The mythic perspective
Reality first revealed itself to man through symbols. Since reality is not experienced ecstatically, but dynamically, the symbols came accompanied with narratives, the myths. The mythic-symbolic language of our distant ancestors expressed and codified the primordial perspective of a life within nature’s circle.
As the millennia passed, however, dramatic changes occurred in the way mankind lived, changes that increasingly alienated man from nature and its circle. Eternity, originally grasped and experienced with every cognitive process, became more and more an abstract, metaphysical concept. The emergence of agriculture and the pursuit of a sedentary life meant a particularly relevant step away from nature. From that point on the relationship with the symbols and myths (through which man was able to communicate and dialogue with nature, by experimenting with what we would call magic and sorcery) changed, leading up to the eventual emergence of systematized state religions established upon the cult of common city gods, known to us from classical Greece and Rome.
As the distancing away from the initial state of integration with nature continued ever further and the emerging new ways and perspectives placed man more and more in a position of defiance towards nature, the mythic-symbolic language became less and less suitable as foundation for life. To some extent, the continued adherence to ancestral mythical roots, which remained the source for the core values and virtues of European man at least until the Christianization of Europe, kept man’s technical-technological hubris in check, imposing an obstacle to “progress” and the “modernization” of life. Our distant ancestors knew better than to try or even want to win over nature.
Agriculture, however, brought the need for organized mass-labor, for the establishment of a working-force, creating the demand for a new type of man, the slave or the serf. The new servile breed, whose existence was solely devoted to plowing and harvesting the fields, required a new type of spirituality, one that befitted its spiritual attributes and could meet its spiritual needs. The passage from the aristocratic cult of the ancestors and the archaic heroic virtues of god-like men to the more plebeian cult of the city gods can be observed in the Greek historical development, which is well documented. While still sound due to the bound imposed by tradition, spirituality started to show signs of decline as the new man, the serf, gained prominence and established himself as a key-member in the context of agricultural societies, eventually imposing his perspectives and demands upon the whole of society. Only at that point the first traces of thoughtlessness and uncritical submission to established norms entered the realm of human spirituality; all earlier spirituality was critical, empirical and based on deep spiritual insights, something closer to what we call science and philosophy than to dogmatic religion.
The philosophical perspective
When philosophy emerged in Greece, it did not mean, as commonly assumed, man’s first awakening to critical thinking, but rather a return to critical thinking, except now from a different perspective and employing a different language. Philosophy first appeared in the Greek colonies of west-Asia, in Ionia, where traditional agricultural life was radically altered by the flourishing of commerce. The material prosperity brought by trade ensued a very liberal atmosphere while freeing man from the burdens and demands of traditional tribal agricultural-military life, allowing a position of leisure that furthered the imbalance but also made possible for critical minds to freely question the whole of reality.
Many scholars have pointed out the proximity between early Greek philosophy and religion. Only a narrow modernizing perspective can identify those early philosophers as scientists in modern sense, preoccupied with problems from a strictly material perspective. The questions posed by them were mostly theological; in a sense, they were going back to the critical roots from which religion originally sprouted. But while the sorcerers of earlier ages stood within the circle, within nature, life in Ionia at the time of the first philosophers was already very estranged from nature and the circular perspective. The proto-capitalism that steered life in colonial Greece meant a new level of artificiality and rootlessness. Philosophy, in this context, emerged as reaction to the imbalance and as an attempt at restoring the lost foundation upon which life could be ordained and experienced once again as cosmic balance and harmony.
Originated from within the circular perspective, the vantage point of mythic wisdom was that of eternity. Poetry and tradition weren’t expressions of individual opinions, the aoidos or rhapsode acted as a medium through which eternal/divine supra-individual wisdom revealed itself in mythic-symbolic form. When the first philosophers started making inquiries about reality, the vantage point was a different one altogether. The perspective was already that of the questioning “I”, of the temporal individualized ego. Although the language of the first philosophers was still symbolic to some extent – they were still much closer to the source than later humanity −, a radical break can be observed. With the new philosophical perspective, a new language emerged, a conceptual language which we recognize as “scientific”.
This new language replaced the symbols with abstract concepts that imposed a barrier between man, nature and the eternal. What once was readily available, “unveiled”, becomes “concealed” in a reality that from now on had to conform to subjective conceptual categories. This rupture, however, was no accident, for it merely mirrored the drastic changes in man’s relation to nature, especially in the context of proto-capitalist Greek colonies, where the imbalance ensued a quest for the establishment of a new foundation for life.
Heraclitus and Parmenides
The imbalance experienced in colonial Greece is perhaps most evident in the antagonistic perceptions of two of the most important early Greek philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Parmenides of Elea. Heraclitus, as is widely known, perceived reality as flux, while Parmenides denounced all flux as illusion, establishing true being as timeless and unchanging, and placing it outside the illusory flux. Within nature’s circle, as discussed, the eternal was directly available to man. Removed from nature, the eternal became concealed. The further man moved away from nature the more reality became perceived as linear rather than circular, until it came to be perceived as pure flux and pure immanence within the flux.
