Iridescent Infinity: Participatory Theory and Archetypal Cosmology

This essay, originally written in April 2012, has now been published in Issue 5 of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, edited by Grant Maxwell and myself.

“A kind of fluid interpenetration belongs to the very nature of all archetypes.  They can only be roughly circumscribed at best.  Their living meaning comes out more from their presentation as a whole than from a single formulation.  Every attempt to focus them more sharply is immediately punished by the intangible core of meaning losing its luminosity.  No archetype can be reduced to a simple formula.  It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill.  It has a potential existence only, and when it takes shape in matter it is no longer what it was.  It persists throughout the ages and requires interpreting ever anew.  The archetypes are the imperishable elements of the unconscious, but they change their shape continually.”

– C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

The creative magnificence of the universe is so irreducibly complex that no human framework will ever capture the full extent of its dynamic and indefinable nature. Yet human beings need an orientation in the cosmos to allow the meanings of existence to unfold. The spiritual and intellectual quest of humanity has impelled generation after generation to engage with the divine mystery out of which everything arises, in part to come to a fuller understanding of what our role is within the majesty of the cosmos. This quest has produced a plurality of religious and spiritual traditions that diversely engage and enact spiritual truths through their practices, texts, rituals, celebrations, experiments, and customs.

The rest of this article can be read in Issue 5, Saturn and the Theoretical Foundations of an Emerging Discipline, available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook.

Archai Journal Issue 5

Towards an Imaginal Ecology

This essay, originally written in May 2013, has now been published in the inaugural issue of Re-Imagining Magazine, a publication created by the Chicago Wisdom Project.

“To speak, to ask to have audience today in the world, requires that we speak to the world, for the world is in the audience; it too is listening to what we say.”[1] With these words James Hillman opens his essay “Anima Mundi” in which he speaks of the return of soul to the world. Such is the task we face as a species, as human beings, as we learn to cultivate a different kind of relationship with our planet, the Earth which supports our very existence. But what eyes can we use to see the soul of the world? What languages can we speak to call out to the anima mundi? With what ears shall we listen to hear the Earth’s voices in reply?

To read the rest of this article please see: “Towards An Imaginal Ecology

Imaginal Ecology

[1] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007), 91.

Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology

This paper was presented at the conference “Seizing an Alternative: Toward An Ecological Civilization,” held in Claremont, California at Pomona College. The section of the conference was titled “Alienation from Nature,” and the track, organized by Matthew Segall, was called “Late Modernity and Its Re-imagining.”

This conference is titled “Seizing an Alternative,” a title that implies the alternative is already here, it is not something new that must be invented. The alternative has been present all along, waiting, urging us even, to open our imaginations to the possibility that this alternative is, in a sense, the very essence—a hidden essence—of our world. At this conference our section has been addressing the alienation from the rest of the cosmos felt by the human being in late modernity. And each talk in our track has been revealing, in its own way, the deep interconnection that has always been present between us and our world. We are our world. The cosmic web has not been cut, although part of our human journey has been to feel as though the threads of our existence have been severed.

In 1983 a conference was held at this same university, organized primarily by Catherine Keller and David Ray Griffin. The conference was called “Archetypal Process,” and sought to bring into dialogue the process philosophy of Whitehead and the archetypal psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman. As Griffin pointed out, process philosophy and archetypal psychology are both postmodern movements, but postmodern in a different sense from the “relativistic, nihilistic, deconstructive postmodernism” that might better be called “ultramodernism, or mostmodernism.”[1] Process philosophy and archetypal psychology, in Griffin’s words, are examples of “a constructive, reconstructive, or revisionary postmodernism, in which many of the presuppositions of modernity are challenged and revised.”[2] They are postmodern movements that “both want to return soul and divinity to the world.”[3] In his talk at the conference, James Hillman spoke of the need for a metaphysics that could support archetypal psychology. Hillman had abandoned Jung’s metaphysics in order to save his psychology. Yet this was not enough. Metaphysics is always operative, whether one acknowledges it or not. What Hillman sought was a metaphysics of praxis, a metaphysics that supported the practice of psychology, the practice of soul-making—an alchemical metaphysics. Whitehead can provide such a metaphysics, a cosmology in which soul can do its work.

Hillman spoke in his talk of that word, cosmology: it both “refers to the astronomical order of the heavenly bodies, and it also has a metaphysical meaning, according to Whitehead’s Process and Reality.”[4] As Whitehead says, cosmology is a scheme “of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”[5] What if we do as Hillman suggested, and “keep together the two meanings, astronomical and metaphysical?”[6] Allow me to quote Hillman, in his ever-eloquent stylings, on what it would mean to maintain the unity of the two meanings of the word cosmology:

Let us say that the astronomical bodies (the planets) offer metaphysical bodies (the Gods [or one might say the archetypes]) by means of whom every element of experience can be interpreted. What is beyond in both meanings are the heavenly bodies. These afford some nouns and adjectives, some processes and some realities. The planetary persons fill the void of the beyond with the myths of their bodies and the bodies of their myths. This cosmology is a psychological field—a field because metaphysics is placed in imaginal locations; psychological because the planets are persons with traits, with behaviors, and in relation with one another.[7]

Hillman is offering us a vision of an archetypal cosmology, an archetypally-patterned, astronomically-grounded cosmology­.

