The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

The road toward truth is circuitous and winding, and passes through many realms. It may be that this path will lead you not outward to the world of objective facts and figures but deep inward, to a realm residing in the soul. This realm has been given innumerable names: the mundus imaginalis, the world of the imagination, Faërie, or by one seer of this Secondary World: Middle-Earth. It is a place we all have been at some point in our lives, and it takes a myriad of forms. Yet some wanderers may choose to linger on the misty, sylvan paths under Faërie’s diamond stars longer than others, revealing enchanted truths and realities hidden to those who choose to remain almost exclusively in the world of common day.

A mythology wields great power and has a desire to be told: thus it became the task of one English philologist, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to imagine the mythic world of Middle-Earth into being. During the decades when he crafted Middle-Earth Tolkien often felt as though the mythology was not being made by him, but rather coming through him. In part to explain this experience, Tolkien described his building of Middle-Earth as a Sub-creation, an intertwined outpouring of both invention and inspiration. These ideas, and the power of the imagination to create reality, relate closely to the philosophical explorations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his delineations of the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, their relationship to each other, and their ultimate source.


Tolkien composed a world with roots deeply grown into the rich soils of our own world; to achieve this, he employed the powers of language, cartography, history, and legend. Yet, as the willing reader steps through the page into Middle-Earth, the landscape and peoples one encounters seem to have a life of their own, as if a spark of vitality had been breathed by a Primary Creator into the realm Tolkien wove from the resources of his own genius. Whether humanity was indeed given life and form by an ultimate Creator or not, we have been endowed with the ability to create in our own right; sometimes these creations may be gifted their own life and become as real as we are, while still residing within a Secondary World accessible through the imagination that bridges to our Primary World. Why some of our creations are granted such life and others not is a mystery beyond my ability to fathom, but it could perhaps be that some are meant to have their own life and truth, an idea which Tolkien expresses in The Lord of the Rings through Gandalf, when he speaks to Frodo about Bilbo’s finding of the Ring of Power:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.[1]

It too may be that Tolkien was meant to bring the mythology of Middle-Earth into being through his writing, and as such it was given the authenticity and truth that so many feel when they traverse its woods and mountains, and converse with its inhabitants as they walk along their roads.

As Henry Corbin points out, the current predominant usage of “the term ‘imaginary’ is equated with the unreal, with something that is outside the framework of being and existing.”[2] Yet one may find quite the opposite: the imaginary, or the imaginal, exists in the innermost place of our souls, and thus is internal and intrinsic to the outer world we call reality. Tolkien is an avid explorer of this realm, which he sometimes calls Faërie, and seems to attest to its reality in an almost off-hand way in his essay “On Fairy Stories.”[3] Tom Shippey sees this as a sign of Tolkien talking down to his readers: “Repeatedly he plays the trick of pretending that fairies are real––they tell ‘human stories’ instead of ‘fairy stories,’ they put on plays for men ‘according to abundant records,’ and so on.”[4] While this could certainly be interpreted that way, it seems rather that Tolkien may actually be describing what he knows of Faërie, as a genuine traveler in the perilous realm. Tolkien valued viewing the world symbolically and mythically, perceiving reality as a whole through the organ of the imagination.[5] As Peter Beagle writes, “I believe that Tolkien has wandered in Middle-Earth” and that he “believes in his world, and in all those who inhabit it.”[6] For Tolkien, Beagle, and many others, Middle-Earth was not “created, for it was always there.”[7]

Tolkien’s own experience of writing was that he was “recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[8] He also expressed that “the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch.”[9] This has, of course, been the experience of countless artists over the centuries in moments of high inspiration. Norris Clarke writes of these creative experiences, saying, “It felt, they say, as though they were tuned in or connected to some higher power which somehow took over and flowed through them.”[10] What this higher power may be, and how it relates to the imagination, can better be understood by contemplating Coleridge’s philosophical delineations of Primary Imagination, Secondary Imagination, and Fancy.

Other authors, such as Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and R.J. Reilly, have observed the connection between the imagined world of Faërie, and Coleridge’s “esemplastic imagination.” Reilly describes such imagined realms as “Romantic” because they exist for their own sake, and as such have an inherent relationship or agreement with Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination.[11] Faërie is a creation of the Secondary Imagination, which in turn is an echo of the Primary Imagination, what Coleridge holds “to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”[12] The Primary and Secondary Imaginations differ from each other only in degree and mode but not in kind, yet the Secondary is “co-existing with the conscious will” of the human being.[13] While the Primary Imagination can be understood as operating in the mind of the divine Creator, and thus bringing the world as we know it into being, the Secondary Imagination is that same imaginative power operating through the human mind. Owen Barfield, a friend of Tolkien’s and a fellow member of their literary circle “the Inklings,” explored Coleridge’s thought deeply in this area. Barfield explains that the Primary Imagination is an act that we, as human beings, are not conscious of, and when we are conscious of it as our own creative agency it becomes the Secondary Imagination.[14]

The Secondary Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”[15] and “struggles to idealize and to unify.”[16] As an extension of the Primary Imagination responsible for creating reality, the Secondary Imagination also has the ability to create reality, but of a different degree: imaginal reality. This is, for example, why Corbin chose the term mundus imaginalis to differentiate what is just “made up” from “the object of imaginative or imagining perception.”[17] This concept indicates that the product of the Secondary Imagination has a reality of its own, because its ultimate source, like reality, is the Primary Imagination, only it is created through the agency of the human being. Tolkien uses the term “Sub-creation” to refer to the product of the Secondary Imagination, because the result is created under an ultimate Creator.

In addition to the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, Coleridge also writes of Fancy, which is “no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.”[18] Barfield notes that Coleridge seems to not have explicitly segregated Fancy from Imagination, for at times he appears to write of them differing entirely in kind, and at others in degree, comparable to the distinction between Primary and Secondary Imagination.[19] The difference between the product of Fancy, compared to Imagination, could be seen as the difference between something that is just “made up” and a living imaginal world, a true mundus imaginalis.

Tolkien himself addresses the differences between Imagination and Fancy in his essay “On Fairy Stories” and although he does not refer directly to Coleridge, it is clear, as Shippey points out, that Coleridge is whom he is addressing. While Tolkien has comparable, if not identical, definitions of these terms, as a philologist he disagrees with Coleridge’s choice of names. Tolkien asserts that the image-making faculty is the Imagination, and any difference in kind marked by Coleridge between Fancy and Imagination, Tolkien feels solely belongs to a difference in degree. What gives the “inner consistency of reality”[20] to Imagination, the same reality the product of Coleridge’s Imagination has, Tolkien calls Art. Art conjoins with Imagination to create the final result, Sub-creation. The word Tolkien chooses to fully encompass Imagination and the resulting Sub-creative Art, perhaps out of philological jest with Coleridge, is Fantasy, an older form of the diminished word Fancy.[21] Tolkien acknowledged that “fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,”[22] is difficult to achieve: in order to be true Fantasy it must have an inner consistency of reality flowing through the sub-creator’s imagination and into the Secondary World.

A successful sub-creator brings into being a world which both the spectator and designer may enter, a world that has its own laws by which it operates. As long as every facet of the imaginal realm follows these laws, the inner reality of the world remains intact and the world is true.[23] Because of this, for Tolkien, it is essential that all stories about such Secondary Worlds are presented as truth––not as a dream, or some other unreal whimsical creation.[24] For Coleridge, the richness of art is dependent on the unity provided by the Secondary Imagination: it will be “rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.”[25] The unity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is held together because each landscape, creature, and name has a consistency that he has forged into the very structure of his world. Furthermore, when the imaginal world is consistent with itself it creates for the reader what Tolkien calls Secondary Belief, or Enchantment.[26] Thus it is as enchanted humans that we walk the glades and forests of Middle-Earth.

What ultimately gives reality to Secondary Art is that it is consistent not only with itself, but also with what Tolkien and Shippey refer to as Primary Art.[27] If the source of Secondary Art is the human imagination, the source of Primary Art is the divine Imagination, or what Coleridge calls the Primary Imagination. For Tolkien, Primary Art is synonymous with Creation, or Truth.[28] For a sub-created Secondary World, or Fantasy, to be true it then must echo the Primary World, as Colin Duriez writes, capturing in its “imaginative accuracy […] some of the depths and splendor of the Primary World.”[29] Fantasy is crafted out of the Primary World, just as the painter or sculptor’s materials are drawn from nature.[30] But in the Fantasy realm we are able to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[31] Tolkien shows the overlap between our own world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[32] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. After all, as Beagle remarks, the same forces that shape our own lives shape the lives of those in Middle-Earth: “history, chance and desire,”[33] and so forth. When we lead our lives in response to these forces, whether or not we find ourselves in Faërie depends on our level of enchantment, or our Secondary Belief.

