Cosmopolitical Reflections upon leaving for Black Rock City

Since the dominant narratives bringing forth the ongoing misadventure of industrial capitalism fail to properly situate the human soul in its actual time and place, any serious inquiry into the nature of our individual and collective situation must begin with an act of counter memory: we must ask afresh in each generation, who are we, and where did we come from? As Emerson suggested in his lecture on the American Scholar, we must discover an original relationship with the universe.

This does not mean we should jettison tradition. The “chronological snobbery” (Owen Barfield‘s phrase) of the progress-obsessed modern world is nothing to be emulated; rather, tradition must be consciously integrated instead of reactively rejected or habitually assumed.

In a cosmological sense, we are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of earth’s systems. Ecological entropy now threatens to destroy the monetary meaning that has replaced culture with commodities and nature with machines. Absent this monetary meaning, many of us no longer know how to eat or how to sleep, nor how to love, and especially not how to die.

Life on earth in 2011 is precarious, even doomed. And yet, isn’t this message of doom now also woven into our official narrative? Isn’t apocalypse the best selling plot in today’s mass media market? Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this reality is too much to take responsibility for, the majority of us sit on the couch and pretend it is all just another form of entertainment. Fantasy has replaced forthrightness, and imagination has withered to make way for shallow ideological affiliation with merely symbolic causes.

Of course, symbolism is no mere trifle: our sense of meaning is precisely what is at stake. How are we to conceive of the human presence on the planet? Are we a cancerous growth, or the incarnation of God on earth? Are we to become once again a spiritual instead of a consumptive and pleasure-driven species? Are we to replace industrial with initiatory cosmology? Is our role to worship, celebrate, and create, or to use, abuse, and destroy?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we inhabit the earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its material reality: the mechanistic and disenchanted imaginary of industrial cosmology, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. Clearly, such a cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the sun that produces and sustains all life on earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes Alf Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, The Power of the Machine).

Modern industrial cosmology has lead to the dissociation of the human economy and the earth economy. Earth is a diverse community of organisms delicately balanced by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Capitalism seeks to homogenize culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. It has entirely transformed Gaia too quickly for Her species, including the human, to adapt. We are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values profitability (the replication of money) over productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, says Hornborg,

“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project” (p. 236, ibid.).

In my presentation at Burning Man this year (2pm on Tuesday, Aug 30th @ Camp Cosmicopia located ~ 8 A), I want to suggest that ancient cosmology, specifically that emerging out of the Platonic tradition, has much to teach the modern mind about what it means to be human on planet earth. Modern cosmology is disenchanted, which is to say that it no longer integrates the reality of soul, whether that of the individual or that of the universe. Each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of tragic identity lost in an immense storm of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrialism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue its own selfish ends in the hope that its sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

Platonic cosmology, in contrast, situates the human being in a living and intelligent universe. The life of the individual soul is understood to participate in the life of the World Soul. Though the trauma of birth makes it forgetful, the individual soul is said to be capable of remembering its origin in the everlasting Soul of the World by looking skyward and contemplating the holy rhythms of the circling stars above. The movements of the heavenly bodies are the visible signs of the World Soul’s invisible formative power. The heavenly motions reflect the earthly soul’s emotions, mirroring (not determining) its inner life.

Plato’s vision of the universe is initiatory, since it is a cosmology –a way of speaking the cosmos– that goes beyond mere secondhand description to direct participation in the meaning of the world. Modern cosmology tends to speak at or about the universe, while Plato sought to speak to and with the universe. The earth and the other planets are not merely chunks of rock, but ensouled creatures — gods, even. It is my opinion that we are approaching a crisis in scientific cosmology not seen since the time of Copernicus. We are on the verge of a new consciousness of a new cosmos, a transformation in our fundamental image of the world no less profound and earth-shaking than the emergence of the heliocentric theory. With this new cosmology will come a new culture, a new way of being human, based not on work and the replication of money, but on play and the recreation of life. Perhaps Burning Man provides a small a preview of the possibilities…

[Update: Sam Mickey over at Becoming Integral has recently posted on the religious significance and ecological impact of Burning Man]

Žižek on the worldlessness of global capitalism

He nails it (from a recent column in the London Review of Books about the UK riots):

“Alain Badiou has argued that we live in a social space which is increasingly experienced as ‘worldless’: in such a space, the only form protest can take is meaningless violence. Perhaps this is one of the main dangers of capitalism: although by virtue of being global it encompasses the whole world, it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations, from Christian to Hindu or Buddhist, from West to East: there is no global ‘capitalist worldview’, no ‘capitalist civilisation’ proper. The global dimension of capitalism represents truth without meaning.”

The Divine Function in Whitehead: Not Your Grandpa’s Occasionalism

In my last post in response Bob Woodard/Naught Thought‘s thoughts concerning the ontological fuzziness of process philosophy, I referred to Whitehead as an “occasionalist” without explaining exactly what I meant. After reading Steven Shaviro/The Pinicchio Theory‘s insightful commentary on the function of God in Whitehead’s cosmology, as well as Levi Bryant/Larval Subject‘s dismissive opinion that Whitehead is “a priori to be excluded” from consideration by academic philosophy (unless his concept of God can be shown to be superfluous to an otherwise coherent system), I felt I should say a bit more about how I’ve tried to integrate Whitehead’s open-ended panentheistic scheme into a livable image of the world.

Stengers’ suggests in Thinking With Whitehead that God is the keystone of his entire system. She also points out that he remained unsatisfied throughout his life with the adequacy of his own thinking concerning the nature of a divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent because I do not assume it is finally complete. His understanding of divinity was always a work in progress. It is open-ended, meant to be picked up and re-worked by students who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating divinity matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God. It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy, psychological and societal, of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the appearance of something in the soul, called by it “God,” implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But they must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God was not a conceptual hypothesis meant to explain the appearance of the world, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially).

