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Tag: De rerum natura

Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis, 2

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Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), from Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“During these same years, thinkers also returned to reflect upon an older suggestion by Epicurus, who, in a letter to Herodotus, gave his opinion that the names of things were not  originally due to convention; human beings themselves had rather created them from their own natures.

Those of differing tribes, “under the impulse of special feelings and special presentations of sense,” uttered “special cries.” The air thus emitted was moulded by their different feelings or sense perceptions (letter to Herodotus, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, X, 75-6).

Epicurus went on to add that, to eliminate confusion and for reasons of economy, the various peoples subsequently came to an agreement over what name they should give things.

He had no fixed opinion on whether this agreement had been made from instinct or “by rational thought” (cf. Formigari 1970: 17-28; Gensini 1991: 92; Manetti 1987: 176-7).

That was the first part of Epicurus‘ thesis, which emphasized the natural rather than conventional origin of languages; however, this idea was taken up by Lucretius: nature prompted human beings to emit the sounds of language; necessity gave birth to the names of things.

Therefore to suppose that someone then distributed names among things, and from him that men learnt their first words, is folly. For why should he have been able to mark all things with titles and to utter the various sounds of the tongue, and at the same time others not be thought able to have done it? . . .

Therefore if it is the various sensations that they feel which drive animals to emit differing sounds, even though they remain mute, how much more just is it to say that sensations induce mortals to indicate different things with different sounds. (De rerum natura, W.H.D. Rouse, tr., London: Heinemann, 1975: V, 1041-90).

This was a new view, one which we may call the materialist-biological theory of the origin of language. Language arose out of a natural inclination to transform sensations into ideas, which, for the sake of civil convenience, were then translated into sounds.

If it were true, as Epicurus had suggested, that this process of transformation might vary in different races, climates and places, it was hardly too much to imagine that, in diverse times and ways, the different races had originated different families of languages.

This was the intuition behind the theory that evolved in the eighteenth century: each language had its own genius.

Epicurus‘ thesis could not help but seem seductive in the “libertine” milieu of seventeenth-century France, in an atmosphere of skepticism ranging from sarcastic agnosticism to confessed atheism.

In 1655 there appeared the Systema theologicum ex prae-Adamitarum hypothesi, written by a Calvinist named Isaac de La Peyrère. Starting from an extremely original reading of the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, La Peyrère argued for the polygenesis of races and peoples.

Reports of missionaries and explorers had represented non-European civilizations, such as the Chinese, as so ancient that their histories were incommensurable with biblical chronology, especially in regard to their accounts of the origin of the world.

La Peyrère inferred from this that there existed a pre-Adamite human race, untouched by original sin. He concluded that the stories both of the original sin and of the Flood concerned only Adam and his descendants in the land of the Hebrews (cf. Zoli 1991: 70).

This was a hypothesis that had already appeared in Islamic culture. Drawing on the Koran (2:31), al-Maqdisi, in the tenth century, had alluded to the existence of different races prior to Adam (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, II, 9).

Quite apart from the obvious theological implications of such an assumption (and the works of La Peyrère were condemned to be burnt), it was clear that, by now, Hebrew civilization–along with its holy language–was falling from its throne.

If one accepted that species had developed differentially in differing conditions, and that their linguistic capacity reflected their degree of evolution and of adaptation to the environment, it was easy to accept the polygenetic hypothesis.

A particular brand of polygeneticism–certainly not of libertine inspiration–can be ascribed to Giambattista Vico. Vico was a thinker who naturally proceeded against the grain of his times.

Instead of searching for actual chronological origins, he set out to delineate an ideal and eternal history. Paradoxically, by jumping outside the bounds of history, Vico was to become one of the founders of modern historicism.

What Vico wished to tell was not, or–depending on how one wishes to take the chronological table at the beginning of his Scienza nuova seconda (1744)–not only, a historical course, but rather the ever recurring conditions in which languages are born and develop in every time and in every place.

Vico described an ideal line of descent which traced the development of language from the language of the gods to that of heroes and, finally, to that of human beings. The first language had to be hieroglyphic (“sacred or divine”), the second symbolic (“by heroic signs and devices”), and the third epistolary (“for men at a distance to communicate to each other the current needs of their lives,” para. 432).

According to Vico, language, at its ideal point of origin, was directly motivated by, and metaphorically congruent with, the human experience of nature. Only at a later state did language become organized in a more conventional form.

Vico affirms, however, that “as gods, heroes, and men began at the same time (for they were, after all, men who imagined the gods and who believed their own heroic nature to be a mixture of the divine and human natures), so these three languages began at the same time” (466).

Thus, circumventing the seventeenth-century question of whether or not a natural linguistic stage was succeeded by a conventional one, Vico directly addressed the question of why there existed as many different languages as there were different peoples.

