e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: Pagan ethics

>Undervaluing Non-Harming: On Brendan Myers on the Wiccan Rede

>Hey boys and girls, it’s that time of year again! That’s right, it’s Pagan Values Blogging Month!!

So, what should we discuss? I’ve got a suggestion: lets discuss noted Pagan philosopher and author Brendan Myers’ criticisms of the Wiccan Rede.

Myers’ critique is based on his contention that the ethical stance of the Wiccan Rede amounts to what he calls “utilitarianism”. In my opinion, Myers is wrong both about what the Wiccan Rede actually means, and about the nature of genuine Utilitarianism.

In a follow-up post to come soon I’ll say more about the true philosophical import of “an it harm none”, but for now here is Myers in his own words from a discussion he initiated in March of 2010 at MysticWicks on “Alternatives to the Wiccan Rede” (March 4, 2010) (scroll down for more links):

As some of you may know, I’m not a big fan of the Wiccan Rede. I see it as too utilitarian: this is a problem because some questions of right and wrong have nothing to do with benefit and harm. I also see it as too ‘negative’: it tells us what we should not do, but does not offer positive alternatives. It’s an ethic of freedom, which is obviously a good thing, but the Rede doesn’t teach anything about what our freedom is for.

My own preferred alternative is a system of heroic honour and classical civic virtue. But this is perhaps not the only alternative.

Anyone else out there find themselves unsatisfied with the Wiccan Rede? What alternatives do you prefer?

Last edited by BrendanMyers; March 4th, 2010 at 09:38 PM.

Other relevant links (writings on ethics by Brendan Myers available online):

Other (more or less) related posts on Pagan Ethics (with a special emphasis on Socratic ethics) from this blog:

>"And a boat to the boatless" (Paganism, Christianity, and Charity)

>Here are seven old posts from this blog on the subject of charity:

  1. Pagans, Christians, and “Charity” (June 15, 2009)
  2. On the Emperor Julian’s supposed admiration and emulation of Christian “charity” (July 3, 2009)
  3. “An inescapable network of mutuality” (July 8, 2009)
  4. World Vision: Only Christians Need Apply (January 12, 2010)
  5. Comparing World Vision and Hezbollah (January 14, 2010)
  6. US Gov’t Funding Cultural Genocide in Haiti (January 21, 2011)
  7. “Travesty In Haiti”: The truth about Christian missions, food aid, etc (January 25, 2011)

[Below is the first of these seven old posts, in its entirety, just to whet your appetite. The “boat to the boatless” quote, btw, can be found in the third post in the above list.]

Pagans, Christians, and “Charity”

Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick state in their A History of Pagan Europe that Christians were the first human beings to ever “introduce” the world to “charity, the idea of the spiritual worth of the poor”, and, not satisfied to leave it as an implication, they explicitly assert that the idea of charity was one “not shared by the many cults of the Pagan world.” Jones and Pennick further assert that “Christianity was from the start a socially revolutionary movement.” [p. 60]

It is crucial to understanding where Jones and Pennick are coming from, I think, to see clearly that they are not interested in simply giving Christians whatever credit they might deserve for their charitable works. They feel compelled to claim, falsely, that the idea of helping poor people was not only foreign and strange to ancient Paganism, it was something viewed with hostility and even actively resisted by Pagans because “Pagan society was deeply stratified and snobbish.”

However, Geoffrey Rickman points out in his Roman Granaries and Store Buildings, that in distributing food to the needy “in fact, the Church had taken upon itself, although in a smaller way, the distributions and frumentationes of the [Pagan] Roman Empire.” [p. 157 – emphasis added] Centralized distribution of food, an absolute pre-requisite for the existence of cities in the first place, had, at least in Rome, always included free distribution of food to the poor and tight regulation of food prices. O.F. Robinson in his Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration goes so far as to state that food, “subsidized or free”, along with amusements, were the true “opiate of the masses” in Pagan Rome. This is hardly an obscure bit of information known only to a few specialists, as anyone familiar with the origins of the phrase “bread and circuses” knows perfectly well.

Not only did Pagan Rome already have an extensive and systematic distribution system for providing food to the poor (and price subsidies for everyone else), centuries before Jesus came along, but this was done under the auspices of the Goddess Ceres. Interestingly, in addition to being the Goddess of Grain, Ceres is also sometimes (and not without justification) referred to as the Goddess of the Plebs, that is, the plebian class (which essentially included all Roman citizens who were not patricians). Some scholars have suggested that the frequency with which Ceres appears on coinage during the late Republic is evidence of attempts (by those in charge of issuing the coins) to garner the support of the plebs. The association of Ceres with the plebs probably goes back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic (for more on Ceres and the plebs see Barbette Stanley Spaeth’s The Roman Goddess Ceres, especially the third section of the first chapter: The Early Republic, as well as the entire fourth chapter, which is devoted to The Plebs).

Elsewhere in this blog I have already discussed the strange notion of Christianity as a force for “social revolution” (here, here and here). Please see those posts for the gory details (and numerous references). The simple fact is, as everyone knows, that Christianity’s “triumph” in the ancient world did not result in the springing up of egalitarian utopian societies – or even in modest, incremental improvements for slaves, the poor, women, or any other social group.

Jones and Pennick cite Robin Lane Fox’s Introduction to his 1986 Pagans and Christians to support their statements about Christian charity (and the Pagan lack thereof). My 1987 Alfred Knopf hardback (American) edition of that book has a Preface, but no Introduction, and that Preface does mention Christian charity, but Fox’s words do not in any way resemble those of Jones and Pennick. Fox also discusses charity later on, in his chapter on The Spread of Christianity (chapter 6). But as Fox points out in that chapter, where Christians had their “charity”, Pagans had “philanthropy”. And as far as “social revolution” goes this is what Fox has to say about the supposed idealism of Christianity concerning the less fortunate: “Christians did not always live up to it [surprise!], least of all in their attitude to the slaves whom they continued to own: if Christian women beat their maidservants to death, so an early council in Spain decided, they were to be punished with several years communion. The mild scale of punishment was hardly less revealing than the existence of such sinners.” [p. 323] Fox also points out that Christianity inherited the practice of giving alms from “the synagogue communities”, as well as inheriting the idealization of “abject poverty” from “its Jewish heritage”. [p. 324]

>Pagan Ethics According To Socrates: The Quick And Dirty Version

>In his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius wryly states of Socrates, “he was the first philosopher who discoursed on the conduct of life, and the first philosopher who was tried and put to death.”

In other words: the teaching of ethics is a dangerous business and not for the faint of heart!

The core of Socrates’ ethical teachings are contained in two of Plato’s major works: the Republic and the somewhat less well known Gorgias. The presentation in the Republic is far more complete, and that work is therefore much longer.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it is not that difficult to quickly summarize the main points of the Socratic ethics of Plato’s Republic:

1. In the opening scene of the dialogue Socrates insists that (a) even as heat cannot produce cold, a good person can never cause harm, and (b) Justice is good, and, therefore, acting justly cannot cause harm.

2. Socrates also insists that it is always better to act justly than unjustly, even when there appears to be advantage in injustice and disadvantage in justice.

3. Glaucon (Plato’s older brother), states that while these ideas are very appealing, Socrates has yet to prove that they are true. The remaining 90% of the Republic is concerned with taking up this challenge. As is typical of Socratic dialogues, no absolute conclusion is ever arrived at.* Despite the absence of definitive proof, however, Socrates and Glaucon remain convinced (in fact, more convinced than they were at the beginning) that (1) good people avoid causing harm, (2) Justice is always beneficial, and (3) no matter what the apparent consequences, it is always better to act justly, and one should never act unjustly.

