Thursday, December 19, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 03: The Dawn of Speculative Thought

Man’s earliest truths are found in the dark recesses of caves. Marks painted on these walls in darkness delineate the steps in a religious ritual guided by the hunt itself. The inevitability of death and the necessity of food, both at the mercy of the wild gods of the hunt, are configured as the truths of these cavemen painted on the walls of the earth’s darkness.

Gatherers grasp for fruit from above. Later, man learned how to cultivate the fruits of mother earth. With this knowledge, man, for the first time, had some control of what grows up out of earth towards heaven. Part of what grew up out of this new knowledge was a level of communal organization that had never occurred before. The link between the two, the reason those two events correspond to each other within view of the bigger pattern that is the tapestry of history, is simply a HIGHER level of knowledge. This higher knowledge allowed man new ways of participating in the laws of nature, a new level of control of his environment and the events that constitute his life.

The world view of this time period was kept and dictated by those who held power over these organizations of community. These were the ones who kept the communities together. These were the priests, and their truths were what we now call myths. Their myths, much like our truths of today, made sense of and guided their lives. In that basic sense, myths were no less true than our theories of how electricity works.

Egyptian examples flow from the seasonal rise and fall of the Nile river, vital to the life of the Egyptian people. Mycenaean examples center around the land and livestock. Things we would now view as mundane gave divine significance to the shape of their lives. Bull’s horns were associated with wild vitality and abundance. Seasons were associated with particular gods, and the change from one season to the next was associated with ritual sacrifice; one thing dies and another lives in its place. People saw themselves as having less overarching power and control over their environments. People primarily lived in a posture of receiving from powers greater than themselves. Fittingly, then, these powers were given divine significance in their mythologies.

Since this was before the dawn of SPECULATIVE knowledge, people tended to ACT OUT these mythologies, again, in sacred rituals. The quote below on the American flag addresses this idea. Frescoes painted on the walls of the Palace of Knossos, active from around 2700 to 2500 B.C., depict youths doing flips over powerfully charging bulls, actually “grabbing the bull by the horns” as they flipped. Man’s playful dance with raging bulls, charging at man with divine power blowing from its nostrils, was an act that affirms man’s power; a foreshadowing of the bull’s coming sacrifice to the people. Each year, as part of a great feast in honor of their gods of creation, the Babylonian king was beaten to a pulp. His getting back up was an acting out of their story of the creation of the world, an identification of himself with the Babylonian god of creation’s victory over their god of chaos.

Dionysus was a Greek god of sensuality, wine, and fertility. He was the god of epiphany, “the god who comes.” In other words, he was associated with how things appear in sensible reality. Appropriately, then, in myths of Dionysius, he dies and is reborn. This death and rebirth was ritualistically acted out in the Dionysian mystery cults. It was also acted out in Greek tragedies in Athenian theater, which was sort of an intermediary between ancient ritual and modern speculative thought. Before the play, the priest set the scene by performing a sacrifice to Dionysius. While the tragedy was ACTED OUT, the city vicariously and cathartically lived through its own life and death with the actors.

I am not referring to theological veracity at the level of concepts and opinions. I am referring to perceived truths held in the minds of people that gave shape to life. Specifically, I am remembering “where we come from”. I am tracing the course of change in the ideas – the images - that shaped who we are through our history.

Two clear examples of how the Jews ACTED OUT their truths – BEFORE there was any such thing as a theory of the truth - are found in Leviticus 16 and 4. Leviticus 16: 20-22 de-scribes how the priest, on the Day of Atonement, is to lay hands on a live goat, confess the sins of the people, and send it out into the wilderness. By doing this, the priest “lays the sins of the people on the head of the goat”, and the goat “will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land.” This is where we get the term “scapegoat”; obviously, then, this is still a common ritual.

Leviticus 4: 13-21 is the Jews’ way of dealing with unintentional sin; it describes an Absolution offering. They are to bring a young bull without defect and “present it before the Lord” in front of the Tabernacle. The leaders of the community are to lay their hands on the bull and slaughter it “before the Lord”; again, this ACT transfers the sin of the people onto the bull that had no defect. Some of the blood, the life of the animal that now carries the sin of the people, is then sprinkled inside the Tabernacle and placed on the altar. Sacrifice in Latin means “to make holy”; the blood of the bull, which carried the sins of the people to the presence of the Lord, now makes them holy. The priest then burns the fat, liver, and kidneys on the altar.

Finally, the priest carries what is left of the bull, which is the flesh and bones, outside the camp and burns it on a wood fire. It should be noted here that the people whose sins were placed upon that bull now SEE its skinned flesh and bones pass by them and out of the camp. They also SEE the fire and column of smoke rising toward heaven from the altar on which the bull’s fat, kidneys, and liver are burning. In both cases, the people vicariously act out their purification by seeing the atonement ritual.

The term SPECULATE comes from the Latin word “speculatus”, meaning “to look.” The meaning of the term SPECULATE is closely related to that of the word THEORY. The root of our word THEORY is the Greek word “THEA”, which means both “to see” and “divinity” or “god.” In other words, the first theories of truth were just as latent with the divine as the old myths; they were still truths about the causes of what appears as sensible reality. In most cases, the new speculations were even about the same “forces of nature” (although that phrase would have had no meaning or context for them at the time) as the old myths.

The difference between speculative knowledge and the old way of knowing, though, was twofold. Now, the grasper of truth was at some distance from the beheld truth. Unlike previously, when the truth was acted out, often vicariously or theatrically, now the truth was available to be LOOKED AT. In addition, the truth was no longer most firmly grasped by the priests and acted out by his or her subjects. Now, the truth was OBSERVED by philosophers and demonstrated through their discourse. This is why scientific theories are presumed to be “objective.”

This means that the first THEORIES of truth, although about the same or similar truths, immediately clashed with the old MYTHS. Theories remove the symbolic power of the names of the gods and castrate the priest’s power to shape communal life through the acting out of myths or stories. That is why Socrates was arrested for impiety, accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and sentenced to death by poison. To return the favor, Socrates’ star student, Plato, declared that all poets and THEAters should be outlawed.

Now, to address the quest-ion at hand more directly. What happens with the first THEORIES of truth is well stated analogically by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (and by the above image of Ground Zero):

“Suppose that, instead of displaying the Stars and Stripes, we were to write the words ‘American flag’ across a piece of cloth and to display that. While the symbols would convey the same meaning, the effect would be quite different. To translate the rich visual mosaic of the Stars and Strips into written form would be to deprive it of most of its qualities of corporate image and of experience, yet the abstract literal bond would remain much the same. Perhaps this illustration will serve to suggest the change the tribal man experiences when he becomes literate. Nearly all the emotional and corporate family feeling is eliminated from his relationship with his social group.” (p. 82)

In other words, with our first theories, man takes a big step towards distancing his identity from his body, from all of it’s circumstances, sensations, feelings, and from his body’s subjection to the occurrences around it. The acting out of myths or stories is participation in the cosmic truths by which man is enveloped. A theory is the mind’s grasping of that truth for itself and beginning to take control of it. With the dawn of SPECULATIVE thought, man takes a giant step up the stairs of the Tower of Babel up toward heaven (figuratively speaking). My next blog post will chronicle how this idea is evident through the changes in our theories through the course of our hi-story.

Also, in terms of the quest-ion at hand, our bias toward THEORETICAL truth is now part of our lens that we take for granted and don’t even realize we are wearing. An example of this bias is the idea that movies are "just entertainment." SEEing the difference between theoretical and narrative, or mythical truth, might help us toward seeing our lens.

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