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Matthew Melvin-Koushki on ‘The West’
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[This interview was recorded in a medieval stone vault consecrated to Hermes Trismegistus. This definitely accounts for the reverb, and probably accounts for the highly exalted historical dialectic.]
The distinction of North and South is real and intelligible; and our pursuit is terminated on either side by the poles of the Earth. But the difference of East and West is arbitrary, and shifts round the globe.
— Edward Gibbon, marginal note added to one of his own copies of The Decline and Fall, 3.1095 (from Fowden 2014, see bibliography below).
In the field of western esotericism studies a lot of energy goes into defining what we mean by ‘esotericism’, but the dangerously-vague term ‘western’ is often given a pass. Professor Melvin-Koushki argues that, in terms of the history of ideas, we can speak of a western cultural sphere, basically summed up as ‘the Hellenic-Abrahamic synthesis’. I think that, if we want to keep the category of ‘the west’ for academic study of the history of ideas, this is the only cogent definition possible. But accepting it leads to some surprising conclusions.
We discuss the gestation of Westernness in late antiquity and its full maturation in early modernity, when the modern, mathematised cosmos was born; think of Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, and Newton. In this period, however, the Western world’s centres of wealth, scholarship, literacy, and population were concentrated not in the cultural and economic island that was western Europe, but in the far wealthier and more populous and cosmopolitan Islamic heartlands, from the eastern Mediterranean to the gates of China and northern India, the pivot of the Afro-Eurasian oecumene. It was there, Professor Melvin-Koushki argues, that a distinctively Western early modernity was born. But because we are in thrall to the polemical fiction first spun by Renaissance humanists, whereby Islam can never be Western, the story of the equally Neopythagoreanizing Muslim predecessors and contemporaries of Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, and Newton has yet to be written. The writers of it will be writing a story of the birth of the modern West – not only in western Europe, but also and especially in western Asia, where the disciples of Pythagoras and Plato were even more ascendant.
Matthew Melvin-Koushki (PhD Yale) is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He specializes in early modern Islamicate intellectual and imperial history, with a focus on the theory and practice of the occult sciences in Timurid-Safavid Iran and the wider Persianate world to the 19th century. His forthcoming books include Occult Philosophers and Philosopher Kings in Early Modern Iran: The Life and Legacy of Ibn Turka, Timurid Lettrist and The Occult Science of Empire in Aqquyunlu-Safavid Iran: Two Shirazi Lettrists and Their Manuals of Magic, and he is editor of the recently published volume Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, the first such in the field to treat of post-Mongol Persianate developments. His 26 published or forthcoming articles and review essays range widely temporally, geographically and disciplinarily, from Ilkhanid Iran, Mamluk Egypt and Ottoman Anatolia to Mughal India and Manghit Transoxania, and from history of science and history of philosophy to imperial historiography and literary and visual theory; they together constitute a new analytical framework for the study of early modern Persianate societies—one which retrieves occult science as a first-order category central to the intellectual-imperial evolutions of the same, and a crucial node for the comparative study of Western early modernities more broadly.
Works Discussed in this Episode:
- Fowden, Garth. 2014. Before and after Muḥammad: The First Millennium Refocused. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Hasse, Dag Nikolaus. 2016. Success and Suppression: Arabic Science and Philosophy in the Renaissance. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
- Melvin-Koushki, Matthew. Forthcoming. The Occult Science of Empire in Aqquyunlu-Safavid Iran: Two Shirazi Lettrists and Their Manuals of Magic. Leiden: Brill.
- Morrison, Robert. 2014. ‘A Scholarly Intermediary between the Ottoman Empire and Renaissance Europe’. Isis 105: 32-57.
- Isaac Newton’s works online: The Newton Project. University of Oxford. http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/newtons-works/alchemical
- Porreca, David and Dan Attrell, ed. and tr. 2018. Picatrix: A Medieval Treatise on Astral Magic. University Park: Penn State University Press.
- Ragep, F. Jamil. 2004. ‘Copernicus and His Islamic Predecessors: An Aspect of Islamic Influence on Science’. Osiris 16 n.s.: 49-71.
