Sunday, December 22, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 05: From Appearance to The World

Continuing our trek up the stairs of the Tower of Babel, Plato and Aristotle continued to be interested in the “arche”, the original element or “stuff” (you might call it) the lies behind or at the foundation of all that appears. They were also still interested in change and motion, which means they were still interested in order, in hierarchical causation. The difference was, after Socrates, things got much more delineated, defined, and systematized. Notably, they were still talking about what appears.

For instance, Plato is known for his theory of Forms, in which every sensible thing that is recognizably delineated or defined as such that appears or exists – these he called forms - has a corresponding Form, which is eternal and purely intellectual, totally separate from sense. In reaction to the poet’s theatrically exaggerated emphasis on sensible reality, Plato was adamant that the truth was apprehended intellectually. So, if you wanted to SEE what truly makes a tree a tree (as opposed to a bush), and if you wanted to understand why and how a tree appears to your senses (as opposed to a bush), then you must seek to apprehend the purely intellectual Form Tree. However – and this is key in understanding the difference between Plato and what came later – Plato, in terms of the most prime and basic drive and purpose of his philosophical discourse, was still talking about an actual tree. He was still crafting a theory of appearance.

Aristotle had a dualized way of categorizing reality in the same way as Plato, but rather than Form, Aristotle referred to substance or essence. The easiest way to explain this is by way of example. I will use the example of a sculptor crafting a statue. Stone is the material substance of the statue. And, at a higher level, hierarchically, of causation, the material substance was matter. “Matter” was a new concept introduced by Aristotle, so he had to use an old word for it. He used the Greek word for “wood” (hele), haha.

Anyway, stone is also the essence of the statue. But the essence, for Aristotle, rather than being the underlying stuff from which the new thing was to emerge (materially), is an animating principle (Aristotle was an animist). The stone, while in the quarry as the substance, is in a state of potential (Aristotle used the Greek word poeisis, from which we get our word “poetry”). As the sculptor shapes the stone, it is actualized into the statue. Aristotle’s term for actualization here was techne, which is the root of our word “technology.”

We tend to translate “ology” there as “study of”, but it is really from the Greek word “logos”, which is “reason” or “cause.” It can also refer to to spoken “word”, which is how it is often used Biblically, still retaining its reference to the idea of causation or reason for appearance (“for whom and through whom all that was made was made”). Applied to our example, “technology”, then, is in reference to the causation of the appearance of an actual statue (as I stated in the first paragraph of this post).

Back to the metaphor of the statue, as the stone changed from its state in the quarry to statue, it was said to change form, or image. Appropriately, then, the image in the mind of the sculptor was the “formal cause” of the statue. For the sake of explaining Aristotle’s idea of “telos”, or “end/goal”, or “final cause”, the perfectly completed statue (towards which every statue strives) was the “telos”, or “final cause” of the statue. Almost every trace of this concept of “telos” has been erased from our consciousness, other than Jesus as the “telos” of humanity and his second coming as the “telos” of the whole cosmos. I will refer to this concept again later, because where it was lost was a big step up the Tower of Babel towards the modern world.

So, although in a complex way, Plato and Aristotle were both engaged in discourse on a tree or a statue (or, whatever else that appears in sensible reality, including appearance of sensible reality in the first place). When history arrives in Rome is the first time you can properly say that philosophers were talking about something appearing “in the world.” In Rome is also the first time you see thinkers not talking about the actual tree or statue, but, instead, primarily or actually and most fundamentally, in terms of their purpose, talking about things that are not sensible.

This Roman idea of a “world”, more along the lines of how we would think of a “world” and as distinguished from the previous Greek idea of the “cosmos”, owes itself to the existence of the Roman empire. A pre-Socratic made something like a map, but, as its maker was well aware, it was hardly complete enough to be called a “world map”, and its purpose was far more about crafting something to appear in the world which can then be observed in a new way than about actually mapping the world. And, Alexander the Great, for all intents and purposes, nearly conquered the entirety of the known world, but it was a fleeting, delicate, and very short-lived phenomenon. Also, his purpose was to extend his power as far as he could rather than to conquer the “known world” (since there was no such thing or concept as the “known world”).

The Romans, however, conquered as far as civilization’s eyes took them, cemented it (through violence), and established (through violence) the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”). Then, being unable to cross the oceans, deserts, and mountain ranges that served as the boundaries of their empire, they decided to refer to it as “the known world.” This concept of the known “world” was also affirmed by Roman engineering, which lead to the building of many long-lasting roads throughout the empire (some and parts of which still exist). This meant that one could, at least theoretically (and almost safely) travel from one end of the empire to the other, which also meant traveling from one end of the known world to the other. All in all, you end up with a “world map” by Ptolemy, a later copy of which is pictured above.

This conquering and development of the concept of a “world” is a HUGE step up the ladder to heaven, up the stairs of the Tower of Babel that is the history of man. It is a huge step towards greater control in the hands of man of his environment, as well as a redefinition of what constitutes his environment in the first place! His idea of his environment, if described in terms of a ratio, is no longer one small part tamed and built upon by communities of men, and less feared, to one mucher huger part monstrous unknown. The entirety of man’s environment, as far as he has conceived at this point, is now RULED by one man – Caesar! That’s not a satellite image of a barbarian rebel camp in the Arabian Desert, but it is, still, in the hands of man, control of the whole known world, through political power and rule, as well as a “view” of it, so to speak, through intelligible conception of it, as well as through possible travel through it. This kind of interaction with the whole known world only happens through a window situated significantly higher up in this Babylonian Tower towards heaven that is our history.

Speaking of the concept of the “world,” there were three commonly viable “world views” in ancient Rome: Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and Stoicism. All three, generally speaking, were not talking about an actual tree or statue, at least not to the same degree as the classical Greeks. In continuing history’s pattern of movement upwards, all three Roman world views focused more on something that can be described as more heavenly. They tended to proclaim, propose, or celebrate a distance from or overcoming of the body and its passions, emotions, concerns, and subjections.

Briefly, I hope it is becoming clear, as our tracing through history’s climb toward heaven get’s closer to things that might begin to sound more familiar to us, which might begin show us the differences between how people saw things over time, that, generally speaking, we have a lens, and that this lens very easily lends itself to our seeing heaven as “somewhere else.”

In my next post, I will pick up here and continue to discuss Roman thought’s ascent up the Tower of Babel.

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