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Tag: Plato

On the Ineffable

yama_tibet

This 18th century depiction of Yamantaka, a violent expression of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, defeats Yama, god of death, and demolishes the cycle of samsara on the path to enlightenment. This painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased in 1969 courtesy of a bequest by Florence Waterbury. Its Accession Number is 69.71. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain work of art. 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.

This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.

“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.

The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.

Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.

Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.)

I marvel that anything can move at all, as any distance can incorporate an infinitude simply by holding your fingers a centimeter apart.

Your fingertips are not necessary, of course. You can imagine an infinite digression between any two points. You can even imagine the digression without the points, which is where things get interesting for me.

Not surprisingly, this reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in the academic tradition of droll footnotes, citing “the last magician,” Isaac Newton, saying that “Each particle of space is eternal, each indivisible moment of duration is everywhere.” Principia, III, 42. (Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia, New York: Daniel Adee, 1846. Borges wrote his 1946 revision of “A New Refutation of Time” in Sur, 1944. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999.)

How anything can leap across the infinitudes separating all things from everything else mystifies me, and how we can imagine infinity without beginning or without end leaves me without words.

Miraculously, everything in this multiverse can leap infinities, and so we have progression, which is synonymous with time. Even using a term like “infinity” forces a compromise upon us, it is a convention, and these are the paradoxes that compel some physicists to suspect that time emerges from decoherence.

Mr. Stockton’s article explains that the most prominent theory addressing decoherence is the 1960’s-era Wheeler-DeWitt equation, by Dr. Bryce DeWitt and Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler claimed that this equation “erases the seams between quantum and classical mechanics.”

Then Mr. Stockton acknowledges the weirdness underlying decoherence and “so-called quantum gravity.” I love the fact that physicists use a term like “weird” and nobody thinks that it is strange. Because these matters are supremely weird.

The second law of thermodynamics ordains that the amount of disorder, or entropy, in our multiverse will always increase. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) infamously observed: “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This is the source of the directionality of time: disorder always increases, so time can only move in one direction.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation notoriously does not include a variable for time. Time, it says, is something that cannot be measured in terms of itself: in physics it is measured as correlations between an object’s location.

In this article, however, the writers (Dr. Robert Lanza and Dr. Yasunori Nomura) insist that gravity is too slow to account for a universal arrow of time.

Worse, because the Wheeler-DeWitt equations do not explain why time moves from the past through the present to the future–in other words, the directionality of time is not explained by the Wheeler-DeWitt equations–all that remains to be examined is us, meaning we, the observers.

One of the writers, Dr. Robert Lanza, founded biocentrism, a theory that space and time are constructs of biological sensory limitations.

Dr. Lanza speculates that time moves as it does because humans, and other sentient beings, for that matter, are biologically, neurologically and philosophically hardwired to experience time in that way.

In fact, Dr. Lanza says, “In his papers on relativity, Einstein showed that time was relative to the observer.”

I do not see how it could be otherwise. While you can claim that mathematics exists independently of human perception, because equations do not depend upon witnesses to observe them, we obviously only know about mathematics because we perceive such equations.

I will go one step further and say that equations, all the equations in an infinitude of mathematics, already exist, and merely await a conjunction of time and sentience to be discovered. But they are already there. We are just not yet smart enough to discern them.

Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, features a category of knowledge of this kind, calling it terma. It refers to objects or ideas which are surfaced to human knowledge when we as a species are ready for them. Some believe that we knew this information in earlier incarnations, and we forgot it, as we submerged into ignorance and amnesia. Now we are gradually, slowly, reawakening.

Dr. Lanza, this article says, goes even further, saying that we the observers create time and its directionality. This is actually a very old idea, and I discuss it in an article that I published on this site almost a year ago, Smoke Signals: Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah.

Is it possible to say that there is an independent time, a time that exists without anyone or anything to perceive it? I suppose so. Is there also a time that exists because we perceive it? I think that this is inescapable.

Borges says:

” … Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.

Our destiny (as contrasted with the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad.

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

(Jorge Luis BorgesSelected Non-Fictions, 1999, p. 290.)

The time that you experience is not the same time that I experience. Neither of us experiences time as Borges did. Can “the concept of time be defined mathematically without including observers in the system?”

One stance says no, as there is no way to subtract observers from the equations, as equations by default, almost by definition, you could say, are performed by sentient intelligences.

Dr. Yasunori Nomura states that these equations also fail to consider that the entire multiverse as we perceive it exists in a medium that we call spacetime.

By definition, when you talk about spacetime, he says, “you are already talking about a decohered system.”

This article concludes, like most interpretations of spacetime, that everything is relative, everything is subjective.

We are in self-defined prisons of perception, but we imagine paradises where we share the same perceptions, the same spacetime, and we perceive the same physics. The sad thing is, this is maya, or illusion. Some of us know better, and we have been told.

We do not need these physics, not for awakening from the stupor of the mind to anatta, the emptiness of the self, the realization of the non-duality of the absolute and the relative.

Think on this for a moment. The absolute and the relative form a duality that is artificial, this is a construct that we create to help us understand what we perceive. It is, in a sense, a filter. We need no such filters.

Borges, in the quote above, in a denial of denial, refused to renounce temporal succession, rejected the renunciation of the self, repudiated the rejection of the astronomical universe, and dismissed the effort as an “apparent desperation,” slyly condemning it as a “secret consolation.”

It was long a secret, as Tibet was closed to mankind for centuries, but Borges understood what he was rejecting. Borges referred to “the hell of Tibetan mythology” for precisely this reason, and that is why I illustrated this article with a painting depicting Yamantaka, just one aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, vanquishing Yama, the god of death. Borges was telling those of us with eyes to see that he was an idealist, not a nihilist. Borges concluded that we manifest everything.

It is useful, I think, to consider Borges’ reference to fire by juxtapositioning it to this excerpt from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:

Bikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing this, bikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form … feeling … perception …. volitional formations … consciousness …Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated…”

Adittapariyaya Sutta, or the Aditta Sutta, aka The Fire Sermon

In Theravada Buddhism, anatta is considered the no-self or no-soul doctrine. In Mahayana Buddhism, true knowledge is comprehending emptiness.

It is not understood by laymen, much less by our physicists in this article, but Buddhism is inimical to the concept of a soul. Nirvana is the state attained when the practitioner realizes that he has no self, and he has no soul. Self-negation attains its ultimate realization as it vanishes.

In Sanskrit and Pali, nirvana means “blown out,” in the same sense that a candle flame is snuffed. I am certain that Borges knew. Borges knew everything, he read all books, and he made few mistakes.

These ideas contradict the Western philosophical tradition, our mathematics, our physics, our spacetime, even though Hinduism insists that there is an eternal atman, and an ultimate metaphysical reality. Contradictions and confusions abound.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1, the atman is expressed as “I am” at an eternal moment when nothing existed at the beginning of the multiverse. Because we built the Hubble telescope, we estimate that this eternal moment transformed into the Big Bang and this multiverse approximately 13.7 billion years ago.

Using Hubble, we can measure the speed and distances of galaxies, and hence how fast our multiverse is expanding. Comparing these measurements to the age of the oldest globular star clusters gives us a figure of 13 billion years, which compares favorably to the 14 billion years of our observable multiverse.

Due to the speed of light, Hubble cannot see further than 14 billion years away. When the James W. Webb telescope comes online, we expect to confirm that our observable multiverse represents a tenth of the theoretical galaxies on the near side of our cosmological horizon.

But when you consider that the Big Bang might have been just the latest in an infinite series of singularities, interspersed by an unknowable number of periods of quantum potential, the possibility that the multiverse is infinite, literally without end, looms.

So is consciousness 14 billion years old? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest, dated to approximately 700 BCE, but this is a compromise, as scholarly estimates range between 900 BCE to 600 BCE, preceding Buddhism.

Human consciousness is very young, even assuming that the priests of Neith who admonished Solon in the Timaeus were correct, the Timaeus is dated to 360 BCE, and I am mindful that when the Temple of Neith in Sais was excavated no records of ancient conflagrations or deluges were recovered. But how old is cosmic consciousness? It is absurd that we even imagine the question.

When the atman awakes, the Hindu say, it is synonymous with Brahman, the basis of everything, indistinguishable in my mind from God, and this is the path to liberation, or so they say.

It is helpful to cite this Upanishad’s verse 1.4.1 in its entirety, as it redolently presages Genesis.

“In the beginning, this (universe) was but the self (Virāj) of a human form. He reflected and found nothing else but himself. He first uttered, ‘I am he.’ Therefore he was called Aham (I). Hence, to this day, when a person is addressed, he first says, ‘It is I,’ and then says the other name that he may have. Because he was first and before this whole (band of aspirants) burnt all evils, therefore he is called Puruṣa. He who knows thus indeed burns one who wants to be (Virāj) before him.”

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1.)

As perplexed as I am by yet another reference to fire, the Buddhist Suttas, or Sutras, as I prefer, insist that everything, especially nirvana, is non-self, total non-attachment. The Suttas in Pali refer exclusively to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the canonical works of Theravada Buddhism, which are said to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha himself admonished the Sangha not to deify his person, so I prefer the Sutras, the less exclusive, more encompassing genre of ancient Indian texts, which include the foundational works of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Buddha started the Wheel of Karma turning as he preached his first sermon at  the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, early in the 5th century BCE. It was in his second sermon that he expounded on the no-soul thesis, anatta-vada, which some Western academics criticize as “an extreme empiricist doctrine.” (Brian Morris, Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 51.)

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, with anicca, or impermanence, and dukkha, or suffering. The three comprise the samsara cycle of existence, addressed in canonical Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada.

The Four Noble Truths insist that there is a way out of samsara. I interpret spacetime as samsara, yet another filter created by subjective consciousness, to help us make sense of our multiverse.

In anatta, the mind returns to its original prelinguistic emptiness of non-attachment, non-discrimination, and non-duality, and the awakening, as it is described, entails the absorption of cessation: it is tantamount to the dissolution of the self.

This “pure consciousness event” is wakeful, without content, and completely non-intentional. It goes without saying that our spacetime and our cosmological horizon are irrelevant to it: It is ineffable. (Yaroslav Komarkovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience, (London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 28.)

As Borges said, we are indistinguishable from spacetime. We do not need eyes to see, so death, transformation, is dissolution into nothingness, which many religious traditions summarize as the godhead.

Ironically, it was William James who said:

“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982.)”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “On the Ineffable”

Bangkok, 17 October, 2016

Eco: Some Ghosts of the Perfect Language

Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, Pearl of Wisdom, 1503

Gregor Reisch (1467-1525), title page of Margarita philosophica, or the Pearl of Wisdom, Freiburg, 1503. Multiple copies of this work are preserved. 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. 

“We have often paused to draw attention to side-effects. Without forced comparisons and without exaggerated claims, it seems permissible at this point to ask informed readers to reconsider various chapters of the history of philosophy, especially those concerning the advent of contemporary logic and linguistic analysis.

Would these developments have been possible without the secular debate on the nature of the perfect language, and, in particular, the various projects for philosophical a priori languages?

In 1854, George Boole published his Investigations of the Laws of Thought. He announced his intention to discover the fundamental laws governing the mental operations of the process of reasoning. He observed that without presupposing these laws, we could not explain why the innumerable languages spread around the globe have maintained over the course of centuries so many characteristics in common (II, 1).

Frege began his Begriffsschrift (on ideography, 1879) with a reference to Leibniz’s characteristica. In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918-9), Russell noted that in a perfectly logical language, the relation of a word to its meaning would always be one to one (excepting words used as connectives).

When he later wrote Principia mathematica with Whitehead, he noted that, although their language possessed a syntax, it could, with the addition of a vocabulary, become a perfect language (even though he also admitted that is such a language were to be constructed it would be intolerably prolix).

For his part, Wittgenstein, renewing Bacon’s complaint concerning the ambiguity of natural languages, aspired to create a language whose signs were univocal (Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1921-2, 3.325ff) and whose propositions mirrored the logical structure of reality itself (4.121).

Carnap proposed constructing a logical system of objects and concepts such that all concepts might be derived from a single nucleus of prime ideas (Der logische Aufbau der Welt, 1922-5). In fact, the entire logical positivist movement was heir to the Baconian polemic against the vagaries of natural languages productive of nothing but metaphysical illusions and false problems (cf. Recanati 1979).

These philosophers all hoped to construct a scientific language, perfect within its chosen range of competence, a language that would be universal as well; none, however, claimed that such a language would ever replace natural language.

The dream had changed, or, perhaps, its limitations had finally, reluctantly been accepted. From its search for the lost language of Adam, philosophy had by now learned to take only what it could get.

