photo: Alinari/Art Resources, NY
Truth in the Aristotelian Tradition, and Truth in the Enlightenment
(third version) by Thomas Sefton
"It is not the wind that moves, nor is it the banner that moves, kind sirs. Rather, it is your own mind that moves."—
Hui-neng, the Sixth Ch'an Patriarch1
My education and my life began when we used to hang around the all-night diner and talk about Zen Buddhism. But what I once saw in Zen Buddhism, Chuang Tzu, etc. I now see in the Iliad. It was through Chinese Buddhist and Taoist thought that I learned about perception, and we can't understand how the Iliad was created and what it means without understanding perception. I won't be talking about Chinese thought here, it is mostly important here because it taught me about Greek thought and specifically because it taught me about perception. However I should note that pre-philosophic Greek thought was, in fundamental ways, closer to Chinese thought than to Philosophy. Briefly and simply, this is the true story of how everyone in the world became insane, and of how some people regained some of their sanity but not all of it.
As we learn more about the workings of the brain and as physics forms a better and better idea of the nature of matter, etc., it becomes clear that this, which we have always called "the world" and "life," is not real at all but something that we have done to understand what is real. We must create to understand, and all of this - anything that we can point to - is our own creation. There is also that which is not our own creation, there is also the reason we create and the reason we live. For us that is a very long mental jump, but for Homer and the other Greek poets it was simply the air one breathed, the way one normally did things.
We are not accustomed to looking at the "world" as a way of understanding the world but that it is what it is, and anyone who has taken anything with a psychotropic effect can confirm this. The psychotropic effect can best be described as lubrication. A given substance may have other effects besides the psychotropic, but its psychotrophic effect is lubrication. To understand what that means, you have to understand that everything that we have always thought of as "the world" is in fact created by our own minds. A substance with a psychotropic effect does not make anyone hallucinate, we have in fact been hallucinating all along, a psychotrophic substance makes our hallucinations more fluid.
1 Liu-tsu ta’n-ching, pg. 89. See also The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, pg. 109.
The ceiling may start breathing. This is a very common example of fluidity of hallucination, especially if the fluidity is slight or just beginning. The ceiling that you have always known and loved doesn't suddenly disappear and this breathing hallucinogenic ceiling takes its place. No, this is the same ceiling that you have always known and loved, but now it's breathing. You have always been hallucinating that ceiling, only you are now doing it in a somewhat more fluid way. Your hallucination is now less stable, but it is no more or less real than it has ever been.
Ceilings that breathe and floors with heartbeats were just the beginning. Part of the purpose of the Buddhism I had been studying was to realize that the things of this world are empty and only the products of our own minds, which is what they are. I had been studying this for four years, it commonly takes ten years or more to figure out, if one ever figures it out, but with a little lubrication you can learn very, very fast.
Everything in the world changes, everything that you have ever known, everything that you ever thought possible, everything that is, everything that might be, everything that you have ever seen or imagined, everything that you thought could be imagined, everything changes. Everything that you ever thought your life was or could be becomes reduced to a mote of dust in a corner of a room somewhere on the other side of the world, lost in an infinity of complexity and potentiality that you never thought existed. And all this infinity of complexity and potential is just as real as anything else that you have ever known. This is of course terrifying to a depth far beyond anything that you ever thought possible, but then you see.
Whatever this is, this is the way it's always been. None of it is real, none of it is solid, everything one can point to is only a product of one's own mind. But this is the way it's always been, and though everything that can be pointed to is fluid and changeable, there is something that can't be pointed to in any way that doesn't change. This that can't be talked about or pointed to in any way, this is the real world. It's the real world, it's a certain way and that's it, and we ourselves are real and regardless of our dreams, regardless of our desires, regardless of our attempts to invent ourselves, regardless of anything that we can talk about, we are a certain way and that's it.
Now here we are in the real world, what do we do? We can't talk about the real world, everything that we can talk about is a dream, we can't directly understand the real world, but we can know it in some way that can't be talked about, and somehow, in some way that can't be talked about, we can walk in it.