Heraclitus was still trying to lay bare the cosmic foundation that underlies reality perceived as flux, the hidden harmony that reigns within it, the divine principles behind all flow, that which makes it possible for reality to be known as something other than formlessness and chaos. In the circle, those principles were unveiled and found expression in symbolic language. Heraclitus’ πάντα ῥεῖ, as a radicalization of the concept of flow, pointed outside of the circle. That the ordaining principles of reality expressed in the myths were no longer evident and readily apprehensible, and that Heraclitus’ philosophical effort to establish those principles was felt as necessary, denounces a huge step away from nature’s circle and a loss of touch with the perspective of the eternal. It stands as a symptom of imbalance that at the time of Heraclitus an exercise of abstract intellectual intuition or “philosophizing” was required for the underlying principles that tied reality in flux with the eternal circle to be unveiled, whereas within the earlier mythic perspective the two spheres were seamlessly integrated.
Parmenides’ thinking meant yet another step further away from the mythic perspective of the eternal. Through an abstract rational intuition, Parmenides denounced the impossibility of the flux and deemed the entire perceived reality a mere illusion. By logic, he reasoned, what is cannot cease to be, and what isn’t cannot simply come into being. True being must be by necessity, in conformity to this premise, timeless and unchanging. Man became so estranged from the circle that Parmenides could no longer grasp the eternal within the flux, thus rejecting the entire flux as illusion.
Both Heraclitus and Parmenides didn’t care for the popular forms of religiosity of their time. That doesn’t mean in any way, however, that they were atheistic scientists in modern guise. In fact their intuitions were all oriented towards the sphere of the divine, towards grasping the eternal, which is an attribute of the gods. The divine in Heraclitus was associated with the underlying bounding principles that made reality in flux intelligible, which he recognized with deities or divine principles such as Zeus, δίκη, λόγος, πυρὸς etc. Parmenides went further and was willing to dismiss the entire reality available to the senses as mere illusion to safeguard an intellectually intuited unchanging divine sphere. He recognized true being with the gods, timeless and unchanging, and in this he was in agreement with Homer, Hesiod and all earlier tradition, where the gods, as traits and aspects of nature and of mankind itself, recurrent in the circle, were imperishable and unaffected by time. With Parmenides, however, the gods no longer manifested themselves in the flux, they became an abstract intuition removed from the surrounding reality, available exclusively to the detached mind.
Platonic philosophy, as pointed out by Nietzsche, was an effort of synthesis. Plato’s point of departure was Heraclitus’ concept of flux. Later he would become a pupil of Socrates, from whom he inherited the problem of virtue or arete. Plato’s metaphysical speculations weren’t a product of leisure, but a response to a crisis: the old traditions, the old heroic code and the aristocratic religious imperatives, contained in the archaic Greek poetry, could no longer provide a firm enough foundation for morality in the context of the Athenian society of the 4th century BC, and as consequence the state and the laws had lost much of their power and legitimacy, leaving the Athenians in political and social turmoil. The Peloponnesian War, lasting for decades at the end of the 5th century, had a devastating impact on Greek life, striking the final blow to the spiritual-religious foundation upon which the harmony of communal life had been maintained since archaic times, inaugurating, after the long fratricidal war, a new era of egotism, selfishness and moral decline.
Denouncing the groundlessness of Athenian political and moral life at the time of the war, in which he fought himself as an hoplite, Socrates called out for a deeper and more reliable type of knowledge than the tradition codified in Greek poetry, a knowledge upon which human virtues could be securely reestablished under the new given present conditions, in order to counter all the chaos and decline. Socrates, however, never pointed the path that would lead to such knowledge, it was his pupil Plato who, raising above the self-proclaimed ignorance of his master, suggested that it could be achieved through a new form of intellectual insight, which he called philosophia.
To establish the nature and essence of true human virtue, as Socrates intended, Plato sought to harmonize Heraclitus’ flow with Parmenides’ true being. In order to do so, he separated reality in two realms, the realm the ideas or forms (eidos), available to the mind (nous), and the realm of reality in flux, available to the senses. Belonging to the former, the ideal virtues were eternal and unchanging, like Parmenides’ being. But they were available and could be intuited in the lowly realm of reality in flux through philosophy or the act of philosophizing (philosophein).
