Theology Reconsidered: An Introduction

What follows is the Introductory chapter from a newly published, two Volume work entitled Theology Reconsidered.  The book can be purchased from Lambert publishing via their website; Volume I here and Volume II here.

 


When looking at the first mythological and philosophical works from antiquity, it is very easy to get lost in the “facts” surrounding these ancient works and lose sight of their true meaning and import to the people and cultures within which these works emerged from and out of.  Much of the modern academic and scholarly literature concerning these ancient “theo-philosophical” works falls into this category.  To a large extent, the purpose of this work is to try and “recover” said meanings of these ancient works as much as possible, and to look at them within a much broader theological, mythological and philosophical narrative that we find throughout Eurasia in the first millennium BCE, the so-called “Axial Age” of modern man.

In order to do this, we take a primarily intellectual journey through the mind of ancient man, as he sees the world and as is reflected in the earliest literary evidence of man, trying to understand these works not only within the broader “Eurasian” context, but also trying to look at them through the eyes of the ancient philosophers, theologians, priests and scholars who wrote these ancient texts, or in many cases were the ones to “compile” or “transcribe” these longstanding theo-philosophical traditions, but also to try and understand them within the theological, intellectual and socio-cultural context within which these works arose.  This broader meaning we call knowledge, which from a modern philosophical perspective is referred to as epistemology.

This knowledge is what Philo Judaeus takes great pain to describe in his exegesis of the Pentateuch, Genesis in particular, what the Neo-Platonists take pains to describe in their literature which arises in defense of their doctrines as Christianity takes root and begins to supplant and snuff out their schools of learning and wisdom, it is what is alluded to in the so-called hidden, or unwritten, teachings of Plato and that which is hidden, kept secret, by the followers of Pythagoras  and also in the Eleusinian mysteries and the alchemical Hermetic doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and also what the Upanishads refer to as Brahmavidyā, or knowledge of Brahman, that from deep antiquity is believed to be passed down from teacher to disciple – as Plato refers to in his Seventh Letter as that which is “brought to birth in the Soul, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself.”.[1]

After the author completed his first major work, the Snow Cone Diaries, we considered the writing “experiment” complete, the Work was done.  Following that exercise, and for reasons we cannot completely explain, we found it necessary to flesh out some of the ideas therein, reflecting a continued interest, and ultimately curiosity, concerning the advent, development, and evolution of what we term theo-philosophical developments of mankind which abound in the historical record, following the intellectual journey as it were up until modern times, what we refer to herein as the Information Age, where Information is at our finger tips, where activity is “informed” by its surroundings (Quantum Theory), and yet while we all for the most part (and in particular in Western academia) ignore the wisdom of the ancients.

The Snow Cone Diaries was somewhat manufactured in the sense that it was intentionally modelled after one of the most influential books that the author has read written by a modern self-proclaimed “metaphysician”, or philosophologer (i.e. one who studies philosophy) named Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, initially published in 1974 but which the author encountered and read during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, years of great tumult and change for most, the author being no exception.

After college, as is documented in Snow Cone Diaries, the author spent several years pursuing a career in professional tennis which in the end amounted to more so than anything else a time period of intense reading and personal analysis and introspection that led the author, in a manner that can perhaps best be described as “chance”, or if you believe in such things, Fate as it were, to Eastern philosophy and mysticism.  The author had been prepared for this adventure somewhat as he had majored in Ancient History as an undergraduate at Brown University and had written his thesis on the “Origins and Influence of Hermetism”.  In a sense then, the author’s initial, and now very persistent and long lasting, foray into Eastern mysticism was a natural extension of the intellectual pursuits of his undergraduate years.

The impetus and source of the author’s interest in Eastern philosophy, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga specifically in fact, stemmed primarily, at least at the beginning, from an interest in the mental and psychological demands of the game of tennis at the professional level, where many matches were determined by an individual’s performance at key points within a given match.  After spending a 6-9 months on the professional tour, mostly travelling in Europe, It became very clear that an individual’s success (which was of course almost entirely measured in Wins and Losses) while depending of course on physical attributes such as power, strength and fitness, at the same time very much depended upon what is referred to in sports as the mental aspect of the game.

This somewhat revealing and interesting component of the game, which arguably is an aspect of all professional sports but is more accentuated as it were in tennis given that it is mono y mono so to speak, became even more pronounced when two opponents were somewhat evenly matched as it were, and victory hinged upon just a few points – which as it turned out happened more often than you might think.  The author became somewhat intrigued by this phenomena, if we may call it that, and he became fascinated with what in professional sports is referred to as The Zone.

As such, it became very clear that in order to get into The Zone, there was a very well documented and well-studied connection between what peak performance and what we might call “clarity of mind.  In turn, this clarity was connected to, and in many respects seemed to be dependent upon, what are even in the sports psychological literature referred to as the development and cultivation of various rituals and practices, both on and off the court, before, during and after matches, in order to facilitate and/or “bring about” these states of mind where peak performance could be “attained”, or in Eastern philosophical parlance, realized.[2]

With this background then, the author while he was playing and studying, began writing – primarily about the so called “mystical experience” which was such an integral part of the Eastern philosophical tradition and its fundamental relationship to The Zone as it was understood in Sports Psychology.  The effort was centered around (and to a large extent this is also true for the Snow Cone Diaries as well as the current work) an attempt to establish a rational grounding, or intellectual footing as it were, within which these states of mind could be better understood and as such better integrated, or at least somewhat integrated, into what the author now calls the objective realist intellectual framework that underpins not just Western academia, but also is clearly the very rational ground of the Western mind, or psyche.

For despite all the author’s education and training, mental and physical gymnastics galore as it were, no one had ever even broached the topic or discussed with him this idea of peak performance and its relationship to the cultivation of clarity of mind, and the related states of consciousness that were associated to these “states” as it were, despite the fact that it appeared to be an almost empirically proven correlation between the two – at least in Sports Psychology circles.  It also became clear over time that this goal of peak performance as it were was not just dependent at some level upon these so-called states of mind, but in fact that that there seemed to be a very direct, causal relationship between the two.  Furthermore, these very same states of mind that were described in the Psychological literature around peak performance were not only clearly an exteremly significant, and somewhat undervalued and under practiced, component of competing as a professional athlete at the very highest levels, but that they were also an integral part of the mystical experience as well as it was described in almost all of the Eastern philosophical literature.  And of course, after some reflection, these states of mind seemed to be an integral component to success in life, however one might choose to define such a thing.

Following the model of Robert Pirsig then, and because the author felt strongly that the ideas that he was exploring, presenting and analyzing were best understood only within the psychological and mental context within which the author himself initially encountered and confronted such ideas, the author felt compelled to take his initial more “academic” works and wrap them around a loosely fictional character which he named Charlie, as well create additional (also loosely fictional) characters to which Charlie was “responding” and “reacting” to in order to try and establish the empirical reality and power of the nature of mind, and along with it the fundamental truth and power of the ancient art of meditation and mysticism to which it is integrally tied.  For perhaps the hallmark of the Eastern philosophical tradition is the emphasis and description of the art of meditation and its relationship to the attainment of these states of mind, what the author calls the Science of the Mind as it were, an altogether Eastern discipline.

Using Charlie as his mouthpiece then, we essentially argue in the Snow Cone Diaries, as Pirsig had done before him, that not only are our current (Western) intellectual models lacking in some very basic and fundamental ways – given the lack of emphasis and focus on the mind and experience itself as basis of reality as we understand it – but that these limitations had, again as Pirsig had argued before him as well, significant implications on how society in the West functioned and how individuals within that society behaved toward each other as well as the nature of the relationship between individuals and (Western) society as whole to the world around them in general.[3]

Given the level of effort and personal sacrifices that were made to publish Snow Cone Diaries, and given that the author is by no means a full time writer and first and foremost has a demanding professional career and responsibilities as a parent that were and are first priority, we never thought that he would embark upon a subsequent work.  We thought we were done.  However, our interest in ancient philosophy and the art of meditation did not dwindle, and the author’s meditation practice continued to flourish and grow and (as it is wont to do as any persistent and schooled meditation practitioner will tell you) the practice itself continued to have a profound impact on us in the following ways as it pertains to this work specifically:

  1. Our own personal conceptions of the nature of reality and the disconnect between it and commonly held and systematically taught “belief systems” which we are taught from early childhood and are presented as “empirically true” in the West,
  2. a continued and increased dissatisfaction of the current prevailing “Western” worldviews and belief systems,
  3. a deeper appreciation for the eternal truths that the very first philosophers from classical antiquity, as reflected in the term the Axial Age, were trying to convey and seemed to be missed or passed over in much of the scholarly work surrounding these ancient texts and authors,
  4. that in fact there were many more parallels and commonalities between these various belief systems that were compiled in classical antiquity throughout “Eurasia”, much more so than was reflected in most if not all of the scholarly and academic work surrounding these traditions, and
  5. the disciplines surrounding the study of the philosophers of deep antiquity were “siloed”, in the sense that the Sinologists (Chinese) weren’t collaborating with the Vedic or ancient Sanskrit scholars and the “Classicists” who studied the ancient Greek philosophers didn’t seem to be collaborating with either of these two disciplines either

Given these facts, and after studying the various traditions from antiquity, again as reflected in the so-called Axial Age, even from a layperson’s perspective it seemed that there were underlying similarities and patterns that were being missed primarily because these disciplines in and of themselves independently requires such a rigorous and deep level of knowledge about the specific domain.  Those that could understand and read ancient Chinese script were not necessarily the same people that knew and could read Vedic Sanskrit, and these people of course were not necessarily the same people that knew ancient Greek or Latin, and in turn these people were not necessarily the same people that could read cuneiform of the ancient Sumer-Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians for that matter.

However, given that we now live in the Information Age, and that the translations of many of these texts, as well as the underlying meaning and etymologies of the various terms and words of the ancient languages themselves as reflected in the ancient writing systems that developed in the 3rd and 2nd millennium BCE throughout Eurasia, are now readily available, the time seemed to be ripe for a generalist of sorts to pull together the knowledge from all these somewhat disparate domains and bring them together in some sort of cohesive whole, in a more comprehensive and somewhat more scholarly fashion than had been done in Snow Cone Diaries, which was more of a personal journey tan it was an intellectual or academic one.

So given that the disciplines and domains of study and research described herein continued to impress themselves upon the author, and given our continued interest in ancient philosophy, and writing even after the publishing of Snow Cone Diaries, we ended up publishing two interim works thereafter that summed up and further explored some of the more esoteric and less well known aspects of Hellenic philosophy and their subsequent influence on the development and foundations of early Christianity, as well as an exposition of the philosophy of the Far East, the latter being and area of research that was relatively new to the author and that was not considered in the Snow Cone Diaries.[4]

The Far Eastern ancient philosophical tradition, what is referred to as ancient Chinese philosophy, which is covered in detail in the current work, is intriguing for many reasons but for the sake of brevity in this Introduction, suffice it to say that the Yijing, what is more commonly known as the I Ching, is arguably the most fascinating and intriguing theo-philosophical work from antiquity, hands down.  And the more the author studied it and was exposed to its origins and influence throughout Chinese history, the more impressed he was with its place as one of the greatest and most intellectual achievements in the history of mankind, one that reached far back into Chinese antiquity (3rd millennium BCE at least) and one that undoubtedly rivaled the Vedas and Avesta as representative of some of the oldest theo-philosophical treatises of ancient man.[5]

Furthermore, as the author began to understand more and more of the nature, content, structure and origins of the Yijing, the most prolific and influential of all of the ancient Chinese “philosophical” works, if we may call it that, it became apparent that its basic architecture, particularly from a numerological and metaphysical perspective, shared many common characteristics of ancient Pythagorean philosophy, in particular as reflected in the symbol that perhaps more so than anything else has come to represent said philosophy, namely the Tetractys.  Following this intellectual thread as it were, the author published what was supposed to be a small academic piece on the similarities from a numerological and arithmological perspective between “Pythagorean” philosophy, or what we know of it, and classical Chinese philosophy as reflected in the I Ching, what is referred to in this work as its more modern Romanized form, i.e. the Yijing.[6]

 

This work in its current form is to a large degree an outgrowth and evolution of the intellectual journey that is documented and mapped in the Snow Cone Diaries, and in particular an outgrowth of research done after Snow Cone Diaries was written exploring the nature and origins of early Hellenic philosophy and its relationship to early Chinese philosophy as well as ancient Vedic or Indo-Aryan philosophy as reflected primarily in the Upanishads, the latter of which was rigorously and systematically studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York under the guidance of Swami Adiswarananda to whom this work is dedicated to.

