Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism

Book Review: Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism by Adrian Kuzminski (Lexington Books 2008 – Kindle edition)

This is an interesting and important book which offers an interpretation of a philosophical way of approaching belief that I think is an excellent way of being and that could do much for our world threatened by the madness of fanatical dogmatists. This Pyrrhonist view is most exemplified in the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers Pyrrho of Elis and Sextus Empiricus, and in other forms by the Buddhist philosophers Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti as well as the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I think the book’s title (or rather subtitle) is a bit misleading as a case is not really made for Pyrrho or any of the later Pyrrhonist sceptics actually reworking Buddhist philosophy though that is a remote possibility as Pyrrho was said to have visited India with Alexander the Great and developed his philosophy from ideas of Indian sages. Nagarjuna came along several centuries after Pyrrho and it seems more plausible (though not very) that he was influenced by the Greeks who had lived and mingled in Bactria in Indo-Greek syncretistic mostly Buddhist communities since the time of Alexander. This book is one of comparative philosophy. It is unique that it is a comparison of nondogmatic philosophies.

Pyrrhonists are distinguished by the idea of suspending judgment about what is nonevident. Furthermore, this freedom from belief (about what is nonevident) was thought by them to extend to a kind of contemplative freedom without the anxiety surrounding beliefs. This they called ataraxia. Belief involves uncertainty and uncertainty can spur anxiety. Focus on presence and immediate experience without clinging to beliefs can mitigate such anxiety. I think such a practice can be quite relevant today and quite therapeutic as well. One might call it – ‘keeping an open mind’ – which is perhaps more difficult to do than one might think as we have preconceived notions about many things.

The author makes a long and quite detailed case to point out that Pyrrhonism is different than Scepticism, particularly the later Scepticism of the Academics, which is more a “nihilistic negative dogmatism.” Pyrrhonism and Academic Scepticism have been equated throughout history and he makes a very good case that this is a misunderstanding that has been perpetuated through time. The Academic Sceptics assert that there are no true beliefs while the Pyrrhonist makes no assertions, but merely suspends belief. This seems to be a very clear difference. Academic Sceptics draw a conclusion while Pyrrhonists do not. Nothing nonevident is affirmed or denied and judgment is suspended. Pyrrhonism is not a view or theory, but rather a practice of non-attachment to things non-evident. It is therapeutic rather than dogmatic. Sextus Empiricus referred to it as a skill, or ability, rather than a view, or dogma. Only appearances are evident – sensations and thoughts that make for obvious acknowledgement and upon which we can easily agree. These ideas, according to Kuzminski, bear “…a striking similarity to some Eastern nondogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism.”

The Pyrrhonists called themeselves skeptics but “only in the original Greek sense of the word, skeptikos – a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates, etc.” Unlike the later Sceptics they did not question all assertions and when they did so the goal was to discern which assertions concerned nonevident matters and which were based on self-evident experience. Thus the goal of their inquiry was not to endorse or refute statements but to sort out what is (subtly) evident from is nonevident.

Sextus Empiricus in his Outlines of Scepticism “distinguishes Pyrrhonism very clearly from negative as well as positive dogmatism.” To him a “sceptic” is merely an inquirer and not one associated with a particular view. Pyrro of Elis was around in the 4th century B.C. By the middle of the 3rd century B.C. the term “sceptic” began to be associated with a view of negative dogmatism by those in Plato’s Academy. Sextus Empiricus lived in the 2nd century C.E. but still exemplifies the Pyrrhonist ideal rather than the negative dogmatism of the Academic Sceptics. Most scholars have apparently regarded these stances as two branches of one school but the author makes an excellent case that this is a big misnomer. Sextus Empiricus divided philosophy into those who have discovered the truth – Dogmatists (ie. Stoics, Aristotelians, Epicureans, etc), those who have discovered that truth is not discoverable – the Academics (negative dogmatists), and those who are still investigating – Sceptics (Pyrrhonists). Here is clear differentiation of Academics (now called Sceptics) and Sceptics (here called Pyrrhonists). This is the confusion that has been perpetuated. Oddly, as Kuzminski notes, this confusion, perpetuated from an early time, has relegated Pyrrhonism to a fringe way of thought that is only now rediscoverable in its original form. The early Academic Sceptic – Arcesilaus (a late contemporary of Pyrrho) was said by both Sextus Empiricus and Diogenes of Laertius in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, to be a fake Pyrrhonist who was really a Dogmatist. The Academic Sceptics also tended to abandon the goal of ataraxia – the tranquility that comes from being free of attachment to beliefs. Kuzminski also notes that it is a great irony that Pyrrhonism has come to be associated with a form of Dogmatism since the whole basis of it is non-dogmatism. More recent philosophers such as Hume and Nietzsche have also perpetuated the error of equating Pyrrhonism with Dogmatism. Nietzsche had some insights into the matter regarding the connectoion of Pyrrhonism to Buddhism but considered both to be nihilistic. In Buddhist philosophy, nihilism is well pondered but considered to be a non-desirable and extreme view. Nietzsche celebrated the Will as the antidote against the “emptiness” or meaninglessness of nihilism. Another part of the confusion is the question whether thoughts and sensations are beliefs. We can have beliefs about thoughts or sensations but if those beliefs are nonevident – if there are no logical and agreed upon means of drawing a conclusion about them then according to Pyrrhonists, beliefs about them should be suspended. The work is in sorting the evident from the nonevident. It is the negative dogmatist Academic Sceptics that refute all beliefs while the Pyrrhonist does not specifically accept or reject beliefs but merely suspends judgment.

Pyrrho of Elis was said to be influenced by Indian sages in developing his philosophy and it is reasonably likely that those sages were Buddhists. Although Madhyamaka philosophy was not yet present the idea of suspending judgement about beliefs may well have been derived from these sages. Although the author does not mention it there is a sutra attributed to Buddha – I believe from the Pali Canon – that refers specifically to the dangers of getting attached to opinions, any opinions. This is similar to the Pyrrhonist philosophical practice. Pyrrho lived a simple life after returning from India. He was visited in Elis by seekers such as his disciples Timon, Hecataeus, and Nausiphanes. Timon was known for his humor. After these students of Pyrrho the tradition fades into obscurity for a while but then is revived centuries later near the time of Sextus Empiricus. However, Diogenes of Laertius does offer a lineage of Pyrrhonists (that does not include the Academic Sceptics) in his Lives when speaking of the life of Timon.   

