Monday, December 23, 2013

The History of Heaven and Earth 06: Roman “World Views”

After discussing the emergence of the concept of a “world” (in which things might appear), I mentioned, in my last post of this blog series, that there were three common “world views” in classical Rome: Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, and Gnosticism.

Neo-Platonism was pretty much the same as the previous Platonism, except that, in terms of the basic driving purpose of their philosophy, they were talking about (the Form) Tree rather than an actual tree. In addition, the Neo-Platonists had a new doctrine of “emanation”, which was a cosmic explanation of everything, a concept purely apprehended in the mind, and, in the quality of totality in its explanation, having no relation or link, other than at a distance, to anything actual or physical as it appears to the senses.

Plato talked about the “Ideal City”, but his purpose was political action; he was making a political statement. References to “Ideals” are much more common and far ranging in Neo-Platonic texts, because their primary purpose is to SEE IDEAS. Now “ideologies” (without the previous Ideals we would now have no ideologies) are so common as to be generally all-pervasive and bound to our identity to the extent that we fight over them.

Stoicism is a little bit all over the place, but a few quotes by a couple of stoics will help make my point well. The first are by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor (the one from the film “Gladiator,” btw). "Outward things cannot touch the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul; but the soul turns and moves itself alone." This is something you wouldn’t have heard from the classical Greeks, because their relationship between soul and body or matter was not characterized with anywhere near that much distance or delineation between the two, and the Greek “soul” was not so autonomous.

Two more quotes from Marcus Aurelius serve to make my other primary point about Roman thought:
"If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this."

To the point of an ongoing theme of this blog series, the previous quote affirms the Towering idea that man is not constrained by his circumstances. There could be said to be spiritual truth in what he is saying, but the context that sets his point is “natural reason” and man’s OWN “divine part” that is to be “kept pure” (as in free from bodily or sensible interference). Also from Marcus Aurelius:
"Everything is right for me that is right for you, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late that comes in due time for you. Everything is fruit to me that your seasons bring, O Nature. From you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return."

Those two previous quotes reflect the basic cosmology of Stoicism. In Stoicism is a precursor to modern dualism, in which matter, which is passive and inert, is moved or activated, governed, and organized by what the Stoics conceive of as the divine “logos” or “reason”. This is a quite a different dynamic from Aristotle’s potential and actual appearance. The Stoic cosmos was also cyclical, like Plato’s and Aristotle’s, but, again, in a very different way (such as the diurnal cycle of day and night, analogical to the octave). Plato and Aristotle OBSERVED cyclical patterns in what appears. The Stoics, however, conceived of the WHOLE of the cosmos being cyclically and alternatively breathed or generated from the World Soul or Spirit (closely associated with Logos) and then destroyed or conflated back into pure Pneuma (Soul/Spirit).

Stoicism, thus, is fatalistic and deterministic. What happens is determined by the “natural reason” of the Logos. This determinism is affirmed in a quote by another Stoic, Seneca the Younger: "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes." Also for the Stoics, value or weight placed upon what happens is viewed in light of the bigger context or picture. That bigger picture, quite obviously from the previous paragraph, implies – like the Neo-Platonic doctrine of emanation - a concept of a “whole world” that is purely intellectual and can only be conceived from distance from what appears sensibly that would have been totally foreign to Plato and Aristotle.

Earlier forms of Stoicism were originally born, by the way, in the semi-distant wake of Alexander the Great, who conquered just about as much of earth’s terrain as he possibly could. In addition, around the same time as the birth of Stoicism was the birth of Euclidian geometry. Euclid’s geometric operations were closer to “proofs”, as compared to Pythagoras’ “demonstration,” and were probably done on parchment paper. Compared to Pythagorean theorem’s, Euclid’s operations, in affirmation of repeatable and formulaic axioms grasped in the mind, were IN REFERENCE TO what happens in physical reality rather than a demonstration of it.

The last common “worldview” of the Roman “world” that I will address here is Gnosticism, which sort of sticks out from the rest of Rome like a sore thumb but, yet, could only have emerged from Roman life. Gnosticism was a mix of mythology and philosophy. Unfortunately, I have to do a lot of explaining here to make a simple point.

According to the Gnostics, the world was created by a god known by many names, but which I will here refer to as Aeon telos. They saw this Aeon telos as completely separate from all things sensible or even intelligible. Contained in Aeon telos was substance of pure spirit, without even so much as an intelligible thought. Their creation story borrowed from Neo-Platonism’s doctrine of emanation; but this Aeon telos, rather than The One, was what they saw as being at the center. They viewed creation as having “emanated” from the Aeon telos, gradually taking on more of a resemblance to what we think of as the object of creation itself. Each step of creation, of emanation from Aeon telos, was an “aeon” and retained some of the substance and quality of the aeon from which it emanated. By the later aeons, however, little to none of the substance of the original Aeon telos remained.

This Aeon telos was viewed as perfect. They meant “perfect” there both in terms of perfect completion and with reference to moral value. All things, then, emanated from and were meant, and even morally obligated, to return to the Aeon telos – hence the term “telos”, which, in Greek, means “end” or “goal.” The first aeon towards creation is “thought” or “intent”, then “mind”, then “truth”. Keep in mind that each one successively contains some of the previous but loses some of it, as well. Eventually, one of the aeons is referred to as “Wisdom”, or “Sophia”, which is regarded as female (to the delight of lovers Dan Brown and The Davinci Code).