In his work with Stanislav Grof on non-ordinary and expanded states of consciousness, Richard Tarnas came to find, in his words, “a highly significant––indeed a pervasive––correspondence between planetary movements and human affairs.”[8] What is this correspondence? It is perceptible in the position of the planets at one’s birth, as well as in the transiting movement of the planets in relation to the birth chart throughout one’s life, and the ever-changing dynamics of the planets’ relational positions to each other. It is a correspondence of an archetypal character. Archetypal astrology. It is a continuously ongoing, universally visible form of synchronicity, what Jung describes as a meaningful coincidence between an inner event and an outer event. Archetypal astrology is an empirically-based, yet mythopoetically informed, practice—tracking the ongoing archetypal interconnection between psyche and cosmos, microcosm and macrocosm.

While Tarnas and others have put forward substantial evidence for the astrological perspective, demonstrating the multifaceted ways in which astrology works, today I want to explore another question: why does astrology work? What does the recognition of the highly precise, yet poetically subtle, correspondence between planetary movements and events on Earth indicate about the nature of the cosmos? In dialogue with this question Whitehead’s process philosophy can, perhaps, offer us a metaphysical foundation.

Before moving forward, a word on the nature of archetypes. Perhaps this can best be conveyed by Jung himself, the great diviner of the archetypal patterning of the human psyche. To quote Jung:

A kind of fluid interpenetration belongs to the very nature of all archetypes. They can only be roughly circumscribed at best. Their living meaning comes out more from their presentation as a whole than from a single formulation. Every attempt to focus them more sharply is immediately punished by the intangible core of meaning losing its luminosity. No archetype can be reduced to a simple formula. It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill. It has a potential existence only, and when it takes shape in matter it is no longer what it was. It persists throughout the ages and requires interpreting ever anew. The archetypes are the imperishable elements of the unconscious, but they change their shape continually.[9]

As this quote from Jung illustrates, it is the very nature of the archetypes to not be fully definable and describable, without misrepresenting and dulling their divine luminosity. Thus, moving forward, I want to acknowledge the impossibility of capturing archetypal presence in a single metaphysical system that explains in totality how they operate in the world.

In his introduction to the book that emerged from the “Archetypal Process” conference, Griffin draws a parallel between Jung’s concept of archetypes and Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects, each being part of an explanation of formal causation. For Whitehead, an eternal object is “any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world.”[10] An eternal object is a potentiality relevant to some actual occasion, a possibility not yet defined by actuality. Eternal objects are like Platonic Forms in that they are real apart from any of their particular expressions, but unlike Plato’s Forms, their reality is “deficient in actuality”[11] according to Whitehead. Because of this deficiency, eternal objects long to enter into actuality, to ingress into actual occasions. All the ways in which we describe this world—the adjectives—these are the eternal objects: the colors, shapes, feelings, smells, tastes, qualities. Archetypes we come to understand through such qualities, but archetypes are the unifying fields or gravitational attractors that draw together a complex array of eternal objects into singular, though always fluid, form.

Grant Maxwell, who spoke yesterday in this track, has written about the relation between Whitehead’s eternal objects and Jung’s archetypes. He posits that planetary archetypes and eternal objects are both examples of formal causation, a mode of causality forbidden by modern materialism. He also suggests they should not be directly equated. I agree. I would speculate that planetary archetypes include both the potentiality of Whitehead’s eternal objects and the incarnate experience of actual occasions. Archetypes are not just eternal objects or potentials, because they would seem to have more agency and autonomy that Whitehead grants to eternal objects. Archetypes are complex personalities, persons even in Hillman’s language, yet there is a metaphorical unity to their complexity. “All ways of speaking of archetypes,” Hillman writes, “are translations from one metaphor to another.”[12]

To explore metaphor more deeply, we can make a slight turn toward Owen Barfield, the anthroposophically-informed philosopher who wrote such works as Saving the Appearances and Poetic Diction. Barfield posits an understanding of the evolution of consciousness in which the physical and psychical, material and spiritual, bodily and ensouled qualities of all entities in the world were once unified in the experience of ancient human consciousness. Only over the slow course of history have these concepts been separated from each other—subjective from objective—so that even now my language describing this to you inherently reflects this split. I must speak of object and subject, body and spirit. To give an example Barfield uses to illustrate this: when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English, spiritus can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is utterly indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence.

