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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eliade: From Theogony to Philosophy

While Frank Moore Cross' account of the transition from archaic ontology is more theoretically complete, including a fuller account of the relationship between the theogonic and the cosmogonic gods and myths, in Myth and Reality (1963) Mircea Eliade offers his own analysis of this important issue in his characteristically compressed style.  Eliade's focus is on the process of demythicization and the survival of myth in "philosophy."

Eliade begins by referring to the process by which the “olden gods,” the Creator gods, lose their place in the cult and become marginalized, replaced by the young storm and warrior gods, such as Ba'l, Marduk, Zeus and later Yahweh.

Even when his name is still remembered—Anu of the Mesopotamians, El of the Canaanites, Dyaus of the Vedic Indians, Ouranos of the Greeks—the Supreme Being no longer plays an important role in religious life and is but little represented in mythology. The passivity of Ouranos as deus otiosus is plastically expressed by his castration... El yields the primacy to Ba'al as Anu does to Marduk. Except for Marduk, all these Supreme Gods are no longer “creative” in the active sense. They did not create the World, they only organized it and assumed the responsibility for maintaining order and fertility in it.. Primarily, they are Fecundators, like Zeus or Ba'al who, by their hierogamies with the Earth goddesses ensure the fertility of the fields and the abundance of harvests. (109)

The result of the replacement of the Creator god is that attention in myth is shifted from the ultimate origins to the activities of these young gods:

The accent is now on what happened to the Gods and no longer on what they created. To be sure, there is always a more or less clearly “creative” aspect in every divine adventure—but what appears more and more important is no longer the result of the adventure but the sequence of dramatic events that constitute it. The countless adventures of Ba'al, of Zeus, of Indra, or those of their colleagues in the respective pantheons, represent the most “popular” mythological themes. (110)

This state of affairs proved unsatisfying and even unedifying to the elite thinkers. This is most evident in Greece and in India (Eliade neglects to mention Israel), but it is attested in many other societies to varying degrees. The result is the process of demythicization that we have already discussed, which leads to a paradoxical conclusion:

The great mythologies—those consecrated by such poets as Homer and Hesiod and the anonymous bards of the Mahabharata, or elaborated by ritualists and theologians (as in Egypt, India, and Mesopotamia)--are more and more inclined to narrate the gesta of the Gods. And at a certain moment in history—especially in Greece and India but also in Egypt—an elite begins to lose interest in this divine history and arrives (as in Greece) at the point of no longer believing in the myths while claiming still to believe in the Gods. (110-111)

The human desire for meaning was no longer provided by the elaboration of literary myths, cut off from their roots in archaic ontology. Thus it was that an intellectual elite, hungry for meaning, initiated an “effort of thought,” a “prodigious 'going back,'” in order to recover the meaning that had been lost. This return or going back naturally led to a consideration of the oldest myths and gods associated with primordial origins, but the results of this return were expressed in language that, while alluding to mythic themes, was not itself mythic in the strict sense. Arising from a consideration of myth, preserving the principles of archaic ontology, it claimed to find principles that were not narrations:

For these elites the “essential” was no longer to be sought in the history of the Gods but in a “primordial situation” preceding that history. We witness an attempt to go beyond mythology as divine history and to reach a primal source from which the real had flowed, to identify the womb of Being. It was in seeking the source, the principle, the arche, that philosophical speculation for a short time coincided with cosmogony; but it was no longer the cosmogonic myth, it was an ontological problem.

The “essential” is reached, then, by a prodigious “going back”--no longer a regressus obtained by ritual means, but a “going back” accomplished by an effort of thought. In this sense it could be said that the earliest philosophical speculations derive from mythologies: systematic thought endeavors to identify and understand the “absolute beginning” of which the cosmogonies tell, to unveil the mystery of the Creation of the World, in short, the mystery of the appearance of Being. (111-112)

We must, however, take issue with Eliade's characterization of this new way of thinking as “systematic thought.” It owes far more to what could be described as speculation or even prophetic or poetic insight, than to any systematic progression following a strict logic. Eliade recognizes this, for he goes on to stress that, even with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle there was no conclusive break with myth and archaic ontology. In fact, the Greek thinkers or “philosophers” (the term coined by Plato to describe his own activity) continued to accept the essential insights of archaic ontology. Greek philosophy is, in fact, according to Eliade, a development of “some basic themes of mythical thought” which employed “the mythical vision of cosmic reality and human existence:”

But we shall see that the “demythicization” of Greek religion and the triumph, with Socrates and Plato, of strict and systematic philosophy, did not finally do away with mythical thought. Then too, it is difficult to imagine a radical outmoding of mythological thought as long as the prestige of the “origins” remains intact and as long as forgetting what took place in illo tempore—or in a transcendental World—is regarded as the chief obstacle to knowledge or salvation. We shall see to what an extent Plato is still a partisan of this archaic mode of thought. And venerable mythological themes still survive in the cosmology of Aristotle.

