A Case For Teaching The Humanities

“I am Roman because Rome, from the time of the consul Marius and the divine Julius to Theodosius, drafted the first form of my France. I am Roman, because Rome, the Rome of priests and popes, has given eternal solidarity of sentiment, of morals, of language, of worship, to the political work of Roman generals, administrators and judges. By this treasure, which it received from Athens and transmitted that deposit to our Paris, Rome means without question the civilization of humanity. I am Roman, I am human: two identical propositions.” These words from the pen of Charles Maurras in Barbares et Romains (Barbarians and Romans) form a vibrant praise not only of Rome, the sweet anaphora, but also of civilization, conveying tradition and transmission and not oblivion and renunciation; perpetuation and not the clean slate; community and not individuality; permanence and not rupture.

For a few days now, the Minister of National Education has seemed inclined to see the teaching of Latin and Greek return to middle and high schools. The Latinist that I am and who used to unveil to students the mysteries of rosa, rosae can only be pleased. However, I am not fooled by these dupes. This kind of announcement is certainly enough to make a whole section of the conservative university and academic intelligentsia of the center-right feel good about the woke and progressive drifts already well underway, with inclusive language, the satanic and non-gendered pronoun “iel” and the convoluted discussions about male domination in language.

We shouldn’t imagine that the Macronian renaissance is about to be launched, as other renaissances were in the course of our history. Minister Blanquer is a liberal-conservative, certainly, but does not have the courage to be conservative. Is he the most cynical of the bunch? That is quite possible—he has already sabotaged the BA degree, reduced to a pittance, and is in favor of the digital school and even of the digital kindergarten.

If I were naive, I would believe that this sudden impulse is inspired by the spirit of Lucien Jerphagnon, whose death, ten years ago, we are commemorating and whose birth we are celebrating a hundred years later. Father Jerph was one of those sparkling, light spirits that contrast with the dullness and pomposity of academics. He was inhabited by joy, the kind of joy that delights youth, lifts the heart, sharpens the soul, and makes it rise above all misfortunes, torments, and distresses. The true joy of knowledge. Lucien Jerphagnon was neither of the Left, nor of the Right, nor a Marxist, nor an intellectual at the forefront of research. He was freelance and classical; close to Paul Veyne by originality, Désiré Nisard by taste, Jean Bayet by academic outlook.

His was a strange life: he dressed like a monk and was ordained a priest; then, a passionate lover, turned into a happy husband and ended up as a patriarch. He was in turn a theologian, historian of ideas, translator and philosopher; of high class, of good style, careful to be versatile if he could not manage the modern complexity of reality. Plotinus was his tender companion, with whom one shares a cigarette and a glass of cognac. In love with Augustine, he knew how to render the full measure of this author. A gifted young scholar, who became a professor in Milan in his thirties when others were at the Collège de France in their twilight. Jerpha revived Madauros, a university town in northern Algeria, that supreme and delicate refinement of Romanization, where Augustine, the orator Maximus, Apuleius and Martianus Capella lived. His biography of Julian the Apostate seeks to understand how a philosopher-emperor thought he could return to paganism and make Christianity a footnote in history. An unresolved death by the side of Mosul clinched it—Christianity would triumph.

Jerphagnon was a philosopher of time and banality. Influenced by Vladimir Jankélévitch, he was concerned with understanding the everyday, the alltäglichkeit, as Heidegger politely said, pretext to all the astonishments, typical of the wise. He was a serious discoverer of forgotten authors such as Marcus Varro or Favorinus of Arles; a historian of ideas of high caliber who made us understand, in les Divins Césars (The Divine Caesars), why the emperors of the 2nd century thought they were the sun and who envisaged Rome as the center of a cosmos—all the while writing with amusement and enjoyment a formidable history of Rome.

The young Lucien at the high school in Bordeaux was bored during a mathematics class. On his knees, he flipped through a book containing a few photos of the ruins of Timgad, the Palmyra of Algeria: “That’s where I want to live and die,” the young lad said to himself. From heaven came down a voice: “Jerphagnon, you will make up two hours!” Then his teacher stuck a future specialist in the Greco-Roman world. “I could never get used to the fact that Rome was dead,” confessed the wise old man to José Saramago, “because I loved it since my 6th grade. I lived my life there, faithful to this love of Roman civilization.” What a beautiful profession of faith!

If Lucien Jerphagnon is to be made an exemplum, let’s not forget that in matters of education, the Left is chopping our legs and causing us many problems. And this is not the end of the story! I hold as proof Vincent Peillon who writes in la Révolution française n’est pas terminée (The French Revolution is not Finished) that it is necessary to reinvent the revolution of the spirit, with the aim of destroying at all costs the Catholic religion and to invent a republican religion. This requires the total conversion of the elites and the young to the sciences and the disappearance of Latin and Greek, languages of the old regime, of Catholicism, of bourgeois domination.

Such is the pinnacle of the freemasons: radical leftists yesterday, social-democrats today; old-fashioned, stuck in the Third Republic, detached from reality and perfectly barbaric, since they claim, shamelessly, not to transmit any more, to cut themselves off from tradition and civilization. They swear only by individualities in the perspective of human rights. Now they promise inclusiveness, flattering the youth, corrupting it with vague ideas about freedom and equality.

In an interview given on TV in 1958, Pagnol felt the problem looming: specialization, the end of the humanities and the science of the technocrat. Specialization, by reducing the fields, reduces the possibilities of linking the fields. To have a rational mind is precisely to see relationships. But if the objects no longer exist, the relationships can no longer be made. It can only result in an impoverishment of thought. National education goes even further, since it has given up training literate people, to preparing only future employees for the labor market. The best will be slug-brain specialists, dumbed down like tabletops, the least good will be cashiers at Franprix, salesmen at Prisunic.

The professors stuff the heads of young people with new ideas, smelling of Pierre Bourdieu, ready-made and passed off as revealed truths, so they themselves can continue to dine at the faculty club during silly seminars on anti-racism in literature, and history colloquiums on North African minorities in the gay Paris of the 1920s. The education of yesteryear has degenerated into a total moron-factory based on the ideological teaching of soft sciences. We are far from the gentleman, far from the humanist, far from the cosmopolitan scholar.

Getting beyond her gavel, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem completed the work, explaining that Latin classes would be for the children of the rich and privileged, that elective classes had to be abolished, and that antiquity had to be made accessible to all by diluting Latin in French courses, thus putting ancient language courses to death in a gentle way; a bit like euthanasia.

Between this caricatured, barbaric Left, in the very sense in which Maurras took it, some have retained the opinion of Raymond Aron in this matter, like Paul Veyne, our dear friend, whose opinion that Latin and Greek should be abolished in secondary school and that a national establishment should be created to train solid scientists and researchers, I do not quite understand. This is a mistake. To dedicate Latin to research is to render it autistic; to leave it in the hands of the colloquium-makers who titillate the coffee-brewers and the editors of scientific articles in obscure journals is to render it mute, invisible, extinct.

It doesn’t matter if people are interested in Aristophanes’ scholia, or in the placement of an accent on a word in a twelfth-century manuscript in the Vatican library. One does not ask young people to read the Pharsalus in the original, even yours truly would not be able to do so. But to have a good head, made robust by the training in, and knowledge of, Greek tragedy, the functioning of the Athenian city, the Peloponnesian war told by Thucydides, the epic of Alexander the Great, Latin and Greek rhetoric, the work of Cicero, Caesar and Augustus, the personality of Seneca, elegiac poetry, Virgil, the bloody and mannered histories of Tacitus, the orientalism of the emperors, 312 and our world that has become Christian. It is grand to arrive, by love of the rei latinae, to the character of Des Esseintes in À Rebours by Huysmans who, in chapter III, gives us the menu of his likes and dislikes of all literature, criticizing the Chickpea (Cicero), judging the verses of a phony and vain poet, and preferring in the “fin de siècle” Roman authors the rot and the carrion, and at times the supreme refinement of precious stones and topazes.

I do not believe in progressivism and personal development, nor even in the scientific and academic elitism left to the Giscards of thought. I firmly believe in the tradition of inheriting and transmitting, of passing on the work of Hellenic-Christian civilization, from generation to generation. This is achieved through solid and serious learning of civilization, through language and grammar, literature, philosophy and history. It is necessary to go through the pain of declensions and conjugations; to make the effort, as in Pétanque, to have access to the texts, to their style; to reflect on the words and their concepts in order to understand the civilization. Nothing is more precious than to know the feeling of the language, to understand the spirit of an era.

This apparent need for Latin and Greek can take three forms: as a declaration in an electoral context; resistance and head-on opposition to progressivism; or a reconciliation with Wokism. The problem is not so much what Minister Blanquer says or thinks, but what the left-wing ideological machine, the Éducation Nationale, is capable of producing. The teacher conforms to the Houellebecquian image of the tired West. The teachers are mostly mediocre, cowardly and subscribe, under contract, to all the sickness of the modern world: deconstruction, diversity, immigration, inclusion, in the public as well as in the private. If this impulse for antiquity gets mixed up, dare I say it, with this kind of progressive thinking, it would do equally bad things for the mental health of our young people. I can already imagine the titles of the courses: “Migratory Crisis in Roman Gaul;” “the Roman Baths: A Space of Hybridization for Minorities;” “Conspiracy and Fake News: The Catiline Conspiracy;” “Being a Slave and Gay in Ephesus;” “Transidentity in Rome.” What a wonderful antiquity!

What we need are professors who are like Hussars in full cavalry at Jena—scholars like Bernard Lugan, like Marc Fumaroli; focused minds concerned with civilization—like Valéry, Thibaudet; intransigent polemicists—like Bloy or Julien Benda. The rest will follow. I began with Maurras, I end with Charles Péguy and Notre Jeunesse (Our Youth): ” What this entry was for me, in sixth grade, at Easter— the astonishment, the newness before rosa, rosae, the opening of an entire world, completely different, an altogether new world. That is what needs to be said, but that would get me tangled up in fondness. The grammarian who just the one time, the first, opens the Latin grammar on rosa, rosae will never know on which flowerbed he is opening the child’s soul.”


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


Featured image: “Etruscan Vase Painters,” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, painted in 1871.

Indo-European Origins: Eurasian Steppes Or Northern Fjords?

The question of the “home of origin” (Urheimat, Homeland) of the Indo-Europeans has given rise to the most varied hypotheses and suppositions, theories that are analyzed in detail in Alain de Benoist’s book Indo-Europeans: In Search of the Homeland, without the author—nor anyone else—being able to venture a definitive solution, even though the new revelations of paleogenetics point to the “Yamna culture” of the Eurasian steppes, since anthropological and archaeological evidence insistently points to the European Nordic area. In any case, the debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans is still open.

5,000 years ago (especially in the period 2800/2500 BC. ), in the Bronze Age, it seems that a people from the Eurasian Pontic steppes, predominantly light pigmented (skin, eyes and hair), nomadic herders and herdsmen, predatory warriors mounted on horseback and with wheeled chariots, used for both transport and combat, with unique funeral rites, innovative metallurgy and unique pottery, began to invade Europe, in successive migratory waves, imposing themselves on the peaceful hunter-gatherer-farmers. In any case, around 2000 B.C., the hardy bands of steppe nomads reached the Atlantic coasts and passed to the British Isles, after a frenetic race of invasion and conquest, devastating in their path the primitive, agricultural, peaceful, matriarchal and egalitarian European pre-civilization cultures.

Their “original habitat”: the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine, between the Black and Caspian Seas, reaching westward to eastern Hungary across the Balkans, and eastward to present-day Kazakhstan and the Altai, which would validate the hypothesis of the “kurgans” (tombs in the form of burial mounds) of Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Her greatest “legacy”: the impressive extension of the Indo-European languages, which include most of the languages spoken from Iceland and Ireland to northern India, in addition to the Indo-European peripheries in America, Australia and South Africa. This “Pontic and Steppe hypothesis” seemed to disprove the “Nordic or Germanic hypothesis” held, among others, by Gustaf Kossinna (and more recently, by Lothar Kilian and Carl-Heinz Boettcher), which fits better with the prehistoric data of mythology and anthropology, but which fell out of favor because of the perverse use of “Aryans” in Nazi Germany. Their “other legacy”: genetic inheritance.

They were the “Yamnayas,” the proto-Indo-Europeans who colonized all of Europe, Central Asia, reaching the southern Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Chinese Turkestan. The “Yamna” culture (“hole” in Russian and Ukrainian, referring to the graves where they buried their dead) are a “ghost people,” as it is known in genetics, a people that have disappeared but can be identified by the genetic, archaeological, linguistic and anthropological traces they has left in their wake. The result is that the genes of the Yamnayas are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all present-day Europeans.

Thus, paleogenetic research led particularly by the American geneticist David Reich—carried out from 2010 and culminating in 2015—concludes that “today the peoples of western Eurasia (the immense region encompassing Europe, the Near East and much of Central Asia) show a great genetic similarity… Western Eurasia reveals itself to be homogeneous, from the Atlantic façade of Europe to the steppes of Central Asia (Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). Genetic haplogroups R1a and R1b, transmitted through the paternal line, are the most representative of present-day Europeans, with a predominance of the former in the East and the latter in the West. Precisely, these two branches are directly linked to the Yamnaya ancestors. Thus, around 2500/2000 B.C., according to the data provided by ancient DNA, the “norcaucasian” or “steppic” component was already part of the anthropological heritage of most of the inhabitants of Europe.

It should be noted that, in fact, archaeological, linguistic and mythological disciplines already indicated that the close kinship between the Indo-European languages meant that they all derive from a single original language (Ursprache), which had been spoken by a single people (Urvolk) in a very ancient homeland (Urheimat), to be spread later, in the course of a series of migrations. Thus, the spread of Indo-European languages would represent the expression of a people living in the same geographical area, in a community of culture and civilization, sharing expressions related to flora, fauna, economy and religion. Now, paleogenetics has confirmed this hypothesis.

But how could this rapid migration/expansion have occurred in a people presumably few in number? In the first place, this “rapidity” must be qualified without taking into account the context of war, since according to the researcher Wolfang Haak, the “conquest” of such an immense territory could have taken about 500 years.

Secondly, the explanatory factors of this prehistoric proto-Indo-European “great march” are diverse. The eminently warlike character of the Yamnayas, with an overwhelming superiority in the mastery of metallurgy, reflected in the use of weapons, such as the sword, the dagger, the bow and the battle axe, their extreme mobility through the use of the horse and wheeled chariots, as well as a society structured very hierarchically around a group of men who held supreme leadership of the various clans and tribal families, to which should be added, according to Kristian Kristiansen, a greater anthropological complexion, more corpulence; in short, surely due to a better diet, because compared to a diet basically reduced to cereals and vegetables typical of the Paleo-Europeans, the Yamnayas enjoyed a more caloric diet based also on meat and dairy products. The conquest/invasion was the work, above all, of young men (according to chromosomal sequences, between 5 and 15 men for each woman), of “bands” not very numerous, but very active militarily and sexually, because they had great reproductive success, surely because they enjoyed advantages in the competition for female partners, occupying the summit of symbolic, religious, political, military and social power.

In any case, although the genetic findings attribute a central weight to the Yamnayas in the spread of the Indo-European languages, which tips the balance definitely in favor of some variant of the “steppe hypothesis”, these discoveries do not yet resolve the question of the territory of origin of the Indo-European languages—acknowledges Reich—the place where these languages were spoken before the spectacular Yamnaya expansion. The debate about the “original homeland” of the Indo-Europeans, therefore, remains open.

Despite the tremendous sensation caused by the paleogenetic studies, which revealed the massive migration of the peoples of the Yamnaya steppe culture in the Early Bronze Age to northern, central and western Europe, considering this event as the basis for the spread of the Indo-European languages, other authors are beginning to express their criticism of the genetic inference and, in particular, its implications for the problem of the origins of the Indo-European languages.

According to the genetic revelations, the steppe “Yamna culture” would be associated with the Proto-Indo-European language, while the origin of the derived linguistic groups (Greek, Germanic, Italic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, among others) would be attributed to the cultures of the “Chordate pottery” (also called “battle-axe culture,” spread in northern and northeastern Europe). The supporters of this hypothesis, however, are aware of the relative weakness of their conclusions, advancing, for example, that perhaps not all Indo-European peoples come from the Yamnaya, but only some of them. This means, in essence, that we are not dealing then with the cradle of the proto-Indo-European, but only with one of its subfamilies: in this case, the stereopic hypothesis of the origin of the Indo-Europeans would be transformed only into the origin, so to speak, of the Indo-Iranian group.

Many archaeologists doubt that the discoveries in question reflect a direct migration from the “Yamna culture” to the “Chordate culture.” The first doubt is that the Yamnaya people spoke the Proto-Indo-European language. All recognized dates for the fragmentation of the Proto-Indo-European language are between the seventh and fifth millennia BC. The Yamnaya culture is well dated by calibrated radiocarbon chronology: it begins, at the earliest, within the second third of the third millennium BC. Thus, there is a gap of about 2.5 millennia (1.6 millennia minimum).

The Russian archaeologist Leo S. Klejn highlighted a remarkable fact: the strange distribution of steppe genetic contributions to the “Corded Pottery” cultures and their descendants, revealed by Haak and others, very rich in northern Europe and increasingly weaker towards the south, particularly in Hungary, just where the western edge of the “Yamna culture” itself is located. This distribution is at odds with the suggestion that the source of the contribution to the “Corded Pottery” cultures is the southeastern “Yamna culture;” that very distribution seems rather more natural, if it is suggested that the common source (of both cultural units) is in northern Europe—and hence the common cause of genetic similarity.

The mystery of the origin of the Proto-Indo-Europeans remains an enigma, but perhaps not so indecipherable after reading this book.


Featured image: “Trizna,” by Andrey Shishkin, painted in 2019.

François Desset: On The Decipherment Of Linear Elamite Writing

We are so greatly pleased to present this interview with Dr. François Desset, who recently accomplished a remarkable scholarly feat – he deciphered an ancient and elusive writing system that used in Bronze Age Iran.

Dr. Desset is a French archaeologist, who earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. His primary interest is Bronze Age Near Eastern Archaeology (ca. 3500-1500 BC), particularly in Iran, where he has lived for the most part since 2014, working at the University of Tehran, as well as with the French research team, Archéorient (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). He has conducted numerous excavations, especially in South-Eastern Iran, at sites pertaining to the Jiroft civilisation. Another interest of his is in Iranian writing systems.

In this latter field, along with four collaborators, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Mathieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello and Gianni Marchesi, he has recently been able to decipher the long-elusive Linear Elamite writing system. At present, some 95% of the signs can be read. This is a monumental achievement, comparable to Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Ventris’ decoding of Linear B.

