In his ‘Progress of Poesy’, Thomas Gray traced the movement of poetry from the Greek valleys across the Mediterranean to the Alpine Highs through France and then across the English Channel to Britain. In any way, I believe the poet was wrong. If he meant poetry in itself only, it is a universal genius and every culture in the past and present had or has its own characteristic poetry; it didn’t emanate from Greece and pervade the world as suggested by Mr. Gray. And if he was referring to wisdom in general, he is equally wrong because every nation had its own version of wisdom and, as Michio Kaku once said, the modern science of we boast has a humble from cultural mythologies. However, in this case, there is a particular form of enquiry that seems to originate somewhere and spread across the world by integrating the components of any other culture that was found to be in harmony with itself. That is the wisdom that facilitated the evolution of what we today call modern science.
Modern scientific enquiry and technological evolution to the level humanity today attained wouldn’t have been possible in a culture where the Earth was an untouchable goddess or winds and thunderstorms were the messengers of some gods warning mankind of some impending dooms. Nor could it have been possible when comets where omens for the birth or death of kings and princes.
The point of dispute is that where the wisdom did called philosophy or rational thinking that opened the eyes of man to the fact the entire creation is not as sacred as human life began? Though the term philosophy is etymologically Greek and, therefore gives the Greeks a sense of entitlement to being the first wise men on Earth, there are conflicting accounts as to who were the first philosophers. No doubt, Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Democritus and Epicurus were and still are very popular and their signatures in today’s thinking are very vivid. But some experts of intellectual history, relying on the fact that in the accounts of the lives early Greek philosophers; particularly Pythagoras and Plato, there are references to their visits to Egypt, have posited that they learned such traditional wisdom from the Egyptians. In other neohistorical accounts, though with an obvious touch of racism, is argued that even the Egyptian wisdom was originally Nubian.
Nonetheless, the first historical traces of the practice and teaching of the belief in monotheism were found in ancient Egypt in form of what is mainly claimed to be the teachings attributed the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice the Great identified as the Prophet Idris by Seyyed Hussein Nasr in the introductory pages of his ‘Science and Civilisation in Islam’. In the Hellenistic tradition of Alexandria, as a result of a sort of a consensus said to be attained between the Greek and the Egyptians in which the Egyptian god Thoth was equated in function and attributes to the Greek god Hermes, consequently, the sage Hermes Trismegistus’ personality was, therefore deified to embody the Greek and Egyptian tradition of wisdom first. However, neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians ever considered him to be a god. He was sometimes referred to as ‘scribe of the gods’ in ancient Egyptian and, even to date, in some occult circles. It is widely held by the proponents of this legend that all the esoteric wisdoms of the world; Buddhism, the Brahmin tradition, Zoroastrianism, Taoism etc originated from the Hermetic doctrine for the fact all of them contain elements of monotheism and transcendentalism traces of which signatures such as the rhythmic divine breath of the Brahman, duality or polarity of the Absolute or the One in Zoroastrianism and Taoism and so on and so forth. It is even said that the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, who is the focal point of our present exposition himself, learned his monotheistic wisdom from Hermes in Egypt. There is no scientific evidence to back up these claims, but most of our distant history will dissolve into mere mythology through successive probabilities and, therefore, should only be taken at face value for narrative purposes and the lessons implicit in such narratives or myths. Even where archaeological evidences are available, the interpretation is still subject to probabilistic evaluations and uncertainty factors. The legend of Hermes itself is subject to archaeological questioning as some of the texts attributed to him are found to be of the Christian era but there is still no enough proof to deny the fact that he was a contemporary of Abraham of the Bible. What is important to us in this writing is that there was a time people began to the fear and worship of celestial objects and natural phenomena and started searching in the light of cause and effect. Whether or not the story of Hermes Trismegistus was true, what he is said to have taught was a significant milestone in the progress humanity no matter the historical time when it began.
The pure and simple monotheism; not obscured in a high level of mysticism accessible only to a select few elites with which we are concerned as to its influence on the evolution of the modern scientific tradition actually started with Abraham for all that records can provide. That is how far we can go to reduce mythical influence in our account to its barest minimum. According to the traditions that claim origin from him, Abraham taught his progeny to believe in One and only One god who was not Nature, not symbolised by any natural object or phenomenon. He also taught them that their god was One god who could not be seen despite being a personal god; who was unlike anything known or anything knowable in Nature.
According the youngest of such traditions, Islam to be precise, Abraham himself wandered both internally and externally in order to find his god. Although such matters of the wondering are subject to exegesis. Said to be born in a Sumerian city-state called Ur in the Mesopotamian Empire, a place now known as Tell al-Muqayyar in modern day Iraq circa 3000-2000BC(Wikipedia), Abraham rejected the polytheistic tradition of his ancestors in which gods were symbolised by idols carved out of woods housed in special temples. However, Mesopotamia of those days wasn’t such dark civilisation as some might be inclined to believe. It was, rather, glittering civilisation of the Bronze Age and unarguably the producer of the first ever legal code which even preceded the famous Code of Hammurabi. It is quite common that moral decadence often raises its ugly head in blossoming civilisation; something that might have been responsible for the invention of the legal codes and the disturbance of extremely unique souls like Abraham prompting them to contemplate an alternative meaning of life and existence all together. The result of such seclusions is always an exile, forced or intended to venture into the wide world either in search of like minds or to establish a new order away from the decadence of vanity.
