Friday, 26 October 2018

On the Bicameral Minds in Homer's Iliad

Julian Jaynes, in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, presents his theory that consciousness is a learned process which mankind developed about 3000 years ago. If this is true, then it means that the human beings, as we find them today, have developed in less than 100 generations.

Before human beings developed consciousness, they had a bicameral mind, in which, according to Jaynes, the right cerebral hemisphere talks to the left cerebral hemisphere. When the man with bicameral mind faced a difficult situation, he would have an auditory hallucination—which entailed auditory commands based on the experience stored in the right hemisphere of the brain being provided to the left hemisphere. The man would interpret the auditory commands as the voice of God, chiefs or rulers, and obey them. Jaynes posits that the bicameral mind could have developed around 9000 BC at the time when human beings were coming out of nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life and becoming part of tribal societies based on agriculture.

But why did the bicameral mind which brought huge success to humanity in the agricultural civilizations evolve into a conscious mind? Jaynes suggests that the discovery of writing about 3000 years ago, particularly in the era of Hammurabi when use of writing became widespread, weakened the power of the audio medium. Men did not need audio commands in order to make their decisions, as they could consult the written texts. The spread of writing, the complexities of overpopulation, and the chaos of huge migrations as one population invaded others created a new evolution in the human mind and that was the beginning of consciousness.

In his essay, “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind,” Jaynes makes some interesting observations on the bicameral mind of the characters in Homer’s epic Iliad. Here’s an excerpt:
First, let me make a few generalizations about the Iliad. To me and to roughly half of classicists, it is oral poetry, originally spoken and composed at the same time by a long succession of aoidoi or bards. As such, it contains many incongruities. Even after it was written down in about 800 B.C., perhaps by someone named Homer, it had many interpolations added to it even centuries later. So there are many exceptions to what I am about to say, such as the long speech of Nestor in Book XI for example, or the rhetorical reply of Achilles to Odysseus in Book IX.  
But if you take the generally accepted oldest parts of the Iliad and ask, “Is there evidence of consciousness?” the answer, I think, is no. People are not sitting down and making decisions. No one is. No one is introspecting. No one is even reminiscing. It is a very different kind of world.  
Then, who makes the decisions? Whenever a significant choice is to be made, a voice comes in telling people what to do. These voices are always and immediately obeyed. These voices are called gods. To me this is the origin of gods. I regard them as auditory hallucinations similar to, although not precisely the same as, the voices heard by Joan of Arc or William Blake. Or similar to the voices that modern schizophrenics hear. Similar perhaps to the voices that some of you may have heard. 
Jaynes notes that the evolution human consciousness has not come to an end. The process of consciousness continues to evolve and perfect itself.

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