Again on rejoicing in the present

13 12 2010

I have begun to move away from Neoplatonic thought, mostly because I have concluded that my affinity to it is based on nostalgia and wishful thinking. In a real sense, the core of what I have always believed has been defined by dialectical materialism as a method of understanding the world. The “purely spiritual” for me is wishful thinking and a childish dream.

That being the case, I still think there is much that I take away from the period of Neoplatonic studies. I still admire Ficino, for example, if not for his metaphysics, at least for his “syncretic” approach to Christian monotheism that proves that it is, in Lacanian terms, a signifier without a signified. On the other hand, I can still rehabilitate his counsel, passed on from the ancient Academy, to “rejoice in the present”.

I am beginning to conclude that the main cause of nostalgia is not what we had, but what we lacked at any given moment. The only reason we can appreciate certain things now is because we have now what we once lacked: family, economic security, personal self-determination, and so forth. Those things for which we are nostalgic meant little to us then because we had no regard for them. It was almost as if they weren’t there. But since their meaning has shifted in our lives, we forget how much pain and suffering we have left behind, only concerned with the pain and suffering we face now. It is an absurd shell game; we are constantly picking the piece that has nothing under it.

In that sense, the ancient counsel to “rejoice in the present” should not be seen as saying that “this is the best time in your life”, just as Hegel’s “the real is rational, etc.” should not be read as an ipso facto justification of the current social and moral regime. It is, rather, a recognition of the unsettled nature of human desire. We are not happy because we are constantly looking somewhere else, when we should just realize that the nature of joy lies precisely in lack, or the threat of lack. It is because we clung to certain things in the face of lack that those things meant so much to us, at least in our current memory.





On superstition – pt. I

19 09 2010

After these follow the remaining kinds of divine frenzy, which Plato considers are twofold. One is centered in the mysteries, and the other, which he calls prophecy, concerns future events. The first, he says, is a powerful stirring of the soul, in perfecting what relates to the worship of the gods, religious observance, purification and sacred ceremonies. But the tendency of the mind that falsely imitates this frenzy he calls superstition. He considers the last kind of frenzy in which he includes prophecy, to be nothing other than foreknowledge inspired by the divine spirit, which we properly call divination and prophecy. If the soul is fired in the act of divination he calls it frenzy; that is, when the mind, withdrawn from the body, is moved by divine rapture. But if someone foresees future events by human ingenuity rather than by divine inspiration, he thinks that this should be named forsight or inference. From all this it is now clear that there are four kinds of divine frenzy: love, poetry; the mysteries, and prophecy. The common and complete insane love is a false copy of divine love; superficial music, of poetry; superstition, of the mysteries; and prediction, of prophecy. According to Plato, Socrates attributes the first kind of frenzy to Venus, the second to the Muses, the third to Dionysius, and the last to Apollo.

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul





The stupor of modern life

20 07 2010

AG and I love to watch and discuss the show, Mad Men. So I was pleased to find the following essay by Heather Havrilesky concerning the upcoming fourth season of the show (found through the Conservative Blog for Peace). Cutting through the excessively florid prose that almost borders on pretentiousness, I found that the following passages capture why this show appeals to a certain educated sector of the American public:

Americans are constantly in search of an upgrade. It’s a sickness that’s infused into our blood, a dissatisfaction with the ordinary that’s instilled in us from childhood. Instead of staying connected to the divine beauty and grace of everyday existence — the glimmer of sunshine on the grass, the blessing of a cool breeze on a summer day — we’re instructed to hope for much more. Having been told repeated stories about the fairest in the land, the most powerful, the richest, the most heroic (Snow White, Pokémon, Ronald McDonald, Lady Gaga), eventually we buy into these creation myths and concede their overwhelming importance in the universe. Slowly we come to view our own lives as inconsequential, grubby, even intolerable.

Meanwhile, the American dream itself — a house, a job, a car, a family, a little lawn for the kids to frolic on — has expanded into something far broader and less attainable than ever. Crafty insta-celebrities and self-branding geniuses and social media gurus assert that submitting to the daily grind to pay the mortgage constitutes a meager existence. Books like “The 4-Hour Work Week” tell us that working the same job for years is for suckers. We should be paid handsomely for our creative talents, we should have the freedom to travel and live wherever we like, our children should be exposed to the wonders of the globe at an early age…

While “Mad Men’s” detractors often decry the empty sheen of it all, claiming that it has no soul, clearly that’s the point. The American dream itself is a carefully packaged, soulless affair. This is the automobile a man of your means should drive. This is the liquor a happy homemaker like yourself should serve to your husband’s business guests. As absurd as it seems to cobble together a dream around a handful of consumer goods, that’s precisely what the advertising industry did so effectively in the ’50s and ’60s, until we couldn’t distinguish our own desires from the desires ascribed to us by professional manipulators, suggesting antidotes for every real or imagined malady, supplying escapist fantasies to circumvent the supposedly unbearable tedium of ordinary life.
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Ficino and the afterlife