Yet these words are inherently related to one another at their source. They are examples of “true metaphor” in Barfield’s understanding. The way certain eternal objects complexify and ingress as archetypal beings is an example of such “true metaphor.” As Hillman said, “All ways of speaking of archetypes are translations from one metaphor to another.”[13] The infinite array of eternal objects that express the qualities of Saturn, or Venus, or Neptune, or any of the other planetary archetypes, are metaphorically related to one another, a relation that was much more apparent to ancient consciousness than to modern consciousness. This is how the ancients knew what names to give the planets, which physical planets belonged to which Gods, because the meaning of the celestial bodies was directly apparent to them. The world has changed because we have changed in our participation with it. Yet it still continues to change. The music of the spheres may have been silent for many in late modernity, yet now—at the turn of the tides—we are beginning to relearn the score.

For Whitehead the source of all things is creativity. Creativity is primary. Creativity is the realm of pure potential. Chaos. Griffin has referred to Whitehead’s philosophy as “process theology,” “especially when the chief focus is on God and other questions of ‘ultimate concern’ (Paul Tillich), such as ultimate origin, order, value, and meaning.”[14] In Whitehead’s scheme, God is not the ultimate. Creativity is. God is that which orders the chaos of pure potentiality into the hierarchy of eternal objects—and, I would posit, into the archetypes. God takes chaos and turns it into cosmos, but God is born of that chaos. God is the first concrescence, an everlasting concrescence, the first experiential achievement of chaos becoming cosmos.

An image I find compelling to illustrate this—chaos becoming cosmos—is that of a prism refracting white light into an iridescent rainbow. The white light is that realm of pure potentiality, chaotic creativity. In Whitehead’s scheme the prism itself is God, that which refracts the indefinite into the definite, that differentiates pure light into the colors of the rainbow. Each color is an archetype—red clearly different from blue, yellow distinct from purple. But within the band of light that is each color an infinity of shades is at play. Every shade of green could be seen as every possible eternal object that could ingress as an expression of Venus, or every shade of blue the endless possibilities of Neptune. They are still the same light as the white light, but the prism—which could be identified with God—has ordered them into colors.

What makes a rainbow so spectacular? Why do we stop to take note of them? Because we can see them. A rainbow makes light itself visible. The rainbow is a symbol of divine possibility entering into the world, yearning for our participation in its beauty.

The moment a child takes her first breath can be seen as the first concrescence of that child independently of the mother’s body. The child herself is a society of actual occasions, each of which are also concrescing in this moment, making up the experience of the newborn. This moment, the first inhalation, is when the birth chart of an individual is set. The archetypal energies expressed throughout the rest of an individual’s life reflect the planetary configurations, the archetypal relationships, or eternal potentialities, of this particular moment. At the time of birth all of the actual occasions that have ever been, that have perished into objective immortality to use Whitehead’s term, become one— are prehended by the actual occasion that is the newborn child in that moment—before also perishing. Every archetypal expression that has ever manifested is gifted to the child. Yet the past actual occasions that are most felt by the concrescing actual occasion are those that are immediately prior. Thus the positions of the planets and their correlated archetypal energies, that are being enacted everywhere upon the Earth, are what is most immediately inherited by the child in her first moment of independence. As the child continues to live and grow, her subjectivity—the crest of her concrescing wave—continues to inherit the archetypally ordered actual occasions, as can be seen in the unfolding of astrological transits. Yet the birth chart is still effective, and can still be seen in the progression of the individual’s life. How can this be so? How can a past actual occasion, from the moment of birth, be more archetypally influential than other past actual occasions?

Let us return to the image of God as an eternally concrescing actual occasion, never perishing but continuously feeling the procession of the cosmic community of finite actual occasions. Perhaps in this understanding of God we can glimpse what may be happening in relation to the actual occasion when the individual’s birth chart is set. It is almost like the actual occasion that concresced with the child’s first intake of air is also an everlasting concrescence, one that continues from that moment forward. Each preceding concrescence takes place within the gestalt set by that first concrescence—which is how transits to the birth chart could be experienced by the individual. The birth chart is like the prism of that individual’s life, refracting the archetypal potential into the archetypal particulars of this person. That moment when the birth chart is set concresces onward, even beyond the bodily death of the individual. We see transits to the birth chart still being operative long after the person carrying that chart has died: for instance, when a renaissance of interest in someone’s work occurs after their death. As an example, (and please excuse my more technical astrological language for a moment) as this conference is being held Neptune in the sky is exactly crossing Whitehead’s natal Mercury-Uranus square, bringing a revisioning and reimagining of world view, which relates to Neptune-Uranus, to Whitehead’s ingenious philosophical system, which relates to Mercury-Uranus.

Like the dipolar nature of Whitehead’s God, the archetypes too seem to have a primordial pole and a consequent pole. The primordial pole orders the realm of eternal objects so that they can ingress as relevant possibilities into the actual occasions of the cosmic community, while the consequent pole feels the experiences of this world community and continuously adjusts the ordering of the eternal objects. So too, I believe, it is with the archetypes. For as they ingress into living manifestation, we participate in their becoming, we co-creatively engage their archetypal qualities through our own lives. The archetypes also have a consequent nature, one that feels what we feel, and that forever reshapes the potentialities for the future ingression of the archetypes, in our own lives and in the lives of future generations. Our participation is enacting an evolution in the archetypes themselves.