- Saliba, George. 2007. Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Melvin-Koushki’s main arguments in this episode are especially well laid out in these two articles:
- Melvin-Koushki, Matthew. 2017. ‘Powers of One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition’. Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 5, no. 1: 127-99.
- Idem. 2018. ‘Taḥqīq vs. Taqlīd in the Renaissances of Western Early Modernity.’ Philological Encounters 3, nos. 1-2: 193-249.
- Ahmed, Shahab. 2015. What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Albertson, David. 2014. Mathematical Theologies: Nicholas of Cusa and the Legacy of Thierry of Chartres. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Bulliet, Richard. 2004. The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Håkansson, Håkan. 2001. Seeing the Word: John Dee and Renaissance Occultism. Lund: Lunds Universitet.
- Hallyn, Fernand. 1993. The Poetic Structure of the World: Copernicus and Kepler. Tr. Donald M. Leslie. New York: Zone Books.
- Hirschler, Konrad. 2013. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L. 2014. Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe: Finding Heaven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Josephson-Storm, Jason Ā. 2017. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Killeen, Kevin and Peter J. Forshaw, eds. The Word and the World: Biblical Exegesis and Early Modern Science. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Melvin-Koushki, Matthew. 2017. ‘(De)colonizing Early Modern Occult Philosophy’. Review essay on Liana Saif, The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 12, no. 1: 98-112.
- Idem. 2018. ‘Early Modern Islamicate Empire: New Forms of Religiopolitical Legitimacy’. In The Wiley-Blackwell History of Islam, ed. Armando Salvatore, Roberto Tottoli, and Babak Rahimi. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 353-75.
- Idem. 2016. ‘Of Islamic Grammatology: Ibn Turka’s Lettrist Metaphysics of Light’. Al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā: Journal of Middle East Medievalists, 24: 42-113.
- Melvin Koushki, Matthew and James Pickett. 2016. ‘Mobilizing Magic: Occultism in Central Asia and the Continuity of High Persianate Culture under Russian Rule’. Studia Islamica 111, no. 2: 231-84.
- Rizvi, Sajjad H. 2012. ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life in the World of Islam: Applying Hadot to the Study of Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635)’. Bulletin of the School of African and Oriental Studies 75, no. 1: 33-45.
September 6, 2019
Forget Copernicus! I want to hear more about the Islamic influences on Kepler. But my question is regarding the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity to the “far western” attitudes to Islamic sources that you describe as prevailing during the Renaissance. Why I ask is this…
Firstly, I see Trinitarian doctrines as crude compromises of various misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the Platonic/Stoic mystery of the generation of difference by Logos from the creator-origin called the “Monad”. (The 3rd person was added as almost an afterthought.) Secondly, Trinitarian doctrine was so fraught that it may rank as the most disastrous theology of all religion of all time, and, sure enough, heresy had emerged again in the Renaissance (even due to interpolation found when reading the original Greek!) Thirdly, one way to see Islam in the Abrahamic line is in rejection of the Trinity as anti-monotheistic. There is no god. But God! The absolute oneness of the Godhead and creator is emphasised at every level of dogmatic Islamic theology, and it often headlines polemically in the rejection of Christianity.
So my question: Did Islamic monotheism help the Islamic Platonists assimilate Platonism into their theology in a way that it never could in the far Western (Roman) church? And, to what extent did the theology of the Trinity contribute to the rejection of (silence about) Islamic sources during the Renaissance? This was a tension, was it not, back with Ramon Lull attempt at an accord?
September 6, 2019
Your points about the Trinity: 1. Your explanation seems as good as any out there; no one knows where this thing came from, really. I would go so far as to agree that the doctrine definitely arose somehow from the fraught process of trying to fit Platonistic philosophical terminology (like ὑπόστασις and indeed λόγος) into new and uncomfortable molds (an unsuitable theological story), all happening in the context of the politics of Constantine’s empire. 2. Absolutely. 3. Rejection of Trinitarian ideas is of course a central Qur’anic message (‘He is not begotten, nor does he beget, nor is anything whatsoever a comparandum to Him’ – Surah Ikhlas).