So while this work can at some level be considered to be extensive revision and expansion of the academic and intellectual pursuits that are reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, it is distinctive from the author’s first major work in many respects and represents a much deeper dive into the material covered therein, as well as covers topics and areas of inquiry that are not covered.  Having said that, this work is much more “academic” in the sense that it represents – at least from the author’s perspective – a much higher level of scholarship than is reflected in the Snow Cone Diaries, and of course the personal narrative, Charlie himself, has been put to rest (God rest his Soul).[7]

Given the extent of the material covered in this work, the author in no way intends to represent it as an exhaustive study of any of the specific topics that is covered herein.  In fact, each chapter or section of the work could be covered, and is covered, in much greater length in a variety of works that are cited as references and for further study and research.  The author has however taken great pains to try and refer to, and directly cite, the most influential and comprehensive works that cover the various topics in question and of course the interested reader can follow these lines of inquiry and these references to learn more about any given topic.

The specific source material that is used is not only cited directly throughout as footnotes, but is also covered from a much broader perspective in the Sources and Bibliography section at the end of the work.  Perhaps more so than other works from before the 21st century, an era the author refers to as the “Information Age”, this work stands directly on the shoulders of many academics and scholars that have toiled and taken great pains to open up the world of antiquity to the modern Western reader and scholar through countless translations and historical books and records, many of which are now electronically available and upon which easy access the author has greatly relied.

There are no doubt particular sections or chapters which the author has glossed over in a manner that may be considered to be “superficial”, particularly by academics and scholars who have spent the better part of their professional careers studying and writing about the specific topics in question.[8]  However, each of the lines of thought represented in each Chapter of each Part of this work represent a coherent and cohesive whole and in their entirety, and of course for the sake of brevity (as ironic a term that may be given the length and scope of this work), is intended to show as complete a picture as possible in one text.

The approach from a reference and bibliography standpoint is to have significant footnotes and references directly within the material itself rather than, as is the case with most academic works, at the end of a chapter or even at the end of the work.  The footnotes, the explanations and small intellectual excursions which are reflected in the extensive footnotes that are included directly in the text not only serve to give credit to the reference material and the work and analysis put in by other academics and scholars on whose research and work mine ultimately depends and builds upon, but also as sidebar notes that may be of interest to the reader that provide direct links and references to works that the reader can refer to if they are interested in a certain topic that is not covered in detail in this work.[9]

The footnote style that is used is essentially adopted from the writings of Swami Nikhilananda (1895 – 1973), one of the foremost Sanskrit and Vedic scholars in the West in the 20th century.[10]  Nikhilananda’s works have in no small measure influenced the author, as he studied at the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center which he founded in the middle of the twentieth century which was led by the author’s teacher, Swami Adiswarananda from 1973 until his passing in 2007.[11]

In this context, Vedānta, and more broadly what we refer to as “Indo-European philosophy”  in this work, is a central and constant theme throughout this work, in particular with respect to the modern conception of ancient Indian philosophy as it is presented in the teachings and works of Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902), one of the foremost proponents and most influential of the modern “Indian philosophers”.[12]  From the author’s perspective, Vedānta, as reflective of one of, if not the, oldest and richest of the Indo-European theo-philosophical traditions, can (and should) be leveraged as an intellectual and theo-philosophical benchmark of sorts for the recasting of the definitions of knowledge and reality in the West, one of the main thrusts of this work.

 

The work is divided into 4 major sections, Books or Parts, following more or less the intellectual development of mankind since the dawn of “history”, history in this sense being marked by the invention and widespread use of writing after which we have a “direct” or “first hand” exposure to the mind of man, or at least into the minds of the authors of the works that are covered herein.

  1. On Creation and On Metaphysics, Parts I and II: how the ancients looked at the world and defined reality and knowledge (),
  2. On Theology and Physics, Part III: how we came to our current, modern conceptions of reality and knowledge in the West (Part III), and
  3. On Ontology Part IV: a deeper and more comprehensive look at the nature of reality, Being in the sense that it was looked at by Aristotle and Plato as understood through a modern Western intellectual lens, and in particular in light of the knowledge of the East.

The chapters and sections in each of the respective Parts, or Books, are designed and written as much as possible to be modular as much as possible.  By “modular” we mean to say that they are written with the intention, again as much as possible, of being stand-alone essays or dissertations of their respective topics such that the reader can read a particular chapter without necessarily reading preceding chapters.  That is to say, the design of the work itself is such that it need not be approached or “read” in a sequential fashion from start to finish.  And of course as such, some material and content is repeated in the various sections and Parts of this work so that said “modular” design is achieved.  Given the breadth of the topics covered herein, this type of modular design is not only intentional but is almost required in order for the work to have value.  For if it is not read, it of course cannot have the intended impact or influence on modes of thinking which to a large extent the intended purpose of the work.

One of the main underlying themes of the work, especially in Parts I and II, is an exploration and analysis of the potentially shared origins of not just the mythology of the first “civilized” peoples in Eurasia, which the “Laurasian” Mythos hypothesis of Witzel, but also an expanded version of said hypothesis which analyzes and discusses the potential shared the origins of “philosophy” – what is referred to again as theo-philosophy throughout following the terminology of Snow Cone Diaries which brings attention to the fact that the earliest systems of “philosophy” from antiquity are not just analytical or rational systems of thought, but are also fundamentally theological in nature.

Parts I and II of this work are primarily focused on this area in history, the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE when we have introduced into the historical record evidence and documents that outline the Mythos of these early Eurasian peoples, specifically the creation narratives (what we refer to as cosmological or theogonical narratives), which is followed by a detailed analysis of the subsequent theo-philosophical tradition which emerges from, and is fundamentally and intrinsically related to, the underlying comsogonical narrative, i.e. again the respective Mythos.

Part III focuses on intellectual developments that take place in the West post classical antiquity from the intellectual developments that characterize Hellenic philosophy, through the advent of more orthodox religious or theological developments, straight through the Enlightenment Era and Scientific Revolution periods of Western intellectual history where effectively the worldview is overturned and Science, as we define it in more modern terms, begins to eclipse the dogmatic religious and theological worldviews that had dominated the intellectual landscape in the West for some thousand years prior, the so-called “Dark Ages” .

Part III then goes on to look at scientific developments in the 20th century, Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics in particular, which call into question our modern (and pervasive) notions of deterministic, objective based frameworks of reality, what we refer to collectively as objective realism, which represent from the author’s perspective a somewhat unintended byproduct of the Scientific Revolution and which, given their limitations with respect to understanding reality from a comprehensive or holistic perspective (i.e. ontology, or the study of the nature of being or reality), require – in the same intellectual spirit and intent pursued by Kant, Pirsig and other more modern Western philosophers – a wholesale revision in order for not only the two theoretical pillars of modern Science (Classical Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics) to be understood in any meaningful way, but also such that the knowledge and wisdom of the East is integrated into our conception and understanding of reality as well.

Part IV covers in detail much of the material that was first introduced in Snow Cone Diaries with respect to the fundamental incompatibilities of Quantum and Classical Mechanics, going into (theoretical) detail not just with Relativity but also Quantum Theory, as well as some of the philosophical, and ultimately metaphysical, implications of Quantum Theory, covering two interpretative models in particular that the author thinks are relevant to the ontological questions that are the topic of Part IV – namely the Relative-State formulation of Quantum Mechanics by Hugh Everett as well as the pilot-wave theory that is attributed to Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.  The Metaphysics of Quality as presented by Robert Pirsig is also offered up as an alternate model for ontological inquiry given its adoption and incorporation of the direct perception of “intuitive” reality directly into its metaphysics as it were.

Part IV then offers up various alternative interpretations of reality that attempt to present and synthesize what we understand about the nature of reality both from a scientific perspective, as well as from what we might term a mystical or spiritual perspective, models which directly incorporate experiential reality into account when defining reality or the extent of knowledge itself, i.e. what is referred to as epistemology in modern philosophical nomenclature.  The models and analysis in Part IV directly take into account the role of active consciousness, cognition and perception, what in Quantum Theory has come to be known as the act of observation which from a Scientific perspective, at least again from the author’s standpoint, must be taken into account in any formulation of reality and in any definition of knowledge.

The alternative approaches to defining reality and knowledge that are presented and described in Part IV basically synthesize typically “Eastern” and “Western” worldviews, and from the author’s standpoint, are far better suited than existing philosophical or religious intellectual frameworks to prepare us not just as individuals to survive and thrive in the modern, Information Age, but also are much better suited to serve the society as a whole, from a national as well as global perspective, given the level of interdependence and interconnectedness of not just the human race, but also the natural world within which we live and depend upon for our survival moving forward into the future.

The last several chapters of Part IV, much more so than the author originally intended in fact, are dedicated to a fairly lengthy discussion of a relatively modern debate surrounding different ways or approaches to interpret, how best to understand, the life and teachings of the 19th century Bengali (Indian/Hindu) sage Rāmakrishna Paramhamsa, a tradition of course to which this author is closely linked from a theo-philosophical perspective.  Rāmakrishna in this sense, and how he is perceived and approached in these final chapters of this work, is the full manifestation of, and in turn the perfect example of, the limitations of Western “thinking” and the implicit epistemological restrictions and assumptions that while true, are fundamentally limited in their capacity to deal with anything that falls outside of the realm of Science proper and as such is dealt with as a case study of sorts for the need to integrate the Science of the Mind as it were into any ontological framework that we are to choose that would include the knowledge of the East along with the knowledge of the West.

This so-called mystical, or supraconscious experience, which is the intended result of the practice of the ancient art of meditation as it has been passed down to us through various classically Eastern theo-philosophical traditions – in the Upanishads in particular but also implicit in the writings and teachings of Plato and Greek Eleusinian mystery and Orphic traditions and of course in the teachings of Buddha as well – are presented as a necessary and integral component of any “redefinition” of reality and knowledge which, following any sort of rational interpretation of Quantum Theory must take into account the role of the observer and the act of cognition i.e. perception, into account in any coherent and complete model of reality.

Along these lines, various intellectual frameworks and models which include direct experiential reality are explored and discussed at length in Part IV, as well as in the Epilogue, with specific chapters dedicated to the re-interpretation of Upanishadic philosophy as presented by Vivekananda in the early 20th century as well as an objective analysis of the experiences and interpretation of the life of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna in particular who according to tradition of course was the primary influence and inspiration for Vivekananda’s teachings and life in general.

Rāmakrishna as a mystic then, and mysticism  in general – specifically defined by the practices and experiences associated with the direct perception of the ground of reality and existence itself which is the hallmark of Eastern philosophy – is not only one of the main, recurrent (and under emphasized) themes of ancient theo-philosophy in all its forms throughout Eurasian antiquity as reflected in the material in Parts I and II of this work, but also from an ontological standpoint represents one of the other main thrusts of this work which is covered in Part IV as well as summed up in the Epilogue which follows Part IV.

This “Western” view of Rāmakrishna, which is primarily represented in the book Kālī’s Child (a work which is critiqued at length in Part IV and the first section of the Epilogue as well) is from the author’s perspective a perfect illustration of the fundamental limitations of Scientific inquiry as we understand it in the modern Ear in the West.  An intellectual domain that rests squarely on the implicit, and very often left out, assumptions of not just empiricism and rationalism, philosophical modes of thought which characterized the Enlightenment Era for the most part, but also causal determinism and again objective realism, which provide the very basis for epistemology (i.e. our scope and understanding of knowledge itself) in the West, be they recognized as such or not.

Therefore when it comes to understanding, or again interpreting from a Western intellectual perspective, fundamentally Eastern theo-philosophical constructs such as Satcitānanda, Brahman, Purusha, Dao, or Nirvana, all words and terms that fall outside of Science proper in the West given their lack of empirical, objective reality and yet at the same time reflect concepts and ontological principles that are fundamentally required to come to any sort of understanding of any great sage, saint or prophet in the history of man – Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna included.  The choices we are left with given the modern Western intellectual landscape are the need to either study these domains specifically where these words and their associated meanings originate from, or alternatively expand our intellectual domain in the West to include some sort of corollary to these ideas, what they inherently mean and signify – the latter of which is the approach that Pirsig takes by formulating a new metaphysics which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality but what he unfortunately falls short of doing, a topic covered at length in the Epilogue as well.

