A note on stars, planets, the gods, and the discovery of reason
“One thing leads to another,” and one moment of wonder leads to more wonder. As Plato has Socrates declare in his dialogue, the Theatetus, “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Philosophy, or the Greek word, philosophia, literally means, of course, “the love of wisdom.” One gains wisdom through loving it, and wondering at what is.
When I first let Moses and Elijah (my dogs) outside this morning, at 0130, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the stars. The sky was cloudless, the waning moon had not yet risen, and the stars and (I thought) some planets stood out, inspired awe, and provoked a few questions. “What am I seeing” I wondered. “Surely that very bright object in the southern sky must be a planet. If so, which one?” I surmised that it was Jupiter, which I have seen on a number of occasions. As I walked around my yard in the dark, I also remembered the ancient Greek story that one of the philosophers—Thales, I believe—was said to have been so enraptured looking up at the stars that he fell into a well. That account also comes from Plato’s Theatetus.
I wondered, “Which is that planet I am seeing in the southern sky?” A quick search using Bing online convinced me that it was not a planet, for no planet was visible in my location (not far south of Butte, Montana) at 0130 this morning. As the object was stationary, it would not have been a plane or a satellite. Well, it was surely not the moon. Hence, by deduction, it is a star. Which star it was I will search out in coming days, as I seek to learn which constellations are visible at my location at this time of the year. In youth and as a young man, I could identify a number of constellations. Now I recognize few, although I can clearly identify the Large Dipper (Ursa Major) as I lean back and gaze outside my living room window, when the electric light has been turned off.
And so I began to wonder about the names of the planets, and especially of Jupiter, which I was not seeing. Jupiter, as I’ve long known, is the Roman derivation from the Greek designation of the “chief god” as “Zeus Pater,” “Father Zeus.” Zeus, and derivatively the Roman god Jupiter, were thought of as the head god. For some reason, the ancient Romans named the second brightest planet Jupiter, reserving Venus—the goddess of love and of beauty—for what seems to be the brightest of the planets, when visible. In the Greek understanding, Zeus was not “from the beginning,” but was the son of Kronos (Chronos), the Greek name for a older god, and their word for Time (hence the origin of our word “chronology,” an account of time, of of a series in time). Again, the ancient Romans derived their names for gods and a large part of their fundamental mythology from the Greeks; as Zeus was the son of Kronos, so Jupiter was conceived as the son of Saturn, a Latin word thought to be related to a verb meaning, “to devour,” for “Time devours all things.” Saturn is devouring time, and his son, Jupiter, must confine him within limits, lest Saturn destroy all things.
The Roman thinker, Cicero, wrote c 45 BC in his book, De Natura Deorum, On the Nature of the gods, the following. Note how Cicero shows concern for real natural processes, and is not just engaging in mythical speculation for its own sake. For in reality, “Time devours all things.” Cicero writes: "By Saturn they [the mythologizers] seek to represent that power which maintains the cyclic course of times and seasons. This is the sense that the Greek name of that god bears, for he is called Kronos, which is the same as Chronos, or Time. Saturn for his part got his name because he was "sated" with years; the story that he regularly devoured his own children is explained by the fact that time devours the courses of the seasons, and gorges itself "insatiably" on the years that are past. Saturn was enchained by [his son] Jupiter to ensure that his circuits did not get out of control, and to constrain him with the bonds of the stars."
I would add to Cicero: Note that the divine Zeus / Jupiter must constrain Time (Kronos), the Roman Saturn, and keep its devouring within limits. The discovery of limits—and hence being-things or things—were historically essential to the discovery of reason, and of what we call “natural science.” Limited being has “a nature,” a way of being within limits. To know the nature of something, one must know its limits—not only what it is, but what it is not. In the words from Delphi in Greece that Socrates took as his watchword, “Know thyself; that thou art a human being, and not a god.” We are limited or bounded in ways that gods are not. The gods of the ancient Greek and Roman myths (among others) were not bound by time going forward, as they were understood to be “deathless,” or immortal; but they were bound by time in the past, as even the gods were thought to have a beginning in time, an origin.
