Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.
I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.
I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?
My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolvebeyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.
In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.
The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.
These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.
So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts into physical expression. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly realities. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in this mundis imaginalis we may discover new forms of embodied praxis in congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.
I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).
Grant wonders what I meant by referring to Tarnas’ archetypal cosmology as a “middle up” approach to transforming culture, and to Latour’s anthropology of the moderns as a “top down” approach to the same. I appreciate Grant’s use of Latour’s own network analysis to deconstruct my construal of the two thinker’s relative positions within academic and popular culture. Latour has been problematizing the politically enforced boundaries between natural science and folk psychology (i.e., between elite knowledge and mass opinion) for most of his 40-year career.
My vertical metaphor may have been misleading: I intended it as a reference to the size and shape of their respective audiences, not as a reference to the degree of their value or profundity. Tarnas’ bestselling Passion of the Western Mind has been read by hundreds of thousands of college educated people. It is bar none the most balanced, insightful, and well-written gateway into the long arc of Western intellectual history that I have ever come across. I characterized Tarnas’ impact on culture-at-large as “middle out” because Passion has succeeded in offering a coherent and carefully argued meta-narrative that many people can accept as basically true. The archetypal depth and conceptual clarity of its mythico-dialectical structure works like magic to compel its readers to accept the strength of the 2,500-year long thread of historical meaning it weaves from Socrates and Jesus through to Jung, Hillman, and Grof.
As for Latour, one 2007 study showed that he was the 10th most cited humanities author of the year. I presume the study included all languages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Latour was also on the top of an Anglo-only list considering the important influence of post-war French thought on the American academy. If you feel like following that particular thread, check out Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2008). What Cusset means by “intellectual life” in his title is a bit more concentrated than what I meant above by “college educated,” and by “concentrated” I mean in terms of the number of readers who are both capable of and interested in reading authors like Latour, Deleuze, or Derrida. Their work appeals to (relatively speaking) a very small number of highly educated graduate students, professors, and conceptual artists. Latour’s influence has been “top down” in the sense that it just isn’t accessible to many people (which is ironic considering his desire to make knowledge political–that is, to bring science to the people!).
A reviewer of Cusset’s book offers a story that is relevant enough to Grant and my discussion that I will quote it:
Artist and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who had imported beat poetry into France from the United States, once invited Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to a 1975 concert held in Massachusetts, where the two had the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan and Joan Baez backstage. Somewhat unimpressed with the two French philoso- phers, the folksingers had not bothered to read Anti-Oedipus, and likewise the two theorists were unfortunately not interested in smoking marijuana: an inadvertent misalignment of social interests, creating a somewhat awkward encounter for all parties involved. This anecdote of an ill-conceived compatibility epitomizes the spirit of comprehending the objectives of French theory and prompts an inevitable query: have we on the U.S. side of the Atlantic been able to come to terms with the French, their traditions of intellectual thought and their philosophical legacy?
The reviewer (as well as Cusset) suggets that much of what the French have to offer to we American theorists has indeed been lost in translation. Latour is certainly easier to read than a Derrida or a Deleuze, but his writing is still full of stylistically rich ironies and affective potencies. In such a textual environment, sometimes creative misreadings are the only available option (I’ve been offering my own no doubt often erring reflections on Latour for a while on this blog). Nonetheless, in the spirit of moving the discussion forward in a productive way, I’m going to risk contesting Grant’s reading of Latour’s analysis of knowledge-networks as somehow purely horizontal. Grant writes:
I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections.
I’ve noticed that Deleuze and Guattari’s related notion of the “rhizome,” developed in A Thousand Plateaus (transl. 1987), is also usually interpreted as though it were a purely horizontal structure. This despite the fact that the final pages of the introductory chapter on the rhizome read as follows:
If it is a question of showing that rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy, then fine and good: for there is no dualism, no ontological dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes…despotic formations…and channelization specific to rhizomes…(p. 20).
Latour has clearly been influenced by D & G’s account of the rhizome in his own analysis of networks. In Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987), Latour first introduces his concept of the network to English-speakers:
If technoscience may be described as being so powerful and yet so small, so concentrated and so dilute, it means it has the characteristics of a network. The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes–which are connected with one another–the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere. Telephone lines, for instance, are minute and fragile, so minute that they are invisible on a map and so fragile that each may be easily cut; nevertheless, the telephone network ‘covers’ the whole world. The notion of network will help us to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of technoscience and to understand how so few people may seem to cover the world. (180)
Latour’s analysis of networks finds in them precisely the sort of power distribution that Grant does. His goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge. He is fully cognizant of the forever advancing dialectic of discovery and invention underlying the technoscientific process of knowledge production. If he is arguing for any kind of relativism, it is that all knowledge (whether scientific or folk) is constructed out of what at first may be fragile relationships–relationships that are only gradually forged through repeated acts of translation between and among various sorts of human and nonhuman actors.
To be fair to Grant, Latour would seem to prefer a “multi-narrative” to a “meta-narrative” perspective on knowledge. This resistance to telling a simple story sometimes makes his ideas hard to track. Judging by the audience’s question after Latour’s first Gifford lecture on Gaia theory, it appears many of them were stunned, as Grant put it, “by a mixture of reverence and bafflement.” Grant wonders how many people actually grasped exactly what Latour was on about (the fellow who introduced him certainly didn’t seem to). Personally, I love his style, and I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake. If, following Whitehead (as Latour does), aesthetics is first philosophy, then we should proceed carefully whenever we try to distill the pure logical essences of flowery rhetoric. We may find that much is lost in translation whenever the supposedly pure conceptual content of an argument is purified of the metaphors and imagery that originally delivered its meaning. Maybe I’ve read too much “post-modernism,” but I’ve come to understand philosophy as a kind of dramatic performance art. After reading Deleuze, I can’t help but notice the personalities of concepts. I agree with the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman’s comments in an interview about the importance of style in philosophy:
there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice… Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims. (the rest of Harman’s thoughts on style are here).
Another point of contention between Grant and I is the role of technology in the evolution of consciousness. While its true that technology needn’t necessarily disenchant (indeed, as I argued in my first response to Grant, it is itself a very powerful form of enchantment, whether mis-directed or not), I passionately reject the thesis that technology is in any way neutral. It’s precisely because I agree with Grant’s comparison of technology to psychedelics that I can’t accept their supposed neutrality. Like psychedelics, media technologies (which includes everything from the alphabet, to the printing press, radio, TV, PC, and smart phones) have radically called into question our understanding of human agency. Media theorists like McLuhan and Ong have shown that, for instance, the relationship between alphabetic print and literate consciousness cannot be understood in a linear way as though the print medium merely amplified the innate capacities of an already internally constituted rational individual. Media also amputate formerly endogenous capacities (Plato long ago realized the risks posed to memory and learning by writing). Media technologies are not neutral because our very sense of identity, and so also our values, have always already been shaped by the message of the medium. Technologies are actors in their own right with their own effects independent of what their human inventors or users intend. As I see it, consciousness is way too mixed up in a co-evolution with its media for us to pretend we can disentangle what is “me” and what is “media.” Someone with a more mystical leaning like Jean Gebser is going to privilege the agency of consciousness in its evolution, its ability to chose to use this or that technology in whatever way it sees fit, while a Marx or a Latour is going to try to reveal the way the evolution of consciousness through its magical, mythical, mental and post-modern/deficient phases has more to do with the widespread cultural shifts in material practices associated with humanity’s development through song and dance, hieroglyphic symbolism, alphabetic script, the printing press, and electronic screens. I wouldn’t want to dismiss Gebser’s more consciousness-centric position, but I think it is just as important to pay attention to the way seemingly external media technologies transform the very shape of our inner lives in powerful and often unacknowledged ways.
In closing, I definitely agree with Grant that the translation table Latour constructs to bring the religious people of God, the scientific people of Nature, and the Earth-bound people of Gaia into diplomatic conversation may benefit from a more archetypal sensibility like that offered in Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. As I understand it, Tarnas is creatively carrying forward an ancient tradition dating back to Plato that looks to the meaningful motions of the stars and planets above for a universally available source of cultural and political orientation here below. I believe any future people of Gaia would benefit greatly in their struggle to find meaning in chaotic times by practicing the psychoplanetary therapy Tarnas has helped to birth.
Before you read this post, go watch Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, titled “Facing Gaia: A New Enquiry into Natural Religion” (or read the PDF version). I’ve written a few short commentaries on these lectures that may help bring you up to speed if you don’t have the 7 or 8 hours to watch them all just yet: here are my reflections on lectures one, two, three, four, and six).
Next, read my friend Grant Maxwell’s post comparing Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern to Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind, both published in 1991. Grant is an editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, an academic journal that is continuing to develop the perspective of Tarnas’ last book, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2007).
