Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)

In his book Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, renowned Egyptologist Erik Hornung describes the Amarna Period (in the 14th century BC, during the late 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt) as a time
... when ancient Egyptian culture and religion were fundamentally transformed for several years, and which even witnessed the introduction of a new literary language, and during which a religion was founded for the first time in the history of the world. To the best of our knowledge, this had never happened before, either in Egypt or elsewhere.
[p. 2 - emphasis in original]
There is probably no greater conceptual barrier to a proper understanding of modern Paganism than this: the idea of a "new religion" is completely foreign, indeed antithetical, to Paganism. Paganism is the Old Religion, not merely as a rhetorical stance from which to claim the validation that comes with an ancient pedigree, but because the very notion of "starting a new religion" is theologically nonsensical from a Pagan perspective.

Paganism qua Paganism is based on the belief that the relationship between the Gods and humanity is as old as humanity itself. This is not a historical claim but rather a theological one, and as such it is not amenable to historical validation or invalidation. To the outsider, it has the appearance of an article of faith, but to the Pagan it is something that is experienced and known directly. This knowledge of the Gods from direct experience is what makes a Pagan a Pagan.

Writing 17 centuries ago in his On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, the Pagan philosopher Iamblichus took issue with Porphyry, his teacher, on the matter of the Gods and in particular concerning the nature of our knowledge of the Divine:
You say first, then, that you "concede the existence of the Gods": but this is not the right way to put it. For an innate knowledge [euphytos gnosis] about the Gods is coexistent with our nature, and is superior to all judgement and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own cause, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good.

Indeed, to tell the truth, the contact we have with the Divinity is not to be taken as knowledge. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the unitary connection with the Gods that is natural. We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the Divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are Gods.

And I make the same argument to you also as regards the superior classes of being which follow upon the Gods, I mean the daemons and heroes and pure souls; for in respect of them also one should always assume one definite account of their essence, and reject the indeterminacy and instability characteristic of the human condition; one should also avoid the inclination to one side of an argument rather than another, resulting from the balanced antithesis of reasoning; for such a procedure is alien to the first principles of reason and life, and tends towards a secondary level of reality, such as belongs rather to the potentiality and contrariety of the realm of generation. The higher beings, by contrast, one should grasp with a uniform mode of cognition.

So then to the eternal companions of the Gods, let there correspond also the innate cognition of them, even as they themselves possess a being of eternal identity, so too let the human soul join them in knowledge on the same terms, not employing conjecture or opinion or some form of syllogistic reasoning, all of which take their start from the plane of temporal reality, to pursue that essence which is beyond all theses things, but rather connecting itself to the Gods with pure and blameless reasonings, which it has received from all eternity from those same Gods.

You [that is, Porphyry], however, seem to think that knowledge of Divinity is of the same nature as a knowledge of anything else, and that it is by the balancing of contrary positions that a conclusion is reached, as in dialectical discussions. But the cases are in no way similar. The knowledge of the Gods is of a quite different nature, and is far removed from all antithetical procedure, and does not consist in the assent to some proposition now, nor yet at the moment of one's birth, but from all eternity it coexisted in the soul in complete uniformity.

So this, then, is what I have to say to you about the first principle in us, from which anyone, who is to say or hear anything about the classes of beings superior to us, must take a start.
[pp. 11-17, Clarke, Dillon, Hershbell edition, emphasis added]
In the above passage, Iamblichus is not espousing some strange "neoplatonic doctrine" that was unique to him and his small band of theurgists. Rather he was simply reminding his teacher, Porphyry, of a well known, time-honored belief about the the relationship between humans and Gods. The essence of this belief had been stated very succinctly by Epicurus over five centuries previously when he wrote "There are Gods - the knowledge of them is self-evident."

Epicurus' nonchalant confidence in his proclamation that "knowledge of the Gods" is "self-evident" gives the impression that he was also not announcing some recently discovered truth. Aristotle tells us, concerning Thales, who was born in the late 7th century BC, "Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of Gods."

