The fount of philosophy

23 08 2010

Souls cannot ascend without music.


The common intellectual history of the West, especially since the Enlightenment, has stated that philosophical thought grew out of a rejection of the old mythologies that had come before it. The Greeks were the first “Europeans”: those who truly began to question the ungodly superstitions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, as well as their own. The evident skepticism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is thought to be at the very least inimical to the interests of classical Greek religion. Philosophy is thus seen as the beginning of the death of myth, and the prelude to the rational world in which we inhabit today.

It is a very reassuring story, but it is not necessarily the real one. Recent scholars have begun to dig into the roots of ancient philosophy, and are finding more continuity than rupture; more sympathy with “ancient superstition” than an inveterate form of rationalist positivism. There was of course the hubbub of a couple of months back when a scholar came up with evidence that the Platonic dialogues were embedded with Pythagorean musical scales. There came forth the idea, quite foreign to modern people used to the “data in, discourse out” model of philosophizing, that the text has more in it than words and ideas. It is a sort of divine play in itself: a representation of the eternal cosmogony. On the other hand, many scholars are seeing at the root of the philosophical enterprise an ancient method of inner transformation that is quite distant from our own ideas of philosophy. Philosophy was more tied to ritual and religion than it is in contemporary practice. What philosophy was trying to do initially was not break free from the “mythology” that came before it, but radically return to its source.

I recently obtained a copy of Algis Uzdavinys’ Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, and it addresses many of the issues mentioned above. Uzdavinys in this book seeks to tie various strains of ancient thought together, showing that what existed in one region was merely called by a different name in another. His views are thus perennialist in the most eclectic sense. He crosses borders into Egypt, the Middle East, India, and even into Islam to find precedents and heirs to the developments of classical Greek thought. Philosophy for him is thus not the iconoclastic intellectual endeavor that it is to many of us, but is rather one means of spiritual ascent among many others. It is part of a regiment of various methods to make man divine again using the seeds of that divinity hidden in the soul.

Uzdavinys establishes the interconnected origins of Greek philosophy fairly early in the text. He writes,

Consequently, the Egyptians, renowned for both their piety and their practical wisdom introduced, according to Isocrates, the practice of philosophy for the cultivation of the soul, “a pursuit which has the power, not only to establish laws but also to investigate the nature of the universe. Pythagoras, on a visit to Egypt, “became a student of the religion of the people, and was first to bring to the Greeks all philosophy”.

For the author, then, philosophy emerges from the temple liturgy and the old myths, if only as a more sophisticated method of interpreting them. All truth had been given from the gods in the form of ritual and symbols, and it was up to the initiated to decipher them. The ancient paradigm of philosophy, supported later in the thought of Plotinus, was one of recovery rather than discovery. It was not a practice in which one sought to prove one’s ancestors wrong, but rather an attempt to preserve traditions that had their roots in eternity.

In this process of emergence, the old myths of Osiris, the Vedic rituals, and the Chaldean cosmogonies all have to do with the symbolic death of the temporal in man unto his birth as a divine being. The practice of mummification in Egypt, for example, was not some sort of atavistic exercise in necrophilia, but a transformation of the temporal and human body into the eternal and divine. Even the dialectic itself, that Socratic method of intellectual skepticism, is seen as a mimetic act of sacrifice; one symbolically slays in order to restore all things to their original unity. The Greek myths were thus interpreted as philosophical allegories, as the author here indicates:

Following the paradigm of Homeric Odysseus, philosophy generally denotes a work of transition involving transformation of one’s very existence. Regarded as “much-wandering” or “very cunning”, Odysseus, in this respect, is figuratively sailing to the “beautiful west”, as if returning from the darkness to the intelligible light. No wonder that the Greek noos, mind, is related to the verb neomai, “to return home”, indicating a return from death, a release from the sweet prison of Calypso’s arms, – the verb kalupto, to hide, to veil, suggesting both darkness and death.

“Myth” is not originally an attempt to speculate on the quantifiable origins of the universe and the existence of all things. It is rather a symbolic ascent of the soul back to its eternal origins. As the Platonist Olympiodorus writes in his treatise, De diis:

Myths represent the active operations of the gods. The universe itself can be called a myth, since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and intellects are concealed. Furthermore, to wish to teach all men the truth about the gods causes the foolish to despise, because they cannot learn, and the good to be slothful, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the former from despising philosophy and compels the later to study it.

