At some point in early human history primitive peoples developed their own carefully preserved customs and traditions (concepts of what for them was good or bad). In short, they evolved their own morality, their own ethics, which set the rules of conduct in the tribe. Certain behaviors were penalized because they were considered wrong and indicated weakness of character. And owing to the fractal nature of tribal kinship, any member who carried out a shameful act, also hurt the tribe. Unethical acts were minimized by the tribal belief that its tribe’s welfare was watched over by their dead ancestors, who took revenge on any wrongdoers, and, in some cases, the whole tribe. Thus, they were kept in line by fear; the concept of the all-seeing eye of an over lording figure came to be.
Ethics, therefore, became a customary, rather than a conscious act. Fear of change and habitual living kept ethics tied to established traditions. They played the main role in preserving the conventional rules of social life. However, small deviations from the norm were always possible, and in order to keep the established mode of life intact, the tribal elders, the prophets, the witch doctors, resorted to intimidation. Free thinkers, seen to be violators of custom, were threatened with the vengeance of the ancestors as well as various spirits inhabiting the astral region. Spirits of the mountains, the forest, avalanches, snow-storms, floods, sickness, etc., all rose to the defense of defiled custom. To uphold this fear of vengeance for the desecration of rules and traditions, sacred rites signifying the worship of the forces of nature were established and sacrifices were made to them in semi-theatrical ceremonies. These primitive tribes had no conception of their planet moving through space. The sun, stars and moon all came up and went down but where they lived was fixed and stationary. Any change to their customs would upset the whole system and so ethics was about making sure no changes took place.
Morality, as the action associated with the ethics, came under the protection of the deified powers. The dutiful worship of these powers then became the basis of religions, which sanctified and strengthened the moral conceptions. A combination of moral action (maintaining the rules) and religion gave rise to the concept of eternity. Ethics was, therefore about all things eternal.
For these primitive people, religion and mythology were neatly interwoven. Living in such an atmosphere, Man’s morality made it very difficult to separate the ethics of nature’s cycles and mystical commands that came from above, as well as from their religions. Both ethics and mythological stories were about the continuance of natural life-sustaining patterns. It can be reasoned that mythology came about as the moral stories of the ethics. This can easily be seen in Aesop’s Fables. Owing to mythology, the linking of morality with religion has lasted up to the present day.
For a very long time the ancient Greeks, like other primitive peoples, pictured the celestial bodies and the formidable natural phenomena, as mighty beings in their likeness, who continually interfered with them. This interference by angry gods seemed to follow no discernible pattern. They seemed to strike without warning, using the elements of fire, earth, air and water to disrupt human lives. This chaos went against the people’s moral code but they had to appease the troublesome gods, so worship, sacrifices and religious ceremony became a big part of their lives.
A brilliant memorial of those times is Homer’s ‘Iliad’, which clearly shows the moral conceptions of its time, indicating they were of the same nature as those now found among many of the ancient primitive peoples. Although the gods could break the rules, any violation of moral practices by mortals brought forth this or that god’s wrath according to the force of nature they ruled over.
While most primitives put up with in this ‘don’t do as I do, do as I tell you’, attitude from the gods, around the sixth century BCE thinkers began to emerge, who didn’t like the way the gods played the game. Whilst the primitive peoples tried to stop changes from taking place, the thinkers welcomed them and wanted to know why they happened. These thinkers based the moral conceptions of Man, not only on fear and superstition but also on the understanding of Man’s own nature and his place in the universe. Whereas primitive man separated himself from the gods, these new thinkers saw themselves as part of the whole cosmos. Such men reflected on self-respect and living with dignity, as they strove to comprehend higher intellectual and moral aims, not based in just their group, but rather as part of the greater universe.