This interview, on behalf of the Postil, is conducted by Robert M. Kerr, who heads Inarah, the institute for the study of early Islam.


Robert Kerr (RK): How did you first get interest in Linear Elamite writing?

François Desset.

François Desset (FD): During my first excavation in Jiroft (South-Eastern Iran), in 2006, four tablets with a “very weird” geometric writing system were discovered. My curiosity in undeciphered ancient Iranian writing systems, such as this geometric one, linear and proto-Elamite script, was sparked. This inspired me to write a book on the subject. At this time, most colleagues preferred to keep their distance from this material as it was still undeciphered.

RK: So, a healthy curiosity of the unknown took an un-relinquishing hold of you. As we both know, even deciphered writing systems of lesser-known languages, such as the language isolate, Sumerian, still pose considerable difficulties. Undeciphered writing systems, on the other hand, tend to deter serious scholars and attract dreamers, as for example with Linear A. Your approach, much like that of Champollion and Ventris was logical and systematic, leaving no room for wild speculations.

FD: Indeed. For me the turning point was the realisation that the proto-Elamite (as the early phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) and the linear Elamite (as the late phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) must be one and the same writing system, but at two different, chronologically distinct periods. Between the two is a middle proto-Iranian script, which, however, is still not well known. Crucial for me was that I was able to gain access to a collection of inscribed silver vessels (kunanki) in London (the Mahboubian collection) from which I could make exact copies. As pointed out by Gelb many years ago, the first step in decipherment, is to establish precise copies of the texts themselves.

François Desset with columns from Iranian Baluchistan.

RK: Certainly, without autopsy, you know nothing. Drawings in my experience are often detrimental to reading such texts.

FD: Initially, in my case, when I started in 2006, I only had photographic access to one side of the objects, the silver vessels; thus, I had only one half of the inscription. It was only in 2015, after considerable efforts, when I was granted access to the artefacts themselves that I was able to start to make progress. Two years later, I was able to present my first readings.

RK: Access to the written objects is the sine qua non of any philological endeavour. However, successful decipherments, yours being no exception, pursue in their analysis a three-pronged approach: Is the language previously known? Are personal names known? Are there bilingual texts?

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Y. Mahboubian collection.

For the first point, the key for the later decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the conclusion by Athanasius Kircher, a Renaissance polymath at the Collegium Romanum, that Coptic must be the last phase of the Egyptian language. Although he was unable to decipher the hieroglyphs themselves, this realisation was later crucial for Champollion.

We see this too with Ventris, who concluded that the language of the Linear B tablets must be a form of Greek, and Knozorov’s decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs. As per your second point, personal names, the realisation that such must be contained in cartouches was essential for Champollion’s work on the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone of course is triscriptural (hieroglyphs, demotic, both forms of Egyptian writing) and Greek and bilingual (Egyptian and Greek).

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

FD: With linear Elamite we do not have bilingual texts stricto sensu. We only have “partial bilingualism;” that is texts recorded in different languages and containing. e.g., the same anthroponyms, titles, etc. So, for example, those referring to the Susian king Puzur-Sušinak (2150-2100 BC), which display a cuneiform inscription recording an Akkadian text, and a Linear Elamite writing one, recording what we could prove as being an Elamite (or Hatamtite) language text. The texts themselves, although they share the same onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects.

Distribution of writing systems in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC Near East, showing the locations of the cuneiform (in red), Indus (in green), LE (in yellow) and geometric (in white) texts.

The texts themselves, although they share only the onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects. Then, we also have what one might term “biscriptualism;” that is, two objects with the same text (in the same language), though written in two different writing systems.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 1. National Museum of Iran.

This was the jackpot – the same Elamite or Hatamtite text written on one artefact in cuneiform, and on the other in Linear Elamite. This is a classic knowledge-driven decipherment based on our capability to make connections between Cuneiform and Linear Elamite scripts inscriptions recording the same Hatamtite (or Elamite) language text.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 2. National Museum of Iran.

RK: An excellent point, especially in this day and age when many seek to replace knowledge with technology.

FD: Certainly. I wish in this regard to emphasise that I have been asked a lot about computers, statistical data, etc. All hogwash! Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge and of the languages used at the time, some luck, and most important perseverance were essential.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

RD: Often today, computers are employed to avoid thinking, as an ersatz for genius – information nowadays often is mistakenly equated with knowledge. Technology is no substitute for ingenuity, the feat of you and your team is a true intellectual achievement. Here, with regard to the first criterium, previous knowledge of the language, you were sailing somewhat on uncharted waters.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

FD: Not entirely. We had Hatamtite (Elamite) proper nouns recorded in cuneiform. Without that, we would have been unable to make any significant advancements. The language though, like Sumerian, is a language isolate (i.e., has no known cognates). We know now, after decipherment, that cuneiform is rather unsuited to render the Hatamite language.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

So, for example, the name of the 14th century BC king rendered in cuneiform as Untaš-Napiriša is rather to be rendered Ontaš-Napireša, because we now have a graphic rendering in Linear Elamite closer to contemporary phonetic reality, i.e., how it was pronounced. This writing system is well adapted to the morphophonology of Hatamtite, much more so than (the au fond logographic) cuneiform.

na-pi-(r)-re-sha

We have now also made considerable progress towards understanding the phonology of the language. I have the impression that Linear Elamite is in a way more “advanced” than cuneiform since it provides a more precise rendition of phonemes.

Curiously enough though, many scholars thought that the silver vessels bearing the inscriptions were forgeries. After their publication in 2004, nobody seemed interested in these objects. I thought I must have missed something.

RK: There was of course in the 1990s the famous “heist” of supposedly Achaemenid metalwork in New York, which turned out to be modern forgeries.

FD: We must always be careful with objects which are not unearthed in the course of official, professional excavations. Metal in the Middle East, a scarce, hence mostly imported commodity, was nearly always recycled. We usually only find such objects in graves. My suspicion is that the Mahboubian artefacts may come from graves dated around 2000-1900 BC.

RK: Looted artefacts lack archaeological context and hence are of limited scientific value. And they aid in the dissemination of forgeries. In your case, your decipherment has shown that the objects must be authentic. Could you now briefly explain to us the distribution of writing systems on the ancient Iranian plateau.

FD: I am proposing a new history of writing in the Near East. Things in this regard have now become a lot simpler. Until 2018, I thought that we had proto-Elamite, Linear-Elamite and this geometric writing system only attested in Jiroft. Then I came to the conclusion that the first two must be one and the same writing system. Their different appearance is due to chronological development. My thinking now is that in this region, “Iran” (archaeologically speaking), there was only one ancient writing system which appeared around 3000 BC. It was used, based on the names of the kings attested until about 1880 BC. These I divide roughly into three distinguishable phases.

The first phase, traditionally known as proto-Elamite, I term Early proto-Iranian writing; these appear to be mostly administrative tablets, found on eight sites, primarily in Susa during the French excavations at the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries, on the Iranian plateau. They are datable to circa 3300-3000/2900 BC. Although these texts are hitherto undeciphered, now that we have deciphered what I call Linear Elamite (Late proto-Iranian writing phase), we will be able to work backwards (as was done with cuneiform).

Then, we have the Middle proto-Iranian writing phase, about which we have only sparse information, and which probably should be dated in between, ca. 3000/2900-2300 BC.

Then comes what has been conventionally known as Linear Elamite, Late proto-Iranian writing (phase III), that which we have deciphered and is more or less datable to 2300-1880 BC. For this last stage, the present corpus is not large, with currently some 43 inscriptions, found in Southern Iran, in Susa, in Fars and in Kerman province (Shahdad and Jiroft). Thereafter, this (proto-Iranian) writing system falls into disuse around 1880 BC.

I believe that there were two reasons for this: first, in the early 2nd millennium BC, there was a large-scale urban collapse in Eastern Iran, in what is now Kerman Province; all the cities, Jiroft, Shahdād (Khabīs), etc. were abandoned – but this was not limited to the Eastern Iranian plateau; this was also, for example, when the Indus Civilisation came to an end. Second, in South-Western Iran in this period, in Susiana and Fars, Mesopotamian cuneiform was adopted by Hatamtite speakers.

RK: Often with urban collapse, writing systems, whose primary function is administrative, fall into disuse. We see this elsewhere, for example at the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Could you now briefly walk us through your decipherment of Linear Elamite?

FD: By being able to access the artefacts in the Mahboubian collection, I was able to distinguish specific, repeated sequences of characters which were likely to be names. Of special note was a sequence of four tokens, which I thought in all likelihood must render the name of a king. The first sign, /ši/, had been previously identified in 1905 by a German scholar, Bork; the third and fourth signs were identical. Thus, I just needed to find the name of a king whose first syllable was Ši- and which ended in two identical syllables and who ruled in the early 2nd millennium BC. The names of the Elamite kings are known (e.g., from cuneiform sources). And there was only one king to whom these criteria applied, namely Šilhaha (20th century BC). This was the key. It gave me the phonetic value of two further signs, from which I could proceed.

ši-l-ha-ha

RK: I do not wish to diminish your intellectual achievement in any way, but could one say, that what aided you vis-a-vis previous scholars such as Hinz and Merigi’s brilliant and painstaking work, was that you had a larger corpus?

FD: Indeed, access to the Mahboubian collection was essential; in this regard I was quite fortunate.

RK: It was indeed your perseverance, gaining access to the collection while others showed no interest. This is an essential trait, especially for epigraphists.

FD: Yes, especially since the writing system itself is not as complicated as for example cuneiform.

RK: Yes, and with regard to writing systems, we must never forget that orthography and phonology are two related though quite distinct manifestations of language.

FD: Of course, language sound is not visual language/graphemic rendering. So, for example, there are logographic writing systems, such as Chinese characters (Hànzì), which do not record sound.

RK: And, as for example speakers of English and/or French know, how you write something is not how it is pronounced. These are two related, yet entirely different phenomena. We see that the advantage of the alphabet is that we can graphically produce words with a limited character-set, which then are read “hieroglyphically;” we recognise the word shape. Children and language learners have difficulties until they are able to master word shapes (cf., with smartphones, Chinese is written phonetically using the Latin alphabet, whereupon the user selects the correct character).

FD: Yes, speaking and writing serve two different goals.

RK: Moving on then, can you provide us with a brief overview of the Linear Elamite texts that you have deciphered.

FD: At present, we have a corpus of some 43 texts, which is not really a lot. We can roughly divide these into seven different corpora, periodically and geographically speaking. The first, the best preserved, longest, and the most important genre is votive or dedicatory royal inscriptions; those of Puzur-Sušinak (cf. supra) from Susa (2150-2100 BC). A second corpus in this genre is represented by the somewhat more recent texts on silver vessels of the late Simaški/early Sukkalmah dynasty (2000-1880 BC), by Eparti II and his probable son, Šilhaha (cf. supra).

e-pa-r-ti

On the silver vessels we can also glean two important conjugated verbs, “I made” and “I gave;” e.g.: I am … the King of Hatamti, I made … and I gave (scil. presented this object to deity x). We only have one text containing historiographical data, a campaign by Puzur-Insušinak previously known from cuneiform sources. We do, however, have important data pertaining to anthroponyms and the names of their gods which were previously unknown. Also, because as elsewhere in the ancient world, names had an apparent meaning, i.e., they are grammatically analysable and hence supplement our knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a simple sentence and a “sentence name.”

Graphic rendering of the Persian Gulf type seal with Linear Elamite inscription V.

Now that we can read some 95% of the Linear Elamite signs, the challenge with which we are faced is the translation – as mentioned, distinguishing names from sentences, but also due to our limited knowledge of Hatamtite/Elamite grammar and lexicon. The latter especially, since we can now read the texts, we are continually encountering previously unknown lexemes and grammatical forms.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Z. Mahboubian collection

RK: These are the problems which one faces when reading a linguistic isolate. As we mentioned, Champollion had Coptic to work with, Ventris, Greek. And there are very few bilingual texts involving a Hatamtite/Elamite version, including most notably the much more recent royal Achaemenid trilingual texts (Old Persian, Akkadian and Hatamtite/Elamite). I read many years ago the works of David McAlpin, who proposed a relationship with Dravidian languages. This has not been widely accepted, and hard to prove due to the chronological distance between the recording of the two posited groups.

FD: Indeed, this is a very unlikely proposition. To the best of our knowledge, it would seem that Hatamtite/Elamite remains, for now, a language isolate. Of course, no language can be a real isolate; it is just due to the data available to us. A lot changes over the course of three millennia. I choose, however, to leave this for what it is. I am not a historical linguist.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription K’. Mahboubian collection.

It is however possible that Hatamtite/Elamite was spoken up to the tenth/eleventh century AD. Indeed, Persian geographers, writing in Arabic, make mention of a language (Khuzi) spoken in Khuzestan, which would seem to have been a late form of Elamite or preferably Hatamtite.

The so-called “Table au lion,” with LE (text A) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

Here I wish to make a brief note on the terminology. I am a fervent advocate of using “Hatamtite” as a glossonym, based on the auto-toponym Hatamti found in Linear Elamite texts themselves. “Elam” is a Mesopotamian allo-toponym which can roughly be translated as “Eastern Highlands.” Hatamti was probably the most important designation for the political structure of the Iranian Plateau during the third millennium BC.

RK: Your point is well taken. When the Louvre has its displays rewritten accordingly you will know that you have won. Let us return to your point on proto-Iranian writing, that this is one system with three (chronologically distinct) manifestations (One might compare the decipherment of the Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bones’, whose writing system represents the first attested stage of Hànzì). Indeed how many independent writing systems might one expect in one culturally homogenous region?

FD: The idea is not new. In the early twentieth century, it was widely thought that they were related. Thus, I am rather promoting classical ideas. It was only in the 1970s/1980s that what I call proto-Iranian writing Early, Middle and Late phases were viewed as distinct and independent writing systems. Although a general scientific consensus remains in this regard, I believe that I have good reasons to dispute this. So, for example, even a superficial glance at the shapes of the tokens themselves strongly suggests that the Early (Proto-Elamite) and Late (Linear Elamite) phases (the Middle phase is still poorly documented) are one and the same writing system.

Broken boulder with LE (text B) text of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

I have now started to work on the most ancient texts, the Early phase, using the phonetic values of tokens from the Late phase or Linear Elamite. It is still early days, but I can unequivocally state that there is a continuity.

RK: I do believe that you are on the right track and look forward to the completion of this work very much. Let us now turn to the implications of your decipherment and your thoughts about the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East, especially your suggestion that the earliest cuneiform writing and Early proto-Iranian (or Proto-Elamite) writing are contemporary, i.e., sister scripts. The communis opinio states that cuneiform is the mother of all writing systems. You posit a chronological and a logical argument.

FD: Yes, I have published extensively on this. Firstly, in my 2012 monograph, usually ignored by the academic world, and again in 2016, which received slightly more interest. This discussion is however completely unrelated to the decipherment of Linear Elamite.

However, I want to use the attention which the decipherment has attracted to promote my ideas on the origins of writing. Simply put, Carbon14 datings and the stratigraphy of the respective texts show that both Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Proto-Elamite in Iran are contemporary. Conventional wisdom dates the Uruk (proto-cuneiform) texts to 3300-3200 BC. If we accept such, we must note that proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) texts found in the1970s in the Iranian site of Tal-e Malyan were C14 dated to precisely the same period. From the point of view of pure chronology, based on the current data, both are consequently contemporary..

Goddess statue with LE (text I) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

As for my second argument, logic, let me note that if proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) was a daughter script of cuneiform, then it should manifest numerous shared elements or borrowings. However, both differ for roughly 95% of the time. There is only 5% which is shared, especially, the numeral signs and systems employed and several logograms or sign-objects. Both of these, however, can also be found in the “numerical tablets” which are somewhat older, ca. 3500-3000 BC and are attested from Syria to Iran. It is clear that both proto-Elamite/ Early Proto-Iranian writing and proto-cuneiform share a common ancestor, namely, these numerical tablets. Thus, they are sister scripts.

Although I have been criticised for this thesis, my evidence is solid. I would of course be willing to reconsider should an excavation in the South of Iraq produce proto-cuneiform tablets which can be unequivocally dated to circa 3500 BC or earlier. Mine is the most parsimonious explanation with the data currently available.

RK: One must not forget that these “numerical tablets” do not render a language. They display logographs which are language independent and numerals.

FD: earliest writing systems were not very related to (a specific) language. We also see that they were only employed in specific domains, mainly accounting. This can be done without rendering specific linguistic information.

RK: Furthermore, if one accepts the theory of Schmandt-Besserat, that writing emerged from the use of symbolic tokens, “tags,” clay envelopes which only then became tablets, then the origins of writing are logographic. The latter, especially in light of their distribution, both chronological and geographical, could well be the precursor to both writing systems.

FD: With regard to her theories, we must be cautious. So, there is the discussion about the simple tokens dating back to the sixth and seventh millennia BC, which I do not view as the precursors to writing. The complex tokens on the other hand, which date to the fourth millennium BC, along with the clay envelopes, may well be the precursor to writing stricto sensu.

RK: The envelopes are convincing because they were used into the early second millennium BC. Thus, the evidence for a common ancestor for both proto-Iranian and cuneiform Mesopotamian writing is very credible.

FD: When I refer to the common ancestor, I mean the “numerical tablets” and not the complex tokens. The former have been found throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Iran, and date to the mid fourth millennium BC. It should also be noted that these tablets did not immediately fall into disuse after the invention of writing, and continued to be used for accounting and administration alongside the writing systems.

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

RK: (Complex) Bureaucracies tend by their nature to be conservative, and these served the required purpose well. Can we turn now to the nature of the proto-Iranian writing system itself?

FD: Here we must proceed with caution. We must not conflate the Early proto-Iranian phase (proto-Elamite; late fourth millennium BC) with the Late proto-Iranian phase (Linear Elamite; late third/early second millennium BC). Let us discuss the latter first. Until 2018 – put yourself in my position at that time – what other writing systems were present? Mesopotamia, Egypt and Indus. Let us ignore the latter, it is still undeciphered.

Focusing on Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see that they are mixed writing systems, employing both logograms and phonograms. Initially, I was convinced that this would also apply to Linear Elamite, and tried to identify these in the texts. I slowly however came to the realisation, confirmed, now that we can read some 95% of the graphemes, that this writing system was purely phonetic, using both syllabic and graphemes rendering one phoneme, without any logograms – it is an alpha-syllabary. It is thus the most ancient, purely phonetic writing system known to us. This is spectacular!