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life and the formation of earth and larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness; it means considering the conditions making possible a world where consciousness can come to be. These conditions are cosmogenic (not simply cognitive, as in Kant). Whitehead’s ontology is as concerned with objects as it is with subjects, and though his is a generative scheme, it gives temporal priority to neither. They are each to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. Objectivity doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether subjectivity is able to respond to the objectifications of itself and the world constituting the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. Truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

To the extent that a concept functions to increase the intensity of subjectivity’s process of self- and world-objectification (=concrescence), that concept is of value to the universe’s ongoing adventure of ideas. Whitehead’s telos, which is neither wholly immanent or wholly transcendent, is Beauty. Its causal engine in the world is Eros, that which allows for the mutual penetration of every actual occasion (including God). Eros is also a sensible sign of world-transcendence, a moving image of an eternal God. Beauty is loved by actuality not only for what it is, but for what it means, even if this meaning remains sublime and so forever withdraws from comprehension.

In his response to Shaviro’s anti-occationalist defense of Whitehead, Graham Harman writes:

“The point is, prehension is always mediated by the eternal objects, and the eternal objects are in God. It’s hard to be more of an occasionalist than to say that God is the mediator of all relations and that entities exist only as occasions. It’s textbook occasionalism, in fact.”

I think Harman is leaving out some important elements of Whitehead’s admittedly obscure thinking on these matters. It would seem more appropriate to me for Harman to criticize this obscurity than to mischaracterize the struggle for coherence evident in a more charitable reading of Whitehead’s work. Whitehead always characterizes eternal objects as deficient in actuality, which is why they exist both virtually in God and actually as ingredients in the experiences of finite occasions. Outside the dipolar relation between God and the world, there are no definite ideas, no eternal objects. So yes, eternal objects do mediate prehension, but God’s prehension of finite actual occasions is as necessary for God’s as it is for each occasion’s concrescence. So unlike in traditional occasionalism, God is not just the cause of the world, God is also caused by the world. As Shaviro has argued, finite actual occasions are indeed in direct erotic contact with one another. I would only add that this mutual contact also always includes God.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Bryant, are lead to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to speculative metaphysics. So far as it goes, I’m willing to say I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the pure possibilities and perfect generalities of absolute reality abstracted from concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate, making God its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize–when I seek out participatory knowledge (i.e., wisdom) of the order and harmony of the actual world.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the Cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my Soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for thought. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that the Soul has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its Cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the Soul experienced no separation between the world’s logos (=meaning) and its existence (=factuality), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Horkheimer and Adorno from Dialectic of Enlightenment:

“In Homer, Zeus controls the daytime sky, Apollo guides the sun; Helios and Eos are already passing over into allegory. The gods detach themselves from substances to become their quintessence. From now on, being is split between logos–which, with the advance of philosophy, contracts to a monad, a mere reference point–and the mass of things and creatures in the external world. The single distinction between man’s own existence and reality swallows up all others. Without regard for differences, the world is made subject to man…The awakening subject is bought with the recognition of power as the principle of all relationships. In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance, as reason has steadfastly indicated since the earliest critique of Homer. In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command. Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (p. 5).

Whitehead’s panentheistic theology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

Without a faith in the world’s ability to continue hanging together as a whole, the Soul has no reason but to affirm amoral chaos as the root of all things.

In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

In his lecture series become book, Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey defines imagination, not as a specific faculty alongside others, but as “that which holds all other elements in solution” (p. 275). Imagination, according to Dewey, is a uniquely human power, rendering experience conscious through the mutually transforming fusion of old meanings with new situations.

“For while the roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment, that experience becomes conscious, a matter of perception, only when meanings enter it that are derived from prior experiences. Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings can find their way into a present interaction; or rather,…the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination…There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring” (ibid.).

In preparation for a talk I’m giving at Burning Man in two weeks on “Platonic astrosophy,” I want to attempt to use Dewey’s understanding of the role of imagination in perception to make Plato’s vision of the Cosmos more accessible to the contemporary mind.

In the Republic, Plato ranks imagination quite low on his hierarchy of knowledge, since it is partially derived from sensory experience. For similar reasons, even though he praises astronomy for “[compelling] the soul to look upwards [leading it] from this world to another,” he nonetheless tells astronomers to “let the [visible] heavens alone” if they hope to “approach the subject in the right way” (book 8). This is because the Plato of the Republic chose to elevate the study of invisible geometrical harmonies known only by the intellect over and above the study of the motion of visible bodies through space. He recognized the same gap described by Dewey between direct perception and meaningful conception, or between sensing and thinking, but instead of calling upon imagination to bridge the gap, Plato often emphasized the difference. In the ancient world, a solution to the difficult problem of the planets had not yet been imagined. Plato was therefore skeptical of the merits of empirical observation in comparison to geometrical reasoning.

In Timaeus, he writes:

“That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.”

Despite his seeming desire to affirm an experiential gap, rather than an imaginal bridge, the Plato of Timaeus goes on to offer a “likely story,” or mythopoeic narrative, concerning the generation of the heavens. Given Plato’s doctrine of anemnesis, discussed at length in Meno and Phaedo, I want to suggest that Plato actually did articulate an imaginal function meant to bridge the cognitive gap between appearance and reality.

The soul, according to Plato, is “the oldest and most divine of all things” (Laws). It participates in the eternal, and so all the soul’s learning while incarnated in an earthly body is really a form of remembrance of knowledge that was already present in it from eternity.

