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The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies [Kindle Edition]

Thomas McEvilley
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This unparalleled study of early Eastern and Western philosophy challenges every existing belief about the foundations of Western civilization. Spanning thirty years of intensive research, this book proves what many scholars could not explain: that today’s Western world must be considered the product of both Greek and Indian thought—Western and Eastern philosophies. Thomas McEvilley explores how trade, imperialism, and migration currents allowed cultural philosophies to intermingle freely throughout India, Egypt, Greece, and the ancient Near East. This groundbreaking reference will stir relentless debate among philosophers, art historians, and students.

Editorial Reviews


“. . . one of the great works of scholarship of our time. McEvilley has brought together complex and diverse data to weave a tightly organized, panoramic account. (. . . ) I should think that [the book] will become indispensable for any and all specialists on antiquity."
  (Professor Katherine Harper, Indologist and art historian, author of The Roots of Tantra )

From the Publisher

Two Worlds, One Philosophical Cradle:

Scholar Explores Hidden Kinship Between Eastern and Western Culture in Revolutionary Study;

In the Early Days, Ideas Traveled Freely Between India and Greece

A revolutionary study by the classical philologist and art historian Thomas McEvilley is about to challenge much of academia. In THE SHAPE OF ANCIENT THOUGHT, an empirical study of the roots of Western culture, the author argues that Eastern and Western civilizations have not always had separate, autonomous metaphysical schemes, but have mutually influenced each other over a long period of time. Examining ancient trade routes, imperialist movements, and migration currents, he shows how some of today’s key philosophical ideas circulated and intermingled freely in the triangle between Greece, India, and Persia, leading to an intense metaphysical interchange between Greek and Indian cultures.

As the author explains it, "The records of caravan routes are like the philosophical stemmata of history, the trails of oral discourses moving through communities, of texts copied from texts. . . .What they reveal is not a structure of parallel straight lines—one labeled ‘Greece,’ another ‘Persia,’ another ‘India’—but a tangled web in which an element in one culture often leads to elements in others."

While scholars have sensed a philosophical kinship between Eastern and Western cultures for many decades, THE SHAPE OF ANCIENT THOUGHT is the first study to provide the empirical evidence. Covering a period ranging from 600 B.C. until the era of Neoplatonism and a geographical expanse reaching across the ancient world, McEvilley explores the key philosophical paradigms of these cultures, such as Monism, the doctrine of reincarnation in India and Egypt, and early Pluralism in Greece and India, to reveal striking similarities between the two metaphysical systems. Based on 30 years of intense intellectual inquiry and research and on hundreds of early historical, philosophical, spiritual, and Buddhist texts, the study offers a scope and an interdisciplinary perspective that has no equal in the scholarly world.

With a study like THE SHAPE OF ANCIENT THOUGHT, students and scholars of history, philosophy, cultural studies, and classics will find that their field has been put on entirely new footing. Yet as editor Bill Beckley points out, the merits of this work reach into a broader social context: "More recently, events have leant an unexpected urgency to the [book] by focusing the world’s attention on Afghanistan (ancient Bactria), where much of the story unfolds in this volume, and where the difficult karma of cross-cultural contacts is still alive."

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
59 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The globalization of philosophy (again!) September 2, 2002
This book displays an impressive mastery of both the primary sources and secondary literature in both classical Greek philosophy and Asian religio-philosophical traditions. Its arguments are more than plausible, indeed, they are imaginative, courageous and persuasive. I had, until now, been unable to recommend to my students in "comparative world religions" a reliable book from which they could see the possible connections between seemingly disparate traditions. Much that comes under the rubric "comparative philosophy" is rather dated, superficial, or burdened with overweening biases and prejudices (not to mention bereft of historical warrant). I see this work as taking up where other pioneers have left off: Karl Potter, Ninian Smart, B.K. Matilal, for instance, in Indian philosophy, and Herbert Fingarette, Joel Kupperman, David Hall and Roger Ames, most notably, in ancient Chinese philosophy. Those students of ancient Greek philosophy who have read, and enjoyed, their Nussbaum, Sorabji or Hadot, will likewise be moved by this book. Having set an enviable and emulative standard, I hope it portends more works along these lines.
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72 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Helping the frog out of the well May 17, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
According to a familiar Japanese maxim, "The frog in a well does not know of the great ocean (i no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu). Many Western academics have long been quite comfortable in their Eurocentric well with Greece and Rome to the east, Europe in the middle and the Americas to the east -- all more or less joined together by the Three Great Monotheistic Faiths. Beyond the well lie exotic unexplored lands whose ways of thinking and behaving differ from those of us in the "real" Western world. Few of our universities have departments of philosophy that bother to offer even a survey course in Eastern philosophies; and even fewer really take the issue seriously.

With _The Shape of Ancient Thought_ Professor McEvilley has lowered a sturdy bucket into our Western well and invites us on a philosophical journey into one of these unexplored lands: Ancient India -- discussing the relationships and possible cross-cultural influences between early Western (i.e., Greek and Roman) philosophies and those of India. I completely agree with the unqualified enthusiasm of the six earlier Reviewers who have already taken the trip. I have little to add -- except a postscript.

