Before diving into the philosophers of ancient India, Greece and China, we must look at the early stages of human knowledge, wisdom and civilization to understand what philosophy is and where it comes from. First, we will consider the positives and negatives of human thought as a general frame for understanding philosophy and all systems of thought. Second, we will look at shamanism as the basic worldwide culture out of which all cultures emerged. Third, we will look at early city states (focusing on ancient Egypt and its wisdom) to see how cultures developed as they grouped together in the first empires. This lecture covers our general frame and shamanism.
The Positives and Negatives of Human Thought:
Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Happy is positive, while sad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative.
Notice that "positive" does not always mean happy or good and "negative" does not always mean sad or bad. When we say "order" and "chaos", closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say "freedom" and "restraint", openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad ("chaos"). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good ("freedom"). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location.
Human thought has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative). Doubt is a question or questioning, while belief is an answer or answering. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness of the future). In systems of thought, positivists lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system ("There are certain facts, morals and truths.") while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system ("Are there certain facts, morals and truths?"). According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between positivism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.
When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both positivism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for.
What is philosophy?
Philosophy has been called "thinking about thinking", questioning and answering the very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as Heraclitus and Plato, who we will study later) questioned their traditions and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society. While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.
The Greek word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom". What is wisdom?
Hegel tells us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and cooperate on the individual level just as positivism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both understanding and reason to produce both knowledge and wisdom.
The Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Pontilla's book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as "Do we know the gods exist?", "Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?", and "Can we ever know these things?". Indeed, when we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and everywhere else. No society would survive without pushing in both directions.
In the rest of this lecture we will look at shamans as the original keepers of knowledge and seekers of wisdom. In the next lecture, we will look at the development of early city-states and the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians. This will give us the frame we need to study the great philosophers of ancient India, Greece and China.
Tribal Shamans and Ecstatic Quests
“Shaman” is a word from an old Turkish-Siberian dialect that means “one who knows”. Consider that a “scientist” is “one who sees” from the Latin root. The Shaman is the expert of the tribe, the one who not only holds the traditions of knowledge but who seeks new answers to problems. The shaman is both the preserver of the old and the seeker of the new.
It is quite amazing to consider that shamanism is the original human culture, found from Africa to Europe to the Americas to small islands in the pacific. While it is always different in each place, the similarities are quite profound.
In tribal culture, traditional knowledge is often kept and passed on in the form of stories or narratives. These stories explain the world and help people with their problems. There are, however, times when an answer must be sought for a problem. To do this, the shaman goes on a quest (both physical and mental) for the solution and new knowledge needed to solve the problem. Often the shaman is selected as a youth who has gone through a near death experience (sickness, struck by lightning, attacked but survives). The shaman is thought to have an affinity for seeking into the unknown because they are already experienced in the unknown.
To quest for knowledge, the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy known to produce an ecstatic experience. “Ecstasy” comes from the Greek and means “standing outside”. When one is in an ecstatic trance or having an ecstatic vision, one is standing outside normal reality and seeing it from a different place and context. Consider that shamans often go down into a cave or up on a mountain to go to the lower or upper “other world”. Some shamans have been known to climb trees. One gains perspective and is capable of abstraction when one removes oneself to contemplate reality. In fact, thought is itself a form of standing outside reality, so it makes sense that the shaman is regarded as the original thinker, expert and seeker, as well as the doctor, therapist, biologist, physicist, etc.
Methods of ecstasy include not only thought itself, but drugs, pain, rhythms (chanting, drumming, rattles) fasting, sleep deprivation, removing oneself from society and meditation (including contemplation and prayer).
Ancient World Cosmology
Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.
The world was thought to be like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.
One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences.
One early philosophical puzzle was the problem of the One and the Many: this reality is one thing, but also many things. Shamans in many different cultures had visions of an All Tree or Tree of Life, the one yet many of all things. All or Being itself is the trunk, and the many things and species of the world are the branches or the fruit. One of the recurrent philosophical insights we will see in India, Greece and China is that it takes wisdom to see that the many things are all one reality and the one reality is seen from many perspectives.