We are being called upon to seize an alternative. We are being called upon to participate. By consciously engaging with the archetypes as we co-creatively manifest them, we are reshaping the potentialities with which they will manifest in the future. No future is yet set. But the past occasions that will inform it are here now. A rainbow makes white light visible. Let’s look forward with eyes open.


Griffin, David Ray, ed. Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Jung, C.G. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype.” In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung. Translated by R. F. C. Hull, Edited by H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1940.

Maxwell, Grant. “Archetype and Eternal Object: Jung, Whitehead, and the Return of Formal Causation.” Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology Volume 3 (Winter 2011): 51-71.

Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.


[1] David Ray Griffin, “Introduction,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 6.

[2] Griffin, “Introduction,” 6-7.

[3] David Ray Griffin, “Preface,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), vii.

[4] James Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” in Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman, ed. David Ray Griffin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 220.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 3.

[6] Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” 220.

[7] Hillman, “Back to Beyond: On Cosmology,” 220.

[8] Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), 68-69.

[9] C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” (1940) in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Collected Works of Carl Gustav Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, ed. H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler, W. McGuire, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 179.

[10] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 44.

[11] Ibid, 34.

[12] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1992), xix.

[13] Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, xix.

[14] Griffin, “Introduction,” 3.

Engaging with “Reason in a Dark Time”

In the first few pages of his book, Dale Jamieson situates his perspective as coming from a generally Western point of view, saying that although he lived through many of the events he details in the book he was not at the center of the action. I appreciated this nod to recognizing his position in relation to the material he was addressing, although I wished he had continued to do so more throughout the book—and had addressed other influences on perspective such as gender, race, class, and so forth. Jamieson acknowledges at the outset that he is coming from the perspective of an analytical philosopher, but that very position seems to blind him to the multiplicity of perspectives that can be taken in relation to the issue of climate change.

Reason in a Dark TimeReason in a Dark Time, simply put, is a pessimistic book. Jamieson shows his readers how globally we have failed to address climate change. The outlook feels bleak, and his concluding seven priorities for action do not seem to carry much hope considering he has spent the previous 200 hundred pages demonstrating how dysfunctionally the international negotiation system operates. The core of the book focuses on what Jamieson identifies as the most powerful motivators for addressing climate change: economics and ethics—before showing the limits and barriers in each of these arenas. The most telling sentence in the whole book, for me, that reveals Jamieson’s perspective and its influence on his pessimistic view, is when he writes: “We live in a post-Nietschean world in which the gods are not available to give meaning to our lives, nor can nature provide transcendental grounding in a human-dominated world.”[1] For a book that is addressing global climate change and the effects it will have on the world population now and into the future, the unsituated “we” that opens this sentence is particularly revealing. Rather, Jamieson and his colleagues live in this post-Nietschean world and it is from this place that this book on economics and ethics is written. Part of the opportunity with which the global ecological crisis provides us is the potential to forge a way through the dark postmodern underworld where the gods are dead and nature is a backgrounded resource to a new world view that has room for intelligence and meaning to exist beyond the locus of the human being.

Where is the room in Jamieson’s approach to climate change for emotion, feeling, a sense of interconnection and, perhaps most importantly, grief at the loss and destruction? Ethics cannot be broken down into a series of equations like economics can—something deeper must be appealed to. At times this depth is almost reached by Jamieson, momentarily making appeals to “love, sympathy, and empathy”[2] and to an understanding of humanity as being a part of the natural world. Indeed, he writes that “we find meaning in our lives in the context of our relationship to humans, other animals, the rest of nature, and the world generally.”[3] However, just a few pages later he once again reduces the value of this relationship into economic terms, writing “The idea of nature as a partner in a valuable relationship makes itself felt in economic language when people talk about ‘natural capital’ or ‘ecosystem services.’ On this view protecting nature returns monetized benefits. Damaging nature damages ourselves.”[4] The appeals to meaning found in relationship feel hollow if they can simply be reduced into monetary terms.

Jamieson concludes his book by saying, “Despite the unprecedented nature of the challenge, human life will have meaning as long as there are people to take up the burden.”[5] Yes, I agree that great meaning can be found in taking on the work of defending the Earth and its countless species, as well as the multitude of human beings whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the rapacious capitalist economy. But the meaning is not made simply by the work of human actions—the work is what reconnects our sense of value to that ground of meaning inherent in every creature, in every corner of the vast cosmos within which we are awakening to our integral part.

Work Cited

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[1] Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed—And What It Means for Our Future (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 200.

[2] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, 100.

[3] Ibid, 184.

[4] Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time, 190.

[5] Ibid, 238.

