The Empires of Croesus and Cyrus

The notion of imperial conquest, or the need to build a city that is enduring, is central to the inquiries of Herodotus. What is lasting human greatness? How can we inquire into our shared human past while preserving the question of enduring greatness? What is the just city? Is the just city also an enduring city? These and many other questions are integral to Herodotus’s work.

The first barbarian empire identified in the text is that of the Lydians, inherited from the actions of Gyges, a man who by fate acquired a vast empire. His descendants, Sadyattes and Alyattes, conquered the surrounding territories. When conquering Miletus, they laid siege to the city and nearly burned down every house in order to maintain a slave labor population, the fruits of which they could plunder. The empire of the Lydians comes to us as a tyrannical rule, one that is prone to frequent revolution and attack. A self-conscious rule that destroys the cultures of the people it conquers (see the burning of the temple of Athena, called ‘Asseos’ 1.19). Croesus, the son of Alyattes, inherited this vast kingdom and expanded it into Asia even further, and in his vast splendor, Croesus reclined comfortably in his riches until Solon, the lawmaker of Athens, arrived in his travels at Sardis. When Solon failed to affirm either Croesus’s wealth or his happiness, Croesus grew angry. Croesus asks Solon if he is nothing more than the “common man”. Solon’s advice is to look to the end of a man’s life to discover his true happiness and wealth, otherwise he is merely a lucky man. Thus, if we look to the ends of Croesus’s empire, we find it in decay -his son was killed in a boar hunting accident, and his empire was eventually conquered by Cyrus’s Persian empire. Croesus’s empire had desperately chased after prosperity and happiness at the same time, and tragiclly had found neither. Though Croesus was kept alive as a trusted advisor to Cyrus, it was only because of Croesus’s account of Solon’s visit which he delivered when nearly burned alive by Cyrus.

In contrast, the Persian Empire has its roots in rebellion as Cyrus once overthrew the Medes under Astyagas and claimed kingship. As a result of the war, the Empire lived under constant war and expansion in Cyrus’s 29 year rule from the Medes to the Lydians to Ionia and Babylon. However, unlike the Lydians, the Persians did not subjugate its conquered territories. Client cities were all allowed to adopt and maintain their cultural customs, and in fact, the Persians were liberal enough to assimilate and incorporate the habits and practices of their conquests, as well, unlike the Scythians -a nomadic tribe who ruthlessly ruled Asia for a brief two decades but collapsed as they did not integrate any new customs into their tribe and also failed to establish an enduring regime. However, Cyrus was often praised by his conquered peoples, earning him the moniker of “The Great”. Elsewhere in the Biblical Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to by the subjugated Jews as the “Annointed One” (Isaiah 45:1). He was remembered for his empire that did not force Persian influence upon its conquered territories, but rather adopted the various cultures, unlike the forced subjugation of the Scythians wo were a nomadic group without a connection to place.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Confucius and Socrates

Among Western scholars, comparisons between Confucian literature and the Platonic corpus are made frequently. To their credit, both literary characters are memorable for their obsession with virtue and the appropriate means of political life. Both, presumably, emphasize the importance of a rigid social or political order, devotion among the citizenry, and both were considered a threat to their cities in their day -Socrates was condemned to death and Confucius (Master Kong) was exiled during the Warring States period of ancient China. Both can claim a dogma that degenerated into a religion in future ages, Confucius can be said to be the founder of the Confucian state religion that lasted for thousands of years in China that yielded the origins of certain politico-theological doctrines such as the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ Plato’s Socrates, distinct from the Socrates we encounter in Xenophon, can be said to be the founder of all Western philosophy and the genesis of later religious doctrines, such as Christianity -a notable inversion, or perhaps, perversion of ‘Platonism.’

However, we also are compelled to acknowledge the sharp distinctions that exist between Kongfuzi and Socrates, distinctions that reveal considerable polarizations between what is now called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophy. First, it should be emphasized that Socrates claimed not to possess knowledge and only to ask questions, whereas Confucius answers the questions of his pupils with distinct responses, often ontological responses related to appropriate religious or political behavior. Socrates often explored ‘what is’ questions with his interlocutors to continue to challenge them to seek answers, rather than relying on the rumors of the masses, or the insubstantial knowledge of the Sophists, akin to public lawyers in antiquity. This relentlessly revolutionary, self-overcoming, that is central to Western civilization, forms the grounding for the future: capitalism, republicanism, and freedom. Second, Confucius strongly encouraged obedience to strict ancestor worship and religious doctrines, for the sake of an orderly state/city. However, Socrates is often called a skeptic. One of the two charges brought against him in Athens is that of not respecting the gods of the city. Socrates is a freethinker, though he does not clearly, explicitly encourage a youthful disrespect for the gods of Athens.

The Confucian genesis and the Socratic legacy each demonstrate some stark distinctions that have endured for thousands of years, establishing the foundations of classical Chinese civilization and Western civilization.

What Is The Teaching Of The Upanishads?

The Upanishads are either a scattered collection of esoteric writings, filled with conflicting messages, or they contain a coherent Vedanta teaching, as demonstrated by later dogmatists. Though they are the collected writings concluding many of the Vedas (the Sanskrit word for either “knowledge” or “wisdom”), the Upanishads are often recognized for the most relevant 10-14 scriptures, and they were developed as explanations for the ancient Vedic rituals by the Brahmin, or priestly caste.

In order to examine this conflict, we acknowledge several common points.

As with much of ancient literature, the content of the Upanishads is the result of intergenerational oral recitations, and thus there is no single authority. That is to say, the Upanishads cannot be considered a whole or a part of a whole. The texts are frequently mystical and inconsistent. Later factions were formed within Vedanta by identifying particular texts and ways of reading them. For example, much of the Vedic literature is devoted to detailing proper rituals, while the Upanishads are the portions devoted to discussing theology. However, is there a cogent piece that unifies the seemingly disparate Upanishad texts? Is there a teaching that can be gleaned from the Upanishads?

Because there is nothing comprehensive in the Upanishads we must limit our speech. First, we survey the gods of the ancient Upanishads. Agni is the god of fire who is sorely embarrassed by his lack of power over Brahman (the Supreme Spirit) when failing to ignite straw in the Kena Upanishad, Indra is the god war and thunder who leads the other gods into battle, Vayu is the wind god, Ratri is the god of night, Usha is the god of dawn, Surya is the sun god who rides his chariot across the sky Phoebos to the Greeks, Satiri is the god the sky and giver of life, and Yama is the first creature to die and is thus the god of the underworld.

Second, a common theme that is ubiquitous throughout the Upanishads is the desire to either discover the Atman (innermost self) or to release the Atman from the transience of ordinary life, through Moksha or liberation. Here we make mention of an early Buddhist seed -a great longing to draw inward, seek redemption from the burdens of daily life, and also we recognize the fruits of later religious dogmas, such as Christianity, that offer redemption from the problem of human suffering.

Third, the sacred word OM is a vague term that is described in the Mandukya Upanishad as “eternal” and “what was, what is and what shall be, and what is beyond eternity. All is OM.” The first sound is a, meaning waking consciousness that is common to all men, the second is meaning dreaming, and the third sound is meaning sleeping consciousness. The full word OM is the fourth state of supreme consciousness. Eternally, this sacred word is said to bring the human being beyond the senses and the end of evolution.

Fourth, key ideas introduced include: yoga meaning the act of meditation and contemplation allowing the wise to “see the power of a god.” As in Greek philosophy and Confucianism, there is an obsession with ritual and “right actions” undertaken in the Upanishads, as in the case of Dharma (meaning “right action”), Karma (“action”), and Moksha.

The Upanishads shares common themes to other theological texts. The Upanishads predicate their teachings on “revelation,” they are darshana, or “something seen.” Revealed truths were to be studied and memorized by classical students for twelve years before students could be examined on their learning. It is unclear to what extent the Upanishads advise humans to pursue knowledge, or, instead, to resist the transience of thought and otherwise seek “eternity.” Perhaps the most significant transformation come to us from the Upanishads, as a scattered collection of ontological teachings from the East, is the idea of eternity -later adopted by all monotheistic religions, as well as others not typically considered ‘theistic’, such as Buddhism. The notion of the eternal is a significant shift away from the transient world, for example the gods of the Greeks were very much present in the everyday. However eternity stultifies the human mind that is naturally prone to understanding causes, first and final.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.

Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.

Reason and Revelation in the Bible

The Bible, or “book”, is the great book of high theology in the Western Canon. Although it is a compendium of seemingly scattered texts, histories, poems, and other writings that were written across many centuries and in different languages (by people as foreign to one another as we are to them) these various writings do contain a consistent message. At its root, the Bible is an account of God. It relies on the impression of a God who is infinitely separate from the universe, yet He is also the creator of the universe. He is both separate and unique, and is, therefore, unknowable to mankind because knowledge cannot account for the absurd. God is not bound by time, although He appears to men at particular moments in time through divine moments of revelation, and revelation is the key thread that runs through the Biblical corpus.

Faith and Reason United by Italian painter, Ludovico Seitz in 1887, with Thomas Aquinas teaching in the background and a Latin inscription roughly translated as: “the illumination of divine truth, when received upon the mind, favors the intellect.”