As for your very interesting questions, I think they are too broad for quick answers, but I think you are on to something, which we shall of course be exploring in the course of the podcast. Islam incorporating Platonism: this depends on what you construe as Platonism, because the ‘Islamic Aristotelean’ tradition of course includes elements of Proclus and Plotinus, so is metaphysically Platonist in some meaningful ways, but not perhaps in others. As for your second question, what a great research-project that would make. Maybe someone has looked into it, but think it’s wide open for an enterprising scholar to get involved.
September 6, 2019
Oh, I fully agree: Copernicus was a stick in the Pythagoran mud as compared to Kepler, whom I too find much more interesting! But as for Islamic influences on the latter, who knows — the most basic research has yet to be done on the question, as with almost everything early modern Islamo-Christian, thanks of course to the Renaissance humanists.
And yeah, the Trinity is a big problem indeed, and it’s crucial to remember here that Islam originates, at least in part, as a Christian-Jewish revivalist movement of monotheists who wanted to get back to basics and dispense with such theological contortions. Let’s just say an anti-Trinitarian like Newton would’ve been much more comfortable and influential in the Ottoman Empire than his native England. So yes, Islam and Platonism went together like grits and gravy from the getgo, no philosophical contortions necessary, such that Neoplatonism and especially Neopythagoreanism absolutely boomed in the early modern period. The main sticking point was rather the creationist vs. emanationist binary, to which many very creative but complicated resolutions were offered over the centuries, with some thinkers taking a both-and approach. But here again research into Islamic theories of time has barely begun.
Re your second question, I second Earl — someone really needs to cast off the humanist yoke and start looking into that! But my own general sense, as a non-Europeanist, is that while there was a certain degree of Far Western fascination with “Saracen” culture, it was very poorly informed indeed, and mostly a tissue of chauvinist fictions and fever dreams. It was also focused monomanaically on political and military concerns, not philosophical or theological. Renaissance humanists had precisely zero knowledge of or interest in contemporary developments in Arabic or Persian, while the Arabists concerned themselves solely with that handful of 9th to 12th-century classics that had already been translated, usually badly, into Latin. Thus Ibn Rushd/Averroes, for example, was infinitely more popular in Latin than in Arabic, much less Persian, where his hardcore Aristotelianism was rather a turnoff. In short, I think it highly unlikely that Renaissance humanist pro-Trinitarianism contributed much, if at all, to their anti-Arabism; they were too busy navelgazing, neoclassicizing and making up nonsense. Thus Ibn Sina the Spanish king, Abu Ma’shar the Athenian, the Greeks as Europeans. Ye gods…
In any case, the best place to go on this point is Hasse’s fabulous study as discussed in the podcast and listed above (summarized more thoroughly in my review essay thereon), as well as Margaret Meserve, Empires of Islam in Renaissance Historical Thought (Harvard UP, 2008).
As for folks like Llull, Campanella and Postel, they’re a whole ‘nother story! Yet they too are all for the “convert or die” approach, which again is typical of Far Western chauvinism and provincialism. Just as the humanists couldn’t bear the thought of modern Western philosophy ever occurring in Arabic or Persian, these zealot missionaries couldn’t bear the thought of a world in which Islam as such continued to exist, though amputated bits could certainly be incorporated into a universal Christendom — and the rest safely left to rot.
February 28, 2022
Matthew: Can you elaborate as to why you find Kepler more interesting?
What are some interesting things for today’s audiences in Kepler’s “Harmony of the World”?
(Online copy in translation)
February 28, 2022
This guy WAS pretty interesting. Holy cow
Screenshot from Harmony of the World (link to source placed in previous post)
September 10, 2019
Even if the association of anti-Trinitarianism with Islam did matter to reception, maybe this came later, after Luther, like when it was fully revived during the British Interregnum; and perhaps by then (eg with Newton) it didn’t matter anymore (…because he had Kepler!).
It sounds like there were still difficulties for dogmatic Islam with Platonic accounts on the-generation-of-difference (creation ex nihilo, arche/logos, monad/dyad etc). This is not surprising, since these accounts are illogical, indeed, plainly self-contradictory. Mysterious. I mean, could you make a dogma out of the arche/logos in the Preface to John’s Gospel?