This analysis of course lends itself to one of the core and final arguments of this work, namely that the intellectual and metaphysical model that is applied to reality in the West, i.e. our ontological framework, while being extraordinarily powerful from a natural philosophical perspective, i.e. Science, is in fact an inadequate conceptual framework for the comprehension of the full scope of reality and therefore  is in need of wholesale revision and/or significant expansion and extension metaphysically and theo-philosophically speaking in order to support a more broad definition of reality through which a more complete and fuller understanding of existence itself can be at least approached.  Hence the title of Part IV of the work, On Ontology.

 


[1] See Plato, Letters.  Letter 7, aka Seventh Letter 341c – 341d.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7%3Asection%3D341c.  While the actual authenticity of the letter by Plato is debated by scholars it does for the most part reflect the writing style and philosophy as presented by Plato from the author’s perspective and so while perhaps not written by Plato’s hand, still nonetheless seems to accurately represent something akin to what Plato would write, specifically with respect to the specific part of the work cited herein.

[2] The Psychology of peak performance was spear headed in the Nick Bollettieri Academy in the 70s and 80s by the now well renowned and prolific Dr. Jim Loehr, now founder and Chairman of the Human Performance Institute.  See https://www.jjhpi.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr.

[3] An overview of Pirsig’s work and his invention of a new mode of thinking to address some of the inherent limitations of the modern, Western worldview which he refers to as the Metaphysics of Quality are covered in some detail in the final section of this work.

[4] These works are Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East respectively.  Both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2015.

[5] Tradition has it that Confucius is believed to have said that if he had fifty years to spare, he would spend it to contemplating and studying the Yijing.

[6] The original paper by the author regarding the similarities between Pythagorean philosophy and the Yijing is entitled “Numerology and Arithmology in Pythagorean Philosophy and the Yijing”, published in 2016 and can be found at https://www.academia.edu/27439070/Numerology_and_Arithmology_in_Pythagorean_Philosophy_and_the_Yijing.

[7] Two interim works were published by the author covering Hellenic philosophy and Chinese philosophy specifically that were leveraged as source material for some of the content herein, specifically some of the content in Parts I and II of this work.  See Philosophy in Antiquity: The Greeks (2015) and Philosophy in Antiquity: The Far East (2016), both published by Lambert Academic Publishing in 2016.

[8] In particular the author cites the sections on Enlightenment Era philosophy as well as Arabic/Muslim philosophy as examples of Chapters which could be expanded upon greatly and to a large extent do not do justice to the actors and individuals, and the belief systems which they put forward in their writings, described therein.

[9] The footnotes also incidentally serve as reminders and reference points to the author himself so as sections of material are revisited and/or reworked and/or revised, the pertinent sources are readily available.

[10] Swami Nikhilananda is a direct disciple of Sarada Devi (1853 – 1920), the consort and wife of the 19th century Bengali sage Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna (1836 – 1886).  He is also the founder of and subsequent leader of the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York from 1933 to 1973 and is one of the foremost interpreters (and translators) of Vedic philosophy into English in the 20th century.  He has authored definitive translations with extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, and he is also known for providing the definitive English translation of the Srī Srī Rāmakrishna Kathāmrita, commonly referred to in the West as the Gospel of Srī Rāmakrishna, a monumental work covering detailed teachings and events of the last few years of Rāmakrishna’s life as seen through the eyes of one of his foremost (householder) disciples, Mahendranath Gupta (1854 – 1932), or simply ‘M’.

[11] See https://www.ramakrishna.org/ for information regarding the Rāmakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.

[12] Swami Vivekananda was the first to introduce Yoga and Vedānta to the West at the end of the 19th century.  He was the foremost student and spiritual successor of Paramhamsa Rāmakrishna, a figure who is dealt with at length in Part IV of this work.  Vivekananda’s modern conception of Vedānta and Indian philosophy more broadly, is also covered at length in Part IV of this work.

Orpheus and Dionysus: The Mystery Cults of Ancient Greece

While Hesiod’ Theogony remains the standard, orthodox version of Theogony, the origin and genealogy of the gods, from Greek antiquity, there exists an alternate tradition attributed to pseudo-historical and somewhat mythical figure of Orpheus, a character whose life is shrouded in mystery and tales of great heroic journeys.  According to some legends and tales surrounding his life he is the son of the Muse Calliope and the god Apollo, the patron deity of the city of Delphi where the famed temple of the Oracle at Delphi was kept. Orpheus was a famed lyric poet who supposedly gained his lyre from a chance meeting with Apollo in the forest one day in his youth, Apollo having been greatly charmed by the boy’s voice.  It was there supposedly that Apollo initiated him into the great “mysteries” to which many of the practices and rites of the esoteric “mystery cults” of ancient Greece were associated.

But perhaps Orpheus is best known for his lyrical voice and the poetry which bears his  name, i.e. the Rhapsodies, a voice and music was known to tame even the most savage of beasts.  He is perhaps best known not only for his role in the tale of the Golden Fleece as the poet who tames the Sirens on their epic journey, but also his great love for the nymph Eurydice for whom he travels to the realm of the dead to save, only to have her lost forever when he turns his head to look back to her to make sure she is following him.[1]

With respect to the life of Orpheus, what we know comes to us down as legend and tales of old that speak of a child who is singing in the forests one day in Thrace who is found by Apollo who is charmed by his sweet voice.  As the legend goes, Orpheus was taught music (the lyre) by Apollo himself and was ultimately initiated into the “cult of the mysteries”, or divine knowledge, by him.  After a life of singing and divine inspiration, he fell in love and married the nymph Eurydice, who was his ceaseless companion and close confidante.  She, after being pursued through the woods by the god Aristaios, a deity also associated with Dionysus and Zeus, was killed by a poisonous snake and killed.  Orpheus was grief stricken, and with the assistance of the gods who empathized with his plight, travelled to the underworld to try and save his beloved.  He journeyed through the land of the dead and reached the throne of Pluto (Hades) and Persephone and begged them to let Eurydice live again.  Again his true love and plight was empathized with and they granted his wish, but under one condition.  He was not to look back at his beloved until they had completely left the realm of the dead, a test of faith as it were.  Orpheus, in one of the great tragedies of Greek mythology, looks back to be sure his beloved is behind him before leaving the land of the dead and so she is lost to him forever.  Orpheus is then said to have wandered the woods by himself and only sang to men after that, singing always about his lost love for Eurydice. There are different tales of his death but one story has him slain by Thracian women, (Mainádæs), women associated with the cult of Dionysus again, for luring their men away with his sweet music.  Orpheus is also associated with the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (the Golden Fleece) and is said to have saved the crew from the deadly Sirens on their journey with the charm of his music.

The religious practices and rites surrounding Orphism are closely associated with the life and legend of the mythical figure Dionysus, or Dionysus Bacchius or Zagreus as he was sometimes referred to.  Dionysus in mythical lore was the son of Zeus and Persephone, or sometimes Demeter or Semele depending upon the mythical variant.  As the legend goes he was murdered as a small child at the behest of Zeus’s jealous wife Hera.  His heart however was saved by Athena before he could be killed forever, and through this act of kindness and empathy he is born again.  This notion of rebirth and salvation was a main theme surrounding the worship of Dionysus and most certainly echoes themes we find much later in the life and teaching of Jesus.

The god, or cult, of Dionysus in ancient Greece – and through Roman times as well where he was worshipped as Bacchus – is closely associated with death and rebirth and divine ecstasy, which in turn was closely associated with wine, which in turn was associated with fertility and the spring, again rebirth.  Hence his, and less directly Orpheus’s, association with not only Persephone, the goddess of the underworld (death and rebirth), but also the goddess of the harvest and the spring, Demeter.  The close affiliation to the “divine mysteries”, to which the worship of Dionysius is closely associated with in antiquity, and to which Orphism in turn is also closely associated with, is evidenced by the many parallels and intertwined myths surrounding the two figures – Orpheus’s trip to the underworld and back to save his love Eurydice and Dionysus journey to the underworld to save his mother Semele for example.

 

What we know of the life of Orpheus as a historical figure, if in fact he did exist as an actual historical figure, is not much.  However, he is closely associated with the region of Thrace, both from stories around his birth and death, a region which lies just to the North of classical Greece and the Near East, lying in modern day Bulgaria which would explain why the stories and poems of his life were not integrated into classical Greece mythology until after Homer and Hesiod.  In many respects one can look at the historical figure of Orpheus just as one looks at the historicity of the Hebrew Moses.  In fact, the two traditions surrounding these two “prophets”, if we may call them that, come from basically the same period in ancient history albeit from two different, but closely related, regions. Moses from ancient Palestine/Middle East and Orpheus from Thrace/Greece/Near East.

Little is known about the life of this pseudo-mythical figure other than it believed by modern and ancient scholars alike that he was in fact an historical figure, the notable exception being Aristotle, who – depending upon how you interpret the quotations from later authors from whom Aristotle’s opinion is summarized – doubted not only his existence but also his authorship of the poems, the Rhapsodies, that bear his name.  Aristotle however, given his reputation as a scholar and the access he must have had to historical records and accounts from Greek antiquity is worth mentioning as a skeptic but having said that he was skeptical of the old mythical tradition from antiquity in general so perhaps it is not surprising.

According to later authors who are by all accounts are likely quoting from the same passages in Aristotle’s lost work De Philosophia, it seems likely that Aristotle believed at least that the compilation of hymns that bear the name of Orpheus was done by an Onomakritos, a scribe and counselor from the court of Pesistratos from the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE who ruled Athens from 561 to 527 BCE.  As the story is related by Herodotus (who does not mention Orpheus specifically but indirectly as it related to the poems of the Muses) he tells us, consistent with Aristotle in fact (or perhaps Aristotle’s reference is from Herodotus) that these poems of the Muses (Musaios) were actually the works of Onomakritos, who inserted his own “forgeries” into the poems themselves and was therefore banished from Athens by the son of Pesistratos, Hipparchos.  After the family of Pesistratos was banished to Persia, Herodotus tells us that is by using the works Onomakritos that the great Persian king Xerxes I was convinced to lead an invasion into Greece.[2]

The earliest literary reference to Orpheus in the historical record is a two-word fragment of the sixth-century BC lyric poet Ibycus who simply refers to Orpheus as “the famous Orpheus”.  We also however find references and attestations to not only Orpheus himself but also the traditions surrounding the cult of mysteries or aspects of worship and initiation which were such an integral part of the tradition surrounding Orpheus from Herodotus as well as the tragic Greek playwright Euripides (The Bacchae), as well as Plato among others.  Plato in particular in one quotation from the Apology places Orpheus in the same category as Hesiod and Homer, as well as the Muses themselves, as having knowledge of divine mysteries as well as being objects of reverence.[3]  Having said that, with respect to what can be known about the historical figure of Orpheus if he did indeed exist, it is perhaps worth quoting a modern day scholar (and arguably a modern day “devotee”) on the subject, whose words sum up the situation quote nicely:

This alone may be depended on, from general assent, that there formerly lived a person named Orpheus, whose father was Œagrus, who lived in Thrace, and who was the son of a king, who was the founder of theology, among the Greeks; the institutor of their life and morals; the first of prophets, and the prince of poets; himself the offspring of a Muse; who taught the Greeks their sacred rites and mysteries, and from whose wisdom, as from a perpetual and abundant fountain, the divine muse of Homer, and the philosophy of Pythagoras, and Plato, flowed; and, lastly, who by the melody of his lyre, drew rocks, woods, and wild beasts, stopped the rivers in their course, and ever, moved the inexorable king of hell; as every page, and all the writings of antiquity sufficiently evince. Since thus much then may be collected from universal testimony, let us, pursue the matter a little farther, by investigating more accurately the history of the original Orpheus; with that of the great men who have, at different periods, flourished under this venerable name.[4]

 

Leaving aside the obvious questionable attribution of the inspiration and source of the works of Homer, Pythagoras and Plato being from Orpheus himself, this quite eloquent view of the figure of Orpheus does represent the view of the “inner circle” of Orphic believers in antiquity however, reflecting not only the great influence that his life and works were believed to have had, but also the “secret” nature of the “mystery cults” and rites that were so closely associated to the figure himself.  What we do however know for certain is that there existed a theology and “mystery cult” tradition surrounding the pseudo-mythical figure of Orpheus that was very influential on the development of not just theogony but also in turn philosophy in classical Greece.

