Plato’s Theory of Forms similar Torres Islanders’ beliefs

Another interesting twitter thread from Scott Hamilton on customs and beliefs of Torres Islanders in Northern Vanuata, in which he explains their beliefs:

Torres Islanders believe in a world that mirrors ours – they use the word nepene to suggest this world.

The world of the living is a mere shadow, an imperfect copy, of nepene, the world of the spirits. It is in the other world that colours have their true intensity, forms their proper shapeliness. The inhabitants of the spirit world behave perfectly; humans ought to emulate them.

Reo Fortune...

was correct when he called the religions of Melanesia ‘living philosophies’, with as much sophistication as any Western philosophical system.

He suggests this has similarities to Plato’s theory of forms:

The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas. According to this theory, ideas in this sense, often capitalized and translated as “Ideas” or “Forms”, are the non-physical essences of all things, of which objects and matter in the physical world are merely imitations.

The Forms are expounded upon in Plato’s dialogues and general speech, in that every object or quality in reality has a form: dogs, human beings, mountains, colors, courage, love, and goodness. Form answers the question, “What is that?” Plato was going a step further and asking what Form itself is. He supposed that the object was essentially or “really” the Form and that the phenomena were mere shadows mimicking the Form; that is, momentary portrayals of the Form under different circumstances.

From Scott’s Twitter thread:

The Torres Islands are the northernmost pieces of Vanuatu. Their languages have not been properly alphabetised, let alone catalogued. The islands lack electricity, shops. Carlos Mondragon is the first anthropologist to work in Torres. His reports are astonishing.

In his essay ‘Concealment, Revelation, & Cosmological Dualism’ Mondragon discusses the most important ritual in Torres, the dance that young man perform to mark their initiation into the local kuqwe, or graded society. Mondragon’s interpretation of the dance is radical.

Mondragon’s only predecessors are missionaries. In their writings about the graded societies of Torres & the nearby Banks Islands, these Anglican soul-stealers claimed that the societies were defined by secrecy, & by the power that their members gained over non-initiates.

Mondragon turns missionaries’ accounts of the secret societies inside out. Instead of focusing on the groups’ political significance, he says, scholars should experience & describe the beauty & mystery of their rituals. What is going on, he wants to know, as initiates dance?

Mondragon says the dance of the initiates is an exercise in ‘controlled revelation’. For months, a caste of artists known as ‘spirit makers’ have been secluding themselves in island bush, producing improbably bright head gear for the young initiates, who are themselves secluded.

Torres Islanders believe in a world that mirrors ours – they use the word nepene to suggest this world. The dead who live in this mirror world grow their own crops, perform their own dances, trade with white men who arrive in speedboats. But the mirror world is stronger.

The world of the living is a mere shadow, an imperfect copy, of nepene, the world of the spirits. It is in the other world that colours have their true intensity, forms their proper shapeliness. The inhabitants of the spirit world behave perfectly; humans ought to emulate them.

When the artists emerge from the jungle with the headgear they have created for the dance of the initiates, the brightness of these hats & the purity of their forms convinces Torres Islanders that they were made with supernatural help. The artists have channeled nepene.

The crucial moment in the initiation occurs when the young men don the head gear that has taken months to create. By wearing these hats, the young men become manifestations of kwugar, eight awesomely powerful spirits that have existed since before the beginning of the world.

I have discussed only one aspect of Mondragon’s complex essay. But I want to use it to highlight the tremendous extrinsic value of his research. It seems to me that, on these remote Melanesian islands, something very like Plato’s theory of forms has been created & embraced.

Like the people of Torres, Plato believed that our world is an imperfect copy of another realm, a realm of forms, where objects find their true & most vivid form & shade. Plato’s theory of forms is a foundation stone of Western philosophy. What if it is also a Pacific concept?

For many people, Europe & Melanesia are opposite places. Europe is complex, sophisticated; Melanesia is simple, primitive. For a century, tho, scholars working in Melanesia have been haunted by the parallels between European & Melanesian ideas, images, myths.

Carlos Mondragon’s reports from Torres suggest that Reo Fortune, the legendary & ill-fated NZ anthropologist, was correct when he called the religions of Melanesia ‘living philosophies’, with as much sophistication as any Western philosophical system.