I believe that the Hatamtites were strongly attached to phonetic writing. So, for example, when they later abandoned proto-Iranian writing in favour of Mesopotamian cuneiform (cf., supra), they initially rejected the logograms and the logographic values of the characters. This has been known for a long time. Previously though, many scholars claimed that this was due to the Hatamites poor grasp of the essentials of cuneiform writing and its logograms; they were only able to use it at its basic, phonetic, level. We now know that this is not the case. The Hatamtites had a long tradition of phonetic writing, and kept this when they adopted another, scil. cuneiform.

They wrote cuneiform just as they wrote Linear Elamite. Later in the second millennium BC, logograms began to re-appear – here we see the influence of Mesopotamian scribal habits.

Late Proto-Iranian or Linear Elamite works on the principle of a phonetic grid with vocalic and consonantal values. It is perfectly logical. I could even use it to write French. Due to this, it works with quite a limited number of signs, especially when compared to cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Excluding some variants, we have about eighty characters. It is my impression, at present, that the Early Phase had not yet reached this degree of abstract rationalisation.

I am now trying to use our knowledge of the Later Phase to read the Early Phase texts, starting with the proper nouns, i.e., anthroponyms and theonyms. In these texts, we have longish sequences of characters, which do not seem to render numeric data, and which I suspect render onomastic information, which are often theophoric sentence names that undergo little innovation. My impression is that in the Early Phase (Proto-Elamite tablets), we have a hybrid system employed to record proper nouns, both logograms and phonograms.

Semantic structure of a Proto-Elamite tablet found in Susa using the decimal system. Some of the sequences in red may record anthroponyms.

My aim is to read the syllabically written parts of the personal names, and then try to deduce the value of the logograms. All in all, the corpus of tablets belonging to the Early Proto-Iranian Phase amounts to about 1700, mainly found in Susa and now in the Louvre – but also throughout the Iranian Plateau, with a more wide-spread distribution than in the Latest Phase. We have a good knowledge of the Susian onomasticon from the late 3rd millennium BC (i.e., written in cuneiform).

Using both the Late Proto-Iranian/Linear Elamite deciphered signs and the onomastic data available for the inhabitants of Susa in the cuneiform sources could lead to some progress in understanding the names recorded in the Proto-Elamite tablets. This is on the assumption that naming practices did not change dramatically during the third millennium BC. Of this though we can be fairly certain; so, for example, there is little change between ca 2300 and 1500 BC.

RK: This is certainly a good starting point. Just for the sake of clarity, in your Early proto-Iranian Phase, we find no cuneiform influence. The fact that it is a mixed logographic-syllabic system is what one would expect in the initial stage; this cannot be considered external influence. However, if the Early proto-Iranian writing was a daughter script of cuneiform, one would expect borrowings, since writing systems cannot be entirely separated from the language(s) which they rendered. So, the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian, and the use of Akkadograms in Hittite, etc. The borrowing of writing systems presupposes bilingualism in both the donor language and the target language. Cf., the historical influence of Latin in languages that use the Latin alphabet. When there is no bilingualism, it is the idea of writing that is borrowed, not the writing system itself (cf., e.g., Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary).

FD: Yes, as we discussed previously, the commonalities are largely restricted to the numerical signs and systems employed. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Iranian inherited these from a common predecessor. The absence of Mesopotamian cuneiform influences supports both being contemporary and does away with the notion of cuneiform primacy, for which there is no evidence.

RK: I think that you have made a strong argument that proto-Iranian writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform are sister writing systems with a common ancestor, the numerical tablets. And again, my congratulations on your brilliant achievement in deciphering Linear Elamite – we eagerly await the publication of your findings. We also look forward to the progress of you and your team on proto-Elamite. Many thanks for your time.


Sanskrit – Language Of The Buddhists?

India is a recent state created by the conjunction of three historical sequences: The old civilization dominated by the Sanskrit language; the Mughal civilization where Persian and Muslim components were predominant; and mostly the British colonization that opened India to the contemporary world.

In the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, the Sanskrit language discovered by the Europeans left them intoxicated, having essentially turned them towards the past; they now had access to some of the oldest texts in the world. Unlike Germany, French Indianism did not completely lose its mind over Sanskrit, and began to study the language at the beginning of the 20th century. But the idea of the great antiquity of Vedic and other texts (and therefore of Indian writing) was a kind of ineradicable dogma.

Before The Discovery Of The Ashoka Edicts.

The religious texts of India do not translate any historical reality nor clarify historically the history of India. For that, it is necessary to turn to the testimonies of foreign authors, generally Greek ones. Hence the importance of monuments, which very early became the initial point of support for the historical reconstruction of the past. In 1801, we discovered the first datable inscription – which we attributed to a king by the name of Ashoka (circa 260 BC). Then were found a set of edicts of this same Indian sovereign. Both finds became rare and firm islands in the sea of fog that is otherwise the history of India.

Grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, Ashoka completed the unification of India, begun by his grandfather and continued by his father. He governed a kingdom that encompassed the entire sub-continent (except for the extreme south of the peninsula), as well to the north, Gandhara and part of Bactria, and then won over the Hellenistic kingdoms that were the consequence of the conquest of Alexander.

European Indianism made Ashoka a convinced Buddhist, and attributed to him the organized diffusion of Buddhism throughout Asia, with “missionaries” being sent out, and a grand council, whose legendary character is now well established.

However, neither the Sanskrit known by the literary tradition, nor the religious language of the Vedic hymns is the language of Ashoka. Nor is it one of the Prakrits, (languages that have disappeared but are consecrated either by dramatic or religious literature). His inscriptions are everywhere written in a dialect which is distinct from Pali, especially by the phonetics (which therefore makes it not Pali), and which thus makes it possible to write the different dialects of the Ashokan empire – that of West India (Girnar recension); the dialect of north-west India (the inscription of Kapur-di-Giri); the dialect of Eastern Hindustan (the inscriptions of Orissa). We knew nothing about this alphabet, when we discovered the first edicts on stone, or on a column. And it was not until 1837 that a young English engineer, James Prinsep, succeeded in deciphering them. We called this “Indian” alphabet, Brahmi.

We know today that these inscriptions were “proclaimed,” and that the engraved edict was a kind of witness, so that the people did not forget the royal instructions of an empire under the close surveillance of a solidly organized administration. Three decades later, another series of Ashokan inscriptions were discovered – but in another alphabet, called Kharosthi (also called Gandharan). In north-western India, none of the Mauryan rulers had touched local customs. Ashoka just left an old bureaucracy, probably effective, in the south and east, comprised of officials from other parts of the empire, regions formerly under-administered, or whose loyalty remained doubtful.

The Role Of Émile Sénart: The Linguistic History Of India

In France, the one who studied Ashoka’s language was the Indianist Émile Sénart. But it is less the language of the king that interested him than the difficult question of the linguistic history of India, of which he wanted to try to lay some foundations. In a small, dense, and concise article written in 1886, he took up the analysis made in his work on Ashoka’s inscriptions. He attacked a double dogma: that of the antiquity of Indian texts in general and that of the antiquity of Sanskrit.

Traditionally, there were three types of Sanskrit: the Vedic language (an archaic Sanskrit), classical Sanskrit, and the group of Prakrits. But Sénart added a fourth category – an idiom “in a way intermediate between Sanskrit and Prakrit” – the dialect of the Gathas, used in fragments and versified by northern Buddhist literature, but also in secular works (such as a treatise on arithmetic).

Why, Sénart wondered, was Sanskrit not used by King Ashoka, which in its “literary” form would have been adequate for official or literary use? The answer is simple – because this literary Sanskrit, in its written form, did not exist in the time of Ashoka.

But if it did not exist in its written form, it did indeed exist elsewhere, sheltered in the schools, where it was developed without any other application than the cult from which it hardly dissociated itself, and within the dominant religion, Brahminism. The Vedas dominate. The Vedic hymns are the eternal word that regulates everything, that decides everything; worship governed by Vedic ritual is the source of all prosperity in this world and in the next.

In the history of Indian scriptures and Sanskrit, the presence of the Brahmins and of their language has been essential. Sanskrit is the standard language. The distance between the truth that they state and the reality that they inspire (or imagine themselves inspiring) characterizes the Brahmins, as does the relationship that they have established with their language of worship – the language that states the fixed norm, unchangeable and sacred, which governs the Word that must also be sacred. Through the transmission of ancient songs, these Brahmins found themselves in possession of an idiom that belonged to them in their own right. Exclusive depositaries through oral tradition of a religious literature on which their authority was based; and they have shown themselves reluctant to relinquish their monopoly.

From the analysis of language, the Brahmins draw consequences, sometimes surprising, on the world, on its structure, its future, on things, or on man: “There is the blue sky, the sea, the stars and … Sanskrit,” which is, as the grammarian Patañjali says (around 200 BC?), “the support of the world order.” Hence the weight of grammar, as Michel Angot rightly noted, has an almost metaphysical dimension. All traditional knowledge adopts the method developed by the master-founders of the grammar of Panini and Patañjali. Adopting the old archaic Vedic language, the Brahmins thus adapted it to their spiritual and intellectual needs to work out the Sanskrit which they thus fixed, perpetuated and made sacred. The development of this language has therefore been almost completely controlled, being subject to this small group of statutory scholars.

At the time of Ashoka’s reign, in the 3rd century BC, what therefore existed was an archaic religious language that was essentially liturgical, and the object of a certain culture. Buddhists, on the contrary, might have been rather in a hurry to use writing to spread their doctrine. And their relationship to speech was not that of the Brahmins. For the latter, what was first, was the sacred Word. For the Buddhists, it was the “Law,” allegorized by the key moment of the “gesture” of the Buddha – the sermon of Benares, when he formulated his preaching for the first time. Now the “Law” and the “Word/preacher” were on the same plane. But that was not formulated doctrinally; and whatever the moment when this gesture of the Buddha was elaborated and transmitted, the Brahmins were not be mistaken: Buddhism was an enemy religion.

Speaking of this legendary Sanskrit language, Sénart said aptly that if we attributed all authority to it, it is pure fiction. We sit her on a throne, but she is dead. Indianists called it “archaic” or “Vedic Sanskrit” to distinguish it from classical Sanskrit and corrupt Sanskrit. It was Colebrooke who made the first distinction between states of the Brahminic language, which the Sanskritizing Indianists then readily adopted.

On the basis of this idiom, which was primarily religious and liturgical, the priestly caste no doubt created a learned language, which may have had profane use. But the idiom thus created could not long remain an instrument without use in the hands that forged it. Modified by the reaction of popular writing on religious language, Sanskrit once “thrown into general circulation” passed to the status of literary language, and entered the secular sphere and found new applications. In other words, it was secularized.

What is called classical Sanskrit was born and became the standardized language of a specific civilization, by assuming analogically the role that elsewhere was played by Greek or Latin. A language of scholars, it took the name of samskrita vac, “refined word;” that is to say. prepared according to the canons of Panini’s grammar. It then became the language of the spiritual; and it was reserved for this job. A largely artificial language, it was now a “language of thought,” to use Michel Angot’s expression.

It is this classic Sanskrit that the Germans discovered, as “the egg of Columbus in linguistics,” during the “Eastern Renaissance” which intoxicated the great German dreamers of the early 19th century. But was it the language of the Buddhists? There is nothing to suggest it. Sénart made the assumption that King Ashoka, with the edicts engraved almost everywhere in his kingdom (in particular on the borders), played an eminent role in this event, which constitutes the emergence of classic Sanskrit. He did not have his edicts engraved in Sanskrit, but in a unique alphabet (Brahmi) which made it possible to write the different Prakrits spoken in the different regions of his kingdom, in particular in Peninsular India. And in the northwest regions, it was another alphabet entirely, this one from Aramaic (Kharosthi), in which he had these edicts engraved with a religious, but above all a political, purpose. Before their Hellenization, linked to the conquest of Alexander, these regions of the northwest were included in the great Achaemenid federal state, that which the Macedonian took over. The language chosen by the Achaemenids was Aramaic, the “lingua franca” of the ancient world. We can thus legitimately assume that it was under the influence of the Hellenized scribes, in their meeting with Indian scribes, that these Ashokan alphabets were designed.

If the language of Ashoka was not Sanskrit – if it did not appear in its written form until about a century later, and then in its grammatically fixed form another century later – at what point was this presumed Buddhist canon fixed? And was it in Sanskrit?

The Role Of The Buddhists

Buddhists were recruited into the Brahminic caste, as into the others, and were introduced, to a certain extent, to its knowledge, including linguistic. And over time, they were also able to form themselves as a class of scholars who eventually adopted Sanskrit, first to communicate with the Brahmins, and then as a religious language. As the use of Sanskrit led to the scholarly immobilization of the language, there was thus fashioned a convenient literary instrument which allowed the grammatical elaboration of Prakrits, those languages which had a literature. This is how the northern Buddhists, in their mixed Sanskrit, deployed Prakritic spellings that resembled literary Sanskrit. This also explains how their spelling in “mixed” Sanskrit (a term that Indians prefer to the perceived depreciative phrase, “corrupt Sanskrit”), tended to come closer and closer to correct Sanskrit. And this can help shed some light on the mystery of these legendary “Buddhist Scriptures.”

If classical Sanskrit has undoubtedly been the subject of an elaboration by the Brahmins, (and on this point we can follow Sénart), it was the Buddhists who indirectly caused its diffusion. Unlike the Brahmins, they were animated by a strong missionary spirit, eager to spread their doctrines by all means. Early attempts at writing, undoubtedly gradually, introduced into circulation the processes of a fixed and learned spelling – with probably less mastery than the Brahmins. At least at first.

If, as it has sometimes been argued, that Pali was, despite Magadhi, fixed in Western India, its relatively archaic character can be explained either by the tendency for etymological spelling, sensitive to the North West; or (during the period of development of classical Sanskrit) by the divergence of the tradition among rival sects, to then become immobilized in each of them. This could explain the two identifiable and identified traditions: One in Pali, the other in Sanskrit. But this does not account for Magadhi, with many Indianists even claiming that the language of the Buddha could be Magadhi.

But it was apparently in Sanskrit that Buddhism continued to expand outside the subcontinent. To understand this, it suffices to remember that in the first century AD, it was the Kushans from the steppes who took possession of this entire area of North-West India and part of the Maurya kingdom. And they chose two languages of chancellery, Sanskrit and “Bactrian,” another Indo-Aryan language. Their religious indifference largely contributed to the expansion of Buddhism out of its original cradle (in southern Nepal). This is how Sanskrit was able to continue its expansion outside the subcontinent. From the third century AD, it undoubtedly began to play the role of language of the Buddhist koine. Thus, when Chinese pilgrims set off for India (from the north), in search of the “sacred” texts of Buddhism, which they took to be written in Sanskrit, Sanskrit itself spread throughout Eurasia.

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Buddhism disappeared from the Indian lands where it was born; but it persisted outside India, where it had been exported, and with it Sanskrit, despite the tough competition from Persian, linked to the rise of Islam in India. It is this persistence of the sacred language of Brahminism, held (wrongly) for the original language of the doctrine of the Buddha that has resulted in the same texts in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian, on the basis of a “table” Sanskrit texts. The first corpus of Buddhist texts was collected by the Englishman Brian Houghton Hodgson, in Nepal, where he was stationed. Working in monasteries, he affirmed that Nepalese texts had Sanskrit originals. But often the Sanskrit originals had disappeared, and the remaining text was only known in the language of translation.

The second corpus was collected by Sándor Csoma de Kőrös, a Hungarian who mastered the Tibetan language with heroic dedication, and included in the journal of the Bengal Asian Society, with detailed analyses of the great Tibetan library.

The third corpus was especially cited by Russian orientalism which claimed to have it, as per Isaac Jacob Schmidt.

Philippe Édouard Foucaux, a pupil of Émile Burnouf, who is considered to be the founder of Buddhist studies, had only one Tibetan copy. His Sanskrit copy is very late (18th century); and the first translation was made from the Burmese.

In the 20th century, the expeditions of Dutreuil de Rhins and Fernand Grenard, of Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq, of Sir Aurel Stein, of Sergey Oldenburg, that of Otani Kozui and Zuicho Tachibana and of Paul Pelliot and Louis Valliant unearthed from the sands of Central Asia and caves of Kansu a mass of documents in various languages (in particular, Sogdian). Among these texts, the Sanskrit ones correspond to the sutras translated into Chinese.

What Buddhist Canon?

What then can we say about an alleged Buddhist canon?

It is impossible that a primitive Buddhist canon existed prior to the concomitant written fixation of the orthographic reform described by Sénart, which may have spanned two or three centuries, (from the 2nd century BC to the first century BC).

The French Indianist very clearly posed the question: “Is it believable that a sect, Buddhist, Jain or other, which would have possessed, either written, or an established oral tradition, that is, a definite and consecrated canon, would have consented to modify and to subject canonical writings to a new grammatical regulation? The codification of an idiom specific to the sect and applied to its fundamental texts can only be imagined on the very date when traditions hitherto imperfect or dispersed were united. Fixed earlier in a canonical body, they would have made law; their authority would have made the reform both useless and impossible.”

Between the language of Ashoka’s edicts and the Prakrit of grammarians, the similarities are obvious; but there is no complete agreement between any of the dialects described by grammarians and those represented by the edicts. Sénart’s conclusion is clear: the Brahmi alphabet has no precedence. It is an alphabet designed for Ashoka, probably by scribes at his service.

However, for the same alphabet to adapt to different languages, a deep knowledge of Indian languages was required. It could not have come from the Brahmins, grammarians specialized in Sanskrit, and who, moreover, did not form a body of administrators in the service of the State. These two functions, scribes and administrators, were reserved for a specific caste whose status was always lower than that of the Brahmins, even if some of the latter could participate, as advisers, in the exercise of power. It is undoubtedly a conglomerate of this specific caste of scribes, undoubtedly Hellenized, especially those in the Northwest, who conceived the two alphabets intended for King Ashoka. Whatever the religion of these scribes, the concept of Dharma (Law) was familiar to them. And it could be Buddhist or Hindu or Vedic.

But if the alphabet was designed by the king (or his language technicians) and for his particular use, and if it did not have prior existence, the inscriptions could not be read by anyone. It was therefore necessary to proclaim them. Hence the existence of emissaries sent by the king. “Oyez, Oyez good people, King Ashoka makes his instructions heard for the happiness of his people, and the happiness of his people is to obey Dharma, the Law” – that is, the Law defined and identified by the king. The Mauryan state was indeed a police state, as suggested by Megasthenes, the Greek who spent some time at the court of King Chandragupta. King Ashoka’s alleged Buddhist teachings enveloped close administrative surveillance, for political rather than religious ends.

