Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.”[1] Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”[2] It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?

This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.

Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.”[3] He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:

I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[4]

Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[5] Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.

The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:

If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[6]

Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.

Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,

The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.[9]

Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.”[10] This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,

The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.[11]

In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[12]

The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.”[13] As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[14] Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.

Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference”[15] between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[16] Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.

The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[17] It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[18]

Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.

The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:

• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”[21]

• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”[22]

Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”[23] Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.

The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[24]

There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”[25] Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.”[26] Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.

For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.

He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.[27]

In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”[28]

One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.”[29] He also writes,

Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.[30]

An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.”[31] Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”[32] Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.

One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?”[33] He goes on to say,

It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.[34]

The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.”[35] The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says.[36] Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.”[37] There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.

In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:

We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.[38]

In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:

“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”

Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”[39]

‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[40]

 

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 

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

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.

 


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

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

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

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

The Ethics of Creativity: Affirming Beauty and Tragedy

Can a system of ethics be based upon beauty? Is a kalocentric world view enough to counter the biocentric, and most often anthropocentric, ethics that are shaping the destruction of Earth’s systems by human beings? Perhaps most importantly, can an ethic that leans on aesthetics produce tangible changes for good in the world? Brian Henning seems to think so, as he argues in The Ethics of Creativity, his book on the moral applicability of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.

The ethics of creativity is rooted in Whitehead’s concept of concrescence, in which each actual occasion, each infinitesimal “drop of experience,”[1] moves through a four stage process of datum, satisfaction, process, and decision,[2] in which the occasion feels itself in its subjective immediacy before perishing into objective immortality. Whitehead’s term “concrescence” is from the Latin concrēscere, meaning “to grow together.”[3] Concrescence is the process by which each actual occasion, or event, is constituted by its internal relations to all other events. “Each actual occasion is, in this sense, its relationship to the universe.”[4] For Whitehead, individuality is composed of reference to all others as well as to the whole. Concrescence is the process by which “the many become one, and are increased by one.”[5]

Whitehead’s “category of the ultimate”[6] is Creativity: the harmonizing process of concrescence makes creativity kalogenic—for each event to be actual it must to some degree or other be beautiful. Drawing on Charles Hartshorne, Henning writes, “The zero of aesthetic value is the zero of actuality.”[7] All of reality, therefore, has value. Due to concrescence, by which ‘the many become one, and are increased by one,’ each event has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insistence that every individual has value not only for itself, but for others and for the whole of reality, establishes a rich axiological foundation for the development of an organic moral philosophy.”[8] Henning is trying to formulate an ethical system that mirrors the “creative process of the universe itself.”[9] He asserts that “morality must always aim at achieving the most harmonious, inclusive, and complex whole possible.”[10]

Henning applies the ethics of creativity primarily to the ecological crisis, an issue that urgently calls for a rethinking of ethics and morality. He says,

One of the greatest services that a Whiteheadian moral philosophy can provide to contemporary environmental and moral philosophies is to provide the metaphysical basis for understanding not only the locus and scope of intrinsic value, but also its nature.[11]

When Henning applies the ethics of creativity to real world situations in the latter sections of his book, that is when both the gifts and the flaws of the system become most apparent. He describes the two forms of ugliness and evil possible in a Whiteheadian universe: anesthesia, “which involves the frustration of greater possibilities by the interposition of lesser achievements,”[12] such as the inhibition of a greater form of beauty potentially open to an organism; and violence, “which involves the active destruction and inhibition of past achievements of beauty.”[13] The former refers to the inhibition of future achievements, the latter to the past. The good of the individual and of the whole are kept in balance by affirming the real value of each, and by refusing “to accept a dichotomy between the interests of the one and the many.”[14] As a system applied to hypothetical circumstances Henning’s ethics of creativity often seems to provide a superior course of moral action than other systems of ethics based in, for example, utilitarianism or deep ecology. Yet the ethics of creativity is also subject to the fallibility of individual subjectivity and understanding that upsets the consistency of other ethical systems.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the ethics of creativity and its triadic system of value is the affirmation of tragedy when a moral decision is made. Henning offers the example of choosing between killing a malaria-infected mosquito that is about to bite a human infant, and allowing the mosquito to achieve its aim and sacrificing the child. Henning asserts that to save the child and kill the mosquito allows for greater beauty and complexity to be achieved in the world because the potential for beauty in the human child is greater than that of the mosquito. This is, of course, the natural answer that most human beings (including myself) would give when faced with this situation, although it might not align with the moral systems of mosquitoes. There is a degree of anthropocentrism implicit in ascribing the higher potential for beauty (although perhaps not complexity) to the child. This may be seen as a flaw in Henning’s working of Whitehead’s metaphysics. However, Henning writes,

