(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The title of this philosophical history is deceptive in its simplicity. Based upon a seminal passage from Plato’s dialogue Timaeos (360-347 b.c.e.; Timeaus, 1793), the phrase actually suggests an essential and complex link between human perception (wisdom) and physical reality (the world). In The Wisdom of the World Rémi Brague combines astronomy, metaphyics, anthropology, ethics, and many other aspects of human experience as he takes his readers on a sweeping intellectual history of the Western world. He examines the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as medieval Arabs and modern Europeans, and describes the basic principles which informed the worldviews of these civilizations.

The term Brague prefers to use for worldview is “cosmology,” which he examines in the context of two other ancient Greek words of similar derivation: cosmography and cosmogony. Brague uses these two terms in their traditional sense: cosmography as a description of the world in a specific point in time and cosmogony as the story of the origin of the world. He does not, however, use cosmology according to its traditional definition as a combination of cosmography and cosmogony, that is, the study of the universe. Rather, Brague employs “cosmology” in a more specialized, philosophical sense, to refer to a discourse on the nature of the cosmos, or “that which makes the world a world.” Human beings are essential points of reference, because they make the cosmological discourse possible. Humans focus an understanding of the nature of the world on its relationship with, and its meaning and implications for, humans themselves.

In this context, the word “world” is as much a concept as a concrete place. It is anthropological as well as cosmographic. “World” means not just physical creation but also the environment in which humans function. Le monde, French for “the world,” for example, means not only “world” but also “people.” So, too, in English, the word “world” can be specialized and humanized in a phrase such as “the world of boxing.”

Essential to a cosmological discourse is a word for “world.” Such vocabulary was apparently lacking in early human civilizations, especially those in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These civilizations had words for the earth as a place of habitation by humans and other living things and generally contrasted this place with the abode of the gods in heaven. Conspicuously absent, however, was a word which encompassed not only the human sphere but also the heavens and the realm of the gods. Instead, cultures of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt used lists such as “the heavens and the earth” or collective words such as “everything” and “all,” which, Brague argues, are not quite the same as “world.” Lacking is the subjective element, the place of the human in this totality. The reference is objective rather than self-reflective. Also missing in these early societies was a view of this totality as an ordered cosmic structure. Rather, ancient civilizations tended to look at the physical and human worlds as interdependent. An imbalance in one sphere could result in an imbalance in the other.

The concept of world developed gradually in Greece. Homer did not have a word for “world.” Instead, like the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, he listed the parts of the world, like “earth,” “sky,” and so on. The same is true for another early Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 700 b.c.e.), although Hesiod also uses the collective term “everything.”

Important to Greek intellectual development, however, was the possibility of using a simple article with any word to create a noun. So the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540-c. 480 b.c.e.) referred to ta panta (the “all things”), which another pre-Socratic, Empedocles (c. 490-430 b.c.e.), transformed into the singular to pan, or “the all.”

The Greeks’ most innovative step, as Brague observes, was the formulation of a special word for the world. The word they chose, kosmos, was not a neologism but was found even in Homer, where it meant “order.” The word kosmos never lost this original meaning in Greek, and the idea of order also survives in English derivatives like “cosmetics.” Apparently the philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 b.c.e.) was the first to apply this word to the composite of “all things.” The choice of vocabulary was intentional, specifically meant to identify...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)