Here’s the recording of a lecture that Becca Tarnas and I delivered last night for the Atlanta Astrological Society.

Here are some relevant links if you want a more in depth discussion on some of what I mention in this lecture:

The Politics of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the Magic of Science

The Copernican Odyssey: From Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or from the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

Pluto and the Underworld of Scientific Knowledge Production

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

The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology

Plato and Astrosophy: The Wisdom of the Sky

Go read Benjamin Cain’s fascinating and tightly argued essay posted at Three Pound Brain (the blog of author R. Scott Bakker). Below is my comment to him:

That was a thoroughly enjoyable read.


I agree with what may be your most important conclusion: that the real danger “we” face as auto-poetic “minds” is that techno-science is systematically disassembling the “cultural”/”folk psychological” conditions necessary for human ensoulment. The built-environments and electronic media we have surrounded ourselves with are not simply made in “our image”; the machines have also been making us, from the very beginning, into something other than human. The techno-evangelists call this the “transhuman,” but I’m not so sure we in the “developed” world are taking a step “beyond” our “natural” state as pre-scientific social animals.


Whether or not scientific knowledge can really transcend its biocultural conditions in order to speak transparently on behalf of the Facts of Nature, simply believing such a thing were possible has lead in a few short centuries to a total re-visioning of the purpose of human life (=consumerism) and civilization (=techno-capitalism).


Even if our pre-scientific ancestors really partook of something called “life” and had individual “souls” which found themselves in relation to “gods,” this became impossible the moment the techno-scientific utopia finally arrived. Once science dispelled every supposedly meaningful quality in the observable universe, “we” didn’t need “souls” anymore, or at least, we forgot how it was that our ancestors managed to ritually invoke them.


Mythic culture traditionally allowed for collective ceremony and celebration of the sacred marriage of earth and sky. It oriented primal humans to the rhythms of the cosmos upon which they depended (agriculturally for food and spiritually for existential orientation). We are wrong to assume that the imaginations of early humans “projected” meaning onto the patterned movements of earth and sky. Just like modern day machines shape us as we interact with them, impressing their digi-logic into our neuro-logic, the seasonal rhythms of earth and the cosmic revolutions of heaven projected their astro-logic into the imaginations of early humans. True myth was not “made up” by humans; the first human stories were learned by paying very close attention to the language of nature itself. Nowadays, with the stars drowned out by the light of our cities and the animals driven nearly to extinction by other industrial activity, human language has become far more arbitrary, far less archetypal. If nominalism was still entirely false in Plato’s day, it has since become truer in ours.


“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead

Four of us met a few days back to discuss the first 75 pages of Ed Casey’s The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (1998). I’ve heard there will be more of us next time. We talked about several ancient texts: the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristotle’s Physics.

We discussed the potential efficacy of ancient place-making rituals, such as that of the Australian Achilpa tribe (Fate of Place, 5). Can a single staff really found entire worlds? If a society’s world-staff were to break, would the people of that society’s world end? Would they all fall to the ground and die?

What is the modern scientific equivalent of a place-making staff stuck into the center of an aboriginal nomadic campsite? Perhaps it is geometry, the mathesis of points, lines, and planes used to draw the modern map of the globe? But what then is calculative science to make of the incalculable?: of perfect circles, infinite curves, and evolving spirals?; of real black holes and spiral galaxies?; of living organisms?

The modern scientific earth-measuring staff, the Cartesian coordinate grid, was meant to raise the human animal beyond erotic imagination into the heights of disinterested reason. But this staff has broken and can now only be used for firewood. Once turned to ash it should be scattered in a plurality of places. Chaos is the place-maker (not the place-made or the place-less), and its unruliness now and forever rules upon the earth beneath the sky. Chaos is the generative source of each and every topocosm, the place from which all order emerges.

Plato notwithstanding, the demiurge’s perfect forms of geometrical reflection have proven themselves unable to supplant geology and astrology as the philosophical foundations of cosmology. The volcanic instability of the earth and the angelic stability of the sky forbid our human pretenses to cosmic wisdom. We can only love wisdom and follow her; we cannot measure her. She is too deep.

The outer motions of earth and sky always already shape the inner emotions of humanity. We learn the God-poet’s ways first of all from Gaia and Ouranos. All other happenings are their child. We cannot invent geometry inside our heads ex nihilo, measuring the earth in some invented pseudo-space or Void, until we have first marked out our territory in the dirt and built a hut to block out the stars overhead. Only then can we place such heavy concentration on such airy abstractions.

Geometry need not lead to misplaced concreteness, of course. We need only remember that the staffs we plant in the sand can never stand the test of infinite time. Staff planting is a creative gesture, but every such planting already assumes sunlight and warm soil to feed the hand who hammers it. Staff planting is never ex nihilo.

Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003) is a great example of how one might try to weave the living Word into place without getting tied in the literalistic knots of monolithic meaning. When speaking of angels, for example, we can follow her in drawing upon the rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics who turn to angelology in order to refute ex nihilo creation theories. Keller dwells rhapsodically upon the meaning of Elohim (Face of the Deep, 173-182), which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.” Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Angelic/Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase that begins the Biblical book of Genesistohu vabohu, to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder.

The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller, like Casey, reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating. The God-poet, no matter how genius, always sings with a chorus, remaining forever placed in the chora, located in cosmic imagination. No creative act is ever from nothing.

I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Part of her project is to dispel the myth that Bruno was burnt at the stake primarily for his heliocentrism and generally scientific and materialist attitude. This was certainly one of the Roman Inquisitions many accusations, but the real reasons the Church lit his public pyre were political.

