Before diving into the philosophers of ancient India, Greece and China, we must look at the early stages of human knowledge, wisdom and civilization to understand what philosophy is and where it comes from. First, we will consider the positives and negatives of human thought as a general frame for understanding philosophy and all systems/cultures of thought. Second, we will look at shamanism as the basic worldwide culture out of which all cultures emerged. Third, we will look at early city states (focusing on ancient Egypt and its wisdom) to see how cultures developed as they grouped together in the first empires.
The Positives and Negatives of Human Thought
Human thought, and thus the human world, is dominated by pairs of opposites. It is often useful to think of these opposites in terms of positive and negative. Good is positive, while bad is negative. Being is positive, while non-being is negative. Full is positive, while empty is negative. Note that “positive” does not always mean happy or good and “negative” does not always mean sad or bad. When we say “order” and “chaos”, closure (stability) sounds good and openness (instability) sounds bad. However, when we say “freedom” and “restraint”, openness (unconstrained) sounds good and closure (constrained) sounds bad. When we want stability or order, openness is bad (“chaos”). When we want to be free and unconstrained, openness is good (“freedom”). A person, place or thing can be positive in some ways and negative in others. It depends on context, position and location. In many ways, places and times, happiness and solidity are good and in others they are bad.
No particular thing is perfectly good or completely solid. We judge the table (and the wheel, as Laozi the Daoist will explain soon) to be simply solid and the space around it to be simply empty, but no table is immortal or unbreakable, and no space is a perfect vacuum. Even outer space is full of dust, light and everything else in the universe. In the same way, particular things that are good or make us happy do not always make us happy and do not make everyone happy. Often, things that make one person happy continue to make another unhappy because they make the first person happy.
Human belief/judgment has its own special pairs of opposites. The most basic is belief (positive) and doubt (negative). Belief is an answer or answering, and doubt is a question or questioning. In politics, conservatives lean towards believing and affirming the institution (often looking to the stability and consistency of the past) while progressives lean towards doubting and questioning the institution (often looking to the openness and change of the future). In systems of thought, dogmatists (also called positivists today) lean towards answers and affirming the truths of the system (“There are certain facts, morals and truths.”) while skeptics lean towards questions and doubting the truths of the system (“Are there certain facts, morals and truths?”). According to Hegel, one of my favorite philosophers, human thought is an endless battle between dogmatism and skepticism. This battle is also a symbiotic evolution requiring both sides.
When we look at the history of human thought, from its origins in shamanism to its evolution and specialization with religion, philosophy, art and science, we can see that both dogmatism and skepticism play necessary roles. Without a base that is assumed and unquestioned, nothing new can be produced. However, without reaching for the new and questioning the old there is no growth to improve and fit new circumstances. The great thinkers in human thought, across all systems, incorporate the old while bringing us the new. Often they are called heretics in their time and only canonized after they are safely dead because they have to question the very system that they stand for.
Many unfortunately believe that philosophy was born in ancient Greece, when in fact wisdom is universal to human kind even though it is difficult to achieve. The wise, though rarer than we would like, have been celebrated in all cultures, and their wisdom has similarity across all cultures even though their beliefs can differ widely. While the word ‘philosophy’ is an ancient Greek word, great thinkers and questioners can be called philosophers and sages in any culture.
It should also be mentioned that philosophers were not welcome in ancient Greece as they questioned the ways of things (traditional polytheism) and as such Socrates was put to death for “inciting the youth to riot”, Aristotle fled Athens after the death of his student Alexander (a foreign Macedonian who conquered Athens by the sword, Aristotle being an unwelcome foreigner from Strageira in Athens himself), and Heraclitus, my favorite Greek philosopher, complains that his city state Ephesus exiled their best thinker for questioning things and it would be best if all Ephesians went and hanged themselves to leave the city in the abler hands of children.
What is philosophy?
Philosophy has been called “thinking about thinking”, questioning and answering the very process of questioning and answering itself. The ancient Greek philosophers (such as Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato, who we will study) critically examined their own thinking and their traditions of thought and brought new answers by questioning the human mind and society. While these Greek thinkers should be read and admired, they were not the first or only ancient thinkers to ask abstract questions about thought itself.
The Greek word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”. What is wisdom? The German philosopher Hegel tells us that there are dueling parts of our individual mind that fight and cooperate on the individual level just as dogmatism and skepticism fight and cooperate on the social level. These two parts are understanding and reason, and these correspond to knowledge and wisdom. Understanding tries to hold things set and steady (the conservative force) while reason tries to challenge and rearrange things (the progressive force). Knowledge is a set understanding, while wisdom is the ability to reason. All systems of thought use both understanding and reason to produce both knowledge and wisdom.
