The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: Exploring Anne Conway’s Philosophy

A Woman Philosopher

A sole treatise is all that the world has inherited of the philosophical thought of Lady Anne Finch, Viscountess of Conway, yet aspects of her unique system and cosmology can be traced in quiet echoes through the work of several of the great names that came after her, from Leibniz, Blake, and Goethe, to Bergson and Whitehead, to contemporary feminist and ecological thinkers. Her legacy is obscured, it seems, primarily by her gender, for she lived in a time when a university education was denied to women and her name was not even included on the title page of her only publication.[1] Except in rare cases, such as in the work of Leibniz, Anne Conway’s influence on subsequent thinkers can only be traced by a shadowy similarity of content, rather than directly by name. Yet she has been called “the profoundest and most learned of the female metaphysical writers of England”[2] by James Crossley, and “the most important woman philosopher in seventeenth century England” by Sarah Hutton.[3]

Jacob's Ladder

Conway was the “Heroine pupil”[4] of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, who said in his dedication to her of Antidote Against Atheisme that she is one “whose Genius I know to be so speculative, and Wit so penetrant, that in the knowledge of things as well Natural as Divine, you have not onely out-gone all of your own Sex, but even of that other also, whose ages have not given them over-much the start of you.”[5] In his letters to Conway, More addresses her as, in Hutton’s words, an “exceptional woman: a kind of secular saint, remarkable for her virtue and piety, not the equal of men but their superior.”[6] What can we find of this ‘exceptional woman’ in the single manuscript we have of her own words? What was Conway articulating that More, along with the other men of Conway’s intellectual circle, held her in such admiration? Conway was a truly independent mind, drawing from such diverse sources as Plato and Origen, Behmenism and Quakerism, and the Lurianic Kabbalah,[7] to craft a critique of the early modern philosophies of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, and even aspects of More’s work as well.[8] To quote Carol Wayne White at length, Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

may be viewed as an invaluable cultural artifact of the early modern period, depicting Conway as a high Renaissance thinker who keenly integrated occult knowledge, alchemy, ancient wisdom, and the new mode of organizing reason, or “science” represented by the mechanists. In it, she introduced a conceptualization of “processional nature” that is measured and authorized by the worth of ancient and marginalized wisdoms. The result is a unique Christian cosmology or mystical naturalism that affirms a continuum of “life-affirming impulses” stretching from God through the most inconspicuous minutiae of perceived materiality.[9]

In the Principles we are presented with a “cross-fertilisation of Cartesianism and Platonism”[10] planted in the rich soils of ancient esotericism and watered generously with Conway’s own original thought. Although brief, it is the fullest philosophical system written in English by a woman in the seventeenth century.[11]

The Three Species of Existence

Conway presents a vision of the continuum of all existence, argued as a rationally deducible religious truth.[12] Conway’s treatise opens with a rewriting of the Trinity and a delineation of the three substances or species of existence: God, Christ, and Creation. Conway writes, “In God there is no time, change, arrangement, or division of parts.”[13] She describes the Trinity not as “three distinct persons”[14] but rather as a “triune deity,” with distinct powers rather than parts: “a triplicity of God, divine wisdom, and divine will.”[15] Conway goes on to say of God that “He is also in a true and real sense an essence distinct from his creatures, although not divided or separate from them but present in everything most closely and intimately in the highest degree.”[16] She differentiates God from God’s creatures not dualistically but rather as one end of an infinite continuum is differentiated from its other end, like an infinite spectrum of light fading towards dimness.[17] God is simultaneously distinct and above Creation, while “intimately present” in all created beings as well.[18]

Drawing on Kabbalistic influences, Conway describes God diminishing God’s own brilliant light for the sake of God’s creatures.[19] In the space of diminished light arises the second species or substance, the Middle Nature between God and creation: the Messiah, the Logos, Christ.[20] Conway maintains the divinity of Christ not as a person of a triune God ontologically separate from Creation, but rather as the Mediator between God and Creation.[21] “The first concept,” Conway writes on the Trinity, “is the infinite God himself, considered above and beyond his creation; the second is the same God insofar as he is the Messiah; the third is the same God insofar as he is with the Messiah in creatures.”[22] These three substances, the only three substances as Conway clearly emphasizes, share spirit as a universal characteristic. “Deity was present in everything,” White comments, “most closely and intimately, and in the highest degree.”[23] Yet for all that God, Christ, and Creation hold in common they remain infinitely differentiated, not in essence but in expression with relation to mutability, and therefore also in relation to time.

The first of the three kinds of being, God, is altogether immutable. “God was always a creator and will always be a creator because otherwise he would change.”[24] Conway goes on to say that “while he is in time, he is not bound by time.”[25] Because God is absolutely perfect God does not move toward greater perfection, and without movement or change there is perforce no time in God; God is eternally at eternity.

God’s creatures are both within time and bound by it, and therefore mutable and susceptible to change. Such mutability arises from what Conway calls the “indifference of will,” which “is the basis for all mutability and corruptibility in creatures, so that there would be no evil in creatures if they were not mutable.”[26] This indifference of the will Conway believes is something God does not have because of God’s divine goodness:

For this reason God is both a most free agent and a most necessary one, so that he must do whatever he does to and for his creatures since his infinite wisdom, goodness, and justice are a law to him which cannot be superceded.[27]

God is immutable, bound by goodness but free from time, while creatures are mutable toward goodness or evil and are subject to the motion of time. It is interesting to note that the indifference, or freedom, of the will of which Conway writes is not only a property of human beings, but of all creatures. In this particular sense she does not give humans a privileged position in Creation.

Christ, as the Middle Nature, the soul generated by God’s partially diminished light[28]—the space the Kabbalah calls tsimtsum[29]—shares in both the nature of God and the nature of Creation. Christ, unlike God, is mutable, but only toward an ever-increasing perfection of goodness; unlike creatures, Christ cannot change toward evil. Conway writes, “Christ cannot become evil but he can become good and consequently he partakes both of divinity and creatureliness as well as eternity and time.”[30] Like the Cambridge Platonists Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, Conway articulated the existence of a “fluid intermediary” between spirit and matter, but in Conway’s system, as Jacqueline Broad writes, Conway differed from her contemporaries by “advocating a monistic theory of created substances.”[31] Conway is clear, in an unnamed refutation of Spinoza, that her system is not pantheism because if all were one substance “sin and devils would be nothing but parts or the slightest modification of this divine being.”[32] Nor is it dualism because Christ is the Mediator between God and Creation, a being that participates in both divine and created substance, permeating both and uniting them through love.

