Dr Edward Butler brings his unique insights into two courses – Introduction to Western Civilization and Transcivilisational Dialogues – Plato’s Republic and Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Throughout the courses one will be introduced to some of the most profound and influential ideas conceived by man. In this interview, Dr Butler talks about his approach to the study of the great civilizations of the world, keeping in mind the challenges of conventional thinking about history and human thought.
What are the biases, both positive and negative, that come into play during studies of Western civilization and schools of thought as opposed to those of the East? How do you deal with them while teaching your courses, such as that on the Introduction to Western Civilization?
One always has to be aware of existing dispositions of power. The hegemony exercised by Western states in the world sets the stakes for the interpretation of their knowledge system as well as those of the others. Interpretations of “Eastern” thought—a curious term to be sure, given the multiplicity of civilizations it encompasses—must be examined, accordingly, wherever they come from, to understand how they operate within this economy. In my teaching, I do not pretend to be somehow outside the knowledge system in which I was taught; but contestation is a deeply held value in that system, so it is not strange to be a dissident voice within it; it is also a value deeply held in it, albeit one which has not always been honored, to seek the integration of plurality and difference with as little distortion as possible, and so the effort to understand other civilizations is important to my own.
Ancient Greece is named the cradle of what is now called Western civilization. Were older civilizations of nearby areas merely an influence, even recognized by the Greeks themselves, or do the roots of Western thought run deeper, and farther, than normally believed?
I’m not sure what counts as “normally believed”. I think that at this point any responsible scholar understands that the neighboring civilizations of Egypt, the Levant (and Mesopotamia by extension), and Anatolia exerted tremendous influence on Greek civilization. Greeks were also aware, to a lesser extent, of civilizations more distant. We need to recognize this without reducing any civilization to a mere bundle of influences. The Greeks themselves understood that they existed on the fringe of civilizations much older and more powerful, but they also believed that this liminal position granted them a unique perspective.
When you speak of Ancient Greek as a sort of interstitial space and a conduit for cultural transfer, is that representative of Western thought as a whole, or has Western civilization become a fixed identity (for better or for worse)?
I think that it is against the fundamental character of Western thought to have a fundamental character or fixed identity, and this paradox cannot be eliminated without eliminating the aggregate we know as “Western” civilization. If “Western” thought had such a fixed identity, it would not be “Western”, but Hellenic, Roman, Celtic, Slavic, German, etc.
Could you highlight the main paradoxes that underlie the so-called Western identity? Are these paradoxes found elsewhere as well, and how self-aware are people of these paradoxes in the philosophies of which they are proponents?
I just spoke of what is probably the main such paradox. Other knowledge systems have their own constitutive paradoxes, I think. I believe that it is the nature of thought to uncover paradox, because paradox powers thought. As for self-awareness, it’s formed in many different ways. No philosophy is without self-awareness, but one may not recognize how that self-awareness is expressed.
While almost everything is taught through the lens of Western thinking and civilization, very rarely is this Western perspective studied and criticized in itself, rather just accepted as the most modern and progressive school of thought. How has this affected the growth of this school of thought?
Hegemony has not been good for Western thought, but we are starting to think our way out of it.
In any discourse comparing the theology of different cultures, such as in your course on Plato’s Republic and Vyasa’s Mahabharata, how does one draw parallels and similarities without treating one civilization simply as a facsimile of another?
This is an ever-present danger, which is why I am so reluctant to engage in such comparison. Let’s not forget that in that course, my friend and colleague Prof. Adluri was there to discuss the Mahabharata. I think that to engage in such comparison safely, it is important above all to recognize that most parallels occur because the same or similar experiences have led thinkers to similar theoretical articulations. In this fashion, we avoid the danger of recklessly adducing diffusion to explain formulations which can easily have arisen independently, a pernicious form of historicist reductionism. To assume that people cannot arrive at similar conceptions independently is nihilistic. The most effective safeguard to ensure that comparison does not become reductionist is polytheism. In Plato’s Philebus, when a glib sophist attempts to reduce the Goddess Aphrodite to the concept of ‘pleasure’, Socrates says that he, by contrast, holds the names of the Gods in awe greater than any merely human fear (Philebus 12c). To the degree that we share this innate piety, we shall respect the limits of ‘translation’ in general. By honoring another tradition’s Gods, we also secure that tradition’s autonomy.