And everything that matters is there, meaning itself is there. Everything we have ever cared about is there, the reason we live, the reason we dream, the reason we do everything we do is there. We can walk there, but only if we don't want anything. That's the price you pay; whatever it is you want, you can't have it. As soon as you decide you want it or anything else, you are no longer there, you are back inside your dreams, and your dreams mean nothing.
I know of another thing you can do with the real world, besides walk in it: you can express it. Now that you know the world is real, now that you know you are real, not just something invented, then if you also have certain skills, you have this incredible opportunity—you can express it, you can say what you really are, you have this opportunity to hold nothing back.
But again, you can only do that if you don't want anything, as soon as you want something, you are immediately doing something else. You can be a complete jerk, later, you can be self-indulgent and greedy, later, that means nothing, all that matters is how you feel about what you are saying as you say it, and that you want nothing except to speak. Your personal life is just a well or badly arranged display window, all that matters is this that can't be talked about, that can only be expressed. If for that moment you can give up everything except what you are saying, then you can say everything, you can hold nothing back.
You can't point directly to the real world, the source of all meaning, but you can express it. When you do that successfully and you do it in words—of course it can be done in other ways, music for example—when you do it in words, that's called literature. You can talk about various points of literary technique, but the expression itself, that which makes it literature, can't be directly pointed to and can't be talked about. You can talk about how you can know an invention of your own mind and you can describe the process of putting it into words, but you can't describe how you know anything real and you can't describe how you express it.
We have no way of describing how we dream, how we hallucinate, we just do it. We have no way of describing how we see and hear, we just do it. And we have no way of describing how we have contact with the real world, that which is not a dream, it's just something we do. We have a name for it; we call it "perception." It is the key to everything, but we have no way of directly saying what it is. There is much more to say about all this, I am only reporting the little I know from my own experience. There is nothing unusual about either walking in the real world or about producing literature. A great many people have done one or both of these things.
The number of worlds that we can invent is infinite, but there is only one real one. It works in a particular way, it has a particular right and wrong to it, and a human mind that is working as it should is quite able to be aware of it. Once again, the following is the true story of how everyone in the world became insane, and how some people got some of their sanity back but not all of it:
Modern people have difficulty thinking of religion apart from cult. Christianity and its various forms are cults, all forms of Islam are cults, as is Zoroastrianism, as is Buddhism, as is Judaism, to the extent that it is not a nationality, as is the Unification Church, as are the Hari Krisnas, as was the Jim Jones group, etc. Everyone feels that some aspects of reality are more Sacred than others. What a cult does is assert that the Sacred aspects lie within a certain fairly well defined circle, within which all is Sacred, Good, Right, etc., and outside of which all is otherwise. Inside this circle will be various behavior patterns, objects and persons that are given ultimate importance. Mohammed may theoretically be only God's messenger and not to be worshipped, but regardless of theory he is a central figure of a cult and people in his cult will necessarily react to anyone who interferes with their feelings toward him. The same was true of Jim Jones and David Koresh.
Whereas Islam is a cult and usually nothing more, the religion that came from India features not only cult but enlightenment. Enlightenment is a perfect state of being that one eventually achieves or at least approaches, and which once achieved one never loses. The Sacred is something eternal and infinite that one eventually understands, and once gained this understanding can never be lost or unlearned. One's mental life becomes perfect and remains so forever.
The classic Greeks had physical shrines and sanctuaries, within which all was considered pure, but they had no idea of becoming pure by joining something or believing something, and they had no systematic idea of which actions were Holy and which not. Nor did they believe that it was possible to attain a permanent mental state that was Holy and that would not revert to the profane, unless of course one died in such a state as was often the case. They believed, and they said this over and over, that the Sacred did not lie in anything permanent but in moments. Pindar is especially eloquent on this point.2
No aspect of classic culture was really secular, its purpose was always either to recall and celebrate or to create such a moment, or both. A bronze statue captures a moment of physical perfection that will never be repeated. An athlete pours his life into a footrace that will last less than twenty seconds and that will never happen again. Pindar arranges an elaborate choral dance to celebrate the race. Its lyrics and choreography are especially composed and rehearsed. It will last a little more than five minutes and will never be performed again. A tragedy too, is about a moment, it recalls a moment in the past in which someone acted in a Sacred manner and it is a moment in itself. It required months of preparation by dozens of people and enormous expense, and it lasted perhaps less than two hours. It was never intended to be shown again. This moment has been recreated tens of thousands of times in song, story and dance, but it will never be created in quite the same way again. Here, there is no question of a permanent state that one will never pass out of, but if one has the power one can create it over and over.
The Iliad recalled one brief moment of a man's life that is worth remembering. We know that the Iliad was composed as it was being performed, but the "orally composed" Iliad was not different from other classic age art, it was re-created each time it was recalled, and in a somewhat different way each time. Such a moment could never be reduced to a form or a belief or a cult. If that happens, the Holy moment is lost. Classical religion was not believed but sung, and it could only be understood and transmitted through poetry, music and dance and unofficially through sculpture and painting, through what we now call "art."
Classic age art was never the production of an object, but always an act. That is why classic architecture, painting and sculpture were not considered to be "art," whereas poetry, music, dance and to a lesser extent athletics, were. Classical sculpture can obviously be called "art" from our point of view and we can learn something of the classical mentality from it, but not very much because, though it might have a Sacred function, as sculpture per se it was valued only as a type of beautiful object made by craftsmen. Like, say, an African or an American Indian ceremonial mask, it was never consciously intended to express all that much in itself 3 and certainly nothing equivalent to what we find in the Iliad and the tragedies. The Greek word poieo, means both "do" and "create." Creating was not the production of a fixed finished object, but an act that expressed something the creator perceived, typically a past moment in time.4 That was why the odes of Pindar and the tragedies of Sophokles were meant to be presented once and never again. They were not objects to be preserved but actions, re-creations of moments in time that must be re-created in a new and separate act each time one wished to know them. And the Iliad, a typical example of classic age art, was a new act each time it was performed, and each time the poietes so acted he had to reach back to the Sacred moment in time which his act re-created. As long as this kept happening the Iliad remained Sacred, when it stopped happening creation ceased, then the Iliad became an object and no longer part of that which is more important than our personal lives.
2 See Olympian I, 99-100, Pythian VIII, 92-96, Pythian X, 20-30, Nemean III, 72-
75, and Ishthmian VII, 39-51.
3 These ceremonial masks and much tribal art were never intended to be a profound experience in themselves, as is say a painting by Van Gogh. The expressed something that was meant to be a small part of a very elaborate ceremony, and the ceremony as a whole was intended to be a profound experience. That is why an African or American Indian ceremonial mask is not in the same league as a painting by Van Gogh.
4 For a detailed discussion of exactly how this works, see "Creation of the Iliad" in The Gods Remain.
During the history of the Iliad, the basic conception of creating changed. In old poetic thinking, one made facts, ideas, concepts, images and various mental entities from the reality one perceived. The mental entities were one's own acts, part of one's will and ego, but they were formed from perceptions of that which is outside the self and creation was this very act of forming ideas, facts, etc. When the new Aristotelian thinking takes over, the process of forming facts, ideas, etc. passes into unconsciousness, because the facts and other abstractions are considered the reality one perceives. When one looks, one now 'sees' facts rather than where the facts came from. Creation is now confined to thinking that uses these mental objects, that re-arranges them, looks at them from different angles, looks for logical relationships between them, all thought is now about thought. The formation of these entities never happened, they are reality. Observation consists of observing facts, observing objects, reality has become a kaleidoscope of objects, the act of perceiving reality as poets once perceived the Iliad has become incomprehensible, all contact we might have with the world beyond ourselves has become incomprehensible. The Sacred passes into the dark frightening places beyond the limits of our vision, the world becomes first secular and then insane, and the Gods become objects, and behind the objects lies fear.
Our present version of the Iliad is a record of re-creations connected with a particular Sacred moment. Of course it has great value as that, but if the world had not been transformed into one of objects and the transmission of the Sacred moment had been allowed to continue, then we would not have a record of the moment as it happened long ago in another world but the moment itself as it lived and as it always has lived and as it always will live inside our own lives.
We have noted that the content of the songs were moments in time; that is how we have been looking at them here, but how did the Greeks look at them? Even today worthwhile literature is based usually on actual people and events, and always on the actual on another level. Literature as opposed, say, to genre fiction, is never fantasy for the sake of fantasy; it does not express a fantasy on the author's part. Literature can use real events or made-up events, but it must be a way of expressing something that is and that the author perceives. The form of literature may be fantasy, its content must be real. What literature actually is has not changed fundamentally since Homeros' time, the cultural idea of what literature is has changed drastically and not for the better. The content of a work must now be "original," "his personal statement," "his philosophy," "his ideas." And all this is valid in a way but it is quite misleading. All literature and all art of any value is the expression of something the artist perceives.
We must above all understand that the Iliad is a Sacred song. Its content is Sacred and the singing of it was a Sacred act especially associated with the religion of the Muses. This was a major Hellenic religion, and it or something like it seems to have been common to most or all of Europe. It had a center near Mount Helikon in Boiotea, not far from Thebes. All "music" and poetry was of the Muses, poetry often had other aspects as well but it was always of the Muses. Where the paean for example, was a song to Apollo and tragedy was a song to Dionysos, the Iliad belonged entirely and exclusively to the Muses.
The Quran was held to have been copied from divine dictation and every Arabic word in it is considered Holy and eternal. The Quran is defined as a group of words arranged in a certain order. Indeed, the Arabic words of the Quran and their order were sometimes considered to be a manifestation or an incarnation of God, not merely an act of God.
The Bible is from an earlier time than the Quran and is held to be a product of divine inspiration rather than divine dictation, and there has been much less emphasis on the words per se. But even so, the Bible is largely defined as a group of words arranged in a certain order, and these words and this order are held to be eternal truth. There is no question of changing them. This inspiration or this dictation is considered to be something that happened in the distant past, it will not happen again until the world ends, it is certainly not happening now.
The Muse spoke to the aoidoi and rapsodoi who sung the Iliad, and she spoke to them each time the Iliad was sung. She was thought of as a woman, that was probably because all of the singers of the Iliad were men. Artists from other traditions do not necessarily describe their "Muse" in sexual terms, we have just noted two traditions that do not. But for the male poet of ancient Hellas, the Muse was a woman. Her function was to speak to the singer; she told him what to sing and he had to determine how to sing it. She provided the content or substance of what he sang.
The Muse spoke to the poet, but her words were formless. He had to bring them into form as well as he could by his own effort. Indeed, he had to bring them into form, he had no real choice. He had always to treat her with respect and never to try to use her for a petty purpose. Poetry and egotism are eternally at war. If he was petty with her the consequences would be terrible, as they are today. And the worst of these, the most terrible thing that could happen to him, was that one day he would find her gone.5
5 See Iliad, II, 594-600, for the story of the Thracian whose song was taken away by the Muses because he had boasted.
Or so it seems. In reality it is the poet himself who has turned away from the Muse, not the reverse. She is Sacred, and to regard her in any other way is not to regard her at all, but to regard something else. As soon as the poet wants anything for himself, he is no longer in the real world. And as soon as he wants anything except to say what he knows, his song has vanished and something shallow fills its place. However in the ancient religion of the Muses that insight is clouded by the fact that the Greeks had to conceive of all significant concepts, not only as naturalistic realities, but also as supernatural beings who could act arbitrarily. So they understood that the Muse was prone to disappear and basically why, but at least in the surviving literature, we do not hear them discussing Her subtleties.