The soul is said to forget its divine origins as a result of the trauma of physical birth. During birth, the soul descends from eternity to earth through the heavenly spheres of time. Once on earth, the now embodied and half-aware soul gazes back into the sky in awesome wonder. From childhood on, the soul dimly intuits its true birthplace in the stars, but only a lifelong dedication to the philosophical contemplation of the geometric motions of the stars and planets can finally cure the soul’s forgetfulness. This is why Plato praises the study of the stars as a divine science (let us call it “astrosophy”).

Just as Dewey suggests that the imagination unites the old with the new, the already experienced with present experience, Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis allows the embodied experience of the beauty of the present sky to act on the soul so as to remind it of the knowledge lying dormant in it from eternity.

Plato’s reasoning goes something like this: if the visible universe is intelligible, then it must be a work of art. Its beauty is thus the sensible sign of its creation by an invisible intelligence. In Timaeus, Plato seems to hold to two contradictory opinions on the nature of the creation and its creator. He suggests on the one hand that the universe is a “living thing” continually birthed out of a formless maternal Receptacle, or World Soul. On the other hand, he suggests that the universe is a “crafted thing,” the mere imitation or copy of an Idea, formed by a paternal demiurge into a “moving image of eternity.” The universe is conceived of as having both a mother and a father, both an immanent bearer who participates in its coming-to-life and a craftsman who orchestrates it from beyond; it remains unclear, however, how the two are to be married.

At this point, I’m forced to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that even “the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him” (journal entry, Oct. 1845).

Instead of looking to Plato for a further account of the maternal and paternal aspects of creation, let us turn to two early modern thinkers influenced, in the own way, by Plato: Descartes and Kepler. Their differences as regards the proper study of the Cosmos may provide us with a way forward. Both were Platonic in the sense that they believed in the transcendent origin of mathematics, but the similarity ends here. Descartes invented a way to translate geometric figures into algebraic equations, thereby enabling abstract measurement of the geometrically continuous by way of the numerically discrete. Kepler, on the other hand, did not think algebra was relevant to the study of cosmology:

“I do not treat these matters by numbers or by Algebra, but by the investigation of Spirit; my interest in these matters is not for keeping a ledger but for explaining the cause of things” (Harmonices mundi, 1619).

Descartes, aligning himself more with Plato’s paternal notion of creation, found evidence of a transcendent cause in his innate knowledge of geometric form. His own cognitive activity as a mathematician, in other words, was understood to be the effect of his having been created in the image of a divine craftsman. Kepler’s approach, in contrast, suggests a more maternal notion of creation, where participation in the archetypal pattern given expression by the heavens reminds the human soul of its embeddedness in the World Soul. For Kepler, the musical harmony of the spheres grounds geometry in the experience of beauty rather than in the intelligibility of abstract numbers.

In short, while Descartes thought the universe was an imitation of mathematical formalisms in the mind of an absent demiurge, Kepler saw it as the body of God, a living symbol of divinity. Philosophical contemplation of the heavens, for Descartes, leads to demonstrative knowledge of their eternal algebraic form; for Kepler, it leads to generative participation in the same life presently animating them…

I hope this admittedly oversimplified characterization of these thinkers was at least somewhat illustrative of the tension inherent in the Platonic worldview. I think a more developed account of the ontological role of imagination will help to marry the masculine and feminine poles of Plato’s cosmology.

Emerson on being a scholar

“A mechanic is driven by his work all day, but it ends at night; it has an end. But the scholar’s work has none. That which he has learned is that there is much more to be learned. He feels only his incompetence. A thousand years, tenfold, a hundredfold his faculties, would not suffice: the demands of the task are such, that it becomes omnipresent; he studies in his sleep, in his walking, in his meals, in his pleasures. He is but a fly or a worm to this mountain. He becomes anxious: if one knock at his door, he scowls: if one intimate the purpose of visiting him, he looks grave.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, October 1845

Levi Bryant on the Role of Love in Philosophy

Bryant posted a great piece on textual transference and the role of love in learning. He has succeeded in making me wonder what it is exactly that gives ideas their alluring personalities. How is it that sympathy and charisma have such an effect in the world, while cold-hard facts and rationally deduced truth seem to fall on deaf ears? If an idea isn’t interesting enough for its teacher to sustain a relationship with a student, it will die a mere logical possibility lacking effective deployment in the relational world.

I share Bryant’s sentiment here:

“I…recognize that the world is saturated with many different loves and that these loves carry people in many different directions… Often in directions contrary to my own. The best I can do is continue to speak and write and hope that in doing so I encounter those from whom I can learn and grow.”

I would add, though, that I think love operates at various levels; it isn’t simply the psychological invention of individual human beings, it is a cosmic energy. So is wisdom. I hope not only to encounter other humans, animals, plants, and elements to learn from, but also to participate in the soul of the world from whom we each receive our life.

Bryant writes:

“The philosopher in me, of course, is offended by transference.”

I don’t think philosophy is inherently adverse to love. On the contrary, it seems as though love is the very essence of wisdom (and, as you suggested, love is clearly at the root of learning).

I’m not sure about this:

“When the atheist sets upon the believer, systematically destroying those beliefs, for example, he would do well to remember that it’s never just about the beliefs but that there’s a whole network of libidinal attachment to family, spouses, lovers, friends, rituals, festivals, etc, of which the beliefs are but the tip of the iceberg. Tenacious attachment to these beliefs might very well be, in many cases, tenacious attachment to these other libidinal investments.”

I don’t think atheism should be opposed to belief. Atheism is not the opposite of positive belief, but agnosticism. Atheism is also a system of beliefs rooted in a mostly unspoken network of drives and familial/communal rituals. Even the agnostic, as metaphysically skeptical as they may pretend to be, is still an enculturated animal operating in the world according to some unconscious imaginative background, and to that extent is the historical product of a set of communal practices. In the Jamesian sense, a belief is anything we are willing to act on, despite at first lacking certain knowledge of it. Love, since it is at the root of learning, is the original belief, the belief from which all else, cosmic and human, follows. Without it, there is nothing. Nihil.