When Symbol Becomes Fact: Reflections on “Saving the Appearances”

“The world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one morning in the original light of the sun.”
– Owen Barfield[1]

When sunlight refracts on the droplets of a raincloud, and an arc of colors bend across the sky, we must ask ourselves, “Is the rainbow really there?” With this image Owen Barfield opens his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, a short but profound tale of the evolution of consciousness from original participation, through the non-participatory (or rather, unconsciously participatory) scientific revolution, to final participation. But what does Barfield mean by participation? And how might one trace an evolution of consciousness?Saving the Appearances

Barfield begins with the image of the rainbow, demonstrating how it is a shared collective representation. A representation is something that I, and others, perceive to be there: whether it is a rainbow, a tree, a house, or any other phenomenon available to sensory experience. A representation is more than what any phenomenon can be reduced down to—such as subatomic particles; a representation is the phenomenon in its wholeness. The particles, which Barfield calls the unrepresented, are what science claims really exist in the world prior to human perception of them. “The world we all accept as real,” Barfield writes, “is in fact a system of collective representations.”[2] We do not perceive collective representations with our sense organs alone, but with “mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling.”[3] The generation of representations is what Barfield means by participation: “Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena.”[4] The world as we know it is created by participation in that world.

Through imagination Barfield enters into the participatory consciousness of previous world views, from the Medieval European, to the Graeco-Roman, to the Hebraic, each of which lived in original participation with the world to some degree. Original participation is “an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between percipient and the representations.”[5] Modern consciousness also participates in the phenomena, but does so unconsciously, believing instead that the perceived phenomena are independent of human perception. “Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”[6] This misperception of the phenomena as entirely independent of human perception Barfield terms idolatry, and it is to idolatry that he is attempting to bring awareness, to thus overcome and lead human consciousness into final participation—an awakened recognition that the phenomenal world is one of collective representations.

Simply put, it was through the development of the scientific revolution that original participation was expunged from the consciousness of the modern West and idolatry took hold in its place. “If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”[7] Not only does idolatry empty spirit from the cosmos, it eventually eliminates spirit from the human as well. In order to move beyond idolatry into final participation, Barfield turns to religion, to the Incarnation of the Word in the Christian faith.

Idolatry suffers from literalness, thus to the idolatrous mind an event can be historical or it can be a symbol: it cannot be both. Barfield uses the Incarnation of the Word—the birth of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnating into a human body situated in historical time—to usher in final participation. Because the Incarnation is both historical and symbolic, it breaks down the schism between human consciousness and perceived phenomena. Yet by turning to religion, and particularly Christianity, in this way, it feels like Barfield narrows the field of those to whom final participation might apply. He defines religion as “essentially an ‘I-Thou’ relation between man on the one hand and the Creator of man and of his phenomena, on the other. A man who cannot think of his Creator as a Being other than himself cannot be said to have religion.”[8] This definition of religion is quite narrow, and excludes many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions (and the masculine language unconsciously excludes women as well). Yet Barfield writes that the only possible answer to idolatry is acceptance of a “directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world.”[9] Is that really the case? Can there be a wider reading of final participation that can allow for the inclusion of those who have entered into that stage of consciousness by paths other than the Christian one?

To begin answering this question perhaps a wider reading of what Barfield means by the Incarnation of the Word is also necessary. Idolatry, or non-participatory consciousness, has brought with it gifts as well as shadow. Barfield writes, at first in seemingly negative terms, that “a non-participating consciousness cannot avoid distinguishing abruptly between the concept of ‘man,’ or ‘mankind,’ or ‘men in general’ on the one hand and that of ‘a man’—an individual human spirit—on the other.”[10] This is the literalness of idolatry. But this literalness allows something else to be born as well, of which Barfield speaks shortly thereafter:

The awakened clarity of retrospect . . . will . . . be obliged to recognize that the gradual emergence of man from original participation amounts also to the gradual emergence of ‘men’ from ‘man;’ that it is not just the cumulative history of the race, but the biography, also, of each individual spirit.[11]

What Barfield fails to mention explicitly here, yet can be implied by this statement when read half a century after it was first written, is that not only can individual men emerge from the all-encompassing term “Man,” but so can individual women, as well as others whose identities have been obscured by the Western male conception of Man. The symbolic becomes situated, and thus refracts into a myriad of individuals. This is the gift of the non-participatory stage of the evolution of consciousness as Barfield describes it.

Beginning in the chapter entitled “Israel” Barfield writes about the Divine Name, the “I Am.” The Divine Name, when spoken within the mind of an individual human—one who has only been able to individuate through the refraction of non-participatory consciousness—indicates the divinity not only of the Creator whose name is being spoken, but the divinity of each individual speaking it. This is the Incarnation of the Word, the Word become flesh, that Barfield sees as able to overcome idolatry and usher human beings into final participation. I find myself drawn to read Barfield’s use of the Christian mythos itself as both a symbol and a historically situated reality. If I were to reject Barfield’s concluding thesis on the premise that his turn to Christianity excludes those for whom this perspective does not, or perhaps even cannot, apply then I too would fall into the literalness of idolatry. From my situated perspective I can recognize the way in which the Incarnation of the Word—which allows for a new form of individual participation in the Divine and participation with one another as individuals—was for Barfield the real way in which idolatry could be overcome and final participation entered into. Yet I can also read the Incarnation as a symbol of something beyond the Christian faith alone, a symbol of the recognition of the Divine within, that can encompass a multiplicity of forms of spiritual connection and religious perspective.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 161.

