The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western THought / Edition 2

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When the ancient Greeks looked up into the heavens, they saw not just sun and moon, stars and planets, but a complete, coherent universe, a model of the Good that could serve as a guide to a better life. How this view of the world came to be, and how we lost it (or turned away from it) on the way to becoming modern, make for a fascinating story, told in a highly accessible manner by Rémi Brague in this wide-ranging cultural history.

Before the Greeks, people thought human action was required to maintain the order of the universe and so conducted rituals and sacrifices to renew and restore it. But beginning with the Hellenic Age, the universe came to be seen as existing quite apart from human action and possessing, therefore, a kind of wisdom that humanity did not. Wearing his remarkable erudition lightly, Brague traces the many ways this universal wisdom has been interpreted over the centuries, from the time of ancient Egypt to the modern era. Socratic and Muslim philosophers, Christian theologians and Jewish Kabbalists all believed that questions about the workings of the world and the meaning of life were closely intertwined and that an understanding of cosmology was crucial to making sense of human ethics. Exploring the fate of this concept in the modern day, Brague shows how modernity stripped the universe of its sacred and philosophical wisdom, transforming it into an ethically indifferent entity that no longer serves as a model for human morality.

Encyclopedic and yet intimate, The Wisdom of the World offers the best sort of history: broad, learned, and completely compelling. Brague opens a window onto systems of thought radically different from our own.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226070759
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Rémi Brague is a professor of philosophy at the Université de Paris I-Sorbonne and at the University of Munich. He has also taught at Boston University. Brague is the author of four previous books, including, most recently, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. Teresa Lavender Fagan has translated more than a dozen books, including Jean-Claude Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages and Jean Bottéro et al.'s Ancestors of the West, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Wisdom of the World: the Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought

By Remi Brague

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Remi Brague
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226070751

Chapter 1

Prehistory: A Pre-Cosmic Wisdom

Human thought does not begin with the Greeks. We classify them among the "Ancients," but they themselves were aware of being latecomers, or "children." And it was not only within the lineage that resulted in Greek civilization that humans were thinking beings. However, the history I wish to recount here is that of a specific phylum, that of Western Civilization, that passes through Greece, experiencing a decisive turning point there. This is why I will limit myself to a few remarks about the civilizations that were in fact in contact with Greece and which might have influenced it, such as those of the ancient Near East. One must not rule out the possibility, however, that an inquiry relative to ancient China or India, for example, might yield similar results. My goal, however, is primarily to create the background of the painting upon which Greece will stand out. I will be forced to proceed at second hand, as I do not have direct access to the documents left by those civilizations. There are very few philosophers, by the way, who have reflected on the various forms of wisdom that preceded the period during which tradition places the birth oftheir discipline. They are paradoxically even rarer now that we possess the means to see that wisdom more directly than through the eyes of later civilizations, that is, since the deciphering of their scripts. Kant and Hegel saw Egypt from what the Greeks had reported about it. Among later authors I know of very few aside from Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) who have established an in-depth study of the civilizations of the ancient Near East based upon recent discoveries .

We can group the phenomena belonging to these civilizations together under the first two headings that I have just distinguished, beginning with cosmography. They each created their own specific image of the world. There is little need to describe them here, even less to distinguish them: for example, while Egypt and Mesopotamia both represented the inhabited Earth as a flat disk floating on a primordial watery surface, those two ancient civilizations did not have the same image of the sky. For the Egyptians, it was a dais supported by four pillars; for the Mesopotamians, it was more of a cable that held a layered universe together. This vision of the whole is not always presented in an explicit way; most of the time it remains in the background, which brings up an important fact: on this point the earliest civilizations are in stark contrast with the Middle Ages, when, as we shall see, summaries of cosmology were in large supply.

As regards cosmogony, there are some distinctions to be made: we are unaware of any Egyptian text that might contain a tale of the entire genesis of the world in a unified version. Nor did Mesopotamia exhibit very much direct interest in cosmogony; Mesopotamian storytellers speak of it primarily by way of genealogies of the gods. There is in fact a tale of the emergence of the whole, the Enuma elish. But we only have a relatively later version, in Akkadian, dating from around 1100 B.C.E. But it is not out of the question that this text gives credit to a more recent god, a parvenu, Marduk, for the creative feats that up until then had been attributed to a more ancient god, Enlil. The cosmographic and the cosmogonic elements are so intertwined, consequently presenting the structure of the world in narrative form, that we often describe this view of the world as mythical.