... on the one hand, the Greek philosophical genius accepted the essence of mythical thought, the eternal return of things, the cyclic vision of cosmic and human life, and, on the other hand, the Greek mind did not consider that History could become an object of knowledge. Greek physics and metaphysics developed some basic themes of mythical thought: the importance of the origin, the arche; the essential that precedes human existence; the determinative role of memory, and so on. This, of course, does not mean that there is no solution of continuity between Greek myth and philosophy. But we can easily understand that philosophical thought could employ and continue the mythical vision of cosmic reality and human existence. (113-114)

That is the extent of Eliade's discussion of the transformation of theogony into philosophy. However, he adds some striking references to the role of an important mythic theme in the thought of Plato. The theme is memory, which is far more important than might be evident at first glance. For the Greeks memory was a goddess who was, in fact, omniscient. The goddess' daughters were the Muses, who inspired poets with knowledge—but not just ordinary knowledge. The knowledge that was passed from the goddess Mnemosyne through the Muses was knowledge of “origins,” which is to say, knowledge of the essential nature of reality and the cosmos:

The Goddess Mnemosyne, personification of “Memory,” sister of Kronos and Okeanos, is the mother of the Muses. She is omniscient; according to Hesiod (Theogony 32, 38), she knows “all that has been, all that is, all that will be.” When the poet is possessed by the Muses, he draws directly Mnemosyne's store of knowledge, that is, especially from the knowledge of “origins,” of “beginnings,” of genealogies. “The Muses sing, beginning with the beginning—ex arkhes (Theogony 45, 115)--the first appearance of the world, the genesis of the gods, the birth of humanity. The past thus revealed is much more than the antecedent of the present; it is its source. In going back to it, recollection does not seek to situate events in a temporal frame but to reach the depths of being, to discover the original, the primordial reality from which the cosmos issued and which makes it possible to understand becoming as a whole.” [Quoting J. P. Vernant, “Aspects mythiques de la memoire en Grece”] (120)

Plato makes use of these mythic themes in his famous Myth of Anamnesis, which purports to explain human knowledge. Plato holds firmly to the archaic belief that true reality resides in the heavenly archetypes. Plato has, of course, moved beyond myth in the strict sense, but in place of mythic narratives that contain eternal truths Plato erects his theory of Ideas, according to which earthly realities “participate” in eternal, heavenly “ideas,” which give earthly realities such reality as they can be said to possess. The similarity to the thought of Parmenides is at once apparent. The problem becomes, how is it that man has knowledge of eternal, heavenly realities (the Ideas) when his only direct contact is with the ever changing world of material objects? Once more Plato turns to myth for his “likely” solution—the mythic traditions about memory:

Plato knows and employs these two traditions [memory of primordial events and memory of prior lives] concerning memory and forgetfulness. But he transforms and reinterprets them to fit them into his philosophical system. For Plato, learning is, in the last analysis, recollecting (cf. Especially Meno 81, c, d). Between two existences on earth the soul contemplates the Ideas: it shares in pure and perfect knowledge. But when the soul is reincarnated it drinks of the spring Lethe and forgets the knowledge it obtained from direct contemplation of the Ideas. Yet this knowledge is latent in the man in whom the soul is reincarnated, and it can be made patent by philosophical effort. Physical objects help the soul to withdraw into itself and, through a sort of “going back,” to rediscover and repossess the original knowledge that it possessed in its extraterrestrial condition. Hence death is the return to a primordial and perfect state, which is periodically lost through the soul's reincarnation. (124)

Eliade notes that Plato's use of the myth of memory extends even to the distinction of types of memory; philosophical anamnesis leads to insight into the structure of reality, not recollection of past lives:

For Plato, living intelligently, that is, learning to know and knowing the true, the beautiful, and the good, is above all remembering a disincarnate, purely spiritual existence. … Philosophical anamnesis does not recover the memory of the events belonging to former lives, but of truths, that is, the structures of the real. This philosophical position can be compared with that of the traditional societies: the myths represent paradigmatic models established by Supernatural Beings, not the series of personal experiences of one individual or another. (125)

What is of crucial importance is that this essentially mythic solution to the “problem of knowledge” has set the terms for the West's discussion of this central concern, mediated through Augustine and down to the present day.

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