Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sunday Sermon: Logos 3

Every, good morning. Thank you for all things: your world, your music, your people, your word. To play our parts in your great, unique journey is a privilege and for our opportunity we are truly grateful. Help us help you, body of all things. Amen.


Every is unnameable, unknowable, indescribable, but Logos is not. That symbolic, arbitrary cultural residue that we all take for granted, that language which we speak and read... that is our shared religion. Logos is civilisation's symbolic engagement with truth and meaning, with the divine.

Most readers will, I expect, know the joy of discovering someone who is reading or has read the same book, and hence of being able to build excellent conversation around reflections on its characters and themes, the virtues or otherwise of the author, implications for contemporary issues etcetera. The shared narrative facilitates and accelerates our engagement, and is fruitful. In the bed of the story our own ideas, hundreds of miles or years from the story, might make love and have babies. If you're bothered by the schmaltzy metaphor: shared story is software for a larger computation device. Anyway, that's just a preliminary thought.

To speak of Logos in history we are obliged to see it in many language groups and traditions, indeed as many logoi. Though it was always somewhat connected, at least if we leave out the New World of the Americas, it is only recently with the internet, translation software and mass accessibility to translations of millions of international works that Logos has truly become a single whole (though still with its rich organicism of parts, each language operating as a separate mnemonic and contemplative organ). This is indeed a new age for Logos, and The House of Every is a religion designed specifically for this new age, of the living, universal Word of God, in all its vastness and mystery, and equally accessible to all.

But I'm going to talk a bit about the Greek language. Please don't accuse me of Eurocentrism or something. It is a wonderful ancient tradition which has had an enormous impact on successive world history, and it is one that it is my own practice to engage with closely, but it is not the only tradition.

At approximately the same time as the outbreak of Greek literature and learning I'm speaking of (latter half of the first millenium BC) was the Spring and Autumn Period in China. This gave us the seminal literature of the Chinese people which continues to unite and inform the Chinese language and culture today. Its well known figures even in the West include Lao Tsu, Sung Tsu (Art of War), Confucius and Mencius and there were many others. The I Ching was completed in this period. It was a full, true renaissance, also called the 'Hundred Schools of Thought'.

Meanwhile, about half way between these two great unleashings of Logos was a major period of Vedic literature in North-West India. Both the Han and the Vedic traditions, not to mention innumerable smaller language traditions of learning, story and literature, are not merely more relevant than the Greek tradition to billions of people, but are currently expanding influence in the ever-globalising Logos.

But all of this is merely to say that I am going to focus more on the Greeks which, I admit, are the root of my own inherited legacy of religion, language and meaning (by the way I am not Greek, just to prevent any misunderstanding).

Logos has an archaeology with distinctive strata, as I've indicated. I could go back before Greek to find stories in an earlier layer of literature (first half of the second millenium BC), though those left to us are few and far between. Once upon a time we must assume a story like the Epic of Gilgamesh had a literary and social context. It was alive and meant varying things to different people, shifting across generations and permeating collective ideography. We can see traces of it in the Hebrew texts which certainly belongs to the strata we're talking about (especially after they were translated into Greek which is how most read it), and in Homer itself. But the fact is we have very little to examine, the measure of ongoing influence is meagre, and my last two sermons have had wild speculation enough. The Greeks provide us with our first (in the West) living, broadly evidenced and examinable world of story, literature and learning.

Arguably there was a decisive development with the Greek alphabet. The first writing systems were a bit like the first computers, not designed to be 'open source', but tools of the elite. There is some argument that Egyptian scribes actually attempted to make their script more difficult in order to maintain their elite access to it. Certainly early written script wasn't widely known and was very difficult to learn, for a long time.

The first real alphabet was apparently invented by the Phoenicians, a maritime trading people (the first glyphs are often associated with trade) and the Greek alphabet was one of a number of versions of it that washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. The specific innovation in Greek was vowels, and hence some call Greek the first true alphabet. I'm not going to go into it, but vowels helped make Greek that bit more accessible and transferable, especially for transliterating previously unheard language.