In the course of centuries through which our particular story has run, another story began to disentangle itself as well–the search for a general or universal grammar. I said in the introduction that this was not a story that I intended to tell here.

I shall not tell it because the search for a single corpus of rules underneath and common to all natural languages entailed neither the invention of a new language nor a return to a lost mother tongue. None the less, the search for what is constant in all languages can be undertaken in two ways.

The first way is to follow empirical and comparative methods; this requires compiling information on every language that exists–or existed (cf. Greenberg 1963).

The second way can be traced back to the time in which Dante (influenced or not by the doctrines of the Modists) attributed the gift of a forma locutionis to Adam. On this line of thought, scholars have more often tried to deduce the universal laws of all languages, and of human thought, from the model of the only language they knew–scholastic Latin–and in 1587 Francisco Sanchez Brocense was still doing so with his Minerva, seu causis linguae latinae.

The novelty of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée of Port Royal (1660) was simply the decision of taking as a model a modern language–French.

Choosing this way requires never being brushed by the scruple that a given language represents only a given way of thinking and of viewing the world, not universal thought itself.

It requires regarding what is called the “genius” of a language as affecting only the surface structures rather than the deep structure, allegedly the same for all languages.

Only in this way will be be possible to regard as universal, because corresponding to the only logic possible, the structures discovered in the language in which one is used to think.

Nor does it necessarily alter the problem to concede that–certainly–the various languages do exhibit differences at their surface level, are often corrupted through usage or agitated by their own genius, but still, if universal laws exist, the light of natural reason will uncover them because, as Beauzée wrote in his article on grammar in the Encyclopédie, “la parole est une sorte de tableau dont la pensée est l’original.”

Such an argument would be acceptable, but in order to uncover these laws one needs to represent them through a metalanguage applicable to every other language in the world. Now, if one chooses as metalanguage one’s own object language, the argument becomes circular.

In fact, as Simone has put it (1969: XXXIII), the aim of the Port Royal grammarians…

“…is therefore, in spite of the appearances of methodological rigor, prescriptive and evaluative, in so far as it is rationalist. Their scope was not to interpret, in the most adequate and coherent way possible, the usages permitted by the various languages.

If it were so, a linguistic theory should coincide with whole of the possible usages of a given tongue, and should take into account even those that native speakers consider as “wrong.”

Instead, their aim was to emend this variety of uses in order to make them all conform to the dictates of Reason.”

What makes the search for a universal grammar of interest in our story is, as Canto has noted (1979), that in order to be caught within the vicious circle, it is only necessary to make one simple assumption: the perfect language exists, and it is identical to one’s own tongue.

Once this assumption is made, the choice of the metalanguage follows: Port Royal anticipates de Rivarol.

This is a problem that remains for all attempts–contemporary ones included–to demonstrate that syntactic or semantic universals exist by deducing them from a given natural language, used simultaneously both as a metalanguage and as object language.

It is not my argument here that such a project is desperate: I merely suggest that it represents but another example of the quest for a philosophical a priori language in which, once again, a philosophical ideal of grammar presides over the study of a natural language.

Thus (as Cosenza has shown, 1993) those modern day branches of philosophy and psychology which deliberately appeal to a language of thought are also descendants of those older projects.

Such a “mentalese” would supposedly reflect the structure of mind, would be purely formal and syntactical calculus (not unlike Leibniz’s blind thought), would use non-ambiguous symbols and would be based upon innate primitives, common to all species.

As happened with Wilkins, it would be deduced according to a “folk psychology,” naturally within the framework of a given historical culture.

There are perhaps more remote descendants of the a priori projects, which have sought to found a language of mind not upon Platonic abstractions but upon the neuro-physiological structures of the brain.

Here the language of mind is the language of the brain; the software is founded upon the hardware. This is a new departure; since the “ancestors” of our story never dreamed of venturing this far, and many of them were not even certain that the res cogitans was located in the brain rather than the heart or the liver (even though an attractive wood cut showing the localization of the faculty of language in the brain–as well as those for imagination, estimation and memory–already appears in the fifteenth century in Gregor Reysch’s Margarita philosophica.

Differences are sometimes more important than identities or analogies; still, it would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors.

It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having seen a single work of Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics.

Such things are theoretically possible; but the “primitive” artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labelled as a naïf. It is only when we reconsider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects.

The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an antiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 312-6.

Eco: Francis Lodwick, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, p. 311

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 311. Reproduced as Figure 13.2 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, “Francis Lodwick,” 1995, p. 264. 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. 

“This idea of a non-hierarchical organization seems, at one point, to have occurred to Wilkins as well. Figure 13.2 reproduces a table found on p. 311 of his Essay. The table describes the workings of prepositions of motion by relating the possible positions (and possible actions) of a human body in a three-dimensional space.

It is a table in which there is no principle of hierarchy whatsoever. Yet this is an isolated example, and Wilkins seems to have lacked the courage to extend this principle to his entire system of content.

Unfortunately, even Lodwick’s primitives for actions were not really primitive at all. It would undoubtedly be possible to identify a series of positions assumed by the human body in space–such as getting up or lying down–and argue that these were intuitively and universally comprehensible; yet the sixteen radicals proposed by Lodwick can be criticized in the same way as Degérando would later do for Wilkins: even such a simple notion as to walk must be defined in terms of movement, the notion of movement requires as its components those of place, of existence in a given place, of a moving substance which in different instants passes from one place to another.

All this presupposes the notions of departure, passage and arrival, as well as that of a principle of action which imparts motion to a substance, and of members which support and convey a body in motion in a specific way (“car glisser, ramper, etc., ne sont pas la même chose que marcher;” “since sliding, climbing, etc., are not the same as walking;” Des signes, IV, 395).

Moreover, it is also necessary to conceive of a terrestrial surface upon which movement was to take place–otherwise one could think of other actions like swimming or flying. However, at this point one should also subject the ideas of surface or members to the same sort of regressive componential analysis.

One solution would be to imagine that such action primitives are selected ad hoc as metalinguistic constructs to serve as parameters for automatic translation. An example of this is the computer language designed by Schank and Abelson (1977), based on action primitives such as PROPEL, MOVER, INGEST, ATRANS OR EXPEL, by which it is possible to analyze more complex actions like to eat (however, when analyzing the sentence “John is eating a frog,” Schank and Abelson–like Lodwick–cannot further analyze frog).

Other contemporary semantic systems do not start by seeking a definition of a buyer in order to arrive eventually at the definition of the action of buying, but start rather by constructing a type-sequence of actions in which a subject A gives money to a subject B and receives an object in exchange.

Clearly the same type-sequence can be employed to define not only the buyer, but also the seller, as well as the notions of to buy, to sell, price, merchandise, and so forth. In the language of artificial intelligence, such a sequence of actions is called a “frame.”

A frame allows a computer to draw inferences from preliminary information: if A is a buyer, then he may perform this and that action; if A performs this or that action, then he may be a buyer; if A obtains merchandise from B but does not pay him, then A is not a guyer, etc., etc.

In still other contemporary semantics, the verb to kill, for example, might be represented as “Xs causes (Xd changes to (- live Xd)) + (animate Xd) & (violent Xs):” if a subject (s) acts, with violent means or instruments, in a way that causes another subject (d), an animate being, to change from a state of living to a state of death, then s has killed d. If we wished, instead, to represent the verb to assassinate, we should add the further specification that d is not only an animate being, but also a political person.

It is worth noting that Wilkins‘ dictionary also includes assassin, glossing it by its synonym murther (erroneously designating it as the fourth species of the third difference in the genera of judicial relations: in fact, it is the fifth species), but limiting the semantic range of the term by “especially, under pretence of Religion.”

It is difficult for a philosophic a priori language to follow the twists and turns of meaning of a natural language.

Properly worked out, Lodwick’s project might represent to assassinate by including a character for to kill and adding to it a note specifying purpose and circumstances.

Lodwick’s language is reminiscent of the one described by Borges in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in Ficciones), which works by agglutinations of radicals representing not substances but rather temporary fluxes. It is a language in which there would be no word for the noun moon but only the verb to moon or to moondle.

Although it is certain that Borges knew, if only at second hand, the work of Wilkins, he probably had never heard of Lodwick. What is certain, however, is that Borges had in mind the Cratylus, 396b–and it is by no means impossible that Lodwick knew this passage as well.

Here Plato, arguing that names are not arbitrary but motivated, gives examples of the way in which, rather than directly representing the things that they designate, words may represent the origin or the result of an action.

For instance, the strange difference (in Greek) between the nominative Zeus and the genitive Dios arose because the original name of Jupiter was a syntagm that expressed the habitual activity associated with the king of the gods: di’hoòn zen, “He through whom life is given.”

Other contemporary authors have tried to avoid the contortions that result from dictionary definitions by specifying the meaning of a term by a set of instructions, that is, a procedure which can decide whether or not a certain word can be applied.

This idea had already appeared in Charles Sanders Pierce (Collected Papers, 2.330): here is provided a long and complex explanation of the term lithium, in which this chemical element was defined not only in relation to its place in the periodic table of elements and by its atomic weight, but also by the operations necessary to produce a specimen of it.

Lodwick never went as far as this; still, his own intuition led him to run counter to an idea that, even in the centuries to follow, proved difficult to overcome. This was the idea that nouns came first; that is, in the process in which language had emerged, terms for things had preceded terms for actions.

Besides, the whole of Aristotelian and Scholastic discussion privileged substances (expressed by common nouns) as the subjects of a statement, in which the terms for actions played the role of predicates.

We saw in chapter 5 that, before the advent of modern linguistics, theorists tended to base their research on nomenclature. Even in the eighteenth century, Vico could still assume that nouns arose before verbs (Scienza nuova seconda, II, 2.4). He found this to be demonstrated not only by the structure of a proposition, but by the fact that children expressed themselves first in names and interjections, and only later in verbs.

Condillac (Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 82) also affirmed that “for a long time language remained with no words other than nouns.” Stankiewicz (1974) has traced the emergence of a different trend starting with the Hermes of Harris (1751: III), followed by Monboddo (Of the Origins and Progress of Language, 1773-92) and Herder, who, in his Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1787), noted that a noun referred to things as if they were dead while a verb conferred movement upon them, thus stimulating sensation.

Without following Stankiewicz’s reconstruction step by step, it is worth noting that the reevaluation of the role of the verb was assumed in the comparative grammars by the theorists of the Indo-European hypothesis, and that in doing so they followed the old tradition of Sanskrit grammarians, who derived any word from a verbal root (1974: 176).

We can close with the protest of De Sanctis, who, discussing the pretensions of philosophic grammars, criticized the tradition of reducing verbs to nouns and adjectives, observing that: “I love is simply not the same as I am a lover [ . . . ] The authors of philosophical grammars, reducing grammar to logic, have failed to perceive the volitional aspect of thought” (F. De Sanctis, Teoria e storia della litteratura, ed. B. Croce, Bari: Laterza, 1926: 39-40).

In this way, in Lodwick’s dream for a perfect language there appears the first, timid and, at the time, unheeded hint of the problems that were to become the center of successive linguistics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 264-8.

Eco: John Wilkins

Wilkins_An_Essay_towards_a_real

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. 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. 

“Already in Mercury, a book principally devoted to secret writing, published in 1641, Wilkins had begun to design a project for universal language. It was not until 1668, however, that he was ready to unveil his Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language–the most complete project for a universal and artificial philosophical language that the seventeenth century was ever to produce.

Since “the variety of Letters is an appendix to the Curse of Babel” (p. 13), after a dutiful bow in the direction of the Hebrew language and a sketch of the evolution of languages from Babel onwards (including an examination of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis that we considered in ch. 5), and after an acknowledgment of his precursors and his collaborators in the compilation of classifications and of the final dictionary, Wilkins turned to his major task–the construction of a language founded on real characters “legible by any Nation in their own Tongue” (p. 13).

Wilkins observed that most earlier projects derived their list of characters from the dictionary of one particular language rather than drawing directly on the nature of things, and from that stock of notions held in common by all humanity.

Wilkins‘ approach required, as a preliminary step, a vast review of all knowledge to establish what these notions held in common by all rational beings really were.

Wilkins never considered that these fundamental notions might be Platonic ideas like Lull’s dignities. His list was rather based upon empirical criteria and he sought those notions to which all rational beings might either attest or, reasonably, be expected to attest: thus, if everybody agrees on the idea of a God, everybody would likewise agree on the botanical classification supplied to him by his colleague John Ray.

In reality, the image of the universe that Wilkins proposed was the one designed by the Oxonian culture of his time. Wilkins never seriously wondered whether other cultures might have organized the world after a different fashion, even though his universal language was designed for the whole of humanity.

