A New Theory of Western History
An analysis of Western history must take into account not merely past actions, but also how human art as a variegated medium of communication demonstrates a culture’s relation to not only nature, but to Truth itself. I wish to argue that the course of human history is not a progression that asymptotically approaches Truth, but a regression away from Truth by means of illusory objectification, abstraction, and a continual narrowing of not only interpretation, but a stifling circumscription of interpretational method.
Thankfully, the necessity of narrative, as the idea preceding the material, will never reduce us utterly. For just as Diotima in the Symposium (202a) places the human condition as halfway between absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance (τι μεταξὺ σοφίας καὶ ἀμαθίας), so we have always had an asymptotic relationship just as much to Truth as to its utter lack. Even Satan in the pit of Dante’s Hell is not completely deprived of Being, though he be furthest from God.
Picture this analysis as an isosceles triangle, whose base is along a vertical, y axis. The two other, equal sides of this triangle represent the limits of interpretation. We may label the y axis “Range of Interpretation.” The x axis may be labelled “Time.” Thus, as we move from left to right along the x axis we see the triangle, and thus the range of interpretation, narrowing as it converges and collapses upon a single point. I will select various points along the x axis of Time and discuss that point in time’s relation to the interpretational range of Western culture. It truly demonstrates a law of diminishing returns and of thermodynamic entropy.
I begin in a time before the written word, perhaps even before language was widely used or diverse. Language is only necessary insofar as behavior needs guidance in relation to how a culture identifies itself in nature. When a people is fully integrated into nature, words need not express that integration. However, as it is the nature of all biological life to adapt to environment, the development of human reason and language (logos) allowed us to manipulate that environment to suit our needs. But by doing so, we began the course of abstraction from nature. Thus language was first used chiefly to make cohere a framework of cultural maintenance, to maintain that connection and identity of humanity, nature and divinity.
This framework that binds people back to Truth, to nature, to culture, is the true meaning of religion (re “back” + ligere “to bind”). Aristotle’s theory of the polis as the most natural political system is merely an understanding of this concept in dryer terms. The classical polis was the natural extension of a civic religion existing far before the division between Church and State made any sense.
In pre-literate culture, the raw material of Truth was found in the eternal experience of nature, and in the myths that evolved from that experience as passed on through the centuries of oral tradition. The myths illustrateed the archetypes of this collective unconscious, a Vishnu’s dream of infinite possibilities emanating from a single Truth, a plurality from unity, ex uno plures rather than e pluribus unum.
Because myths were raw material and not written, each instance of their transcription to the page, whether in a lyric hymn, an epic poem, or a tragic or comic play, was a unique interpretation of that myth. The plot threads of the myth of Orestes and Electra, for instance, were spun from the same wool, but woven into very different textual tapestries by Aeschylus (Oresteia), Sophocles (Electra) and Euripides (Orestes). A common mistake for modern readers is to take certain interpretations of myth, e.g. Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, as not only the authoritative and orthodox, but even original source of the myth itself (in this case the Oedipus myth). But nobody in the ancient world would have thought this way. They reveled in the ambiguity of an unwritten mythological and religious tradition, acknowledging that Truth is incomplete and inauthentic without the participation of the Subject, the poet who presented his or her realities as puppets before the fire of Plato’s Cave.
Yet the very act of translating any myth into the written word restricts its meaning within not only the literacy of a certain (let’s say, Greek) culture, but within the cosmological bounds of that language, the limits of its grammar and vocabulary. This is why translation of Greek literature into English is a gross injustice, in that so many concepts and grammatical subtleties in Greek (words such as logos and kosmos, or the aorist tense and middle voice) find no acceptable English equivalent. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the general linguistic rule, that languages simplify over time, is in direct proportion to the historical, hermeneutical constriction argued in this post.
This was an age bursting with creative expression, not only in literature, but in every profession that interpreted reality. The original philosophers wrote in poetic verse the syntheses of their imaginative, rational and empirical experience of reality, often drawing no line between the realm of the mind within and the workings of nature without. Thus Aristotle, arguably the grandfather of the scientific method, could at the same time argue the precedence of poetry over history as the more authentic expression of Truth.