The aim is not merely to give preference to the more complex individual; the aim in our moral decision making is to determine what would achieve the most harmonious and intense whole with regard to the individuals involved.[15]

He goes on to say, “To choose the mosquito over the infant would be to affirm the less beautiful of two options. Thus, the destruction of the mosquito would be tragic but morally justifiable” (emphasis added).[16] The element of tragedy in our moral decision-making, if truly mourned, I feel affirms the loss of beauty that occurs with each decision. The very act of mourning that tragedy increases the beauty in the universe. A system of ethics should not provide easy answers to moral dilemmas; rather it should allow every side of the ethical decision to be felt by the moral agent, just as in Whitehead’s system each actual occasion feels the whole of the universe with each concrescence.

Rose

 

Works Cited

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

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


[1] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 32.

[2] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 33.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 21.

[6] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[7] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 103.

[8] Ibid, 5.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Ibid, 2-3.

[12] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 113.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 3.

[15] Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 188.

[16] Ibid.

Spheres of Identity and Difference

Dive into any moment of the rich cosmogenesis of Plato’s Timaeus and you may find yourself swimming through celestial waters rife with symbolic imagery that unfold into a myriad display of applicable meaning. When the Same, the Different, and Being are brought together in a dynamic primordial mixture, the Soul of the World is born, a Soul that echoes and is echoed by the physical cosmos that is composed of fire, air, earth, and water. The shape and motion of the World Soul mirrors the shape and motion of the physical world, which can primarily be seen in the movement of the spheres of heaven, the motion of the planets and fixed stars around their earthly axis. When the Demiurge crafts the immortal spark present in every mortal human—the human soul—the Demiurge draws from the mixture of the Same, the Different, and Being of which the World Soul was composed. If the World Soul mirrors the motion of the cosmos, does this indicate the human soul does as well, as it too is made from the same, though slightly altered, substance as the first Soul? Additionally, can the illustration of Timaeus’ geocentric cosmos still carry symbolic meaning when read from a heliocentric perspective?

The DemiurgeThe substance of the World Soul is first divided into geometrical portions that are brought harmoniously back together to create the three-dimensional structure of the cosmos as we perceive it. This compound is then split in two and rejoined at the centers, before each is bent back upon itself and rejoined again to create two concentric spheres. This process of dividing and rejoining, over and over again to create the structure of Soul, mirrors the ingredients that were brought together to form the Soul in the first place: the Same, the Different, and Being. The Different brings division, the Same reunites that which has been divided, and thus they continue to form Being; it is a dialectic of creation. Once this substance has been shaped into the two spheres, the Demiurge “decreed that the outer movement should be the movement of the Same, while the inner one should be that of the Different.”[1] The sphere of the Same remains whole, while the sphere of the Different is once again divided into “seven unequal circles.”[2] The Demiurge “set the circles to go in contrary directions: three to go at the same speed, and the other four to go at speeds different from both each other’s and that of the other three.”[3] We see here the different motions of the planetary orbits, perceived during Plato’s time to revolve around the fixed sphere of the Earth: “The Earth he devised to be our nurturer, and because it winds around the axis that stretches throughout the universe, also to be the maker and guardian of the day and night.”[4] The sphere of the Same is the outermost circle of the fixed stars, which moves about the Earth to the right, while the Earth itself was understood to rotate on its axis causing day and night.

