Quest Books is putting out a collection of my articles and essays, Revolutionaries of the Soul, taken from the Fortean Times, Quest magazine, and other sources. It’s a while before it will be available, but I thought I’d share the news.
Archive for Swedenborg
Here is the second part of my talk at Watkins.
I’ll be speaking about my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, at Watkins Books in Cecil Court, London, on Thursday, 21 November, from 6:30 to 7:30. The talk is free and I’ll be signing copies of the book, as well as any others, provided they’re by me. The talk will be filmed and posted on You Tube so dress well. Details here.
The following is the introduction to my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, which is available now in the UK and will be released in the US in November. (It is available for pre-order on amazon.com.) It presents, I think, a rather different view of humanity than how we usually see ourselves these days.
This book has a bold title, and it may be a good idea to begin by trying to explain it. While working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus (2011), about the influence of Hermeticism and its mythical founder, the ‘thrice greatest Hermes’, on western consciousness, I touched on the idea of human beings as ‘cosmic caretakers,’ as individuals given the responsibility of ‘taking care of the cosmos’ – no mean task, as I’m sure readers will agree. Although for centuries Hermes Trismegistus was believed to have been a real person who lived at ‘the dawn of time’, and who received a primordial ‘divine revelation’ – the ‘perennial philosophy’ that is at the heart of much of western spiritual thought – he is now thought to have been a fictional figure, devised by the authors of the Hermetic writings, who lived in Alexandria in Egypt in the first few centuries after Christ. In the Asclepius, one of the books making up what is known as the Corpus Hermeticum, the body of mystical writings on which Hermeticism is based, Hermes Trismegistus tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures, of, indeed, two worlds. Man is, according to Hermes, a creature of the natural world, of the body and the senses, and as such is subject to all the laws and limitations that come with ‘living in the material world’. But he is also an inhabitant of another world, that of mind, spirit, the soul, consciousness, which, in essence, is free from the limitations of his other nature.
How this came about is told in the Hermetic creation myth. In the Poimandres, perhaps the best known of the Hermetic books, Nous, or the Universal Mind, explains that after the creation of the world, he thought it good to create a being like himself who could enjoy his work. So he created man. For a long time, the idea that Hermetic man was created in the image of his creator suggested that the Hermetic books borrowed elements from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In that tradition, too, man is created in the image of God. Recent scholarship, however, argues that the author of the Poimandres, who remains unknown, came to the idea independently. Whatever the case, in two powerful spiritual traditions that have had an enormous influence on western consciousness, the same idea, that man is made in the image of the divine plays a central role.
Unlike in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but similar to the Platonic and Gnostic creation accounts, in the Hermetic account the actual work of making the cosmos was undertaken by a ‘second Nous’, a demiurge or ‘craftsman’, created by the first Nous to carry out the job. When man saw what the craftsman had forged, he marvelled at its beauty, and quite understandably, wanted to be a creator himself. Nous, his Father, loving man, agreed. The craftsman did as well, and happy to share in his work, he gave man some of his power. He gave him a share of the ‘seven spheres’ which encircle the earth, the seven spheres being the orbits of the seven ancient planets, Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These seven spheres govern what takes place on earth; in Hermeticism, as in astrology, they are the source of our ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’. Readers familiar with the history of astronomy will know that they are the seven planetary spheres that pre-Copernican astronomers believed encircled our earth, and they will also know that the ancient astronomers believed that the earth itself was at the centre of the cosmos.
