- The Shape of Ancient Thought
The Shape of Ancient Thought, Thomas McEvilley's magnum opus of over thirty years' preparation, draws together an encyclopedic array of texts and archaeological evidence from Greece and India, which he employs in clearly written arguments toward an answer to a volatile question: just how indebted to each other are India and Greece for their philosophical ideas and techniques? The subject is volatile in that it often arouses the rancor of challenged claims to intellectual property or cultural superiority, and the author shows admirable sensitivity by arguing to his conclusions in a way that explicitly eschews the lesser motives of rivalry and self-aggrandizement; instead he promotes the appreciation of a passion and genius for philosophy that is shared equally in the East and the West. McEvilley has collected for his purposes a treasury of key passages from Greek and Indian philosophy, and this review will seek to give some idea of the vast scope of his work and to assess its contribution to our understanding of philosophy.
In his Foreword McEvilley says that his book will challenge a dichotomy, which prevails in Western thinking, that divides the ancient world of thought into Greek and non-Greek. Greek thought is characterized as that which is rational, and non Greek thought as that which is irrational, antirational, or at least nonrational. He faults E. R. Dodds' The Greek and the Irrational for supporting this dichotomy, by which Orphism and even certain elements of Plato become assigned, solely by virtue of their nonrational character, to Oriental provenance. He condemns as "deeply and glaringly false" W.K.C. Guthrie's History of Greek Philosophy for disparaging the comparison of Indian and Greek philosophy on the grounds that their motives, methods, and background of thought are so utterly different. In such a spirit he undertakes to prove by argumentation and a "sea of evidence" the invalidity of so brusque a dismissal of Indian philosophy.
The rest of the Foreword explores how the post-Enlightenment "Oriental Renaissance," that is, the discovery by nineteenth-century Europe of India as "the primal [End Page 182] font of wisdom," aroused troubling questions about racial and cultural superiority. McEvilley traces claims and counterclaims made by philologists, historians, philosophers, and art historians who asserted the hierarchical status of India relative to classical Greece as the source of Western culture. He shows how attitudes toward colonialism in India from the eighteenth century up to the present day have further fueled the politicization of scholarship about India. The scope of this controversy ranges from the view that in the second millennium B.C.E. white invaders called Aryans brought into India both Sanskrit and all that is of any cultural value there, to the view that the hypothesis of an Aryan invasion is a racist myth, that there was virtually no foreign intervention in Indian history, and that India was the origin of all the world's civilizations. He commends the attempts since World War II to approach afresh the question of intercultural influence between East and West, including the founding of Philosophy East and West in 1951, and he declares his own view, which forms the main thesis of the book, namely that there were "significant intrusions first from India to Greece in the pre-Socratic period, and then from Greece back to India in the Hellenistic period" (p. xxxi).
In chapter 1 McEvilley presents archaeological evidence from as early as the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. of trade between the Near East and India, and between the Near East and Greece. He argues for "full East-West transport of goods" through the intermediary of the Near East around 1500 to 1300 B.C.E. (p. 4). He argues that by the seventh century B.C.E. the activity of Phoenician merchants and the Persian conquests eastward and westward facilitated the transmission of ideas between the Near East and Greece via the "diffusion channels" of merchants, artisans, mercenaries, philosophers, physicians, and seers. He argues for similar diffusion channels between the...