Pyrrhonists advocated detachment from what is nonevident rather than what is evident. This is an important distinction that may distance it just a little from Buddhism, although much of the detachment recommended in Buddhism is indeed regarding our beliefs about things, or more specifically our mistaken beliefs about things.

Apparently, there are few modern people who consider themselves to be Pyrrhonists. One is the Norwegian ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who wrote a book on Scepticism. He is also apparently well aware of the distinction between Pyrrhonism and Academic scepticsim. Naess states the Pyrrhonian “view” thusly:

“Reality is in darkness, but not necessarily in darkness; perhaps it can be brought to light; at least he does not know that it cannot.”

The author thinks that Naess does not go far enough in his suspension of belief – that he considers, as did many of the ancient Greek philosophers, conceptuality to be the vehicle of truth and so that notion itself becomes a belief. This is a bit paradoxical but I think the idea is that the existence of “truth” itself is really a belief in the existence of truth. It is a belief that if we could discover the correct conceptualizations, then we would apprehend truth and thus make evident what is nonevident.

Sextus Empiricus best explained the Pyrrhonist way of thinking in his texts where he detailed the sorting of the evident from the nonevident. Appearances are those things that are apparent, that can be agreed upon by convention. Beliefs beyond this are often sources of conflict and misunderstanding. Myths and abstract theories may sometimes require a “temporary suspension of disbelief” in order to fully experience them. Such nonevident projections may have value that can point out and enhance what is evident but the sheer belief in them is belief in the nonevident. There is an account by the 2nd century Christian Eusebius that paraphrases the method of Pyrrho as given by his disciple Timon:

“… we… should be without opinions and without inclinations and without wavering, saying about each single thing that it no more is than is not or both is and is not or neither is or is not”

Interestingly, the four conditions noted above (is, is not, both, and neither) are a logical argument put forth by both Indians and Greeks and perhaps other ancient thinkers and are a special feature of Mahayana logical philosophy where they are sometimes called the “four extremes.” It is also called the tetralemma, or quadralemma, in the Greek tradition where it was known to Aristotle (before Alexander’s travels) where he complained that it was annoying to argue against – yet Pyrrhonists may not have considered its use as a practice rather than as a logical argument.

Kuzminski notes that Pyrrhonism and Buddhism are both nondogmatic soteriological practices. Pyrrhonism may be the only such practice in the Western traditions, he notes. Other Eastern nondogmatic soteriological practices may include some forms of Taoism, Jainism, and Hindusim. Kuzminski gives a survey of possible idea diffusion among Greeks and Indians. A thoroughly comprehensive and utterly fascinating study of this sort is Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought which traces and compares the development of many ideas all across the ancient world. In both Buddhism and Pyrrhonism great effort is put forth to avoid adoption of specific views and as argued this is a practice more than a view since it is the avoidance of views – even the avoidance of a view-avoiding view. Kuzminski thinks that Pyrrho developed the idea of ataraxia, tranquility through freedom from beliefs based on his contacts with Indian sages. He cites other authors such as Flintoff who notes several Indian ideas that may involve freedom from belief such as: ahimsa, advaita, nirvana, ananda, samadhi, bodhi, chit, moksha, sat.
Flintoff also pointed out that there existed a skeptical tradition in India once led by an obscure contemporary of Buddha called Sanjaya Belatthiputta. Diogenes of Laertius notes that Pyrrho met with gymnosophists (naked philosophers). They may have been Buddhists, Jains, or these Sanjayan skeptics. One scholar, Hiralal Jain, noted that Sanjaya was considered an Ajnavada, or an Agnostic. Diogenes also noted that Pyrrho adopted a wandering lifestyle after his return to Greece, likely influenced by the Indian ascetics. Other ancient Westerners who adopted such customs included Diogenes the Cynic and Apollonius of Tyana.

Kuzminski compares other ancient Western practices to Eastern meditative traditions but finds few key similarities until Hellenistic times when diffusion likely brought more ideas from the East that were integrated into the Western traditions. He mentions the yogic and meditative practices of the Greek Hesychasts who practiced immovability of the body and stopping of the breath. Later there are the meditative spiritual practices of theurgists and Neoplatonists like Plotinus that quite resemble Eastern meditation.

McEvilley’s book noted the similarities between Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti but discounted any direct Indian influences on Pyrrho, even though the legends say otherwise. He also noted that Democritus as well as Pyrrho’s teacher Anaxarchus had developed an idea of tranquility as a goal of philosophy so perhaps his ideas were at least partially developed before he went to India. But Flintoff notes that harnessing the specific technique of suspension of judgment as a means to liberation was not in evidence among the Greeks before Pyrrho.

