Initially we find Yahweh subsuming the roles of all other gods, including winning the cosmic victory over Leviathan the sea monster. However, these mythic allusions to Yahweh's past as a fairly conventional Middle Eastern storm and warrior god gradually atrophy into literary convention that appears to lack cultural roots, as the intellectuals develop a “higher” conception of divinity (cf., especially, our discussion of Mark Smith's work on these topics.). On the other hand, the 'olden gods' of the theogonic myth who made the world in illo tempore continue under various guises in Israelite thought. Of special importance, in Genesis 1 we find water and breath/wind/spirit, the unformed and earth, light/dark, day/night together with God “in the beginning.” But for the Israelite thinkers God with his word is master of all that exists as a person with no generation, who is increasingly seen to be independent of the universe, whereas the Greek thinkers accept almost as a given that the cosmos is part of an eternal process that is all embracing and includes both the gods and the world of men in one cosmos.

In contrast with the “attenuated” survival of the olden gods in Israelite thought, the pairs of theogonic gods played a more central role in Greek thought in the development of what we now call philosophy. Frank Moore Cross contrasted the Greek “transformation” of theogony into cosmology with the Israelite transformation of theogony into the “monotheistic creation story of Genesis 1.” As Cross recognized, the Genesis 1 account functions as a cosmology, but it differs from the Greek cosmology in that Yahweh is not world immanent in the manner of the Greek gods—and ultimately Yahweh became a truly creative god. In contrast, the Greek thinkers sought among the older theogonic gods for a principle or source of the cosmos, be it “water,” “air,” “the boundless,” “fire,” “being,” etc. As Cross notes:

It is not by chance that in the proto-philosophical speculations of the pre-Socratics of the Milesian school, lists of opposites played a fundamental role. One thinks particularly of the pairs cold (wind/air) and hot (fire), wet (water) and dry (earth), which separate out of the substratum 'the Unbounded' (apeiron) in the thought of Anaximander. The abstraction vividly reflected in the theogonic genre of gods no doubt gave impetus to philosophical abstraction and classification. In any case, the linkage and continuity between theogonic speculation and cosmological speculation of the Milesian school is difficult to deny. As for the substratum of Thales (primordial water [Chaos]), of Anaximander (the Unbounded [apeiron]), and of Anaximines (air-wind-vapor), all are found in the theogonies of Phoenicia and Egypt. (81)

The difference between the Greek and Israelite thought—for there is a difference and it is a great difference—is that Israelite thought led in Christianity to a focus on the very being of these theogonic realities, their act of existing, whereas Greek thought focused on their conceptual content. In this sense, as Eliade wrote, Plato truly remains the great philosopher of archaic ontology, a profoundly conservative figure, whereas Thomas Aquinas is the thinker who develops the latent tendencies of Israelite thought to their fullest potential.

Religion and World History (RWH), a collection of essays by Christopher Dawson, contains a useful historical sketch of Greek thought, “Development of Greek Thought” (RWH 90-101). It will be convenient to follow Dawson loosely in our consideration of the development of early Greek thought. In this essay Dawson traces some of the continuities in Greek thought from the earliest times to Plato and Aristotle. We have already referred to Mircea Eliade's contention that Plato is the preeminent philosopher of archaic thought (Myth of the Eternal Return/Cosmos and History, 34ff), of archaic man's ontology, and we will maintain now that Plato plays an essentially conservative role in Greek thought, with profound consequences for the entire history of Western thought. Those consequences were famously summarized by Alfred North Whitehead: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Process and Reality, 1929)

Dawson begins his remarks by stressing the connection of Greek religion and thought to the previous period of Mycenaean civilization, and through the mediation of the Mycenaeans to the earlier civilizations. This is undoubtedly true, but since written records begin with Homer and Hesiod, it will be best to start there. The Greek myths themselves, as recounted by Hesiod, reflect a conflict between older (theogonic) gods who were defeated and replaced by the younger Olympian gods familiar to Western civilization from Homer—the dethroning of Chronos and the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians. We have already seen that this structure is in direct parallel with myths throughout the Middle East, both in Mesopotamia as well as in Canaan/Israel. Zeus and the Olympians are the counterparts of Ba'l/Yahweh and other similar “young” gods. Dawson sees this cosmogonic myth of the conflict between the olden gods and the young gods who were enshrined in cult and later literary myths as reflecting a conflict between two peoples and cultures. Unfortunately, the prehistory of Greece is extremely murky and doesn't allow for that degree of certainty. Dawson's view is probably reflective of the theory of a Dorian invasion, which is itself problematic. Nevertheless, most historians agree that “classical” Greek religion incorporates archaic elements and that by the time of our earliest records—the poetry of Homer and Hesiod—the Greek myths had attained a literary form that already set it apart from popular religion and reflected a systematization (perhaps under Eastern influence) that obscured the true function of myth as the expression of archaic ontology.