Our primary textual evidence is from not only from the hymns which bear his name which survive for the most part intact, having in all likelihood been compiled in the last few centuries BCE, but also from references to the practices and rites surrounding Orphism in Herodotus as well as Plato and Aristotle (despite the latter’s noted skepticism regarding Orpheus as an historical figure) and prominently in the more recently discovered  by the Derveni Papyrus.  All of these point to a tradition that was not only widely known and practiced in classical Greece, but also one that was on par, albeit independent, from the Homeric and Hesiodic poetic/historical traditions which represented more “orthodox” Hellenic theological and mythological beliefs.  Notably however, Orpheus is not mentioned in either the works of Homer or Hesiod, speaking to an independent theological tradition, at least in the first few centuries of the first millennium BCE after which it was clearly integrated and synthesized into Hellenic mythological and cultural lore.

The Derveni papyrus was discovered in 1962 and is believed to have been compiled in the 5th century BCE.  While it’s a fairly damaged papyrus scroll, the bulk of the text has been recovered after much painstaking research and it consists of a running commentary on Orphic theogony, giving us insight and corroborating evidence of Orphic theogony proper, but also of a fairly early tradition of theo-philosophical interpretations of theogony in general, this one most likely coming from a school associated with Anaxagoras given the prominent role of “Mind” throughput the text.  The papyrus was discovered in a burial site from the 3rd century BCE around the time of the reign of Phillip II of Macedon around the area of Thrace/Macedon, a region closely associated with the stories surrounding the life of Orpheus.  This archaeological find allows us to date Orphic Theogony and cosmological narratives – and in turn practices associated with the tradition undoubtedly – to at least the time of classical Greece.  This material and belief systems reflected in the papyrus however, are undoubtedly representative of a theological and mystical tradition that is of much deeper antiquity, a tradition which bears many similarities and resemblances to what we know of ritual and theological traditions of Egypt, as well as those spoken of in the earliest Vedas and the Avestan lore, and one which was clearly of interest to the early Greek philosophers.[5]

Orpheus was believed to be the founder and prophet of the “Orphic mysteries”, as well as credited with the authorship of the so called “Orphic hymns”, a somewhat late Hellenistic compilation of poems addressed to the various gods and goddesses that were pre-eminent in the Orphic Theogony, a somewhat alternative representation of the divine order of the universe than presented by Hesiod.  The Orphic hymns include poems and commemorations to the gods and goddesses of Night, Heaven, Fire, and unique to the Orphic mythological tradition to the protogenital human, or Protogonus (Phanes).  Within this poetic compilation we also find verses dedicated to major “naturalistic” concepts that played an important role in early Hellenic philosophy such as Law, Justice, Equity, Health, etc. no doubt speaking to the interplay and interchangeability of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology and the principals or “ideas” which they represented.[6]

Regardless of whether or not he existed as an actual person in history however, the life of Orpheus is not only very closely embedded in and related to classical Greek mythology, but also very closely associated with the so called “mystery cults” of ancient Greece.  These cults were closely affiliated with the with rites of initiation and rituals and the worship of Dionysus, worshipped as the “savior” of mankind through which the mysteries of divine union could be realized.  While these practices were shrouded in mystery and closely guarded within the “Orphic” community as it were, the Derveni Papyrus in particular reveals some insights into how these mythological narratives were interpreted by those within the tradition itself, a tradition which the author of the Derveni Papyrus was clearly intimately familiar.

Given Orpheus’s close connection with mystery cults and divine ecstasy which was closely aligned to the cults of Dionysus (not just in classical Greece but also in Roman times under the name of Bacchus) by studying Orphic theogony we can get a glimpse perhaps into a more archaic and alternative theological and shamanic tradition than the more structured and literary version presented by Hesiod.  For the Orphic theogony by definition carries not just a much more esoteric and “secret” meaning, but one which perhaps points to much more ancient origins given its close affiliation with ancient rites and rituals and initiation, very much reminiscent to the practices and rituals that are laid out in more detail in the Avestas and Vedas assuredly.

 


[1] Parallels to the story of Orpheus looking back upon his love as they leave the land of Hades can be drawn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where the city of Sodom is destroyed by the Lord for its wickedness but Lot’s wife looked back at the destruction of the city and was reduced to a pillar of salt.  Genesis 19.

[2] See Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.  Paus. 1.22.7 and Herodotus Histories Book VII Chapter 6 from Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D22%3Asection%3D7 and http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126:book=7:chapter=6&highlight=onomacritus respectively for references to the account of Onomakritos in the court of Pesistratos and See Orpheus and Greek Religion by W. K. C. Guthrie, Princeton University Press 1993, pages 13-14 for the story of Onomakritos in Herodotus and pgs. 57-59 for his analysis and conclusions regarding the beliefs of Aristotle regarding Orpheus as interpreted from the excerpts of the (much later) Greco-Roman authors.

[3] While Aristotle reflects a more skeptic view of the Orphic tradition as well as the historicity of its founder, Orpheus, we find from Plato’s Apology the following quotation speaking to the high regard at least Plato had for the pseudo-mythical figure.  “Or again, what would any of you give to meet with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?” Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.  Apology, verse 41a from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D41a

[4] The Hymns of Orpheus, translation and Introduction by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/

[5] The analysis of the text is fascinating and revealing into not only Orphic beliefs from the period of classical Greece but also an early commentary on “mystery cult” mythological and esoteric beliefs in and of themselves.  See The Derveni Papyrus: Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation by Gabor Betegh.  Cambridge University Press 2004 for a very detailed overview of the archeological find, a translation of the scroll (what can be recovered), a good summary of the analysis of the conclusions that can be drawn from the text itself as well as a reconstructed (Orphic) theogony which is embedded in the scroll.  Why it was buried with what appears to be a great and well respected warrior and aristocrat remains a mystery.

[6] For a complete translation of the ancient text/fragments, see Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hoo/

The Theogony of Hesiod: Order (Cronos) from Chaos

One of the nice things that you found as you studied more advanced civilizations, as you got further into the first millennium BCE, you had better material and source texts to work with.  You no longer had to rely on texts and tablets that described ancient rituals for specific temples, or documents or inscriptions associated with royal burial grounds, you actually had books or treatises that were authored and compiled by a single individual that had coherent narratives and compiled and consolidated all the various traditions that might be represented throughout that particular culture.  One of the other nice things as you moved into the study of the civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans is you started to see pretty good one to one representations of their words into modern day English given its more direct relationship to the Latin.

Prior to looking at the mythological creation narratives that were prevalent in classical Greece, it’s worth pointing out some of the terminology that we use today that originated with the Greek language, the Greek poets and philosophers, that has come down to us in English, through the Latin translations, that we use to describe these intellectual traditions.

The words “theogony” and “cosmology” specifically actually both come from their Greek counterparts which in English have very similar meanings but in the Greek have different definitions, definitions that are symbolic of the intellectual tradition which each in turn belonged.  Theogony, or thæogonía (θεογονία) means the study of the origin and genealogy of the gods whereas “cosmology”, or kozmogonía (κοσμογονία) denotes the study of the origins of the universe, the latter term coming into use as the philosophical tradition arose, “kosmos” first being attributed to Pythagoras in fact circa 5th century BCE.  Theogony signifying, as in the case with Hesiod for example, the mythological narrative that described the creation of the gods of the pantheon and their successors.

While thæogonía (theogony; Gr. θεογονία) is the origin and genealogy of the Gods, kozmogonía (cosmogony; Gr. κοσμογονία) is the origin of the universe. In Hellenic polytheistic religion, these two terms are closely related and cannot actually be entirely separated, for the phenomenal universe is itself divine and the personal deities are intimately connected with its origin and both emerge simultaneously.

The etymology of thæogonía is Θεοί (Gods) + γέννα (birth), hence, the birth or origin of the Gods.  The etymology of kozmogonía is kόσμος (order, to put in order) + γέννα (birth); the word kόσμος only later came to mean the entire universe, but its original meaning has some bearing on how we understand our world, as the view of Orphismós sees the birth or origin of the kózmos (cosmos; Gr. κόσμος) as having a form and order, what Pythagóras (Gr. Πυθαγόρας) called diakózmisis (diakosmesis; Gr. διακόσμησις), the orderly arrangement of the universe.[1]

Having clarified this subtle but important distinction, in particular as we look at this time period of ancient Greece where philosophy begins to take precedence over mythology – logos over mythos – the analysis and study of the theogonies of Hesiod and the one attributed to the pseudo-historical figure of Orpheus actually shed much light on the transition, or at least the precursors to the transition which start with Pythagoras and Plato and come to a more solid, rational, foundation with Aristotle.

To the Greeks, and in particular t the tradition associated with Hesiod, it is Chaos that was the arche, or underlying origin, of the universe.  Arche means ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’ and ‘power’ in Greek.  It can also denote ‘ultimate underlying substance’ or ‘ultimate indemonstrable principle’ at least as seen in the context of Greek Cosmology.  Later philosophers such as Aristotle expanded upon the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in and of itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of the existence of such a thing.

In the Greco-Roman tradition, particularly in the works of the Neo-Platonists and other historians of philosophy from Cicero to Diogenes Laertius to Plutarch and others, it was the “first principles” of things that were the topic of the early Greek classical authors such as Hesiod and in turn Orpheus, who was the attributed author of various hymns and poems devoted to the gods that spoke of an alternative theogony, through which later philosophers viewed and interpreted these first principles and through which these later authors juxtaposed and defended the Hellenic philosophical tradition in the face of impending Christianity which took over the theological beliefs of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples a few centuries after the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire by Constantine.

In modern times, the arche is the word used by Carl Jung to describe the underlying psychological themes he found present in individual’s unconscious mind through his psychological practices.  To Jung these basic symbols and images that he found present in the modern mind bore striking similarity to primitive mythological motifs, motifs that are found in virtually all of the mythological traditions that we are studying and analyzing within the context of this work.  Jung called these symbols archetypes, the commonality of which across many of his patients he used as the rationalization for the existence of what he called the collective unconscious, the same principle which Joseph Campbell indirectly leveraged to explain the commonality of mythical themes and stories across all pre-civilized man across the globe – as presented in his Hero with a  Thousand Faces for example.  In essence this notion of arche to the Greeks represented the establishment of the basic universal building blocks, the first principles of abstract thought and ideas, upon which was superimposed Greek theogony as it was formulated in order to establish a more rational basis upon which the cosmological world order was maintained and was to be understood.  This transition is typically referred to in the academic literature as logos over mythos but we can view it here within the context of theogony to cosmogony.

 

The orthodox version of creation mythology from classical Greece is from a poetic work attributed to Hesiod called the Theogony.  Compilation of the text is dated to somewhere between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, somewhat contemporaneous to Homer, and representative of the height of literature to the Greeks even by the classical philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle among others that followed in their footsteps..  The Theogony, or again literally the birth of the gods”, describes the origins and genealogies of the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.

Hesiod markedly begins his work with an attribute to the divine Muses, the great daughters of Zeus who in the Hellenic world were the masters of mystery and the keepers of the divine mysteries through which any true knowledge or truth could be known.  It is through the Muses themselves that Hesiod relates his tale, speaking directly to their source through which his tale, his Theogony, is related and written.

(ll. 1-25) From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet. Thence they arise and go abroad by night, veiled in thick mist, and utter their song with lovely voice, praising Zeus the aegis- holder and queenly Hera of Argos who walks on golden sandals and the daughter of Zeus the aegis-holder bright-eyed Athene, and Phoebus Apollo, and Artemis who delights in arrows, and Poseidon the earth-holder who shakes the earth, and reverend Themis and quick-glancing (1) Aphrodite, and Hebe with the crown of gold, and fair Dione, Leto, Iapetus, and Cronos the crafty counsellor, Eos and great Helius and bright Selene, Earth too, and great Oceanus, and dark Night, and the holy race of all the other deathless ones that are for ever. And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

(ll. 26-28) `Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

(ll. 29-35) So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last. But why all this about oak or stone? (2)[2]

We see here not just the invocation to the Muses, in fact the allusion to the very source of the material being the Muses themselves who speak through Hesiod, but also the purpose of the work as explaining the existence of the Greek gods and goddesses that we know all too well even from modern renditions of Greek mythology – reference to Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Athena, Poseidon and Aphrodite, and even Cronos, the older parent of the Greek pantheon who is to play such an important role in the Theogonic tale that Hesiod is to tell.