When such parallels are drawn, do you think that they are homologous or analogous? That is, can they be traced to a common source, or interactions of the two societies and their religions, or have these parallels simply arisen because of the underlying truths about humanity in both?
All of these are possible at the same time, in different ways and to different degrees: ancestral commonalities, historical interaction, or experienced truth. Even if a common source can be traced historically, though, we will have grasped nothing except insofar as we know what was transmitted, which demands that we understand the content in question in its own right, drawing us away from the plane of historical explanation or reduction.
Do you find a difference between the interactions of a monotheistic and polytheistic religion as compared to that between two polytheistic religions? In the very nature of polytheism, is there greater scope for acceptance of a differing perspective and tradition?
I think that it would be difficult to argue otherwise. After all, a polytheist tradition has already formed by arriving at a harmonious reconciliation of many differences within itself. Indeed, simply to acknowledge that other people have other Gods, Gods that actually exist, is already a reconciliation. It need not proceed to wholesale incorporation. This is the wisdom inherent to polytheism: it’s not a problem that other people have other Gods.
Is there a difference in the way that Greek polytheism is viewed by modern society as opposed to Hindu polytheism? Are the myths and legends interpreted differently? If so, what do you believe is the cause?
Modern society, by which we generally mean the Christian and post-Christian West, and whoever accepts to whatever extent the hegemony of that project, typically treats Greek myth as mere literature, or as expressions of human psychology, rather than as religion, theology, revelation. Hinduism, on the other hand, while accepted as a religion, is typically, as the price of that acceptance, treated as monotheistic. This is a question of power, the power that the Christian and post-Christian Western tradition appropriated for itself by denying the polytheism at its core, and the power its proponents wish to gain over a civilizational competitor by convincing them to abandon their own Gods. A tradition sundered from its Gods has no defense against appropriation.
What would you hope is the mindset shift experienced by someone who has attended your course on the Republic and Mahabharata?
With respect to my contribution to that course, I would hope that they would come to engage with the Republic through the concerns that the text itself explicitly states, rather than any of the modern agendas to which Plato’s text has been yoked. A basic part of this is taking Plato’s piety seriously, instead of treating its expressions in his works as ironic, which is actually a resistance to Platonism itself.
What are your thoughts on sectarianism in monotheistic versus polytheistic religions?
Polytheisms as they actually exist exhibit polycentricity, which means that they explicitly, or more often implicitly, accept that for devotees of any particular God, that God is the God. Where there is sectarian conflict in polytheisms, these are the underlying stakes. It’s not a question of accepting a God with some limited role or function; no one reasonable would have a problem with that. There is conflict because of the recognition that accepting a certain God is going to mean accepting that total perspective, and that is going to alter society in some way. And by the same token, that means that the reconciliation achieved when that conflict has been resolved is all the more impressive, because it doesn’t involve the relinquishing of that God’s autonomy or the assimilation of Their difference without remainder.
How is your course on Western Philosophy structured and how can it help in transcivilisational research?
In my course Introduction to Western Civilization (the lectures from which have been published as The Way of Being: Polytheism and the Western Knowledge System), I tried to follow the thread of a certain major train of thought which began, in some sense, in ancient Greece—though the sense of ‘beginning’ here is itself a major problem for thought, tracing this line of thought all the way into our own time in what is termed ‘the West’, this designation being another problem. I was trying, in effect, to grasp the project of ‘Western’ thought; not the project it has by any means understood itself to be undertaking at any given time, but the course that it actually set for itself through the problems it took up and the solutions it treated as successful at each stage, the transformations it imposed upon itself, never really understanding the consequences, but rather experimenting upon itself without prejudging the result. One cannot understand the Western knowledge system without recognizing this experimentalism running through it. And this is important, obviously, if one is going to attempt cross-cultural comparison, because that Western project has a powerful impetus toward appropriation and assimilation, and any tradition compared to it is likely being absorbed thereby into one or more of its ongoing experiments.