The love of wisdom seems to come natural to Homo sapiens.

The Role of Imagination in the Science of the Stars

Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God

Image via Wikipedia

Is the history of science a continuous progression from less to more accurate theories of physical phenomena? Or, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, is its history characterized by a discontinuous series of paradigm shifts? In the latter case, gradual “progress” occurs only locally within established theoretical frameworks until, through the sudden imaginative leap of a genius or two, the unthought metaphysical background of the habitualized phenomenal gestalt metamorphoses, thereby disclosing a new experiential world to consciousness. Most philosophers would side with Kuhn over the naive realist, but this is not the end of the story.

Science doesn’t simply clarify and refine already proven theories, as if the work of the modern scientific subject, or knower, was just to strain to see more clearly an already known world, the perceptual structure of which is supposed to be objective, pre-existing his attempt to see it. The positivist looks at the world only through the theoretical framework that he believes has already explained it. The world becomes a neatly defined problem set awaiting logical formulation in the language of a prefered theory.

Kuhn’s approach is essential, at least as a critique of the positivist’s self-understanding of science. The notion of a scientific paradigm is perhaps philosophy’s most important conceptual tool in the Science Wars, since it grounds idealism in experience even while it prevents the reduction of science to the sense-observation of matter. Kuhn studied the Copernican Revolution, which is undoubtedly an example of precisely the kind of perceptual metamorphosis his correlationist account of scientific history is supposed to explain. Copernicus didn’t improve upon the Ptolemaic vision of the cosmos–he entirely re-imagined it; he placed a new kind of consciousness in relation to a new kind of Universe.

But this cannot be the whole story, at least for post-Hegelian philosophers, who seem unable to dispense with the notion that the history of science, or of scientific consciousness, represents the progressive unfolding of Wisdom. Despite the fact that paradigms follow one another according to discontinuous and unexpected transformations of the theoretico-perceptual gestalt underlying science, these shifts can still be understood in retrospect as the expression of some underlying spiritual scheme. Scientific theories are originally the fruit of what Charles Sanders Peirce called abduction, or intuitive mental leaps. These leaps are not merely wild guesses, however; they are able to secure a foothold in reality, according to Peirce, only because the logical activity of the mind and the physical habits of nature secretly correspond and mutually condition one another. This implies, as Schelling put it, that philosophy is a generative (rather than deductive or demonstrative) activity granting participation in the invisible spiritual processes underlying visible nature.

In his wonderfully evocative study of the Copernican Revolution, The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn refers to the study of abduction as a poetics (p. 14). This brings the Peircean approach to science even closer to Schelling, for whom the art of poetry was one of the primary ways that nature becomes more conscious of itself as spirit. Poetics, for Hallyn, is “…a way of dreaming works[…], of conceiving their possibility, and of working for their reality” (p. 15).

“Both Copernicus and Kepler,” he continues,

“sought explanations ordered in a vertical order: the world is the work of a divine poietes, and their project implies that one can reach back through the project to the Creator’s poetics. What they aim to reveal through their own poetics is thus truly…the poetic structure of the world” (p. 20).

The vertical order of explanation is not meant to eliminate the horizontal order; rather, as Hallyn reminds us, the former encompass the latter. In this sense, the vertical dimension interprets the accumulated facts of the horizontal dimension as “the signifying surface of a code [correlating] them to a transcendent signified” (ibid.).

Socrates suggests in the Phaedrus that written texts are a poor medium for the conveyance of knowledge, since they “cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers.” A text is dependent on its author to rescue it from unfair interpretation. By analogy, in the case of an interpretation of the motions of the planets, the ancient astronomer was at a disadvantage due to the phenomenal absence of its author, God, “the maker and father of the world” (“poietes kai pater tou pantos”)[Timaeus, 28c].

Ptolemy studied the heavens from within a vertical framework, but unlike many Renaissance scientists, he believed the human knower was situated at the bottom of the vertical axis of the world. Knowledge of the Universe from God’s perspective was impossible, since God viewed the world from beyond the world. Copernicus, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers, influenced by the sun worship and promethean attitude of the Renaissance, could be said to have aided the spiritual birth of God upon the earth by geometrically imagining the planets from His solar perspective. In other words, the heliocentric conception of Universe can be read poetically as the result of the incarnation of the divine spirit in human form, or the Christification of humanity. It retains the vertical dimension of ancient cosmology while at the same time locating the transcendent signified in the heart of the Cosmos itself.

The Ptolemaic Cosmos was a monstrosity, as far as Copernicus was concerned. It was a product reflective of the stale scholasticism of an undeveloped soul not yet capable of perceiving the hidden harmony of the heavens. The image of a great clock-work universe was Ptolemy’s before it was Newton’s. The harmony of the world becomes apparent, for Copernicus, only upon recognition of the fact that it is alive and was created for us (“mundus propter nos“). This for us sounds disgustingly anthropocentric to postmodern ears, but we must read it in the context of Renaissance hermeticism, wherein the archetype of the Anthropos is distinguished from the human species, the latter being but a unique and particular example of the former, universal tendency. As Giordano Bruno would later argue, there are undoubtedly an infinitude of planets other than our own populated by potentially wise and good beings. The world is made for them, as much as for us, since both of us can participate in the Anthropic ideal underlying the genesis of the Universe. The Universe, then, is not given to the human mind to understand (the longstanding and rather convincing illusion of the geocentric picture should be evidence enough of this), but nonetheless is at least potentially intelligible to us to the extent that we participate in the Anthropos.