A few verses later Hesiod provides us with his account of the first initial principles or gods from which the pantheon emerges from, the initial cosmological account of creation as it were.  The reference to the first beings that were ever created from which the pantheon of Greek gods originated and from which his story of rulership, succession, betrayal and the ultimate establishment of order is unfolded.  In Hesiod’s account of the creation of the universe, the initial state of the universe is Chaos, or Khaos in the Greek, and from this initial state of disorder, from which the word still carries the same meaning even in modern English today, the universe comes to life and order begins to manifest.

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.[3]

 

So here in the work of Hesiod lie the beginnings of some of the basic principles, or framework at least, from the transition from theogony to cosmology, the primordial arche as it were upon which the Greek pantheon emerges.  We are presented at the beginning of the genealogy with the notion of Chaos, or disorder as the term is still used today, that represents the primordial substance that forms the basis of all creation.  In Hesiod’s account Chaos is a pseudo-anthropomorphic being, a being that although not anthropomorphic per se, i.e. it is without gender or form, and yet it is the primordial substance form which the primary first generation deities and their offspring come forth from.  According to Hesiod out of Chaos emerge Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus – Mother Earth and the Underworld respectively, the great pillars of the world of being inhabited by human souls.  And then, perhaps surprisingly, in this tradition Eros, or Love, is a primary force which then acts to create the rest of the first generation of gods and goddesses and from which the realms of Heaven and Earth and all the basic natural principles and their anthropomorphic counterparts are created and established.

Next in Hesiod’s Theogony, also out of Chaos came Erebus[4], representing darkness or shadow, as well as Nyx, or the Greek’s personification of Night.  Erebus and Nyx then reproduced to form Aether, and Hemera (day).  Then came Gaia who gave birth to Uranus (sky/heaven), and Ourea (mountains) and Pontus (sea).  Uranus then fertilized Gaia and from this union the great Titans are born and the next generation of gods are born, the greatest of which is Cronos and from which the tale of the next generation of gods and the overthrow of Chaos by Cronos (time) is told.

These characters, these entities, represented the first and foremost parts of creation that sprung forth from the “void”, the first generation of gods for the Greeks.  Although the principles or deities themselves were different, there were some parallels to the genealogy of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian story lines albeit the ordering and gods themselves were different for each of the civilizations, perhaps indicative of the different aspects of each of the respective cultures.  Here we can find in this subsequent generation of gods, much like the Egyptian creation mythology, the generation and establishment of the world order, the pieces of the puzzle were laid down as it were, creating the foundations upon which mankind could emerge and flourish.

Hesiod then goes on to tell the tale of the overthrow of the evil ruler Chaos by Cronos, the greatest of the first generation of gods at the behest of his mother Gaia, Mother Earth.  Herein we find the great mythical narrative of the manifestation and establishment of order upon chaos, a tale that is gruesome and graphic no doubt in its details, and speaks to a consistent tradition of castration of the first principles of creation upon which the second generation of order is established.

(ll. 167-169) So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:

(ll. 170-172) `Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

(ll. 173-175) So he said: and vast Earth rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot.

(ll. 176-206) And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her (7).

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae (8) all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9) because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, — the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.[5]

From the seed of the of Chaos then, intermingled and spread about across the earth and sea and land, the other great first primordial creative principles of the first generation of gods, the second generation of deities comes forth as Cronos takes the reins of power from his father and bears children with Rhea, his sister.  But the graphic tale of deceit and disorder continues though, and with this next generation of gods we finally come to the great Zeus, the god of Thunder and Lightning who finally restores balance and order not only to the immortals but to the world of man as well.

As the tale is told Cronos knew he was to be overthrown by one of his seed and therefore after Rhea bore each child, Cronos swallowed them whole to ensure that his reign would last forever.  But Rhea outwitted her spouse and when Zeus was born she hid him from his father in a deep and secret cave, replacing him with a stone and outwitting him in order to fulfill the prophecy and no doubt so that her children could be reborn and live.  In a story that bears much resemblance to the pantheonic struggles so well documented in Egypt between Osiris and Set, who is overthrown by the progeny of Isis and Osiris, namely Horus), Hesiod tells us that Cronos is convinced by Gaia to overthrow his father Uranus and claim authority over the gods.  He did this successfully (in particularly gruesome fashion as it were) and then wedded his sister Rhea after which Rhea and Cronos in turn birthed Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, finishing the major Olympiad as it were.  After a long struggle steeped in myth and graphic tales of mischief and brutality, Zeus ends up taking over Olympus and control over the Greek pantheon from Cronos.

(ll. 453-491) But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children, Hestia (18), Demeter, and gold-shod Hera and strong Hades, pitiless in heart, who dwells under the earth, and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, and wise Zeus, father of gods and men, by whose thunder the wide earth is shaken. These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees with this intent, that no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus (19). Therefore he kept no blind outlook, but watched and swallowed down his children: and unceasing grief seized Rhea. But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men, then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter, and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyetus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. Thither came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods, she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled, and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honours, himself to reign over the deathless gods.[6]

Zeus then revives his brothers and sisters that his father has swallowed and takes over the rulership of heaven, defeating and killing his father like his father had done before him, and establishing balance and harmony in the heavens and on earth.

(ll. 492-506) After that, the strength and glorious limbs of the prince increased quickly, and as the years rolled on, great Cronos the wily was beguiled by the deep suggestions of Earth, and brought up again his offspring, vanquished by the arts and might of his own son, and he vomited up first the stone which he had swallowed last. And Zeus set it fast in the wide-pathed earth at goodly Pytho under the glens of Parnassus, to be a sign thenceforth and a marvel to mortal men (20). And he set free from their deadly bonds the brothers of his father, sons of Heaven whom his father in his foolishness had bound. And they remembered to be grateful to him for his kindness, and gave him thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightening: for before that, huge Earth had hidden these. In them he trusts and rules over mortals and immortals.[7]

 

This great mythical tale that Hesiod spins for us, from the direct inspiration of the Muses which are so closely associated not only with the lyric poetic tradition of of classical Greece but also the mystery cults of the Greeks as well, bears much resemblance to the mythical narratives to the East and West, each of which tell the tale of a first generations of gods or first principles that are born out of chaos, a watery abyss, from which emerge Heaven, Earth, Sea and Sky.  And then from this initial creation, the great Mother Earth (Gaia) produces the next generation of gods with the greatest of her siblings, Cronos, or Time (order, i.e. the Maat of the Egyptians), henceforth establishing order from the initial chaotic abyss.  And then the next generation of gods is brought forth and there is another (symbolic) overthrow of the reign of the gods and goddesses to a second generation, where Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning, takes the throne from his father after an epic battle between the older generation of gods (the Titans) and the new generation born of Earth.

Interestingly, the attributes of Thunder and Lightning which are so closely associated with the Greek god Zeus, the head of the Olympic pantheon as it were, are also closely associated with the Sumer-Babylonian god Marduk, who as we learn from the Sumer-Babylonian theogony of the Enuma Elis also comes to power via the overthrow of the second generation of gods ruled by Tiamut through another epic battle of the forces of good (represented by Marduk) and the forces of evil as represented by Tiamut.  Even more interesting perhaps are the parallels that can be drawn between Zeus and Marduk of the Greek and Sumer-Babylonian pantheons respectively to the role of Thunder and Lightning as a fundamental creative principle, a cornerstone of the cyclical process of universe creation as it were, in the mythos of the ancient Chinese as depicted in the notion of Zhen (Thunder) as one of the eight primary trigrams of both the Earlier and Later Heaven sequences of bagua from the Yijing.

 


[1] http://www.hellenicgods.org/orphiccosmogonyandtheogony

[2] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[3] http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (ll. 116-138).

[4] Erebus , or Erebos, is translated into English roughly as “deep darkness, or shadow”.  Erebus is also referred to as a region of the Underworld where the dead had to pass immediately after dying, and is sometimes used interchangeably with Tartarus.

[5] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  Book II verses 167-206.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[6] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

[7] The Theogony of Hesiod.  Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914.  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm

 

 

 

Pythagoras and Plato: From the One to Many

Philosophy to the Greeks not only helped them understand the cosmos, creation and destruction of the universe and the essence of the natural world, but also the harmony within which we as individuals should lead our lives, and in turn – as described by subsequent philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and others – how the pursuit of excellence and harmonious virtue in our own individual lives corresponded to and aligned with a greater social good within which society as a whole could be organized.

In order to find this source of this “closed” view of the West, this almost obsession to break things apart and drill further and further into the constituent components of a thing until once can literally go no further, one needs to reach back to the beginning of development of thought, and language, in the West. To the ancient Greeks who laid down the intellectual foundations – linguistic, metaphysical and otherwise – that we have inherited in the West through language and culture down through the ages.

 

Pythagorean Philosophy as Expressed in the Tetractys

One can look at the beginning of this “bound” and “closed” systemic view of the world as having its roots in Pythagorean philosophy, a philosophy that as we understand it rested on the harmony and eternal co-existence of numbers and their relationship to each other, forming the underlying ground of all existence. It is from the Pythagorean tradition as we understand it, that Plato’s fascination with geometry – as reflected most readily in perhaps his most lasting and influential dialogues the Timaeus – was founded.

Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) , or Pythagoras of Samos as he is sometimes referred to as, was born at the beginning of the 6th century BCE reportedly on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. While we don’t have any of his writings directly he was widely regarded as one of the most influential Ionian philosophers in antiquity and his views and beliefs greatly influenced the later philosophical schools of Plato and Aristotle among others. He is believed to have traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean in his youth, studying with the Egyptians, the Chaldeans and Magi, and even the Hebrews according to later biographers and interpreters of his school.

The Pythagorean school was known primarily for their obsession with, their identification with a complex and yet straightforward geometric symbol known as the tetractys – an equilateral triangle. The tetractys represented the core tenet of Pythagorean thought as understood by outsiders and later philosophical schools which either criticized and/or adopted some of its core principles, Plato being the prime example. The symbol, no matter how it is interpreted, represents the harmony of numerical order and relationships, and of course the underlying symmetry and geometry of the equilateral triangle, as reflected in the universe as a whole, the underlying symmetry and harmony of musical theory, and the underlying (or overarching depending upon your perspective) principle that sheds light on the comprehension of the universal order and in turn mankind’s place within it.

The Tetractys symbol is a perfect triangle of sorts that is classically viewed as a base of 4 equidistant points, on top of which a layer of three, then two and then at the top 1 point rested, altogether creating a perfect equilateral triangle with a base of 4 and a total of 10 total points in the system.

 

While there are a variety of ways to interpret the meaning of this geometric structure and how the Pythagoreans themselves understood it (no works from Pythagoras or his direct followers are extant), most later philosophers imposed a metaphysical transliteration of this geometric structure, applying some Neo-Platonic (actually Middle Platonic which integrated both Pythagorean/Italian philosophical elements with Peripatetic – Aristotelian concepts) principles onto the system, and looked at it as representing the cosmological world order.

At a very basic level of interpretation we have the top point of the triangle as the Monad, or the grand unifying principle from which the entire cosmos emanates, the next layer representing the Dyad or the grand opposing forces of nature within which the natural world comes into being, the third layer represents the great Triad of principles which culminates in later Hellenic philosophical development as the One, the Intellect and the Soul, and then at the base the Tetrad, or foundation of the world as represented by the four basic elements that the ancient Greek believed underpinned the entire physical world – earth, air, water and fire.

This geometric figure, along with the numerical and arithmological attributes associated with it, represented the finest layer of abstraction, the best explanation, of the underlying structure and order of the universe. The cosmos seen as having a beginning from the vast void comes forth, explained in the Judaic mythological tradition as “the spirit moving against the waters”, where the the One begets Two, and the Two beget Three the great Triad, and the Three rests on the foundation of the Tetrad (Four).

We can see this type of worldview all throughout the Mediterranean in antiquity in all the great schools of thought be they primarily philosophical or again theological. The foundational basis of the cosmos and its relationship to number and geometry was no doubt adopted by Plato from the Pythagoreans – “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here” was said was to be inscribed on the Academy at its entrance. While Plato’s philosophical system was broad and far reaching as reflected in his dialogues, it is in the Timaeus where we find his cosmological world view put forth and geometry, and the tetrahedron specifically, came to represent one of the core foundational building blocks of the known universe.

