A juxtaposition of apparently incommensurable discourses characterizes the earliest Greek philosophical texts to have reached us. Heraclitus, according to Clement of Alexandria who preserved this remark for us, says of “the One,” who “alone is wise,” that it is “both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus,” a remark which can aptly serve as an epitome of incommensurability. Parmenides, usually thought to be the dispositional antipodes of Heraclitus, likewise illustrates the case. Parmenides’ poem certainly has an order and logic, but it can be read (insofar as its fragments can be read) as an amalgam of material religious, metaphysical, logical, astronomical, and biological. It begins (like Boethius) with an encounter with a goddess. Her maidens conduct the narrator in a hastening chariot whose wheels spin hot and make the sounds of pipes. Addressing the narrator, the goddess makes a distinction between two “ways,” of “it is” and “it is not,” drawing out the distinction into many conclusions, including the famous identity of what is thinkable with what is at all. By the time it ends, the poem has treated the moon, the planets, the Milky Way, and the position of male and female embryos in utero. If we had more of the poem, it would doubtless mention even more incongruous topics.
So what is going on? How did we get from Being and Nothingness to animal husbandry?
Parmenides felt no need to justify this transition, not because he did not know any better or because he reasoned by mistaken analogies, but because the very way in which he knew was still informed by that mode of consciousness Lévy-Bruhl called participation. These seemingly disparate realms are thought in terms of each other. In the same way that there is, for the native, a continuity or immediate relevance between tribe and totem, or natural phenomenon and the myths that “explain” it (it is the anthropologist, not the native, who speaks in terms of “explanation”), so Parmenides saw an obvious pertinence between the ontological categories of Being, and the cosmos—not just in its grand outlines and foundations, but even in “mud and hair,” as he assures Socrates in Plato’s dialogue.
For his part, Plato too seems to take for granted a certain fluidity of “subject matter” that is difficult for us to take seriously. For Plato, it is almost second nature to see Justice or Goodness or Love in terms of cookery or rhetoric or arboriculture; one might say, above all, in terms of geometry, astronomy, and music, except that these are, themselves, understood in terms of one another.
To the man who pursues his studies in the proper way, all geometric constructions, all systems of numbers, all duly constituted melodic progressions, the single ordered scheme of all celestial revolutions, should disclose themselves, and disclose themselves they will, if, as I say, a man pursues his studies aright with his mind fixed on their single end. As such a man reflects he will receive the revelation of a single bond of natural interconnection between these problems. (Epinomis 991e).The Epinomis is of controversial authorship; it is frequently attributed to Philip of Opus, Plato’s pupil and posthumous editor (Diogenes Laërtius mentions the attribution to him the division of the Laws into twelve books, and says that “some say” Philip wrote the Epinomis as a thirteenth to be an appendix). But Plato’s own practice clearly illustrates the same principle. He illustrates the pre-existence of the soul by a lesson in geometry; the best way to govern a state by a story about a mutinous crew of sailors; he offers a strange—and strangely precise—mathematical and musical account of the creation of the world soul. Plato’s use of these far-flung discourses is almost always read in terms of their furnishing “examples” and, at worst, they are completely overlooked, ignored, even edited out. In his 1945 translation of the Republic, F.M. Cornford, for instance—an admirable scholar in many ways—completely erased Socrates’ exposition of his “sovereign number” at 546.c (opining that it was an “extremely obscure description”) and offered a “simplification” of the tyrant’s allegory. It is true that these passages are difficult. It is hard to take them “seriously,” if by this we mean asking if Plato “means what he says.” The assumption that he does, in fact, mean what he says in some sense, and is not wasting the reader’s time, is borne out if one gives equal weight to his mode of expression (precise, mathematical) and his method (rhetorical, metaphorical). For Plato these modes of discourse lend themselves to each other—there is not a given distinction that is hard and fast between math and politics or even cookery and poetry. But what is the nature of their connection?
The question arises for us because it had already begun to arise for Plato. Even, I think, by Parmenides’ time, the experience of participation had slowly eroded for a long time. Once the universe had been a vast texture of interlocking analogies, felt in pulsing and vibrant clarity: planets corresponded with human dispositions and military outcomes, trees with planets, stories with trees, ritual with stories. In ritual, motions of knife, of rope, of flowers, the pouring of wine in a cup, the blowing of ashes on a stone hearth, the entrails of an animal and the cadences of words intoned to each god, all of these and more had formed a matrix of meaning, felt, assumed, taken for granted.