I applaud Grant’s diplomatic effort to bring these two thinkers into dialogue–thinkers who, on the face of it, seem to be engaged in incommensurable projects. While Latour’s Modern aims primarily at the problematization of any simple story about the rise and fall of “Modern Western Man,” Tarnas’ Passion would seem to aim precisely to tell such a story. The story Tarnas tells, of course, is hardly “simple.” He succeeds in brilliantly tracing the grand multi-millennial narrative of Western philosophical history through each of its dramatic dialectical twists: from the strange and unsteady but powerfully dynamic Christian synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew prophecy; through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution; on to the progress of the Enlightenment and the reaction of Romanticism; finally culminating in the hermeneutical sensitivity of our post-modern condition, a sensitivity that entails both the peril of groundless relativism and deconstructive suspicion as well as the soul-healing and world-enchanting promise of post-Jungian depth, archetypal, and psychedelic psychologies (Tarnas develops this “promise/peril” theme in his preface to Cosmos and Psyche, “The Two Suitors”). I believe Tarnas’ motivation for telling his epic history of the evolution of consciousness in the West is not only to argue for the over-all nobility of the Western project, but to prophesy its imminent self-inflicted dialectical sublation by the “otherness” it has for so long been projecting onto “Nature,” “God,” and most especially, “the Feminine” (Passion, 444). In the final lines of Passion, Tarnas’ writes:
[W]hy has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring only now because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.
Today we are experiencing something that looks very much like the death of modern man, indeed that looks very much like the death of Western man. Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome–and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine. (445)
Latour, while he may be somewhat more suspicious of Hegel’s totalizing dialectical philosophy of history, is, in a unique but comparable way, also prophesying the inevitable overcoming of “man” as a result of his terrible embrace by the long-forgotten goddess of earth, Gaia.
From Grant’s perspective, having studied Tarnas’ work deeply but admittedly having just begun his study of Latour’s by reading Modern,
the cores of both works partially intersect and express the archetypal quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.
I agree that it is just this potential for creatively seeing through the postmodern condition that makes both mens’ work so relevant to anyone involved in what we could call the “re-enchantment project.” However, whether Latour is indeed involved in such a project or not remains a matter of contention. Grant isn’t at all satisfied with Latour’s seeming dismissal of the need to mourn the loss of an enchanted world (Modern, 114cf.). I suppose I read Latour’s ironic statements about modern science and technology bringing about the disenchantment of the world somewhat differently than Grant. Latour may be a bit flippant at times, but his point is certainly not to “do everything he can to deny enchantment,” as Grant argues. Latour’s point, as I understand him, is precisely the opposite. Drawing in no small part upon the work of his Whiteheadian friends, Isabelle Stengers (see Capitalist Sorcery) and Donna Haraway (see Latour’s review of Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature), Latour argues that we have never been disenchanted, that in fact, modernity has been far more a wayward adventure in mis-enchantment than outright dis-enchantment.
Moderns may have lost their ability to magically participate in the animate powers of the earth and larger cosmos (a loss worth mourning), but the modern world is hardly lacking its own forms of consumer-capitalist misenchantment. Moderns have devised their own, no less enchanted technoscientific magic. This modern magic, with its hybrid factishes and cyborg machines, has allowed for the construction of an immense networked technoösphere whose all-encompassing mediation of human life (by satellite-linked touch screens and the like) has by now all but severed our conscious connection to earth and cosmos. Even the stars are now out-shined by the numinous glow of our gadgetry.
I’d argue, then, that Latour, like Tarnas, is involved in the re-enchantment project. This is especially evident after Latour’s Gifford Lectures on Gaia, as we’ll see below. He sees, like Stengers and Haraway, that the technocapitalist-entertainment complex has been providing humanity with a sort of surrogate enchantment for much of the last century. This makes the task of re-enchantment all the more perilous, since it involves not simply bringing a bit of magic back into a mechanized universe, but rather represents a true sorcerers’ battle pitting light and dark magics against one another. Who will win: Big Oil propaganda, or the world’s indigenous peoples and their reverence for Mother Earth? Or someone else? “Would it be possible,” asks Latour as part of an effort to summon “the people of Gaia,”
to accept the candidacy of those people who claim to be assembled, for instance, by Pachamama, the Earth goddess? May be, if only we could be sure that what passes for a respect for the Earth is not due to their small numbers and to the relative weakness of their technology. None of those so called ‘traditional’ people, the wisdom of which we often admire, is being prepared to scale up their ways of life to the size of the giant technical metropolises in which are now corralled more than half of the human race. (lecture 6)
Grant is put off by the difficult and anxiety-producing academic style of Latour’s Modern, preferring the “classical narrative clarity” of Tarnas’ Passion. There is no question that Tarnas’ book can and has reached a larger sector of the educated general public. But Latour didn’t write Modern for the general public. He wrote it for the modern philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who mistakenly enforce the nature/society dichotomy he so detests. We might say that Modern was an attempt to transform the modern Zeitgeist from the top down, while Passion attempted to do the same from the middle up.
As for the anxiety one may feel upon reading Modern, or listening to the Gifford Lectures, Latour might respond by asking if hope might not be our biggest enemy. Hope allows us to wait until tomorrow to face the climate crisis, because maybe our situation isn’t so bad, after all. Like most of the world’s climate scientists, he has recognized the direness of our planetary position, the fact that we are already committed to at least 2 degrees centigrade of global warming, and that in all likelihood, we will be committed to far more before any meaningful action is taken. The changing climate that results from this warming will produce tens of millions of refugees, food shortages, and resource wars. Latour depicts climatologists as the most tragic figures of our time, in that despite their knowledge of the coming threat, they cannot mobilize the political will to do anything about it. They are the first scientists to be accused by other scientists of being a lobby. Latour’s project is an attempt to empower their knowledge, not by pretending to purify it of the vagaries of politics (as modern scientists normally do), but by re-positioning scientists from their disincarnate perspective beyond earth to an incarnate perspective bound to earth. This means admitting one’s local concerns and grounded norms, even and especially when one’s profession is the production of scientific facts. The climatologists are the closest the planet has to a people of Gaia, according to Latour. They are the people who speak on behalf of earth’s health.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Latour was barking up the wrong tree in Modern–that, on the contrary, we have been modern and science once could be purified of politics. In his recent Gifford Lectures, he sets out to prove that, in the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer be modern because the natural fact of climate change is inseparable from the economic and political values of society. The reason ours’ is such an anxiety-producing time, according to Latour, is because Whitehead’s bifurcation, rather than being brought to its end by the revenge of Gaia, has, in fact, been reversed:
Incredibly enough, the question has become whether humans may retrieve a sense of history that has been ripped away from them by what they had taken until now to be a mere frame devoid of any agency. The Bifurcation of Nature, so criticized by Whitehead, has not come to a close: it has reversed itself in the most unexpected way, the ‘primary qualities’ being now marked by sensitivity, agency, reaction, uncertainty; the ‘secondary qualities’ by indifference, insensibility, numbness. (lecture 6)
In other words, “nature,” for so long merely the raw material out of which the progress of human history was made to take shape, is now, due to the unpredictable nonlinear effects of climate change, beginning to seem far more agential and sensitive than we human beings, our political paralysis and complete lack of serious response to the looming threat of ecological disaster making us seem more like inert and insensitive consumerist robots.
Since the Scientific Revolution, moderns have pretended to possess a “view from nowhere.” This objective view was predicated upon Galileo’s erasure of the primordial dichotomy between the earthly and heavenly spheres of the cosmos. In the beginning of his 3rd Gifford Lecture, Latour offers his non-modern take on the “reverse symmetry” displayed in Galileo’s theory of universal nature and Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Both men, Latour points out, “[turned] cheap instruments to the skies to make radically opposite discoveries.” In a way similar to Tarnas’ astrologically-informed (and so geocentric) participatory perspective, Latour argues that the living earth really does inhabit a special sub-lunary realm. One wonders if Latour’s attempt to return earth to its pre-Galileo status might be of any assistance to those hoping to re-assert the “metaphysical and psychological premises” of archetypal cosmology (see Passion, p. 296). I’ll quote Latour’s 3rd lecture at length:
While Galileo, by looking up beyond the horizon to the sky, was expanding the similarity between this Earth and all the other falling bodies, Lovelock, by looking down on us from one of those heavenly bodies, is actually decreasing the similarity among all the planets and this highly peculiar Earth of ours. From his tiny office in Pasadena, like someone slowly sliding the roof of a convertible car tightly shut, Lovelock brings his reader back to what should be taken, once again, as a sublunary world. Not because the Earth lacks perfection, quite the opposite; not because it hides in its interior the dark site of Hell; but because it has—and it alone has—the privilege of being alive in a certain fashion—which also means, in a certain fashion, being corruptible—that is, animated and also, thus, simultaneously in equilibrium yet brittle. In a word: actively maintaining a difference between inside and outside. Even stranger, the Blue Planet suddenly stands out as what is made of a long concatenation of historical, local, hazardous, specific and contingent events as if it were the temporary outcome of a ‘geohistory’ as attached to specific places and dates as the Biblical narrative, that is, exactly what was not to be taken into account when considered simply as a falling body among all the others.