Tolkien’s initial desire behind his decades of imaginative effort was to create a mythology for England, which he felt lacked a myth comparable to the great Norse and Greek traditions.[34] England did have the Arthurian legends, but these he felt did not suffice, in part because they contained Christianity, and in part because they were not rooted in the ancient languages of England. Tolkien’s objection to religion in myth is based on his sense that the contours of religious doctrine should only exist implicitly within Fantasy, sunk deep into the morality and actions of the characters. He writes of the Arthurian myth that

it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.[35]

Like the religious element, language also plays a foundational role in the development of Middle-Earth, rooted deeply into the world’s symbolism and structures.  To forge a world like Middle-Earth, and bring it to the level of a mythology, Tolkien drew simultaneously on invention and inspiration, which seem to be the two major ingredients of Sub-creation. Through invention he built up the world of Middle-Earth from the myths, legends, and languages of Europe. As Patrick Curry writes, Middle-Earth “was a co-creation, in partnership with some very old and durable cultural materials.”[36] Yet it was inspiration that breathed life into the world Tolkien had constructed, giving it its unique characteristics and a vitality of its own.

In some ways invention can be seen as related to Coleridge’s notion of Fancy, and inspiration to the Imagination. Fancy is memory disconnected from time and space, and can only draw on what has been experienced.[37] “Fancy is the aggregating power,” as Barfield writes, “it combines and aggregates given units of already conscious experience; whereas the secondary imagination ‘modifies’ the units themselves.”[38] On the other hand, inspiration, like Imagination, almost seems to have a divine source that pours through the sub-creator and imbues the creation with life and individuality. An example of the difference between Fancy and Imagination, invention and inspiration, can be seen in the race of Ents in Middle-Earth. As invented by Fancy, an Ent is just a talking tree, a rearrangement of the idea “tree” by giving it the human property of “speech.” The word “Ent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word enta uncovered by Tolkien in his philological research.[39] At this stage Ents are perhaps an interesting etymological find, something to peak one’s curiosity, but as of yet certainly not a living being. But through the power of imaginative inspiration, the invented concept of Ent suddenly comes alive as the bark-skinned Treebeard, also named Fangorn, the oldest living being to walk under the sun. It is truly an enchanted transformation. Ents are bestowed life and step forth as a race of creatures, tree-herders, shepherds of the forests, with a long tragic history of their own, speaking in a slow, rhythmic language of names compiled over the Ages of the World.

Fancy, without the influence of Imagination, also has ties to another form of artistic creation, one which Tolkien said he “cordially dislike[d] […] in all its manifestations”: allegory.[40] By having a prescribed intention––whether a moral, lesson, or message––or by telling an old story in the same configuration but with new names, allegory undermines the freedom of the reader to experience a story as an entity in itself, a self-contained reality. Allegory, by its very nature, undermines truth. Corbin draws out the difference between allegory and genuine Image when he writes, “Allegory […] is a cover, or rather a travesty of something that is already known or at least knowable in some other way; whereas, the appearance of an Image that can be qualified as a symbol is a primordial phenomenon.”[41] Great imaginative works cannot be reduced simply to a moral message or lesson, they have a life of their own, an inherent autonomy beyond the will of the author.[42]

Despite his dislike of allegory, Tolkien did write at least one in his career, but it served the purpose of encouraging him to continue his work on The Lord of the Rings, and offered an image of his hope for the world of Middle-Earth. This was the little tale Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a painter, who can be equated with Tolkien the writer, who spends his life working on a detailed painting of a tree.

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.[43]

Shippey sees in the allegory that the Leaf is Tolkien’s first book The Hobbit, his Tree The Lord of the Rings, and the landscape behind as all the other stories that make up The Silmarillion and fill in the vastness of Middle-Earth.[44] However, the most remarkable part of the story is when it seems to leave the realm of allegory altogether. Niggle goes on a great journey, which is synonymous with death, and after some time in a hospitalized form of purgatory, he is sent to an oddly familiar country which he suddenly recognizes:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. […] All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were many others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.[45]

By stepping into an enchanted realm, Niggle’s work becomes real, the invented becomes the imagined, and he can stand in the shade of his own Tree. The Tree, whether an allegory for The Lord of the Rings, or for fairy story in general, is aptly chosen: the philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the tree as a symbol of the imagination, an imagination with the gift to create worlds.

The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…[46]

Trees not only have high branches but also long roots, and the roots of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth run deep, drawing nourishment from the soil of our own Primary World.

Like most cultural myths, Middle-Earth is rooted in language, but unlike the ancient cultures in which stories and languages evolved simultaneously, Middle-Earth is a philological re-creation, a laying of stonework far older than the hands that built it.[47] Tolkien was as well-equipped as any builder to undertake the task: as a philologist who taught at Oxford and Leeds, he knew twenty languages to varying degrees, and during his lifetime invented another fourteen as well as a variety of scripts.[48] He reconstructed words and names from almost forgotten linguistic origins, drawing on fragments of words from poems and texts that had once formed legends.[49] Tolkien writes in one letter of his Middle-Earth myths:

These tales are “new,” they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of “truth.”[50]

For Tolkien reconstruction was the work of invention, but as he would have known, the root of the word “invention” comes from the Latin invenire, meaning “to find.”[51] So for him invention certainly was not “making up,” but rather “discovering,” an experience he mentioned many times when reflecting on writing the mythology of Middle-Earth. He was not only discovering the different names and languages in the Primary World and reconfiguring them: he seemed also to be discovering Middle-Earth itself, a complete world existing already in the Primary Imagination, coming into form through Tolkien’s own Secondary Imagination.

In approaching The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began with the map, which gave a solid foundation for the world before he and his characters embarked on their adventures. As in the Primary World, the names of places on the map were crafted out of descriptions of the places; these, in turn, were then worn down into names used in other languages, but no longer holding a meaning beyond the given places.[52] Whether called Tookland, Nobottle, Wetwang, Dunharrow, Gladden, Silverlode, or Limlight each place has its history within and outside of Middle-Earth.[53]

The name Middle-Earth itself, related to the Norse Midgard, actually came to Tolkien through an Old English poem called Crist by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. Two lines particularly caught Tolkien’s eye:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
offer middangeard monnum sended.

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.[54]

Not only was the name Middle-Earth present as middangeard, but the name Earendel stood out to Tolkien as well, a name which became Eärendil in The Silmarillion; Eärendil was the father of Elrond, bearer of the last Silmaril, the evening star most beloved by the Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are drawn from the legends and myths of immemorable age that pervade cultures across Europe.[55] Tolkien drew on many aspects of the lore of Elves and Dwarves, presenting both the peril and beauty of the Elves, the longevity and gold-mongering of the Dwarves.[56] His emphasis on spelling “Elves” and “Dwarves” in the ancient manner, as opposed to “elfs” and “dwarfs,” further deepened their roots in history.[57] His invented languages were also based on the languages of Europe; the two Elvish tongues were his most developed vocabulary, with the more common Sindarin Elvish rooted in Welsh, and the High Elvish Quenya drawing on Finnish structures.

Because Middle-Earth was to be a mythology for England, Tolkien drew deeply from the waters of the Anglo-Saxon well: the Rohirrim were based in part on Anglo-Saxons, and the name Eorl is from a line of Old English poetry; other names such as Eomer and Eowyn, as well as the term eored for a troop of horses, all stem from the word eoh meaning “horse.”[58] Tolkien even embedded linguistic changes in the history of Middle-Earth itself. For example, before Eorl the Young brought the Rohirrim from the North to inhabit the Gondorian plains of Rohan, the names of Rohirric leaders had Gothic origins: Vidugavia, Vidumavi, Marhwini.[59] Only after they enter into allegiance with Gondor do the Rohirrim take on Anglo-Saxon names. Both the words “Ent” and “Woses” appeared in Old English poetry, and in Middle-Earth the Rohirrim are appropriately situated between the Entish woods of Fangorn, and the Druadan Forest in which the Woses dwell to the South.[60]

Tolkien’s perfectionism touched every word he wrote in The Lord of the Rings, and he even attended to such details as the direction of the blowing wind and the cycling phases of the moon. He wanted his readers to feel as though they had stepped into history.[61] All of his attention to the distinctions of locality, as Curry describes,

contributes greatly to the uncanny feeling, shared by many of his readers, of actually having been there, and knowing it from the inside, rather than simply having read about it––the sensation, as one put it, of “actually walking, running, fighting and breathing in Middle-Earth.”[62]

Beagle captures beautifully the interwoven intricacy of Middle-Earth, the miniscule details discovered to invent it, and the natural reality they express when fused together as a unified whole: “The structure of Tolkien’s world is as dizzyingly complex and as natural as a snowflake or a spiderweb.”[63] Inspiration unifies the invented parts into an organic whole, thereby animating them. Tolkien writes in one letter, “I have long ceased to invent. […] I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”[64] In another letter, this one to W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes,

I daresay something had been going on in the “unconscious” for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through.[65]

As Shippey observed, Tolkien seemed to labor at invention until he reached a moment when he could go no further. Somehow, in that moment inspiration would take over and life would fill the creation he had built; he would then be led into the adventure with just as much bewilderment as his literary companions.[66] It was, as Tolkien calls it, the “fusion-point of imagination,”[67] where invention and inspiration meet and something new is born.

