The passage that follows is from the opening of Chapter 10: “Music and Civilization” of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (pp. 222-226). It is about how the Greeks reconceived themselves through a process that Jean Piaget has called reflective abstraction. I look at this, first in the domain of emotion (Julian Jaynes) and then in that of drama (Nietzsche). Note that here and there I refer to the mind as “neural weather,” a metaphor I develop early in the book. The idea is simply that the mind is a constantly shifting mass of neural firings as the weather is a constantly shifting mass of molecular collisions.
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In 1967, a book with an ungainly title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, created a minor sensation with an astonishingly quixotic and original thesis: human consciousness originated in ancient Greece sometime between Homer and an Athenian Golden Age. That is to say, Homer was a Hellenic zombie telling heroic tales about older zombies. Night of the Living Dead had opened in Athens and was playing to a packed house.
The author, Julian Jaynes, stages this argument by noting that Iliad and Odyssey contain many episodes in which humans receive direction from gods and goddesses, and do not contain many words referring to mental states and actions. He takes the first observation at face value and concludes that the Homeric Greeks heard inner voices and acted on what they heard. From the fact that mental words had become common by the time of the Athenian Golden Age, he concludes that by that time, human consciousness had emerged. The inner voices were no longer necessary as their function was subsumed by consciousness; Jaynes would thus have us believe that the creation of concepts about mental states and acts gave rise to consciousness.
However skeptical I am about aspects of Jaynes's theory—for example, the idea that Sophocles was conscious while Homer was not is deeply odd—something very important clearly happened in the period he surveys. Jaynes seems to have assumed that the absence of words about mental states means there was no consciousness. I see no reason to accept such an assumption. If one thinks of consciousness they way Walter Freeman does, then rabbits and dogs are conscious. But they have no words for mental states either.
If we reject Jaynes’ claim about consciousness, however, we can still accept some of the reasoning that accompanies it. The important observation is that mental terms were scarce in Homeric times, but not in Sophoclean and later times. If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind. Similarly, Sophocles' Oedipus the King would not have been possible in Homer's time precisely because it takes place in a mental realm. It is about mental events, acts of knowing or denial.
I submit that this change is about the emergence, not of consciousness itself, but of a whole range of new modes of consciousness, new ways to use the mind, new patterns of neural weather. Another way of talking about this change is to use Jean Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction. In his studies of child development, Piaget proposed that conceptual development proceeds through a series of stages in which the mental mechanisms of later stages objectify those that were used in earlier stages. The conceptual development that Jaynes has identified is like this.
Jaynes’ analysis centers on a handful of terms. As used in the Iliad these words refer to bodily symptoms, but they later come to have mental referents, such as mind or spirit. One of these terms is thumos:
It refers to a mass of internal sensations in response to environmental crises. ... This includes the dilation of the blood vessels in striate muscles and in the heart, an increase in tremor of striate muscles, a burst of blood pressure, the constriction of blood vessels in the abdominal viscera and in the skin, the relaxing of smooth muscles, and the sudden increased energy from the sugar released into the blood from the liver, and possible perceptual changes with the dilation of the pupil of the eye. This complex was, then, the internal pattern of sensation that preceded particularly violent activity in a critical situation. And by doing so repeatedly, the pattern of sensation begins to take on the term for the activity itself. Thereafter, it is the thumos which gives strength to a warrior in battle. ...
The next step is to conceptualize thumos as a container of various psychological substances such as vigor, and as an agent responsible for some class of psychological acts. Once Jaynes has made similar arguments for the other terms, it seems obvious that the conceptualization of mind we find in classical Greek thinkers is constructed over sets of bodily symptoms we now recognize as being regulated by the brain centers most directly responsible for motivation and emotion.
Once the Greeks have words for these mental and physical states they can use those words in examining their experience and formulating new ideas. They can begin to think about their neural weather in a new way. They have, in a sense, objectified the mind.
Consider a different scenario. Imagine, first of all, a ritual of the type we examined in the previous chapter. Everyone in the community participates, but some have central roles that perhaps require more elaborate costuming and make-up, more intricate dance steps, and more singing. These people occupy the center of the ritual space. The others surround them, actively participating through song and dance, but their steps are not so elaborate, their singing more circumscribed.