Is not the reverse symmetry really admirable? Take the cliché of three ‘narcissistic wounds’ celebrated by Freud: first Copernicus, then Darwin and then — somewhat narcissistically — Freud himself? Human arrogance was supposed to have been deeply hurt by the Copernican revolution that had chased the human out of the centre of the cosmos (and hurt deeper still by the discovery, secondly of Darwin, and, thirdly, of the Unconscious that had kicked the human subject out of its privileged position). But in order to invent such a series of wounds, Freud had to forget the enthusiasm with which the so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ had been embraced by all those who had suffered so much for being stuck in the dark centre of a cosmos out of which they had no other escape but the super lunar regions, the only place where incorruptible truths could be found. Out of the hole at last!
Those familiar with Tarnas’ argument concerning the fundamental ambiguity of the Copernican revolution (representing both a blow to human centrality as well as a boon to human autonomy) will recognize its similarity to Latour’s treatment.
In closing, Latour may not be as optimistic about human history as Hegel, for whom all of natural and human history is “spirit disporting with itself” (as he wrote in the Phenomenology). Latour sees just as much contingency as he does dialectical inevitability in the course of evolution. On the other hand, he is a practicing Catholic, though I’m as yet unable to determine how the doctrine of providence survives his seemingly heretical, almost pagan, natural theology.
“Even Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit,” said Latour during his 5th lecture,
did not envision that the advent of the Anthropocene would so radically reverse the direction of the historical project–that humans would be dialectically merged with the geostorical adventure of carbon, oxygen, and metal. Think of that! The whole breath of Spirit now sublated, aufheben, overcome, intoxicated by carbon dioxide…
Tarnas, not unlike Hegel, would seem to have a greater degree of trust in the dialectical plot underlying our human adventure, that no matter how dark our plight may become, “it is always darkest just before the dawn.” Personally, I experience equal doses of hope and anxiety when faced by earth’s future prospects. I deeply appreciate the work of both Tarnas and Latour for providing us (those of us engaged in the “re-enchantment project”) with some essential weapons in our ongoing battle for the soul of the world.
Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.
No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism'” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).
As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.
If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).
“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas
Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):
Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.
And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:
Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.
I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.
I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree.
Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):
The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.
*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).
- Böhme and Schelling’s Cosmogenic Theology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality (footnotes2plato.com)
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing Sam Mickey at the PCC Forum. Sam graduated earlier this year after successfully defending his dissertation entitled: Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology. Along with Sean Kelly, Brian Swimme and Catherine Keller served on his committee. The dissertation weaves together a diverse array of thinkers, including Kelly, Swimme, Keller, Thomas Berry, Ken Wilber, Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari.
Sam has worked with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and currently teaches environmental ethics and other courses at the University of San Francisco in the theology and religious studies department.
Sam spoke to us about hopeful new beginnings, for earth and for humanity. He also talked about endings and transitions. It was clear to most of the people in the room at his talk, and increasingly to the rest of the world, that we are in the midst of an event of the greatest possible historical magnitude unfolding all across the planet. This event is multifaceted: there is, of course, an anthropogenic ecological crisis resulting from climate change and mass extinction; there is also a cultural crisis, a failure of ideas and of consciousness, resulting in tremendous economic and geopolitical instability and injustice, in post-factual campaigning where the monetary speech of corporate persons is replacing civic participation, and resulting in global terrorism, whether that brought about by the remote-controlled drones of nation-states or by religiously-motivated suicide bombers. We live in an increasingly wired world, a world woven by an electronic web of instantaneously interconnected media into an ecology of screens; a world, therefore, held fast along the blurred boundary between image and reality, where cartoon pictures of prophets incite violent uprisings in one land, while in another, satellite photographs of melting glaciers, gigantic hurricanes, and shrinking rainforests barely make the news. As far as earth is concerned, our human presence will be making headlines for millions of years. We’ve already left our mark on the very geology of the planet. Literally, we are on the verge of a ground-breaking shift in the nature of nature and the nature of culture that has already reshaped the face of the planet. Too often, philosophy has made itself irrelevant to social and ecological realities, focusing narrowly on texts, on knowledge, and on politics to the exclusion of contexts, wisdom, and the cosmos. Sam is a philosopher, and a friend, who I know has heard the call of the earth to think in this time of emergency the intimate links between the variety of who’s and what’s that have too often gone unthought by traditional philosophies…. Enjoy!
I stumbled upon this great essay on Schelling and process metaphysics recently published in the journal Cosmos and History by Prof. Arran Gare. He really makes it clear how compatible Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is with Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.
Here is a sample:
Schelling’s work is now more relevant than ever before. The situation we are in was very succinctly summed up by Richard Tarnas: “In the absence of any viable, embracing cultural vision, old assumptions remain blunderingly in force, providing an increasingly unworkable and dangerous blueprint for human thought and activity.” By overcoming the limitation of Kant’s philosophy, Schelling has provided the basis for definitively transcending scientific materialism, in doing so, overcoming the opposition between science and the humanities and enabling people to understand themselves as culturally formed, socially situated, creative participants within nature. Most importantly, Schelling confronted and charted a path to overcome the nihilism into which European civilization was and is descending, a nihilism that is reaching its apogee in the deification of the global market, postmodern fragmentation and the specter of global ecocide. In his later work on myth and revelation Schelling noted that “through the virtually unrestricted expansion of world relations… the Orient and the Occident are not merely coming into contract with one another, but are being compelled … to fuse into one and the same consciousness, into one consciousness that should for this reason alone be expanded into a world-consciousness.” While overcoming the parochialism of the European Weltanschauung, this will also necessitate breaking free from past forms of religion; but what is true in mythology and revelation should be preserved, providing a religious dimension to this world-consciousness. To this end, Schelling argued, it will be necessary to develop a “philosophical religion”, addressing and integrating the freedom of existence, historical phenomena and nature into an expanded Weltanschauung inclusive enough to overcome philosophy’s compulsive tendency to splinter off into mutually exclusive schools of thought. Schelling noted that at the time of his lecture this philosophical religion did not yet exist. Lovelock’s notion of Gaia, transcending the parochialism of particular civilizations, concurring with Schelling’s philosophy of nature and offering a religious dimension to scientific theory, can be seen as a significant contribution to the development of this philosophical religion. By recognizing Schelling’s place in the history of philosophy and in science we can now appreciate the process metaphysicians and the scientists influence by them not merely as isolated thinkers of brilliance, but as part of a powerful tradition of thought working towards the creation of a global civilization. This tradition is continuing Schelling’s struggle against nihilism and his integral view of humans as creative historical agents within nature, in which philosophy, science, the arts and the humanities are playing a crucial role in the self-creation of humanity and of life on Earth. We can now see the lineaments of this new civilization emerging in response to the global ecological crisis as the ecological civilization being called for by Chinese environmentalists, a call now being taken up internationally.
Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-
Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness
Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett
Preface: Take it and eat it.
Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:
Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.
I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.
I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”–“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide,
No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2
As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.
Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness
Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism
as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4
In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10
The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular
are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17
Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.
The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm
Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20
For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22
There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:
…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24
There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.
Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,
Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26
Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:
…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28
Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities
In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:
It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34
In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.
As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though
not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38
This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39
In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that
some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41
The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45
Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization
The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47
Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48
Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:
…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50
Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.
Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for
…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54
This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent
the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58
In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:
…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59
Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62
If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.
As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:
This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64
Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65
Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.
According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it
…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69
Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70
Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:
Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73
But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:
In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75
When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,
with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77
But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires
subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79
As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.
Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey
After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:
A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85
May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.
1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.
2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.
3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].
4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.
5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.
6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).
8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).
9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.
11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.
12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).
13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.
14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.
15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.
16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.
17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.
18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.
19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii.
20 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.
21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.
22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.
23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.
24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.
25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).
26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.
27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.
28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.
29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.
30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.
31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.
32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.
33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.
34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.
35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.
36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.
37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.
38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.
39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.
41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.
42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.
44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.
45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.
46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.
47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.
48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.
50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.
51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.
53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.
55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.
56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.
58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.
59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.
60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.
61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.
62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.
63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.
64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.
65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.
66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.
67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.
68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.
69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.
70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.
71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”
72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.
73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.
76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.
77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.
78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).
79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.
80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all
81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.
82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).
83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.
84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012, http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_quote1.shtml
Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.
Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).
Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.
Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.
Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).
Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).
Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.
Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.
Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.
Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.
Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.
Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.
Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.
Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.
A link to the text of my talk HERE.
The following is a rough draft of a presentation I will be giving next week as part of a panel discussion on the philosopher Richard Tarnas’ Archetypal Cosmology. Tarnas’ essay entitled Two Suitors: A Parable may aid the reader’s comprehension of what I articulate below.
The Copernican Odyssey: From Copernican Illumination through Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun
The 20th Century philosopher, Samuel Alexander (a major influence on Whitehead) articulated what could be said to be the basic metaphysical formula underlying archetypal cosmology: “Time is the Mind of Space.”
