A lecture from last week’s class Brief History of Western Thought on Romanticism and the crisis of modern science as it played out in the organic nature philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.
Below is another section of my dissertation proposal. More to come…
John Sallis begins his Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (2000) by regretting the Husserlian phenomenological tradition’s tendency to subordinate imagination to pure perception in an effort to “[protect] the bodily presence of the perceived from imaginal contamination.”208 Sallis argues that the force of imagination cannot be reduced without remainder to the “image-consciousness” studied by phenomenology, since it is primarily deployed at the generative roots of conscious experience where the intentional ego finds itself ecstatically undone by the powers of the World-Soul and the sublime depths of the elemental cosmos. For Sallis, there is “a more anterior operation of imagination” than mere fancy or superficial imagining, an operation beyond the horizontal limits of consciousness and so “constitutive even for perception”: “If such a deployment of the force of imagination should prove already in effect in the very event in which things come to show themselves,” writes Sallis, “then perhaps one could begin to understand how, at another level, imagination could issue in a disclosure pertinent to things themselves.”209
The phenomenological tradition’s theoretical image of imagination as “no more than the self-entertainment of conjuring up images of the purely possible” is derived, according to Sallis, from the modern age’s largely instrumentalist commonsense, whereby important decisions concerning the future are made “based merely on calculation and prediction” without concern for their aesthetic or ethical implications.210 Imagination, reduced to its merely recreative function, is deemed to work only with one’s personal memories and fantasies without any deeper participation in the sub-sensory history or super-sensory destiny of the evolving universe. For today’s materialistic commonsense, “the very relation of imagination to time comes to border on the inconceivable.”211 Sallis’ sense for the constitutive role of imagination in synthesizing the experience of past and future in a living present allies him with the process tradition. In his Ages of the World project, for example, Schelling attempted to narrate the past, discern the present, and intimate the future ages of the World-Soul by coming to experience a recapitulation of these ages within his own soul.212 Jason Wirth, Schelling’s translator, suggests that the unfolding of such an experience within the soul might allow thinking to become “the same…as the autopoietic movement of time,”213 thereby re-establishing the profound connection between mind and nature known to all pre-modern peoples, though now in a modern, evolutionary context. “Created out of the source of things and the same as it,” writes Schelling, “the human soul is conscientious [Mitwissenschaft] of creation.”214
For Whitehead, every actual occasion, whether atomic, anthropic, or galactic in scale, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”215 The exercise of imagination via the ingression of eternal objects orients a concrescing actual occasion of experience to the real possibilities available to it in the future. Whitehead’s process ontology provides a coherent account of the interplay of both final causality (lure of the future) and efficient causality (pressure of the past) in nature, thereby making the relation of human imagination to evolutionary time conceivable once again.
After critically situating his inquiry into imagination in relation to the phenomenological tradition, Sallis cautiously lauds the legacy of Romanticism. “Cautiously” because he notes the tendency of contemporary culture to waver indecisively between dismissiveness and empty valorization of the “almost unprecedented inceptiveness and intensity” of Romantic thought and poetry.216 It is as if the accomplishments of this era, though almost universally appreciated, are too beautiful to be true, and so the Romantic vision of the world persists today only as a fantastic dream. Sallis calls upon his contemporaries to look again at the “almost singular texts” of the Romantics, to reread them slowly and carefully so as to allow “their provocative force to come into play.”217 The continued relevance of the process tradition to which Schelling and Whitehead belong (as well as the esoteric tradition I aim to cross-fertilize with them) is closely bound up with the fate of the Romantic tradition. Sallis’ attempt to retrieve the radical implications of the Romantic imagination is therefore essential to my research.
Is the Romantic vision of the world too beautiful to be true? Sallis turns to the poet John Keats to get a handle on the way that imagination is said to possess “a privileged comportment…to truth.” “What the imagination seizes as Beauty,” writes Keats, “must be truth–whether it existed before or not.”218 Imagination’s comportment to the truth of beauty is then twofold, establishing itself in both the beauty of what already is, and the beauty of what is not yet but might be made so. “The truth may have existed before the establishing,” writes Sallis, “in which case the establishing would consist in…remembering it; or the truth may not have existed before the establishing, in which case the establishing would consist in…originating the truth, or, in Keats’ idiom, creating it.”219 Sallis reads Keats’ statement as an expression of the paradoxical nature of imagination, enabling it to seize beauty as truth in a simultaneously “originary” and “memorial” way, a kind of creative discovery. The logic of imagination in this sense is not bound by the law of non-contradiction, but hovers between opposed moments allowing contradiction to be sustained.220 “Schelling expresses it most succinctly,” according to Sallis, when he writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism that it is only through imagination that “we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory.”221
Perhaps the most important consequence of imagination’s ability to generate polarity by hovering between contraries rather than allowing them to degenerate into dualistic opposition is that the all too familiar subordination of the sensible to the intelligible world must be radically reformulated. Again, Sallis draws on Keats, who calls us to look upon the sensory world with an imaginal passion or creative love whose reflected light, “thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense.”222 The truth of Beauty is not perceived abstractly as by an intellect seeking “a fellowship with essence,”223 but rather by an etheric sense which wreathes “a flowery band to bind us to the earth.”224 The true world is not to be found in “the clear religion of heaven,”225 but in the “green world”226 of earth.
Like Keats’ “novel sense” engendered when imagination is lovingly seized by the true light of Beauty, Whitehead speaks of the “basic Eros which endows with agency all ideal possibilities.”227 In Whitehead’s philosophical scheme, intelligible essences become the ideal possibilities or conceptual feelings evaluated by the mental pole of a concrescing occasion. No longer distant unmoved movers, these Ideas erotically yearn for immanent realization, for incarnation in an actual occasion of experience. Ideas act as lures for feeling generative of “novel senses,” thereby creatively shaping the purposes of individual actual occasions. The creative advance of the universe is driven forward by the integration of the real feelings of the physical pole (prehensions of past actualities) with the ideal feelings of the mental pole (ingressions of future possibilities): Novelty, in other words, “results from the fusion of the ideal with the actual:–The light that never was, on sea or land.”228
The light Keats and Whitehead speak of is perceivable only with the power of etheric imagination, the novel sense that, if it becomes common, can heal the bifurcation of nature instituted by modern scientific materialism. “Nature knows not by means of science,” writes Schelling, “but…in a magical way. There will come a time when the sciences will gradually disappear and be replaced by immediate knowledge. All sciences as such have been invented only because of the absence of such knowledge. Thus, for instance, the whole labyrinth of astronomical calculations exists because it has not been given to humanity immediately to perceive the necessity of the heavenly movements, or spiritually to share in the real life of the universe. There have existed and there will exist humans who do not need science, through whom nature herself perceives, and who in their vision have become nature. These are the true clairvoyants, the genuine empiricists, and the men who now describe themselves by that name stand to them in the same relation as pretentious demagogues stand to prophets sent from God.”229
Sallis connects Keats’ reversal of the typical philosophical evaluation of intelligible originals as truer than sensible images to Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “I beseech you, my brothers,” Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, “remain true to the earth!”230 In his account of “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” Nietzsche traces the historical development of the dualism between the True and the apparent world from Plato, through Christianity, to Kant. Finally, in Nietzsche’s day, the subordination of appearance to Truth had come to be refuted: “The true world–we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one perhaps?…But no! with the true world we have also done away with the apparent one!”231 The return to the sensible called for by Sallis, Keats, and Nietzsche, and Whitehead and Schelling in their own way, is then not a simple reversal that would place appearances above intelligibles. Such an inversion would be nonsensical. Rather, the very dichotomy must itself be overcome so as to provide an entirely new interpretation of the sense of the sensible.232 Sallis suggests that this new orientation to the sensory world will require also a new orientation to logos, to speech. His work toward a “logic of imagination” is largely an attempt to reconstruct the sense of speech so that it is no longer “subordinated…to an order of signification absolutely anterior to it.”233 In other words, rather than the meaning of speech being thought of as a derivative of some preconstituted intelligible order, this meaning is to be brought forth out of the sense of the sensible itself. “What is now required,” writes Sallis, “is a discourse that would double the sensible–interpret it, as it were–without recourse to the intelligible.”234 Instead of the old dichotomy between the intelligible and the sensible, Sallis turns to elemental forces like earth and sky for philosophical orientation: “Distinct both from intelligible άρχαί [archetypes] and from sensible things, the elementals constitute a third kind that is such as to disrupt the otherwise exclusive operation of the distinction between intelligible and sensible. At the limit where, in a certain self-abandonment, philosophy turns back to the sensible, this third kind, the elemental…serves to expose and restore the locus of the primal sense of vertical directionality, on which was founded the sense of philosophical ascendency, indeed the very metaphorics of philosophy itself. One recognizes the Platonic image of the cave is not one image among others; rather, in the depiction of the ascent from within the earth to its surface where it becomes possible to cast one’s vision upward to the heaven, the very translation is enacted that generates the philosophical metaphorics.”235
Sallis admits that such a logic of imagination, in that it “[disturbs] the very order of fundamentality and [withdraws] from every would-be absolute its privileging absolution,”236 places philosophy in a somewhat unsettled, even ungrounded, position. Indeed, Nietzsche’s call to return to our senses by being true to the earth is not an attempt to erect a new foundation for philosophy on more solid ground. Nietzsche sought a new beginning for philosophy in the groundless world of becoming–the world of “death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth.”237 Even the earth is made groundless by the geological forces slowing turning it inside out. Nietzsche subjected all prior philosophers to the earthquakes of his hammer, showing mercy only to Heraclitus, perhaps the first process philosopher, for challenging Parmenides’ emphasis on static Being. Heraclitus declared instead that all things flow.