Those who recognize the strong impact of Buddhism on Japanese literature will surely spot several chapters in the following list worth exploring. For example, Murasaki's appeal to the Mahayana principle of Skillful Means (hoben) in the "Hotaru" chapter of the _Genji monogatari_ as justification for composing "fabrications" leads us back eventually to Nagarjuna, the Madhyamika, and the _Lotus Sutra_. We are just at the beginning of the search for such influences.

Here is a list of the chapters following 36 pages of front matter:

Ch. 1.
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73 of 83 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a tour de force July 23, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This work is a splendid achievement. I came to it as a reader with a very strong background in the history of Western Philosophy, and only a very sketchy familiarity with Indian Philosophy. McEvilley has seemingly mastered all the primary texts in both traditions, and he discusses a vast array of secondary literature, by Western and Indian scholars, in a very fair-minded and thorough fashion. This book fully deserves to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand ancient philosophy.

He also discusses historical matters, especially pertaining to the Hellenistic kindoms of Central Asia, that were quite illuminating. I certainly had no idea that cities like Gandahar, in what is now Afghanistan, were Greek-speaking centres for many centuries. That region: Khorasan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the southern parts Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was once one of the centres of world civilization. Many educated readers might be familiar with the history of the Khwarazmian renaissance, associated with names such as Al-Biruni, Omar Khayyam, Al-Tusi, Al-Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina, and so forth. Those thinkers are often cited as the among the glories of Islamic civilization - in fact they represented the last gasp of Hellenistic civilization in that region, finally re-arising after the catastrophe of Islamic conquest. When the cities of Khorasan were again utterly destroyed by the Mongol invasions, that civilization was unable to recover, and the slow cancerous rot of Islamic anti-intellectualism snuffed out any further hope of revival. The decline of that region's intellectual life, from the early period McEvilley describes to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, is a dismal trajectory to contemplate.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Shape Of Ancient Thought June 2, 2003
The Shape of Ancient Thought, no doubt, will send shock waves through the academic historical community, but I would like to address its impact and importance to alternative communities with which I've worked and studied for over two decades. As an exhibiting artist, educator of visual culture, and someone who has been schooled in some of America's premier arts institutions, I suggest that Tom McEvilley's book is an indispensable resource that the arts community has long awaited. All throughout reading The Shape of Ancient Thought I continually caught myself wishing I had been schooled with this book in my founding years. It has taken me nearly twenty years to come to, flesh out, and grasp the diverse philosophical tenets within this book. And still I had much to learn and enjoy in reading it.
The Shape of Ancient Thought concisely, and in this case 731 pages is concise, organizes the views that not only shaped past thinkers, but unveils a mutually dependent history that (for better or worse) has shaped our current environment. The student of visual culture (and if I may add the student of higher education in general) should have a handle on these ancient philosophical ideas and practices without which digesting much of the current tropes becomes a difficult task, or goes uneaten. To understand more fully, to be apart, and to participate in today's current cutting edge discussions a scholar as well as an arts professional needs to have filtered through the basic yet voluminous ideas that McEvilley collects in this book, but maybe more emphatically, that Tom McEvilley proposes the cross pollination of ancient philosophy, and in signposting the course, the reader is better prepared to do their own combinational work in today's demanding climate.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A wonderful overview of PIE thought and philosophy.
Published 4 days ago by Rick Kelly
5.0 out of 5 stars HAPPY CUSTOMER
This was a Christmas gift for my son-in-law. It was on his wish list. I was pleased that it came in time for Christmas. He was very pleased to get it.
Published 11 months ago by Mary L. Mccann
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent source
I got this book as a source for a senior seminar paper in college and it was a fantastic source of incite into the ancient world and where different cultures collided
Published 11 months ago by emokidsrfunny6
4.0 out of 5 stars East and West connect and overlapped in ancient times
A brilliant survey of the connections between East and West – Greece, Egypt, and India – and the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism, and Buddhism – by the historian Thomas McEvilly. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Sanjay C. Patel
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read
Wonderfully written, masterfully argued. Lays out the interchange between ancient Greece and India. More than an art history book. Try it.
Published 13 months ago by Tony Burton
5.0 out of 5 stars Difficult but worth the effort
The culmination of a long career, The Shape of Ancient Thought, is a stunning work. Dr. McEvillery surveys a magnificent sweep of time and space, from ancient Sumer to classical... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Ralph Snyder
5.0 out of 5 stars What a great book
What a great book. Its arguments reveal much about the real history of early western thought and it calls for a paradigm shift in how important aspects of intellectual and... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Andy Ferguson
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating topic!
Highly recommended reading, which examines the cross-cultural connections between India and the West, which for many reasons (well, one: bigoted thinking) has been ignored by... Read more
Published 20 months ago by DaveyJones
5.0 out of 5 stars A long-awaited series of connections
Simply one of the most thorough surveys of ancient thought I've come across; a pleasure to read and highly informative.
Published 22 months ago by Robin Mosley
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mind Trip through the Intertwined Roots of Ancient Thought
The Shape of Ancient Thought is "must" reading for anyone interested in the cross-cultural interchange of philosophical thinking between ancient Greece and ancient India. Read more
Published 22 months ago by L. Ron Gardner
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