The questions that Socrates and Phaedrus entertain at the top of the cliff (in the Phaedrus 229 c-d) would not have occurred to anyone a few generations before: was the story of Boreas’ kidnapping of the Orithyia “really” a story of a girl who fell to her death because of a strong wind? We may compare this question to the issue raised by Lévy-Bruhl about the natives who, faced with the man apparently killed by crocodiles, did not distinguish between explanations that involved a witches disguising themselves as crocodiles, or sending a crocodile, or attacking with a club studded with crocodile teeth. The more anthropologists pressed these distinctions, Lévy-Bruhl notes, the more the distinctions were regarded by natives as otiose. Clearly, by the time Phaedrus and Socrates have climbed up outside the city, something has shifted.
All philosophy comes out of a matrix of mythology. One sees this matrix clearly with the Greeks, from Heraclitus, who said that Homer deserved to be thrashed with rods, to the late Hellenistic thinkers who read Homer and Hesiod through the sieve of allegory. It is likewise a crux of interpretation for the Indian rsis of the Upanishadic tradition. Reading philosophy in dialogue with its religio-mythical context is still, even all these years after Schelling, a task for our interconnected world. It is well known that Arab and Persian philosophy attends the preservation of European philosophy among the Germanic and Latin peoples in the Middle Ages. Reclamation of the philosophical inheritance of Amerindian and African cultures remains underway, hampered by the ambiguous legacies of colonialism and a Eurocentrism that remains despite (or because of) the West’s good intentions and bad conscience. One looks forward, for instance, to a subtle and multifaceted exposition of “African philosophy” without apology, without offering it as either a version or anticipation of Plato or Leibniz or Derrida, nor as an answer or alternative to them, but simply in terms of philosophy per se. This may be easier to accomplish in terms of Chinese, Indian, or (despite contemporary battle lines) Islamic philosophy, since these cultures were never decisively annexed by the West (even India’s period of colonization, for all that we are still hung-over from it, is a mere blip in its civilization’s history). Of the signal development of Chinese philosophy in dialogue with the great religious traditions of Taoism and Buddhism there can be no doubt. Voegelin was able to show the relevance of the great Hebrew, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian backgrounds to the emergence of the “Ecumenic age.” All of this follows in the wake of Jasper’s observation (building upon Hegel’s halfway concession) that philosophy begins in India and China as well as in Greece.
Enrique Dussel, among others, writes eloquently and forcefully of the properly philosophical content of concepts retrievable from Amerindian, Asian and African civilizations. Dussel stakes out the core problems of philosophy, universal questions that arise in any human linguistic matrix in one way or another, subject of course to grammatical variations but remarkably prevalent over time and geography: the nature of “real things in their totality,” and their behavior; “the mystery of their own human subjectivity, the ego, interiority, spontaneity, as well as the nature of freedom and the creation of the social and ethical world;” “the question of how we interpret the ultimate foundation of everything that is real, the universe itself;” and “the classic ontological question: ‘Why being and not nothingness?’” Dussel notes a historical process in which philosophy slowly extricates itself from mythological categories.
There is a progression in terms of degrees of univocal precision, semantic clarity, simplicity, and conclusive force with which foundations have been laid. But there are also losses in multiplicity of meaning when symbols are displaced, but which can be hermeneutically rediscovered….univocal rational discourse as expressed in philosophical categories that are capable of defining conceptual content without recourse to symbols (as in a myth) gains in precision but loses in terms of resonance of meaning.Dussel mentions a number of compellingly philosophical categories which can easily be excavated from discourses that tend to be relegated to mythological or merely religious shelves. Perhaps easiest to swallow is the Upanishadic meditation upon atman and Brahman, karma and moksha. In China, the I Ching seems on one level to be a text rife with the “merely” mythological, but philosophy proper is there in full force in the dynamic between yin and yang, the waxing and waning of the Tao; by the time we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the way that can be named is not the eternal way,” there can be no doubt that philosophy is here in full bloom. In Mesoamerica, the symbol Quetzalcoatl (often rendered “feathered serpent,” but also translatable as “precious twin,” from quetzal, the richly colored plumes of a particular bird, and coatl, “snake,” but also “twin”) is assimilated to a properly philosophical concept ometeotl (two-god, from ome and teotl, “two” and “divinity.”) From here Dussel also mentions the “philosopher-king” Nezahuacoyotl, ruler of Texcoco (died 1472), who presided over a court full of tlamatini, “those who know” (or “philosophers” as Sahagun translated the term), who built a temple “to an unknowable Lord of Everywhere” according to his post-conquest biographers, a temple empty of images and in which human sacrifice was abolished.