Although Sallis articulates his logic of imagination largely in the context of Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism, Whitehead’s aesthetically-oriented process ontology may provide a more consctructive example of how to philosophize after the “True world” has become a fable. In Contrast to Nietzsche’s more demolitional approach, you might say Whitehead philosophizes with a paint brush. For Whitehead, the dichotomy between appearance and reality is not as metaphysically fundamental as has been assumed from ancient Greek philosophy onwards.238 The over-emphasis of this dichotomy is based upon the misleading notion that perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” is the basis of experience, when in fact, perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” is more primordial. Another way of phrasing it would be to say that, instead of seeing consciousness as the highly refined end product of a complex process of experiential formation rooted in the vague feelings of the body and the emotional vectors of its environment, philosophers have made the clear and distinct ideas of conscious attention their starting point. “Consciousness,” writes Whitehead, “raises the importance of the final Appearance [presentational immediacy] relatively to that of the initial Reality [causal efficacy]. Thus it is Appearance which in consciousness is clear and distinct, and it is Reality which lies dimly in the background with its details hardly to be distinguished in consciousness. What leaps into conscious attention is a mass of presuppositions about Reality rather than the intuitions of Reality itself. It is here that the liability to error arises.”239 The main error of traditional philosophy has been to overemphasize the metaphysical importance of the clarity and distinctness of conscious attention. “[We] are conscious of more than clarity,” writes Whitehead. “The importance of clarity does not arise until we have interpreted it in terms of the vast issues vaguely haunting the fullness of existence.”240 Whitehead argues that this overemphasis on clarity, already in germ in ancient Greece, eventually lead, in the modern period, to the disastrous separation of mind from nature and the related doctrine of “physical matter passively illustrating qualities and devoid of self-enjoyment.”241
“In the discussion of our experience,” writes Whitehead, “the first point for notice is the superficial variability in our clear consciousness of qualitative detail. [It] results from an effort of concentration and elimination. Also it is never sustained. There is always a flickering variation, varied by large scale transference of attention. Consciousness is an ever-shifting process of abstracting shifting quality from a massive process of essential existence. It emphasizes. And yet, if we forget the background, the result is triviality…The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted.”242
Whitehead avoids this modern bifurcation of nature by not organizing his philosophizing around the clear sensa and distinct ideas projected before his conscious attention. He vastly expands the speculative scope of his adventure in cosmology by beginning to philosophize in media res, caught amidst the passions of bodily inheritance streaming in from the depths of space and time, lured forward by the ideal possibilities yearning to flow back into the world. There is a kind of “intellectual intuition” at the generative root of Whitehead’s cosmology, an initiatory experience of the cosmic crucifixion eternally binding the Idea to space and time. Whitehead himself suggests as much when, in The Concept of Nature (1919),243 he approvingly quotes Schelling’s account of intellectual intuition: “In the ‘Philosophy of Nature,’” writes Schelling, “I considered the subject-object called nature in its activity of self-constructing. In order to understand it, we must rise to an intellectual intuition of nature. The empiricist does not rise thereto, and for this reason in all his explanations it is always he himself that proves to be constructing nature. It is no wonder, then, that his construction and that which was to be constructed so seldom coincide. A Naturphilosoph raises nature to independence, and makes it construct itself, and he never feels, therefore, the necessity of opposing nature as constructed (i.e., as experience) to real nature, or of correcting the one by means of the other.”244 Whitehead’s intellectual intuition of nature leads him to imaginatively generalize the archetypal dynamics of his own experience so that they can be applied to the experience of actual occasions of every grade. Causal efficacy finds its analogue in the initial “physical pole” of a concrescing occasion, while presentational immediacy is related to the final “mental pole.” In Whitehead’s universe, there is no longer any passive matter lacking experience whose qualities are projected onto it by conscious animals. Rather, the final real things are actual occasions and the entire universe is a living organism.
Whitehead, as well as Schelling, Sallis and company, do not prescribe any simple inversion of the traditional subordination of the sensible world of earthly existence to the intelligible heaven of divine Ideas. Both Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Schelling’s Naturphilosophie provide examples of the generative power of a new organ of philosophical perception (or intellectual intuition)–the etheric imagination. This organ dissolves the bifurcated consciousness of the spatially frozen intellect by sensorily opening to the “becoming of Being,” to the ingressions of eternity into the aesthetic (e)motions of organic time. In the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, not even God escapes becoming: “God is a life, not merely a Being,”245 as Schelling writes. In the final chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality, he imagines how a merely “primordial” God (i.e., God as original Being or perfect Act beyond all beings) would remain buried in the eternal ground of unconscious darkness like a dormant seed unless it was drawn forth by the light and wisdom of a “consequent” pole. Schelling agrees with Whitehead when he writes that “Being becomes aware of itself only in becoming.”246 God must thereby everlastingly integrate original action and complete passion: God is beyond all beings while at the same time becoming-with all beings. As Schelling argues, “Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, one which is common to all mysteries and spiritual religions of earliest time, all of history would be incomprehensible; scripture also distinguishes periods of revelation and posits as a distant future the time when God will be all in all things, that is, when he will be fully realized.”247
Neither Schelling nor Whitehead seek to invert Plato; they seek only to truly understand the mystery his philosophy attempts to convey. Plato’s philosophic method was rooted in the generation of problematic encounters between appearances and reality. His philosophical investigations were spiritual exercises which in his own day and for many centuries after proved liberating both for individual souls and for political bodies. But his initiatory Idea of eternity’s participation in the (e)motions of the World-Soul degraded, for the idolatrous moderns, into the nonsensical idea that an active and intelligent mind “in here” must attack and overcome a blind and stupid nature “out there.” “It is here,” writes Whitehead, “that the prominent epistemology of the modern centuries has been so weak. It has interpreted the totality of experience as a mere reaction to an initial clarity of sensa [via presentational immediacy]. The result is that the reaction is limited to the data provided by the sensa … the mass of our moral, emotional, and purposive experience is rendered trivial and accidental.”248 This idea was first formalized by Galileo into the doctrine of the primary and secondary qualities: Primary qualities are the real, mathematizable aspects of nature accessible only to the intellect (as mediated by telescopes and calculators), while secondary qualities are appearances projected onto primary things/numbers by the contingently evolved sensory organs of the body. Things/numbers are said to determine the necessary and universal laws of mechanistic physics, while organic appearances (species with their attendant psyches) are said to transform haphazardly in the blind struggle for existence. “Things” are here equivalent to Whitehead’s notion of abstract “scientific-objects” constructed in the course of scientific investigation. These abstract objects, according to Whitehead, “embody those aspects of the character of the situations of the physical objects which are most permanent and are expressible without reference to a multiple relation including a percipient event.”249 “Numbers” are not themselves scientific-objects, rather they are “formulae for calculation [which] refer to things in nature,” while “scientific objects are the things in nature to which the formulae refer.”250
It has been known since at least Plato that, to learn the laws of nature, it is best to study the motions of the stars overhead. As for planet earth, down here there are no things/numbers. Down here are only occasions of experience, incandescent tear drops of a creatively dying divinity, an ever-complexifying entanglement between eternal Ideas and actual events. Things/numbers are real enough “up there” in the abstract space of calculation. But here on earth, where we are, a thing is but a distant flickering in the sky. The geometers have forgotten that all measurement begins with geo- and remains planted on the planet. A thing’s trail can be traced, but we always tell the star’s tale with the soil beneath our feet, swallowed by the weight of our inherited bodies, overwhelmed by the fate of our enculturated minds. It is not only the heavens who are spinning; it is we, too. What we see “out there” is an imaginal achievement of the World-Soul whose organs extend from quarks through human beings and trees out to stars and galaxies. All of it is here with us when we are there with it.