Buddhism: Sect Or Heresy Of Brahminism?

None of the founders of the modern Indian state, Nehru, Gandhi, Jinna for Pakistan, knew Sanskrit. When they were of Brahmin origin, they sometimes knew some hymns or prayers as we can still know some prayers in Latin, or can know them in Aramaic. The pandits converted to politics. If Sanskrit had been the language of this radiant Buddhism throughout Asia, it is difficult to believe that we cannot find more originals – especially when you think of the profusion of Buddhist texts in various languages found in the cave of a thousand Buddhas. If we had had a Buddhist canon, “Living Word of the Blessed One,” there is no doubt that it would have been preciously preserved by his followers.

When, at Benares, during his first sermon, the Buddha “turned the law,” what can it mean except that he instituted by this gesture (whether he existed historically or not) the new legislator: a new Manu for the Hindu world. As for Brahminism, the preaching of the Buddha claimed to replace this sacred Word, so sacred that it was reserved only for the legislators of the language which conveyed and preserved it. Little wonder that Buddhism competed with both of these religious currents. And that, no doubt, if a primitive cannon existed, it was destroyed.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows the head of the Buddha, Gandhara, ca. 1st-2nd century AD.

Limericks A Tad Quitain

Me, I’ve been a poet since the age of six or seven, when my mentor was the very great Spike Milligan. The following was my favourite “Uncle Spike,” and I somewhat fear, dear readers, that it isn’t especially woke:
“A thousand hairy savages/ Sitting down to lunch/ Gobble-gobble, glub-glub/ Munch, munch, munch!”

Not only did I admire its visceral intelligence, but for a six-year-old, being taught stuffy English middle-class manners and mores, it was irresistibly subversive. Under Spike’s influence, I penned the following couplet:

“My dear,” said I, “my bonnie lass.”
But she replied, “You silly ass!”

It would prove uncannily prophetic à propos my subsequent overtures to the fair sex. Though my creativity and quality have somewhat dimmed since, I now find the Muse hits me powerfully, and in my unbiased view, not unimpressively. Blame semi-retirement for that. So here, dear reader, find a number of art historical Limericks – these shouldn’t upset anyone fearing an abrupt transition from the genre of my jokes. Talking of which, one really good joke does accompany this selection.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915.

In this preface – the editor considers my output here worthy of Dr Johnson on the Bard (and he’s spot-on, as usual) – I will refrain from providing any of the usual, tedious art historical summaries. Apart from the Kiwi-Croatian painter Milan Mrkusich (1925-2018), an abstract artist of singular intellect, rigour and impenetrability to fools who wish every picture to tell a story, my exemplars are all well-known figures, compatible with everybody’s cultural arsenal. “Bloody Arsenal!” protests one reader (the epithet was stronger), “What about Spurs?”

My good man, is my reply, pray what do you think you are doing, reading this erudite journal?

But first, some amuses-bouche…


A well-known writer, Marcus Stocker, had just written a novel which he was quite pleased with, but for reasons best known to himself, decided to change the name of his leading character from David to Geoff. The “find” and “replace” function did its bit. Rather too well, as Stocker only remembered when it was too late that he had referred to a famous statue by Michelangelo…

My friend Lisa, an attractive young woman with plucked eyebrows who has a lovely smile the rare moments she is serene, is nonetheless prone to whine and whinge. You qualify as an art historian if you can guess her nickname.

My Maori friend Tama is slightly affected, and has artistic aspirations. Hence, he named his beloved daughter Moana Lisa.
[pause for laughs]
Later on in life, Tama was prone to eloquence in praising Moana’s beauty: “Moana Lisa rocks; she’s older than the rocks among which she sits”, blahblahblah. Moana is a smart lass, and and her response is “Oh shut up, Pater!”

Right. Now on to the much-anticipated limericks…


Eat your poor heart out Yeats,
You’re no better than Stocker or Keats
There was once a time
You could make it rhyme
But now who admires your bleats?

An elderly painter named Milan
Said, “I’ve got this brilliant p-lan
I’ll paint a red square,
What it means I don’t care,
But critics will all praise my e-lan”

Rodin told Camille Claudel,
You really are my kind of gel,
You’re a real good looker
Ma petite French cooker,
Now, help with those damn Gates of Hell!’

The Thought (Camille Claudel) by Auguste Rodin, 1888-1889.

A very idiomatic translation of the above follows from Mark’s attractive friend, Antoinette. He asks, “Why do the French always end up going to bed when we’d rather play Scrabble™?” To which she replies, “Come with me, Dr Stocker, and find out!” But I digress!

Rodin dit à Camille:
T’es quand même une chic fille!
Tu excelles au ciseau
Presque autant qu’aux fourneaux.
Mais tu es, mon canard,
Encore mieux au plumard!

The heterosexual male
Will try but invariably fail
De ne jamais toucher
Le grand sexy Boucher;
He really is beyond the pale!

Mademoiselle O’Murphy by François Boucher, 1752.

Georg Baselitz leaped into fame
With paintings that all looked the same.
His figures – inverted –
Made us once disconcerted,
But he’s now at the top of his game!

Henry Moore said, “My sculpture is goals,
Organic and pierced with great holes.
This was Barbara’s idea,
Now it’s mine – the poor dear,
You women have second’ry roles!”

An erudite scholar of Mich-
elangelo, Klee and Van Dyck [not our Bard – Ed.]
Claimed, “For my part,
I know all about art,
But I’ve no idea what I like!”

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles
Insults sweet Avignon gels.
But he said, “I don’t care
If they’re cubic or square
So long as my masterpiece sells!”

David resolved for a laugh,
He’d paint old Marat’s last bath.
He paid for his error,
Supporting the Terror,
And did Charlotte hurt him? Not half!

Bernini, when sculpting Theresa,
Said, “I just know what will please her.
An angel – so fierce
Her body will pierce
As heavenly sentiments seize her!”

As an apt aside, here are some of my favourite artists… There’s Jackson, the painterly dripper, Fontana the loose canvas ripper, The pious Giotto, The decadent Watteau And Frith, the Ramsgate day tripper!


Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.


The featured image shows, “Self-caricature in profile, standing,” a drawing by Edward Lear, October 1870.

The Democratic Dilemma: Herman Melville’s Ship of State

This excerpt comes from William Morrisey’s latest book, Herman Melville’s Ship of State, which reads the classic novel, Moby-Dick, as an allegory of America, democracy and the reciprocal obligations of the individual and the state. Thus, is America Moby-Dick? Is its power a source of chaos or order? You will have to read the Morrissey’ intriguing book in order to arrive at the answers.

William Morrisey held the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College until his retirement in 2015. A native of Rumson, New Jersey, he served as Executive Director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission before his appointment at Hillsdale College in 2000. He is the author of eight books and has been an editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His reviews and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Social Science and Modern Society, Law and Liberty, The New Criterion, and many other publications.

Please support the excellent work being done by our friends over at St. Augustine’s Press and buy this book. You will not be disappointed.


In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of Democracy in America, his magisterial study based on observations he had made on his nine-month visit to the United States nearly a decade earlier. Although we Americans understandably read his book as a treatise about ourselves, Tocqueville wanted less to understand America than to understand democracy. By “democracy” he meant not primarily a political regime of the kind seen in ancient Athens or in a modern-day New England township, but the condition of social equality, a society free of an aristocratic class legally entitled to rule ‘the commoners.’ In America, everyone is a commoner, and those who pretend otherwise invite ridicule. As an aristocrat himself, Tocqueville saw the decline of his class in Europe, a decline accelerated by both monarchy and republicanism in his own country. He called America “the sample democracy” in the world, the place to go to see what an egalitarian society looked like, how it thought and felt, its “habits of the mind and heart”—habits soon coming to a country near you, my fellow noblemen.

William Morrisey Herman Melville’s Ship of State

What political regimes would such societies see? Without the possibility of the rule of ‘the few,’ that left the rule of ‘the one’ or ‘the many.’ And because the long-ago replacement of small, ancient city-states with large modern nation-states precluded the direct rule of the people, rule of the many in the modern rule would mean representative government, republicanism. The regime alternatives for democratic societies in modern states were republicanism and despotism—to be seen, Tocqueville remarks, in America and Russia, respectively, “each destined to hold half the world in its hands one day.” To outline the structure of his preferred republican regime, he simply wrote an able summary of The Federalist, whose institutional structures might be adapted, although not simply carried over, by other ‘founders’ of republican regimes in other countries. But to describe democracy’s habits of heart and mind, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which egalitarian social conditions pervade the souls of those who live amidst them, this took several hundred pages.

The 1840s also saw the return to America of another voyager, Herman Melville. At the time Tocqueville was bringing out his Volume II, the young American, ten years Tocqueville’s junior, was signing up for his first whaling adventure, which began at the beginning of 1841. For nearly four years Melville experienced the democratic despotism of life at sea under several captains on a variety of ships, intermingled with sojourns on islands in the South Pacific, where a life of hedonist freedom rested uneasily on binges of cannibalism. The young sailor enjoyed the freedom without partaking of the fare; worrying that one day he might become part of a feast, he cut his island idyll short. For him, the remedy for shipboard despotism was either rebellion (he joined one mutiny) or exile (his adventures on shore occurred after he jumped his first ship).

The America he returned to in October 1944 was about to elect James K. Polk to the presidency. Along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois and former president Franklin Pierce,

Polk was part of a new intellectual and political movement which registered a generational shift in the American conception of the right basis for law and liberty. Whereas the founding generation had understood republican regime-building as an attempt to secure unalienable natural rights for “all men” under that regime, and the generation after that was divided over whether “all men” included slaves (New England said yes, the South, increasingly, said no), this third generation of Americans began to see republicanism less as security for rights as security for, and the best expression of, democracy itself, of the social egalitarianism Tocqueville had described. Might that not lead to majority tyranny, the rule of ‘the people’ in its might instead of popular sovereignty under the laws of nature and of nature’s God?

Having just voyaged on seas even broader than the American continent, seas where might is indeed taken to make right, whether in the form of a captain on a ship or of mighty Leviathan underneath that ship, Melville had seen that a diverse and egalitarian society could find its ruler not in a popular majority but in one person. With no aristocratic class to serve as mediator between the one and the many, each pole of the political world would threaten the other. Fear of the many might cause the one to rule by fear absolutized, by terror. Tocqueville never wrote on Napoleon or on the Russian czar. In Moby-Dick, Melville did.

He could do so because he had survived and learned from what might be described as the photographic negative of Tocqueville’s experience: Instead of voyaging to democratic-republican America from a Europe beset by unstable monarchies, a declining aristocracy, and constant threats of war and violent revolution, Melville had voyaged from America to societies in the condition of a state of nature—communitarian and pleasure-loving, to be sure, but with a sinister undercurrent of manslaughter, the faint smell of blood mingling with fragrance of the tropical flowers. He had voyaged on ships ruled by ‘princes’ (with the title of captain) wielding absolute power unknown to American landholders, even to the most adventurous pioneers. Returning to America, he too had an outsider’s perspective, the ability to think like what we now call a political comparativist. In Moby-Dick he shows what a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society would be under the regime of tyranny.


The featured image shows a portion of “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World,” by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington, which was first exhibited in 1848. It is America’s longest painting, at 1275 feet in length.

Something About Those Ancient Greeks

The society in which we live, a liberal democracy, is the result not of events that happened all over the world – rather, it is the result of events that happened in just one country, ancient Greece. We are who we are not because of what happened in ancient China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt or India (essential as the histories of these places are to our knowledge of the world).

Despite the passage of millennia, we still live in the world invented by the ancient Greeks. And because of the influence and spread of western technology, the entire globe has now been impacted by these Greeks of long ago. There is a reason why we want all people to be free; why we think more democracy is a good thing; why we worry about the environment; why we have immense faith in our ability to come up with solutions no matter how great the problem; why we believe education to be crucial to building a good life; why we seek self-respect. And this reason is simply stated: we have inherited – not created – a particular habit of mind, a way of looking at the world.

We live within a set of values that constantly encourage us to depend on reason, to seek out moderation and distrust excess, to live a disciplined life, to demand responsibility in politics, to strive for clarity of thought and ideas, to respect everyone and everything, including nature and the environment, and most of all to cherish and promote freedom. This is our inheritance from the ancient Greeks. We need to study them in order to learn and relearn about our intellectual, esthetic and moral inheritance – so that we might meaningfully add to them so that they may continue in the vast project of building the goodness of our society. This is why we need to study the Greeks, because through them we come to study ourselves.

And what about the Romans? They were the people that allowed Greek learning to be made available to the world. The ancient Romans adopted the Greek habit of mind and through their empire, which stretched from the borders of Scotland to the borders of Iran, they passed on this inheritance to all the people that lived within these borders. Thus, in studying the Romans, we come to understand how very difficult it has been for ideas, which we may take for granted, to come down to us. Whereas the ancient Greeks created the world we live in, the ancient Romans facilitated it by giving universality to the Greek habit of mind. Thus, to study both these civilizations is to begin to fully understand our own.

Earliest History of Greece

Prehistoric human settlement in the Greek peninsula stretches back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. By the time of the Bronze Age, different types of pottery helps us to demarcate the various phases of material culture. For the sake of convenience, historians have used these various types of pottery to work out a chronology of Greek prehistory. And because Greece is not only the peninsular mainland, but also the various islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, the pottery is sorted out by different regions.

Thus, the Bronze Age in the mainland is classified as Helladic (from 1550 B.C. to 1000 B.C.). On the island of Crete, the Bronze Age is labeled Minoan (from 3000 B.C. to about 1450 B.C.). And on the various islands of the Aegean, the Bronze Age is referred to as Cycladic, where it begins around 3000 B.C. and lasts until about 2000 B.C., at which time the culture of the Cyclades is absorbed into the greater Minoan civilization.

The Minoans

The earliest expression of Bronze Age civilization in Europe is found on the island of Crete, where a brilliant culture flourished from about 2700 B.C. to around 1450 B.C. It was brought to light in 1900 by the English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated a large complex at Knossos, which he called a “palace.” But the “palace” he found was different from what we might imagine. It was a warren of maze-like adjoining rooms, where people lived and worked, and where oil, wine and grain were stored in massive clay jars, some as high as six feet. It was because of the labyrinthine nature of the palace’s layout that Evans called the civilization that he discovered, “Minoan,” after the Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, who had built a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull offspring of his wife, Pasiphae, who had fallen in love, and coupled, with a white bull.

The many wall-paintings from the palace give indication that the cult of the bull was prevalent among the ancient Cretans – the best example being the ritual or sport of “bull-leaping,” in which young men and women grasped the horns of a charging bull and leaped over its back to land behind the animal. It is difficult to say whether this was done as sport, or perhaps even as a religious dance. We cannot know since we have no contemporary written explanation for it.

Evans also found thousands of clay tablets with writing on them. The writing was in two versions of the same script. The first version he labeled Linear A, and the second he called Linear B. The only problem was that he could read neither. It would not be until 1952 when Michael Ventris finally deciphered Linear B and found the many texts in this script to be the earliest form of the Greek language. When the rules of decipherment were applied to Linear A, however, it was found to be a curious language that was not Greek, nor was it a language that could be placed in any known family group. Perhaps as further work is done on Linear A, it might disclose more of its secrets. But for now, the Minoan world is mysterious to us, because all we have are its material remains.

However, the more intriguing question that arises from the evidence we have is – how did the earliest form of the Greek language get mixed with a non-Greek language in the palace at Knossos? This question points us northwards to the mainland of Greece, and to a city known as Mycenae.

The Mycenaean Age

The speakers of the earliest form of Greek were the Mycenaeans, who were given their name from the city they inhabited, namely, Mycenae, where the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in 1876, found a well-developed civilization, with a ruling warrior aristocracy who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops. Aside from Mycenae, the towns of Athens (a relatively unimportant place at this early time), Pylos, Tiryns, Iolkos and Orchomenus were also part of Mycenaean culture, which established itself around 1900 B.C. and endured until 1200 B.C.

Schliemann’s excavations revealed a circle of shaft-graves, in which the dead were buried standing up, and in which were found large quantities of weapons as well as gold objects, from funerary masks to goblets and jewelry. He also found evidence for the domesticated horse and the chariot – and, most important of all, there were found clay tablets with Linear B written on them, which would be deciphered as the earliest form of the Greek language. All these discoveries led to an important question – where did the Greeks come from because their language ultimately is not native to the land they came to inhabit.

If we examine the archaeological record of the time just before the Mycenaean age, we find massive destruction that lasted about a hundred years from 2200 B.C. to about 2100 B.C. And the material remains of the people that established themselves after the destruction were markedly different from those that lived in these same areas before. It is to this deep destruction that we can link the “coming of the Greeks,” a phrase much used by the historians of this era.

So, where did the Greeks come from?

The clues before us are two-fold: material and intellectual culture. The excavations at Mycenae yield several essential clues: chariot parts, horse tack, skeletal remains of horses, weapons and pottery; plus, there is also the fact that these people were speakers of early Greek, as demonstrated by the Linear B texts.

These clues points to one conclusion. The Mycenaeans came as invaders, likely from the north, and they destroyed what they found and took control and began to build their own fortified towns. And we know that they are invaders because of their language, which is a member of the Indo-European group of languages – and this tells us that these early Greeks came from elsewhere, since the origin of the Indo-European languages is in a place quite a bit distant from Greece. In the latter years of the third millennium, there were Indo-European invasions throughout Eurasia.

The origin of the Indo-Europeans is likely in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, what historians call the “Kurgan culture.” “Kurgan” refers to the grave mounds under which these early Indo-Europeans buried their dead. From this point of origin, the Indo-Europeans overran large parts of Europe and some parts of Asia. The languages they spoke were closely related and to this day comprise the largest family group in the world.

Thus, the indo-European languages consist of the ancient languages (and their descendents) of northern India (Vedic and Sanskrit) and Persia (Avestan and modern Persian), the Slavic languages, the Baltic languages (Lithuanian and Latvian), the Celtic and the Italic (Latin and its descendents, such as, French and Italian), the Germanic languages (such as, German and English), and of course Greek.

This affinity between languages extends further into intellectual culture, since there is a pronounced similarity, for example, between the myths of the various Indo-European peoples. The branch of Indo-Europeans that veered into Greece called themselves Achaeans, who spoke a very early form of Greek.