Next, Kuzminski covers the roots of Madhyamaka Buddhism. He mentions the Sutta Nipata from the Pali canon as a source. Key texts are Nagarjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Chandrakirti’s The Entry Into the Middle Way. The key texts for Pyrrhonism are Diogenes of Laertius’s Life of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Scepticism and Against the Logicians. Comparing Madhyamaka Buddhism and Pyrrhonian scepticism, Kuzminski favorably compares the following ideas of these two systems: method, belief, suspension of judgment, tranquility, and appearances. Appearances here include both thoughts and sensations. The comparisons he gives are detailed and most favorable. Madhyamaka philosophy also deals with the logic of refutation, particularly in the later Prasangika version where refutation is the key practice. It is thus a very skeptical tradition of inquiry – but has also been wrongly associated with nihilism and pessimism. There is similarity to the Greek dialectical tradition as well. The Prasangika method (rather than view) is one of reducing ideas to absurdity through logical and conceptual analysis. It is the utilization of conceptuality with a goal of non-conceptual wisdom. Even meditative techniques have the feature of releasing the bonds of belief by the method of noting changes in one’s consciousness without reaction, without engaging with what appears, and without accepting or rejecting – just noting. It is a similar idea, although it is not thought that meditation played a part in Pyrrhonism. Madhyamaka philosophy teaches non-attachment to all dogmas – neither asserting or denying. The author suggests a possible parallel of the Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) with the Pyrrhonist aphasia (non-assertion). The Buddhist practice is to recognize emptiness (of self and other-than-self) while Sextus Empiricus gives aphasia, or non-assertion, as not affirming or negating, ie. suspension of judgment. One cannot even assert non-assertion. Similarly, Madhyamaka advises not to get attached to Emptiness or Non-emptiness. Both philosophies seek not to establish truth but the clear away error. Thus wisdom is seen not specifically as truth but as absence of falsehood. One may suggest that it is the same – just negatively expressed, but the possibility remains open whether knowledge can be refined further as more becomes known or evident. It is a sort of stalemate and as the author notes, “the fruit of stalemate is tranquility.” Both Diogenes and Sextus Empiricus noted that ataraxia follows suspension of judgment “like its shadow,” perhaps an unexpected discovery. Nagarjuna noted that “the root of cyclic existence is action. Therefore the wise one does not act.” More specifically this may refer to acting on the basis of beliefs arising from self-centered motives (karmic action). Regarding appearance both Pyrrhonism and Buddhism note that they are mutually dependent, or relative to one another. Appearances are a “middle way’ between existing and not existing rather than one or the other, both, or neither.  Nagarjuna also said that “Everything is real and not real, both real and not real, neither real nor not real.” So we see there is a positive tetralemma as well as a negative tetralemma and in the Buddhist tradition where what is seen as true (temporarily) often depends from what level of realization one inquires. Such statements may appear contradictory but the function I think is to point out that “all of the above” is not different than “none of the above” – or that reality cannot be ultimately known through conceptualizing as it is a “dead end” leading to the precipice of paradox, a word which can mean “beyond opinions.” The notions in the Sutta Nipata of avoiding arguments and being free from clinging to beliefs and opinions can be seen as precursor to the open view of the Madhyamaka.

The author goes into great detail with these comparisons of Pyrrhonism and Buddhism as well as of Pyrrhonian skepticism vs. Academic skepticism. Much of the next section is devoted to clarifying the distinction between the evident and the nonevident and this can get rather tedious. The nature of appearances is discussed. In Pyrrhonism this includes evidence from the senses, including thought to a certain extent. Pyrrhonists may have held a different notion of appearances than their peers among the Stoics, Epicureans, and Aristotelians, who tended to give abstractions such as ideals a real existence. The Greeks distinguished noomenon (mental formulations) from phainomenon (that which appears to the senses). It is the latter that is emphasized as evident by Sextus. Form without content and content without form are both not apparent, and so not evident to the Pyrrhonist. The details become muddled when one considers different types of appearance such as the skandas (aggregates) in Buddhism and the different types of evidence in Pyrrhonism. Here the nature of subject and object is examined. Private and public appearances are compared. Appearances may at times be unreliable, ie. optical illusions. Indeed, the untrustworthiness of the senses led the early physicists like Thales to promote reason above sensory knowledge – a move which Sextus regarded as dogmatic. Even though Sextus defends most appearances as evident he also rails against the orthodoxy of materialistic science as a dogma that assumes things that are not evident like “intelligent design.” Certainly the same could be said of today’s dogma of materialistic science – that the assumptions made about what is going on behind the scenes of observed phenomena are not as evident as science makes them out to be. There is also the idea of the evidently non-evident. Is consciousness evident to consciousness? Does subject exist separately from object? As an object? Sextus says no as the Buddhists say the self does not exist independently. Is this an assertion? Is it in any way different than asserting the independent existence of a self? Indeed, the Yogacara, or Cittamatra (mind-only) school of Buddhism criticized the Madhyamakas as nihilists on similar grounds – as asserters of a kind of negative dogmatism. The Prasangika view later subsumed that by sticking with refutations and avoiding any direct assertions. But ultimately any refutation can be seen as an assertion and indeed this is probably why these nondogmatic schools have not thrived as doctrines but rather have been emphasized as practices – because the logical dialogue is more about ungrasping from assertions and refutations as a practice than as an argument. 

Sextus gives four classes of objects or facts (pragmata) as nonevident: things manifest, things absolutely nonevident, things naturally nonevident, and things temporarily nonevident. Things manifest are our direct sensations and thoughts. Things absolutely nonevident are things and ideas which are never likely to be known such as the exact number of stars in the sky or sand grains in a desert. While there may be exact answers to such questions we will likely never know them. Things naturally nonevident are in a similar class but they may be unknowable for different reasons. Sextus gives the nature of the soul as an example. While we could in theory count the stars in the sky if we had the ability to see them all we cannot determine the exact nature of the soul due to lack of clarity. It is a rather shaky and subtle distinction – they are almost the same. In the former case we can see how to make them evident (counting) but in the latter we are unsure. Things temporarily nonevident are things that would become evident to us if we experienced them with our senses such as a place we have never seen. There is discussion of “signs,” both recollective signs and indicative signs. Seeing smoke and assuming fire is an example of a recollective sign (as both are routinely observed together). Indicative signs require more assumption. An example Sextus gives is the statement that bodily movements are a function of the movements of the soul. That may or may not be true but it is clearly nonevident. Thus recollective signs are accepted as evident though temporarily nonevident but indicative signs are considered nonevident. The lines may sometimes be murky. Kuzminski goes through the “stock arguments” of the Pyrrhonists to indicate the evident vs. the nonevident. He makes this statement regarding Science:

“Science is about elucidating anticipating what is evident, including what can be made evident through signs; it is the explicit development of our system of recollective signs to represent correlations among appearances not otherwise representable to us. To show that something believed to be evident cannot (at least yet) be made evident, that it appears in fact to be nonevident, is to show that it is not science.”

These days the findings of quantum theory especially but also relativity, psychic phenomena, and the aberrations of consciousness can challenge what we take as evident and nonevident. Even scientific, atheistic, ideological, and secular ideas can involve taking what is nonevident as evident, though by definition they should not. Kuzminski also notes that much of our science is only partially evident, based on statistical probabilities and conjecture.

