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Tag: Socrates

Eco: Before and After Europe


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.

Augury Through the Flights of Birds and the Voice of the Thunder

“The divine storm-bird,” however, who invested himself by stealth with the attributes of Mul-lil, and carried the knowledge of futurity to mankind, served to unite the two species of augury which read the future in the flight of birds and the flash of the lightning.

The first species was but a branch of the general pseudo-science which discovered coming events from the observation of animals and their actions, while the second species was closely allied to the belief that in the thunder men heard the voice of the gods. The old belief marked its impress upon Hebrew as well as upon Assyro-Babylonian thought.

“The voice of thy thunder was in the whirlwind,” says the Psalmist; and nothing can show more clearly what must once have been the Canaanitish faith than the poetic imagery of another Psalm (xxix.):

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;

the God of glory thundereth;

the Lord is upon many waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars;

yea, the Lord breaketh the cedars of Lebanon. …

The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness;

the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests.”

In the Talmud, “the voice of the Lord” has become the bath qôl, or “daughter of the voice,” a supernatural message from heaven which sometimes proceeded from the Holy of Holies, sometimes, like the δαιμονιον of Socrates, assumed the form of an intuition directing the recipient as to his course in life.

This prophetic voice of heaven was heard in the thunder by the Accadians as well as by the Semites. I have already noticed that the Accadians believed the sounds of nature to be divine voices, from which the initiated could derive a knowledge of the future.

At Eridu it was more especially the roar of the sea in which the Sumerian priest listened to the revelations of his deities, and this perhaps was the oracle through which Oannes had spoken to men. In the rival city of northern Babylonia, where the supreme god presided over the realm of the dead, and not over the waters of the sea, the divine voice came to men in the thunder.

By the side of Mul-lil, the lord of the ghost-world, stood Mul-me-sarra (Wül-mö-sára), “the lord of the voice of the firmament.” Mul-me-sarra, in fact, was but Mul-lil himself in another form, and hence, as lord of Hades, was the author, not only of the thunder, but of subterranean noises as well.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, 299-300.

Arabic Antecedents of Alchemy

Another “oriental” influence is that found in the Western alchemical traditions, deeply influenced by Islamic spiritual practices and philosophies. The entire history of alchemy passes through Islamic alchemical traditions, inherited from the Greeks, but is infused with Islamic spiritual ideas regarding the alchemical processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. c. 760 CE), later known as Gerber (in Latin), a Persian Sufi living in southern Arabia, was believed to be the author of many alchemical texts, showing a clear attribution to “oriental wisdom” in the transmission of alchemy to the Medieval west. The mystical style of the Jabir corpus reflects many Sufi ideas and may have been authored by the Iranian brethren of Purity (c. 1100). However, one text, the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Jabir, c. 800, who in fact attributes this text to Apollonius of Tyana, is the basis for the single most popular text in Western Hermeticism, translated into Latin (1140) as the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) (43).

This text, transiting from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, to Latin and finally to modern European languages, is a symbolic testimony to the interweaving of classical, “oriental” and later European alchemical and hermetic thought. The very term alchemy (al-kimia) is, of course, Arabic transmitted from the Greek (chemeia) and carries with it a fusion of Greek and Arabic ideas, as expressed in the famous, influential alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (“Conference of Philosophers,” c. 900 CE, translated into Latin by the 13th century) which combines pre-Socratic philosophy with Islamic-Sufi ideas (44). Maslama ibn Ahmad’s The Aim of the Wise was translated into Spanish and Latin, where it became known as Picatrix (1256). Many other Arabic influences (Razi, Avicenna, and so on) can be traced in the history of western alchemy, stemming particularly from the 7th through the 11th centuries (45).

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

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.

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