The Feat of Human Flight

Prometheus stole fire from the Gods,

and now Icarus

is closing in on the Sun.

Daedalus reverse engineered

the technology of angels

and made man into bird.

Will our wax wings melt

in the light of space,

or has the fire of spirit

burst free of heavier elements?

With each invention,

are we more upright,

or only further fallen?

The Sun or the Fall of Icarus, 1819 (dated and...
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The Ideal Realism of Schelling and Emerson

I have come across a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1871 lectures at Harvard. They were his last lectures, a sort of summation and final testament of his life’s work. He titled these lectures “Natural History of the Intellect.” I wanted to draw attention to one lecture in particular, that on Imagination given on February 28, 1871, because it reminds me a lot of Schelling (whom Emerson read).

Emerson writes:

“The Soul of the World is the right phrase: soul and world: it holds the two yet is one in the duplex energy. It pours itself through the universe and is finding ever expression in creating and compelling men to utter in their articulate fashion of speech and arts its million particulars of the one fact of Being. Each creature in the countless creatures, –hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, animal fibre, rock, plant, animal, mite, insect, fish, mammal, or man,–is one more or less adequate fruit or representation of it; each is the emphasis of some one quality,–emphasis of one, but not contradiction of any other quality. Each says somewhat that must be told and only becomes false when it exaggerates that, and so resists the rest. In the moment when it pipes too loud on its own key, a new creature confutes the folly by irresistible exhibition of a new part of nature,–the offset and balance to the last. I know not any problem on which I should more willingly see the Academy appoint a learned Committee to search and report than the origin and history of the Chaldaic oracles.”

Emerson then quotes several stanzas from a Chaldean verse:

“The Intelligible is the aliment of the intelligent. Learn the intelligible since it exists beyond the mind. For the Framer of the world is the mind of the mind.

Principles, which have understood the intelligible works of the Father, disclosed them in sensuous works as bodies, being thus ferrymen betwixt the Father and matter, and producing manifest images of unmanifest things, and inscribing unmanifest things in the manifest frame of the world.

There is something intelligible which it behooves thee to understand with the flower of the mind; not with vehemence of intellection, not fixedly, but having a pure turning eye; if thou inclinest thy mind, thou shalt apprehend this also.”

Some of the same theological themes that I unpacked in this essay on Böhme and Schelling are echoed here by Emerson and the oracles. They share a common sense that reality can be given imaginative representation in the relation of Father (unmanifest), World-Soul (or Spirit), and matter (or Son). I am becoming further convinced that Schelling’s speculative emphasis on principles, or powers, rather than things or objects, is the most fruitful path beyond Kant’s correlation. Not that a power is not a thing; but things have untouchable molten cores precisely because their essence is the power of an invisible principle. A thing is a principle of self-balancing motion, and it withdraws from its relations to remain what it is only to the extent that it continues to animate itself through the power of an idea all its own.

Emerson and Schelling are perhaps the 19th century’s most illumined Christian neo-Platonists. To bring such a spirit of thinking through the 20th and into the 21st century, I think their ideas need to be brought into deeper conversation with politics and ecology, the two aspects of any functional cosmology (as Thomas Berry would say).