Now, in the Hermetic creation myth, the cosmos and the earth were originally formed through the action of the creative Word, the logos or Mind. But by the time that man is created, the Word has left the earth and returned to its source in Nous, leaving behind a world of mere matter. It is explained in the creation account that the material which the craftsman uses to create the cosmos is a kind of ‘grim darkness’ that originates in the chaos which precedes creation. When the logos leaves it, it returns to its original state. To readers of contemporary cosmology, ‘grim darkness’ sounds rather like the ‘dark matter’ of which we are told most of the universe is made. It is still a beautiful world, and through the turning of the seven spheres, living things have emerged from the earth’s waters. Man, curious about what the creator has been up to, desires to see the earth. He pierces the seven spheres and looks down upon the beautiful world, marvelling at the craftman’s handiwork. The earth, however – we can also say Nature – sees man too, and recognizing the Nous within him, desires him – apparently the earth is a woman – wanting to partake again of the divine Word. Man, too, sees his reflection – and hence that of Nous – on earth’s waters, and becomes enchanted with it, much as the youth Narcissus does in the Greek myth. No sooner does man wish to be with the earth then he drops from his heavenly perch through the seven spheres and enters into a form without the Word, that is, a body; in other words, matter. (Up until then he has been in a solely spiritual immaterial form.) It is through this descent from beyond the seven spheres to the earth that man becomes a creature of two worlds. Passing through the seven spheres, he absorbs their character and becomes subject to their laws. Wrapped in the arms of the earth, he is subject to all its limitations, to the constraints of mindless, spiritless matter, and the necessities inflicted on him by the dictates of ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’. But within him still glows a spark of his origin, his birthright from the world beyond, and it is this connection with his source, with its freedom and power that will save him.
In many ways this myth is very similar to the account of man’s place in the cosmos given by the Gnostics, who were contemporaries of the ancient Hermeticists. The Gnostics were early Christians who embraced an interpretation of Christ’s teaching very different from what became the official church. As in the Hermetic myth, for the Gnostics, creation is the work of a second Nous or God, but in their case it is an entirely disastrous affair. This second God, whom they call the demiurge, or ‘half god’, is something of an idiot; at least he is so inflated with his sense of power and importance that he comes to consider himself the true God. For the Gnostics, this demiurge is Jehovah, the God of the Bible – William Blake called him ‘Old Nobodaddy’ – and the world he has created is a kind of trap, an evil realm of falsity and oppression. Yet like the Hermeticists, the Gnostics, too, believed that a spark of the true God – the God beyond the world – was hidden within them. The aim of their spiritual practices and beliefs was to awaken this spark and release it, so that they could return to their source, beyond creation.
This notion of the world being a trap, and its creator a kind of demon, has had a powerful influence on western consciousness. Although for many centuries, the only source of information about the Gnostics were hostile accounts written about them by church fathers, who saw them as heretics – indeed the church was particularly successful in wiping them out – in the last century or so, the work of many different scholars has provided a different, broader view of these early Christians and their ideas. Gnostic themes and what we can call a Gnostic sensibility have become a part of the modern mind. They can be found in the work of the psychologist C. G. Jung. The idea of life as a kind of ‘prison’ which we must ‘escape’ is at the heart of the ‘Fourth Way’ of the enigmatic esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Gnostic ideas can be found in the work of novelists like Hermann Hesse and Thomas Pynchon, in the philosopher Martin Heidegger, for whom man is ‘thrown’ into the world, and in less high-brow sources, such as the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the films in The Matrix (1999-2003) series, and Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show (1998), about a man who discovers that his entire life has actually been a television program. Another film, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), though less well known, is the most Hermetic of the lot, with its hero discovering that, not only is the world he lives in false, he himself is a kind of god.
It is a welcome sign that Gnostic ideas have made their way into the cultural mainstream. They lead us to question the status quo and seek the truth. But there is another side to this development. This idea of the world as false, as a kind of prison, has, I believe, led to, or at least certainly added to, our sense of uncertainty and insecurity, to our anxiety and paranoia. The kind of ‘conspiracy consciousness’ that permeates much of our postmodern life is a kind of Gnosticism; at least it shares in the sense that, in the words of a Bob Dylan song, something is happening but we don’t know what it is. Powers greater than ourselves – the government, big business, aliens, the unconscious, or the ‘cultural forces’ invoked by much postmodern thought – control our lives, and this feeling of being manipulated adds to the general sense of helplessness which is a strong current in contemporary life. This sense of helplessness can lead to some undesirable effects, such as random violence against the ‘system’ or a general ‘retreat from life’. It can lead to cynicism and a kind of generic nihilism that accepts that ‘nothing is true’, with the corollary that, ‘everything’, then, ‘is permitted’. It also encourages the kind of ironic world-weariness associated with some forms of postmodernism, the ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ sensibility that informs much of our jaded tastes. As Colin Wilson pointed out decades ago, modern man suffers from what he calls ‘the fallacy of insignificance’, the sense that nothing we do really matters, that life is meaningless, and that, in the long run, ‘you can’t win’. This is an extremely unhealthy state of mind, and if this book has a central aim, it is to show that it is wrong.