Herodotus, too, notes that Greek religious practice dates from time immemorial, whereas the myths of the Olympian gods are, relatively speaking, a matter of “the day before yesterday.” (In fact, Herodotus dates Homer, whose epics are our first records of the Olympians, to just 400 years before his own time—hardly a misty in illo tempore.) Actual cultic practice, the archetypal practices and myths of archaic man that arose in illo tempore, unrecorded antiquity, were thus of far more importance in Greek life than were the myths that have been preserved in literary form. As the Pythagoreans maintained, and Dawson repeats, “the law of sacrifice was 'the ancient and best law' on which the whole social order depended (RWH 91),” and this law long antedated the age of the Olympians.

Now, we have seen that for archaic man the life of man and society is viewed as inextricably linked to the overall order of the universe, the cosmos. The cosmic order is not a neutral thing—it is the expression of all that is good, as we see from the etymology of the Greek word 'cosmos,' which denotes something beautiful and thus good. For archaic man everywhere, and very much so for the Greeks, the purpose of the sacred rites and of rules for human conduct was to conform the life of man and society to the good order of the cosmos, thus ensuring enduring life and prosperity of the type that man observes in the order and the rhythms of nature. Such adherence to the cosmic order constitutes justice (Dike) and good order (Themis) for men. Thus, Hesiod maintains in his Works and Days that when men follow the order of justice the city (polis) flourishes, producing rich harvests and healthy offspring, whereas all nature is hostile to those who do not follow the order of justice. (RWH 91) This is obviously analogous to Israelite thought, which maintained that misfortune followed when men failed to follow the laws of Yahweh.

Hesiod's interest in cosmogony will not strike the student of archaic man as unusual. However, the development of Greek thought over the next several centuries took a distinctive turn. We first become aware of this development in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. The early Ionian thinkers, writes Dawson, exhibited “a spirit of free enquiry and true scientific curiosity that is utterly unlike the strict traditionalism of oriental thought.” Allowing that Ionian thought was not truly scientific and that “oriental” thought would be better characterized as reflecting “archaic ontology” rather than the pejorative “strict traditionalism,” Dawson's point is legitimate. For, as Dawson notes, whatever their relation to scientific thought (and we are open to such a relationship), the Ionians' mode of expression is distinct from the mythical theogony and cosmogony of Hesiod. (RWH 93)

Nevertheless, Dawson quickly adds, “it is easy to exaggerate the rational and scientific elements” in Ionian thought. In reality, what is often characterized as the physical monism of the Ionians “was only a development of conceptions that were already implicit” in archaic ontology (Dawson's actual, unfortunate, words are “primitive religion”).

Thus when Thales or Anaximines attempts to find the ultimate principle of the universe in water or air, he is following the same path that the writers of the Upanishads followed in their premature efforts to identify with Breath or Space. And as the latter prepared the way for the deeper and more metaphysical solution of the Atman theory, so also the crude speculations of the early Ionian thinkers are the first landmarks in the Hellenic search for a transcendent principle of reality. (RWH 93-94)

For our own part we note that, in both Greece and Israel, thinkers sought to go beyond myth to deepen their understanding of the universe, and in both instances the path chosen was similar. In both Greece and Israel these thinkers showed a hostility to the younger gods--viewing their new truth as in opposition to the popular cult of the younger gods--while using themes drawn from the theogonic myths as either the starting point for their speculation or as the means of expressing their insights. In both cases these thinkers, different as they might appear at first glance, saw their efforts as profoundly moral. They saw their efforts as seeking to develop the fullness of man's understanding of reality as the greatest of human goods. The myths of the young gods of the cult—which in their literary elaborations had become increasingly unmoored from the animating experience of cosmic order--were seen not merely as incorrect but as leading man down a dehumanizing road. For this reason these thinkers sought, beyond the proliferating gods of the cult, a single unifying principle, and in this quest they turned to the theogonic myths of creation.

