The Greco-Egyptian Book of the Dead
Know Thyself becomes No Thyself
The First and Second Centuries CE and BCE were a period of cultural and religious chaos unmatched until our own time.
The Greek speaking world was the whole Mediterranean basin from Spain to Egypt. It was an elitist culture that, to my American eyes, resembles the Mafia more than a civilization. Many people know this about the Roman Empire. They know about the violence and the good old boy network that sold nations to the highest bidder and enforced the sale with the legionnaire's sword. We also know that they made progress in mathematics, science, technology, military arts, administration, justice, trade, communications, construction, roads, shipping, art, and literature.
To that day, and only once since, no civilization had risen so high in everything except religion and the philosophy of human nature. And that failure left them with horrible outcomes: elitism, a pyramid social and political structure, totalitarianism, slavery, poverty for the bulk of the people, a carelessness for human life, blood sports, hellish torture, ignorance and illiteracy for all but a few men, an economic system frozen almost as much as modern socialism, and an empty sense of personhood. Why? Because the only personhood men or women were allowed was that role and position they were born to fill in the monster pyramid of a single god–emperor at the peak and women and slaves at the bottom. A person had no worth or right to life outside of this giant structure. And therefore charlatans who offered eternal meaning or ways of coping with emptiness, like today, found easy pickings among the rich and the powerful. The philosophers did not bother the poor, slaves, or women because none of them had any money.
The old gods were pretty dead. Jupiter and the rest of the boys and girls in the sky were still around, but alive in the same sense that Santa Claus is alive in our society. No one took them seriously any longer but they were still nice decorations and their temples were beautiful and a good place to make business friends and get a little on the side. Sacrificing was a bore but not too expensive and being pals with the priests of your favorite god or goddess was always helpful when you needed a favor. And favors were what the whole society was based on, again, like the Mafia. Into this cynical world of religion the purveyors of mystery and secret knowledge of the great beyond sold worthless lies for worthwhile gold or political favors. For a price they would invite you to a special initiation seminar at their resort where you would receive the best of care and the worst of philosophy. Hundreds of these mystery religions were founded by men who wrote about secret knowledge and revelations of the afterlife or the spirit world and would share the secret of eternal life for a price. Of course, it was not said like that. The pitch was as sophisticated as any TV preacher today.
Ideal, pun intended, for these secret doctrines were the writings of Plato. Until Karl Marx, no man of letters has done as much damage to us all as Plato. I have always felt this way, ever since I learned that he thought our souls were real and our bodies were illusions. I even have a book in which I wrote “Plato is a Savage.” in 1958. He is the father, after Pythagoras, of Gnosticism: the ultimate elitist doctrine that there are two worlds and only the gifted few know the truth. I did not respect the professors who made me read that idiot. What a waste of time. But charlatans everywhere love him because his chief flaw, elitism, is their meal ticket. And so it was in the early years of the Common Era.
Platonic idealism (dualism, not political activism) owned the Greco–Roman Empire. There were certainly competing schools of philosophy such as the Stoics and the Epicureans but even they accepted the world view of Pythagoras and Plato that there were two universes, the material world and the ideal world. Aristotle’s greatest error in logic was in allowing the Final Cause, a clear case of idea causing a real effect, for non–living systems. And Platonism was useful to the state because it allowed immense cruelty to the living because their bodies were, after all, tombs and death freed their souls to a better place. Sound familiar? This is the error that gives religion a bad name, the foolishness that oppressed people are fed to keep them quiet. Now days in the West we do not use these ideas to excuse barbarisms like the Romans did. But too often our religions still carry this legacy of dualism and elitism.
In philosophy this is called Idealism or Platonism. In religion we call it Gnosticism from the Greek word for knowledge, in this case the secret knowledge revealed to the elite master trying to sell you a book and a seminar at his spa. Listen to some of the foolish doctrines these idiots, wealthy idiots, taught: the soul is real and the body in an illusion, biological life is actually death for the spiritual soul which only comes into its real life after the death of the imprisoning body, the material world is evil and the realm of ideas is pure and good, and male–female sex is either rejected altogether as fleshly and not heavenly or embraced as a kind of sacramental union of the spiritual ideals of male and female. God was an it, not a he or a she, but some sort of combination of the two. Either evolved or created, our view of human sexuality is biological and physical, even when we find differences in our brains and mental machinery. But Gnostics believed that male and female are ideas or concepts that precede biology and that their separation is an evil thing that must be corrected. In other words, evolution is wrong. And when Ha Shem said, after He named us male and female,
This is good! He was wrong.
Their doctrines about God were also irrational. Unlike the God of the Bible, the Platonic god had no actual personality, never spoke or communicated with us in any way, and had no contact with the physical world. It was pure, a unity, perfect, eternal, and could not be described in human language. The logical problem was that this god was at the same time disconnected and connected, beyond human understanding but, for a fee, could have its secrets revealed. No pagan idol was that silly. What the donation to the philosopher got you was a system that, with a little hand waving and some magic words, made the connection between the abstraction and the donor with emanations and outflowings and syzygies. They often sounded like the Egyptian Book of the Dead which outlined the riddles and paths through the various heavens in the afterlife. It was like some Halloween computer game with magic instead of weapons and chants instead of secret codes.
Favorite stories for these loonies were tall tales about the first man and the first woman. Like modern conspiracy theories, there was always something hidden going on that lesser beings could not comprehend. These doctrines were mysteries, a hand waving word to make the initiate believe he was too stupid to understand what was clear to the teacher.
When Alexander conquered Persia contact was made between the Platonic and the Mosaic, between the Greek and the Semite. The people of the Book borrowed a little of the dualism and the abstraction of the deity and took pains to downplay the anthropomorphism of their literature. For their part, the Greeks jumped on the stories of Adam and Eve, Seth, Enoch, and later Geshua. But the Gnostics raped the Bible stories and turned them into allegories and symbolic tales. Everything was a Romance, a mythic vehicle to carry their doctrines. They had no sense of history or truth or reality accept their nasty, secret world of invisible abstractions. So Eve had secret knowledge or Seth had secret knowledge or Geshua had secret knowledge that they had passed on, exclusively, to the philosopher selling eternal salvation. Many of these writers were even, apparently, Jewish. Whatever flaws the Original Testament scrolls have, they read like a scientific paper compared to the crap invented by the Gnostics using the names and stories of our literature.
Do you know how to tell a Gnostic doctrine from a teaching of Geshua? One is secret until you pay or join the cult. The other is heard for free even by those who hate the message. The one requires loyalty and the other produces loyalty. One is embraced by the elites of society the other embraced by the poor and humble. One is held close by a secret society and not open to disagreement or discussion and the other is public knowledge, openly debated and argued about. One offers nothing more than nothingness and the other offers life. One slanders the creation and the other embraces the creation. One blames evil on the flesh, the other sees evil in the hearts of men and women. One is doomed by fate, the other knows repentance and redemption.
The books these charlatans left behind are full of mythic tales, magical events, symbolic deeds, miracles, and pointless descriptions of the invisible world. The Emperors got in on it too and promoted books about their own miraculous births, magic powers, and bodily ascensions into heaven. There was a lot of superstition and thousands of angels and other spirit beings. Human beings were like pawns in a heavenly chess game and had little worth–unless they had paid the fees and knew the secret, magic words. And then what? The paid up soul was able to shed forever his vile human body, loose consciousness, cease personhood, end itself, and be merged into the mindless realm of Ideas. This is annihilation, not salvation. Platonism is pretty much a death cult, even unto the death of the soul.