Timaeus’ account of the creation of the ensouled cosmos reflects the most sophisticated astronomical knowledge of his time, including the observations that the pathways traced by the seven planets were erratically wandering, something seemingly contrary to the belief that the heavens were a “moving image of eternity.”[5] The Demiurge creates the cosmos as a begotten model of the eternal Forms, yet because it is an imitation and not the Forms themselves the cosmos is not itself eternal. Plato describes that which is eternal as “always changeless and motionless”[6] whereas the ordered cosmos is always in motion. As Plato writes, it is the nature of the Forms on which the cosmos is modeled

to be eternal, but it isn’t possible to bestow eternity fully upon anything that is begotten. And so [the Demiurge] began to think of making a moving image of eternity: at the same time as he brought order to the universe, he would make an eternal image, moving according to number, of eternity remaining in unity. This number, of course, is what we now call “time.”[7]

The planets, and the gods embodying them, “came to be in order to set limits to and stand guard over the numbers of time.”[8] The differing speeds of their motions determine the course and divisions of time: the Sun’s “chief works would be to shine upon the whole universe and to bestow upon all those living things appropriately endowed and taught by the revolution of the Same and the uniform, a share in number”;[9] the Moon inscribes the course of a month, the Sun the course of a year. The spheres of the Different divide into the differentiations of time the sempiternal quality of the fixed celestial sphere of the Same.

Timaeus observes that few people have taken note of the temporal length of the other planetary orbits. He says, “Nobody has given them names or investigated their numerical measurements relative to each other. And so people are all but ignorant of the fact that time really is the wanderings of these bodies, bewilderingly numerous as they are and astonishingly variegated.”[10] Was it really the case that few people in Plato’s time knew that the orbit of Mars was two years, Jupiter’s twelve, or Saturn’s twenty-nine? Or is Plato pointing toward some other ignorance in relation to the wandering motion of the planets? Timaeus goes on to say directly after this statement:

It is nonetheless possible, however, to discern that the perfect number of time brings to completion the perfect year at that moment when the relative speeds of all eight periods have been completed together and, measured by the circle of the Same that moves uniformly, have achieved their consummation. This, then, is how as well as why those stars were begotten which, on their way through the universe, would have turnings. The purpose was to make this living thing as like as possible to that perfect and intelligible Living Thing, by way of imitating its sempiternity.[11]

The ordered cosmos is an imitation of the eternal Forms, but “the resemblance still fell short”[12] nonetheless of the perfect model. The wanderings of the planets are an indication of that imperfect imitation. Yet in the previous passage Plato seems to be indicating a time in which the eight spheres will all be aligned, the ‘perfect number of time’ that will complete the ‘perfect year’ and elevate the cosmos to the level of perfection of the eternal Forms.Perceiving the Cosmos

How is this passage to be read from a heliocentric perspective, from a world view shaped by the Copernican Revolution? Is the consummation of that ‘perfect year’ reflective of a time when the wanderings of the planets are no longer erratic, but rather are in continuous geometrical motion, a true ‘moving image of eternity’?

The Soul of the World contains within it these continual motions of the Same and the Different, as it appears to strive for the perfection of the eternal Forms. This striving towards perfection, according to Plato, is also the task of the philosopher as he or she moves towards Wisdom. Indeed, the motions of the cosmos and the motions of the human soul appear to be parallel as they continue to move in their variegated orbits towards the eternal Forms, towards Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, towards Wisdom. If the philosopher is truly to be a lover of Wisdom he or she must remain as that: a lover and not possessor of Wisdom. So too the cosmos cannot possess the Forms of which it is a reflection; instead it is in a loving dance with eternity, the motions we witness across the sky with the passing of each night. Yet both the World Soul of the cosmos and the soul of the philosopher may still strive for that ‘perfect year,’ the consummation of all motion into one moment when eternity and time, the soul and Wisdom, are united.

Work Cited

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


[1] Plato, Timaeus, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1240, 36c.

[2] Plato, Timaeus, 1240, 36d.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 1244, 40c.

[5] Ibid, 1241, 37d.

[6] Plato, Timaeus, 1241, 38a.

[7] Ibid, 1241, 37d.

[8] Ibid, 1242, 38c.

[9] Ibid, 1242, 39b.