1 07 2010

It is hard to tell sometimes if the Renaissance magus Marsilio Ficino was more Platonist than Catholic, or better yet, if such qualifications make any sense in his case. Having recently finished his commentary on Plato’s Republic, it is evident that he weaves Christian belief and Platonic doctrine unpretentiously into a single philosophical garment. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his idea of the afterlife. Ficino speaks much of purification both in this life and the next. Whether he is pulling this entirely from Plato or from his supposed role as religious gatekeeper as an ordained priest is not clear. One thing that one gets from Ficino is a sense that all metaphysical thought can only obtain certain foreshadowings of what will happen in the next life. The idea of “purgatory” properly speaking does not even appear in these writings.
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On man and beast

10 03 2010

Let me now bring this letter to an end, but may I first remind you of this one thing, which clearly we should bear in mind: if the wild beasts within us are many, it is not surprising that according to Plato souls are transmigrating from men to beasts. Certainly, we have within us, from the beginning, fuel for desire and something of an animal nature. When we have heedlessly nourished these for a long time, reason is either in some way lulled to sleep, or else it is awake under the cloak of passion and desire. Wherefore, under the human skin, the man himself seems to have been transformed into beasts. Hence Socrates says in Phaedrus, “Indeed I examine myself, Phaedrus. Am I a monster with more heads than Typhon, more full of fire and fury? Or am I a simpler and calmer being, sharing in some divine and favorable destiny, partaking in a quiet understanding?”

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul





The Virgin as Philosopher’s Stone

23 12 2009

I will propose you a similitude of gold. The ethereal heaven was shut from all men, so that all men should descend to the infernal seats, and be there perpetually detained. But Jesus Christ opened the gate of the ethereal Olympus, and has now unlocked the kingdoms of Pluto, that the souls may be taken out; when by the co-operation of the holy spirit in the virginal womb, the virgin Mary did by an ineffable mystery and most profound sacraments conceive what was the most excellent in the heavens and on the earth; and at length brought forth for us the saviour of the whole world, who out of his super abundant bounty shall save all who are able to sin, if the sinner turn himself to him. But she remained an untouched and undefiled virgin: whence mercury is not undeservedly compared to the most glorious saint the virgin Mary. For mercury is a virgin because it never propagated in the womb of the Earth and metallic body, and yet it generates the stone for us; by dissolving heaven, that is, gold, it opens it, and brings out the soul; which understand you to be the divinity, and carries it some little while in its womb, and at length in its own time transmits it into a cleansed body. From whence a child, that is, the stone, is born to us, by whose blood the inferior bodies being tinged are brought safe into the golden heaven, and mercury remains a virgin without a stain, such as is was ever before.

-attributed to Marsilio Ficino in a treatise on alchemy





The immeasurable space in the spirit

8 10 2009

The end of the Robert Wilson / Philip Glass “opera”, Einstein on the Beach

Man is an earthly star enveloped in a cloud, but a star is a heavenly man….

Therefore leaving behind the narrow confines of this shadow, return to yourself; for thus you will return to spaciousness. Remember that there is an immeasurable space in the spirit, but in the body one could say infinite constriction. This indeed you can see from the fact that numbers, which are akin to the nature of spirit, increase without limit but do not diminish; whereas there is a limit to the expression of the physical, to its contraction there is no limit.

-Marsilio Ficino, found in Meditations on the Soul





On Sight

2 09 2009

augustus

But, that there is some light, though small, in the eyes and brain, many animals which see at night can attest. Their eyes glow in the dark. And also, if anyone has pressed the corner of his eye in some certain way with his finger and twisted it, he seems to see a certain luminous circle inside himself. And it is said that the deified Augustus had eyes so bright and shining that when he stared at someone very hard, he forced him to lower his eyes, as if before the glow of the sun. Tiberius also is said to have had very large eyes which (this would be amazing) saw at night and in the dark, but only for a short time, and when they first opened from sleep; then they grew dim again.

-Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love

In Mexico, it is said that people who give small children the evil eye (el mal de ojo) have la vista muy fuerte (a strong sense of sight). It is even said that a person can kill someone if his sense of sight is strong enough. This is almost always completely involuntary. Spanish speakers can see the short documentary, El Mal Visto, regarding this phenomenon. One wonders if such beliefs are remnants of the esoteric sciences of the Renaissance and earlier.





Kronos

27 07 2009

saturn-400x300

Saturn is the supreme intellect among the angels by whose rays souls in addition to the angels are illumined and inflamed and are raised continually with all their might to the intellectual life. Whenever souls are converted to this life, they are said to be under Saturn’s rule in that they live by the understanding. Consequently, in this life they are said to be regenerated by their own will because they choose to be reformed for the better. Again, they are said to grow young again daily (that is, if days can be numbered then) and to blossom more and more. Hence the words of the Apostle Paul, “The inward man is renewed day by day.” Finally, fruits are said to be supplied men in abundance, produced unbidden and in a perpetual spring, and this is because there- not by way of their senses and laborious discipline but by way of inner light- men enjoy to the highest degree the tranquility of life and pleasure, along with the wonderful spectacles of truth itself.

-Marsilio Ficino





On the Divine Frenzy – II

3 04 2009

This is not enough. For multiplicity still remains in the soul. There is added, therefore, the mystery of Dionysius, which by explanations and sacrifices, and every divine worship, directs the attention of all the other parts to the intellect, by which God is worshipped. In this way since all the other parts of the soul are reduced to the intellect alone, the soul has already been made a certain single whole out of the many.

-Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love