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.

Pythagoras: The Father of Greek Philosophy

Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus all made contributions to Pre-Socratic philosophical thought and were referenced by later philosophers and historians to some extent or another.

Although none of the complete works of Pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent what their metaphysical, theological, and philosophical premises and theses were.  References to these Pre-Socratic philosophers, quotations as well as summaries of their belief system and philosophies comes from of course Aristotle and Plato, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, the (Epicurean) philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius, from early Judeo-Christian scholars such Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria and from 3rd and 4th century CE Neo-Platonist authors such as Iamblichus, Porphyry and Simplicius.

It is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that they were influenced by these Pre-Socratic philosophers; even if only within the context of disagreeing with their fundamental tenets or conclusions, or illustrating the supremacy of their intellectual premises or beliefs with their predecessors, all of which generally fall under the category of Pre-Socratics.  This can be seen for example in that many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were characters and/or referenced in Plato’s dialogues – Pythagoras and Parmenides for example.  All of these Pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and Theogonical, i.e. divine, explanation of universal creation and order reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them.

Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) is undoubtedly the most influential and the most enigmatic.  He is the first supposedly to have called himself a “philosopher”, literally “lover of wisdom”, and as such it is probably not too much of a stretch to call him the father of western philosophy, although many might argue against this depiction.  Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras, and the tradition which followed him as understood through his disciples, the sect that he founded, and his intellectual influence not only on other Pre-Socratic philosophers, but in the “Italian” philosophical tradition as it was defined in antiquity and looked upon as distinct from the “Ionian” philosophical tradition – as distinguished by Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius among other ancient authors – but also on the “Socratic” tradition as well as reflected on the works of Plato.[2]

Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras focuses on what can truly be said to be “historically accurate” concerning his life and teachings.  This is a somewhat tricky problem because a) it is widely held that he authored no works himself, b) it is believed that his teachings were to be kept secret by initiates and c) because the biographies of his life that have survived are from authors that lived and wrote centuries after his death, most notably those of the Epicurean philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius who flourished in the early 3rd century CE, and the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus who are also 3rd and 4th century CE authors, some 9 centuries at least after Pythagoras is supposedly to have lived and taught, circa 6th century BCE (570 – 501 BCE).[3]

By the time these biographies were written however, Pythagoras had evolved into a semi-divine figure of fairly eminent heroic stature so the stories surrounding his life and teachings weave myth and history into a single narrative, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the “facts” regarding not just his biography but also his specific teachings, their origins, and their true import and influence on the subsequent Hellenic intellectual landscape.  Diogenes Laertius in his most influential and lasting work Lives of Eminent Philosophers notably spends as much ink on the life and teachings of Pythagoras as he does on Plato and Aristotle, so if nothing else that should give the reader a good estimation on the relative import of this figure on the development of Hellenic philosophical tradition, at least as seen through the eyes of one of the most prominent Philosophical historians in Hellenic antiquity, a work which undoubtedly influenced our understanding of the early development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition as much if not more than any other work in the history of Western intellectual development.  It should come as no surprise then that Pythagoras was and is still widely regarded as one of the most influential Hellenic philosophers in antiquity, and certainly is one of the most, if not the most, influential and widely studied of all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

 

Pythagoras was reportedly born on the island of Samos just off the coast of modern day Turkey in the Aegean Sea.  This region of the Mediterranean at that time rested just on the Eastern Ionian border, and just on the Eastern borders of what was then the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.  To this extent, and this is true of the cities of Miletus and Ephesus as well, both of which were centers of intellectual thought in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE during the time of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophical movement if we may call it such, it is fairly reasonable to assume some sort of Near Eastern, i.e. Persian and Chaldean, as well as Egyptian influence on the philosophy of Pythagoras.[4]

While Aristotle supposedly wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, it is unfortunately no longer extant, so that leaves us with scant relatively contemporaneous sources to look to regarding what can be determined to be “historically accurate” regarding the life and teachings of this famous historical figure from antiquity.  Both Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) as well as Plato (428 – 348 BCE) mention his “school” in passing, and Aristotle (367 – 347 BCE) does refer to a “Pythagorean School” or set of beliefs to which he was associated at somewhat greater length (more on this below), but even these authors write at least a century or two after Pythagoras died so we need to view their assertions and statements regarding what has come to be known as “Pythagorean” philosophy with a certain level of skepticism.[5]

However, what we can surmise definitively from the very early sources was that as an historical figure he did in fact exist, and that he was in fact the founder of a somewhat countercultural intellectual movement (again today what we would call a “sect” which involved some sort of secret initiations and various rights, beliefs and practices), and that he did consider himself to be a philosopher in the later Hellenic sense of the term, that he studied and travelled abroad throughout the Mediterranean and Near East prior to founding his “school” in southern Italy and that at the very least he was well known in antiquity, leaving the question of influence and how well respected he was within the later Hellenic philosophical community (if we may call it that) aside as evidenced for example by the criticism of Pythagoras in a quotation attributed to Heraclitus[6].

So it’s hard to discern fact from fiction as it were with respect to what Pythagoras actually taught versus what the subsequent philosophers that were influenced by him, his students, actually understood and interpreted his philosophy to be.  Especially when you’re dealing with a figure that clearly cultivated a semi-divine status and had a religious following of sorts that lasted some several hundred years after his death.  What is known is for certain is that he cultivated and promoted a way of life that was vegan, was a believer in the notion of metempsychosis – i.e. that the Soul lives on after death and passes into the bodies of other animate “things” such as plants or animals or even humans or deities depending upon its actions – and that his philosophical teachings were focused on numeric harmony and proportion, from which his association with the famed Pythagorean theory stems from even though he was not a mathematician per se.

All of the historical sources however are fairly consistent when speaking to the various “Oriental” influences on Pythagoras from a theo-philosophical perspective.  It is widely held for example that he travelled and studied with various priests and mystics throughout the Mediterranean during his life.  In particular it believed that he spent a good deal of time in Egypt, and is also believed to have been influenced and/or initiated by Chaldean and Persian (Magi) priests.  It is also believed by some later authors that he was exposed to the philosophy of the Hebrews as well which would not be altogether surprising given the geography and time period within which he lived and taught.  Evidence for influence from as far East as India is lacking however, despite many efforts to prove otherwise and despite the fact that his beliefs in reincarnation (metempsychosis) have a very “Eastern” and classically Indian (Hindu) theo-philosophical flavor.  Regardless however, Pythagoras for a variety of political and social reasons ended up after his studies and travels settling in Croton in Southern Italy where the bulk of his teachings and followers ensued, and where he eventually met his untimely death around 490 BCE, later being attributed as one of the founders of the so-called “Italian” philosophical school, at least as how Diogenes Laertius distinguished it specifically from the Ionian school as reflected by the teachings of Socrates and his followers to the East (the East of Italy at least).