We have noted several times, with Cross, the abstractness in the names of some of the theogonic gods in Egypt and Phoenicia, noting also that these gods have exact counterparts in Greek thought. We have also stressed that Greek thought maintained a closer connection to its roots in archaic ontology than did the highest form of Israelite thought, which ultimately moves toward the conception of a truly creative God, a God who is both nearest to all that exists yet utterly transcendent. Dawson, too, notes that Greek thought remained more wedded to the notion of divinity as immanent in reality, actually a part of the cosmic order, a notion that is quite distinct from that of creation:

Moreover, in Greece, no less than in the East, this search was conditioned by the conception of a sacred order that was at once cosmic and moral [note here the similarity to archaic ontology's view of rites as expressing cosmic order]. If the powers of nature were divine, as the beliefs of the old religion taught, there was nevertheless a higher principle beyond them, whose laws even the gods were powerless to disobey since it was older than they and had allotted to each one his destined place and office. “Even the Sun,” says Heraclitus, “will not overstep his measures, for if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of Justice [Dike], will find him out.” (RWH 94)

Clearly the early Ionian thinkers are still in the world of archaic ontology in which the gods themselves are part of a closed system, and are far from the conception of a universe whose order, as also its act of existing, is the expression of an infinite creator God. Indeed, for many Greeks the cosmos was viewed as itself a “single, animate, corporeal, possibly sentient, being.” (Max J. Latona, The mythological dimension of Parmenides' thought, 2001, This belief may explain the readiness with which the early Greek thinkers turned to the abstract theogonic divinities in their search for an explanatory principle of the cosmos: it is a relatively short step from the conception of theogonic divinities immanent in nature (air, water, the unbounded, etc.) to considering these divinities as abstract principles of nature.

What is new in the approach of the Ionian thinkers is that they clearly believe that they can shed further light on the nature of the cosmos by applying human reason to the theogonic materials at their disposal. Like the Israelite prophets and the thinkers of the Deuteronomic school, the Ionian thinkers rebelled against the mythic expressions of archaic ontology found in the cosmogonic myths. Nor is it surprising that the early Greeks, in common with the Israelite prophets and the thinkers of the Deuteronomic schools, should turn for guidance to the theogonic myths since, unlike the myths of the younger gods, the theogonic myths deal explicitly with the origins of the ordered world. Thus, just as the Israelite thinkers moved toward the idea of one creative god, the Ionians sought a single principle that would explain the cosmos. And, just as the author of the creation myth of Genesis utilized the imagery that was provided by the theogonic myths, so did the Ionian thinkers seek the single principle of the cosmos in the materials provided by the theogonic myths—and in increasingly abstract expressions of that mythic material. As Cross notes, “Enuma Elish, the Theogony of Hesiod and the third theogony of Sakkunyaton all reflect impulses to systematize the divine powers.” (80) Early Greek thought is unquestionably a step beyond even these early efforts at systematization. However, this is not yet scientific thought. Rather, it is speculation in search of what Plato would call a “likely” explanation, based on myth.

The Pythagorean thinkers, whose schools originated in the Magna Graecia area of Southern Italy, further developed this conception of a cosmic order that has moral significance for man. For the Pythagoreans, insight into cosmic order was the means for a type of spiritual purification, almost of salvation, by which man becomes most truly human by becoming “in tune” with the cosmos. Thus, later Pythagoreanism not unnaturally takes on the appearance of what we would call a religious sect, replete with rituals and ascetic practices. (Dawson notes, with regard to the very word “cosmos,” which is so characteristically Greek, that it is in origin a Pythagorean term and “signifies the ordered march of nature” - an indication of “the essential contribution that the new movement made to Greek thought.”) (RWH 95)

It is in the “three articles of the Pythagorean catechism” that Dawson cites that we see both the originality of Pythagoreanism (its higher level of abstraction and its attempt to formulate in a systematic way the essential insight of archaic ontology) as well as the depth of its continued ties to archaic ontology and religious practice:

What is the most just of things? The act of sacrifice.
What is the most wise? Number.
What is the most beautiful? Harmony.