The Tables and the Grammar

In appearance the classification procedure chosen by Wilkins was akin to the method of the Porphyrian Tree of Aristotelian tradition. Wilkins constructed a table of 40 major genera (see figure 12.1) subdivided into 251 characteristic differences.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240. 

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241.

From these he derived 2,030 species, which appear in pairs. Figure 12.2 provides a simplified example of the procedure: starting from the major genus of Beasts, after having divided them into viviparous and oviparous, and after having subdivided the viviparous ones into whole footed, cloven footed and clawed, Wilkins arrives at the species Dog / Wolf.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242.

I might add parenthetically that Wilkins‘ tables occupy a full 270 pages of his ponderous folio, and hope that the reader will excuse the summary nature of the examples which follow.

After presenting the tables, which supposedly design the whole knowable universe, Wilkins turned his attention to his natural (or philosophical) grammar in order to establish morphemes and the markers for derived terms, which can permit the generation, from the primitives, of declensions, conjugations, suffixes and so on.

Such a simplified grammatical machinery should thus allow the speaker to articulate discourses, as well as to produce the periphrases through which terms from a natural language might be defined entirely through the primitives of the artificial one.

Having reached this stage, Wilkins was able to present his language of real characters. In fact, it splits into two different languages: (1) the first is an ideogrammatic form of writing, vaguely Chinese in aspect, destined to appear in print but never to be pronounced; (2) the second is expressed by alphabetic characters and is intended to be pronounced.

It is possible to speak properly of two separate languages because, even though the pronounceable characters were constructed according to the same compositional principle as the ideograms, and obey the same syntax, they are so different that they need to be learned apart.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 238-42.

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content

The_Tyger_BM_a_1794

William Blake (1757-1827), The Tyger, 1794. Scan of a plate printed by the author collected in Songs of Experience, designed after 1789 and printed in 1794. Copies A and B are both held by the British Museum. This work is in the public domain in its country or origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In order to design characters that directly denote notions (if not the things themselves that these notions reflect), two conditions must be fulfilled: (1) the identification of primitive notions; (2) the organization of these primitives into a system which represents the model of the organization of content.

It is for this reason that these languages qualify as philosophical and a priori. Their formulation required individuating and organizing a sort of philosophical “grammar of ideas” that was independent from any natural language, and would therefore need to be postulated a priori.

Only when the content-plane had been organized would it be possible to design the characters that would express the semantic primitives. As Dalgarno was later to put it, the work of the philosopher had to precede that of the linguist.

For the polygraphers, invention was simply the job of assigning numbers to a collection of words from a given natural language. The inventors of philosophic a priori languages needed to invent characters that referred to things or notions: this meant that their first step was to draw up a list of notions and things.

This was not an easy task. Since the lexicon of any natural language is always finite in number, while the number of things, including physically existing objects, rational entities, accidents of all types, is potentially infinite, in order to outline a list of real characters it is necessary to design an inventory which is not only universal: it must also be in some way limited.

It is mandatory to establish which notions are the most universally common, and then to go on by analyzing the derivative notions according to a principle of compositionality by primitive features.

In this way, the entire set of possible contents that the language is able to express has to be articulated as a set of “molecular aggregates” that can be reduced to atomic features.

Suppose we had three semantic atoms such as ANIMAL, CANINE and FELINE. Using them, we might analyze the following four expressions:

Umberto Eco The Search for the Perfect Language p. 222.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 222. 

Yet the features that analyze the content of the above expressions ought to be entities totally extraneous to the object language.

The semantic feature CANINE, for example, must not be identifiable with the word canine. The semantic features ought to be extra-linguistic and possibly innate entities. At least they should be postulated as such, as when one provides a computer with a dictionary in which every term of a given language can be split into minor features posited by the program.

In any case, the initial problem is how to identify these primitive and atomic features and set a limit on their number.

If one means by “primitive” a simple concept, it is very difficult to decide whether and when one concept is simpler than another. For the normal speaker, the concept of “man” is simpler–that is, easier to understand–than the one of “mammal.”

By contrast, according to every sort of semantic analysis, “mammal” is a component of (therefore simpler than) “man.” It has been remarked that for a common dictionary it is easier to define terms like infarct than terms like to do (Rey-Debone 1971: 194ff).

We might decide that the primitives depend on our world experience; they would correspond to those that Russell (1940) called “object-words,” whose meanings we learn by ostension, in the same way as a child learns the meaning of the word red by finding it associated with different occurrences of the same chromatic experience.

By contrast, according to Russell, there are “dictionary-words” that can be defined through other words, such as pentagram. Yet Russell remarks, for a child who had grown up in a room decorated with motifs in the form of a pentagram, this word would be an object one.

Another alternative would be to regard primitives as innate Platonic ideas. This solution would be philosophically impeccable; yet not even Plato himself was able to establish what and how many these innate ideas were.

Either there is an idea for every natural kind (for horses, platypuses, fleas, elms and so on–which means an atomic feature for every element of the furnishing of the world), or there are a few abstract ideas (the One, the Many, the Good and mathematical concepts), but through them it would be difficult to define compositionally a horse or a platypus.

Suppose instead we decided to order the system of primitives by dichotomic disjunctions so that, by virtue of the systematic relations obtaining between the terms, they must remain finite in number.

With such a structure we would be able to define by a finite number of atomic primitives a great number of molecular entities. A good example of this alternative is the reciprocally embedded system of hyponyms and hyperonyms used by lexicographers.

It is organized hierarchically in the form of a tree of binary disjunctions: to each opposed pair of hyponyms there corresponds a single hyperonym, which, in its turn, is opposed to another hyperonym to form the next level of hyponyms, to which a further hyperonym will correspond, and so on.

In the end, regardless of how many terms are embedded in the system, the whole structure must finish at its apex in a single patriarch-hyperonym.

Thus the example of the table on p. 222 above would take the following format:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224.

According to many contemporary authors, this kind of semantic structure would analyze the content in the format of a dictionary (as opposed to an encyclopedia).

In an encyclopedia-like representation one introduces elements of world knowledge (for example that a tiger is a yellow cat with stripes on its fur), and these elements are potentially infinite in number.

In a dictionary-like representation the features are, on the contrary, analytic, in the sense that they are the only and necessary conditions for the definition of a given content: a cat is necessarily a feline and an animal and it would be contradictory to assert that a cat is not an animal, since the feature “animal” is analytically a part of the definition of cat.

In this sense it would be easy to distinguish analytical from synthetical judgments. “A tiger is a feline animal” would be analytical, so uniquely depending on our rigorously organized dictionary competence (which is exclusively linguistic), while “tigers are man-eaters” would depend on our extra-linguistical world knowledge.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 221-5.

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3

PE40_H78_F84_Horapollo_p128-9_Hieroglyphica

Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. 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.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images

original

Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on AussagenLogic.org, with several exemplars on Google Books. 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. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria and Infinite Worlds

1280px-Relief_Bruno_Campo_dei_Fiori_n1

Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), The Trial of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition, bronze relief, Campo de’Fiori, Rome. This bas relief graces the pedestal of the statue of Bruno at Campo de’Fiori in Rome. The collected works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) are in the Bibliotheca Bruniana Electronica at the Warburg Institute, with others at the Esoteric Archives. This photo dated 2006 by Jastrow is in the public domain. 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.    

Giordano Bruno’s cosmological vision presented a world without ends, whose circumference, as Nicholas of Cusa had already argued, was nowhere to be found, and whose center was everywhere, at whatever point the observer chose to contemplate the universe in its infinity and substantial unity.

The panpsychism of Bruno had a Neoplatonic foundation: there was but a single divine breath, one principle of motion pervading the whole of the infinite universe, determining it in its infinite variety of forms.

The master idea of an infinite number of worlds was compounded with the notion that every earthly object can also serve as the Platonic shade of other ideal aspects of the universe. Thus every object exists not only in itself, but as a possible sign, deferral, image, emblem, hieroglyph of something else.

This worked also by contrast: an image can lead us back to the unity of the infinite even through its opposite. As Bruno wrote in his Eroici furori, “To contemplate divine things we need to open our eyes by using figures, similitudes, or any of the other images that the Peripatetics knew under the name of phantasms” (Dialoghi italiani, Florence: Sansei, 1958: 1158).

Where they did not emerge directly from his own inflamed imagination, Bruno chose images found in the Hermetic repertoire. These served as storehouses of revelations because of a naturally symbolic relationship that held between them and reality.

Their function was no longer, as in previous arts of memory, that of merely helping to order information for ease of recall, or this was, at least, by now a minor aspect: their function was rather that of helping to understand. Bruno’s images permitted the mind to discover the essence of things and their relations to each other.

The power of revelation stored inside these images was founded on their origin in far-off Egypt. Our distant progenitors worshipped cats and crocodiles because “a simple divinity found in all things, a fecund nature, a mother watching over the universe, expressed in many different ways and forms, shines through different subjects and takes different names” (Lo spaccio della bestia trionfante, Dialoghi italiani, 780-2).

But these images possess more than the simple capacity to reawaken our dormant imagination: they possess an authentic power to effect magical operations on their own, and functioned, in other words, in exactly the same way as the talismans of Ficino.

It is possible, of course, to take many of Bruno’s magical claims in a metaphorical sense, as if he was merely describing, according to the sensibility of his age, intellectual operations. It is also possible to infer that these images had the power to pull Bruno, after prolonged concentration, into a state of mystic ecstasy (cf. Yates 1964: 296).

Still, it is difficult to ignore the fact that some of Bruno’s strongest claims about the theurgic potential of seals appeared in a text that bore the significant title of De Magia:

“nor even are all writings of the same utility as these characters which, by their very configuration, seem to indicated things themselves. For example, there are signs that are mutually inclined to one another, that regard each other and embrace one another; these constrain us to love.

Then there are the opposite signs, signs which repel each other so violently that we are induced to hatred and to separation, becoming so hardened, incomplete, and broken as to produce in us ruin. There are knots which bind, and there are separated characters which release. [ . . . ]

These signs do not have a fixed and determined form. Anyone who, obeying his own furor, or the dictates of his soul, naturally creates his own images, be these of things desired or things to hold in contempt, cannot help but represent these images to himself and to his spirit as if the imagined things were really present.

Thus he experiences his own images with a power that he would not feel were he to represent these things to himself in the form of words, either in elegant oration, or in writing.

Such were the well-defined letters of the ancient Egyptians, which they called hieroglyphs or sacred characters. [ . . . ] by which they were able to enter into colloquies with the gods and to accomplish remarkable feats with them. [ . . . ]

And so, just as, where there lacks a common tongue, men of one race are unable to have colloquies with those of another, but must resort instead to gestures, so relations of any sort between ourselves and certain powers would be impossible were we to lack the medium of definite signs, seals, figures, characters, gestures, and other ceremonies.”

(Opera latine conscripta, Naples-Florence, 1879-1891, vol. III: 39-45).

Concerning the specific iconological material that Bruno employs, we find figures deriving directly from the Hermetic tradition, such as the Thirty-six Decans of the Zodiac, others drawn from mythology, necromantic diagrams that recall Agrippa or John Dee, Lullian suggestions, animals, plants and allegorical figures deriving from the repertoire of emblems and devices.

This is a repertoire with an extraordinary importance in the history of iconology, where the ways in which a certain seal, for example, refers back to a specific idea are largely governed by rhetorical criteria: phonetic similarities (a horse, equus, can correspond to an honest, aequus, man); the concrete for the abstract (a Roman soldier for Rome); antecedent for the consequent; accident for subject (or vice versa); and so on.

Sometimes the analogy  is based upon the similarity of the initial syllable (asinus for asyllum); and certainly Bruno did not know that this procedure, as we shall see in chapter 7, was followed by the Egyptians themselves when using their hieroglyphs.

At other times the relations might be based on kabbalistic techniques such as anagrams or paronomasias (like palatio standing for Latio: cf. Vasoli 1958: 285-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 132-5.

Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis

Joseph_Justus_Scaliger_-_Imagines_philologorum

Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero, or Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), this illustration is from the title page of Marcus Manilus, Astronomicon a Ios. Scaligero ex vetusto codice Gemblacensi infinitis mendis repurgatum. Eiusdem Iosephi Scaligeri notae etc. Leiden. Christophorus Raphelengius for Joannes Commelin, 1599-1600, with a handwritten dedication from Scaliger to the mathematician Henri de Monantheuil, courtesy of the Leiden University Library and the Scaliger Institute. This narrative courtesy of the Warburg Institute. 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.

“By now, however, time was running out for the theories of Kircher, Guichard and Duret. Already in the Renaissance, Hebrew’s status as the original and sacred language had begun to be questioned.

