What does history teach us

I most especially heart the Minoan octopus vase industry.

I most especially heart the Minoan octopus vase industry.

In 2000 BCE Minoan civilisation was pretty sweet. You would have preferred it to most times and places. It was affluent and comfortable. It was peaceful. Lots of wine, art, hanging about, a little opium on the side. The Minoans knew about concrete. The Minoans had ceramic engineering. The Minoans combined these two arts to create elaborate indoor plumbing systems. No one else in the world had these sort of luxurious loos until modern Europe started to think it was a good idea. In Minoan society women enjoyed complete equality with men. This extended to all occupations, even bullfighting.

Of course Minoan civilisation didn’t last forever. It was overthrown by the Mycenaeans who, though culturally crude, banked on military science. The fortified their cities. They concentrated their economic efforts on the production of weaponry. So here is one thing that history teaches us: Luxurious loos are no defence against a superpower that puts all its energies into creating a vast military-industrial complex. Such a society will win out in the end. But at what cost? Well, sometimes at the cost of affluence, comfort and equality for all, with all the extra perks like wine, art, luxurious loos, and a little opium on the side. Here is the predicament, the human condition such as it is even today.

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Once upon a time…

…there was the Sumerians. Or, as they would have called themselves, the ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga. I prefer “Sumerians.” I heart the Sumerians.

Now this was a technological civilisation to be sure. By 3000 BCE it had already been worked out that smelting copper, not just mining the pure stuff, is the efficient way to go about things. This lead to the “science” of different metal-bearing ores which could be determined through all sorts of empirical qualities like colour, weight, flame colour and the smell of heated ore. Probably around this time some poor Sumerian would have also discovered the phenomenon of arsenic poisoning though, not living to tell about it, this discovery would have been made again and again and again.

The chemical knowledge of ancient Sumeria was by no means restricted to metallurgy. There is, for example, the discovery of an ancient third-millennium clay tablet upon which a Sumerian doctor listed his arsenal of favourite drugs and prescriptions. Setting aside the question of their efficacy, it’s fascinating that this is not just a gather-up-some-dodgy-berries-and-eat-them affair (although many of the ingredients are from animals, trees, plants, etc.). What we have is also a pharmaceutical industry, the physician as chemist. These drugs are manufactured out of raw ingredients like sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, ammonium chloride, potassium aluminum sulphate (alum), calcium sulphate (gypsum), sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate (niter). Prescriptions required techniques of chemical extraction involving ethanol (or in the parlance of the day, wine and beer).

The Sumerian physician, though he frustratingly fails to list the various diseases actually being treated in each case, also gives directions for manufacture and treatment. Unlike later Babylonian society (or, for that matter, 16th century European ideas that equate disease with demonic possession)  sorcerers, incantations and magic rituals are not part of the formulae.

I heart the Sumerians.

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Nothing Clever

Someone found their way to this pathetic corner of the World Wide Web through the search term “nothing clever.” True story. They got exactly what they bargained for.

This post simply exists to serve the transitory function of declaring to you, the reader/s who come here in search of nothing clever or whatever else you’re after, that I will be slowing down the pace of my Presocratic mumblings for a time. They will continue to come sporadically. But my reading as of late is much more scattered. I’ll be adding a few new dance numbers. Not theology, and nothing clever.

Some things I’m reading and others are queued up. In no particular order there’s Aquinas, who started it all off. There’s Marshall McLuhan who is always waiting in the wings and presides over the whole affair in any case. There’s Simone Weil, of whom I’ve read nothing, and I’ve made a solemn promise to myself to change that. There is Plato, Aristotle and Theophrastus. Kirkegaard. Hamann. Blaise Pascal. Franz Kafka. Emmanuel Levinas. And there is, lastly, René Girard.

Now Girard, as many may know, gives us Three Views of a Secret. His tripartite revelation begins with the unveiling of the ontological mimetic nature of desire and proceeds secondly to pharmakology (not Girard’s term, it’s been patented by another), that is, the scapegoat mechanism in human society. Lastly, Girard turns to the analysis of the New Testament kerygma as that of the Divine Pharmakos which unmasks, exposes, and destroys the cycle of pharmakological violence.* Permit me to be idiosyncratic in this small way when, in future, writing about Girard and “mimetic theory.” I don’t consider what he’s doing to be “theology” in any traditional sense, “literary criticism” is what it is much of the time, but it becomes so much more than that. And I question whether, following Kirwan,** it amounts to “theory” at all. So for me “mimetic theory” just doesn’t catch it. Girard is, for me, pharmakology (spelled with a k, a hat-tip to the Greek and the originate sense of pharmakos and in no way related to what Germans call Pharmakologie, though I dig that too).