He responded by asserting “this great truth . . . that, as the peoples have certainly by the diversity of climates acquired different natures, from which have sprung as many different customs, so from their different natures and customs as many different languages have arisen” (445).

As to the story of the primacy of Hebrew, Vico disposes of it in a series of observations tending to prove that, if anything, the Hebrews had derived their alphabet from the Greeks and not vice versa.

Nor was Vico susceptible to the Hermetic fantasies of the Renaissance, according to which all wisdom came from the Egyptians.

From his description there emerges instead a complex network of cultural and commercial trafficking, in which the Phoenicians–prompted by mercantile necessity–exported their characters to both the Egyptians and the Greeks, while, at the same time, spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin the set of hieroglyphic characters that they had borrowed from the Chaldeans and had adapted to fit their need for a numerical system to keep track of their stocks of merchandise (441-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 88-91.

The Historicity of Berossus

“Some sources suggest that Berossos had, as it were, an international career as an astronomer. According to those sources, he left Babylon and migrated to the Greek world after the publi­cation of his history.

Vitruvius states that he moved to the island of Cos and opened a school there (BNJ T 5a-b). Vitruvius also ascribes the invention of a specific type of sundial to Berossos (BNJ 680 T 5c).

The Bull of Heaven, Taurus, is drawn on an "esoteric tablet" dated to the Seleucid era. See Textes cuneiform du Louvre by Francois Thureau-Dangin, Tome VI (Tablets d'Uruk, a la usage des pretres du temple d'Anu au temps des Seleucides), (Plate 91), 1922. The same plate is reproduced in Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Herman Hunger, 1992, p. 40.  http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

The Bull of Heaven, Taurus, is drawn on an “esoteric tablet” dated to the Seleucid era. See Textes cuneiform du Louvre by Francois Thureau-Dangin, Tome VI (Tablets d’Uruk, a la usage des pretres du temple d’Anu au temps des Seleucides), (Plate 91), 1922. The same plate is reproduced in Astrological Reports to Assyrian Kings, Herman Hunger, 1992, p. 40.
http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Josephus agrees with the Roman architect that Berossos propagated Babylonian lore: he says that the Chaldaean was famed among those who were engaged in learning, because he published for the Greeks works on astronomy and on the philosophy of the Chaldaeans (BNJ 680 T3).

Pliny the Elder presents Berossos as the most important scholar of astronomy/astrology and adds that the Athenians honoured him with a statue with a gilded tongue because of his divine predictions (BNJ 680 T 6).

The historicity of these biographical data is subject to debate. Burstein and Verbrugghe / Wickersham accept the ‘second’ life of Berossos as historical. Schwartz rejects the testimony according to which Berossos opened a school on Cos, because he thinks it unlikely that the Babylonian priest would have abandoned his prebendary income in Babylon.