The race of people that set Middle-Earth apart most from all other manifestations of Faërie were not invented from European legends. They seemed to have arrived fully formed, already inhabiting their little Northwestern corner of Tolkien’s world. These were the Hobbits. As Tolkien writes on several occasions, the origin of Hobbits is unknown, even to themselves.[68] In the now well-known pivotal moment, Tolkien was grading exams one summer’s day when he unexpectedly wrote on a blank sheet: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”[69] As Shippey notes, Hobbits are “pure inspiration” [70] without a trace of invention to them. Tolkien of course quickly gave them philological roots, connecting “Hobbit” to the Old English word hol-bytla, meaning “hole-dweller.”[71] He went further, setting the Hobbits in an English style of life, seemingly far more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth extending beyond the Shire. Even the names of the Hobbits have echoes of English culture; for example, the name Baggins echoes the English word “baggins” meaning afternoon tea, or any food eaten in between meals, of which Hobbits are rather fond.[72] “The implication,” writes Shippey, “is that the inspiration was a memory of something that could in reality have existed.”[73]

Hobbits, in many ways, are more human than the Men in Middle-Earth, and offer us modern readers a window into their world. They provided the link for Tolkien to connect the Elvish mythologies recorded in The Silmarillion to the world presented in The Hobbit; the result was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits put “earth under the feet of ‘romance,’”[74] and as readers we are invited to walk with them.

While Fantasy, as Sub-created Art, can be expressed through many art forms, Tolkien felt Fantasy was “best left to words, to true literature.”[75] Literature allows the imagination to flourish at every level, from the author writing it, to each individual reader imagining what the author presents in her or his own unique way. Tolkien writes, “every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”[76] It is as though author and reader alike are drawing on an archetypal realm of the imagination, and each of the images they produce of this world adds another layer of dimensionality, bringing it further into reality. As Reilly writes, “Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.”[77]

When the imagination of the reader participates in the Secondary World, the reader then becomes part of that world as well. Beagle writes on his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, “Something of ourselves has gone into reading it, and so it belongs to us.”[78] He goes on to say the book “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.[79] The meaning of the work, as Reilly says, resides between the “art work and the perceiving subject”[80] and ultimately lies in the “freedom of the reader.”[81]As readers we also become sub-creators of the Secondary World, as our own imaginations pour forth into our experience of it.

As Duriez expresses, and as a Roman Catholic Tolkien surely believed, our human ability to be sub-creators derives from our being made in God’s image.[82] Tolkien confirms his belief in this when he writes in “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[83] Sub-creation is the imagining of God’s world after God[84] but, as Clarke writes, expanding the “limited boundaries of the real world in which we presently live by creating something really new, never experienced by humans before,”[85] and thus enhancing human life. Indeed, Tolkien writes that “liberation ‘from the channels the creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation,’ a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.”[86] For Tolkien, God was, in a way, creating Middle-Earth through him, which may be why he felt like he was discovering a world already in existence.

In one of the last years of Tolkien’s life he received a letter from a man, which he describes as follows: This man

[…] classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling […] but you [Tolkien],’ he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.’ I [Tolkien] can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And […] you would [not] perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also.[87]

Beagle too was perceiving something of this quality of Tolkien’s work when he wrote about the music that “springs from the center of this world.”[88] Tolkien’s living imagination, flowing from what Coleridge called the Primary Imagination, sprang up alive in the heart of Middle-Earth. It was almost as though the story were asking to be written. For example, Tolkien had a recurrent dream of “the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.”[89] He eventually wrote this dream into Middle-Earth, giving it as a dream to Faramir, but also capturing it more fully in the “Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion. Interestingly, once he did write it, the dream ceased recurring. It was as though the dream, possibly coming from the Primary Imagination, needed to become a reality, and once revealed through Tolkien it could rest.

In the lecture Tolkien gave which eventually became the essay “On Fairy Stories,” he expressed his wish that one day the mythology of Middle-Earth would be discovered to be “true,”[90] as he felt the possibility that all myths might be in some realm other than our own.[91] Indeed, it was because of the link Tolkien saw between human creativity and divine making, that he felt “all tales may come true.”[92] Many critics have accused Tolkien’s stories of being escapist, and not having a clear message for the modern world, but as Curry points out, “It offers not an ‘escape’ from our world, this world, but hope for its future.”[93] So indeed maybe all myths may come true, and Middle-Earth will be a reality, in another realm not of space, but of time, possibly a time in our distant future.

At last perhaps we can return to Tolkien’s little allegory, “Leaf by Niggle,” to better understand what he meant. Niggle is joined in the country he painted by his neighbor Parish, who never much appreciated his painting when they had been alive together. Yet when he realizes that it was Niggle who dreamt up the country they are now in he remarks:

“But it did not look like this then, not real,” said Parish.

“No, it was only a glimpse then,” said the man; “but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try.”[94]

Whenever Tolkien uses the word “glimpse” he frequently seems to be referring to the gleam of truth that shines through Fantasy, whether it is in Niggle’s story, in the preliminary sketches of his plots, or in his definition of Fantasy as “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds.”[95] Tolkien believed that “there is no higher function for man than the ‘sub-creation’ of a Secondary World”[96] because, as Shippey writes, “it might be mankind’s one chance to create a vision of Paradise which would be true in the future if never in the past.”[97] For Tolkien, the human imagination had the power to create a new Paradise, because he saw the Secondary Imagination as an echo of God’s Imagination, and as it worked through him he felt he was ultimately doing the creative work of God.


Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2005.
Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Clarke, Norris. “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity.” In The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas, 191-208. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906.
Corbin, Henry. “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal.” Translated by Ruth Horine. En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7. Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971.
Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997.
Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Languages in Tolkien’s World. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2002.
Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
Reilly, R.J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971.
Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
–––––. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 
–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 54-55.

[2] Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” trans. Ruth Horine, En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7 (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971), 1.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 33.

[4] Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 49.

[5] Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 178.

[6] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xvi.

[7] Ibid, ix.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 145.

[9] Tolkien, Letters, 104.

[10] Norris Clarke, “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity,” in The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009), 203.

[11] R.J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 8.

[12] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971), 77.

[15] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 159.

[16] Ibid, 160.

[17] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10.

[18] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[19] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 82.

[20] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, 68.

[21] Ibid, 68.

[22] Ibid, 64

[23] Ibid, 60.

[24] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41-42.

[25] Coleridge, qtd. in Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 81.

[26] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 73.

[27] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 93.

[28] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 89.

[29] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[30] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[31] Ibid, 77.

[32] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 38.

[33] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[34] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 97.

[35] Tolkien, Letters, 144.

[36] Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997), 134.

[37] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[38] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 86.

[39] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 131.

[40] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[41] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10-11.

[42] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 186.

[43] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 101.

[44] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 43.

[45] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 113.

[46] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[47] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57.

[48] Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 3-4.

[49] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 48-49.

[50] Tolkien, Letters, 147.

[51] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 25.

[52] Ibid, 101.

[53] Ibid, 103.

[54] Cynewulf, qtd. in Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, 4.

[55] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57-58

[56] Ibid, 59-61.

[57] Ibid, 56.

[58] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 20-21.

[59] Ibid, 15.

[60] Ibid, 131.

[61] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 198-99.

[62] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 27.

[63] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xi.

[64] Tolkien, Letters, 231.

[65] Ibid, 212.

[66] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 104.

[67] Tolkien, qtd. in Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 63.

[68] Tolkien, Letters, 158.

[69] Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 175.

[70] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 65.

[71] Ibid, 66.

[72] Ibid, 72.

[73] Ibid, 67.

[74] Tolkien, Letters, 215.

[75] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 70.

[76] Ibid, 95, n E.

[77] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 195.

[78] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[79] Ibid, xii.

[80] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 196.

[81] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[82] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 72.

[83] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 75.

[84] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 198.

[85] Clarke, “The Creative Imagination,” 205.

[86] Tolkien, Letters, 188. This particular letter by Tolkien was in response to a fellow Catholic, Peter Hastings, who felt that a sub-creator should not diverge “from the channels the creator is known to have used already,” as Tolkien did when he wrote about the reincarnation of Elves. He continued in his response to Hastings to say “But I do not see how even in the Primary World any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of reincarnation as a mode of existence, prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures.”

[87] Tolkien, Letters, 413.

[88] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xv.

[89] Tolkien, Letters, 213.

[90] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195

[91] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 214.

[92] Tolkien, qtd. in Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[93] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 33.

[94] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 117.

[95] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 64

[96] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195.

[97] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 53.

Ecopsychology: Finding Our Home in the Earth

The human species has only one home in the cosmos, one place that has intimately nourished us into existence, has made us the powerful, independent beings we are. Our home is day by day falling further into illness, a body and soul sickness descending toward death that can be felt by each person with the sensitivity or openness to perceive it. The planet Earth is suffering and, often without awareness of the connection, her inhabitants suffer with her. Humanity needs to awaken to the intimate interconnection and dependence of the collective psyche of the Earth, or the anima mundi, of which each of our psyches are an integral part. Together the Earth and humanity need to heal, and simultaneously move towards a wholeness in which we each have the sense of security of truly being home in our world.

The healing that must take place begins on the individual level, but can only be true healing when placed within the context of the whole. An approach to this healing that has been emerging over the last few decades is the field of ecopsychology, a psychology of the human soul taken within the context of the anima mundi, the larger ensouled world. The term “ecopsychology” was coined by the cultural historian Theodore Roszak to broaden the context of psychology and marry it to the study of ecology. The root eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “home,” and psyche comes from the Greek for “soul” or “animating spirit”; thus ecopsychology could be seen as a study of the ensouled home, or the study of the soul at home.

