What ancient Greek and Sanskrit can tell us about our thinking

Apparently daunted by the task of representing such momentous events of history as the battle of Agincourt, the chorus of Shakespeare’s Henry V clamours desperately: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”, only to reveal a little later, that the appeal is purely rhetorical, a friendly nod to the Greek bards who used to ask the Muse to sing through them, as language itself has wings strong enough to bear the audience into the halls of kings and make them participate in their deliberations, their fears, their hopes and their battles.

Language is being taken so much for granted, that we too often forget, that it is probably one of the greatest miracles of the universe: the wings of man’s mind. What if our mind had never learnt to fly? What if the thick plumage of words had never given our thoughts the necessary lift to draw their airy circles? We probably would scarcely recognise the world and us ourselves.

But what gave us these wings? For some reason, after learning to walk and to make a fire, and having generally made ourselves at home in this world, we felt the irresistible attraction of another world: the world of thought. Why? Probably because we felt, that in it we could not only give word to what things are, but what the impression they left on our mind meant to us. For this impression, left by the world on our mind’s yielding soil, there is only one word: wonder. And it is our own wonder about the world and creation, that made our mind grow wings.

And when and where, the inquisitive reader will ask, did we, fired by wonder, first bravely run off the edge of this world and into the unknown ahead? This last question might, at first glance, seem to be one that has to remain unanswered, but in the last hundred and fifty years, so much effort has been spent on the study of languages at large and especially on the study of the languages belonging to the Indo-European family, that now there is much more hope for at least a partial answer.

Two of the most ancient Indo-European languages are so close to each other and at the same time so individual in their treatment of the inherited traits, that their comparison can lead to a much better understanding of the inner construction of what has been speeding us on our way for the last couple of millennia. By a close comparison of them and by reverse-engineering the processes evident in their different developments, we can catch glimpses of a common prototype and thus understand more about the maiden flight of our mind. These two languages are ancient Greek and Sanskrit.

Without these two masterly feats of mental engineering, we would know much less about how thinking took off and reached, already in ancient times, “the brightest heaven of invention” inhabited by father sky Zeus patēr in Greek or Dyauḥ pitā in Sanskrit.

The two languages are as similar in structure – a relationship that reaches far deeper than the surface of words and into a shared core grammar – as they are different in the cultures and ideologies represented by them in their literary output. And it is exactly this gap between the Indian search for control over passion and the belief in the essential improvability of man, on the one side, and the deep belief of the Greeks in the indelibility of man’s moral stains, on the other hand, that makes the comparison of the two languages to a detective’s detection powder, that can reveal where our wondering minds did first beat their wings and set off for so different paths of thought. The so different employ the two languages make of the same resources is an invaluable and nigh on unbelievable trace of the development of human thought, shearing its way through a newly discovered ether of possibilities.

Both languages and their literary products reflect diametrically opposed approaches to one and the same fundamental question: what ennobles human life an thus makes it meaningful? In the case of the Greeks human nobility is the result of our doomed struggle against desire and our inner demons; man’s nobility does not come from succeeding in surpassing limitations but from failing as a good sportsman and admitting with a grim smile that every contests needs a loser. This results in two very different answers to the question: what gives humans unwilting fame for a life lived well? To the question: what gives human life kleos aphthiton in Greek or śravo akṣitam in Sanskrit?