The Achaeans subdued the various non-Indo-European peoples that were living in Greece and set up suzerainty over them. The outcome of this process was what we call the Mycenaean civilization, which Schliemann excavated, as noted earlier. The Mycenaeans were known for their warrior culture, in which the chariot and the horse were much valued. By 1600 B.C. they had established a thriving culture, attested by the rich finds in the shaft-graves of Mycenae.

Around 1450 B.C. these Mycenaeans struck southward and conquered Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilization. But they were not above learning civilized ways from the people they had conquered – for it was soon after they had conquered Crete that the Mycenaeans adopted the art of writing invented by the Minoans, but they had adapt it to their own language, since the alphabet was not really useful for an Indo-European language which had many consonantal clusters, whereas the alphabet of the Minoans (Linear A) was syllablic (each letter represented a consonant and a vowel together).

It is for this reason that Sir Arthur Evans found texts written in both Linear A and Linear B at Knossos, since the Mycenaeans assumed control of this palace structure after their take-over of Crete; and in time they came to use the Linear alphabet.

The Bronze Age Collapse

The rule of the Mycenaeans in Greece and in Crete was fated. It was destroyed during a catastrophic period in Eurasian history known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” during which a total of forty-seven important cities were attacked, their inhabitants either killed or enslaved, and the places burned to the ground. The swath of burned down cities is large and covers Syria, the Levant, Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and Greece. From 1200 B.C. to about 1150 B.C., there were destructive raids by newer groups of Indo-European peoples, who had developed an innovative method of warfare, which gave them a greater advantage over the armies that these doomed cities could muster.

We have to keep in mind that the first Indo-European invasions, which saw the establishment of the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete, were the result of the chariot and the composite bow.

The invasions which put an end to the Bronze Age were also successful because of a new type of warfare – the use of infantry armed with a long lance and a broad sword. The metal for these weapons was iron. Bronze weapons were no match for these iron lances and swords, and the chariots became useless, too, since the foot-soldiers could easily disable a charioteer with their long lances by spearing the warriors that rode inside. The Bronze Age was violently brought to an end by iron weapons.

Thus, the Iron Age begins with an enormous catastrophe – a total collapse of civilization. Once the large cities and palaces were destroyed, they were replaced by small communities of a few individuals; and these were often located not in the plains, but high in the uplands.

The Iron Age is also known as the Ancient Dark Age, because civilization, or city life, disappeared. The group of Indo-Europeans, who invaded Greece in the twelfth century B.C. and put an end to the Mycenaeans, are known as the Dorians; their name likely derives from the early Greek word, doru, which was the long wooden lance that they carried. It is from the various dialects of these new invaders that the Greek language developed.

The Ancient Dark Age

The invading people destroyed civilization and did not value living in palaces or large cities. Instead, they chose to live in smaller communities that had fewer luxuries and fineries which we usually associate with civilization. There is also evidence of depopulation since the settlements that replace the burned cities and palaces tend to be small and few. Pottery is no longer finely and elaborately decorated but has simple geometric patterns. The Dark Age lasted from 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. and can be summarized as a period of petty tribalism.

However, we know a lot about this period because of two significant literary works that describe the people involved in these invasions. They are the two poems by the legendary poet Homer, namely, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In fact, the story of the siege of Troy may be a memory of the Bronze Collapse.

It is with Homer that we enter into recorded Greek history, known as the Archaic period.

The Archaic Period

From 800 B.C. to 480 B.C., Greece underwent revolutionary changes and began to emerge from its tribal era. This period saw the growth of cities once more, which was fueled by an increase in population and the expansion of commercial trade. The idea of people being ruled by kings vanished and was replaced by a new form of government, the city-state, in which people sought not to be warrior-heroes, but good citizens. As a result, there was a focus on refining city life, which led to great achievements in architecture, sculpture, art, commercial relations and trade, politics, and intellectual and cultural life.

Because of a greater population, colonies were established outside of Greece: in Sicily, southern Italy, eastern parts of Spain, along the southern coastline of France, at Cyrenaica in North Africa, in the Hellespont, and along the Black Sea. All this was possible because of the growth of technological knowledge, especially in the areas of shipbuilding and seafaring, as well as developments of a new form of government, the polis, or the city-state, which came about as a result of synoecism, or the gathering of various villages into single political entities or units.

It was because of advances in the archaic period that Greek city-states prepared themselves for the maturity and perfection that they would achieve in the fifth century B.C. And the most important of these cities was Athens, whose citizens radically and permanently changed the world around them – so much so that the ideas implemented by these men and the structures established by them are the very ones in which we still live. Civilization would never really look back, because of what was achieved in Athens in the fifth century B.C.

C.B. Forde lives, thinks, dreams in a rural setting.


The featured image shows, “Dance in ancient Greece,” by Johan Raphael Smith ca. 19th century.

Spinoza On Power

In this article I will focus exclusively on Spinoza’s theory of power (potentia) which forms a key element of his theories of natural right and imperium. For the legal theoretical importance of potentia in the areas, see the forthcoming articles NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM, and for the relation to capacity (power) see the forthcoming article POTESTAS. My purpose here is to convey the deep structure of the Spinozan concept of power, rather than become too lost in the geometrico-theological terminology he deploys, or the countless interpretations by which he has been determined.

Following Spinoza, it is necessary to construct a definition. Firstly, Spinoza posits a self-caused something (substance) which is the cause of all things — this is its essence, which follows from its properties (infinity, immutability, capacity to know etc.). Spinoza calls this something ‘God’.

Secondly Spinoza now considers what this God is doing, the importance of which question is illustrated by the classical logical distinction between capacity to do and act. For example, Cato is able to walk (property and power [potestas]) and Cato walks (attribute) are clearly different things. Though this God must be able to do infinitely many things, for human purposes Spinoza can only perceive two properties enacted, namely the attributes of Thought and of Extension.

Thirdly, Spinoza notes that this God is ‘unrestrained’ save by its own necessity, and being essentially self-caused (so propelled to act, as it were), this God exercises all his properties infinitely; that is, just as Cato, when he walks, is a walking thing, so God is a thinking and extending thing. Spinoza reserves the name God for this thing when it is thinking, and Nature for when it is extending (Deus sive Natura).

Note that because God or Nature is unrestrained save by its own necessity, every attribute is enacted immediately and inexhaustibly: it is eternal. Now, this enactment is perceived as everlasting in the sense that while Cato may get tired of walking, God or Nature does not, but Spinoza wants us to conceive of this enactment as rigorously eternal i.e. not even indefinite duration may properly be ascribed to it.

Equipped with this construction of substance and its attributes, we are now in a position to conceive potentia by literally ‘plugging’ God or Nature into its attributes. What do I mean? Well, the attributes must be considered as ordering functions — if they are presented with something to function on, they will assign and distribute that something in a single and determinate manner. For example, imagine I took all the letters from this page and jumbled them up into a tiny ball. Now imagine there was a computer program which, if I fed these same letters into it, would distribute them in such a manner as to recreate this text. The attributes operate in something like this way: on their own they are empty, but if we feed God or Nature into them, God or Nature will be distributed in a single, determinate manner to constitute a completed, well-ordered world.

This is easier to illustrate with an albeit misleading example about Extension, where if we posit the Extension function Ext(x), then Ext(Nature) distributes Nature according to a definite coordinate system, in a manner that evolves Descartes celestial fluid model shown in the diagram above. This would be nothing other than Cartesian space, which is why it is misleading — Spinoza in our view is convinced that Cartesian analytic geometry is quite incapable of grasping the subtleties of the ‘infinite series’ of things. Likewise, we can imagine a Thought function T(x), which explicates God as the infinite understanding (every idea). To underline, while we speak of plugging God or Nature into the attributes, the essence of God is such that God does his own ‘plugging’: he self-explicates.

This concept of ordered distribution is critical to understanding power, for if it is not already evident, insofar as the attributes explicate the essence of God or Nature, they distribute God’s very power with the result that that which appears as distributed (the modes) each express God or Nature’s infinite power in a certain and determinate way (hence ‘modus’). As Spinoza puts it: ‘God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of things’. Consequently, power or potentia is only correctly conceived when we appreciate that it has been distributed according to a certain and determinate order — that if I point at any ‘this’, it must have a definite degree of power — and that in fact this is the only real characteristic of power that Spinoza is asking us to be interested in. In other words, to the question ‘what is power?’ we must respond that power has been radically divested of any ‘occult qualities’ in favour of its determination by reference to its well-ordered distribution. That is, power is defined only by its relation to a whole order as a determinate difference: omnia determinatio est negatio. To put this in another way:

All instances of power distributed by the attributes identified above are intense in infinite degree – that is, all the way down – and are continuous everywhere.

I flag for the reader the possibly problematic interrelation between this distribution and the corporeal plenum which constitutes Spinozan extension which follows from the fact that in a plenum we have nowhere to assess these potentials ‘alone’. My view is that Spinoza’s conception of ‘corporeal plenum’ is rigorously other than the common sense meaning of the term (see my thesis referred to at the end).

Hegel’s criticisms of Spinoza on this very point of determinate negation are well known, but in fact Spinoza demands that we raise the complexity of our understanding multi-fold to really get at the heart of his conception. The problem with the above outline is that despite its liturgical nods to infinite power, it does not quite appreciate what Spinoza’s infinity means for the proposed structure. The tendency to distribute infinitely harks to Hegel’s spurious infinite which proceeds indefinitely, whereas, as I have shown elsewhere, Spinoza has available another conception of the infinite which is decidedly more concrete. This infinite is obtained by considering the finite case and then passing immediately to the limit, a technique Deleuze revived in his own work.1 What happens at the limit is inevitably some form of transition: the curve becomes the straight line (Cusanus), motion becomes rest (Bruno), the citizen becomes “a god amongst men” (Aristotle). So what happens when power is raised to the limit?

Correctly speaking Spinoza does not ask this about power because of its nature; rather he asks it about the ‘things’ of the type that we have been constructing: things that operate in a certain determinate manner. In other words, he asks it about machines. Spinoza is asking what happens when we raise a finite machine to the limit. What happens when we have a machine that operates at the concrete infinite? What can this ‘body’ do? We have already encountered a key aspect of the answer above, though we only applied its meaning spuriously. Such a machine would operate without restraint save in accordance with its own laws of operation. We initially applied this idea of non-restraint to conclude that the attributes distribute the operations of the machine ‘everywhere’, but even if we do assign power to every point of a notional space, however extended, can we be satisfied that every possible operation has been accounted for? Difficult as it may seem, we cannot. A distribution of power across infinitely many finite machines is just an indefinitely large aggregate of finite powers.

Furthermore, and I believe this to be Spinoza’s thought process, considered as the whole face of the universe — the aggregate of all the finite machines connected together in a plenum – all this power would have one effect and one alone: it would hold the universe together as a One, as one divine machine, but there would be no events. The machine would be like a lever in a void, held together by power, completely packed with as much potentia as it could ever need, but completely static. Even if we conceived that this lever was mobile — that it was moving at 1 ft/s downwards, say — this kinematic fact would suggest a constant motion, that is, a change which simply repeated itself to remain the same. People tend to trip up here, because they equate motion with dynamism, and read Spinoza’s theory in paricular as dynamic because machines move about indefinitely (this is their conatus, or endeavour to persist). The confusion is understandable, but leads to brutal, flattening misreadings of Spinoza, in which he is collapsed into a kind of eccentric Hobbesianism in which all are choked by the bonds of fate.

Spinoza realised there is a very real physical need for another machine to be posited which would literally upset the balance — a machine which additionally, once it had acted, must necessarily not have exhausted itself just so it can continue to force further impulsions into the finite mechanical system. It is this capacity which is provided by power taken to its limit. Thus Spinoza dynamises the universe and teaches us what dynamics is: it is not the motions of the spheres, it is not even change; it is the change of motion and so the variation of change. These variations of change he terms ‘transitions’ and they have their sources in the determinate distributions of God or Nature’s infinite that is inexhaustible power.

The infinite divine machine not only constitutes a (spuriously) infinite world of finite machines all running in a certain and determinate manner, but in addition it overlays (as it were) an order of (truly) infinite power which disrupts the settled concrescence of things. Accordingly, in addition to the appearance of actual power in the world, which Spinoza calls the ‘actual essence’ of things, we must also be attentive to a second critical category, viz. the ‘formal essence’ of things which is nothing other than the distributed power of God or Nature insofar as it constitutes potential ‘forms’ [formae] into which existing machines may coalesce and produce new effects. God or Nature not merely determines the world, but ‘over-determines’ the world into a foment of creation, though it is my view that this over-determination is perceptual and once all aspects of ‘time’ (eternity, duration, and time) are reintegrated into this model the augmented system returns to complete determination. The study of power now takes on the aspect of studying the distribution of formal essences and thus falls within the preliminary ambit of transcendental empiricism.

In addition, however, it is necessary to re-fold this notional formal overlay into the immanent structure of the world. By simply positing an additional realm of essences have we not returned to a kind of Platonism, to the transcendence which Spinoza explicitly ruled out? Our questioning consequently devolves on how this truly infinite power is integrated in the world at the same level as its finite content. In physical terms I have undertaken research attempting to piece together Spinoza’s thinking regarding this infinite Natural power which I will not repeat here, but it is his arguments and studies in the physical realm which, like all classical materialists, inform his explicit response in the field that concerned him most of all viz. ethics.

Spinoza’s insight is this: that insofar as the human is a thinking thing she is the vehicle, or better, source, of God’s infinite power in the thought world, a fact which indirectly follows from Spinoza’s reworking of the Cartesian cogito in which certain ideas transit into the substance of thought.2 Applying our knowledge, we realise that not only therefore does each human machine express finite power in its having this or that thought within the determinate chain of conscious duration, but in addition each human expresses infinite power as an inexhaustible power of thought intervening as the condition of thinking, and in particular as the condition of thinking the infinite idea Dei (the goal of all thought to which we must turn once thought).

For Kant this difference in the mind appeared as a difference between a determinate world of desires and a completely free, but empty, will that reigned over inclinations. Spinoza, on the other hand, has derived a necessary and determinate power which is nevertheless free because it is inexhaustible and can pass across the realm of formal essences in an instant (I call this an homological power). To adopt anachronistic language, the will is completely and materially determined as to its ethical content — it is this infinite will here being acted upon by other infinite wills (the acts of the virtuous) — but it freely gives that content to determinate desire and further determines this latter without negating or alienating its own power: in short, it negates negation.

It is wrong, however, to assume that a human is to be considered an atomic building block of this world. The very nature of Spinoza’s conception requires us to consider the human itself as constituted by a determinate series of machines coalescing around a formal essence, this latter itself determined by its relation to all essences. There is no foundational element: the essence does not justify some vulgar essentialism for the simple reason that it is mute form — it is the condition of meaning but has no meaning. The formal essence rather may be said to form a ‘hospitable zone’ in which an inexhaustible variety of lives may be lived, human and otherwise. In this idea we see aspects of Deleuze’s larval subjects, and Balibar’s transhuman individuality.

With this briefly outlined movement, Spinoza enters the sphere of legal theory armed with a conception of power which imputes into the overbearing ‘force’ theories of legal power of the Early Modern power an additional, subtly integrated structure of infinite power which rises up from every free-thinking individual. We will treat of these practical matters in our articles on NATURAL RIGHT and IMPERIUM.


Stephen Connelly is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Warwick.


The featured image shows, “The Rage of Achilles,” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, painted in 1757.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”

Philosophical Anthropology. Part 2: Johann Georg Hamann, On The Idolatry Of Faith In Reason

Part 1 and Part 3

There is a great irony in Hume’s fate in so far as the very probablism which he used against religious faith was taken up in Germany by Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Georg Hamann, not only to provide an argument for the inescapable role of faith in life, but also, especially in Hamann’s case, for mounting an argument about the value of the Christian life. So impressed was Hamann by Hume that he translated his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion into German.

The religious Hamann had no delusions about where Hume stood on matters of religion—and in this respect, Hume was on the side of the enlightened, i.e., the enemy who were substituting their metaphysically derived ideas, which is to say, their bloodless version of life, for life itself. Nevertheless, as he would confide to Herder: “Hume [over against Kant] is always my man because he at least honored the principium of faith and took it up in his system.” And to J. Lindner he picks up on Hume’s statement in the Enquiry that because the Christian religion “was at first attended with miracles… even at this day [it] cannot be believed by any reasonable person,” commenting: “Hume may have said this with a scornful or wistful attitude, nevertheless it is orthodoxy and a witness to the truth in the mouth of an enemy and persecutor of the same—all his doubts are proof of his proposition.”

The sceptical Hume, for Hamann, therefore veers into the doubtful territory of faith. Had Hume been a little less prejudiced when roaming around in that territory, he would have had to concede that in it are to be found men and women, like Hamann, every bit as capable of using their reason, and yet also sceptical of reason’s overreach, whose faith, nevertheless, leads them to live the lives they do. In this respect, W.M. Alexander (whose book Johann Georg Hamann: Philosophy and Faith is, in my opinion, the best book, among some seriously good books, on Hamann) observes “Hamann’s problem” is,

the philosophy of his age and how his own thought as a Christian relates to it. How does the Christian exist (and more specifically—in his “authorship”—how does he think authentically as a Christian) in genuine contact with the world. Hamann was one of the first Christian thinkers to recognize that he lived—as did the early Church Fathers -in a non-Christian world—the Church was no longer communicating to “Jews” but to “Greeks.”

The essentially Christian character of Hamann’s thinking stands in striking contrast to what remained an essentially metaphysical position advanced by his friend Jacobi, who had become very famous in Germany with his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. Jacobi had detected the Spinozian (deterministic) influence upon the age, and had countered that faith is an ontological given and a foundation of reason. Furthermore, it was not just, as Kant had argued, a rational element within the moral sphere of life. While an ally of Jacobi with respect to emphasising the inescapable condition of faith in the larger scheme of reason, Hamann was also critical of the latter’s metaphysical philosophizing. Thus, Hamann would pointedly say to Jacobi of his David Hume on Faith: “In the absence of your book I can say nothing further, dear Jonathan [Jacobi!], except to speak of the relation of both of the objects of your authorship to mine: ‘Idealism’ and ‘Realism’ versus Christianity and Lutheranism. Both of the former are, in my eyes, ideal; the latter real.”

While Jacobi, then, wished to ‘demonstrate’ where faith stood in the greater schema of reason and, indeed, philosophy itself, Hamann’s faith was not the result of any philosophical question, but the result of a personal crisis. As a talented young man with prospects, he had been assigned to represent a Riga merchant on diplomatic business. That had proven to be a dead end and after squandering his and the firm’s money on drinking and carousing, and trying to make ends meet as a lutenist, he entered into what was probably a sexual friendship with another young man, whom he subsequently discovered to have received money for sexual favours by a wealthy patron.