The Greek philosophers were known for wisdom, for questioning the ways that individuals and societies can have knowledge, beliefs and answers. Were the Greeks the first or only ancient people to have philosophers? In Miguel Leon-Pontilla’s book Aztec Thought and Culture, he argues that the Aztec and Mayan poets questioned their societies and systems of knowledge, asking open ended questions such as “Do we know the gods exist?”, “Is there an afterlife, like the ancestors said there is?”, and “Can we ever know these things?”. Indeed, when we look at ancient cultures we find both questioning and answering, knowledge as well as wisdom, in ancient Greece and ancient everywhere else. No society would survive without pushing in both directions. Systems of thought are always sites of disagreement as much as they are of agreement.
Only a few years ago, the Attorney General of Arizona crafted legislation against teachers who provide programs celebrating Latino culture as they are dangerously “anti-Western”, and pointed specifically to teaching that Aztecs and Mayans had philosophers as Leon-Portilla argues. Apparently, it is biased and thus un-Western to teach that concepts such as, “You are my other self” (much like Confucius, who we will study) and “Continue to investigate things endlessly” (much like Heraclitus, who we will study) is evidence that the Aztecs and Mayans had philosophy. It is perceived as a threat to American culture to equate the ancient Mayans with the ancient Greeks. It is not just the Attorney General who thinks this, but academics with PhDs who continue to provide the ground for this belief in their publications.
The most primitive societies value individual achievement, which often becomes the subject of legend. It is difficult and frightening to oppose common opinion, but worth it. While many think that Western thought is more individual and free than other traditions, arguments over the meaning of common knowledge and traditions are found everywhere. In the logic class, we read a text by the famed anthropologist Malinowski who studied the tribes of Papua, New Guinea in the 1940s. He asks, “Are primitive people logical?”, and he argues that they are. Human language typically has words for ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘if-then’, and all the operations of ancient Greek, ancient Indian, and modern European logic. He gives an excellent example of a tribesman tripping and falling, accusing an evil spirit of causing it, and his fellow tribes-people rebuking him and saying that he is merely clumsy.
Many reputable books state that the ancient Greeks were the first to understand things in terms of cause and effect, which is ludicrous. Demons and spirits were thought to cause things by the ancient Greeks and many ancient cultures long before them. It is also commonly held that the ancient Greeks such as Aristotle invented logic. Not only did ancient India have talented logicians in many schools of thought, but as Malinowski argues you can see people in the most primitive cultures arguing rationally, systematically and hypothetically (“If that were true…”). Consider the following argument: “Because all elevators play jazz music, jazz is the Devil’s playground, and one should avoid the Devil, elevators are to be avoided.” You can follow this argument because it is logical. As we learn early on in any modern logic course, an argument is logically valid if the conclusion follows from the premises, and it does not matter whether or not the premises are true. You can construct logical arguments that include the premise, “all puppies are green”, which is useful to show how logic works. The elevator argument is Aristotle’s first syllogism, and it does not appear that he invented the form but rather examined it critically.
Tribal Shamans and Ecstatic Quests
Before humanity settled down into civilizations, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers in tribes of dozens to hundreds of individuals. While beliefs vary between tribes, our ancestors shared similar beliefs about spirits as the invisible forces behind the visible in nature and ourselves, a system of thought known as animism. While many today believe that we modern and civilized people are beyond superstitious beliefs in invisible spirits, we could also consider the view that our species never got beyond animism, but rather the invisible spirits became more complicated along with our living arrangements. For the last thousand years, Christians and Muslims also claimed to be beyond the superstitions of nomadic tribes they encountered. From an evolutionary perspective, organized religion and institutionalized science are ancestors of animism. The French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno LaTour claims that it is we, the Tribe of the Moderns, who are the most superstitious and mythological people yet on the planet.
Shaman is a Siberian word that means ‘one who knows’, the earliest authorities. Life is full of problems, and across cultures we consult experts to explain the forces behind things and then use the invisible forces of good against the forces of evil, such as using reason and wisdom to fight ignorance and stupidity in a philosophy class. Consider that a “scientist” is one who “sees” and “divides” in the Latin, and that philosophy and theology used to be the highest of the sciencias. The Shaman is the one who not only holds the traditions of knowledge but who seeks new answers to problems. The shaman is both the preserver of the old and the seeker of the new, the one who keeps the traditions but also searches for new answers when the old traditions do not work.