It was the singer who gave the Muse's voice form. And he was Sacred in his own right, and without him the Gods would remain formless and in that sense unknown, and Sacred songs such as the Iliad would not exist. The singer determined how the song would be sung, what would be sung was determined by something else. He might sing the song well or less well according to his ability, in either case the WHAT remained.
The WHAT was clearly distinguished from any cognitive idea of the songs, as sets of words arranged in a certain order, that the singer "physically" heard—another cognitive idea—and from which he theoretically got his facts. The Iliad’s poet says to the Muses, “We (poets) only hear the kleos (glory, reputation), we know nothing."6
"The word used for "hear" is akouo, meaning "hear" in the superficial sense. "For you are Goddesses, you are present alongside,, you see everything."7And of course it is from the Muses rather than from what is superficially heard that the story comes,8 and the Muse is "present alongside," She is a moment in time, that is what is transmitted. Imagination is not a question of making things up, unimaginative people are quite capable of fantasizing. Imagination is "being there." The essence of the Muse is "being there," pareimi, what happens when we actually perceive. This moment, this "being there" is not part of the ego we have constructed for ourselves, it is outside anything we have constructed or done in any sense, and more significant to us than anything so contrived. When the ancients did form an abstraction for such moments, they conceived this abstraction as a living being, a Goddess.
The following is an incident from the Odyssey:9 Odysseus has returned from his travels, and he finds that some of the local nobility have occupied his manor and are trying to marry his wife and take his property from his barely-grown son. Odysseus kills all the suitors and now he turns to deal with those of his household who have collaborated with them.
Phemios was the bard of the manor. Phemios had sung for the suitors, and now he was in serious trouble. He might run or he might beg for mercy, it was hard to know which was more dangerous. But everyone knew that he had served the suitors against his will, and so he did not try to run. He threw his arms around Odysseus' knees in the traditional gesture of supplication and begged Odysseus to spare his life. Phemios said that his body must be respected because the songs inside it had been put there by God.10 No one had taught him how to sing, the power of his songs came from the Gods. They spoke through his voice and through his fingers as he touched the lyre strings.
For Homeros, "God," and "the Gods," are interchangable. Quite often translations of Greek texts will read "Zeus" or “the gods' when the text actually says "God," as is the case here. Both Greek and Old Norse texts use the word, “God" in a way that was never explained mythologically or in any other way, and certainly didn't refer to Yahweh, yet it is assumed that we will know what is meant. Most of us use the word "God" in that same way today. Again, Phemios specifies that his songs come from God.
Laodes the seer had just thrown his arms around Odysseus' knees as Phemios was now doing, and the same arguments had applied to him. Odysseus had cut the seer's head off. Phemios had no way of knowing what Odysseus would do, he only knew that he had a chance. We would expect him to hold his lyre in his hands as he spoke. The lyre was the mark of a bard, an aoidos, just as the staff would later be the mark of a rapsodos. And indeed he had been holding his lyre in his hands as he debated whether to approach Odysseus. But it came into his mind that if Odysseus killed him the lyre might be damaged as well. No one heard the lyre sing more clearly than Phemios did, and the lyre's voice was Sacred and no one knew that better than he. So he left the lyre in a place where it would not be damaged and he abandoned whatever protection it would have given him. He went to meet his Fate, and that Fate would have to be whatever it would be. His songs were far more important than his personal life. And he knew that, and there are still those who know that today.
6 Iliad, II, 486.
7 Iliad, II, 485.
8 Iliad, I, 1, II, 484-493, & 761, XIV, 805, XVI, 112.
9 Odyssey, XXII, 330-353.
10 Something similar is said in Odyssey, VIII, 43-45. Homeros has only two characters who are aoidoi, and in both cases he specifies that their songs come from God.
In Greece before philosophy and in Old Europe in General, knowledge and poetry are basically the same. You know something by creating it, that is by perceiving it and by bringing it into form. This applies to all knowledge of every type. This is how everyone knows things on a day-to-day basis -if one does in fact know things, it is quite possible to fill one's head with other things besides knowledge. Poetry is simply an intensification of this process of knowing.