[10] Plato, Timaeus, 1243, 39c-39d.

[11] Ibid, 1243, 39d-39e.

[12] Ibid, 1243, 39e.

Darkness, Duality, and the Call for Enmeshed Solidarity

Dark Ecology

When confronted with crisis, one must ask what it is that is in crisis. When it comes to what has been termed the environmental—or ecological—crisis, this question of what is in crisis immediately complexifies. The crisis itself may be that we cannot simply apply a homogenous label to what is unfolding everywhere around, before, and even inside of us. If there is a crisis of nature, and humans are causing it, then knowing what nature and humanity are, what their relationship is, and if they can even be distinguished or differentiated from each other, is crucial to the survival of countless species, including our own, and the ecosystems which these species constitute.

Certain contemporary ecological thinkers have challenged the barrier—constructed by dominant aspects of Western civilization—between the concepts of nature and humanity with a variety of different approaches. These challenges come in the form of Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of interdependence and the barrier of Included and Excluded, Neil Evernden’s concepts of ecological interrelatedness, and Holmes Rolston’s response to the deconstruction of ecological terminology, among many others. Each of these approaches seeks to address and break down the dualism held between subject and object, primarily as maintained in the separation of humanity from nature.

Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist approach, as encapsulated in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, uses methods of analogy to read one system of thought into another to think through enculturated dualisms between male/female, rational/emotional, Self/Other, subject/object, and of course, human/nature. She addresses the problems of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, systemic remoteness, and hegemonic centrism at multiple levels as embodied not only by dominant rationalistic approaches but also by a variety of ecological perspectives, from animal rights advocacy to deep ecology. Plumwood sees humanity as being faced with “two historic tasks that arise from the rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature: they can be summed up as the tasks of (re)situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms.”[1] Her primary prescriptive approach is to shift from an attitude of identity with that which is termed Other, to an attitude of solidarity. She also emphasizes the need to recognize the agency of the Other, instead of only the intrinsic value of the Other.

Holmes Rolston addresses the idea of agency in relationship to value as well when he writes, “The world is full of eyes, legs, wings, antennae, mouths, webs and eggs, all being used in the defence of life. Is it consistent to say that animals defend lives they do not value?”[2] He goes on to say,

The organism is an axiological, though not a moral, system. So the tree grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds and resists death. A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind, it defends its own kind as a good kind.[3]

Both Rolston and Plumwood are focusing on the issue of ‘resituating. . . non-humans in ethical terms,’ with an understanding that agency indicates the rights of the Other while also affirming their inherent differences from humanity. Rights need not arise from similarity to the human, as this is a form of anthropocentrism that merely pushes the boundary of duality further from the sphere of the human species.

A tension exists between affirming difference while challenging duality in the various approaches of these five ecological thinkers. As Neil Evernden points out, “Ecology begins as a normal, reductionist science, but to its own surprise it winds up denying the subject-object relationship upon which science rests.”[4] Timothy Morton affirms this when he writes, “‘Nature’ dissolves when we look directly at it, into assemblages of behaviours, congeries of organs without bodies.”[5] Both Morton and Slavoj Zizek argue that the ecological crisis ought to be addressed by abolishing the concept of “Nature” as an external environment radically other to the human. One must, in Zizek’s words, “ the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded,” rather than simply “fight for the environment.”[6] Rolston, on the other hand, accepts the use of the term “nature” but only after addressing the difference of nature as concept or framework and nature as real beings: “‘Nature,’ if a category we have constructed, has real members, that is, things that got there on their own in this world-container, and remain there independently of our vocabulary.”[7]

For Evernden the solution lies in art, aesthetics, and the humanities. He quotes Northrop Frye in saying “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[8] For Plumwood, aspects of this approach might be problematic, primarily the idea of ‘identity with our surroundings’ rather than solidarity and communication with those beings outside the human species. Yet Plumwood also accepts the ambiguity and imperfection inherent to developing effective models of communication with non-humans. She writes,

The problems of representing another culture’s or another species communication however pale before the enormity of failing to represent them at all, or of representing them as non-communicative and non-intentional beings. This is an incomparably greater failing.[9]

