The Shape of Ancient Thought

The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilley; book cover

 

ISBN: 978-1581152036 

READ: 2016-11-06

Author: Thomas McEvilley

 

I approached McEvilley’s tome in a full post-Modernist ride. Around four years ago, I began to look into Indian and Buddhist philosophy to find solace and inspiration – something I could not find in the western philosophies I have been taught at school. That has been my gateway into proper philosophical inquiry, however hesitant and stumbling.

The recent turn has been to pursue a degree in philosophy, which of course is exclusively western. So I was interested in looking at possible connections between the two traditions. Specifically, the single piece of information which prompted me to buy the book was the hypothesis – not a new one – that Greek skepticism was influenced by early Buddhism. Several books, more modest in their dimensions, have come up recently to deal with that particular issue; however, I wanted to have a broader picture, so I opted for McEvilley’s work.

I’m glad I did so. Concerning the diffusion hypothesis in support of Buddhist influence over Pyrrhonism, McEvilley is clear in pointing out that the main elements of the Pyrrhonist doctrine should be traced back to the Greek Skeptic tradition of the Democritean lineage, rather than to the Buddhist; the ‘suspension of judgement’ precept, for example, serves the psychological purpose of attaining tranquillity in Skeptisim, not the religious aim of escaping transmigration of Buddhism.

For McEvilley, the hypothesis is even turned upside down: a detailed inquiry into the development of dialectic in the Indian tradition suggests that it underwent an abrupt change, which could be observed in the works of Nagarjuna, an extremely important author of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that is generally claimed responsible of a the ‘second turning of the Wheel of Dharma’. McEvilley points out that Mahayana has been developed in the Gandharian area, which had a strong Greek presence from the days of Alexander’s expedition; McEvilley parallels elements of Stoic and Epicurian logic with Madhyamika’s, but Greek traditions went through a steady development of dialectic, whereas it is hard to trace any logical argumentation of Nagarjuna to the ancient Indian tradition.1)“With Pyrrhon of Elis’s trip to India the pre-Alexandrian period ends. In that period Indian and Greek thinkers had developed similar dialectical attitudes. But only in Greece, it seems, had these attitudes equipped themselves with formal methods in this period. After Alexander’s colonisation of northwest India a five-hundred-long period of Greek and Indian cultural intermixing took place. Toward the end of this period, the array of Greek dialectical forms turns up in India, mature, complete, and without evidence of developmental stages, in the school of Buddhist thought called Madhyamika.” McEvilley, T. (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought (Allworth Press, New York) p.416

Of the two important moments of diffusion across Greek and Indian philosophies sketched out in the book, what I have just briefly described points to a diffusion of methods. The second concerns a diffusion of contents, and it dates back to the pre-Socratic period. I knew very little about eastern influences in Greek thought, even though Greeks themselves acknowledge that much knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, for example, derived from Mesopotamia. So much for external influence – which is not preeminently subversive, as it comes from the Near East, though unbeknownst to the lay student. And although evidence begins to be gathered, Indian influence over Greek thought is even more difficult to be accepted, mainly for ethnical reasons.

And here comes the post-Modernist wave: it is destabilising for its relativisation of values, and precious for its eagerness of stripping out historical analysis of ethnical prejudices. I am all for whatever inquiry that aims at recognising an ethnically broad set of contributions to the history of mankind, at whatever may reduce the unnecessary and unjustified gaps of Western supremacy vs. Eastern subordinancy. At the same time, that research shouldn’t be done unrigorously, under pressure of post-colonial rehabilitation, for example. Yes, cultural and intellectual change occurred at a much faster pace in Greece than in India, probably for its weaker connections with religion. Still, the traditional division into “Greek=rational”, “Indian=mystical” is quite outdated, as a detailed comparison of both traditions sketches out a balanced compenetration of mystical pursuit and argumentative wit on both sides.