Sallis’ attempt to articulate a “logic of imagination” that brings logos down to earth, returning it to its senses, can further assist my reading of Schelling by making the challenges of translation explicit. I am not a fluent reader of the German language, which may be an important reason not to write on Schelling. However, even if I cannot claim expertise in German, I believe I have been able to familiarize myself with what is at stake philosophically in the translation of certain key words, not the least of which are Einbildungskraft (which Sallis translates as “force of imagination”) and Schelling’s neologism Ineinsbildung (which Coleridge translates as “esemplastic power”). For Sallis, translation is not simply the problem of carrying meaning from one language over to another; it is a problem internal to each language, the problem of signification itself. That is to say, even if I were to draw upon only English-speaking authors, the problem of the translation of their “true meaning” would remain. When there are no longer any pre-constituted intelligible signifieds for the sense of a language to signify, logos can no longer be grounded in Reason but must instead find its footing in “the sense of the sensible.”251 The classical sense of translation, where two different languages are said to signify the same transcendent signified, is no longer credible.252 A logic of imagination thus calls for the creation of a novel philosophical style, a new linguistic idiom or rhetorical flowering that “[lets] the discourse engender sense in and through the very movement in which it comes to double the sensible.”253 Rather than approaching the problem of translation, then, as that of carrying over the original meaning of Schelling’s German texts, I will approach the sense of Schelling’s (and the other German authors in his milieu’s) work not just in an attempt to “to teach philosophy to speak English,”254 but also to irreversibly disrupt any sense of a presupposed purity or simple identity to “the English language.” As the English translator of Schelling’s early essays on transcendental philosophy, Fritz Marti, has written, “Philosophy is not a matter of denominational schools, nor does it have one sacred language. Whatever is philosophically true ought to appeal to man as man. Therefore every philosophical formulation demands translation and retranslation. This is why philosophy has a genuine history. Religious words seem timeless. Philosophy demands perpetual aggiornamento. It must be up-to-date. Its truths are reborn by translation.”255 Philosophy, that is, requires constant updating. It remains always unfinished, always lacking the logical completeness of a definitive translation, not because it is pointless or would then come to contradict itself, but because its task is infinite. The telos of philosophy is not wisdom, the goal is not to be wise; rather, the philosopher’s telos is eros, the love of wisdom, becoming-with her instead of replacing her with himself. If the generative form of all philosophy is the absolute I, then the living content of philosophy must be “an infinity of actions whose total enumeration forms the content of an infinite task.”256
I will not encounter Schelling’s German texts as a fluent reader of his language, and so must depend largely upon the sensitivities of certain translators. Even so, in proceeding by way of a logic of imagination, I’ve learned that the problem of translation was already internal to my own language. For this reason, my reading of German (as well as French, Latin, Greek, …) texts is part of an attempt to take English to the very limits of its sense, to philosophize in a style rooted in a logic of imagination, rather than a logic of designation.257 “The truly universal philosophy,” writes Schelling, “cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy.”258
In my reading of Schelling and Whitehead, I will draw attention to the creative “errors” in their translations of their own philosophical predecessors. I will also attend to the paradox of creative plagiarism exemplified in the poet-philosophers who carried this new process philosophy of imagination from Europe to England to America. “This is the constant ambiguity of the notion of origin,” writes Deleuze, “Origins are assigned only in a world which challenges the original as much as the copy, and an origin assigns a ground only in a world already precipitated into universal ungrounding.”259
208 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 14.
209 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.
210 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.
211 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.
212 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxv.
213 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. 136n5.
214 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxvi, transl. by Jason Wirth. In a footnote Wirth adds that his translation of Mitwissenschaft as “conscientious” is meant “to evoke at least three senses of the Latin conscientiæ: joint knowledge, consciousness, as well as the ethical sense of the conscience” (136n5).
215 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.
216 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.
217 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.
218 The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:183-87.
219 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 17-18.
220 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 161.
221 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 4.
222 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 808.
223 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 779.
224 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 7.
225 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 781.
226 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 16.
227 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210.
228 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 211.
229 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. vii. “Kritische Fragmente,” p. 246; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.
230 Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, in vol. VI 1 of Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 9. Transl. by John Sallis.
231 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 465.
232 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.
233 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 23.
234 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.
235 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 173.
236 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 21.
237 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 462.
238 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 209.
239 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 270.
240 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.
241 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210, 212.
242 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.
243 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 47.
244 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. iv. “Ueber den wahren Begriff der Naturphilosophie” (“On the True Concept of Naturphilosophie”), 96; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.
245 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.
246 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.
247 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.
248 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147.
249 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.
250 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.
251 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 32.
252 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 36.
253 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 34.
254 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 35.
255 Schelling, The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), transl. and comm. by Fritz Marti (London: Bucknell University Press, 17-18).
256 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 50.
257 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 122, for more on how the images of imagination withdraw from simple designation by words. A logic of designation assumes an original meaning exists that might be successfully indicated in the lingo of another language, while a logic of imagination endlessly blurs the distinction between an original and its copies.
258 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, 190.
259 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 202.
The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.
One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5
Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”
Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15
While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.
It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25
It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?
Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.
Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32
1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.
2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).
3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.
4 WCT, 90.
5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.
6 SMW, 79-80.
7 SMW, 55.
8 SMW, 84.
9 SMW, 80.
10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.
11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.
12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.
13 PR, 172.
14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.
15 The Prelude, 209.
16 PR, 172.
17 PR, 113.
18 The Prelude, 210.
19 SMW, 80.
20 The Prelude, 12.
21 The Prelude, 12.
22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.
23 UW, 184.
24 The Prelude, 10.
25 The Prelude, 238.
26 The Prelude, 125.
27 The Prelude, 218.
28 The Prelude, 37.
29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.
30 The Prelude, 37-38.
31 PR, 525.
32 The Prelude, 233.
Jason/Immanent Transcendence has asked me to offer a Whiteheadian take on his recent posts (two examples are HERE, and, especially relevant, HERE) concerned with such ideas as purpose, process, form, time, and chance in John Dewey. Jason has also recently written about a Deweyan approach to the place of values in nature while in conversation with Levi Bryant (HERE).
A. N. Whitehead appears to be the more cosmological thinker, Dewey the more epistemological. Their impact as thinkers is similar, since both put their abstract theorizing into play in the educational arena to great acclaim. Their theorizing about nature, and the nature of the mind, was equally rooted in the ontogenic aspect of nature, i.e., in nature’s unthingedness. Nature’s ontogenesis (like Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity), cannot be represented rationally, since it is the ground and condition of rationality. For this reason, Whitehead says of his cosmological scheme that it emerges originally from non-rational aesthetic and moral valuations, from an “imaginative leap” dependent upon the generative power of metaphor (Process and Reality, 4). Philosophy, for Whitehead, aims for “sheer disclosure” (Modes of Thought, 49), not deductive proof or logical demonstration (though logic is always a part of philosophy, it is not the whole). To approach the creative origin of being and the cosmos with logos, it is necessary to speak as this creativity (i.e., to speak poetically), since any thought about this creativity immediately converts the infinite originality of reality into a determinate totality, a closed world rent asunder into a transcendental subject reflecting upon finite objects, including itself. Representational or intentional thought–thought about things–when left to its own devices, leads to all the modern diseases of philosophy: nominalism, positivism, nihilism, etc.