[2] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[3] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[4] Ibid, 40.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Ibid, 62.

[7] Ibid, 144.

[8] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 156.

[9] Ibid, 159.

[10] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 183.

[11] Ibid, 184.

Following the Day Star

“To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
– Cicero

Night comes softly following the glory of sunset. The sun dies in a blaze of color, hues of gold and magenta, blood orange and dusty rose. When the sun sinks below the horizon it is as though it has taken hold of all the colors of the waking world and pulled them from out of the landscape, like dye extracted from cloth, and trailed them in streaming splendor toward the dying sun. The landscape bleeds out its colors, fading to a twilight gray, while the dying ember of the sun shines forth in one final burst of magnificence. At last, when the day star appears to sink beneath the wine-dark horizon, the colors depart with it, the inky black of night oozing out across the open canvas of the sky.

Moon and Venus SunsetWait patiently. The liminal space seems to be most still now, in this time that is neither day nor night. The world seems to hold its breath. Then, with a gasp of wonder, the dusk is pierced by the first white star of the evening. It is there, where it was not a moment before, yet the exact moment it appeared is unknown. In cooling quiet the sky bedecks herself in jewels, webs and nets of storied interconnection, shapes that have walked the sky since before ever human eyes beheld their patterns.

Socrates drank the hemlock at sunset.

No sunset is ever the same. If you are present to witness one, you cannot bring yourself to look away. The sunset is like a moment out of time; yet it is the moment that makes time be as well.

In the period of time right before to his execution, Socrates spoke to his students of the rhythms of life and death. “Well then,” he spoke, “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is the opposite of being awake?” “Being dead,” one student answers.[1]

Sleep follows waking, waking follows sleep. Dawn comes after each long night. Does death too birth into new life? How can we know? How do we prepare ourselves for our own sunset, the inevitable ending of this life? Plato’s dialogue Apology tells of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, in which he says

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.[2]

Here Socrates claims that no one knows if death is a great blessing, yet in the dialogues that lead up to his inevitable demise he seems to have an increasingly clearer understanding that death is indeed a gift.

Many of Plato’s dialogues carry implicitly the theme of death in their tone and setting. Plato was just crossing into his third decade of life when his teacher Socrates was condemned to death by the city of Athens. He did not begin writing the dialogues until some time after the execution of his mentor, but the impression of that pivotal moment underlies nearly every dialogue composed. Socrates’ death is imprinted upon each of Plato’s dialogues as words and images are upon the face of a wax tablet. Other philosophies may be engraved over the initial impression, but through the palimpsest can often be read the echo of this early, defining tragedy.

In the Republic, as Socrates and his students are choosing how best to educate the future guardians of their ideal city, they decide the young guardians should “be told stories that will make them least afraid of death.”[3] Socrates begins reciting lines that must be expunged from the poetry of Greek tradition, censoring and editing to find the tales that will shape the future guardians into the philosopher-kings they are meant to become. But in his dialogues Plato is not only editing the old myths; he is bringing forth new myths as well, illustrating them with images that have since been impressed up the philosophic imagination of the Western world for two and a half thousand years.

While some dialogues literally recount the story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment, and execution, others carry the weight of his death more symbolically. The Republic opens with Socrates saying “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday. . .” in language echoing Odysseus’s “I went down to Hades” in Homer’s epic. One of the first characters we meet is the aging Cephalus, who seems rapidly to be approaching death. Yet the dramatic date of the dialogue is set some twenty to thirty years after the historical Cephalus passed away. Plato’s dialogue is evidently not taking place in the land of the living.

At Socrates’ request Cephalus begins speaking of what it is like to approach death:

When someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there—stories he used to make fun of—twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true . . . . he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examines himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone.[4]

These are the stories that Socrates later refers to that he wishes to censor: stories that ignite a fear of death. Yet it is these very stories that inspire an examination of justice in one’s life. Does not this indicate that the stories do some good?

In the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends in Socrates’ execution, the philosopher says to his gathered students, “I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked.”[5] Here too, Socrates gives reference to myths of Hades for his understanding of the underworld. But Socrates also has his own assurance that death is the right course for him, that it is nothing to fear. During his trial, as laid out in the Apology, he refers to his “familiar sign,” the daemon that accompanies and guides his actions by negating what he ought not to do. Socrates comes to find that his daemon has not opposed anything that he said during his trial.

