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

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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.

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.

Phenomenology of Astrology

This phenomenological exploration, originally written in December 2013, will soon be 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.”

The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: A Presentation on Anne Conway

 

The essay “The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: Exploring Anne Conway’s Philosophy,” which is the foundation of this presentation, is available here.

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.

The Infinite Dynamic Stairway: Exploring Anne Conway’s Philosophy

A Woman Philosopher

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

Jacob's Ladder

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

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

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

The Three Species of Existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuum of Spirit and Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Cartesianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ecological Ethic

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

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

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

The Dynamic Stairway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Souls As Ruling Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Relationality

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid, 5-6.

[12] Ibid, 55.

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

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

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

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

[17] Ibid, 10-11.

[18] Ibid, 50.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Ibid, 14.

[26] Ibid, 15.

[27] Ibid, 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[36] Ibid, 25.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[53] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[61] Ibid, 39.

[62] Ibid, 46.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[72] Ibid, 47.

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

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

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

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

[77] Ibid, 85.

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

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

[80] Ibid, 34.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[92] Ibid, 163.

[93] Ibid, 98.

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

[95] Ibid, 17.

[96] Ibid, 67.

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

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

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

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid, 16.

[102] Ibid, 17.

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

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

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

[106] Ibid, 39.

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

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

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

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

[111] Ibid, 52.

[112] Ibid, 55.

[113] Ibid, 13.

[114] Ibid, 55.

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

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

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

[118] Ibid, 70.

[119] Ibid, 77.

[120] Ibid, 83.

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

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

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

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

The Harmonic Nonbeing of Evil: Plotinus’s Neoplatonic Mysticism

If a candle burns alone in the darkness, and the flame and its emanating light are all that exist, whence comes the darkness? If everything that exists is One, and the One is Good, whence comes evil? The paradox of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism is before us, the paradox of how all of existence emanates from the One and yet evil still operates in the world. For Plotinus, is evil real or an illusion? If all is One, is anything real, or is all an illusion? Finally, what is the role of the human being, the human soul—in relation, participation, unity, or differentiation—with the One? And with evil?

Candle Flame

Neoplatonism was born in Rome through the writings and teachings of the Platonic philosopher Plotinus in the year 265 ce. Carrying forward Plato’s philosophy while drawing on 600 years of philosophical, religious, and cultural development in the Mediterranean, Plotinus conceived of a “suprarational mysticism”[1] of the divine, the One without a second, in which the universe is a living continuum, from the inanimate matter of minerals to the luminosity of the gods.[2] The One is all things, yet also it is no thing; in order for the One to generate being, it in itself is not being.[3] The One exists, but it exists outside of being and time.[4] “The One,” writes Richard Tarnas, “also called the Good, in an overflow of sheer perfection produces the ‘other’—the created cosmos in all its variety—in a hierarchical series of gradations moving away from this ontological center to the extreme limits of the possible.”[5] The One is like the flame of a candle and the emanating light is the “other,” the overflowing of utmost perfection. A flame cannot help but emit light, and light cannot emanate without a source. They are inseparable, and yet distinct nonetheless. Jacob Sherman describes the emanation of the many from the One thus: “The doctrine of emanation of Plotinus. . . pictures the many as epiphenomena that proceed from the One but do not remain within the One. . . Plotinus’s One remains unmoved within itself, and the many are distinct from this One.”[6] Although the One radiates all things into being, the One itself cannot be interacted with. The candle flame will burn us, while the light will not: the flame and light are distinguishable, and it is clear that while the flame creates the light, the light does not cause the flame.

As existence emanates from the One it radiates out in hierarchical gradations like the fading brightness of a candle’s light. The brightest, closest to the One, is the Intellect, which then radiates out to Soul. Tarnas writes, “The three ‘hypostases’—One, Intellect, and Soul—are not literal entities but rather spiritual dispositions.”[7] Individual human souls, as well as the World Soul, derive from this hypostasis Soul.[8] Again, there is no ultimate difference between these aspects of the One, but rather a more subtle distinction: the light further from the candle flame is distinctly less bright than the closer but it is the same light.