The ancient Greek philosophers made a major discovery: there are not only limited beings in the world, or “being-things” (Homer, Hesiod), but “being itself,” unlimited. This significant discovery took place in the mind of Parmenides of Elea, born c 515 B.C. Parmenides was filled with wonder at unbounded being, being itself. (Note the “Unbounded” was already discovered and named by Anaximander, slightly before Parmenides.) Parmenides worked out in his thought the contrast between being-things, all of which are limited; and unlimited being, which is One, utterly simple, eternal, and divine. Now the concern with divinity was moved from the gods, who were still bounded or limited, and the unlimited being itself, or what Thomas Aquinas would later explain as the sheer act of to be, “esse per se subsistens.” At the same time, Parmenides was aware that he discovered being itself by a power at work in his own mind, in his psyche; and he called this power “nous,” or intellect, reason. By reason man becomes aware of unlimited being. Here we have a major, decisive breakthrough in the history of philosophy, but more fundamentally, in the history of human consciousness: Man or human being is that being-thing, that limited being, which becomes aware of unlimited being, the truly divine. The stars and planets were losing some of their shine to what was present in human being as human being, and in all of reality as being itself. The discovery of unlimited being, and its contrast to things with limits and hence “having a nature,” was a decisive breakthrough both for philosophy, and for what in time would come to be called “science,” or “natural science,” as it explores the limits in things and processes. Philosophy explores the unlimited; science explores the limited.
A further note on myths: There is usually far more meaning and truth to these ancient myths than one would guess. If one allows Positivistic bias to blind one’s mind, myths are “falsehoods,” untrue, and “primitive.” One would do well to know that myth is derived from the Greek word, mythos, which does not mean fiction or falsehood (that would be pseudos); rather, mythos means story, tale, myth. Ancient cosmological myths, tales of the gods, are stories, and our contemporary stories are myths. Movies are myths presented with pictures and sounds, actors and actions. So Greek myths were often about the gods, or forces of nature. What was the main purpose of the myth? Just as with our stories: myths are meant to communicate some truths about reality, and ultimately to explain the cause of things, and what we would call the nature of things—the way the world works, and why. I have often noted that frequently, there is more truth in stories (myths) than in literal accounts; so called “fiction” is often more true to reality than “non-fiction,” as I realized in childhood. So-called “fiction,” or myths, stories, can be profoundly insightful into reality. Consider for example the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, an ancient Hebrew story (myth). It says more about what it is to be human than probably any few pages of analytical text ever written. In a story, the writer or speaker is free to explore and express reality without worrying about “what exactly happened.” That a snake can talk, and ask, “Did God really tell you not to eat the fruit of this tree?" communicates profound insight into the susceptibility of human being to evil provocations; the fact that snakes do not talk is irrelevant to the meaning of the story—and hence to existential truth.
Often, myths or stories are rooted in concrete, everyday experience. In the case of ancient myths, insights into the workings of nature, of the divine, and of human being are expressed using divine personages, or “beings,” such as gods who dwell in the skies, or on Mount Olympus, and so on. The tellers of myths are not seeking to understand scientific processes, or what we might naively say, “really happens.” They saw lightning, and imagined Zeus the Father god in the sky hurling lightning bolts because he was angry (a belief encouraged, no doubt, by loud bursts of thunder). Or they saw a planet (literally, a “wanderer” in the night sky) that appeared red in color, and they associated red with anger, bloodshed, and war, and so they named that wandering body “Ares” (Greek) or “Mars” (Romans), and in both cases, the god of war. Or Mary, the virgin Mother of Jesus, understood as the carrier of divine grace and not as its origin, could be portrayed as the Moon, which does not generate light (as does the sun), but reflects it: “My soul magnifies the LORD; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1). Myths are means of communicating truths about reality. I often recall words attributed to Aristotle, the great lover of wisdom, in his relative “old age” (he died around age 62). The Elderly Aristotle wrote, “The older I grow, and the more I am alone, the more I love myths.” Why? We can guess: Because myths communicate much meaning and insight into reality succinctly—unlike discursive philosophy and science. Myths pack meaning into fewer words, or at least more imaginatively rich words.
