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Philosophy Then

Eastern Promises

Peter Adamson spots some similarities between ancient Greek and ancient Indian philosophies.

When you launch a podcast and book series promising to cover the history of philosophy ‘without any gaps’ as I did about five years ago, you’re asking for trouble. Aside from the intrinsic challenges of the task, it practically invites critics to complain about things you’ve left out. And I’ve had my fair share of complaints along these lines – usually justified. The most common one, which I started to hear almost as soon as the project began, was that I shouldn’t leave out the ‘Eastern’ philosophical traditions of India and China. My feeling was initially that I had a good excuse for not covering them – namely, my total ignorance. But in due course I decided that, like ignorance of the law, ignorance of philosophy is never a good excuse. Excluding India and China from my otherwise comprehensive survey would reinforce the widespread, if tacit, assumption in the West that these traditions don’t really count as part of the history of philosophy, where, at best, they would be exotic and intriguing optional subjects. Indeed, this is precisely the way they’re presented to philosophy undergraduates, when they’re available at all.

So recently I began to release episodes on Indian thought, ameliorating the admittedly pretty serious problem of my ignorance of it by teaming up with an expert, Jonardon Ganeri of NYU. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about philosophy in India, and become even more convinced of the importance of including this material in any comprehensive assessment of the history of philosophy. In the future I hope to extend the project to Chinese philosophy, and African too.

As we cover early Indian philosophy, we’re trying to avoid making constant comparisons to the ancient intellectual traditions of Europe, lest we suggest that Indian ideas are only valuable insofar as they remind us of Plato and the rest. Yet I have to admit that the resonances are sometimes so striking that it is irresistible to mention them.

I’ll give you just two examples. First, the Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna, who confronted his Hindu opponents with a critique so comprehensive that to describe it as ‘without any gaps’ would be selling it short. He argues that reality as it presents itself to us, and the language we use to describe it, are ‘empty’. Some of his arguments, and even more so, the methods of argument he devised in defense of this radical view, are strikingly similar to the skeptical techniques of Sextus Empiricus, who just happened to live at about the same time (2nd C. CE). My second example is the thinkers of the Carvaka school, whose devotion to both materialism and hedonism makes them seem uncannily like ancient Indian counterparts of the Epicureans.

Although these two parallels seem to me especially strong, other scholars have not been shy in seeing further resonances – for instance, between the idea of the transcendent reality called Brahman and the transcendent principles of Platonism, or more generally, the orientation towards ethics that underlies both classical Greek and classical Indian philosophy. Both traditions saw philosophy not just as a scholastic, technical enterprise (even if both traditions had their share of that), but as a way of life.

Inevitably, we are tempted ask whether a connection between the two cultures explains such similarities. It’s not implausible. After all, Alexander the Great’s armies reached India, and his successors continued to have dealings with the subcontinent. A key text of ancient Indian thought, the Milinda-pañha (c.100 BCE), an early Buddhist work, even depicts a dialogue between a sage called Nagasena and the Hellenistic king of Bactria, Menander. Although we can assume that the involvement of Menander is fictional, it is significant that a Greek king was chosen as Nagasena’s interlocutor.

On the other hand, finding real proof of a historical connection between the philosophical traditions isn’t so easy. Beyond tantalizing remarks about the skeptic Pyrrho having met some Indian sages, and the Neoplatonist Plotinus joining a military expedition to the East in hopes of learning about the philosophy of other cultures, evidence from antique literature is thin on the ground. Compounding this is the fact that the thought of, say, Sextus or Nagarjuna can be explained quite nicely without appealing to mutual influence. Sextus was responding to the Stoics, and Nagarjuna to the metaphysics of the brahminical tradition. It makes perfect sense that they would independently devise self-consciously skeptical positions as a counterpoint to the ‘dogmatic’ schools of thought they were attacking. Or again, Plotinus’s brand of Platonism seems to be a natural development from the philosophers who led up to him – something we miss if we ignore the so-called ‘Middle Platonists’, who were important influences on his thought, although little known about nowadays.

Speaking for myself, it’s too early in my exploration of Indian philosophy for me to have a firm view on mutual historical influence between these two philosophical traditions. In later periods, the influence of the Indian heritage on other cultures is of course beyond doubt. Many will think of Schopenhauer, but I think of Dara Shikuh, a Muslim prince of seventeenth century Mughal India. He translated the Upanishads into Arabic, and even detected a reference to this ancient text in the Qu’ran. For him, the Islamic and Indian worldviews were not just compatible, but in deep agreement – something he tried to prove in a treatise called the Confluence of the Oceans, referring to the meeting of these two great traditions. If he’d been there to advise me when I first launched my podcast, Dara Shikuh would surely have encouraged me to avoid an India-shaped gap in my narrative, and reminded me that no one culture has a monopoly on wisdom.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2016

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1 & 2, available from OUP. Both are based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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