The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)
Part II. HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD
Chapter 8. THE ANCIENT WORLD
IN HIS BOOK FACES: THE CHANGING LOOK OF HUMANKIND, MILTON BRENER HAS presented a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in antiquity.1 Noting that 90 per cent of emotional communication is non-verbal, and that most of this is expressed through the face (described by Georg Lichtenberg as ‘the most entertaining surface on earth’),2 he begins by reflecting that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals; where there are humans, there is often only a pelvis, buttocks and breasts, and almost all figurines are headless; where there is a head, though there may be hair, there is no face. When faces first begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualised. He makes a case that the earliest drawings, in their lack of spatial orientation or relationship between parts, repetition of stereotypic abstract patterns, and description of what we know rather than what we see (for example, the so-called ‘X-ray’ portrayal of the human being, showing the bones inside the body) show suggestive points of comparison with the productions of neuropsychiatric patients relying on the left hemisphere alone.3 Additionally Brener refers to evidence that subjects with dyslexia and prosopagnosia (inability to recognise individuals by face), both of whom have problems of right-hemisphere functioning, exhibit a preference for the ‘primitive’ facial pattern, found in early art, of inexpressive schematic features.4
The importance of the right hemisphere in ‘processing’ faces and apprehending facial expressions, in feeling and expressing emotions, including and especially through the face, in feeling empathy and in appreciating individuality, has been referred to above (Chapter 2), as has the basis in the right hemisphere for the capacity for aesthetic enjoyment. The relatively sudden change that came over the portrayal of the human face in the period beginning in the sixth century BC, and particularly from the fourth century, in Greece, in which the more abstracted, stereotypic and inexpressive gaze of Egyptian and early Greek representations of the face and head gives way to portraiture which is more individualised, varied, emotionally expressive and empathic, is attributed by Brener to a rapid advancement in functioning of the right hemisphere in Greece at around the same period. Other evidence for this, according to Brener, would be evolution of a body of highly expressive poetry rich in metaphor, the evolution of the idea of the individual as having legitimate claims to be balanced with those of the community at large, and a sense of empathy with others in general, as well as an interest in the natural world – to which I would add a sense of humour based on ironic appreciation of the pathos of man's position in the world as a ‘being towards death’.
In support of his thesis, Brener cites the work of Hans-Joachim Hufschmidt, a German scholar who has studied the direction of gaze in 50,000 portrayals of the human face over time.5 This work, published in 1980, yields a remarkable finding. It seems that early two-dimensional representations tend to show the face either looking straight ahead or looking towards the viewer's right. However, during the period between the sixth century BC and the Hellenistic period, there is a clear shift of orientation, so that the majority of portraits come to face in the opposite direction, towards the viewer's left.
In 1973, Chris McManus and Nick Humphrey had already published in Nature the results of a study of approximately 1,400 Western portrait paintings from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, showing that there is a tendency during this period, also, for the sitter to be portrayed looking to the viewer's left.6 These findings have since been confirmed by others.7 The implication appears to be that the focus of interest comes to lie in the viewer's left visual field (preferentially subserved by the right hemisphere), at the same time that the more emotionally expressive left hemiface of the subject (controlled by the subject's right hemisphere) is exposed to view.
The strength of Hufschmidt's research, apart from the enormous scale of his undertaking, is his inclusion of the ancient world. This reveals a distinct shift towards favouring the right hemisphere in the appreciation of representations of the human face from the sixth century BC onwards. According to Brener and Hufschmidt, the tendency was lost again in the Dark Ages, but re-emerged at the Renaissance. Other research has confirmed that the left-facing tendency was strongest in the fifteenth century, and has gradually waned until the twentieth century, when it reverted to the pattern of equal right and left profiles seen before the rise of Greek civilisation.8 This finding is of considerable interest in view of the thesis of this book, especially in relation to what I see as the rightward shift in the brain that occurred at the time of the Renaissance and the leftward shift that is evidenced in modernism.
The ‘natural’ tendency, as exhibited by the majority of face profiles drawn by children, is still to face left, even in some cases if they are copying a model that is facing to the right.9 Self-portraits tend to exhibit the opposite bias, towards the right, which is presumably because painters tend to orientate themselves in front of the mirror so that their image appears in their left visual field, which involves turning the face to the right so that the left side of the face is exposed – appearing in the mirror image as the right side of the face.10 A study of a long series of self-portraits by the famous German painter Lovis Corinth before and after the right-hemisphere stroke he experienced in 1911, shows that, following the stroke, he reversed both facial orientation and the direction of the light source in his paintings.11 (In most Western painting since the Renaissance, just as there is a tendency for the face to be turned to the left, there is a tendency for the light source to come from the left side.)12
Brener's thesis is original and deserves to be better known: it is one of the very few attempts I am aware of to relate movements in the history of ideas to cerebral lateralisation. While I accept the importance of the sudden standing forth at this time of a wide range of right-hemisphere functions, particularly as exemplified in the visual arts, my own take on this state of affairs is different from Brener's.
Greek civilisation brought many things that we would have to, at one level, associate with a sudden efflorescence of the left hemisphere, at least as much as the right: the beginnings of analytic philosophy, the codification of laws, the formalisation of systematic bodies of knowledge. These require the ability to stand back from and detach ourselves from the crowd, from nature and from ourselves, that we may objectify. This is in my view also the basis for the forging of bridges with others, and with nature, which classically and according to much of the neuropsychological literature, is mediated by the right hemisphere. To return to a somewhat Hegelian theme of an earlier chapter, union cannot exist without separation and distinction, but separation and distinction are of no use unless they form the prelude to a later, greater, union or synthesis.
I would therefore say that what happened was this. Initially there was a symmetrical, bihemispheric advance at this time – an advance in the functioning of the frontal lobes of both hemispheres. It is the frontal lobes that bring distance (in space) and delay (in time): they enable us to stand back from our world, and from ourselves. But this development, permitting as it does a far greater capacity to speculate, to consider the lessons of the past and to project possible worlds into the future, to build projects and schemes for the better governing of the state and for the increase of knowledge of the world at large, requires the ability to record: to make externalised, therefore more permanent, traces of the mind's workings, to fix, to freeze the constantly passing flow of life on the wing. It requires, therefore, a huge expansion of the realm of the written word, as well as the development of diagrams, formulas and maps; records of observations of nature; and records of the history of people and states. From what has been outlined in connection with re-presentation in the earlier parts of this book, it will be seen that this necessitates reliance on the left hemisphere, not the right. Such standing back is the essence of analytic philosophy, which is a left-hemisphere function – at least philosophy in the West since Plato and up to the time of Kant. The Greeks began this process of standing back; and the beginnings of analytical philosophy, of theorising about the political state, of the development of maps, of the observation of the stars and of the ‘objective’ natural world, all may be mediated by the left hemisphere; though the urge to do so at all comes from the right.
This ‘necessary distance’, brought about through the frontal lobes, by the very same token, makes it possible to see oneself as a self like other selves; to stand back and observe the human face objectively, so that it can be portrayed, as Brener shows, in such beautiful detail. It acts as midwife to the expansion of the right-hemisphere functions that Brener points to. The origins of the concept of the individual as distinct from, as well as bonded to, the community arise too at this time, initially through the ability to achieve distance.13 This standing back enables us to see so much more of whatever is – it unfolds, makes explicit, our understanding; but once this has happened it expands the capacity of the right hemisphere to reintegrate this understanding implicitly. And from this come all the right-hemisphere advances that I agree with Brener characterise this period of Greek history: the rise of certain aspects of the ‘self'; empathy with others; imaginative, metaphoric language and art; humour and irony; the discrimination of individual faces, emotional expression, and so on.
In summary, therefore, whereas Brener would see overall a straightforward opposition of the two hemispheres, with a perhaps hard-to-explain advance in right-hemisphere functions at the expense of the left occurring at this time, I would see a rise in bilateral frontal lobe function initially, which both necessitates an advance of the left hemisphere to underwrite the ‘distance’ involved and, through the creation of necessary distance, enables the right hemisphere to expand its capacity. I do not deny the evidence of right-hemisphere advance, simply relate it differently to the roles of the left hemisphere and frontal lobes.
It might be asked, since my formulation involves both hemispheres making advances, why it is necessary to invoke hemisphere differences at all. Why not, after all, drop the whole hemisphere issue and just return to the common-sense view that there was a general advance in knowledge, or imagination, or creativity, in some undifferentiated sense at this time? My response is that this completely fails to engage with the main feature of this advance, namely that it involves moves in two diametrically opposed directions at once – towards greater abstraction from the world and, simultaneously, towards greater empathic engagement with the world. In other words the differences between what the hemispheres now ‘do’ or deliver, as attested by all the data referred to and discussed in the earlier parts of this book, get to be greatly accentuated at this time. A new, undoubtedly fruitful, tension arises from this accentuation of the divergence between the two worlds delivered by the hemispheres. And, since the data that we have on hemisphere difference are derived almost exclusively from Westerners over the last hundred years or so, we do not know whether the same differences to the same degree have always existed or exist elsewhere in the world. All we can say is that they must have arisen at some point in the history of Western man at least; and, since the first place that we see evidence of cultural activity expressive of a relatively independently functioning left hemisphere, and of a relatively independently functioning right hemisphere, is in Greece during this period, it may be that what we are witnessing is a (relative) disconnection or sundering of the hemispheres, and the origins of hemisphere specialisation as we now know it.
This leads me to a consideration of the thesis of Julian Jaynes's remarkable classic, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.14 This book, now more than 30 years old, caused a stir when first published and has remained in debate ever since. Jaynes, who was a psychologist at Princeton with an interest in the ancient world, put forward a thesis that consciousness, in the sense of introspective self-awareness, first arose in Homeric Greece. He posits that, when the heroes of the Iliad (and the Old Testament) are reported as having heard the voices of the gods (or God) giving them commands or advice, this is not a figurative expression: they literally heard voices. The voices were speaking their own intuitive thoughts, and arose from their own minds, but were perceived as external, because at this time man was becoming newly aware of his own (hitherto unconscious) intuitive thought processes. These intuitive thought processes Jaynes identifies with the workings of the right hemisphere. He compares the phenomenon with the auditory hallucinations experienced in schizophrenia, in which there is some evidence that the speech that ‘surfaces’ as a hallucination may be arising from the right hemisphere. His contention, which it will be apparent is almost contrary to my own, is that, at this time, there was a breakdown of the previously ‘bicameral’ mind, a mind with two distinct chambers, or hemispheres, and that it was the relatively sudden, disconcerting access of the left hemisphere to the workings of the right hemisphere that resulted in the phenomena described.
There is much to admire about this imaginative and in some ways eccentric book, but it remains a fact that, while Jaynes's hypothesis continues to be as widely read as ever, it has not been taken up or expanded by psychologists. Perhaps this was inevitable with a hypothesis of such breadth and originality, lying so much outside the mainstream of psychological research. But I think there is at least one other important reason. In keeping with a view more fashionable at the time he was writing, and based on a psychoanalytic interpretation of schizophrenia as a regressive state of unfettered emotionalism, lack of self-awareness and relative disinhibition, he sees schizophrenia as a return to a more ancient, perhaps ‘primitive’, form of mental functioning, in which the effects of civilisation have not been permitted, as in the rest of us, to overlay the primary processes of mental life with rationalisation, the voices that schizophrenic subjects experience not yet dismissed as simply an aspect of our own thought processes. If there are parallels between the hearing of voices in the ancient world and in schizophrenia, his argument goes, that is because these mental processes are a sign of a more primitive structure and organisation of the mental world (in respect both of phylogeny and of ontogeny). One can see that his argument necessitates this. The inhabitants of the ancient world heard voices, literally, but we no longer do; schizophrenics hear voices and we do not; ergo, schizophrenia must involve a regression to a primitive form of mentation.
The problem with this is that all the evidence suggests that schizophrenia is a relatively modern disease, quite possibly existent only since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, and that its principal psychopathological features have nothing to do with regression towards irrationality, lack of self-awareness, and a retreat into the infantile realm of emotion and the body, but entail the exact opposites: a sort of misplaced hyper-rationalism, a hyper-reflexive self-awareness, and a disengagement from emotion and embodied existence. This is awkward for his position.