The modern West, inheriting the Cartesian dualism of a split between spirit and matter, has come to see the human being as an isolated island of subjectivity experiencing a soulless, inanimate world. As humanity has become increasingly individualistic during the modern era, our sense of alienation from the Earth, and ultimately the cosmos, has increased as well.[1] “An existential uncertainty haunts the modern psyche,”[2] as the ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak writes, as a result of this alienation and sense of homelessness. For the modern human, the environment is considered to be “out there,”[3] the “background for economic purposes”[4] from which we are almost completely dissociated.[5] At most, the world may cause profound suffering for the human, but it does not suffer itself, for it has no inherent subjectivity.[6]

For the millions of humans who spend the majority of their lives within the concrete confines of cities, this dissociation from the natural world deprives the soul of an essential contact that makes the human being whole and healthy.[7] Yet merely leaving the urban setting to visit a protected wilderness is not enough to heal the afflicted soul, for the Earth itself carries the sickness of the disconnection and, as the “geologian” Thomas Berry writes, “… the health of the planet is primary while human health is derivative. We cannot have well people on a sick planet.”[8] The disease, as the archetypal psychologist James Hillman observes, is in both the person and the world.[9] The suffering Earth is speaking her pain through us, and as Sarah Conn has perceived, she “speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us.”[10]

In most contemporary psychology, an individual experiencing “pain for the world” is considered to be projecting their inner turmoil onto the inanimate environment outside.[11] Any desire to connect in a more meaningful way with the Earth, such as speaking in conversation with the voices of nature, could indicate a certain instability of sanity in the individual. Roszak points out that little has furthered the agenda of industrial civilization more than the repression of the ensouled animation of the cosmos .[12]

The human relationship to the Earth in the West has become deeply riddled with pathologies as we almost blindly continue the unchecked destruction of our only home. The psychotherapist Ralph Metzner identifies some of humanity’s collective psychological disorders in his book Green Psychology, ranging from autism, to addiction, narcissism, amnesia, developmental fixation, repression, dissociation, and anthropocentrism. We have lost our ability for empathy and humility, our perception, and our sense of mystery.[13] Hillman extends the vision of collective pathologies beyond the human sphere entirely, recognizing our psychological diseases manifesting in the world itself, in our food, our politics, our medicine, and even our language.[14] He writes of “addictive” agriculture, “paranoid” businesses, “anorexic” or “catatonic” buildings, and “manic” consumption.[15] Because, in some form or other, all people in industrial society participate in this pathological system, we become prone to these same diseases for the very reason these pathologies try to repress: we are intimately interconnected with every part of the world we inhabit. Conn, a practicing ecopsychologist, sees the symptoms of her patients “as ‘signals’ of distress in our connection with the larger context or as a defect in the larger context itself.”[16] Whether we can identify the source or not, as the environmental activist Joanna Macy expresses, no one is exempt from this pain.[17] For those who can understand the source of their pain, of their pathology, the ability to fully act on behalf of the Earth has often been so long denied it must be aroused by deep healing work, a profound therapy of the psyche.[18]

In a personal correspondence to Roszak, the Australian rainforest activist John Seed speaks of the role therapy can play in the environmental movement: “Psychologists in service to the Earth helping ecologists to gain deeper understanding of how to facilitate profound change in the human heart and mind seems to be the key at this point.”[19] Until quite recently, the scope of psychotherapy “stopped at the city limits,”[20] but with the advent of ecopsychology, and other forms of reconnection between humanity and the Earth, as put forward by Roszak, Hillman, Berry, Macy, Conn, Metzner, and many others, that scope is at last broadening.[21] Ecopsychology addresses the alienation felt by the modern human, and seeks to repair the sense of homelessness in the cosmos.[22]

In assessing the pathological relationship modern humanity has with nature, Metzner questions whether some collective trauma, sustained from the terrors faced by early humans in the natural world, may have led to a form of shared amnesia and repression that severed our perception of the interconnection and harmony of the cosmos.[23] If so, our healing process will have to address this trauma and begin to rebuild a new trust in the Earth. Like early humans we are still fully dependent on the Earth, but we hold far more power than primal peoples once did; with this power comes equal responsibility, for now not only is our survival dependent on the Earth, but the Earth’s survival has also become dependent upon us. One will not continue without the other, and as Berry describes, this “…is a community project. Only the community survives; nothing survives as an individual.”[24]

A prevalent belief in Western civilization is that to address the needs beyond our individual selves we must first have our own lives together.[25] Yet, because of the deep, though often veiled, interconnection of the human to the Earth, healing of the human and the planet must take place simultaneously.[26] There cannot be a divorce between the two, for they are really one. Healing, as Conn writes, is “an exploration of ways to remember our wholeness, to reconnect with other humans and with the natural world.”[27] We are not separate entities living on the Earth, but as the ecophilosopher David Abram observes, we are actually living in the Earth, walking hundreds of miles below the outer layers of the atmosphere.[28] Our bodies our composed of the same elements as the Earth, the same as the entire cosmos. “We were mothered out of the substance of this planet,” Roszak writes, “Her elements, her periodicities, her gravitational embrace, her subtle vibrations still mingle in our nature, worked a billion years down into the textures of life and mind.”[29]

If we are composed of the substance of the Earth, then not only our bodies but our psyches as well must be one with the Earth’s; we are differentiated souls forming and participating in one larger soul, the anima mundi.[30] Our minds, rather than being solely our own, are rather facets of the consciousness of the planet, “…a power,” as Abram writes, “in which we are carnally immersed.”[31] Conn discusses Arthur Koestler’s term “holon,” which indicates a self which is simultaneously a real individual but also an integral part of a larger whole.[32] Each human psyche is a holon within the greater context of the anima mundi.

Hillman, the champion of soul and the anima mundi, sees the world soul as pervading all things, not only the natural world but each human-made object as well, animating trees, rivers, mountains, lions, and butterflies, but also the concrete roads, street lamps, bridges, buildings, and books and pencils too.[33] We are forever caught in a dance of animating each other, human projecting upon the world, the world projecting upon the human, and also the world projecting upon all other facets of itself.[34] Because of this living interplay we are able to perceive the Earth’s suffering within ourselves, feeling it as our own, because it is our own. Hillman recognizes that “the soul of the individual can never advance beyond the soul of the world, because they are inseparable, the one always implicating the other.”[35]

As humanity broadens its sense of self to encompass the Earth, our care for self will extend to the planet as well.[36] If we approach Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, as a part of the larger anima mundi, we can begin to uncover what Roszak calls the “ecological unconscious.”[37] The ecological unconscious can “be drawn upon as a resource for restoring us to environmental harmony.”[38] This can lead to the development of what Arne Naess has named the “ecological self,” a conception of the individual self always identified with and embedded in the larger context of the Earth environment.[39]

One way to develop the ecological self and tap into the ecological unconscious is through the ecopsychological practice of bioregionalism.[40] A bioregion is an area of land defined not by human boundaries but by the contours and features of the land itself, often a watershed, land enclosed by bodies of water, or changes in climate or elevation. By coming to intimately know the features of the bioregion in which we each make our home, we can develop a sense of place and belonging, a connection to the spirit of the land which is the spirit in us as well.[41] If we acquaint ourselves with the soul of the land, we can come to know the anima mundi and thus come to know ourselves.[42] Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[43]

Part of the process of ecopsychology is actively engaging with the land, engaging with respect, or looking again to see what we could not previously. Conn describes some of the ways in which we can engage, from gardening and restoration work, to participating with environmental groups, to conducting rituals in nature.[44] Each of these practices connects us to our bioregion, rebuilding a sense of home and harmony. Conn concludes her essay “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” by saying:

The goals of therapy then include not only the ability to find joy in the world, but also to hear the Earth speaking in one’s own suffering, to participate in and contribute to the healing of the planet by finding one’s niche in the Earth’s living system and occupying it actively.[45]

The entire universe is connected as one in the beginning of time, to the moment the cosmos flared forth. Those ties still remain, often hidden, waiting to be uncovered through patient healing work. As they are uncovered, humanity can see that to heal ourselves is to heal the Earth and to heal the Earth is to heal ourselves.[46] Thus, together the planet and the human species will both be able to move toward wholeness, to see ourselves as integral holons in a larger sphere. We can once again come to realize we were always at home, in ourselves, in the Earth, in the cosmos.

Works Cited

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007.

Metzner. Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Roszak, Theodore. Person/Planet. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.

[1] Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 222.

[2] Ibid, 221.

[3] Sarah A. Conn, “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 157.

[4] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 22.

[5] Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 95.

[6] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2007), 94.

[7] Berry, The Great Work, 82.

[8] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 35.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 93.

[10] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 171.

[11] Ibid, 161.

[12] Theodore Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 7.

[13] Metzner, Green Psychology, 91.

[14] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 96.

[15] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 104.

[16] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 162.

[17] Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 241.

[18] Ibid, 243.

[19] John Seed, qtd. in Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3.

[20] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 2.

[21] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3-4.

[22] Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[23] Metzner, Green Psychology, 92.

[24] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 47.

[25] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 161.

[26] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 118.

[27] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 160-161.

[28] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 99.

[29] Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979), 54.

[30] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 5, 16.

Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[31] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[32] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[33] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 101.

[34] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 103.

[35] Ibid, 105.

[36] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[37] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 11-12.

