Tag: Colin Wilson

Taking Care of the Cosmos: A Talk for the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, Melbourne, August 4 2019

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Warranwood Rudolf Steiner Center, in Melbourne, during my recent lecture tour down under. It’s based on my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos.

Taking Care of the Cosmos

A Talk for Warranwood Steiner Centre, Melbourne, August 4, 2019

I’ve been asked to give a talk about my book The Caretakers of the Cosmos. Let me say that I am quite pleased about this for a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason that neither I nor my publisher can fathom, it is one of my books that hasn’t received as much attention as some of my others – and let me assure you that the amount of attention the others have received is by no means enormous. Still, this book seems not to have generated as much discussion as some of my other books have, however modest that may be. The other reason I am happy to have a chance to talk about it, is that it is something of a more personal work of mine. Of course, every piece of writing a writer produces is in some way personal. He or she is behind it, however detached or objective their stance toward their subject may be. That they choose to write about that subject in that way tells us something about them, if only a little. But this book is more directly personal than that. It is a kind of personal statement, a declaration of how I see things, although, to be sure, I draw on a considerable array of thinkers, writers, and sages – as I do in all my books – in order to make my point and support my argument.

As I say in the book, the title, The Caretakers of the Cosmos, is rather bold and, as some friends pointed out while I was writing it, not exactly clear. Some thought it made the book sound like a work of science fiction. And for some readers, not partial to the message of the book, fiction is perhaps the  most accurate description of its contents. But the title came to me while I was working on an earlier book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. This was a history of the influence on western consciousness of the mythological founder of magic, philosophy, and the Hermetic tradition, thrice greatest Hermes. Although for centuries, Hermes Trismegistus was thought to be a real person, who had lived before the Flood, and whose philosophy had influenced as prestigious individuals as Moses, Plato, and even Jesus Christ, modern scholarship accepts that he was a product of the syncretism associated with the Alexandrian Age, an amalgam of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek Hermes circa AD 200, and who served as figure of veneration and authority for the anonymous authors of the mystical and magical texts that have come down to us as the Corpus Hermeticum.

The Corpus Hermeticum had an enormous influence on western thought, and perhaps its most powerful impact was on the Renaissance. We can even say that in many ways it was responsible for the Renaissance itself. A story that the historian Frances Yates tells gives us an idea of just how important a figure Hermes Trismegistus was considered at the time. In 1463, Cosimo de’ Medici, the great Florentine power broker, asked his scribe, Marsilio Ficino, whom Cosimo had just made head of the newly revived Platonic Academy, to translate some texts by Plato from Greek to Latin that had recently come into his possession. But just as Marsilio was about to get to work, Cosimo told him to wait. Some other texts had come into his hand, and Plato would have to be put on the back burner. What was important enough to shove Plato into the backseat? The Corpus Hermeticum. So you can see that Hermes was important indeed, if the father of western philosophy had to be put on hold in deference to him.

In the Asclepius, one of the books making up the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes tells his student Asclepius that man is a creature of two natures. I should point out that by “man” Hermes meant “human being” – there was much less confusion about the use of the word “man,” which did not mean “male,” back then. We are creatures of the natural world, Hermes tells Asclepius, of the body and the senses, and as such are subject to all the laws and limitations that come with “living in the material world,” as the title of an old song has it. But we are also inhabitants of another world, that of the mind, the spirit, the soul, or, as we would say today – or at least I do – consciousness. And this world, in essence, is free of the limitations of our other nature. As bodies we occupy a particular space and time. But as the poet William Blake, himself a student of the Hermetic tradition, tells us, “one thought fills immensity.”

The Hermetic creation myth explains how this came about. Briefly, after creating the universe, Nous, or the Universal Mind, decided to create a being like himself so that he could share his creation with him. So he created humanity. I should mention that the idea that we are created in the image of the Universal Mind suggested to many churchmen during the Renaissance that the Hermetic teachings presaged and paralleled the teachings of Christianity, as in that tradition, human beings are also made in the image of their creator. There are other parallels and similarities between Hermeticism and Christianity, and because of this during the Renaissance many enlightened figures within the church argued that the Hermetic teachings should be made part of Christian doctrine. Sadly, they weren’t, and one can only wonder what the history of the church would have been like if they had been.

What happened when man beheld the world that Nous had made? He feel in love with it. And, enamoured of its beauty, he reached down from the heavenly heights in order to embrace it. But his love proved too powerful, as did that of the world for Man – in the Hermetic myth as in many others, the world, Earth, nature, is a woman – and when the two embraced, man lost his awareness of his spiritual origin, or at least his fascination with the world eclipsed this for a while. But just as man took on aspects of the earthly, so too did the world take on aspects of the spiritual. As in all true relationships, they shared parts of themselves with each other. The earth and the whole cosmos absorbed some of man’s celestial nature – we remember he was made in the image of the Universal Mind, his creator – while man absorbed some of the earth’s natural character. The two have been mixed up like this ever since.

Now, like all myths, there is no way to prove that anything like this happened, and of course modern science and our rational minds tell us it is just a story. But the work of myths isn’t to prove something, but to come up with what Plato called a “likely story” to account for things. And what this particular myth accounts for is the fact that, however it came about and whatever the truth about it may be, we nevertheless experience ourselves as creatures of two natures, whether we immediately recognize that we do or not. We are without doubt natural creatures, of flesh and blood, who exist within time and space and who are subject to the same limitations and appetites of other animals. There’s little doubt about that and, as I will show further on, we’ve had more than a few centuries during which some of the best minds of the west have been hammering this message home to us. But we are also creatures of a different sort. However much contemporary science denies it, we have an immaterial, non-physical nature, that is not subject to time and space in the same way as our bodies are. Evidence for this is the consciousness that each of us is engaged with now, listening to this talk – unless, as is often the case, my words are tedious enough to send you to sleep – it’s been known to happen. Each one of us participates in the Universal Mind and so we each are the kind of “dual natured” creature that Hermes Trismegistus tells us we are.