Let’s finally come down to the diffusion of contents: McEvilley argues that through the medium of Persia – where Greeks and Indians lived together at the cosmopolitan court of Persian emperors – Indian thought shaped Greek philosophy2)The dissemination process can be expanded as follows: “A teaching that came into Greece and India in the Bronze Age or earlier seems to have been reinforced in Greece in the sixth century by a wave of Indian input, which probably originated in the same Bronze Age source but had undergone significant reinterpretation as its context changed. The Mesopotamian doctrine, in other words, if such there was, had travelled both into Greece and India by 1000 B.C.; subsequently it remained inconspicuous and, probably, unchanging in Greece, but in India it underwent further development, associating it with convergent doctrines from the non-Vedic community, and so on; the this developed form of the doctrine in turn was disseminated from India into Greece in the sixth century B.C.” McEvilley, T. (2002) p.287 on the side of monism, substance monism, atomism, elemental transformation and probably reincarnation: “Upanisads seem to precede Parmenides in monism, and to have directly influenced Heraclitus’s view of the process of nature; Jain atomism and Carvaka materialism would seem to precede Democritus.”3)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.653

Probably the most striking parallel is of ethical order, and it concerns the precept of imperturbability (object of the last chapter of the book): Platonism and Neoplatonism, the Vedanta and most schools of Mahayana Buddhism devise a transcendentalist approach to connect with a higher Being by means of perceptual disengagement; Theravada Buddhism, Epicurianism, Skepticism and Stoicism ground imperturbability on the understanding of natural laws. Imperturbability (ataraxia) is that mental condition by which a man is indifferent and equanimous to the events of daily life; it is a virtue ethics theme, which claims that the same act performed under different mental conditions has different ethical values. Only Aristotle advocates for a full engagement in feelings and passions. It was very interesting to me to note such similarities, and I could not help but to think about how ethical directives from such different backgrounds could be compared, given that nowadays the precept of imperturbability is brought on by the revival of Stoicism, Buddhism and Zen. Owen Flanagan outlined in The Bodhisattva’s Brain how an hypothetical assessment of ethical effectiveness could proceed only after defining which type of ‘happiness’ each tradition seeks; afterwords, one can proceed to gather the ethical guidelines and see if they could match their goals. Given although that two different types of ‘happiness’ are compared, nothing much could be said about which to prefer. The surprisingly closeness of ‘imperturbability’ definitions among such different traditions made me wonder if an operational definition could be given to perform neurophysiological studies; the question of grounding morality in science is far from being resolved and highly controversial, but in this case, having a somewhat similar ethical goal, it would be possible to test different guidelines empirically against each other. The question then may be if imperturbability is even a desirable goal. On one hand, it is undeniable that humans search for mental stability, in different degrees; yet at the same time, many would argue that a life without emotions is not a life anymore.

 

McEvilley’s chapters can be read as brief stories, inasmuch how historical and anthropological his outlook is, and not necessarily in its entirety, for the main concepts are broadly repeated; the length of the volume keeps the promise of dwelling into lots of historical, philosophical, philological and artistic details. With an overtly abused label: an ‘highly recommended’ reading.

 


 

Further notes and interesting remarks:

 