Early thinkers, according to their idea of how things worked, split up into different schools of thought. Some mystery schools attempted to explain nature as a whole, including the moral element in Man, by studying nature and carrying out experiments, to work our how things work. Other schools of thought asserted that universal origins and the life force cannot be explained in the naturalistic way, because the visible world is created by supernatural powers. They believed the universe to be the embodiment of primeval forces inaccessible to human observation and experience. Anaxagoras, one of these great thinkers, referred to this supernatural power as ‘Nous’ (mind). This school of thought has it that Man can only know the universe through metaphysics, not from impressions he receives from the external world. Kant later referred to these impressions as phenomena’ (something as it appears to us).
Nevertheless, within this supernatural force of creation, great thinkers of the time envisaged some kind of ‘Supreme Intelligence, whether as a deity, Nous, supreme willpower, reason or universal spirit. What all these thinkers had in common is that they could only conceive such powers through knowledge of themselves. In fact the more they understood themselves the more they knew about the universe. Therefore, meditation and self reflection became more important to these thinkers than projecting themselves onto their gods. Having said this, no matter how meta-physicians attempted to ascribe such supernatural qualities to a divine life force, they always related these supra-forces to themselves, as an image of human reason and feelings. Whatever Man learned about these qualities and feelings came about only through observation of self and others. Therefore, the concept of a spiritual realm continued to assume the vestiges of the most primitive anthropomorphism of nature, only in a more spiritual form.
From the time of Ancient Greece, the metaphysical philosophy discovered highly gifted followers. These great thinkers, not content with descriptions of celestial bodies and their movement, of thunder, lightning, falling stars, planets, animals etc., sought to understand nature, as a cosmic whole. As a result, they succeeded in making considerable contributions to general knowledge development. These metaphysical thinkers realized, to their merit, that any explanation ascribed to natural phenomena cannot be seen as the impulsive acts of certain universal rulers. They were obliged to acknowledge that every natural phenomenon constituted the requisite manifestation of the properties of the sum total of animate and inanimate nature. This thinking is in line with Bohm’s holographic universe theory and Mandelbrot’s fractal logic formula. In their thinking about the development of fundamental natural properties and their source, meta-physicians anticipated later discoveries in science, expressing them in poetical form. This was certainly the case with Plato, whose poetics guided him to philosophy.
Owing to such interpretations of universal life and its processes, as early as the fifth century BCE, certain Greek thinkers expressed such ideas about natural phenomena, making them the forerunners of modern scientific physics and chemistry. Following the thread of Greek Atomism and the Nous concept, the Platonic ‘Science for Ethical Ends’ put ethics back in the spotlight. However, this ethical science was not about maintaining the status quo of the tribe, as was the case in primitive times. It was about universal health, which, as we are an integral component of the cosmos, includes human well-being.
As religion began acquiring a more spiritual character the idea of separate humanoid gods gave way to the concept of general forces creating all universal life. For Anaxagoras it was the Nous, in inherent life force quality that shaped sub-atomic particles. The Pythagoreans saw such a life force in fire, enveloping the whole world. Fire was the closest representation of manifest spirit. Fire was equated with geometry and thus, with mathematical considerations. So, on the one hand was Pythagoras and his harmonious mathematical laws of motion, and on the other, the originating concept of a single being ruling the entirety of creation. There were also hints of ‘universal truth’ and ‘justice’ gleaned from the Kemetian sages, of ancient Kemet, which became Egypt, the Aegyptos of the Greeks.
Greek philosophy was not contented with beliefs based on abstract ideas of moral, and ethical ways of being. For example the Sophist, Protagoras (born about 480 BCE) adopted a negative attitude toward religions, and he considered morality to be an foundation of human social origin. Morality, he believed, was determined by the developmental needs, in all respects, of each people from a particular period. This accounts for the differences in moral principles among different peoples. This follows the conclusion that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are relative conceptions. Some groups of people considered it moral to commit acts of cannibalism. Other groups might find such practices abhorrent. However, this is looking at the concepts of good and evil in terms of localized, tribal, morality. From a metaphysical view, good can be seen to be acts and thoughts pertaining to the health and well being of the universe as a holistic concept. Evil is anything that stands against evolutionary progress. Astute readers may notice that ‘evil’ when spelled backwards, becomes ‘live’. This in itself is a clue as to its true meaning of the word, in that ‘devolution’ the antithesis to ‘evolution’ can be rightly termed ‘evil’. Plato took this concept further. When, referring to atomic theory, he stated that evil is the unformed matter in the physical atom, when released into the material world.