The epigraph of Kepler’s earliest astrosophical work, Mysterium cosmographicum (1596), reflects well this participatory scheme, wherein the scientist remains human even while rising to the level of God:

“I die each day, and I confess it; but while my care keeps me hard at work on the roads of Olympus, my feet do not touch the Earth; in the presence of the Thundering divinity, I feed on nectar and ambrosia.”

Kepler represents an important transition in the history of science. He is credited with having discovered the elliptical paths of the planetary orbits, which stands in contradiction to Pythagorean presumptions concerning the perfection of circular motion. In bringing the divine’s solar perspective of the planets down to earth, post-Copernican science spiritualized human knowledge just as it materialized the heavens. By the time of Newton, terrestrial and celestial mechanics had been unified: the old Hermetic maxim, “as above, so below,” had been vindicated.

In the 20th century, Rudolf Steiner, another a hermetic thinker, expressed a further important transformation in the history of the scientific study of the stars (mentioned above in relation to the notion of spiritual incarnation):

Precisely herein is the secret of the new relation between ourselves and the world of the stars. Through the very fact of our descent into incarnation, we are indeed connected with the world of the stars, and yet we are no longer absolutely dependent on that world. On the contrary, in our age and in the future, we are called upon to take the world of stars, which as an individual we belong to, with us into our earthly deeds, into our earthly feeling and thinking. The transmutation which then takes place all through our earthly life, if we are a person of spiritual striving, thereby becomes a transmutation not only of ourselves but even of the world of stars.

The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

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In his cosmographic study of the Copernican Revolution,The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn entirely re-envisions the foundations of modern science. Instead of reading Copernicus’ break with the geocentric scheme as a rejection of the enchanted cosmos of the ancient world, Hallyn makes clear that Copernicus himself believed he was only making ancient Platonic and Hermetic doctrines more plausible.

Copernicus writes:

“At rest…in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. The Thrice Greatest [Hermes Trismegistus] labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it” (p. 22, On the Revolutions, 1978).

Quentin Meillassoux, in After Finitude, credits Copernicus with decentering earthly humanity in the universe; however, according to Hallyn, Copernicus also re-enacted the Platonic notion of astronomy as as divine science. In effect, through a rent in the imaginal fabric of the medieval sense of the sky, Copernicus caught a ray of light from a new heaven (or perhaps, in a gleam, saw heaven in a new way): he perceived the solution to the problem of the planets in the heliocentric theory; he stole fire from Zeus and elevated humanity to the status of the gods.

“It is highly unlikely,” he writes, “that anyone lacking the requisite knowledge of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies can become and be called godlike”  (p. 7, On the Revolutions).

Ptolemy, a more empirical and Aristotelean astronomer, humbly denied that the human mind could finally perceive the secret meaning of the planetary movements, since this secret was safely tucked away in the mind of an unmoved transcendent God existing above the vault of heaven. As far as Ptolemy was concerned,  hypotheses were all the human mind could hope for: we can but “save the appearance” by offering clumsy descriptions of the universe as if it were a mechanical gear-works originally rigged up by a now absent divine Architect. Perception of the inner truth of things was deemed forever beyond the capacity of the finite human being.

Copernicus’ intellect caught fire in his contemplation of the stars. His was the Hermeticist‘s method: to know through identity, to learn the song and dance of eternity’s moving image by becoming one with the everlasting Soul animating the whole. Half a century later, Kepler was able to simplify Copernicus’ geometry by allowing for elliptical orbits. He was also able to clarify the theological implications of heliocentrism by pointing out that a decentered earth is actually the perfect place for a contemplative creature such as ourselves to observe and come to understand the order of the universe.

Kepler writes:

“If the earth, our home, did not measure the annual orbit of the other planets –changing from place to place and station to station– human reason would never have arrived at knowledge of the precise intervals of the planets and other things that depend on those intervals; it would never have instituted astronomy” (p. 366, Selected Works, vol. 6, 1938).

In other words, Kepler analogizes the relationship between creature and Creator to that between an earth’s eye view of the solar system and a sun’s eye view. From the sun’s perspective, only a God with a priori knowledge of the spheres could understand their design, whereas on earth, a being capable of “the labor of reason” (p. 66, ibid.) could uncover their design in the course of time (a posteriori) as a result of the comparison of their relative motions. Man is like God, except man’s knowledge becomes in time, a moving image of God’s timeless wisdom.

[A variation on Whitehead’s theological scheme here occurs to me, wherein God’s primordial nature is equated with this timeless wisdom, while God’s consequent nature is equated with humanity’s gradual awakening to the divine meaning of the universe of appearances from within the limits of that very same universe. This is a Hermetic spin on Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology, wherein God’s origin is the unconscious innocence of Nature and God’s end is the conscious responsibility of Man.]

The Copernican Revolution, according to Hallyn, was a victory for speculative organicism, for the idea that symmetry and systematicity are behind the appearances of nature, rather than the mechanical motion of separately and haphazardly arranged parts, as in Ptolemy’s model. But by the time of Newton, a conceptually degraded Copernicanism had provided the necessary conceptual foundation for the complete replacement of qualitatively differentiated, concrete space with the abstract, homogenous space of Euclidian geometry. As the Scientific Revolution marched onward, the enchanted and participatory cosmos of the Renaissance was forgotten in favor of an increasingly “objectified” universe devoid of “subjective” meaning.

It seems to me that another jolt of promethean imagination is necessary to complete the noösphere’s phase transition from the current, epicyclic materialistic paradigm –where subject and object remain sundered– into a more integrated vision of the cosmos as a living whole.