I hold that truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth. But I do not know how to speak about these matters. I can only approach texts and institutions, and relating them to one another seems to me to throw light in every direction.  — Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987), p. 447.

* Thus it is a wise old theological sage, much wiser than any of his co-religionists at the time (though even still he has grown to consider himself  as nothing clever) one quipped: “All Theology is Pharmakology“. This of course renders the whole superstructure of “theology” as moot. Pharmakology is where it’s really at.

** Kirwan, Michael, Discovering Girard (2004), p. 9.

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Nothing clever here, just a final excerpt before I go jump of a bridge [emphases are mine]

From Catherine Osborne, The Presocratics, pp. 116-117:

One recurrent worry expressed by Plato’s Socrates was the idea that if one teaches for fees one must tailor what one teaches to what the paymaster dictates. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, charged no fees. And he, unlike the Sophists, was prepared always to speak his own mind (or would have spoken his own mind, if he’d known what it was). …

Exercise to the reader: Apply the concerns of Plato’s Socrates to current phenomenon of the neoliberalisation of education. But, more to the point, apply it to my headstone.
Goodbye….cruel woooorrrlllddd………….
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When Mathematics was a Religion that we now call Philosophy

The important thing about Pythagoras’ emigration from Ionian Samos to Croton in Italy (on the outposts of Greek civilisation) is that he was joining his kind, that is to say religious enthusiasts keen on mystery rites, Hades, the Underworld, and the cult of the dead – the perfect place for a Mystery Man Religious Guru to find tenure and start his own mystery religion, which he did. We don’t know much about it. (On Pythagoreanism in general, I could hardly hope to compete with this, so I’ll just link to it instead.) Reincarnation and the immortality of the soul were central dogmas. Herodotus thinks the idea comes from Egypt but, with respect to Pythagoras, doesn’t want to name names. Hmmm….

The Egyptians are the first to have enunciated this theory that the human soul is immortal, and that as and when the body fails it repeatedly clothes itself within another creature that is being born, and when it has done the round of all the terrestrial, marine and flying animals, it once again puts on a human body that is being born; and the circuit takes it 3000 years. There are some among the Greeks who adopted this theory as their own, some earlier, some later. Their names I know but I don’t write down. (Herodotus c. 490-410 BC, Histories, II. 123 – quoted in Catherine Osborne, The Presocratics, p. 99.)

Relatedly, he appears to have espoused vegetarianism and was something of an activist for the prevention of cruelty to animals, though other evidence indicates he was especially devoted to ritual sacrifice and purification. Contradictory? Probably not, actually. Anyhow, for my money these influences on Pythagoras were Orphic.

Enough prolegomena. On the mystical mathematics of Pythagoras, the proof of the

Always a handy thing to have around if you find yourself needing to swear a religious oath.

The Tetractys

Pythagorean theorem, the discovery of harmonic ratios and the like….

It probably deserves the sacrifice of a hundred oxen. It opens up the possibility that the entire world is based on hidden mathematical ratios that are not immediately obvious. (Osborne, p. 105.)

Not just in the realm of geometry however, although there is a visual aesthetic appeal to geometric form, especially in the knowledge of the mathematical ratios underlying musical harmony, beauty, number and physical reality converge. And so

it transpires that the beauty of harmony is an objective fact about nature, and it is a matter for calculation. It turns out to be a quantity as well as a quality. Perhaps, then, everything about the world, and every kind of good quality, is actually a matter of patterns of number? Science has followed this path with great success in the two and a half millennia since Pythagoras discovered it. Could moral, aesthetic, religious, and political values also be like that? (Osborne, p. 106.)

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The Logos of Heraclitus

Just a few scribbles on Heraclitus as JR Hematite’s gets his game back…

For the neophytes out there: Logos is λογος, which is to say it’s a Greek word, often translated as, well, “word”. Word? In Heraclitus it is the essential structure underpinning all of reality and every aspect of our experience. That there is called λογος. Why? Because (bear in mind the semantic net of λογος is huge) it is the langue, the reason, the account, the proportion, the definition, the thing of it… that’s λογος. Hence our English cognates for the scientia, the knowledge of a thing: biology, geology, paleontology, epistemology, anthropology, sociology, etc… even zero theology. It is even … (Relatedly? That’s not for me to say. This blog is Not Theology.) … according to John the Divine, bound up in the mystery of God. “In the beginning was the λογος…”

Apparently, so says ancient testimony, Heraclitus’ book began as follows:

With this λογος , which is for ever human, people are out of touch both before they have heard it and once first they have heard it; for although all things take place in accordance with this λογος, they are like beginners experimenting with both words and practices such as these that I am going through as I divide each thing according to nature and say how it is. But it eludes other people what they are doing when they are awake, just as it eludes them what they do in their sleep.