Appalled, broke, and solitary he started reading the Bible, and like so many Jews and Christians he came to the realization that it was no ordinary book—but a book that expressed the immediacy of his circumstance and experience, and God’s responsiveness to humanity’s despair and cry. The truths that the book contained, then, were inseparable from the needs and longings and willingness of the reader to respond in kind to God’s love and majesty, which he saw depicted everywhere throughout this book which was part historical chronicle, part testimony, part instruction, part description, and so much else beside. But also, and most importantly, the record of an encounter between the one true loving God and His people, which opened up the believing heart to also encounter the living God, and take up a new life based upon that encounter.

In other words, what Hamann grasped was the fact of faith, and the fact of his faith being tied in with a tradition of experiences and stories and history, and an encounter of exactly the sort that he had experienced. This is obviously a million miles away from what Jacobi was doing, let alone what Kant did when he tackled the problems of God and the soul, and came to the conclusion they were the product of reason’s own dialectical transcendence of our cognitive conditions, a transcendence which is really an illusion, in so far as the conditions only have validity as truth conditions about the things of our world when they apply to the world. This is what Kant called appearances because the things of our world must appear in space and time in order to be experienced. Kant and Hamann had for some time at least been on friendly terms, and Hamann even helped find a publisher for the Critique of Pure Reason (a work, as we see below, he thought completely wrong-headed). For his part, Kant thought Hamann was a Schwärmer, a rapid “enthusiast,” which is, to say, what the British call “a nutter.”

Generally, Hamann’s philosophical contemporaries saw the bible as either a superstitious attempt to make sense of their experiences or a mythic rendering of moral laws—a position which one can only hold until one reads the Bible. Kant read it like this and had to morally reproach Abraham. For Hamann this was missing the whole point, as was the kind of discussion around faith that had involved Jacobi, Kant, and later Hegel: Hamann did not just believe something he read, he experienced his faith completely changing his life. The book made him a different man. Thus, it was not merely a cerebral matter, but a matter of soul, and thus to treat the Bible along the usual lines of scholarly or philosophical interrogation is really to miss what is most essential about it: it would be like saying one had been swimming but one just had not gone into any water.

Note also, that while the enlightened philosophers would question the reality of the object of faith—God—they would treat God as if He were an object, or, as in Kant, once it is conceded that God is not an object like a natural object, as a “mere idea of reason.” Hamann, as with so many of the faithful, does not see God as an object (or idea of reason) at all; God is no more an idea than He is a thing. But, if we are to stay with philosophical language, God is, nevertheless, a condition of reality, not a “logical condition,” but a creator of whom we can only make sense through encounter and engagement. From Hamann’s Lutheran perspective, when we speak of or about God rather than to Him, at least if we are not disposing ourselves as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit, we are already losing sight of Him. This is also why, for Hamann, “if they are fools who in their hearts deny the existence of God, it strikes me as yet more foolish to want to prove him first.”

To repeat, Hamann has invoked God in a completely different manner from the philosophers—for the purpose of the philosophers’ inquiries, God cannot be divorced from the subjects forming their narrative (the philosophers). For philosophers, what Hamann has done by insisting on taking seriously what the book actually does as opposed to what it merely says is to open-up the floodgates that threaten reason (and philosophy) itself. This, as far as Hamann is concerned, not his problem, but their problem, and it stems from their wanting to only look so far at what is going on in our lives and in world. That is, they want to deny God to be as God: what they know is what is—the entire philosophical attempt from Descartes to Kant to lay down what constitutes experience (the laws of nature) is, from Hamann’s point of view, a confirmation of this.

Hamann overturns what he sees as the self-delusion that motivates the enlightenment project—and his thinking returns us to the pre-philosophical disposition. Ancient people did not come to their gods through their powers of reason—because reason, imagination, and world were all intertwined. Thus, too they knew that their gods existed because they were implicated in a world of mutual dependency: sacrifices are as necessary for the gods as for the gods’ responsive beneficence. One might venture that this is as true of the Jews as of every ancient people, as evident in Yahweh’s jealousy and commandment against false gods.

This kind of anthropological understanding renders the kind of clear-cut distinctions of philosophical ideation irrelevant. The kind of truth that this hermeneutical community is engaging with is the truth of their very own existence, which would have no existence apart from the very parables, commands, bonds, and common orientation that is both the content of their faith as well as its condition. Hamann’s faith is, then, indeed the kind of faith to be found in what Hume had called “common-life,” but “common life” as a whole is no longer understood in the abstract as something that can be analytically dissected into the enlightened and superstitious parts; it forms a unity, which is not to say that things people do is beyond criticism—but the pitch of the criticism is always going to come from some human place, and not some ideational “heaven” that can be found by talking and thinking a certain way.

In this respect, Hamann thinks philosophers are victims of their own superstitions. For Hamann, truths that are abstractly constructed, that have not developed within time, literally have no life. Likewise, metaphysical “truths” are at best conjectures, and typically spurious. Only what has life can be true. As Alexander rightly says: “Truth,” for Hamann, “is not primarily and most authentically an idea or text of written words but a concrete historical life.” Likewise, “truth is not an academic possession: it unfolds only in the transition of a lifetime… ‘Truths are metals which develop under the earth.’”

The notion that truth is something that is revealed over time—“by their fruits you shall know them”—requires taking our temporality and historicity seriously. This, in turn, requires conceding that we do not engage with eternal “ideas,” for such an engagement is purely beyond our ken. We and our ideas grow, and hence reveal themselves for what they are in and through and over time—our climbing high to espy the “all” is sand-castle-in-the-air stuff that brings us crashing down to earth. From this perspective, the Platonic cast of mind shares with the metaphysics of modernity a view of the cosmos in which the eternal order of mathematics takes a particular pride of place, but for all that way of thinking can achieve by way of construction and contrivance with merely material “substances,” when it comes to what we hold important in our lives, what we believe in, then, at best, it may be an ancillary, but at worst, it is an elimination of who and what we are. The elective affinity between mathematical and metaphysical thinking is an affinity that draws us away from what we sense and feel, and want.

What we find in Hamann and ultimately makes his legacy so powerful and fecund, is the combination of a resolutely anti-metaphysical disposition with a great sensitivity for the kinds of problems (if not the answers) that are genuinely philosophical. Moreover, because, for Hamann, “All of our knowing is piece-work and all human rational foundations consist either in faith in the truth and doubt of the untruth, or faith in the untruth and doubt of the truth,” we cannot simply divide the world into what conforms to faith and what conforms to reason, as if this kind of bifurcation somehow conforms to some kind of objective disjunction.

Hamann’s antipathy to bifurcation makes him an important influence upon figures such as Herder, Hegel and Schelling for whom dualism was always the source of a more fundamental philosophical problem than a genuine solution. Moreover, for Hamann: “faith is no work of reason, and therefore is subject to no attack by the same, because faith as little happens through reasons as taste and sight.”

The question of the relationship between faith and knowledge and/or reason, and the nature of the relationship between the two would become a key one of the age. Kant would argue that freedom was a matter of rational faith, and that the reason behind identifying the limits of knowledge was primarily to enable that faith so that our sense of moral duty would preside over what merely is by nature. Hegel saw the problem as a symptom of the divided nature of the modern self, which sought knowledge, but could not bear to reconcile itself with the conditions of its own actual achievements of freedom, seeking solace in a beyond accessible to faith, but ultimately a mere empty “should,” ever out of reach and unrealizable.

Hegel’s brilliant critique of the antithesis between faith and knowledge/reason in Faith and Knowledge and tirelessly repeated throughout his corpus makes perfect sense when directed at Kant, Jacobi, Fichte, Schleiermacher, and even Schelling (in so far as he commences with the Absolute’s being and (un-, or dark) ground). For they are indeed operating with conceptual dualisms within a system, and hence too each was seeking some ground or rationally defensible starting point for what was always a metaphysics. But it does not touch Hamann. For Hamann has no interest in providing a rational basis for faith; he has no system. Christianity is not a philosophical system, even if theologians may wish to bring rationality to it for coherence.

The unity of a life is more akin to the kind of unity a body of faith displays (with members in division) than a philosophical system which, from the outset, requires conceptual or ideational consistency. Hamann commences with the fact of his faith and then clarifies how it shapes his life, and the lives of others who live in their faith communities. This is an anthropological move that differs from the neo-Hegelian anthropology of Feuerbach and the young Marx, insofar as the neo-Hegelian appeal to community, freedom, equality is always to an ideational end that motivates the anthropological aspect of their thinking. Hamann, however, emphasises the common anthropological condition, and then compares different bodies with their different faiths (most specifically philosophers and Christians like him).

Just as Hamann’s discussion of faith and reason is distinctly un-metaphysical, his observations about reason is not itself dependent upon an adequate logic of demonstration: reasons come after the fact. As he would write to Kant: “I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind. I look upon the best demonstration as a reasonable girl does a love-letter.”

While, then, Hamann’s insight about faith and common life is far closer in spirit to anthropology than philosophy, it nevertheless has implications for philosophy, implications which would “rein in” its rationalist tendencies. This is well brought out in a letter to J.G. Lindner, where Hamann would paraphrase (or slightly misquote) Hume and critically compare the enlightened faith in reason with Jewish faith in the Law, and both with Paul:

“The final fruit of all philosophy is the noting of human ignorance and weakness.” This same function, which is related to our powers of understanding and knowledge, shows us how ignorant we are just as the moral shows us how evil and shallow is our virtue. This cornerstone at the same time is a millstone which shatters to pieces all his sophistries. Our reason therefore is just that which Paul calls the Law—and the Law of the Reason is holy, just and good. But is it given to us to make us wise? Just as little as the Law was given to the Jews to justify them, but to convince us of the opposite: how unreasonable is our reason, and that our errors are to be increased by it, just as sin increased by the Law. If everywhere Paul speaks of the Law one puts “reason” (this “law” of our century and the watchword of our clever heads and scribes), Paul will speak to our contemporaries.

For Hamann, when it comes to the kind of knowledge we most need, he wrote to Jacobi: “Sense and history are the foundations and ground—be the former ever so deceptive and the latter ever so simple, I still prefer them to all castles in the air.” Our circumstance is such that what we can think is always either revealed, fragmented, or abstracted: “A reason which acknowledges itself as a daughter of the senses and the material, behold! this is our religion.”

To make thought something more real than the senses is itself to commence a train of abstraction that can all too swiftly leave our language and traditions which have been the means by which collective sense is formed. It is philosophy that, according to Hamann makes “castles in the air.” Or as he put it in another letter to Jacobi—philosophy carries on with “empty shadow-boxing with ideas and speculations against data and facts, with theoretical deceptions against historical truths, with plausible probabilities against witnesses and documents.”

Although all the most reputable Hamann scholars recognize that dismissing Hamann as an “irrationalist” is nonsense, if by that we mean that he does not think reason has any role to play in a life. Beiser puts the matter succinctly when he points out that “The stumbling block of all irrationalist interpretations of Hamann is therefore nothing less than the central thesis” of Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia: that faith is neither rational nor irrational since reason cannot either prove or disprove it.

What Hamann does is something that no serious philosopher should, or even can, simply dismiss: he identifies reason’s limits as deriving from its dependency upon existence itself, community, history and language. He is not arguing that we should deny what we know or what can be known—but reason is an activity or operation taking place within our lives (a point taken up by Kierkegaard and existentialism more generally): to hypostazise it is to beguile ourselves into thinking that we really know all we would need about what is going on in life, and that we are not surrounded by genuine mysteries, which in Hamann’s case are given meaning through his faith in God and revelation.

For Hamann, one of the more persistent errors of philosophy is to treat reason as “real being,” which it is not, rather than as an activity which we undertake. As he wrote to Jacobi:

People speak of reason as if it were a real being, and the dear God as if the same were nothing but a concept. Spinoza speaks of an Object causa sui and Kant of a Subject causa sui. Until this misunderstanding is removed, it will be impossible to understand one another. When one knows what reason is, all discrepancy with revelation ceases.

Conversely while philosophers may ceaselessly dispute about what reason is, people of faith harken to their God and build their world around that harkening. To be sure once matters of faith becomes theological problems, the same problem occurs; but, if viewed with a more ancient eye, the issue of theological dispute can also turn around the matter of “which God?” is appealing to us and demanding our response—the God that creates, reveals and redeems, or a supra-human (diabolical) power that may be merely devouring us?

In this respect, Hamann’s position can be buttressed by an insight that plays a pivotal role in the work of Rosenstock-Huessy, a genuine progeny of Hamann. For Rosenstock-Huessy saw the problem of his age was not just that people did not believe in God, but they did not have any clue about the gods; only once one concedes the reality of gods—a reality that is witnessed in behaviours, for the gods are not under our command—is one in a position to understand God. For originally the gods are recognized and named, and their communal importance assigned so that they can be followed, summoned, supplicated to, and obeyed (or disobeyed). I will take up this point below.

For Hamann the discrepancy between reason and revelation ceases because revelation deals in contingencies, not metaphysics, which deals in the Absolute. The nature of the Absolute would become the centre of philosophical gravity for post-Kantian idealisms, but Hamann already recognized the problem of this philosophical move before it even takes place when he writes to Jacobi: “Being, faith, reason are merely relations which are not to be dealt with as absolutes; they are not things, but pure academic concepts, signs for the understanding, not things to be admired, but means of helping to awaken and fix our attention.”

If one thinks that the truth of life’s meaning is disclosed through reason itself, then Hamann’s position is absurd. Though it is precisely this question of what reason is and what it can really do that runs through Hamann’s critique of metaphysical thinking. While it is commonplace for philosophers to present people of faith as ignorant, or superstitious dupes as opposed, for example, to Dennett’s “brights,” Hamann’s contrast between the God of “rational salvation” and the “God of historical revelation’ is the contrast between ahistorical abstract thinking taking its cues of truth from “nature” and an historical hermeneutical community taking its orientation from a tradition and its symbols grounded in mystery, creation, miraculous contingencies, covenant, prophesy, love, hope and faith in salvation. The enlightened philosophers can only construe all this through a process of “denuding,” so that what is left is mere “nature;” or rather those features of nature, which accommodate the framing required by the experimental and mathematical conditions that render it a totality of laws.

Spinoza’s breaking down of the emotions into natural drives, which then, along with other natural circumstances, are invoked to make sense of the Bible, exemplifies the process. It is, though, the substitution of a history based upon the understanding as opposed to the history of the imagination, the substitution of what exclusively conforms to law for what is frequently parable, and the substitution of one community’s orientation—the philosophers’ community—for the communities of the Jewish and Christian peoples.

For Hamann the failure to grasp that historical nature is not mere nature, but one in which symbols, imagination, and the gamut of semiotic triggers bind and form communities is a mere prejudice of enlightenment philosophers, and illustrates a major difference between the depth of knowledge about the nature of people and life within the religious tradition that the enlightened are simply blind to because of their own prejudice. Thus, of Lessing’s Education of the Human Race, he writes in a letter to Herder:

A week ago, I took up the Education of the Human Race for the second time… Basically the old leaven of our fashionable philosophy: prejudice against Judaism [i.e. anti-historical]—ignorance of the true spirit of the Reformation [i.e. knowing only philosophical self-salvation].

Another major reason why Hamann is considered an early existentialist is because he revels in the absurd—in a manner that suggests a deep affinity with the British author Laurence Sterne—and he turns the tables on those who would take the absurdity of existence as if it were somehow capable of receiving a rational explanation. And he does this in all manner of ways, from the (seriously) playful nature of his authorship, to his position on language as a miracle, to his critique of the enlightenment as a form of idolatry. The great irony of the power of Hamann’s thought is that it plays the “fool” against reason’s majesty and might, only to expose the threadbare nature of that majesty. Philosophy engages in a substitution racket and takes unreal things as real things—and then it criticizes things we know through the very lives we live, because they do not conform to the unreal schema we have created.

Of course, Nietzsche will make this same point—but the real assessment of any comparison between Nietzsche and Hamann revolves around what one thinks of their respective faiths in the superman or Christian life, and it must be said, Nietzsche’s and Hamann’s radically different views over what the Christian life entails. Hamann would undoubtedly find in Nietzsche’s (and Heidegger’s) reading of Christianity an ahistorical fantasy. Both Nietzsche and Hamann, nevertheless, concur about Platonism being an “enemy” of life, and Hamann’s admiration for Socrates does not extend to the legacy of his greatest pupil, which he sees as an being inimical to Christianity: “Platonism is not the friend but the enemy of Christianity.”

Bearing the above in mind, then, it is true that Hamann was opposed to placing faith in the abstract “reason” of imagined “forms.” And he wrote to Jacobi that “the entire Kantian construction appears to me to rest upon the idle trust that certainty comes ex vi formae [by the power of forms].” Which is to say, he saw Kant’s entire undertaking of the transcendental delimiting of the legitimacy boundaries of our experience in the Critique of Pure Reason as completely wrong-headed.

For the mind to try and understand itself through self-reflection and the study of the “mind” is akin to someone thinking that fish are produced by a fishing rod, (the same analogy is also apposite for understanding why Hamann objects to naturalist attempts to understand language of the sort that he thought his close friend Herder had foolishly undertaken). Why the mind is more knowable than language and experience is itself, though, due to a mistaken faith. And this faith in the mind’s power to oversee itself, is, for Hamann, a blind and blinding faith that suffocates and smothers “life” with its own limited understanding and glaring light. As he would write to Herder: enlightened reason is the reason of “sadduaic freethinkers;” and their “reason is untruth, a superstition.” “Sound reason” exists in their “imagination.” Thus Alexander perceptively observes:

Hamann can sum up his authorship as an “exposure [Entkleidung] and transfiguration” of those who attempt “a violent unclothing [Entkleidung] of real objects down to naked concepts and bare intellectual entities, pure phantoms, and phenomena.”

And,

Hamann’s purpose is to challenge “the despotism of Apollo” [“God of wisdom” i.e., philosophy] which “fetters truth and freedom in demonstrative proofs, principles and conclusions” (II, 272). These things only distort truth, which is not enshrined in any consistent combination of ideas. Truth is the life which became flesh and the Spirit which “justifies and makes alive” (III, 227). God gives life to us in a unity which does not come before us dissected into intellectual abstractions. In His revelation of Himself He concentrates Himself in the unity of one human person. Not only in his thought, but in his style as well, Hamann tries to reflect this concentration and this unity. His style is its own symbolic attack on that way of thinking which “prefers the conceivability of a thing to its truth.
Truths, principles; systems I am not up to. Rather scraps, fragments, crotchets, thoughts.