It is true that the Hermetic philosophy shares some elements with the Gnostics. We know that both groups knew of each other, as the famous ‘Gnostic gospels’ found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, included some Hermetic texts. But there is one central sense in which they are radically different. The Hermeticists believed, as did the Gnostics, that they had ‘fallen’ from a free, limitless spiritual world into this severely limited world of necessity and constraint. But unlike the Gnostics, they did not believe that this world was a trap or that they were prisoners in it. As we have seen, for the Hermeticists, man’s descent from the higher spiritual world into this world of space and time, of constraints and limitations, was not the work of an evil or idiotic demiurge, but came about through man’s love of the earth, and the earth’s love of man. There is even a sense in which this descent wasn’t a ‘fall’, as it is considered in the Gnostic and Judeo-Christian traditions. Rather it was a jump, or, to take a leaf from the Danish religious philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a leap, of faith perhaps. Although some of the thinkers and philosophers I will look at in this book do consider that man’s ‘fall’ was the result of some cosmic catastrophe or crime, there is a sense, I think, in which we can see it as a freely chosen act, a willing embrace of a tremendous responsibility and obligation.
The Hermetic philosophy sees it as such. When Asclepius asks Hermes Trismegistus why man has a dual nature – one of matter and one of spirit – Hermes explains that it is so he can ‘raise his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth,’ and so he can ‘love those things that are below him’ while he is ‘beloved by the things above.’ Asclepius himself, when asked about man’s need for a body, explains that it is necessary so that we can take care of creation. Asclepius tells his listeners that Nous gave man a ‘corporeal dwelling place’ and ‘mixed and blended our two natures into one’, doing justice to our twofold origin, so that we can ‘wonder at and adore the celestial, while caring for and managing the things on earth.’ For the Hermeticists, man finds himself on earth not as the result of some cosmic catastrophe or a ‘fall from grace’ or because he is trapped on it through the machinations of an evil idiot god, but because he has a particular mission to accomplish here. He – we – are here for a reason. As the Gnostics did, Hermetic man struggled against the constraints of the world, the snares of matter and the body, the limitations of the flesh, the prison house of the cosmos, the ‘destiny’ and ‘fate’ of the seven spheres. But this was not in order to escape from creation, but in order to take our rightful place within it: to embrace the obligations and responsibilities that come with being ‘caretakers’ of the cosmos.
In the Cosmos but Not of It
But if we cannot take care of the earth or the cosmos if we escape from it, neither can we take care of it if we are only a part of it, like everything else, subject to its laws, limitations, and constraints. Caretaking seems to imply some position outside or above what you are taking care of, whether it is children, a pet, or someone’s flat. If I am taking care of my children, I cannot act like a child myself. Or I can only briefly, in play, and only on the condition that, when necessary, I assume full responsibility as an adult. There is a Sufi saying, which is also in the Bible, that tells us that we should be ‘in the world, but not of it.’ This tells us that although we cannot avoid pain, suffering, triviality, falsehood, inequity and the other evils in the world we do not have to submit to them, as difficult as that may be. In a sense we can say that in order to take care of it, we need to be in the cosmos – which we clearly are, at least physically – but not of it. The Hermetic account of man and the world seems to agree. Man is made of the stuff of the world, the ‘grim darkness’ that preceded creation. But he is also made of ‘higher’ stuff, the mind. So, at least according to Hermes Trismegistus, while we are in the world, we are not completely of it.