[38] Ibid, 14.

[39] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 163.

[40] Metzner, Green Psychology, 185.

[41] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 166.

[42] Metzner, Green Psychology, 189.

[43] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

[44] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 170.

[45] Ibid, 171.

[46] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 8.

Morality and the Muse

What is the relationship between artistic creativity and morality? Plato sought to ban the poets from his ideal civilization because he felt poetry was a mere imitation of good and evil, and could negatively influence the morality of the masses. Two thousand years later, Percy Shelley argued that poets create the moral condition of the world by igniting empathy through their imaginative works. Yet the moral condition of the artists themselves remains relatively unaddressed by Shelley. History has shown that artists have not always been exemplars of the good in their personal lives, and that service to the creative muse often undermines their moral standing. If the ethical influence of art is so powerful, what does this mean for the moral condition for the world? Do the immoral digressions of some artists outweigh or negate the good influence of their works? Or is the world ultimately a better place because of the moral sacrifices of our great artists?

In Book X of the Republic Plato argues, through the voice of Socrates, that poets ought to be excluded from his ideal state because of the immoral effect poetry has upon its audience.[1] Plato writes that the poet does not create, but simply imitates, “though in every case he does not know in what way the thing is bad or good,”[2] he merely represents life in all its distortions. Those who hear this imitative poetry are at risk of being swayed by it, potentially leading to their ethical demise. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch writes in a discussion of Plato’s Republic, “…when artists imitate what is bad they are adding to the sum of badness in the world; and it is easier to copy a bad man than a good man.”[3] Yet, whether the poet is representing good or ill, because their work is merely imitation, for Plato it is not truth, and only truth can convey ethics to others.

Plato refers to the greatest poet of the Hellenic world, the man whose epic works still influence the minds of the young and impressionable to this day, to fuel his argument against poetry: Homer. In the voice of Socrates he asks, “…is Homer reported while he lived to have been a guide in education to men who…transmitted to posterity a certain Homeric way of life…?”[4] In response, Socrates’ companion replies no, Homer was neglected in his lifetime, which leads Plato to conclude that this was because Homer merely possessed “the art of imitation” and not “real knowledge.”[5] For Plato it is only real knowledge, or truth, that can inspire one to be morally good.

Yet, today the name of Homer still prospers, and his works, but not his way of life, have indeed entered into posterity. In rapt admiration, Percy Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, “Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses.”[6] For Shelley, the moral character of those who read Homer and the other great poets are shaped by these verses. However, what is key here is that it was not Homer’s way of life, as Plato pointed out, that descended to those who still experience his poetry, but the characters in his art that gained immortality.

What happens within the poet, or any other kind of artist, while in the process of artistic creation? I myself am an artist, and when fully engaged in an artistic project certain aspects of my ethical character begin to fall by the wayside. When caught in an inspired frenzy the external world falls away: I do not nourish my body in the way it deserves, I cut myself off from intimate contact with friends and family. If distracted I can become harsh and irritable. For the time being, every part of myself becomes devoted to completing the work at hand. However, I know the potential depravity of my own patterns are minor in comparison with the twisted roads some artists may descend in pursuit of creative inspiration.

Over the centuries, many artists have become ensnared in the Faustian bargain of creativity. Whether it is an adulterous affair with the woman or man who seems to be one’s muse, or the enticing song of opium, the curling tongue of absinthe, the inspirational voice of heroin, cocaine, liquor, or even the sweet melody of tobacco as one cigarette follows the next and words flow with every inhale. In comparison with its begetter, the piece of art that is born so often is an angel in the dark forest, which draws admirers the world over, and like those of whom Shelley writes, are “awakened to an ambition of becoming like”[7] the art they behold.

The artist is beholden to the muse of inspiration, or as Murdoch writes, “a kind of divine or holy madness from which we may receive great blessings.”[8] One cannot will creativity to arise, but must coax it forth. Shelley writes exquisitely that

the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.[9]

The muse is fickle, and indeed both divine and mad. She needs to be nourished, which may easily lead to the moral demise of the artist.

Who is this vital inspiration? Poets have given her many names over the millennia, but the Greeks once worshipped her as Mnemosyne, or Mneia, whose names mean recollection, the first Muse of artistic inspiration. Her three daughters are Melete, Mneme, and Aoide, known also as contemplation, memory, and song. Later in Greek mythology the number of Muses increased to nine, one for each of the arts practiced in the ancient Hellenic world.[10] These “mothers of the singers”[11] were hailed by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, each in the opening lines of their epic masterpieces.

Jean Gebser, in his The Ever-Present Origin, writes of the Muse and the Siren as two poles of the poet’s soul, one giving inspiration, the other beckoning to death.[12] The word Muse, which means “ponderess” and gives us the word “to muse” in English, enters the German language as the two words Musse and Müssen. While Musse means “to contemplate,” Müssen means “must” or “compulsion.”[13] It is this tightrope between the two, the contemplative Muse and the compulsive Siren, that the artist walks on the path of creation, needing both to impel herself forward, each step as uncertain as the next word or brushstroke.

It is the nobility of the art potentially inspired by such a muse that makes the world’s great artists worthy of the high praise which Shelley and others bestow upon them. Shelley writes of the forgotten flaws of these artists: “Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow;’ they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.”[14] For although, as Murdoch writes, these artists are motivated by a “divine or holy madness,” [15] it is the divine source of their mad inspiration that redeems them. Something beyond the human is working through the artist, a sacred source, a holy muse, and it is this spark of divinity that generates the shining moral character of the final work of art.

For Shelley the imagination is the “great instrument of moral good”[16] because it allows one to feel empathy for another. The most powerful art and poetry can allow the person experiencing it to wholly place herself in the experience of another, and through her imagination to empathize fully with that other. The emotional experience of empathy, as the philosopher Jacob Needleman writes, is “that which moves us to physical action or to the act of human speech or to the real wish to love and serve or to partake in the great struggle for what is objectively good and right and just.”[17] It is the empathic connection between the observer and the art which leads to moral action, not the inclusion of morality itself within the work of art. Shelley felt that a poet should not include his own conception or ethics in his art because these would be bound to the time and place in which he lived, and would therefore not have the desired moral effect upon later generations.[18] For example, although Tolstoy accused Shakespeare of a “lack of moral clarity,”[19] it is the fullness of his characters in their goodness or their evil that allows his audience to completely empathize with the struggles of the protagonists and antagonists alike. Shakespeare allows his audience to work out for themselves, in their own internal moral struggles, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good from what they see genuinely represented before them.

Socrates said that we can only become virtuous when we know what virtue is.[20] Such virtue we learn from the example of others before us, by empathically experiencing the stories of those who once lived. We become porous to such stories through engaging the voices of art, which can bind to our emotions and allow us to fully feel what others have felt. Plato understood the powerful effect of art and poetry, for although he banned it, he banned it in his own poetic voice that has endured through the ages.

Needleman defines a human being as “the being who yearns to love,”[21] and love, as Shelley writes, is the “great secret of morals.”[22] Love is the ingredient which allows us to open ourselves enough to empathically engage with others, to wholly understand what another feels and experiences. Yet love is not a physical object which can be passed from generation to generation; instead it must be portrayed ever and again by those who can trace its ideal form: beauty. As Murdoch writes, the enjoyment of beauty is the mark of a moral soul,[23] and in the words of Needleman, “…evil simply cannot be contained in the same mind that contemplates… beauty.”[24] Therefore, the artists who are able to depict beauty, in all its dimensions, are able to bestow an understanding of morality beyond what even they may be able to entirely comprehend.

Shelley, in language beyond eloquence, captures the gift the world’s great artists have given us:

…it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.[25]

It is the world’s great artists who have shaped the moral codes by which we live, even if their own lives as individuals were as morally ambiguous as any of our own. For working through them was something greater than the mere human: their art is a mingling of human and divine, which sends ripples of truth out through cultures and epochs, shaping the lives of all who encounter their works.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Translated by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter Conradi. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999.

Needleman, Jacob. Why Can’t We Be Good? New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Plato, Republic. In The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, 575-844. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Harvard Classics 27. (2001): Accessed April 3, 2012.

[1] Plato, Republic, in The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 820.

[2] Ibid, 827.

[3] Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter Conradi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 390-391.

[4] Plato, Republic, 825.

[5] Ibid, 825.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in Harvard Classics 27. (2001): accessed April 3, 2012., paragraph 12.

[7] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 12.

[8] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[9] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 39.

[10] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 318.

[11] Ibid, 317.

[12] Ibid, 208.

[13] Ibid, 317.

[14] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 43.

[15] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[16] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[17] Jacob Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good? (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008), 89.

[18] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[19] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 400.

[20] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 36.

[21] Ibid, 264.

[22] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[23] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 402.

[24] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 83.

[25] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 36.

