07 September 2007

Philosophy Class (Week 2)

We spent the first part of the week talking about the earth's role in ancient religions, reading an excerpt from The Great Cosmic Mother. The premise of the book is to explore prehistoric religions, i.e. those that predate writing. The problem, as Dr. Levenson acknowledged, is that it's all inference and speculation. While reading the excerpt, I realized that I've spent far too much time at Wikipedia: "citation needed" kept flashing through my brain. But there isn't much to cite, really. All we've got are artifacts.

It is true that most of those artifacts are depictions of overly endowed females. Breasts tend to be exaggerated. They're often pregnant. Sometimes buttocks are also exaggerated. As statuettes, they generally have disproportionately small legs that are made so that the statuette can be stuck in the ground easily. One example is the Venus of Willendorf. There are also cave paintings of females with similar emphasis.

The leap is to assume that these must serve a sacred function. They might. Sjoo (which Dr. Levenson pronounces "shoo") takes this for granted. She also infers a matriarchal, peaceful, egalitarian society lasting for 200,000 years, until the evil northern patriarchal religions invaded and ruined everything. There is next to no evidence for this. A few unwalled cities have been found, implying peaceful times. A lot of female figurines have been found. The leap to a utopian society is a bit extreme. I would have more respect for the book has Sjoo indicated that her work was speculation rather than presenting it as fact.

But the earth as nurturer is a powerful image. The earth provides food and shelter, and, before the advent of man-made buildings, is always within reach, in contrast to the distant sky. The earth makes up the bulk of what we deal with in everyday life. It can be felt and touched. It supports our weight. Earthly deities tend to be more concerned with everyday matters. They are closer to us than the sky god(s).

We didn't discuss it in class, but perhaps that's why it's the sky god who is called upon in times of dire need. It's not an everyday threat: it's a major, life-altering crisis. The earth deities are too familiar to deal with such an exotic threat. Maybe. That's my bit of speculation. We did discuss that earth and sky always seem to form a couple in ancient mythologies. More often the sky is seen as male and the earth as female, with some exceptions, but I don't know of any example where they didn't form a couple. To me, this suggests a major problem with Sjoo's reconstructed mythology. Without having read the entire book, I can't be certain, but it seems that she emphasizes only the earth and ignores the sky.


And then today we started in on the Tao. We've got Stephen Mitchell's translation, which seems to be pretty good. The language is not as beautiful as in Ursula K. Leguin's transliteration, but it's still a good translation, and is available on the web. We discussed some of the first chapter today.

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

There are lots of ways to interpret this, but there are a few things that stand out. First, the dichotomy between perception and trying to translate that perception into words. Reading the words is not the same as having the experience for yourself. A guest that Dr. Levenson invited to sit in on the class got hung up on the word "eternal," and started in on a rant about how most Christians (but not her, despite her oft-mentioned Christian background) get too hung up on the eternal and forget about the finite. She seems to be in constant attack mode, as when I tried to clarify about words vs. experience she countered with "but you don't see/experience the whole thing either" which was rather irrelevant. Admittedly, English was not her first language. Still, since "eternal" doesn't have that much to do with the passage in question, here are some alternate renderings of the first four lines:

Red Pine:
The way that becomes a way is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name is not the Immortal Name

Thomas Cleary:
"A way can be a guide, but not a fixed path; names can be given, but not permanent labels."

Tam Gibbs:
The tao that can be talked about is not the Absolute Tao.
If it can be named, it is not an Absolute name.

Lots of others available here. Not LeGuin's, sadly. Presumably she's held onto the copyright and doesn't want it freely distributed.

Anyway, another theme that is repeated throughout the Tao te Ching is the idea of the union of opposites, or the dependence of opposites, symbolized in the yin-yang symbol. Here the apparent dichotomy is "mystery vs. manifest," which fits well with "words vs. experience". See, as soon as you create a label, you have automatically created its opposite. The notion of "goodness" leads automatically to a notion of "not-goodness" aka "badness." The notion of "bright" leads to the notion of "not-bright" aka "dark." You cannot have one without the other. If everything were bright, there would be no need to comment on it or even give it a label. It's not so much that everything's relative, as that it's all dependent, intertwined, unable to be separated.

But I'm already ahead of where we got in class today, so I'll stop there for this week.

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