Buddhism approaches signification in terms of nama-rupa, name and form. These are links on the chain of dependent origination. We make objects “real” by defining them (giving them form) and naming them. Thus we tend to see the world (and the mind) as composed of distinct objects and ideas. Significations that are a matter of belief such as assertions of the existence of a soul or an afterlife scenario can be the cause of much anxiety and disagreement. Beliefs should be seen as beliefs rather than as facts and Kuzminski suggests that this is a goal of Buddhist meditative practice.

Kuzminski concedes that as a religious tradition that Buddhism has become fairly ritualized and dogmatic yet in principle it is not. Some such as Stephen Batchelor in his Buddhism Without Beliefs have pointed out that ideas like the Four Noble Truths were meant to inspire the means to free oneself from suffering rather than expounded as facts. Buddha described himself more along the lines of a doctor, or healer, than as a savior. Batchelor invokes agnosticism as a Western analogue to the approach of Buddha. Thomas Huxley, in the 19th century coined the term and defined it as a third alternative between the extremes of positive and negative dogmatism. For an agnostic the alternative “I don’t know” is always available. Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn always would say to keep Don’t Know Mind so an agnostic approach can be seen there. Batchelor noted that Buddha apparently harbored some beliefs about what is nonevident such as a belief in reincarnation – although according to tradition such an idea was quite evident to him as an Awakened One. Batchelor suggests that we suspend judgment on such matters but many Buddhist teachers suggest that it is fine to have such beliefs. Perhaps some of us merely lean toward such beliefs without actually embracing them.

The author goes through the work of Richard Popkin who wrote a thorough history of scepticism. Even though he acknowledged the distinction between Pyrrhonian skepticism and Academic skepticism he strands the ideas together in his influential work, according to Kuzminski. For this reason he sees Popkin’s work as a modern perpetuation of the same long held misunderstandings.

Augustine put a new spin on Pyrrhonism by falsely assuming that Sextus’s arguments were seeking to refute reason as a way to understanding nonevident reality. Augustine sought to replace knowledge of the nonevident through reason with knowledge of the nonevident through divine revelation or faith. This view is called “fideism” and Pyrrhonists would likely laugh at such nonsense and appropriation of their arguments for his dogmatic approach for faith basically is belief. Of course, one may also argue that Buddha’s enlightenment was also some sort of revelatory or mystical knowledge from an external source though Buddha himself clearly stated that it was not. Kuzminski thinks that Augustine was key in perpetuating the misunderstanding of the two sceptic schools into modern times. Augustine’s goal was to discredit the philosophy tied to pagan traditions and replace it with a philosophy tied to divine revelation from the Christian God. Thus the texts of Sextus Empiricus came to be used (or rather misused) in the Middle Ages to support this fideist view of divine revelation as a true means of discerning what is nonevident. Thus they had reason to depict Pyrrhonists such as Sextus as negative dogmatists.

The author gives 18th century Irish Bishop Thomas Berkley as one who broke through and propounded Pyrrhonism in a basically correct manner in his Principles of Human Knowledge although he was no Pyrrhonist himself, being a bishop in the Anglican Church. Although he is usually given in the British empiricist trio of Locke-Berkley-Hume, the author notes that Locke was a positive dogmatist and Hume an Academic sceptic. Berkley denied the distinction between appearances and reality and did not favor an external reality beyond appearances. Incidentally, that is an inseparability noted in the Buddhist Mahasiddha tradition of India as well. Berkley did, however, alter his understanding of Pyrrhonism to incorporate his own belief in God and his argument became very similar to the fideism of Augustine, though with more actual Pyrrhonist features. The author thinks he made some good arguments in favor of Pyrrhonism.

The modern philosopher most Pyrrhonian in outlook seems to be the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He does not seem to have been familiar with the works of any Pyrrhonists but to have developed his ideas independently. He did not publish much and feared his ideas were not well understood even though he had a following during his lifetime. He focused on mathematics and language. The author sees his approach as that of a full Pyrrhonist. This statement from his Tractatus is exemplary:

“What can be said at all can be said clearly and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein also pointed out the “doubt presupposes certainty.” We can only doubt something against a comparative background of certainty. We only inquire about things which we have some doubt. Wittgenstein also pointed out the complete doubt of the negative dogmatist Academic skeptics is incoherent. His “picture theory” of signs and the objects they indicate is similar to that of Sextus. His friend and commentator Paul Engelmann stated his theory thusly:

“The relationship between the world (appearances) and language (representation, depiction) is logic, or logical form, and this is precisely what, according to Wittgenstein, cannot be represented.”

He also pointed out that describing what we experience is not the same as experiencing and so language is merely representational rather than real. Communicating experience is thus far not doable and what we experience is thus ineffable, or at least incommunicable.

Interestingly, Engelmann described Wittgenstein’s philosophy as a practical method of living, free of ideologies. He also used phrases like “wordless faith,” “a new spiritual attitude,” and “a universal new way of life” to describe it.

A dogmatist would be one who comes to conclusions about nonevident things while a Pyrrhonist forms no conclusions, at least until things become evident. It is as simple as that, yet we are beset by beliefs in the nonevident as a cultural habit. We see possible connections between things and predict how things will happen and we often see scant evidence as proof that things are as we predicted. In other words, it is not easy to be impartial to beliefs. Fears about the unknown are based at least partially on our exposure to beliefs about the unknown. As humans we seem to like to judge things so suspending judgment is perhaps not part of our habit – but it well should be. I vote that we be less judgmental!

Friday, March 7, 2014

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism

Book Review: God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch  (Viking Compass 2004)

This is a very interesting and informative analysis of the interaction of monotheism and polytheism from 2nd millennium B.C. Egypt to the death of Hypatia in the 400’s C.E. Most of the book is an analysis of the interaction of Judaism with Middle Eastern and Hellenistic paganism from about 1000 B.C. and of Christianity with Hellenistic but mostly Roman paganism. There is some great history here from a perspective that is non-biased or perhaps biased just a bit toward polytheism – which is unusual. The author seems quite knowledgeable. The only complaint I have is the conspicuous absence of Persian/Zoroastrian monotheism. Since the author included the Egyptian monotheistic reformer Ankhenaton he should have also included the Persian monotheistic reformer Zoroaster. The more rigorous monotheists here are characterized as those who fought to establish the One True God and abolish all others as inferior or evil. Such intolerance was often accompanied by the destruction of statues, temples, and texts devoted to other gods. Pagans from Hellenic, Roman, and Near Eastern lands worshipped many gods, some considered higher than others but all were generally accepted. With monotheism and the worship of the Only True God, other gods came to be called False Gods, and worse – Devils. This is not unprecedented as it appears the split of tribes in pre-Vedic times led to the Vedics and Avestans (Persians) calling the gods of the others devils – or demi-gods in the case of the Vedics.  This notion of not honoring and demonizing others’ gods is likely what annoyed the pagans when dealing with monotheistic Jews and Christians. After a while they were persecuted for it.