In Pythagorean thought the archaic insight that the cosmos is an ordered whole that moves according to archetypal laws gains a greater degree of abstraction--the view that those laws find their truest expression in harmonic relations that can be expressed in numerical form, rather than in the narratives of myth. Even the act of sacrifice, according to the Pythagoreans, is to be understood in terms of a proportional relationship that fulfills “justice” and expresses harmony. Later this view gave rise to what might be termed a type of numerology which attached mystical significance to particular numbers, but it also gave rise to “the systematic cultivation of arithmetic, geometry and music that ... laid the foundations on which science has built ever since.” (RWH 95-96) We may even go further and see in the Pythagorean assignment of moral or religious value to inquiry into the harmony of nature the foundation for the Western assignment of moral value to the scientific enterprise, which gives to the Western reverence for science a religious feeling that is often at odds with the anti-religious avowals of those who assign to science a privileged place in Western society. But above all this Pythagorean development of the archaic ontology is based on the view that what is "really real" is not the act of existing but rather the intelligibility of what exists—and that intelligibility is equated with what may be understood by the human intelligence. (RWH 95-96) This conviction, so characteristically Greek, is at the heart of what became the Platonic worldview, and is a key part of the heritage of the West.

These Pythagorean doctrines in many ways summarize the general Greek form of archaic ontology, so that even those Greek thinkers who criticized Pythagoras nevertheless share a similar outlook. Heraclitus, for example, sees that the ever changing cosmos is in fact a coherent whole “steered” by “thought” (logos), by a law which is divine wisdom and in some way inheres in all that is—a refinement of Thales' belief that “all things are full of gods” and his reported belief that the “mind of the world is god.” (The story is told of Heraclitus that when a group of men hesitated to enter his house he called out to them: Come in, for gods are here also.) Moreover, this “one divine law” which is grasped by the wise who seek it “nourishes” all human laws. Thus, Heraclitus says, the people of the polis must fight for law as they would fight to defend the city walls. In this last passage we find both the original spirit that animated archaic ontology and the great cosmological civilizations as well as the passionate spirit that animates these spiritual reformers to develop what later came to be called philosophy, the love of wisdom. This wisdom is that divine law that animates the cosmos, which is good and beautiful; thus, to seek that wisdom is a deeply moral endeavor, it is not mere abstract speculation. So it is that when Heraclitus, to take one example, expresses scorn for anthropomorphism and idolatry--”praying to statues” as he calls it—this scorn is not mere rationalism or skepticism. Rather, Heraclitus is expressing the passion of a reformer who feels compelled (like the Israelite prophets) to communicate his insights to others in a manner that is, once again, strikingly similar is some respects to the rejection by the Israelite prophets of “paganism.” Thus, Heraclitus is very far from repudiating the legitimate insights of archaic thought into the order and meaning of reality. Seen from this standpoint, “philosophy” may best be considered, like the prophetic movement preserved in the Israelite scriptures, as in origin a movement to reform and purify archaic ontology based on dissatisfaction with mythic expressions that were seen to have lost their connection to the essential experience of archaic ontology.

In the thought of Parmenides we can see the furthest development of these early Greek thinkers. We have already noted the common Greek view of the cosmos as an organic, living being. Max Latona (cf. above) maintains that the thought of Parmenides—which is written in the poetic style of the epic and is replete with mythic imagery--is best understood as a defense of this Greek view of the cosmos as “a single, animate, corporeal, possibly sentient, being.” (6) This is an important point, for it clarifies that Parmenides is not offering a logical demonstration or proof that “all is one.” Rather, he assumes the truth of the archaic view of the cosmos and then maintains that the properties of this eternal, perfect unity merit the highly abstract name of “being.” This self-identity and unity that constitute being as itself are being's true perfections and what cause it to merit the name of “being.” The view that Parmenides is arguing against is one that would deny an embracing identity--an organic unity that can be understood—to the cosmos. And since the cosmos is “being,” that contrary view, says Parmenides, amounts to saying that what is—as archaic thought asserts it to be—is not! This is what is at the bottom of Parmenides' equation of thought and being. If being and thought are identical, then those who would say that the cosmos is ever changing and thus unknowable are saying, in effect, that what to Parmenides undeniably IS, is non-being. However, as Latona stresses, Parmenides does not, as is so commonly thought, deny the reality of “change and plurality.” Rather, he maintains that what is most real is the organic unity of the “cosmos as a whole.”

In all this we can see the later developments of Plato's thought. For Plato accepted Parmenides' identification of thought and being, as well as the belief that what is self-identical and unchanging is what is truly real, as opposed to the shadowy reality of the ever changing material world as described in Plato's famous Myth of the Cave. The origin of this speculation is to be found in archaic ontology, with its conviction that the archetypal world of the gods is what is truly real, and since archetypes have conceptual content it is natural to view being itself as conceptual.

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