I believe Jaynes was near to making a breakthrough – did in fact make one – but that, perhaps derailed by the view of schizophrenia outlined above, his conclusion was diametrically opposed to the one he should have drawn. His insight that there was a connection between the voices of the gods and changes in the mental world of those who heard them, that this might have something to do with the brain, and indeed that it concerned the relationship between the hemispheres, remains, in my view, fundamentally correct. However, I believe he got one important aspect of the story back to front. His contention that the phenomena he describes came about because of a breakdown of the ‘bicameral’ mind – so that the two hemispheres, previously separate, now merged – is the precise inverse of what happened. The phenomena came about because of a relative separation of the two chambers, the two hemispheres. Phenomena that were previously uncomplicatedly experienced as part of a relatively unified consciousness now became alien. Intuitions, no longer acted on unselfconsciously, no longer ‘transparent’, no longer simply subsumed into action without the necessity of deliberation, became objects of consciousness, brought into the plane of attention, opaque, objectified. Where there had been previously no question of whether the workings of the mind were ‘mine’, since the question would have had no meaning – there being no cut off between the mind and the world around, no possibility of standing back from one's own thought processes to ascribe them to oneself or anyone or anything else – there was now a degree of detachment which enabled the question to arise, and led to the intuitive, less explicit, thought processes being objectified as voices (as they are in schizophrenia), viewed as coming from ‘somewhere else’. This interpretation, moreover, has the advantage that it fits with what we know about the tendency in schizophrenia to bring into conscious awareness processes normally left unconscious and intuitive.
Putting it at its simplest, where Jaynes interprets the voices of the gods as being due to the disconcerting effects of the opening of a door between the hemispheres, so that the voices could for the first time be heard, I see them as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, ‘other'; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny – in a word, divine.
My thesis is that the separation of the hemispheres brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. It made possible a standing outside of the ‘natural’ frame of reference, the common-sense everyday way in which we see the world. In doing so it enabled us to build on that ‘necessary distance’ from the world and from ourselves, achieved originally by the frontal lobes, and gave us insight into things that otherwise we could not have seen, even making it possible for us to form deeper empathic connections with one another and with the world at large. The best example of this is the fascinating rise of drama in the Greek world, in which the thoughts and feelings of our selves and of others are apparently objectified, and yet returned to us as our own. A special sort of seeing arises, in which both distance and empathy are crucial.
But the separation also sowed the seeds of left-hemisphere isolationism, allowing the left hemisphere to work unchecked. At this stage in cultural history, the two hemispheres were still working largely together, and so the benefits outweighed by a long way the disadvantages, but the disadvantages became more apparent over time.
For the sake of simplicity, I will deal with the changes in more or less chronological order, beginning with what one might call the archaic period at least as far as the seventh century BC, moving on to consider the changes of the sixth and fifth centuries up to the time of Plato separately, and then dealing with the later period from Plato onwards.
It is not known whether the great Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were the work of one individual or of several, and their date is also much debated: they clearly draw on an established tradition, and may have been worked on by a number of poets before they reached their written form, possibly around the second half of the eighth century BC. It is equally uncertain whether the composing and writing down of the poems were done by the same person or persons. Whoever it was that composed or wrote them, they are notable for being the earliest works of Western civilisation that exemplify a number of characteristics that are of interest to us. For in their most notable qualities – their ability to sustain a unified theme and produce a single, whole coherent narrative over a considerable length, in their degree of empathy, and insight into character, and in their strong sense of noble values (Scheler's Lebenswerte and above) – they suggest a more highly evolved right hemisphere.
That might make one think of the importance to the right hemisphere of the human face. Yet, despite this, there are in Homeric epic few descriptions of faces. There is no doubt about the reality of the emotions experienced by the figures caught up in the drama of the Iliad or the Odyssey: their feelings of pride, hate, envy, anger, shame, pity and love are the stuff of which the drama is made. But for the most part these emotions are conveyed as relating to the body and to bodily gesture, rather than the face – though there are moments, such as at the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey, when we seem to see the faces of the characters, Penelope's eyes full of tears, those of Odysseus betraying the ‘ache of longing rising from his breast’. The lack of emphasis on the face might seem puzzling at a time of increasing empathic engagement, but I think there is a reason for this.
In Homer, as I mentioned in Part I, there was no word for the body as such, nor for the soul or the mind, for that matter, in the living person. The so-ma was what was left on the battlefield, and the psuche- was what took flight from the lips of the dying warrior. In the living person, when Homer wants to speak of someone's mind or thoughts, he refers to what is effectively a physical organ – Achilles, for example, ‘consulting his thumos’. Although the thumos is a source of vital energy within that leads us to certain actions, the thumos has fleshly characteristics such as requiring food and drink, and a bodily situation, though this varies. According to Michael Clarke's Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer, Homeric man does not have a body or a mind: ‘rather this thought and consciousness are as inseparable a part of his bodily life as are movement and metabolism’.15 The body is indistinguishable from the whole person.16 ‘Thinking, emotion, awareness, reflection, will’ are undertaken in the breast, not the head: ‘the ongoing process of thought is conceived of as if it were precisely identified with the palpable inhalation of the breath, and the half-imagined mingling of breath with blood and bodily fluids in the soft, warm, flowing substances that make up what is behind the chest wall.’17 He stresses the importance of flow, of melting and of coagulation. The common ground of meaning is not in a particular static thing but in the ongoing process of living, which ‘can be seen and encapsulated in different contexts by a length of time or an oozing liquid’. These are all images of transition between different states of flux, different degrees of permanence, and allowing the possibility of ambiguity: ‘The relationship between the bodily and mental identity of these entities is subtle and elusive.’18 Here there is no necessity for the question ‘is this mind or is it body?’ to have a definitive answer. Such forbearance, however, had become impossible by the time of Plato, and remains, according to current trends in neurophilosophy, impossible today.
Words suggestive of the mind, the thumos ‘family’, for example, range fluidly and continuously between actor and activity, between the entity that thinks and the thoughts or emotions that are its products.19Here Clarke is speaking of terms such as is, aio-n, menos. ‘The life of Homeric man is defined in terms of processes more precisely than of things.’20 Menos, for example, refers to force or strength, and can also mean semen, despite being often located in the chest. But it also refers to ‘the force of violent self-propelled motion in something non-human’, perhaps like Scheler's Drang: again more an activity than a thing.21
This profound embodiment of thought and emotion, this emphasis on processes that are always in flux, rather than on single, static entities, this refusal of the ‘either/or’ distinction between mind and body, all perhaps again suggest a right-hemisphere-dependent version of the world. But what is equally obvious to the modern mind is the relative closeness of the point of view. And that, I believe, helps to explain why there is little description of the face: to attend to the face requires a degree of detached observation. That there is here a work of art at all, a capacity to frame human existence in this way, suggests, it is true, a degree of distance, as well as a degree of co-operation of the hemispheres in achieving it. But it is the gradual evolution of greater distance in post-Homeric Greek culture that causes the efflorescence, the ‘unpacking’, of both right and left hemisphere capacities in the service of both art and science.
With that distance comes the term closest to the modern, more disembodied, idea of mind, nous (or noos), which is rare in Homer. When nous does occur in Homer, it remains distinct, almost always intellectual, not part of the body in any straightforward sense: according to Clarke it ‘may be virtually identified with a plan or stratagem’.22 In conformation to the processes of the left hemisphere, it is like the flight of an arrow, directional.23
By the late fifth and fourth centuries, separate ‘concepts of body and soul were firmly fixed in Greek culture’.24 In Plato, and thence for the next two thousand years, the soul is a prisoner in the body, as he describes it in the Phaedo, awaiting the liberation of death.
Jaynes makes the observation that in Homer ‘there is also no concept of will or word for it, the concept developing curiously late in Greek thought. Thus, Iliadic men have no will of their own and certainly no notion of free will.’25 Here Jaynes seems to me too modern, too little forbearing, in his approach to what has to remain unresolved. For the gods were seen at the implicit level as aligned in some sense with the self, however distinct they may have been at the explicit level. Clarke refers to what he calls a ‘double plane of causation’: sudden thoughts and emotions are seen both as the intervention of personal deities and at the same time as an aspect of independent human psychology. ‘The crux is that the two planes exist in harmony, and the god's intervention need not imply that the mortal man is less fully responsible for his actions.’ Similarly poetic skills come from oneself and from the gods; and, in general, thought comes from oneself and from divine prompting.26 E. R. Dodds, in The Greeks and the Irrational, wrote that in Homer the gods represented ‘an interference with human life by nonhuman agencies which put something into a man and thereby influence his thought and conduct’,27 which again makes things seem more cut and dried than, particularly in the light of Clarke's book, I believe they were. So ‘my’ will was not, at this stage, just the left hemisphere, conscious striving, but also the right hemisphere, intuitive attraction to values and ideals, represented by the voices of the gods.
Christopher Gill provides a subtle analysis of the way in which, in the Homeric era, the sense of the self is intimately bound up with ‘interpersonal and communal dialogue’ in a shared ethical life,28 an analysis which provides fascinating confirmation of the view that pre-Hellenistic Greece was much less subject to the effects of left-hemisphere domination than it later came to be. Partly as a consequence of this, what count as ‘my’ thoughts, beliefs, intentions, etc., do not have to be those which I am consciously aware are mine. The point is excellently made. It is good to bear this in mind while reading the story told by Bruno Snell in his classic The Discovery of the Mind, in my view still a fascinating analysis of the degree to which certain concepts were or were not present to the ancient Greek consciousness, and of the evolution of, precisely, the conscious and self-conscious mind during this period.29
I have talked of the necessity of seeing from a certain optimal distance. What do we know about how the Greeks did see the world? If we look at Greek words for vision, we find a very rich variety. What is striking is how many of them imply the quality of experience of the one who sees, or the quality of what is seen, as well as the relationship between the eye and what it beholds. The idea of the eye coldly transmitting certain sense data to our perception, of it apprehending its object, does not enter the language until late.
Homer uses a great variety of words to denote sight: Snell notes at least nine.30 When Homer says of an eagle that he looks very sharply – oxytaton derketai – he has in mind the beams of the eagle's eye, like the ‘sharp’ rays of the sun that Homer refers to. Derkesthai denotes, therefore, not just an eye as we might say ‘registering’ something, but a fierce glance that rests on its object. Paptainein ‘denotes a visual attitude, and does not hinge upon the function of sight as such’. It is a way of looking about inquisitively, carefully, or with fear. Leussein is to see something bright, and expresses a ‘pride, joy and a feeling of freedom’. As a result this verb is characteristically found in the first person, and ‘derives its special significance from a mode of seeing; not the function of sight, but the object seen, and the sentiments associated with the sight, give the word its peculiar quality’.31 Theasthai is to gaze in astonishment with wide open eyes; and ossesthai, ‘to have a threatening impression’, something like ‘to suspect’.
Eventually the principal parts of the verb idein, to see, were brought together from three different verbs: horan, idein and opsesthai. What is clear is that there was originally no single word to convey the simple function of sight tout court. There were originally only words for relations with things, the quality of the experience, how the ‘seer’ stood towards the ‘seen’.32 In other words sight had not been abstracted yet from its context within the lived world, where it is reverberative, itself alive, an expressive of betweenness – not yet thought of as unidirectional, detached, dead: not yet observation.
By contrast theorein, the origin of our word ‘theory’, is a much later word. Here it takes on the meaning we normally associate with seeing, the eye apprehending an object. Interestingly it was not originally a verb, but is a back-formation from the word for a spectator, theoros. What I take from this is that it is derived from what was thought of as a special situation, one of greater than usual detachment from a ‘spectacle’. Words for ‘thinking’, in the sense of abstract cognition, and words for ‘seeing’ come to be closely related. The prominence, after the Homeric era, of theorein and noein, when compared with the earlier terms for seeing, marks a degree of abstraction from what is under consideration. A related distinction, touched on above, arises between aspects of the mind, between thymos and noos: very broadly thymosis instinct, what keeps the body in motion, coupled with emotion, whereas noos is reflection, ideas and images. Already, it would appear, the Greeks were making felt distinctions between thought and experience as mediated by the left hemisphere and as mediated by the right.
THOUGHT AND EXPERIENCE IN CLASSICAL GREECE
In or around the sixth century BC a radical change in the way we think about the world seems to have occurred, which is conventionally seen as the beginnings of philosophy (according to Bertrand Russell, ‘philosophy begins with Thales’).33 Although many speculations were made over the next few hundred years, obviously leading to differing, sometimes opposed, conclusions, I would venture to say that the starting point in each case was one underlying perception: an intellectual sense of wonder at the sheer fact of existence, and, consequently, a conviction that our normal ways of construing the world are profoundly mistaken. In hindsight, one could call this an awareness of radical inauthenticity, and I believe it stems from the achievement of a degree of distance from the world.