What is of interest to me here is knowing whether such views of the world imply a cosmology, in the sense in which I use the term. Granted, even if, as in Egypt, those views do not always give special importance to the birth of man, they implicitly give humans a place in the universe. Situating man is even perhaps their central function, if not their only one. Man is "on the earth," "under the sky," and above the subterranean regions. It is this that distinguishes him from the gods who are "in heaven." Cosmographic facts can serve as metaphors for traits relating to anthropology; thus, one can compare the distance between heaven and earth with that which separates the limited intelligence of humans from unfathomable divine thoughts: "The plans of God [are] as [far from us] as the highest reaches of heaven." Humans are disproportionate to the physical universe: "The tallest man cannot reach the heavens; the largest man cannot cover the earth."

But we must make a distinction here: to situate human beings in relation to the physical universe is one thing; it is something else entirely to seek to account for the humanity of man out of considerations related to the structure of the universe. In the first case man is considered as a basic given, for which no accounting is needed. In the second case, one can raise the question of exactly what a human being is, and what he should be. So when it is necessary to explain why humans walk on two legs, why they have genders, why they must labor, why they must die, other tales take over, tales that no longer take the entire universe under consideration, but which concentrate exclusively on man. The best example of this is most certainly the simple juxtaposition of the two tales of creation at the beginning of the book of Genesis.


The first condition required for speaking of a "cosmology," that is, a reflexive relationship with the world, is that the idea of "world" has become a theme. The sign of such "thematization" is the presence in the vocabulary of a word for "world." The word "world," or rather the series of terms that may be translated by "world," appeared at a relatively late period. If, as tradition would have it, we date the end of prehistory and the beginning of history as it is commonly known with the invention of writing, or around 3000 B.C.E., we can say that it was only at the halfway point of history that there appeared a word capable of designating all of reality in a unified way. Humanity was able to do without the idea of "world" for half of its history--not to mention the immensity of prehistory. The discovery of the idea of "world" coincides more or less then with what Karl Jaspers has called the "Axial Age" (Achsenzeit).

The great river valley civilizations, which invented or developed writing, of course had names for the earth, not as a planet, of course, but as an inhabited domain, as oikoumene, a common dwelling-place for men and animals; in this sense it contrasted with the inaccessible dwelling-place of the gods--heaven. But these civilizations do not seem to have had a word capable of designating the world in its entirety, uniting its two components. In Chinese the modern word shi jie (in Japanese se kai) is formed from jie, "circle," and shi; the second word also signifies "generation, duration of life," which makes it close to the Greek word aion. In India the Sanskrit loka, "visible space" (as in the English look) can indeed be translated as "world," but in such a way that it is the expression lokadvaya, "the two worlds" (heaven and earth) that we must ultimately see as corresponding to our "the world." In Hebrew, the medieval and modern word for "world" is 'olam. Its root is Semitic, the same as the Arabic word 'alam--which itself came from Aramaic. The word is indeed found in the Bible; but there, it has only the sense of "unlimited time, eternity," and not yet that of "world," which it would only assume in the Talmudic period through the intermediary of the meaning of "era" (here, too, see the Greek word aion).

For there to have been a word meaning "world," the idea that it expresses would have had to have reached human consciousness. And this assumes that people envisioned a concept in its totality, a category grasped in its two moments, that is, as a synthesis of the first two categories of quantity, plurality and unity. It is necessary, therefore, on the one hand, that the parts that make up the whole be dealt with exhaustively, without anything being excluded, and, on the other hand, that such totality be considered unified. Since we are dealing with a physical totality, its unity would consist of being ordered, well ranked, etc.