It is easy to get the impression that pretty much the entire legacy of knowledge in the West comes from the Greeks, and some seem to have that impression. Aside from historical reasons since, one reason for this impression is because the Greeks wrote stuff down.

Thales, generally listed as the first of the pre-Socratic philosophers, and hence at the very beginning of the Greek philosophical and scientific journey, was the first of many to use the Greek alphabet to write down the knowledge of far more ancient cultures. He was from Miletus in what is now Western Turkey and what was then the Western edge of the Persian Empire. He also made visits to Egypt and when his students wanted to study deeply he basically sent them to Egypt. He was largely just writing the stuff he learned from the Persians and Egyptians down in Greek.

As much as an engine of invention, the Greek alphabet and language was a sponge. In the same sense that the King James Version of the Bible is a seminal part of the English language, Greeks made all the knowledge of the known world their own literature. Or, at least, a larger, more mature and universal Logos emerged in Greek. I'm not sure any person or people could be said to be conscious agents in the matter.

I suppose I'm daring to suggest that the first fullsome Logos - literary, accessible, relatively immortal and beyond anybody's individual or collective control - came about in the Greek alphabet. Today we call this world of literature, along with Latin literature, 'the Classics'. But it includes the world from Thales and the pre-Socratics through the 'first historian' Herodotus, the first playwrights, Socrates, the scientific tradition begun by Aristotle, the translation of all sorts of texts into Greek including the Hebrew texts (without which they would have probably remained obscure), more historians like Plutarch and Josephus, and all the way to the writing of the New Testament and its voluminous associated literature.

It's quite a creature and quite a journey. It didn't end there of course, but the Classics became a fixed strata impacting upon history thenceforth. In the English world people were learning it until only a couple of generations ago. Personally I think we lost something profound when we discarded it from the education system, but I'm also confident that there will always be people learning and engaging with this ancient Greek world. Meanwhile it inhabits our language, ideas and institutions, and is with us to stay, whether we engage with it or not.

But Thales was not the first major figure in this development. This entire period of Greek writing was prefaced by the stories that united the Greek language and indeed the Greek people, stories that were, before they met the Phoenician alphabet some centuries earlier, transferred orally. I'm referring to the stories of Homer and Hesiod, but especially Homer. I think it's fair to say that everywhere in the world that might be said to be 'westernised', has been touched by Homer.

My point is not to talk up the virtues of Homer, who I am not even going to review really. My point is to highlight the role of shared story in the first great intellectual explosion leading to the modern world. For us perhaps, the stories of that time - of the time of the polis, of Hellenism and then, of course, of Jesus and co, are a deep unifying narrative of all Western civilisation. But at that time they already had a deep, unifying narrative strata in Homer, already somewhat lost in their own antiquity.

For even earlier on the Greeks were not unified politically, but by their language and the stories it embodied. Later on Greek became the language of learning throughout the Hellenistic then the Roman world, even as Greek power radically declined. At this point this particular language of Logos had actually outgrown and outlived its people but very early on, I'd say, its people lost control of it. Logos had become its own life form, and the people merely hosts.

What I'm proposing here is that Logos required a story in a popularisable written form in order to really find its feet in the world, to really 'incarnate' in any sense. But I'll get to that theme next week.

Our great people are heard to proclaim humbly that it is the shoulders of other people they stand upon. But weren't they also standing on others' shoulders? What are the muses? What gave Leonardo or Einstein (or Isaiah) their revelations? What is the nature of genius? If two or more people invent a thing simultaneously, as has often occurred, can there be said to be a common source? For that matter, why is it that whenever I think I have a new idea I just have to google it to assure myself that it has been had by hundreds of others in the recent past?