Leo with Corvus standing on Hydra (VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) VAT 7847, Obverse.  A Seleucid era astrological tablet. Two astrological texts from Uruk, VAT 7847 and Louvre Museum's AO 6448, have long been recognized as two pieces of one large tablet (zodiac compilation tablet). The tablet deals with the division of Zodiac into subzodiacs, and the connection of these subzodiacs to different cities/towns, temples plants, trees and stones. (In tabular form, for each constellation of the zodiac, a tradition of the connection of each constellation of the zodiac with a certain city, temple name, and the designations for wood and stones are dealt with.) AO6448 has drawings of the constellations Corvus and Virgo with the planet Mercury in attendance.   VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) contains drawings with names of stars/constellations.  VAT 7847, Obverse. Constellation depiction on a Seleucid astrological tablet (from 2nd-century BCE Uruk). The depiction shows a lion standing on the back of a winged serpent. The two constellations depicted are Hydra and Leo. (They are shown "from the other side" - facing left instead of right.) The eight-pointed star to the left is captioned dingirSAG.ME.GAR (Jupiter). (However, some persons have mistakenly identified the bright star as Procyon.) VAT 7847 is a part of a larger tablet that had broken into two parts. The join for VAT 7847 appeared in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome XII (Tablettes d'Uruk, à l'usage des prêtres du temple d'Anu au temps des Séleucides), 1922, catalogued as AO 6448. VAT 7847 is in the State Museum, Berlin, and AO 6448 is in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Both sides show in their upper part drawings of labelled drawings of constellations. As a completed tablet VAT 7847 and AO 6448 form an astrological calendar. The text contains omens and hemerological predictions. The tablet deals with the Babylonian zodiac and depicts 12 divisions corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac and is concerned with lunar eclipses near zodiacal constellations. The tablet is dated to the Hellenistic period circa 200 BCE by one source and circa 323-363 by Klaus Wagensonner, University of Oxford, and originates from Uruk (modern Warka). http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Leo with Corvus standing on Hydra (VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
VAT 7847, Obverse.
A Seleucid era astrological tablet. Two astrological texts from Uruk, VAT 7847 and Louvre Museum’s AO 6448, have long been recognized as two pieces of one large tablet (zodiac compilation tablet). The tablet deals with the division of Zodiac into subzodiacs, and the connection of these subzodiacs to different cities/towns, temples plants, trees and stones. (In tabular form, for each constellation of the zodiac, a tradition of the connection of each constellation of the zodiac with a certain city, temple name, and the designations for wood and stones are dealt with.) AO6448 has drawings of the constellations Corvus and Virgo with the planet Mercury in attendance.
VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) contains drawings with names of stars/constellations. VAT 7847, Obverse. Constellation depiction on a Seleucid astrological tablet (from 2nd-century BCE Uruk). The depiction shows a lion standing on the back of a winged serpent. The two constellations depicted are Hydra and Leo. (They are shown “from the other side” – facing left instead of right.) The eight-pointed star to the left is captioned dingir SAG.ME.GAR (Jupiter). (However, some persons have mistakenly identified the bright star as Procyon.)
VAT 7847 is a part of a larger tablet that had broken into two parts. The join for VAT 7847 appeared in Textes cunéiformes du Louvre by François Thureau-Dangin, Tome XII (Tablettes d’Uruk, à l’usage des prêtres du temple d’Anu au temps des Séleucides), 1922, catalogued as AO 6448. VAT 7847 is in the State Museum, Berlin, and AO 6448 is in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Both sides show in their upper part drawings of labelled drawings of constellations. As a completed tablet VAT 7847 and AO 6448 form an astrological calendar. The text contains omens and hemerological predictions. The tablet deals with the Babylonian zodiac and depicts 12 divisions corresponding to the months and the signs of the zodiac and is concerned with lunar eclipses near zodiacal constellations. The tablet is dated to the Hellenistic period circa 200 BCE by one source and circa 323-363 by Klaus Wagensonner, University of Oxford, and originates from Uruk (modern Warka).
http://members.westnet.com.au/gary-david-thompson/page11-10.html

Some judge it impossible that Berossos would have migrated to an island that was under control of the Ptolemies, bitter enemies of the Seleucids. These are not convincing arguments to discard the historicity of the biographical information. In itself, it is not impossible that Berossos migrated to the west and taught Babylonian astronomy / astrology.

The question of historicity should, however, be connected with the question of whether the astronomical / astrological fragments transmitted under the name of Berossos are authentic (BNJ 680 F 15-22). As Kuhrt and the present author have shown, these fragments reflect Greek, not Babylonian doctrines and are, therefore, not authentic.

Babylonians believed that gods grouped the stars into constellations and gave them names, not men, as BNJ 680 F 17 states. There are no indications that they believed in a cyclical destruction of the universe by fire or water (BNJ 680 F21), whereas this was a popular doctrine of the Stoics.

A drawing of VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).

A drawing of VAT 7847 (= VAN 784 Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).

Several ancient authors ascribe a lunar theory to Berossos that explains the lunar phases and lunar eclipses (BNJ 680 F 18-20). In short, this theory asserts that the moon has its own light and consists of a luminous hemisphere and a dark one. It rotates around its own axis. The lunar phases are the result of the attraction of the moon’s luminous hemisphere by the sun, which depends on the distance between both celestial bodies.

The closer the moon is to the sun, the more the fiery hemisphere is attracted by the latter and is turned toward it. The moon’s dark side is correspondingly turned towards the earth. So far, there is no evidence in the cunei­form sources that this theory, which other classical authors attribute to the Babylonians in general (Lucretius, De rerum natura, 720-7 and Apuleius, De deo Socratis, 1.1), has a Babylonian background; it seems that it is a Greco-Roman creation.

Finally, no astrological cuneiform texts have been preserved that determine the maximum lifetime of a human being by calculating the sum of the rising times of the zodiacal sign in which that person was born, and of the two subsequent signs (BNJ 680 F22).

On the other hand, it was a popular doctrine in Greek and Roman astrology. Pliny the Elder, who mentions Berossos’ calculation (BNJ 680 F22a), ascribes the origin of this theory not to the Babylonians, but to two Egyptians Nechepso and Petosiris, themselves fictitious characters.”

Geert de Breucker, “Berossos: His Life and Work,” from Johannes Haubold, Giovanni B. Lanfranchi, Robert Rollinger, John Steele (eds.), The World of Berossos, Proceedings of the 4th International Colloquium on the Ancient Near East Between Classical and Ancient Oriental Traditions, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2013, 19-20.

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