The most popular accounts have it that Abraham did not give up or go into exile without a tough resistance to established order. As expected, the resistance was said to have put him in conflict with the establishment including his own family who persecuted him the most and even sought to burn him alive; so, Giordano Bruno was not the first martyr of science and reasoning, perhaps, not even Socrates. After the severe persecution, trials and tribulations, his ordeal continued in exile as he came across the Sabians of Harran, the modern day Kurdistan who were said to be the custodians of occult practices and knowledgeable in astronomy and astrology. It can, at least, be said that they were preoccupied by celestial phenomena and mystical interpretation of natural phenomena in general.
Seeking for a powerful guardian in the desolate cosmos, it was the astrology aspect of the Sabian culture that caught the attention of Abraham or so the literal accounts put it. The Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, reported that when the darkness of the night covered him, Abraham saw a star; but it might be a comet or a planet, and then declared it as his lord, guardian and guide. But the celestial object disappeared leaving him in a mood of disappointment. He then cried out ‘I don’t like those which disappear’; implying that anything that disappears cannot be reliable. As the night went deeper, he saw the Moon rising and exclaimed this is my lord; but the Moon also disappeared later and he said if my lord would not be always available to guide me, I would be among the lost ones. He then saw the Sun rising in the morning and exclaimed ‘alas!, this is my lord; see it is even bigger(than the minions that disappointed me in the night’). When the Sun eventually set, he declared ‘O my people, I hereby abandon what you worship. I turn myself to the one who created me and I will never associate Him with anything that He created’. According to many interpretations and the most rationally acceptable ones, Abraham only chose to teach the Sabians by counterexamples; that the lord is neither this nor that. By this method, Abraham ingeniously stripped the entire Universe of divinity and sacredness. He presented it as an ordinary system of objects subject to processes and, therefore, obeying the law of cause and effect. It would dawn on the people that ‘oh! Such an unstable object, how can I worship it? I will rather trying to understand what is disturbing it and shaking its stability’. If there is any tradition prior to Abraham that had achieved this remarkable feat of the demystification of Nature, it has not been properly documented.
In all previous and contemporary cultures, celestial objects and natural phenomena were endowed with divine powers and a labyrinth of a superstitious system prevented any form of enquiry into the nature of things. The Hellenic culture was, for instance, up to the Hellenistic or Alexandrian period, a mixture of reason and mythology involving the divination of celestial bodies in diverse form of approaches.
The separation of Nature from Divinity enabled man question the processes of Nature and natural phenomena. An entirely new value system was birthed that increased the latitude of questions that could be asked; and this a very important dimension of any scientific paradigm.
The Hermetic tradition, as its proponents claim, spread far and wide to inspire a number of traditions of an elevated divinity far beyond nature; but, in some cases, from which Nature is either a reflection of the Divine or immanent from it. However, most of such traditions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc have evolved elegant cosmological theories though laced with so much mysticism that they cannot compete within the paradigm of modern science which has evolved via a different traditions to which the Egyptian hierophants still lay a considerable claim.
The characteristic boldness of the Abrahamic tradition in its declaration that god is not Nature, is not in Nature, is unlike anything in Nature and has created all of Nature; ironically marks the first and boldest step toward the secularisation of Nature in particular and the secularising process in general, though the term secularisation has earned a complex malignancy that we must come back to treat another day. Abraham, therefore, ought to be treated as the first father of free thought and the first to wage a war against superstitions.
This article is not on religion, but because the history of science is intricately intertwined with religion in a series of intermittent conflicts and agreements depending on the age and the prevalent practice and, even, political interests, we need to dedicate at least a paragraph to examine this person to whom an undisputable credit must be given for the first step toward the complete demystification of Nature.
Throughout his sojourn from Mesopotamia to, probably, Egypt and ancient Israel and Arabia, the story of Abraham is dominated by remarkable application of reason centuries, if not millennia, ahead of his time unless where his teachings or teachings about him are tainted by passage through the prevailing social milieu of his time or blurred outright literalism in the interpretation of the portions of his stories reported in religious texts. The most repugnant of such accounts is of the saying that he once intended to slaughter his own son, either Ishmael or Isaac as the case may be, as a sacrifice to god. Looking back to his struggle with his parents, the idol worshippers and his arguments with the Sabians, the high level of reasoning he then exhibited was not of a person who would decide to slaughter his own son in obedience to a dream unless we have more than a version of Abrahams.
His arguments with the Sabians indicate a peculiar method of teaching in which he pretended belonging to them only point out the folly in what they did. Human sacrifice was prevalent in ancient societies. Therefore, the sage must have used that to teach them the evil of human sacrifice since rams and other kinds of animals were available. Some of us may sit here and laugh at it not knowing that it might have been impossible for him to confront them directly and tell them that human sacrifice was evil. That would have cost him his own life but we cannot say how many lives he saved from being sacrificed by his pretension and secret a secret method of teaching.
The seemingly unnecessary digression above was, of course, essential to portray Abraham as the father of modern reason and someone who gave science the first bricks with which it laid its foundations. There is need, before we proceed on this discourse, to try an examination of what Nature and natural were held to be before Abraham and after him in contemporary and subsequent traditions that either did not have contact with his tradition or rejected it. We will then see how the tradition wandered into the Arabian Deserts and down to Europe suffering a series of setbacks and reinvigorations until this era of postmodernism in which science is retracing its steps back to the earliest days of systemic organism. That, however, belongs to the subsequent volumes of this article for I want to learn writing very short stuff for easy reading to avoid consuming your precious time, my dear reader.
Ibrahim U. Boyi writes from Adamu Jumba Road, Bauchi.