So what is Heraclitus trying to tell us? Well, … I don’t know. I can’t make it out. Nor can most scholars either, otherwise I would report on them here. λογος appears to be here basically dharma. Oh, not helpful? The Reason, the Rationale, the Plan, the Ultimate Expression, the Way It Is And The Verbal Expression Of That Way. Yeah? And it eludes everyone. Except Heraclitus apparently. So, he says (I paraphrase) people need to shut up and listen more as he reveals to them the λογος, to which they are meant to be awake.

Whatever. What’s clear is his message is a radical departure from the material monism of his predecessors. The Fire of Heraclitus is not a material substrate, like Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air. It is, rather, the mechanism of “the perpetual flow of differences in the world: change is endemic, opposites flip into one another depending on your point of view, fire consumes what was there before and gives back something quite different. Nothing remains: the world exists in its pattern of dying and rising to new life, not in its material remnants.” (Osborne, Presocratic Philosophy, p. 95.)

In fine, everything flows. but not in a hip-hop sense, thank God. Nietzsche, of course, digs Heraclitus.

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O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

A curious thing about studying the Presocratics, the commentaries and secondary literature in particular, is how completely hidden remains the simple fact that what one is actually studying is ancient poetry. What generally confronts you in the commentaries are assertions, propositions, explanations, comparisons, and even (in the case of the nonpareil Jonathan Barnes) the occasional translation into the symbolic language of formal logic (for clarity’s sake I suppose). But what the Presocratics themselves wrote is what we would call verse. When you pore through hundreds of pages of analysis and then stop to consider this, the effect can be unsettling.

There are various ways to account for this. My preferred account would probably orbit around the schools of thought concerned with the Orality-Literacy spectrum of ancient culture and the history of cognition and its relationship to the technology of the word. (Think Ong, Havelock, Goody, and, for the pithy epigrams, Marshall McLuhan). Perhaps I will steer in that direction some day. But, wanting of time and present ability, I offer here simply few observations harvested from a Response by Catherine Osborne.*

Osborne is addressing a question and putative answer which, it seems to me, arises naturally now that the Presocratics happen to be the preserve of the Philosophy department, rather than Classics, or Theology, or Comparative Religion or Ancient Literature: Why did they “choose” to write in verse, that is, translate into a poetic medium what appears to be more naturally a prose message? But the very question of “choice,” argues Osborne, is false one. Indeed,

the poetry of Parmenides and Empedocles is steeped in the same epic language and forms as the work of Homer. But should we suppose that the Presocratic poets deliberately adopted this poetry, and these characteristic and reminiscent formulae, as a ‘medium’ in preference to some alternative ‘medium’ that was available? My claim is that Parmenides and Empedocles are as unconsciously and naturally poets as Hesiod and Homer were, and that like the earlier poets they formulate their thought directly in the familiar language of poetry. It is not serving as a medium for something else, their philosophy. (p. 25)

It is because we think of philosophy as a naturally prose genre, and that philosophy is the appropriate category in which to file the Presocratics, that the question even arises. But it is simply not a question for the Presocratics themselves.

Well I’ve held out long enough. Obligatory McLuhan soundbyte inserted here: The Medium is the Message. Or, as Osborne puts it prosaically, “the form that the thoughts take cannot realistically be detached from the poetic verse composition in which they are expressed, as though the thinker might have devised the two independently. .. Those words are the thoughts they think, and hence the content itself is poetic.” (p. 26) I believe there are some serious implications to this, and perhaps lengthy history of scholarly misreading that must be dealt with, given the incredibly denatured form in which the Presocratics are presented in most texts these days. And of course this all gives an occasion for fresh readings, of which Osborne’s in particular I’ve found quite helpful.

But enough of that. Here’s a cat gif for you. hi ya

And incidentally, the denaturing of ancient poetry in service of reconstituted scholastic logic chopping is, I suspect, a fate that not just the Greek Presocratics have suffered.

* Catherine Osborne (1997) Was verse the default form for Presocratic Philosophy? In: Form and Content in Didactic Poetry Edited by: Catherine Atherton.  23-35 Bari: Levente Editori.

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