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.





Agora

25 10 2010

Missing the universe within

I have to confess that I wanted to like this movie, and to a certain extent, I did. AG thought it lacked a coherent narrative structure, but as far as I was concerned, it was pretty watchable. The sets were fascinating, but not always authentic (people have complained that the way the Roman soldiers were dressed was more appropriate for soldiers a few centuries before). The most staunch criticism is the liberties it took with history: Rachel Weisz, while easy on the eyes, would not have been the same age as Hypatia when she died at the age of 65. There was probably no library at the Serapion when it was levelled to the ground in the fourth century. Some critics have taken issue with this, and for some these inaccuracies seem to be the main thrust of their criticism. That, and the fact that the Christians of the time were portrayed as the swarthy Taliban avant la lettre, running through the streets with clubs shouting, “God is one”.
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From Iamblichus

11 10 2010

But I am of the opinion that the obscene language that then takes place [at the erection of phalli], affords an indication of the privation of good about matter, and of the deformitiy which is in material subjects, prior to their being adorned. For these being indigent of ornament, by so much the more aspire after it, as they in a greater degree despise their own deformity. Again, therefore, they pursue the causes of forms, and of what is beautiful and good, recognizing baseness from base language. And thus, indeed, the thing itself, viz. turpitude, is averted, but the knowledge of it is rendered manifest through words, and those that employ them transfer their desire to that which is contrary to baseness…

The powers of the human passions that are in us, when they are entirely restrained, become more vehement; but when they are called forth into energy, gradually and commensurately, they rejoice in being moderately gratified, are satsified; and from hence, becoming purified, they are rendered tractable, and are vanquished without violence. On this account, in comedy and tragedy, by surveying the passions of others, we stop our own passions, cause them to be more moderate, and are purified from them. In sacred ceremonies, likewise, by certain spectacles and auditions of things base, we become liberated from the injury which happened from the works affected by them.

-De Mysteriis





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 fount of philosophy

23 08 2010

Souls cannot ascend without music.

-Pythagoras

The common intellectual history of the West, especially since the Enlightenment, has stated that philosophical thought grew out of a rejection of the old mythologies that had come before it. The Greeks were the first “Europeans”: those who truly began to question the ungodly superstitions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, as well as their own. The evident skepticism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is thought to be at the very least inimical to the interests of classical Greek religion. Philosophy is thus seen as the beginning of the death of myth, and the prelude to the rational world in which we inhabit today.

It is a very reassuring story, but it is not necessarily the real one. Recent scholars have begun to dig into the roots of ancient philosophy, and are finding more continuity than rupture; more sympathy with “ancient superstition” than an inveterate form of rationalist positivism. There was of course the hubbub of a couple of months back when a scholar came up with evidence that the Platonic dialogues were embedded with Pythagorean musical scales. There came forth the idea, quite foreign to modern people used to the “data in, discourse out” model of philosophizing, that the text has more in it than words and ideas. It is a sort of divine play in itself: a representation of the eternal cosmogony. On the other hand, many scholars are seeing at the root of the philosophical enterprise an ancient method of inner transformation that is quite distant from our own ideas of philosophy. Philosophy was more tied to ritual and religion than it is in contemporary practice. What philosophy was trying to do initially was not break free from the “mythology” that came before it, but radically return to its source.
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Some links to start off your week

8 08 2010

David B. Hart continues a series of interesting of reflections over at First Things, this time regarding Julian the Apostate. I reproduce my comment here:

Excellent article. It reminds me a lot of Pierre Chuvin’s Chronicle of the Last Pagans. One must remember that, by this point, many pagan philosophers such as Plotinus and, more closely to Julian, Iamblichus of Chalcis, had already instituted a sort of Neoplatonic reformation of paganism, just in time to see everything disappear before their eyes. As was pointed out, Julian wanted the pagans to adopt greater levels of compassion and mercy to compete with the Christians, though with obviously little success. Reading late Neoplatonism up to Proclus is thus a fascinating exercise, as they by that point had become essentially monotheists, seeing the ancient myths and symbolism as reflections of a hierarchy of intelligences flowing down from an ineffable One.

Of course, all of this was transmitted to Christianity through the mysterious figure called “Pseudo-Dionysius”, who replaced the idea that “all things are full of the gods” with “all things are full of the angels “, (though Origen may have already stated this). From that vision of the celestial hierarchies came the cathedrals of Europe, our pomp and ceremonial, our most exalted works of literature, and so forth… all the way up to modernity. It is arguable then that the reason that we are becoming less Christian is that we have become less “pagan”: we have ceased to see our culture and religion as a tradition based on the eternal harmony of the music of the spheres and more as an absurd leap of faith amongst a lot of dead rocks. We tend to try to build our faith without culture, and it is no wonder that we fail.
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On statues

4 08 2010

Their properties have been represented for us by the theurgic art in its statues of the gods, whom it clothes in the most varied figures. Some of them it portrays by means of mystic signs that express the unknowable divine potencies; others it represents through forms and shapes, making some standing, other sitting, some heart-shaped, some spherical, and some fashioned still otherwise; some simple, other composed of several shapes; some stern, others mild and expressing the benignity of the gods; and others still fearful in shape.

-Proclus, from A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements





Notes on historic Neoplatonism

29 07 2010

Just jotting some stuff down…

It seems to me that the birth of modern religiosity in the West was born out of two condemnations: one of Meister Eckhart’s mystical premises, and the other of Pico della Mirandola’s magical theses. In the former, we have various ideas that reflect the monistic mysticism of Plotinus, such as “one sees God with the same eye by which God sees him”, or something like that. In the condemnation of Pico della Mirandola, you have the condemnation of the last vestiges of theurgy in the West; the idea that supernatural intervention could penetrate the human reality outside of the direct supervision of the Church. This premise was particularly problematic for those pious ears:

There is no science that assures us more of the divinity of Christ than magic and Cabala.

Since then, we have had a particularly dualistic view of these phenomena. While it is true that such a purifying tendency has always existed in the Christian religious consciousness, it is in these two condemnations that one side of the argument got the upper hand. From there we are led to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the rest. The paranoia is that if Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, look like anything else in the history of the world, they would be false and pagan. “Natural revelation”, “natural contemplation”, and “natural magic” were thus topics that had to be taken off the table.





Re-run on cosmic symbols

12 07 2010

Just to show you folks that I haven’t changed all that much…

The following is a four year old essay on the old blog. I am brushing up on my Neoplatonic theurgy, so you might as well follow along. I think since I have written this essay, I have become far more sober about the nature of liturgy and Christianity in general. Insofar as they preserve any sense of the “primitive ontology” that is at the heart of ancient discourse, they do so purely by accident. But without further ado, here is your dose of Iamblichus

Read the rest here





The City of the Sun

21 06 2010

The City of the Sun: A Poetic Dialog is a Utopian plan devised by the Hermetist and Dominican monk, Thomas Campanella to describe the ideal Solar civilization. Due to being on the wrong side of political intrigue and his alleged heresy, Campanella spent 27 years in prison, where he wrote most of his works. Despite this, he amazingly held an optimistic attitude, even for the Spanish monarchy and Roman church which were his persecutors.

The novel is presented as the report of an adventurer to questions asked by a Knight on his return. The adventurer was forced to land on an Island in the South Seas, where he stumbled upon the isolated City of the Sun, known by the alchemical for the sun.

Read the rest here