In Conway’s system Christ seems to play a role differing from the orthodox Christian views of her time. Later in her life Conway converted to Quakerism, and it was through some of her Quaker ties, as well as her reading of the Kabbalah and other ancient texts, that allowed her to question the universality of Christian doctrine. Her treatise shows sympathies for other religious perspectives: for example, when she is rewriting the Trinity as three distinct powers instead of persons, she notes how the reference to distinct persons may be “a stumbling block and offense to Jews, Turks, and other people.”[33] In White’s words, Conway also questioned, “How could Christianity be a universal religion if Christian soteriology required a belief in the historical figure of Jesus Christ?”[34] The Christ of Conway’s philosophical system is a mediating being called by many names, not only Christ and the “soul of the Messiah,” but also the Kabbalistic Adam Kadmon, [35] the Middle Nature not made or created by God, but generated by God.[36] “Such a mediator is necessary by the very nature of things,” writes Conway, “because otherwise a gap would remain and one extreme would have been united with the other extreme without a mediator, which is impossible and against the nature of things.”[37] The Middle Nature unites “the creator with his creatures, in which union their happiness lay.”[38] The Christ of Conway’s philosophy, as the loving mediator, is not dissimilar to Plato’s realm of metaxy, in which daemons, such as Eros and Logos, carry prayers and blessings between mortals and gods.

Continuum of Spirit and Matter

Anne Conway was introduced to Henry More by her brother John Finch who was studying under More at Cambridge University.[39] Conway had not always held all the views she expressed in her posthumously published treatise, and came to More with several questions regarding God’s goodness and justice, as well as the nature of the soul.[40] In a letter dated 1652 Conway writes, “Upon the Reading of your Poem of the Prae-existence of the Soul, and serious thinking of it, I desir’d to be satisfied in Four Particulars, which are these.”

       First, Whether God did create the Matter for the Enjoyment of Souls, since they fell by it?

Secondly, Whether the Soul could Enjoy the Matter without being Clothed in Corporeity; and if it could not, how it can be the Fall of the Soul that makes it Assume a Body?

Thirdly, Upon Supposition most of the Souls fell; Why did not all Assume Bodies together: And how Adam can be said to be the first Man, and all Men to Fall in him, since they Fell before: And how the Souls of Beasts and Plants came into Bodies?

Fourthly, How Man can be Restor’d, to what he Fell from; And why the Devils that Fell; cannot? Why Christ’s Death should Extend more to One than to the Other?[41]

As Terryl Givens comments on these questions, such genuine inquiry into the preexistence of the soul without dismissal had “little precedent or parallel” in the history of philosophy, especially during the early modern period.[42] Conway continued in her pursuit of these and other related questions in her philosophical studies and intellectual salons, and finally offered her own answers to some of them in the Principles. Her understanding of the relation of spirit to matter, which arguably is the primary subject of her treatise, reconciles many of the questions she posed to More in the aforementioned letter, from how the soul relates to the human body, to the souls of other species, and finally to the restoration of all who have fallen away from God.

Conway argues that all of Creation, as the third substance of being next to Christ and God, is a single substance. All of creation is one spiritual substance, a continuum from body to soul, from spirit to matter. For Conway, the unity of created substance explains how the soul and body can relate to each other, the causal connection between mind and body that Descartes saw as completely incompatible and distinct.[43] In the same language that she uses to describe the continuum of God through Christ to Creation as a gradual diminution of God’s light, she writes of body as only the darkened form of spiritual light. “Truly,” she writes, “every body is a spirit and nothing else, and it differs from a spirit only insofar as it is darker. . . Consequently, the distinction between spirit and body is only modal and incremental, not essential and substantial.”[44] Conway’s primary influence on her belief in a spirit-matter continuum is her reading of the Lurianic Kabbalah,[45] a version of the Kabbalah drawn from the teachings of Isaac Luria, a Jewish zaddik from the sixteenth century whose writings carry strains of Plotinus’ and Origen’s thought.[46]

Illustrating her point further Conway writes, “spirit and body are of one original nature and substance, and that body is nothing but fixed and condensed spirit, and spirit nothing but volatile body or body made subtle.”[47] Both spirit and matter, according to Conway, can be located in time and space and have mutual influence upon each other.[48] In this latter respect, Conway holds a position contrary to More and the other Cambridge Platonists, who believe that the body is impenetrable and divisible, while spirit is penetrable and indivisible.[49] Carolyn Merchant, who sees great value in Conway’s philosophy overall, nevertheless charges that Conway’s system is “simply a reduction of all reality to the idealist category of spirit.”[50] Broad points out that “one might be led to believe that when Conway collapses the distinction between soul and body, she is more concerned to emphasise the spirituality of matter, rather than the other way around.”[51] But as Broad goes on to emphasize, “Conway’s spiritual particles are not quite ‘spiritual’ in the orthodox sense, because they are always extended and (potentially) divisible and impenetrable.”[52] Furthermore, unlike the Platonic and Cartesian views, Conway has “unorthodox conceptions of bodies, as alive, self-moving, perceptive, and penetrable,” and she has “materialistic views of the soul, as extended, divisible, and capable of being penetrable.”[53] Rather than merely collapsing all of reality into the category of spirit as Merchant suggests, Conway seems to be emphasizing the similarity of spirit and matter and their affinity as gradations of a single substance that is neither spirit nor matter essentially, but characterized simultaneously by material and spiritual properties. That spirit and matter are the same substance explains how they are able to relate to each other, but it is their distinction that allows them to be in relationship, which is required for their evolution and movement toward perfection. Both difference and similarity, as Conway understands it, are required for the purposeful motion of Creation to exist.

Anti-Cartesianism

Conway was introduced to philosophy through Cartesianism, taught to her by More through their correspondence.[54] She was not taught to take Descartes’ system as dogma, however, and in the end her own philosophy became a refutation of the Cartesian mind-body dualism: she even went so far as to call her treatise “anti-Cartesianism.”[55] The primary question she puts to Descartes, More, and others who hold similar views, is the interaction problem: if bodies are impenetrable and divisible and souls are penetrable and indivisible, how can they possibly interact? She argues that impenetrability is the mode of matter rather than its essence, and that matter can be penetrated by substance when in a subtler, more spiritual form.[56] She offers the metaphor of iron, which cannot be penetrated by another “equally course body” but can be penetrated by a body more subtle than it: “namely, by fire, which enters it and penetrates all its parts.”[57] So it is also with the soul and its body that they are able to be intimately present in one another as fire is to iron.

