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?

“What is essential in science is movement; deprived of this vital principle, its assertions die like fruit taken from the living tree.” –Schelling, The Ages of the World

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The Copernican Revolution had the exoteric effect of throwing the Earth into motion, decentering human consciousness in the Cosmos. We, like the other planets, became a wanderer lost in the Chaos of empty space. Esoterically, the imaginations of Galileo, Newton, and Descartes steadied the Copernican Chaos by revealing the mathematical order underlying the motion of matter in space—a space poetically conceived of as the sensorium of God, an invisible world-soul uniting all things in His infinite Wisdom. Gravitational motion, celestial and terrestrial, was initiated and sustained by the power of this unmoved Mover. He was imaged to be an intelligent designer, and though the perfection of his plan kept the world-machine in stable order, it was a deterministic order.

Kant‘s Ptolemaic counter-revolution re-framed this new scientific knowledge of mechanical nature in order to leave room for freedom, which he understood to be a practical necessity. Freedom, Kant realized, is the ground and condition for the moral existence of an individual human being, as without it we are but the cogs in a great universal machine. Our movements would not be true animation, since we would be chained to forces external to ourselves. There would be nothing human about us were it not for our capacity to will the good. In a universe determined by the cause and effect of soulless bodies upon one another, Kant saw only one way to salvage our birthright and duty in life: “I have found it necessary to limit knowledge to make room for faith.” The human being was thereby lifted out of the realm of nature into the transcendental ideality of the mind. Knowing the True was sacrificed for willing the Good. Nature became, not the condition of our determinism (nor of our freedom, as Schelling would surmise), but the passive place and matter of our active rise in time toward Providence. As Kant put it, “He who would know the world must first manufacture it.” Nature becomes a mere product to be manufactured.

But scientific knowing would not remain bound by the transcendental limits Kant set for it. The early 19th century brought with it a further revelation about the nature of Earth. The burgeoning sciences of geology and paleontology were revealing the depths of the past out of which the life of our planet had come to be. Fossils of strange creatures no longer living raised the question of species extinction (and therefore also of species generation), long assumed an impossibility within the context of a mathematically perfect machine. Added to our understanding of the position of Earth in space was an understanding of its ancestral genesis. Of all those thinkers to take up Kant’s philosophical trajectory, perhaps it was Schelling who most clearly grasped the significance of these sciences of deep time.

Iain Hamilton Grant argues that Schelling sought a geocentric philosophy even more radical than Kant’s. If Earth had been around for hundreds of millions, if not billions of years before the human mind, then the latter could not claim to be its transcendental condition. On the contrary, Earth was the ground from which the human mind had emerged, and if the transcendental conditions of its freedom were sought, they must be discovered in the materiality of Earth itself. Schelling’s naturephilosophy accomplishes this without an eliminativist strategy.

The body of Earth, of course, has also come to be in time. It is itself still conditioned, and so cannot be the unconditioned ground of mind that Schelling is after. As Plato recognized in the Timaeus, there is more to matter than meets the eye. The Idea cannot enter into space and time as an already finished thing, but comes to be through the infinitely receptive productivity of the Receptacle, the mother of all forms, which itself remains formless. Corporeal matter is only the visible half of this “wet-nurse” allowing ideas to materialize and is not itself the source of invisible mind. “Beneath,” or “behind,” or “before” the ground of Earth and all the living bodies upon it, Schelling discovered the primordial abyss (ungrounding) of nature itself. As he put it: “Nature IS a priori,” or “Nature is subject.”

The abyssal dynamism of nature is hidden from view, but its incorporeal power allows ideality to participate in materiality. Through what Plato called “the becoming of being,” the Idea is eternally made Real. How such a seeming contradiction should be possible is difficult to understand; for Plato, it was the highest and most secret teaching.

“Everything,” says Schelling, “begins in darkness” (The Ages of the World). This darkness is the essence of God, that oldest of all beings. But in God there is both an essential (and so necessary) darkness as well as a spontaneous (and so free) light. God is both a Great No and a Great Yes, an eternal return onto self and an eternal giving of self. Without this contradiction, there could be no motion, no life, no genesis or creation. All of visible nature, for Schelling, is an image of this ever forthgoing and returning movement of invisible spirit: “This is the center, the hearth of the life which is continually perishing in its own flames and rejuvenating itself anew from the ash” (ibid.).

At every level of creation, in every creature, the image of eternity is recapitulated. A tree comes forth from a root and grows fruit, which falls to the ground depositing a seed in the soil to take root again. As for a human being, “it is certain that whoever could write the history of his own life from its very ground, would have thereby grasped in a brief conspectus the history of the universe” (ibid.).

…to be continued…

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.