Again - if in fact one performs the act of knowing. All over the civilized ancient Mideast,11 most obviously in Egypt, and for that matter in post-classic antiquity beginning with Plato and continuing in Christian and Islamic civilization, the basic idea was to eliminate knowledge by passing down as "culture," forms that had already been created at some point and that were to be copied rather than re-created in the sense that we have been discussing, and by filling one's mind as completely as possible with such forms and blocking out and ignoring perception. These traditional forms were considered correct (maat), or submissive and therefore a strengthening of the bond between oneself and one's Divine Patron, or Good as opposed to evil or badness, or Eternal as opposed to lower class and unpleasant or whatever. The idea is to eliminate everything uncertain, unpredictable, unknown and beyond the control of one's will and ego, the idea is to eliminate the serpent's wisdom.
In Old Europe knowledge was valued, and culture was not static forms but poetry.12 Poetry constituted culture, as it still did in fifth century Athens. Knowledge was continued through poetry and passed down through poetry, knowledge was preserved and passed down not by eliminating creation but specifically through creation, by the recreation of something that had been and was, perceived. That which was perceived was regarded as eternal, was in fact eternal, and was passed down through the generations, taking a somewhat different form at each re-creation. We have already seen that such a perception, such a particular moment, was passed down in the form of the Iliad. This thing that is perceived, is perceived, and it lies outside the self, outside the limits of one's ego, one's will and one's control. In short, knowledge lies not in a correct form (maat) but on the Edge and in the unknown. Knowledge therefore requires a particular response to the loss of that which we would cling to.
This all sounds very heavy, but the result of the creative process need not be anything of great significance, it could be a catalogue of the ships that went to Troy for example. But regardless of how the results of creation look to an outsider, they always have a great value to the creator. First, the creator must be willing to interact with something which as yet has no form and is unknown and outside his control, and to do that he must respond to uncertainty in a particular way. Second, he does in fact interact, in the most profound way possible, with something that is completely real and that is outside his ego. The result, I assume, could be a television commercial, an academic paper of the driest and most limited kind or a landscape design for one's backyard. The result is secondary, all creative work, to the extent that it is creative work, has the same value to the creator—and that value would be difficult to exaggerate. We are not fully human except insofar as we interact with that which lies beyond our ego, our will and our control.
11 Joseph Campbell has identified this process as beginning with the first cities of Mesopotamia and spreading out from there. See Primitive Mythology, chapters 3, IV, & 4, I, pp. 144-169. See especially the story on pp. 152-161.
12 This emphasis on poetry was common to China and to all of Northern Eurasia.It was characteristic of the steppe culture that was originated by the Indo-Europeans, that is still continued by Turks and Mongols, and that arrived in Europe as the formation of the Chorded Ware/Battle Ax culture about 3200 BC. See Sefton, The Greco-Germanic Tradition I & The Greco-Germanic Tradition II, website, www kolonospress.com, and the book, The Gods Remain, chapter titled “Gods Jadar.”
Again, this applies to that which is actually creative work. It does not necessarily imply that anything "arty" involves such interaction or such value to the person who does it, in fact as far as I can see, much arty activity is mere doodling and only has whatever value pretentious or unpretentious doodling has to the doodler. It is apparent that that which can meaningfully be called creative is not necessarily arty, and that which is arty is not necessarily creative. This does imply that true creation may or may not result in something impressive or spectacular or in something that would be commonly recognized as "art." The impressiveness of the result would depend, I suppose, on what the creator is interacting with and how vividly he sees it, on what is being said. I am not really interested in objectively judging other people's creativity, and I don't think that a good criterion that always applies is possible. I am interested in the value creation has for the creator, and that value seems to be basically the same whether the creation has resulted in anything earthshaking or not. Whatever else the creator is doing, he is in contact with something Real.