Like Narcissus seeing his reflection in a pool of water, Wisdom saw its reflection in Chaos below and drew closer and closer to it. From this drawing together of Wisdom and Chaos, a stupid half-blind god named “Ialdaboth” was born. Ialdaboth, sometimes referred to by Gnostics as Satan, then created this world now inhabited by you and me. Of course, then, this sensible world is regarded as pure ILLUSION (which was the whole point of the film “The Matrix”). The moral obligation and life goal of a Gnostic, then, is to, through special, secret “gnosis” or “knowledge”, break the spell of Ialdaboth and his minions, who were depicted in “The Matrix” the “Agents” (of Ialdaboth). The “sin” of the Gnostic is believing in Ialdaboth’s illusion. The solution is “Gnosis.” And once the solution is achieved, then the Gnostic has attained power over the whole of the cosmos and becomes a god.

I once wrote a thirty-two page paper on Gnosticism, but, as mentioned, the point here is simple and may even have already been inferred. Gnosticism is a clear and obvious example of history’s generalized ascent up what might analogically be described as Jacob’s ladder or the Tower of Babel. Not only is the basic purpose of Gnostic thought to SEE “heavenly” things, as in Neo-Platonism. Not only does Gnosticism, like Stoicism, make clean and systematized categorical break between body and soul (or body and spirit), or mind and sense. Gnosticism takes all that, and on top of it (figuratively speaking), takes a comedically obvious step onward and upward and declares the sensible world as an illusory evil to be escaped through true knowledge by which you become a god. The ridiculous special effects in the fight scenes of “The Matrix” carry all the moral weight of a Gnostic’s obligation to separate from the sensible world and return to the Aeon telos.

Part of my own spiritual journey has actually been to recognize the influence of Gnosticism on my own spirituality and, hence, be able to detach myself from it. It probably started with my asking why I was so intrigued by “The Matrix.” This process, for me, was a process of coming back down to earth, back to my appropriate place at the base of the Tower or the bottom of the ladder, so to speak. The point here is, I know I’m not the only one. Gnosticism still holds influence and tends to paint our lens a rather heavenly color.

Having been through three common “world views” of the Romans, I would like to address some common themes present throughout Roman thought, which were new to Rome and display the differences between the Romans and all that came before. In doing so, they display the LENS worn by a typical Roman. In seeing our own similarities and differences between the Roman lens and our own, we see that we have a lens in the first place. We also begin to see that, if the Roman lens tended itsef to be a more “heavenly” lens than what came before, and if history continued to climb onward and upward, then what must that say about our lens today (even considering the idea that the more “heavenly” quality of the Roman lens, so to speak, might still influence us today in various ways)?

The Stoic idea discussed above about passive matter being activated by the World Pneuma is a good example of a theme that runs through Roman thought, previously unseen. Vitruvius was a Roman Architect who wrote the first ever treatise on Architecture. That fact, in itself, is significantly associated with the Romans’ conception of a “world”, with the Romans’ comfort with long-distance views of wholly delineated things.

However, the point I am making about Vitruvius, although related to their “world”, is that, in discussing the language of architecture, he makes a clear distinction between “sign and signified.” He also holds that distinction to be the basic way of categorically structuring linguistic phenomenon. For the classical Greeks, some of the original stuff or substance to which linguistic signs made reference still lived or appeared in the signs or words themselves. Sign and signified, therefore, were not so systematically and divisively distinguished as they were in Rome. The idea of the substance of the signified appearing in the sign died with Rome’s conception of sign and signified – unless you were Roman Catholic. Augustine, who lived in an essentially Roman world (and who was responsible for the doctrine of salvation by faith that came out of his argument with Pelagius), established a whole system of scriptural hermeneutics on the structural relationship between and categorization of sign and signified.

The same idea of a newly systematic and divisive way of delineating and distinguishing dualistic categories carries forward to Vitruvius’ structurally dynamic relationship between the firmanents (the heavens and her ethereal “nature”) and the fundaments (earthly stuff and it’s subjection to circumstance and heaven’s turns). This same theme also applies to Vitruvius’ and many other Roman thinkers’ dual categorization of the “nature” of a thing as compared to the thing itself - as compared to the more dynamically unified Greek concept of essence and actuality. For Aristotle, essence, although apprehended by the intellect, was “essentially” a natural fact rather than being so primarily associated with a structurally fundamental and dualized categorization of body and mind. In fact, the term “nature” – as a concept that put all of “nature” in the view and grasp of the human intellect in one fell swoop - came about with the Romans. The Stoic relationship between matter and Logos illustrates typical such Roman categorizations that were foreign to the classical Greeks. Where the Greeks had limits, commitments, and convictions, the Romans had boundaries, obligations, and were bound.

Keep in mind that these Roman world views and common themes were present in their LANGUAGE. Language expresses thought. Language is also, however, a construct, a technology – an extension of the mouth. As such, it is BEHELD by those who speak it. Again, we become what we behold. What we construct in turn shapes us. Thus, the Romans became world viewers and, in the same process of viewing things as wholly distinguished from each other, also themselves became more categorized and delineated into separated parts. A simple analysis of the metaphor of going higher in the Tower would say you get a view of the whole of the forest, as such. That is true, but, at the same time, each individual tree becomes more distinguished and separate from the other – because you constructed it that way.

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