Ensaio: Beyond the Universe
There was a time when man either was not shrewd enough, worried enough or was not even allowed by the priesthood, elders or government to commit his observations to writing. For most of the history of the subspecies of Homo-Sapiens-Sapiens, in fact, little or no writing was produced. This is perhaps one of the reasons why we are still so baffled by words. From the battles between Homo Neanderthalenses, Homo Rhodesienses and Homo Sapiens, we have emerged victorious. And victory seems to be the first inspiration for cultural records beyond administrative protocol. All our first literary works from the Mahabharata to Homer, passing through Shu King and Nahuatl have one thing in common, a tale of victory of a tribe who are supposed to be the intended reader’s ancestors.
Why must we begin exploring Philosophy via these outdated, biased, inaccurate, often bigoted portrayals of the history of man kind? Because one of the main concerns of Philosophy is asking the question “Where do we come from?” (ontology). And the only depiction of the customs and thought of the people before the 4th millenium B.C. are given to us by the codified, obscure, initiatory experience we now know as Mythology. So we must put on our silly mystic’s hat and dive into its sea of contradiction, confusion and incomparable beauty.
NOTE* Now that our society has finally become fully secular, we can and will also refer to the Abrahamic canon, or “The Old Testament” as Mythology.
Theseus Kills the Minotaur
When examined closely Myths are quite an interesting substitute for what we now recognise as Philosophy. Myths were bed time stories that could be easily memorised and understood. They spoke of Gods, Monsters and Heroes. They sought to educate by extreme example, extreme surely in order to be more intensely memorable. They used symbolism to give layers to the teachings, diverse applicability to entice the imagination. They used Gods and Heroes to give authority and importance to their characters – just as we use Aston Martins in rapper videos. They claimed that these stories were at least partially historical, if not completely. This granted even more authority to their stories and connected each and every person in that particular tribe to the characters in the Myth in a way that excited their sense of social obligation.
The impossibility of completely unraveling a Myth is what makes it truly Philosophical. Philosophy (philos, something in between or encompassing both love and friendship, Sophia Wisdom) is “to love Wisdom”, it is natural to seek what we love and given that we do not possess what we seek, it follows that to be a Philosopher is to assume ignorance. Therein lies the power of the popular foundation stone of Philosophy “All I know is I know nothing”, by Plato’s character Socrates. Therein lies the Philosophy in Mythology. The obscurity in Myths prompts the same questioning nature that Philosophy requires by default.
Mysticism is the study of Myths and following our previous definition it must needs be a branch of Philosophy, even though it technically predates the general practise of writing treatises about existence. Some dialogues in the Upanishads, like the Khandogya Upanishad, if written in the first person, would certainly be accepted as Philosophy even by our modern standards. Furthermore, Plato, one of history’s most popular and celebrated Philosophers, never wrote one word in the first person (other than spurious letters whose historical credentials were never really validated). Plato too wrote in Dialogue only, never truly stating any direct opinion of his own, but alluding to truths that could be read between the lines at the reader’s own risk. Therefore, either Plato must be categorised as mysticism or the Upanishads as Philosophy, or at least we must all revisit these all too quickly accepted terms.
When I was a young English teacher living in my hometown in Brazil, many of my friends were University Philosophy students. I already avoided Universities, but it was always interesting to have conversations with the type of person who never thought to do the same. On one of these occasions, on the break from one of my lessons, I began a conversation about Ancient Greek Philosophy. When I said: “To quote Plato: ‘All I know is I know nothing'” my friend, who was with me, an University Philosophy student, promptly corrected me, saying: “That wasn’t Plato, that was Socrates!” and he had a victorious look about him too. I immediately realised something rather intriguing. University Philosophy students tend to consider older works to be historically redundant and therefore seldom ever bother reading any of them. But because they feel they are redundant they are the first to expound upon their “universally acknowledged significance” (to put it lightly). I have had long conversations about stoics, cynics and neo-platonists with persons who never picked up any of their best-sellers. So they name-drop sophisticated terms that baffle any poor civilian, but don’t have the simple insight to understand the subtle romance behind the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ plight to convince himself that “thou art mortal”. Or the slave Epictetus’ utter admiration for the Cynics of old. They seem to think that Marcus, Seneca and Epictetus were chaps from the neighbourhood who grew up together and frequented the same “school”. And in this particular casee, and I have found it to be a very common mistake, by trusting the mnemonic device wherein “Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander”, they make Socrates become a separate entity from Plato, whose books, in their mind, would have illustrated the doctrine of “all I know is I know nothing”. So if Socrates’ gift to Philosophy was “all I know is I know nothing”, what was Plato’s gift? Well, for one it was Plato who wrote these words, Socrates never wrote a thing. And when we say “to be or not to be, that is the question” do we not equally attribute the quote to Hamlet and to Shakespeare? Or would we ever be corrected by some University English Literature major? And if Christopher Marlowe also wrote a book about Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, would we then assume that Hamlet existed and said au pied de la lettre grandiose utterings like “to be or not to be, that is the question…”?
Newton experimenting with the same Light the Babylonians would have seen.
My point being, of course, that the line blurs when it comes to categorising ancient, or indeed any, Philosophy. And our categorising obsession and hubris has led us to some rather silly misconceptions. When even those we now regard as untouchable paragons of Science, like Isaac Newton, were infamous for their work in mysticism. Everyone from Plato, to Giordano Bruno and even the sobre Einstein, flirted with Qabala, Hermeticism, Egyptian rights and beyond. Not to mention, lending appropriate attention to the systems of Yoga, Taoism, Buddhism, and the like. The work the renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung did in comparative religious studies of the East and West did much to advance the horizons of many of the Sciences we boast of in our present age – which brings me to another important point. Until about the late 18th century, that which we now know as Biology, Physics and Chemistry (Sciences), were known collectively as Natural Philosophy. The same way we can argue that Mysticism is a form of primitive Philosophy, it can be easily said that science is a formalised modern version of Philosophy. The same rules, however, are at play, no matter how skillful we now fancy ourselves to be. And we must, just as Odysseus did in his day, swallow our prides and “know thyself” for “all I know is I know nothing”. Thank you, Plato, I mean, Socrates, I mean… Brahma.