Knowledge Ecology on an Object-Oriented Ecology, and some reflections on substance

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology has posted a great piece on his conception of an object-oriented ecology. He draws primarily from Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Isabelle Stengers. I’m re-posting my comment to him below:

Really well written, Adam. You’ve definitely provided an outline for a robust OOE. I agree with your assessment that it promises to overcome the various “-centrisms” hampering other approaches to environmental ethics.

My one concern is the idea of substance in OOO. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in short, I wonder why we need to bring back substance in order to secure the notion of withdrawal when a process ontology already secures it quite well. Objects withdraw even from themselves, which suggests to me that objects are not fixed substances of any kind, but concrescual occasions perishing into objective immortality just as they open into subjective novelty. Objects are not substances, but subject-superjects. An object’s withdrawal is constituted by the subjective pole of its concrescence, which hides from the environment of the object, and from the object’s own habitual prehension of its past.

Instead of talking of “real” v. “sensual” qualities, I prefer to take Schelling’s route, wherein both the dark and the luminous aspects of entities are equally real:

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

“everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition” (Ages of the World).

In short, a process ontology polarizes what Harman et al. seem to dualize. The essence of an object is no more withdrawn than it is apparent; it is essentially the budding pulsation which includes both as moments in its concrescence. With Schelling/Whitehead’s position, we get everything useful about OOO without the, to my mind, unnecessary dichotomy between real and sensual. Perhaps I am just oversimplifying Harman’s position, however.

Whiteheadian Panentheism and Ralph Pred’s “Onflow”

I’ve just been skimming Ralph Pred’s naturalization of Whitehead’s process-experiential ontology (see Onflow: Dynamics of Consciousness and Experience, 2005). Pred attempts to naturalize Whitehead by explaining away the need for any divine function in cosmogenesis, but in critiquing Whitehead’s speculative scheme, Pred focuses exclusively on the unconscious, primordial nature of God, leaving unmentioned the conscious pole of the Universe: God’s consequent nature. Instead of placing Creativity (infinite potentiality) into relation with God (determinate actualization), Pred believes he has found a “less interpretive name for the ultimate” (p. 180): a unified stream of experiential becoming called “onflow.” For Pred, onflow “is less susceptible [than Creativity/God] to a reading in terms of divine purposiveness, or an evolutionary accrual of value” (p. 181). This is certainly true, but I wonder why –if we are indeed to adhere to a radical empiricism as articulated by Pred– “divine purposiveness” and “accrual of value” are not considered to be ingredients in the experiential habitat humanity has inherited from the prior evolution of the world. An ordered creation has emerged and continues to develop; we live in a civilized cosmos, albeit one enduring amid a background of death, chaos, and inertia. Still, these negative elements thus far remain the background. The love of life and existence continue to win out over ignorance, hatred and extinction. The present Universe appears to be in the most complex and radiant state it will ever achieve in its macrocosmic evolutionary history, coincidentally just as human consciousness is gaining the technological capacity to scientifically study it. In several billion years, according to some astrophysicists, the inflation of space between galaxies will have accelerated beyond light-speed, meaning that even if a future alien civilization becomes technologically capable, it would never see any evidence of its own intergalactic history. But entropy is more extravagant a metaphysical ultimate than Creativity given the circumstances of our current cosmic moment. Yes, human civilization is bringing about the 6th Mass Extinction Event, the first in 65 million years; even so, more biodiversity exists today than ever before in our planet’s history. We have every reason to believe, given that so many mass extinctions have occurred before on this planet, that life on earth will survive and continue to flourish.

The speculative imagination can discover the divinity at the base of actuality only if the philosopher is able to think through the grave implications of her own incarnation. Philosophy is, first and foremost, learning to die. Only after encountering the Mystery of death can the embodied soul awaken its supersensory organs of imaginative and intuitive perception, granting it participation in the everlasting World-Soul. Only then does the Universe openly display itself as an ongoing achievement of spiritual expression, a scintillating symbol of the divine mind at work in the world. My body and its ego will die, but the soul of the world will go on. This ongoingness, and the objective immortality of the experiential valuation of each and every occasion, is God’s consequent nature.

Pred maintains that human valuation and aesthetic enjoyment can be accounted for without God, solely by the “hybrid feeling of self [and] the memory and imagination, stirred by aim in the concresence in question” (p. 178). Whitehead’s panentheism, in contrast, reflects his desire to affirm the highest aspirations of the human spirit. In Process and Reality (p. 31-32), he writes:

 “[The primordial, non-temporal accident] is here termed ‘God'; because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.”

————————————————————–

I do think Pred argues convincingly that one need not adopt Whitehead’s fully-deployed panentheistic metaphysics to recognize the value of a “concrescual approximation.” One can remain agnostic on the issue of a divine function while still accepting the reality of meaning and purpose in human life. But I also believe the human soul is capable of directly experiencing the divine function in the world, of feeling the eternal aims of God as they embrace the process of infinite creativity and lure chaos toward cosmos.

Intuitive Thinking vs. Reflective Thought: Harman on Meillassoux

I’ve just read Graham Harman‘s essay for continent. entitled “Meillassoux’s Virtual Future” (2011). As usual, it is primarily Harman’s style of philosophizing that really excites me. I am fascinated by the way he juggles and plays with ideas, even when I don’t finally agree with his attempts to securely mold a certain set of them into a consistent metaphysical system. In the essay linked above, he refrains from arguing for or even mentioning any of his own metaphysical positions. Instead, the focus is on the philosophical impact of Quentin Meillassoux‘s thoughts, on how they might come to effect the history of Thought by being reversed or radicalized by the “rude handling from later figures” (p. 88, continent. 1.2).

Harman says elsewhere that he

“is inclined to say that what really makes a philosopher important is not being right, but being wrong…One becomes an important philosopher not by being right, but by attracting rebellious admirers who tell you that you are wrong, even as their own careers silently orbit around your own” (p. 87).