By the seventeenth century, a new and complex set of arguments has evolved. We might, emblematically, place these arguments under the sign of Genesis 10. In these, attention moved away from the problem of primordial language to that of matrices linguae, or mother tongues–this was an expression first coined by Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero (Diatribe de europaeorum linguis, 1599).

Scaligero individuated eleven language families, seven major and four minor. Within each family, all languages were related; between the language families, however, kinship was impossible to trace.

The Bible, it was noted, had given no explicit information about the character of the primordial language. There were many who could thus maintain that the division of tongues had originated not at the foot of the shattered tower, but well before.

The notion of confusio could be interpreted as a natural process. Scholars set about trying to understand this process by uncovering the grammatical structures common to all languages: “It was no longer a question of “reduction,” but of a classification aimed at revealing a common system latent within all languages, while still respecting their individual differences” (Demonet 1992: 341, and II, 5, passim).

In his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon, considered one of the founders of modern biblical criticism, discarded the hypothesis of the divine origin of Hebrew, citing the ironic remarks of Gregory of Nyssa.

Language, he wrote, was a human invention; since human reason differs in different peoples, so languages must differ as well. God willed that different peoples speak different languages in order that “each might explain themselves in their own way.”

Meric Casaubon (De quattor linguis commentatio, 1650) accepted the idea of Grotius that–in so far as it had ever existed–the primordial language had long since disappeared.

Even if the words spoken by Adam had been inspired directly by God, humanity had since developed its languages autonomously. The Hebrew of the Bible was just one of the languages that arose after the Flood.

Leibniz also insisted that the historic language of Adam was irredeemably lost, and that, despite our best efforts, “nobis ignota est.” In so far as it had ever existed, it had either totally disappeared, or else survived only as relics (undated fragment in Gensini 1990: 197).

In this climate, the myth of a language that followed the contours of the world came to be rearticulated in the light of the principle of the arbitrariness of the sign. This was a principle that, in any case, philosophical thought had never entirely abandoned, as it formed part of the Aristotelian legacy.

In precisely this period, Spinoza, from a fundamentally nominalist point of view, asked how a general term such as man could possibly express man’s true nature, when different individuals formed their ideas in different ways:

“for example, those who are accustomed to contemplate with admiration the height of men will, on hearing the name man, think of an animal with an erect posture; those, instead, who are in the habit of contemplating some other feature, will form another of the common images of man–man as a laughing animal, as a biped, as featherless, as rational. Thus every individual will form images of universals according to the dispositions of their own bodies.” (Ethica, 1677: proposition XL, scolion I).

Implicitly challenging the idea that Hebrew was the language whose words corresponded to the nature of things, Locke considered that words used by human beings were signs of their ideas, “not by any natural connexion, that there is between particular articulated Sounds and certain Ideas, for then there would be but one Language amongst all Men; but by voluntary Imposition.” (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690: III, 2, 1).

As soon as ideas lost their quality as innate, Platonic entities, becoming nominal ideas instead, language itself lost its aura of sacrality, turning into a mere instrument for interaction–a human construct.

In Leviathan (1651: I, 4, “Of Speech”), Hobbes admitted that the first author of speech could only have been God himself, and that he had taught Adam what to name the animals. Yet, immediately thereafter, Hobbes abandons the scriptural account to picture Adam as striking out on his own.

Hobbes argued that Adam continued freely to add new names “as the experience and use of the creatures should give him occasion.” In other words, Hobbes left Adam to confront his own experiences and his own needs; and it was from these needs (necessity being, as we know, the mother of all invention) that the languages after Babel were born.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 85-8.

Eco: The Etymological Furor, 2

tower-to-the-moon

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This copy is held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number 417f BS1238.B2K5. The librarian at St. Andrews, who signed himself simply as “DG,” quoted from a narrative posted on the site of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, recounting Genesis 10-11, in which Nimrod attempted to build a tower that reached the heavens. The Museum observes, “This model illustrates Kircher’s proof that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body; the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.” 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.

“The thousand or so pages of Guichard are really little more than an extensive raiding expedition in which languages, dead and living, are pillaged for their treasures. More or less by chance, Guichard sometimes manages to hit upon a real etymological connection; but there is little scientific method in his madness.

Still, the early attempts by authors such as Duret and Guichard to prove the monogenetic hypothesis did lead to a conception of Hebrew as less “magical,” and this eventually helped clear the way for a more modern conception of comparative linguistics (cf. Simone 1990: 328-9).

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fantasy and science remained inextricably entangled. In 1667, Mercurius van Helmont published an Alphabeti veri naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineatio, which proposed to examine methods for the teaching to speak of deaf-mutes.

This was the sort of project which, during the Enlightenment in the following century, might have been the occasion for valuable reflections upon the nature of language. For van Helmont, however, science was subordinated to his own monogenetic fantasies.

He started with the presumption that there must be a primitive language, easy to learn, even for those who had never learned to speak a language at all, and that it could not be but Hebrew.

Then van Helmont proceeded to demonstrate that the sounds of Hebrew were the ones most easily produced by the human vocal organs. Then, with the assistance of thirty-three woodcuts, he showed how, in making the sounds of Hebrew, the movements of tongue, palate, uvula and glottis reproduced the shapes of the corresponding Hebrew letters.

The result was a radical version of the mimological theory: not only did the Hebrew sounds reflect the inherent nature of things themselves, but the very mud from which the human vocal organs were formed had been especially sculpted to emit a perfect language that God pressed on Adam in not only its spoken but evidently its written form as well (see figure 5.1).

wls0041_enlarge

Baron Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (1614-98), Alphabet verè Naturalis Hebraici brevissima delineation, A Brief Delineation of the True Nature of the Hebrew Alphabet, Sulzbach: Abraham Lichtenthaler, 1667. Held in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress under call number 041.00.00. Reproduced as Figure 5.1 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 84. 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.   

In Turris Babel of 1679, Kircher presented a synthesis of the various positions which we have been reviewing. After an examination of the history of the world from the Creation to the Flood, and, from there, to the confusion of Babel, Kircher traced its subsequent historical and anthropological development through an analysis of various languages.

Kircher never questioned Hebrew’s priority as the lingua sancta; this had been explicitly revealed in the Bible. He held it as self-evident that Adam, knowing the nature of each and every beast, had named them accordingly, adding that “sometimes conjoining, sometimes separating, sometimes permutating the letters of the divers names, he recombined them according to the nature and properties of the various animals” (III, 1, 8).

Since this idea is based on a citation from the kabbalistic writings of the Rabbi R. Becchai, we can infer that Kircher was thinking of Adam defining the properties of the various animals by permutating the letters of their names.

To be precise, first the names themselves mimic some property of the animals to which they refer: lion, for example, is written ARYH in Hebrew; and Kircher takes the letters AHY as miming the heavy sound of a lion panting.

After naming the lion “ARYH,” Adam rearranged these letters according to the kabbalist technique of temurah. Nor did he limit himself to anagrams: by interpolating letters, he constructed entire sentences in which every word contained one or more of the letters of the Hebrew word.

Thus Kircher was able to generate a sentence which showed that the lion was monstrans, that is, able to strike terror by his sole glance; that he was luminous as if a light were shining from his face, which, among other things, resembled a mirror . . . We see here Kircher playing with etymological techniques already suggested in Plato’s Cratylus (which he, in fact, cites, p. 145) to twist names to express a more or less traditional lore about people and animals.

At this point, Kircher took the story up to the present. He told how, after the confusion, five dialects arose out of Hebrew: Chaldean, Samaritan (the ancestor of Phoenician), Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic.

From these five he deduced, by various etymological means, the birth of various other languages (explaining the successive stages by which the alphabet developed along the way) until he reached the European languages of his own time.

As the story approaches the present, the argument becomes more plausible: linguistic change is seen as caused by the separation and mixture of peoples. These, in turn, are caused by the rise and fall of empires, migrations due to war and pestilence, colonialization and climatic variation.

He is also able to identify the process of creolization which can occur when two languages are put into contact with one another. Out of the multiplication of languages, moreover, are born the various idolatrous religions, and the multiplication of the names of the gods (III, I, 2).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 82-5.

Eco: The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues

05-06-stitched-together

Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel, Amsterdam, 1679. The illustrations in Turris Babel were engraved by C. Decker. This plate was based on an original by Lievin Cruyl (c. 1640-1720) in Rome. This is catalog no. 46, between pages 40-1 from the original work held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This plate was published by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. Another copy is also held by the University of St. Andrews, under call number r17f BS1238.B2K5. Stanford University also has a copy. 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.

Editorial Note:

The formatting of this section differs from the original because I am tired of wrestling with the WordPress interface. Eco organizes this section with numbered paragraphs. I omit the numbering. Further, I insert paragraph breaks in the middle of Eco’s long paragraphs to ease readability.

The Monogenetic Hypothesis and the Mother Tongues

“In its most ancient versions, the search for a perfect language took the form of the monogenetic hypothesis which assumed that all languages descended from a unique mother tongue.

Before I tell the story of this hypothesis, however, we should note that most of the attempts suffered from a continuous confusion between different theoretical options.

The distinction between a perfect language and a universal language was not sufficiently understood. It is one thing to search for a language capable of mirroring the true nature of objects; it is quite another to search for the language which everyone might, or ought to, speak. There is nothing that rules out that a language which is perfect might be accessible only to a few, while a language that is universal might also be imperfect.

The distinction between the Platonic opposition of nature and convention was not kept separate from the general problem of the origin of language (cf. Formigari 1970). It is possible to imagine a language that expresses the nature of things, but which, none the less, is not original, but arises through invention.

It is also possible to discuss whether language originated as an imitation of nature (the “mimological” hypothesis, Genette 1976) or as the result of a convention, without necessarily posing the question of whether the former is better than the latter.

As a consequence, claims to linguistic superiority on etymological grounds (more direct filiation with an ancient language) are often confused with those on mimological grounds–while the presence of onomatopoetic words in a language can be seen as a sign of perfection, not as the proof of the direct descent of that language from a primordial one.

Despite the fact that the distinction was already clear in Aristotle, many authors failed to distinguish between a sound and the alphabetical sign that represented it.

As Genette (1976) has often reminded us, before the advent of comparative linguistics in the nineteenth century, most research on languages concentrated on semantics, assembling nomenclature families of supposedly related words (often, as we shall see, making up etymologies to match), but neglecting both phonology and grammar.

Finally, there was not a clear cut distinction between primordial language and universal grammar. It is possible to search for a set of grammatical principles common to all languages without wishing to return to a more primitive tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 73-4.

Eco: The Concordia Universalis of Nicholas of Cusa

Tafel18

Meister des Marienlebens, Kreuzigung, Passionsalter aus Bernkastel-Kues, 1460. 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. 

“The seductive potentiality of Lull’s appeal to the principle of universal concord is revealed by the resumption of his project, two centuries later, by Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas is famous as the figure who revived Plato during the years between the crisis of scholasticism and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Nicholas also propounded the idea of an infinitely open universe, whose centre was everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. As an infinite being, God transcended all limits and overcame every opposition.

As the diameter of a circle increased, its curvature diminished; so at its limit its circumference became a straight line of infinite length.

Likewise, in God all opposites coincide. If the universe had a centre, it would be limited by another universe. But in the universe, God is both centre and circumference. Thus the earth could not be the centre of the universe.

This was the starting point for a vision of the plurality of worlds, of a reality founded on mathematical principles, which can be submitted to continuous investigation, where the world, if not infinite in a strict sense, was at least capable of assuming an infinite number of guises.

The thought of Nicholas is rich in cosmological metaphors (or models) founded upon the image of the circle and the wheel (De docta ignorantia, II, 11), in which the names of the divine attributes (explicitly borrowed from Lull) form a circle where each supports and confirms the others (I, 21).

The influence of Lull is even more explicitly revealed when Nicholas notes that the names by which the Greeks, Latins, Germans, Turks and Saracens designate the divinity are either all in fundamental accord, or derive from the Hebrew tetragrammaton (see the sermon Dies sanctificatus).

The ideas of Lull had spread to the Veneto towards the close of the fourteenth century. Nicholas probably came into contact with them in Padua. Their diffusion was, in part, a reaction against a scholastic Aristotelianism now in crisis; yet the diffusion also reflected the feverish cultural atmosphere generated by close contacts with the East.

Just as Catalonia and Majorca had been frontier territories in contact with the Muslim and Jewish worlds at the time of Lull, so the Venetian Republic had opened itself to the world of Byzantium and of the Arab countries two centuries later. The emerging currents of Venetian humanism were inspired by a new curiosity and respect for other cultures (cf. Lohr 1988).