If we’re seriously going to concern ourselves with the genesis of being and of nature, it is absolutely necessary that we learn to play with words. Without metaphor, we cannot even begin to approach such an unplaceable topic. Whitehead’s was an aesthetic philosophy, his theology poetic (e.g., here’s a post on Catherine Keller’s Whiteheadian theopoetics). We know that finite nature is a unified cosmos only because its overarching beauty has swayed us. Whitehead’s theodicy accounts for the reality of good and evil, of harmony and discord, on aesthetic grounds. The universe is a thing of beauty, but its origin is entirely unruly (or, as Jason might say, it is “ruled” by chance). Reality is rooted in (a priori) absolute freedom and amoral creativity; but this unruly reality has been (a posteriori) generative of cosmic beauty and personal love. The former freedom is the condition of possibility, the latter personality is the actualized fact. “In the beginning,” there was no distinction between time/habit/material memory and chance/novelty/eternal possibility. When we contemplate the sky here and now in the present, we experience a moving image of eternity; when we consider our body’s relation to the sky here and now, we experience the logos taking on flesh. Here and now habit and novelty are together begetting personality. Conscience is being created, an event which is forever changing the meaning of the original Creativity creating it, and of the Chaos that may in the future destroy it. Creativity and Chaos, like the morning and evening appearances of Venus, are merely different seasons of the same indifferent star. It is only from the present that metaphor can carry us beyond ourselves into the past or future.
I’ve grown tired, so I’ll end by letting Keats sing the tragic tune of our contingently harmonious cosmos. This the first two stanzas of “Endymion”:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:Its loveliness increases; it will neverPass into nothingness; but still will keepA bower quiet for us, and a sleepFull of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathingA flowery band to bind us to the earth,Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearthOf noble natures, of the gloomy days,Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened waysMade for our searching: yes, in spite of all,Some shape of beauty moves away the pallFrom our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boonFor simple sheep; and such are daffodilsWith the green world they live in; and clear rillsThat for themselves a cooling covert make‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:And such too is the grandeur of the doomsWe have imagined for the mighty dead;All lovely tales that we have heard or read:An endless fountain of immortal drink,Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.Nor do we merely feel these essencesFor one short hour; no, even as the treesThat whisper round a temple become soonDear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,The passion poesy, glories infinite,Haunt us till they become a cheering lightUnto our souls, and bound to us so fast,That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;They always must be with us, or we die.
- Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God (footnotes2plato.com)
- Formal Causality and Materialism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead’s Experiential Universe (a response to Archive Fire) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead and the Role of Ideas in the Universe: A Psychedelic Experiment (footnotes2plato.com)
- Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead [final draft] (footnotes2plato.com)
I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a 20th century audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once bound the generations together. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be co-authors of themselves.
What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.
Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever […] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”
“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:
Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.
In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–“severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.
“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).
Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”
This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….
- Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Activity: Socrates, Jesus, and the Wisdom of Love (footnotes2plato.com)
- Rudolf Steiner and the Angelic Hierarchies (footnotes2plato.com)
Poetry as soul-making
Strictly speaking, what I want to talk about today does not exist, or at least if it does, remains for the most part unconscious to the rational, waking ego’s daylight gaze. Nonetheless, I’m forced to call this unknown phantasm something, and the name ‘imagination’ seems to suit it fine. Imagination is that matrix of possibility somewhere between the Real and the Ideal. Imagination is the engine of human life, the shaper of our desires and performer of our ideals. Jung called it the Psyche, Jesus called it Christ, Plato called it the Good. These are ‘large’ words. ‘Heavy’ words. Their meaning is saturated, so much so that it overflows and all but defies comprehension.
Talking about the imagination is a lot like talking about silence, since every time I speak a sentence, I blow out the candle warming the perceptuo-image of my organismic experience with words I learned in school. I turn the reality of the light of the Real into the shadows of my educated mind’s finite ideas.
The Psyche is a philosophical invention. Or at least, whatever I say about her becomes a philosophical invention. I prefer the term imagination as a metaphysical ultimate, much in the sense that Whitehead employs the term creativity. I cannot be sure what I mean when I call it, ‘imagination,’ in the same way I am never quite sure what I mean when I say I.
Jung, The Red Book (Liber Primus, fol iii(r)):
“When you say that the place of the soul is not, then it is not. But if you say that it is, then it is. Notice what the ancients said in images: the word is a creative act. The ancients said: in the beginning was the Word. Consider this and think about it. The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.”
Schelling: “nature is the unconscious poetry of the spirit”
Blake: “The imagination is the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever”
Blake thought every honest person is a prophet. (Poetry not a unique skill, but a universal endowment).
What I want to say cannot be said, but if I am able I will here attempt to display it. I cannot describe for you the myths within which we live and breathe, but I can enact them for you here upon the state. If we are lucky, I will invoke common fields of feeling, and the ideas in each of our private minds will receive a shared sense of being. A concept is a common field of feeling, something which grasps us in an environment and calls us to attention. A conception is not an idea in an individual mind. It is an event in the world. I speak in order to call attention to something that is always already there—always already here. It “is” silence, the absence of speech, of presence, of world, of order, of Logos. The silence is the supreme meaning, the promise of perfect meaning. Derrida spoke of the messianicity of language, the need to be hopeful about the final word that is always to come. Our conversations can never be settled, we must always agree to meet again, or sever.
Jung (Liber Primus, iii(v)):
“The meaning of events is the supreme meaning, that is not in events, and not in the soul, but is the God standing between events and the soul, the mediator of life, the way, the bridge and the going across. My soul is my supreme meaning, my image of God, neither God himself nor the supreme meaning. God becomes apparent in the supreme meaning of the human community.”
The poetic imagination is not a highly prized and rare skill, but an essential aspect of every literate soul’s life-process.
Shakespeare, A midsummer’s night dream:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-12).
Plato was not trying to annihilate or deconstruct poetry, as such; he was calling the Homeric psyche into a more intimate relation with itself, into a tighter coiling of consciousness upon itself. Prior to Plato, the Logos had only collective, mythological significance. After Plato, it’s meaning was given to men. Aristotle swallowed the songs of ages, turning the rumors of orality into the rhetorico-physical description (not prediction) of categorical schemes and logical analyses. But St. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that the letter kills; only the spirit gives life. Aristotle’s impersonal poetics can be inwardized, or personalized, even further. Not philosophical description, but poetic participation becomes the goal of our soul’s incarnation.
[to Benjamin Bailey] “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness – to compare great things with small – have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody – in a delicious place – by a delicious voice, felt over again your very Speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul – do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so – even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high – that the Protrotype must be here after – that delicius face you will see. What a time! I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on Sensation partly on thought – to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind – such an one I consider your’s and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things.”
“Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder.”
WHERE’S the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him!
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.
[to Shelly on Aug. 16, 1820]
“And is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion, whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards? I am picked up and sorted to a pip. My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk. You must explain my metaphors to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.”
[February 14-May 3, 1819]
The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven–what a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul making” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception –they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God –how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation–This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years–These three Materials are the Intelligence–the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming theSoul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and vet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible– I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School–and I will call the Child able to read, the Soulmade from that school and itshornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence–This appears to me faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity–I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it–there is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me–the Salvation of Children–In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without an identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart–or seat of the human Passions…
[May 3, 1818]
… axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same Steps as the Author –I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done-… Until we are sick, we understand not;–in fine, as Byron says, “Knowledge is sorrow,” and I go on to say that “Sorrow is Wisdom”–and further for aught we can know for certainty! “Wisdom is folly”… I compare human life to a large mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me–The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think–We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle –within us–we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere,we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the-head heart and nature of Man–of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression–whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open–but all dark–all leading to dark passages–We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote “Tintern Abbey” and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior [to] us…
[February 3, 1818]
My dear Reynolds,
It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth&c should have their due from us. but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist– Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself–Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven,and yet want confidence to put down his half seeing… Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.-How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this.