Heralding the Coming God: Schelling’s Philosophy of the Persephone Myth

From its root there grew
a hundred blooms which had a scent so sweet that all
the wide heaven above and all the earth and all
the salt swelling of the sea laughed aloud.
And then the girl too wondered at it, she reached out
her hands to take this thing of such delight,
but the earth with wide paths gaped in the plain of Nysia,
and He Who Accepts So Many, the lord, sprang upon her
with his immortal horses, that son of Chronos with many names.
– From “Hymn to Demeter”[1]

For Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, the truth of God could be found in the mythologies of antiquity. Schelling’s philosophy of mythology explores the presence of God in the world as revealed through cultural myths and religious revelation. He primarily focused on Greek mythology, with a particular concentration on the Cabiri gods of the island of Samothrace, which he felt empirically confirmed an early image of the nature of God which he had worked out in his own metaphysical ontology.[2] The Cabiri myth, and the mystery initiation rituals associated with it have widespread connections throughout the ancient world, both within the Mediterranean and beyond. The most prevalent correlation to the Cabiri, as Schelling discusses in his essay The Deities of Samothrace, is the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld and subsequent return, which mirrors both the succession of the seasons throughout the year and the cyclical development of a plant. Persephone’s story is both a metaphor and a symbol for Schelling’s God, a God who is also in an eternal, dynamic process that leads to the creation of the world in his own image.[3]

The ontology of Schelling’s God was based initially on the writings of Jakob Böhme in combination with earlier works of his own.[4] God exists as two poles, one of absolute free will and the other of necessity, and each pole can be understood through Schelling’s positive and negative philosophies respectively.[5] Schelling paints “a portrait of a God who constitutes himself as a duality-in-unity” and it is the continuous tension and harmonization of this polarity that gives God a dynamic, living, and even evolving existence.[6] Of these two poles, the pole of necessity has within it its own polarized structure, which also is in a process of tension and harmonization. First, there is the initial force that is the dark ground of all being, a centripetal potency of “pure subjectivity” that draws all things eternally into itself. The second force is one of “pure objectivity,” a centrifugal potency eternally radiating forth. The opposing tensions of these two forces are in continual struggle with each other, and can only be reconciled by a third potency, one that would not be present without the other two. This third uniting potency is love, which harmonizes and brings an unstable balance between the first two, before the third potency is overcome and the cycle begins anew.[7]

While Schelling writes that this interaction of the three potencies is in God’s “past” he also calls it an “eternal process,” indicating that it is atemporal and not subject to linear time.[8] However, God’s pole of necessity is ultimately subordinate to the pole of freedom, or pure will, which brings true balance to the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces within the necessity pole. The third potency of the necessity pole, love, mediates between freedom and necessity, allowing for harmony in God’s being.[9] It is through this highest principle of freedom that God is able to freely create the world in the image of God’s own being. Thus the world has the same polar structure as God, and the repeating process of tension, imbalance, and harmony echoes throughout every layer of creation’s existence.[10] The forces of centration and expansion exist in the world as the polarities of the real and the ideal, the corporeal and the spiritual. They too are brought into balance through love, which acts as the mediator between the world and the transcendent aspect of God. The pole of freedom exists in creation as human creativity and free will, in a parallel image of God’s own freedom.[11] Upon coming into relationship with creation, God’s freely created mirror, God is able to become conscious of Godself.[12] “Since nothing is outside of God, the very knowledge of God is simply the nonfinite knowledge which God has of himself in the eternal self-affirmation, that is, it is itself the being of God and is in this being.”[13] Yet not only is the world a reflection of God’s image, but God also enters into creation and is revealed historically in the mythologies and religious revelations of human culture.[14]

By investigating the mythologies of antiquity Schelling was able to perceive an intimation of the structure of God that he had worked out in his philosophy. The island of Samothrace in the Aegean Sea was home to the initiation rites of the Cabiri, which reveal a sequence of gods nearly identical to those in the myth of Persephone, central to the comparable mystery rites of Eleusis.[15] While Schelling indicated there were seven, or even possibly eight, Cabiri gods, he names the first four in The Deities of Samothrace: Axieros, Axiokersa, Axiokersos, and Kasmilos. These four gods are understood to be the Hellenic gods Demeter, Persephone, Hades, and Hermes.[16]

In the most prevalent version of this myth, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the grain, and Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. While playing in the meadows, Persephone is drawn to an exquisite flower grown as a temptation by Gaia, at the bidding of Zeus. As Persephone plucks the flower, the earth gapes open and she is abducted against her will by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. In grief, Demeter flies about the earth searching for her daughter, and when she discovers that the abduction of her daughter was sanctioned by Zeus she desolates the landscape in her fury. In fear of her wrath, and to save the fertile earth from destruction, Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone. Yet, while she was in the realm of shades, Persephone ate six seeds of the pomegranate fruit, thus tying her forever to that domain; for whoever eats the food of the dead must remain in the Underworld. As a compromise, Zeus decrees that Persephone must spend six months in the Underworld, one for each seed, and six months with her mother in the light of the sun. So it is that mother and daughter are reunited, but only for a time, and each year the cycle continues, causing the wheel of the seasons to turn as Persephone the maiden of the upper world descends to become Queen of the Underworld each winter.[17]

While the structure of the story remains relatively similar, innumerable versions of this myth exist in which the cultural lineage of the gods is revealed through their many names and relationships to each other. The grain goddess Demeter was initially a goddess of Crete where her lover was the god Plautos, a name strikingly similar to Pluto, the Roman name of Hades.[18] Although in this myth Persephone, who was born on Crete, is the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, there is another myth in which Zeus seduces Persephone and she gives birth to Dionysos.[19] Schelling writes that according to Heraclitus, Hades and Dionysos were really the same god, and in other understandings of the Greek pantheon Zeus and Hades are interchangeable as well, as both are called the “son of Chronos with many names.”[20]

In the myth of the Cabiri, Hades and Dionysos are both associated with the name Axiokersos, the third god in the sequence of Samothrace.[21] Additionally, Persephone’s Cabiri name is Axiokersa, which contains the root “Kersa,” derived from the Hebrew hrs, or Ceres, the Roman name of Demeter.[22] Thus Schelling and other sources conclude that Demeter and Persephone are really one and the same, two parts of a continuous cyclical being.[23] Demeter’s Cabiri name, Axieros, Schelling has translated as “hunger,” “poverty,” “yearning,” “seeking,” and “longing.”[24] She is the first god of the Cabiri sequence, in a continuous state of seeking and drawing all things in toward her.[25] Culturally, Demeter is an older goddess figure than her Olympian brothers, and can in many ways be considered first, the fertile ground of being out of which the harvest grows.[26]

The fourth god of the Cabiri is Kasmilos, also called Kadmilos or Camillus, and is best known as Hermes, the messenger god.[27] The name Kasmilos has roots in the word “Kadmiel” which Schelling translates as “he who goes before the god.” Hermes is the messenger and servant of Zeus, highest of the gods, and acts as a mediator between Zeus and the first three gods of the Cabiri. It is from this ranking that Schelling infers that the Cabiri must be in a sequence, from lowest to highest, all heralding the coming of a higher god, which may be equated with Zeus, or ultimately Schelling’s Christian God.[28]

The Cabiri simultaneously herald the coming of the highest God, and also constitute a symbol of the structure of Schelling’s God. On Samothrace the first three Cabiri were collectively called Hephaestos, and Schelling writes that “The creation of Hephaestos is the world of necessity.”[29] Thus the first Cabiri comprise the pole of necessity in Schelling’s God: Axieros and Axiokersa symbolize the primary ground of being and the force of centration, and Axiokersos is the force of expansion.[30]

Schelling writes “Ceres is the moving power through whose ceaseless attraction everything, as if by magic, is brought from the primal indeterminateness to actuality or formation.”[31] With Demeter and Persephone as two sides of the same goddess Ceres, Demeter represents the formless “primal indeterminateness” and Persephone, who is born from Demeter, is that same power but actualized into form.

Whereas the first of the Cabiri can be equated with the first power… in its pure, unstructured aspect in the necessity pole in God, the second Cabiri goddess symbolizes that power as transformed into the first potency, which is the foundation of a dimension, or a region, of actual being.[32]

Axiokersos, who is both Hades and Dionysos, is the Lord of the Underworld, ruler of spirits and the realm of the dead, and thus symbolizes the second potency of Schelling’s God.[33] The second potency is the realm of spirit in the creation, but as Schelling’s translator Robert Brown writes, “…the spirit world is to be fully actualized only in an afterlife which souls enter upon death.”[34]

The third uniting potency, which Schelling emphasized does not have its own constitution, is symbolized by Kasmilos, or Hermes, who mediates not only between the first two potencies but between the pole of necessity and the pole of freedom, or between the triangle of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, and Zeus.[35] The pole of freedom in Schelling’s God is pure will and balances the pole of necessity, just as finally Zeus intervenes and creates a cyclical harmony between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades.[36]

This myth, in its many forms, served as the basis of the various Greek mystery rites, from the initiations of Samothrace, the rituals of Thesmophoria or the “Festival of Sorrow,” to the Eleusinian mystery rites.[37] While some scholars believed the secret of all the ancient mystery rites was “the doctrine of the unity of god,” Schelling disagreed with this notion in part, deeming that it would be impossible for a secret monotheism to exist in deceit of a public polytheism.[38] Rather, it seems that the unity experienced in the mysteries was both an understanding of the necessary unity of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and also the union of the initiates with the divine.[39]