This acceptance of the ambiguity and even the mess of ecological engagement are also present in Morton and Zizek’s thought. Morton writes, “Ecological thinking—what I call the ecological thought—is precisely this ‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth.’”[10] Zizek, who draws significantly from Morton, looks to the necessarily externalized slums produced by the capitalist system to highlight the dualism of Included and Excluded, and at the overlap of nature and industrial civilization in a state of “common decay”[11] to break down the conception of an insolated humanity and an “impenetrable inhuman nature.”[12] These ideas are at the core of Morton’s “dark ecology,” which “realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh.”[13]

To say that Plumwood, Morton, Zizek, Evernden, and Rolston agree with one another would be a severe misinterpretation of each of their projects. However, they do stand on some common ground with one another as they pose challenges to current systems of dualistic, anthropocentric, hegemonic thinking. While there may not be a common identity between these ecological thinkers, there does appear to be, in Plumwood’s terms, a solidarity between their challenges to ecological philosophy and the concept of nature.

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Morton, Timothy. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Rolston, Holmes. “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, edited by T.D.J. Chappell, 38-63. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.


[1] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 8-9.

[2] Holmes Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, ed. T.D.J. Chappell (Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 60.

[3] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 61.

[4] Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 93.

[5] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 285.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 45.

[7] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 43.

[8] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 99.

[9] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 60-61.

[10] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 265.

[11] Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” 63.

[12] Ibid, 50.

[13] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, was published in the Fall 2016 issue of Immanence: The Journal of Applied Mythology, Legend, and Folktale.

Prologue: Cosmos in Ellipsis

As I climb higher up the gray switchback staircase of rickety wooden boards my body tenses with the increasing height, even as my mind knows I am safe, that the stairs beneath my feet will support me. Already present is that indescribable bodily sense, that physical intuition that seems only able to be captured wordlessly, by something as unarticulated as an ellipsis. . .I step out onto the gravel of the roof to be met by the sight of the flaming orb of the setting Sun. This closest of stars burns the clarity from the landscape, blurring the features of the horizon line being pulled toward it: hill, forest, and stretch of ocean I can only perceive in memory as the deepening gold of sunset shatters my sight into uncountable, undifferentiable monads of color.

Setting Sun

To read the rest of this article please see: “Phenomenology of Astrology.”

Metamorphosis of the Unwilling

My body felt heavy, awkward. I did not actually want to dance. Staying safely curled up in the soft cushions of the chair, cocooned in a warm blanket, seemed far more appealing. So I did something I do not usually allow myself to do. When called forward to dance I asked if I could wait. To see when, or even if, my body had any desire to come out of its instinct to remain hidden and safely nestled in obscurity.

I waited. Beautiful bodies danced before me. I waited longer. I witnessed. Now? Almost. . .

Stop planning, I told myself. Stop trying to control this moment, or know what moves you think you know how to make.

I waited. The waiting turned into something else. Waiting. Ah. . .  that’s when you know you’ve somehow moved to the edge of your seat.

My feeling of inward hesitation led me to surrender all mental control of what I was supposed to do next. If I didn’t want to dance I didn’t want to plan it either. I stepped forward, not knowing what song momentarily would come to fill the swollen silence that now held me in subdued anticipation. In those brief, still moments I moved about, first contemplating a chair in the corner, then leaning against the wall, and finally just sitting with my knees tucked up on the floor. I wrapped myself in a long piece of fur. I could bring my inwardness and hesitation into the heart of this unstarted dance, holding myself in warmth and comfort even here.

Then the music began. Then the music began to move me. I had nothing to do. My body somehow knew how to follow.

With each beat one shoulder, then the other, moved a little. The fur slipped down, inch by inch. As my movement unfolded I felt I was being led, led by sound and the intelligence of my body riding those musical waves. The fur stayed with me, followed me, like it too had its own dance it wished to play out upon my body. Few thoughts arose, only points of memory-formation, tagging this moment or that for posterity. Not all stayed with me. Much of this dance is a blur that whirled away into the moments that drew the dance forth from me. Somehow I moved from the floor to the wall. My body, the fur, the music, all knew what to do. I did not. Nor did I need to.