It was in Persia to the East of Ionia during the time of Pythagoras and the Pre-Socratics that the Magi (the Greek designation for their priestly class during the Median, Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian periods of Iranian/Persian history) held such great influence over theological matters as well as presumably matters of state as well which was so often the case in antiquity.  These priests, again Magi, were often referred to in the Greek literature in classical antiquity, had a reputation for divination (telling the future) and astronomy, and were in fact the very same class of priests who were said to have come and witnessed the birth of Christ.  There is even a tale told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers of a letter sent by Darius I, one of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, to Heraclitus asking him to join his court as a Greek emissary of sorts, an offer in which he declined apparently.[7]

While at times the Persians were the great adversaries of the Greeks in antiquity, as were at other times the Spartans and the Macedonians each who had their turns at imperial dominion of what later became the Roman Empire, this was the same civilization that had assimilated (really conquered) the Assyrian/Sumer-Babylonian peoples and the same people that adopted in one form or another what came to be known in Greek circles as Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism in this context was the form of the worship of great god Ahura Mazda, as understood from the teachings of the legendary Persian prophet Zarathustra, teachings that were captured in the Avesta which held theological influence over the Persians/Iranians from at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 – 330 BCE) down to the time of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE), up until the overthrow of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire during the first half of the 6th century CE era when they were conquered by the Arabs/Muslims – so for almost 1000 years give or take.[8]

The earliest attested writings attributed to Pythagoras himself are the so-called Golden Verses, a set of aphorisms written in dactylic hexameter verse that are attested to have existed and been in wide circulation as early as the third century BCE, but only show up in the written records by Neo-Platonist authors and commentators in the 5th centuries CE.  The aphorisms themselves bear a striking resemblance to a Zoroastrian tradition called andarz[9], which follows a very similar mode of style as the Golden Verses where short sayings or proverbs are attributed to great rulers or teachers that facilitate the cultivation of religious or spiritual endeavors, providing further evidence of the connection between Pythagorean doctrine and Persian theology, i.e. the Magi.[10]

It is also widely held that much of Pythagoras’s numerological and arithmological philosophy, the philosophy of harmony and proportion for which he was so well known, was derived from the Egyptians and/or the Chaldeans.  For both the Chaldeans, which heralded from ancient Sumer and Babylon (aka Assyrian) as well as the Egyptians and Indo-Aryans in fact, had a long standing tradition and association with astronomy, mathematics, and geometry, as well as a longstanding belief in the mystical and divine nature of number, arithmology and geometry in general – ideas which played an integral part in what we have come to understand as Pythagorean philosophy.[11]

 

The earliest reliable reference we have regarding “Pythagorean” philosophy is of course from Aristotle, in particular from Book I of Metaphysics where in typical Aristotelian fashion he outlines (and typically criticizes) previous philosophical belief systems and teachings prior to establishing his own system.

At the same time, however, and even earlier the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.  And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

Well, it is obvious that these thinkers too consider number to be a first principle, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and states.  The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd.  Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe.  Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs: (1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.[12]

Here we see many of the classical elements of Pythagorean philosophy laid out, albeit in a manner that is not altogether clear whether or not the belief systems were held and taught by Pythagoras himself, or were espoused by later interpreters and/or followers of his teachings.  Regardless, these doctrines as Aristotle describes them come to be known as the fundamental attributes of Pythagorean philosophy as well as the founding principles upon which the “Italian” school, which Pythagoras is the founding member of, is based.

We have first and foremost the discipline of mathematics assigned to this school of thought, and through which they came to understand that mathematics – number and arithmetic and basic geometry – was basically the language of the universe, or the language through which the universal order, and moral and ethical order of the individual and society at large, could be best understood.  The far reaching implications of this belief in the relationship between number, mathematics, geometry and the universal order on Western intellectual developments cannot be overstated.  Furthermore, through this “mathematical” understanding of the cosmos, and in particular through their understanding of harmonic and music theory to which Pythagoras himself is closely associated, the Pythagoreans came to believe that harmony and proportionality, which in turn were based upon the relationships of the fundamental numbers between 1 and 10, could be used to describe the universe in its entirety – at least metaphysically and metaphorically speaking.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps where we start to shift more into Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy rather than perhaps his teachings, or the teachings of his followers, is the leap between the universal harmonic order based upon numbers and their inherent (mathematical and geometrical) relationships, to numbers as “first principles”, which for the most part is what Aristotle is trying to establish in the context of the work which he is speaking about Pythagorean philosophy, i.e. Metaphysics or “first philosophy”.  In this context then, Aristotle lists the ten list of fundamental, opposing forces – Even and Odd, Darkness and Light, Good and Bad, Male and Female, etc. – each of which is ascribed a numerical value, and the sum total of which describe all of the elemental forces of the universe –i.e. again his “first principles”.

So we can see here, at least at some level, through the great analytical lens of Aristotle himself, the association of “Pythagorean” philosophy not only with numerology and harmony which is what it has classically come to be seen as predominantly focused on as universal and ontological “first principles”, or arche, but also – and somewhat less emphasized, or in fact altogether ignored, by later interpreters and expositioners of Pythagorean philosophy, is the belief in the universe or cosmos as an ordered structure of pairs of opposites, from which the underlying harmony and balance, i.e. proportion, of the cosmic world order can best be understood, or said another way how the underlying structure of the universe as we “experience” it can best be explained.

The description of Pythagorean doctrinal development by the Syrian Neo-Platonist Iamblichus is also worth mentioning as it is not only more consistent with more modern interpretations of Pythagorean intellectual developments, but it also explains to a certain extent why Aristotle refers to Pythagorean philosophy in the aggregate and avoids attributing the belief systems which have come to be understood as “Pythagorean”, even by the 4th century BCE, to Pythagoras himself.  That is to say why Aristotle uses the language the words “so-called Pythagoreans” which is quite different than how he refers to the belief systems surrounding first principles of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides from the very same passage which are all described within the very same passage.[13]

In his work Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus distinguishes between two different branches of Pythagorean thought – akousmatikoi and mathematikoi.[14]  The former was in all likelihood the topic of analysis and discussion of the now lost works of Aristotle On the Pythagoreans, as well as the somewhat more contemporary (contemporary to Pythagoras) work by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – 546 BCE) entitled An Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola.  These works presumably described and analyzed not just the life of the famed figure Pythagoras himself but also presumably the sayings and aphorisms, i.e. symbola, which had been directly attributed to Pythagoras himself and which encapsulated his philosophical teachings.