I might also add here that the similarities between Hamann’s and Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics and their eschewal of “naked” truth cannot be overestimated—but Nietzsche, unlike Hamann, hails a new metaphysics of will to power because he wants philosophers to be the value creators of the future. For Hamann, the idea that one can philosophically will a culture would be just one further symptom of the derangement of enlightenment faith.

In so far as Hamann is correct to recognize that the “Greek” (i.e., philosophical) mind, with its various “ideas,” names, and way of going about its business had culturally triumphed over the “Jewish” and early Christian spirit, Hamann had no choice than to “speak Greek.” Although he mixed it up with babble and strange tongues to both engage and confuse minds dealing with clarity and distinctness in a world full of lives which rarely offers either. That is, to truly take on what he saw as becoming the dominant faith of the new age on whose cusp he lived, any criticisms which might be heard by the younger generation had to be, at least partially, philosophically shaped. Yet the purpose of his speaking philosophically was to draw philosophy into another, more hermeneutical rather than “rationalist” or metaphysical “camp.”

Moreover, it was not that he thought all philosophical thinking was useless, a point made obvious in his Socratic Memorabilia that shows his serious respect for philosophy which was genuinely inquisitive, yet sufficiently humble to accept reason’s aporias, rather than engage in elaborate rationalisation and abstraction which swiftly becomes an idol of one’s own making. To his friend Lindner he wrote:

An ancient king of Israel believed in an old witch who saw gods mount up out of the earth. Since then, our philosophers have tightly closed their eyes in order not to have to read any distractions to the detriment of nature, and have folded their hands in their laps to pamper their beautiful skin; and it has rained castles-in-the-air and philosophical systems from heaven. Whoever would work his land or build houses, dig up or conceal treasures, must dig in the womb of the earth, which is the mother of us all.

Alexander cleverly observes three major ways in which philosophy appears in Hamann:

Hamann uses the term philosophy in at least three different senses which taken together, point to Hamann’s distinctive conception of philosophy and faith.

1. Philosophy understood as against faith, or as another faith. Often “philosophy” in Hamann means “false philosophy.” Philosophy here is “idolatry.” If he thought of “Rome” and “papacy” as cryptic symbols for the new philosophical “despotism” of the Enlightenment, then perhaps he also spoke of this philosophy as anti-Christ …

2. Philosophy understood as before faith, or better, before Christ. Philosophy here is “ignorance.” This is philosophy which is not yet Christian, but is not anti-Christian or incompatible with faith. Its symbol is Socrates.

3. Philosophy understood as in Christ, or as thinking “from faith to faith.” Philosophy here is “love of the LOGOS.” Much of what he calls “philosophy” in this sense would in modern usage be called theology. An example is in his letter to the Princess Galitzin, December 1787: “Herein [in Jesus Christ] consists the Alpha and Omega of my entire philosophy. More I know not, and do not wish to know.”

What is most original is that Hamann had, at the time of the Enlightened philosophy’s greatest self-assurance, opened up the meaning of philosophy in such a way that we may legitimately inquire after the religion of a philosophy, and not blithely accept the enlightened reading of religion as the outer shell of a philosophy, which could be understood by the “natural reason” of the philosopher, and thus turned against those world and self-making aspects of religion which could be relegated to mere “superstition.” With this insight Hamann had thrown out a philosophical challenge to philosophers from Spinoza through to Hume and Voltaire et. al.

But while Hamann’s madcap style and provocations would ensure acclaim amongst philosophical and literary luminaries, such as, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel (up to a point), and Jean Paul, his erstwhile friend Kant would fail to recognize anything of genuine philosophical importance in Hamann. And he would write his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, as if he were oblivious to the significance of his former friend’s challenge, and provide one further enlightened rationalisation for religion being morals for people who could not take their medicine straight, as rational ideas, but who needed the hoopla of ritual to ingest it. But, for Hamann, it was actually morality itself as an object of reason, and (again) the philosopher’s substantiation of a thought process into a “faculty” that was genuinely phantasmic and idolatrous. As he would write to Herder after reading Kant’s Metaphysical Elements of Ethics:

Instead of Pure Reason the talk here is of another phantom of the brain and idol: the Good Will. That Kant is one of our shrewdest heads, even his enemies must admit, but unfortunately this shrewdness is his own evil demon, just as is the case with Lessing; for a new scholasticism and a new papacy are represented by both of these Midas ears of our glorious age.

Just as Hamann saw philosophy in anthropological terms, his hermeneutical apologetics of Christian faith is such that it exposes any such enlightened reductions as vacuous precisely by illustrating how faith orientates, and hence how different faiths orientate differently. Thus, even if one does not share another’s faith, one at least will be able to see how faith incarnates a life and a life-world. This would be an insight that would be of decisive importance for Herder.

Of the various orientations and emphases that lay behind Hamann’s insight into where faith fits in life, one of the most elemental that has important implications in more standard philosophical theologies is his (Lutheran) overturning of the more traditional theo-philosophical account of the “nature” or character and “directionf of the relationship between humans and God. The Greek movement toward monotheism, which would be so fateful in the neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian traditions and that wing of the Christian tradition that had been deeply influenced by those traditions, had all identified the soul’s spiritual journey as a process of transcendence, an upward movement of the soul to a God who Himself is characterized by his “transcendence.”

In response to this Hamann makes the obvious point (though one that is rarely expressed within philosophically shaped theologies) about the Jewish and Christian God that “is the basis of all his [i.e., the philosopher’s] attacks” on “natural; theology” and “natural religion”, viz., that, within the biblical narratives, it is not God’s transcendence that is the all-important issue for understanding the human predicament in relationship to God, but God’s “condescension.”

When theologians and philosophers refer to God’s transcendence, a term that evolves out of the Greek philosophical mind rather than biblical tradition, and when they refer to transcendence, without focusing upon the greater mystery of condescension, for Hamann, they not only misconstrue God, but they foster an exaggerated and idolatrous faith in the power of the world. For transcendence, as Alexander sums up Hamann’s position, is “world-oriented,” but the “symbol of ‘condescension’ is God-orientated.” That is the theo-philosophical emphasis upon God’s transcendence means that He is conceived, in the first instance, in relationship to the world, which appears familiar to us. Alexander also uses the example of baroque art to brilliant effect to illustrate what Hamann’s sees as what is at stake when we focus upon the relationship between God and humans as one of transcendence, rather than “condescendence:”

A glance at the art ruling Hamann’s age instantly reveals the source of Hamann’s instinctive objection: its world is one in which reason’s confidence in its position, its powers and its cosmos are self-secure. The world is more real than God. Everything Hamann protests against is here: it is a world in which reason demonstrates its dominance over every nook and cranny of reality. Ornamentation and artistic ramification testify to its self-confidence. No area is beyond its all-shaping power. When God in His “transcendence” is represented, it is “transcendence” (as in Sebastiano Conca’s “David Dancing Before the Ark”) over an otherwise “solid” earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior—it is man’s world and the human reason which has shaped it—and no amount of “height” in the painting can improve God’s “status.” Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains.

Alexander adds that commencing with the “world-orientated” theology turns “all symbols into irrational assertions, and theology has simply asseverated that we must be content with this irrationality.”

By starting from the familiar, as natural theology does, to the unfamiliar, we have immediately reversed what Hamann sees as the far more profound insight of revelation; for what we do in the world with biblical faith is commence with something mysterious that is disclosed through parables, stories, commands etc. Moreover, for Hamann, the whole point of the Bible is revealed through how it speaks to its faithful, and the living power it reveals to those who are prepared to build their lives and world through faith in that power. Thus, for Hamann: “Every biblical story is a prophecy which is fulfilled through all centuries and in the soul of every man” (1,315). But also, “Every book is a Bible to me and every occupation a prayer”’ And “All the miracles of the holy scriptures happen in our souls” (I, 78). In other words, Hamann sees the universe as one that is pregnant with meaning. Of course, so does the schizophrenic, but the “gamble” of faith (to draw upon Pascal) lies, for Hamann, not in the origin—for faith in something is inescapable—it lies in what that faith engenders in a life and in a community.

One of the more remarkable features of the Western world today is that while the academic mind so frequently serves the enlightened ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, it has largely accepted the importance of culture as a primordial and positive force of identity. We shall briefly return to this point in our discussion of Herder, but here I simply wish to underscore that Hamann was living at a time when Western culture was undergoing a seismic shift due to philosophy extending into the various domains of human being, which up until relatively recent times it had little, or at best, as in the church, an ancillary role to play.

He had grasped that the world of Christendom and its culture was being swallowed up into a world bathed in philosophical glare. He was not a romantic wanting to revive medieval Christendom, as say Novalis or Frederick Schlegel, or Franz von Baader would become. And he did not idolize culture itself. But what is interesting is that the kinds of arguments he is raising about peoples and their faith, arguments developed and expanded along somewhat similar lines by Herder in applying them to cultures (though I think Hamann always the more radical, consistent mind), have been accepted not only by the more anthropologically inclined and in the humanities more broadly, but in society’s ideas-brokers at large.

Yet when it comes to the West itself, the victory of the enlightened mind is intrinsic to the general historical amnesia, and often sheer hostility, to Christian symbols and history. Hamann’s importance is that he taps into the experiential dimension that makes sense of Christianity as a personal and collective act, by constantly deploying biblical examples to illumine (genuinely enlighten) everyday as well as more perennial kinds of experience.

To put this slightly differently: today we can all accept that the imagination, history, language, and faith of people matter more than the reasons we impose upon them (which is not to say that we have to accept, as Gellner and others have feared that this leaves us without any means of critical judgments about cultural practice). That is, we think culture matters. Hamann opens up the door to why and how faith matters culturally and personally.

For, while Hamann is “up front” about his Christianity and Lutheran outlook, an outlook he not only did not assume his readers shared, and which many of his readers did not share, Hamann undertakes to be a thorn in the Enlightenment, a kind of Christian Socrates against the enlightened philosophers, who, for Hamann, are the sophists of his own time. They come with their own theological dogma and faith in their reason to deliver salvation, which though is largely hidden to them because they think they serve truth, and that the world will be saved through their works. But their truth is a lifeless idol.

What has taken the place of divine infinity is now reason’s infinity: its infinite capacity is the corollary of its absoluteness—whether as a heuristic (Kant) or substance (Hegel) makes no difference to the essential point Hamann recognizes. What, though, is meant to be the philosophical display of reason’s supreme majesty, is, for Hamann, really indicative of the mayhem of the age, a mayhem in which the every-day truths of every-day life are maimed by abstractness.

The most fundamental act of intellectual maiming, for Hamann, occurs through the philosophical cleavages which purport to deliver rationally pure forms and classifications. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as the name of his short essay on Kant clarified, was symptomatic of this delusional obsession with purity. As Hamann presents the problem, the increasing ascension of philosophical purity has occurred over time at the expense of the most elemental features of human sociality: tradition, custom, belief, religion, law-making, and ultimately language itself.

The first philosophical purification consisted in the partly misunderstood, partly failed attempt to make reason independent of all tradition and custom and belief in them. The second is even more transcendent and amounts to nothing less than independence from all experience and its everyday induction. After a search of two thousand years for who knows what beyond experience, reason not only suddenly despairs of the progressive course of its predecessors, but also defiantly promises impatient contemporaries’ delivery and this in a short time, promises also, of that general and infallible philosopher’s stone indispensable to Catholicism and despotism. Religion will submit its sanctity to it right away, and law-giving its majesty, especially at the final close of a critical century when empiricism on both sides struck blind, makes its own nakedness daily more suspect and ridiculous.
The third, highest, and as it were empirical purism, is therefore concerned with language, the only, first, and last organon and criterion of reason, with no other credentials but tradition and usage.

Yet again, we see a Nietzschean trope—“be true to the earth”—already deployed by Hamann against the destructive incursions of metaphysics into the most elemental features of social life.

Such talk as reason’s grounding or basis alludes to its capacity for building a tower or ladder to better understand the ways of God, the term which still worked for the deists, and, with German idealism, would become equivalent to or more often subsumed under the term the Absolute, before the Absolute would, with Fichte and the neo-Hegelians, and Nietzsche, become the imposition of the human will. For Hamann this overweening ambition and self-idolization—addressed in the story of the tower of Babel—could lead to nothing but disaster.

With great prescience he would see that the disaster would be driven by morality—which was just a veneer for the self-belief that people have in being able to dictate to God’s creation—i.e., life—how it should be: In a letter to Hartknoch he speaks of “our moralistic century” and in another to Jacobi he writes of the “moralistic” enlightened free thinkers as “apostles of lies.” And to Johann Steudel, he refers to “the moralistic generation of vipers among the Pharisees.” This is but one more example of Hamann’s turning of the tables on the men who believed that their own light would save the world—for it is usually Christians who are presented (and indeed often guilty of) grim and earnest moralizing.

For Hamann, “morality, bourgeois righteousness, industrious community service and charities” fueled the problem of evil—and he countered with the simple faith that “Christ is the door.” I think the following sentence will also resonate with those who cannot stand the virtue signaling that has become so widespread and which emanates from people who want for nothing, and who live off the ill-gotten (for they themselves keep saying how ill-gotten everything in the West is) gains of their forefathers, but seek ever more adulation for being who they pretend to be: “A strict moralism appears to me more vile and stale than the most capricious ridicule and scorn. To turn the good inward, and to show the evil outwardly—to appear worse than one actually is, to be better than one appears: this I hold for one’s duty and way of life.”

While Hamann is not strictly a political philosopher, he could see that what the enlightened philosophers were spreading was a suffocating web of tyrannical moralising. Thus, Alexander writes: “The ‘philosophical century,’ a proud epithet to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, Hamann uses as a term of opprobrium. He speaks of the ‘Babylonian philosophy’ which stands under the Confusion of Babel. It is the new “despotism,” a ‘metaphysical, moralizing’ Catholicism, ‘which has its seat in the very place [Berlin] where such an outcry is raised over the papacy.’”

More important than the nausea he felt at the philosophical sycophancy directed at Frederick the Great, and Frederick’s own taste for vain-glory was his prophetic sense of the hellish future emerging from the idolatry of reason’s light. In 1762 when the following passage first appeared it may have seemed the ravings of a lunatic, but in 1794 it was nothing if not prescient:

Nature works through the senses and the passions. But those who maim these instruments, how can they feel? Are crippled sinews fit for movement?—Your lying, murderous philosophy has cleared nature out of the way, and why do you demand that we are to imitate her?—So that you can renew the pleasure by becoming murderers of the pupils of nature, too—Yes, you delicate critics of art!, you go on asking what is truth, and make for the door, because you cannot wait for an answer to this question—Your hands are always washed, whether you are about to eat bread, or whether you have just pronounced a death-sentence.

Such prophecy, for Hamann, stands in the closest relationship to what it was he saw as the real meaning of Enlightenment: a power grab by abstract moralizers who want to become the guides and guardians of their new world. In his Letter to Christian Jacob Krauss he responds to Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” with its “Sapere aude!” and Kant’s claim that enlightenment is the emergence of people from their “self-incurred tutelage.”

Hamann immediately “smells a rat;” for who is it who espies those in need of emancipation, and what is their role in the process, and what benefits accrue to them in terms of office, profession, prestige and such like? I quote at length because it is such a powerful indictment of the Enlightenment, which comes armed with its own mythology, and which has been used to judge all other mythologies but its own, which it seals with the sanction of a reason that is naught but its own conjuring:

Who is the other lay-about or guide that the author has in mind but has not the heart to utter? Answer: the tiresome guardian who must be implicitly understood as the correlate of those who are immature. This is the man of death. The self-incurred guardianship and not immaturity-
Why does the chiliast deal so fastidiously with this lad Absalom? Because he reckons himself to the class of guardians and wishes thereby to attain a high reputation before immature readers. The immaturity is thus self-incurred only insofar as it surrenders to the guidance of a blind or invisible (as that Pomeranian catechism pupil bellowed at his country pastor) guardian and leader. This is the true man of death-
So wherein lies the inability or fault of the falsely accused immature one? In his own laziness and cowardice? No, it lies in the blindness of his guardian, who purports to be able to see, and for that very reason must bear the whole responsibility for the fault.
With what kind of conscience can a reasoner [Raisonneur] & speculator by the stove and in a nightcap accuse the immature one! of cowardice, when their blind guardian has a large, well-disciplined army to guarantee his infallibility and orthodoxy? How can one mock the laziness of such immature persons, when their enlightened and self-thinking guardian-as the emancipated gaper at the whole spectacle declares him to be—sees them not even as machines but as mere shadows of his grandeur, of which he need have no fear at all, since they are his ministering spirits and the only ones in whose existence he believes?
So doesn’t it all come to the same thing? Believe, march, pay, if the d[evil] is not to take you. Is it not sottise des trois parts? And which is the greatest and most difficult? An army of priests [Pfaffen] or of thugs, hench-men, and purse snatchers? According to the strange, unexpected pattern in human affairs in which on the whole nearly everything is paradoxical, believing seems harder for me than moving mountains, doing tactical exercises-and the financial exploitation of immature persons, donec reddant novissimum quadrantem [till they have paid the last penny].

In this sense, then, the understanding and use of reason is itself corrupted, and philosophers who would have reason devour way more than it can chew, and in their devouring prepare the world for a new kind of hellish tyranny, concealed under the birth lights of rational progress.

In depicting Hamann’s critique of the Enlightenment, let us take up again the earlier point about the gods and the life-worlds of pre-philosophical peoples so that we can bring into sharp relief the world of faith in reason’s ideas and faith in gods. For Hamann is not for a second claiming that we should deny what we know to be true. But (again Nietzsche makes the same point but in a more palatable way to a readership hankering to display its creative genius in world-making), he contrasts one world, which divinizes its ideas without conceding that it does this, with another, which rests on faith about a God it obeys and whose way are miraculous and hence never completely rational or comprehensible.

And he finds no compelling reason whatever—precisely because he takes experience and history as the touchstones of reasons about human matters—for rationalized principles to be taken as completely truthful of anything about us or our world. Whereas Kant had thought he had demonstrated, in defense of human dignity, that the very form of our reason is the clue to how we generate a moral content so that we are not (at least in thought) beholden to the limits of our nature and world, Hamann sees nothing but lunacy in such an aspiration.

Again, the comparison with Nietzsche is apposite: Nietzsche had stressed that behind reasons of value we would find nothing, at least nothing other than a will to power. But for him that meant he and the higher men should see nihilism as an opportune condition so that they could then create a higher culture and breed supermen who would give meaning to the earth.

