Sunday, December 05, 2004
Short book review
In this fascinating and ambitious book, the Swiss art historian Hans Mühlestein attempts to trace the roots of what is basically the idea of the autonomy of the human mind - the humanist conception of there being no authority, religious, moral, political, above individual reason, the modern birth of which Mühlestein sees in the Italian renaissance of the 14th century. In Mühlestein's own words (p. 27):
"Wenn wir also tief genug zu den Ursprüngen des gewaltigen Genie-Ausbruchs von Kunst und Dichtung vordringen, der bislang den so gut wie aussliesslichen Gegenstand der Renaissance-Forschung gebildet hat (selbst Jacob Burckhardt greift, wie gesagt, nie hinter das Jahr 1250 zurück!), so stossen wir zuletzt auf das oberste Prinzip aller revolutionären Sekten des Mittelalters, das mit der Kunst- und Literaturgeschichte direkt überhaupt nichts zu tun hat (obwohl es indirekt auch darin natürlich ein grosse Rolle spielt) - um so mehr aber mit der Moral und Geisteshaltung der ganzen Renaissance-Epoche. Es ist das Prinzip des "inneren Lichtes", d.h. die - wie wir sehen - bis zur Todesbereitschaft entschlossene Überzeugung, dass einzig das eigene Gewissen und die eigene Einsicht darüber zu entscheiden haben, was wir glauben und was wir wissen dürfen und was wir offen bekennen sollen."
The title of the book, Die Verhüllten Götter, "The Hidden Gods", refers to the Etruscan religious concept of an anonymous council of hidden, unpersonalized deities, metaphorically used for the main subject of the book - the historical processes by which Mühlestein regards the principle of human autonomy to have survived from its ancient (Ionical) Greek and Etruscan precursors until the renaissance itself. The book itself consists of four main chapters. In the first one,Neues Weltbild - Neues Geschichtsbild, Mühlestein sets the stage for the rest of the book, departing from the modern conception of time and space, and tracing the roots of a scientific worldview to the work of the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, Anaximander and Heraclitos, whom he compares to Plato and Aristoteles (a comparison extremely unfavourable to the latter). The second part, Die Verhüllten Götter concerns itself with the genesis of Etruscan culture in Italy - the last large non-Indo-European culture of the mediterranean area. The third part, Das "Innere Licht" deals with the Christian "underground" of the first and early second millenium A.D., and the influence from various dualistic Iranian religious currents which Mühlestein regards as crucial in their formation. The fourth part, Der Genie-Ausbruch Der Renaissance, finally, deals with the great cultural revolution of the renaissance itself.
When dealing with the genesis of the naturalistic/scientific worldview of today, and the concept of the autonomy of human reason, Mühlestein does specifically not differentiate between religion and science, rather, he contrasts an individualist audacity to think and conceptualize - both in religious and early scientific issues - a Traumkraft to use Mühlestein's words - to a dogmatic acceptance of ideas. Notably, Mühlestein regards this Traumkraft exemplified particularly in the dialectical philosophy of Heraclitos (influenced, according to Mühlestein, by Iranian Zoroastrianism), which he compares to the idealistic and static worldview of Parmenides and particularly Plato, in whom he sees a precursor of the ecclesiastical dogmatism of the medieval Catholic Church:
"Diese völlig irreale Tautologie des Parmenides, diese "logistische" Simplifizierung aller Weltprobleme, ein rein logistischer Traum, hat denn auch den ungeheuerlichsten Erfolg in der Weltgeschichte bis auf unsere Tage gehabt: es ist zum Geburtshelfer der Ideenlehre Platos geworden, in der zwar dieses Traumgenie die kosmische Dynamik des Heraklit nicht etwa vergass, sie aber vom Diesseits resolut ins Jenseits transzendierte, in die angeblich absolute "Entelechie", d.h. in die "Selbstbewegung der Ideen" nicht nur hinter aller Naturwirklichheit, sondern auch hinter allen logischen Begriffen, mittels derer der Mensch dieser Ideeen (natürlich vergeblich) habhaft zu werden trachtet - so dass alles Leben, im Kosmos wie hienieden, nur ein vom allein "seienden" Ideenspiel der selbstbewegten Ideen geworfenes "nichtseiendes" Schattenspiel wäre. Sowohl in dieser Form Platos, wie aber auch in der Form der ganz ebenso idealistischen, nur mit zahlreichen "realistischen" Exemplifikationen versetzten Logik des Aristoteles, unterwarf sich das späte Griechentum die ganze intellektuelle Welt des Abendlandes: es wurde zur Amme aller Ontologien, aller wissenschaftlichen und religiösen Dogmatik und Scholastik. Aristoteles wurde direkt zum Kirchenvater des Mittelalters, von dem jahrhundertelang die Rede ging: "Die Logik des Aristoteles ist die Logik Gottes" - und auf dessen Autorität hin noch Galilei verurteilt wurde. Und Platons Mystik hat alles freiere Denken der Renaissance verdorben, bis hinauf in die kühne Kosmologie Giordano Brunos, den der leidenschaftlich unternommene Versuch, aus der ungefährlichen platonischen Traumwelt in die gefährliche Welt der astronomischen Wirklichheit (der "Millionen Sonnen") durchzubrechen, auf der Scheiterhaufen brachte..." (p. 53-54)
Mühlestein's emphasis on a, so to speak, metareligious attitude - of audacity and curiosity rather than dogmatism - rather than a non-religious naturalistic worldview itself as a basis of the concept of individual reason which defines the Enlightenment may make today's defenders of that Enlightenment - both against religious attacks on science, for example "Intelligent Design" and creationism, and postmodernist attacks on the concept of scientific objectivity - somewhat uneasy. Nonetheless, I am with Mühlestein here: what is at stake, currently as probably as well in Plato's time, is basically the position of man itself as either a subject slowly gaining control over the natural forces surrounding him as well as over his own history, or as a prisoner of culture, worldviews or religious dogma, rather than the existence or non-existence of God.