The earliest civilizations certainly did not formulate the concept of the totality of things in this way. The ancient Egyptians did not have a word for "world," any more than did the languages of Mesopotamia. But neither civilization could help but approach the concept in certain contexts, as when it was necessary to name that which resulted from the process of "creation," and they resorted to two procedures. Each resorted moreover to one of the two features of the category that have just been mentioned.

a) In the case where it was a matter of considering the whole, the solution most of the time was listing the components that it included. The list could be more or less exhaustive and drawn up following a classificatory principle that is more or less clear. They spoke of stars in this way, of plants, animals, etc. Or they would apply alternating oppositions following horizontal and vertical axes: terra firma/sea; heaven/nether world. It is possible in the long run that the multitude of the parts of the world were brought into a basic binary opposition. Thus when the Bible speaks of creation and names the result of the creative work, it names, as we all know, "the heaven and the earth." This formula is very old, to the point that it is perhaps the first ever used to designate the world. It is found in Egypt in the "Instruction for Merikare," a text in a manuscript from the XVIIIth Dynasty (end of the fifteenth century B.C.E.), but whose content no doubt goes back to the end of the twentieth century. The same is true of texts inscribed on sarcophagi. In Mesopotamia it is found in Sumerian (AN-KI) as well as in Akkadian (samu u ersetum). It exists in Sanskrit (dyava-kshama, -prithiv or -bhumi, or the dual rodas) and it is also frequent among the Greeks, and after them. It is conceivable that in these listings we might have a manifestation of a more general turning point in thought, which would be characteristic of civilizations earlier than the Axial Age. The Egyptologist Eva Brunner-Traut has gathered many phenomena relating to those civilizations under the concept of "aspective" (a word created to contrast with "perspective"). This is what she calls the mental attitude that consists of juxtaposing the various aspects of a reality without seeking to grasp them from a single point of view. But she leaves aside that aspect of cosmology.

b) These civilizations also use terms that designate the idea of totality. Thus in Egypt "creation" is in fact a self-genesis of the god Atum. What he "creates" is "everything" (tm); he is therefore the "master of all" (nbtm). The word, perhaps related to Hebrew tamam and Arabic tamm, has the sense of "complete," "whole." Combined with the name Atum it creates one of those etymological plays on words of which the Egyptians were so fond. The "Onomastics of Amenemope" promises to provide an understanding of "everything that exists." In Mesopotamia, it appears that the translation by "world" of certain terms is only the result of a misinterpretation. But elsewhere we find words that can be translated so, even though their primary meaning is also totality. This is the case with gimirtu, or kissatu. We even find heavily pleonastic combinations, as when the gods say to Marduk: "On you alone . . . we have conferred Royalty over all of the entire Universe (ni-id-din-ka sar-ru-tu kis-sat kal gim-re-e-ti)." The word that it was indeed necessary to render by Universe also in fact signifies totality, so that we must risk something impossible such as "the whole of all totality."

This totality, listed or substantivized into an adjective, is not yet a world. What it lacks to be one is, paradoxically, something that is too many. The world is constituted as a totality because it unfolds before a subject, before which reality is firmly established, as if independent of it. The world swells up from the absence of the subject in it. It is necessary, for the world to appear, that the organic unity that linked it to one of its inhabitants-- man--be broken. Reciprocally, as we will see, it was from the moment when the world appeared in its autonomy that the presence of man in it would be able to arise as a separate issue. If this is true, what prevented the rise of the idea of world is not the incomplete nature of the listing of the elements of the world. Rather it is, on the contrary, that the concept-- more or less explicit--that ancient civilizations made of that order was extended too widely, in that that order encompassed the action of the gods or men. Thus the Egyptians represented reality as a continuity in the midst of which man did not have a particularly favored place. We can then see how the very division of all of reality into "heaven" and "earth," if it prepares in a way the emergence of the concept of world, is at the same time that which prevents it from coming fully into being. For that division occurs following an implicit criterion that is connected to the human: earth and heaven are contrasted as things that man can, at least in principle, grasp and that which completely escapes him. The "world" cannot appear as such until the time when that criterion is placed in parentheses. This was only to be the case in Greece. It was there, and there alone, that that "distanced" position would appear, that "Archimedes point" from which man would be able, "conscious of being a subject (subjektbewusst), submit nature to objective research."

So that the idea of a "physical" universe--which is specified only by factors that relate to "nature"--is in no way primitive. Just the opposite is true: the idea of "nature" (phusis), even if it seeks to grasp what is original, is not originary, but derived; it is already the result of a reflection, more precisely of a separation between that which has its principle in the human activity of fabrication or estimation, i.e., the artificial (tekhne¯) and the conventional (nomos), and that which grows by itself, spontaneously, the natural.