If one is in contact with something that is not a dream, then one is in touch with the source of creation and one will express that contact in a somewhat different way each time it is expressed. This is fundamental to the religion of the pre-philosophic Greeks, and we may regard it as a religious principle. Such contact is Sacred and feels that way, yet it is by no means a big deal and there is nothing in it to inflate the ego. That is inflated by our illusions and our attempts to avoid such contact, to avoid the lack of comfort and lack of egotism that are the hallmarks of being awake.
The following is from Aeschylos, Agamemnon, 1178-1183. Kassandra has been brought to the palace at Mycenae. At first she will not speak, because she has a vision of her own and Agamemnon's imminent murder. The vision is indescribably painful and nothing mitigates that pain, but as in poetry the vision comes from God and as in poetry it is Sacred. Again, the vision is of her own murder. Then the silence breaks. She says:
"And indeed the prophecy will no longer shine forth
from behind a veil like a new-wed bride,
but as a brightness that is like the rising sun in the East,
like a great spirit-wind,
breaking like a swelling wave towards the light,
greater by far than all this suffering."
Aristotle differed from those who determined Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought in that he maintained that the facts, ideas and other abstractions that made up the world must be determined by observation rather than by tradition or authority or simply by present assertion, but before the Enlightenment only a few people had the idea that these abstractions had to be continuously revised in light of new observations. Before this, one made an observation, turned it into a fact or a principle and then assumed that this abstraction was eternal and unquestionable. This happened because it was assumed that Reality was the known. Observations were made before and after abstractions became unplatonic, temporary and changeable, but with the Enlightenment people for the first time began to assume that Reality is unknown. The real point on which everything turns was not whether Reality was abstract—verbal or mathematical—but whether it was fundamentally something known or something not yet discovered and not yet reflected in human thought. In my own thinking, I have noticed that my perception must forever be something not yet definitively expressed by my words.
With the Enlightenment, science was established by the idea that truth always lies in the not-yet-known and that statements supposedly reflecting that truth are constantly subject to revision as more and more observations are made. As the classic age passed, what was then called religion and what would later be called literature changed in the reverse way. A creative act had been defined in terms of the Reality it expressed, not in terms of the form it happened to take. The Iliad was not defined as a group of words arranged in a certain order, but rather those words and that order were subject to change and didn't define anything. The Iliad was thought of as a moment in time that existed before words were used to create it on any specific occasion; the way that moment was expressed was optional, the moment was not. The group of words in a given order that we think of as a "tragedy" did not define anything and was only temporary, what was definitive was the thing that the tragic poet knew before he spoke and that he had to be constantly aware of as he created. But then the post-classic change rippled through the world, and objects became real and all else became unformed chaos, and literature became defined in terms of objects that had already been formed. The reality of literature was no longer in the point before the words were formed but after, and that is why literary creation gradually died and our only conscious and deliberate way of understanding what it is like to be human was no more.
13 Note that the text simply says
that the prophecy is “blowing,” “
spirit wind” is thus not a literal translation, but it is accurate and that is the way the
passage feels to me. The crucial line, “Greater by far than all this suffering,” is literal.
As our ways of understanding our humanity froze into unchangeable forms, the constructs we used to understand the non-human world around us froze as well. Both the human and the non-human worlds became constructs —realities now—that had already been formed. One can only be humble before the world that exists before objects are formed, there is nothing there that can be used to enlarge the ego. Once objects —constructs— are formed, one can use them for anything. One can for example use them to establish one's identity, to establish one's superiority over other people, and historically those are the main ways they get used, and that is why Galileo had to face the Inquisition for advancing an unorthodox model of the solar system. In the same way one can only be humble before the Iliad or before any literature that has not yet become an object, but once it becomes an object one can stick it in one's pocket and use it for any pretentious nonsense one wishes.