This idea, that we are in the cosmos but not necessarily of it, may seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the Hermetic tradition. Nevertheless it was, in different ways, shared by some important thinkers who were, more or less, within the western intellectual mainstream. In the early part of the last century, philosophers as different as the phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928), the cultural philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), and the Christian existentialist Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), all came to a similar conclusion, although by very different paths. Each contributed to a movement in twentieth century philosophy known as ‘philosophical anthropology’, an attempt at arriving at a metaphysical account of man, broader and more holistic than the reigning reductive, materialist ones. In different ways Scheler, Cassirer, and Berdyaev, arrived at the same conclusion: that it is impossible to ‘explain’ man adequately in terms of his place in society, his animal origins, his physical constitution, or the deterministic laws it is subject to. Each argued that man’s essence is creative, that human consciousness brings a new dimension, a new world, into being, and that any attempt to reduce this to the ‘laws’ that govern the physical world is not only doomed to failure, it results in a world empty of all meaning and value.
For the Gnostics, then, we are spiritual beings, trapped in an evil physical cosmos, and our only salvation lies in escape. For the Hermeticists, we can say that we are spiritual beings with a mission, but we have forgotten it and our salvation lies in remembering it. And, if the idea that we are caretakers of the earth and cosmos is correct, then it is not only our own salvation, but that of creation itself, which is at stake. Wrapped in the arms of Nature, we have fallen asleep and we dream that the limited, constrained world of time and space and matter, the everyday world we know so well, is the only reality. As long as we remain sunk in this dream world, this is true: it is the only reality. And as we are, by most official accounts – which emerge within the dream – only insignificant transitory specks in a vast, non-human universe, which has existed, we are told, for billions of years, the idea that we are in some way responsible for it, is laughable. Yet there are moments when we wake, briefly, from the dream, when some vague memory of another life, and another world, flits across our consciousness, when we somehow remember who we are and why we are here, and when the sense of some enormous mystery comes over us and disturbs our slumber. For most of us, these moments are little more than a brief, strange feeling, which, if we notice it at all, we chalk up to being ‘weird’ and soon forget about. Some of us, however, are troubled by them, and by the feeling of unreality they cast upon the solid, unavoidable world we bump up against each day, and by the nagging sense of having forgotten something that they seem to produce.
As a teenager in New Jersey in the 1970s I read a novel by Doris Lessing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), which had a powerful effect on me. In it a man is found wandering around the Thames Embankment, suffering from amnesia, and raving about fantastic adventures in other worlds. He is taken to a mental ward where the doctors, trying to ‘cure’ him, subject him to a battery of drugs and electro-shock therapy. Throughout the book there is the sense that, although from our common sense everyday point of view – the view of the doctors – he is quite clearly mad, from another perspective it is unclear if his remarks are simply ravings or real memories of some other existence. There is some mission he is trying to remember, some important purpose that he has forgotten, and which the doctors, with their drugs and electro-shock, only make more difficult to recall. As an angst ridden teenager it was easy to identify with the hero and to see the doctors as agents of the ‘establishment’, trying to force him to accept the reality of a world he has seen through. It was only years later that I discovered that the book is considered a work of Gnostic fiction. I can also remember a science fiction story in a comic book when I was younger, about a man investigating possible aliens, living in disguise on Earth. All his leads turn out to be false except for one, and when he tracks this one down he discovers that the alien is himself. I didn’t know at the time that I was reading a version of the Hermetic account of man, but as I later discovered – and wrote a book about – popular culture is often a source for disseminating ideas that mainstream ‘high’ culture considers nonsense.
Repairing the Universe
It was while writing about this human role as a cosmic caretaker that I recalled similar themes from other spiritual traditions. Some emphasize different aspects of the caretaker role, and some push that role into more active, creative areas. In these man is seen as not only a caretaker, in the passive sense of having something already complete, finished, entrusted to his care, as a custodian or curator of a museum is. He is regarded as a co-creator of the cosmos itself, an idea I explored in other books, specifically in the context of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. And in some versions he is even seen as someone responsible for correcting the mistakes God – or whoever – made when creating the universe.
