From the Holy Bible to Nietzsche and Back Again.
Part One: Empedocles and Aristotle.
The following is #1 of a series of numbered sections of a series on the Big Questions. At present my plan is to do this by a study of a few selected authors in the following order: Empedocles, Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, and the Holy Bible. I hope that these are enough for our purpose.
We begin our journey with a study of two radically differing views of the cosmos form the ancient world, one that is strikingly modern and another quite pre-modern, yet bother a quite alien to us in many ways. I hope that this will cast our current discourse in a different light that will be useful to our current difficulties.
1. “Why Start with Empedocles?” Good Question. –
Of the questions that people ask, the two must fundamental and puzzling are “What is there?” and “What is the purpose of life?”. In both philosophy and religion, answers to these two questions have been given as cosmology, which means “an account of the origin of all natural things taken together as a whole”. Every new stage in the historical development of mankind correlates with a new development in the field of cosmology. First, some preliterate peoples tell how a Trickster god revealed a preexisting world by the light a stolen Sun which banished the primal darkness. Then others spoke of how land, sea, sky and sun came to be from a primal chaos. In either case the substance of things made was taken from a state of potentiality to one of actuality. In the Bible, the primal waters were “formless and void”1 and by the agency of God this primal mass was divided into separate masses such as the Earth or Sun, while in the story of Raven, the Old Man had a box with the Sun hidden from sight and Raven merely stole it from him.2
When we look at these two differing accounts, we see that they both deal with a fundamental issue of whether and how radically new things can come to be. The creator-god Raven merely took something out of the Old Man’s box, and the Lord God separated the waters from each each other, thus opening up a space where there is air. In addition, He seems to have conjured light out of nothing and simply ordered the earth to produce life. He did not find things in a stolen box, but rather made something radically new. How did this happen? People have not stopped asking this question even today, but their answers have only a few possible forms, all of which were conceived in antiquity. They are enshrined in myth, philosophy, and science.
Combined with this inquiry of beginnings of merely physical things has always been the subject of how good things came to be. Did things start out all bad, all good, or neutral? If things started out good, how did there come to be bad? The Biblical account begins with something inferior (although not yet strictly “evil”) which is given order and thus goodness by a something good named “God”. Then something happened in the good world that made some things evil. It seems that this pattern of chaos → order→ evil is replicated in many other cosmologies but other cosmologies differ, including those of Aristotle and Empedocles. The narrative of how goodness and evil come to be are an important part of any fundamental theory of reality, and in the following we shall focus at length on how goodness relates to cosmology.
Modern science seems to support the thesis that radically new beings can emerge from simpler beings over the course of gradual evolutionary processes. In Western philosophy, one of the earliest proponents of this view is Empedocles, whose work is among the first to promote proto-evolutionary views of the origin of the cosmos and of life. Empedocles was thus a pioneer in the inquiry that led to the theories of the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution. The dominant views among the Greeks, on the other hand, were opposed to this and included Plato’s creationism and Aristotle’s “eternalism3. In the present work, “eternalism” means the view that “there is nothing new under the Sun.” This means that things have always been pretty much as they are for eternity with no radical changes. However cosmic eternalism is more thoroughgoing than for the Greeks than for the author of Ecclesiastes. For Aristotle there was no original beginning, no “formless and void”, no moment where “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters”, just the alternation of summer and winter, birth and death, war and peace, slleping and waking on into the eternal past as it will be into the eternal future. Such a view is worthy of contemplation, not merely as a scientific “theory of everything”, but also as an expression of a type of person. However very few people, both then and now, find this a satisfying view.
The alternatives to this eternalism include the ‘creationism’ found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are far more popular among humans of all types, whether from the earliest stages of barbarism to the most refined thinkers of our own day. But the Creationists must defend contend with views found in Empedocles, Epicureanism, Buddhism and modern materialism. I think that these other views can be categorized as “emergentism”. This latter term means that view that radically new things can emerge from previously existing matter without the external agency of a theistic God. The present work will try prepare the way for a possible relation of theism and emergentism.
In addition to these views, there came about an elaboration of cosmogonies’ narrative structure. Previous people had reasoned that there was a divine mind that gave form to the primal chaos. Assuming this divine mind was good, the world must have been good as well. To explain evil, a separate evil event or influence was posited, such as the rebellion of Satan or the sin of Adam and Eve. Once this evil came into the world, things would start to get worse, and it seemed to some that it was still getting worse today, and would perhaps get still worse in the future, until things just could not get any more worse. But of course, there was still a good creator, and such a creator would not completely abandon us, so it has been thought that at some point He would return and set things aright, either by creating a new world or by remaking this one. Such was the state of discourse when our story begins in one tiny corner of the world where people spoke Greek. In this place, there was a common inheritance of mythology similar to what we have alluded to above. But there was also a desire to submit theories about the cosmos to criticism such that a more scientific theory of everything would result. In the time and place where we begin, cosmology had divided into two broad schools of thought: 1) the “Ionian” schools in Asia Minor who spoke in terms of the fundamental material of the universe and 2) the “Italian” schools who spoke in terms of mathematics and geometry. Both used the term “arkhe”, which is difficult to translate but which refers to that which is permanent and unified and which underlies the changing and the many. It is not hard to see that modern science combines both of these in equal measure, and many people at the time desired to find a common truth underlying these two schools such that the advantages of both were retained while the disadvantages were left behind. This still-ongoing project was begun by Empedocles’ generation, who studied the thought of Pythagoras and Parmenides as well as early materialism. He and other “Early Greek Philosophers” created the first detailed rational cosmologies in the West, and of these Empedocles’ is by far the most complete and one of the most similar to that of modern science. It unified questions of ontology and morality and was similar to our own Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology. It has many advantages, but in later times it faced strong criticism from others, chief of which was Aristotle.
Our discussion is continued in our next chapter.
2Reid and Bringhurst (1984) pp. 19-24
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