Because it was forbidden to reveal what occurred during the rites, we do not have a full picture of the initiatory rite of passage. We do know that participants consumed a grain drink called kykeon, a mixture of barley, water, and mint, which was said the be the drink Demeter requested after her fast during which she desolated the earth in her rage against Zeus and Hades.[40] Also included in this drink was the psychedelic rye fungus ergot, also called Mutterkorn, or “mother grain,” in German.[41] It is likely that the mind-expanding quality of this drink, as well as the ceremonies enacted during the rites, allowed the initiates to understand the ultimate unity and contingency of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, as they herald the higher God into manifestation.[42] Even the name Cabiri seems to be descended from the Hebrew term Chabir, “which expresses simultaneously inseparable connection and magical union.”[43]

The holy, revered teaching of the Cabiri, in its profoundest significance, was the representation of the insoluble life itself as it progresses in a sequence of levels from the lowest to the highest, a representation of the universal magic and of the theurgy ever abiding in the whole universe, through which the invisible, indeed the super-actual, incessantly is brought to revelation and actuality.[44]

Like Elohim, the plural name of the Godhead in the Old Testament, the Cabiri are one, not differentiated but still distinct; so too are the potencies of Schelling’s God, each distinct with their own qualities, yet ultimately constituting a whole.[45]

The sequence of the mystery rites paralleled the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and it seems that initiates each underwent the journey of Persephone to the Underworld. Plutarch wrote that “to die is to be initiated” and even the word “to die” in Greek, teleutan, is related to the word for initiation, teleisthai.[46] Yet, like Persephone, the initiates returned to the light of day and were reunited with Demeter, an ultimate rebalancing and reconciliation.[47]

Just as the story of Persephone mirrors the cycle of the seasons, it also mirrors the growth of a plant from a seed embedded in the earth to a shoot flowering and finally fruiting. Another name for Persephone was Kore, from koros meaning “sprout;” Persephone also translates as “she who shines in the dark,” symbolizing the dormant life of the seed underground, as well as her shining presence as Queen of the Underworld.[48] Persephone’s descent is a necessary process, a cycle of death and regeneration vital for life to continue. It is as though the flower Gaia grew to tempt Persephone to the brink of Hades’ realm was grown in service of the greater need of earth’s fertility.[49] Even the symbol of this single beautiful flower carries the dynamic of the entire myth within it.

Demeter and Persephone both symbolize the first potency of Schelling’s God, but Demeter is the first potency before creation and Persephone the first potency after, just as the seed and the shoot are one plant, before and after the germination process. The world is created in the image of God, and as such has the same ontological structure as God.[50] Thus the poles of necessity and freedom, and within the pole of necessity the force of centration and physicality, and the force of expansion and spirituality, all unified by love, ripple out and can be found within every structure of the created universe. As Brown writes, “Because the potencies of being are not exhausted in whatever severally exemplifies or symbolizes them, they can recur at various levels within an extended hierarchy.”[51] The polarities can be found in the growth of plants, the cycles of the seasons, and the polytheistic pantheons of antiquity. They overlap and combine, the mythological gods intertwined with earth’s natural processes.[52]

Schelling believed that because God had entered creation, God was being revealed in a historical evolution from the ancient stories of mythology to the revelations of the religions, disclosing each potency in sequence, leading ultimately to knowledge of God as a whole.[53] The Cabiri are at the evolutionary stage of the full revelation of God’s pole of necessity, but intimations of the next stages are also present in that mythology. Kasmilos, or Hermes, is the herald of the coming God, who is both the Olympian Zeus and a God higher than Zeus. Schelling mentioned that there were either seven or eight Cabiri, and it seems that Zeus was both the seventh, as a link in the sequence, and also the eighth, as the final God who is manifested by the relationships of the first seven.[54] Each participant of the sequence is divine, as Schelling writes in one of his aphorisms: “Yet not only the whole as whole is divine. For so is also the part and the particular by itself.”[55]

As a Christian, Schelling believed that God was revealed fully in the revelation of Christ. The fallen state of the world is a manifestation of the first potency, but God acted through the spirituality of the second potency to bring new harmony and balance to creation. This manifestation of the second potency is the incarnation of Christ. The teaching of Christ is that of love, which is the third unifying principle, which leads ultimately to a full union with the divine.[56]

The polarized structure of God and the world has been in an eternal cyclical process that has also been evolving linearly through time. The Godhead is both revealed in the course of time and outside of it altogether. In the mythology of Samothrace, time is located above all of the gods, which can also be seen in the family tree of the Cabiri: Chronos, who represents time, is either the father or the grandfather of all the gods in that story.[57] Schelling also wrote, “Because the gods come forth in succession, they themselves are only the offspring of almighty time;” time is the true creator and permeates all things.[58] Yet Schelling’s God existed before time and is caught in an “eternal process,” therefore his God is also outside of time.[59] It seems that ultimately Schelling’s God is both subject to time yet also free of it, just as God has one pole of necessity and one pole of freedom.

The final question remains then, what will happen when the creation ultimately unites with God through the mediation of love? Through this process God has become fully conscious of Godself and the poles are completely balanced. As both subject to and free of time will the cycle end in harmonious balance or, like a seed planted in the earth, will a new creation germinate and sprout to a truly new florescence?


Just as the structure of God’s being can be found throughout the creation of nature, it is also mirrored in the realm of archetypal astrology, especially as it pertains to Schelling’s own birth chart. Schelling was born January 27, 1775, at 3:00 am in Ragaz Switzerland, Germany. The most prevalent aspect in his chart is a stellium of four planets: Sun, Mercury, Venus, and Pluto. The configuration of these four planets correlates perfectly with the Cabiri myth, and thus corresponds to his ontology of God as well. Venus represents the first potency, and like the Cabiri myth relates simultaneously to both Demeter and Persephone. Venus is the archetype of beauty, as portrayed by the young maiden Persephone, and also of flowers and that which grows upon the earth. As the archetype of love, Venus also relates to the loving bond between mother and daughter in this myth. Pluto correlates directly to Hades and Dionysos, both of whom are represented by this archetype. Pluto rules the Underworld and the entire death-rebirth process, which is the primary theme of both this myth and the mystery rites associated with it. Mercury correlates to its namesake Hermes, and acts as mediating messenger, but also a bringer of love, represented by the Mercury-Venus combination. Finally, the Sun represents the Godhead, which the first four gods are heralding, the ultimate shining principle in its singularity and perfection, bringing all the other archetypes into a single conception of God.

An additional aspect of note is that Schelling’s birth chart has Saturn in a trine with the Sun-Pluto stellium, which can be seen as both the inherent structure of the Godhead, but also the prevalence of time as the true creator and that which drives the evolution of God’s creation.

Works Cited

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991.

Metzner, Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805.” Translated by Fritz Marti. Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 237-258.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace.” Translated by Robert F. Brown. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.

[1] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991), 370.

[2] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace,” trans. Robert F. Brown (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 45.

[3] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[4] Ibid, 45.

[5] Ibid, 48, 46.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Schelling, Samothrace, 48.

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid, 47.

[11] Ibid, 50.

[12] Ibid, 49-50

[13] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805,” trans. Fritz Marti, Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 250.

[14] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[15] Schelling, Samothrace, 15.

Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 128.

[16] Schelling, Samothrace, 16-17, 56.

[17] Metzner, Green Psychology, 128-129.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364-372.

[18] Ibid, 366.

[19] Ibid, 367.

[20] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 370, 383.

[21] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[22] Ibid, 20, 52.

[23] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364.

[24] Schelling, Samothrace, 18, 20.

[25] Ibid, 18.

[26] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 367.

[27] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ibid, 24.

[30] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 52.

[31] Ibid, 20.

[32] Ibid, 52.

[33] Ibid, 52.

[34] Ibid, 53.

[35] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 53.

[36] Ibid, 49.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[37] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 374.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[38] Schelling, Samothrace, 24-25.

[39] Ibid, 28.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 382.

[40] Ibid, 377, 380.

[41] Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[42] Schelling, Samothrace, 28.

[43] Ibid, 39-40, note 113.

[44] Ibid, 29.

[45] Ibid, 40, note 118.

[46] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 381.

[47] Ibid, 377.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[48] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 368-369.

[49] Ibid, 383.

[50] Schelling, Samothrace, 50.

[51] Ibid, 56.

[52] Schelling, Samothrace, 58.

[53] Ibid, 55, 59.

[54] Ibid, 56.

[55] Schelling, “Aphorisms,” 246.

[56] Schelling, Samothrace, 58-59.

[57] Schelling, Samothrace, 19.

[58] Ibid, 33, note 44.

[59] Ibid, 61, note 8, 48.

At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.

Open Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

I am writing this letter to the man for whom I cast my vote three years ago, the man who sailed the ship of change with the power of the winds of hope. I am writing on behalf of those who voted for you, for the future generations whose right to well-being and even existence are in jeopardy, and most importantly, on behalf of the planet earth, which is our only home and the source of all our nourishment and capacity for survival. I hope the man who reads this now can receive these words, not just as a political official in the most powerful position on the planet, but as a human being gifted with the ability to courageously take the steps required to effect the deep, fundamental changes so desperately needed at this critical juncture.