The soul has an affinity for its body because they are alike; they are one substance expressing itself in opposite modalities. Conway draws an analogy between, on the one hand, the body-soul relationship and, on the other hand, the relationship, love, and cooperation of a wife and husband.[58] But unlike other philosophies that use gendered metaphor for the soul and body, Conway emphasizes the similarity between women and men rather than how they differentiate to explain their love for each other. As Broad writes, “Her argument relies upon the supposition that men and women love one another because they have the same nature.”[59] Furthermore, Conway writes of the need the soul has for the body to be complete; the body retains the image of the spirit so that it might exist as a being:

Spirit is light or the eye looking at its own proper image, and the body is the darkness which receives this image. And when the spirit beholds it, it is as if someone sees himself in a mirror. But he cannot see himself reflected in the same way in clear air or in any diaphanous body, since the reflection of an image requires a certain opacity, which we call body. . . Just as every spirit needs a body to receive and reflect its image, it also needs a body to retain the image.[60]

In order for a person to have memory her spirit must have a body, for the body is what retains the image of the spirit. “Every spirit has its own body and every body its own spirit,” Conway writes.[61]

Seemingly in response to the first two of her own questions to More about the soul, Conway speaks of the “great love and desire which spirits or souls have for bodies, and especially those bodies with which they are united and in which they dwell.”[62] Not only this, but it is the goodness of the body that moves the soul to love it, a goodness which is shared by the nature of the soul—a view starkly contrasted with both the Platonic and Cartesian conceptions of the body.[63]

One position from which Conway argues for the unity of the soul with the body is from the experience of pain—something with which Conway was deeply familiar. From a young age Conway suffered chronic ill health and severe pain, primarily in the form of incapacitating headaches that left her bedridden for long periods of time.[64] She was often so weak she took to conducting her philosophical salons in her own bedroom—a practice tremendously uncommon for the time.[65] It is interesting to note that she wrote the Principles during her last two years of life, when her health and physical pain were at their worst.[66] In reference to the concept of soul-body dualism she writes,

Why does the spirit or soul suffer so with bodily pain? For if when united to the body it has no corporeality or bodily nature, why is it wounded or grieved when the body is wounded, whose nature is so different? . . . If one says that only the body feels pain but not the soul, this contradicts the principle of those who affirm that the body has no life or perception.[67]

It is on this subject of the ontological status of matter with which Conway most strongly disagrees with Descartes, Hobbes, More, and other like-minded dualists: is matter dead and inert, or is it vital and perceptive?[68] Based on her initial arguments for the continuum of all reality and the intimate presence of God in God’s creatures, she asks, “Since every creature shares certain attributes with God, I ask what attribute produces dead matter, or body, which is incapable of life and sense for eternity?”[69] In White’s words, Conway “asserted that all substances have some element, or at least potential possession, of thought or mentality.”[70] From this position Conway argues further that animals are not soulless automatons as Descartes declared, but rather they too, like human beings, “have some kind of spirit which possesses thought, sense, love, and various other properties.”[71]

An Ecological Ethic

The vitality Conway saw running through all of Creation, and the unity of nature, led her to perceive “a certain universal love in all creatures for each other.”[72] It is this perspective held by Conway that led such ecologically oriented thinkers as Merchant and White to draw on her philosophy for an ecological ethic. Merchant writes on Conway’s philosophical system:

Its emphasis on the life of all things as gradations of soul, its lack of a separate distinction between matter and spirit, its principle of an immanent activity permeating nature, and its reverence for the nurturing power of the earth endowed it with an ethic of the inherent worth of everything alive.[73]

Meanwhile, from White’s perspective: “Conway’s religious philosophy placed emphasis on the life of all things and compelled its adherents to adopt an ethic of care for the inherent worth of everything alive.” White goes on to say, “She offers a religious cosmology resonating with ethical force regarding proper relations among all forms of nature.”[74] Conway is articulating an utterly different approach to the cosmos—a “mystical naturalism” as White calls it—from the mechanistic world view that so powerfully captivated the modern mind and subsequently shaped the very face of the Earth through industrialization.

The Dynamic Stairway

Merchant draws on Conway for her vitalist, organicist perspective, saying “Conway based her system of creation not on the machine but on the great, hierarchical chain of being, modified to incorporate an evolution or transmutation to higher forms, based on the acquisition of goodness and perfection.”[75] Conway maintains the Platonic view that Creation continually and infinitely moves toward the Good.[76] Indeed, as Broad points out, Conway agrees with the Cambridge Platonists in emphasizing the spiritual purpose behind Creation, which is to move to greater and greater spiritual perfection and goodness.[77] Because all of Creation is a single substance, it is not the essence of Creation that changes toward the Good but rather its mode, or expression.[78] Yet, as previously mentioned, what differentiates Creation from God is its mutability, and what differentiates Creation from Christ is its mutability not only toward goodness but toward evil as well—a difference made possible by creatures’ ability to have indifference or freedom of the will.

Between created beings—humans, plants, animals, water, minerals, and so forth—only a finite difference exists, making it possible for creatures to perfect themselves through the ‘hierarchical chain of being.’[79] This chain of being Conway compares to an infinite staircase, in which the steps extend infinitely yet the distance between each step remains finite.[80] Such is the finite distance between created species. Animals can become human, plants can become animals and so on, but also vice versa. Conway seems to have two different perspectives on how such mutation occurs. For one, she seems literally to hold that one species can become another, an idea she likely adopted from her close friend and fellow Quaker convert Francis Mercury van Helmont.[81] She writes of such mutation saying,

daily experience teaches us that various species can change into each other: earth changes into water, water into air, air into fire and ether and, vice versa, fire into air, air into water, etc., and these are nevertheless distinct species.[82]

She also goes on to describe more unusual transmutations of species, such as wheat into barley, worms into flies, and other aspects of the still widely believed theory of spontaneous generation that would not be disproved until the nineteenth century by Louis Pasteur.

In addition to Conway’s conception of the changeability of species into each other at a material level, she also has an alternate perspective on how a member of one species becomes that of another: echoing the Kabbalah,[83] and even aspects of More and Cudworth’s thought that was influenced by ancient sources,[84] Conway presents the idea of metempsychosis, a transmigration of souls after death from one species to another depending on how the life of that soul was lived.[85] The character of the soul will give shape to the body with which it is united—whether it be animal, vegetable, human, angel, or demon—an idea not dissimilar to Aristotle’s, and later Aquinas’s, conception of the soul as the form of the body.[86] The transmigration of souls is an expression of God’s justice in Conway’s cosmology, souls ascending or descending the infinite stairway according to their behavior not only towards fellow humans but in the treatment of animals and other species also.[87] For this perspective Conway seems to be drawing on the work of Origen, introduced to her by More, who “proposes a principle of change running through all created things,” change that is both moral and ontological.[88]

In continued agreement with Origen, who had been dismissed by the Catholic Church as a heretic centuries prior to the Renaissance revival of his thought, Conway asserts that God’s goodness would not allow God to punish souls eternally for their wrongdoings.[89] In a refutation of the Calvinist system still dominant in England during her lifetime, Conway believed punishment not to be eternal damnation but rather part of the continual movement of Creation towards goodness.[90] The benevolence and love of God would not allow God to act as a tyrant eternally punishing God’s own creations. Echoing Origen’s concept of apokatastasis[91] and the Kabbalistic notion of tikkun,[92] Conway believed in, as Givens defines it, “the eventual salvation and restoration of all spirits—even that of Satan himself.”[93]