Contemplating the spiritual distinctions of the One brings into question the reality of the world, and particularly the reality of the individual human soul as individual. According to Plotinus, the human soul contains all the hierarchical stratifications of the One; part of the human soul never left the One, never left the core of the candle flame.[9] Yet Plotinus also speaks of the soul’s descent away from the One, into incarnation, saying, “Those souls which descend deepest show their light furthest down.”[10] What is being illuminated by their light? Once again, whence comes the darkness? Sherman writes,

Plotinus’s emanation cosmology sees the contraction of form as an isolated mass surrounded on both sides by two infinities; form floats upon the surface of the chaotic illimitation of nonbeing, and gazes heavenward to the infinite pleromatic vaults of the One’s ineffable simplicity.[11]

This image portrays a dynamic tension between the One, which is outside of being, and the ‘chaotic illimitation of nonbeing’: what emerges between these two different yet parallel infinities is form, existence. A contradiction seems to exist in Plotinus’s thought, for although the One may not have a second, something else seems to exist in relationship to the One by its very nonexistence. All that emanates from the One Plotinus deems to be Good; thus the evil experienced within the world must either not emanate from the One—and therefore not exist—or, if evil is real, then it must be part of the One. Finally, in paradoxical contrast to these first two possibilities, perhaps evil does exist in such utter contrast to the One it can only be named nonbeing, which is what Sherman’s image seems to present. This third possibility appears to place, in a non-spatial sense, both the nonbeing of evil and the One that generates all things, outside of being itself.

Plotinus seems to hold contradictory views on the subject of evil throughout his writings. At times evil appears to be a presence on the edge of being, at the point when the emanation of the One ceases. At others evil seems to be a tangible part of the One expressed by the material realm. Finally, evil also appears to arise only in relationship: the relationship between soul and body, between spirit and matter, and in the interactions between incarnated individuals. Evil shifts from a noun to a verb; it is not a being but rather an action; there are no evil people, only evil deeds.

The individual soul moves away from the divine Intellect and descends into material reality by turning away from the totality of the One and instead focusing inward upon itself. The soul becomes “a deserter from the totality; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weak, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole; it nestles in one form of being.”[12] By focusing on its own particularity the soul becomes particular, and thus an individual. Plotinus presents this movement of the soul as a fall, but he also affirms it as part of a larger movement “determined by the eternal law of nature.”[13] He goes on to say that “there is no inconsistency or untruth in saying the Soul is sent down by God.”[14] Yet once embodied the soul that exists on the periphery of the One’s emanation can potentially forget its origin, depending how far the soul descends. Plotinus writes, “As long as they have not touched the lowest region of process (the point at which non-being begins) there is nothing to prevent them rising once more.”[15] This image gives the sense that non-being, which has a “point” at which it “begins,” is an actual entity, the infinite chaos beyond the One’s power.

Encountering the knowledge of evil and gaining an understanding of sin will not in itself harm the human soul—if that soul returns quickly to its source.[16] According to some interpretations of Plotinus that evil exists outside the One as nonbeing, while according to others evil is present at the periphery of the One’s emanation in the material world. Tarnas writes,

The material world, existing in time and space and perceptible to the senses, is the level of reality furthest from unitary divinity. As the final limit of creation, it is characterized in negative terms as the realm of multiplicity, restriction, and darkness, as lowest in ontological stature—holding the least degree of real being—and as constituting the principle of evil.[17]

It seems clear from this excerpt that matter, and the principle of evil, are on the periphery of the One’s emanation: they have the ‘least degree of real being’ rather than complete nonbeing. Yet, just as it is difficult to differentiate the exact location at which a candle’s light has completely faded and utter darkness begins, the distinction between the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing may be equally blurred.

Plotinus emphasizes that to be in a body is to be “apt to body-punishment,”[18] and even goes so far as to say, “The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.”[19] To live a divine life as an embodied soul one must have “detachment from all things here below, scorn all earthly pleasures.”[20] Lloyd Gerson elaborates on the point of the evil of matter:

As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil. (Emphasis added.)[21]

In Gerson’s interpretation of Plotinus, matter, and therefore evil, are caused by an act of the One. However, Plotinus also indicates in the Enneads that matter is still able to participate in the Good of the One, in seeming contradiction with himself. He writes,

No principle can prevent anything from partaking, to the extent of it own individual receptivity, in the nature of Good. If, therefore, Matter has always existed, that existence is enough to ensure its participation in the being which, according to each receptivity, communicates the supreme Good universally. (Emphasis added.)[22]

I emphasize Plotinus’s repeated point about matter’s individual receptivity because this indicates the limited participation matter is able to have with the Good. In turn, this excerpt of Plotinus can be contrasted with Tarnas’s interpretation of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism, which “portrayed nature as permeated by divinity, a noble expression of the World Soul. Stars and planets, light, plants, even stones possessed a numinous dimension.”[23] This image of numinous nature appears to indicate an intimate participation of matter in the Good, implying that matter itself is not evil.

If matter itself is not evil, but a human soul becomes evil by being in a material body, how can this contradiction be reconciled? Returning to Plotinus’s statement about the soul in the body we can reinterpret his words slightly: ‘The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.’ The body, and matter in general, is only evil when it becomes an object of desire that impedes a soul from returning to its divine source. Matter can only be the goal of desire for beings who are self-conscious and able to choose material desire, specifically human beings. “This is not because body itself is evil,” Gerson writes.