In the light of what we know about the hemispheres, one could predict that this might lead in broadly one of two directions. It could lead to a turning away from the conceptualisation of experience, an attempt to rid perceptual phenomena of their customary accretions of thought, which render the world inauthentically familiar: a return from the re-presentation of reality towards an active openness to the ‘presencing’ of what is. In other words, a return to the authenticity of the right-hemisphere world. Or it could lead in the opposite direction, to a discrediting of the testimony of the senses, now seen as the root of deception, and a turning further inwards to the contemplation of the contents of the mind alone. In other words, not to a return to the right-hemisphere world, but on the contrary a rejection of it, since it now comes to be seen as intrinsically inauthentic, and therefore as invalid.
I believe we see both processes, but that they follow a progression. At first we see an equitable balance, governed by an awareness of the primacy of the right hemisphere, but with time the balance shifts ever further towards the triumph of the left.
The most familiar point of commonality in pre-Socratic philosophy is an attempt to reconcile a sense of the apparent unity of the phenomenal world with its obvious diversity. This suggested that there should be some common originary principle, or arch , from which all things came: the multiplicity of appearances, phenomena, being a reflection of the mutability of the primary substance, which underlies everything and could metamorphose between different states. This project could (in my view, falsely) be seen as monistic: I would see it, not as a reduction of the many to the one, but as a way of accounting for division within unity, while at the same time respecting the reality of both.
Russell's ‘first philosopher’, Thales, like his successors in the Milesian school, of which he was, in the early sixth century, the founder, was a dedicated observer of the natural world: he made discoveries in astronomy – he is said to have correctly predicted an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC – and used mathematics to address problems in engineering. He posited that the primary principle of all things, that from which they originate and to which they return, was water, a conclusion which it is assumed he derived from the obvious transitions of water between solid, liquid and gaseous states, and its omnipresence in living things.
However, Anaximander, Thales’ pupil, took things much further. He posited that all things arise from, and ultimately return to, an originary principle that he called the ‘unbounded’ or the ‘indefinite’ (apeiron). This carries with it the suggestion of something that cannot be qualified, and therefore must be approached apophatically (apeiron literally means undefined, or unlimited), and that has neither beginning nor end, and therefore is an endless source, from which things eternally arise and to which they eternally return, forever in process, rather than an arch that simply occupies a static point in time, or acts as origin of a chain of causation. Although not accessible to direct perception, the apeiron nonetheless accounted for phenomenal aspects of the world. Central to the idea of the apeiron is that it must be able to contain within itself, without their mutual annihilation, all opposing principles: no other candidate for the role, as Anaximander rightly saw, such as water, or any other conceivable physical element, could fulfil this condition (for a start, water cannot give rise to dryness). These opposing principles within the apeiron, according to Anaximander, are of crucial importance. They balance one another, and it is this giving and taking, this ebb and flow of opposites, that gives rise to all things, since, as he puts it, they ‘pay retribution to one another’ for their trespasses on each other, according to an inescapable logic in things: ‘When things perish, they return whence they come to be, in accordance with necessity, for they give to each other recompense for their injustice according to the ordinance of time’.34
In contrast with his pupil Anaximenes, whose candidate for the arch was another element (in his case, air), Anaximander yields a number of insights: into the necessary, both productive and destructive, nature of the coming together of opposites; into the primacy of what is neither definite nor finite; and into the nature of the arch as process, rather than thing – all, in my view, insights into the right-hemisphere world, though the process of philosophy, reasoning about the causes and nature of the world, and trying to systematise it, may itself come from the left hemisphere.35
Though fragments are all that remain to us of Heraclitus, as with the other pre-Socratic philosophers, significantly more of them survive, and those that have survived have a taciturn, apophthegmatic, and often paradoxical, quality that has made them an endlessly rich resource for interpretation over the centuries. This very fact has been held against Heraclitus by those who see understanding as necessarily determinate, transmissible through clarity, a commodity to be exported and imported, rather than something fruitfully undetermined, perhaps inevitably incomplete, requiring an individual process of exploration, and evoked from within us by a response to the suggestive possibility in the text. (Once again let me emphasise that I do not imply that ‘anything goes’, only that whatever it is that does go is unlikely to be neatly conformable to everyday language.)
Heraclitus’ exact dates are unknown, but he flourished in the late sixth century BC. He came from Ephesus, an opulent rival city to the north of Miletus, and he cared little for the philosophy of the Milesians. He had a poor opinion of the dmos (the masses), had no pupils or followers, and, according to Diogenes Laertius, characteristically deposited his book as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis, where the general public would not have had access to it.36
Heraclitus held that the nature of things is intrinsically hard to seek out using the tools with which we would normally equip ourselves for the task. Our natural assumptions and our common ways of thinking will lead us astray, and we need to be both wary and indefatigable in our seeking after truth. ‘He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected’, he wrote, ‘for it is trackless and unexplored';37 the nature of things, and therefore the truthful evocation of them, is such that it ‘neither declares nor conceals, but gives a sign’.38 The Heraclitus scholar Charles Kahn writes that the ‘parallel between Heraclitus’ style and the obscurity of the nature of things, between the difficulty of understanding him and the difficulty in human perception, is not arbitrary: to speak plainly about such a subject would be to falsify it in the telling, for no genuine understanding would be communicated’.39 The point is not that the nature of things is contradictory, but that the attempt to render them in language leads inevitably to what we call paradox, and the attempt to avoid paradox therefore distorts.40
The hiddenness or necessarily implicit quality of Nature requires a particularly alert flexibility on the part of those who go to approach her. ‘Hidden structure is superior to manifest structure';41 and openness is required by the seeker of wisdom, as well as enquiry into many different things: ‘men who love wisdom’, he wrote, ‘must be good enquirers into many things indeed’, for ‘Nature loves to hide’.42 He held that ‘one could not reach the ends of the soul though one travelled every way, so deep is its measure [logos]’, (possibly ‘so deep is what it has to tell us’).43 Heraclitus shared Thales’ view that ‘all things are full of gods’44 : for him all things are full of soul, and there is no sharp divide between mind or soul and the world of matter.45 Bruno Snell says that Heraclitus, who was ‘the first writer to feature the new concept of the soul’, in speaking of its depth was drawing on a history of archaic poetry containing such words as bathyphron, deep-pondering, and bathymetes, deep-thinking. ‘Concepts like “deep knowledge”, “deep thinking”, “deep pondering”, as well as “deep pain” are common enough in the archaic period. In these expressions, the symbol of depth always points to the infinity of the intellectual and spiritual, which differentiates it from the physical.’46
Heraclitus’ response to the misleading nature of re-presentation, to the way things seem, is not to go further in that direction, away from phenomena, but to look again at what our experience tells us. In other words, he does not advise a turning inwards in order to discover the nature of reality, but a patient and careful attention to the phenomenal world. Most people, he says, make the mistake of prioritising opinion, their ideas, over experience, over ‘things as they encounter them’.47 Thus ‘whatever comes from sight, hearing, learning from experience: this I prefer’. Elsewhere he writes that ‘eyes are surer witnesses than ears’, in other words that what we experience is more certain than what people say about what they experience.48 But experience is not enough on its own. It needs understanding; and most people are not in a position to understand what they experience: ‘eyes and ears are poor witnesses for men if their souls do not understand the language’.49
For Heraclitus logos, the ultimate reason, cause, meaning, or deep structure of the world, is not some power that lies somewhere behind appearances, as it later would become, but is what Kahn calls a ‘phenomenal property’, evidenced and experienced in reasoned thought and responses to the world.50
If we are enabled to attend to experience, rather than to our pre-conceived ideas about experience, we encounter, according to Heraclitus, the reality of the union of opposites. Appreciating this coming together, wherein all opposing principles are reconciled, was the essence of sophia (wisdom, the root of philosophy) for Heraclitus.51 Opposites define one another and bring one another into existence.52 His famous pronouncement that ‘war is father of all, and king of all’, is the most celebrated expression of the creative power of opposition, of the fact that opposites do not cancel one another, but (here he seems to me to be in agreement with Anaximander) are the only way to create something new.53 Thus, as Heraclitus says, high and low notes are both needed for harmony, and we would have no life without the coming together of male and female.54 ‘They do not understand’, he says, ‘how a thing agrees, at variance with itself: it is a harmoni like that of the bow or the lyre.’55 To get near understanding this, one needs to know that harmoni can be understood in each of three senses: a fitting together (as of cut surfaces that are ‘true’), a reconciliation (as of warring parties), and an attunement (as of strings or tones); equally one needs to appreciate that the bow and the lyre consist in nothing other than strings that are, and must be, under tension, where the stable complex whole is balanced and efficient not despite, but because of, a pulling in opposite directions. Perhaps Heraclitus’ most elegant compression of meaning lies in his aphorism: ‘the name of the bow (biós) is life (bíos); its work is death’.56
The taut string, its two ends pulling apart under opposing forces, that for bow or lyre is what gives its vital strength or virtue, is the perfect expression of a dynamic, rather than static, equilibrium. This holding of movement within stasis, of opposites in reconciliation, is also imaged in Heraclitus’ most famous saying, that ‘all things flow’.57 Stability in the experiential world is always stability provided by a form through which things continue to flow: ‘As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them … One cannot step twice into the same river’.58 The river is always different, but always the same. Ultimately, of course, rivers themselves, not just the waters that flow through them, come and go: in this too our bodies are like rivers. But stasis, the opposite of change and flux, is incompatible with life, and leads only to separation, and disintegration: ‘even the potion separates unless it is stirred’.59
Heraclitus is sometimes included amongst those who thought that the arch was one of the elements, in his case fire. This is because of his saying that ‘all things are requital for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods’.60 However, if it is to be thought of in this way, it is in Anaximander's sense, as an endless process (requital), rather than as a ‘cause’, or occupying a point in time. Fire is also unique amongst the elements in not being in any sense a thing or substance, but a pure process, pure phenomenal energy (in fact Heraclitus’ meaning may be an intuition of the interchangeability of matter and energy); it also perfectly illustrates the power both to create life and to destroy it. In all this it manages to capture what the apeiron has over a substance such as water or air, while not itself being absent from the phenomenal world in the way the apeiron has to be.
Heraclitus seems to me to have grasped the essence of the balance between the hemispheres, while remaining aware of the primacy of the right hemisphere's world. I see this in, amongst other things, his insistence on the hidden, implicit, and unbounded nature of the primary reality; in his ‘paradoxical’ use of language in an attempt to transcend the normally confined (because left-hemisphere-congruent) expressive possibilities of language; in his insistence on the importance of perception, despite the difficulties of truly understanding what it is that we perceive; in his prioritising of experience over our theories about experience; in his insistence that opposites need to be held together, rather than inevitably cancelling one another out; in his sense that all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis or completion; and in his sense that all things contain an energy or life. In addition he sees the logos as something ‘shared’, reciprocal, perhaps even reciprocally coming into being, rather than, as he says we tend to see it, something achieved through ‘private’, isolated thought processes;61 and he emphasises that things change their nature depending on context (seawater, for example, is life-giving to fish, deadly poison to humans).62 In one fragment that Kahn regards as authentic but uninterpretable, Heraclitus is remembered for using the term anchibasi , ‘stepping near’: no better term could be found to characterise the right hemisphere's approach to truth, when contrasted with that of the left hemisphere.63
Let us move on to the early fifth century BC, in Elea, a Greek colony on the southern coast of Italy, where Parmenides founded his own school of philosophy. Parmenides was a priest of Apollo: his main work is a poem that survives in fragmentary form, and is explicitly opposed to Heraclitus (and, on different grounds, to Pythagoras). The important message enshrined in its double structure – The Way of Truth versusThe Way of Belief – is that the phenomenal world is a deception. Thought is all that there is: ‘for thought and being are the same thing’.64 What can be thought must be, and what cannot be thought cannot exist. What follows from logic, however much it flies in the face of experience, must be true. However, contradiction, a conflict within the system of language and reason, is taken as a sure indication of error.
That there is movement is certainly a thought most of us have, and so one would have thought that, by Parmenides’ logic, it must be true. But apparently not: motion turns out to be an illusion. ‘All that exists’ cannot move, because then it would move into the void, where nothing exists – a logical impossibility. (If this is reminiscent of Zeno, that is because Zeno was a pupil of Parmenides.) So everything that isremains so, timeless, undifferentiated and unchanging. All is stasis, and the process of becoming is forever banished. The phenomena of movement and change are illusory appearances. In its prioritising of a logical system over truth to phenomena, in its refusal of ambiguity or contradiction, in its achievement of certainty and stasis, this philosophy shows its allegiance to the world of the left hemisphere. Heidegger, it must be said, adopts the view that ultimately Heraclitus and Parmenides were saying the same thing; but he achieves this, it seems to me, by a sort of sleight of hand, rescuing Parmenides’ Being by finding it ultimately in the being of all actually existing beings, so that the two are reconciled.65 If true, it demonstrates only what I have argued for in Part I of this book, that left-hemisphere paths will, if followed far enough, lead inevitably to the world as recognised by the right hemisphere.