He gives a quote from Sigmund Freud:

“Religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God.”

Humans seem to be religious or given to worshipping gods by nature – perhaps as a consequence of the scenario-building that helped us survive and evolve, later applied to the quest to understand the unknown and deal with the anxiety associated with the inevitability of death.

Monotheistic religious intolerance is still problematic today as religious fanatics such as the 911 bombers kill people for strictly dogmatic reasons. Of course, polytheism produced fanatics as well, but the very nature and structure of polytheism is inclusive rather than exclusive and this inclines it more towards tolerance as has been the case throughout history. Roman paganism was quite a mish mash of traditions where one might pick and choose how one worshipped – perhaps not too unlike today. Tolerance was the rule of the day. Some cults were orgiastic and given to excesses, animal sacrifice to the gods was very common, but other cults were more austere and favored a more tempered morality. According to Franz Cumont: “Temperance, courage, chastity, obedience to parents and magistrates, [and] reverence for the oath and the law,” were core Roman pagan values. Kirsch points out that there was no concept of “heresy” in polytheism as basically all was permitted. Heresy was a major concept in Christianity and it is likely that more Christians were persecuted and killed by other Christians who branded their version of Christianity heretical, than were persecuted and killed by pagans. Concerning multiple religions, the pagan prefect Symmachus wrote: “It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.”

The biblical notion of Yahweh as a jealous god is well known – as he proclaims that to have gods other than him is an abomination. The Hellenes and Roman pagans were perfectly willing to bring the Hebrew god – as Iao – into their pantheon – and did. He was also Jove, equated with Jupiter and Zeus as a high god. What the bible calls zeal the historians call rigorism, or extreme strictness – ie. rigid belief. Such rigorism among pagans as well as Jews and Christians inspired some extreme ascetic behaviors as well. Asceticism in these cases, says the author, is rigorism turned inward. Rigorism turned outward may be used to harm and persecute others. Such zeal is the source of terrorism. Although there is a smattering of rigorism in many doctrines it is by and far most common with monotheistic belief. Kirsch also points out that the word “pagan” is a derogatory term created by monotheists – like “infidel,” “heathen,” or “idolator.” Western history (ie. Christian history) is certainly biased against polytheists and non-Christians. Ironically, the word “atheist” was first used by Roman pagans referring to Christians who denied the Roman pantheon.

In 1400’s B.C. Egypt came Pharaoh Ankhenaton – who favored the god Aton – represented as a sun disk in midday splendor – over all other gods. He ordered the closing of temples and destruction of statues of other gods. His One True God was not depicted with an idol. He built a new capital as well. This is the first known situation in history of both monotheism and of the systematic rejection of other gods. Ankhenaton’s reign lasted less than twenty years and at his death Egypt promptly returned to its polytheistic past – his name was etched out of the famed lists of kings. One of his sayings: “O Thou only God, there is no other God than Thou,” is suggested as a possible precursor to similar Hebrew statements. Famed Egyptologist Jan Assman notes the similarities of Aton with the Hebrew Adonai. Sigmund Freud went so far as to speculate that Moses was actually an Egyptian priest of Aton who took the monotheistic doctrine of Ankhenaton and brought it to the people of Israel.

The word “Elohim” in Hebrew is a plural that means “gods” rather than “God.” The Jews were once polytheistic, with household idols (teraphim) such as fertility goddesses. Some of these were of Asherah – a Canaanite goddess sometimes called the wife of Yahweh. This suggests that polytheism was practiced among the Hebrew people with the exception of the elite, or priestly class among them, who condemned it. Asherah is condemned as evil in the Bible. The Old Testament is replete with the extremism of Yahweh concerning his threats and demands of strict obeisance.

The core value of monotheism is exclusivity – the complete rejection of all but one god and all but one doctrine. Despite some useful biblical moral teachings here and there, one can surely see the insanity of such a biased view, right? Certainly the kinder and gentler version of God is emphasized by today’s religionists. Says Kirsch, certain biblical prophets have equated the sins of apostasy and idolatry with adultery and harlotry – so that God becomes as a cuckolded husband who is bitter and angry. Thus Yahweh appears as jealous and avenging.

Paganism, as depicted in the Bible is replete with harlotry, idolatry, sorcery, and human sacrifice. The temple harlots of Babylon described by Herodotus were a prime biblical example of the debauchery of paganism. In reality such temple prostitution may not have been as widespread as thought and much of it metaphorical. Fertility was certainly one goal of such practices. Prostitution, some associated with pagan cult activity, was practiced in Roman times but there were varying views of it. Many pagans did not approve of it and the wild drunken orgies devoted to Bacchus were outlawed in the vicinity of Rome in 186 B.C.

Human sacrifice was depicted as appalling by the Jews who pointed to Canaanite practice of it. Eventually though, both monotheists and polytheists gave up the practice in favor of animal sacrifice. After Yahweh spares the child of Abraham in favor of a ram, this common practice of infanticide was given over to animal sacrifice and possibly circumcision as a surrogate form of it. There is a similar story in Greek myth where Agamemnon was about to sacrifice his daughter to Artemis, but she spares the girl and takes a deer instead. The Romans issued edicts against human sacrifice and considered the practice of it by the barbarian Germanic and Celtic tribes to be appalling. However, we all know the cruelty of the Romans with the gladiatorial combats and the torturing of criminals and some war captives. Criminals sentenced to death could be considered to be sacrificial victims as well since they might be offered to a god or goddess.