It was thus appropriate that in this atmosphere there should have reemerged the thought of a figure whose preaching, whose theological speculations, and whose research on universal language were all conceived with the aim of building an intellectual and religious bridge between the European West and the East.

Lull believed that true authority could not be based on a rigid unity, but rather on the tension between various centers. It was the laws of Moses, the revelations of Christ and the preaching of Mohammed that, taken together, might produce a unified result.

Lull’s doctrine acted as a mystical and philosophical stimulus and seemed an imaginative and poetic alternative to the encyclopedia of Aristotelian scholasticism, but it provided a political inspiration as well.

The works of a writer who had dared to put his doctrine into the vernacular proved congenial to humanists who, on the one hand, had begun to celebrate the dignity of their own native tongues, but, on the other hand, wondered how it was possible to establish a rational discussion which broke the boundaries of national traditions, a philosophy which could reanimate the body of encyclopedic scholasticism by injecting the leaven of exotic new doctrines, expressed in languages still entirely unknown.

In his De pace fidei, Nicholas opened a polemical dialogue with the Muslims. He asked himself Lull’s question: how might the truth of Christian revelation be demonstrated to followers of the two other monotheistic religions?

Perhaps, Nicholas mused, it was a mistake to translate the persons of the Trinity as “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Ghost.” Perhaps they should have been given more philosophical names (better understandable by other cultures).

In his ecumenical fervor, Nicholas even went so far as to propose to the Jews and the Muslims that, if they would accept the Gospels, he would see that all Christians received circumcision. It was a proposal, as he confessed at the end, whose practical realization might present certain difficulties. (De pace fidei, XVI, 60).

Nicholas retained from Lull the spirit of universal peace as well as his metaphysical vision. Yet before the thrilling potential of Nicholas’s own vision of an infinity of worlds could be translated into a new and different version of the art of combination, new ideas would have to fertilize the humanist and Renaissance world.

The rediscovery of the art of combination would have to wait for the rediscovery of Hebrew, for Christian kabbalism, for the spread of Hermeticism, and for a new and positive reassessment of magic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 69-72.

 

Eco: Cosmic Permutability and the Kabbala of Names, 2

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), The Bembine Table of Isis, Oedipus Aegypticiacus, or Mensa Isiaca, N. Inv. C. 7155, Museo Egizio, photo by Fuzzypeg from Manly Palmer Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), all rights released. The Bembine Table was acquired by Cardinal Bembo after the sack of Rome in 1527, then purchased by the Savoy King Carlo Emanuele I in 1630 in Turin. A Roman interpretation of a bronze and silver altar table in an Egyptian style, early scholars surmised that the table pertained to an Isis cult. Kircher relied upon it for the third volume of his masterwork. It was ultimately determined to be an antique forgery, and not a work of ancient Egypt. This image is in the public domain. The author died over 70 years ago.   

 

“What justified  this process of textual dissolution was that, for Abulafia, each letter, each atomic element, already had a meaning of its own, independent of the meaning of the syntagms in which it occurred.

Each letter was already a divine name: “Since, in the letters of the Name, each letter is already a Name itself, know that Yod is a name, and YH is a name” (Perush Havdalah de-Rabbi ‘Akivà).

This practice of reading by permutation tended to produce ecstatic effects:

“And begin by combining this name, namely, YHWH, at the beginning alone, and examining all its combinations and move it, turn it about like a wheel, returning around, front and back, like a scroll, and do not let it rest, but when you see its matter strengthened because of the great motion, because of the fear of confusion of your imagination, and rolling about of your thoughts, and when you let it rest, return to it and ask [it] until there shall come to your hand a word of wisdom from it, do not abandon it.

Afterwards go on to the second one from it, Adonay, and ask of it its foundation [yesodo] and it will reveal to you its secret [sodo]. And then you will apprehend its matter in the truth of its language. Then join and combine the two of them [YHWH and Adonay] and study them and ask them, and they will reveal to you the secrets of wisdom . . .

Afterwards combine Elohim, and it will also grant you wisdom, and then combine the four of them, and find the miracles of the Perfect One [i.e. God], which are miracles of wisdom.” (Hayyê ha-Nefes, in Idel 1988c:21).

If we add that the recitation of the names was accompanied by special techniques of breathing, we begin to see how from recitation the adept might pass into ecstasy, and from ecstasy to the acquisition of magic powers; for the letters that the mystic combined were the same sounds with which God created the world.

This latter aspect came especially into prominence during the fifteenth century. For Yohanan Alemanno, friend and inspirer of Pico della Mirandola, “the symbolic cargo of language was transformed into a kind of quasi-mathematical command. Kabbalistic symbolism thus turned into–or perhaps returned to–a magical language of incantation” (Idel 1988b: 204-5).

For the ecstatic kabbala, language was a self-contained universe in which the structure of language represented the structure of reality itself. Already in the writings of Philo of Alexandria there had been an attempt to compare the intimate essence of the Torah with the Logos as the world of ideas.

Such Platonic conceptions had even penetrated into the Haggidic and Midrashic literature in which the Torah was conceived as providing the scheme according to which God created the world.

The eternal Torah was identified with wisdom and, in many passages, with the world of forms or universe of archetypes. In the thirteenth century, taking up a decidedly Averroist line, Abulafia equated the Torah with the active intellect, “the form of all the forms of separate intellects” (Sefer Mafteakh ha-Tokhahot).

In contrast, therefore, with the main philosophical tradition (from Aristotle to the Stoics and to the Middle Ages, as well as to Arab and Judaic philosophers), language, in the kabbala, did not represent the world merely by referring to it.

It did not, that is, stand to the world in the relation of signifier to signified or sign to its referent. If God created the world by uttering sounds or by combining written letters, it must follow that these semiotic elements were not representations of pre-existing things, but the very forms by which the elements of the universe are moulded.

The significance of this argument in our own story must be plain: the language of creation was perfect not because it merely happened to reflect the structure of the universe in some exemplary fashion; it created the universe.

Consequently it stands to the universe as the cast stands to the object cast from it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 30-2.

Eco: Before and After Europe

Cleve-van_construction-tower-babel

Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. 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. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

Berossus was a Historian and a Priest of Bel, Not a Babylonian Astronomer

“As de Breucker has emphasized, one goal of the Babyloniaca was to promote Babylonian antiquity and scholarship. We should see the so-called astronomical fragments in this light, as part of his promotion of Babylonian scholarship.

However, it is clear that Berossos was not himself one of the astronomical scribes working in Babylonia. All of the astronomy he explains has its origin not in contemporary Babylonian astronomy, but in works such as Enūma Eliš, a literary epic that includes a brief cosmological section.

Los sumerios dividían su cielo en tres “caminos” que transcurrían paralelos al ecuador celeste y que daban la vuelta al cielo: el camino de Ea , el camino de Anu y el camino de Enlil . Estos caminos eran las esferas de influencia de tres supradeidades abstractas que jamás se representaban corporalmente: la divina trinidad. Eran las esferas del mundo material (Ea), el mundo humano (Anu) y el mundo divino (Enlil). A través de estas tres bandas serpenteaba “el camino de la Luna” (Charranu), que también era el camino de los planetas: el zodíaco. De esta forma, una parte del zodíaco se encuentra en el camino de Enlil (los signos de verano), una parte en el camino de Anu (signos de primavera y otoño) y una parte en el camino de Ea (los signos de invierno). El mapa estelar adjunto preparado por Werner Papke según el mul.apin muestra esta división para el período de 2340 a.C. En ese momento de la historia, los sumerios ya conocían el movimiento de desplazamiento precesional de las constelaciones. Las representaciones anteriores siempre hablan de 11 signos zodiacales (todavía falta Libra). En cambio, el mul.apin describe las imágenes de 12 constelaciones y explica claramente que Zibanium (Libra) se construyó a partir de las pinzas del escorpión, para dar al comienzo del otoño su propio signo. Anteriormente, el zodíaco siempre se basaba en dos estrellas: Aldebarán (en Tauro) marcaba el equinoccio (duración del día y de la noche iguales) de primavera y Antares (en Escorpio) determinaba el punto de inicio del otoño. Pero esto sólo es cierto alrededor del 3200 a.C. Probablemente, un poco antes de que se escribiera el mul.apin, se descubrió que el punto de misma duración del día y de la noche se había desplazado hacia el oeste: de Aldebarán a las Pléyades y de Antares hacia las pinzas del escorpión. http://www.escuelahuber.org/articulos/articulo13.htm

Los sumerios dividían su cielo en tres “caminos” que transcurrían paralelos al ecuador celeste y que daban la vuelta al cielo: el camino de Ea , el camino de Anu y el camino de Enlil . Estos caminos eran las esferas de influencia de tres supradeidades abstractas que jamás se representaban corporalmente: la divina trinidad. Eran las esferas del mundo material (Ea), el mundo humano (Anu) y el mundo divino (Enlil). A través de estas tres bandas serpenteaba “el camino de la Luna” (Charranu), que también era el camino de los planetas: el zodíaco. De esta forma, una parte del zodíaco se encuentra en el camino de Enlil (los signos de verano), una parte en el camino de Anu (signos de primavera y otoño) y una parte en el camino de Ea (los signos de invierno). El mapa estelar adjunto preparado por Werner Papke según el mul.apin muestra esta división para el período de 2340 a.C.
En ese momento de la historia, los sumerios ya conocían el movimiento de desplazamiento precesional de las constelaciones. Las representaciones anteriores siempre hablan de 11 signos zodiacales (todavía falta Libra). En cambio, el mul.apin describe las imágenes de 12 constelaciones y explica claramente que Zibanium (Libra) se construyó a partir de las pinzas del escorpión, para dar al comienzo del otoño su propio signo. Anteriormente, el zodíaco siempre se basaba en dos estrellas: Aldebarán (en Tauro) marcaba el equinoccio (duración del día y de la noche iguales) de primavera y Antares (en Escorpio) determinaba el punto de inicio del otoño. Pero esto sólo es cierto alrededor del 3200 a.C. Probablemente, un poco antes de que se escribiera el mul.apin, se descubrió que el punto de misma duración del día y de la noche se había desplazado hacia el oeste: de Aldebarán a las Pléyades y de Antares hacia las pinzas del escorpión.
http://www.escuelahuber.org/articulos/articulo13.htm

He may also have been aware of MUL.APIN, which was a widely known text both inside and outside the small circle of astronomical scribes (many copies of MUL.APIN were found in archival contexts quite different from the majority of Babylonian astronomical texts). But there is no evidence that Berossos had access to or would have understood contemporary astronomical texts.

I MUL.APIN sono testi antichi su tavolette di argilla, comprendono un elenco di trentasei stelle, tre stelle per ogni mese dell’anno. Le stelle sono quelle aventi ciascuna la levata eliaca in un particolare mese. Si ha perciò questo schema: nella prima riga sono elencate tre stelle, che hanno la levata eliaca nel primo mese dell'anno, Nīsannu (quello associato all'epoca dell'equinozio di primavera). Nella seconda riga sono elencate altre tre stelle, ancora ciascuna avente levata eliaca nel secondo mese, Ayyāru, e così via. http://www.lavia.org/italiano/archivio/calendarioakkadit.htm

I MUL.APIN sono testi antichi su tavolette di argilla, comprendono un elenco di trentasei stelle, tre stelle per ogni mese dell’anno. Le stelle sono quelle aventi ciascuna la levata eliaca in un particolare mese. Si ha perciò questo schema: nella prima riga sono elencate tre stelle, che hanno la levata eliaca nel primo mese dell’anno, Nīsannu (quello associato all’epoca dell’equinozio di primavera). Nella seconda riga sono elencate altre tre stelle, ancora ciascuna avente levata eliaca nel secondo mese, Ayyāru, e così via.
http://www.lavia.org/italiano/archivio/calendarioakkadit.htm

If he did, he did not include any of this material in the fragments that are preserved to us. Indeed, including such material would probably have had the opposite effect to that which Berossos sought: no-one in the Greek world at the beginning of the third century BC would have been able to understand contemporary Babylonian astronomy, and, being unconcerned with issues of cause, it probably would have been viewed as irrelevant by astronomers in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle.

The transmission and assimilation of contemporary Babylonian astronomy into Greek astronomy could only take place once Greek astronomy itself had turned into a quantitative science in the second century BC. …

The ancient testimonies mentioning Berossos frequently laud him for his astronomical and astrological skill. It is interesting to ask, therefore, how Berossos’s writings were presented and used by later astronomical authors.