In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, for example, there is the idea of tikkun, which is generally translated as ‘repair’. In the Judaic tradition, as in the Christian, God is usually seen as perfect, omnipotent, and infallible, but in the tradition of Lurianic Kabbalah, stemming from the teachings of the great sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572), this isn’t the case. According to Luria, when God created the world, something went wrong, and He created man in order to correct his mistakes, to repair the damage caused by his blunder. This surely gives man an exalted position, but some Kabbalistic interpretations go even further, and suggest that God made his cosmic mistakes on purpose, but unconsciously, so that he would have to create man in order to complete the work of creation. In this sense, God suffered from a kind of Freudian slip, rather like when we leave our umbrella at a house we would like to visit again, but aren’t consciously aware that we do. In this interpretation, God has a ‘dark side’, unknown to himself, and the fractures and cracks that run through creation were planned by his unconscious, so that He would have to call in man to do the repairs. The inference is that the work of creation cannot be completed without our contribution, and some thinkers consider this to be so essential that, in the words of the Cretan writer and poet Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), through it we become the ‘saviours of God’.
This idea of man as a ‘repairer’ is also at the heart of the work of the French eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), who during his life was known as the ‘Unknown Philosopher’, a pseudonym he used for his writings. For Saint-Martin, ‘The function of man differs from that of other physical beings, for it is the reparation of the disorders in the universe’. Saint-Martin’s vision is within the context of Christian mysticism, but he shares with the tradition of tikkun and Hermeticism the idea that man has a crucial role to play in the work of creation. Indeed, for Saint-Martin, man is, in a very real sense, the entire purpose of the universe, the answer to its mystery, the key to its existence. In some ways Saint-Martin, and other mystical thinkers with similar views, like the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), seem to anticipate some contemporary scientific ideas, which argue that the universe itself is designed in order to produce intelligent life like ourselves, what is known as the ‘anthropic cosmological principle’.
The Fallacy of Insignificance
Yet, even during his time, more than two centuries ago, Saint-Martin recognized that man suffered from a sense of insignificance. In fact, I first came across Saint-Martin’s ideas in the book by Colin Wilson in which he analyzes ‘the fallacy of insignificance,’ The Stature of Man (1959), a study of the ‘loss of the hero’ in modern literature. At the beginning of the book, Wilson quotes Saint-Martin. Men, Saint-Martin writes,
…have believed themselves to be obeying the dictates of humility when they have denied that the earth and all that the universe contains exists only on man’s account, on the ground that the admission of such an idea would be only conceit. But they have not been afraid of the laziness and cowardice which are the inevitable results of this affected modesty. The present-day avoidance of the belief that we are the highest in the universe is the reason that we have not the courage to work in order to justify that title, that the duties springing from it seem too laborious, and that we would rather abdicate our position and our rights than realize them in all their consequences.
‘Where,’ Saint-Martin asks, ‘is the pilot that will guide us between these hidden reefs of conceit and false humility?’ Where indeed? Trying to chart a course between this Scylla and Charybdis is one aim of this book. But if it was true in Saint-Martin’s time that man has avoided the belief that he is ‘the highest in the universe’, it is certainly even more true today. Today any suggestion that we are in any way ‘special’, that we are significant or somehow central to the universe – let alone that it exists on our account – would be met with sarcastic laughter or self-righteous indignation, depending on who you were talking to. Yet it isn’t only obscure mystical philosophers who believe we sell ourselves short. One reader of Wilson’s The Stature of Man was the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), best known for his concept of the ‘peak experience’, sudden moments of almost mystical delight that, Maslow argues, come to most psychologically healthy people. Another of Maslow’s ideas that chimed well with Wilson’s concern over the loss of the hero in modern consciousness, was what he called the ‘Jonah complex’, after the Biblical prophet who tried to avoid the responsibility God placed on him. Maslow asked his students if they expected to do something important, to excel at their work, to make a significant contribution to psychology or society. All were diffident and none raised their hand. Maslow looked at them and said, “Well, if not you, then who?” Maslow saw that we invariably feel that someone else will be successful, creative, outstanding, accomplished, but that to expect that of ourselves is a kind of egotism, or a foolish overestimation of our abilities, certainly in bad taste.
