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Textual Strategies for Elucidating the Universe

Lea Cantor
, MSt Ancient Philosophy Candidate, Worcester College

Is There a Unified Reality, and How is Reality Generated? A Comparative Study of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Laozi, and Zhuangzi

This talk tackles a foundational philosophical question that two early Greek thinkers, Parmenides and Heraclitus, and two texts of Classical Chinese Daoism, the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, all explore: the possibility of accessing ultimate reality, and revealing insights about this. In so doing, I rethink, fundamentally, the standard scholarly emphasis on radical differences  between early Greek and Chinese thought. I discuss how language is used in these texts to capture (1) the very idea of a unified reality, beyond the apparent differences in the world; and (2) how this unified reality might at the same time (or from another perspective) be construed as "generating" all things in the world. I evaluate the notion of balance and harmony found in all four texts, which I will argue is intertwined with a shared doctrine of the interdependence of opposites, and is shown to be sufficient for grasping unity in the world.

Domenico Giordani, DPhil Classical Languages and Literature Candidate, St John’s College

Roman Urbigony

Why didn’t the Romans produce their own cosmogonical myth? This paper seeks to answer this question through an essentially comparative approach. A structural examination of some creation myths will help us identifying a set of constants. These constants will then be looked for in the allegedly earliest myth conceived by the Romans, the myth of Rome’s foundation. It will then emerge, I hope, that certain characteristics belonging to the myth of origin of the world (cosmogony) feature in the tale about the city foundation (urbigony). Later on, when in a culturally Hellenised Rome Ennius narrated the origins of the world translating Greek stories in his lost theogony (Euhemerus siue historia sacra), he modeled them after the structure of the city foundation myth, thus implicitly recognizing its cosmogonical value.

Bernardo Ballesteros Petrella, DPhil Classical Languages and Literature Candidate, Balliol College

Babylonian and Early Greek Perspectives on Mankind’s Cosmic Context

The comparative study of early Greek and ancient Near Eastern mythological poetry is thriving, yet important questions remain on the significance of such readings, both within and outside frameworks envisaging historical connections and westward influence. This paper will consider the place of mankind in cosmic history as shaped by the Sumero-Akkadian and the early Greek epic traditions. While Mesopotamian literature presents a ‘classic’ and enduring account of mankind’s creation and of the process leading to its present status, early Greek epic displays no coherent anthropogeny. Still, it is possible to compare the similar ways in which mankind’s status is defined as opposed to the gods’, by virtue of similar ‘textual strategies’ adopted in the two traditions. The main relevant texts here include the Babylonian Atra-hasīs and Gilgameš epics, and Homer’s Iliad.

Corina Smith, DPhil Oriental Studies Candidate, Pembroke College (Convenor)

Infinite Flowering: Fractal Reality in the Huainanzi

The Huainanzi 淮南子, a 2 nd century BC ruler’s manual from Han China, claims to be an account of everything, for all time. This paper is a critical study of this text’s ambitious philosophical statement, exploring its craftsmanship and appraising its strategies. Analysing excerpts from a chapter discussing terrestrial and mythical geography, I argue that Huainanzi achieves its commission by developing what is effectively a fractal cosmology, powerfully encoding within limited text space a model of infinite scalability.

Dr. Panayiotis Christoforou, Lecturer in Ancient History, Magdalen College

Rome, the Empire, and Beyond: Roman and Imperial Conceptualities of the World through Pliny the Elder’s Natural History

At its height, the Roman empire spanned from Mesopotamia to the lowlands of Scotland. This enormity impacted the way Romans thought about their world, which involved the nature and reach of their power, the encounter of the known and unknown in the oikoumene (inhabited world) and its edges, and the place of Rome in the complex interaction between the centre and peripheries. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History encapsulated these themes in the form of an enormous, encyclopaedic ordering of knowledge, which could exist from the reach of Roman power and the patronage of the Roman emperor. This paper will explore how Pliny’s work can elucidate how the
world was conceived in the Roman imaginaire; where the places and peoples that have been conquered by Rome fit into the oikoumene, how to understand the fantastical phenomena at the edges, and how this was monumentally and anxiously exemplified and explained at Rome itself.

Dr. Janine Nicol, Senior Teaching Fellow, SOAS, London

A Clash of Cosmographies: The Buddhist Challenge to the Chinese Conception of the World, and its Implications

As Buddhist teachings became known in China so too did the cosmographic assumptions that underpinned them. Our world, Jambudvīpa, is but one of four great continents surrounding the cosmic Mount Sumeru; central northern India (the Buddhist heartlands) was central, with China somewhere off to the side, quite literally, of peripheral importance. This provided a serious challenge to the Chinese who, by the end of the Han dynasty, regarded the geographic centre of the world as located near the capital,
Luoyang. This talk will consider the negative soteriological implications of their geographical situation for Chinese Buddhists and Shi Daoxuan’s 釋道宣 (c. 596-667) attempts to neutralise them.