These sayings or aphorisms, which dealt primarily with ethical and moral matters, as well as matters of theology and what later came to be known as “philosophy” (with respect to doctrines describing a way of life for example) in all likelihood were the original source of the later compilation of the Golden Verses which again we know circulated throughout the Hellenic intellectual community by at least the 3rd century BCE and which was attributed to Pythagoras himself.  The followers of these symbola were, at least in later Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, distinguished from the Pythagorean mathematikoi as akousmata, which according to Iamblichus at least had a musical element, a chanting aspect to them – hence the term.  The other branch of Pythagorean thought, i.e. the mathematikoi, were in all likelihood the ones that had the most influence over Platonic philosophy, in particular the underlying geometry of universal order as described in the Timaeus.[15]

 

What is also interesting and somewhat baffling is that Ovid’s recollection and reverence for Pythagoras is almost entirely left out of the academic literature in terms of it actually truly reflecting “Pythagorean” philosophy, even though a) he explicitly outlines what he means by Pythagorean doctrine, and b) he sits some two centuries at least before the later Neo-Platonist authors of Porphyry and Iamblichus that are typically cited as the most reliable sources for Pythagorean life and teachings, and c) Ovid himself is known to have been well schooled in philosophy and was born and raised in the very same region (Southern Italy) where we know Pythagoras spent a great deal of his later life teaching and where he clearly exerted great influence.

Ovid spends a good deal of his final Book of Metamorphoses covering Pythagorean teachings in fact, told within the context of the story of the founding of Crotone by Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), Rome’s legendary second king.  Crotone is where Pythagoras founded his “school” and herein Ovid takes the opportunity to run through Pythagorean doctrine as it were, as he describes the founding of the city by Numa and just before he closes his work with the deification of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  After describing the vegan lifestyle, and the belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), both attributes of Pythagorean thought and doctrine that were and are widely held to be true, Ovid goes on to describe Pythagorean doctrine in more detail, aligning it squarely with his overarching theme for his work in fact, i.e. change or metamorphosis as the primary characteristic and qualification of existence.

‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists.  Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.  Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river.  For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.  For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.[16]

This is not typically the philosophical teaching that is attributed to Pythagoras, Pythagoras the mystical mathematician who espoused the belief in the underlying harmony of number and ratio as reflections of the divine universal order, and although Ovid clearly has an axe to grind to try and closely align one of the greatest Italian philosophers of antiquity with the overarching theme of change which permeates his work, the philosophy that he lays out however is very reminiscent of the philosophy and metaphysics that underlie the cornerstone of Far Eastern (Chinese) philosophy, i.e. the Yijing.

Ovid goes on to describe how the elements themselves are subject to change – earth, air, water and fire – describing a process of transformation that bears even more striking similarity to Yijing metaphysics as its described in the Ten Wings and the various bagua (trigram) arrangements.

‘Even the things we call elements do not persist.  Apply your concentration, and I will teach the changes, they pass through.  The everlasting universe contains four generative states of matter.  Of these, two, earth and water, are heavy, and sink lower, under their own weight.  The other two lack heaviness, and, if not held down, they seek height: that is air, and fire, purer than air.  Though they are distinct in space, nevertheless they are all derived from one another, and resolve into one another.  Earth, melting, is dilated to clear water: the moisture, rarified, changes to wind and air: then air, losing further weight, in the highest regions shines out as fire, the most rarified of all.  Then they return, in reverse, revealing the same series of changes.  Since fire, condenses, turns into denser air, and this to water, and water, contracted, solidifies as earth.

‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state.  Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.[17]

So while relatively contemporary interpretations of Pythagorean doctrine most certainly include a references to a certain lifestyle and diet, as well as initiation into a private sect that clearly represented some sort of religious and/or mystery cult type of movement, as well as an association with sacred mathematical and geometric symbolism and a universal order based upon the interaction of a finite set of opposing, basic elemental forces, we also find with Ovid in particular an association of Pythagorean teachings with basic elemental change, as well as an integration and assimilation of the teachings in general to the more archaic and pre-historic Mythos of the Hellenic world to which Ovid’s entire work rests in in fact.

What we find in Ovid’s interpretation of Pythagorean teaching, is a more archaic form of theology as it were, and one that is hinged on the idea of change and flux being the primordial characteristic of existence, as well as – consistent with Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy in terms of first principles – the idea or notion that the universe is best understood as the interrelationships and intermixing of a basic set of opposing forces, forces which are aligned with number, proportion and harmonic balance.  In total, in looking at the “philosophical” interpretation of Pythagorean theology and cosmology, and combining it within the mythological and more pre-historic narrative provided by Ovid and his notion of change as being the primordial elemental property of reality, we are left with a worldview, a theo-philosophical system, that looks very similar to that which is represented by the Classic of Changes, i.e. the Yijing, from the Far East, a view and a comparison which is rarely made – if ever – and one which begs the question as to where and why these similarities exist between two of the primordial philosophical systems that emerge from these geographically disparate and theoretically distinctive civilizations which we believe did not have any sort of cultural or social connection at this phase in their respective civilizational development.

 


[2] According to Aristotle, Platonic philosophy is for the most part “aligned” with and consistent with the “Italian” schools which came before him. of which Pythagoras is the most eminent and influential figure of course.  He also aligns Platonic philosophy with Heraclitus as well, specifically in reference to his doctrine of the whole sensible world being in a state of “flux”.  See Aristotle. Metaphysics.  Book I .987a from Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D987a

[3] While references to Pythagoras can be found in the extant works of both Plato and Aristotle, it can be argued that neither of them assign him specifically with the establishment philosophical significance per se.  See Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/pythagoras/&gt;.

[4] Miletus was the epicenter of the so-called Milesian School where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all very prominent early Pre-Socratic philosophers heralded from, and Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the famed philosopher of flux and change which supposedly, according to Aristotle at least, heavily influenced the philosophic thought of Plato.

[5] Herodotus says that the Pythagoreans agreed with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool in his Histories Book II, verse 81.  See The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, [1890], at sacred-texts.com at http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh2080.htm.  For the reference to the Pythagoreans in Plato’s Republic where Plato associates the Pythagoreans with a doctrine of universal harmony with respect to astronomical matters, see Republic 7.530d from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D530d.

[6] Much learning does not teach one to have understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”  Quotation attributed to Heraclitus by Diogenes Laertius, Proclus and other ancient authors.  See Heraclitus of Ephesus, translated by G.W.T. Patrick 1889 at http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/heraclitus/herpate.htm.

[7] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).  Book IX, Chapter I.  Verses 12-14.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D9%3Achapter%3D1.

[8] Affinities and similarities between the culture and theological beliefs in the Avesta literature and the Vedas of the Indo-Aryans is covered in detail in other sections of this work.

[9] See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/andarz-precept-instruction-advice.