Anyway, perhaps our host might consider a Shwep episode on the Platonic theology of the Early Church Father, and how it went underground in the West. In my experience, one is likely to find better understanding of this controversy on the streets of Isfahan, St Petersburg and Cairo than among western specialist scholars and theologians, which suggest that ‘Arianism’ remains a ‘Western Esotericism’ to this day.
(Tks, I’ll take a look at Hasse.)
September 10, 2019
Bernie, vis à vis Platonisms of the Early Church fathers, we shall be covering at least Clement (multiple episodes), Origen (multiple episodes), the Gregories — oh, and Valentinus and Basilides, who are relevant to this topic, even though many people do not want to consider them early church fathers for some reason.
As for Platonism’s going underground in the far west, a hard look at this phenomenon will be an important task for the podcast for sure! There is this weird medieval game of whack-a-mole where Platonising theologies keep springing up in Latinate Europe (presumably out of the DNA of Christianity itself) and have to be suppressed by Popes and whatnot. Often on grounds of insufficient trinitarianism, surprise surprise.
Maybe a structural discussion of Platonism as one major ingredient in the pot of early X-ity would be interesting, now you mention it. The problem is firstly defining what you mean by Platonism, and then getting to grips with it historically; that’s a podcast in itself
November 24, 2019
I just listened to this episode, and really enjoyed it.
I didn’t realize the central role of Pythagoras in the Western intellectual tradition, or of Islamic scholars (as so much more than a conduit for translations of old Greek texts), and I like the framing of the Western Tradition as one that involves a “Mathematical AND linguistic understanding of the universe” (hadn’t thought of that before either).
Now I am thinking that we can refer to this as the “Abrahamic-Pythogorian-Hellenic” tradition.
Towards the end of the podcast, there was a quite dense discussion about implications for the current moment we are in (the ‘declinist’ narrative, flowing from the neoclassical tradition, with fundamentalist strands, ultimately leading to the demonization of the ‘other’, manifesting today in extremely strong nationalist and anti-immigrant tendencies around the world).
I had a question about this:
What does this have to do with the return of neo-neo-Pythagorean thinking, and with pPanpsychism, idealism, the primacy of consciousness etc.. I got a bit lost there, and would love some clarification if you have time? Thanks…..Saeed
November 26, 2019
I don’t quite follow your quite follow your question. What does the declinist narrative have to do with neo-Pythagorean thinking and panpsychism? Hmmmmm. Nothing direct, on the face of it, I would say. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really your question, though.
November 27, 2019
It’s the material brought up in the last few minutes of the podcast and alluded to here, and also from the “Taḥqīq vs. Taqlīd” article (which you referenced in the show notes):
“But a broadened and more balanced analytical framework alone cannot save philology, much less Western civilization, from the throes of its current existential crisis: for we philologists of the Euro-American academy are fevered too by the cosmological ill that is reflexive scientistic materialism. As antidote, I prescribe a progressivist, postmodern return to early modern Western deconstructive-reconstructive cosmic philology as prerequisite for the discipline’s survival, and perhaps even triumph, in the teeth of totalitarian colonialist-capitalist modernity.”
So in talking about this existential crisis on the podcast, he went into consciousness, panpsychism, idealism etc….that’s where I got lost..
I guess maybe he was just referring to this “progressivist, postmodern return to early modern Western deconstructive-reconstructive cosmic philology”….it is a mouthful, though.
December 1, 2019
Yeah, my take is that the new focus on consciousness or mind among some scientists, philosophers of science and even theologians, who argue that the last centuries of obsession with matter alone has been remarkably technologically productive and yet leaves our actual experience of reality a black box, will eventually provide the means to institutionally reconcile the sciences and the humanities as a natural consequence. In other words, it looks to me like we’re already in the first stages of a return to the fairly standard early modern Western cosmology wherein philology in particular, now execrated, often enjoyed *scientific* legitimacy and *technological* applicability. This of course would mark a massive cultural seachange — one that yes, would be the death knell for our current colonialist-capitalist cosmology, profoundly Protestant, wherein a handful of elite white male minds only get to manipulate and penetrate a universe of dead matter at will. In short, I’m calling for us humanists to ally with scientists to reclaim our Western heritage, while amputating the toxic Renaissance humanist chauvinism that grew cancerously into colonialism and scientistic materialism, which turn out to be junk science and junk ethics simultaneously.
