From Aeschylus To The Numinous Way
The Numinous Authority of πάθει μάθος


The Greek term πάθει μάθος (pathei-mathos) derives from The Agamemnon of Aeschylus (written c. 458 BCE), and can be translated as learning from adversary, and thus interpreted as implying that wisdom arises from (personal) suffering and that personal experience is the genesis of true learning.

However, this term should be understood in context [1], for what Aeschylus writes is that the Immortal, Zeus, guiding mortals to reason, has provided we mortals with a new law, which law replaces previous ones, and this new law – this new guidance laid down for mortals – is pathei-mathos. Thus, for we human beings, pathei-mathos possesses a numinous authority [2] – that is, the wisdom, the understanding, that arises from one’s own personal experience, from formative experiences that involve some hardship, some grief, some personal suffering, is often more valuable than any doctrine, than any religious faith, than any impersonal words one might read in some book.

In many ways this is an enlightened – a very human – view, and is rather in contrast to the faith and revelation-centred view of revealed religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In the former, it is the personal experience of learning from, and dealing with, personal suffering and adversity, that is paramount and which possesses authority; in the latter, it is faith that some written work or works is or are a sacred revelation from the supreme deity one believes in which is paramount, combined with a belief that this supreme deity has appointed or authorized some mortal being or beings, or some Institution, as their earthly representative, and who thus possess authority.

The Aeschylian view is that learning, and thus wisdom, arises from within us, by virtue of that which afflicts us (and which afflictions could well be the from the gods/Nature or from some supra-personal source) and from our own, direct, personal, practical, experience. The Aeschylian view what we might call the way of pathei-mathos – can thus be considered to be numinous – that is, some-thing which lives, which is part of our own living, grounded in the personal reality of our immediacy of living, and thus is somewhat different from the religious attitude which asserts that wisdom, and indeed truth, can be found in revelation from some supreme deity, or imparted to or taught to us by someone in some position of authority, or discovered in or learnt from something ‘dead’, such as a book written by someone else.

Philosophy, Logic, and Politics

In essence, conventional philosophy seeks to find certain and particular causes for what exists, and to express certain general principles, by and through which knowledge and understanding of Reality, and existence, and thus wisdom, may be said to be obtained.

But, in a quite real way, conventional philosophy is founded upon the religious notion, the religious approach to wisdom mentioned above, for conventional philosophy is based upon abstractions [3]; upon abstract or idealized categories and ideas by and through which it is claimed we can acquire a knowing of what such categories and ideas are said to represent. All conventional philosophy has this approach – this ideation – by its very nature as an interior process of reflexion, by human beings, upon Reality and existence, and a process which requires the use of ideation and words and/or terms, and thence their collocation, to present to other human beings the result or results of such reflexion. Such ideation, such abstraction, is inherent in the finding of certain particular causes and general principles.

Exterior to this interior process, this ideation, there is logic, which may be defined as the dispassionate examination of the collocation or collocations of words and/or terms (or symbols) which relate, or which are said to relate, to what is correct (valid, true) or incorrect (invalid, false) and which collocation or collocations are considered to be or which are regarded as being, by their proponents, as representative of, or actually being, knowledge or a type of or a guide to knowing.

For logic, what is or what may be represented by such collocations (the content) is fundamentally irrelevant. What is relevant – what determines the logical validity of any any examined collocations – is the natural unfolding, or the form, behind and beyond all ideation.

Logic thus regards abstractions and ideas as irrelevant, as no guarantee of truth, and thus as no sure guide to a genuine knowing and to wisdom itself, and thus logic can be considered as a valid means whereby truth can be ascertained [4].

It may be objected, however, that the use of logic in philosophy makes philosophy a reasonable and a valid guide to Reality and thence to truth. However, what conventional philosophy does and has done is apply logic to theories that are derived from some abstraction or other, which application is basically irrelevant if the basal abstractions themselves are flawed. Furthermore, all such abstractions are in and of themselves flawed because they are, by their very nature, abstractions, divorced as they are from the numinous, from that which lives, and which unfolds in that natural way which Φύσις does. [5]

Thus, one can conclude that logic, rather than conventional philosophy, is a more valid means to truth and thence to knowledge, than the speculations and ideations of conventional philosophy.

Like philosophy, politics is founded upon abstractions – upon the religious way to knowledge and truth – but takes, and has taken, abstractionism much further, through the manufacture of ideologies, which are specific collocations of dogmatic abstractions.

In addition, politics is often or mostly based upon an appeal to the emotions, where individuals allow themselves to be persuaded by others (often through rhetoric or because of propaganda) and/or suspend their own judgement in favour of accepting that of someone else (some leader) or of some political organization or movement. That is, there is an identification with certain abstract political views, or some ideology, or some political organization or leader, in place of or instead of one’s own judgement and in place of or instead of one’s own unique, individual, identity deriving from one’s own pathei-mathos.

In particular, there is or there comes to be, an immoral, an un-numinous, judgement of (and often a dislike or even hatred of) others based on what is perceived to be their political views, allegiance, or opinions, so that, for instance, a person is viewed not as an individual human being, but as an abstraction: as a Conservative, or as a fascist, or as a liberal, or as a Communist, and so on. This is same type of inhuman, immoral, prejudice that conventional religion often still produces and most certainly has produced, for millennia, and which ethnic, or racial, abstractions certainly still produce and encourage.

