Monday, October 29, 2007

Archaic Ontology in Homer and Aeschylus

Mircea Eliade based his theory of man in history on the claim that "archaic man" - by which he means man within "traditional" societies - has a characteristic ontology or theory of what it means for realities within his world to be "real." Building on the insight that the limited being of our universe must be dependent for its being on a divine "ground" of being, archaic man expresses this ontological vision in mythic form, giving expression to the view that to be real is to be an earthly expression of a divine or heavenly archetype. Only by sharing in or being an expression of this archetypal divine or heavenly reality does earthly reality become truly "real" and charged with meaning. There is, of course, also a moral component in this: for man to live a truly human life he must seek to conform himself to this divine pattern of humanity.

Eliade sees Plato as the thinker who gave philosophical expression to this "primitive" ontology of archaic man: "his great title to our admiration remains his effort to justify this vision of archaic humanity theoretically, through the dialectical means which the spirituality of his age made available to him." (Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Cosmos and History, 34-35) We will need to address the significance of Plato at much greater length. For now, let us observe that this archaic ontology can be seen in the literature of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks this ontology of archetypes was used in an effort to understand or to give meaning to the events of their history.

 In Homer, for example, the deeds of the heroes in the Trojan war are not truly their own in the way modern man would understand them: all their actions and thoughts are instigated, as it were, by the gods, so that human actions play out or reflect the struggles of the Olympian gods. In Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound the attempt is likewise made to link human prehistory to struggles among the generations of gods. This attempt is tied to a fundamentally optimistic view of history, for the Greeks viewed the struggles of the past as leading to the progress and development of the human spirit--most notably as expressed in Greek civilization. It is this development of the human spirit, as expressing indeed an archetypal development among the gods, that validates the misery and suffering of the past. The crowning development in Aeschylus' expression of the Greek archaic ontology is the recognition among the gods, and correspondingly among men, that the affairs of gods and men should be governed in accordance with reason rather than brute force and that in this way the law of revenge and the blood feud could be overcome.

This development in Greek thought faced a fundamental difficulty, in that it is difficult to reconcile this view of archaic ontology--in which human history is controlled and guided by the gods--with human freedom. Of course, this view was intended to express other concerns rather than to offer a theory of human freedom. The fundamental concern of this ontology was to give a meaning to human existence and to validate the Greek consciousness of Greek civilization leading the human race to a future guided by their vision of reason and beauty. In this way the Greeks, for all their consciousness of superiority over the barbarians, also developed a notion of a unity in human history and a view of universal humanity that could transcend the divisions of tribe and folk.

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