First, it is perhaps surprising to note given the popular perception presented in the testimonies that Berossos is not cited or referred to by any of the serious, technical astronomers of the Greco-Roman world: Hipparchus, Geminus, Ptolemy, etc.

Instead, references to Berossos are found only in works of a more general or introductory nature. Indeed, among the authors who cite the so-called astronomical fragments, only Cleomedes is writing a work devoted to astronomy, and his Caelestia is not a high-level work.

Di seguito possiamo vedere una tavoletta della collezione Kuyunjik, rinvenuta fra le rovine della biblioteca reale di Ashurbanipal (668-627 a.C.) a Ninive, capitale dell'antica Assiria, ed è attualmente esposta al British Museum di Londra (K8538). La scrittura cuneiforme cita chiaramente i nomi di stelle e di pianeti. Insomma la mappa era un planisfero a 360 gradi, ossia la riproduzione di una superficie sferica su un piano dei cieli con al centro la Terra. http://www.lavia.org/italiano/archivio/calendarioakkadit.htm

Di seguito possiamo vedere una tavoletta della collezione Kuyunjik, rinvenuta fra le rovine della biblioteca reale di Ashurbanipal (668-627 a.C.) a Ninive, capitale dell’antica Assiria, ed è attualmente esposta al British Museum di Londra (K8538). La scrittura cuneiforme cita chiaramente i nomi di stelle e di pianeti. Insomma la mappa era un planisfero a 360 gradi, ossia la riproduzione di una superficie sferica su un piano dei cieli con al centro la Terra.
http://www.lavia.org/italiano/archivio/calendarioakkadit.htm

The sources of the two main astronomical fragments, Vitruvius and Cleomedes, quote Berossos for his theory of the lunar phases (Cleomedes’ discussion of the moon’s other motions appears as an introduction to this material).

A drawing of British Museum (K8538). As stated above,

A drawing of British Museum (K8538). As stated above, “La scrittura cuneiforme cita chiaramente i nomi di stelle e di pianeti. Insomma la mappa era un planisfero a 360 gradi, ossia la riproduzione di una superficie sferica su un piano dei cieli con al centro la Terra.”
http://www.lavia.org/italiano/archivio/calendarioakkadit.htm

Interestingly, both these authors present Berossos’ model as one of several explanations for the moon’s phases and then argue against it. Cleomedes presents three models for the lunar phases: Berossos’ model, a model in which the moon is illuminated by reflected sunlight, and a third model, which he will argue is correct, in which the moon is illuminated by a mingling of the sun’s light with the moon’s body.

Cleomedes dismisses Berossos’ model on several grounds:

His doctrine is easily refuted. First, since the Moon exists in the aether, it cannot be ‘half fire’ rather than being completely the same in its substance like the rest of the heavenly bodied.

Second, what happens in an eclipse also conspicuously disconfirms this theory. Berossus, that is, cannot demonstrate how, when the Moon falls into the Earth’s shadow, its light, all of which is facing in our direction at that time, disappears from sight.

If the Moon were constituted as he claims, it would have to become more luminous on falling into the Earth’s shadow rather than disappear from sight!

Vitruvius contrasts Berossos’ model with one he attributes to Aristarchus in which the moon is illuminated by reflected light from the sun. Vitruvius makes it clear that Aristarchus’ model is to be preferred.

Lucretius, presents three models: first the moon is illuminated by reflected sunlight, second the Berossos model (attributed only to ‘the Chaldeans’), and finally the suggestion that the moon is created anew with its own light each day. As is his way, Lucretius does not argue for any one model over the others.

For these later authors, Berossos was useful as a rhetorical tool rather than for the details of his astronomy. So far as we know, no later astronomer in the Greco-Roman world used any of Berossos’s astronomy or attempted to develop it in any way.

Instead, his astronomy provided material that could be argued against in order to promote a different model. If the alternative to the model an author wanted to promote was Berossos’ model, and Berossos’ model was clearly problematical, then this was an implicit argument for the model the author was promoting.

Even though it is not possible to connect each and every chapter (of the Epic of Gilgamesh) with a single star sign, the zodiac does form an excellent backdrop for telling the story.  There are clear references to constellations in the zodiac, as well as to others which are directly next to the zodiac. To illustrate this, (above) is the Babylonian star chart, based on the Mul.Apin tablets, as reconstructed by Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star Lore. http://thesecretofthezodiac.hu/node/1

Even though it is not possible to connect each and every chapter (of the Epic of Gilgamesh) with a single star sign, the zodiac does form an excellent backdrop for telling the story.
There are clear references to constellations in the zodiac, as well as to others which are directly next to the zodiac. To illustrate this, (above) is the Babylonian star chart, based on the Mul.Apin tablets, as reconstructed by Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star Lore.
http://thesecretofthezodiac.hu/node/1

Berossos’ astronomy was useful not in itself but for how it could be used as a straw man in arguments for alternative astronomical models. The usefulness of Berossos in this capacity was increased because Berossos had become a well-known name identified with astronomical skill.

Vitruvius, a few chapters after his discussion of the illumination of the moon, lists the inventors of various types of sundial. Berossos is the first name in the list, followed by Aristarchus, Eudoxus, Apollonius and several others (the attributions are certainly fictitious – Vitruvius was an inveterate name-dropper).

If another model was better than Berossos, therefore, the implication is that it must be of the highest quality. Whether or not the astronomical fragments are genuine, which I suspect they largely are, and whether or not Berossos really understood any Babylonian astronomy, which he certainly did not, for later authors he provided a valuable service as an authority figure, imbued both with scientific prestige and a certain eastern exoticism, who could be argued against to promote various astronomical models.”

John M. Steele, “The ‘Astronomical Fragments’ of Berossos in Context,” in 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, pp. 117-9.

Hesiod Fragment 304

“Hesiod’s riddle assumes a system of four world periods, each comprising a year of twelve months of which the first and the last are occupied by the creation and the destruction of the world, respectively.

The equal world periods of Berossus end alternately in a world inundation and a world conflagration, the former when all the planets are in the sign of the Capricorn, the latter when they are all in the sign of Cancer.

We have already pointed out that this astrological view of the end of the world is based on the rather obvious idea that the Great Year, like the ordinary solar year, has its summer and its winter, which according to Censorinus was even mentioned by Aristotle.

Plato did not relate the world flood and world conflagration to specific, actually impossible, stellar constellations. He ascribes the world conflagration to a disastrous deviation of the celestial bodies from their fixed courses. (Plato, Timaeus, 22d. In Plato the world catastrophes never lead to the complete destruction of the human race. Borossus himself, in his report on the Babylonian flood, makes no mention of the planets coinciding in the sign of the Capricorn.)

And he does not state anywhere that these world catastrophes mark the termination of the Great Year.

The Pre-Socratics held the view that human life is periodically destroyed by a total flooding and a total desiccation of the earth. This may even be implicit in Anaximander’s doctrine of the drying up of the world. (Anaximander, frg., A. 27).

In any case we find this concept clearly expressed in Philolaus, who knew two destructions of the world: one by fire pouring from the sky, the other by water from the moon, released by an inversion of the air; the vapors rising from the earth provide the cosmos with food. (Philolaus, frg., A. 18).

We must not visualize this as a sudden catastrophe but rather as a slow drying up of the earth until life is no longer possible, followed by a gradual moistening of the earth until it finally drowns in water.

Philolaus assumed an unceasing rising and sinking movement of the air and of the accompanying moisture present in the cosmos. Due to the heat of the sun, “the fire that pours from the sky,” the water on earth evaporates and the ascending vapors, which form the food of the cosmos, rise together to the moon. (According to Aëtius, De placitis philosophorum, II, 17, 4, this was taught as early as by Heraclitus, cf. FVS, I, 146).

When the earth is completely dried out and life has come to an end, the process is reversed, and by the opposite movement of the air the earth is gradually moistened until life revives. It is clear that this conception derives from the observation of the sun’s capacity to cause evaporation and of the falling of the dew on clear moonlit nights.

On his system Philolaus evokes a magnificent vision of the course of the cosmos in which the immensely long world periods succeed each other as the night the day.

This conception is highly consistent with the idea that one month of the world year is needed for the creation and one month for the destruction of the world. This makes it probable that the four eras of the Great Year assumed by the riddle of Hesiod were, in the original conception, alternately ended by flooding and drying up of the world.

The first period of which Berossus speaks was terminated by a world flood, from which it follows that the second period referred to in Hesiod, frg., 304, would have to end in “fire.”

R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix: According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions, Brill Archive, 1972, pp. 100-2.

Hesiod, the Great Year, and the Phoenix

“In the discussion of the Classical conception of the Great Year it was mentioned that Plato was the first author to make a clear statement about this cosmic period. He referred to an almost inconceivably long time, which he could characterize only by saying that at the completion of such a cosmic revolution the perfect number of time comprises the perfect year. It remains possible, however, that in another connection he assigned a specific duration to the Great Year.

In the eighth book of Politeia, Plato discusses the question of how an aristocracy can become degraded into a timocracy, i.e. a form of government in which ambition is the dominant principle of the rulers. (Plato, Politeia, VIII, 3, 544d-547c).

This occurs, he says, because the Guardians will not be able, by calculation and observation, to determine the appropriate times for birth. In an extremely difficult passage which has given rise to many commentaries he then gives the computation of what is incorrectly called the “nuptial number.” (A. Diès, Le nombre de Platon, essai d’exégèse et d’histoire, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, XIV, Paris, 1936, and others).

Plato begins by remarking that for the divine creature there is a period embraced by a perfect number. (Plato, Politeia, VIII, 3, 546b). This is reminiscent of his statement that the duration of the Great Year can be expressed in a perfect number.

The zodiac is a planisphere or map of the stars on a plane projection, showing the 12 constellations of the zodiacal band forming 36 decans of ten days each, and the planets. These decans are groups of first-magnitude stars. These were used in the ancient Egyptian calendar, which was based on lunar cycles of around 30 days and on the heliacal rising of the star Sothis (Sirius). The celestial arch is represented by a disc held up by four pillars of the sky in the form of women, between which are inserted falcon-headed spirits. On the first ring 36 spirits symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year. On an inner circle, one finds constellations, showing the signs of the zodiac. Some of these are represented in the same Greco-Roman iconographic forms as their familiar counterparts (e.g. the Ram, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn, albeit most in odd orientations in comparison to the conventions of ancient Greece and later Arabic-Western developments), whilst others are shown in a more Egyptian form: Aquarius is represented as the flood god Hapy, holding two vases which gush water. Rogers noted the similarities of unfamiliar iconology with the three surviving tablets of a "Seleucid zodiac" and both relating to kudurru, "boundary-stone" representations: in short, Rogers sees the Dendera zodiac as "a complete copy of the Mesopotamian zodiac". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dendera_zodiac

The zodiac is a planisphere or map of the stars on a plane projection, showing the 12 constellations of the zodiacal band forming 36 decans of ten days each, and the planets. These decans are groups of first-magnitude stars. These were used in the ancient Egyptian calendar, which was based on lunar cycles of around 30 days and on the heliacal rising of the star Sothis (Sirius).
The celestial arch is represented by a disc held up by four pillars of the sky in the form of women, between which are inserted falcon-headed spirits. On the first ring 36 spirits symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year.
On an inner circle, one finds constellations, showing the signs of the zodiac. Some of these are represented in the same Greco-Roman iconographic forms as their familiar counterparts (e.g. the Ram, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn, albeit most in odd orientations in comparison to the conventions of ancient Greece and later Arabic-Western developments), whilst others are shown in a more Egyptian form: Aquarius is represented as the flood god Hapy, holding two vases which gush water. Rogers noted the similarities of unfamiliar iconology with the three surviving tablets of a “Seleucid zodiac” and both relating to kudurru, “boundary-stone” representations: in short, Rogers sees the Dendera zodiac as “a complete copy of the Mesopotamian zodiac”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dendera_zodiac

For the elucidation of “the divine creature,” reference can be made to the statement in the Timaeus that the Demiurge himself was only the creator of the fixed stars, the planets, and the earth. (Plato, Timaeus, 39e-40b.)

It is therefore probable that the reference in the Politeia to a period comprising a perfect number as belonging to that which the deity generates, should be seen as the duration of the complete cosmic revolution of the Great Year.

But for human creatures, says Plato, there is a geometric number, and this is the one for which he supplies the complex computation already mentioned. Especially since the research done by Diès there has been general agreement that this geometric number, which can be computed in several different ways, is 12,960,000.

To provide the long-sought harmony between the various components of this passage, it has been assumed that the perfect number of the divine creature is the same as the whole geometric number holding for human procreation, the component factors of the geometrical number having special relevance for the latter. (Ahlvers, 19-20, basing himself on 12,960,000 days = 36,000 years).