These observations and interpretations may be controversial or tendentious, but this is only an index of the fact that the interpretation of mythology is already a properly philosophical endeavor. This, too, is clear already in Plato. Marx famously asserts (at the beginning of Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) that “the critique of religion is the prerequisite for every critique.” I noted before that Aristotle called the lover of myths also a philosopher “of sorts” because both philosophy and myth were founded upon wonder. Socrates turns to a myth too often for it to be a matter of mere “illustration” of a point—unless “illustration” itself be further thematized. Indeed, Socrates acknowledges to Callicles (Gorgias 523a) that his story of the destiny of the soul can be called either mythos or logos, depending on one’s point of view; and there are stories and allegories he does not expressly describe as myths, even when they involve fantastic occurrences or actions of gods (the Phaedrus’ account of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth is an instance); whereas the ideal city of the Republic is so called. For Socrates, not every exposition of myth is worthy of pursuit. The Euhemerist reductions of Boreas’ abduction of Orithyia, he declares to be an almost frivolous pursuit, distracting from the real business of philosophy, which is to come to know oneself. There is no point in “demythologizing” every impossible anecdote and fabulous creature, when one’s self is possibly “a monster more complicated and swollen with passion than the serpent Typhon,” or again perhaps “a creature of a gentler and simpler sort, to whom Nature has given a diviner and lowlier destiny.” That what is at issue is not the interpretation of myth, but the sort of interpretation, we can tell by the fact that later in the dialogue Socrates invokes Eros as a god; that he describes the soul in its chariot borne by two allegorical horses; that he gives the story of writing, invented by the Egyptian god Theuth and presented to the pharaoh Thamus. All three of these stories are arguably myths, and their significance has to be unfolded through the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. What Socrates dismisses is the sort of “explanation” that reduces a story of a maiden abducted by a god to one of a girl who fell to her death from a cliff because of a strong wind.
This is not explanation, but explaining away. We may conclude that Socrates would be equally uninterested in questions of where Noah’s ark came to rest, of whether Atlantis “really existed,” of whether Jesus “really” rose after three days. These questions are those of a secularized Fundamentalism: the question is always “what really happened?”
But this reductionism does not express itself only in Euhemerism. As a trend, it will gradually pry apart the easy commerce between discourses that Plato uses so easily. Once the question becomes “what really happened?”, the stage is set for the “answer” to entirely displace the story. There be less and less room for any “it is like…,” any analogy such as Plato might posit to spark a reflection or realization.
Yet Plato cannot have objected in principle to the question “what really happened?” The distinction between truth and falsehood, Parmenides’ “it is” and “it is not,” is the philosophical distinction!
Indeed. Philosophy is an effort—I believe it began as an intentional and advised effort—to preserve the sense of participation even as it acknowledged the force of the critique of participation. That critique was very powerful, corrosive, potentially unstoppable. Of course a crocodile attacking a man is different from an attack by men with tooth-studded clubs. The varieties of trees will come to be seen as not “really” aligned with planets, nor minerals with syllables; these correspondences are arbitrary. The grammar of ritual and sacrifice is a thin tissue of superstition. The laws of the city, of court and cult, were invented by the powerful to keep the gullible in check and at their service. Why should we bother to heed them?
This is the condition of nihilism, the condition in which “everything is permitted.” Philosophy has had many other sparring partners (poetry, mysticism, politics…) but never any other real enemy. It arose when participation began to unravel. In the face of this unraveling, more than one response was possible: one could dig in one’s heels and refuse to acknowledge the critique of the correspondences; one could capitulate, shrug and give in to hedonism or despair (not, at root, very different); or one could try, in all ones human finitude, to keep one’s eye on the one thing needful and love wisdom, which meant first of all, believing in wisdom and in love.
These are still the only three real options worth worrying about.