The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
God said to Jonah:
Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?
Jonah is angry that God did not do the deed – destroy Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the empire that had destroyed Jerusalem.
In Greece, philosophy was becoming farcical – “abstruse,” as Armstrong puts it. An arrow in flight is motionless, because at any given moment it occupies a space exactly equal to itself; before Achilles could cover any distance, he had to cover half of it – again…motionless.
Zeno wanted to demonstrate the logical absurdity of common sense…reason was undermining itself.
Anaxagoras identified the source from which everything developed: the nous (mind). A divine cosmic intelligence, but it wasn’t supernatural – it was made up of matter, like all else. Nous set everything in motion; after this the atoms were left to their own devices, randomly smashing into each other.
Protagoras offered that “The measure of all things is man….” There is no transcendent authority or Supreme God; man must rely on his own human judgment. Euripides offered: “The nous in each one of us is a god.” Euripides offered a story – Medea: Colchis was rejected by her husband, Jason. In revenge, she killed Jason’s new wife, his father, and the sons that she had borne to Jason – she had argued herself into a terrible crime spree:
Reason was becoming a frightening tool. It could lead people to a spiritual and moral void, and, if skillfully used, it could find cogent reasons for cruel and perverse actions.
Oedipus launched an inquiry into his father’s death and discovered he was the murderer – and without realizing who she was, had married his own mother!
Through no fault of his own, he had become a monstrous figure, the polluter of his city, hopelessly defiled by actions whose significance he had failed to grasp at the time. He was guilty and innocent, agent and victim.
Oedipus accepted his punishment even though he didn’t deserve it. Those witnessing this play were driven to sympathy, feeling compassion for a man who committed crimes that would normally fill them with disgust. Sympathy brought on a purifying catharsis.
Now we come to Socrates. His dialectic was designed to expose false beliefs and elicit truth. The goal was the struggle, not some artificial end point. Along with Plato, he discovered the psyche, or soul. It existed before birth and would survive death.
Socrates’ teaching was considered blasphemous. The timing was convenient – Athens was losing wars, losing its navy. At his trial, Socrates was accused of failing to recognize the gods of the state, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the youth. Socrates became a scapegoat. He refused to escape from prison despite the unjust sentence; he refused exile. He drank the poison.
In China, gentlemen’s wars became total war. Women and children were fair game; the wounded and infirm were shown no mercy. More and more of the population would be mobilized. No more fighting face to face – the reflex crossbow made killing possible at a distance of half a mile.
Into the mess stepped Mozi, whose concern was for the peasants. War ruined harvests, killed civilians, wasted weapons and horses. How could any of this be good for the kingdom?
Should people have concern for everybody? Should they reject aggression? These and other topics were addressed, based on conformance to the practice of the sage kings, if it was supported by common sense, and if it did benefit the human race. Mozi would back up his arguments with reference to the High God.
Siddhatta Gotama was twenty-nine years old, married, with a newborn child. He decided to leave home in the quiet of night. He had a long quest ahead, in search of a form of existence – attainable in this life – that was not contingent, flawed, or transient. We know him as the Buddha.
To reach this form of existence, he practiced severe extremities: laying on a mattress of spikes, drinking his urine, eating his feces, fasting until his bones stuck out. He became so weak that he was left for dead on the side of the road. Even with all this, he could not escape desires for attention, the lust and cravings of this life.
…Gotama aspired to an attitude of total equanimity toward others, feeling neither attraction nor antipathy.
The Hebrew God offered mercy even to enemies. The Greeks travelled a wide road – from the most abstruse, to self-centered, to vengeful, to unchained reason, to sympathy. Mozi reintroduced other-considering behavior after two centuries of total war.
The Buddha? I keep finding the philosophy of India an outlier in this narrative.