[February 27, 1818]
My dear Taylor,
… In Poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their center. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance-l” Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all…
Plato on poetry:
Republic X (p. 1211/606e), after suggesting poetry leads us to enjoy the sufferings of others, as in Homer’s tragedy, Socrates says to Glaucon:
“…When you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, an that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason… in view of the nature of poetry, we had reason to banish it from the city earlier, for our argument compelled us to do so. But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy, which is evidenced by such expressions as ‘the dog yelping and shrieking at its master,’ ‘great in the empty eloquence of fools,’ ‘the mob of wise men that has mastered Zeus,’ and the ‘subtle thinkers, beggars all.’ Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises. But, be that as it may, to betray what one believes to be the truth is impious… we’ll allow its defenders, who aren’t poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. Indeed, we’ll listen to them graciously, for we’d certainly profit if poetry were shown to be not only pleasant but also beneficial… if such a defence isn’t made, we’ll behave like people who have fallen in love with someone but who force themselves to stay away from him, because they realize that their passion isn’t beneficial. In the same way, because the love of this sort of poetry has been implanted in us by the upbringing we have received under our fine constitutions, we are well disposed to any proof that it is the best and truest thing. But if it isn’t able to produce such a defense, then, whenever we listen to it, we’ll repeat the argument we have just now put forward like an incantation so as to preserve ourselves from slipping back into that childish passion for poetry which the majority of people have. And we’ll go on chanting that such poetry is not to be taken seriously or treated as a serious undertaking with some kind of hold on the truth, but that anyone who is anxious about the constitution within him must be careful when he hears it and must continue to believe what we have said about it.”
“Unlike simple narrative, mimesis poses a particular psychic danger, because as the speaker of the narrative one may take on the character of literary persona in question. It is as though the fictionality of the persona is forgotten; in acting out a part one acts the part, and then one begins to act (in “real life”) as the character would act. One does not actually take oneself to bethe fictional character; rather, the “model” or pattern of response or sentiment or thought one has acted out when “imitating” the character becomes enacted. There is no air-tight barrier between throwing yourself (especially habitually) into a certain part, body and soul, and being molded by the part; no firm boundary, in that sense, between what happens on and off the stage. By contrast, Socrates argues, a simple narration preserves distance between narrator and narrated…..He is asserting, though without filling out the psychological mechanisms in the detail for which one would wish, that from childhood up, mimesis shapes our images and our fantasies, our unconscious or semi-conscious pictures and feelings, and thereby shapes our characters, especially that part of our nature prone to what he thinks of as irrational or non-rational.” –Stanford Encyclopedia
“on the one hand, poetry promotes intrapsychic conflict; on the other, it keeps us unconscious of that conflict, for the irrational part of our psyche cannot hear reason’s corrections. That is why poetry, with its throbbing rhythms and beating of breasts, appeals equally to the nondescript mob in the theater and to the best among us. But if poetry goes straight to the lower part of the psyche, that is where it must come from.” -J. Lear, “Inside and outside the Republic,” in his Open Minded (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 240
Walt Whitman from Song of Myself:
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of the earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.
Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus “Endless Trace” (trans. Chris Bamford):
But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, your over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers’. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds, you still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace. Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners.
Why Religious Dialogue?
Interreligious dialogue is not a distant possibility but a present necessity. This essay is a response to this need, but it is written also as an intrareligious dialogue. This is because the conditioned nature of my own personality, having been historically shaped into what it is by my unique imaginal participation in certain texts and practices, at first allows me to speak and be understood only within the personal and communal bounds of these traditions.
By seeking out the essence of my own spiritual path, I hope to become more capable of generating wise and compassionate relationships with those who walk adjacent paths. There’s a way in which the intra- and interpersonal boundaries generated by each of the world’s religions also opens them to extra- and transpersonal bonds. These bonds tie the traditions to each other within an ecology of Spirit, each of them creating and receiving love from the other within the space opened up by Spirit’s eternal passage into history.
And so while it may at first appear so on the surface, the condition “we”—the English speaking post-secular intelligentsia, or whoever—currently find ourselves in is not one of lacking an effective method or means of contacting those of “other”—let us say, non-Christian, non-secular, or indigenous—traditions. If “we” have identified ourselves as “the same,” we have already set ourselves in differential relation to “others.” No tradition has known itself as religious or salvific in the absence of a relation to other traditions claiming the same. In other words, the self-consciousness of each of the world’s religious traditions never could have emerged but as a consciousness of otherness. Moving from the historical to the metaphysical register, we can say that differentiation begets identity even as identification begets difference. This seems to be a logical contradiction, when it fact it is the principle of life (or incarnation) itself. The concepts—self/identity and other/difference—are conditioned by one another and so exist relatively. Only the relation is absolute. “Religion” is that which relates, or binds together, this with that, me with you, time with eternity, secular with religious, human with divinity. Religion may appear to us through the expressions and experiences of many religions, but underlying all of them is a universal love for and convergence upon the unspeakable oneness of Spirit (unspeakable because always arising anew, eternally born within and between us).
The need for dialogue on dialogue is now more urgent than ever, since our species’ ability to communicate compassionately across borders is already determining the sorts of worlds being brought forth by an increasingly planetary civilization. Unfortunately, the most powerful form of transnational communication taking place today is governed by the purely economic norms of corporations. The earth and its human and non-human populations are being exploited by these amoral entities. They operate under norms with no system of evaluation but that selected by “the invisible hand” according to the laws of supply and demand. “The strongest will survive, and the species will progress”: so goes the market mantra. Transitioning into a just, peaceful, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization will require that our governing ethos shift away from that of monetarily-motivated corporate entities toward institutions not concerned solely with their own profit. Power must be transferred to institutions concerned for the welfare of all sentient beings.
For the last three or four centuries, the political influence of the world’s religions has waned, but the secular nation-states that have risen to replace them in the hopes of mediating their discord have proven unable to prevent violence. In fact, nations continue to wage war upon one another, always under the pretext of self-defense. It seems that the capitalist logic to which the nation-state is subject inevitably generates economic pressure that leads them to militarily secure and/or expand their industrial markets. One of the underlying assumptions of interreligious dialogue generally seems to be that, in the wake of this failure of the modern secular state, the religious traditions of the world must be among the institutions called upon to reclaim a more enlightened version of their former power and responsibility for directing the course of world history. What is needed is not a return to feudalism and monarchy, nor a re-absorption in “dogmatism, fanaticism, and sectarianism” (MMR, p. 16), but a more integral way of politically mobilizing the world’s great wisdom traditions as a counterweight to the market religion that has come to dominate the planet.
Traditional religion, as it had been known by civilizations yet to planetize, is being re-invented within the crucible of the global encounter of the religions (including secularism). As Haridas Chaudhuri put it, religion is “the undying substance of the spirit of man” that, if it is “destined to play a vital role in the advancement of civilization,” must today “be reborn out of its own ashes” (MMR, p. 15). In the hopes of furthering this rebirth in some small way, the remainder of my intrareligious “confession” will circle around just two traditions, those most responsible for the ongoing formation of my soul: Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. The wisdom of these traditions will be approached in light of the poetic insights of William Blake and John Keats, both of whom sought a new experiential revelation of Spirit at the personal level.
It is not only the various religious institutions that must renew themselves; each person’s consciousness of the religious must also be transformed before Spirit can adequately guide human civilization into the next century. The planetary is personal, since the planet can only be redeemed through the love of person for person. We must each continue to speak compassionately from within in search of the One who binds us all together:
When the two will be made one, both the inside and the outside, the outside and the inside, the superior and the inferior…then you will enter [into ‘The Kingdom’], (Gospel of Thomas, quoted in IRD, p. xix).
