Spiritual Traditions at the Roots of Western Civilization

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The Spiritual Tradition at the Roots of Western Civilization

Parmenides [of Velia, a.k.a. Elea] wrote a poem.

It would be easy to imagine the father of philosophy producing very different things.

But he just wrote a poem.

He wrote it in the metre of the great epic poems of the past — poetry created under divine inspiration, revea1ing what humans on their own can never see or know, describing the world of gods and the world of humans and the meetings between humans and gods.

And he wrote it in three parts. The first part describes his journey to the goddess who has no name. The second describes what she taught him about reality. Then the last part starts with the goddess saying, Now I’m going to deceive you; and she goes on to describe, in detail, the world we believe we live in.
With the goddess, things are very different. . .

Her words are spoken not out of restlessness and searching but out of completeness. And this is why they keep exerting such an uncanny attraction: because we long for that completeness even while trying to analyze or tear it apart. Her awareness, itself, is complete. She starts from being and ends exactly where she began — with being in all its perfection and completion. And this is just how things have to be, because in reality we never find out more or discover anything with time.

Everything is already present in the beginning.

Reality is perfect, complete. But we are lost in its perfection, trapped in its completeness while imagining we are free. And there is nothing we can do to change it — to make it less perfect, or more — except by making one decision. The only choice we have, our single real freedom, is to decide whether to participate in it consciously or be at its mercy; whether to help complete the circle through our own awareness or just stay lost inside it.

Reality is our problem and also our answer. For, as always, the answer to the problem lies not in running away from it — there is simply nowhere to run to — but in turning to face it.
But there were a few other scholars who had a little more respect for what Parmenides actually says. They saw the craziness of this supposed solution and realized there is not the slightest reason for doubting that, when the goddess mentions ‘mortals’, she means exactly what she says she is referring to: humanity as a whole. They even went on to define these mortals with the finest eloquence as ‘all who are unacquainted with the divine’; ‘who unconsciously get confused into contradictions because they take the changeable world for true reality’; ‘who only see their daily surroundings but cannot see through them’.

And this is the furthest anyone has ventured to go.

All the elements of the equation are there. The figures are waiting to be added up. But nobody has wanted to see the result — which is that Parmenides is not describing some theoretical abstraction, some sample cross-section of humanity, any more than he is pointing the finger at one isolated figure in the past.

He is describing us.


A book I want to heartily recommend is Calasso's Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. I can't think of another book that so eloquently traces the development of the Western Mind in a narrative form.

Some choice quotes:

“The monster does not need the hero. it is the hero who needs him for his very existence. When the hero confronts the monster, he has yet neither power nor knowledge, the monster is his secret father who will invest him with a power and knowledge that can belong to one man only, and that only the monster can give.”

"No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of a thousand segments. Here the variant is the origin. Everything that happens, happens this way, or that way, or this other way. And in each of these diverging stories all the others are reflected, all brush by us like folds of the same cloth. If, out of some perversity of tradition, only one version of some mythical event has come down to us, it is like a body without a shadow, and we must do our best to trace out that invisible shadow in our minds."

Another is Rachel Bespaloff's On the Illiad ->

"What he exalts and sanctifies is not the triumph of victorious force but man’s energy in misfortune, the dead warrior’s beauty, the glory of the sacrificed hero, the song of the poet in times to come—whatever defies fatality and rise superior to it, even in defeat. In this respect, Homer’s eternity, which centers around the will of the individual, is opposed to Tolstoy’s eternity, in which the split of individualization has been abolished."

"It would be possible to see in Achilles the Dionysiac strain, a passion for destruction growing out of a hatred for the destructibility of all things; and in Hector, the Apollonian part, the will toward preservation growing out of love for human achievements in their vulnerability."


Some stories of Diogenes the Cynic. Not saying these definitively happened but they gave me a chuckle:

Story 1

Plato was discoursing on his theory of ideas and, pointing to the cups on the table before him, said while there are many cups in the world, there is only one `idea' of a cup, and this cupness precedes the existence of all particular cups.