What do you think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what is right.[6]

His absolute trust in the guidance of his daemon is remarkable. This assuredness appears to come from an inherent trust Socrates has in the way he has spent his life; if the guidance of the daemon has led him to follow a just life, this guidance must be true. Furthermore, his daemon is one whom Socrates chose himself, if indeed the myth that ends the Republic is meant to be read in such a way. As depicted in the Myth of Er, reincarnating souls choosing their next lifetimes are told “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[7] The guidance one receives in life is freely chosen by each individual before birth.

In the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea that there might be but a single path to Hades. Rather, he says,

I think it is neither one nor simple, for then there would be no need of guides; one could not make any mistake if there were but one path. As it is, it is likely to have many forks and crossroads; and I base this judgment on the sacred rites and customs here.[8]

The many paths to Hades can also be read symbolically: there are many paths one can choose in life; if there were but one then leading a just life would not be a free decision made with the help of one’s chosen daemon, rather it would be predetermined and unchangeable. One’s lot would be cast and there would be naught to strive for.

Within the prison Socrates tells his gathered followers that “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”[9] Considering all that philosophy seems to cover in its practice, this statement carries significant weight. But Socrates goes on to explain exactly what he means by this statement. He defines death, saying that it is, “namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul.”[10] The action of the philosopher is to contemplate the divine Forms or Ideas, and to do this he must reach for the Ideas not with his bodily senses but through thought alone, with the soul. The philosopher is therefore in a state most closely related to death, a separating of the soul from the body.

If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.[11]

As a philosopher, Socrates does not claim to ever have attained wisdom, and here we see that he does not believe it to be possible while one is alive and incarnated in physical form. Yet not much earlier in this same dialogue he emphasizes to his disciples that one must not end one’s life to attain the wisdom that is accessible after death. “There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries,” he says, “that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away.”[12] A reason exists for incarnation, for this being one with a body.Venus Sunset

The Myth of Er in the Republic tells of how souls after death are led to heaven or hell and, after a specific amount of time in one or the other place, are brought forth again to choose new lives and to be born anew. Socrates notes that most of the souls who come from heaven choose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time in hell are able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they have witnessed and experienced.[13] Only the philosopher is able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,

he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.[14]

The philosopher’s ability to discern a good life is presumably because, as said in the Phaedo, it is only after death that one is able to directly perceive the Forms and to attain wisdom. Yet it seems that not any soul is able to attain wisdom after death, otherwise all of the other souls coming from heaven to choose their new lives would not be plagued by ignorance and choose difficult new lives. Plato seems to be indicating that it is only one who has been a philosopher in life that has the ability after death to reach wisdom.

Plato has often been accused of being a dualist who denies the value of the body, instead privileging the soul and the abstract realm of the Forms. While a soul-body dualism seems to be implicit in Plato’s dialogues, the utter denial of the body may not be a full reading of Plato’s project. The philosopher in life is not one who has attained wisdom; he is a lover of wisdom and not in possession of it. Only by being a philosopher, one who loves but does not possess wisdom, can one choose a just life when one reincarnates. And it is only by being in a body, and therefore at a certain distance from the Forms, that one can actually become a philosopher.

The doctrine of the Forms indicates that an archetype exists for each thing that we experience in the earthly realm, from the more concrete Ideas of Bed, Horse, and Tree, to the more abstract Ideas of Justice, Truth, and the Good. Would this not also indicate that there must be an Idea for Death? Is there an archetypal expression of the mysterious transition that ends all lives? In the ancient Greek world Cronus, later to be named Saturn by the Romans, was the god of Time who ruled endings, mortality, finitude, old age, and death. Saturn was the outermost planet known to the ancients, the furthest celestial body visible to the naked eye. Saturn was the guardian of the threshold, the last circle of the wandering planets inside the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars that encircled the cosmos.

The nature of the Forms is such they can be approached by the philosopher in thought, but never attained while he lives. So too it is with death, that direct knowledge of death is unattainable while alive; as one is dying one comes ever closer to death, yet does not ever fully know what it is until one has actually died. Just as Saturn represents the guardian of the threshold, death too may be such a guardian, standing at the gateway to the realm of Forms: the first Form to be attained by the soul may be Death itself.

How then does one spend one’s life preparing to cross this threshold, cultivating the philosophic way of life? If, as Socrates said in the Phaedo, there is a mirroring between sleeping and waking, death and life, what further insight can be drawn forth from these parallels? After death Socrates says we are released from our bodies and the soul is able, without hindrance, to contemplate the eternal Forms. In embodied life the philosopher strives for the Forms in thought, never fully attaining them but coming ever closer with practice. In the Apology Socrates describes what he sees as the two options for what comes after death: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.”[15] Death is either “like a dreamless sleep”[16] or a “change from here to another place”[17] where one would encounter the “true jurymen who are said to sit in judgment there” and the “other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life.” [18] If death is the former, Socrates says “it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night”[19] and if it is the latter he says, “I am willing to die many times if that is true.”[20] In the parallel between sleep and death, if the former is like a dreamless sleep then the latter, in which one meets gods and heroes, and encounters the realm of eternal Ideas, may be likened to a night rich with dreaming in which one encounters images strange and familiar, beings of all kinds from humans and animals, to mythic creatures, the living Earth, and gods and deities. Dreaming too is like entering into a realm of archetypes.