In tribal culture, traditional knowledge and wisdom is often kept and passed on in the form of stories or narratives. These stories explain the world and help people with their problems. The wise elder can even tell a story they know to be fiction as if it were true to help others and be passed on to future generations as an answer to a common problem. There are, however, times when the stories do not help and a new answer must be sought for a problem. Guided by the traditions but seeking beyond it, experts and leaders must broaden their horizons and then often become celebrated by new legends.
To do this, the shaman goes on quests, both physical and mental, for the solution and new knowledge needed to solve the problem. Often the shaman is selected by another shaman or shamans as a youth who has gone through a near death experience (sickness, struck by lightning, attacked but survives). The shaman is thought to have an affinity for seeking into the unknown because they are already experienced in the unknown. Near death experiences give new perspective.
To quest for knowledge, the shaman employs techniques of ecstasy known to produce an ecstatic experience. “Ecstasy” comes from ancient Greek and means “standing outside” (ex-stasis) or “outstanding”. It is both a going beyond and going within, beyond common reality by getting deeper into reality. When one is in an ecstatic trance or having an ecstatic vision, one is standing outside normal reality and seeing it from a different place and context. Consider that shamans often go down into a cave or up on a mountain to go to the lower or upper other world. Some shamans have been known to climb trees. Consider the common image in cartoons of the sage meditating on a mountaintop, with the climber seek wisdom at the sage’s feet by asking deep questions. In a cave, one is removed from reality and in a way returns to the womb. On a mountain or in a tree, one can look down on the world and see the larger patterns of what is going on. One gains perspective and is capable of abstraction when one removes oneself to contemplate reality.
Methods of ecstasy include not only thought itself, but drugs, pain, rhythms (chanting, drumming, rattles) fasting, sleep deprivation, removing oneself from society and meditation (including contemplation and prayer). However, the most basic method of ecstasy is in fact thought. Contemplation is itself a form of standing outside reality, so it makes sense that the shaman is regarded as the original thinker, expert and seeker, as well as the doctor, therapist, biologist, physicist, etc. This is why we are considering shamans as the first philosophers. They not only seek and keep knowledge, but pass on wisdom about the limits of human perception, knowledge and thought to future generations of their tribes.
Ancient World Cosmology
Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise. The world was thought to be shaped like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). Fire moves upward, both as flames and smoke, and water moves downwards, each element seeking its proper place in the cosmos.
When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary. Consider that harmonious elements lead to peaceful and productive seasons of agriculture, and storms and disasters are disorders that can be deadly. Consider also that shamans and sages sit and think about things in contemplation for long periods of time until they uncover underlying truths within things that outlive the individual things themselves.
Fire was often considered the top and most important element, and it was identified both with energy and thought. In ancient Greece, energy (energon, “in-work”) was thought to be the fire within things such as human beings that makes them live, just as in ancient China chi and in ancient India karma were identified with life, energy, and fire. Just as the shaman goes on a quest to have a new vision in the head, and this vision is visible in the mind like fire, prophets, scientists, politicians and everyday people have visions of the past (memory) and future (imagination), and if they are knowledgeable and wise their predictions are more true than the foolish.
One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: Reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction as things are pulled apart. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences. It not only reflects the individual who wants many things but can become disciplined, but the community that wants many things but can be ruled and maintained.
One early philosophical puzzle was the Problem of the One and the Many. Reality is one thing, but also many things. Your left hand is also one thing, and many things. Shamans in many different cultures had visions of an All Tree or Tree of Life, the one yet many of all things. All or Being itself is the trunk, and the many things and species of the world are the branches or the fruit. The trunk and branches of a tree outlive the fruit, which returns cyclically each season, just as humanity and reality outlive individual humans, rocks, and trees, just as consciousness outlives particular thoughts and perceptions. The stars rotate overhead, outliving your grandparents who told you about them and your children.
Not only is the brain shaped like a tree, as well as the nervous system and circulation systems, the human body is shaped like a tree with the head and chest as the trunk, the human species and evolution of all species is shaped like a tree. If we remove ourselves from reality, either staring down from a mountain top or sitting in a quiet laboratory, it is easier to see this and the many ways it continues to work. One of the recurrent philosophical insights we will see in India, Greece and China is that it takes wisdom to see that the many things are all one reality and the one reality is seen from many perspectives. This applies to the cosmos, the community, the self, and each passing thought. It continues today to be a simple idea but worth dwelling upon to gain wisdom, and so it is worthwhile studying ancient thought of the world to learn more about our own lives.