 

Philo’s Exegesis of the Fourth Day of Creation in Genesis

While we again do not have direct sources of the underlying meaning and explanation of this geometric symbol according to the Pythagoreans themselves, we do have later interpretations of the symbol and its underlying meaning from later Hellenic philosophers. One of the best sources of this material is Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), or Philo of Alexandria, who lived and wrote in the first century CE in Ptolemaic Egypt. Philo was first and foremost a Jewish scholar, but he was trained in the Hellenic philosophical tradition and read and wrote in ancient Greek, the lingua franca from the Mediterranean in antiquity prior to the prevalence of Latin as advanced by the Roman Empire.

Embedded in Philo’s extensive analysis and “allegorical” interpretations of the five books of Moses from Hebrew Bible, or Pentateuch (πεντάτευχος in Greek or literally “five scrolls”) , specifically in perhaps his most influential work which was a commentary on the beginning of Genesis entitled De Opificio Mundi, or On the Creation of the World, we find a fairly extensive description of the symbolic figure in his explanation of the establishment of the heavenly bodies on the fourth day, the text of which is quoted below :

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

This passage, which describes the creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars by God (Yahweh) on the fourth day of creation is interpreted by Philo from an intrinsically Hellenic philosophical perspective, and in particular Pythagorean, as he interprets these heavenly bodies and their importance in the theo-philosophical traditions of antiquity as representing the establishment, and ultimate representation, of time and order underlying the universe.

In his explanation of this part of Genesis, in particular on day Four of creation, Philo lays out the understanding of the importance of the number 4 within the context of the Hellenic philosophical tradition, a tradition marked quite clearly – at least from a numerological and arithmetic standpoint – by Pythagorean philosophy as embedded in the tetractys even though he does not specifically allude to the tetractys.

But the heaven was afterwards duly decked in a perfect number, namely four. This number it would be no error to call the base and source of 10, the complete number; for what 10 is actually, this, as is evident, 4 is potentially; that is to say that, if the numbers from 1 to 4 be added together, they will produce 10, and this is the limit set to the otherwise unlimited succession of numbers; round this as a turning-point they wheel and retrace their steps.

Philo describes the underlying perfection, or completeness, implied by the number Four as viewed within the context of the number Ten which he calls the most “complete” or “perfect” number (the sum of the four layers of the tetractys – 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) within classically Aristotelian terms of potentiality (4) and actuality (10). He also describes the sense of motion, or cyclical nature implied by this number 4, which actuates to the number 10, as a “turning point” and “wheel”, alluding to the base 10 that was used by the Greeks for counting and within which after the number 10 one begins to “count again”, starting with 11, 12 and so on.

He also describes the number Four as embedding within it three dimensional space, making it the perfect day (symbolically speaking of course) within which God should establish the foundations of the Heavens within which the world of man was thought to be governed in antiquity, and speaking to the importance the field of geometry held to the ancients, a tradition that became the hallmark of the West.

There is also another property of the number 4 very marvelous to state and to contemplate with the mind. For this number was the first to show the nature of the solid, the numbers before it referring to things without actual substance. For under the head of 1 what is called in geometry a point falls, under that of 2 a line. For if 1 extend itself, 2 is formed, and if a point extend itself, a line is formed: and a line is length without breadth; if breadth be added, there results a surface, which comes under the category of 3: to bring it to a solid surface needs one thing, depth, and the addition of this to 3 produces 4. The result of all this is that this number is a thing of vast importance. It was this number that has led us out of the realm of incorporeal existence patent only to the intellect, and has introduced us to the conception of a body of three dimensions, which by its nature first comes within the range of our senses.

And lastly, in reference to the four elements, and four seasons upon which the ground and order of human existence ultimately rests, Philo concludes with the following summation:

There are several other powers of which 4 has the command, which we shall have to point out in fuller detail in the special treatise devoted to it. Suffice it to add just this, that 4 was made the starting-point of the creation of heaven and the world; for the four elements, out of which this universe was fashioned, issued, as it were from a fountain, from the numeral 4; and, beside this, so also did the four seasons of the year, which are responsible for the coming into being of animals and plants, the year having a fourfold division into winter and spring and summer and autumn.

 

Porphyry: On the Life of Pythagoras

Another source of Pythagorean philosophy in antiquity is through the works of Porphyry (c. 234 – c. 305) and Iamblichus (c. 245 – c. 325 CE) who were contemporaries in 3rd century CE antiquity and who both wrote biographies of Pythagoras, who by that time had become a pseudo mythical figure. It is from Porphyry that we find the reference that it was Pythagoras who created and “would swear by” the Tetractys, what Porphyry referred to as the “eternal Nature’s fountain spring”.

Within Porphyry’s biography, he describes the fascination of the Pythagoreans with numbers, arithmology, and ultimately geometry thus:

49. As the geometricians cannot express incorporeal forms in words, and have recourse to the descriptions of figures, as that is a triangle, and yet do not mean that the actually seen lines are the triangle, but only what they represent, the knowledge in the mind, so the Pythagoreans used the same objective method in respect to first reasons and forms. As these incorporeal forms and first principles could not be expressed in words, they had recourse to demonstration by numbers. Number one [Monad] denoted to them the reason of Unity, Identity, Equality, the purpose of friendship, sympathy, and conservation of the Universe, which results from persistence in Sameness. For unity in the details harmonizes all the parts of a whole, as by the participation of the First Cause.
50. Number two, or Duad [Dyad], signifies the two-fold reason of diversity and inequality, of everything that is divisible, or mutable, existing at one time in one way, and at another time in another way. After all these methods were not confined to the Pythagoreans, being used by other philosophers to denote unitive powers, which contain all things in the universe, among which are certain reasons of equality, dissimilitude and diversity. These reasons are what they meant by the terms Monad and Duad, or by the words uniform, biform, or diversiform.

Here we see not only an explanation of the underlying geometrical formation of the Tetractys in terms of Platonic Forms, reflecting the underlying sentiment of the period that geometry and numbers are the best and most profound way to describe elemental reality, but also an explanation of the principles of the Monad (the One) and the Dyad (the Two) as the basic archaic elements of the universe from which all numbers, all of reality really, ultimately originates and emanates from.

Porphyry goes on to describe the meaning of the Triad, and in turn the Decad (Ten), which is formed from 1 + 2 + 3 + 4, the four layers of the Tetractys, and underpins the Pythagorean philosophical system which reflected in the Tetractys thus:

51. The same reasons apply to their use of other numbers, which were ranked according to certain powers. Things that had a beginning, middle and end, they denoted by the number Three, saying that anything that has a middle is triform, which was applied to every perfect thing. They said that if anything was perfect it would make use of this principle and be adorned, according to it; and as they had no other name for it, they invented the form Triad; and whenever they tried to bring us to the knowledge of what is perfect they led us to that by the form of this Triad. So also with the other numbers, which were ranked according to the same reasons.
52. All other things were comprehended under a single form and power which they called Decad [10], explaining it by a pun as decad, meaning comprehension. That is why they called Ten a perfect number, the most perfect of all as comprehending all difference of numbers, reasons, species and proportions. For if the nature of the universe be defined according to the reasons and proportions of members, and if that which is produced, increased and perfected, proceed according to the reason of numbers; and since the Decad comprehends every reason of numbers, every proportion, and every species, why should Nature herself not be denoted by the most perfect number, Ten? Such was the use of numbers among the Pythagoreans.

Here we see the direct metaphysical link drawn between Nature and Number, Ten being the reflection of the most perfect of numbers, upon which – to use Philo’s analogy – the (metaphysical) world turns. We also here can see the source of the Trinity, not in terms of the language and words that are used to describe it as defined by the early Church Fathers, but the underlying potency and perfection of the Triad as a symbolic representation of that which is most holy.

 

Conclusion

So with Philo and Porphyry, both of whom undoubtedly had access to knowledge regarding the Pythagorean philosophical school and their obsession with the tetractys that has subsequently been lost (even though later scholars indicate that his teachings were incorporated into those of the Hellenic philosophical tradition that followed), we find a full and complete explanation of the numerology and arithmology embedded in the Pythagorean philosophical system as manifest in the tetractys, a system which ultimately bounds the spatial dimensions of the material universe within it and from it, as well as enclosing it as it were with a beginning and an end as represented by the underlying numerology, arithmology, and geometry of the figure itself which represented to the ancient philosophers the best possible representation of the inherent cosmological world order.

Beginner’s Mind

The odd thing
Is that every Westerner
Approaches the practice of meditation
With a goal in mind
Without exception

The even odder thing
Is that from an Eastern point of view
[Particularly Daoist/Zen Buddhist
Which are very related and symbiotic traditions]
This misses the entire point
Not part of the point
The entire point
Of meditation practice

Reflect on that for a moment
Because it’s important
If you are a practitioner
To understand this very simple
And yet at the same time subtle
Extremely relevant and critical point

There is no goal to meditation practice
To the true practitioner
To the Master
The great sage as the ancient texts refer to them as
The Rishis of the Vedic tradition
The ancient shaman really

Nirvana, Enlightenment, Samadhi
And other illustrious powers and visions
Which many many practitioners hope to obtain
Or even to the poor old soul
Who struggles with mental anguish
And is looking for some peace and relief
An escape from the trials of life
Or those that wish to lead
More successful and empowering lives
And believe meditation
Through the clarity of mind
Will help them achieve those goals

Indirectly or directly
Doesn’t matter which
This misses the entire point
Which is the very point
Of this poem if you can call it that

The purpose of meditation
The purpose of life
Is to lead the best life
The one that is most fulfilling
And one that is full of as much joy
And happiness as possible
Aristotle’s arete (Greek: ἀρετή)

This was the absolute primary purpose
Of the writings of the almost all
Of the ancient philosophers
From around the globe
From Confucius, to Mencius, to Laozi
To Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics
And even to the Hindus

[With Vyasa and the Rishis
And the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads
In a less direct way
More Confucian in a sense perhaps
Given the Vedic emphasis on ritual (li)]

Meditation practice then
Is not the means to some sort of end
It is the end
The practice and life are not different
Practice and Life are the same

We are so goal oriented here in the West
That not for any given moment
Can we actually find happiness
Even while it stares us in the face
Because it is always somewhere out of reach
Due to some inadequacy that has been identified
By the relative ego and its constant comparison
To the ideal self
Which does not nor ever will exist

This is my problem with the materialists
The causal principalists who claim
With their authoritative academic voices
And all their scholarly credentials and degrees
That the only reality is the physical reality
That which can be measured and quantified

Hence their loss in madness
And why quantum theory is so powerful a model
That they just don’t understand
Where causality and determinism themselves
Need to be abandoned in order for the model
To make any sense whatsoever

Unless they just call it a mathematical theory
That predicts results (Copenhagen interpretation)
And say that it says nothing about the ‘real’ world
Which is nonsense in and of itself
Or you get the other just as lunatic conclusion
That the math does in fact represent ‘reality’
And therefore there must be multiple realities
That exist simultaneously
Of which ours is the only one
That we know about or have access to

What?????????????????