  • The famous Pythagoras’s tuning experiments were not groundbreaking: basic harmonic ratios were already well-known and studied in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian influences are much broader that one may think (the calendar, the sexagesimal system, the Processional cycle).
  • You can turn the title into a question: “What shape is ancient thought? Round.”4)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.91
  • First notions of ethics found in the Vedic emphasis on rituals: “Good is equated with the correct performance of the rite, bad with the incorrect performance.”5)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.114
  • How many times do we think of our civilisation as the most cosmopolitan and liberal of all times? Not to say that we have not made progress, but let’s not forget how long it took us to get here, and that others have attempted to do so in the past as well: “The Achaemenid state was the first world empire in history to proclaim a completely tolerant and benevolent treatment of the cultural traditions of dozens of peoples and tribes.” 6)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.125
  • The Bull of Wall Street? A symbol of growth which traces directly back to Sumerians.7)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.265
  • On the history of the concept of infinity: it arose with conscious effort in Greece with Anaxagoras, much before Indian thought came to grasp the concept.8)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.313
  • On the reported beginnings of phenomenalism in western tradition: the Democritean attempt to explain and save the relationship between human experience and the physical reality of atoms and void: “Sweet exists [only] by convention, bitter[only] by convention, color [only] by convention: in reality there is only atoms and void.” (Fr. 9) The Parmenidean emphasis on the illusory character of sensorial experience is thus safeguarded.9)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.316
  • On matters of atomism, McEvilley goes further to argue that the basics of Democritus’s philosophy could be found even earlier in India, under the teachings of Ajivika Pakhuda Kaccayana.10)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.318 The author points out that, during the described influence of Indian thought on Greeks through the medium of Persian Empire, atomism may well have been among the subjects of philosophical contamination.11)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.321
  • To challenge the common belief that Indian philosophy may be treated unitarily, as an almost coherently metaphysical thought: Carvakas held for a materialistic naturalism which made them think of “conceptions of religious ethics, such as karma, samsara, and moksha [liberazione] … as deliberate deceptions by the priestly caste which profited economically from them.”12)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.328
  • Parallels between Buddhist and Epicurean utilitarian hedonism; in Buddhism, although, the evaluation involves not only a personal account of happiness, but also the sufferings of people who are involved in the course of action that is under evaluation.13)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.338 Examples of moral progress, if we take Singer’s definition in The Expanding Circle. No wonder Buddhism has gained momentum in America over the last 50 years; as the author points out, “logical positivism, pragmatism, linguistic criticism, empiricism, and utilitarianism seem to have been characteristic of early Buddhism.”14)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.340
  • Substantial difference between contemporary ‘skeptical movements’ and ancient skepticism: “Sextus’s statement that the Skeptic “keeps on inquiring” does not mean that he is actively engaged in a search for the truth, but that he has not settled on a position.” 15)and that “The most important effect of the Skptics’s epochè is to preserve him from philosophical discussion.” McEvilley, T. (2002) p.479
  • On the origins of the Buddhist Mahayana tradition (that which is led by the Dalai Lama, to be clear), of which, as touched upon before, Nagarjuna is the ‘founder’: it “seems to have been originated in the Greco-Buddhist communities of India, through a conflation of the Greek Democritean-sophistic-skeptical tradition with the rudimentary and unformalised empirical and skeptical elements already present in Early Buddhism.” 16)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.503
  • Hints of probability as an useful epistemological tool in Epicurean logician Philodemus.17)McEvilley, T. (2002) p.512

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. “With Pyrrhon of Elis’s trip to India the pre-Alexandrian period ends. In that period Indian and Greek thinkers had developed similar dialectical attitudes. But only in Greece, it seems, had these attitudes equipped themselves with formal methods in this period. After Alexander’s colonisation of northwest India a five-hundred-long period of Greek and Indian cultural intermixing took place. Toward the end of this period, the array of Greek dialectical forms turns up in India, mature, complete, and without evidence of developmental stages, in the school of Buddhist thought called Madhyamika.” McEvilley, T. (2002) The Shape of Ancient Thought (Allworth Press, New York) p.416
2. The dissemination process can be expanded as follows: “A teaching that came into Greece and India in the Bronze Age or earlier seems to have been reinforced in Greece in the sixth century by a wave of Indian input, which probably originated in the same Bronze Age source but had undergone significant reinterpretation as its context changed. The Mesopotamian doctrine, in other words, if such there was, had travelled both into Greece and India by 1000 B.C.; subsequently it remained inconspicuous and, probably, unchanging in Greece, but in India it underwent further development, associating it with convergent doctrines from the non-Vedic community, and so on; the this developed form of the doctrine in turn was disseminated from India into Greece in the sixth century B.C.” McEvilley, T. (2002) p.287
3. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.653
4. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.91
5. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.114
6. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.125
7. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.265
8. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.313
9. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.316
10. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.318
11. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.321
12. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.328
13. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.338
14. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.340
15. and that “The most important effect of the Skptics’s epochè is to preserve him from philosophical discussion.” McEvilley, T. (2002) p.479
16. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.503
17. McEvilley, T. (2002) p.512