Soul-making with Christ and Buddha
Rather than attempt to sum up what are in and of themselves vast and diverse traditions with their own inner tensions and controversies, or deal with the intractable question of who should speak for either, I will take is as a matter of course that Buddha and Christ exist as spiritual beings who are potentially in communication with human consciousness independently of any specific institutions or canonized texts. Though I will still draw from the scripture and practice built up around them, I do so with the assumption that each being is eternally present on the imaginal plane of consciousness and so irreducible to (though not separable from) culture and history. This is a religious realism that stands in contrast to both relativism and exclusivism, since it takes seriously the reality of multiple more-than-human Teachers whose supersensible love and wisdom enters into the world through the power of Imagination. The respective teachings of Buddha and Christ will be brought into dialogue within my own consciousness to exemplify the activity of “intrareligious soul-making,” an activity growing increasingly relevant to the current generation of planetary citizens. A person is not a “conscious atom,” but “a knot in a net of relationships,” and so though what I have to say is peculiar to my own process, I say it in expectation of the resonance and dissonance that it will provoke in others. This internal dialogue is but an opening gesture humbly offered in service to the ongoing struggle for a more humane planetary mythos.
“Soul-making” is a “system of salvation” and “spirit creation” first articulated by Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law in May of 1819. Keats was after a form of spiritual wisdom that did not “affront our reason and humanity,” and that would reframe many of the problems besetting traditional Christianity. “Intrareligious dialogue” has been defined by Raimon Panikkar as a “quest for salvific truth” that “takes place in the core of our being” as “an authentic prayer open in all directions” that is “no longer concerned with mere formulations of our own tradition or of other people” (IRD, p. xvii). This essay is my experiment in soul-making, which Keats defined as a search for the “proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul.” It could also be called an inward opening, or intrareligious prayer, to Buddha and Christ. I beckon these beings, asking them to reveal, if they will, “the whole human world and also the entire reality” as it is reflected within the microcosm of my soul (ibid., xviii).
Though Keats had but little conscious knowledge of the Buddha, the development of his system of soul-making was motivated by realizations nearly identical to the First and Second Noble Truths, that life is suffering caused by attachment to a transient world.
“Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting,” writes Keats,
…while we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts [and] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck…This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure.
The world, or perhaps the soul’s relation to the world, has gone astray. It is this condition and circumstance from which all salvific religion emerges. It was only once I had awakened to the truths of suffering and impermanence—to the waywardness of the human world—that my spiritual path began. As Christ has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Only upon recognizing and accepting my own fallen state can I hope to hear the saving Word within a receptive heart. Otherwise, without the inner silence brought by such recognition, my mind wanders endlessly, grasping at one temporary pleasure after the next, never finding in them the Love I so desperately seek. No matter the worldly progress I may make by achieving money and fame, it inevitably leaves me unhappy and wanting more, since, as Keats writes, I am “mortal and there is still a heaven with its stars above [my] head.” Unless I find Love, upon death I “would leave this world as Eve left Paradise”: sinful and with regret. Such a world remains fallen, what Keats called “a vale of tears.”
The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth suggests that there is a cure for the suffering of this world, and that it may be attained, if not in this life, then in one of the many lives to come. Rather than temporally relieving pain with pleasure, Buddha uproots it entirely, offering a way out of the cycle of samsara through the gradual elimination of karma. Christianity’s way of salvation is often contrasted with Buddha’s, since the former’s focuses on the overwhelming importance of this life as our one chance to prepare for death, after which we may be “redeemed,” writes Keats, “by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Keats finds this a doctrine too “little” and “circumscribed” to be believable. But the larger possibilities of reincarnation are not entirely foreign to Christian theology. One of the first Christian theologians, Origen, articulated a doctrine of metempsychosis in the 2nd century based on the fallen soul’s need of passing through successive stages before returning to God. Rudolf Steiner, a 20th century seer, suggested that, without accommodating itself to the truths of reincarnation and evolution, Christianity would remain too narrowly focused on the salvation of the ego or private personality, rather than the whole cosmic community to which the individual is karmically tied (CMF).
“If we observe the various phases of karmic chain-reaction [or evolutionary reincarnation],” writes Tibetan Lama Anagarika Govinda,
…we become conscious of a supra-individual karmic interrelatedness, comprising nations, races, civilizations, humanity, planets, solar systems and finally the whole universe” (FTM, p. 219).
If I contemplate the life and teaching of Christ, it becomes apparent to me that the meaning of the resurrection is already suggestive of reincarnation, or our ability to be “born again.” If I die to myself, to the reactivity of my physical body and pleasure-seeking soul, I am born again free of sin, like Christ, “not of the water, but of the spirit” (Luke 3:16). This rebirth is my reincarnation, my second chance at life, through participation in the eternally resurrecting Body of Christ. The earth and the cosmos are within this Body, and only dying for the sake of its Life awakens consciousness to his invisible Soul. The meaning of the historical arc of Christian redemption becomes all the more clear when each particular soul is understood to participate in a multi-generational work of uniting itself with the World-Soul and the visible universe it animates. God cannot force change upon the world from outside time and space, since God’s omnipotence is not other than God’s Love, which works only from within the world through the power of animation and the magic of soul (i.e., Imagination). As the particular soul seeks identity with the universal anew in every age, Spirit incarnates more fully into history. Gradually, karma is undone and sin forgiven, since life after life the Love of God for the world becomes more present between persons.
Gautama and Jesus were enlightened human beings whose bodies nonetheless bled upon the cross of time and space, there dying to finitude in order to more fully realize the infinite. “Do you not see,” asks Keats, “how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school a [divine] Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Without living and dying upon the earth, these beings could not fully grasp the nature of the eternal realm from which they came. Even divinity has something to learn from the condition of suffering. But rather than dissolving into the bliss of nirvana or remaining with the Father in heaven after their earthly deaths, they returned as bodhisattvas, vowing to remain in connection with the earth until the sin and suffering of all sentient beings is alleviated.
What form have they taken in their return? It does not seem to be physical or sensible, as then surely more would recognize their presence among us. Rather, these beings have taken up residence within the human soul, there acting as friends and advocates along our path through the school of the world toward spiritual happiness. The supersensible, rather than plainly visible presence of Buddha and Christ accounts for why the current state of human discussion concerning their reality tends to circle endlessly around the relative merits of belief or disbelief. While the secularization thesis (that modernization would inevitably lead to reduced religiosity) has failed, leaving the world more religious today than ever before, in general, the return to religion has tended to construe spiritual claims as merely notional, available for conceptual assent or not depending on one’s psychological disposition or moral inclination. Therefore, while religion can offer justifiable ethical standards, the ontology of Spirit has been bracketed, since no empirical proof has yet been made available that might scientifically verify its reality. For religion to meet both the practical and theoretical needs of a planetary civilization, it must respect the validity of the scientific picture while at the same time pointing out the limited scope of its empirical method. Religion cannot only be critical of science, however; it must also develop its own techniques of transformation to bring the soul into relation to supersensible spiritual realities. Soul-making is an example of such a technique, and can be the catalyst of a new consciousness of religion.
Empiricism has honed only one of the soul’s powers, namely, sensory perception, and due to its great practical successes in technologically extending the reach of sensation, science has tended to ignore the soul’s other capacities. The soul is dynamic, always in motion between its active (poeisis) and passive (paschein) poles. In its sensory mode, the soul passively suffers the world; in its thinking mode, the soul actively creates the world. The reality of Spirit must be considered in the context of this polarization in the life of the soul. A soul whose productive half remained dormant could not experience Christ or Buddha, since these beings are not simply waiting in the outer world for us to perceive. Nor could a soul released from its passionate attunement to the outer world experience their being, since then they would be but figments of inner fantasy evaporating as soon as the fervency of our belief grew tired. The reality of Spirit cannot be known through sensation or conception alone, but must be participated, or enacted, by the organ of Imagination. Imagination unites passivity and activity, perceiving and thinking, and is cultivated by the mutual work of heart and mind one upon the other.
“I am certain of nothing,” writes Keats,
but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination—What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not… The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth (from a letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817).
Science, of course, also draws from both ends of the soul’s polarization, being as much a logical as an empirical method. It is primarily a tool of the mind used to read the book of nature, but its emphasis on empirical data alone prevents it from hearing the divine Word spoken in the heart. The role of religion is to remind humanity that the eye of the mind is in need of the heart’s ear, lest we forget our real desire and true identity.