The second part of the book deals with Etruscan culture of central Italy, which Mühlestein regards as the last protagonists of a pre-Indo-European matriarchal meditterranean cultural complex. The issue whether, and to what extent, pre-IE Europe was "matriarchal" or not is a very controversial one, nonetheless there seem to be indications that pre-Indo-European meditterranean cultures were, at least, somewhat less patriarchal than the extremely patriarchal ancient Greeks and Romans. Mühlestein makes an extremely bold move in locating the primeval homeland of the Etruscan homeland. The current consensus,defended recently
by for example the Dutch linguist Beekes, is that the Etruscans are not indigenous to Italy but have originated from Asia Minor.Evidence for this is for example found in the existence of some identical Etruscan and Lydian/Hittite deities (mentioned by Mühlestein on p. 152). Mühlestein, however, goes further and regards Northern Africa, more precisely, the Shot-Dyerit basin of central Tunisia, as the original homeland of the Etruscans. The original inner sea of the basin has been thought to have slowly dried out after a catastrophical earthquake in the mid-2nd millenium BC, and, according to Mühlestein, the Etruscans would have pushed westwards in a coalition with other tribes to Egypt, where they appear as the tursha. Also, Mühlestein believes the city of Tartessos mentioned in Greek legend was located in central Tunisia rather than in Southern Spain (where it is currently thought to have been located). Though I am somewhat sceptical, the often tantalizing bits of evidence and indicators that Mühlestein succeeds in collecting for his hypothesis are certainly interesting.
Mühlestein regards the non-anthropomorphized, secret "council of hidden gods" of the Etruscans as a remnant of the anonymous, female Cretan Potnia, the symbol of which is the labrys. Another remnant of a matriarchal religious conception, according to Mühlestein, is the ruling Etruscan triumvirate of Gods: both Tina (identifiable with Zeus or Jupiter) as well as Uni (Juno) and Menrva (Minerva) are armed with lightning bolts. Mühlestein traces his concept of Traumkraft particularly in Etruscan fresco art as well as in the political, egalitarian tendencies found in some Etruscan cities: notably, the nascent Roman Republic founded by the Etruscan Servius Tullius, and the last Etruscan cities of central Italy, surviving as republics after the Etruscan monarchy and priesthood were wiped out by the Roman onslaught. Mühlestein contrasts these tendencies with the scraps of Etruscan culture that survived during Roman times - namely, as superstition and a strongly hierarchical priesthood (which itself survives, partially, until this day in the organization of the Catholic Church). The line Mühlestein then draws - from the last, free Etruscan city-republics of central Italy in the final centuries BC to the cities where the renaissance first takes root, is a very bold one.
The other "strain" Mühlestein follows up is one departing from the Christian mystics and heretics of the first millenium BC to the great heretical movements of medieval times - the Bogomils in the Balkans, and the Cathars in Southern France. Mühlestein emphasizes the influence of various Iranian schools of religious thought - from Zoroastrian dualism to, particularly, Manicheanism, on the heretical movements of the middle ages.
The sheer timespan Mühlestein thus deals with - from the neolithic Pre-Indoeuropean mediterranean to the Italian renaissance, in about 450 pages is enormous, and sometimes he seems to be charging ahead a bit too quickly for my taste. This notwithstanding, the book is monumental if merely because of Mühlestein's extremely powerful, clear and often simply beautiful writing. That alone makes it a fitting monument to the very subject he is dealing with: that of the emergence of human reason as the sole determiner of what it truth and what is error. And, though published first in 1957, the book is far from obsolescent: though Mühlestein regards the great scientific breakthroughs of the past four centuries as a continuous triumph - science, and the mindsets and attitudes necessary for science and human progress, does not lack challenges.
- Merlijn de Smit