4. At the end of the Republic Socrates recounts the famous “Myth of Er”, according to which each of us receives a tenfold return for all of our just and unjust deeds. The “Myth of Er” also presents a very Pythagorean view of reincarnation (or, more precisely, metempsychosis) according to which spiritual progress is (at least potentially) made over the course of many lifetimes, and that in each incarnation we choose (within certain limitations over which we have no control) beforehand the life we are to have. Socrates uses Odysseus himself as the prime example of this: after the life recounted in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus has learned to avoid all desire for fame and wealth, and chooses, wisely, in his next life to live as “a private man who had no cares.”

5. One of Socrates’ main concerns in the Republic is disputing the contention that acting in accordance with Justice is at odds with self-interest; that is, he argues against the idea that a person who acts justly will often suffer on that account and therefore be deprived of true happiness. According to Socrates there is no greater “self” concern than the proper care of the soul. Acting justly is always beneficial to the soul, and, therefore, is the only way to pursue genuine happiness. Conversely, acting unjustly is always harmful to the soul and can never lead to happiness.

* This lack of conclusiveness is in some ways even more pronounced in the Republic than in other dialogues. This is because early on Socrates proposes to talk, by analogy, about Justice as applied to the polis (that is, “the Republic” or “the State”, or, more accurately, “the City”), rather than as applied to the individual. Socrates argues that in the State, Justice “is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them.”

Origins of the concept of Cosmic Sympathy

[This is the second part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

Katerina Ierodiakonou provides a very handy overview of the ancient Greek philosophical concept of sympatheia, in her article The Greek Concept of Sympatheia and Its Byzantine Appropriation in Michael Psellos, which appears as the second chapter in the anthology The Occult Sciences in Byzantium, edited by Magdalino and Mavroudi (here is the book at googlebooks – most of this chapter can be viewed there):

A. In ancient Greek sympatheia has different, though obviously interrelated, meanings: it is used in medical writings, as for example in the Hippocratic corpus (De alim. 23.1), to refer to the fact that when a part of the human body somehow suffers another part may be affected, too; it is also used to talk about the fact that people may share the feelings of their fellow citizens, for instance in Aristotle’s Politics (1340a13); finally, it is used to refer to the supposed phenomenon that all beings on earth and in the heavens are inextricably linked together. That is to say, the ancient notion of sympatheia indicates a close connection between things which are parts of some kind of a whole, either at the same level, as different parts of the body are in relation to the body as a whole, or at different levels, as the body and soul are in relation to the living being as a whole. Thus sympatheia could refer to the close connection between different parts of the same body as a whole, or the close connection between everything in the world as a part of the world as a whole, or between the body of the world and its soul as parts of the world.
[p. 99]

Note the three different uses of sumpatheia (and also note that Ierodiakonou states that these three uses are “obviously interrelated”): (1) in medicine to describe the relationship between different parts of the body, (2) to describe shared feelings among human beings, and (3) to describe the phenomenon by which everything in the universe is inextricably linked together. Ierodiakonou calls this last kind of sympatheia (which includes “the close connection … between the body of the world and its soul as parts of the world”) cosmic sympatheia, about which she says:

B. The notion of cosmic sympatheia was introduced by the Stoic philosophers in the Hellenistic period. Some scholars have attributed the full development of this notion to Posidonius at the end of the second and beginning of the first century BC [see especially K. Reinhardt, Kosmos und Sympathie], but there is no doubt that even the early Stoics, and in particular Chrysippus, believed in a close affinity among the different parts of the universe; and for this close affinity they most probably used the term sympatheia, as well as the nouns synecheia or synochem symphyia, symmone, sympnoia, syntonia, and the corresponding verbs and adjectives. According to the Stoics there is nothing particularly mysterious about sympatheia, and especially about the relation between the things in the heavens and those on earth. In Stoic physics the whole cosmos is presented as a perfect living body whose parts, though, are imperfect, insofar as they are not self-sufficient and autonomous; for they cannot function by themselves and always depend on their being parts of this whole and its other parts. What holds the system together is a certain internal tension, a tonos, created in the universe by the so-called pneuma, which consists of a mixture of fire and air and permeates the entire world as its soul, sustaining everything. Thus the Stoics thought of the world as a unified living organism, a zoon: just as pneuma permeates a human body and makes it as its soul a living and organic whole, with each single part grown together in a close connection with all the rest, in the same way the whole world is permeated and given life by pneuma; this pneuma the Stoics identified with God who, in creating the world, becomes its soul.
[pp. 100-1]

Ierodiakonou has packed quite a lot into that paragraph! First she states the commonly held (and more or less correct) position that sumpatheia is a Stoic concept. And then she reports, without endorsing, the commonly held (and more or less misleading) position that the “full development” of sumpatheia is due to Posidonius, for which she cites the work of Karl Reinhardt. As Ierodiakonou correctly points out “there is no doubt that even the early Stoics, and in particular Chrysippus, believed in a close affinity among the different parts of the universe; and for this close affinity they most probably used the term sympatheia.” Posidonius is routinely cited as the first clear cut case of a philosopher using the term sympatheia in the sense of “cosmic sympathy”, but, as Ierodianokou strongly implies, this is almost certainly an artifact of the extremely fragmentary nature of the extant primary sources from earlier (prior to Posidonius) Stoics.

Here is what P.A. Meijer has to say in his Stoic Theology on the concept of sumpatheia and its origins, based on the writings of Cicero and Sextus:

C. There is an elaborate argument which develops the idea of the coherence of the universe, because there is everywhere the all encompassing power. It unites the things in this world and the natural events, which follow each other in an eternally repeating ordered motion.

We have this argument in Sextus and a limited version in Cicero. Scholars more or less agree that this argument is to be ascribed to Chrysippus [one of the early founders of Stoicism, predating Posidonius by about a century]. This most interesting argument is not only important as a typical piece of Stoic philosophy, but it has largely influenced later Greek philosophy, i.e. Neoplatonism, by its stressing the unity in this world. Unity as a consequence of the influence of the One was a favorite theme in Plotinus.
[pp. 85-6]

And here is part of the passage from Sextus (his Against the Physicists, I 78 ff.) that Meijer is referring to (see Meijer, or the original, for the complete passage):

D. Of bodies some are unified, some are formed of things conjoined, some of separate things. Unified bodies are such as are dominated by one structure, such as plants and animals. Those formed of conjoined parts are such as are composed of adjacent elements which tend to combine into one main structure, like cables, turrets and ships. Those formed of separate things are such as compounded of things which are disjoined and isolated and existing by themselves. like armies and flocks and choruses. Since the cosmos is also a body, it is either unified or of conjoined or of separate parts.

But it [the cosmos] is neither of conjoined nor of separate parts, as we proved from the sympathies it exhibits. For in accordance with the waxings and wanings of the moon many sea and land animals wane and was and ebb-tides and flood-tides occur in some parts of the sea. And in the same way, too, in accordance with certain risings and settings of the stars alterations in the surrounding atmosphere and all varieties of change in the air take place, sometimes for the better, sometimes fraught with pestilence. And from these facts it is obvious that the cosmos is a unified body. For in the cases of bodies formed from conjoined or separate elements the parts do not ‘sympathize’ with one another, since if all the soldiers, say, in an army have perished (save one), the one who survives is not seen to suffer at all through transmission; but in the case of unified bodies there exists a certain sympathy, since when the finger is cut, the whole body shares in its condition. So then, also the cosmos is a unified body.
[p. 86]

In his De Natura Deorum (II 19) Cicero speaks of “the harmony, unanimity, and unbroken affinity in nature” and then provides several examples of this, such as “the diverse courses of the stars [being] maintained in the single rotation of the entire heavens” and then he says “these processes could not take place through harmonious activity in all parts of the universe, unless they were each embraced by a single divine, all pervading, spiritual force [pneuma]”.