Sensation led me forward, leaving the support of the wall. The metal pole stretching from ceiling to floor, an arboreal axis, called me forward. Giving myself the mental option never to dance with this powerful object during the course of this song allowed the desire instead to co-arise between my body and the music. As I walked toward the pole the fur dragged behind me; it left my grasp without thought the moment I no longer needed its comfort and support.

The pole calls forth spirals and swirls, a spinning energy that can only exist between flexibility and stability. I do not know how I danced, but only that my body was sending ripples of exuberance through my consciousness, a recognition that I was doing what I could not plan. I ascended the stretch of metal a foot, two, three, with a feeling like the internal inch of a caterpillar along a vertical branch. Seated above the ground I let my hands go, trusting the security of my legs, spreading my wings behind me. A caterpillar no more, I opened myself into metamorphosis, descending to the rhythm of a musical heartbeat.

Butterfly Dancer

 

 

Incarnation

Bury me in my immanence,
These bones who hold me in,
Under flesh, underground,
Beneath gravity of skin.

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Immersed in this flesh,
A mirror from below.
Songs echo from the deep
As the child learns to grow.

Each unfolding limb
A living fossil entwined:
The eye of the storm
In the whirlpools of the mind.

Stretch for the stars,
Bury your toes in the sand.
If I look in your eyes
Will you hold my hand?

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Limber laughter enmeshed
In each step we take,
From these early paces
To final footpad ache.

Walk with me sister,
Walk with me son,
Tread this careful curve
Where multitude is One.

Sing with the clouds
As they cross the sky,
Breathe out all staleness
With a synchronized sigh.

I want to tread this path,
With you always by,
When we play, flow, and dance,
Hold council and cry.

What does it mean
To walk this Earth?
What does it mean
When these bodies come to birth?

Dance this Earth prayer
As long as we breathe,
Bury me in my immanence,
To find joy with all who grieve.

Earth and Sunrise

Bridging Our Attitudes Toward Nature

“Phusis kruptesthai philei”

For twenty-five hundred years the concept of Nature has evolved through the writings of Western History. The myriad meanings of the Greek word phusis have unfolded through history as Nature personified, Nature divine, Nature hidden, Nature secretive, nature separate from humanity, nature inclusive of humanity, nature as dead matter, Nature as art, Nature as All. Pierre Hadot traces this winding history in his book-length essay The Veil of Isis by examining the famous aphorism attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, “phusis kruptesthai philei,” usually translated as “Nature loves to hide.”[1] Using these three cryptic words, whose meaning it seems also loves to hide, Hadot explores the many different ways this aphorism could be—and has been—translated, and the various effects such interpretations have had upon the continuing relationship humanity has with the world into which we each are born. Hadot perceives how traditional metaphors such as Heraclitus’ phrase will

hold sway for centuries over successive generations like a kind of program to be realized, a task to be accomplished, or an attitude to be assumed, even if, throughout the ages, the meaning given to these sentences, images, and metaphors can be profoundly modified.[2]

He goes on to note that “To write the history of a thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.”[3]

Isis Veiled

Why is it that Nature loves to hide? What is it she—for in Hadot’s traced lineage Nature is always unquestioningly personified as female—is hiding, and from whom is she hiding it? History has offered many answers, from Nature as divine mystery, to Nature as weak and inferior and thus wrapped up in shame, Nature as clothed in imagination, Nature as malicious toward humanity, Nature protective of humanity: all of these and more have been reasons given for why Nature’s veils have been deemed so difficult to peel away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the veils and the secrets of Nature never ceases to fade, until it gives way to amazement before an unveiled Nature, which, in Goethe’s expression, henceforth became “mysterious in full daylight,” in the nudity of her presence.[4]

The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time.

Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic. In Hadot’s own words, these approaches or perspectives can be understood as follows:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[5]

The Promethean attitude is based upon a notion of progress in which humanity will some day attain all of nature’s veiled secrets so that they might be put to use for the betterment of the human species. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end. In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite.

