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

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.”

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.