Creatures can ascend or descend the hierarchical stairway infinitely, but Conway is clear they will never ascend to the point of equaling God in God’s perfection. “For the highest excellence of a creature,” she writes, “is to be infinite only in potentiality, not in actuality. That is, it is always able to become more perfect and more excellent to infinity, although it never reaches this infinity.”[94] God is infinitely greater than the infinite potential of God’s creatures in the way that “one infinity is greater than another.”[95] God is like a perfect sphere that no other geometrical shape can approach: even if a geometrical shape has an infinite number of sides it will never become the smooth curve of a sphere.[96]

Souls As Ruling Spirits

Some disagreement exists between interpreters of Conway’s text on whether she believed in the preexistence of souls as her teacher More did. After all, it was his poem “Prae-existence of the Soul” that inspired her series of questions regarding the nature of souls. Hutton argues that Conway did not share More’s belief in the Origenist doctrine of preexistence, although she did agree with other aspects of Origen’s thought as has been previously mentioned.[97] Givens, on the other hand, clearly asserts that Conway did agree with More on preexistence,[98] which he draws from her text when she writes, “Creatures, although they are not coeternal with God, nevertheless have existed for an infinite time from the beginning.”[99] Yet Conway also goes on to say, “In different senses, creatures have existed and not existed from eternity.”[100] How one interprets this depends on what one understands souls to be: are they individual personalities that have existed from the beginning? Or rather is the single substance constituting all of Creation what has existed from eternity, and souls are constituted later by the process of eternal motion toward goodness?

Just as Creation is a multitude within the unity of a single substance, and the Trinity a triune within a single Spirit, Conway has a similar conception of all creatures. Not only are God’s creatures “infinite and created in an infinity of ways”[101] but also that “in every creature, whether spirit or body, there is an infinity of creatures, each of which contains an infinity in itself, and so on to infinity.”[102] This idea, drawn by Conway from the Kabbalah,[103] gives rise to the conception that not only is every body composed of a multitude of bodies, but furthermore so is every spirit.[104] How then is one to understand where the concept of personhood arises? If all of the spirit-matter continuum is perceptive and vital, albeit to varying degrees, what part of myself can assert “I am”? Conway writes that just as the parts that make up a body are arranged in a certain order so too are spirits arranged, to be governed by a principle ruling spirit[105]—not unlike Emerson’s conception of the Over-Soul, or Whitehead’s dominant monad. There is not a single ruling spirit, but rather a hierarchy of ruling spirits, “such that one is the principle ruler, another has second place, and a third commands others below itself. . . Thus every human being, indeed every creature whatsoever, contains many spirits and bodies.”[106] These ruling spirits are organized along the continuum from matter to God, who is the ultimate leader of the multitude of spirits.

The dynamic multiplicity of Creation’s unity is another aspect that differentiates the spiritual being of creatures from the spiritual being of God: Creation is composed at the primary level of spiritual monads—a concept that greatly inspired Leibniz[107]—whereas God is not.[108] While creatures, as previously mentioned, can be divided to infinity, Conway writes that this is only a mathematical possibility, but not one that God, bound by goodness, would allow to occur physically. For if divided to the smallest mathematical monad, instead of merely the smallest physical monad, a creature would cease its vital motion and thus no longer have the ability to move toward perfection and goodness.[109] Something in which the motion has ceased would be dead matter, which Conway has already deemed to not exist due to the goodness of God.

Finally, Conway asserts that the infinite multiplicity of creatures is actually what allows them to have the capacity for motion and the ability to strive for perfection. “A creature,” she writes, “because it needs the help of its fellow creatures, must be multiple in order to receive this help.”[110] All creatures need their fellow creatures; despite their multiplicity no creature can ever be separated from Creation because they are all ultimately of one nature, one being.[111] Referring back to the principle ruling spirit that organizes the multiplicity of spirits to compose the soul and body of a creature, Conway clarifies that even this ruling spirit itself is multiple:

It is called central because all the other spirits come together in it, just as lines from every part of the circumference meet in the center and go forth from this center. Indeed, the unity of spirits composing this central predominant spirit is firmer and more tenacious than that of other spirits    . . . This unity is so great that nothing can dissolve it.[112]

Because it is God’s nature to be immutable, God has been a creator from eternity; as such, creatures also have existed from eternity because God has always created.[113] From this position Conway concludes to the Christian doctrine of the eternal existence of the soul, while simultaneously maintaining the multiplicity of that soul. She writes, “Thus it happens that the soul of every human being will remain a whole soul for eternity and endure without end, so that it may receive proper rewards for its labor.”[114] Conway affirms the eternal existence of the soul not only forward in time but backward, while also affirming the evolution of Creation, in which creatures learn from embodied action and morally guided metempsychosis.

Sacred Relationality

Conway’s religious philosophy holds that the role of Creation is ultimately to recognize and move toward its own divine nature, a belief that draws on the diverse influences of Platonic, Kabbalistic, Gnostic, Neoplatonic, and alchemical sources.[115] Her system of natural mysticism, which might also be characterized as an early modern form of process panentheism, can be seen quietly reflected in aspects of the monadology of Leibniz,[116] the organicism of Blake,[117] the morphology of Goethe,[118] the vitalism of Bergson,[119] and the process philosophy of Whitehead.[120] Her protest against a mechanical world view[121] and the Cartesian soul-body dualism has been picked up by contemporary feminists and ecological thinkers alike as they find a voice in solidarity hailing from the pivotal time of the early modern period.[122] As White notes,

Her early modern perspectives thus provide a remarkable antecedent for new naturalistic impulses in religious studies, particularly current reconstructions of nature that challenge “dominion-over-nature” ideologies derived from early scientific and modern conceptions.[123]

Yet Conway’s name is rarely included in major histories of philosophy, despite the brilliance of her thought that was recognized by her colleagues. The patriarchal tide of Western history swept her under its strong current to become a name infrequently retrieved. Nevertheless, the ocean of history is wide and the tides of the world are changing. Conway’s brief treatise may yet resurface in a significant way as humanity searches for answers within our historical lineages, answers from thinkers who present a cosmology that can remind us of our connection not only to each other but to the divinity of the planet on which we live and the cosmos through which we travel. Her emphasis on multiplicity within unity brings awareness to the relationality of the entire cosmos, to the love inspired by the simultaneous affinity and difference of all beings held together in dynamic union. In the picture White paints of Conway’s vision she says, “For Conway, the love among all creation constitutes a sacral universe where the shared love among all entities is based on a processional view of natural phenomena participating in the divine life.”[124] Conway’s may be one of the voices we need to hear in order to learn how to remain afloat upon the changing tides of a universe woven of sacred, multiplicitous unity.

References

Broad, Jacqueline. Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Conway, Anne. The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy. Edited and translated by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Course. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hutton, Sarah. Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1990.