The Orphic attitude takes the approach that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[6] In many ways the Orphic is an antidote to the Promethean, although it extends far beyond that as well. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. Hadot’s archetypal analysis of nature is itself an Orphic approach, in that he draws on myth and art to unfold the meanings of humanity’s changing relationship to the natural world.

In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction. If we do not have an understanding of what humanity has perceived nature to be throughout history then we have little chance of knowing how to heal our relationship to that which we call nature. Although in The Veil of Isis Hadot seems to favor more of an Orphic approach, in that it is more holistic, contemplative, non-violent, and non-exploitative, it could be that finding a bridge between the two perspectives is a better way forward. Although a deep chasm has often separated the two, Hadot offers examples of individual thinkers who embody both perspectives within themselves. For example, to dive back toward Western philosophy’s beginnings, Hadot demonstrates how Plato carries both a Promethean and Orphic attitude within his works. In the Timaeus, “Plato represents the world fashioned in an artisanal way,” but that world can also be understood through mechanical, mathematical models.[7] Plato saw phusis as divine art.[8] For Hadot, the view of nature as art is in itself part of a solution for overcoming the division of human and nature that has contributed to create the ecological crisis.

If. . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[9]

Hadot’s work is not prescriptive, yet he indicates that finding bridges may be what is needed: a bridge between Promethean and Orphic, a bridge between humanity and nature—and in many ways art is able to fill this bridging role.

 

Work Cited

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

 


[1] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[2] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, xiii.

[3] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 14.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[6] Ibid, 91.

[7] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 97.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 92.

The Myth of Er

Can argument be presented in the form of myth? What more does myth offer that simple argument is unable to provide? What lies between the simple spoken words of myth that is conveyed as a whole through its telling? And what might be lost in using such a form of argument? Plato ends the ten books of the Republic with what has been referred to as the Myth of Er. After much dialogue in Book X around the ills of poetic imitation, Socrates nonetheless concludes the long dialogue with a narrative of such poetic grace that it seems almost to upset the very balance of the entire dialogue. Only six pages in length, the Myth of Er somehow tips the scales of the Republic, as much of the dialogue must now be reinterpreted through the multifaceted lens of Er’s tale.

Socrates implies that he knew this myth even before the dialogue began. Yet it is only through the unfolding of the dialogue that the myth becomes an appropriate ending. How differently the Republic would read if it were to begin, rather than end, with the Myth of Er. Socrates also does not present this myth as a likely story, begun with such a disclaimer as “This is what I’ve heard” as he does in the Phaedrus, or other dialogues.[1] Throughout the myth Socrates emphasizes that Er was chosen to be the messenger to humanity about what he sees take place between death and new birth. This intentionality gives the impression that this knowledge is not given by accident, or abducted by the cleverness of humanity, but rather is a gift from the gods, an account meant to be shared and known.[2] Is Er’s tale really then a myth, or is it being presented as an empirical report? Or is Socrates creating this story in the moment, a narrative weaving of all the threads of argument that have come forward in some way or other in the previous ten books?

Spindle of Necessity

The theme of the Republic is justice, and until this final book the focus has been on how to know justice in the world of the living. The Myth of Er shows the other side of that coin, which perhaps explains why it carries so much weight in the balance of the dialogue. What roles do justice and injustice play once a life has ended? Socrates presents an account of this in which fate is intermingled with free choice, and seems to conclude that it is only the philosopher who truly remains free.

On his journey beyond the bounds of death, Er first encounters the judges seated at the entrances and exits of heaven and hell. Once a life has ended these judges determine whether a soul has led a just or unjust life, and send the soul accordingly towards its punishments or rewards. Socrates says that

For each in turn of the unjust things they had done and for each in turn of the people they had wronged, they paid the penalty ten times over, once in every century of their journey. . . But if they had done good deeds and had become just and pious, they were rewarded according to the same scale.[3]

In this judgment of the just from the unjust, it is interesting to note that there is no intermediate place for a soul to go; one’s life is either deemed to fall under one or another category, even though most lives would all seem to contain a mixture of just and unjust actions. The quality of life determines the nature of the rewards or punishments, but the location in which these are bestowed is limited.