Time, for Plato, is a “moving image of eternity,” a living copy of God. Like Alexander, Plato often related Time to the World-Soul, that intermediating matrix that allows invisible eternal forms, or archetypes, smooth passage into the visible motions of the animated physical world. When Plato looked to the heavens he perceived in their hidden harmony the very source and destiny of cosmic history. Time, he intuited, must be created and ordered by the movement of the spheres. Even two thousand years later, planetary motions and qualitative time were still seen to be intimately connected: Copernicus only began his reform of astronomy as a result of being asked by the Church to reform the calendar for liturgical purposes. Without an accurate calendrical sense of the rhythms of time, religious rituals could not tap into and participate in the life cycles of the cosmos and so could not keep humanity synced up with the sky.
By the death of Newton(about 200 years later in 1727), cosmic time was well on its way to being reduced to a uniform mathematical magnitude devoid of all texture and qualitative meaning. Newton himself went to a lot of trouble attempting to calculate the exact date of the crucifixion and of end of days, which suggests that the calendar had already lost its deeper cosmic significance by becoming over-literalized (though to be fair, he did still think it had something to do with lunar cycles). When it came down to it, time, for Newton, was just a constant background rate of change against which the rate of all motion could be measured. Time was t, an algebraic function in a differential equation.
Less than a century later, Kant, who today remains so influential that we might simply refer to him as The Philosopher (as the ancients referred to Aristotle) preserved qualitative time from total annihilation, but only by sequestering in within human subjectivity as a form of inner intuition. Plato’s forms, once living cosmic powers, became for Kant fixed concepts within the human mind with no intrinsic relationship to the dead material objects they supposedly represented. Human consciousness was meaningful, qualitatively rich, and intelligent; but the soulless world upon which it gazed-whether it looked vertically to the sky or horizontally around the earth-was thought purely in terms of mechanism.
The picture painted by Kant is not so clear cut, however; he never suggested that the universe actually is a giant machine. He only argued that the human mind is unequipped to grasp it intellectually in any other way. He speculated, especially in the Critique of Judgment, about the possibilities of some supersensible substratum responsible for the organic formation of the visible world (e.g., the World-Soul), but remained in the end unable to defend such a view with the science and logic available in his day.
By the first few decades of the 20th century, things had changed dramatically: relativity and quantum theories destroyed the Newtonian clock-work universe with even more force than Copernicus’ discovery had shattered the static crystalline spheres of the ancient world.
Physicist Sir James Jeans remarked late in his life that
“Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”
The quantum revolution, in this sense, overturned the mechanistic pretensions of Newtonian science and made possible new forms of empirical, experimental, and experiential participation in the cosmos.
The Western mind has thus come full circle, such that the true spiritual meaning of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory now becomes clear. By astronomically de-centering the earth, Copernicus initiated a mutation in consciousness that simultaneously severed humanity from and sutured it to the solar logos—severed by exiling us from the cyclical-seasonal rhythms of the cosmic womb of geocentrically arrayed constellations; and sutured by lifting the earth into heaven in order to perceive its and the other planet’s motions from the perspective of the Sun. Both the light and the shadow of modernity here come into focus: the excellence of our intelligence was finally able to solve the millennia-old problem of the planets; but as a result of this solution, the Sun no longer could be understood to die into the underworld each night and each winter or to be reborn each morning and each spring. The synchronistic stories within which earth was embedded, especially the death and rebirth of the Sun and Moon, were revealed to be a hoax, an illusion of the senses. Instead, the Sun remained a hero undescended and unrisen; an invincible god unburdened by (e)motion of any kind; a distant, objective observer. This provides a telling analogy for the hubris of the newly empowered solar ego whose great flash of insight had lead it to forget or repress its shadow by pushing the death-rebirth mystery into unconsciousness.
This repression is cosmic in extent, and so requires humanity to enter into a form of personal and collective psychoplanetary therapy, which is just another name for archetypal cosmology. We must rediscover the Soul of Time in the archetypal rhythms of the planetary spheres. Unlike the skeptical Kantian consciousness which we are attempting to transform, ideas must no longer be hidden away in the private recesses of the human mind. The ideas, the forms, the archeptypes and ordering patterns of the visible world, are not projected upon that world by our consciousness, but discovered there in the motion of the heavens, in the growth of plants, in the flight of birds, and the songs of poets. But the planets in particular are the most potent communicative organs of the invisible because all-encompassing World-Soul; they distill the meaning of the Archetype, the Idea, most clearly, since they circle overhead providing a universal background for our particular earthly endeavors. They are the closest image humans have of the Transcendent, the Pleroma, Reality.
In order to correct our characteristically modern hubristic over-emphasis on the Sun (an important but not all-determining influence), the archetypal significance of the outer, transpersonal planets is especially important.
Uranus is in one sense is misnamed, reflecting its role as trickster (i.e., Prometheus), but in another sense is aptly named, since only with its discovery did the human soul breakthrough the threshold of personal death (i.e., Saturn) in order to be initiated into the libratory and immortal wisdom of heaven. The discovery of Uranus, the patron saint of astrology, represents the cutting of the 7 strings of the planetary marionette, and the release of the puppet: from that point forward, the human spirit was free to dance, or not, with the song of the spheres.
Neptune reminds the alienated ego that, despite all its frightened and anxious thrashing, it remains embedded in a nurturing cosmic womb of untold proportions.
And Pluto, the furthest planet from the Sun, is no less powerful for its great distance: it communicates the death-rebirth mystery that the heliocentric re-orientation had temporarily hidden from view, thereby correcting the hubris of the conscious ego by bringing it back into touch with its chthonic source.
Earth, too, must not be forgotten, since she is the planet whose destiny it is to reconcile the others, to integrate their powers into one Self. Consider the strange synchronicity expressed by solar eclipses: the Sun and Moon are the same size, but only from the perspective of Earth. Perhaps this is why Plato elevated geometry above all other sciences, since Earth truly is the measure of all things.
In closing, I will leave you with a short excerpt from one of Kepler’s works on astrology:
“There is a much more noble and miraculous unity of the sky and the earth than the material one. This unity is incapable of doing anything material. It is formal. It moves through forms in this world below, and it does not do so simply through the mute forms, as are found in stone and bone, but rather through the spiritual powers, through soul, through reason — indeed through the grasping of the most subtle things that are present in the whole geometry of things. For earthly creatures are so constituted, that they might thus be capable of channeling the celestial realm.”
Archetypally, astrology is the science of the Night, while astronomy is the science of the Day. Geometry, in the Platonic sense, can unite the two by reminding the sun-worshipping astronomer of the meaning of their embodied earthly perspective. Astrology is concerned more with Wisdom than with Knowledge; it involves participation in what could be called the non-ordinary reality of playful spirit. Knowledge, on the other hand, is concerned with the ordinary time and space of the toiling body, where energy (the cause of motion, and so of time) is defined as the ability to do work. From an astrological perspective, energy is not, or at least not only, work, but, as Blake said, is also “eternal delight.” Energy as eternal delight reflects a cosmic process that is ensouled and archetypally alive.
- The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Plato and Astrology: the Wisdom of the Sky (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Universe as a Work of Art (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Role of Imagination in the Science of the Stars (footnotes2plato.com)
The following is a short essay for a course on archetypal astrology that I took this semester with Richard Tarnas. For those unfamiliar with the general approach, this essay by Tarnas may be of service. Also see this introduction to planetary archetypes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Archetypal Analysis
Tonight I walked under the stars through the snow & stopped & looked at my far sparklers & heard the voice of the wind so slight & pure & deep as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.
-Wide World (Emerson’s personal journal), February 17, 1838
“The truest state of mind, rested in, becomes false,” writes Emerson.
Thought is the manna which cannot be stored. It will be sour if kept, & tomorrow must be gathered anew. Perpetually must we East ourselves.
Emerson was born the afternoon of May 25th, 1803, with a Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn conjunction (by midpoint) rising in the Eastern sky. His Sun is trined by Uranus and Jupiter, and squared by Pluto, with Pluto opposite his Saturn. Emerson took on earthly form destined to breathe new life into the religious traditions of Western civilization at a time when they had grown increasingly prosaic and spiritually stultifying. A Mars-Moon conjunction gave him the strength of soul required to champion individual freedom (Jupiter-Uranus trine Sun) over and against socially imposed dogmas. As one biographer put it,
Stronger than his sense of duty and the long tradition of the Emersons in the Church was his personal rebellion from the dying rituals of Christian worship.
His life’s mission, often expressed in the most sublime turns of phrase, was to free the human soul from the strictures of mass society and from the Church by awakening each individual to the creative power and immortality of their soul.
In the short essay to follow, I’d like to focus an archetypal lens upon the dynamics at play in a few particular events, especially Emerson’s lecture on “The American Scholar” (August 31st, 1837) and his address to the graduating class at Cambridge Divinity School (July 15th, 1838). Before interpreting the transits on these especially significant days, I will first briefly unpack the major planetary aspects in Emerson’s natal chart.