The Jews and Christians also sermonized against the role of women in divine matters since their One True God was male. Pythonesses, Vestal Virgins, healer women, and their goddesses were denounced. This manifested much later in the Inquisition as condemnation and mass execution of country women and herbalists as witches. Apparently, there were pagan puritans as well – denouncing adultery, prostitution, and homosexuality as criminal. Some priesthoods required celibacy. The open sexual revelries of devotees of Bacchus and Cybele were not always tolerated. Biblical authors considered polytheism as a form of promiscuity. The author notes that Babylon in the Book of Revelations was a code word for Rome – “the mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth.”

Yahweh was also a war god and as we know he does much “smiting” in the Bible. Total destruction (genocide) of various tribes is not uncommon. King Saul is denounced and de-ranked by Yahweh for sparing the enemy king. The Jews considered themselves the Chosen People – chosen by the One True God. The author gives the story of the Jewish King Josiah (648-609 B.C.) as a key figure in the development of monotheism. It is thought that at that time monotheism was not so strong as there were still Asherah figures and graven images. Josiah waged a holy war, a purge by the sword of execution, of all cults and tribal practices that did not worship Yahweh only. He claimed to have found a lost scroll in the Temple of Solomon – which is thought to be the Book of Deuteronomy (said by one scholar to be a pious fraud concocted by Josiah). The instructions were that true Jews could only make sacrifice at the Temple of Solomon, which was convenient for him since it was his domain. This was the convergence of One God and one king – a key idea that would finally grab the late Roman Christian emperors. About nineteen years after Josiah’s death the Jews were conquered by the Babylonians. The ruling class was enslaved and taken to Babylon. The common people reverted back to their traditional polytheism. Some fifty years later the Persians liberated the Jews from Babylon and they were allowed to return. They separated themselves as “Holy Seed” from the commoners and began to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. Their oppression and persecution may well have strengthened their monotheistic convictions. A few centuries later came Alexander – the great Hellene and avatar of Zeus and Amon. Alexander Hellenized the places he conquered such that the trappings and pastimes of Greek culture became rather pervasive. He conquered the Jewish lands from the Persians. Many of the Jews embraced Hellenism – some even resorting to a sort of plastic surgery to conceal the fact that they were circumcised, but some resisted Hellenization. A king that inherited these lands from Alexander, Antiochus IV was known for his cruelty. He did not like the resistant ways of the Jews and persecuted them. These Jews refused to honor the gods of state. Antiochus banned circumcision, worshipping on the Sabbath, and Jewish dietary laws. He even demanded that a pig be offered on the altar of Yahweh – very offensive in Hebrew belief. He even sent death squads to kill observant Jews, he hated them so much. This created a big backlash. Inspired by stories of zeal in the Torah the Jews rose up against the tyranny of Antiochus. There is a story where a Jew named Mattathias is ordered by a Syrian officer to sacrifice to a pagan idol. He refuses. A more willing Jew steps forward to do it. Mattathias kills both the Syrian and the Jew. His zeal to follow the law inspires others and is the basis of the Book of Maccabees. This resulted in the first in another holy war. The Maccabees fought not only their Syrian overlords but also any Jews that would not join them. The book speaks of convictions – of those who would rather die horrible deaths and encourage others to die horrible deaths rather than comply and break the covenant rules with their God and tradition. Here we have the first “martyrs.” The battle-cry of zeal and conviction led to martyrdom to preserve beliefs and customs. The Maccabees basically invented martyrdom. They defeated the army of Antiochus and became a source of pride for the more rigorous Jews. After the war, the Jews made peace and assimilated more into Hellenic society. But the Jews would martyr themselves again when under Roman rule – but then with King Herod there were accomodationists and rigorists so it was perhaps more like a civil war. The famed mass suicide (mass martyrdom) of the Jews under siege by the Romans at Masada ended that particular uprising of Jewish freedom fighters but there would be others. Over the next few centuries there were uprisings of rigorists and cooperation as well as accomodationists of the Roman empire. The writings of Flavious Josephus, a cooperator with the Romans, but also an admirer of Jewish zeal, would write of the history of Jewish zeal, conceding that such holy warring should come to an end. Sometime after the temple at Jerusalem was lost to the Romans there was a reformation of Jewish emphasis and the Jews basically made peace with the pagans. The new Talmudic Jews de-emphasized zeal and rigorism in favor of loving-kindness, study of the traditions, dietary law, and observance of the Sabbath. After this the Jews and Romans integrated more, some Romans even becoming Jews. Curious pagans were attending synagogues in Rome in the first century C.E.

Hellenic philosophers were both complementary and counter to pagan religious practices. Their chief function was to promote morality. Plato and his successors, among others, could be said to have promoted in their Monism, a kind of ethical monotheism, but it was not based on denigration of other gods. Neoplatonists, like pagans, were syncretists. Many adherents to pagan cults considered the idea of a Supreme Divinity – as Zeus, King Helios, Isis and Serapis, the Great Mother, Mithras, and others.

Paul, Saul of Tarsus, was instrumental in making Christianity available to the masses in the Roman Empire by taking the Judaic requirements out of the sect. He was also instrumental in demonizing the religions of the pagans. Christians were first considered a nuisance in Rome but were tolerated. Then came to be persecuted – first by Nero as blamed them for burning Rome. Christians were despised by their refusal to participate in the ritual worship expected of Roman citizens – as the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) depended on the Pax Deorum (Peace of the Gods). Thus they were considered unpatriotic. There were even slanders and rumors about these atheists (Christians as non-believers) so that they were demonized – much like they came to demonize others. Regarding the so-called Christian martyrs – those given to the lions and such, there is much disagreement. Some historians say they were tortured by the Romans (as criminals were tortured) and some say much of it was Christian propaganda. When Christianity was criminalized there came to be “confessors,” those who confessed that they practiced it and were punished – and “traditors,” those who handed over texts to the authorities. Traditors came to be despised among rigorous Christians. Roman persecution of Christians may be the main subject of John’s Book of Revelations.