More, Henry. “The Epistle Dedicatory.” In An Antidote Against Atheisme: or an Appeale      to the Natural Faculties of the Minds of Man, whether there be not a God. London, England, 1653.

Ward, Richard. The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More. Edited by Sarah Hutton et al. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000.

White, Carol Wayne. The Legacy of Anne Conway: Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Worthington, John. The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington. Edited by James Crossley. Manchester, England: The Chetham Society, 1847.


[1] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 254.

[2] John Worthington, The Diary and Correspondence of Dr. John Worthington, ed. James Crossley (Manchester, England: The Chetham Society, 1847), 142, note 1.

[3] Sarah Hutton, qtd. in Jacqueline Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65.

[4] Richard Ward, The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More, ed. Sarah Hutton et al. (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 2000), 123.

[5] Henry More, “The Epistle Dedicatory” in An Antidote Against Atheisme: or an Appeale to the Natural Faculties of the Minds of Man, whether there be not a God (London, England, 1653).

[6] Sarah Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 29.

[7] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 255.

[8] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 2, 49.

[9] Carol Wayne White, The Legacy of Anne Conway: Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 48.

[10] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 3.

[11] Ibid, 5-6.

[12] Ibid, 55.

[13]Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, ed. and trans. Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Course (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9.

[14] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[15] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 65.

[16] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 9.

[17] Ibid, 10-11.

[18] Ibid, 50.

[19] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 163.

[20] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10-11.

[21] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 65.

[22] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 11.

[23] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 49.

[24] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 13.

[25] Ibid, 14.

[26] Ibid, 15.

[27] Ibid, 16.

[28] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 24.

[29] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 53.

[30] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 23.

[31] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 70.

[32] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 31.

[33] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[34] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 22.

[35] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 10.

[36] Ibid, 25.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 11.

[39] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 17.

[40] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 55.

[41] Ward, The Life of the Pious and Learned Henry More, 169.

[42] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 158.

[43] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 45.

[44] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39-40.

[45] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 73.

[46] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 163.

[47] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 61.

[48] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 52.

[49] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 42.

[50] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 263.

[51] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 72.

[52] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 78.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 4.

[55] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 64.

[56] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 76.

[57] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 50.

[58] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38.

[59] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 78.

[60] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38.

[61] Ibid, 39.

[62] Ibid, 46.

[63] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 48.

[64] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 33-4.

[65] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 11.

[66] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 34.

[67] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 58.

[68] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 69.

[69] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 45.

[70] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 3-4.

[71] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 32.

[72] Ibid, 47.

[73] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 254-5.

[74] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 4.

[75] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 260.

[76] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 83.

[77] Ibid, 85.

[78] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 29.

[79] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 33.

[80] Ibid, 34.

[81] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 254-5.

[82] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 34.

[83] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 53.

[84] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 260-1.

[85] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 36.

[86] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 57.

[87] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 35.

[88] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 70.

[89] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 163.

[90] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 52.

[91] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 97.

[92] Ibid, 163.

[93] Ibid, 98.

[94] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 33.

[95] Ibid, 17.

[96] Ibid, 67.

[97] Hutton, Anne Conway: A Woman Philosopher, 70.

[98] Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 164.

[99] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 12.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid, 16.

[102] Ibid, 17.

[103] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 73.

[104] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39.

[105] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 39.

[106] Ibid, 39.

[107] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 264.

[108] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 50.

[109] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 20.

[110] Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 54.

[111] Ibid, 52.

[112] Ibid, 55.

[113] Ibid, 13.

[114] Ibid, 55.

[115] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 26.

[116] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 257.

[117] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 69.

[118] Ibid, 70.

[119] Ibid, 77.

[120] Ibid, 83.

[121] Merchant, The Death of Nature, 268.

[122] Broad, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century, 80.

[123] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, ix.

[124] White, The Legacy of Anne Conway, 92.

Towards an Imaginal Ecology: A First Glance

“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…”
– Gaston Bachelard[1] 

California Sunset

Imagine a stream, choked, murky gray, oiled surface, sunken deep below the watermark-stained banks. Feel deep within your soul the hopelessness of this place, the deadening of your senses to the despair of the river. Allow your imagination to fill with the river’s pain. Now, slowly, begin to imagine those waters rising, gradually at first, then more and more quickly, flowing first as a muddy trickle, widening into an onrushing stream. Bulbous plants begin to flourish along the banks, setting roots into the silted bottom. Filth becomes food, the waters begin to run clear. Light, once again, sparkles on the rippling surface. Fish return. What has allowed such a transition to occur? A re-imagining of purpose.

The imagination plays many roles in our practice of ecology upon this exquisite, blue and green celestial gem we have named Earth. As our planet suffers the ravaging destruction of industrialization and the consumptive growth of human greed, humanity is beginning to re-imagine its purpose in relationship to the Earth. The imagination is a multifaceted gift to ecology, one that can connect us to both our past and future, that can connect us with spiritual strength and moral empathy, that allows us to see our human role in an enchanted cosmos. The imagination is the eye of the soul, a bridge between the rational mind and the physical world, the opening of a realm in which the true beauty of the anima mundi can be revealed. Aspects of what could be called “imaginal ecology” can be glimpsed throughout the work of Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Christopher Bache, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, and many other thinkers; it resounds in the poetry and philosophy of the Romantics, Transcendentalists and German Idealists. Imaginal ecology flourishes in the articulations of the enchanted realm of Faërie penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, and other fiction writers whose work reveals the enchantment of the realm in which we live.

The moral imagination of which Macy speaks can allow us to situate ourselves in the experience of other beings, whether ancestors of our past, or plants and animals, ecosystems of our current Earth, even beings of the future. Through imaginal practice we can hear the needs of others and recognize them as our own. Macy writes, “The imagination needs to be schooled in order to experience our inter-existence with all beings in the web of life.”[2] We can gain spiritual and psychic courage by seeing with the imagination’s eye into our potentially dire future. The work of Bache allows one to envision such a future while learning to cultivate the spiritual center needed to stay grounded in such an unstable time. The grief and despair work of both Macy and Bache lay a solid foundation in reality that can act as the fertile ground from which creative solutions can sprout and flourish.

Imagination can carry us back through time to the flaring forth of our cosmos, and as we experience the unfolding of our universe our own role as human beings becomes clearer. As Swimme and Tucker write, “Every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting upon itself.”[3] Such a realization can reorient our actions into a more harmonious relationship to the Earth as we recognize that we also are the Earth in relationship to ourselves.

Because we are the cosmos in human form, the pain of the world is expressing itself through our human pains, through our pathologies and diseases. The work of ecopsychology practiced by Hillman, Roszak and others, which itself could be seen as a form of imaginal ecology, seeks to engage in the healing of the soul of the world, the anima mundi.