Hamann would have been caught between nausea and laughter had he read Nietzsche: nausea at the sickening nature of the arrogance and all the deluded blather about great men, and heroes that was so typical of 19th century romantics fearful that the world in the making was as Nietzsche had put it, one fit for nothing more than “hopping fleas;” laughter at the kind of people who sit around and fancy in all seriousness and pomposity that they can provide the conditions for human greatness. He would, though, I think we can safely say, have loved Chesterton’s depiction of the superman as the feathered creature living in Croydon who was so sensitive that a breeze could kill him.

Hamann perhaps speaks more forcefully to us today than to his contemporaries. For we have witnessed what forces the attempt to replace gods with reasons and political actions of the sort pushed for by Nietzsche and Marx have unleashed. And we can also see that the less eschatological rights-driven attempt to replace this world with a morally absolute one, while having success in the West, is not at all embraced in cultures, where traditional values and figurative speech and imagination still are very much alive.

The only God that reason ever overthrew was the God of reason, but that God was itself a philosophical/metaphysical creation. Yet it was the case that as the faith in abstract ideas grew, as people have become more caught up in and satiated by material success, as, to use Weber’s terms, instrumental reason contributed to the disenchantment of the world, Western people have cared less for a “language” and for rituals in which the “gods” were called upon.

But the world’s mysteries do not stop because we are less conscious of them. The pre-moderns, which is to say a great number who inhabit the globe today, had accepted and still accept that the world is full of mysterious powers and thus told stories about their gods. And their gods were the living powers which “overpowered,” or “ruled” over them, and hence the powers to which they supplicated themselves.

Again, let me turn to Hamann’s greatest and most original “pupil” of the twentieth century Rosenstock-Huessy, a thinker who like Hamann challenged the security of the modern mind by his persistent recourse to ancient symbols and “names” to enable it to see with different, and more attuned eyes what was happening in the pre-modern world and to the selves it was shaping, in order to better see what moderns were oblivious to in their own destructive doing. The echoes of Hamann loudly resound in the following passage addressing the perennial and existential nature of human supplication and “divine” invocation by Rosenstock-Huessy:

Manifold are the powers which raise their voices in man. Anything may become his “god”, anything his ‘world.” Atheists, for example, may bring the “concept of God” before their tribunal in the name of their own God, matter. In other words, their God is matter, and their doubts and questions are aimed at a dead thing, the definition of theology. But this heckling of theological concepts has little to do with the name of the living God. A God is present in the materialist’s question as in any other. God is not a concept. He is always a person, and he bears a name. The name in which we are asked to ask others.
For instance, when I ask a sportsman: “How may a good sport do such and such a thing?” I invoke the power of sport. The sportsman in question shall not justify himself for my personal satisfaction. He is summoned to satisfy “Sportsmanship” and Her imperative. I am evading the disagreeable situation of somebody setting himself up as in authority, but putting the Sport on the higher level and myself remaining on the same human level with the other fellow. Yet there can be no doubt that I am relying on the existence of two levels, one of human democracy, the other of ruling powers….
The power who puts questions into our mouths and makes us answer them is our God. The power which makes the atheist fight for atheism is his God. Of course, God is not a school examiner. Man never gives his real answer in words; he gives himself…The gods whom we answer by devoting our lives to their worship and service ask for obedience, not for lip-confession. Art, science, sex, greed, socialism, speed—these gods of our age devour the lives of their worshippers completely.

That the gods preceded man, and that, historically, polytheism precedes monotheism are both indications of how the ancients sought to make sense of their worlds and their selves. Monotheism was, inter alia, a cry for the concordance of these powers to cohere and life and death to be under the dominion of a higher justice and goodness than evident in our mortal experience. This cry for concordance is partly addressed in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies, where the gods belonged to a common “household,” so that these living powers and mysterious surprising forces, for all their discord, share the same “dwelling.” The polytheistic residues are evident, as Rosenstock-Huessy also observes, in the plural Elohim expressing, for the Jews, “the divine powers of creation.”

The modern rebuilding of everything from scratch, the mind’s year zero of Descartes et. al. is at once a reversal of how life has been experienced, and figuratively represented by pre-philosophical people, as well as an occlusion of our fragility and dependency. The initial anti-historical bent of Descartes was quickly replaced by a combination of models and axiomatic philosophical mythical history, so conspicuous, in the social contract theorists, that were indicative of the new myth-making of those relying upon their “natural reason,” and who would interpret history as not only a repository of myth, but as a template for their own projections which were meant to grasp what was really happening in order better to fix it with their philosophies. That is, they preferred their stories to those who had made the past, and reconfigured them in such a way that the earlier stories would fit the templates and models of those who “understood” more and came later, and whose energies were devoted to making a new kind of future.

But if we rely upon our understanding to provide “meaning” of the past we are inevitably drawn back into the mythic. That generation upon generation of historians will revise previous findings of the past as they get closer to the “truth” is invariably the result of the new quest and questioning being posed to the “facts” of the past. But the new quest with its own certitudes—such as the certitude of knowing what is involved in the creation of a less oppressive or more just society (in spite of philosophers ceaselessly disputing the principles and assessments as much as historians dispute the roles and “weights” of different causes and meanings of events)—is itself but the identification and valorisation of ideas of orientation and value that reflect faith in the new god.

Historical knowledge ostensibly provides a firm foundation alongside reason, but its mythic dimension is the inevitable result of us not simply deriving meaning from events, much less interpreting an event as just a collection of itemised or catalogued facts, but us drawing upon events to support the meaning of the world we inhabit. Thus, Hamann surmises against Viscount Bolingbroke: “Perhaps the whole of history is more mythology than this philosopher thinks, and like nature a sealed book, a cloaked witness, a riddle which cannot be solved unless we plough with some other ox than our reason.” And, “The field of history has always seemed to me to be like that wide field that was full of bones, and behold, they were very dry. Only a prophet can prophesy of these bones that veins and flesh will grow on them and skin cover them.”

The reference here to prophecy stands in the closest relationship to another invaluable insight of Hamann, viz., that as we are ever poised between past and future, and as future is making us as much as past is forming us, we are as much implicated in the quality of our prophetic capacities as in our observational ones. Neither our prophetic nor observational capacities are substances. But they are all part of a more general sensorium which informs our understanding, even though we understand very little of how we understand, let alone prophesy, or mediate between past and future.

Our knowledge is indeed in part, and our prophesying in part; united, however, it is a triple cord that is not quickly broken. If one falls, the other will lift up his fellow; if the two lie together, then they have heat. What would all knowledge of the present be without a divine remembrance of the past, and without an even more fortunate intimation of the future, as Socrates owed to his daemon? What would the spirit of observation be without the spirit of prophecy and its guiding threads of the past and future? It rains its gifts on the rebellious also, that the Lord might nonetheless be and dwell among them incognito without their knowledge and will.

And,

Despite the authority of the intellectual universe into presence and absence, I do not pretend that these predicates are anything more than subjective conditions by which no actual duplication of the objects themselves is substantiated, but rather merely a relationship of the diverse views and sides of one and the same thing to the measure of the inward man which corresponds to them, to his negative, variable, finite power which is incapable of any omnipresence because this is the exclusive property of a positive immeasurability.

Likewise, the spirits of observation and of prophecy are expressions of a single positive power which cannot be divorced by their nature but only in thoughts and for the use of thoughts; they in fact mutually presuppose themselves, refer to each other, and have effects in common. Hence when I compared the present with an indivisible point, the duplication of its power and its close connection with the past, as effect, and with the future, as cause, are not at all cancelled.

The enlightened philosophers had indeed put themselves in the role of prophets through their intimation that knowledge in accordance with the philosophical strictures they placed upon it would yield a more benign future. But knowledge is a vast, indeed boundless field, when it comes to trying to identify precisely what will come of what we do. The enlightened philosophers were only as good as the lights by which they operated, and those lights were (to rephrase Pascal) as much of the heart as of the head, the question that Hamann keeps throwing at these philosophers and their philosophers is simply: how much do you really know about the human heart and the human circumstance? Is it really better than the vast compendium of observation across ages, types of people and circumstances, the concatenation of contingencies gathered within the Bible?

Of course, this earlier “knowledge” is not method-dependent, and hence “unenlightened,” but are Spinoza and Descartes, Rousseau and Kant et. al. really more insightful about who and what we are than the biblical authors, or artists such as Homer or Shakespeare? Some do concede they are. But there is no compelling grounds to concede this. Further those who use philosophy to prove the superiority of the philosophical approach to value and existential meaning are only compelling to those who already share their faith in philosophy’s power.

As we saw with the founding of the new metaphysics, it initially takes off by studying nature and reason as such, before moving into ethics, politics, aesthetics etc. But Hume had raised the issue whether the science itself really needed the metaphysics (even though he still drew upon it). For his part Hamann, like Pascal, had the good sense to know that the study of natural science (a subject which he seems to have taken little interest in) was completely irrelevant to the kinds of claims he was making.

On the other hand, he made the critical observation of the Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of nature that is at once the kind of pre-philosophical observation any person sensitive to “nature” could make, and also central to the phenomenological critique of reductive naturalism and its metaphysics. The following collection of citations from Hamann all bring out different features of this insight, and give a sense of how important it is to Hamann:

Only a “bloody-lying philosophy” pretends this is all to nature, and thereby sets nature aside
Nature is an equation of an unknown quantity, like a Hebrew letter without vowel-points. It is a book, a letter, a “fable.” It takes more than physics to exegete her).
The great and small Masoretes of philosophy have poured over the text of nature like a flood. Must not all her beauties and riches be reduced to water?
Is nature a matter of “single, natural points to which everything reduces itself? Does everything consist of mathematical lines?”
Nature groans under such tyranny and longs for the day when it will be free of man’s fallen condition.

Just as Plato had moved from the study of the cobbler to reasoning about how we should live, and the nature of the entire cosmos, the new philosophical idea-ism had quickly moved from the study of “nature” and “mind” to all else beside. But such a move requires ignoring the very different (to use Wittgenstein’s formulation) “rules” of different “language games.”

And it is precisely when we take stock of the unavoidable fact that reasoning, whilst not denying ‘blazes’ of insight, or the mute thereness of all manner of contingencies, nor, even, the importance of silence in reflection, is operating in a world made by and smothered in the calls and behests, the promises and decisions, the education within a “problematic” and field of learning with its historical development, and concatenation of support structures, professional opportunities, that is to say in the vast formative, triggering, incubating and commanding powers of language enmeshed in assigned roles and circumstances, the understanding of which circulates socially.

As Hamann would write: “If I were only as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would need to do no more than repeat one phrase three times: reason is language, Λόγος; this marrowbone I gnaw and will gnaw myself to death over it.”

Hamann’s conviction that reason cannot be divorced from language, and that human life is so bound up with language that one cannot “transcend” it to make any sense of actual lives, and “life-worlds” stands in striking contrast to the idea that the mind “uses” language as a tool is an elementary, albeit widely held belief that is found in philosophy. Whether Hamann followed all the conceptual twists and turns of the first Critique and how they related to Aristotle, Leibniz, and Newton is impossible to gauge from his pithy critique of Kant and comments expressed in letters, but he certainly recognized immediately that Kant had treated reason as if language were not intrinsic to reason or even the world. Commencing with a paraphrase of Kant’s question, he observes:

How is the faculty of thought possible? the faculty to think right and left, before and without, with and beyond experience?—then no deduction is needed to demonstrate the genealogical priority of language, and its heraldry, over the seven holy functions of logical propositions and inferences. Not only is the entire faculty of thought founded on language, according to the unrecognized prophecies and slandered miracles of the very commendable Samuel Heinicke, but language is also the centerpoint of reason’s misunderstanding with itself, partly because of the frequent coincidence of the greatest and the smallest concept, its vacuity and its plenitude in ideal propositions, partly because of the infinite [advantage] of rhetorical over inferential figures, and much more of the same.
Sounds and letters are therefore pure forms a priori, in which nothing belonging to the sensation or concept of an object is found; they are the true, aesthetic elements of all human knowledge and reason.

That Kant had privileged mathematical physics over the vast expanse of the world “experience,” thereby creating a hiatus between “morality” and “experience,” each with their own transcendental foundations adding support to metaphysical principles, whilst also making the faculty of (aesthetic and teleological) judgment a mediator between two worlds, is completely in keeping with the Cartesian break with experience as historical. Thus, conceptualisation of experiences in Kant, governed by the understanding in conjunction with its intuited representations, draws upon a mental disposition to reality, which has nothing to do with the actual social processes involved in the demarcation of different spaces of investigation, role reciprocation, and the great amalgam of activities and other dispositions (mental as well as physical and social) where tradition and language reinforce each other. But it is precisely these kinds of convergences that Hamann notices. Thus, in his Essay on an Academic Question, (published under the pseudonym Aristobulus) Hamann writes:

The lineaments of a people’s language will therefore correspond with the orientation of its mode of thinking, which is revealed through the nature, form, laws, and customs of its speech as well as through its external culture and through a spectacle of public actions.

It is through speech that we take notice, that we form not just groups, but communities beholden to publicly declared commitments and associations, thereby leaving the eternal present of mutability or more elemental languages of mere animality, and move between past and future, as generations may “feed off” the discoveries and legacies, as well as errors of the past. “Speak that I may see you!—This wish was fulfilled by creation, which is a speech to creatures through creatures; for day unto day utters speech, and night unto night shows knowledge.”

But, for Hamann, speech does not thereby elevate us to the all-seeing position of a Zeus, or deist’s philosophical God, which the philosopher would love to reach, and which may free us from error. On the contrary,

To speak is to translate—from an angelic language into a human language, that is, to translate thoughts into words—things into names—images into signs, which can be poetic or curiological, historic or symbolic or hieroglyphic—and philosophical or characteristic. This kind of translation (that is, speech) resembles more than anything else the wrong side of a tapestry:
And shews the Stuff, but not the Workman’s skill, or it can be compared with an eclipse of the sun, which can be looked at in a vessel of water.

Or, as Paul put it, we experience the world as through a glass darkly. And while our senses do indeed convey information to us, it is our galvanization of collective and collaborated experiences that enables us to make sense of our senses. Thinking that reason somehow provides the all-knowing vantage point, makes no sense at all to Hamann, because reason can only work with the materials at its disposal, and apart from sensation it is primarily language. Thus, he writes to Jacobi:

With me it is not so much the question: What is reason? but rather: what is language! And I take this to be the basis of all paralogisms and antinomies which it is customary to lay at the doorstep of the former [the reason]. Thus, it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for things themselves. In words and concepts no existence is possible which applies simply to things and matters of fact.

Language is simultaneously the storehouse, retriever of all past knowledge and past experience, as well as what activates so many of our moods and aspirations for the future—it speaks from and of the inner as well as the outer. We did not make language any more than we made our hands or feet or heads. Yet, at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, we are making and remaking it all the time, just as it is making and remaking us. It is the source of our reason as much as the source of the abuse of reason, and much else. But it is also miraculously bestowed, rather than willed, and it grows and activates far beyond any limits of intention. It is alive with spirit. The divine word and the Holy Spirit are, for Hamann, both intrinsic to the faith that is deeply experiential and antithetical to a more abstract way of thinking based-on separating our participation in life from life as objectified.

Hamann had seen and amply demonstrated that the seam of biblical speech fitted the very condition that anything real has: potency. And the reality of something is its truth. Plato had conceded that even as he attempted to bifurcate reality into the higher and lower, the idea and that which participates within it. As did Aristotle, who distanced himself from this dualism of Plato, as he tried to conjoin the aspects of what made the real in such a way that it would remain within the province of philosophy. This required designating what was substance and what mere accident so that we could compare and inquire into substances.

But both Plato and Aristotle elevate the mind and definition in tandem with the idea and substance. The proof, though, of a process resides neither in our understanding nor defining—again that is what Hamann knew and appealed to. Of course, there are philosophers in moral philosophy who follow some variant of Kant’s dualism in which the truth of a principle is in its rational grounding—the world and all in it hence must be shrunken in order to conform to an overarching morally rational principle. Which only serves to show exactly what Hamann knew—that a madman is not to be divorced from the contingency he loves by the demonstration of his madness. He or she must be won over by loving another contingency.

Hamann plays the madman because he thinks we are all a little mad, and the maddest are those who believe in their own purity and rational certainty; they have found the perfect means of convincing themselves that the unreal is real. Contingency, though, including the contingency of our feelings, memories, “prejudices,” schooling, allegiances etc. are enmeshed in our convictions and willingness to change our minds.

Hamann grasped that the way the world is spoken of becomes the way the world is: this speaking is through commands and decisions, oaths and affirmations, loyalties and obligation, the creation of masters and protectors and commanders. When the heart goes bad, it may still, indeed, in some cases only then open itself enough to be saved, which is a Jewish and Christian idea; but to believe that the heart might be able to escape sin, that it will not mess-up, is a philosopher’s moral fantasy, that rests upon principles and ideas being substitutes for who we really are, what we do and what we believe, and what tempts us and what saves us.

The Enlightenment with all its hope has been one current in the formation of a modern world that for many is experienced as a hopeless, loveless, isolating, selfish enterprise. Just as language is the clue to our world making, to how we beckon and call, describe, and evoke, draw others into social projects whether to hold a meeting, build a bridge, follow a career, go to war, make a law, buy a product and engage in any number of actions, the poor use of language is also responsible for all manner of errors and seductions. It is not that we think without language, but the language we think with may not be its best usage.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment elevated the mind, but generally either ignored or objectified language as in the study of linguistics. This is because it puts demands upon the world to be represented in sufficient clarity and distinctness that we know what things really are, as opposed to what we merely think and say they are. Mystery dissolves under the glare of enlightenment. And the danger of the idea of enlightenment itself was that it tore us out of the traditional gatherings and collective experiences and the sediments of that gathering in language and promised redemption through abstraction.

To be sure, the radical nature of the search for light had taken on such momentum because of the scale of carnage of the religious wars and Thirty Years War, as well as the new pathways of life that accompanied the Reformation, and the new modalities of social power which required political articulation. While, then, the Enlightenment was itself a reaction to, and symptom of a tradition in crisis, the fact was that Hamann could also see a catastrophe of enormous magnitude incubating in the solution, which is why he sought to temper the philosophical abstractions that were carving out a new future with the more figurative traditional spiritual stock and forces of Christian culture.

Hamann’s friend and admirer Herder would attempt to bring those “forces” of culture back into philosophy. In this respect he more than Hamann continues in the vein of Vico.

Part 1 and Part 3


Wayne Cristaudo is a philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books.


The featured image shows, “The Cult of Reason being celebrated at the Notre Dame, Paris,” anonymous engraving, 1793.