He goes on to offer examples of future philosophers who might memorialize Meillassoux’s ideas through radicalization or reversal, but I think he leaves out a least one other interpretive possibility. Harman references Meillassoux’s respect for German Idealism several times, but he never fully unpacks the Schellingian or Hegelian ontologies in order to properly distinguish them from Fichtean subjective idealism. He argues that so-called “strong correlationism,” the starting point of Meillassoux’s philosophy, must inevitably fall back into subjective idealism, since otherwise it speaks nonsense by asserting that the unthought can be thought.

Thought, according to Aristotle, must be non-contradictory. This is a result of his doctrine of substance and the principle of sufficient reason. If we make a further experiential distinction, however, between thinking and what is thought, we see that while the latter must remain consistent to be considered reasonable, the former must remain inconsistent for the same reason. Thinking is the differentiation of that which nonetheless remains whole; it is identity in process, not an identifiable product; it is the transitive flow of experience, rather than its substantive content. The unthought cannot be thought, since the unthought is that which produces thought. It is the activity of thinking itself.

Harman continues:

“In a world where everything is instantly converted into thought, we cannot claim that there might be something extra-mental anyway, because this ‘might be something’ is itself converted into a thought by the same rules that condemned dogs, trees, and houses to the idealist position [that when I think the thing, X, it becomes X for thought]” (p. 81).

Thinking is outside thought not because it is extra-mental, but because it is the naturans underlying the naturata. Nature itself thinks: it is an open ended process that is neither objective nor subjective, since thinking is productive of both of these concepts. Thinking is always converting itself into thought, but never can thinking itself be thought. I agree with Harman that Meillassoux (at least on my Schellingian reading) seems to be offering a kind of Zen koan (p. 81).

I unpack this Schellingian form of speculative realism more fully elsewhere (HERE and HERE and HERE). See also Rudolf Steiner’s Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, especially chapter 7: “Are there limits to human cognition?”

Plato and Astrosophy: The Wisdom of the Sky

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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Scholarship has been unable to determine who the true writer of Epinomis was, but it is generally assumed that the text available to us today is either what remains of an unfinished wax-tablet manuscript left behind by Plato at his death in 347 BCE, or is an extra chapter added later by a student of Plato’s, the astronomer Philip of Opus, who is known to have transcribed the first 12 books of Laws after his teacher’s death. Whatever the case may be, we can at least say that the dialogue provides us with perhaps the earliest example of a Platonic answer to the central question of philosophy: what must a mortal know in order to be wise?

In the dialogue, a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian are said to come together to discuss that which is more important than their respective forms of political organization: namely, Wisdom. Epinomis seems more than just a clerical, but a highly significant title for a Platonic dialogue, since certainly what should come after (“éπι”) the laws (“νομίς”) of one’s local polis is a discussion of the universal principles from which all human laws are derived by way of feeble mimicry.

Plato wrote the Laws only after the political utopia he outlined in the Republic had failed to materialize in 4th century Syracuse. It represents the opinion of an older, more cynical thinker for whom the notion of rule by virtuous philosopher-kings came to be replaced by the “second-best” rule of constitutional law. With the addition of the Epinomis as a 13th chapter, Plato’s younger idealism is allowed to shine through the wear and tear of age. In it, he (or his student) points to the importance of an understanding of the harmonious motions of the heavens, because they transcend the petty disagreements of earthly men and so provide all with a publicly apparent source of Wisdom.

The Athenian begins the dialogue by offering an insight articulated by Gautama Buddha more than a century earlier (483 BCE), that, basically, life is suffering:

“I say it is impossible for men to be blessed and happy, except a few ; that is, so long as we are living : I limit it to that. But one may rightly hope to attain after death all the things for whose sake one may strive both in life to live as nobly as one can and in death to find a noble end. What I say is [973d] no subtle doctrine, but a thing that all of us, Greeks and foreigners alike, in some way perceive — that from the beginning existence is difficult for every living creature : first, partaking of the state of an embryo, then again, being born, and further, being reared and educated — all these processes involve a vast amount of toil, [974a] we all agree.”

Wisdom, then, begins to dawn upon the human soul only after she has realized that life is full of suffering, that happiness and blessedness are impossible until she has dealt squarely and honestly with the traumas of birth and death. The death-rebirth mysteries at Eleusis into which Plato was initiated provided the ancient Greek soul with an opportunity to die in spirit before dying in flesh. The philosopher’s task upon being reborn is to integrate the vision of heaven and immortality with their participation in political life on earth. This is no easy task.

The Athenian continues:

“the soul firmly believes and divines that in some fashion she has [Wisdom], [974c] but what it is that she has, or when, or how, she is quite unable to discover. Is not this a fair picture of our puzzle about wisdom and the inquiry that we have to make?”

As Plato articulates in the 7th letter, wherein he reflects on his failed experiment in Syracuse, Wisdom cannot be finally attained through verbal discussion of names, through written formula, or through sensory experience of any kind. All that can be said for certain is that the soul knows that Wisdom is possible for herself, that it is asleep within her and can sometimes be awakened through the application of the proper technique (i.e., philosophy).