Hence my base definition of “cosmic philology” as a preferred term of art going forward, so the scientists can understand what it is we humanists actually do, and vice versa:
the empirical history, and possibly scientific future, of *consciousness*, occult or otherwise,
human or otherwise.
April 29, 2020
“I’m calling for us humanists to ally with scientists to reclaim our Western heritage, while amputating the toxic Renaissance humanist chauvinism that grew cancerously into colonialism and scientistic materialism, which turn out to be junk science and junk ethics simultaneously.” –> (When I read this, I did a standing ovation amid the solitude of my studio apartment.)
Just a fantastic episode, really. So much here to think about. Definitely will give this one several more spins.
Thinking about “the West” as complexes of linguistic-mathematical cosmology stemming from the Pythagorean tradition is really interesting, and it makes me wonder how alchemy fits into this Western cosmology. Alchemy as it’s currently defined emerged in Egypt sometime after Alexander as the synthesis of Egyptian chemical craft (and Hellenic-Egyptian religion, if we take Zosimos as typological) with Greek philosophy: but, how deeply are numbers and letters intertwined with alchemical theories at the very beginning? Do we even have enough textual materials to hazard a guess? I know Zosimos wrote “On the Letter Omega” (one of supposedly a 28-book series), so there’s definitely something there, and Zosimos talks about the meaning of letters a little bit, but he doesn’t really show us a lot of maths per se; that is, he’s not showing us a lot of explicit number crunching (correct me if I’m wrong).
To give you an example of what I’m thinking about, by the time we get to Jabir (or Pseudo-Jabir, if you prefer), we get full-on lettrism and numerology integrated with alchemical theory, explicit maths looking to divine elemental properties by calculating the numerical values of names using magic squares. So, I guess my query is, do we see anyone in Hellenic-Egypt doing this very explicit number crunching akin to lettrism in an alchemical context? Is Jabir the first Western intellectual that we know to do this?
April 29, 2020
We get the number-crunching in Zosimus for sure, but if you check out the Pseudo-Democritus, our earlist surviving alchemist (1st or 2nd century CE; see SHWEPisode 86), there’s nothing like that. Clearly, it’s either something which developed into the alchemical context or maybe it was just an Egyptian thang, as with so much of what we find in Zosimus.
April 29, 2020
Interesting! I was not aware of that; will have to dig for it. Thanks!
October 4, 2021
I very much enjoyed this corner of literally esoteric history. I’d like to read some 10th century encyclopaedias but (e.g.) Mafatih al Ulum is hard to find in English, except for the expensive, for a non-academic, Brill publication. Fortunately Matthew has some pdfs of his papers around the subject on his USC page.
February 25, 2022
Just listened to a second time, after more than two years. Wow…. I agree with Earl’s comment at the end ….. ‘….more than 18 years of material’.
Last time the discussion of the implications of the rupture and reemergence of Pythagoreanism blew my mind.
This time, the colonial aspects of the discussion caught my attention, and John Dee, or at least the aspect of John Dee, and the occult politico-philosophic aspects of empire building. I had no idea about some of those connections.
February 28, 2022
These fit nicely with this discussion
“From the beginning of the Abrahamic faiths and of Greek philosophy, religion and morality have been closely intertwined. This is true whether we go back within Greek philosophy or within Christianity and Judaism and Islam”
“The intellectual history of the European Renaissance is defined by a perennial-philological tension between tahqīq and taqlīd, or independent inquiryand blind imitation, with respect to its Greco-Arabic patrimony”
Mathematician and linguistic model of reality
[this comes from an anti-Platonist direction]
Why math is a language
Maybe its not
But there does seem to be a bi-directional relationship