You are seated in an amphitheatre carved out of a hillside and are observing this scene on the stage before you, down at the bottom of the hill—perhaps the theater of Dionysus below the Acropolis in Athens. You are now watching a play. The social interaction between central and peripheral ritual celebrants, been the complete dynamics of a society at a given ritual moment, is now arrayed before you. The whole social system has become objectified and available for your contemplation.
This play is, in fact, an ancient Greek tragedy, perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. The little story I told about it is, I suggest, what Frederich Nietzsche had in mind in The Birth of Tragedy. Like many scholars of his time, Nietzsche was interested in the origins of things. Linguists were in search of humankind’s first language, the biologists hunted for the origins of the species, and classicists wanted to know where Greek tragedy came from. It came from prior ritual, they supposed, but how?
Nietzsche begins, in effect, by proposing a theory of mind, of neural weather. He sets forth his well-known opposition between “the Apollonian art of sculpture, and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music,” asking us to “first conceive of them as the separate art worlds of dreams and intoxication.” The particular intoxication he has in mind is that of the Dionysian festivals, in which the celebrants get drunk on wine, song, and dance. Nietzsche thus plants himself firmly in the territory we have been exploring. Whatever his interest in historical details about when and where those festivals took place, he was most interested in understanding tragedy as a form of neural weather. That is, like Jaynes a century later, he saw a new mode of consciousness emerging.
Nietzsche’s solution is, in effect, to have the Dionysian chorus frame and present the Apollonian action of the principal celebrants. He asks us to imagine “the reveling throng” as it must have existed before the development of tragedy, where “the votaries of Dionysus jubilate under the spell of such moods and insight whose power transforms them before their own eyes till they imagine that they are beholding themselves as restored geniuses of nature, as satyrs.” Nietzsche then goes on to say that “The later constitution of the chorus in tragedy is the artistic imitation of this natural phenomenon” and that “there was at bottom no opposition between public and chorus.” That is, the chorus of Greek tragedy is a latter-day reconstruction of the Dionysian band.
Continuing on, we are asked to believe that “the scene, complete with the action, was basically and originally thought of merely as a vision,” that is, as being Apollonian in character. Through his Dionysian identification with the choristers, the spectator adopts their vision—that is, the central action of the tragedy—for himself and thus enters fully into the dramatic action. Nietzsche concludes by saying that “we recognize in tragedy a sweeping opposition of styles...the Dionysian lyrics of the chorus...the Apollonian dream world.”
Judged as history, Nietzsche’s theory is not very good. More recent scholarship suggests that Greek tragedy is not a lineal descendant of the Dionysian cults that so fascinated him. But it is by no means clear that getting the history right would have helped Nietzsche much. Nietzsche was grappling with the same subject Jaynes grappled with, a subject much more difficult to conceptualize than the provenance of the various texts and artifacts that are the evidentiary foundation of archeological and historical thinking. Nietzsche took the differences between texts and artifacts separated by relatively long intervals as evidence of a major change in the Greek’s collective neural weather.
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Let me end this post with a last metaphor, that of the Russian doll. My explication of Nietzsche says that, in effect, basic ritual is the innermost doll. The Greek chorus, then, is the next doll up, containing that innermost doll. Greek society in-the-large is the next doll. So we have three dolls.
Can we go four? Not, I believe, in the ancient world. But I have argued, in a paper on The Evolution of Narrative, that the emergence of the modern novel in the 17th century marks the construction of a fourth doll. We can see that, for example, by comparing Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Both narratives span two generations in which the first generation narrative ends in tragedy while the second generation narrative ends happily. But Brontë’s novel use a complex double narration—Nellie Dean to Lockwood, Lockwood to the reader—of a sort that is completely absent in Shakespeare (and his contemporaries).
She has conceptual machinery that he didn’t have and that double narration is the most obvious trace of that machinery. But it is not the only one. Both stories are explicitly concerned about character, about a person’s nature. In The Winter’s Tale this takes the form of commentary about how a lowly shepherdess, Perdita, is nonetheless worthhy of a prince, Florizel. In Wuthering Heights it takes the form of remarks about how the personalities of second generation people are blends of the personality traits exhibited by their first generation parents. Such discussion, I submit, was just beyond Shakespeare and his audience, but was routine for Brontë and hers.
So does culture evolve beyond itself, doll upon doll upon doll . . .