The spiritual-intellectual break from myth to philosophy and its offspring, science—which occurred primarily and essentially in Ancient Greece, and elsewhere only following from the Greek breakthrough—was a major revolution in human history, in the history of the mind (in what Hegel would call the “history of consciousness”). Philosophy and science are still full of wonder and wonders, as are myths, but they proceed with the aid of a Greek discovery of the foremost significance: the discovery of nous, the divine intellect in human beings, and not just “in the gods.” Nous is the human mode of participating in the divine nous, in the mind of God.
I still study the "pre-Socratic philosophers" of Greece, and especially Herakleitos and Parmenides, as well as others, to observe this gradual discovery of reason, and the revolutionary effects it had on thinking and on understanding human being and our place in the Kosmos. Even the tales of the gods get “cleaned up” on account of being deemed “unseemly,’ as by Xenophanes, and later Plato. Poets such as Homer and Hesiod already helped pave the way for the break, but the discovery of reason within human being, our critical faculty, was decisive. One of the most helpful documents on the history of the development of philosophy out of myth is in the opening book of Aristotle’s so-called “Metaphysics,” on which I shall write at a later time.
And note, by way of contrast, that there is neither science nor a concept of “nature” as the givenness in reality in the Hebrew bible. Nor is their a conception of human beings sharing in the divine intellect through reason. But patterns in the world, and in what came to be called “history,” were observed, as in “animals of various kinds,” or “a woman’s way” (referring to menstruation). Nor do we find science or nature (reality) in ancient Hindu texts, or Egyptian, etc. Human beings used reason as in mathematics, observation, historical writing, but it was among Greek thinkers that reason “turned on itself,” became “self-conscious” in Hegel’s term, and was discovered as the presence of the eternal wisdom (divine) in human being (This great leap is clearly seen in Parmenides, Heracleitos, and later in Socrates-Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus [AD 204-270]). I find the discovery of reason to be one of the truly most fascinating processes in human history. Another unsurpassed revolution in human history is what happened in Moses and the prophets of Israel: the discovery of the presence of the I AM in and to human being, as in the story of YHWH encountering Moses out of the burning bush (and the bush was not consumed by fire, hence a non-natural phenomenon). Is it not amazing how the ancient Israelites, then Jews, then early Christians, did not interest themselves in “natural processes,” or “nature,” or realty as such—and did not discover reason—but were so pre-occupied with the in-breaking of the divine as Spirit, not as intellect? That is both their strength and weakness, and it took centuries to work out the balance of insights, to give scope to both the divine in-breaking as pneuma (Spirit) and the divine presence as intellect, reason. The Greek philosophers had it both ways, because the divine broke in as “reason” (nous), but was also understood to present itself as non-rational pneumatic activity, as in the Greek prophets, in the Delphic Oracle, in the Orphic cults and rites. That the ancient Greeks were well familiar with prophesy, and sudden inspiration from the gods, is clearly displayed in some of the Greek tragedies (such as Oedipus Rex), and in Plato, who even praises Eros as “divine madness.” But the seminal discovery of ancient Greece was in the gradual discovery of nous, of reason: that human being is essentially the “being having nous” (Aristotle; translated into Latin as the animal rationale).
No wonder, then, that philosophers turned their attention to history as the “realm of reason” (Hegel’s phrase), as the locus of the divine-human encounter (Plato, Aristotle, and some philosophers in our time). Patterns begin to appear to the wondering mind; and the search for wisdom continues as a fundamental human quest.
—Wm. Paul McKane
22 November 2019
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