"I can see the cup on the table," interupted Diogenes, "but I can't see the `cupness'".

"That's because you have the eyes to see the cup," said Plato, "but", tapping his head with his forefinger, "you don't have the intellect with which to comprehend `cupness'."

Diogenes walked up to the table, examined a cup and, looking inside, asked, "Is it empty?"

Plato nodded.

"Where is the `emptiness' which proceeds this empty cup?" asked Diogenes.

Plato allowed himself a few moments to collect his thoughts, but Diogenes reached over and, tapping Plato's head with his finger, said "I think you will find here is the `emptiness'."

Story 2

Diogenes was knee deep in a stream washing vegetables.

Coming up to him, Plato said, "My good Diogenes, if you knew how to pay court to kings, you wouldn't have to wash vegetables."

"And," replied Diogenes, "If you knew how to wash vegetables, you wouldn't have to pay court to kings."


Teleology: A Shopper's Guide

Teleology features prominently in recent discussions in the philosophy of mind, action theory, philosophy of biology, and in the dispute between Intelligent Design theorists and Darwinian naturalists. Unfortunately, discussants often talk past each other and oversimplify the issues, failing to recognize the differences between the several theories of teleology philosophers have historically put forward, and the different natural phenomena that might be claimed to be teleological. According to Edward Feser, this paper identifies five possible theories of teleology, and five distinct levels of nature at which teleology might be said to exist. Special attention is paid to the differences between Aristotelian-Thomistic and ID theoretic approaches to teleology.


"Whoever has been initiated so far in the mysteries of Love and has viewed all these aspects of the beautiful in due succession, is at last drawing near the final revelation. And now, Socrates, there bursts upon him that wondrous vision which is the very soul of the beauty he has toiled so long for. It is an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades, for such beauty is the same on every hand, the same then as now, here as there, this way as that way, the same to every worshiper as it is to every other.

Nor will his vision of the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or of anything that is of the flesh. It will be neither words, nor knowledge, nor a something that exists in something else, such as a living creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is--but subsisting of itself and by itself in an eternal oneness, while every lovely thing partakes of it in such sort that, however much the parts may wax and wane, it will be neither more nor less, but still the same inviolable whole.

And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. And this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung--that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself--until at last he comes to know what beauty is.
-Plato, Symposium



Anaxagoras (§4), with a cosmology strongly influenced by Parmenides, adopted nous as the controlling principle of the universe. Making nous quite separate from everything else, he characterized it as 'the finest and purest of all things, which has all knowledge about everything and the greatest power'. Nous causes the primordial mixture of other things to rotate and separate into distinct beings.

In the dialogues of Plato the treatment of nous was powerfully influenced by these antecedent conceptions. In his Phaedo, Socrates favours the idea that nous has organized the universe in the best possible way (an idea, he suggests, that Anaxagoras failed to carry through). This conception of nous was fully developed in other Platonic dialogues including the Timaeus, where it is figuratively expressed in the teleological thinking of the world's divine manufacturer (demiurge). In the Republic, the three great images of sun, divided line and cave are ways of distinguishing levels of reality and modes of cognition. Common to all three images is a distinction between the visible world of 'unknowable' phenomena and the 'noetic' world of stable and intelligible Forms. Nousis - the highest activity of the soul's rational component - has cognition of the Forms as its objective, which it pursues by seeking understanding that is unhypothetical and absolutely secure. In ethical and psychological contexts Plato also uses nous as a term for the soul's 'rational component', with meanings that may be as broad as 'mind' in everyday English.

Although Plato's special uses of nous left their mark on Aristotle, the latter arrived at systematic ideas concerning nous as the distinctive faculty of the human soul (see Aristotle §19). In Aristotle's general model of the soul, psychic functions are realizations of bodily potentialities. Nous, by contrast, 'has no actual existence before it thinks', and it has no corresponding organ as 'perception' has in being the function of eye, ear, and so on. Like Plato, Aristotle links nous to the thinking of incorporeal 'forms' - the definable essences of things; but in contrast to Plato's independently existing 'Forms', those of Aristotle only become actual 'thought objects' in being thought since nous is identical in its actuality to what it thinks. For Aristotle, in contrast again with Plato, nous can only perform its activity with the help of data provided by 'imagination' (phantasia), which is the soul's capacity to represent sensory information, and it functions as the agent not only of theoretical activity but also of purposive action in everyday life.