Although it offers fewer details, Meijer is right in saying that Cicero’s version is more “typically Stoic in that it describes the superior divine power as breath, pneuma. Pneuma is the Stoic element that causes structure in the inorganic, forms the psyche in animals and is also responsible for the mind in men. So it is the cause for the coherence of all things.” Meijer also adds that this “concept of pneuma is characteristic of Chrysippus’ thought.” The point of this being that we needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) view cosmic sympathy as some later innovation by Posidonius, but rather as part of the foundational teachings of Stoicism qua Stoicism.

Returning now to Ierodiakonou (the passage labeled B above), she goes on to say that “there is nothing particularly mysterious about sympatheia, and especially about the relation between the things in the heavens and those on earth.” Ierodiakonou doesn’t tell us precisely (or even approximately) what she means by “mysterious”, but later on (see passage E below) it will become evident that she is here imposing her own anachronistic (mis-) understanding of Stoic physicalism — in particular she is conflating the very subtle ancient conception of physicalism (shared, in different forms, by the Stoics and Epicureans) with the much more narrow and crude modern conception of materialism. At the same time she is trying to draw a straight bright line between the supposed “dualism” of the Platonists and the physicalism of the Stoics, with the assumption that Stoic physicalism is not “mysterious” whereas Platonic “dualism” is.

After her cursory exorcising of all “mystery” from Stoic sumpatheia, Ierodiakonou goes on to write that “In Stoic physics the whole cosmos is presented as a perfect living body whose parts, though, are imperfect, insofar as they are not self-sufficient and autonomous.” This is not only a correct statement about Stoic physics, it is also practically a direct quote from Plato’s Timaeus. A little further down she acknowledges that the cosmological view that “the universe is a unified whole” in which “even parts of it which are separated by a large distance may affect each other in a conspicuous way” [see passage E below] is to be found in Plato’s Timaeus. However, she fails to point out that Plato also wrote in the Timaeus that the universe as a whole is perfect and self-sufficient, while the parts of the universe are not. The Stoics are also in agreement with the Timaeus in that the universe as a whole is divine. In a word, Ierodiakonou, even while acknowledging some of the similarities, systematically exaggerates the differences between Platonic and Stoic cosmology.

Now here is one last passage from Ierodiakonou:

E. The Platonists were influenced by the Stoic notion of cosmic sympatheia to such an extent that it is only possible to fully grasp their use of the notion against its Stoic background. They also, following in this Plato’s Timaeus, stressed the fact that the universe is a unified whole, and they also assumed that even parts of it which are separated by a large distance may affect each other in a conspicuous way, while the intervening parts seem unaffected. Plotinus, for instance, like Plato and the Stoics, thought of the world as living organism. Nevertheless, the Platonists’ understanding of cosmic sympatheia significantly differs in certain respects from that of the Stoics. For their supreme God is transcendent and not part of the world, the way the Stoic God is immanent. In addition, on their view there is a sharp distinction between the material and immaterial world, of which the material world is a living image. Hence the Platonists strongly opposed the Stoics’ doctrine of a direct commingling of the Divine with matter; they claimed that the Divine rather employs in the formation of the world certain incorporeal powers.
[p. 102]

First of all Ierodiakonou clearly overstates the Stoic “ownership” of the concept of sympatheia — and she does so in a very bizarre way. Apparently forgetting that she has previously acknowledged that Plato’s Timaeus already contained a similar concept to sympatheia, Ierodiakonou now claims that later Platonists must have been “influenced” by Stoic sympatheia. In fact, by the time of Posidonius the situation was increasingly just the opposite: Stoics were more and more being influenced by Platonism. A. A. Long has expressed the opinion that Posidonius marked a transition from “Platonizing Stoics”, who appropriated Plato’s words and ideas for their own (Stoic) purposes, to “Stoicizing Platonists”, who, like Posidonius, significantly blurred any clear distinction between the two schools.

The details of Ierodiakonou’s arguments are what makes it so bizarre. In his Timaeus, Plato presented a view of the cosmos in which everything is inextricably linked to everything else. Obviously Plato presented this idea in the context of a universe containing both physical and non-physical “stuff”. The Stoics, however, took Plato’s cosmological vision, and retooled it to fit into their purely “physical” universe. Therefore when later Platonists, from Plotinus to Proclus (etc) are found to have had a notion of cosmic sympathy of the sort found in the Timaeus (that is, in a cosmos comprised of things both physical and non-physical), this doesn’t at all imply that these later Platonists have “modified” the Stoic, physicalist, notion of sympatheia — it only means that they are consistently Platonic in their cosmology. Plotinus, et al, may certainly have borrowed and built upon some of the Stoic refinements to the conception of cosmic sympathy, but nothing more than that is at work.

To understand late antique Platonism it is necessary to study Stoicism. At the same time it is absolutely essential to study Plato in order to be able to have any grasp of Stoicism. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the theory of cosmic sympathy: it turns out that Stoicism and Platonism are inextricably intertwined with each other, like everything else in the cosmos.

"an inescapable network of mutuality"

Cosmic Sympathy, Cosmic Compassion
[This is the first part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]

I have not oppressed servants….
I have not defrauded the poor of their property…..
I have not caused harm to be done to a servant by his master.
I have not caused pain.
I have caused no man to hunger.
I have made no one weep.
I have not killed.
I have not given the order to kill.
I have not inflicted pain on anyone…..
I have not stolen milk from the mouths of children…..
I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man,
And clothes to the naked man, and a boat to the boatless.
[The Book of the Coming Forth By Day, aka “Egyptian Book of the Dead”, Book 125]

When you see a hungry person, give him food. When you see someone sad, you are also sad.
[Zen Master Seung Sahn]

The English word “compassion” comes originally from the Latin compassio, which, in turn, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of the Greek philosophical term sumpatheia. Here is how one modern linguistics scholar explains the phenomenon of loan-translation (using compassio and sumpatheia as an example):

A calque (or loan-translation) is a very subtle way of borrowing a foreign word. Instead of taking over the foreign word bodily, the borrowing language translates it literally, piece by piece, thereby obtaining something that at least looks like a native word.

The ancient Romans often used this technique for deriving words from the then more prestigious Greek. For example, the Greek word sympathia consists of two pieces: a prefix syn- meaning ‘with’, and a stem pathia, meaning ‘suffering’. The Romans translated this by using their own prefix con- ‘with’ and the Latin stem passio ‘suffering’, obtaining the latin calque compassio.
[R.L. Trask Language: The Basics p. 197]

Unfortunately the Greek word in question has at least three different spellings (using the English alphabet), and Robert Lawrence (“Larry”) Trask (who really should have known better) here uses the variant that bears the least resemblance to the original Greek. I prefer to use sumpatheia and/or sympatheia.