A journal entry from Dec. 21, 1823 clearly reveals how the above-mentioned aspects, especially Saturn opposite Pluto, Sun trine Uranus-Jupiter, and Mars conjunct Moon, are personified in the then twenty-year-old Emerson:
Who is he that shall control me? Why may not I act & speak & write & think with entire freedom? …Is Society my anointed King? Or is there any mightier community or any man or more than man, whose slave I am? I am solitary in the vast society of beings; I consort with no species; I indulge no sympathies. I see the world, human, brute & inanimate nature; I am in the midst of them, but not of them; I hear the song of the storm— the Winds & warring Elements sweep by me— but they mix not with my being. I see cities & nations & witness passions— the roar of their laughter— but I partake it not;— the yell of their grief— it touches no chord in me; their fellowships & fashions, lusts & virtues, the words & deeds they call glory & shame— I disclaim them all. I say to the Universe, Mighty one! thou art not my mother; Return to chaos, if thou wilt, I shall still exist. I live. If I owe my being, it is to a destiny greater than thine. Star by Star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed— but I shall live.
Jupiter may have functioned on this night to inflate Emerson, or perhaps it was on this evening that his daemon took a great leap toward the heights of the over-soul. The relationships between his Sun, Saturn, Pluto, and Uranus produces an archetypal complex that refracts to influence Emerson in a whole spectrum of ways. His lectures and essays always champion the deeper, universal will or vitality at the base of all reality (i.e., Pluto): “The individual is always dying. The Universal is life.” Pluto opposite Saturn is reflected in Emerson’s distaste for “the masses,” and his Uranus trine Sun is reflected in his elevation of the distinctly individual:
Masses! the calamity is the masses… I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.
His desire to divide and separate from the masses may, in moments of emotional exaggeration, even devolve into alienation:
An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.
A Mars-Moon conjunction in Leo sheds archetypal light upon the polar nature of his character: a quiet, solitary, receptive soul though he may have been, Emerson was also a powerful preacher, the emotionally penetrating force of his pronouncements befitting of a prophet. A true soul-warrior, Emerson’s confidence never waned:
The soul always believes in itself…it knows that the total world is my inheritance, & the life of all beings I am to take up into mine.
This conjunction is sextiled by Uranus, which, also trining his Sun, liberates Emerson, spirit and soul, from
…every form of life & doctrine that ever existed…[so that he could] give [himself] alone, original, pure to the Lonely, Original, & Pure.
Emerson’s Mars-Moon conjunction may be his most crucial aspect, since it gives him the strength of soul to respond to the impact of Saturn and Pluto on his Sun (Saturn being pulled in by its midpoint with Jupiter and Uranus). Death was not at all foreign to Emerson, who lost his father at 8 years old, and lived through the death of two brothers, his wife, and his son later in life. Sometimes, the sheer force of his soul was not enough to overcome the darker, destructive influences of Saturn and Pluto:
My external condition may to many seem comfortable, to some enviable but I think that few men ever suffered (in degree not in amount) more genuine misery than I have suffered.
Saturn also seems to have generated self-doubt, something Emerson battled his entire life:
The main difficulty of life is to strike the balance betwixt contending claims. I am embarrassed by doubts in all my purposes, & in all my opinions… For me I fear I lose days in determining how hours should be spent.
As he aged, however, his soul became confident enough to integrate the difficult lessons of Saturn and Pluto:
The love that is in me, the justice, the truth can never die & that is all of me that will not die. All the rest of me is so much death— my ignorance, my vice, my corporeal pleasure. But I am nothing else than a capacity for justice, truth, love, freedom, power. I can inhale, imbibe them forevermore. They shall be so much to me that I am nothing, they all. Then shall God be all in all. Herein is my Immortality.
In late 1832, two years after the death of his wife Ellen and during the height of his Saturn return, Emerson decided to resign his ministry at the Second Church of Boston. He wrote in his journal around this time:
I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship the dead forms of our forefathers.
Upon leaving his post with the Church, Emerson sailed to Europe, where he visitedItaly,France, andEngland. While in theEngland, he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, maintaining a correspondence with the latter for the rest of his life. Upon returning from Europe in 1833, Emerson began to lecture on natural history inBoston. Over the course of the next few years, he lectured widely on topics ranging from English literature to the philosophy of history.
On September 9th, 1836, Emerson published his first book entitled Nature. The stars were truly aligned on this day: Mercury was conjunct his natal Uranus and trined by a Jupiter-Venus conjunction transiting his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, the Sun was conjunct his Saturn, and Neptune trined his natal Sun. The expansiveness and beauty of the poetic vision (Jupiter-Venus) expressed in this text is checked only by the clarity of its ideas (Mercury) and discipline of its moral insight (Saturn). Emerson was careful to balance the spiritual heights of idealism (Neptune) with the practical realities of earthly life (Saturn):
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
As Geldard described Emerson’s first publication, it was “a self-reflective dialogue between the transcendent seer and the pragmatic Yankee.”
On August 31st, 1837, Emerson delivered perhaps his 2nd best-known lecture before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge entitled “The American Scholar.” His goal was to further many of the same themes discussed in Nature, and according to Geldard, the event marked the auspicious beginning of Emerson’s life as a public figure. Oliver Wendell Holmes, present at the lecture that day, remarked that it wasAmerica’s “intellectual declaration of independence,” which is born out by the Sun-Uranus opposition in the sky at the time of the speech. Emerson spoke of several influences on the scholar’s mind, the first of which being nature:
…nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part…Its laws are the laws of his own mind…And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one maxim.
The Sun-Uranus opposition (with both the Moon and Jupiter within orb of the Sun) is almost exactly aligned with Emerson’s natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, highlighting the archetypes at play in the above excerpt. The soul (Moon) is in generative tension with nature (Pluto), though the laws (Saturn) of each form a higher unity (Jupiter) as our true self (Sun).
Emerson goes on to mention the need for scholars to have confidence and self-trust, which is archetypally related to the near conjunction of the Sun with Jupiter and the Moon, also representing an expanded sense of self and a transparency to the unconscious psyche. The call to self-trust and independent scholarship is Emerson’s attempt to counter the mass-mindedness and herd mentality that he felt had overtaken American society; Uranus transiting his Pluto brought to greater awareness his need to liberate the masses from their disjointed existence:
The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.
Neptune was opposite Emerson’s Moon, which may help account for his repeated insistence throughout the lecture on the ultimate unity of each human soul with the World Soul:
It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.
A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
In 1838, Emerson was invited to give an address to the graduating class atCambridgeDivinitySchool. Up to this point, Emerson had not publically attacked theUnitarianChurch, but his private journals were full of criticism:
They [Unitarians] think that God causes a miracle to make men…They do not & will not perceive that it is to distrust the deity of truth—its invincible beauty—to do God a high dishonor—so to depict him.
On July 15th, 1838, with the Sun and Mercury conjunct in his midheaven, trining his Neptune, Emerson gave the address that perhaps defined the rest of his life as a spiritual figure. Although it took 12 years to sell the first five hundred copies of Emerson’s first book, Nature, the first three hundred copies of this address sold out immediately.
In his address, Emerson sought to redirect attention away from the personality of Jesus, whom the Church had elevated to superhuman status, and instead direct it to the infinite spirit hiding within everyone. With Neptune opposite his natal Mars-Moon conjunction, Emerson went to war against the stodgy clergy ofBostonon behalf of the spiritual power of the soul:
Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.
A Jupiter-Uranus opposition is lined up with his natal Saturn-Pluto opposition, with the Moon trining Jupiter and Saturn, freeing Emerson to destroy the customs of his time and place in order to replace them with the higher laws of the soul:
I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shinning laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.
Transiting Saturn was conjunct his natalNeptune, trining Uranus, and opposite the Moon, allowing him to see through illusions and fully incarnate the spiritual reality that he felt Jesus truly came to teach:
To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made, by the reception of beautiful sentiments…they have not yet drunk so deeply of his sense, as to see that only by coming again to themselves, or to God in themselves, can they grow forevermore.
Mars and Venus were conjunct his Mercury (which squares his Jupiter), giving a beautifully elevated, but sharp tone to his words. In the coming weeks and months, with the authority of the Church challenged, the clergy began to attack Emerson’s character. This seems not to have fazed him, as he did not respond to them formally and continued to rise in popularity as his lecture circuit picked up steam.
On April 19th, 1882, Emerson went for a walk in the rain and caught pneumonia. On April 27th, with Neptune and Saturn conjunct in the sky opposite his natalNeptune, Emerson left his body.
(1) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. Volume 15 of Library ofAmerica. The American studies collection. 1983.
(2) Geldard, Richard G. God in Concord. Larson Publications, NY. 1999.
(3) Tarnas, Rick. Cosmos and Psyche. Viking Adult; First Edition. 2006.