Who is the soul, what does it desire, and why? These are the questions besetting each individual person, and it is through our unique participation in the imaginative process of soul-making that they are answered. Regarding the issue of identity, Buddha taught some of his students the doctrine of anātman (no-self), while to others he granted the reality of the ātman (whose true identity is Bráhman) (GH, p. 81). This is no contradiction, but rather the result of Buddha’s upāya, or skillful means. His teachings are never final, but offered provisionally as helpful aids tailored to the students that he happens to be speaking with in any given moment. Perhaps in the Buddhist context, the soul is best conceived of as a principle, rather than an entity. According to D. T. Suzuki, the soul is tṛṣṇā, the principle of thirst, or desire. In this sense, the soul does not have desires, but in fact is desire (the polarity of the soul discussed above is here preserved, since as desire it is both an active seeking and a passive suffering). Suzuki also suggests that tṛṣṇā is the creator, not just of the individual soul, but also of the material universe itself. We are the microcosmic reflections of its macrocosmic extent.
“As its highest and richest expression,” he writes,
[the human being] can have an insight into the nature of tṛṣṇā and its working. When we really see into ourselves, tṛṣṇā will bare itself before itself in us…Tṛṣṇā lies in us not as one of the factors constituting our consciousness, but it is our being itself. It is I; it is you; it is the cat; it is the tree; it is the rock; it is the snow; it is the atom” (MCB, p. 107-108).
As was held by Christian scholastics, Suzuki is describing how, from a Buddhist perspective, “the soul is, in a way, all things” (Anima quodammodo omnia). In our literalistic age, the soul is looked for in the body, as if in the heart, the lungs, or the pineal gland. For a pre-modern seer like Aquinas, it is rather the body that is in the soul. As tṛṣṇā, the soul creates and gives form to the physical organism, which is “the coagulated, crystallized, or materialized consciousness of the past” (FTM, p. 68). The organism is the product of billions of years of accumulated desire, the materialized memory of past mental activity. In other words, even the body does not escape the process of soul-making. “Man can never be large enough to possess his psychic organs,” writes psychologist James Hillman, “He can but reflect their activities” (RP, p. 173).
Soul-making is an attempt to become more conscious of how our desires shape us, in body and in mind. Both Buddha and Christ teach that the desire that made the universe can, in the awakened, anointed human soul, become a Love that glorifies and redeems all things.
Trinity and Trikaya
When the teachings of Christ first encountered Greek culture, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe through the power of divine speech was understood to be akin to the role of the philosophical concept of Logos, or cosmic intelligence. The incarnation of Christ meant a radical change had occurred in the nature of the world and the human being. For the Greek convert to Christianity, the meaning of the incarnation is that, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). No longer simply a philosophical concept, Logos became a living human person made of flesh and blood. Logos, understood macrocosmically, entered fully into the microcosm.
A deeper understanding of the 2nd person, and of the Trinity generally, may be garnered from considering them in relation to the Buddhist Trikaya. My reading of the similarities between the Trinity and Trikaya is predominantly an imaginative exercise or experiment, not a textual exegesis of Buddhist or Christian sources (though these will be consulted). I do not mean to equate the two concepts, but to consider them as unique attempts to articulate the differentiated unity of ultimate reality. I’ll begin this exercise by describing the Trinity and Trikaya each in turn, before moving on to draw out their similarities.
For the Christian, ultimate reality is conceived of as a loving communion between Father, Son, and Spirit. God, though of one substance, is nonetheless three persons, since otherwise, there would be no differentiation in the Godhead, and therefore no possibility of love or relationship. The Father is traditionally described as unknowable and infinitely transcendent (GH, p. 152). The First Letter to Timothy says of the Father that “…no one has ever seen or ever can see him” (6:16). The Son is the image of the Father, the transcendent made immanent by being given concrete form. The Son issues forth eternally from the Father, which is why Jesus says “I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself commanded me what to say and how to speak” (John 12:49). The Son could be described as a doorway, or gate, leading to the Father (GH, p. 105). The Spirit is the advocate who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who remains on earth after Christ’s resurrection to council humanity concerning the power of Love. The Spirit has also been identified with the personal spirit or breath of Jesus that inhabited his disciples (GH, p. 154).
For the Buddhist (of the Tibetan lineage), ultimate reality is conceived of as infinite spaciousness, though not a spaciousness that is opposed to form. As the Heart Sutra says:
…emptiness [or spaciousness] is form; form is emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness.
This spaciousness that is not other than form is called the body of truth, or the Dharmakaya. It is the primordial law and cause of all things (FTM, p. 213). The Dharmakaya, when envisioned and expressed in its mode of creative formation, is called the Sambhogakaya. This is the body of enjoyment and bliss. “From it,” according to Lama Govinda, “flows all deep wisdom and profound truth” (FTM, p. 214). The Sambhogakaya might be conceived of as akin to the Imagination discussed above, the organ of soul-making that unites the spiritual and the sensible through the wisdom and compassion of the heart-mind. When the inspired bliss of the Sambhogakaya is transformed into visible activity by incarnating into human form, it is called the Nirmanakaya, or emanation body (FTM, p. 213). In Tibetan, Nirmanakaya is translated as “tulku,” which refers to a reincarnate lama (GH, p. 190) who has re-entered the physical plane not on accident, but consciously. The Nirmanakaya, then, is a consciously created body (FTM, p. 221). Lama Govinda suggests that only through the Nirmanakaya, as seen from within the world of physical embodiment, can the other two bodies be experienced and realized (FTM, p. 222):
Only in the Nirmanakaya can we realize the Dharmakaya effectively, by converting it into an ever-present conscious force, into an incandescent, all consuming focus of experience, in which all elements of our personality are purified and integrated. This is the transfiguration of body and mind…achieved only by the greatest of saints (ibid.).
The parallels between the Trinity and the Trikaya may already have become apparent, but I will attempt to make them more explicit. It must be acknowledged that there is no perfect one-to-one correspondance between the three bodies and the three persons, but rather a rich ambiguity testifying to the deeply evocative meaning inherent in each doctrine.
Thupten Jinpa links the Dharmakaya with the Father, the Sambhogakaya with the Spirit, and the Nirmanakaya with the Son (GH, p. 189). In this scheme, the Dharmakaya and the Father are both recognized as the inexpressible mystery from which all things freely arise. They are the Truth and the Law underlying the manifest cosmos. The Sambhogakaya and the Spirit are recognized as the love, wisdom, and enjoyment of being that pervade the world at a level subtler than the physical dimension. The Dalai Lama describes how, after Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana, though his physical body decayed and disappeared, his Sambhogakaya, or “state of perfect resourcefulness,” continued and remains ever-present (GH, p. 119). Those still devoted to the Buddha’s teaching benefit by relating to this subtler form of his being. This is very close to the message of John’s Gospel, where Christ says that, after his ascension, the Spirit will be sent to remind the faithful of his message and to aid them in its practice (14:25). Finally, the Nirmanakaya and the Son are recognzied in Jinpa’s scheme as emanations or physical embodiments of subtler forces that have been “stepped down” so as to benefit the temperament of ordinary mortals like ourselves. Were it not for the historical emanation of Gautama Buddha, or the incarnation of Jesus Christ, normal human beings could never have accessed their divine teachings.
Another reading is possible. Relating the Dharmakaya to the Father is unproblematic, but Son and Spirit may also be fruitfully understood as parallels to Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, respectively. The relation between the Sambhogakaya, understood to be the organ of Imagination (as discussed above), and the Son becomes clearer in light of William Blake’s oft repeated insight, that “Jesus is the Imagination.”
Jesus is the Imagination, the creative power at the core of man’s being. All things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Savior, the true vine of eternity, the Human Imagination” (BD, p. 159).
If, as Lama Govinda suggests, the Sambhogakaya is the body that provides an exalted vision of higer forms and ideas (FTM, p. 214), perhaps Christ is not (only) a historical emanation, but an eternally born, universal potency lying dormant in the human soul. Through the processes of interplay between heart, mind, and world at work in soul-making, Christ may be resurrected within each of us as an organ of Imagination, thereby granting us participation in eternal Love and bliss. On this reading, Christ is not (or at least not only) an individual who lived and died in Jerusalem during the first century CE (as in Jinpa’s scheme, where He is equated with the Nirmanakaya), but an ever-flowing creative presence available to those whose heart-mind’s are adequately prepared to witness Him.