Here is the first part of the entry for sympatheia in F.E. Peters‘ (invaluable) handbook Greek Philosophical Terms:

sympatheia: affected with, cosmic sympathy
1. The theory of cosmic sympathy, associated by modern scholars with the philosopher Poseidonius, rests upon a series of premises present in Greek philosophy almost from the beginning. The Milesians had seen the world as alive and the Pythagoreans as an ordered whole (see kosmos). And though Plato’s interests had earlier lain in other directions, he devotes a full-scale treatment to the order and operation of the sensible world in the Timaeus, undoubtedly his single most widely studied work in the later tradition. Here he describes the kosmos as a visible living creature (zoon), having within it all things that are naturally akin (kata physin syngene; Tim. 30d)
[p. 186]

And here is the passage of the Timaeus cited by Peters above (using Cornford’s translation found in his Plato’s Cosmology, with some liberties):

For the Demiurge, wishing to make this world most nearly like that intelligible thing which is best and in every way complete, fashioned it [the kosmos] as a single visible living creature, containing within it all things that are naturally akin.

In his commentary on this section, Cornford says “Plato looks upon the whole visible universe as an animate living being whose parts are also animate beings.” [p. 41] Cornford also warns against confusing Plato’s Demiurge with any monotheistic conception of “God”:

The temptation to read into Plato’s words modern ideas that are in fact foreign to this thought has proved too much for some commentators …. The reader must be warned against importations of later theology …. There is, in the first place, no justification for the suggestion … that Plato was a monotheist. He believed in the divinity of the world as a whole and of the heavenly bodies.
[pp. 34-5]

While Cornford is absolutely right in his insistence that the Demiurge should not be referred to as “God”, in my opinion the alternative that he uses, “the god”, is possibly even worse. Plato’s beautiful Greek should not be translated into clunky English.

Cornford is also certainly wrong when he insists that “Neither in the Timaeus nor anywhere else is it suggested that the Demiurge should be an object of worship: he is not a religious figure.” [p.35] Plato explicitly identifies the Demiurge as a God, and there is no suggestion anywhere in anything that Plato ever wrote that he believed that only certain Gods should be “objects of worship” but not others — and this is what Cornford is claiming.

On the question of whether or not Plato intended the Demiurge to be an “object of worship” we also have important evidence from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, in which Socrates declares unambiguously that

The more exalted the Gods are, while they deign to attend to you, the more ought you to honor them …. Do you not, then, believe that the Gods take thought for men? the Gods who, in the first place, have made man alone, of all animals, upright …. Do you not see, too, that to other animals they have so given the pleasures of sexual intercourse as to limit them to a certain season of the year, but that they allow them to us uninterruptedly till extreme old age? Nor did it satisfy the Gods to take care of the body merely, but, what is most important of all, they implanted in him the soul, his most excellent part.

Xenophon tells us that Socrates used arguments like this against those who “neither sacrificed to the Gods, when engaged on any enterprise, nor attended to auguries, but ridiculed those who regarded such matters” [I.iv.2]. Xenophon revisits this subject in Book IV, chapter III of the Memorabilia, where he states that Socrates “endeavored to impress his associates with right feelings towards the Gods.” As in Book I, Chapter IV (above) Socrates makes use of the argument that the Gods created us and the world around us and, therefore, they are worthy of our worship since they “exercise the greatest care for man in every way.” After hearing such an argument, Euthymus declares that from henceforth, “I shall never fail, in the slightest degree, in respect for the divine power.”

Both Socrates and his most famous student obviously believed that all Gods, as Gods, should be “objects of worship”. Later Platonists removed any possible ambiguity by explicitly identifying the Demiurge with Zeus. But it cannot be too often repeated that there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for the claim that Plato ever conceived of two separate classes of Gods, only one of which were “objects of worship”, while the others were “not religious figure[s].”

In subsequent posts on the subject of cosmic sympathy I’ll take up the other points addressed by Peters’ definition of sympatheia given above: (1) the attribution of the concept of sumpatheia to Posidonius, (2) the Milesian view that the whole world is alive, (3) the Pythagorean view of an orderly kosmos, and (4) the importance of Plato’s cosmology (as presented in the Timaeus) for the next 900 years of Pagandom (which will also include a discussion of Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus).

And, there are also 7 (!) more parts to Peters definition of sympatheia, and I’ll go through each of those as well.

But before ending this post let me address the following question: what does this “cosmic sympathy” have to do with our modern conception of “compassion”? I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. answered that question in his reply to critics who told him he had no business in Birmingham Alabama in the Spring of 1963:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
[Letter from a Birmingham Jail]

On the Emperor Julian’s supposed admiration and emulation of Christian "charity"

In their anthology The Paganism Reader, editors Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey introduce the Emperor Julian’s “Letter to a Priest” by claiming that it provides evidence for the contention that “Julian attempted to give Pagan religions an improved theological footing and a social conscience….” [p. 22]

Even Rowland Smith, a scholar with a far deeper understanding of Julian than Clifton and Harvey, feels compelled to state that in that same letter, Julian “showed himself ready to take a leaf from the Christian book” because of his exhortations concerning the practice of philanthropy [p. 111 of his Julian’s Gods].

However, it is clear from what he actually wrote in that letter (as opposed to how others have chosen to characterize what he wrote), as well as from the known history of Pagan philanthropy itself, that Julian never believed, nor had he any reason to believe, that Paganism was lacking in any way in it’s traditions with respect to philanthropy. Rather, Julian clearly believed, and rightly so, that philanthropy is an ancient Pagan virtue long predating Christianity, not something that Pagans had to “copy” from the Christians.

Julian states, among other things, that “we ought to share our money … with the helpless and the poor so as to suffice for their need.” And he also asserts that prisoners “have a right to the same sort” of philanthropy as the poor. In addition, hospitality should always be shown to strangers. Julian then quotes Homer: “from Zeus come all beggars and strangers.”

Julian states that he is “wholly amazed” when he observes a Pagan who “sees his neighbors in need of money [but] does not give them so much as a drachma.” This amazement is due to the fact that “from the beginning of the world”, Zeus has been called “the God of Strangers”, “the God of Comrades”, and “the God of Kindred”. Julian also emphasizes that “every man is akin to every other man”, and that as important as differences “in habits and laws” are from one culture to another, nevertheless “the sacred tradition of the Gods”, by which all humans are akin, is “higher and more precious and more authoritative” than the differences among human beings, for “we are all descended from the Gods.”

At the end of this letter, Julian show just how little he admires or seeks to emulate the Galileans (or “take a page from their book”). For Julian compares the “charitable” Christians to

those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them twice or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves, and that which for the moment seemed sweet, proves to be bitter for all the rest of their lives…

So just where dxactly did the idea come from that Julian admired and sought to emulate the Christians because they had a “social conscience” which Pagans, up to then, had lacked?

In his “Invectives Against Julian” Gregory Nazianzen (330-390 AD) claimed that Julian’s religious policies consisted largely of imitating “things that evidently belong to our constitution” and “things that he admired in our institutions. ” Among the things that Gregory claimed as Christian inventions admired and imitated by Julian were charity, the establishment of places of meditation, relief work among prisoners, the building of inns and hospices for pilgrims, the establishment of “schools in every town, with pulpits and higher or lower rows of benches, for lectures and expositions of the heathen doctrines… .” and so forth. [First Invective, paragraphs 110-11]

A little later Gregory refers to Julian’s supposed emulation of the Galileans as “this wonderful copying of theirs, or rather their parodying as it were on the stage.” [para 113]

To get an idea of what kind of man this Gregory was, in those same Invectives he bitterly laments the fact that Julian was not murdered as a child, and Gregory maligns those who saved the life of the six year-old Julian when his father and brothers were being slaughtered, while praising the Christian Emperor Constantius (317-361), who ordered the slaughter (of members of his own family!) and whose only fault, in Gregory’s eyes, was that he didn’t go far enough! [First Invective, para 91] In fact, Gregory, even while praising Constantius as “the most celebrated of all the sovereigns” still feels compelled to criticize him for “mak[ing] a mistake highly unworthy of his hereditary piety” in allowing the child who would become Julian the Apostate to live. [para 3]

Gregory’s mentality is further illustrated by the fact that he criticizes Julian for … not killing Christians: “[H]e begrudged the honor of martyrdom, and for this reason he contrives now to use compulsion and yet not seem to do so.”!! [para 58]

This is the man whose opinions modern day “Pagans”, like Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, are aping when they claim that Julian was an admirer and imitator of the Galileans. Since “Pagans” like Hutton and Clifton have no qualms when it comes to questioning the validity of Julian’s Paganism, why should anyone hesitate to question the validity of theirs?