Much of this book is devoted to the rise of the Roman emperors Constantine, as a supporter of Christianity, and his younger relative Julian the Apostate, a champion of paganism. Neither was especially intolerant of the other religion but they made edicts and reversed previous ones. The emperors after Julian really Christianized the empire and effectively outlawed paganism and crushed it after a century or two. Diocletian was a pro-pagan emperor before Constantine. The empire was split up into eastern and western portions with shared power and leaders often deposing leaders and heirs. As in much of ancient empires – murder was quite common. Constantine was a general who rose through the ranks to become the sole emperor of Rome and ruled from Constantinople – his new city. He kept some pagan state traditions. He was not baptized until on his death bed. He sought reconciliation among Christians. He convened the Council of Nicea. There were many heresies proclaimed and much sectarian bloodshed among Christian sects for several centuries.  One of the biggest was the tiff between Arianism and the orthodox Christianity that proclaimed it a heresy. The Arians put forth the belief that Jesus was the Son of God rather than God and so was similar to God but not the same as God. This very slight definitional doctrinal schism resulted in a massive amount of bloodshed and effectively split the Church. Constantine sought reconciliation and the Peace of the Church. That was the reason for the Council of Nicea where feuding factions were brought together. Of course, extremists continued the feuds afterward. Constantine had preciously issued the Edict of Milan which outlawed persecution of Christians and was basically a document announcing religious tolerance in the tradition of pagan Rome. With Constantine the Christian bishops began a relationship with the state and it was the beginning of a Christianized Roman empire as they were now strong influencers of government. With Constantine as sole ruler and Christianity as the favored but not the only religion – it was said to be the beginning of the first totalitarian state. Constantine was a warrior as well as a shrewd and often cruel leader. Bishop Eusebius forged a will (many historians agree) that was found on Constantine at his death. In the will it was stated that Constantine was a victim of being poisoned by his half-brothers and he should be avenged. The baptized sons of Constantine – Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, subsequently carried out a major blood purge. Most members of the family by blood or marriage, males and females – uncles, cousins, etc – were promptly arrested and slain. Only two very young boys were spared – Gallus and Julian. Their older brother was killed. Gallus was eventually lured to Constantinople with a government assignment and slain by Constantius II. They were taken away to be guarded as they grew up. The sons of Constantine would soon enough war among each other until only one remained, Constantius II. He was the first leader to issue edicts outlawing the practices of paganism around 341 C.E. Superstition and sacrifices were to be stamped out, idols and temples destroyed, and texts burned. The tolerance of the Edict of Milan was at an end. The punishment was death – yet in practice this was not commonplace. This first gesture was more symbolic than anything. The bloodshed of Arians and orthodoxy continued and heretics could be tortured. Riots became common in places like Alexandria. Paganism was well-tolerated in some places and less so in others.

Julian was eventually summoned to lead an army for Constantius II who had few loyal family members – since he and his brothers had killed them all. He was to be watched and ill-equipped. Even so, he performed his war duties quite well and his courage and willingness to work with his men was praised. These orphans, Julian and Gallus, were educated according to their high status. Julian studied Homer and philosophy even though Constantius specifically forbade it. A trip to Ephesus brought him to a temple of Apollo. He studied Neoplatonism – the brand of Iamblichus that was infused with theurgy. Constantius’ young second wife Eusebia favored Julian and is thought to have convinced Constantius to spare his life. Julian was sent to Gaul and fought Germanic tribes. He was elevated by the people around Paris and proclaimed Caesar. He would march with an army to confront Constantius II who was off fighting the Persians. Constantius died of a fever in the Persian conflict so the two never fought. Julian was declared emperor. Julian was, of course, bitter about the murder of virtually his whole family. Even though raised Christian and forced to attend Christian services he was secretly a pagan. He began to practice openly – offering blood sacrifices with his own blade. He was officially initiated into several of the mystery religions – of Mithras, and Isis and the Great Mother. When he made it to Constantinople he purged those who plotted against him – executing a few as was expected of him – but he spared many others, giving them mild sentences – fines, house arrest, and banishment. Julian fancied himself a philosopher-king and did not partake of the lavish lifestyle expected of emperors. He issued an edict of toleration in 360 that restored paganism as a legal practice. He did not persecute Christians – his treatment of them was mild even though later Church history would condemn him for it. Said he:

“I declare by the gods that I do not want the [Christians] to be put to death, or unjustly beaten, or to suffer anything else.”

He sought to re-establish the old pagan state traditions and separate Christianity from the state in favor of tolerance of all religions. His trend toward tolerance and reconciliation of exiled heretics and such, inflamed Christians, probably by his design, as toleration was seen as a kind of persecution by the believers in the One True God. It was in later centuries that Julian was charged with evil deeds but most historians, religious and secular, have acquitted him of these charges. He did write quite a bit and his treatise Against the Galilean shows that he was quite critical of Christians – but in a fair and literary sense. He also wrote satires – about Caesars, about himself, and involving barbs at Christians as well. He also composed some tributes to the pagan gods and had a Mithraeum built. He had visions of creating a more universal paganism – of restoring order on it and standardizing some practices. These ideas probably derived from his Christian upbringing and observance of their unity. He sought such for pagans. He intended his pagan counterrevolution to be nonviolent. He was, however, guilty of indifference to riots where Christians were persecuted by newly emboldened pagans. If he did persecute, it was in a veiled way without executions, laws of intolerance, and condemnation beyond simple literary arguments. He was not unkind to the Jews. He sought to restore the Temple at Jerusalem. This may have been another barb at Christians since they considered the Roman destruction of the temple to be an endorsement of the new temple of Jesus as the body. Julian was killed fighting the Persians in 363 deep in enemy territory. Some pagans said he was killed by a zealous Christian. Later Christians attributed him as saying “Thou hast conquered, Galilean,” upon his death, but this seems very unlikely.