In a notoriously obscure chapter (III 5) of his work On the Soul, Aristotle distinguishes nous as 'a capacity to become everything' from nous as 'a capacity to make everything', in the way that light makes potential colours actual. This 'active' nous, called 'immortal', has often been identified with the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, whose life is 'a thinking of thinking' (see Aristotle §16). But Aristotle probably regarded human thought as being godlike rather than as being a product of the Unmoved Mover, who exists as an eternally transcendent thinker.

For Plotinus (§4), nous comprises 'primary reality', the domain of intelligence and intelligible beings. He construes this domain as an 'emanation' from the ineffable One, the ultimate principle of everything. Taken universally, nous corresponds more or less to a syncretism of Plato's Forms with Aristotle's Unmoved Mover. Everlastingly contemplating the One, nous is construed as an equivalence between thought thinking itself and intelligible beings as the only true thinkables. The activity of nous 'overflows' into 'soul', the principle of embodied life. As a lower level of reality, soul can only think things by treating them successively and separately. Human beings live primarily at the level of 'soul', but they also, by virtue of their immortal and 'undescended' self, have access to identification with nous and thereby to a mode of being in which thinker and thought are completely unified. In this transcendent condition, the mind is reality itself.

Stoics and Epicureans tend to use other words for the mind, probably because as rigorous physicalists they found nous too strongly tinged by Platonic metaphysics.


As I mentioned the writer Hal Duncan's conjecture about 3-D time elsewhere, I thought it might be interesting to see his incorporation of the classics into his work. As an aside I also like a something he once said in his It Gets Better video ->

"...What you are is not a weakness but rather will be the strength that you wield in all manner of circumstances because that strength is individuality. The world doesn't just get better, it's the individuals of the world that make it get better..."

Euripides Bound: Hal Duncan 's use of Greek tragedy

"What is clear is that this reading of Prometheus as socialist and Romantic hero leads to Duncan 's final conclusion about the nature of the information that Metatron and his fellow dukes are attempting to extract from Seamus. That information is, in the end, the answer to the prophecy of the child that will be stronger than its father.

'So who's the son – the child – that's greater than its father? I'll tell ye who it is, Anna.


Such an optimistic and positive reading of the Prometheus myth, one imbued with faith in the human spirit, stands in marked contrast to the pessimistic approach of Harrison."


"Twenty years elapse between the end of Vellum and the second part of The Book of All Hours, Ink. The structure of the second part is the same as that of the first – different versions of the characters are seen though various story strands. One of those in Volume Three concerns a travelling troupe of players, performing in the various independent kingdoms that dukes have established across the Vellum. But this troupe has an ulterior motive, which is to destroy these petty dictatorships where possible. There are clearly deliberate echoes here of the Players in Hamlet, though the Players are pawns of Hamlet's schemes, rather than conspirators. [19] And the play Duncan has them perform is based upon Bacchae.

Duncan sees a direct thematic link between Prometheus Bound and Bacchae. He regards both as ‘humanist' plays. As noted above, for Duncan the child that will be stronger than the father is humanity, that will outgrow the need for the gods. His reading of Bacchae is that Pentheus represents divine power, with all its restrictive and repressive elements, whilst Dionysus represents humanity, and the urge to get out and enjoy life through drink and sex. Humanity, on this reading, clearly wins. Such a reading is drawn from the works of noted sf author Philip K. Dick, and in particular his 1978 essay ‘Cosmogony and Cosmology' (to be found in Sutin 1995)."


"...But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to injustice through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw.

Only a few retain an adequate remembrance of them; and when they see here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, see in them the realities, and these few only see the light of reality with great difficulty.