(1) The translations from Julian’s “Letter to a Priest” are taken from the Loeb Classical Library’s The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume II, which can be downloaded in pdf format from googlebooks. Volume I is also available from googlebooks.
(2) The translations of Gregory’s Invectives are taken from C.W. King’s Julian the Emperor.
(3) The idea that Paganism found itself in need of a theological overhaul in order to be able to compete intellectually with the religion that gave us Jerry Fallwell is dealt with by an earlier post on Ancient Pagans and Theology: Did They or Didn’t They?.
(4) More on philanthropic traditions among ancient Pagans can be found in another post: Pagans, Christians and Charity.
(5) Also see these three posts: Contra diZerega, Contra diZerega Part Deux, and Liberte, Egalite, Apoplexie, dealing with the general theme of whether or not ancient Pagans lacked a “social conscience”.

Wonderful World, or, the Pagan Value of Basic Goodness

Basic Goodness refers to the belief that our fundamental nature as human beings, and also the fundamental nature of the cosmos itself, is, well, basically good.

In her Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age Vivianne Crowley wrote:

Wicca honors the Gods, but like our Pagan ancestors, Witches believe that our religion should be a celebration of the life force. Wicca also teaches that we should not fear death; for Wicca teaches reincarnation. We will live not just once, but many times. Life is considered to be a journey of many stages, not just one. Death is not the end, but a new beginning.

Like other religions, Wicca accepts that there is a non-material as well as a material reality, but it does not believe the non-material is superior to the material. Matter is not regarded with horror and the emphasis is on the joy of the flesh rather than the ascetics’ view of flesh as sin. This is not to say that Wicca is hedonistic, but rather that we are followers of a middle way. Our time in physical incarnation is a gift from the Gods. However, we must also seek spiritual growth that expands our consciousness and allows us to live on levels beyond the physical.

Wicca is a religion that looks to the good in human beings rather that to the evil and seeks to bring out that good rather than dwelling on people’s faults. It does not seek unrealistic sainthood, but rather makes the best of what is there. It does not divide people into the chosen and the damned but sees people as being in different stages of struggling towards the same end – that of unity with the Divine.
[p. 5, emphasis added]

The idea of basic goodness is found in many, but not all, religious traditions. Almost 2400 years ago, Plato, a deeply religious Pagan philosopher, wrote in his Timaeus that the entire cosmos is beautiful (kalon), good (agathon), blessed (eudaimona) and divine (theon). He also wrote that the cosmos is an interconnected whole that is alive, deathless, ageless, and that, as a whole, it possesses not just consciousness, but an intelligence vastly superior to ours. Plato further wrote that the physical universe is ensouled “throughout”, so that just as the entire cosmos is alive, so is even the tiniest bit of matter. The “body” (material part) and “soul” (non-material part) of the cosmos are described in the Timaeus from 27c through 37c, using Stephanus numbering. Here is a handy online version of the Timaeus with both the original Greek and English translation.

In most schools of Mahayana Buddhism it is taught that all beings possess Buddha-nature, that is, the potential for perfect and complete enlightenment. But this has not always been the case, for the idea of universal Buddha-nature was rejected during the early days of Buddhism in China, over 1500 years ago. At that time, one monk, named Tao-Sheng (ca. 360-434 AD), insisted that absolutely all beings everywhere throughout all space and time possess inherent Buddha-nature and are capable of achieving enlightenment. But the orthodox view of Chinese Buddhism was that there is a class of beings, called icchantikas, who are completely devoid of Buddha-nature, and, therefore, these beings are doomed to eternal ignorance and suffering. Most Chinese Buddhists were quickly won over to Tao-Sheng’s point of view, although before that happened he was briefly forced to leave the monastic community because of his “heretical” ideas (he was never arrested, thrown in prison, tortured, or burned at the stake, though – just shown the door and sent on his way).

According to Tao-Sheng the only real problem faced by humans is ignorance of our basic goodness, our Buddha-nature. There is nothing that we lack, but we are nevertheless like someone who has hidden a great treasure, but who not only doesn’t remember where it is hidden but has forgotten ever possessing the treasure in the first place! In his Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu-lan describes Tao-Sheng’s view of Buddha-nature like this:

[E]very sentient being has the Buddha-nature; only he does not realize that he has it. This ignorance (Avidya) is what binds him to the Wheel of Birth and Death. The necessity, therefore, is for him first to realize that he has the Buddha-nature originally within him, and then, by learning and practice, to “see” his own Buddha-nature.
[p. 251, emphasis added]

Chogyam Trungpa, a modern teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, made “basic goodness” central to his efforts to teach the Buddha Dharma to westerners. Trungpa explicitly contrasted the approach of basic goodness to that of “original sin”:

Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience—the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.

Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering—a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.

The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hinderance to people. At some point it is of course necessary to realize one’s shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one’s vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary.

According to the Buddhist perspective there are problems, but they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one’s basic goodness (tathagatagarbha). This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again, we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are temporary, habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma, the Buddhist teachings on psychology: how one thing succeeds another, how volitional action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most importantly, abhidharma studies how through meditation practice this process can be cut through.

The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the “mistake mentality.” One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and “problems” as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean “getting rid” of problems, but rather shifting one’s focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one’s neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself.

When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey.

Through practice, which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others’ minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.
[Shambhala Sun, November 2002, emphasis added]

One also finds the concept of basic goodness in Confucianism. Fung Yu-lan (see above reference concerning the Buddhist Tao-Sheng) writes that the 4th century BC Confucianist philosopher Mencius (ca. 372-289 BC) “developed the theory for which he is most famed: the original goodness of human nature.” [p. 69]

All men have a mind which cannot bear [to see the suffering of] others…. If now men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress…. From this case we may perceive that he who lacks the feeling of commiseration is not a man. The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of human-heartedness. The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of propriety. The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Man has these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs…. Since all men have these four beginnings in themselves, let them know how to give them full development and completion. The result will be like fire that begins to burn, or a spring which has begun to find vent. Let them have their complete development, and they will suffice to protect all within the four seas. If they are denied that development, they will not suffice even to serve one’s parents.
[Mencius, IIa, 6, as translated in Fung Yu-lan, p. 70]

A modern Hindu teacher, Sri Karunamayi, teaches that our most fundamental nature, Atman, is pure and perfect (and in doing so she is simply expanding on the ancient pronouncement of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi (You are that):

Sweet children, you yourself are eternity; you yourself are infinity and you yourself are immortality. Experience this especially during the Navaratri festival time. Meditate. Contemplate more and more on your supreme Self. All forms are nothing but your supreme forms only. You are Atman. You are so sweet. All sweetness is nothing but comes from Atman only. Be always in eternal peace. Be always in that Consciousness. Be always in the Oneness experience only. Experience your Atman. Experience every living being as only nothing but your Self only. Atman is beauty, Atman is perfection. Atman is knowledge, wisdom, Consciousness.
[Navaratri message, 2008, emphasis added]