If this is valid, it may be concluded that in the Politeia Plato assumed a duration of 12,960,000 years for the Great Year.

Even if Plato did not mean that the perfect number of the rotation of that which the deity generates is equal to the geometric number, it would nevertheless have to be taken as probable that the number 12,960,000 originally pertained to the duration of the Great Year and that there is a relationship to the concept underlying Hesiod, frg. 304, since this fragment assumes a cycle of four successive world eras forming together a Great Year of 1,296,000 years. The Platonic number—which, incidentally, is a Babylonian sar squared—is thus ten times Hesiod’s value.”

R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix: According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions, Brill Archive, 1972, pp. 98-9.)

The Great Year Doctrine of World Catastrophe

“In the Greek world the first distinct mention of the Great Year was made by Plato, who argued in his Timaeus that time is produced by the celestial bodies: the moon determines the month, the sun the year; but the times of the planets and of the sphere of the fixed stars are so great that it can hardly be known whether they are times at all.

In any case it is clear that the perfect number of time fulfills the perfect year at the moment at which the sun, the moon, the planets, and the fixed stars have all completed their courses and have again reached their starting point. (Plato, Timaeus, 39c, 39d).

By this is meant that the Great Year is completed when the celestial bodies have reached the same positions in relation to each other as they had at the beginning of that period. The identical conception is found in Cicero, qualified by the statement that the actual duration of such a period is a matter of controversy (Cicero, De natura deorum, II, 51-2).

But in his Hortensius, the book which was later to make such a strong impression on the young Augustine, Cicero equated the Great Year with 12,954 ordinary years, as we know from Tacitus and Servius (Tacitus, Dialogus de oratoribus, 16, 7. Maurus Servius Honoratus, Commentary on the Aenid of Virgil, I, 296. The same number is given by Solinus in connection with the phoenix, Solini Polyhistor, cap. xxxvi).

In addition to these opinions about the Great Year there is another according to which the sun, the moon, and the five planets all return at the end of the Great Year to one and the same sign of the Zodiac, the one under which they were when it began. According to Censorinus, Aristotle himself had put forward this same view, and preferentially indicated this period as “the Greatest Year.” This year, like the ordinary solar year, was thought to have a summer and winter too, the summer culminating in a world conflagration and the world in a world flood. (Censorinus, De die natali, 18, II. ).

How much of this really goes back to Aristotle cannot be said with certainty. (V. Rose, Aristotelis fragmenta, Lipsiae, 1886, 39, frg. 25). According to Seneca, Berossus, the Babylonian priest of Bel who wrote in the third century BC, propagated the same doctrine in a more detailed form: when the sun, the moon, and the planets came to lie in a straight line under the sign of Cancer, the world would burst into flames; and if they reached that position under Capricorn, the world would be inundated. (Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, III, 29, I).

BM102485 - Boundary stone (kudurru) Kassite dynasty, about 1125-1100 BC Probably from southern Iraq A legal statement about the ownership of a piece of land The cuneiform inscription on this kudurru records the granting by Eanna-shum-iddina, the governor of the Sealand, of five gur of corn land in the district of Edina in south Babylonia to a man called Gula-eresh. The boundaries of the land are laid out; the surveyor is named as Amurru-bel-zeri and the transfer completed by two high officials who are also named. Nine gods are invoked to protect the monument, along with seventeen divine symbols. The symbols of the important Mesopotamian gods are most prominent: the solar disc of the sun-god Shamash, the crescent of the moon-god Sin and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, goddess of fertility and war. The square boxes beneath these signs represent altars supporting the symbols of gods, including horned headdresses, the triangular spade of Marduk, and the wedge-shaped stylus of Nabu, the god of writing. A prominent snake is shown on many kudurru and may, like many of the symbols, be related to the constellations. The text ends with curses on anyone who removes, ignores or destroys the kudurru. L.W. King, Babylonian boundary stones and (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/b/boundary_stone_kudurru-6.aspx

BM102485 – Boundary stone (kudurru)
Kassite dynasty, about 1125-1100 BC
Probably from southern Iraq
A legal statement about the ownership of a piece of land
The cuneiform inscription on this kudurru records the granting by Eanna-shum-iddina, the governor of the Sealand, of five gur of corn land in the district of Edina in south Babylonia to a man called Gula-eresh. The boundaries of the land are laid out; the surveyor is named as Amurru-bel-zeri and the transfer completed by two high officials who are also named.
Nine gods are invoked to protect the monument, along with seventeen divine symbols. The symbols of the important Mesopotamian gods are most prominent: the solar disc of the sun-god Shamash, the crescent of the moon-god Sin and the eight-pointed star of Ishtar, goddess of fertility and war. The square boxes beneath these signs represent altars supporting the symbols of gods, including horned headdresses, the triangular spade of Marduk, and the wedge-shaped stylus of Nabu, the god of writing.
A prominent snake is shown on many kudurru and may, like many of the symbols, be related to the constellations. The text ends with curses on anyone who removes, ignores or destroys the kudurru.
L.W. King, Babylonian Boundary Stones (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1912)
© The Trustees of the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/b/boundary_stone_kudurru-6.aspx

These rather improbable theories were especially favored among astrologers, since Greek astronomy had already reached a point of development at which the doctrines of Berossus could not be accepted. (J. Bidez, Bérose et la grande année, in Melanges Paul Fredericq, Brussels, 1904, 9-19.)

These texts treating the views of Aristotle and Berossus say that world catastrophes corresponding to the summer and winter of the solar year can occur in the course of the Great Year. The period between two world catastrophes could also be seen as a Great Year, but only in the derivative sense. The true Great Year, which might with Aristotle be called the Greatest Year, coincided with a complete cosmic revolution, whether interpreted in the sense of Plato and Cicero or in that of Aristotle and Berossus.

The Great Year of the Classical world arose from the purely mythical conception of a cosmic periodicity ultimately traceable to Babylonia.” (B.L. van der Waerden, Das gross Jahr und die ewige Wiederkehr, in Hermes, 80, 1952, 135-43.)”

R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix: According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions, Brill Archive, 1972, pp. 72-6.

Plato on Time

“When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be.

Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fulness upon a creature was impossible.

Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.

For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.

They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause.

These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent–all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion. 

Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together.

It was framed after the pattern of the eternal nature, that it might resemble this as far as was possible; for the pattern exists from eternity, and the created heaven has been, and is, and will be, in all time. Such was the mind and thought of God in the creation of time.

The sun and moon and five other stars, which are called the planets, were created by him in order to distinguish and preserve the numbers of time; and when he had made their several bodies, he placed them in the orbits in which the circle of the other was revolving–in seven orbits seven stars.

First, there was the moon in the orbit nearest the earth, and next the sun, in the second orbit above the earth; then came the morning star and the star sacred to Hermes, moving in orbits which have an equal swiftness with the sun, but in an opposite direction; and this is the reason why the sun and Hermes and Lucifer overtake and are overtaken by each other.

To enumerate the places which he assigned to the other stars, and to give all the reasons why he assigned them, although a secondary matter, would give more trouble than the primary. These things at some future time, when we are at leisure, may have the consideration which they deserve, but not at present.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. Translated by Benjamin Jowett.

Plato on the Creation

“Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements; for the Creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside.

His intention was, in the first place, that the animal should be as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts: secondly, that it should be one, leaving no remnants out of which another such world might be created: and also that it should be free from old age and unaffected by disease.

Considering that if heat and cold and other powerful forces which unite bodies surround and attack them from without when they are unprepared, they decompose them, and by bringing diseases and old age upon them, make them waste away–for this cause and on these grounds he made the world one whole, having every part entire, and being therefore perfect and not liable to old age and disease.

And he gave to the world the figure which was suitable and also natural.

Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure was suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike.

This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him.

Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself.

For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle.

All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

Such was the whole plan of the eternal God about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies.

And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).

Atlantis

“Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end.

This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent.

Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind.

She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.

But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).

9,000 Years of Prehistory

“Solon marvelled at his words, and earnestly requested the priests to inform him exactly and in order about these former citizens.

You are welcome to hear about them, Solon, said the priest, both for your own sake and for that of your city, and above all, for the sake of the goddess who is the common patron and parent and educator of both our cities. She founded your city a thousand years before ours, receiving from the Earth and Hephaestus the seed of your race, and afterwards she founded ours, of which the constitution is recorded in our sacred registers to be eight thousand years old.

As touching your citizens of nine thousand years ago, I will briefly inform you of their laws and of their most famous action; the exact particulars of the whole we will hereafter go through at our leisure in the sacred registers themselves. If you compare these very laws with ours you will find that many of ours are the counterpart of yours as they were in the olden time.

In the first place, there is the caste of priests, which is separated from all the others; next, there are the artificers, who ply their several crafts by themselves and do not intermix; and also there is the class of shepherds and of hunters, as well as that of husbandmen; and you will observe, too, that the warriors in Egypt are distinct from all the other classes, and are commanded by the law to devote themselves solely to military pursuits; moreover, the weapons which they carry are shields and spears, a style of equipment which the goddess taught of Asiatics first to us, as in your part of the world first to you.

Then as to wisdom, do you observe how our law from the very first made a study of the whole order of things, extending even to prophecy and medicine which gives health, out of these divine elements deriving what was needful for human life, and adding every sort of knowledge which was akin to them.

All this order and arrangement the goddess first imparted to you when establishing your city; and she chose the spot of earth in which you were born, because she saw that the happy temperament of the seasons in that land would produce the wisest of men.

Wherefore the goddess, who was a lover both of war and of wisdom, selected and first of all settled that spot which was the most likely to produce men likest herself. And there you dwelt, having such laws as these and still better ones, and excelled all mankind in all virtue, as became the children and disciples of the gods.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).  

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE

” … In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came.

The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them.

To this city came Solon, and was received there with great honour; he asked the priests who were most skilful in such matters, about antiquity, and made the discovery that neither he nor any other Hellene knew anything worth mentioning about the times of old.

On one occasion, wishing to draw them on to speak of antiquity, he began to tell about the most ancient things in our part of the world–about Phoroneus, who is called “the first man,” and about Niobe; and after the Deluge, of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha; and he traced the genealogy of their descendants, and reckoning up the dates, tried to compute how many years ago the events of which he was speaking happened.

Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why.

There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes. There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helioshaving yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.

Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore. And from this calamity the Nile, who is our never-failing saviour, delivers and preserves us.

When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea. Whereas in this land, neither then nor at any other time, does the water come down from above on the fields, having always a tendency to come up from below; for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient.

The fact is, that wherever the extremity of winter frost or of summer does not prevent, mankind exist, sometimes in greater, sometimes in lesser numbers. And whatever happened either in your country or in ours, or in any other region of which we are informed–if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples.

Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.

As for those genealogies of yours which you just now recounted to us, Solon, they are no better than the tales of children. In the first place you remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones; in the next place, you do not know that there formerly dwelt in your land the fairest and noblest race of men which ever lived, and that you and your whole city are descended from a small seed or remnant of them which survived.

And this was unknown to you, because, for many generations, the survivors of that destruction died, leaving no written word. For there was a time, Solon, before the great deluge of all, when the city which now is Athens was first in war and in every way the best governed of all cities, is said to have performed the noblest deeds and to have had the fairest constitution of any of which tradition tells, under the face of heaven.”

Plato, Timaeus, 360 BCE. (Translated by Benjamin Jowett).

The Pillars of Seth

OF THE SIRIADIC COLUMNS.
FROM JOSEPHUS.

“All these (the sons of Seth), being naturally of a good disposition, lived happily in the land without apostatising, and free from any evils whatsoever: and they studiously turned their attention to the knowledge of the heavenly bodies and their configurations.

And lest their science should at any time be lost among men, and what they had previously acquired should perish, (inasmuch as Adam had acquainted them that a universal aphanism, or destruction of all things, would take place alternately by the force of fire and the overwhelming powers of water), they erected two columns, the one of brick and the other of stone, and engraved upon each of them their discoveries; so that, in case the brick pillar should be dissolved by the waters, the stone one might survive to teach men the things engraved upon it, and at the same time inform them that a brick one had formerly been also erected by them.

It remains even to the present day in the land of Siriad.”158 ―Extracted from Josephus Antiquities of the Jews Book i. ch. 2.

NOTE BY THE EDITOR. “We do not here propose to renew the inquiry concerning the celebrated antediluvian columns, or stelae, on which the lore of this primaeval world, with all its wisdom, was said to be transmitted.

Plato, it is well-known, speaks of these columns in the opening of the Timaeus. We shall examine, in the 5th book, whether this be anything more than a figurative description, and how far we may be justified in assuming any connection between the Egyptian legend and the two pillars of Seth mentioned by Josephus. (Antiq. i., ch. 2).

