There were two main bearings or vectors to ancient philosophy. The first was an aspiration toward transcendent experience through thinking. There was a sense that the life of the mind is the life of gods. The world-view in which transcendence was an urgent desire was nested in metaphysical or spiritual ideas elaborated in ancient Persia, concerning an ongoing war between the god of good and the god of evil. In that duality, the everyday world of tangible and visible events was seen as the creation and realm of the god of evil, the lesser god, the deceiver, the dark principle. Events in this world were completely determined by the dark god in league with some lesser demons. Stellar constellations and planets were among those demons and they controlled and toyed with the lives and fates of people on the earth below them. The very material from which bodies are composed was thought to be corrupt as the creation of a flawed and imperfect creator, and evidence of that corruption was change in the material world, things transforming into other things, becoming and passing away. Time itself was taken as a flaw in the created world. The natural appetites, sensitivities, impulses, and emotions of human bodies led to ever more flawed, fragile, and perishable bodies, often ill and suffering, and always in an arc of decay, putrefaction, and mortality.

Each human body was thought to be animated by a spark or fragment of the high god of good, recognized as each person’s soul or spirit. The relationship which the god of light and good had to the world of bodies was transcendence. Feelings and impulses closely associated with functions of the body were identified as the lower aspects of humanity, and experiences of deliberative intelligence and rationality were identified as the higher and transcendent aspects. The fate of the spirits within human bodies was often suffering and despair. However, the spirits themselves were parts of the high god, and so were ultimately immortal and joyful, as glimpsed sometimes in the innocence of childhood. In that way each person was understood as a local version of the duality of the universe at large, a microcosm of the war between good and evil. Human spirits, as sparks or fragments from the high god, suffered more than their eternal source. Imprisoned within bodies, human spirits were soon imprinted and poisoned by body, eclipsed, isolated, and alienated from their higher truth. However, their truth was still their truth and a person could, with an effort to disregard impulses and sensations from the body, regain some degree of higher spirit. Rational thinking, or some other mental exercise, was a way a person could move along an arc upward toward the perfect god and true self-possession. Concentration on pure mentality (Aristotle’s “thinking, thinking about thinking.”) would ultimately achieve transcendent freedom from the misery of the mortal life of the body and from the astrological demons in the sky.

In that primal dualism the inner vs. outer separation came before the distinction between higher and lower, since you can take the lower aspects of subjectivity, arising from the body, as the world of outwardness penetrating or invading the world of subjective inwardness. That world-view presented human life as exile, as not belonging in nature, as being alien in the world of time. This is a life of catastrophically injured dignity and energy, an inappropriate life, fallen, disgraced, and deceived. There are echoes of that in the Old Testament story of humanity’s exile from Eden. That world-view was broadly influential around the eastern Mediterranean in ancient times and still has some congruence with popular religious and metaphysical assumptions.

Early philosophers rejected much of the world-view of good and evil spirits, but intellect vs. body experiences could not be dismissed so easily. The pessimistic assessment of the body, and of the dangerous environment in which the body carries on its mortal life, was based on ordinary experience, always vulnerable to misery. Within that mortal misery of the body there was the life of subjective intelligence which seemed to have a degree of independence from the body and to represent different principles. Intelligence seemed already transcendent to some extent and so it inspired efforts to understand transcendence more fully and to practice transcendence in the delight of intelligence as such. The abstract projects of mathematics and metaphysics, for example, were connected to the practical project of living transcendence, experiencing mental release from the vile prison of the body.

Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.