The Antiquity of Our Thinking

Ancient thinkers contended with the same human confusions of today

I’m a lover of philosophy, studies of the human condition, and on this occasion how the ancients thought. My overwhelming interest is to discover commonalities of thinking over the millennia, to ask questions such as: are there basic universal cognitive structures, ‘hardwired’, so that our thinking is constrained? what aspects of ancient thinking are sharply relevant to our lives today? for writers exploring human psychology can we learn from such basic commonalities of thinking?

For this article I shall concentrate upon philosophical and religious thought. The latter may arouse strong resistance in some readers. My claim is that religious texts are a surpremely valuable source of information about how we think, how we suffer, how we long to make sense and answer big questions. In any case, as a lover of literature and other arts, knowledge of religion greatly enhances understanding: a novel like Moby Dick, for instance, develops a rich ‘extra’ layer of meaning when the reader understands its religious symbolism.

The ancient texts provide us with great insight into human suffering. While there is plenty about overt suffering – pain, hunger, exile, natural disasters etc. — the main form of suffering is existential. This underlying fear and anxiety, of being lost and cut off, of a sense of futility and meaningless can become conscious in all of us. It is this chronic, underlying suffering that is the starting point for Buddhism: what causes it? can it be allayed? Briefly, the answer to these questions is that suffering is caused first by ignorance. While we know intellectually that all things in the universe arise and die, in practice we try to hold on to things, people and pleasures as if they are permanent. We grasp at them and this grasping is called craving, a sort of addiction, and its intertwined twin is repulsion, the fierce attempt to negate everything that does not fit into the ‘good life’. Craving leads to greed, repulsion leads to hatred. Further, of all the things we crave for, the individual self is the centre. Yet, says Buddhism (and other traditions of thought) this self itself is an illusion: we may take our imagined self as a fixed identity, independent of the laws of arising and dying, but we suffer mightily in doing so.

Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor

The Greek and Roman Stoics are enjoying a renaissance in modern life. Many people have taken to ‘modern Stoicism’ with its books, websites, workshops. Stoicism, like all ancient philosophy, was a way to help people live better, to flourish, to understand and not be overwhelmed by suffering. It has an enormous amount in common with Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity (which Stoicism affected), Sufiism and other Islamic mysticism, Hinduism. The emergence of these ways of thinking started in what is known as the axial age from about the 8th to 6th centuries BCE which saw religious and mystical thinking appear all over the world which bore much in common.

The similarities came by the 14th century to be emanations of ‘the perennial philosophy’ which saw beneath the many surface differences of thinking the same state of absolute truth. Aldous Huxley’s book, The Perennial Philosophy, is an anthology with commentary of many extracts from very varied philosophical and spiritual traditions over many centuries. You may care to read Jules Evans’ article, What’s Wrong with the Perennial Philosophy? As Evans says, “‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).” Because an idea is very popular and attractive does not mean it does not require careful thought. Indeed, the ancients up to modern novelists have a very rich seam in exploring our human tendency to cling to circulating ideas, hold them tightly and jealously, repel invaders, crave them as a Buddhist may say. Myself, a child of the sixties, was swept along by vague currents of eastern mysticism, often finding deep meaning where there was none.

It was Socrates’ life to dismantle the ideas his students and young men had. He didn’t leave them with answers but did show the illusory and absurd status of those ideas. Of course, Plato, his pupil, has a far greater influence on us today. His ‘platonic’ contention that this world was an illusory residue of reality, like shadows. Unsurprisingly, Plato, platonism, neoplatonism go well with much theology. This seems to be an abiding deep idea, one that just won’t go away – our everyday world is no more than a shadow, an illusion: reality is a transcendent state. Very common, but it won’t feed the starving.

I think, in conclusion, that the ways we think, what Chomsky calls ‘deep syntactic structures’, are embedded in our organic nature. As we can make infinite stories from limited narrative structures, as we can make infinite word from 26 letters, I think it may be possible to bring to light our fundamental human alphabets – something enriching for writer and reader.