There was a time when, with the rest of the happy band, they saw beauty shining in brightness --- We philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we saw the beatific vision and were initiated into a Mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we saw shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell..."
-Plato, Phaedrus


'The learned man is the only person who is not a stranger in foreign countries, nor friendless when he has lost his relations; but that in every state he is a citizen, and that he can look upon a change of fortune without fear. But he who thinks himself secured by the aid of wealth, and not of learning, treads on slippery ground, and leads an unstable and insecure life.'


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"Although the Theory of Forms seems a little bizarre or metaphysically florid to us today, Plato was really, in positing the Forms, no
more than making explicit the ontological implication of the Greek discovery of truth. This reification of thought, this extraction, from fallible
and temporal experience, of abstract and eternal mirror images of the world which then became the proper objects of the epistemological quest,
resonates down through the Western tradition. It is the origin of theory: in projecting a mental reflection or representation or idealized picture of the
world onto a kind of abstract screen in an inner theatre, the mind is constituting theory. These mental processes have left their trace in
etymology: the word, ‘theory,’ is derived from the Greek, theoria, a looking at, thing looked at; theoros, spectator; and thea, spectacle."
-Freya Matthews, Why Has the West Failed to Embrace Panpsychism?
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Magic versus Metaphysics

So, again, what is objectionable about magic can only be that it is supposed to be inherently unintelligible, unintelligible even in principle and not merely in practice. Appeals to magic in this sense can, of necessity, explain nothing. They are rightly dismissed as pseudo-explanations or worse -- Putnam suggests that they are actually incoherent. (He does not elaborate, but perhaps his point is that it is incoherent to suppose that an appeal to “magic” is any kind of explanation given that an explanation necessarily makes the explanandum intelligible, and the notion of magic is the notion of that which is inherently unintelligible.)

But the greatest theistic writers -- thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Leibniz, and the like -- would agree that the notion of “magic” in this sense is intellectually disreputable. And when they argue for the existence of God, they are not appealing to magic. On the contrary, they are appealing precisely to rational considerations about what the world must be like in order to be intelligible.


'The things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing, for example men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth. It makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.'


Pre-Socratic natural theology

It is a commonplace that the defining characteristics of Western philosophy and science can be found in embryo in the Pre-Socratics. Thales and other Ionian monists give us the first attempts to reduce all the diverse phenomena of nature to a single material principle, and their methods (so far as we can determine on the basis of usually scanty evidence) seem to have been largely empirical. Pythagoras and his followers inaugurate the emphasis on mathematical structure as the key to unlocking nature’s secrets. In Parmenides and Zeno we see the first attempts to provide rigorous demonstrations of far-reaching metaphysical theses. The distinction between appearance and reality, the tension between rationalist and empiricist tendencies of thought, and the rational analysis and critique of received ideas are all evident throughout the Pre-Socratic period. It would go too far (to say the very least) to suggest that we go Alfred North Whitehead one better by making all of Western philosophy out to be a footnote to the Pre-Socratics rather than Plato. But it might not be too much of a stretch to say that at least the seeds of what was to come during the next two and a half millennia can all be found in their work.


"For ancient poets like Homer, the sun was a being of tremendous spiritual significance. The immense beauty of its rising and setting brought forth a dramatic display of the abiding moral harmony underlying the cosmos. For ancient philosophers like Plato, the sun was similarly a sign of the highest Good, but its visible light was thought to be only partially responsible for the shower of colors drenching earth and sky. Participating in the sunlit phenomena of the outer world was an inner noumenal light emanating from the eyes. Plato suggested that this inner light flows gently outward through the eyes from a psychic fire kindred to that animating the sun. It meets and coalesces with the light of the sun (or at night, the moon and stars) to bring forth the beauty and splendor of the universe. Plato’s was a participatory account of our knowledge of nature, such that soul and world were understood to synergetically intermingle in each act of perception."
-Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology


"There is the profane way of talking, which is to talk about things. And if you care to notice, you will see that in the modern Western world we always talk about something. There is the word; then there is the point of reference for the word, which is always separate from the word itself. And this, of course, is the basis for nearly all modern linguistics.