[10] For the full listing of 71 aphorisms, see Wikipedia contributors, ‘The golden verses of Pythagoras’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2016, 20:59 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_golden_verses_of_Pythagoras&oldid=706531167> [accessed 28 September 2016]

[11] The opening passage to the famed Egyptian Rhind Mathematical Papyrus for example, a mathematical textbook which dates to the early part of the second millennium BCE more than 1000 years before Pythagoras was born, reads: “Accurate reckoning.  The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.”.  From the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.  Volume I.  Free Translation and Commentary by Arnold Buffum Chace.  Mathematical Association of America, Oberlin, Ohio.  1927.  Page 49.  The actual papyrus dates to around 1650 BCE and we are told is from a copy from an even older text dating from the 19th century BCE during the reign of Amenemhat II.  It was written in hieratic script and is a mathematical textbook of sorts which contains teachings and formulas on not just basic arithmetic and geometry, but also calculation of volume and area, fairly sophisticated algebraic equations and solutions, and other advanced geometry and mathematical topics that was clearly produced as a teaching tool.  The Indo-Aryans as well, at least with respect to geometry and basic mathematics and algebra as reflected in the Shulba Sutras, a text related to the construction of altars related to Agni (fire) worship and altar construction dated from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  For a deeper exploration of the connections between ancient Greek and Vedic geometry see “Greek and Vedic Geometry” by Frits Staal.  Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1999 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Vol. 27, No. 1/2, pg. 105.

[12] Aristotle. Metaphysics Book I 985b 986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985b

[13] Again see Aristotle Metaphysics 1.985a – 1.986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985a

[14] The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  Theosophical Publishing House, Hollywood, CA.  1918. Page 62-64.

[15]  For a detailed treatment of the source and nature of these “akousmata”, as well as a description of the delineation between “akousmatikoi” and “mathematikoi” as described by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus, see “The Pythagorean Akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism” by Johan C. Thom at https://www.academia.edu/15440495/The_Pythagorean_Akousmata_and_Early_Pythagoreanism

[16] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:176-198.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Eternal Flux.”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

[17] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:237-258.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Elements”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

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

 

 

 

The Hetu and Luoshu Diagrams: Numerology in Chinese Antiquity

What we can definitively say about how the underlying symbols of the Yijing were created can be ascertained primarily from the commentaries that survive and were appended to text itself as it has been received from antiquity, a process that we know and has already been indicated was influenced by socio-political factors.  It is clear however that numerological and arithmological beliefs were instrumental in their creation, as indicated not only in the commentaries themselves which speak to how the hexagrams and their constituent trigrams were created, but also by associated mythology surrounding two figures in particular that seem to point to even deeper Chinese antiquity.

The two figures in question are the Yellow River Map, or Hetu (河圖), and the “Inscription of the River Luo”, or Luoshu (洛書, also written 雒書), each of which is connected in mythological lore to Fu XI and King Wen, two figures from Chinese antiquity lore that are integrally linked to the establishment of Chinese civilization.  The figures are referred to not only in the Ten Wings itself, but also in the “Book of Documents”, or Shujing (書經) which dates to the middle of the Western Zhou period (11th to 8th centuries BCE), as well as the Guanzi (管子), or “Master Guan”, which is a collection of various philosophical treatises on statecraft collected during the Spring and Autumn period (8th to 5th centuries BCE).[1]

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

Hetu and Luoshu diagrams

While the derivation of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the Earlier and Later Heaven arrangements of the bagua, or eight trigrams, which form the basis of the hexagrams of the Yijing does not show up in the written records until the Song Dynasty period (960 – 1279 CE), there is ample evidence to surmise that that the numerological and/or metaphysical connection between them reaches back into at least Bronze Age China from which the first evidence of the Zhou Yi emerges.

First and foremost, we have a direct reference to the Hetu and Luoshu in the Ten Wings commentary itself, albeit in a form that does not allow for too much explanation as to how precisely these diagrams are related to Yijing divination other than referring to the Hetu as a “map” and the Luoshu as a “document” or “inscription”, and indicating that they were used as a “model” for the ancient sages who used or created the Yijing.  The specific verse or passage from the Great Commentary is below:

 

Therefore: Heaven creates divine things; the holy sage takes them as models.  Heaven and earth change and transform; the holy sage imitates them.  In the heavens hang images that reveal good fortune and misfortune; the holy sage reproduces these.  The Yellow River brought forth a map and the Lo River brought forth a writing [document]; the holy men took these as models.[2]

 

It’s also clear from the archeological record though that ancient Yijing divination was performed in conjunction with the burning of tortoise shells so that does offer further corroborating evidence that these symbols, or at least the Luoshu, was related to ancient Yijing divination in some way.  We could speculate that that this ancient practice, using the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams, was the origins of the divination practice in deep Chinese antiquity and these practices ended up evolving into the yarrow stalk and hexagram based divination process that ended up being encapsulated in the Zhou Yi and then codified finally in the Yijing.

Furthermore, we have from Chinese mythology the association of the Hetu diagram with the legendary Fu XI who witnessed a “dragon horse”, or longma (龍馬), emerge from the Yellow River with a set of symbols on its back, i.e. the Hetu diagram, from which he supposedly “divined” an ordered system of trigrams within which the universal ordering of things could be understood.  This is the mythology that surrounds the creation of the “Earlier than Heaven”, or Fu Xi, arrangement of the eight trigrams.  We also have a very similar myth associated with the Luoshu diagram that speaks to the emergence of a dragon turtle, or longgui (龍龜), from the River Luo from which had the Luoshu symbol on its back, actually its turtle shell, from which an alternate trigram arrangement or sequence was established, the “Later than Heaven”, or King Wen arrangement.

It also seems clear that the design of the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams, being based upon the collection and arrangement of sets of dark and light circles, speaks to a much more archaic and older numerological system that predates the formulation of the trigrams or hexagrams that constitute the core part of the Yijing.

For in deep antiquity, and this is perhaps true of the evolution and creation of all counting systems in antiquity, numbers were represented by simple representations and collections of objects, objects that were typically easily accessible.  For example, the early numbering system of the Chinese, which was base 10 like ours and as reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu each of which have numerical representations of all of the numbers 1 – 9, used small bamboo rods (stalk like figures in fact) to denote the numbers 1 through 10.  This system of symbols allowed for not only the representation of very large numbers using a small set of symbols which were easy to learn and communicate, but also allowed for relatively straightforward arithmetic operations as well.[3]

The Luoshu diagram significantly, also is a clear representation of the magic square of base three – where each of the numerical representations on all of the lines of the diagram, the vertical, horizontal and diagonal axes, all add up to 15.  This may be perhaps the earliest known evidence for a magic square in antiquity.

This numerical diagram, across all ancient cultures and civilizations that understood numbers in fact, indicates not only a belief in the “divine” or “revealed” nature of base 10 as the core counting system upon which all numerology and arithmology is subsequently based, but also the “divine” or “eternal” nature of the numbers 1 through 9 and their inherent symmetry and harmony, tying these basic numbers directly with universal harmony and balance upon which the Yijing squarely (pun intended) rests.