(4) Emerson’s complete works @ Univ.of Michigan. Accessed 12/5/11. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/
(5) All journal entries from The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume 1.HarvardUniversity Press. 1960
 Journal, May 13th, 1835
 God in Concord, p. 68
 An interested reader might also want to look at the transits on this night, with Jupiter in a grand cross with Mars, Pluto, and a Mercury-Neptune-Uranus conjunction, with the latter squaring Emerson’s Uranus-Jupiter-Saturn mindpoint.
 God in Concord, p. 88
 The Conduct of Life, VIII
 Experience, from Essays and Lectures, p. 473
 God in Concord, p. 115
 Journal, March 16, 1826
 Journal, Jan. 16, 1828
 Journal, October 24th, 1836
 Nature, from Essays and Lectures, p. 47
 God in Concord, p. 90
 ibid., p. 108
 Essays and Lectures, p. 56
 ibid., p. 54
 ibid., p. 67
 ibid., p. 71
 April 23rd, 1838
 God in Concord, p. 17
 Essays and Lectures, p. 83.
 ibid., p. 92
 ibid., p. 82
Setting the Stage
There were no eyes to see it happen, and even if there were, there was not yet any light for them to see, nor even any space in which to look. The universe was born out of an infinitely creative quantum womb poised somewhere (or is it nowhere?) between being and non-being. In an instant, since there was “not yet” any time for it to hesitate about its future, with a flash of warmth and light the cosmic embryo began to grow…
Though there is undoubtedly an organic integrity to space-time, perhaps “grow” is here a bit of an understatement. The universe began with a BANG! From 10-33 cm3 —the smallest volume physicists can measure—the universe inflated to the size of a human being within 10-32 seconds. To put this in perspective, it has taken another 13 billion years for the universe to grow by the same order of magnitude that it did in this initial fraction of a fraction of a second. Our cosmic seed seems to have been in quite a rush to get its evolutionary adventure underway, as if it already had some glorious end in mind.
That said, chance and accident have also undoubtedly left their mark on the history of our universe. It only takes a glance upward at the night sky to reveal the seemingly happenstance location of the formation of stars in space. To the untrained eye, we seem to be adrift in randomness. But we must look deeper: there is a certain “fine tuning” at work beneath the surface that continues to baffle the scientists who study it. The rate of the universe’s inflation had to be exactly right for stars to form, and under the pressure of gravity within these enormous sidereal masses, as Teilhard de Chardin describes it, unfolded a “harmonic series of simple bodies, spread over the notes of the atomic scale from hydrogen to uranium.” The elemental music emanating from the core of these spheres made possible the formation of planets, and upon at least one, the emergence of life. The beauty and coherence of this process is evidence enough that our universe longs to express itself, and that some mysterious ordering principle is at work pulling it toward greater complexity and deeper feeling. As Brian Swimme puts it, quite simply, “The universe is about something.”
Still, if there be any doubt about the meaning of the music of the spheres, we need only consider the ears for whom they now sing and the eyes whom, awestruck, now absorb and reflect upon their light. With the emergence of mind out of life and matter, the narrative arc of the universe becomes unmistakable. There is a story being told. It is no metaphor: the universe is struggling to be born again within human consciousness by learning all that it has done and loving all that remains yet to do.
Knowledge and love: these are the protagonists of our story. Each, the knowledge pursued by science and the love fostered by religion, have been essential in guiding the course of human history. It would be naïve and irresponsible, however, to fail to mention how often these same guides have been our fiercest adversaries. With every increase in knowledge comes an increase in power. Often, the latter overreaches the former, leading to the invention of technologies whose detrimental effects are only understood in retrospect. Similarly, the unifying impulse of love can be so strong that it blinds us to the evils committed in its name. It seems that what our species lacks is not knowledge or love, but knowledge of love. We don’t yet understand, and so have been unable to take responsibility for the full extent of our mission on earth.
In the essay to follow, I will delve into my own heart-mind in search of clues concerning the way forward. As Teilhard reminds us, it is upon increased personalization, “the internal deepening of consciousness on itself,” that the emergence of a planetary Weltanschauung “in which each of us cooperates and participates” depends. To help me imagine the future, I will also need to recollect and unpack the Western tradition that informs my metaphysics and cosmology. But before reaching into the past or the future, let us come to grips with the present.
Facing the Challenge
For all of us alive today—the nearly 7 billion human beings currently populating the earth—the problems are obvious, but the way forward remains obscure. We are faced with an unprecedented evolutionary challenge. Never before has the universe been in a position to consciously choose the next chapter in its story. Nor have human beings ever been so anxious and uncertain about their collective future. Few remain who are not at least aware of the magnitude of the crisis. For most, it is a fact of daily life.
The WHO estimates that 2/3 of the world’s human population is malnourished or starving. In the time it takes to read this sentence, someone, probably on the Indian subcontinent, will have died of starvation.
The world wars of the 20th century, estimated to have killed nearly 100 million people, were apparently not enough to convert us to pacifism. Armed conflicts each killing more than a thousand people a year continue to embroil our species in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, and Sudan. Smaller conflicts over beliefs and resources wage in twenty-nine countries across the world.
Issues of poverty and wealth distribution, racism, sexism, and religious intolerance don’t even begin to round out the human extent of our planetary crisis. Sea level rise due to climate change threatens to redraw continental shores, creating tens of millions of refugees in the coming century. As if this were not bad enough, production of the very fossil fuels responsible for climate change has peaked, bringing the industrial economy we remain so dependent upon to the brink of collapse. But this crisis has more than a human face. Not a single ecosystem on earth has been unaffected by our human presence.
In total, 17,291 known species are currently threatened with extinction. This number includes 20% of mammals, 25% of reptiles, 40% of fish, and 70% of plants. Scientists estimate that the background rate of extinction is approximately one per million species per year. At present, this rate has increased by a factor somewhere between 100 and 1,000. Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson claimed in an interview with the BBC in 2009 that the rate could soar to upwards of 10,000 times the average rate by 2030.
I could go on listing the social and ecological issues that our planet is confronting, but the only way to understand this crisis, so far as I can tell, is to interpret each separate issue as the symptom of a deeper sickness of soul. Humanity is experiencing the pains associated with every birthing process; but unlike the universe in its embryonic form, which had no time to hesitate, self-reflective human beings can become stuck. We can refuse to participate in this crucial evolutionary moment, whether due to fear or pessimism or ignorance. It is as though our greatest gift, self-conscious freedom, is simultaneously our tragic flaw. It gives us the ability to step back from the immediacy of sensory and emotive experiences as if to understand them from outside—in short, it allows us to doubt; but in doubting our experience of the world, we become alienated from it. The true cause of our crisis is this alienated consciousness.
Despite scientifically awakening to the full spatio-temporal extent of the universe, we seem to have forgotten that we are that very same universe. We are not outside it, not other than it. Or, perhaps it is not despite this awakening to the immensity of space and time, but because of it that we feel so alienated from nature.
Concerning the relatively recent discovery of the true dimensions of the cosmos, Teilhard writes,
“Leaving some dark prison, we are blinded by light; emerging abruptly onto a high tower, we are overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. We experience the dizziness, the disorientation—the whole psychology of modern uneasiness related to its abrupt confrontation with space-time.”
Teilhard acknowledges the difficulty of coming to terms with this spatio-temporal awakening, but suggests our initiation into the universe’s true dimensionality remains dangerously incomplete if we do not also acknowledge its evolutionary trajectory. Modern scientific knowledge has re-situated the human in relation to the rest of the universe, which is a far vaster and more difficult to imagine place than it was prior to Copernicus. But evolution is the thread that ties it all together, placing the human being, if no longer at the center of a static cosmos, at least at the creative edge of cosmogenesis.
So what is required of us now that we have woken up to this grand evolutionary process? I believe we must come to recognize that individual self-consciousness and the arbitrary freedom of choice that it wields is not an end, but merely a brief developmental moment in the ongoing noogenic process that is already transforming us in order to bring forth a new human for a new earth. Each of us is being called to become something more, a new kind of person at home with and in love with others and with the rest of the community of life on earth. We are searching for a new collective identity, but to find our true humanity, we must overcome the narrow-minded individualism so characteristic of our Western civilization.
Before attempting to investigate, and if I’m lucky instigate the movement of consciousness beyond the isolated ego, I will take a brief detour to explore the role the West has played in world history. I will also unpack the ideas of a few major thinkers, especially as they are relevant to the evolution of modern Western consciousness.
Remembering the Past
The West, for better or worse, has according to Teilhard, “lead all peoples, from one end of the world to the other…to put the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very terms in which [it] has succeeded in formulating them.” Similarly, Sean Kelly credits the West with having played a “catalytic role” in the emergence of our still developing planetary era. The European colonial conquests during the course of the past 500 years, violent as they were, have resulted in the economic and biocultural co-evolution of every race on earth. All people are now inextricably netted together in a “complex human fabric [that is weaving] itself around the planet.”