Human virtues, which Plato was convinced derived all from the same primordial source, good itself or the eidos of good, were recognized as the gods or god, the divine principles that underlie the cosmos. Instead of the city gods worshipped by the masses, Plato proposed a principle closer to the primordial mythic symbols from which the city cult spawned. In earlier ages the mythic symbols offered windows through which men were able not only able to gaze directly into the realm of the eternal, but also to actually access this realm, through sorcery and magic, and live among gods and as gods themselves. To the decadent Greek man of Plato’s age, however, access to this realm was hindered, and man was mostly condemned to the lowly realm of mundane existence, severed from the higher realm of the gods. If man could grasp the divine essence through an intuition of true virtue, however, he could perhaps start his ascension towards reacquiring his former god-like status.
The goal of Plato’s philosophia, thus, was to restore the lost harmony between the laws of men, the laws of nature and the justice of the gods, and he sought to accomplish that by translating into a new language – that of philosophy – the ancestral wisdom codified in the primordial mythic tradition, whose symbolic language had become too foreign for men to grasp in an age of steady decline and decadence, and whose deeper meanings were to a good extent already lost.
Immortality, education, eugenics
Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul presented in the Phaedo, in this sense, touches the cornerstone of all European pagan religions and all “primitive” European spirituality. Within nature’s circle, where life constantly renews itself, it would be illogical to perceive death as something permanent. The circular perspective imposes that all phenomena lead necessarily back to the beginning, to the source, to the arche. In the circle nothing really ceases to be or enters the realm of being from non-being. That Parmenides could no longer fathom this denounces a distancing from the circular perspective. Immortality can be intuited especially if little change or no change at all is observed between generations, if every new generation follows in the exact same footsteps of the previous ones − as they did for most of the time humanity has been around. It is “progress” in the sense of growing alienation towards nature that, by imposing rifts between generations, increasingly alienated man from the circular perspective. The idea of immortality, nonetheless, was consistently present in the pagan perspective, from Homer, Hesiod, Tyrtaeus and other archaic poets, up to Plato and later philosophers. It acquired different clothing according to context, but in all cases it remained a fundamental pillar of Greek spirituality.
Plato identifies the soul (psyche) as connected to the realm of the ideas or forms, as being made of the same eternal and imperishable substance, and as being eternal and imperishable itself. The mind (nous) is identified as the leading element of the soul. Through the mind man can access the eternal realm of the forms and obtain wisdom or knowledge (sophia, episteme), recognized as supra-individual intuitions in opposition to the ego-centered doxa or individual opinion, available to the sensual perception in the flux. Some individuals, according to Plato, would be born with greater capacity for intuiting the eternal forms. As solution for the political and social woes of his time, he suggested that those individuals endowed with philosophically-inclined minds should be philosophically educated and made into infallible rulers. By acquiring a deep knowledge of the eternal virtues, he reasoned, individuals would become virtuous and capable of acting virtuously at all times, in any circumstances. He also established eugenics as a way to ensure individuals with better capacity and of better quality would mate, guaranteeing that improvements to the race would be achieved in the long run. Through education and eugenics, thus, Plato believe the perfect state and a god-like breed of human beings could be achieved.
Philosophy vs. poetry and tradition
While attempting to reestablish the harmony between man, nature and the divine, Plato looked back into the past only to the extent that he judged necessary to establish the groundwork for the entirely novel form of balance he envisaged. When faced with the inadequacy of poetry and the old traditions, he couldn’t fathom the possibility that the problem perhaps did not lie with tradition, but with the men of his age. Unlike their ancestors, these men could no longer maintain a systematic and meaningful mythic-symbolic code and derive from it a stable concept of virtue and a lawful ethical norm of conduct, oriented towards the betterment of the individual and the race. History was a novelty in Plato’s time, and the philosopher lacked the historical sense to perceive that the man of his age wasn’t man at the top of his form, but the product of a long process of decline. Plato was convinced of the inadequacy of the mythic-symbolic tradition as foundation for life, thus proposing the banishment of all poetry and the replacement of all tradition with philosophy.
The divine balance Plato foresees with his ideal state is a product of reason and human ingenuity, and although crafted to address the laws and demands of nature and the gods, it is still posited too much outside nature. It is weak in a sense that, while for man of earlier ages, who lived within the circle of nature, the eternal unveiled itself in symbolic manner in every aspects of reality, in Plato’s formulation the access becomes restricted to the mind and occurs only through logical mental-intellectual activity, which is bounded by subjectivity.
The distance between man and nature in Plato’s days already imposed that the eternal could only be unveiled through an abstract intuition mediated by conceptual constructs. The eternal was no longer immediately available, it no longer unveiled itself in the symbols and cycles of nature, and as consequence the primordial wisdom and traditions codified in the myths had to be translate into a new scientific-philosophical language to provide once again a foundation for life.