These seemingly logical and rational
Mathematically coherent and consistent
But at the same time completely nonsensical
Conclusions are all necessary and determined by
The fact that experience and Being (Aristotle’s)
Are considered to be ontologically subservient
To quantifiable and measurable results
And ‘observable’ phenomenon
Along with the predictability of outcomes
Of other various measurement phenomenon
Upon which all reality is not only based
But upon which the borders of reality itself are drawn

While all this sounds pretty complicated
The point here is that the Eastern view
Not only considers subjective phenomenon to be real
It considers experience itself to be
The primary, and in fact only,
Definition of Reality that is possible
And the only thing that is true about this definition of Reality
Is that it changes constantly
And the experience of the subject
Cannot be distinguished from in any meaningful way
The object of attention or awareness or intellectual understanding
That is yielded from
Is created and born from
Each and every individual experience
That each and every individual has
In each and every moment
Of their separate but totally interconnected lives

This is why Change (The I Ching)
Is so important and telling
Given its primary significance in the Eastern tradition
And virtually the only book that embeds with it
Some sort of cosmological theory
[If you can call it that]
And why it is so hard for Westerners
To understand what the purpose of the word is
Why it lasted so long and is such an elementary part
Of every form of theology or philosophy
That has emerged from the Far East

Because it doesn’t really ‘say’ anything
It (and by it i mean the act of consulting the I Ching)
Simply identifies a specific situation
Within the cosmic order of Heaven and Earth
Via the enactment of a certain ritual
Which includes Fate and the Observer
In the very process by which
A specific hexagram is selected
Out of a series of fixed and finite
But at the same time completely interrelated
Set of symbols that describe the attributes
Of a given circumstance

The event (the selected hexagram)
Most accurately reflects the current situation
Depending upon the question that has been posed
To the Book of Changes

By this process
The cosmological experience
And one’s place within it as it occurs
Has manifested itself and can be understood
Within the overall set of cosmic experiences
And their interaction and constant flow into and out of one another
Each with their own balance and assortment
Of Yin and Yang elements
Constantly working together
Which began at the beginning
When the world was created
Which to the Eastern mind
Has no beginning
And has no end

After this consolation and interpretation
After this ritual is performed
An advanced practitioner
A priest in the Western sense
Can provide the person, the leader or aristocrat in ancient times
A better understanding of the current situation
And make recommendations regarding
What can be done to achieve greater harmony and balance
Between yourself and Heaven and Earth
Which yields happiness or contentment
Which is again the very goal and purpose of life

So where you ‘are’ in the cosmological universal experiences
Along with where you are heading
As described and bound by
The 64 hexagrams of yin and yang
That make up the Book of Changes then
Can reveal how you might
Move toward more balance and harmony
Between Heaven and Earth
And the ‘ten thousand things’
As wànwù is commonly translated
And the individual
By honing the practice of virtue (ren)
May achieve happiness
The Eudaimonia of the ancient Greeks
And thus can not only find happiness and purpose
In their individual lives
But also can construct
A harmonious and happy society
Along with it

But as usual we have lost our way
Or our wu wei (non-action, non-doing)
As the case may be

The point here is that
The purpose of meditation
Is not some sort of goal
Or any other goal
Than to lead a better life
Lead the best possible life

And to the Easterner
The Daoist and the Zen Buddhist
The only reality there is
Is the one that is sitting in front of you
At this very moment
Which is why mindfulness
Is so important in the Buddhist tradition

As also is emptiness
Which is basically is the opposite
Of the ancient Chinese word wànwù
Or ‘ten thousand things’ or ‘myriad of things’
As it is usually translated
Or at the very least
Emptiness can be considered to be
The origin and source
Or perhaps better put
Universal backdrop of
These ten thousand things
And what we in the West call Reality

So at some point the practitioner comes to realize
And it doesn’t happen in a moment
Because realization itself
Understanding and knowledge
Have many many levels
As Socrates last teaching showed us
That the wisest among us
Knows the least

That while we may speak of how
The end is not the goal
And it is the journey which is the whole purpose
The whole way to find the meaning of life
The holy Grail as it were

To be able to truly comprehend this fact
Gives us the illumination
That in fact our practice and our life
Are not two things but are one thing
And that the more they blend
And the more they complement each other
Our thoughts are not distractions from the View
They are the View

They, these thoughts that page us so sometimes
Are in fact the divine manifestations
That dwell within and originate
And flow out of and from Universal Mind
Into our own individual small minds
This is the Brahman and Atman
That the Vedic Rishis speak of
Which sits within (and without)
Coexists in fact
In each and every soul
And every animate thing
That can be said to exist

So with this sort of mindset then
These thoughts as they arise in our practice
Can be accepted for what they are
Manifestations of Mind within mind
And our emotional attachment
Or perhaps better put emotional reaction
To these thoughts as they arise
Can also be accepted
Along with the thoughts
Be they reflective or speculative
As manifestations of this divine principle
Which we all carry within us
And which is our source of being
And is also the source of Being itself

This is the practice
It is one of acceptance of the present situation
Your present situation in life
Your role in creating it
Your ability to truly understand it
To understand your codependence
On family, friends, colleagues, lovers, etc

And by so doing
Look to achieve this balance and harmony
Between the Earth and the Heavens
As the ancient Chinese so elegantly put it
Using symbols and not even words
Because once words are used
True understanding is actually lost in some sense

So don’t abandon your goals or objectives in life
The Western way of thinking has value too
But in your practice you must abandon such things
And then as the mind settles in
As thoughts and emotions settle
Out of and back Into
The grand abyss of awareness
That underlies all things and beings
One can recognize
Even if for a fleeting moment
The very source of Being itself
And our identity with it

The experience of Satchitananda
Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute
Can be experienced
And perhaps more importantly
Its aftertaste spill into our daily lives
To make ourselves better people
And the world around us
A better place

Namaste

Reason and Logic: The Precursors to Science

It’s clear in studying early religion and philosophy that mythology and cosmology in antiquity was not only theological in nature, but also had a political motive as well.  But at some point in antiquity there was a break from which reason and knowledge was divorced from the quest for power and the establishment of authority, where reason and logic began to be leveraged in a more pure form to explore the nature of the world around us.  And this could be found with the Greek philosophers no doubt.

In looking at the ancient Greek theological and philosophical literature, there were indeed some of the same theological and mythological components as could be found in the Egyptian and Sumerian traditions for example, but the political motive behind the authoring and describing of the nature of the universe was gone.  There was another force at work, a cultural and philosophical force that spurred individuals to study and author complete theological and philosophical works that had no relation to the establishment of royalty, power or authority.  And from this pure pursuit of truth, if you could call it that, many different branches of thought originated – philosophical treatises like the works of Plato, mystical or spiritual works like that attributed to Hermes like Corpus Hermeticum[1], and works of pure mathematics and geometry from the likes of Euclid.  All of these independent works and branches of thought all contributed to the birth of Reason in their own way and could only emerge in a society which respected and worshipped reason and logic for their own sake.  The divine Logos then emerges in history and does not look back.

To understand this birth of philosophy then, which is the cornerstone of Reason and Science as we know it today, one must understand the lives of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates upon which the foundations of all modern philosophy (in the West) rest.  And to understand the lives of these first philosophers, one must understand to some extent the nature of the societies within which they lived and wrote.  The Greeks are given such preeminence to our modern day western historians primarily because it is within this culture that democracy and philosophy were born.  What was it about this society that allowed these lasting and evolved concepts and ideas to develop?  This was an unnatural act, a step in the evolution of mankind that represented a break from the cultures and modes of thought that preceded it.  The birth of philosophy and reason, which required democracy and some level of separation of church and state in order to flourish, represented a major shift in thinking.  Greek civilization represented the first major split of the cultures of what is deemed today the East and the West today.

And by society in this context we mean primarily the modes of thought that were prevalent in the times of the first philosophers.  For Science and Reason to truly blossom, they needed to be looked at as more powerful, more elegant, and more pure than religion or mythology which had been the pinnacles of thought before them.  This was a necessary condition in order for these disciplines to grow and evolve because they represented such a radical shift in how individuals were to view the world around them.  It was empowering to the individual, and established authority saw this and it scared them – supremacy of thought and ideas and the rule of law over authority for authority’s sake.  This is essentially what had Socrates killed, the fear of knowledge for its own sake bereft of any political agenda or authority.  He was the first martyr.

There is a clear relationship between this empowerment of the individual, the elevation of thought and reason over religious and political authority, to the birth of reason and science.  The example of the life of Christ represented this friction, this contest if you will.  Think of the nature of the society that manifested the crucifixion of Christ.  It was what Jesus represented that scared the authority of the time so very much.  The idea that God is accessible to all equally and that the kingdom of heaven is within us all, that no middle man, no priest, was required in order to gain access to divine inspiration.  This could not be so.  This is blasphemy.  And this fear of loss of established authority and power is what led directly to his crucifixion, which of course ironically enough led to the birth of one of arguably the most influential teachings and religions in the history of mankind.

Over the centuries though, and through the creation of the Bible itself, there developed a bastardization of these teachings of Christ, leveraging the same age old techniques that were employed by the authors of the mythological and cosmological traditions of the Egyptian and Sumerians.  Christianity, and in turn the teachings of Christ, over the ages had taken root in that age old quest of the priesthood to establish their authority by stating unequivocally that to get to the gods, or in this case the God of all gods, you must go through Christ as represented in the teachings of the Bible.  Salvation can only be through Christ, and to get to Christ you must go through the Church.  Again, such was the same strategy employed by the Sumerians to establish the supremacy of Marduk over all the other gods of Mesopotamia, as well as the strategy of the Egyptians to establish the divine authority of the pharaohs.

But Christ had the philosophy of the Greeks before him, which justified this separation of church and state for the free flowing of knowledge and the search for ultimate truth.  It was upon the shoulders of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, along with the teachings of the Vedas and Buddha from the East which were surely drawn upon by the mystic traditions of the Greeks and Romans which must have influenced Jesus to some degree, that Christ declared that the divine was accessible to all and that no religious authority or priesthood could stand between the realization of these fundamental truths for the individual.  That God could in fact by realized by each and every one of us: the kingdom of heaven is within us.

But the birth of Reason itself was coupled with the birth of civilization in the Mediterranean, the birth of democracy and philosophy, and in turn even the birth of mathematics (geometry and algebra which formed the basis of the mathematical sciences) which so strongly influence our thinking today.  All of these advancements and revolutionary approaches to the way in which persons and individuals perceived the nature of the world around them can be attributed to classical Greece.

The Greek cosmological view was unique from its predecessor civilizations in the sense that it broke from the tradition of cosmology being used to establish the supremacy of royalty of authority.

… Theogony is a part of Greek mythology which embodies the desire to articulate reality as a whole; this universalizing impulse was fundamental for the first later projects of speculative theorizing.  In many cultures, narratives about the origin of the cosmos and about the gods that shaped it are a way for society to reaffirm its native cultural traditions.  Specifically, theogonies tend to affirm kingship as the natural embodiment of society.  What makes the Theogony of Hesiod unique is that it affirms no historical royal line.[2]

This quote crystallized the concept that it was this initial core break of the cosmology of the Greeks from the other ancient cosmologies which formed the necessary building blocks for the advent of philosophy and metaphysics, and in turn mathematics and science; the exploration into the nature and origin of the universe as a purely intellectual exercise, with no royal or divine establishment of power as its basis.  This key distinction was a requirement in order to be able to take that cosmology and expand on it, to drive it to further levels of abstraction.  And this concept of arche, or the fundamental concept or principle of a thing, formed the first layer of abstraction upon which these disciplines arose.

…In the Theogony the origin (arche) is Chaos, a divine primordial condition and there are the roots and the ends of the earth, sky, sea and Tartarus.  …  In the language of the archaic period (8th – 6th century BC), arche (or archai), designates the source, origin or root of things that exist.  If a thing is to be well established or founded, its arche or static point must be secure, and the most secure foundations are those provided by the gods: the indestructible, immutable and eternal ordering of things….In ancient Greek philosophy, arche is the element or first principle of all things, a permanent nature or substance which is conserved in the generation of the rest of it.   From this all things come to be and into it they are resolved in a final state. (Aristotle, Metaph.).[3]

This byproduct of the Theogony then was the birth of abstract thought, removed from political motive.  Abstract thought for abstract thought’s sake.  A new door had been opened.  It was the means by which the cosmology of the Greeks was authored and professed which sowed the seeds from which reason, science and metaphysics could be born.  The authority rested in the teller, the storyteller, the author, the poet via divine inspiration, rather than the divine authority established by dogma, or what was proselytized by ritual and priesthood.

It was subtle, but it was the presumption that the territory of the divine, that the quest of the answers to the question who am i and from whence I came, was not just the dominion of the priests and royalty, but the dominion of us all.  This was a purely Eastern construct, and it was this construct that formed the foundation of reason and science, and ironically enough the concept which eludes the bedrock of modern day science or theoretical physics that relies so much on a mechanistic view of the world[4].

The innovation of the Greeks then, their contribution to Science, is the establishment of observance of reality and experimentation, scientific method in fact, as the basis for truth.  The Greeks more so than any other culture, established the quest for the description and model of the universe that obeyed fundamental laws and principles, and was not to be looked at within the context of the establishment of power and authority, and of course not to be confused with Religion.

 

When looking for the origins of philosophy within Greek civilization, you must start with Socrates[5].  Socrates was from Athens and lived from 469 BC to 399 BC and his most famous students were Plato and Xenophon[6]. His life and teachings were also depicted in the plays of Aristophanes, a contemporary comic and satirical playwright.  Most notably in his play The Clouds which portrayed Socrates as a buffoon of sorts who teaches their students how to weasel their way out of debt.