The answer to all of these questions, in my view, is the creature called Logos, of which we are merely temporal hosts in our turn. There is a real sense in which Charles Darwin can not be said to have written The Origin of Species. Logos wrote it.

Before I go to yet another Leonard Cohen song, here is how that man put it in his acceptance speech for the Spanish Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, 2011, reflecting on the ambivalence he feels taking credit for word craft: "Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers... If I knew where the good songs came from I'd go there more often."

Every, bless my readers wherever they be on their own respective pilgrimages. Give them the capacity and the responsibility to critically organise the wheat of my words from the chaff. And help all of us do thy will. So be it.


  1. Thanks Hamish. Some random thoughts:

    It is interesting to think of Logos as something alive and separate to ourselves. Is even thinking about it in this way metaphoric thinking? If it is the detritus of our symbolic engagement with our world/s, it comes from us and is external to us: we cyclically consume and excrete it. Or birth it. It's a symbiotic relationship, isn't it? I doesn't exist without us - would we exist without it?

    Your observation that the Greeks are given credit for our leagcy of knowlege because "they wrote stuff down" reminds me of feminist playwright and philosopher Helene Cixous, who in the mid 1970s famously exhorted women to create a "contract with time" by coming to writing. Which in turn reminds me of the House of Every's commitment to universal literacy. The written word is now longer the only way for stores to be recorded in time however - cinema, video, television, youtube all offer ways for individuals and groups to record their 'stories'in ways that also establish a 'contract with time'.

    Anyway, thanks for the Sunday morning reflection. Nourishing.

  2. By the way, the comment above was from me, Dawn.

  3. Thanks Hamish
    I am really enjoying these sermons and the food for thought they provide.
    Tim C

  4. Thanks Tim. I appreciate the encouraging nod. I'll just note that both yourself and Dawn used a metaphor of food for my words. In itself that is an enormous compliment. I hope it's deserved. Cheers.

    Dawn, I think the entire construction of language is metaphor and most certainly the idea of logos as 'living' is deliberate metaphor. What it refers to with the idea of life, in my view, is organicism (a complex organised unity), metabolism, procreation and evolution. It also refers to direction (in evolution) but only in the hazy sense that you can refer to biological evolution having direction. When I say the direction - the telos - however unattainable - of Logos is to know Everything and understand the truth of Everything, I am way out on a limb, but I'm content to defend the limb for now. It's as defensible as any untestable proposition might be, and powerful at the same time.

    I don't think we would exist in anything like the same way without logos. As misanthropes enjoy pointing out, humans are only a little bit more intelligent than monkeys, and as a rule an individual human cannot be expected to show a lot of intelligence on many subjects, even though a well read human will (in speach) assume that she has been to the moon and can lay railway. "We" know a stupendously monumental amount about thousands of aspects of reality, and every day we behave as if we own all of it, using technologies and relying on institutions, not to mention language itself. But without our contact with this enormous legacy that I am calling Logos (I recently began to capitalise it), we would be (possibly inferior) monkeys.

    But having said all that, yes, it is a symbiotic relationship I guess. Does Every, Logos and (say) mind form a sort of trinity? Now I'm playing, but it's explorable.

    There are some who theorise about a post-textual world brought about by technology. I'm not sure if this makes me a modern form of luddite but I am very skeptical that this is possible. Text is too referencable, searchable, micro-maleable. It seems to provide a DNA-type basis for inremental evolutionary progress that video and audio don't entirely capture. I also note that all of the mediums you mention do rely on language and do, in practice, use texts (even for the very reason that they are easilly changeable in rehearsal and development). Anyway, I don't mind reiterating that text is not all of Logos and does not really define it. All the mechanics of Logos exist in language before text. But text massively accelerates and extends the process to the extent that modern life would not be recognisable without it. I know it seems I'm struggling with different definitions of Logos, and I do fear it is that kind of word. :)

    Love you Dawn.