Most unjust souls it seems are cleansed by their punishments and sufferings below the Earth, but when Socrates comes to speak of the tyrant Ardiaeus, it is said, “He hasn’t arrived here yet and never will.”[4] Is it possible, within this mythology, that there are “incurably wicked people,”[5] those who will never be given the opportunity to redeem themselves or to end their suffering? When we arrive at the part of the narrative in which their next lives are chosen by souls, I cannot help but wonder what the choosing may have been like for those who never again resurface from the tortures of hell.

The theme of fate and free will is carried strongly by the images of the spindle of Necessity that holds together the whorls of the planetary spheres. Sirens sing the harmony of the spheres, while the three Fates interweave their own melodies with those of the Sirens.[6] As the Fates help spin the planets along their various orbits we are shown how Past, Present, and Future guide the motions of the planets. That the choice of lives takes place within this setting gives a strong indication of the role astrology played in the ancient Greek world view although, as can be seen by the manner in which the lives are chosen, free choice is still an integral part of how one’s fate is woven. The order in which the souls choose a new life is cast by lot—randomly assigned—but the lives chosen are picked by the souls’ own discernment, using the wisdom they gained not only from their previous lives but from their time spent in heaven or hell as well.[7] Lachesis, the Fate of the Past, gives this message to the souls, “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[8] Justice then is not something dispensed by the gods, but rather something cultivated within the individual.

Celestial Spheres

Lachesis’ message continues, “Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none.”[9] Virtue both has no master and yet is also in service to each person should she or he choose to take on that role of master. If this is the case—that the quality of one’s virtue is determined by each individual person—then it seems no matter how carefully constructed a city might be, how could it be guaranteed that justice will reign within the city? Is this the reason Plato ends his dialogue with this myth? To show the role free choice plays in the possession of virtue by souls?

By giving an image of the soul’s journey after death, a certain level of clarity is brought to the difficulty of trying to control reproduction within the ideal city. Even if the parents are all chosen according to standards of high virtue, the souls incarnating ultimately determine the kinds of people they will become. It is interesting to note that Socrates chooses not to recount in the Myth of Er what happens to those souls who are stillborn or short-lived—those who, in the ideal city, might be taken from their mothers and left to die if they seemed unfit to live.[10] If they are deemed in life not to be virtuous and not to deserve life, was that fate also determined before they were born? Why has Plato chosen not to elaborate on this key point? What kind of soul might choose a life which would end so quickly based on their seeming lack of merit in life?

The Myth of Er concludes with Socrates declaring that the most important task one can undertake in life is studying how to determine a virtuous life when the time comes to choose a new one. This is the task of the philosopher, and it here seems as though he deems a life of philosophy to be best for all souls. 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.[11]

Socrates notes that most of the souls who came from heaven chose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time below the Earth were able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they had witnessed and experienced.[12] Only the philosopher was able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. Socrates is indicating that cultivating the knowledge of justice and injustice, as was demonstrated in practice throughout the ten books of the Republic, will lead to a better soul life than merely being virtuous by habit or constraint. If this is the case then not only must the ruler of the ideal city be a philosopher but each individual citizen must also be, otherwise the city will not be just. Perhaps the ideal city is not one in which control is imposed from without, as has been postulated in many forms throughout the Republic, but rather one in which that compass toward virtue and justice is cultivated within each individual.

The cultivation of inner justice is also perhaps the reason the finale of the Republic is given in the form of a narrative myth: one must cultivate one’s own wisdom in discerning the meaning of the myth. Understanding must come from within. It cannot, as in more direct arguments, be imposed from without. Only then is the soul able to learn the kind of life it wishes to lead.

Works Cited

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


[1]Plato, Phaedrus, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 551, 274c.

[2] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1218, 614d.

[3] Plato, Republic, 1218, 615a-b.

[4] Plato, Republic, 1219, 615d.

[5] Plato, Republic, 1219, 615e.

[6] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1222, 620a.

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

[9] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617e.

[10] Plato, Republic, 1218, 615c.

[11] Plato, Republic, 1221, 618d-e.

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