The Pathei-Mathos of Experimental Science

In contrast to philosophy, experimental science seeks to explain the natural world – the phenomenal world – by means of direct, personal, observation of it, and by making deductions, and formulating hypothesis, based on such direct observation, with the important and necessary proviso, beautifully expressed by Isaac Newton, in his Principia, that

 “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. To this purpose the philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”

The raison d’etre of experimental science – unlike philosophy, religion, and politics – is knowledge acquired in a personal, direct, manner, without the intervention of abstractions, and this, as is the knowledge obtained by pathei-mathos, is numinous: a re-presentation, sans abstractions, which is living, possessed of Life, and a practical guide to what actually is real, as opposed to the assumed, the imaginary, the abstract un-living reality that conventional philosophy, religion and politics present to us.

Hence, experimental science may be said to complement and extend – as a guide to Reality, knowledge and wisdom – the personal way of pathei-mathos.

The essential difference between experimental science and philosophy is that of abstractions: for philosophy, unobservable (theoretical) abstractions are the beginning of, and indeed the necessary and required basis of, our enquiry into the nature of Reality, and existence, and meaning; whereas for experimental science such abstractions, or theories, which may arise or which are conjectured, do so only on the basis of direct observation, are only and ever conjectural, temporary, subject to falsification by further practical observations, and are always rational, that is subject to logic (the rules of reasoning).

In addition, in philosophy, authority is the authority of some individual or individuals recognized by others for their theoretical contributions(s), so that, for instance, a scholarly paper in philosophy is of necessity replete with what other philosophers have said or written or thought or conjectured. For experimental science, authority lies in the evidence of observations and the application of logic.

Toward A Philosophy of Pathei-Mathos

We may suggest a ‘numinous way’, a new philosophy – the philosophy of πάθει μάθος – which is that of the way of a personal pathei-mathos combined with the way of experimental science, where we obtain knowledge about Reality, and may move toward certain truths about ourselves and existence, through direct practical, scientific observation of the phenomenal world, through the learning that derives from pathei-mathos, through the application of logic, and through an appreciation of the knowledge that the natural faculty of empathy provides, and which empathic knowing is different from, but supplementary and complimentary to, that knowing which may be acquired by means of the Aristotelian essentials of conventional philosophy and experimental science.

Such a new philosophy is, or could be considered to be, a guide to what we understand as σοφός.

David Myatt
(Revised 2015)



Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων
τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν:
ὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.

If anyone, from reasoning, exclaims loudly that victory of Zeus,
Then they have acquired an understanding of all these things;
Of he who guided mortals to reason,
Who laid down that this possesses authority:
Learning from adversity.

Aeschylus: Agamemnon,174-183

In many ways, The Oresteia represents the new wisdom that pathei-mathos can guide us toward; that the old cycle of tragedy and suffering can be escaped from by us appreciating, and acting upon, the understanding, the insight, that pathei-mathos provides.

[2] The numinous is what predisposes us not to commit ὕβρις. What manifests or can manifest or remind us of (what can reveal) the natural balance of ψυχή; a balance which ὕβρις upsets.

[3] Abstraction(ism) can be philosophically defined as the implementation, the practical application, of ὕβρις. An abstraction has its genesis in naming ‘a thing’ considered to be separate, distinct, and representative or descriptive of, or belonging to, some ‘form’ or category of such named ‘things’.

In respect of the numinous, and recalling The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, the Antigone and the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles, we could say that the numinous is what predisposes us not to commit ὕβρις – to not overstep the due limits.

As Sophocles wrote in Oedipus Tyrannus:

ὕβρις φυτεύει τύραννον:
ὕβρις, εἰ πολλῶν ὑπερπλησθῇ μάταν,
ἃ μὴ ‘πίκαιρα μηδὲ συμφέροντα,
ἀκρότατον εἰσαναβᾶσ᾽
αἶπος ἀπότομον ὤρουσεν εἰς ἀνάγκαν,
ἔνθ᾽ οὐ ποδὶ χρησίμῳ

“Insolence plants the tyrant. There is insolence if by a great foolishness there is a useless over-filling which goes beyond the proper limits. It is an ascending to the steepest and utmost heights and then that hurtling toward that Destiny where the useful foot has no use…” (vv.872ff)

[4] In many ways, the λόγος that is logical reasoning [cf. Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 583, εἰ διδοίης γ᾽ ὡς ἐγὼ σαυτῷ λόγον] could be considered to be the opposite of an idea, of an abstraction,

τοῦ δὲ λόγου τοῦδ᾽ ἐόντος ἀεὶ ἀξύνετοι γίνονται ἄνθρωποι καὶ πρόσθεν ἢ ἀκοῦσαι καὶ ἀκούσαντες τὸ πρῶτον

Although this naming and expression [which I explain] exists – human beings tend to ignore it, both before and after they have become aware of it. [Heraclitus, fragment 1]

[5] Cf. Aristotle Metaphysics, Book 5, 1015α

ἐκ δὴ τῶν εἰρημένων ἡ πρώτη φύσις καὶ κυρίως λεγομένη ἐστὶν ἡ οὐσία ἡ τῶν ἐχόντων ἀρχὴν κινήσεως ἐν αὑτοῖς ᾗ αὐτά: ἡ γὰρ ὕλη τῷ ταύτης δεκτικὴ εἶναι λέγεται φύσις, καὶ αἱ γενέσεις καὶ τὸ φύεσθαι τῷ ἀπὸ ταύτης εἶναι κινήσεις. καὶ ἡ ἀρχὴ τῆς κινήσεως τῶν φύσει ὄντων αὕτη ἐστίν, ἐνυπάρχουσά πως ἢ δυνάμει ἢ ἐντελεχείᾳ.

“Given the foregoing, then principally – and to be exact – physis denotes the quidditas of beings having changement inherent within them; for substantia has been denoted by physis because it embodies this, as have the becoming that is a coming-into-being, and a burgeoning, because they are changements predicated on it. For physis is inherent changement either manifesting the potentiality of a being or as what a being, complete of itself, is.” [ Source:α/ ]