Sri Karunamayi’s words of encouragement to her English speaking devotees early in 21st century are very similar to what Swami Vivekananda had to say to an audience in the American Midwest late in the 19th century:

Where is the spirituality one would expect in a country which is so boastful of its civilisation? I have not found it [that is, in America]. “Here” and “hereafter” are words to frighten children. It is all “here”. To live and move in God even here, even in this body, all self should go out, all superstition should be banished. Such persons live in India. Where are such in this country? Your preachers speak against dreamers. The people of this country would be better off if there were more dreamers. There is a good deal of difference between dreaming and the brag of the nineteenth century. The whole world is full of God and not of sin. Let us help one another, let us love one another.
[Swami Vivekananda, Christianity in India, lectured delivered in Detroit Michigan, March 11, 1894, emphasis added]

According to Julia Annas in her Morality of Happiness, ancient Stoic philosophers made the ultimate nature of the universe, which she calls “cosmic nature”, central to their entire philosophy, including especially ethics. The result is strikingly similar to Tao-Sheng’s Buddhism:

Since cosmic nature comes up in many contexts, they [the Stoics] regarded it as a unifying feature of their philosophy, a point brought out by identifying cosmic nature with many other things, notably reason, fate, providence, and Zeus…. For it is a firm part of Stoic ethics that our final end is living in accordance with nature, and some texts make it appear as though we do this by first finding out about cosmic nature and its requirements, and then conforming ourselves to those requirements. The view this suggests is clearly foundational, since to be virtuous we first have to discover nature, then follow it. Moreover, what seems to be foundational is not human nature, but cosmic nature, of which human nature is a mere part.
[p. 159, emphasis added]

We need not, in fact we must not, take Crowley’s, or Plato’s, or Tao-Sheng’s, or Trungpa’s, or Mencius’, or Karunamayi’s, or Vivekananda’s , or the Stoics’ word for it. Each of us possesses our very own personal laboratory in which to investigate the questions of (1) what is the fundamental essence of human nature? and (2) what is the fundamental nature of the cosmos? For me this laboratory is me, for you this laboratory is you. What we believe about human nature is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves. What we believe about the cosmos as a whole is first and foremost a reflection of what we believe about ourselves.

I’ll end this with my all-time favorite expression of Basic Goodness, which is not from Greek or Chinese philosophy, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Wicca. It is Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World:

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

Immanence v. Transcendence, Part Trois

He That Has Gone Abroad … The Seer, The Thinker
My first post on Immanence v. Transcendence almost entirely consisted of Eknath Easwaran’s beautiful translation of the Isha Upanishad. The second post was a little essay on Hermes and Hermeticism. Now I will return to the Ishopanishad, with special attention to Sri Aurobindo‘s commentary thereon.

Aurobindo was a man who truly walked between worlds. He received a classical, western education in England from the ages of 7-21, and then returned to India to fight against the British colonists. Arrested for his revolutionary activities, Aurobindo experienced a spiritual awakening while in prison. He never altered his commitment to the liberation of Bharat, but he now pursued that goal by other means. The British, in their imperial paranoia, remained convinced that even his religious teachings were coded messages to bomb-planters and insurrectionists, which, in a sense, they were.

Aurobindo wrote that the Isha Upanishad was “one of the more ancient of the Vedantic writings in style, substance and versification…. The principle it follows throughout is the uncompromising reconciliation of uncompromising extremes.” [p. 83] These extremes are enjoyment versus renunciation, spirit versus matter, immanence versus transcendence, ignorance versus knowledge, life versus death, etc. (Please note that all page numbers given in this post refer to the pdf version of Aurobindo’s Isha Upanishad, freely available for download at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram website here.)

According to Aurobindo, this principle of reconciliation was, unfortunately, at times forgotten and left behind in some strands of Hindu thought, which chose renunciation over enjoyment, spirit over matter, etc, culminating “in Illusionism and the idea of existence in the world as a snare and a meaningless burden imposed inexplicably on the soul by itself, which must be cast aside as soon as possible.” [p. 84]

The Isha Upanishad, on the other other hand, applies the principle of reconciliation and “tries, instead to get hold of the extreme ends of the knots, disengage and place them alongside each other…. It will not qualify or subordinate unduly any of the extremes, although it recognizes a dependence of one on the other. Renunciation is to go to the extreme, but also enjoyment is to be equally integral….” [pp. 84] This way of looking at things is highly reminiscent of the extremes of ascetic renunciation and passionate erotic love found in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava.

Aurobindo’s analysis is detailed. In his Conclusion he lists nine pairs of opposites:

1. The Conscious Lord and phenomenal Nature.
2. Renunciation and Enjoyment.
3. Action in Nature and Freedom in the Soul.
4. The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement.
5. Being and Becoming.
6. The Active Lord and the indifferent Akshara Brahman.
7. Vidya and Avidya.
8. Birth and Non-Birth.
9. Works and Knowledge.
[p. 85]

And he then proceeds to show how the Isha Upanishad, in only 18 verses, resolves all these “discords”. It is instructive, and possibly disconcerting, to realize that Aurobindo does not list “immanence and transcendence” among these pairs of opposites! (Nor does “good versus evil” appear, or “capitalism versus socialism” or many other pairs one could think of.)

The pair that comes the closest to “immanence and transcendence” is number 4, “The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement”. Aurobindo later on also refers to this same pair more succinctly as “The Quiescence and The Movement”, of which he writes that the notions of inside, outside, near and far all relate to an ego that, in turn, views itself as being inside a body (see pp. 86-7). He does not deny the truth of that point of view, but he calls into question the tendency to insist that this is all there is to it. In my opinion, a little reflection reveals that most (perhaps all) of the “immanence versus transcendence” dichotomy results from just such an insistence.

What Aurobindo calls “The One stable Brahman and the multiple Movement” appear in verse 5 of the Upanishad, which in Easwaran’s translation is

The Self seems to move, but is ever still.
He seems far away, but is ever near.
He is within all, and he transcends all.

Aurobindo’s translation is

That moves and that moves not;
That is far, and the same is near,
That is within all this and That is outside all this

Aurobindo’s “that” is (obviously) much closer to the Sanskrit “tat” (as in tat vam asi) than is Easwaran’s “Self” and “he”. But for the most part the translations are very close, and I still think Easwarans is prettier (and that counts for a lot in poetry). Aurobindo’s commentary on this section concludes as follows:

The Upanishad teaches us how to perceive Brahman in the universe and in our self-existence.

We have to perceive Brahman comprehensively as both the Stable and the Moving. We must see It in eternal and immutable Spirit and in all the changing manifestations of universe and relativity.

We have to perceive all things in Space and Time, the far and the near, the immemorial Past, the immediate Present, the infinite Future with all their contents and happenings as the One Brahman.

We have to perceive Brahman as that which exceeds, contains and supports all the individual things as well as all the universe, transcendentally of Time and Space and Causality. We have to perceive It also as that which lives in and possesses the universe and all it contains.

This is the transcendental, universal and individual Brahman, Lord, Continent and Indwelling Spirit, which is the object of all knowledge. Its realisation is the condition of perfection and the way of Immortality.
[p. 31]

On the off chance that anyone thinks that this has cleared the matter up, lets proceed to look at verse 8, which Easwaran translates as

The Self is everywhere. Bright is the Self,
Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
Immanent and transcendent.
He it is who holds the cosmos together.