We also find a reference, albeit indirect, to the Hetu diagram in specific passage from the Great Commentary (Dazhuan):

 

Heaven has 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.  Earth has 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10.  Thus heaven has five numbers and earth has five numbers.  The two series are interlocked in order; each number in one series has its partner in the other [When they are distributed among the five places, each finds its complement].  The sum of heaven’s numbers is 25; the sum of earth’s numbers is 30; the sum of the numbers of heaven and earth is 55.  This is what stimulates alternation and transformation and animates spirits [It is this which completes the changes and transformations ad sets demons and gods in movement].  The full Number is 50, of which 49 are used.  Dividing into two lots represents duality.  Setting one aside completes the triad.  Counting by fours represents the four seasons.  Reserving the remainder between the fingers represents the leap month.[4]

 

As per the first part of this passage, in the Hetu diagram we see the odd numbers between 1 and 10 – 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 respectively – being represented by the white, or “yang”, circles/dots, yang being the primary attribute of the trigram named Heaven (Qian) which is made up of three solid lines.  And conversely we see in the Hetu all of the even numbers between 1 and 10 – 2, 4, 6, and 8 respectively – being represented by black, or “yin” circles/dots, yin being the primary element associated with the Earth trigram (Kun) which is represented by three yin, or broken, lines.  Furthermore, we can see in the Hetu diagram that in fact the two series of even and odd numbers are in fact paired, each number having its counterpart on the opposite side of the diagram – 1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4 and so on.

It is within this framework of basic numbers, specifically the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 (from which 10, the most “complete” or “perfect” number is derived arithmetically in the Pythagorean system; 1 + 2 + 3 + 4) upon which the yarrow stalk divination framework is built upon.  We start with a reference to the calculation that is used to determine the total number of yarrow stalks, from the arithmetic summation of all the even and odd numbers between 1 and 10, summing 55 in all, of which 50 are used as the basis for calculation.  The fundamental duality underpinning the universe, represented by the number 2 (the Dyad in Hellenic philosophical parlance), is then manifest in the initial division process of yarrow stalks into two piles or sets.  The number 3 (the Triad) is then signified by the setting aside of one yarrow stalk after the initial division into 2 piles is completed.  We then use the number 4 (the Tetrad) as the means by which the yarrow stalks are counted, by fours.  We also see here a direct reference to (at least one of) the universal meanings of 4, i.e. the 4 seasons.

It’s important to note that the Yijing is in fact NOT a counting system, and despite the best efforts of many numerologists over the centuries, it is clear that the underlying hexagrams, as well as the underlying trigrams upon which the hexagrams are based, do not represent numbers per se.  However, it is factual to say that that the system of broken and solid lines from which the trigrams and hexagrams are constructed, as well as the divination process itself which underlies Yijing consultation, clearly has a strong numerological and arithmological basis – a numerological basis and theory that in all likelihood rests upon, and was formulated out of, the prehistoric numerology that is reflected in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams.

So while the textual evidence seems to be unclear or hazy at first glance, upon reflection and analysis it’s clear that there existed a strong relationship between the inherent numerology encoded in the Hetu and Luoshu diagrams to the numerology and arithmology that underpinned the Yijing tradition, even if the textual and written evidence for the correlation and ultimate derivation of the bagua arrangements of Earlier and Later Heaven from the Luoshu and Hetu diagrams respectively is not clarified in the written record at least until a much later period in the Song dynasty circa 1000 CE.

 


[1] Reference the online resource Chinese Literature and Philosophy, from ChinaKnowledge.de entitled “The River Chart and the Inscription of the Luo” at http://www.chinaknowledge.de/Literature/Daoists/hetuluoshu.html

[2] The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. XI verse 8 pg. 320

[3] See http://www.storyofmathematics.com/chinese.html

[4] The Book of Changes (Zhouyi).  Translation and commentary by Richard Rutt.  Routledge Publishing, 1996.  From the Ten Wings section, the Dazhuan or Great Commentary.  Wing 5, Dazhuan I, Chapter IX verse 1-3 pg. 415 and alternate translations in brackets from The I Ching: Or Book of Changes.  Translated from the Chinese into German by Richard Willhelm and then to the English by Cary F. Baynes with a foreword by Carl Jung.  Princeton University Press.  Third Edition 1967.  The Great Treatise (Dazhuan) Book II Ch. IX verses 1-3; pgs.  308-311

Chinese Monotheism: Worship of Heaven (Shangdi)

Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (Daoism), all rich and prolific theo-philosophical traditions of the East which thrived in ancient times and still flourish today, were and are much more accepting of the worship of many different deities or aspects of the divine, or in some cases – Taoism and Buddhism for example – lack the divine anthropomorphic principle to be worshipped at all.  They all however do not outlaw idolatry explicitly as a tenet of faith however, and do not establish the worship of one and only one God as a fundamental tenet of their faith, a marked distinction from the religious developments that took place in the West.

So although religions of the East represent significant world factions in modern times, over 1 billion followers at least, these belief systems cannot be considered monotheistic in the sense that they do not profess and dictate the worship of a single, exclusive deity at the expense of the worship of all other deities and manifestations of the divine.  And perhaps not unrelated, the religions of the East have not been the source of great strife or persecution in the last few thousand years since their inception.  Having said that however, there are some monotheistic threads present in the Eastern religious traditions, in albeit not as hard or stubborn a form as their Western counterparts, again based on our working definition of monotheism being the explicit and law based worship of a single deity to the exclusion of all other deities and idols.

One of the unique attributes of the Chinese philosophical tradition is its lack of focus on what we would call in the West “theological” concerns, i.e. issues related to how the universe was created (cosmology) and what divine forces if any preside over it.  While even in the theo-philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle we find a rejection of mythology and the realm of the gods as simply matters of faith or speculation, Aristotle’s prime mover and Plato’s demiurge, still plays a fundamental metaphysical role in each of their respective philosophical systems, even if they are not front and center so to speak.  In the Chinese tradition however, while we see an implicit theological stance per se in the role of Heaven, we do not see it dealt with specifically or directly in the works of the philosophers themselves, outside of an occasional appeal to the divine as a benchmark of world and natural order.  In other words, the existence of Heaven is not denied per se but it takes on the form of a more “naturalist” view as the philosophical systems mature in the classical period.

But implicit in all the classical philosophical works from Chinese antiquity is a cosmological belief in the tri-partite universal order based upon the realm of Heaven (Tian天), the realm of Earth (Di地), and the realm of Man.  It could be said that the whole of Chinese philosophy is meant to, and produced for, the establishment of harmony between these three interconnected yet distinct aspects of reality.

From the I Ching (Yijing), the Book of Changes, one of if not the cornerstone Chinese philosophical text from antiquity, the core of which was written and used as a divination text in the 2nd millennium BCE at the latest, is primarily interpreted (cosmologically speaking), as a means to balance and harmonize these worlds given a specific situation or circumstance in fact – at least how the work was interpreted by the classical Chinese philosophical tradition in the Ten Wings, the commentary that is tied to the work.

From the Great Commentary, one of the Ten Wings, we find the work described as:

As a document, the Yijing is vast and far-ranging, and has everything complete

within it. It contains the way of the heavens, the way of human beings, and the

way of the earth.[1]

The Yijing is seen as a work whose scope is the entire universal world order, a world order that is bound by the world of Heaven, the way of Man, and the way of Earth.