Yet this modesty is of the same false character that Saint-Martin recognized in his contemporaries, and is really a defence against living up to the demands made on us by our higher, better selves. Maslow recognized that although the fear of failure is common and understandable, we also suffer from a ‘fear of success’, a fear of living up to our full potential, of the responsibilities and obligations this entails, as well as of the ostracizing our less exceptional fellows will direct at us. Like Jonah, we want to avoid any responsibility that will set us apart from the average. We reject it, and want to remain an anonymous member of the herd. Yet such sheepishness is just as much a neurosis as any other, and by embracing it we are, according to Maslow, displaying a kind of psychological illness, and blocking our way to ‘self-actualization’, Maslow’s term for the process of becoming what he calls ‘fully human’.
Fully Human or Only Human?
But as Saint-Martin recognized two centuries earlier, being ‘fully human’ is something most of us avoid. In our climate of insignificance, we are more comfortable with the ‘only human’, with associating our humanity with weakness, sickness, mediocrity, and the collection of appetites Maslow calls ‘deficiency needs’, our hunger for the three S’s: security, sex, and self-esteem. Being ‘fully human’ makes demands on us, it is a kind of existential noblesse oblige, which requires that we apply high standards and aims and values to ourselves and our actions. If we are ‘only human’, as many of us prefer, then not much can be expected of us. We are let off the hook, can let it ‘all hang out’, and can get by, as the cliché goes, as a ‘good enough’ human. But good enough for what? If Maslow and Saint-Martin are right, then certainly not good enough to take on the responsibilities that being fully human demand.
Trying to meet the demands of being ‘fully human’, we encounter difficulties, not only from our own reluctance and fear, but also from the ideological atmosphere in which we live, from the Zeitgeist. For one thing, science tells us that the universe is too large and too old for us to be of any significance in it. The philosophy that emerges from this belief has some interesting adherents, among whom is the horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray. Science also tells us that the universe is meaningless, a pointless product of an accidental explosion, and that eventually any life within it will be extinguished and it itself will dissipate into an endless cosmic emptiness. If that isn’t bad enough, science also tells us that we ourselves are the product of an equally meaningless process, and that far from being the answer to the riddle of the universe, there was absolutely no intention in our being here at all.
Slime Moulds and Giraffes
Scientists are not the only ones who reject the idea that humanity is in some way special. In recent years, concerns over our ecological crises, our rampant abuse of natural resources, global warming, and other environmental problems have led some well-meaning people to suggest that rather than a cosmic caretaker, man is really a blight on the planet. To them the Biblical injunction that man has dominion over the earth, has given us carte blanche for the selfish exploitation of nature. Paradoxically, the science that tells us that we are merely meaningless accidents in an accidental universe, has also produced the technology that has allowed us to fulfil that Biblical injunction, and made us masters of the world. Ironically, in our secular age, man is at once reduced to a nullity and made lord of creation. Yet it is this mastery that many nature-orientated people argue is in the process of killing Mother Earth, and has made us the most dangerous animal alive. Quite rightly, they say we must concentrate on saving the planet, and the best way to do this – the only way some insist – is for man to ‘get back to nature’, to recognize that he is no better or more important than a slime mould or a giraffe, and that any idea that he is, is precisely the source of our problems.
While I have nothing against slime moulds and giraffes, this ‘biocentric’ view has its own problems. And if Hermes Trismegistus, Kabbalah, Saint-Martin, and others are right, it is in fact dangerous. According to them, the only way we can save the planet – the cosmos, in fact – is by recognizing that we are something more than nature, something more than animals, and by taking the responsibilities that come with this seriously. (If nothing else, the recognition that no animal wants to save the planet should give us pause for thought.) By abandoning our humanness and embracing our animal roots – which, no matter how hard we try, we can never feel completely comfortable with – we are giving up our one possibility of saving anything. What that ‘something more’ is that sets us apart from the rest of creation, and what its relation to the cosmos may be, is something I hope to discover in this book. And strangely, one of the curious things I discovered while gathering my material, is that in many essentials, science itself shares the Hermetic vision of man as the answer to the riddle of existence, as a co-creator of the cosmos, although this more optimistic vision is usually obscured by the more pessimistic view of ourselves as insignificant creatures in a pointless, purposeless universe.
Whistling in the Dark?