Abram suggests that the imagination exists not only in the human but in the Earth and the cosmos itself. The imagination of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region like the landscape, affording various insights and ideas that differ by location. Abram writes,

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[4]

Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on this creativity gifted by the Earth.

The creative works of many authors and artists can serve ecology by offering a “recovery,” as Tolkien writes, giving us the opportunity of “regaining a clear view”[5] of the enchantment inherent to the world in which we live. They offer a view of a fantasy realm, which Tolkien calls Faërie, crafted out of the materials of our everyday world, just as the painter’s or sculptor’s materials are drawn also from nature.[6] Yet fantasy allows us to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[7] Tolkien shows the overlap between our 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.[8] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. Fantasy—expressed through any art form, from literature, to painting, to sculpture—allows us to look again at our own world with new eyes, for as Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[9] The role the imagination can play in ecology is to unlock the doorway to this realm, our own cosmos, and re-enter as re-enchanted human beings, reflecting on themselves in the form of the universe.

Bibliography

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

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2000.

Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc. 2005.

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

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

–––––. 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.

Macy, Joanna. World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007.

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

Swimme, Brian and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.


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

[2] Joanna Macy, World As Lover, World As Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007), 112.

[3] Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 2.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 118.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[6] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[7] Ibid, 77.

[8] Ibid, 38.

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

To Have a Dream

I have a dream
I have dreams every night
I have a dream
But these dreams aren’t right
I have a dream

Filled with fear, pain, and death
They strangle my voice
Cut off my breath

I have a dream

Waking dreams are hopes
Visions of new dawns
Unbound from oppressing ropes

Whence is the source
Of this word, dream?
A dual-edged course
An image unseen

I have a dream
Where waking sleep blends
I have a dream
When suffering ends

For one moment upon one day
Each earthly voice is raised in song
Stopping work, ceasing play
Weaving rhythms short and long

The whale, songbird, wolf, and stone
Bear, fish, leaf, and sea
Vibrating Earth with each tone
Until Gaia’s voice bellows free
And the galaxies all hear her glee

In that moment she will be healed
By the hopeful song her children wield

I have a dream
I have dreams every night
I have a dream
But this one we may get right.

Poetize the Planet: Mythopoetic Expression in an Earthly Cosmology

let’s meet

at the confluence

where you flow into me

and one breath

swirls between our lungs

– Drew Dellinger[2]

Humanity needs a new cosmology. The Earth needs a new poetry. As humanity’s discordant relationship with our home planet continues to wreak environmental devastation worldwide, no single solution can be put forward that can fully address the crises escalating on the Earth. The most creative answers will come to no avail if they are still trapped within the current mechanistic, reductionist worldview that initially set us so deeply out of balance. How are we, as a species, to address the issues of ecological destruction? The solutions require a creativity deeper and greater than the human alone. We must ask the Earth. As Thomas Berry puts it “…we need not a human answer to an Earth problem, but an Earth answer to an Earth problem.”[3]

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The chasm of communication between the modern human and the Earth is great, but not unbridgeable. David Abram posits that our human language is a gift originally from the Earth. “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world––as a stuttering reply not to just others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?”[4] This understanding of language as initially born out of the cosmos cannot be relegated to mere projection; the Earth calls forth the human imagination in diverse ways dependent upon the characteristics of the landscape. Language transcends human creativity alone.[5]

The key imaginative language, the Rosetta stone of reconnection, must be poetic. The cosmos speaks directly to us, telling the story of its unfolding since time began, in the language of poetry. Earth poetry calls to us in the sighing death rattle of an autumn breeze among fiery-hued leaves; it radiates as the rich heat of black humus soil under the exposed skin of curious feet; it cries as the sonorous whale’s melody born through the crashing of a salty ocean wave. While many modern adults have long been closed off to this language, it is naturally available to children as they enter the world with fresh, enchanted senses: they can still read nature’s stories.[6] The Earth has an inherent poetic quality to it, as its nature is “…bound into the aesthetic experience, into poetry, art, and dance,”[7] as Berry notes. Our first task is to listen, an offering of the greatest act of love and respect to the Earth.

For humanity to once again hear the poetry of the Earth, the cosmos must be reenchanted.[8] An innovative mythic worldview is needed in which humans understand their roles within the larger Earth and cosmic community. We need a “…vision of a planet integral with itself throughout its spatial extent and its evolutionary sequence… if we are to have the psychic power to undergo the psychic and social transformations that are being demanded of us.”[9] Berry puts forth in his writings a call to the poets and artists of the world to help forge a new, mythically imbued cosmology that could culturally guide humanity’s survival into the future. “There must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.”[10]

In his book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram explores in poetic language these themes of reconnection and identification between the human and our Earth community. Drawing on his own rich sensory experience of the Earth, he is able to perceive the stories the planet is sharing with all of us. In complementary juxtaposition, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s new cosmology, as presented in The Universe Story, also offers a meaningful, enchanted vision retold from the perspective of scientific inquiry. Both Abram’s, and Swimme and Berry’s, cosmologies present a new mythological story based on an understanding of the Earth, not as an object, but rather as an ensouled subject.

Scientific inquiry has been the driving force impelling contemporary Western culture forward. The objective stance of the scientist has unveiled vast expanses of knowledge previously unavailable to humanity. Yet this objectivity has also masked a myriad of other knowledges, deep wisdoms and mysteries that scientific impartiality cannot perceive.[11] Such a detached position has led to a belief that the evolution of the cosmos, from its first moments of flaring into being, is a sequence of random happenstance, somehow arriving at life and the epiphenomenon of consciousness upon our well-situated, but insignificant, planet. While the scientific method has revealed much that could not be disclosed by our physical or intuitive senses alone, the abstractions it produces have also taken the position of primary truth; “… as a result, more and more of us come to assume that those theoretical realms are more true, more fundamental, more real than this palpable world that we experience with our breathing bodies.”[12] Yet, it may actually be such that these scientific results are best understood when interpreted through our senses and emotions, illuminating the greater depths of scientific facts.

Swimme and Berry tell the scientifically grounded story of the evolution of the cosmos from a sensual, mythic perspective, unfolding the same science in a lyrical, poetic form that reveals those very qualities within cosmogenesis itself. From the “primordial flaring forth,”[13] to the birth of stars, the formation of the galaxies, and the supernovas that forged the elements which seeded new stars and the planets, to the emergence of life on Earth, the complexification of life, and the evolution and cultural development of the human, this story is expressed as a celebratory event. The unfolding of the universe is the celebratory event, for “…celebration is omnipresent, not simply in the individual modes of its expression but in the grandeur of the entire cosmic process.”[14] Each phase of the journey expresses the inherent subjectivity of each event, a thrilling sensuality contained within every fiber of the cosmos.