1 – The Book of Changes contains the measure of heaven and earth; therefore it enables us to comprehend the tao of heaven and earth and its order.

2 – Looking upward, we contemplate with its help the signs in the heavens; looking down, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we come to know the circumstances of the dark and the light.  Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and of death.  The union seed and power produces all things; the escape of the soul brings about change.  Through this we come to know the conditions of outgoing and returning spirits.

3 – Since in this way man comes to resemble heaven and earth, he is not in conflict with them. His wisdom embraces all things, and his tao brings order into the whole world; therefore he does not err.  He is active everywhere but does not let himself be carried away.  He rejoices in heaven and has knowledge of fate, therefore he is care free.  He is content with his circumstances and genuine in his kindness, therefore he can practice love.

4 – In it are included the forms and scope of everything in the heavens and on earth, so that nothing escapes it. In it all things everywhere are completed, so that none is missing.  Therefore by means of it we can penetrate the tao of day and night, and so understand it.  Therefore the spirit is bound to no one place, not the Book of Changes to any one form.[2]

While these excerpts no doubt represent later interpretations of the significance of the text, at least later than when the text was initially drafted and used which goes at least as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (early first millennium BCE) and probably much earlier, we see implicit here the fundamental belief in the cosmological world order being the tripartite world order of Heaven, Earth and Man, the understanding of which – via the Yijing – yields greater tranquility and social harmony in this world, in any one individual life.

So this worldview of the tripartite order of Heaven, Earth and Man which is meant to operate in harmony and balance that the sages, shamans really from early Chinese pre-history, attempted to align in the individual and social fabric via the use of divination texts like the I Ching (called the Zhou Yi in the Zhou Dynasty prior to the addition of the Ten Wings) clearly is reflective of a much older theological belief system that was no doubt tied to elaborate rituals and sacrifice and involved the belief in Heaven, what was Shangdi in those times, as a god that needed to be appeased and who was responsible for Truth and Justice at some level in the world of Man.  This Shangdi from pre-historic and Bronze Age China evolves into the Heaven (Tian) that we know from the classical philosophical works of the late Zhou, Qin and Han dynasty periods that make up what we know as Chinese Philosophy.  What we see clearly here in early Chinese history, no different than the other traditions in antiquity throughout the world, is that philosophy and theology in antiquity are closely linked, one born from the other really, and ancient China is no different in this regard.

The etymology of the character for Tian – 天 – which can be traced of its roots through Seal Script, Bronze inscriptions and even back to Oracle bone script in the early second millennium BCE reveals this theo-philosophical history of the Heaven, and Shangdi.  The character is representative of the character of a man, the similarity to a stick figure of the symbol is clear.[3]  So while the anthropomorphic qualities of Tian are smoothed over as it were by the time of the classical era (Confucius et al), we can see the direct reference of the idea, the concept, of an all pervading anthropomorphic deity, i.e. Shangdi, at least as far back as the Shang dynasty (2nd millennium BCE) but in all likelihood much earlier than this.

What we know about the Shang Dynasty period in China’s history comes from various archeological sites in Northeastern China as well as historical texts written in the classical period (5th through 2nd centuries BCE) that speak to the traditions in deep Chinese pre-history as well as the lineage of rulers and kingdoms, all the way back to the pseudo-mythical legendary times of Fu Xi and the Yellow Emperor.  These texts are primarily the Bamboo Annals, Classic of History (aka Book of Documents or Shujing) and Records of the Grand Historian.

From these sources we know that the Shang dynasty succeeded the legendary Xia (or Yin) dynasty which was established by Yu the Great, the tamer of the Great Flood.  They were based primarily in the North Eastern part of China, by the Yangtze and Yellow river, but their influence spread much further throughout what we today know as China.  The people lived in complex societies, large towns and created complex irrigation systems.  They domesticated animals and had mastered the art of Bronze craftsmanship hence the term Bronze Age used to describe this time in China’s history.  They also mastered the art of jade carvings and we know that jade was an important luxury and jewelry item of the upper and middle classes.

They had a highly developed lunar calendar system (the word for Moon and Month were the same for example) that was used by the ruler and his subjects to determine when to plant crops, when to harvest, etc.  We also see the first evidence of writing in this era of China’s history, first on tortoise and ox bones, and then later on Bronze inscriptions – hence the term Oracle Bone and Bronze scripts that are used to describe early forms of Chinese writing.  While it is believed that inscriptions were also made on bamboo or silk strips, consistent with later time periods in Chinese antiquity, we do not have any evidence of such given that these types of artifacts degrade quite considerably over time.  It is clear that the forms of writing we see on the bones and bronze is fairly mature however, and it can be safely assumed that writing developed in China at least in the third millennium BCE if not earlier, putting Chinese writing systems in line with the cuneiform of the Sumer-Babylonian and Akkadian peoples and the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians to the West in fact.

From the archeological, written and inscription evidence we see a people described as having a complex hierarchical social structure on top of which sat the Emperor who was looked upon as having the so-called “mandate of Heaven” to rule and govern over the people.  These people not only had complex burial structures with vast and expensive artifacts left with the deceased, but also consulted the “spirits”, or ancestors, on various important topics or before making important political or social decisions, speaking to the divine reverence which the ancient Chinese had for their either direct, or ancient ancestors.  This is typically referred to as “ancestor worship” in the literature on Chinese history and this tradition was kept alive in some form or another certainly through the Han Dynasty period (206 BCE to 220 CE) period and is prominently reflected in the philosophy of Confucius.  Within this culture of worship of ancestors, we also see strong evidence for the worship of the great god of the sky, Shangdi, a tradition which was to later transform into, or morph into, the notion of Heaven in the Zhou dynasty and persisted throughout much of China’s history[4].

We see ample evidence in the archeological and written record of the worship of the great sky god (Shangdi), the ancient Bronze Age god of the sky of the Shang peoples, harkening back no doubt to China’s pantheistic roots.  The Book of Documents (Shujing) also references sacrifices and rituals to Shangdi going back to pseudo-historical Emperor Shun from the latter part of the third millennium BCE or so (23rd century BCE).

The two Chinese characters from which the word for “Shangdi” is derived are “上”, meaning “high” “highest” “first” or “primordial”, combined with “帝, which is typically translated as “emperor” and is the same character used in the name of “Huangdi”, the great Yellow Emperor of deep Chinese antiquity which is the same title sometimes used for the Emperor of China himself.  From earliest times, and consistent throughout Chinese history in fact, we can see the close link to the Emperor and the one supreme deity Shangdi, marking as in most ancient civilizations the notion of divine authority with rule of the people.