If death can be likened to entering a realm of dreams, what is it that the philosopher does in life to bring himself closer to that realm? The philosopher contemplates the eternal Forms, but what does this in practice look like? In the Symposium, as Socrates and Aristodemus are walking to the home of Agathon for dinner, Socrates begins to get lost in thought. “As they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought, and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead.”[21] When Aristodemus arrives Agathon asks of him, “‘But where is Socrates? How come you didn’t bring him along?” So I turned around (Aristodemus said), and Socrates was nowhere to be seen.”[22] Once Socrates has been located, standing still in contemplation on a neighbor’s porch, Aristodemus says, “‘Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be. I’m sure he’ll come in very soon, so don’t disturb him; let him be.”[23] What is it that Socrates is doing? He is clearly lost in thought, but to a degree beyond what most people do. He has the air of one lost in a dream but in waking life; perhaps in contemplating the realm of eternal Forms the philosopher becomes a daydreamer, meditating upon dreams more real than common life.

The Symposium takes place over the course of a single night, the story bookended by sunset and sunrise. Socrates is the only one to stay awake through the entire course of the night, departing quietly at dawn to go about his day. Within the narrative of the dialogue, another story is told of Socrates when he slips into one of his daydreaming states. The tale, spoken by Alcibiades, is worth quoting at length, as it gives a beautiful character picture of Socrates, this man who “as a whole . . . is unique; he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present—this is by far the most amazing thing about him.”[24] So Alcibiades describes:

One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they all told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.[25]

The imagery of the sun in this story is prominent, with the period of thought or daydreaming beginning at dawn and not reaching completion until the following sunrise. In the Republic, Socrates gives the image of the sun as a metaphor for the Good. “This is what I called the offspring of the good,” he says, “which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.”[26] But, from an earthly perspective, the sun dies every night, descending below the horizon in a flaring forth of color. The sun pulls the clear definition of all that has illuminated, the bright hues of the landscape, into the underworld with it. To follow the images of the sun we must dream, or learn to contemplate them in thought or dialogue through the night.

Socrates, the only member of the Symposium to stay awake through the entire night, was in the same way caught in thought all through the long night during the summer campaign of which Alcibiades speaks. The work of the philosopher takes place within the embodied realm, for once he has passed the threshold of death he is no longer a lover of wisdom; he has attained wisdom and is no longer a practitioner of philosophia. To be a philosopher is to prepare to cross the threshold of death by always striving to remain in a state closest to death. Thus Socrates, the true lover of wisdom, stays awake through the night to try to consciously understand the Forms in their completeness, so he might recognize them once he too crosses with the Sun below the horizon. “As long as I draw breath and am able,” he says in the Apology, “I shall not cease to practice philosophy.”[27]

The death of Socrates was a literal event in the life of Plato, but the dialogues that poured forth afterwards are a mythological eulogy that has elevated Socrates from human status to that of mythic daemon, a mentor and conscience to guide the dawning philosophical tradition as it walked across Greece’s borders and began its criss-crossing journey throughout the Eurasian continent, leading it eventually to cross the encircling seas and make its wanderings throughout other continents as well.

Socrates was executed at sunset. It is those who remain who are asked to contemplate the long night. It is those who remain who must await the dawn. But in that quiet twilight moment between the sun’s departure and the descent of dark night, we wait for the arrival of that first shining star, the wanderer who appears in the metaxic realm of dusk. As night deepens, the star known by the ancients to be the shining symbol of Love blazes forth ever brighter in the darkening western sky. Never far from the sun, this brightest of planets circles sometimes closer, sometimes further from the celestial image of the Good. It stands as a guide for those called to follow, to be lovers also of wisdom.

“Evening star, you bring all things
which the bright dawn has scattered . . .”
– Sappho

 Moon, Venus, Jupiter

Work Cited

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.


[1] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 62, 71c.

[2]Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 27, 29a-b.

[3] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1022, 386a.

[4] Plato, Republic, 975, 330d-e.

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 63c.

[6] Plato, Apology, 35, 40b-c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 92, 108a.

[9] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 64a.

[10] Ibid, 56, 64c.

[11] Ibid, 58, 66e.

[12] Ibid, 54, 62b.

[13] Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.

[14] Ibid, 1221, 618d-e.

[15] Plato, Apology, 35, 40c-d.

[16] Ibid, 40d.

[17] Ibid, 40e.

[18] Ibid, 41a.

[19] Ibid, 40e.

[20] Ibid, 41a.

[21] Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 460, 174d-e.

[22] Plato, Symposium, 460, 174e.

[23] Ibid, 461, 175b.

[24] Plato, Symposium, 503, 221c.

[25] Ibid, 502, 220c-d.

[26] Plato, Republic, 1129, 508b.

[27] Plato, Apology, 27, 29d.