Which Aurobindo translates, more accurately, but less prettily, as

It is He that has gone abroad, That which is bright,
Bodiless, without scar of imperfection, without sinews, pure, unpierced by evil.
The Seer, the Thinker, The One who becomes everywhere, the Self-existent
Has ordered objects perfectly according to their nature from years semptiternal

The most imporant part is the third line, which in the original Sanskrit is

kavirmanîSî paribhûH svayambhû

A very literal translation of which is something like:

“The Seer (kavi), the Thinker (manîSî), the Greatest of All (paribhûH), the self-sufficient (svayambhūh)”.

Here is how Aurobindo explains it:

It is He that has extended Himself in the relative consciousness whose totality of finite and changeable circumstances dependent on an equal, immutable and eternal Infinity is what we call the Universe. Sa paryagat. [Here he is referring back to the part translated as “It is He that has gone abroad …”]

In this extension we have, therefore, two aspects, one of pure infinite relationless immutability, another of a totality of objects in Time and Space working out their relations through causality. Both are different and mutually complementary expressions of the same unknowable “He”.

To express the infinite Immutability the Upanishad uses a series of neuter adjectives, “Bright, bodiless, without scar, without sinews, pure, unpierced by evil.” To express the same Absolute as cause, continent and governing Inhabitant of the totality of objects and of each object in the totality (jagatyam jagat) it uses four masculine epithets, “The Seer, the Thinker, the One who becomes everywhere, the Self-existent” or “the Self-Becoming”.

The Immutable is the still and secret foundation of the play and the movement, extended equally, impartially in all things, samam brahma, lending its support to all without choice or active participation. Secure and free in His eternal immutability the Lord projects Himself into the play and the movement, becoming there in His self-existence all that the Seer in Him visualises and the Thinker in Him conceives. Kavir manisi paribhuh svayambhuh.
[pp. 43-44]

Aurobindo also wrote elsewhere, in a footnote to his translation of verse eight:

There is a clear distinction in Vedic thought between kavi, the seer and manîSî, the thinker. The former indicates the divine supra-intellectual Knowledge which by direct vision and illumination sees the reality, the principles and the forms of things in their true relations, the latter, the labouring mentality, which works from the divided consciousness through the possibilities of things downward to the actual manifestation in form and upward to their reality in the self-existent Brahman.

Immanence v. Transcendence, Part Deux

The essential teaching of Hermeticism is:

As Above, So Below.

Hermes is the God of boundaries, and also, therefore, the God of crossing boundaries. This is fitting for the God who travels freely between mortal humans on earth and the Gods in the heavens. Just as it is also fitting for the God who successfully blurred the distinctions between the ancient religious traditions of the Egyptians, Hellenes and Romans, and who successfully navigated the treacherous journey from ancient to modern Paganism.

Hermes is also the God of theft and deception. He was even born in deception, for Zeus wished to keep his liaisons with Maia (from which resulted the child Hermes) a secret from the Divine Queen Hera. Maia is a Goddess herself, but by choice she lives in solitude in a deep shady cave, where Zeus visited her at night while Hera slept. It is said the Hermes was born at dawn, and by noon that day he was playing a lyre (the very first lyre, in fact, which he had made himself from a tortoise shell). The Homeric Hymn to Hermes describes him as

a son, of many shifts, blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates, one who was soon to show forth wonderful deeds among the deathless gods.

One of Hermes’ most famous acts was the theft of some of Apollo’s sacred cattle, which he accomplished on the evening of the day he was born. By next morning, however, Hermes was back asleep in his own crib “as if he were a feeble babe”. Only one old man, out tending his vineyard, had observed any of this, but Hermes had sworn him to secrecy:

Old man, digging about your vines with bowed shoulders, surely you shall have much wine when all these bear fruit, if you obey me and strictly remember not to have seen what you have seen, and not to have heard what you have heard, and to keep silent when nothing of your own is harmed.

However, his own Goddess mother had, in fact, noticed his coming and going, and she warned him sternly of the dire consequences of angering Apollo. Hermes replied that it was Apollo who had better look out for himself, and, besides, he had no intention of spending his life living in this “gloomy cave” far away from the other Gods.

Naturally it wasn’t long before Apollo discovered what had been done and who had done it. When Hermes saw Apollo approaching in a rage, he “snuggled down in his fragrant swaddling-clothes … like a new born child seeking sweet sleep.” Apollo, not impressed by Hermes’ little act, searched the cave and, finding no trace of his cattle, threatened the little thief:

Child, lying in the cradle, make haste and tell me of my cattle, or we two will soon fall out angrily. For I will take and cast you into dusty Tartarus and awful hopeless darkness, and neither your mother nor your father shall free you or bring you up again to the light, but you will wander under the earth and be the leader amongst little folk.

Hermes replied that Apollo’s cattle were not among his concerns, which mostly consisted of sleeping and feeding at his mother’s breasts, and, besides, he was only born yesterday, so he had no idea what a cow looked like, or even what such a thing was!

Now Apollo was impressed – by the ease and skill with which Hermes lied:

I most surely believe that you have broken into many a well- built house and stripped more than one poor wretch bare this night, gathering his goods together all over the house without noise.

Apollo is only placated once Hermes plays for him on the lyre, a sound, Apollo proclaimed “the like of which I vow that no man nor God dwelling on Olympus ever yet has known.”

Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that when the worship of the old Gods was made a crime punishable by death, Hermes was nevertheless able to fool the book-burning monotheists into believing he was one of them, and that his sacred books were not only to be spared the flames, but were even deserving of honor and respect, to be preserved with care in Christian libraries alongside their “Bible”.

It should, but unfortunately does not, go without saying, that any resulting (genuinely) Christian versions of Hermeticism are worse than useless, except, perhaps, to Christians themselves. I suppose even they might be able to learn something from him. And perhaps he is the perfect Pagan God for them, since they are averse to any truths outside their own narrow creed, and Hermes can only too easily oblige those who will only accept and learn from him if he is disguised as someone other than himself. But, fortunately for the rest of us, many of those Medieval “Christian” Hermeticists (and Alchemists, and Qabalists, and Rosicrucians….), like the true devotees of the son of Zeus and Maia that they were, skillfully feigned adherence to that other creed and cunningly hid the ancient teachings of Hermes Logios beneath the swaddling clothes of that other infant God.

Sadly, for far too many Pagans today, what was once well and safely hidden is now lost, and these are unable to tell the false Shepherd from the true. Despite the fact that the Shepherd in question is himself the great master of deception and disguise, one still has to wonder at such widespread confusion. As Above, So Below. Is there any hint in those words of a world-denying world view? Is it not obvious that these words refer to a vision of the Divine that is both immanent and transcendent, and that any other Divine vision is abominably hobbled? Can anyone possibly believe that the philosophy of the Emerald Tablet is a dualistic philosophy, when Hermes’ own words proclaim that “all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one” (in Isaac Newton’s translation)?

[The colorful Alchemical images in this post are from The Gallery at the Alchemy Lab website – please visit it!]

Socrates: still making people crazy after all these years

“Theorists have not been at a loss to explain; but they differ.”
Aleister Crowley, Book Four, Part One

Liberal philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) portrayed Plato as possibly the world’s first fascist, and one often hears people (who have probably never read a single word written by Popper, nor even know his name) mindlessly repeating something similar. Plato also has his defenders, including even Marxists, like Sean Sayers, as well as non-Marxists like Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and his followers (yes – the people who brought us Neoconservatism and the invasion of Iraq).