As mentioned, the idea of us having any significance in the universe is bold, perhaps too bold for many of us to swallow. I have to admit that more than once while writing this book I found myself thinking ‘Oh come on, isn’t this a bit too much?’ and wanting to push the whole idea aside. For some readers the idea may seem merely one more expression of our inveterate self-importance, a trumpeting of our dubious standing as the most dominant species on the planet, and a clatter of applause at our triumphs over the rest of creation, if it is not merely a cosmic whistling in the dark. Let me assure readers that nothing could be further from my intention, and that I share with them their disdain for such boorish self-congratulation. Although I do think we suffer from a kind of cosmic low self-esteem, and have a poor self-image, my aim here is not to rack up reasons to feel pleased with ourselves, or to encourage a session of mutual back patting. I certainly am not interested in hoisting banners celebrating our eminence, although I do agree with Maslow, Wilson, and other writers and thinkers I will look at, that we have come to see ourselves in a false light, one which encourages countless mea culpas ( in our idiom, ‘my bad’) and discourages any feeling of self-confidence and assurance. My aim is to try to steer a course between the conceit which is often an excuse for complacency, and the false modesty that Saint-Martin argues is really an avoidance of our obligations. And having found a way through these hidden reefs, on which more than one seafarer has found himself wrecked, I would like to discover what lies ahead.
Outline of Book
In what follows I will try to understand what is involved in the idea of ourselves as caretakers of the cosmos, what it can mean in our lives and what, if anything, we can do about it. My starting point is the Hermetic vision of ourselves as belonging to two different worlds, of man as a microcosm, or ‘little universe’. These are longstanding ideas in our esoteric ‘counter tradition’, yet according to recent developments in neuroscience, they may actually be rooted in the very structure of our brains. It may be that the ‘other world’ we have ‘fallen’ from, have brief haunting memories of, and a yearning nostalgia for, is another mode of consciousness that is our birthright, but which, through our evolutionary development, we have come to ignore at, it may be, our peril. From this vantage point I will look at how our caretaking can apply to our personal lives, to our relation to society, and to nature. Given the uncertain times we live in, it is understandable that this aspect of repairing the cosmos may strike most of us as of central importance. Indeed it is. Speculations on our place and significance in the cosmos and other modes of consciousness can be thrilling and highly entertaining, but if they don’t lead to actual changes in how we live, they are merely pleasant daydreams and can even make us less capable of dealing with reality than we already are. To paraphrase Hermes Trismegistus, we can have the stars in our eyes, but we must have our feet on the ground. Swedenborg, one of the most grounded of spiritual thinkers, entreats us in our daily lives to ‘do the good that we know’, and it is from that humble beginning that our cosmic caretaking should begin. Applying Maslow’s ideas about our ‘hierarchy of needs’ to society, I will look at what evidence there is to suggest that we may be moving beyond the need for self-esteem into more creative levels, those of the ‘fully human’, and how this relates to Max Scheler’s ‘hierarchy of values’. And through the ideas of Gustav Fechner, Goethe, and others, I will explore how we can better understanding our relation to a living nature, without losing our independence as creative agents within it.
But while what we might call our ‘hands on’ form of caretaking is crucial, and while we all need to recognize the preciousness of the world which has been entrusted to our care, there is another form of our responsibility of which we also need to be mindful. And being ‘mind full’ of it is indeed its core.