But according to people such as Parmenides there is another way of talking. This other way is that instead of talking about, you talk from. If you sense oneness you talk from oneness; and that oneness is communicated through the magic of the word in a way that our minds may find incomprehensible but that, even so, fascinates and endlessly obsesses them. For these people were magicians. The founders of logic and science in the West were sorcerers. They knew what they were doing even if, now, no one knows what they did."
-Peter Kingsley


The Intensified Trajectory of Consciousness in Odysseus’ Vision in Hades

"Along with familiarizing us with the cosmovision of the Amazonian peoples, our fieldwork also introduced us into the practice of shamanic journeying, which among Amazonian peoples, who live in an environment of extraordinary biodiversity, is often conducted in ceremonies utilizing ayahuasca, a psychoactive plant medicine whose name translates from Quechua as “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the dead.”

There we were also struck by certain parallels between Odysseus’ visionary descent into Hades and ethnographies of traditional shamanic practices among indigenous peoples worldwide, especially when supplemented by cognitive archeologist David Lewis-Williams’ theory of the intensified trajectory of consciousness.

These parallels are suggestive of a deeper morphological relationship between Homer’s narrative and the traditions of vision quest among the ancient, indigenous Mediterranean peoples (whose material culture is preserved in the Paleolithic cave sanctuaries), than is generally recognized. By viewing, as our main objective, just one episode in the Odyssey, the hero’s visionary journey in Hades,from an ethnographic perspective, this essay hopes to open up more inquiry into the indigenous, and shamanic, background of the epic poem."



"i have lived through many ages. i have seen suffering in the darkness. yet i have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places..."


"i have lived through many ages. i have seen suffering in the darkness. yet i have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places..."

The Secret of Kells: the circle and the serpent

The story draws upon Irish mythology as much as it does actual history; while it acknowledges quite honestly the religious nature of the film’s main environment – the monastery – it certainly isn’t didactic or pious (God gets not one mention, as far as I remember), and is equally happy exploring wider mythological ideas. Indeed, neither Christianity nor even faith are seen as ultimately effective counters against the invaders when they arrive, any more than Cellach’s wall. The film places the greatest emphasis on creativity as both a vital civilising element, and the most precious component of any civilisation worthy of the name.
In previous scenes, we have been shown that Brendan carries the chalk with him in his pocket, using it to sketch on slate. However, the decision by the film-makers to show the chalk as if found within Crom Cruach’s lair ties it to the giant’s sword discovered by Beowulf. In the latter, Beowulf’s abandonment of Hrunting echoes and emphasises the failure of those who preceded him: Hrunting was a gift to Beowulf from a warrior named Unferð, who previously attempted to best Grendel, the famous monster who terrorised Heorot, the feasting hall of the Danes. Unlike Beowulf, Unferð failed in his attempt to kill the monster. Hrunting, in a sense, has inherited its previous owner’s ineffectiveness. Beowulf, in trusting himself to Hrunting, inherits it also. Finally, in abandoning the sword and taking up another, he asserts his self-mastery and independence; he triumphs.

Brendan’s chalk, like Hrunting, is at first ineffective. When he is not possessed of it, it drifts in the underwater void at the whim of the currents. However, as soon as Brendan grasps the chalk, it is notable that his motions become more akin to flying – previously, he has moved with clumsy swimming motions, or bounced or fallen without control through the coils of the serpent. For the chalk’s part, it becomes a weapon: rather than simply trailing a pointless and apparently weightless chalk trail, the line it leaves behind becomes endowed with the properties of solidity. It becomes, in a word, effective.

The extra-reality of this scene that is, as noted earlier, implied by the underwater setting, prepares us for the sudden magical properties of the chalk, which previously had no such apparent qualities. We are not in the real world (the human areas of the film’s world, as contrasted with the mythic spaces of the forest, are resolutely un-magical places), and magic is possible within these un-real spaces. This also ties in with the film’s veneration of creativity – it is not the chalk in itself which possesses the magical properties that save Brendan, but the creative use to which the chalk is put: the drawing of a circle.