Socrates (born 469, died 399 B.C.) opposed the Sophists in the name of true knowledge. Although he shared their radical tendencies, he sought a more solid moral foundation than the superficial that of their critique. While remaining a revolutionary in religion and in philosophy, he based everything upon the supreme reason of Man, and upon the attainment of inner harmony between reason and passions. Socrates did not, of course, ‘nullify virtue,’ but he did interpret it very broadly, as having the power to attain proficiency in intellectual development, in the arts, and in creative work. Knowledge is the first prerequisite in reaching this goal. But not so much scientific knowledge, as the understanding of social life and of the inter-relations among man cannot all be put down to mechanical facts. Virtue, Socrates taught, is not a revelation from the gods, but a rational innate knowledge of what is truly good: non oppression of others. Just treatment for everybody and having the, capability to serve society. He said that if people are self-serving, society becomes inconceivable.
Plato (428-348 B.C.) an ex-wrestler and poet, who became a philosopher under Socrates, expounded these ideas in a spiritual light with an idealistic conception of morality. For Plato, the principles of good and justice are contained in Nature itself. He understood that there is an abundance of evil and injustice in the cosmic life, which the Greeks termed Diabolus, the destroyer of worlds and, which we today know of as science’s unbalanced view of the second law of thermodynamics. Yet within this cosmos was the foundation of all good, the Nous of Anaxagoras. But Plato saw a serious flaw in Anaxagoras’ understanding of Nous, one that would make it subject to the entropic dictate of Diabolus. Discovering Anaxagoras’ shortsightedness, Plato fused ethics into the Nous and, in so doing, conceived of a life force extending to infinity. Such a life force could never become subject to entropic decay. It was just this element of ‘good’ and ‘justice that Plato strove to reveal and establish in all its power as the main guiding principle in life. Upon this principle was built the Platonic Science for Ethical Ends and a science-art relationship that became the basis for Solon’s experiment in Democracy.
However, rather than following the route which was then already being marked out in Greece, Plato sought the foundations of morality outside of the universe, in the ‘idea’, while not being definitely expressed in it. Instead of showing in what form the fundamental principles of morality result from the life of Nature itself, Plato saw ethics to be separate to the material world but a guiding light for it. He said that it could expressed in a lesser form in the nature of man’s intelligence, innate as well as from that developed by social life.
Plato dealt in abstract thought so it is difficult to get to the essence of his philosophy. However, this great Greek thinker, with his deep understanding of the familiar connection between human life and that of nature as a whole, found it impossible to explain the moral element in Man as merely striving for what is individually acceptable, as was done by the Sophists. Plato’s view was that moral action was based on what was good for his republic as a whole, whether it be tribal, societal or universal. He did not see morality as an accidental product of social life simply because it assumed different forms in dissimilar places and at different times. He may have asked how is it that when Man strives for personal acceptability he arrives at moral concepts that are similar among different peoples at different times but all of whom hold desirable the happiness and well being of all? From this it is deduced that the happiness of the individual is identifiable with the happiness of the larger group. And the former is not possible without the latter and vice versa. The answer is that it is an expression of ethics, in the true sense of the word. This, I believe, is what Plato meant by fusing ethics in to the Nous. This was Plato’s ideal view of mankind. But humanity is far from ideal and the ethical bubble can soon be burst when Man’s self interest overrides his self reflection.
About the Author
Chris Degenhardt Science-Art artist/author. Researcher and newsletter designer/editor for SARCA (Science-Art Research Centre of Australia) 2009 recipient of the George Cockburn award for upgrading Kantian aesthetics art appreciation theory to Kantian ethics for universal peace and harmony. Contributing author to ABC of Harmony project.