As I do in my book A Secret History of Consciousness (2003), in the later chapters of this book I will explore the ways in which our own minds are involved in actually creating the world we experience and subsequently care for. From a variety of different perspectives – quantum physics, neuroscience, phenomenology, the philosophy of language – it is becoming more and more clear that the universe we live in is a ‘participatory’ one, in which mind and matter, the inner world and the outer one, are not, as our common-sense view suggests, radically different and opposed realities, closed off from each other, but are different aspects of a single shared reality. It seems increasingly clear that the barriers between these two worlds are not as impermeable as we have believed. Our inner worlds, it seems, are not isolated islands of consciousness, floating on the surface of a dead, material world that is oblivious of them, and on which they have no effect. In some strange, still inexplicable way, our inner worlds participate in the world outside us, something less modern, more ‘primitive’ people still experience, but which to us seems fantastic nonsense. Synchronicities, those strange ‘meaningful coincidences’, in which some thought or feeling in our inner world is paralleled by an event in the outer one, and other paranormal experiences, are one way in which this participation manifests, but there are others. One idea that runs throughout this book, as it does in my others, is that at an earlier stage in our evolution, human consciousness was much more ‘embedded’ in nature, as animals are today, and that we did not experience then, as we do now, separate ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ worlds, but a free flowing movement between the two. Indeed, the separation from nature that we experience now can be seen as a result of our ‘fall’, not from a heavenly paradise, but from our evolutionary past. But if this ‘fall’ was really a leap, it is my belief that nature itself pushed us out of her warm embrace, as bird pushes her chicks out of the nest, in order to get them to fly. At some point in our evolutionary past, consciousness became aware of itself and the world as two different things, and we can say that at that point, humanity and the cosmos itself, ‘began’. As Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s most important disciples and an original thinker in her own right, suggests, most creation myths are really about the rise of consciousness out of an unconscious, undifferentiated ground. If that is the case, then ‘getting back to nature’ is the most unnatural thing we can do, as it would be moving in the opposite direction from nature’s own intentions.
I believe that nature, the world, the cosmos, separated us off from itself in order for it to become conscious of itself through us. It is in this way, through our own increasing consciousness, that the work of creation is completed, or at least carried on. Drawing on the work of different ‘participatory’ thinkers, it is my belief that our evolutionary task now is to regain an experience of ‘participation’ and all that it entails, without losing our independence as conscious egos, capable of free will and creative action, something our ancestors, more at one with the cosmos, lacked. Our task, then, is to become more conscious, not less, which means facing the sense of separation from the world firmly, and getting through it.
Isolated, alienated, feeling adrift in the cosmos, it is understandable that we would want to return to the nest, to press my mother bird metaphor a bit further. But as pleasant and blissful as this might be – and consciousness has devised many delightful ways in which to free itself of the burden of itself – it would really be a shirking of our business as caretakers. We cannot return to an earlier stage of our evolution, just as we cannot become children again, try as we may. Nor can we stay as we are. In a living universe, which I believe ours is, stagnation is just another word for death. We must press forward into what the poet Walt Whitman called ‘the unknown region’. It is here that our caretaking adopts a more adventurous character, and in the last section of the book I will explore what this might entail. Here we are no longer taking care of a cosmos already made, nor repairing the cracks and fissures left by an inadequate craftsman, but are bringing new worlds into being. In the last chapter I will look at what this might mean, and how the ephemeral flicker of consciousness – at least as seen from the point of view of materialist science – housed in the insignificant creatures of a transitory planet, may actually be the key to saving the cosmos itself from oblivion. A fate that, at least according to the latest scientific accounts, is inevitable.
Save the planet? Yes, assuredly. But why stop there? Why not save the universe while we’re at it?
My new book ,The Caretakers of the Cosmos, published by Floris Books, will be released on August 22 on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. It addresses the question of the meaning of human existence and develops themes I address in my earlier books A Secret History of Consciousness and The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. In it I look at ideas about the human task of ‘repairing the universe’, as expressed in the Kabbalistic notion of tikkun and relate these to similar ideas in Hermeticism, and in the work of Swedenborg, Abraham Maslow, Colin Wilson, Iain McGilchrist, Rudolf Steiner,and philosophers such as Max Scheler, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Ernst Cassirer, among others. I will be posting excerpts from it in the coming months, so keep an eye out for them. And please, take care.
An excellent new film about Swedenborg, Heaven, Hell, and Other Places, has recently been released by the Swedenborg Society. I’m interviewed in it and I contribute a short essay to the booklet. Swedenborg remains one of the best kept open secrets of the western inner tradition. This film explains why.
Here’s an interview with me on Electric Politics about everyone’s favourite Swedish mystic.
Here’s a review of Swedenborg, my book on him, and me in the Washington Post.
Here’s a link to my guest blog at the Huffington Post, providing several reasons why you should know about Swedenborg.