3. Late Antiquity
Greco-Roman antiquity spans too broad a stretch of time to be assigned a single esprit d’époque. At one point the well of creative interpretation ran dry. This parallels well the narrowing of political interpretation as the Roman Empire became the only way of political life anyone knew, while the chaos of its decline fostered a spiritual anxiety desperate for certainty of salvation. The spirit of orthodoxy was quickly gaining steam, which expressed itself in a reverence for older texts. Though he explicitly stated that it was the duty of posterity to build upon and, if evidence and reasoning require it, refute any of his facts and claims, this is the age in which his writings began to acquire a truly dogmatic appreciation. This is partly due to the work of the Neoplatonists, who aimed to reconcile Aristotle with the infallible canon of the Platonic dialogues.
Thus, the shift to the mediaeval way of thinking was characterized by the interpretation of set texts (thus narrowing the scope of interpretations), and to narrow it even further, texts that corroborated religious sensibilities. Thus Plato’s philosophy, replete with Pythagorean mysticism and monotheistic hierarchy, came to represent the establishment of Hellenic paideia as a whole, while the antagonistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism and Epicureanism either faded into obscurity or were subsumed into the Neoplatonic framework. Figures such as Plato and Pythagoras were even treated as prophets and saints, whose souls closest approached the perfect divine nature.
The attitude of a text being divinely written is familiar enough, and of course the Christian Church was born of this worldview. On the premise that the Bible was the Divine Word itself, Christian theologians such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine and the other Church Fathers used the vocabulary and argumentative tools of Greek philosophy as means of interpreting this text and drawing out of it a rational and systematic theological and metaphysical framework. Philosophy had become the handmaiden of religion.
4. The Middle Ages
The end of the ancient world saw the scope of interpretation narrowing so much that it had become government policy. In 381 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius declared that the Trinitarian interpretation of Christian theology, which boasted to be the original interpretation borne out at Nicea in 325, was the only interpretation that was truly Christian. All other interpretations, before the positions of free and open debate, became heresies to be persecuted. By the end of the fourth century, and of Theodosius’ reign, the practice of all other religions were outlawed. Philosophers and academics who were non-Christian were assumed (and often rightly) to be pagans, but it was not until 529 when the emperor Justinian shut down the Academy at Athens and exiled its scholars to Persia.
Let us skip ahead to the High Middle Ages and the return of some classical texts, mainly those of Aristotle, to the West. The twelfth-century renaissance hailed the return of rationalism, though practiced by those, such as Thomas Aquinas, who had unshakable convictions in their Catholic faith. Scholasticism was the grand attempt to rationally square the theological circle. Yet by the end of the Middle Ages, it had ultimately proved a failure, as scholars such as William of Ockham began to draw a metaphysical divide between the spiritual world and the material world, and that rationalism could only apply to the latter. Slowly but surely, a nascent science began to wriggle free from womb of cathedral schools.
Now we shift from one interpretational method of a single text to no text at all. Call it Locke’s tabula rasa, the Western mind’s table of truths was completely cleared and now only a single method of interpretation, scientific method, remained to strip nature naked of all her mystery and subdue her as an object of lust, to objectify her as something independent of the human self.
The scientific method works under the assumption that all nature, even the operations of the mind and culture, can be reduced to calculable, material quantities. It thereby narrows the scope of interpretation by assuming a purely materialistic view of reality.
The infinity of infinite possibilities that we started with has now been made finite, limited first by a finite number of languages, then a smaller number of written languages, then by an even smaller number of revered texts. Now all narrative is questioned, as science strives to make the narratives it needs to express itself as clinically precise as possible.
It is the institutions of humanism, which asserts the subject as the engine of meaning, that foster human creativity, possibility, and fulfillment. It does not oppose science, much as Aristotle’s favoring of poetry over history as the best portal to truth did not contradict within his own conscience the data of his empirical observations. Humanism is the art of interpretation, the philosophic mediator between textual (ideal) and scientific (material) truths. It is the solution to the poverty of interpretation that plagues our age, an age increasingly seeing in terms of black versus white. As a result, politics is no longer about doing what’s best for a people, rather it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator as a means to achieving and maintaining power. Plato would call that tyranny.