Your time in office has been fraught with a disintegrating economy and fiscal crisis that cannot be mended by any unanimous solution between political parties. The corporate industrial economy which you are trying to revive is based primarily on the assumption of unlimited access to petroleum. As we passed peak oil in 2010, it has become rapidly clearer that an economy which relies on extracting a finite resource is ultimately terminal.[1] The earth processes under which petroleum formed will never exist again, at least within the timescale of human economies.[2] Currently every aspect of life in the United States is dependent on oil, from our electricity, to our transportation, communication, and food systems, to name just a few. Although it is known that the resource on which these systems depend is limited and non-renewable, there is currently little to no support for those few who attempt to create alternative modes of living. Any alternatives to the norm are usually labeled by mainstream media as utopian or unrealistic, yet these alternatives are addressing the far more unrealistic vision of an economy that will continue to thrive on a single resource whose end is in sight.[3] The collapse and lack of recovery of the economy is a clear sign that the industrial system is dissolving, and to attempt to revive it without rewriting the foundations of the system is to assure certain failure.[4]

To assume that only slight modifications to the current system will set it back on course will ultimately lead to such a severe collapse that no attempt at a recognizable recovery will be possible. A time will come when there will be no choice as to how the system will have to change, and any progress in that area will come at much higher cost both monetarily, and also in human life and well-being. Any worries now about the government deficit are incomparable to the deficit we are continually drawing from the earth.[5] The earth is treated as merely the backdrop to human affairs, a supply of free resources which can be extracted from endlessly.[6] Any part of the earth left untapped, from the last old-growth forests, to the freshwater aquifers, to the buried oil fields, is considered economically wasted.[7] Ironically, the utilized resources which are not wasted are quickly turned to irreversible waste within the disposable consumer economy, left to sit in mountainous trash heaps to decompose into toxins, if they can decompose at all. The earth is richly abundant, but only if humans create limits for themselves to allow for its self-renewing processes to take place.[8] If we do not form these limits we will ultimately encounter them by drowning in our own waste, if nothing else.[9]

Over the course of Western history a primary driving ideal has been human progress, a betterment of the human condition through acquisition of knowledge, and wealth and possessions for a more leisurely existence. At the foundation of progress is the idea of unlimited growth, which seemed like a real possibility through colonial expansion and the European discovery of abundant landscapes. Yet, as industrialization has allowed the human population to double three and a half times in the last century, that population has also met the unarguable reality that this planet is finite. As such, the definition of progress has actually come to mean a severe degradation of the earth in exchange for abundant consumer products, and excessive profit in the pockets of transnational corporations.[10] Monetary gain has become the top value in our society, allowing for limitless consumption of landscapes and the destruction of their intellectual, aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual values.[11]

The corporations which reap excessive wealth from the environment share little of the cost that comes from the destructive patterns of their production. The vast amounts of waste, much of it highly toxic, produced by corporate industry is not accounted for in their production costs.[12] Indeed, the weight of that clean-up usually falls to public services, paid for by tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations are not only exempt from taking the responsibility to clean up after themselves, they are not even required to contribute monetarily to that clean-up by paying taxes.[13] What money they do contribute to government is solely for the purposes of securing their own interests to continue unlimited extraction of resources from the earth, no matter the harm it causes to the environment or wider human community. If corporations, which are not human beings, are given personhood and legal rights, then the same rights should be given to the rivers, forests, soils, and all other species of this earth who have an equal right to exist as humans.[14] If humans can represent a corporation in court, humans should be able to represent the land in court as well.

One of the arguments on behalf of corporate business is that corporations provide jobs for millions of workers, allowing the population’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met. Yet those basic needs cannot be met if the earth is mined and destroyed until it can no longer support human life, even at a level much lower than that enjoyed by many in first world countries today.[15] The economic recession and high unemployment have shown that the way our economy has been functioning cannot provide enough employment as it is. A new economic structure is desperately needed, one that is aligned with the economy of the earth and is based on renewal and responsibility.[16]

The dire need for jobs is evident, but providing immediate employment at the cost of the health and functioning of the environment will only cause far more severe unemployment in the future.[17] Destroying the ecosystems on which human life and economy depend will ultimately destroy the economy, as it is already beginning to do. The debates over the Keystone Pipeline project are one such example, for not only is this project extracting a finite resource, it will pose great risks to the workers toiling in a toxic environment. The pipeline will permanently destroy vast amounts of land and water for a temporary gain, and the effects of extracting and using this oil will likely be the tipping point for the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.

Fortunately, there are other ways to employ the U.S. population that can flourish sustainably into the indefinite future, if they are supported and encouraged. We desperately need solutions for aligning the human economy with the earth’s systems, and investing in the creativity of environmental entrepreneurs will provide growing employment into the future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

One key area which needs reformation, and which could provide far greater employment than it currently does, is in the field of agriculture. The industrial agriculture system, which relies heavily on petroleum, has shown itself to be far more expensive and less productive than once hoped.[18] The chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the large machines suited only to monocultures, destroy the life-giving properties of soil and erode the topsoil until it can no longer support any crops.[19]

A major disconnect lies between U.S. citizens and where their food is grown, food that is harvested primarily by immigrant workers who are rapidly being deported while crops rot unpicked in the fields. If the argument for deportation is that illegal immigrants take American jobs, why is it that the high percentage of unemployed U.S. citizens are not taking up the work of growing their food? The industrial system has stripped the dignity of the art of food production, as it has taken the dignity of many other forms of employment as well. One way to fundamentally change the disintegrating economy would be to restore the dignity and artistry of the most essential jobs that sustain human life.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The growing, preserving, packaging, transporting, and marketing of the current agricultural system is expensive and wasteful, as food must travel long distances to reach consumers’ mouths.[20] By localizing the food economy most of these expenses would be cut, and dependence on oil for food production would decrease tremendously. Greater emphasis could be placed on the quality and variety of crops since they do not need to be engineered for transportation, which would ultimately lead to a far healthier population overall. Finally, with more U.S. citizens working with the land, the American people would have the opportunity to reconnect with the North American landscape in a way that would inspire a deeper care and respect for the earth.[21]

The most immediate and disastrous consequence of our civilization’s addiction to oil is the exponentially increasing saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Humans have become a force of nature changing the very chemistry of the planet in a few centuries, on a scale that previously took millions of years.[22] It is this composition of our atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of life on this planet, and we are altering it faster than we can calculate its effects.[23] While the predicted consequences of climate change appear to be taking place far more rapidly than the most pessimistic models once indicated, the U.S. government has disregarded this knowledge and has consistently taken no action in any international climate agreements.[24] Although the U.S. has contributed most of any country to polluting and altering the planet’s climate, the government has chosen to put short-term economic gain, for the benefit of a few corporations, before the welfare of the human population, including its own citizens. Humanity has gained the power of a geologic force, but has not shouldered any of the responsibility that comes with such power.[25]

The amount of money poured into defense spending against potential, and often self-generated, international threats will be as nothing compared to the cost of defending against the real and imminent threat of the retaliation of an abused earth.[26] Ecosystems function in such a way that if any single species becomes too numerous and sets the system out of balance, the environment will no longer support the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. While humanity has managed to avoid such natural population suppression with our innovative technologies, it is those very technologies that are now triggering such a potential die-off on a global scale if immediate action is not taken.

The effects of climate change can already be observed worldwide, and the ultimate damage will be determined by whether the U.S. government can extricate itself from the pockets of greedy corporate lobbyists, and take a true leadership position against the greatest challenge to ever face the human species. Addressing climate change and the environmental crises will soon be beyond the disparities between political parties, and of far greater consequence than the outcome of the 2012 election, or any subsequent election. Whether you have one year or five in the most powerful position in the world, your actions in this moment will determine the course of the future for generations to come. If the U.S. takes the lead to responsibly address climate change, every country in the world will follow suit. If not, many other countries such as India and China, will choose not to either.

The darkest periods in history have proven to be the most creative, and you have been given the opportunity to bring about the fundamental change this planet so desperately needs if we are to survive.[27] The pain of making the necessary changes now will be far less than the pain all of humanity and the earth will suffer if we sit idly by and do nothing.[28] As a planetary community we will either all survive together, or the entire earth will die. The earth is an irreplaceable gift which will not exist in the same way ever again.[29]

The geologian Thomas Berry, who dedicated his life to speaking on behalf of the earth and who was the inspiration for this letter, wrote: “While Earth’s resources are finite, what is not limited is our desire to understand, to appreciate, and to celebrate the Earth.”[30] Your decisions while in office will determine the ability of the next generations, your daughters and all those who will come after, to live in the exquisitely beautiful, awe-inspiring, miraculously habitable earth community that you live in. This is the future that is at stake. Please handle it with wisdom.

With hope,

Becca Tarnas


Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty- First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

[1] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.

[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 156.

[3] Berry, The Great Work, 109.

[4] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 29.

[5] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 72

[6] Berry, The Great Work, 22.

[7] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 155.

[8] Ibid, 154.

[9] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 66.

[10] Berry, The Great Work, 62-63.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 66.

[13] Berry, The Great Work, 130.

[14] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 133.

[15] Berry, The Great Work, xi.

[16] Ibid, 60.

[17] Ibid, 113.

[18] Ibid, 134.

[19] Ibid, 139.

[20] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 64.

[21] Berry, The Great Work, 160.

[22] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 63.

[23] Ibid, 47.

[24] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 201.

[25] Ibid, 42.

[26] Ibid, 76.

[27] Berry, The Great Work, 9.

[28] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 159.

[29] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 175.

[30] Ibid, 132.