The evil in bodies is the element in them that is not dominated by form. One may be desirous of that form, but in that case what one truly desires is that form’s ultimate intelligible source in Intellect. More typically, attachment to the body represents a desire not for form but a corrupt desire for the non-intelligible or limitless.[24]

Evil then can be interpreted not as an entity—it remains nonbeing—but as existing as an action. Acts of evil, or acts of any kind, take place within the unity of the One because the One is simultaneously a multiplicity. Plotinus writes, “In virtue of the unity the individual is preserved by the All; in virtue of the multiplicity of things having various contacts, difference often brings about mutual hurt; one thing, seeking its own need, is detrimental to another.”[25] He goes on to speak of the action of the entire Cosmos coordinating the beings within it:

The beings thus co-ordinated are not the causes; the cause is the co-ordinating All; at the same time it is not to be thought of as acting upon a material distinct from itself, for there is nothing external to it since it is the cause by actually being all.[26]

From this perspective, any punishments for wrongdoings, for temporary acts of evil, can be seen as medicine for the whole although they are experienced as suffering by the individual part.[27] Furthermore, unmerited suffering, for example from disease or poverty, Plotinus considers accidental consequences of the greater actions of the All, and not as individual punishments.[28]

As the One radiates out from itself, through Intellect, Soul, and on to incarnated materiality, the One’s emanations do not actually come into being until they look back at their source: their moment of contemplation is their moment of becoming. This brings up the question of what might happen if part of the emanation never looked back—would it never come into being? Might this be how evil can be present in the One’s creation? If something never looked back it would not come into being, making it nonbeing, meanwhile it is not a form of nonbeing that enters the One from outside. The monism is kept intact while the action of evil—of not looking back or literally re-specting the One—is accounted for within creation.

The soul’s encounter with evil is a necessity for the soul to be able to contemplate and respect the One. Plotinus writes, “Where the faculty is incapable of knowing without contact, the experience of evil brings the clearer perception of Good.”[29] Matter is only considered evil when it impedes the human soul from returning to the One, yet paradoxically evil also seems to be necessary for the soul to know how to turn back toward the One, toward the Good. Gerson writes, “To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good.”[30] Evil’s role within the One is to produce a harmony that weaves through the notes of the melody of the Good. It is the self-consciously acting human soul that allows, through its actions, the necessity of evil to play its role in creation. The “negative reality” of evil, writes Tarnas, “plays a necessary role in a larger design, and ultimately affects neither the perfection of the One nor the well-being of the philosopher’s highest self”[31]—the highest aspect of the human soul that always remains with the One. The very perfection of the One seems only to be completed by the dynamic harmony evil provides. The candle flame is brightest, and therefore contingent upon, the very darkness that lets it shines forth.

 

Works Cited

Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed March 13, 2013. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/plotinus/&gt;.

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

O’Brien, Elmer, ed., The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

Plotinus. Enneads. V.2.1. Translated by A.H. Armstrong. 7 volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88.

Plotinus. The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads. Edited by Algis Uzdavinys. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009.

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991.

 


[1]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 84.

[2] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads, ed. Algis Uzdavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009), 136-7.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads, V.2.1, trans. A.H. Armstrong, 7 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88), 5:59.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 76.

[5] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[6] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 96.

[7] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[8] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 136.

[9] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 89.

[12] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 163-4.

[13] Ibid, 165.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 146.

[16] Ibid, 165.

[17] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[18] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 140.

[19] Plotinus, Enneads, I.2.3.

[20] Elmer O’Brien, ed., The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 88 (Enneads VI, 9:9, 11).

[21] Lloyd Gerson, “Plotinus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed March 13, 2013, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/plotinus/&gt;, section 2, para. 15.

[22] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 166.

[23] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 213.

[24] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[25] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 151.

[26] Ibid, 152.

[27] Ibid, 157.

[28] Plotinus, Enneads, IV.3.16-17.

[29] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 167.

[30] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[31] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

Morality and the Muse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Harvard Classics 27. (2001): Accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html.


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

[2] Ibid, 827.

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

[4] Plato, Republic, 825.

[5] Ibid, 825.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in Harvard Classics 27. (2001): accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html, paragraph 12.

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

[8] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

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

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

[11] Ibid, 317.

[12] Ibid, 208.

[13] Ibid, 317.

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

[15] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

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

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

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

[19] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 400.

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

[21] Ibid, 264.

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

[23] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 402.

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

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