The Nirmanakaya, then, can be related to the Spirit, or that which is awakened in the individual human being to the imaginal presence of the Son. As Blake put it, the Spirit is “the intellectual fountain proceeding from Jesus to man” (BD, p. 158). It would be impossible to remain a Christian while denying that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, and that he indeed walked the earth as a man in 1st century Jerusalem. That Christ is currently present to consciousness on the imaginal, rather than the physical plane, does not mean he wasn’t once physically incarnate. His birth, death, and resurrection as a physical being prepared the human vessel for Spirit to enter into and be realized by our consciousness. The ambiguity between the Son and the Spirit, or the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, is a reflection of the permeability of the physical plane to the supersensible influence of the Imagination. According to Steiner, this permeability is a result of the spiritual transformation of the very substance of the earth brought about by the Christ event (CMF).
Conclusion: Soul and Spirit
“As various as the Lives of Men are,” writes Keats, “so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence.” If religion is to return to play a fruitful role in our post-secular context, it must re-envision itself so that it might speak to the needs of modern people. Nearly a hundred years of depth psychology have made it increasingly difficult to deny the inherently polytheistic tendencies of the soul. According to Hillman, for whom psychology was akin to soul-making, “The soul’s inherent multiplicity demands a theological fantasy of equal differentiation” (RP, p. 167). Each of us is uniquely shaped by our respective traditions, which is not to deny that all of us are also universally drawn toward Spirit. Spirit is such that, as soon as it is named, it becomes multiple. Christ and Buddha are the voices most easily heard by my soul, but it is through a devotion to their teachings of love and kindness that I become capable of hearing the voices of other traditions. There is no more important challenge, and perhaps none more difficult, than this openness to the wisdom of others.
The “New Age” approach taken in this essay could be criticized as leading to a “religion of the supermarket” (DRB, p. 44), wherein an uprooted individual borrows various elements from the world’s wisdom traditions in order to construct a spiritual orientation most comfortable to their personal inclinations. There is indeed a danger of superficiality in such practices, but the growing interpenetration of traditions in our new planetary context has also created new possibilities for soul-making.
As Chaudhuri has written,
…modern man is uniquely privileged to draw upon the manifold richness of world culture. He can select according to the needs and requirements of his growing soul. The selected material, however diverse in form, can be transformed into the harmony of balanced self-development by the creative spark within him, by his authentic self, which shines most in free communication with the boundless universe (MMR, p. 74).
The world becomes a vale of soul-making when earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from heaven, nor soul (or desire) separated from Love (or Spirit). Instead, an economy can be opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates directly in the life of the soul, and, eventually, in the shaping of the body igniting it.
MMR = Chaudhuri, Haridas. Modern Man’s Religion. 1966. J. F. Rowny Press: Santa Barbara, CA.
DRB = Cornille, Catherine. “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 23. 2003. University of Hawaii Press.
BD = Damon, Samuel Foster. Eaves, Morris. A Blake Dictionary: The ideas and symbols of William Blake. 1988. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.
FTM = Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. 1959. Rider & Company: London, UK.
RP = Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. 1977. Harper: New York, NY.
GH = Kiely, Robert. The Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus. 1998. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA.
IRD = Panikkar, Raimon. The Intrareligious Dialogue. 1998. Paulist Press: New York, NY.
CMF = Steiner, Rudolf. Christianity as Mystical Fact. 1997. Anthroposophic Press: Hudson, NY.
MCB = Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. 2002. Routledge: New York, NY.
Excerpts of John Keats are from the letter dated Feb 19th, 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats (unless otherwise noted by in text citation).
So far as I know, John Keats coined the phrase “soul-making” in a letter to his brother and sister in May of 1819.
“…suppose a rose to have sensation. It blooms on a beautiful morning. It enjoys itself–but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun–it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances. They are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.
The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it): I say ‘Soul making.’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God. How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as forever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I–low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”
Keats offers his scheme of salvation as an alternative to the Christian religion, which he says later in the same letter has disenchanted and depersonalized the world because of its obsessive monotheism. Without an “elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other,” the Intelligence is unable to mature into Individuality. The Soul remains a potentiality unable, through the schooling of a living universe, to self-actualize.
I’m interested in the spiritual fruits that may mature by bringing Keats’ scheme into conversation with Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. For the Buddha, selfhood was an illusion to be dissolved. Ego is not only a source of suffering, but its cause, since only such a false sense of identity allows one’s inherent Buddha-nature to become deformed by grasping after the fleeting images arising and perishing in the round of samsara. Samsara, for Keats, is the vale of tears. Nirvana is realized when our true identity, dependently co-arising with all that is and is-not, replaces the false identity of the ego.
The teachings of Christ suggest that within each of us dwells an innocence akin to Adam’s prior to the Fall. Through love of our neighbor, the world, and God, each of us may be born again, “not of the water, but of the Spirit.” Then, “not I, but the Christ in me” lives eternally within the heart of the Creator. The world becomes a vale of soul-making when Earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from Heaven. Instead, an economy is opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates even in the shaping of the dust from which our bodies emerge and return. Each becomes, like Christ, a Son or Daughter of God. The Soul gains an identity by making itself particular, learning from the trials of the World aided by the universal Intelligence aflame within it. Soul-making is no less a task for humanity than incarnation is for divinity. To become who we really are: perhaps in this mission both Buddha and Christ are our partners.
I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in an essay to be posted soon!
Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul
By Matthew Segall
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
–Ode to Psyche by John Keats
When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!
-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)
“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.
To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.
Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.
The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.
The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.
Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.
1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96). This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.
The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of God—that may produce the desired transformation.
“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).
Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.
Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”
Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).
There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!—to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.
Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).
What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).
This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).
Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.
The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).
1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)
2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)
3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)
I’ve been having a very stimulating discussion with a Christian theologian named Jason Michael McCann. He has held up a mirror to my ideas and allowed me to see them in a new light. His criticisms are fair and I hope we will each benefit from continued exposure to what may turn out to be radically different readings of the Christian tradition, as well as differing ways of expressing the Christ-impulse at our particular moment in history. I think it is already evident that JMM and I share similar perspectives, but for better or worse, my spiritual speculations and interpretations are unmoored from the venerable doctrines of any particular Creed or Council. I am not very systematic, either, and so to call any of what I do here on this blog “theology” is perhaps misleading. There may be some philosophy here, but I know for a fact there are many analytically-trained philosophers who would dismiss the expressions of my love of wisdom as poetic nonsense. I’m less interested in theo-logic, or any attempt to rationalize or justify a transcendent God, than I am in expressing what Raimon Panikkar has called the “cosmotheandric principle.”
In short, the cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity speaks to me not as a theology, but as an anthropology. This is not because, like Feuerbach, I think God is merely a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Teilhard de Chardin called “personalization.” To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis. (Incidently, Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.)
Perhaps the primary difference thus far uncovered between JMM and I concerns the role of imagination, which is not, for me, unrelated to the nature of the divine-human relationship. I dwell on the spiritual significance of imagination in what follows.
“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk,” writes John Keats in a letter to Shelly. Blake went so far as to call imagination “the Divine Body of lord Jesus, blessed for ever.” Blake saw clearly that the old quarrel between Plato and Homer was alive and well: the abstract philosophy of “Newton’s single vision” was in his day “warring in enmity against Imagination.”
Why is imagination so important? Because it constantly challenges the intellect’s attempts to systematize experience. A deadened imagination lead the Pharisees to place the letter of the law before the Spirit (Mark 2:3-28). Not even stone tablets can survive the fiery caldron of imagination that lights the hearts of the faithful. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which is not to say that scripture should not be read and respected. It is just a reminder that the Spirit’s revelations are ongoing, and that the doctrines codified by learned councils must be balanced by the poetic prayers and visions of mystics.
I believe the incarnation of the Word is an ongoing historical event that is re-making the world from the inside out. Human beings are participants in this divine-cosmic drama, and there is no higher form of worship than divine imitation (humble imitation!). Our task is to imaginatively body-forth an earth whose economy runs on love instead of envy and hate. Not closer adherence to law, but a transformation of the human heart-mind is required.