Both the dynasty of Constantine and Julian’s pagan restoration died with him. The Roman army elected the officer Jovian to succeed him. A pagan purge did not come under Jovian as he also issued edicts of tolerance but other forces gathered such as Men in Black – ascetic desert monks in Syria and Egypt who imitated the suffering of Christ. They would gladly fight, mob, riot, maim, and kill for their cult. Their original violence only to themselves, was later inflicted gladly on others. They were thugs of Bishop warlords such Theophilus of Alexandria where they destroyed pagan temples and rioted. In 379 Theodosius became emperor of Rome. He was a fanatical Christian and sought destruction of paganism. He was from Spain and some consider him the true first of the Spanish Inquisitors. Not only pagans but heretics were tortured to exact confessions and to death. Bishops became powerful and tolerance slid away. In 390 a Christian mob attacked and burned the famed library at Alexandria where the largest suppository of writings of Pagans, Christians, and Jews had amassed. In 392 Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum – the great temple of Serapis – in Alexandria. Mobs of Christians fought Jews and Pagans – driving many of both away from Alexandria. In 415 was the brutal mob murder of the distinguished scientist and Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia. Here it was the Bishop Theophilus’s successor, Bishop Cyril, who inflamed the mobs and Men in Black to do the dirty deed. The next few centuries would find appropriation of pagan traditions into Christianity. A few outliers of Neoplatonism, country paganism, and Christianized paganism would remain for several centuries. Other heresies would appear and be squelched – the Cathars, the Bogomils, the Templars. Islam would come to dominate the Near East and far beyond with a new brand of rigorism and conversion by the sword. Crusades would be launched of holy warriors against holy warriors. Such rigorism and zeal would later find fertile ground in new totalitarianisms – the Nazi fascists and communism. Both favored the - one nation, one leader - rule that monotheists had pioneered as One God-one state. Now we have “martyr operations” of suicide bombers among brainwashed fanatics. Perhaps one day we will get beyond this as humans.

Great history book!


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Weland: Smith of the Gods

Book Review: Weland: Smith of the Gods by Ursula Synge – illustrations by Charles Keeping (S.G. Phillips 1973)

This is quite a nice embellished version of the Lay of Volund from the Poetic Edda. This version makes for a very readable tale. The author changes the ending somewhat from the original story. The whole tale is quite brief in the Edda. Apparently there is a more novelized and late version in Gautrek’s Saga which I am guessing she draws upon – she says she gives the story of Starkad and King Vikar from that saga (as a story within a story) as well as a few other of these ‘tales within the tale.’ The oldest reference to the lay is in the Anglo-Saxon Deor’s Lament. Another reference to the tale is a carved walrus ivory – called Frank’s Casket from seventh century Northumberland. There in England Weland/Volund was known as Wayland and there are many place-names that refer to him. Lee Hollander thinks the details of the story indicate that Norway is its place of origin though others think Germany, among the Franks, or even Wales to be candidates. It is among the oldest of the stories from the Eddas. There is a reference to Mimming, a sword made by Weland in a fragment of the Anglo-Saxon Waldere. Beowulf’s corselet is also called the work of Weland. Ursula Synge says here about her version of the story that:

“Mine is a very free retelling, based largely on that of Andrew Lang in his first Book of Romance…’

Lee Hollander also notes (in his translation of the Poetic Edda) some similarity of the tale to that of the ancient Greek tale of Daidalos who is imprisoned by King Minos and fashions wings for he and his son to escape. There is also the similarity of the lamed Weland to that of Hephaestos, the lamed and limping smith of the Greek gods.  

As noted in the introduction it is a rather dark story where courage, endurance, and vengeance are emphasized – all admired qualities. There is eeriness, treachery, cleverness, surprise, lore, and magic – all elements of a powerful tale.

The beginning of the tale is about three brothers: Slagfid, Eigel, and Weland, who are sons of the widow Gunnhild. She is said to have originally been a Lapp from Finland with the powers of a seeress. Their father may have been a Finnish king. The brothers travelled over the mountains to seek their fate and found magic, metals, and jewels. They practiced smithcraft with Weland being the master smith. The brothers eventually settle in a remote area they called Wolfdale, which is part of the kingdom of Nidud. According to Lee Hollander there was a king in Sweden with this name as well as his daughter Bothvild who is also key to the story.

Before the three brothers set out to seek their fortune their mother foretells their fates with runes and laments the end results. The brothers first have joy as they find and wed three swan maidens who follow them in the sky. Their fates are woven with these Valkyrie women and also with the god Odin who appears several times in the story – sometimes in a quite bitter manner as when Weland curses him to a stranger that he later realizes was Odin himself and then laments it since gods only wish to hear praise. Even so, Weland always gives Odin his due – here by hanging some of his creations on an ash tree near his smithy as offerings.

After a while their wives re-don their swan-feather cloaks and disappear to gather warriors to Valhalla as is their duty. The brothers are distraught and after waiting long decide to split up and each finds their own bitter fate. Weland does excel at his smithcraft and becomes the greatest smith in the land. Before his wife Hevron departs she gives him three keys which later unlock for him three hoards of precious metals and stones with which he builds many fine things – swords, shields, helmets, breastplates, broaches, cups, etc. Weland eventually invokes the envy of he king himself and the greedy king seeks his hoard. The king lames him, imprisons him on an island, and forces him to make things for him. I won’t give away any more of the story.

The lore in the story involves the lure and danger of greed – a seemingly common theme in Nordic lore. Much as in the Volsunga Saga it is greed itself that is revealed as a curse. There is also the complex nature of Odin, aka ‘Shapeshifter’. Odin’s influence – as in many stories – seems ambiguous – sometimes beneficent and kind and other times wrathfully bitter and harsh.  Weland even takes on an Odinic aspect as he is lamed further by losing an eye. Later in the story when he ages a bit he is seen a liminal figure as well – perhaps part elfin and imbued with elfin magic. Indeed the brothers’ marriage to the swan maidens seems quite indicative of their otherworldliness. He sends his spirit to haunt the spirit and dreams of the king which indicates his elfin shamanic powers. Part of his power it seems was derived from his ability to endure both hardship and solitude. Another source may have been his ability to engage wholeheartedly in his smithcraft. Early in the story, when the brothers meet-up and feast with a war band the harp is passed around and each tells a tale. Weland sings a tale of loving an immortal and wandering the edges of the world following his desire. Omens given in dreams also figure in the story and the theme of the unchangeable fates woven by the Norns is accented.

This version really is a tale nicely told with memorable embellishments that seem a bit like the artistic accents described here on some of Weland’s fine goldsmith pieces. As there seem to be multiple versions (many probably lost) of these folktales this telling is as good as any I would think and the more novelized versions of such tales are easier to enjoy than those in the meter, rhyme, and alliteration of a different language – even though some nuances of the original may have been lost. Of the poetic conventions the kennings are most easily transferred to prose. This book is easy to read and suitable for most younger readers – though there is some gore and violence.