Our understanding of the non-human world no longer consists of objects that are designed to gratify us, but in that which has reality before those objects were formed. So our understanding never reaches an end, and biology and physics are never "finished" and never will be. The problem with biology, physics, etc. is that they have definite boundaries. Most people have at one time or another seen things that apparently do not fall within the spheres of biology or physics, and much more importantly, when we look at ourselves and one another, most of what we see emphatically does not fall within the spheres of biology or physics. But though biology and physics are limited by their boundaries, within their boundaries they will always be just beginning, and we have accomplished and will continue to accomplish a great deal in those spheres.
Our understanding of the human world is still pre-Enlightenment and in modern times has not approached the level it reached during the fifth century BC. It is still defined in terms of finished unchangeable constructs, and we still find the world that exists before those constructs were formed tentative and frightening. We don't feel we have knowledge of the human world at all until such knowledge has been reduced to a form that can be stuck in the pocket and used for our own purposes, mostly to establish our identity and our superiority over other people. And that is why our knowledge of the non-human world has advanced so far, whereas our knowledge of the human world remains on the level of superstition.
There is something that we no longer have a name for, that the ancients called "the Gods." We no longer have a name for this because philosophers arose and decided that "the Gods" didn't exist, that the world was made of objects, and that anything that was not an object, that existed outside of definition, either didn't exist at all or simply didn't count for anything. They decided that the world consisted of things that, at least mentally, one could stick in one's pocket and do any self-indulgent thing one liked with. Recently, we have been blest with deconstructionist thinking, which holds that all thought is either straightforward assertion or assertion in disguise. We therefore needn't reduce the world to things we can stick in our pockets, since there are no things and nothing is real but the pocket.
The ancients did not stick things in their pockets, they had thoughts. They perceived some aspect of the world, then they expressed what they perceived in some form. The Gods are what we perceive before we bring it into form. We can only be humble before this world, and we cannot use it for our own purposes. That is clearly why the philosophers denied it.14 After all, they were a type of sophist. Through thought, we can get closer and closer to understanding what we perceive, but we can never nail it, have it, encompass or define it. According to its content we call it "poetry" or simply "memory," or if we are applying it to the natural world, we call it "natural science." It is simple thought. In most ways we have learned to think rather well in regard to the natural world, but unfortunately in the human sphere our critical "thinking" has rarely risen to the level of thought. However, Homer's thinking did. And so did the thinking that we find in other ancient literature such as that in Sophokles, Aeschylos, and in the Volsungasaga,15 and the enormity of what we can learn from it is impossible to exaggerate.
What distinguishes us from other animals is our extraordinary ability to dream. Everything we do is dreaming. Whether we drive a nail with a hammer, draw up a legal agreement, dance to music or simply walk across a room, everything we do, we do by dreaming. If our minds are working as they should, then our dreams, our actions, express what we are and what we perceive. What has happened, however, is that we have used our dreams to replace perception rather than express it. All this is very simple and easy to understand, but our minds have become so damaged that we have lost the ability to see through the religion of our obsessions to the living source of all our dreams.
Truth in the Iliad - Bibliography
Aeschylos—Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides, Fragments, H.W. Smith & H. Lloyd-Jones (trans), Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,Massachusetts, 1983.
Campbell, Joseph—The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Penguin Books, New York, 1976.
Homer—The Iliad, Vols. I-II, A.T. Murry (trans), Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, the Poetic Edda, Columbia University Press, New York, 1936.
—The Odyssey, Vols. I-II, A.T. Murry (trans), Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984.
Hui-neng—Ding, Fubao, Liu zu tan jing jian zhu / Fahai , Taibei Shi: Wen jin chu ban she, 1990.
—The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra with the Commentary of Tripitaka Master Hua, Buddhist Text Translation Society, Burlingame, California, 2002.
Pindar—Pindar, J.E. Sandys (trans), Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978.
Homer—The Iliad, Vols. I-II, A.T. Murry (trans), Loeb Library, Harvard University Press, the Poetic Edda, Columbia University Press, New York, 1936.
Sefton, Thomas—The Gods Remain, Kolonos Press, www.kolonospress.com, Kerhonkson, New York, 2001.