As Plato in his dialogues Parmenides and Sophist reveals, Parmenides’ position leads to many unpalatable consequences. Effectively the complete sundering of the worlds of experience and of ideas leads to the consequence that ‘we do not participate in knowledge itself’66 (the opposite of Heraclitus's claim that the logos is shared). So philosophers do not participate in knowledge (a self-undermining position) and none of us can partake in the reality of being (another). The impossibility of difference as well as sameness brings all discourse to a halt.67 None of this would matter so much if self-undermining positions were not expressly excluded by Parmenides (and by Socrates), and if rational discourse was not held by both to be the way to truth.
In the Theaetetus, Socrates points out that Parmenides was the only one of ‘the wise’ to deny that all is change and motion.68 Yet, despite this, Parmenides had a huge influence both on Plato, and, through him, on the subsequent history of Western philosophy. Plato's belief that knowledge must be unfailing and general led to the position that we cannot know things that are changing or particular. In the left-hemisphere sense of ‘knowledge’ this is true. For Plato that knowledge then becomes reality: the realm of the Forms, disembodied, ideal and universal abstractions, of which actual, physical sensory objects of experience are but shadows. The need for certainty and clarity, coupled with the law of the excluded middle, blinded us to the possibility of what came to be seen as paradox. From this time forward, Greek philosophy is dominated by the assumptions and modes of operation of the left hemisphere. And by the time of Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle writing in the third century BC, Heraclitus's riddling, epigrammatic style had become simply – a sign of mental illness.69
The very fact of having a philosophy at all was one of the many changes to be brought about by the advent of necessary distance. Drama, at least as conceived by the Greeks, is another, and as Nietzsche saw it, a demonstration of the necessary balance of Apollo and Dionysus.70 This distance has nothing to do with the ironising distance, or Verfremdungseffekt, espoused by modern dramatists, and indeed works to the opposite end. It enables us to feel powerfully with, and thus to know ourselves in, others, and others in ourselves. ‘Man must listen to an echo of himself before he may hear or know himself,’ as Snell says; and it is in drama that we find that echo.71 The ‘process of the tragic chorus is the original phenomenon of drama’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘this experience of seeing oneself transformed before one's eyes and acting as if one had really entered another body, another character’.72 In tragedy, we see for the first time in the history of the West the power of empathy, as we watch not just the painful moulding of the will, and of the soul, of men and women (the constant theme of tragedy is hubris), but the gods themselves in evolution, moving from their instincts for vengeance and retributory justice towards compassion and reconciliation.
And it is also in drama that opposites that can never be reconciled in the explicit discourse of philosophy come to be, nonetheless, reconciled, through the implicit power of myth.
There was in Athens a special cult of Prometheus, the god of technical skill and intelligence (though not of wisdom).73 It will be remembered that it was Prometheus who stole fire from heaven and gave it to mortals: in the terms of this book, the emissary taking to himself the power of the Master. It was said that Zeus had planned to destroy humankind, and that Prometheus's gift brought them hope of power to resist. For this crime, Prometheus was chained by Zeus to a rock, where every day his liver would be torn out by a bird of prey only to grow again in time for the next day's torment to begin. In his play Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus sympathetically represents Prometheus’ fate, although, through the device of the chorus, he is enabled to remain ultimately ambiguous in his stance. He puts into Prometheus’ mouth this justification of himself as the deliverer of humanity:
Before they were like babes, but I roused them to reason and taught them to think … though they had eyes to see, they saw in vain; they had ears, but could not hear; but like forms in dreams, they spent their entire lives without purpose and in confusion … until I showed them the risings of the stars, and their settings, hard to discern. I invented for them Number, chief of all devices, and how to set down words in writing, Memory's handmaid, and mother of the Muses …74
It is Prometheus, in other words, who brings numeracy and literacy. Although in Aeschylus’ play, Hermes, as the messenger of Zeus (the ‘Master's emissary’), is sent to pile on the agony to the unrepentant Prometheus, in some versions of the myth Hermes himself is credited with bringing fire from heaven, and he is in some respects Prometheus's alter ego. Like Prometheus, Hermes was associated with the invention of weights and measures, and with literature and the arts. Importantly from the point of view of this book, he was also the god of merchants and tricksters, corresponding to the Egyptian Thoth, the god of sciences and technology, who was also the god of writing (Plato, in the Phaedrus, considered Thoth to have been its inventor, and deplored its advent).75 Prometheus, too, ‘founder of the sacrifice, was a cheat and a thief’, writes Kerényi: ‘these traits were at the bottom of all the stories that deal with him’, the image of those who steal the divinity that lies round about them, ‘whose temerity brings immeasurable and unforeseen misfortune upon them’.76
Aeschylus, whose works were written in the first part of the fifth century BC, is generally accepted to be the founder of Greek tragedy, and was certainly so designated by A. W. Schlegel: ‘Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy; in full panoply she sprung from his head, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter.’77 What is more, Schlegel considered Prometheus Bound to be the essence of tragedy: ‘The other productions of the Greek Tragedians are so many tragedies; but this I might say is Tragedy herself.’78 Ironically it is not certain that Aeschylus himself wrote the play (although the consensus appears to be in favour);79 but certainly, if tragedy recounts the history of its hero's downfall from the height of glory to the depths of despair through the consequences of hubris, this play, along with Milton's Paradise Lost, must count as the epitome of tragedy.
Aeschylus was a brave soldier, who fought at Marathon and Salamis, and took part in the rout of the Persians; indeed he was so proud of this that his epitaph referred to his participation at the battle of Marathon, but not to his pre-eminence as a playwright. He was also a man with profound respect for the religious mysteries. He was an initiate at Eleusis, and it shows how seriously the mysteries were taken that, despite the esteem in which he was held, he almost lost his life for having supposedly disclosed aspects of the mysteries in his Eumenides.80 As a youth he tended vines, and, according to Pausanias, on one occasion fell asleep in the vineyard; in his dream, Dionysus, god of wine, appeared to him and exhorted him to write tragedy. The plays he wrote were performed as part of the competitive spectacle at the festivals of Dionysus, which had then not long been established.
Aeschylus was, then, a Dionysian; not just in the technical sense, but in the Nietzschean sense. His intuitive and imaginative art, ambiguous as Dionysus himself, ‘the ambiguous god of wine and death’, came to him via divine inspiration, announced to him in his sleep, and was inextricably bound to the world of religion and its mysteries. As Sophocles said of him, ‘Aeschylus does what is right without knowing it’: there cannot be a clearer statement of his debt to the workings of the right hemisphere.81 Aeschylus’ description of the fate of Prometheus is profoundly moving and compassionate, yet also recounts the pain that comes on man from his hubristic attempt to seize and use what belongs to another realm in order to make himself powerful because, as Schlegel puts it, Prometheus is ‘an image of human nature itself’.82
Gnothi seauton: know thyself. These famous words were sculpted over the entrance to the temple of the oracle at Delphi. The oracle itself, speaking through a woman who was in a state of intoxication from breathing the vapours arising from the infusion of sacred herbs, was a way of setting aside the ever too ready grasp on the world of the rationalising intellect, and opening it to the intuitions that arise from interpreting ambiguous utterances in an atmosphere of devotion – a sort of self-revealing Rorschach blot, rather like the Chinese book of poetic, and purportedly divinatory, utterances, the I Ching. It seems to me that in Aeschylus’ tragedy of Prometheus, the mind is coming to know itself, ‘without knowing it’: it is the mind (in fact the brain) cognising itself. The tragedy of Prometheus is a tale of two hemispheres. And, in more general terms, the Greek invention, or discovery, of tragedy, based as it is on the ever recurrent theme of downfall through hubris, represents the paradox of self-consciousness: the beginnings of the mind coming to know and understand its own nature.
THE WRITTEN WORD
Neither the works of Homer nor those of the great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, would be known if it were not for the existence of written records; and clearly there is no way one can tell the story of the hemispheres in the Ancient World without considering the significance of the history of writing. What is the relationship between writing and the hemispheres?
To answer that question one needs to look at the stages of development in the history of writing from its first beginnings to the present Western (or Latin) alphabet, which is essentially the same as the Greek alphabetic system. By the fourth century in Greece, all the important hemispheric shifts in the process of inscription had already taken place. There are four important elements to the story, and in each one the balance of power is moved further to the left. These are: the move from pictograms to phonograms; the yielding of syllabic phonograms to a phonetic alphabet; the inclusion of vowel signs in the alphabet; and the direction of writing.
From pictograms to phonograms
As far as we know, the first form of written language emerged in the fourth millennium BC. Pictograms, visual representations of the thing referred to, were first used in Sumer around 3300 BC. These gradually gave way to ideograms, which are more schematic diagrams. This represents a shift, perhaps not a great one, but a shift nonetheless, towards abstraction. A much greater shift in the same direction occurred when ideograms in turn were replaced by phonograms. This shift towards arbitrary signs that are no longer even schematically related to the perceptual properties of the thing referred to, only to the sounds made in referring to it, moves writing further into the territory of the left hemisphere. Writing arose in Egypt around the same period as in Sumer, or a little later, about 3100 BC. It appears that there all three forms – pictograms, ideograms and phonograms – were used alongside each other in different contexts throughout.
From phonograms to phonetic alphabet; and the inclusion of vowels
Phonograms, in some languages, represent syllables; in alphabetic languages they represent single phonetic components, originally consonants. Greek is not a syllabic, but a phonemic, language. In a syllabic language such as Chinese, the same syllable may be pronounced with different tones or, as in Hebrew or Arabic, with different vowels; in changing the tone or the vowels one changes the meaning. This has an important implication. As long as language remains syllabic, rather than purely phonemic, it inevitably relies on context for the differentiation between written characters which represent potentially quite different meanings. Knowing how to read and understand a syllabic language involves processes which distinguish it from the reading and understanding of a purely phonemic language such as Greek, Latin or the other modern European languages such as English. Most importantly, meaning emerges from the context, the mind revising the ways in which a syllable or sound can be read (though at lightning speed), as it does with the meaning in poetry, working around an utterance that resolves into focus as a whole, rather than through a unidirectional linear sequence of instructions, where each certainty builds on the last. Less obvious, but no less significant, is the fact that in syllabic languages concepts are put together from syllables which have meaning in themselves. Although modern Western languages are not syllabic, but phonemic, we can get an idea of what this is like if we remain aware of the etymology of English (or German, or other Western) words – if we are sufficiently aware of a word's structure, and of the original meanings of the component parts. In syllabic languages, therefore, meaning is less arbitrary, more clearly rooted in the world out of which it emanates, and retains its metaphoric base to a greater extent. (It is no accident that Heidegger, writing in a phonemic language, so often returns to etymology.) In both these respects syllabic languages favour understanding by the right hemisphere, whereas phonemic languages favour that of the left hemisphere.
The origin of all alphabetic systems as such lies in Proto-Canaanite (2000–1500 BC), with the development of Akkadian phonograms written in cuneiform from 1500 BC. The Greek alphabet, from which, of course, the Latin alphabet was derived, is itself a derivation of the Phoenician alphabet. In fact the Greek alphabet is nearly identical with the Phoenician alphabet, but, fascinatingly, in view of the later change in the direction of writing, mirror-reversed.83 The date at which this occurred is disputed but probably occurred around the ninth century BC or earlier.
The insertion of vowels, which happened for the first time with the Greek alphabet's evolution out of Phoenician, further consolidated a shift in the balance of hemispheric power, removing the last unconscious processing strategies from context-based to sequence-based coding.84
The direction of writing
The right hemisphere prefers vertical lines, but the left hemisphere prefers horizontal lines.85 If lines are vertical, the left hemisphere prefers to read them from the bottom up, whereas the right hemisphere prefers to read from the top down.86 In almost every culture writing has begun by being vertical. Some, such as the oriental languages, remain vertical: they are also generally read from the top down, and from right to left. In other words, they are read from the maximally right-hemisphere-determined point of view.87 Although both oriental and Western languages are generally read from the top down, so that at the global level they still conform to the right-hemisphere preference, at the local, sequential level they have drifted in the West towards the left hemisphere's point of view. This process started with the move to phonetics. While ‘almost all pictographic writing systems favour a vertical layout … practically all systems of writing that depend exclusively on the visual rendition of phonological features of language are horizontally laid out.’88 So it is that vertical writing began to be replaced by horizontal writing, and disappeared altogether in the West by about 1100 BC. By the eleventh century BC, Greek was being written horizontally, although right to left.
It continued to be written right to left until the seventh century BC. However, at around this time a fascinating change occurred. Between the eighth and sixth centuries, Greek began to be written in what is known as boustrophedon, literally ‘as the ox ploughs’, which is to say going to the end of the line, turning round, and coming back – alternating direction line by line. By the fifth century BC, however, left to right was becoming the norm, and by the fourth century the transition was complete, and all forms of Greek were being written left to right.89
Reading left to right involves moving the eyes towards the right, driven by the left hemisphere, and preferentially communicating what is seen to the left hemisphere. And it turns out that, while virtually all syllabic languages are written right to left, almost every phonemic language, such as the Indo-European family of languages, being composed of a linear sequence of independent elements, is written left to right.
Phonemic languages put merely contiguous relationships in the place of contextual relationships, digital in the place of analogical relationships, and sequence in place of form. Moreover the addition of vowels makes an astonishingly clear difference to the direction of writing: according to de Kerckhove, ‘95% of phonological orthographies that include markings of vocalic sounds [e.g. vowels] … are written towards the right, whereas almost all the systems that do not include letters for vowels are written towards the left, and have been rendered so almost from the beginning, for over three millennia.’90
Given the nature of the Greek language, it was almost inevitable that the direction in which it was written should have changed. ‘The Greek system’, writes de Kerckhove, ‘introduced a level of abstraction that would all but remove the script from the context of its production in oral forms … its basic process was the atomisation of speech.’91 It was the Greek philosopher Democritus who was to achieve the same atomisation of the physical universe. We are now so used to hearing speech as a succession of separate building blocks, rather than as an utterance as a whole, that it is hard to imagine that even the separations between words were not regularised in writing, so that all was written continuously, until the Byzantine period.92
So by the time we reach the fourth century BC, each of the changes that had taken place in written language favoured a shift of balance inexorably towards the left hemisphere. In this way the history of writing recapitulates the history of language generally: originating in the right hemisphere, but translating itself into the left.
Did the shift in the nature and direction of writing cause a shift towards favouring the left hemisphere, or did some much deeper cognitive shift take place in the Greek world, of which changes in the nature of writing were merely an outward sign or symptom?
I do not think that the very nature of writing required such a shift – something else, deeper lying, must have been responsible. For one thing, it remains a fact that most languages of the non-Western world are structured so as to favour the right hemisphere; but, despite this, these right-hemisphere-prone languages have ceased to be processed by the right hemisphere, and are in fact now processed by the left. Presumably this is because, in a world where Western habits of mind are becoming inescapable, those non-Western cultures have by now inherited the cognitive changes that began in Greece around this time. In the modern world, in other words, language has so far aligned itself with the agenda of the left hemisphere that even those languages that must have started out being processed by the right hemisphere, such as Hebrew and Arabic, and are still read from right to left, are now actually to a large extent processed in the left hemisphere.93 Similarly, although it is true that pictograms are less strongly lateralised to the left hemisphere than phonograms,94 it is not true, as once was thought, that kanji, a pictographic Japanese script, is better appreciated by the right hemisphere, while kana, a Japanese phonographic script, is more easily processed by the left hemisphere: it appears that both scripts are processed principally in the left hemisphere, though in different regions.95 In Chinese, too, the majority of language processes are, like those of Western alphabetic languages, now subserved by the left hemisphere.96 However, the effect is not absolute; and, much as there is evidence that reading Hebrew and Arabic utilises both hemispheres more equally than Western languages,97 reading Chinese words aloud activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere than English, probably because of the subtlety of both visual and tonal demands by Chinese.98
One has to accept that Greek, like many other languages, began being written in the opposite direction, the one that favours the right hemisphere (could the mirror reversals of letters that occurred at the point of Greek adoption of the Phoenician alphabet be a sign of things to come?). Why did it change direction, and need to include vowels, unless because it was being processed by the left hemisphere? The inclusion of vowels appears to have been necessitated by the sequential, as opposed to contextual, analytic approach of the left hemisphere, not the other way round. Other languages had managed fine without vowels.
So where Ernest Havelock has argued, as has John Skoyles, that it may have been not just literacy, but the structure of the Greek alphabet, which was responsible for the cognitive shifts of Greek culture, I would agree that the relationship is highly significant; but my view is that the nature of the Greek alphabet is more likely to have been an effect than a cause, in other words to have merely consolidated a shift that must have begun in something else.99
‘Writing is an instrument of power,’ writes Claude Hagège; ‘it enables the sending of orders to far-off fiefdoms and can determine which laws will prevail.’100 Certainly that would seem to be true of writing in the Western world, from its origins in Sumer and Egypt. ‘Writing is basically a technology,’ wrote the great French historian, Fernand Braudel,
a way of committing things to memory and communicating them, enabling people to send orders and to carry out administration at a distance. Empires and organised societies extending over space are the children of writing, which appeared everywhere at the same time as these political units, and by a similar process … [Writing] became established as a means of controlling the society … In Sumer, most of the archaic tablets are simply inventories and accounts, lists of food rations distributed, with a note of the recipients. Linear B, the Mycenae-Cretan script which was finally deciphered in 1953, is equally disappointing, since it refers to similar subject matter: so far it has revealed hardly anything but palace accounts. But it was at this basic level that writing first became fixed and showed what it could do, having been invented by zealous servants of state or prince. Other functions and applications would come in due course. Numbers appear in the earliest written languages.101
Braudel mentions number as appearing early in written language: in fact the Sumerians were the first to write down numbers, and theirs was the first real empire. Numbers are essential for controlling crops, herds, and people. Perhaps, however, it is not so much that empires are the children of writing, but that both empires and writing, at least as it came into being in the West, are the children of the left hemisphere. Writing does not have to have this character; it may do so only in the West. In other cultures, writing may not have originated with the same ominous, utilitarian agenda in view: according to Hagège, ‘the origin of Chinese writing appears to have been magicoreligious and divinatory rather than economic and mercantile.’102 Perhaps, if it is true of writing only in the West that it has this nature, this reflects something about our particular brain development in the West.
Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that in Greece writing had much to do with the economic and mercantile. Money has an important function which it shares with writing: it replaces things with signs or tokens, with representations, the very essence of the activity of the left hemisphere. I would suggest that they are aspects of the same neuropsychological development. The same developments that lead to the word being more ‘real’ (for the left hemisphere) than the reality it signifies occur with money. Richard Seaford asserts that monetary currency necessitates an antithesis of sign and substance, whereby the sign becomes decisive, and implies an ideal substance underlying the tangible reality.103 It is interesting that, much as Skoyles had seen the alphabet as the prime mover in a new way of thinking, Seaford sees money as being the prime mover of a new kind of philosophy, and one can certainly understand why, given that this formulation of Seaford's bears an uncanny resemblance to Plato's theory of Forms. As the reader will by now imagine, I would not favour seeing either the alphabet or currency as the prime movers, but as epiphenomena, signs of a deeper change in hemisphere balance evidenced in both.
Money changes our relationships with one another in predictable ways. These also clearly reflect a transition from the values of the right hemisphere to those of the left. In Homer, artefacts of gold and silver may be aristocratic gifts, and are associated with deity and immortality, but are not money: in fact, significantly, unformed gold and silver, as such, had negative associations.104 Before the development of currency, there is an emphasis on reciprocity. Gifts are not precise, not calculated, not instantaneously enacted or automatically received, not required; the gifts are not themselves substitutable, but unique; and the emphasis is on the value of creating or maintaining a relationship, which is also unique. With trade, all this changes; the essence is competitive: the exchange is instantaneous, based on equivalence, and the emphasis not on relationship, but on utility or profit.105 As Seaford points out, money is homogeneous, and hence homogenises its objects and its users, eroding uniqueness: it is impersonal, unlike talismanic objects, and weakens the need for bonds, or for trust based on a knowledge of those with whom one is exchanging. It becomes a universal aim, corrupting even death ritual, and threatening other values as it transcends and substitutes for them; and it becomes a universal means, including to divine good will or to political power. It ‘breeds an unlimited greed’.106 The late development of the polis brings about these changes and leads to the development of coinage.107
So it was not just the alphabet, but currency, which arose in the Greek world. What is more, both arose out of the possibilities offered by trade. Braudel refers to both the alphabet and currency as ‘accelerators of change’:
The adoption of an alphabet reintroduced writing into a world which had lost it. And once writing was within the grasp of all, it became not only an instrument of command but a tool of trade, of communication and often of demystification … As for currency, the need for it had been felt before it appeared … It was in about 685 BC that authentic money (coins made of electrum, a mixture of gold and silver) appeared for the first time in history in Lydia, the rich realm of Croesus … But most specialists think that a true monetary economy was not in place until the fourth century BC and the achievements of the Hellenistic period. In the eighth and seventh centuries, this stage was still a long way off. Nevertheless, throughout the Aegean, things were stirring. Having been long cut off from the eastern world, Greece now made contact with it again through the cities on the Syrian coast, in particular Al-Mina. The luxury of this area dazzled the Greeks, whose way of life was still modest. Along with artefacts from Phoenicia and elsewhere – ivories, bronzes and pottery – Greece began to import a new style of living. Foreign decorative art came as a contrast to the stiff geometrical style. With works of art came fashions, the first elements of Greek science, superstitions, and possibly the beginnings of Dionysiac cults.108
There are several things to note here. First, writing became a tool of command, trade, communication – and ‘often of demystification’. Its movement is towards power or the means of power, yes; but also already, for better or worse (and sometimes, undoubtedly, it will be for the better) towards the explicit at the expense of the implicit – the direction of the left hemisphere.
But this passage is fascinating for a completely different reason: the way it charts, if one thinks about the dates, a progression through the Greek world. First, there is the reference to Al-Mina, a trading post at the mouth of the Orontes, probably founded in the ninth century BC, though it had been a point of commerce with the Mycenaean world since the fourteenth century BC. Of this, Braudel elsewhere comments:
It was to be a crucially important colony, representing as it did the first opening up of Greece to Syria, Palestine, the neo-Hittite and Aramaean states, Assyria, Urardhu and all the caravan routes of the continental Middle East. The city was moreover largely populated by Phoenicians. It is not therefore surprising that it is increasingly seen as the city where Greece met the east; it was here that the Greeks became acquainted with the Phoenician alphabet, here too that the orientalising phase of Greek art originated, the first challenge to the geometric style.109
From the earliest period, there was cross-fertilisation of the Greek mind with influences from the East (also a significant element in the genesis of pre-Socratic thought).110 The elements that are here identified – art that was no longer ‘in the stiff geometrical style’ beloved of the left hemisphere, the ‘first elements’ of Greek science, namely the deductive method (not the theorising or system-building which came later), ‘superstitions’ and the ‘beginnings of the Dionysiac cults’, that is, religious mystery – all speak of influences of the right hemisphere.
But there is something else. Very like writing, which was ambivalently poised between rightward and leftward movement during the period from the seventh to the fifth century, only taking the plunge into being fully rightward-orientated (favouring the left hemisphere) in the fourth century, currency began circulating in the seventh century, but was not much used; it was only really widespread by the fourth century.111 In terms of hemispheric balance, an early right-hemisphere influence stands in equipoise with influences of the left hemisphere; then seems to give way, at least measured by the two critical areas of writing and currency, by the fourth century to left-hemisphere preponderance – around the time when the world of the pre-Socratic philosophers ceded to the world of Plato.
If one goes right back to the early days of Greek civilisation, to the Mycenaean world which held sway from the middle of the second millennium till about 1100 BC, long before the age of Homer, it becomes clear that very important influences originated from the cross-fertilisation of East and West. The paintings of Mycenae attest to the exchange of the mythology of dread, which had characterised Egyptian culture and art, for one of lightness and mirth. The severely hierarchical relationships that characterised Egyptian art give way to the portrayal of relaxed, equal relationships, not just of man with man, but of men with women, something observed for the very first time in Mycenaean art in Crete.112 Surely these, it seems to me, represent the most positive aspects of the left hemisphere, in its guise as Lucifer, the bringer of light? Here the left hemisphere appears to be in harmony with the workings of the right, which are abundantly evidenced in the fascination with the living animal world in all its particularity, and a lively imagination. ‘Plants and animals were painted everywhere on walls and vases’, writes Braudel:
here a spike of grass, there a bunch of crocuses or irises, a spray of lilies against the ochre background of a vase, or the Pompeian red of a wall-painting; reeds arranged in a continuous almost abstract design, a branch of flowering olive, an octopus with tangled arms, dolphins and starfish, a blue flying fish, a circle of huge dragon flies … Frescoes and pottery all lent themselves to this inventive fantasy. It is remarkable to find the same plant or marine motifs handled in a thousand different ways on so many vases turned out by the potter's wheel and exported by the hundred – as if the artists wanted to relive the pleasure of creation every time.113
Mimesis, in the sense of making images and forms with the natural appearance of people, things and events, which Greek art and sculpture went on to perfect, was strikingly absent from the conventional images created by other societies. As Gombrich observes, the ‘Egyptian painter distinguished, for instance, between a dark brown for men and a pale yellow for women's bodies. The real flesh tone of the person portrayed obviously mattered as little in this context as the real colour of a river matters to the cartographer.’114 In such pictures, little or nothing is related to feeling or to individual character, though the figure's importance might be conveyed by size – as would happen again in the religious art of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages. With Greek art, all this would change as if by a miracle, portraying figures of exceptional beauty and life, figures that invite empathy, and inhabit our world.
The mediator of these benign developments in which both hemispheres partake is the evolution of what I have called ‘necessary distance’. It is fundamental to this concept that it is what actually brings one into connection with that from which one is appropriately distanced; it is not a distancing that separates. Necessary distance is what makes empathy possible. It would seem that this is what lies behind the importance of harmony, balance, equipoise, in Greek culture at its best.
This is rather beautifully illustrated by the relationship that later came about between Athenians and their land, on which they still, for some of the year, lived. Although they could be said to be the first city dwellers in the modern sense, there is no implication, as there would be now, of this alienating them from the life of the land – quite the opposite. ‘The “citizens” were residents of a territory greater than the city itself … Politically [the polis] was of a piece with the surrounding territory,’ writes Braudel; and he continues, quoting Edouard Will's Histoire politique du monde hellénistique, ‘the existence of a city was inconceivable without a surrounding territory, the division of which among the citizens was the basis of civic identity.’115 The Athenians were the originators of the ‘prejudice’ that ‘toil on the land (and the accompanying leisure, whether that of the great landowner or that of everyone in wintertime) was the only activity really worthy of a man’.116 In times of danger they would retreat to the city; and every spring during the Peloponnesian War, when the Spartans would arrive over the pass above Eleusis, the Athenians, having left their homes in the fields for the high ground of the Pelargicon, the walls surrounding the Acropolis, would ‘watch the enemy arriving in the distance’.117 It was also from these walls that in more peaceful times, as Braudel puts it with gentle humour, the eupatridae, the aristocracy, ‘could survey their land and their peasants from a convenient distance’.118 But this distance was the enabler of love, such as those who could never stand back enough from the land to see it at all might never experience. Not only was this expressed in autochthony myths as parental love, but
the passionate love they bore their little homelands verged on the pathological, going well beyond the reasonable. They used the term meaning sexual desire, himeros, to refer to it. Nowhere else in world history has this love for the native soil been taken to such extremes, with the result that love could yield only to hatred.119
But that takes us to the subsequent period in which the harmony or equipoise was lost.
THE LATER PERIOD
Braudel believed, as did de Selincourt, that ‘everything worthwhile [in Greek culture] had been accomplished’ by the time Plato and Aristotle came on the scene, in the fourth century. This would certainly be the view of Heidegger, as it had been that of Nietzsche, according to whom the highpoint was the age of Aeschylus, when Apollo and Dionysus were reconciled, the time of the birth of tragedy. In Nietzsche's view, in the end ‘the ambiguous god of wine and death yielded the stage to Apollo and the triumph of rationality, to theoretical and practical utilitarianism as well as democracy, which was a contemporary phenomenon’, symptoms of the ageing of Greek civilisation, and foreshadowing the depressing spectacle, as he saw it, of the modern Western world.120 Without necessarily espousing the extreme view of Nietzsche on the role of the Apollonian, this analysis seems to me essentially correct.
However, there were positive developments in the later period. It is only with the continuing evolution of greater distance from one another that we start to focus on the uniqueness of ourselves and others as individuals, which is largely what is expressed in the face. If we describe our own feelings, we are more immediately aware of the sensations and emotional reactions throughout our physical frame than of our own changing facial expressions: for that we would need a higher degree of self-consciousness, such as a mirror brings. By contrast, the quasi-mythological characters of Homer's epic are like the characters in Greek tragedy, of archetypal status, not merely individuals: and in the drama the actors wore masks. The lack of description or depiction of the expressive face, in Homer at least, is not a sign of lack of fellow-feeling or empathy – there would have been no difficulty in the quite different process of spontaneously reading or understanding the feelings of others by their faces in daily life – but it is a consequence of the degree of fusion between self and other, the lack of self-consciousness that Gill describes in the archaic era.
In the visual art of sculpture, by contrast with poetry and drama, we are specifically creating an image of something from the ‘outside’ – a degree of distance is of the essence, and hence we start to see empathy expressed there precisely in the other's face. A still further degree of self-consciousness, and systematisation, in the art of understanding faces is implied by physiognomy. Interest in physiognomy implies, all the same, a conscious awareness of the close relationship between soul and body, the idea that one can read something about individuals – their character, their special personal qualities, perhaps even their defects – in the physical qualities of the face. There is a relationship between all individuality and imperfection; all that makes us special could be seen from the left-hemisphere point of view as the falling away from some abstract ideal. Perhaps this is what Aristotle was alluding to when he wrote that ‘men are good in but one way, but bad in many’.121 Reading imperfections in the face as individuality is clearly likely to be a right-hemisphere development, though its systematisation as a sort of science suggests left-hemisphere involvement.
I have alluded to Brener's interesting study of representations of the human face in antiquity. What he shows very convincingly is the painstaking care that started to be shown in sculpture and portraiture, and the degree to which portraiture sought to be faithful: facial expression is so subtle that very minor discrepancies can make enormous differences to interpretation and understanding. An interest in faces depends upon the skill of mimesis and the cognitive capacity for a minutely detailed attention which is always subservient to the whole. Pliny the Elder recorded of Apelles, a famous painter of the fourth century BC, that ‘his portraits were such perfect likenesses that, incredible as it may seem, Apion the Grammarian has left it on record that a physiognomist, or metoposkopos, as they call them, was able to tell from the portraits alone how long the sitter had to live or had already lived.’122
‘Physiognomy’, writes one recent scholar, ‘as a theoretical concern in the philosophy of antiquity starts with Phaedo [of Elis, fourth century BC], flourishes in Aristotle's school, and ends, one might fairly say, with Galen [second century AD].’123 The great classical text on the subject, Polemon of Laodicea's Physiognomy, was written in the second century AD. He was the first to emphasise the eye, which alone takes up a third of the whole book (Book I is devoted to the eye, Book II to ‘other parts of the body’). In sculpture, around AD 130, there was a move from the merely painted pupil to an incised and engraved pupil, enlarging the powers of expressive sculpture in stone.124
This period from the fourth century BC to the second century AD, as is evident from Brener's detailed analysis, is the high point of the expressiveness of portraiture in both painting and sculpture, with the most extraordinary attention to individual expression and to the realism that underwrites individuality in both Greek, and perhaps particularly Roman, art. Why does it come late, relatively speaking? Hufschmidt shows that in fact the tendency to favour the right hemisphere in interpretation of faces begins around the sixth century BC. But I think an increase in expressiveness was inevitably dependent not just on empathy, but on the development, generation by generation, of a quite specific mimetic skill that took longer to evolve than the empathic sensibility that it expressed, and which one senses to be there in early lyric poetry, in, for example, Alcaeus, Sappho and Anacreon, from the sixth century onwards. The degree of expressiveness one finds in portraiture of the Hellenistic period required an awareness of the huge complexity of independently innervated muscle fibre groups, particularly in the upper half of the face around the eyes – and that simply takes time. It also takes a necessary balance of right and left hemispheres.
Nietzsche's judgement on the Hellenistic era needs to be qualified, then. It also tends to underplay the important role that the left hemisphere, the Apollonian, played in the genesis of the best in Greek culture (which Nietzsche, to be fair, elsewhere acknowledged). Here again Heidegger's perception that the Greeks were essentially still Dionysian explains the redeeming feel of the advent of Apollo in their world, at least at first. But as Nietzsche points out, it is not just Dionysus that is ‘ambiguous’. Apollo is an ambiguous figure, too. The derivation of the name of Apollo means ‘the luminous one’ (in German, der Scheinende); as such also the god of fantasy, of that which only seems to be the case (das Scheinende), rather than of what is.125
The great humanistic achievements of poetry, drama, sculpture, architecture, along with empathy, humour and the sense of the individual self, are not the only achievements of Ancient Greece. It also saw the foundation of systematically structured bodies of objective knowledge, products of writing and owed to the advances of the left hemisphere in tandem with the right. These include the development of a legal constitution and a body of laws; philosophy; the invention of the idea of, and the study of, history; the formalisation of geographic knowledge and the study of maps; the structuring of a system of education; the invention of the orders of architecture; systematic description of the human body, and of the animal world; geometry; and theories of physics. In themselves all of these represent enormous advances, and in terms of the thesis of this book demonstrate the power for good that the left hemisphere wields when it acts as the emissary of the right hemisphere, and has not yet come to believe itself the Master.
The right hemisphere is prophetic or ‘divinatory’, however, and can see where this will lead. Its prophecies are enshrined in the myth of Prometheus. Where did it lead?
In the late fifth century BC, Socrates’ pupil Plato was born. Plato's written works date from the early fourth century, and in these dialogues, real or imagined, between Socrates and one of the many who came to him inquiring after truth, Socrates demonstrates to his inquirer the falsity of the premises from which he started, by leading him to a contradiction that follows logically from those premises. Plato's influence on the history of logic, mathematics, and moral and political philosophy cannot be overestimated, despite the fact that his works were lost from view for over a thousand years until the Renaissance, available only in partial reports and commentaries translated into Latin via Arabic. His legacy includes the (left-hemisphere-congruent) beliefs that truth is in principle knowable, that it is knowable through reason alone, and that all truths are consistent with one another.
By the time of Socrates, the Heraclitean respect for the testimony of our senses had been lost. The phenomenal world yields only deception: the ideas of things come to be prioritised over things themselves, over whatever it is of which we have direct knowledge. Plato's doctrine of the eternal Forms gives priority to the unchanging categorical type (say, the ‘ideal table’) over the myriad phenomenal exemplars (actual tables in the everyday world), which are no more than imperfect copies of the ideal form. It is true that Plato's pupil, Aristotle, who was a true scientist, and probably the most brilliant polymath the world has ever known, interested in, as far as possible without preconceptions, observing and understanding the natural world, and ever mindful of the importance of experience, effectively reversed this, finding the universal in and through particular instantiations. But, alas, the spirit of Aristotle did not survive with his works. Instead they became, in an inversion of that spirit, a sort of Holy Writ of the experiential world for 1500 years – rendering his thought about experience, provisional as it was, static, unchanging, and idealised as infallible, until the Renaissance.
There were tendencies in the very fabric of Greek language and thought that inevitably favoured abstraction and idealisation. Snell makes the point that the Greek language, by inventing the definite article, could take an attribute of an existing thing, expressed through an adjective – that it was ‘beautiful’, say – and turn it into an abstract noun by adding the definite article: so from beautiful (kalos) to ‘the beautiful’ (to kalon).126 In a clever and audacious, one might say hubristic, inversion, the left hemisphere now seems to imply that what is purely conceptual is what is real, and what is experienced, at least by the senses, is downgraded, and amazingly enough actually becomes the ‘representation'! Thus in The Republic, Plato writes:
The stars that decorate the sky, though we rightly regard them as the finest and most perfect of visible things, are far inferior, just because they are visible, to the true realities; that is, to the true relative velocities, in pure numbers and perfect figures, of the orbits and what they carry in them, which are perceptible to reason and thought but not visible to the eye … We shall therefore treat astronomy, like geometry, as setting us problems for solution, and ignore the visible heavens, if we want to make a genuine study of the subject …127
This separation of the absolute and eternal, which can be known by logos (reason), from the purely phenomenological, which is now seen as inferior, leaves an indelible stamp on the history of Western philosophy for the subsequent two thousand years.
The reliance on reason downgrades not just the testimony of the senses, but all our implicit knowledge. This was the grounds of Nietzsche's view that Socrates, far from being the hero of our culture, was its first degenerate, because Socrates had lost the ability of the nobles to trust intuition: ‘Honest men, he wrote, ‘do not carry their reasons exposed in this fashion.’128 Degeneration, by this account, begins relatively late in Greece, with Plato, and involves the inability to trust what is implicit or intuitive. ‘What must first be proved is worth little,’ Nietzsche continues in The Twilight of the Idols:
one chooses dialectic only when one has no other means. One knows that one arouses mistrust with it, that it is not very persuasive. Nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect: the experience of every meeting at which there are speeches proves this.
With the loss of the power of intuition,
rationality was then hit upon as the saviour; neither Socrates nor his ‘patients’ had any choice about being rational: it was de rigueur, it was their last resort. The fanaticism with which all Greek reflection throws itself upon rationality betrays a desperate situation; there was danger, there was but one choice: either to perish or – to be absurdly rational.129
And if this seems to be just the pardonable excesses of Nietzschean furor, the ravings of an inspired madman, consider these words from Panksepp the neuroscientist:
Although language is the only way we can scientifically bridge the chasm between mind and brain, we should always remember that we humans are creatures that can be deceived as easily by logical rigour as by blind faith … It is possible that some of the fuzzier concepts of folk-psychology may lead us to a more fruitful understanding of the integrative functions of the brain than the rigorous, but constrained, languages of visually observable behavioural acts130
(and cf. Friedrich Waismann above, p. 157).
In this later Greek world, truth becomes something proved by argument. The importance of another, ultimately more powerful, revealer of truth, metaphor, is forgotten; and metaphor, in another clever inversion, comes even to be a lie, though perhaps a pretty one. So the statements of truth contained in myth become discounted as ‘fictions’, that is to say untruths or lies – since, to the left hemisphere, metaphor is no more than this.
Great philosopher that he undoubtedly was, Plato is not quite straightforward in this respect. Even Plato had intuitions he could not dismiss. What is quite moving, even tragic, in the true sense (because it involves Socrates’ hubristic trust in his own dialectic powers), is to see Socrates/Plato torn between his own intuitions and the awareness that he is no longer at liberty to trust them. Plato was originally a poet and it was his association with Socrates that impressed on him the need to forsake poetry for dialectic. In The Republic Socrates fulminates against the works of
tragedians and other dramatists – such representations definitely harm the minds of their audiences … representations at the third remove from reality, and easy to produce without any knowledge of the truth … all the poets from Homer downwards have no grasp of reality but merely give us a superficial representation … So great is the natural magic of poetry. Strip it of its poetic colouring, reduce it to plain prose, and I think you know how little it amounts to … the artist knows little or nothing about the subjects he represents and … his art is something that has no serious value.
The work of painters and artists of all kinds, including poets are ‘far removed from reality’, and appeal to ‘an element in us equally far removed from reason, a thoroughly unsound combination’. Art is ‘a poor child born of poor parents’, appeals to ‘a low element in the mind’, and has ‘a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters’. Poets are to be banished from the Republic.131 All those involved in creative arts deal in deceit: the metaphor is a lie. Calculation (logic) is to be preferred to imagination: denotation to connotation. Being a poet also involves imagining one's way into many things, and ‘is unsuitable for our state, because there one man does one job and does not play a multiplicity of rôles’: so much for Heraclitus’ insight that one needs to inquire into many things, not just one, if one is not to be led astray.132 Plato's proscriptions on music, like so much else about his Republic, remind one of a Soviet-style totalitarian state. There is no need of a wide harmonic range; most rhythms and modes are outlawed; flutes, harps and ‘harpsichords’ are banned, as are all ‘dirges and laments'; and there will be need only of two kinds of music, the kind that encourages civil orderliness, and the kind that sternly encourages us to war.133 All has been reduced to utility in the service of the will to power.134
But at the same time, Plato himself needs to use myth in order to explain things that resist formulation in language or dialectic: the allegory of the Cave, or the ring of Gyges, for example. In fact Plato appears ambivalent, and gives hints, particularly in the Symposium, that the realm of the Forms attracts us in a way that transcends the logical; and that those who have intuited the Form of the Good, and the Form of the Beautiful, are compelled to pursue them, and to try to convey them to others, exactly as I have suggested the ideals towards which the right hemisphere is drawn act upon it, contrasting these with the purely abstracted forms of things which are created by the left hemisphere. While awaiting death in prison, Socrates’ daemon (conscience) visited him and repeatedly told him to make music.135 ‘Whatever urged these exercises on him’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘was something similar to his warning voice’:
it was his Apolline insight that, like some barbarian king, he did not understand the noble image of some god and, in his ignorance, was in danger of committing a sin against a deity. The words spoken by the figure who appeared to Socrates in dream are the only hint of any scruples in him about the limits of logical nature; perhaps, he must have told himself, things which I do not understand are not automatically unreasonable. Perhaps there is a kingdom of wisdom from which the logician is banished? Perhaps art may even be a necessary correlative and supplement of science?136
But there is no doubt that it is ultimately the left-hemisphere version of the world that Plato puts forward, for the first time in history; puts forward so strongly that it has taken two thousand years to shake it off.
And so it is that perhaps the most profound legacy of the Greeks, their myths, come to be seen as ‘myths’ as we now use the term, false histories. But here is Malinowski on the true nature of myth:
These stories live not by idle interest [that is, not as a sort of primitive science, merely to answer intellectual curiosity], not as fictitious or even as true narratives; but are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, by which the present life, fates, and activities of mankind are determined, the knowledge of which supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions, as well as with indications as to how to perform them.137
This kind of truth cannot be apprehended directly, explicitly; in the attempt, it becomes flattened to two-dimensionality, even deadened, by the left hemisphere. It has to be metaphorised, ‘carried across’ to our world, by mythology and by ritual, in which the gods approach us; or as we begin to approach them, when we stand back in ‘necessary distance’ from our world through sacred drama. So Kerényi writes:
In the domain of myth is to be found not ordinary truth but a higher truth, which permits approaches to itself from the domain of bios [not just life, but ‘the highly characterised life of a human being’, perhaps best rendered, despite the apparent chasm of two millennia, as Dasein]. These approaches are provided by sacred plays, in which man raises himself to the level of the gods, plays too which bring the gods down from their heights. Mythology, indeed, especially Greek mythology, could in some sense be considered as the play of the gods, in which they approach us.138
Eventually myths become a sort of surrogate science, exactly what Malinowski says they are not. And some Platonic myths are of this kind. Thus how did man come to have his current bodily shape? Well, originally he was a head, of course; a head that was spherical – the perfect shape: except that it couldn't control where it went.
Accordingly, that the head might not roll upon the ground with its heights and hollows of all sorts, and have no means to surmount the one or to climb out of the other, they gave it the body as a vehicle for ease of travel; that is why the body is elongated and grew four limbs that can be stretched out or bent, the god contriving thus for its travelling.139
This myth tells us a lot about the relation between the mind and body that was already emerging. In fact the process is at work even in the fifth century BC, as this creation myth of Empedocles suggests:
On [the earth] many heads sprung up without necks, and arms wandered bare and bereft of shoulders; eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads. Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union. But, as divinity was mingled still further with divinity, these things joined together as each might chance, and many other things besides them continually arose.140
Fancy that! The mind has now come to believe that the body is an assemblage of separate bits, wandering about aimlessly on their own, and put together by chance. No prizes for guessing which hemisphere that comes from.
Most of the great legacy of Rome's literature belongs to the Augustan era, the first century BC, with Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius and Catullus all writing during a period of fifty years of one another. Undoubtedly there is here a remarkable increase in psychological sophistication, and both touching and witty insights into human nature, its potential greatness and its failings. This period saw not just the expansion and codification of jurisprudence, but the establishment of an ideal of reasonableness and of moral rectitude in art and poetry as well. Virgil and Horace were obviously drawn by what one might see as Scheler's Lebenswerte: the ideal of the noble Roman emanates from their work. Virgil's attraction to and idealisation of the natural world,141 the importance of human bonds, both those of amor and those of pietas, coupled with his sense of pity for the passing of human lives and achievements – sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt142 – all suggests an alliance between the right and left hemispheres at this time, in which the right hemisphere primacy is respected. Ovid, a man who in his life had reason enough to contemplate the harsh reverses of fate, called his greatest work the Metamorphoses, the title itself suggestive of the Heraclitean flux; and in it once again one sees that standing back from the world which enables the finest spirits both to rise on the vertical axis and to venture out along the horizontal axis into the lived world of the human heart:
There is no greater wonder than to range
The starry heights, to leave the earth's dull regions,
To ride the clouds, to stand on Atlas’ shoulders,
And see, far off, far down, the little figures
Wandering here and there, devoid of reason,
Anxious, in fear of death, and so advise them,
And so make fate an open book …
… Full sail, I voyage
Over the boundless ocean, and I tell you
Nothing is permanent in all the world.
All things are fluid; every image forms,
Wandering through change. Time is itself a river
In constant movement, and the hours flow by
Like water, wave on wave, pursued, pursuing,
Forever fugitive, forever new.
That which has been, is not; that which was not,
Begins to be; motion and moment always
In process of renewal …
Not even the so-called elements are constant …
Nothing remains the same: the great renewer,
Nature, makes form from form, and, oh, believe me
That nothing ever dies… .143
Yet, alongside its great artistic achievements, which undoubtedly result from the co-operation of both hemispheres, Roman civilisation provides evidence of an advance towards ever more rigidly systematised ways of thinking, suggestive of the left hemisphere working alone. In Greece, the Apollonian was never separate from the Dionysian, though latterly the Apollonian may have got the upper hand. Augustus, who presided over the great flourishing of the arts, was the first Emperor; but as the scale of imperial power grew in tandem with the evolution of Roman military and administrative successes, the Apollonian left hemisphere begins to freewheel. The Roman Empire was ‘characterised by its towns and cities’, writes Braudel:
brought into being by a Roman power which shaped them in its own image, they provided a means of transplanting to far-flung places a series of cultural goods, always identifiably the same. Set down in the midst of often primitive local peoples, they marked the staging-posts of a civilisation of self-promotion and assimilation. That is one reason why these towns were all so alike, faithfully corresponding to a model which hardly changed over time and place.144
Even when there is at times a strong input of originality from Rome, for example ‘in the taste for realistic detail, for lifelike portraiture, landscape and still life – the original spark must have come from the east';145 which takes us back to Greece, and the further Eastern origins of Greece's own originality.
In drama there is a possible parallel to this left-hemisphere overdrive, with the influence of Theophrastan character ‘types’, or as we would say stereotypes, on Roman New Comedy, the fairly predictable sit-com of the era, that replaced the more exuberantly wild, bizarre and ultimately far more imaginative, and intellectually stimulating, Old Comedy, typified among the Greeks by Aristophanes. (Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle: it is said that Aristotle having pronounced to the effect that one swallow doth not a summer make, Theophrastus dutifully applied himself to a treatise on precisely how many swallows it took.)146
Rome's greatness depended more on codification, rigidity and solidity than it did on flexibility, imagination and originality. Speaking of law making, Braudel writes:
Without a doubt, Rome's intelligence and genius came into its own in this area. The metropolis could not maintain contact with its Empire – the rest of Italy, the provinces, the cities – without the legal regulations essential to the maintenance of political, social and economic order. The body of law could only increase over the ages.147
At first that brought seductive stability. By the second century AD the Roman Empire, according to Charles Freeman, ‘had reached the height of its maturity in that it was relatively peaceful, was able to defend itself and its elites flourished in an atmosphere of comparative intellectual and spiritual freedom’.148
But it did not last. It may be that an increasing bureaucracy, totalitarianism and an emphasis on the mechanistic in the late Roman period represents an attempt by the left hemisphere to ‘go it alone’. With this in mind, it is worth looking briefly at the development of Roman architecture and sculpture, since as Braudel says, ‘the domain in which Rome most rapidly developed its own personality was architecture.’149 We see its intellectual progress visibly charted there. There is a poetic as well as historical truth in the fact that the imperial vastness of Roman architecture was made possible by the invention of concrete.
‘The everyday life of the average man – his whole political, economic, and social life – was transformed during Late Antiquity’, writes Hans Peter L'Orange, whose book Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire is a classic study of the relationship between the architecture and broader values of this period.150 His study brings out one after another the features of left-hemisphere dominance so beautifully, and in ways that are so relevant by analogy with our own situation, that I allow him to speak for himself. ‘The free and natural forms of the early Empire, the multiplicity and variation of life under a decentralised administration, was replaced by homogeneity and uniformity under an ever-present and increasingly more centralised hierarchy of civil officials.’ What he sees as the ‘infinite variety of vigorous natural growth’ was levelled and regulated, into ‘an unchangeable, firmly crystallised order’, where individuals were no longer independent in a freely moving harmony with their surroundings, but became an immoveable part in the cadre of the state. L'Orange refers to an increasing standardisation and equalisation of life, related to the militarisation of society, resulting in a replacement in art of organic grouping by ‘mechanical coordination’.151
This is imaged for L'Orange in the changes in architecture, ‘the characteristic transition from organic articulation of a well-differentiated structure to an abstract simplification in great planes and lines …’ In Classical art and architecture, form had not been something added on by the artist from without or above, but rather brought forth from ‘deep within the object itself’. There was an organic beauty which pervaded the whole conception and could be found in its smallest detail: ‘in the same way that the individual type of a living being determines the form of each single part of it, so the principle for the whole structure of the classical building is contained within each single element of it.’152 The phrase reminds one of the way in which, in living forms, the structure of DNA within every cell contains information about the whole organism, or of the fractality of organic forms.153 Thus, he continues, often on sacred sites the classical temples stand ‘with peculiar recalcitrance’ beside one another,
each with its own orientation determined by its god or cult, by sacred portents and signs in the temple ground. Each building defies superior order of axiality, symmetry, or unity of direction … This organic and autonomous life, this supreme development from within of each part, of each ornament of the building, was lost during the Hellenistic-Roman evolution that followed.
The forms of buildings become ‘standardised, subordinated, and symmetrised’, subsumed as parts of a bigger complex. In cannibalising older buildings for material, so called spolia (the spoils of conquest) are thrown in anywhere, to make weight in the colossal, ‘endless flights of monotonously divided walls'; and in a sign of complete lack of sense of part to whole, the bases of columns are even used as capitals.154
Things are no better when it comes to the human face. Until the end of the third century, portraiture had sought to convey a lifelike individuality, revealing its subject as situated ‘in time, in the very movement of life … the play of features in the nervous face … the very flash of personality’.155 Asymmetry played a part in achieving this. Around AD 300, however, a fundamental change took place in the depiction of the face. Portraits in stone begin to show a ‘peculiarly abstract’, distant gaze, unconcerned with the elusive, changing, complex world in which we live, fixed on eternal abstractions: ‘the features suddenly stiffen in an expressive Medusa-like mask’.156 In portraiture of the period, the richly complex plastic modelling of the face sinks into something symmetrical, regular, crystalline, ‘just as the plastic articulation of the building structure disappears into the great continuous wall surfaces’.157 A technical shift, from the chisel to the running drill, brings with it a harshness and flatness, so that
the body loses its substantiality, it disintegrates: we are anxious lest it shrink to nothing and vanish … There is a movement away from lifelike nature to abstract types, from plastic articulation to conceptual generalisation, from the corporeal to the symbolic. A higher meaning is implanted in the object, which more and more is reduced to a shell enclosing this meaningful core, more and more becomes a sign referring to a thought – and, as a sign, always identical, formula-like, stereotype.
‘It is’, concludes L'Orange, ‘as if the natural objects flee from living perception …’158
This change was to see no reversal until the Renaissance. From now on through the Middle Ages face and body are symbols only: individualistic portraits of the emperors disappear, and they become alike in the same way as the saints.159 There is a turning away from beauty of proportion, based on the human body; size now represents an idea, the degree of significance we should attach to the figure. Martyrs and ascetics, with their revulsion from the body, replace the classical heroes: all life in the flesh is corrupt. Plotinus’ belief that the tangible reality of nature was a beautiful reflection of the Platonic Ideas cedes to a view of the natural world as ‘only a jungle of confusion where humans lose their way.’160 Myth and metaphor are no longer semi-transparent, but an opaque shell of lies which encloses the real truth, an abstraction at its core. Depictions on triumphal arches are no longer of the actual victor and the actual events, but of the generalised, symbolic attributes of the absolute victor: nothing is what it is, but only what it represents.
There is a loss of the sense of the beauty of proportion. In classical sculpture, the figures are separated in order that each body may be seen in itself as a corporeally beautiful whole; while at the same time, by their position, movement and gesture, they are placed in a certain rhythmic reciprocal contact which presents them as an organic, living group. By the third century AD, this classical composition has been ‘shattered’. Figures not only lose their corporeal beauty, but no longer exist in organic groupings: a sense of the whole, and the flow of life, are lost.
They overlap and cover one another in such a way that they no longer appear as organic units but rather as parts of entwined tangles of figures … the contours of the figures no longer flow rhythmically, but are formed by straight and jagged lines, somewhat spasmodically; characteristic are the abrupt, marionette-like movements.
Towards the end of the third century and into the early fourth century, organic form is replaced by ‘a mechanical order imposed upon objects from above …’161 The figures are equalised, pressed into symmetrical, horizontal lines, ‘just as the soldier to his rank and file … in a peculiar way the figures are immobilised’. There is an ‘infinite repetition of identical elements’, made even firmer by symmetry. ‘In the whole of conceptual life’, L'Orange concludes, ‘there is a movement away from the complex towards the simple, from the mobile towards the static, from the dialectic and relative towards the dogmatic and the authoritarian, from the empirical towards theology and theosophy.’162
Perhaps the best way of putting it is that there came about a sort of hierarchy of the hemispheres which reversed the natural order. At the more humble, domestic level, the right hemisphere was left relatively undisturbed, while its ambitious, if not grandiose, emissary lorded it over the empire. ‘In the domains of painting and sculpture, Roman art slowly distinguished itself from its Greek models’, writes Braudel:
there was indeed a popular art … an art not so much Roman as south Italian, which was to contribute something distinctive to Rome. This was a sturdy, realistic kind of art, depicting people and things with verisimilitude … It is in the domestic art of the portrait that one finds Roman art par excellence … Greek influence occasionally introduced a more pretentious note, but the Roman portrait, whether sculpted or painted, retained from its age-old tradition a very great expressive force and was always comparatively sober in style.163
At the local level, a more vibrant and tolerant culture may have prevailed, but increasingly it seems, another culture – strident, intolerant, concerned with abstractions, and with conformity – appears to have taken hold.
In his book The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman puts forward the view that this was a consequence of the rise of Christianity.164 Once the Emperor Constantine, himself a Christian, decreed religious tolerance of all cults, including Christianity, by the Edict of Milan in 313, he began the process of integrating the Church into the state. In doing so, he also promoted its identification with military success, with secular power, and with wealth. Although this clearly brought a kind of stability for Christians, who for centuries had been subject to persecution, it also led, according to Freeman, to a world which was rigid, less accommodating of difference, more concerned with dogma and less with reason. With the Nicene decree of Theodosius in 381, not only was paganism outlawed, but a certain specific understanding of the nature of the Trinity became orthodoxy: there was no room for disagreement and debate was stifled.
The Greek tradition had been one of tolerance of others’ beliefs, an inclusive attitude to the gods, and one could see Constantine's Edict as lying in that tradition. But by the end of the fourth century, such tolerance was a thing of the past, as the dispute between Symmachus and Ambrose over the Altar of Victory demonstrates.165 For the Greeks spirituality and rationality, muthos (mythos) and logos, could coexist without conflict.166 That muthoi could be ‘frozen in written form and interpreted to make statements of “truth” (logoi)’ was alien to the Greeks. But, as Freeman admits, there was resistance to such formulations in early Christianity, as well, and Christians as much as pagans suffered under Theodosius’ decree.167 What Freeman takes to be the contrast between Greek and Christian thought might better be seen, according to some scholars, as the contrast between, on the one hand, the flexibility of a way of thinking which can be found in the rich tradition of the early Christian fathers as well as in the paganism with which it co-existed (where the hemispheres, too, co-operated), and, on the other, a culture marked by a concern with legalistic abstractions, with ‘correctness’, and the dogmatic certainties of the left hemisphere, whether Greek or Christian, which inexorably replaced them. Thus Mary Beard writes in a review: ‘The real problem is in Freeman's stark opposition between the classical and Christian worlds.’168
For Freeman's claim is that it was reason that was lost during the ensuing period of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. But it was not. As Beard says, the Christian world was ‘positively overflowing with intellectual and rational argument’. It's just that they deployed it on a legalistic framework for divinity, rather than on the movement of the planets. What was lacking was any concern with the world in which we live; their gaze was fixed firmly on theory, abstractions, conceptions, and what we could find only in books. And that was not just something to do with Christianity. It was, after all, Plato who said that we should do astronomy by ‘ignoring the visible heavens’, who taught that the imperceptible forms of things were more real than the things themselves: and it was also Plato who, in his Republic, and still more in his Laws, envisaged the first, utterly joyless, authoritarian state, in which what is not compulsory is proscribed. Plato's distaste for emotion, and mistrust of the body and the concrete world make an interesting comparison with the asceticism of Christianity during what we have come to know as the Dark Ages. The passion is for control, for fixity, for certainty; and that comes not with religion alone, but with a certain cast of mind, the cast of the left hemisphere.
This had not been the tradition of Aristotle, however, who, as Heraclitus had recommended, was an enquirer into many things indeed, a true empirical scientist, always the advocate for the incarnate world; and, as Freeman says, he had an ‘openness to the provisional nature of knowledge’ that made him a great philosopher.169 But, in the period to come, Aristotle's work too was ‘frozen’, and paradoxically became an authority, removing the need to enquire, rather than being an inspiration to think for oneself. The striking thing about Greek intellectual life had been the tolerance of opposition: independence of mind, in this sense, began with the Greeks.170 But it also declined with them, and eventually with the Romans after them, so that Christianity, which is in one sense the most powerful mythos in advocacy of the incarnate world, and of the value of the individual, that the world has ever known, also ended up a force for conformity, abstraction, and the suppression of independent thought.
Though the Empire continued to survive in one form or another in the East, it was destroyed in the West. The conditions of intellectual life simply no longer obtained, and knowledge of Greek was lost. There was little in the way of mathematical or scientific advance between 500 and 1100. Not until the tenth century did Greek texts, preserved in Arabic translations, begin to filter back into European consciousness. As learning revived it was very much under the control of the Church, but it is also true that it was largely due to the Church, which preserved and copied texts, and encouraged learning, and whose scholars were open to Greek and Arab ideas, that classical culture made it through from late antiquity to the Renaissance.
The decline of the Roman Empire has been the subject of more controversy than almost any other development in Western history. In his book The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins lists no fewer than 210 concepts that have been invoked to account for it.171 His own formulation is that fiscal decline, with its consequences for an army under-funded by taxation, led to civil wars, which further undermined resources, and ultimately to defeat at the hands of the ‘barbarians’, resulting in a catastrophic collapse of civilisation. I find his argument compelling, though I am no historian. And it does not seem to me to be in conflict with the idea that there was a change in cast of mind – with the influx of a new population that would be inevitable. Only the change of mind had started anyway: it is evident in the fabric of the Empire itself.
This chapter has necessarily covered a lot of ground, though it goes without saying that it still only scratches the surface. Let me try to summarise. I see the starting point as an achievement of ‘necessary distance’, probably through an enhancement of frontal lobe function. Initially this led to a period of unparalleled richness in Greek culture when the left hemisphere and right hemisphere worked in harmony (when, in Nietzsche's terms, there was a union of Apollo with Dionysus, the time of the birth of tragedy). This was marked not by some sort of compromise, a holding back, of both hemispheres in relation to one another, but on the contrary by a going further than had ever been gone before in both directions at once, an unfolding of the potential of each hemisphere such as the Western world had never seen before. However, in philosophy, in attitudes to the phenomenal world, including ways of, literally, seeing it, in a view of the soul and body, in poetry and drama, in architecture and sculpture of the human form and face, and in the evolution of the Greek alphabet and of currency, we see the balance of power shifting always in the same direction, with the left hemisphere (Apollo) gradually coming to win the day.
Out of the history of Greece and Rome come confirmatory and converging lines of evidence that it was through the workings of the emissary, the left hemisphere, that the ‘empire’ of the mind expanded in the first place; and that, as long as it worked in concert with the Master, the right hemisphere, faithfully bringing back the knowledge and understanding gained by it, and offering them to the right hemisphere so as to bring a (now more complex) world into being, an ability which belongs to the right hemisphere alone, the empire thrived. On the other hand, once the left hemisphere started to believe that its dominion was everything, once the wealth it created began to remain obdurately in its own province, as though it could survive on its own, rather than being returned to the world that only the right hemisphere could bring about, then the empire – not the Roman Empire, which the world could do without, but the empire that the hemispheres between them had created, which we cannot – began to crumble.