Julian, in his Against the Galileans, explicitly counterposes the Pagan view of knowledge of the Gods, with the Christian view concerning knowledge of their "God":
It is not by teaching but by nature that humanity possesses its knowledge of the Divine, as can be shown by the common yearning for the Divine that exists in everyone everywhere -- individuals, communities, nations. Without having it taught us, all of us have come to believe in some sort of Divinity, even though it is difficult for all to know what Divinity truly is and far from easy for those who do know to explain it to the rest.
[Hoffmann's translation p. 93]
In the second Book of Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, we are told that at least according to the Stoic school of philosophy, the question of the existence of the Gods
... needs no discourse to prove it; for what can be so plain and evident, when we behold the heavens and contemplate the celestial bodies, as the existence of some supreme, divine intelligence, by which all these things are governed?

.... And if any one doubts this, I really do not understand why the same man may not also doubt whether there is a sun or not. For what can possibly be more evident than this? And if it were not a truth universally impressed on the minds of men, the belief in it would never have been so firm; nor would it have been, as it is, increased by length of years, nor would it have gathered strength and stability through every age..... And therefore it is that, both among us and among other nations, sacred institutions and the divine worship of the Gods have been strengthened and improved from time to time. And this is not to be imputed to chance or folly, but to the frequent appearance of the Gods themselves.
While Cicero was himself a member of the Platonic school of philosophy, he nevertheless informs his reader at the very end of On the Nature of the Gods that he largely approves of the Stoic positions on theological matters.

So the view of Thales (c.620-c.540 BC), Epicurus (341-279), Cicero (106-43), Iamblichus (c.245-c.325 AD), and Julian (331-363) is that knowledge of the Gods is innate (or "self-evident", or "a truth universally impressed on the minds of men"). As the quotes from Julian and Cicero point out, this does not mean that all humans everywhere at all times hold precisely the same views concerning the Gods, nor that everyone everywhere always holds only correct views concerning the Gods. Corrections, improvements and refinements of our understanding of the Gods can and do occur, but as Cicero makes clear, such advances in our understanding are due first and foremost to "the Gods themselves."

Prior to Akhenaten this was the religious view that held sway. Indeed, the above quotes show that this view continued to predominate throughout the ancient world long after Akhenaten was gone (and forgotten). Erik Hornung's student, Jan Assmann, describes the ancient polytheism of the Near East and Egypt (predating classical Greece by millennia) as "primary" religion, emphasizing the newness of the "secondary" type of religion proposed by Akhenaten. See especially the long quote from Assmann in an earlier post in this blog titled Monotheistic Robots of Doom. Here I will just repeat a small part of that excerpt:
Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. ... In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction ... [between true and false religions] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.
Assmann, like the Emperor Julian, explicitly contrasts the "cosmotheism" (that is Assmann's term) of the ancient polytheists, with the "radically new distinction" ushered in by the monotheism first of Akhenaten, and then later of Moses. This distinction resulted in "a new type of religion" or even a "'counter-religion' because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself...." Moreover, this new kind of religion
no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather "cosmotheism," rendered differed cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.
[this and the immediately preceding quote are from Assmann's Moses the Egyptian, pp. 1-3]
Assmann has chosen to call this "radically new distinction" the "Mosaic distinction" -- not because Moses was the first to propose this distinction, but rather because our "cultural memory" of this distinction is associated with Moses. Akhenaten, on the other hand, was completely forgotten both in terms of history and "cultural memory" -- at least until his dramatic rediscovery in the 19th century.

Akhenaten's rediscovery makes a fascinating contrast with Moses, since there is no solid historical evidence of Moses at all, despite his importance culturally. Akhenaten introduced the worship of a single solar Deity, Aten. Aten already existed as a minor Deity, but Akhenaten not only "promoted" Aten, but insisted on the worship of this single Deity to the exclusion of all others. Akhenaten ruled for approximately 18 years. Soon after his death not only did Egyptians return to their old polytheistic ways, but they expunged Akhnaten's name and all mention of his rule from their written records. A more complete repudiation of revolutionary monotheism is hard to conceive.

See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Roman Catholicism (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Seven)
Charlemagne, Part Deux (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Six)
Charlemagne (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)

Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones