Read more from the Being Truly Human February 1995 Newsletter
A talk given by Phiroz Mehta on 13th April 1957
From our earliest days, our sense impressions, our desires, thoughts and actions are categorized for us in that system of symbolical sounds called words. Our ordinary awareness of existence is formulated in words. All the ordinary objects and experiences of our daily life have their own specific forms. To distinguish each form, it is given a name or a verbal description. Discrete awareness or recognition is in terms of name-form. And so throughout our waking life there is a continuous flow of words, a flow made up of the audible speech of ordinary conversation, and, when we are not talking aloud, of the silent speech of thought-feeling. All discursive thought is simply a ceaseless flow of silent chatter. This flow is largely unbidden and uncontrollable, and constitutes the major part of mental life.
Speech-thought is the formal expression of our awareness of the process which is our daily life. All speech-thought has its roots in, and emerges out of, our experience of the substantial universe. The eternal that-which-is, in manifestation, as apprehended by us, is re-presented by speech-thought in different manner, at different times and in different places, by different people. Each person at any moment is a distinct, unique pattern. From the very beginning each person undergoes a conditioning which makes him different from every other person. At any moment, the sense-activities and discursive mind of each person form an image of that person’s world. In course of time, certain ideas abstracted out of these continuously passing images constitute that person’s conceptions of life or of the world. These conceptions, which also change with time, are a collection of silent word-patterns. When a man conveys these silent word-patterns, he speaks or writes. His instrument of communication is words, or symbolical sounds. Not only symbolical sounds, but also colours, shapes, gestures, psychical impressions and so on are used as media of communication, singly or in combination. But it is probably true to say that speech-thought is the main medium.
Each man forms conceptions in various contexts — religious, scientific, aesthetic, social, etc. He uses the same words in each context, with different shades of meaning where necessary.
Our religious conceptions are the product of our everyday life, of our science and art and all forms of mental activity, and of the attempt by the few to convey to their fellow men the experience of Superconsciousness, or in other words the supreme religious experience which we call the experience of God.
Probably the oldest of the revelations given to man are the uncompromisingly monotheistic tradition of the Hebrews and the apparently polytheistic or rather henotheistic tradition of the Rig-vedic Indians. Later on, about a millennium before the birth of Jesus, the religion of Greece is embodied in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. These poems, as well as the hymns of the Rig-veda, present religion in the form of poetry and mythology. Later on follow philosophy and science, when men begin to question the validity of revelation or to demand to know the plain meanings underlying the dogmatic statement of revealed religion.
The emergence of scientific speculation regarding the nature of the world is common to both Greece and India. But in the orgination and trend, and in the relationship of these scientific concepts to, and their influence upon, the spiritual world, Greece and India differ from each other. The Milesian philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, etc., and those who thought as they did, mark a branching away from Homeric mythology and Hesiodic theogony. Whereas Hesiod had presented Chaos, Gaia and Eros at the beginning of the drama of the origin of the earth, the Milesian school dispenses with Chaos and favours the idea of a root-matter as the origin of all things. Thus we have Thales presenting water, Anaximenes air, and Heraclitus fire as the primary stuff of the universe. Anaxagoras holds that matter is infinitely divisible; however small the particle, it was a mixture of all four elements, with one element predominating. Empedocles presents all four — fire, air, water and earth — as the primary elements from which all arose; and since Aristotle placed the seal of his approval upon this doctrine, it dominated the western world for nearly two millennia.
In contrast to Greece, Indian speculation derives matter from spirit. The Taittiriya Upanishad states that from Atman arose akasa, and from akasa, vayu; from vayu, fire; from fire, water; and so on. Kapila, the reputed founder of the Samkhya philosophy, and probably an elder contemporary of Thales, propounds a primordial nature or root-matter as the unborn, uncaused, undying force from which proceeds all evolution, material and psychical. He also postulates an infinite number of uncreated, eternal purushas, or spirits, and it is to serve their ends that universal evolution takes place. Like the Greeks, Indian philosophers produced atomic theories, but rather more elaborate than those of the Greeks; and they postulated an extra element — akasa — possessed of more remarkable properties than those distinguishing air, fire, water and earth. But whereas Indian scientific speculations did not lead to a materialist philosophy like that of Democritus or to a purely mechanistic view of the universe, with the exception of the Carvaka philosophy, and had little effect, if any, upon fundamental religious conceptions, Greek science had a marked effect upon the development of Greek and subsequently of European philosophy, and upon the Christian religion.
In tracing this effect, let us link the names of Plato and Aristotle with those of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, for the simple reason that the original Catholic orthodoxy was Augustiruan Platonism, and this was replaced almost a millennium later by Thomistic Aristoteliariism, which survives practically to this day as Catholic orthodoxy.
Plato presents two ground principles: the rational, which is the formal or mathematical and scientific, investigated in the Republic; and the emotional, the eros principle, which is the aesthetic, which Dr. Jowett translated as “frenzy” or “passion” or “love”, expounded in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. In the Timaeus, Plato brings together these two principles, and denominates the rational as the male and the emotional as the female principle in the nature of things. Therefore the intuitive and emotional or passionate person in Church symbolism is the female virgin, and the doctrinal, rational person is the male Christ, who represents the unseen, because only rationally known, that is, the theoretically deduced God the Father. For St. Augustine, who upheld the freedom of the human will, and whose theology is founded on Platonism and the teachings of Jesus, the good life consisted as much in the passionate love of God as in the rational knowledge of God. Plato, however, arbitrarily branded the female principle as evil, and presented the male as good. Thus in orthodox western Christian religion, both Catholic and Protestant, the Divine is restricted to the rational principle, God the Father. Hence when one attacks reason one is trying to destroy orthodox Christianity. For St. Thomas, the good life is the life completely controlled by reason, and man is saved by Divine Grace, not so much by feeling or passion as by the rational knowledge of God.
We must note here a point of great importance: art and philosophy and religion in any age are intimately related to the physical sciences and mathematics of that age. Changes in conceptions of the nature of physical things and phenomena give rise to changes in philosophy.
Democritus was the first Greek philosopher to present an atomic theory and formulate a particle physics somewhat like Newton’s. This physics could not satisfactorily account for incommensurable magnitudes. So it was superseded by the mathematical physics of Plato’s scientific Academy. This conceived of three-dimensional atoms as having the geometrical shapes of the five regular solids termed the Platonic bodies. A member of Plato’s Academy named Eudoxus who rigorously formulated what is known as the method of exhaustion (the Greek precursor of modern calculus) showed that for mathematical reasons Plato’s conception of nature was also untenable. As Aristotle said: “A view which asserts atomic bodies must needs come into conflict with the mathematical sciences.”
Now because atoms could not be seen directly, both Democritus and the Platonists introduced the very important distinction between the world as immediately sensed and the world as designated by mathematically formulated theories which could be experimentally verified by science. Hence Platonic and Augustinian doctrine laid down that the sensed world was not the real world. Thus too the sensed self of man is not his real self but merely the symbol of the real, immortal self. When Aristotle rejected the atomic theory, and therefore also the distinction between the sensed world and the real world, he was driven to say that the sensed world was the real world, and therefore all ideas in the intellect are first given through the
senses. Augustinian doctrine had identified God and the divinity of Christ with the unsensed and unseen. This was a theoretic and philosophically postulated factor, not verifiable by direct sense observation. Hence to twelfth century Churchmen of the time, Abelard’s proposal to accept an Aristotelian basis was damned as the rankest heresy, for it seemed that such acceptance would utterly degrade God and Christ’s divinity. But Aristotle, in his mathematical and physical philosophy of prime matter and secondary matter, his continuous field theory in place of the atomic theory, and his doctrines of opposites, of positive form and form by privation, and of the fourfold theory of causes, replaced Platonic science with an acceptable and satisfying system. When European scholars like Albertus Magnus, through better acquaintance with Greek literature, saw that in Greek times Aristotelian science had indeed replaced Platonic science, Catholic doctors of learning and the Church itself came under the spell of Aristotle. St. Thomas Aquinas provided the theological structure on the Aristotelian basis. This has remained dominant up to date in Catholic orthodoxy. At the same time, however, the Platonic-Augustinian distinction between the sensed and real worlds still influences the entire thought of both Catholic and Protestant Christendom.
Continued in part 2, part 3 and part 4
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