Socrates, however, continues to stir even more controversy and disagreement than his most famous student – although it is easier to find actual detractors of Plato than of his teacher. Popper, even while condemning Plato as a totalitarian, lauded Socrates as a friend of democracy. Nietzsche had imagined Socrates to be his own “greatest, and closest, philosophical rival”, while despising Plato (almost as much as he despised Christianity). Strauss, for his part, devoted most of his life to developing a theory of political philosophy largely centered on Socrates and his trial. Gregory Vlastos (1907-1991) spent most of his life chasing after a “real” Socrates that was largely a figment of his own imagination.

In 1988 leftist author I.F. Stone garnered attention by claiming that Socrates so despised democracy that he eagerly sought martyrdom in order to bring shame on it. Soon after Stone’s book, Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith (together in their Socrates On Trial) along with C.D.C. Reeve (separately, in his Socrates in the Apology) published major book length studies putting forward a new (and deeply flawed – though not as badly as Stone’s) interpretation that tries to turn Plato’s Apology into just an ordinary piece of forensic rhetoric, rather than a daring, and soaring, defense of philosophy itself. And just recently the general public was subjected to screaming headlines declaring that “Socrates’ trial and execution was completely justified, says new study“!!! Srsly.

During his lifetime, opinion about Socrates was even more divided than it is today. By the time he was brought to trial, at the age of 70, he had already been the target of a vilification campaign, led by some of Athens’ most prominent citizens, that had gone on for a quarter of a century. Among some Athenians, however, and especially among the young, he was wildly popular, even adored. Of course if it hadn’t been for this popularity, his enemies would most likely have simply ignored him – or, if they had bothered to have him killed, it would have passed without notice and we certainly wouldn’t still be discussing it today. Of course we are still discussing it 2400 years later. And in another 2400 years there will likely (hopefully!) still be passionate debates about Socrates and his trial, while very few, if any, current day persons or events will be thought worthy of even passing consideration by then.

Socrates was mercilessly and masterfully ridiculed in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which was entered into the comedy competition of the City Dionysia in the year 423 BC, when Socrates was 45 years old. One story holds that Socrates was in attendance during the performance, and at one point stood up and cheerfully took a bow while the play was in progress. This was just one year (or possibly even less) after Plato was born, as well as being the time of a one-year truce in the ongoing war between Athens and Sparta (a detailed “chronology of the historical Socrates” can be found here).

The year before The Clouds was first performed, Socrates had distinguished himself by his heroism during the Battle of Delium (in which Athens was defeated by the Boeotians, who were allies of Sparta). Plato’s dialogue on courage, The Laches, is named for the Athenian general in command at that battle, who praised Socrates as a model of bravery [181b]. According to Plato, Socrates was also a good friend of the famous Athenian general Nicias. We also know that Socrates was very close with the most famous, and most infamous, of all of Athens’ military leaders, Alcibiades.

It is difficult to assess the extent and quality of Socrates’ fame and/or notoriety during these years. Aristophanes’ play came in third (out of three) in the competition when it debuted in 423, which could signal, among other things, that it’s anti-Socrates message was not well received, or possibly that the viciousness of its humor was not appreciated (that is, regardless of its target). But Aristophanes continued to work on the play, revising it several times and circulating it privately in manuscript form, which indicates both that there was an audience for it, and that the author was determined to reach and cultivate that audience. In that way The Clouds might actually bear comparison to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which came out at a time when George W. Bush was still quite popular, but which nevertheless resonated strongly with a significant portion of the population.

We know that Aristophanes continued polishing The Clouds possibly as late as 417. Then in 415 Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition. One night just before the ships were launched, nearly all of the Herms (ithyphallic statues of the God Hermes – the God of travel) of the city were desecrated. That blasphemous act, combined with the military debacle that then proceeded to unfold in Sicily, resulted in a climate of recriminations and near-hysteria (in the city whose patron was the Goddess of Reason and Wisdom). At least five of Plato’s dialogues are named for associates of Socrates’ who were arrested during this time. Soon afterwards, Socrates was once again attacked in a play by Aristophanes, The Birds.

In the coming years Athens went from defeat to defeat in her war with Sparta. Even when they won a victory in the Battle of Arginusae, the generals who commanded that battle were put on trial, accused of failing to come to the aid and defense of their own wounded men, as well as failing to to see to the burial of their dead. What followed was a show trial that violated Athens’ own laws. Socrates, by luck of the draw, served on the presiding committee of the Council, where he was the only member, out of 50, who raised his voice against the way in which the proceedings were conducted. That was all in the year 406 – Athens never recovered from her “victory” at Arginusae, and within two years the Spartans were camped outside the city walls.

Under siege, the citizens of Athens elected a pro-Spartan government hoping to save themselves from the worst. During this time an attempt was made to pass a law forbidding Socrates from speaking to anyone under the age of 30, a chilling testimony to his popularity among the youth. That failed attempt to silence him also showed that he had enemies among the pro-Spartan camp, although it is usually assumed that Socrates himself had strong “Laconophilic” tendencies.

Political turmoil in Athens continued for years. As was the case with the pro-Spartan crowd, Socrates had both supporters and detractors among the “democratic party” (which was also the “war party”, the ones who had enthusiastically supported the disastrous war with Sparta). One of Socrates’ closest and most devoted friends was Chaerephon, who was considered an especially hot-headed democrat. But when the pro-Spartan “oligarchs” were defeated in a “pro-democracy” uprising, Socrates’ democratic enemies were determined to succeed where his oligarchic enemies had failed. Socrates’ friend Chaerephon was among those who fought to bring the “democrats” back to power, although he had died before Socrates was charged and brought to trial.

One interpretation of the trial and execution of Socrates is that it represented an opportunistic move by his long time enemies who seized what they saw as a chance to settle an old score during a time of political instability and high emotions. In a word, Socrates was presented as a “scapegoat” for the plumetting fortunes of what had once been the Athenian “Empire”. He had insulted, and quite publicly, many of Athens’ most illustrious citizens with his blunt and often disarmingly folksy style of philosophizing. And, a true democrat at heart, he had also wandered among Athens’ less aristocratic citizens, subjecting shoe-cobblers and others to the same public humiliation, with a charm that was not appreciated by many. During his “philosophic mission”, as it is often referred to, it is said that he even suffered physical abuse at times, in response to his probing questions.

The important thing here is that Socrates was neither universally hated nor universally admired. He divided people. So once again we find yet another parallel with Martin Luther King. However powerful his enemies were, we can never forget that his supporters were also numerous, and some of them were quite prominent, and they even came from across the “political spectrum” of the day. Some indication of just how divided people were is given by the jury vote. Socrates insisted on mounting an unapologetic and thoroughly “philosophical” defense, and he even lectured the jury, warning them against the negative results to their souls if they acted unjustly and convicted him, while haughtily assuring them that he himself was unconcerned about what they might do to his body. And yet despite essentially daring them to convict him, they almost didn’t.

When it comes to Socrates and King, we cannot rely on the opinions of others. Even, or perhaps especially, those who praise them, often offer little of substance, since they are mostly engaging in Santaclausification. And, besides, the essence of both of their messages was a direct, and even intimate, appeal to the intelligence and the conscience of the individual. Nor can we take refuge in “taking sides”. Socrates, as already discussed, divided the two main political camps in Athens, in both of which he had ardent supporters and committed enemies. And in King’s famous letter from a Birmingham jail he was taking to task precisely those who claimed to be on his side. We must decide, then, for ourselves.

As Seneca wrote:

Away with the opinions of mankind, always uncertain, always a split vote.
[Epistles XXVI]

And also

Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual.
[Epistles X]