The Earthly cosmology of David Abram is first grounded in the intimacy of the senses, then moves out to encompass the tangible qualities of the land, the Earth, and finally the cosmos. Swimme and Berry begin at the macrocosmic level, while Abram begins at the microcosmic, yet their two cosmologies ultimately meet in the middle, revealing one story of cosmogenesis and the intimate experience of it in the present moment.

The Earth can be communed with in part by understanding our human similarity to the myriad of living and non-living beings surrounding us.

We can feel the trees and the rocks underfoot, because we are not so unlike them, because we have our own forking limbs and our own mineral composition… are tangible bodies of thickness and weight, and so have a great deal in common with the palpable things that we encounter.[15]

An intimacy inherently exists between all beings in the cosmos, as we each have our origin in the first ecstatic moments of the universe’s flaring forth. This relationship has continued through all time, forming the complex webs of interconnection and symbiosis that make life on Earth possible. Our bodies, like the other bodies in the environment, all partake in the gift economy of the Earth: one organism’s waste is transformed into the nourishment of another.[16] Currently, humanity has become an imbalance in this economy, taking much but returning sterile, or even toxic, waste that is of little use, and causes great harm, to the other organisms inhabiting the planet.

A common perception is that humans live on the Earth, but rather we are deeply embedded in ways our bodily senses are able to reveal to us. Take a breath of air. The air swirling around us, connecting the entire planet in its cycles, extends for miles from the surface of the land and the oceans.[17] We live deep within the Earth because we stand below the layer of air which allows Earth to be what it is.[18] Moreover, the composition of that air, so essential to life’s existence, also would not exist without the presence of life.[19] Life and air mutually create each other. “To put it starkly, the biosphere is not simply in a habitable zone but also makes a habitable zone.”[20] Furthermore, not only are we in the Earth, but the Earth is in us. From the air we breath, to the food we eat, and the water we drink, the Earth itself courses through our bodies, just as we make our course through the well-worn pathways of life on this planet.

Physical nourishment is not the only gift the Earth gives its inhabitants. As mentioned previously, language may be a property of the Earth itself, as well as emotion, imagination, and reflection. If the human has psychic capacities then such ability must lie first within the cosmos, and therefore the Earth. Consciousness, rather than an activity occurring solely within the human brain, may be an inherent quality of the Earth in which we each participate.[21]

What if there is, yes, a quality of inwardness to the mind, not because the mind is located inside us (inside our body or brain), but because we are situated, bodily, inside it––because our lives and our thoughts unfold in the depths of a mind that is not really ours, but is rather the Earth’s? What if like the hunkered owl, and the spruce bending above it, and the beetle staggering from needle to needle on that branch, we all partake of the wide intelligence of the world––because we’re materially participant, with our actions and our passions, in the broad psyche of this sphere?[22]

Just as we inhale the air, we intake conscious awareness. Most importantly, from this perspective, humans are not the only beings inhaling the psyche of the planet, but rather every living and non-living entity partakes in this consciousness, each in their own diversified manner.

Like the landscape, the consciousness of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region, affording various insights and ideas to the imagination that differ by location.

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[23]

The human imagination, and its ability for creative insight and innovation, is sustained by this diversity of the landscape and the myriad of beings living within it.[24] Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on the creativity gifted by the Earth. If that gift is diminished, by species extinction and landscape destruction, our capacity to be fully human is also curtailed.

Enclosed in human-made cities and artificial environments, we will lose the capacity to think, dream, and create. The desire to forge a mutually-enhancing relationship with the Earth community is sustained by constant contact with the land, the ocean, forests, deserts, rivers, mountains, and the multitude of species living in these landscapes. If one is insulated from the array of life forces, then one’s desire to intimately know and respect them will dwindle and die. Such isolation leads to destruction for both the human and non-human, since something fundamental to the development of the cosmos is being constrained. As human creativity is stifled, the capacity to imagine solutions to environmental devastation is limited, unleashing a positive feedback loop that furthers ecological ruin and decreases awareness.

If humans treat the Earth and its multitude of abundant life as inert objects, then their inherent subjectivity becomes veiled, and even violated. The opportunity to commune with another ensouled being is lost. As Abram writes,

When I talk of the aspen or the granite outcrop as a determinate object, I push into unconsciousness my direct experience of trees and rock ledges, contradicting my carnal awareness of them as ambiguous beings with their own enigmatic ways of influencing the space around them, and of influencing me.[25]

When we objectify the world in a merely instrumental way we deny ourselves even the possibility to encounter it as a meaningful subject. Once we choose to no longer speak to the Earth, to sing to the sunrise or hum to the cradling arms of an oak, to whisper to a chipmunk or call to a robin, then they will no longer speak to us, either. Even if they do, we will have lost our ability to hear them.[26]

To open up such communication is to take a risk, stepping out of the stability of our everyday human interactions and into what is initially an utterly foreign language. Yet what is most key in all communication, whether between human, animal, plant, river, or soil, is honesty.[27] The words do not have to be directly translated because the intonation and body language, that which all universe beings share, will carry the message, if we can surrender to trust it. Abram writes that he learned to sing when confronting an animal which he had startled, and which might potentially be dangerous if it felt threatened. The song was both relaxing to his own tensed nerves, and communicated that sense of safety to the animal before him.[28] In another situation, when faced with hundreds of curious but angry sea lions, Abram began to dance, offering the sea lions a gift of his humanity portrayed through the animal expression of his body. Mesmerized by his movement, the sea lions were calmed from their initial fury at unexpected intrusion.[29]

Such communication can be opened between humans and plants as well, although on a subtler level due to the greater genetic difference between the two biological kingdoms. Yet the doorway can be opened once again by finding the similarities, rather than focusing on differences, between the plant and the human. If one stands in a forest and listens attentively to the sound of wind through the tree branches, different dialects can be discerned between tree species, and even individual trees. While some might argue that this is not the trees speaking, but merely the wind passing through their branches, then we must be humbled to realize that the same thing is occurring with our own voices when we speak or sing. It is the air vibrating our vocal cords, just as that same air is vibrating the trees’ leaves and branches.[30] Furthermore, it is that same air that is cycling around the planet, uniting the globe as a single being.