These pillars, it is obvious, have reference to the Book of Enoch 159; perhaps also to the pillars of Akikarus, or Akicharus, the Prophet of Babylon, (or the Bosphorus), whose wisdom Democritus is said to have stolen, and on which Theophrastus composed a treatise.

In the Egyptian traditions that have come down to us, these primaeval stelae do not make their appearance until the third and fourth centuries. They are first mentioned in the so-called Fragments of Hermes, in Stobaeus; afterwards, in Zosimus of Panopolis, evidently in the colouring of Judaising-Christian writers; but, in their worst shape, in the fourth century, in the work of an impostor who assumed the name of Manetho.

That in this latter instance, at least, they were connected with the narrative of Josephus, is shown by their allusion to the ‘Syriadic Country.'”―Extracted from Bunsen’s Egypt’s Place in History, vol. 1., p. 7, 8.

E. Edmond Hodges, Cory’s Ancient Fragments, 3d ed., 1876, pp. 151-2.

I.P. Cory on Paganism

” … But the internal heresies of the Church were not the only ill effects which the misguided zeal of the fathers, in forcing upon Plato the doctrine of the Trinity, brought about.

Though it is possible, that by pointing out some crude similarity of doctrine, they might have obtajned some converts by rendering Christianity less unpalatable to the philosophical world of that day, yet the weapon was skilfully turned against them, and with unerring effect, when the Pagans took upon them to assert that nothing new had been revealed in Christianity; since, by the confessions of its very advocates, the system was previously contained in the writings of Plato.

In the third century, Ammonius Saccas, universally acknowledged to have been a man of consummate ability, taught that every sect, Christian, Heretic or Pagan, had received the truth, and retained it in their varied legends. He undertook, therefore, to unfold it from them all, and to reconcile every creed.

And from his exertions sprung the celebrated Eclectic school of the later Platonists. Plotinus, Amelius, Olympius, Porphyrius, Jamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus, were among the celebrated professors who succeeded Ammonius in the Platonic chair, and revived and kept alive the spirit of Paganism, with a bitter enmity to the Gospel, for near three hundred years.

The Platonic schools were at length closed by the edict of Justinian; and seven wise men, the last lights of Platonism, Diogenes, Hermias, Eulalius, Priscianus, Damascius, Isidorus and Simplicius retired indignantly from the persecutions of Justinian, to realize the shadowy dreams of the republic of Plato, under the Persian despotism of Chosroes.16

From the writings of these philosophers is collected the bulk of the Oracles of Zoroaster. A few of them were first published by Ludovicus Tiletanus at Paris, with the commentaries of Pletho, to which were subsequently added those of Psellus. Chief part of them, however, were collected by Franciscus Patricius, and published with the Hermetic books at the end of his Nova Philosophia.

To the labours of Mr. Taylor we are indebted for the addition of about fifty more, and for the references to the works from whence all were extracted. I have arranged them according to the subjects, which are said to be occultly discussed in the Parmenides of Plato, viz.: Cause or God, the Ideal Intelligible or Intellectual world, Particular Souls, and the Material world.

And I have placed under a separate head the Magical and Philosophical precepts and directions. There can be no question but that many of these Oracles are spurious; all those, for instance, which relate to the Intelligible and Intellectual orders, which were confessedly obtained in answers given by dæmons, raised for that purpose by the Theurgists;17 who, as well as all the later Platonists, made pretensions to magic, not only in its refinements, which they were pleased to designate Theurgy, but also in that debased form which we should call common witchcraft.

Nevertheless, several of the Oracles seem to be derived from more authentic sources, and, like the spurious Hermetic books which have come down to us, probably contain much of the pure Sabiasm of Persia, and the doctrines of the Oriental philosophy.”

I.P. Cory, Ancient Fragments, 1832, Introduction.

Marsilio Ficino and Christian Kabbalah

“Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico dela Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

The Five Rivers of Hades

The River Lethe was one of the five rivers of Hades. The River Lethe was also known as the Ameles Potamos (river of unmindfulness). All who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was identified.

In Classical Greek, the word “Lethe” means oblivion, forgetfulness, or concealment. It is related to the Greek term for truth, “aletheia,” meaning “unforgetfulness.”

The five rivers of Hades were:

Styx: river of hate.

Akheron: river of sorrow.

Kokytos: the river of lamentation.

Plegethon: river of fire.

Lethe: river of forgetfulness and oblivion.

According to Statius, the River Lethe bordered Elysium, the final resting place of the virtuous. Ovid wrote that the River Lethe flowed through the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness.

The shades of the dead were required to drink from the River Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. In the Aenid, Virgil wrote that only after the dead had their memories erased by the Lethe could they be reincarnated.

The goddess Lethe was the personification of forgetfulness and oblivion. Hesiod’s Theogony identifies her as the daughter of Eris (strife), and the sister of Ponos (toil), Limos (starvation), Algea (pains), the Hysminai (fightings), the Makhai (battles), the Phonoi (murders), the Androktasiai (manslaughters), the Neikea (quarrels), the Pseudologoi (lies), the Amphilogiai (disputes), Dysnomia (lawless), Atë (ruin), and Horkos (oath).

The Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic describes the dead arriving at the Plain of Lethe, through which the River Ameles (careless) runs. Mystery religions taught the existence of the River Mnemosyne: those who drank from this river would attain omniscience and remember everything. Initiates were taught that they would have a choice of rivers from which to drink after death, and they were taught that they should elect to drink from the River Mnemosyne instead of Lethe.

References to the two rivers derive from verse inscriptions on gold plates from Thuri in Southern Italy. There were rivers of Lethe and Msemosyne at the oracular shrine of Trophonius in Boeotia, from which worshippers would drink before seeking oracular consultations with the god.

(Wiki).

You Say Kabbalah, I Say Cabala

Christian kabbalah can be traced to the “school of Marsilio Ficino in Florence, in the second half of the fifteenth century.”

“Ficino is best known for his translations of Plato’s writings from Greek to Latin, but of much importance was his translation to Latin of the corpus of esoteric, mysterious old treatises known as the Hermetica. These works, probably originating from Egypt in late antiquity, are attributed to a mysterious ancient philosopher, Hermes Trismegistus (The Thrice-Great Hermes), and they deal with magic, astrology, and esoteric theology.”

Ficino and his followers considered magic as “an ancient scientific doctrine, the source of all religious and natural truth.”

Dan mentions Count Giovani Pico de la Mirandola, a “great thinker, young scholar and theologian, who died at age thirty-three in 1496.”

He also observes that Pico’s interest in Hebrew was facilitated by the Latin translations of the Jewish Christian convert, Flavius Methredates.”

Pico’s most famous work, the Nine Hundred Theses, proclaims that Christianity’s truth is best demonstrated by the disciplines of magic and kabbalah.” In Pico’s work, magic and kabbalah are often indistinguishable. He interpreted kabbalistic texts as “ancient esoteric lore, conserved by Jews, at the heart of which was the Christian message.”

–Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, pg. 62-3.

On Metempsychosis, or Reincarnation

“Indian contact with the Greeks can be traced back to Alexander the Great, establishing trade and exchange between the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East (Persian), and India. The classic narrative of this relationship is found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana (recorded by Philostratus, c. 220 CE). Apollonius journeyed to India to study at the sacred hill of the Indian “wise men marked with a crescent on their foreheads”. When Apollonius (d. 98 CE) was asked about why he came on such a long journey, he replied “Your ways are wiser and much more godly”, clearly indicating a classic Greek respect for Indian thought at the time of Roman Philostratus (36).

Another example, far more significant, is that of the teachings of the Persian religious leader, Mani (c. 245 CE). According to Mani’s teachings, the Apostles of Light sent by Jesus to redeem humanity included the Buddha and Manichaeism is distinctively influenced by Buddhist ideas, such as Mani representing himself as the Buddha to come, Maitreya (37). In esoteric circles, Iranian syncretic religions (such as those of Kushan) came to be regarded as influenced by both Greco-Roman and Indo-Iranian ideas, ideas that have carried over into the history of various forms of Western Esotericism but are little studied (38).

One of the significant esoteric teachings contained in the Life of Apollonius, recorded as a teaching of the Indian sages, is that on reincarnation. When Apollonius asks about the nature of the soul, he is told that, like Pythagoras and Plato, human beings live many lives in diverse bodies based on past actions. Further, the Indian sages claim that this teaching which was taught to the Greek philosophers in Egypt was transmitted to the Egyptians by ancient Rishis’ of India who migrated to north Africa (Ethiopia) from the Ganges River basin (39).

The belief in reincarnation or metempsychosis has very ancient roots in India and is the probable source of that belief in the classical period of formative Gnosticism (40). Gnostic teachers such as Basilides propagated the idea along with other groups such as the Carpocratians and Ophites, and it was popular among various Neoplatonists such as Alcinous, as well as taught by the archetypal magician, Simon Magus. It was also taught by Mani as the fate of the “Hearers” who did not attain perfection (41). Gnostic texts such as the ZostrianosThe Treatise on Resurrection, and the later Pistis Sophia further propagated ideas of reincarnation for the “inpenitent soul” that it might try again to attain the goal of liberation from worldly life (42). Thus a very early Indian influence in Western Esotericism may have roots in the spread and popularity of ideas of reincarnation, also found in early elements of Christianity but later repressed.”

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”

http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/VolumeIII/HTML/Irwin.html

The Fall and the Mysteries

“Socrates, in the Phaedo, speaks of “the ancient doctrine that souls pass out of this world to the other, and there exist, and then come back hither from the dead, and are born again.”

In Hesiod’s Works and Days there is the image of the Wheel of Life. In the mystical tradition there was prominent the wide-spread notion of a fall of higher forms of life into the human sphere of limitation and misery. The Orphics definitely taught that the soul of man fell from the stars into the prison of this earthly body, sinking from the upper regions of fire and light into the misty darkness of this dismal vale. The fall is ascribed to some original sin, which entailed expulsion from the purity and perfection of divine existence and had to be expiated by life on earth and by purgation in the nether world.”

Both Plato and Empedocles were expelled from a Pythagorean society or school, for revealing the secret teachings to the profane.

(R.D. Hicks: “The Platonic myths afford ample evidence that Plato was perfectly familiar with all the leading features of this strange creed. The divine origin of the soul, its fall from bliss and the society of the gods, its long pilgrimage of penance through hundreds of generations, its task of purification from earthly pollution, its reincarnation in successive bodies, its upward and downward progress, and the law of retribution for all offenses.”)

“There is evidence pointing to the fact that Plato was quite familiar with the Mystery teachings, if not actually an initiate. In the Phaedrus he says:

“….being initiated into those Mysteries which it is lawful to call the most blessed of all Mysteries….we were free from the molestation of evils which otherwise await us in a future period of time. Likewise in consequence of this divine initiation, we become spectators of entire, simple, immovable and blessed visions resident in the pure light.”

–Alvin Boyd Kuhn,  A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, pg. 8.

Ivan Elagin (1725-93), Doctrine of Ancient Philosophy and Divine Knowledge.

Here is another book which exists, but has never been published. The Russian Doctrine of Ancient Philosophy and Divine Knowledge, or Knowledge of Free Masons, written in the 1780’s by Ivan Elagin (1725-93). To wit:

“Freemasonry … existed from time immemorial under a veil of dark hieroglyphs, allegories and symbols. It will never be forgotten, changed or demolished…It is that wisdom which [Jewish] patriarchs had at the beginning of the world and from them it was transmitted and kept as a great secret in the holy temples of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks and Romans … in the lodges or schools of Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, and the wise men of India, China, Druids, etc.” (Elagin, Doctrine of Ancient Philosophy, pg. 232.)

“Thus the source of the Kabbalah is here an immediate divine revelation granted to Moses and through him to the people of Israel (and afterwards to the whole of humankind).”

–From Konstantin Burmistrov, “The Kabbalah as Primordial Tradition in Russian Secret Societies,” in Andreas Kilcher, Constructing Tradition, Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, 2010, pg. 326.

Borges on the doctrine of rebirth.

“In the West the idea has been propounded by various thinkers, above all by Pythagoras–who recognized the shield with which he had fought in the Trojan War, when he had another name.

In the tenth book of Plato’s Republic is the dream of Er, a soldier who watches the souls choose their fates before drinking in the river of Oblivion.

Agamemnon chooses to be an eagle, Orpheus a swan, and Odysseus–who once called himself Nobody–chooses to be the most modest, the most unknown of men.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “Buddhism,” Seven Nights, 1984, pp. 55.