Furthermore, the concept of cosmos as a universal order scarcely arose in ancient times. The hypothesis has been made that this latency of the concept of cosmos was due to the fact that a notion of that kind was indeed the milieu in which ancient civilizations were steeped, and such a milieu, because it was a given, could not not remain invisible. Whatever the truth may be, ancient civilizations had to conceive of man's humanity on the basis of other referents. It was not by imitating the order of the world, or by harmoniously inserting himself in it, that man fulfilled himself. The relationship of imitation, of an original where it obtains its likeness, is in a sense inverted: rather it started from social reality to go toward the cosmos. It was thus, first of all, because the cosmic order was conceived on the model of the polis. In Mesopotamia, for example, the gods clearly represented elementary forces, such as the sky, the storm, the earth, the water. And the system of the world was no more than their combination, which perhaps reproduced a very ancient political situation, one that had already disappeared in the historical era, and which might have been a primitive form of democracy.

Next, the cosmic order was not conceived, in Mesopotamia at any rate, simply on the basis of that of the polis. The two concepts were part of the same whole within which everything interacted. Indeed, that which occurred within the polis was supposed to exercise an influence, either positive or negative, on the cosmic order. This is an idea that would survive for a long time. One need only think of the "waste land " which, in Arthurian romance, punishes a human sin. Limiting ourselves to an example from ancient civilizations, it is thus that in Ugarit a disturbance in the cosmic order--a disturbance essentially located in the realm of plants, such as infertility--could only be repaired if one began by reestablishing the social order. "What this co-belonging presumed was a representation of the unity of the cosmos: if there were no order in the natural cosmos, that could be a result of a perturbation in the social cosmos. The first thing to be done to reestablish the order of the natural cosmos was to reestablish order in the social cosmos." The king, guarantor of the social order, could thus represent the god who maintained the order of the world.

Was something like an order of the world, predating human activity and being proposed as a model for that activity, formulated in ancient civilizations? For some time it was believed that the Egyptians had found that formula in their concept of ma'at, personified as a divinity, and that it was associated with the idea of wisdom as it is presented in the Bible, as well as with the Greek idea of themis, or even the logos of Philo. This concept would express the way the universe forms a harmonious whole in which man must find his rightful place--the word "rightful" implying both the idea of right, of harmony, as well as that of justice. The idea is present among the philosophers, but it has also been held by philologists. This is the case of H. H. Schmid: "In Egypt one uses the term Ma'at to designate that cosmic order that was experienced as such by all the civilizations of the ancient Orient, that has been related to the creation of the world by the supreme God who is the author of it and which is guaranteed by the king who is the God's son." "He who lives rightly is in accord with the order of the world." However, one can also reverse the relationship. In that case we must say that "wisdom does not just imply an eternal, ideal, metaphysical order, to which man has only to submit. It also affirms that it is through wise behavior that the order of the world is first of all formed and becomes reality. Wise behavior shelters a completely central function, which creates the cosmos; it has a part in the establishment of the unique cosmic order." "Wherever the Ma'at is disturbed, the order in nature is carried with it and suffers. By contrast, wherever Ma'at is applied, wherever disorder is repelled, that, too, has consequences for nature and fertility."

Recent work by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann has carried this interpretation even further. Far from human activity having simply to insert itself into the static order of things, it is rather the just practice of man that contributes to maintaining the world in movement. Assmann retains the formula of Schmid, who entitled his book "Justice as Cosmic Order," and accepts the idea of a cosmic dimension to justice. But he does so at the cost of an inversion. He would rather speak of "the cosmic order as justice." Here we have more than just a purely verbal reversal. Indeed, all of a sudden human justice is in no way the imitation of a static cosmic order that existed before it; on the contrary, it is human justice that, assuring harmony between the realm of the gods and that of humans, contributes to keeping an essentially moving cosmic order going.


Excerpted from The Wisdom of the World: the Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought by Remi Brague Copyright © 2003 by Remi Brague. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Translator's Note
Part I: Setting the Stage
1. Prehistory: A Pre-Cosmic Wisdom
2. The Birth of the Cosmos in Greece
Part II: Four Models
3. Socrates' Revolution; Plato's Restoration
4. The Other Greece: The Atomists
5. Other than Greece: The Scriptures
6. The Other Other: Gnosticism
Part III: The Medieval Model
7. Marginal Models
8. The Standard Vision of the World
9. An Ethical Cosmos
10. A Cosmological Ethics
11. Abrahamic Excess
Part IV: The New World
12. The End of a World
13. An Impossible Imitation
14. The Lost World

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