The Athenian then runs through the various technologies employed by human intelligence: the cultivation of land and the production of food, the building of homes and the smithing of various tools and weapons, artistic reproduction like poetry and painting, the arts of sailing and of medicine. He concludes that none of them are productive of wisdom, since each deals only in conjecture and opinion. The only technique productive of Wisdom–the only way to become “a wise and good citizen, at once a just ruler and subject of his city, in tune with himself and the world as well”–is the study of the heavens, of the stars and the cosmos, the ordered motion of which is responsible for “[giving] number to the whole race of mortals [976d].”
The Athenian suggests that the rhythmical motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets through the sky taught the human soul to count and to record time. Modern paleoanthropology lends some support to this idea, since one of the earliest known forms of writing consisted of notches carved into bone fragments to record the phases of the moon. This science of seasonal time learned by contemplating the motions of the heavens, he argues, provides the foundation of every other technique that has subsequently been acquired through the exercise of human intelligence. “Thanks to these celestial events,” he says,

“we have crops, the earth bears food for all living things, and the winds that blow and the rains that fall are not violent or without measure. If on the contrary anything turns out for the worse, we must not blame God [who orders the heavens and provides for their participation in earthly events], but humans, for not rightly managing their own lives [by living in harmony with the seasonal motions of the planets] [979a].”

At this point in their search for Wisdom, the Athenian, the Cretan, and the Spartan agree that they will need to pray for the guidance of God himself if they hope to understand the true meaning of the planetary spheres and the process of their generation. Philosophy here becomes beholden to the power of faith. The seekers of wisdom pray that they might be granted Her council, that the Soul of the World might speak within their humble and open hearts.

The Athenian then says, “as a whole, soul is older than any body. Do you recall? You surely must remember.” He adds to his anamnesiac appeal that the celestial spheres are to be considered “living things…endowed with the finest body and the best and happiest soul [980d].” Either these spheres are indestructible, or “each of them is content to possess such a vast length of life that they could never possibly demand more [982a].”

Wisdom, the Soul of the World whose voice is made audible in the Song of the Spheres, is embodied by Plato’s Fifth element, also mentioned in Timaeus and his 7th letter. Soul is without name or color or shape or weight, no more made of fire than it is earth; rather, it is the invisible intelligent force underlying the harmonious activity of the other Four elements.

“Let us suppose,” suggests the Athenian,

“that [the divine stars and the creatures of the earth] are two kinds of living things, that both are visible, the one made entirely, as it might seem, of fire, the other of earth, and that the earthly kind moves in disorder, while the one of fire moves in perfect order. Now what moves in disorder (which is exactly how the kind of living things around us behave for the most part) we ought to consider unintelligent. But if something has an orderly path in the heavens we should treat that as powerful evidence of its intelligence. For if it always proceeds in its course uniformly and without variation, and always acts and is affected in the same way, it gives ample evidence of intelligent life. The necessity of the soul that possesses intelligence is by far the most powerful of all necessities. For it is a ruler, not a subject, and so ordains its decrees. When a soul reaches the best decision in accordance with the best intelligence, the result, which is truly to its mind, is perfectly unalterable…Humans should admit as evidence of the intelligence of the stars and this entire movement of theirs, the fact that they always do the same things, because they are doing what was decided an astonishingly long time ago and do not change their decision back and forth, sometimes doing one thing and at others doing something else, wandering and changing their orbits. This opinion of ours is the exact opposite of what most people believe–that because they do the same things uniformly they do not possess soul. The crowd has followed the fools in supposing that the human race is intelligent and alive because it undergoes change, whereas the divine is unintelligent because it remains in the same orbits. But in fact a person can adopt views that are finer, better and acceptable, and could have understood that whatever always operates uniformly, without variation, and through the same causes is for that very reason to be regarded as intelligent. Such a person could also understand that this is the nature of the stars, the finest of all things to behold, and further that moving through their march and dance, the finest and most magnificent dance there is, they bring to pass what all living things need [982a-e].”

The Athenian establishes that one Life moves through all things earthly and astral, that a single invisible Soul animates each and all. Even if the visible planetary spheres are but the elemental images of Wisdom, rather than the eternal gods themselves, still “no other image will appear more beautiful or more widely shared by all humans than these [984b].” He goes on to discuss the role of various atmospheric mediators, or daemons (i.e., angels and demons), who facilitate communication between gods and humans:

“…some of them have had various types of encounters with humans, whether through dreams in sleep or in audible communications through divine voices or prophecies to certain people whether healthy or ill or even at the point of death. The resulting beliefs affect both individuals and communities and have been the origin of many religious rites for many people and will be in the future as well [985c].”

Religious revelation, in this sense, is true, a fact about the Universe that reason must take into its consideration of the whole. But revelation must be checked through comparison to the meanings of the visible motion of the stars and planets, since “the worst people are those that do not dare to declare to us the gods that really do appear to us [985d].” Private, inner revelation is not enough. The words of God’s messengers must be plainly present for all to see and hear. The sun, moon, and other planets are these words, publicly available to all with ears to hear and eyes to see. Each one of them “contributes to the perfection of the visible cosmos established by the most divine law of all [986c].” In this way, the science of the heavens, astrology (which is not other than astronomy for Plato), is said to have provided humanity with God’s true revelation of Wisdom.

The Athenian summarizes what Plato treats more fully in Timaeus concerning the character of the 8 “powers,” or “orbits.” The first 7 appear to move to the right (from East to West), while the 8th, the cosmic sphere of fixed stars, appears to move to the left (from West to East). By holding together and harmonizing the different movements of the 7 inner spheres with the stable identity of the outer 8th, the World Soul creates time, perpetually birthing the visible Universe as “a moving image of eternity.” Through the unifying animation of the World Soul, all things in heaven and earth are made full of gods (991d).

Without the study of the heavens, according to the Athenian, “no one in cities will ever become happy [992a].” A true participatory democracy, where every person is both ruler of themselves and subject of their civilization–each full members of the Nocturnal Council capable of contemplating the true meaning of the morning sun–requires that all be initiates into the Mysteries of the Sky.

“Let no Greek ever fear that being mortal we should not concern ourselves with the divine Universe. We should have quite the opposite thought; the divine [i.e., the Cosmos] is never without intelligence nor is it at all ignorant of human nature, but it knows that if it teaches we will follow along and learn what we are taught [988b].”