Socrates did not produce any works per se, so his life is primarily known through the eyes of his contemporaries and students, most notably Plato of course, which leaves some room for interpretation as to what he accomplished and founded and what in turn led to his persecution and ultimate death by Greek authorities.

Socrates’s demise came at the hands of Athenian authorities due to his seemingly radical or revolutionary beliefs and specifically his challenge of the authority of the priesthood.  Socrates was found guilty of both of corruption of the minds of youth as well as impiety, or lack of belief in the gods of the state and was sentenced to death[9].

Plato and then Aristotle built upon the traditions and lines of thought of Socrates, and took his work and carried it forward to establish a more clear foundation for philosophy and reason, but it was Socrates who sacrificed his life in the name of truth and justice over the authority of religious dogma.  Socrates laid the groundwork for the creation of the world of abstract forms and ideas, superseding the traditions of mythology and religion that were prevalent in all ancient civilizations, ancient Greece being no exception.

Also from the concepts that originated in this Greek philosophical school of thought arose the concept that mathematics represented a more clear and direct description of reality that reason or logic, that mathematics was the highest form of abstract thought and came closest to describing reality in its purest form.

Thus, there came into existence two schools of thought.  One school is attributed to Plato, and finds that Nature is a structure that is precisely governed by timeless mathematical laws.  According to Platonists we do not invent mathematical truths, we discover them.  The Platonic world exists and physical world is a shadow of the truths in the Platonic world.  This reasoning comes about when we realize (through thought and experimentation) how the behavior of Nature follows mathematics to an extremely high degree of accuracy.  The deeper we probe the laws of Nature, the more the physical world disappears and becomes a world of pure math.

The other school held that mathematical concepts are mere idealizations of our physical world.  The world of absolutes, what is called the Platonic world, has existence only through the physical world.  In this case, the mathematical world is the same as the Platonic world and would be thought of as emerging from the world of physical objects.

Note that mathematics plays a key role in both worldviews. Mathematics transcends the physical reality that confronts our senses. The fact that mathematical theorems are discovered by several investigators indicates some objective element to mathematical systems (supporting Plato’s view). But, since our brains have evolved to reflect the properties of the physical world, it is of no surprise that we discover mathematical relationships in Nature.[10]

Here we have it then, the foundations upon which modern Reason and Science were constructed, ironically out of the ashes of mythology and theology.  Instead of looking to the Vedas, and the other theological and philosophical traditions of the East, the Greeks turned to mathematics, and the conception of forms and ideas, as the foundation of known reality.  The subjective experience of the mystic, as espoused by the sages of the east over the millennia, was summarily rejected, and the age of science had begun.

 


[1] “The fifteen tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, along with the Perfect Sermon or Asclepius, are the foundation documents of the Hermetic tradition.  Written by unknown authors in Egypt sometime before the end of the third century C.E., they were part of a once substantial literature attributed to the mythic figure of Hermes Trismegistus, a Hellenistic fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth.  This literature came out of the same religious and philosophical ferment that produced Neoplatonism, Christianity, and the diverse collection of teachings usually lumped together under the label “Gnosticism”: a ferment which had its roots in the impact of Platonic thought on the older traditions of the Hellenized East. There are obvious connections and common themes linking each of these traditions, although each had its own answer to the major questions of the time.”  From http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/herm/h-intro.htm.

[4] A mechanistic view of the world as described by David Bohm, See “The Essential Bohm”, Ch. 3.

[5] Among other things Socrates is Socrates is attributed with the creation of what is called “Socratic dialogue” or “Socratic method”.  Socratic Method is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on the presentation of dialogue between two individuals who ask and respond to each other’s queries and theses in an effort to elucidate truth or the validity of an argument.  This form of exploration into matters of truth and validity, which formed the basis for logic and reason which followed it, can be found in many of Plato’s works.

[6] Xenophon was a Greek historian and philosopher from Athens, and a contemporary of Socrates, living circa 430 to 354 BC.  He is known for his writings on the history of his own times, preserving the sayings of Socrates, and descriptions of life in ancient Greece and the Persian Empire.

[7] “Sophism in the modern definition is a specious argument used for deceiving subj-obj-mpeone.  In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching arete — excellence, or virtue — predominantly to young statesmen and nobility.  The practice of charging money for education (and providing wisdom only to those who can pay) led to the condemnations made by Socrates (through Plato in his dialogues, as well as Xenophon‘s Memorabilia).   Through works such as these, Sophists were portrayed as ‘specious’ or ‘deceptive’, hence the modern meaning of the term.  The term originated from Greek sophizo “I am wise”; meaning “wise-ist, one who does wisdom, one who makes a business out of wisdom” and sophós means “wise man”.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophism.

[8] According to Timon of Phlius and later sources.

[9] According to some texts Socrates was actually given the opportunity to escape his fate but refused, citing lack of fear of death, as well as a firm belief in the authority of governing law.  The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of the Plato’s Crito.

The Book of Changes: The Wisdom of the Far East

One of the most unique, lasting and influential texts that has come down to us from the Far East that in antiquity is the Yijing (I Ching), also known as the Book of Changes.  The work has a long history, its roots dating back at least to Bronze Age China with a longstanding interpretative tradition that carried forward for centuries, millennia even, thereafter and exists even to this day[1].

 

In ancient times the holy sages made the Book of Changes thus:

They invented the yarrow-stalk oracle in order to lend aid in a mysterious way to the light of the gods.  To heaven they assigned the number three and to earth the number two; from these they computed the other numbers.

They contemplated the changes in the dark and the light and established the hexagrams in accordance with them.  They brought about movement in the firm and the yielding, and thus produced the individual lines.

They put themselves in accord with tao and its power, and in conformity with this laid down the order of what is right.  By thinking through the order of the outer world to the end, and by exploring the law of their nature to the deepest core, they arrived at an understanding of fate.[2]

 

As the historians and philosophers of ancient China tell us, the Yijing was first conceived in Bronze Age China as a divination text, i.e. a text used by rulers and aristocrats to tell the future and/or determine the best course of action given a certain decision or question that was posed to it.  [A corollary to the West for example was the Oracle at Delphi in Greece that was known to be consulted by various rulers and aristocrats throughout the Greek classical period.  It is said for example that Socrates consulted the Oracle at Delphi regarding who was the wisest man in all of Greece to which the priestess famously replied, “None are wiser than you”.]

In its earliest form, or at least the earliest form known to us, the text is sometimes referred to as the Zhouyi, or Changes of Zhou, and consisted of 64 basic signs or gua, of which just one was selected as a result of the divination process or rite (see below).  Each sign had a particular symbol, name, “judgement” assigned to it and an interpretation of the sign that was “divined” based upon the understanding of the priest or scholar who presided over the ceremony who had been trained in the divination process along with the specific question, or advice, that was framed as part of the oracular process.

Each sign consists of a specific symbol and meaning, a chapter heading as it were along with a series of six lines – read from bottom to top – now most commonly referred to as a “hexagram” (as juxtaposed with the three line “trigram” which formed the origin of the six line format; two trigrams were eventually combined to form a hexagram).  Each of the lines in a six line hexagram is either a solid line representing yang/male/odd/creative energy or a broken line representing yin/female/even/receptive energy.

Each of the 64 symbols represented a specific state of the universal order which reflected any given situation in the world of man.  By determining which sign was significant, and which direction or movement the particular situation represented – a result of the divination process – one could come to an understanding of the given situation, how it was trending and/or its given potential, and so look to act to bring the situation into harmony, or balance.  Balance to the ancient Chinese being a sense of harmony between the world of Heaven, the world of Earth, and the world of Man which represented to them the basic three powers of the universal order.

To the authors of the Yijing, the world of Heaven, Earth and Man operated according to the same basic principles and could be understood in terms of the basic forces of the universe that could be summarized into 64 states of being, along with their tendency to change, from which a given situation could be “divined”, or mapped, as a result of the consultation of the “oracle” or Book of Changes.  Each sign then, each of the 64 gua, symbolized a specific, unique aspect of the combination of these basic opposing and complementary cosmic and universal forces (yin/yang) which was to be interpreted to signify the state, and advice or fate associated with the particular oracle, as part of the divination ceremony.

This was the original purpose of the text, and it was not until the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) that the Yijing text as it is known today, the canonical version so to speak, was formed which included a detailed commentary as an appendix that expounded upon the philosophical meaning behind the text as well as its history and purpose.  In this later form, the text consisted of the 64 original chapters which included the symbol name and meaning, then an explanation of the decision (judgment), commentary on the lines themselves and then the “Commentary”, or Ten Wings, which is an appendix that includes the philosophical import and meaning behind much of the text and ritual of its use that is classically attributed to Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE).

 

Therefore there is in the Changes the Great Primal Beginning (Tai Chi).  This generates the two primary forces.  The two primary forces generate the four images.  The four images generate the eight trigrams.[3]

 

It is said that these 64 hexagrams which form the core of the Yijing to this day, were originally conceived as eight primary gua (three line trigrams as opposed to the 6 line hexagrams which became part of the standard text as it matured) by the mythical king/hero like figure from Chinese antiquity named Fu Xi (sometimes Fu Hsi).  He is credited in some traditions with not only creating the eight primary gua (or bagua, literally “eight symbols”) of the Yijing, but also with the invention of fishing, cooking, hunting and even writing – the Chinese Prometheus one could think of him as.

It is said that Fu Xi originally created what is known as the Earlier Heaven sequence of trigrams, with the trigram representing the Heaven at the top (South), the Earth at the bottom (North), the Moon or Water in the West and the Sun or Fire to the East.  These were the four cardinal points, and the four primary constituents of the cosmic order.  To these were added the trigrams representing Lake, Wind, Thunder and Mountain in the various positions around the sequence, yielding not only an ordered sequence of 8 (2 cubed) trigrams/symbols around a primary circle but also yielding two concentric circles or systems of movement around the circle – from Heaven to Thunder moving counter clockwise (12 o’clock to 7 o’clock) and then from Wind to Earth moving clockwise (1 o’clock to 6 o’clock), reflecting the basic flow of universal energy in waxing and waning from balance to imbalance and back again from which the classic yin/yang symbol we know so well in the West today was created[4].

It is said that King Wen created the Later Heaven eight primary gua circular sequence which is the sequence that survives and is associated with the classical canon version of the text today along with the “accomplished” 64 hexagram gua sequence which stems from this bagua arrangement which bears his name, i.e. the King Wen sequence[5].   The commentary on the individual lines that accompanies each hexagram is attributed to King Wen’s son, the legendary scholar and statesman the Duke of Zhou who, along with this work on the Yijing, is also attributed with consolidating the power of the Zhou Dynasty from its preceding rulers the Shang.

From its earliest inception then, the line diagrams, the gua – in either their eight primary or 64 accomplished form – constituted states of being as it were, along with the propensity, their potential to change from one state to the other moving from balance and harmony to imbalance and chaos and back again.  And it was believed that with a better understanding of these states, and the system of change from which they reflected, one could better understand reality, along with of course one’s current situation which was reflected in a given consultation with the text (or oracle) and thereby achieve cosmic harmony.

 


 

[1] The earliest extant versions of the actual text are dated from around 300 BCE although its clear not just from the archaeological and historical record but also from the linguistic/philological analysis of the text that it has origins from much earlier.  The date of the creation of the text itself, at least in its basic hexagram form as it has been handed down to us through the Chinese philosophical tradition, is from at least no later than the Western Zhou period of Chinese antiquity (c. 1045-771 BCE).   See Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes) by Geoffrey Redmund, and Tze-ki Hon, Oxford University Press 2014 Chapter 2, pg. 39-40.

[2] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Shuo Kua: Discussion of the Trigrams – chapter 1 verse 1. pg.  262

[3] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Ta Chuan (The Great Treatise, Great Commentary) Chapter XI verse 5. pg.  318

[4] The balance of dark and light, the process of change from a state of equilibrium and balance to disharmony and chaos and back again, which underlies not only the cosmic and philosophy of the Yijing but also Daoism (Taoism) as well.  This is the meaning of the classic Yin/Yang Dark and Light symbol that is so familiar to us in modern times reflecting the wisdom of the Far East.

[5] It is said that this alternative arrangement, along with the accomplished gua that accompanied it, were created while King Wen was imprisoned for seven years and spent his time studying the symbols and Fu Xi’s original, cosmic arrangement.

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