In the time of the Zhou dynasty at the turn of the first millennium BCE, we see a transition and semantic equivalence that is established between Shangdi and Tian (Heaven), which is also the word for “sky”.  Tian is of course one of the three pillars of the world order in classical Chinese philosophy – Heaven, Earth and Man.  We see this transition take place, along with the evolution of Classical Chinese as a writing system, first in the Zhou dynasty period and then maturing in the latter half of the first millennium BCE in the Warring States period, being firmly established in Chinese philosophical nomenclature by the beginning of the Han Dynasty in 202 BCE (Former or Earlier Han) when most if not all of classical Chinese philosophical works were commented on and “canonized” so to speak.

Rulers of the Chinese empire throughout its written history were looked upon as “Tianzi”, or sons of Heaven, which is the abstract concept who the deity came to represent over the centuries.  In the archeological and written record Shangdi is presented as the ruler of Heaven who presides over order and justice in the world of human affairs.  The notion that a supreme deity of the heavens establishes order and justice is a common theme throughout the ancient world in fact and parallels here can be drawn to the ma’at (Maat) of the Egyptians or the rta of the Indo-Aryans as well as of course the aforementioned association of divine legitimacy to the rulers themselves.  In this sense Shangdi can be looked at as analogous to Marduk of the Babylonians who rose to prominence as the head of the Babylonian pantheon as Babylon rose to power around the same timeframe much further to the West, or even Zeus/Jupiter in the Greco-Roman tradition a millennia or so later although the link to authority and power is not present.

We see the role of heaven played out in the socio-political sphere as well beginning with the Zhou dynasty specifically which Confucius looked upon as a bygone age of justice and virtue.  It’s in the transitional period between the Shang and Zhou dynasty that we find the first reference to the notion of the “Will of Heaven” which was used by the first dynastic rulers of the Zhou as justification for the overthrow the Shang dynastic rulers.  This idea that rulership is not necessarily by birth but by a so-called “Mandate of Heaven” (again Tian) which bestows a right to rule on a just ruler or Son of Heaven (Tianzi) is unique to the Chinese and has been used throughout its history to justify an overthrow of rule or governanceNatural disasters, unrest or famine were for example generally considered to be signs that the rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven and so the well being of the ruled and the authority of the ruler were seen as tightly interconnected and interdependent upon each other.

Worship of Heaven (Shangdi  and later Tian) throughout China’s long history included the erection of shrines and the offering of prayers, and in the Shang dynasty and earlier, the use of sacrifices as a form of worship.  The last and greatest of these houses of worship was erected as recently as the 14th century CE, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  The connection of Shangdi to imperial rule and the seat of power, akin to the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs in some respects, was prevalent even after Confucianism, Taoism, and then much later Buddhism took root with the Chinese people in the latter part of the first millennium BCE, as evidenced by the rulers of China continuing to perform the annual bull sacrifice, a beast with very ancient roots in mythology, in honor of Shangdi even in modern times.


[1] Great Commentary B8.  Quotation from The Great Commentary (Dazhuan 大傳) and Chinese natural cosmology by Roger T. Ames.  Translation by Ames.  Published March 2015 in the International Communication of Chinese Culture.

[2] From The I Ching or the Book of Changes by by Wilhelm/Baynes. Princeton University Press 1977.  “Ta Chuan” / “The Great Treatise” chapter IV pgs. 293-296.

[3] See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E5%A4%A9

[4] The rituals surrounding the worship of ancestors and Shangdi in the Shang dynasty period was associated with animal, and in some cases, human sacrifice, a practice that was later abandoned but nonetheless did exist in some form or another in this time period of China’s history.

Divination in the I Ching

Divination, omens, portents etc. was a common practice throughout all of the ancient world in fact.  As already mentioned we see the practice, and its relationship with the priestly class not only in ancient Greece but most certainly ancient Persia (the “magi”), the Sumer-Babylonians (Chaldean oracles) and of course in ancient Egypt as well.  Each of these cultures has their own specific approach toward communing with the divine to determine either the course of future events, when it might be the most auspicious time to act, or even what course of action would be wisest given a specific desired outcome.[1]

Our relationship with this practice is broken in the West however as we began to question the validity of the practice in Roman times where reason, philosophical enquiry, began to take precedence over what was considered to be illogical and/or barbaric and antiquated superstitious practices.  This became even more pronounced of course when all things “pagan” were outlawed and ostracized once Christianity took a strong foothold in the West in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.  An interesting insight into this transition period can be found in the works of Cicero for example, who wrote a whole treatise “De Divinatione” questioning these age old practices.

 

There is an ancient belief, handed down to us even from mythical times and firmly established by the general agreement of the Roman people and of all nations, that divination of some kind exists among men; this the Greeks call μαντική — that is, the foresight and knowledge of future events. A really splendid and helpful thing it is — if only such a faculty exists — since by its means men may approach very near to the power of gods. And, just as we Romans have done many other things better than the Greeks, so have we excelled them in giving to this most extraordinary gift a name, which we have derived from divi, a word meaning “gods,” whereas, according to Plato’s interpretation, they have derived it from furor, a word meaning “frenzy”.[2]

Now I am aware of no people, however refined and learned or however savage and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events, and that certain persons can recognize those signs and foretell events before they occur. First of all — to seek authority from the most distant sources — the Assyrians, on account of the vast plains inhabited by them, and because of the open and unobstructed view of the heavens presented to them on every side, took observations of the paths and movements of the stars, and, having made note of them, transmitted to posterity what significance they had for each person. And in that same nation the Chaldeans — a name which they derived not from their art but their race — have, it is thought, by means of long-continued observation of the constellations, perfected a science which enables them to foretell what any man’s lot will be and for what fate he was born.

The same art is believed to have been acquired also by the Egyptians through a remote past extending over almost countless ages. Moreover, the Cilicians, Pisidians, and their neighbours, the Pamphylians — nations which I once governed — think that the future is declared by the songs and flights of birds, which they regard as most infallible signs.  And, indeed, what colony did Greece ever send into Aeolia, Ionia, Asia, Sicily, or Italy without consulting the Pythian or Dodonian oracle, or that of Jupiter Hammon? Or what war did she ever undertake without first seeking the counsel of the gods?[3]

 

What is unique about the method that was invented by the ancient Chinese however was that the system was based upon number theory and a fairly advanced set of symbols (the hexagrams) which encapsulated:

  • the situation, as proposed or communicated by the individual who was consulting the Yijing,
  • the cosmological/universal world order as represented by the fixed set of 64 states of the universe (the hexagrams) along with its propensity to change from a one state to another, and
  • the judgment which was yielded by the “divine” message or interpretation of the situation which came from the process of divination (in antiquity using yarrow stalks, again see below)

This process of divination, again using yarrow stalks in antiquity was quite lengthy and complex, was enshrouded in ritual and gravity, and was conducted by a priest, an individual who was trained in the art of consulting the Yijing and one who the “divine” spoke through in a very real sense.  This process of course included a fundamental element of randomness which allowed/allows for the divine to come through as represented by the numbers that it produces which not only divine the symbol which reflects the situation, one of the 64 symbols, but also which of the lines within the symbol are active, subject to change and transformation, and determine the direction, the flow of the event within the 64 hexagram sequence.