This is not the place to speculate about what could have been had the West not been so bent on world dominance. Post-colonial critiques continue to expose the latent Eurocentrism of our modern geopolitical scene, compelling us to overcome ongoing injustices, but it is hard to deny the impact the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse has had on our now planetary civilization. If we take a Hegelian view of history, it may be easier to understand how the evils of war and conquest have worked to bring forth higher forms of goodness than would otherwise have been possible. The “cunning of reason,” as Hegel famously refers to it, assures that Spirit’s universal goals are met despite the seeming chaos and contingency of particular world-historical personalities and events. Hegel’s philosophy of history allows us to see how conflict is necessary for more ideal possibilities to manifest themselves on earth. Evolution could not occur, after all, unless strife and opposition were met along the way.
“War,” according to Heraclitus, “is the father of all things.” But as Alexander the Great exclaimed on his deathbed, perhaps prematurely at the time, but no longer so today, “There are no more worlds to conquer!” There is now only one world. The evils of war have exhausted their dialectical magic, binding humanity inextricably into a single biocultural and economic whole. More war can now lead only to collective ruin.
A year before his death in 323 BCE, in an oath given before thousands of his Macedonian and Persian subjects not far from modern day Baghdad, Alexander is alleged to have said the following:
“Now that the wars are coming to an end, I wish you to prosper in peace. May all mortals from now on live like one people in concord and for mutual advancement. Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe…On my part I should consider all equals, white or black, and wish you all to be not only subjects of the Commonwealth, but participants and partners. As much as this depends on me, I should try to bring about what I promised. The oath we made over tonight’s libations hold onto as a Contract of Love”.
It seems that love works in mysterious ways to bring about the unity it seeks. It is as if during the course of the historical period, this hidden spiritual force has been driving individual human beings to sacrifice themselves for a future they could only dimly imagine. Alexander’s call for peace and participatory planetary governance still awaits realization, but it becomes more apparent every day that history’s hidden goal is precisely such a “Contract of Love.” But I am getting ahead of myself…before imagining this still nascent future, we must understand the core religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas that have shaped the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse mentioned above.
In discussing the Biblical stories to follow, I aim only to draw out their archetypal meaning, leaving the question of their physical reality aside. As Carl Jung reminds us, “‘Physical’ is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way.”
Though the exact date remains unknown, sometime around the 13th century BCE a prophet by the name of Moses lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and settling temporarily at Mount Sinai. It is here that Yahweh revealed the Ten Commandments, which to this day represent the essence of moral law for many in the West. But there is an earlier revelation I want to draw attention to, that which first inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery and toward the Promised Land.
While Moses was still a shepherd tending his flock near Mount Sinai, according to biblical legend, he came upon the angel of the Lord in a burning bush that somehow was not consumed by the flames. The voice of the Lord called to him, “Moses, Moses. Here am I!” Covering his face, “as he was afraid to look upon God,” Moses then received his divine mission to lead the Jews out of Egypt. He asked the Lord his name, to which the response was: “I am that I am.” This cryptic statement is significant because Moses, at one time a member of the Egyptian royal family, was an initiate into the Egyptian mystery schools, whose secrets can be summed up with the phrase “know thyself.” This call to attain self-knowledge would later inspire Socrates and Plato, and indeed every genuine lover of wisdom since. Moses’ encounter with the “I am” represents the beginnings of a mutation in human consciousness from tribal to individual identity, but as I will explore below, it seems this mutation will remain incomplete until the esoteric meaning of Christ’s incarnation is understood. Moses was still too afraid to look upon the face of the Lord, which with the benefit of 3,000 years of consciousness evolution, we can safely say was his own. Nonetheless, his powerful experience allowed the Hebrews to come, according to Rick Tarnas, “to experience themselves as the Chosen People.” The revelation of the “I am” lead this particular community “to believe that they existed in a unique and direct relationship to the one creator of the world and director of history.” This was an extremely novel perspective in comparison to the polytheistic religions of other tribes at the time.
The Hebrew notion of human history being fulfilled in a future era of universal peace and justice brought about by the coming of a messianic figure is described by Tarnas as the “divination of history.” It set the stage for Jesus, who many centuries later fulfilled the prophecy of Moses by announcing that he was Christ, the Son of God. Throughout the Gospel of John, Christ refers to himself as the “I am” revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. But this time, it was not a chosen few who would have this mystery revealed to them, but the entirety of humanity. Much of the Western world’s subsequent history can be understood as the playing out of the “great code” embedded in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Birth represents the original Garden of Eden, where all was idyllic and humans and nature remained undifferentiated. Death (and the torture that proceded it) represents the Fall, wherein the knowledge of good and evil fractures humanity’s original participation in the earthly paradise, making us aware of our nakedness and giving rise to the sense of homelessness and alienation that the consciousness of our age has come to know so well. The Resurrection represents the promised redemption of the world through the restoration of all that was lost as a result of the Fall, though with the added benefit of a consciousness not present with the original innocence. Not only would humanity return to paradise, it would know it was in paradise.
The Western imagination, whether consciously or not, seems to be playing out this code upon the stage of world history. Hegel’s entire philosophy of history is modeled after the great Trinitarian code of Christianity. Indeed, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the very concept of history, implying as it does the narrative structure of beginning, middle, and climactic end, is a Judeo-Christian invention. Prior to this innovation, most cultures conceived of time as cyclical. The West is unique in its conception of time as providential.
Between the time of Christ and the birth of the modern era around 1500 CE, much of great significance occurred, including the fall of Rome and the rise of the Catholic Church. But for lack of space, I will focus for the remainder of this section on three modern thinkers whose ideas continue in subtle ways to shape our worldview: Copernicus, Descartes, and Kant.
The timely motions of the planets were a sign to ancient peoples that the universe was a divinely ordered whole and a likeness of eternity, but by the time of Copernicus, the geocentric Ptolemaic model used to predict their orbits was growing more and more cumbersome. Epicycle upon epicycle was required to “save the appearance” of the motion of the planets and the sun around the earth. Copernicus was asked by the papacy to clean up the mathematical mess so that more accurate calendars could be made. While researching possible solutions, Copernicus came upon ancient Greek manuscripts discussing the undeveloped hypothesis of a heliocentric solar system. Working out the mathematical details, he came to realize that “the appearance of the moving sun and stars [was] deceptively created by the earth’s own movements.” The long reigning medieval cosmology, classically depicting the universe as a series of perfect heavenly spheres encompassing the stationary earth, began to fall apart.
“The Copernican shift of perspective,” writes Tarnas,
“can be seen as a fundamental metaphor for the entire modern world view: the profound deconstruction of the naïve understanding, the critical recognition that the apparent condition of the objective world was unconsciously determined by the condition of the subject, the consequent liberation from the ancient and medieval cosmic womb, the radical displacement of the human being to a relative and peripheral position in a vast and impersonal universe, the ensuing disenchantment of the natural world.”
This radically disorienting cosmology prefigured and perhaps required the ontological and epistemological developments that Descartes and Kant would later articulate. Descartes recognized, as Plato had millennia earlier, that sensory appearances were often deceptive. He needed a new method of arriving at certain knowledge that would allow the burgeoning sciences to continue to unveil the secrets of nature. He began by going into his own mind, doubting the very existence of the external world, including the existence of other people. He was left with only his own thinking activity, and realized that in this, in the very the act of doubting itself, he had found something which could not be called into question. The entire world may be an illusion, but in thinking of this possibility, I undoubtedly am. Or, as Descartes famously formulated it, “I think, therefore I am.” The discovery of the cogito lead Descartes to develop an ontology of two substances: a thinking substance, or soul, which is autonomous and has access to clear and distinct ideas; and an extended substance, or matter, which is mechanically determined according to mathematical laws. Human consciousness was thus alienated from the natural world, and even from the physical body housing it.
Kant remained a thoroughly Cartesian philosopher, but his motivations were a bit different. Inspired by the success of Newton’s mechanistic picture of nature, Kant was nonetheless uneasy about the steady march of scientific understanding. If all material motion could be understood to behave according to deterministic mathematical laws, what kept these laws from applying to embodied human beings, as well? Kant saw very clearly that the freedom of the human soul could no longer be taken for granted.
In his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant convincingly argued that the mechanisms science thought it was discovering in the natural world were in fact a necessary result of the inherent structure of the human mind itself. Our relation to space and time, for example, is not a result of our empirical encounter with them in a pre-existing world. A quick phenomenological look at our experience reveals that we do not see space, only colored surfaces; nor do we see time, only movement. The mind, Kant realized, does not passively receive an already ordered world. Rather, forms of intuition like space and time, and categories of understanding like causality and substance, must be presupposed as necessary conditions for any human experience of the world to be possible. We know reality, in other words, only as it appears to us after being filtered through the mind’s pre-existing categories.
Kant referred to his epistemological re-orientation as a second Copernican revolution, as objects were now understood to revolve, so to speak, around the subject, their appearance always already shaped by the latter’s cognitive lenses. By limiting science to knowledge of appearances, Kant was able to protect traditional religious ideals like freedom, God, and immortality from being dispelled; though these could not be known with any certainty, either. He famously wrote in the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason that he found it “necessary to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” But in so doing, he also further alienated human consciousness from nature, which became an unreachable “thing-in-itself.” As Tarnas describes it, Kant’s revolution was fundamentally ambiguous: “Man was again at the center of the universe, but this was now only his universe, not the universe.”