Reason, on the other hand, is predicated on things that are knowable to men. Things that are knowable can be classified into orders, species, genera and so on. For example, in considering an object, such as a chair, we acknowledge both the particular and the universal elements of the chair. My particular chair may be worn and the wood may be rotting, but I nevertheless recognize its chairness -the distinguishing characteristics that prevent me from mislabeling it a table or a door. Teleologically speaking, the chair’s purpose is for someone to sit on. This is the root of the Platonic eidos, which include both physical things, like chairs, as well as intangible things, like numbers. If knowledge is a kind of creative construction that investigates the archaeology of the mind (see Plato’s Meno or Theaetetus), then the Bible is not a work of knowledge, per say. In fact, the Bible presents a skeptical view of man’s quest for knowledge (i.e. God resents the pride of human knowledge). God, as a shepherd, longs for a docile and obedient flock. He prohibits humans from the temptation to gain knowledge of good and evil, according to Genesis. Thus, theology is skeptical of human knowledge.

Yet revelation, as portrayed in the Bible, is an account of ‘divine knowledge’ dispensed from God to human beings, as Aquinas might suggest. There is no mathematical challenge to solve, nor any observation to account for. Instead, God implants His divine revelation into certain minds as He pleases. So, how do humans receive this divinely revealed knowledge? Two competing theologies are offered. One suggests that God offers His revelation haphazardly, regardless of human activities. Revelation is purely unreasonable and nothing people do affects whether or not they receive the revealed truth. The other more popular theology suggests that humans have the potential to compel a deity to reveal his truth (i.e. by means of prayer or prostration and sacrifice). However, the latter view poses challenges. For example, what does Abraham or Moses do to receive a revelation from God? Seemingly nothing, save for finding mysterious favorability in God’s eyes. Yet others, like Job, who follow the correct and pious path, are punished wantonly.

To dig a little deeper, let us consider what persuades people of the truth of divinity. In the case of Moses, he is given the power of performing miracles, such as transforming his staff into a serpent or making his hand appear to be diseased. When people see these physical transformations they are in awe, much in the same way people are stunned by a common magician or trickster. Therefore, the people who have not directly received the divine revelation must rely on the account given by Moses, bolstered by the authority of his tricks, but they must also rely on his testimony, thus justifying God’s power through “signs.” Reason plays little part in coming to this conclusion because the people are more persuaded by miracles than anything else. Reason does not rely on such a suspension of the natural order. However, when Moses is presented with his own revelation from God in the form of the burning bush, he falls prostrate begging not to be the bearer of His message. He does not wish to be a chosen leader by God. There is very little that reason can say about a direct revelation either. One can receive a revelation while on the road to Damascus, as in the case of Paul, or in the reading of a text, as in the case of St. Augustine, or when a voice booms from a burning bush. Revelations happen without preparation and it occurs inconsistently, whenever God chooses. One cannot conduct a repeatable, scalable experiment -as Francis Bacon would have wanted.

At the same time, reason cannot disprove revelation. Reason requires a certain degree of agency to discover particulars and universals, according to the Aristotelian framework. Unlike Thomas Aquinas, we make the claim that God cannot be knowable and that there can be no science of theology. Revelation is unpredictable, unrepeatable, and it acts independently of the mind of man. It cannot be denied or disproved, but it cannot be a science (Martin Luther echoes some of these problems inherent in Thomas Aquinas’s project). In the same way, revelation cannot disprove reason. The two represent separate spheres, or antimonies, that are independent of one another, but they provide a natural tension together throughout Western philosophy, and this tension has led us to our present circumstance.

For example, in an age of nuclear weapons and the technology to destroy all life on earth several times over, the lesson of theological skepticism toward human knowledge is well taken. Today, teleological questions are being re-introduced regarding science and technology. What is the purpose of our knowledge? Where is the scientific project going? Surely, unfettered scientific inquiry cannot be good for its own sake (i.e. life-affirming) when it produces the means to destroy all life.

Notes on Jonah in Nineveh

The Book of Jonah is the chosen book for thousands of latter missionaries who feel themselves to be heeding the call of God. Like Jonah, they feel themselves called out to distant lands, Nineveh, to proselytize and convert the foreign natives. Indeed, Jesus also cites Jonah as the apt metaphor for the sign of his own divinity -swallowed by the fish for three days and three nights, before being spit up onto dry land.

Gustave Dore’s portrayal of Jonah Cast Forth By the Whale in 1883

Rightly, Jonah fears his command that comes from the Lord and instead flees to Tarshish aboard a boat. He flees from the ‘presence of the Lord’ and he sleeps below deck, while God raises a mighty wind that forces the seamen to draw lots. When they learn of Jonah’s actions, the crewmen become exceedingly fearful of his god.

Unlike with Job, God takes an active role by intermediating directly into the life of Jonah. Only after Jonah prays from the belly of the fish, does God respond a second time commanding him to go “cry against” the city of Nineveh. Upon doing this, the people of Nineveh turn from their evil after Jonah claims that the city will face a reckoning after forty days. However, when God does not destroy the city in similar fashion to Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah grows angry and wishes death on himself. God curiously gives him a gourd as Jonah sits at the east end outside the city, and God demonstrates that the gourd is a metaphor for the city. The book ends with the Lord asking whether or not he should spare Nineveh, and Jonah still longing for death.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation as well as the King James Version.