The cycling of carbon dioxide around the globe takes approximately a year to complete. In that time each molecule we breathe is circled to distant lands that we may never see with our own eyes. Yet our breath, which has shaped our speech and kept us alive, is distributed worldwide. It has been calculated that every growing leaf on the Earth, within a year, will contain a few dozen of the carbon atoms we exhale in every breath.[31] The words we say, the poetry we speak, are crystallized within every leaf on the planet. We are listened to in a way almost impossible to imagine, indicating the power of our communication. We need to “…take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than merely human meaning and resonance.”[32] There is an “…uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world’s unfolding.”[33]

Children are born into the world with this ability to whole-heartedly commune with the natural world. Indeed, for the very young child there is no separation between her sense of self and her surroundings. It is only with a growing awareness of her body that the child is able to perceive a quality of otherness in her environment.[34] Yet, by emerging slowly from this embedded matrix, she is still able to communicate with the Earth, holding a fascination and sense of awe for all she encounters. Berry believed these encounters are essential for children, “… for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests, and woodland creatures of Earth that some of their most profound inner experiences originate.”[35] A child who is able to interact with, and explore fully, the Earth community of which she is a part will be able to grow into an adult with an understanding of her place in the universe, and a vision of the interconnected web that is the Earth, her home. “Only after such an unimpeded childhood does a grown woman know in her bones that she inhabits a breathing cosmos, that her life is embedded in a wild community of dynamically intertwined and yet weirdly different lives.”[36] It is just such an individual who will be open to the poetic communication of the universe, who will participate in its imagination and creativity to devise a mutually-enhancing relationship between the human and the Earth.

It is easy for the rational mind to dismiss the whispered stories of trees and the radiant breathing of the moon as projections of the human mind. No great truth is truth if it cannot be contradicted in some way. A sense of trust must be built between the isolated human and her environment. As that bridge is formed, what first seemed to be arrogant projection is really a deep perception. We are perceiving the similarities that draw connection between the human and the Earth, only to realize they are one and the same: “…our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself.”[37] The human experience of emotions and consciousness are only qualities of the human because they are first qualities of the Earth, and prior to that the cosmos.

Two hundred million years ago, the first mammals flourished into existence as the next stage of the planet’s unfolding. Mammals developed an emotional sensitivity to the cosmos, impressing upon them the wonder and awe of the universe in a new way.[38] It was out of the mammalian line that humans evolved, perceiving the great mysteries of the deep world as the archetypal, enchanted patterning of myth. In the opening to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[39] These inexhaustible cosmic energies may be the very same energies creating the consciousness of the Earth, in which we all participate.

Myths are the underlying stories that subtly guide the course of a culture’s manifestation. To discover a new myth to guide Western culture, and ultimately the planetary culture, toward a harmonious relationship with the Earth, the dialogue must be opened between humanity and the local landscape in which each human being finds herself. Each landscape inspires different emotions, ideas, and stories, causing the universal, archetypal energies coursing through Earth’s consciousness to take diverse, concrete form in different localities. “For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”[40] Myth, like air or water, is a global, or universal, phenomenon saturated with the qualities of the local, as can be perceived when the local landscape is communed with.

The cultures living in the greatest harmony with the Earth are the indigenous oral cultures spread across the planet. Although each indigenous culture is as radically varied as the landscape in which they live, certain similarities connect their ways of life. Primarily, an oral culture is inherently local, grounded in the region in which they have culturally developed.[41] It seems to be no coincidence that at the same time that the Earth’s ecosystems are unraveling, the planet’s indigenous cultures and their array of languages are also rapidly facing extinction.[42] The diverse languages of the Earth are bound up into the land, and as the land is lost so are its poetic expressions.

The cultures that are causing the greatest environmental destruction carry a noble lineage of writings on religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, poetry, and story that are grounded in a deep reverence, care, and understanding of the Earth. These writings are easily available to nearly everyone in these cultures, yet the demolition of the natural world continues. Abram came to the realization that such a disconnect occurs because these ideas and stories are written down, “effectively divorcing these many teachings from the living land that once held and embodied these teachings.”[43] Without the rich qualities of the landscape engaging every physical sense, these stories lose their sensual depth and cannot impart the full wisdom of the land which inspired them. Only if experienced in the landscape which first spoke the stories can the tales fully convey their meaning.

“Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local Earth? Not without restorying the local Earth.”[44] As the consequences of the ecological crises become dire, the importance of learning to hear the innumerable voices of the Earth becomes critical. Each voice in every region is telling a unique facet of the universe’s unfolding, which must be heard and retold, inspiring the creativity to find a mutually-enhancing, self-renewing, sustainable path into the future. The true myth of the universe’s journey, from the eternal unfolding of the primordial flaring forth, to the ever-fleeting present moment, must be spoken as story, as the great myth of our time. This story must carry the voices of all the local inhabitants so that new relationships can be formed between them and each new generation of the human being. Children should be able to carry their wonder of the natural world into their adulthood in a mature, reverent form.

“We know of no other place in the universe with such gorgeous self-expression as exists on Earth.”[45] Humans participate in that self-expression through our own creative self-expression: through our myths and stories, our music, writings and art, our innovation and traditions, and our conscious participatory way of being. It is through these expressive gifts that humanity will be able to step fully into its niche in the Earth community.

The new myths we will tell each other will express a tale of renewal, rejuvenation, and reconnection. The ancient cosmologies of the world were based in celebration of seasonal renewal, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. The new story of the universe honors the irreversible changes unfurling in the course of the evolution of the cosmos. The sharing of that story brings about a reconnection between humanity and the cosmos, in itself a form of renewal. The mythology of the future is spiralic, a celebratory tale of transformation within the cycles of a living, breathing cosmos. The myth is like the Earth itself, continuously circling the sun while simultaneously hurtling forward on an unknown journey across cosmic time and space.

Bibliography

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

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

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.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Crist, Eileen and H. Bruce Rinker, ed. Gaia in Turmoil. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010.

Dellinger, Drew. Love Letter to the Milky Way. Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.


[1] Credit for this title must be given to Matthew David Segall, who created the phrase at Esalen Institute in conversation with poet Drew Dellinger, regarding Dellinger’s poem “Planetize the Movement.”

[2] Drew Dellinger, “Hymn to the Sacred Body of the Universe,” in Love Letter to the Milky Way (Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010), 30.

[3] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 35.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 4.

[5] Abram, Becoming Animal, 32.

[6] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 15.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 21.

[9] Ibid, 42.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] Abram, Becoming Animal, 73.

[12] Ibid, 75.

[13] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 17.

[14] Ibid, 264.

[15] Abram, Becoming Animal, 46.

[16] Ibid, 62.

[17] Tyler Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 30.

[18] Abram, Becoming Animal, 99.

[19] Ibid, 101.

[20] Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker, “One Grand Organic Whole,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 4.

[21] Ibid, 16-17.

[22] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[23] Ibid, 118.

[24] Ibid, 128-129.

[25] Ibid, 63-64.

[26] Ibid, 175.

[27] Ibid, 169.

[28] Ibid, 161-162.

[29] Ibid, 164-165.

[30] Ibid, 171.

[31] Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” 30.

[32] Abram, Becoming Animal, 172-173.

[33] Ibid, 173.

[34] Ibid, 38.

[35] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 133.

[36] Abram, Becoming Animal, 42.

[37] Ibid, 153.

[38] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 10.

[39] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[40] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1-2.

[41] Abram, Becoming Animal, 268.

[42] Ibid, 265.

[43] Ibid, 281.

[44] Ibid, 289.

[45] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 263.