In the Great Commentary, one of the Ten Wings (which again was written centuries after the text had already been in use), we find an explanation of the process of divination, alluding to the cosmological significance of the process itself, and how the lines for a given hexagram were “drawn” for a given divination.

 

The number of the total is fifty [yarrow stalks].  Of these, forty-nine are used.  They are divided into two portions, to represent the two primal forces [yin/yang, darkness/light, firm/yielding].  Hereupon one is set apart, to represent the three powers [Heaven, Earth, Man].  They are counted through by fours, to represent the four seasons.  The remainder is put aside, to represent the intercalary month.  There are two intercalary months in five years, therefore the putting aside is repeated, and this gives us the whole.[4]

 

Here we have embedded into the yarrow stalk ritual itself the underlying cosmological world order according to the originals authors of the text.  We have the single yarrow stalk removed, symbolizing the unified and single creative force from which the entire universe emanates (the Dao, Tai Chi).  [1] Then we split the stack in two, randomly, signifying the basic bifurcation of forces from the One from which the material universe, the known universe comes forth.  To the ancient Chinese this was Heaven and Earth[5].  [2] We take the right hand bundle and set it aside for now.  [3] Then we take a single stalk from this right hand bundle, which symbolizes Man (one is set apart representing the three powers), yielding the symbolic “three powers”, and place it between our last two fingers, this will be added to the remainder total to help us build each gua.

Then we start to symbolize the creative process, the cycle of change, which to the ancient Chinese represented the fundamental characteristic of reality – the calendar, the seasons.  [4] We take 4 stalks at a time from the left hand bundle of stalks and put them aside until there are four or fewer stalks remaining in your hand.  [5] We place these remaining stalks in between our fingers and this represents the intercalary month.  [6] Then we pick back up the stalks from the original split from the right hand that we placed on the table and then we remove four stalks at a time again until we have four or fewer stalks left.  [7] We then place these stalks in between our fingers and then we count them, along with the other 4 or fewer stalks from the previous step (left hand bundle) along with the single stalk representing Man which should yield a sum of either 5 or 9.

[8] We then set these stalks (again either 5 or 9 of them) and begin the process again with all the stalks except a) the first stalk we set aside that represents Tai Chi, the One and b) the 5 or 9 stalks we removed from the result of steps 1-7.  [9] We repeat steps 1-7 with the remaining 40 or 44 stalks and get a sum of either 4 or 8.  Setting these stalks aside we now have 24, 28, 32 or 36 stalks left.  [10] We remove 4 stalks at a time, counting the total number of groups of 4 we have left – either 6, 7, 8 or 9[6].

From this remainder we draw either the Greater Yin (6) broken line with cross -x-, indicating a moving yin yao (or line), if the result is 9 (Greater Yang) we draw an unbroken line (yang) with a circle in the middle -0- indicating a moving yang yao.  If the result is 7 (Lesser Yang) we draw a simple unbroken line (stable, non-moving yang line) and if it is 8 (Lesser Yin) we draw a simple broken line indicating a stable, non-moving yin.  We then repeat this process again five more times, with the 49 yarrow stick (that first stick remains to the side the whole time) and we then complete our gua/hexagram picture with the moving lines embedded.  Note again that the individual Gua is formed from bottom to top.[7][8]

 

 

To the ancient Chinese clearly, at least the authors of the Yijing, it was the act of change that was the most relevant aspect of life to them.  There were fixed states of cosmic existence no doubt that reflected any given situation as presented to the oracle but it was the idea of change from one state to another that was most revealing in terms of cosmic significance.  The universe is a set of opposing forces constantly acting on each other to move from states of chaos to states of equilibrium and the ideal of man, his goal in any given situation you might say, would be to optimize – or better put align – the will of Heaven with the will of Man in the realm of Earth.  The Yijing is the tool that was devised for this purpose.

This is the powerful and unique perspective of the Yijing and one of the reasons no doubt it is considered to be one of the most important texts in all of Chinese literature and one of the reasons why its power and weight are still respected by the Chinese today.  It not only includes their worldview and philosophy of life but it also includes a method by which, if performed by a competent sage or scholar of the Yijing, the Will of the Gods so to speak can be “divined” for a given situation.

 


 

[1] A fairly lengthy and comprehensive look at divination practices in ancient Sumer-Babylon can be found in the book Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, edited by Amar Annus, University of Chicago 2010, Oriental Institute Seminars – Number 6.

[2] Phaedrus 244C μαντική = μανική from μανία (furor).

[3] Cicero, De Divinatione, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press 1923 translation by W. A. Falconer.  Book 1, Chapter 1.  From public domain via http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cicero/de_Divinatione/1*.html

[4] The I Ching or Book of Changes, Wilhelm/Baynes.  Princeton University Press, Third edition, 1967.  Commentary, Ta Chuan / The Great Treatise: verse 3. pg.  310.  [Notes in brackets are authors].

[5] This step, the separation of the single pile into a left (Heaven) and right (Earth) bundle is the random element in the process which allows for the cosmic force to reveal itself within the process.  It is from the splitting of the two bundles into two seemingly equal piles from which all of the remaining counts, and their sums, come from and hence from which the individual lines and their individual characteristics, and finally the specific unique sign, gua, comes from.

[6] The Wilhelm/Baynes version actually has the final step producing a number of 4 or 8, yielding three pairs of numbers that are either 5 (equivalent to 3) or 9 (equivalent to 2), 4 (equivalent to 3) or 8 (equivalent to 2) and 4 (equivalent to 3) or 8 (equivalent to 2) which yields totals of either 6, 7, 8 or 9 which are then converted to Greater Yin, Lesser Yang, Lesser Yin, and Greater Yang as in Huang’s description.  See I Ching or Book of Changes, Princeton University Press 1950, third edition 1967 pgs. 311 (under the section heading of the Ta Chuan or Great Treatise Chapter IX verse 3 or at the end ‘On Consulting the Oracle’, pgs 721ff (which actually has a mathematical error in it).

[7] The description of the yarrow stalk ritual is taken from Alfred Huang’s Complete I Ching from the Chapter ‘Flying with the I Ching’, pgs. 8-9 [Published by Inner Traditions, 1998].  There is a similar description in Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching [Princeton University Press 1950, third edition 1967] in the Chapter entitled ‘On Consulting the Oracle’, pgs 721ff but it’s not nearly as clear as Huang’s version which follows the Great Treatise description line by line.

[8] Yang is considered to be represented by odd numbers and is considered to be “advancing”, moving forward – hence the 9 corresponding to the Greater Yang and the 7 corresponding to the Lesser Yang.  Yin is represented by even numbers and is considered to be “retreating” and best for it to maintain central ground, hence the 6 representing Greater Yin and 8 Lesser Yin.  See The Complete I Ching, by Alfred Huang.  Inner Traditions 2010 “Introduction” pg. 4.

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.

%d bloggers like this: