THEOSOPHY, Vol. 84, No. 8, June, 1996
(Pages 237-240; Size: 9K)

ANCIENT AND MODERN PHILOSOPHY

TRANSITION: [PART 2]

[Part 4 of a 5-part series]

WESTERN philosophers, in general, no longer turn to theology to resolve moral issues, or to metaphysics to explain the reality of nature. At the turn of the century the scope of philosophic inquiry was rigorously redefined, with it becoming an analysis of credentials rather than a search for higher truth. Philosophers began to look for measurable and observable means to determine certainty. As language is the medium by which human beings express their experience, their understanding and knowledge of themselves and the world, every serious philosopher has had to address the credentials of language when proposing statements of knowledge.

The project of modern philosophy is quite different from what Plato meant by philosophy. As described by H. P. Blavatsky in "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics":

He considered those only to be genuine Philosophers, or students of truth, who possess the knowledge of the really-existing, in opposition to mere objects of perception; of the always-existing, in opposition to the transitory; and of that which exists permanently, in opposition to that which waxes, wanes, and is alternately developed and destroyed. ... the aspiration for this knowledge constitutes what is really meant by Philosophy. ... It is the province of the discipline of Philosophy to disenthral the Soul from the bondage of sense, and to raise it into the empyrean pure thought, to the vision of eternal truth,... (H.P.B. Articles I, p. 17). [Note: For those who might like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]
It is apparent that Plato could recognize the existence of relative truth, without abandoning a conviction in absolute truth or teaching a nihilistic doctrine. In fact, the doctrine of relativism, which characterizes one aspect of modern philosophy, is not new, having become prominent during a transitional age in the East around 600 B.C. This transition is discussed by A. K. Warder in an Outline of Indian Philosophy. Mr. Warder explains that during this period in northern India, there existed an influential class of teachers and philosophers outside the Brahman cast. As a group, they rejected the Brahman's claims to special status, abilities, and authority. They also rejected the Vedic tradition. For them, the means of knowing directly was more important than tradition; therefore, they tended to appeal to experience and science. They were called Sramanas, which means "strivers." The Sramanas and their schools dominated Indian Philosophy for centuries. Of the five major sramana schools, only two have endured to the present day. The Buddha may be considered the most significant of all Sramanas.

Typical of all Sramanas, the Buddha rejected authority. He taught that nothing should be accepted merely on authority, not even the authority of the Buddha. Rather, he wanted his disciples to realize truth for themselves, and to trust their experience. For example, in Buddhist texts there are specific reasons listed that should never be used in reaching a definite opinion on a disputed topic. These include tradition, predetermined (a priori) systems and the opinions of teachers. Rather, one should find out, one should see, and one should gain direct knowledge through experience.

The other surviving sramana school is the Jainas. The most influential doctrine of the Jainas is "points of view." According to the Jainas, different opinions can all be true when taken from different perspectives. There are seven nayas (aspects or points of view) from which reality may be regarded. This is the doctrine of syvada or relativism. As Nietzsche used his doctrine of relativism to criticize the Western philosophical tradition the Jaina scholar, Hemacandra (1088-1127 A.D.), assailed the philosophical systems of the Hindus and Buddhists. Jainism holds that knowledge is relative, probable and partial at best and that most propositions can be either accepted or denied, depending on the point of view taken.

The doctrine of syvada, briefly stated, amounts to the assertion that reality, whatever it is, expresses itself in multiple forms, with the result that no absolute predication is possible. This view in general is called anekantavada, the doctrine that reality has many (literally, "not-one") aspects, leading the possibility of only relative predications (A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy).
So far, it is clear that the empiricism and relativism of modern philosophy was anticipated by ancient Eastern philosophers, but it is not so clear that this was also true of skepticism and nihilism. These latter two qualities were central to the three sramana schools which no longer exist. The Lokayata school was totally materialistic maintaining that sense perception was the only means of acquiring certain genuine knowledge. The Ajnana school was totally skeptical regarding the possibility of certain knowledge and holding no specific doctrine on the nature of reality. The Ajivaka school was totally fatalistic.

The early Buddhist texts tell of a lokayata sramana named Ajita Kesakambalin who was a famous contemporary of the Buddha. Kesakambalin's doctrine called "annihilationism" (ucchedavada) taught the results of good and bad actions to be illusionary. The doctrine rejected a future life or a knowledge of anything beyond this world. Virtue and vice considered as non-absolutes were therefore merely social conventions. The lokayata theory of knowledge insisted that one should accept only what is directly perceived via the physical senses. This school refuted all metaphysical doctrines which made claims for the existence of other worlds.

The Ajivaka school was entirely deterministic and fatalistic considering all human beings as going through an identical course of experiences regardless of individual choices and actions. And, that all human beings repeat this sequential process again and again. This doctrine is remarkably similar to Nietzche's doctrine of "eternal recurrence" which stated that there is no outer progress, only an internal process of becoming. Outwardly we observe, merely an eternal returning of all of the best and all of the worst.

It certainly appears as though the best and worst of the sramanic movement in ancient Indian philosophy returned in essence to the West, if not in every detail, during the early part of the twentieth century. One sees the same questioning of authority, the reliance on personal experience and science, but also notices the skepticism, materialism, and nihilism. One observes the same devaluation of Absolute Truth, a rejection of ethics based on universal laws of moral causation along with a denial of an enduring Self beyond the physical body and personality.

However, it is possible to understand the necessity of relative truth, while accepting the reality of Absolute Truth and the enduring Higher Self. This requires a love of truth for its own sake and a willingness to search for what is eternal and universal in the relative truths expressed in various philosophies and religions.


[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler

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