Kant’s uneasy dualism between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds inspired a generation of philosophers in Germany, most notable among them Schelling and Hegel, to strive to find a way to re-unite the human mind with nature and the divine. As Kelly writes, “for the Idealists, instead of the machine [as in Newton’s science], the organism and life become the root metaphors for the cosmos as a whole.” Kelly also points out that, in these thinkers, much emphasis was placed on the idea of development and evolution. For them, “the overall drive of the cosmos is toward the production of increasing complexity of organization as the vehicle for the eventual emergence of self-reflexive consciousness.” It is these more organic and evolutionary cosmological perspectives that may provide a way forward, as they reawaken us to our embeddedness in an ensouled and purposeful universe. Let us now turn our eyes to the future to see what that purpose might be.
Envisioning the Future
All this emphasis on purpose in general—in the universe and in history—cannot be separated from my personal consciousness. I must admit that I am unable to imagine a universe so absurd as to have no reason for being, just as I am unable to live my own life in the absence of spiritual ideals. I have tried to doubt the teleological picture of the universe, but there really are no viable alternatives that are coherent with and adequate to my actual experience.
The universe is about something. The warmth and light with which it began its story manifest themselves as the love and wisdom at work through human history. The culmination of history, its end, can only be brought about when every human soul has come to know love. Then the world will be transformed from the inside out. Or perhaps it has already been transformed…perhaps, as Teilhard writes, “Omega already exists and is at work right here and now.” In the face of all the earth’s current ills, I am unable to lose hope in the underlying logic of the historical process.
I must interrupt the linear flow of this essay to offer a stream of consciousness prose-poem written late one evening around Easter of 2010 as an attempt, not only to envision the future, but also to fully embrace the divinity of the present. There is a logic to the historical process, I do not doubt; but this logic is dressed in mythopoeic parable, seeming at first to be obscure. To understand the meaning of history, we must participate in the realization of its end. This requires a certain turning about of the mind—a metanoia. Poetic language is one way to instigate such a mental turning.
On this night, like any other, the gospel reveals its light, shouts the good news and becomes an open secret. It is simple in its complexity: We are Each and All the Many eyes of One God, and in dying, we live this Truth Eternally. The Gospel is now open, because Man, through history, has been brought to his utmost extremity, crucified and flayed bare beyond all conception.
History has ended.
The world and all of its hells are already over. Only heaven remains. This secret will be forever retold. The Gospel here and everywhere is the very mouth of God, the breathing presence of divinity that I know only through my communion with you.
Man’s inner most recesses have been exposed, his most ungodly horrors and humiliations have been spread before the witnesses of his trial, their eager eyes like entirely amoral eagles whose only wish was to feast on the delight of spirits adrift in the wind of their own wondrous and self-indulgent melodies.
How quickly the world gets lost without wisdom, how empty even the music of the spheres can seem to sound unless in each of the seven is discovered the common harmony, the most secret and the most well-known, the always and undying source of the ever renewing breath of eternity.
Only here, at the utmost edges of human life, does the infinite gain entrance and can the holy truly poor into the life of mortal souls.
What appears in me is merely the other end of you, the love who through evil became my own enemy. Evil is the inverse of love, the dismemberment of the One. But in being destroyed, the One can only be forever renewed.
The good news is now known by everyone. We can only love one another, because we are not other than one another.
Spirit is the undulating mystery that brews between our patient and modest human breaths, overflowing in the words we speak to share our souls.
What secrets can I keep from you, who know me as clearly as I see myself? There is nowhere to hide from the light of God. It reveals everything, it reveals all to everyone at once. And yet, there is something in the light that remains concealed. The true source of wisdom, the holiest of holies, is hidden within nature’s most laborious of labyrinths, to this day remaining a mystery even unto itself.
Know thyself, which means also, love thy enemy. In each of us is the All. The One is none other than you and I.
Knowledge truly is of good and evil, and unless in love we are able to remember the good expressed in our mortal nature, we die without having recognized the divinity of our every living, moving moment. There is no eternity but what is here and now… and in this unending surprise the world is created forever anew out of its own ashes. The good news is now an open secret.
It seems paradoxical to say that the “good news” that reveals the meaning of human history is an “open secret.” If it were open, why would it remain also a secret? Grasping this paradox, I believe, is crucial for humanity’s future on earth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported to have offered a series of cryptic parables to a great multitude that crowded around him on the beach. At one point, his disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus answered that the multitude had not yet been granted knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. “Therefore,” he said, “I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
More paradoxes: seeing that sees not, hearing that hears not. What could this possibly mean? To grasp the subtle meaning of what has been said above, it must be placed in the context of the evolution of consciousness.
“Has history any real significance,” asks Owen Barfield, “unless, in the course of it, the relation between creature and Creator is being changed?” The evolution of consciousness, for Barfield, is a continuous movement from immediate, or original participation in the meaningful rhythms of the natural world towards an increasingly alienated “null point,” wherein “a contraction of human consciousness from periphery to center” reduces all the wisdom of the cosmos to an isolated ego housed somewhere within the sinews of the human brain. The human brain is the organic labyrinth nature has labored for eons to produce, the tabernacle meant to house something so much more holy than the “null point” now lost within it. But this is not the end of the movement, according to Barfield. It is, however, where nature’s labors, at least in the human, are at their end. From this point forward, it becomes our own responsibility to evolve into what Barfield calls final participation. While for original participation, the heart was enlivened from a source outside itself, namely, the still spiritually imbued natural world, final participation requires that the heart burn from within, irradiated by the light and warmth of Christ, the “I am” incarnate within each and every human being.
In an apocryphal text written sometime in the 2nd century, Jesus is reported to have said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you. Only he who knows himself can find it.” The paradox of an “open secret” may now be understood. The evolution of consciousness has transformed human beings from unconscious participants in the course of natural events into conscious creators of history. The divine is no longer to be found outside ourselves. Divinity is hidden in the only place our eyes could not see, nor our ears hear. Having thus realized our own divinity, we must ask ourselves “whether we ought to shrink from the notion that we are to share the responsibility of maintaining an earth which it has already, it seems, been given into our hands to destroy.”
The future of the earth and humanity depends upon our gaining the inner strength and imagination required to re-invent ourselves. The new story of the universe as a living, self-organizing system has made Copernicus all but obsolete, and the “null point” reached in the philosophies of Descartes and Kant continues to be challenged by a flurry of embodied ontologies and participatory epistemologies emerging to meet the needs of our time. Whether we like it or not, as Coleridge writes, “in our life alone does Nature live.” Our presence has already forever changed the face of the planet, but I have more faith than all the world can contain that we will be born again and come to live in peace on earth. What else could human history be than the toilsome work of preparation required for our cosmic seed to finally flower and bear its fruit?
- Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances.
- Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin.
- Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon.
- Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason.
- Kelly, Sean. Coming Home.
- Primack and Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe.
- Tarnas, Rick. Passion of the Western Mind.
- The Hegel Reader. Ed. by Stephen Houlgate.
 All measurements above taken from The View from the Center of the Universe by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams.
 The Human Phenomenon by Teilhard de Chardin, p. 14
 ibid., p. xvi
 ibid., p. 184-185
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/11/peak-oil-production-supply ; Even the US Military now admits to the severity of the problem, estimating that, by 2012, surplus oil production could entirely disappear.
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 158
 The Copernican revolution will be discussed in more detail below.
 Overcoming individualism doesn’t mean jettisoning values like universal human rights and equality. On the contrary, it means coming to experience our responsibility to other earthlings as strongly as we demand our own rights.
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 147
 Coming Home, p. xi
 ibid., vii
 The Hegel Reader, p. 413
 Jean Gebser suggests that this, like most of Heraclitus’ aphorisms, is an incomplete fragment whose polar correspondence has not survived the ages. He suggests Heraclitus must also have written that “Peace is the mother of all things.” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 151)
 Recounted in fragments written by Ptolemy and Plutarch based on Alexander’s diary.
 Answer to Job, p. xi
 All quotes from chapter 3 of Exodus.
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 94
 Coming Home, p. 35
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 249
 Ibid., p. 250
 Ibid., p. 416
 Descartes also wrote of God as the one true substance, but this is not the part of his ontology that has had great influence on the modern psyche.
 Critique of Pure Reason, p. 29
 The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 349
 Coming Home, p. 61
 This was almost 50 years before Darwin would later formulate his disenchanted mechanistic theory of evolution by natural selection, which, unfortunately, still commands the attention of the popular imagination.
 Coming Home, p. 63
 The Human Phenomenon, p. 209
 Saving the Appearances, p. 160
 ibid., p. 182
 Gospel of the Hebrews, ch. 38
 Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield, p. 160
 Ode to Dejection