Myth then is just one more instrument in the intellectual ascent back to one’s divine origins, as Uzdavinys writes,

Ancient Hellenic philosophy intended to transform souls through various “spiritual exercises” because the task of the philosopher was not primarily to communicate “an encyclopedic knowledge in the form of a system”, but to live the philosophical life. In Neoplatonism, psychagogy is tantamount to mystagogy, and the Delphic maxim “know thyself” means “return to the source, the first principle of all”. This “reversion” is both… a return to one’s immortal self through self-reflexivity… and elevation through the ontological symbols accomplished by the divine energies.

Here the author encapsulates best the essence of ancient philosophy. Unlike modern ideas of intellectual thought and spirituality, the task of philosophy is both one of profound self-reflection and of rediscovering the hermeneutic to interpret the “symbols” that the gods have placed in the cosmos to lead us back to the primordial One. Thus, the task of philosophy is not misanthropic or anti-cultural, but entails a deepening of one’s interconnectedness with ancient symbolism and cosmic order. In other words, it is not merely a cerebral affair, but one of piety, aesthetics and a struggle for virtue.

The scholar Gregory Shaw highlighted this best in the following passage from his book on Iamblichus:

According to Iamblichus, all theurgical ritual, by definition, was rooted in ancient tradition; it could not be concocted to suit one’s mood or personal desires….. The cosmogonic myth of the Timeaus demanded great skill of its interpreters, yet for Iamblichus this Platonic myth sustained a vital connection to the most primitive myths and rituals…. If there was a mathematical model of Iamblichean theurgy it would have been a Pythagorean schema reflecting the creative tensions of the One and the Many. These tensions, Iamblichus believed, were portrayed in the traditions of ancient and holy people, in their art, dance, sacrifice, and prayers, and would have been discovered as mathematical only after the fact of their cultural embodiment. Mathematical proportions simply outlined the intensity and valences of ritual patterns already established in nature and cult.

In the modern West, we have a profoundly dis-integrated idea of knowledge. All truths are passing (or “developing”), all resolutions to problems quantifiable, and all paths to happiness individual. We have tried to extract ourselves as much as possible from the cosmic stream, and perhaps this is the reason that our religion has little to do with our philosophy, our art has little to do with our morality, and our future has little to do with our past. But the fount of philosophy is eternal, and the puzzles that the gods have left all around us always available. In this age of confusion and unraveling, perhaps these archetypes are hard to discern, but with confidence in the divine origins of the human soul, one can be confident that they will always haunt us like benevolent shadows.

The beautiful itself contains an uplifting power and thereby becomes the moving force for the conversion and return through eros. Echoing Plato, Proclus derives the word kalon from kalein or kelein, “to call”, and from the word draws conclusions about the object. Accordingly, the effect of the beautiful is to “call to itself what exists and thinks”, to “captivate”, and to “enchant”. At the same time, what “calls” and “enchants” distances thought from the beautiful appearance by becoming a “mean” that conveys or reduces the manifestation of the beautiful to its being and essence.

-Wener Beierwaltes



7 responses

24 08 2010

Lucian – he is not a DJ, he’s a good synthesist / collector. That takes a lot of skill in itself….

24 08 2010

Can an authentic Christian philosophy ever exist outside of the rituals and liturgy of the Church?

According to Orthodoxy, no. Lex orandi, lex credendi. True philosophy comes from the contemplation of the Church’s Mysteries.

23 08 2010
Robert Thomas Llizo

I suppose you have given the beginnings of an answer in your last, un-italicized paragraph, but I want to see how far this line of reasoning goes, because I think you are spot on, and I have been thinking about this for quite some time (when I’m not preparing for my dissertation defense, that is).

23 08 2010
Robert Thomas Llizo

This raises a question, then: Can an authentic Christian philosophy ever exist outside of the rituals and liturgy of the Church?

In other words, what are the implications for Christian philosophy if this statement holds true for pagan philosophy:
“Thus, the task of philosophy is not misanthropic or anti-cultural, but entails a deepening of one’s interconnectedness with ancient symbolism and cosmic order. In other words, it is not merely a cerebral affair, but one of piety, aesthetics and a struggle for virtue.”

23 08 2010

Yeah, Louis… too bad he didn’t write it… 8) He’s merely a D.J. (musical pun very much intended) , compiler and regurgitater of other people’s writings and ideas… 🙂

23 08 2010

Here, Arturo, you have once again transcended yourself – this is a piece of writing that, if it was the only thing a body ever wrote, would have made a whole life worth living.

23 08 2010


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