…the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand…little attention was paid to philosophical or scientific questions in the interrogation…[instead, stress was laid] on Bruno’s religious mission. (p. 355)

His religious mission was to attend to the creation of the City of the Sun on Earth, which involved practicing the Hermetic arts of magic, astrology, and what after Jung we might call active imagination. This mission also had a political dimension, leading Bruno to ally with the likes of Henry of Navarro, who was to become King Henry IV of France. Bruno saw the potential for a universal reform of the Catholic religion in France, which was fresh off King Henry’s victory against the Spanish-backed Catholic League. Many heretical thinkers in 16th century Europe with more liberal views on religion were hoping Henry would bring peace to a continent ravaged by wars of intolerance. The Catholic Church, of course, had no interest in ceding its power to such a movement. The counter-Reformation was in full force.

Yates also tells the story of Tommaso Campanella, another Hermetic Magus who followed in Bruno’s footsteps by seeking to create the City of the Sun. Campanella lead a rebellion of Dominican monks against Catholic reformers in 1599.

But what did Bruno and Campanella’s religious mission have to do with new scientific ways of thinking and with the Copernican heliocentric theory? Campanella “praises Ptolemaeus and [admires] Copernicus, although Aristarchus and Philolaus were before him (in teaching heliocentricity)” (transl. Yates, p. 372). Both geocentric and heliocentric systems are upheld as worthy of study. Bruno’s primary reasons for holding to the heliocentric perspective were not mathematical or scientific (Ptolemy’s system was still more accurate than Copernicus’ at this point), but magico-symbolic and politico-religious. The return of the heliocentric theory was read by Bruno as an omen, a sign in the sky sent from God, prophesying the coming Golden Age when Europe would be ruled by Philosopher-Magi skilled in calling the winds of justice down to earth from the heavens.

What interests me in Yates’ historical account is the way Bruno was both modern and non-modern in his Hermetic religion: modern in that he affirmed the infinite reality of the universe; non-modern in that an infinite cosmos is the necessary counter-postulate to an infinitely real God. Modern in that he saw the moral necessity of religious freedom, but non-modern in that he felt the universe (or earth-heaven continuum) must be inter-woven throughout with astral spirits and permeated by an anima mundi (or world soul). All the beings in the universe are magically linked through the soul of the world to one another, and also to the One God, who is beyond being. The One beyond being, infinite in itself, is necessarily in relation to the beings of Being. This relation takes place through a series of revelations, beginning with the heavens. God’s infinite Speech/Word is “stepped-down” into the songs of the spiraling stars and dancing planets, which Plato identified with the Cosmic Intelligence of the World Soul. This revelation of the One through and to the many continues through every individual creature of earth, which in its individuality contains in hologrammatic form the entirety of the cosmos. As an earlier Hermetic thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, had intuited, the universe, as a reflection of God, “is a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Yates ends her study on Renaissance magic by asking why it was that the scientific revolution of the 17th century began when it did. She speculates that the Renaissance Hermeticist’s new attitude concerning the place of the human being in the natural world re-directed the will, such that penetrating the secrets of the universe and coming to have mastery over nature no longer seemed so far fetched.

Behind the emergence of modern science there was a new direction of the will towards the world, its marvels, and mysterious workings, a new longing and determination to understand those workings and to operate with them. (Yates, p. 448)

Compare this attitude with that of the 3rd century Church father Tertulian, who argued that those interested in the workings of nature:

persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge their curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather [direct] to their Creator and Governor.

There is a vast difference between the mechanism and mathematics of thinkers like Mersenne and Descartes and the animism and magic of thinkers like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. But the transition between the two is not as clear cut as it would seem from our modern perspective. Like Bruno, many of the supposed fathers of the scientific revolution were deeply interested in occult knowledge. On Nov. 10th, 1619, while still a young man striving to discover a new foundation for knowledge, Descartes had a series of dreams and visions that he believed came from a higher source (Yates, p. 452). He began searching for the elusive Rosicrucian order (a Hermetic society) in Germany in the hope that they might help interpret his visions of a universal science of nature. He finally gave up in 1623 and returned to Paris, though some speculate that he actually did make contact with the secret society and had been initiated into the brotherhood. Kepler was also a rather transitional figure, having studied the Corpus Hermeticum quite closely alongside his astronomical research. Then there is the importance of alchemy to Isaac Newton, which is increasingly well-known: see especially Phillip Fanning’s recent book Isaac Newton and the Transmutation of Alchemy: An Alternative View of the Scientific Revolution (2009).

Yates points out that the early mechanists attempt to distance themselves from the magicians left them with a rather embarrassing problem: if nature was all mechanics, where did the knowing mind of the scientist fit in? The problem was especially pronounced and given its clearest formulation in Descartes infamous dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa. “This bad start of the problem of knowledge,” writes Yates, “has never been quite made up” (p. 454).

Yates goes on:

[The mechanists] may have discarded notions on mind and matter which, however strangely formulated, may be in essence less remote than their own conceptions from some of the thought of today. (p. 455)

Writing in the early 60s, she was well-aware of the paradigm shift continuing to unfold as a result of the quantum revolution:

It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An enquiry into both phases, and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of historical approach to the problems raised by the science of today than the line which concentrates only on the seventeenth-century triumph. Is not all science a gnosis, an insight into the nature of the All, which proceeds by successive revelations? (p. 452)

Might there be room in contemporary science for the return of the anima mundi?