The Hellenistic Age, Roman imperialism, Christianity
After Plato, the Greek city-states lost their political autonomy after being conquered by Philip, the Macedonian king, and integrated into the rising Macedonian empire. By favoring huge land and slave owners, Philip’s imperial policies put an end to the last bastion of resistance of the old and proud aristocracy of self-sufficient small landowners, already very impoverished at that time. With that, the last staunch adepts of the old ways and traditions, insistently pursuing a life closer to nature, were finally superseded and snatched out of the way by the irresistible wave of “progress”. Philip’s son Alexander extended the Macedonian empire towards the East, bringing Greek culture to all parts of his empire. At this point, however, Greek culture was no longer culture, but “civilization”, an universal and artificial norm imposed to all peoples.
Platonic philosophy, in the meanwhile, took a turn towards disinterested contemplation in the form of scholastic withdrawal. With Aristotle the realm of the divine becomes intangible, the gods become completely detached from human reality and woes. Contemplation of the norms, which for Plato was a premise for righteous action, is reduced to mere scientific curiosity of the student removed from concrete reality and ultimately from life itself. The cosmic norms, the righteousness of the stars, of nature’s cycles and processes, became a self-contained cosmos that no longer included man, that no longer offered a model for human virtue. Philosophy as science no longer sought to return man to nature, but rather to emancipate man from nature.
Rome took over the Macedonian empire, adding to it its own conquests in the west. For the mongrelized Roman plebs of the late imperial period spirituality became so diluted and impoverished that it was eventually replaced by panes et circenses, bread and circus. The best among the old Roman aristocrats adhered to philosophy as a form of spirituality, especially to stoicism, which merged various themes and concepts of earlier Greek philosophy in the form of a learned pagan religion that became very widespread among educated Romans.
Imperial rule only brought man further away from the primordial circular perspective, quickly leading to corruption and degeneracy in all spheres of life. The peoples to the west and north of the empire kept leading simpler uncivilized “barbaric” lives, closer to nature and established upon a circular perspective and a mythic foundation. A learned Roman such as Tacitus could identify with the Germanic tribes role-models of bravery and simplicity, casting a positive light upon the barbarians while criticizing the degeneracy of contemporary civilized Romans. The imperial wars of conquest waged by Rome all over Europe, however, would eventually bring imbalance to all those living in the vicinities of the empire. The best among the conquered (like e.g. Vercigentorix) were either killed or enslaved, and the rest were “civilized” and made into Romans. The wild north refused to bow to the power of Rome, and was left to live in barbarism longer than the rest, until it was eventually also rolled over by civilization.
Nearing its downfall, the decadent Roman Empire went on to enforce Christianity as the only accepted religion, universally and involuntarily, reducing spirituality to dogma and silencing any further philosophical-theological speculations. From there on all intellectual pursuits were conditioned by a barren dogmatic perspective, and until modern times philosophy was reduced to lame attempts at harmonizing ancient philosophic knowledge (especially Aristotle) with the biblical scriptures, leading knowledge and science always further away from nature. Those were the dark ages, whose mark upon our understanding of reality we are still struggling to wash way.
The present and the future…
Modern philosophy will have to be dealt with in another context. Many of the themes briefly summarized in the context of this simplistic exposition also require further treatment, which they will receive in time. The perspective here presented calls up for a complete reassessment of the western philosophical tradition. It is especially relevant for those philosophically inclined minds searching for principles and a foundation upon which a rapprochement to a more primordial perspective and way of life can be effected.
By observing the continuous process of distancing of human pursuits and interests from the circle of nature and from the perspective of eternity, which rendered the primordial mythic-symbolic wisdom increasingly inadequate as foundation for life, and also by taking note of the philosophical solutions articulated as a response to the imbalance and the ever increasing sense of rootlessness imposed by this distancing, we can perhaps set a new path of our own.
At this moment, we can’t simply return to nature at once or hope to become proficient in the mythic-symbolic language overnight and simply reestablish it as the foundation for life. The time outside the circle made us unfit, it had an effect not only on our psychic structure, but also on our physical structure – our bodies and souls. We need to earn our place back, to become once again worthy of living in the circle. For now, we need philosophy as a means to unveil and access the metaphysical substrate that lies beyond the flux and holds the eternal laws of nature and the gods. Philosophy, however, should not serve as a replacement for the myth, as meant by Plato and his successors – only a philosophical exegesis of the myths and mythic symbols can lead to the intuition of the truths that lie beyond the realm of doxa. It is Plato’s process, his philosophical interpretation of the primordial mythic-poetic tradition, and not necessarily the results he achieved that is of interest to us.
Focusing only on the mind and the intellect, however, won’t take us far, for we also need praxis, reality-altering action. We can access the norms available to the mind through intuition and abstract thinking, but the keys to the gates of eternity, to the realm of the gods, will only become available when we find ourselves also physically and materially integrated into nature’s circle. This means turning to a simple sustainable life, oriented by the aristocratic values of the old European nobility. Only by living by their standards the meaning of their wisdom will become directly available to us, and we will be able to dispense with philosophy as a hermeneutic tool to its assessment.