Now, of course, Hermeticism isn’t the only tradition making this claim. We can find it in other spiritual traditions, and I draw on some of them in the book. But it does have an interesting answer to the question why we have two natures. The Gnostics, a sect of early Christians who were contemporaries of the Hermetics, also believed that humanity had “fallen” from a spiritual state and had become “trapped” in the material world. Their response to this was that we needed to escape from this false world and return to the true one. And I might point out that in many ways our time is a very Gnostic one, with our fascination with conspiracy theories and with phenomena such as “post-truth” and “alternative facts” creating a sense that reality isn’t as reliable as it used to be. As I write in a book about the postmodern politics of our time, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, it is up for grabs. As the Hermetics did, the Gnostics believed we all still retained a spark of our divine origin, and they sought to awaken this, through inducing ecstatic states in order to achieve what they called gnosis and what the Hermetics, who engaged in similar practices, saw as a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”

But while the Gnostics wanted to escape from the world, the Hermetics sought something different. They wanted to remember their purpose, their mission on the earth. When Asclepius asks Hermes why humans have two natures, Hermes explains that we do so that we can “raise our sight to heaven while we take care of the earth,” and so that we can “love those things that are below us” while we are “beloved by the things above.” Humans, it seems, are a kind of meeting ground of two worlds, something that the seventeenth century mathematician and religious thinker Blaise Pascal remarked on when he said that mankind existed in between the infinitely small and the infinitely large, between the microscopic world of the atoms, and the colossal expanse of the galaxies. But there is more to us that this. We have a body, Hermes tells Asclepius, so that we can “take care of creation.” We have a “corporeal dwelling place” and our two natures are mixed into one, so that we can “wonder at and adore the celestial, while taking care of and managing the things on earth.”

What this suggests is that we find ourselves here, not because of a “fall” from grace, as in the Judeo-Christian religion, or because of the machinations of an evil idiot god, as in the Gnostic tradition, but because we have a particular mission to accomplish, a responsibility to fulfil. In other words, we are here for a reason. We struggle against the limitations of the body and the material world, not in order to escape them, or as punishment for some “original sin,” but in order to embrace the obligations that come with being “caretakers of the cosmos.”

 

Now, needless to say, this is a far cry from how we see ourselves and have been taught to see ourselves by modern science and much of modern culture. We can say that the process through which human beings lost any sense of themselves as having a reason for existing, let alone a particular responsibility in doing so, goes back a few centuries, although, to be sure, throughout history there have always been voices announcing the futility of existence, and of our own in particular. All is vanity, Ecclesiastes tells us, and Sophocles, the great Greek dramatist, tells us it is best to die young or not to be born at all. We can say  our current assessment of ourselves as not particularly significant inhabitants of a not particularly significant world began when Copernicus announced that the sun did not revolve around the earth. We were not, it turned out, at the centre of things. Oddly enough, Copernicus himself was a student of the Hermetic philosophy, as were other makers of the modern scientific worldview, such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, something I can only mention here. (Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity, and gravity itself is an “occult,” that is, unseen power.) This particular ball continued to roll and by the nineteenth century it had picked up considerable speed and was pretty much unstoppable. Darwin showed us that we were no different from the other animals. Marx showed us that the real motor of human history was economics, that is, our earthly, material reality. Nietzsche showed that power was behind human motivation, although he did have an idea of human greatness in his notion of the “superman,” again, something I can only mention. Freud said sex was behind everything, and thoroughly rejected any higher appetites.

And while this was going on, in a variety of ways, modern science was busy at work reducing human beings to machines, stimulus response robots, devoid of free will and pushed and pulled solely by influences coming from the environment. Any notion of a nature other than our physical, material one was by this time utterly abandoned, cast into the rubbish bin of ideas, along with everything else having to do with religion, spirit, or mind.

This view of our existence was summed up with scientific rigour by the French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who argued that chance and chance alone produced not only humanity but the world it finds itself in. There is no reason behind anything. As Stephen Hawking said in a very popular book a few years ago, the universe “just happened,” and there was no need for any God or Universal Mind to bring it or us about. As another physicist, Steve Weinberg, remarked, the more we understand the universe, the more it seems pointless. And although existentialism and astrophysics are, no pun intended, worlds apart, they seem to share a common theme. As Jean Paul Sartre, the most famous existential philosopher, remarked, it is “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die.”  Monod, Hawking, and Weinberg say essentially the same thing.

This story is well known and of course there have been many who have rejected it and argued against it. I draw on quite a few of them in my book. But what is new and what prompted me to write my book, is that this tradition of encouraging what the British writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called the “fallacy of insignificance” regarding human existence has in recent times found a very vocal if paradoxical fellow traveller.

 

One of the curious ironies of the rise of modern science and technology is that while it argues that human life and the universe itself is insignificant, purposeless, and meaningless, it has also placed into this insignificant creature’s hands an enormous power. The science that tells us that we are meaningless accidents in an accidental universe has also made us masters of the world. By treating nature as mere stuff that we can control – voiding it of any spiritual character – we have gained a fantastic power over it. And it is precisely this power, and our evident abuse of it, that has triggered a response that in a different way, seeks to minimise the importance of human beings, albeit for well-meaning if, from my perspective, muddle-headed reasons.

Many people concerned about the environment and wanting to “save the planet” argue that in order to do this, human beings must be made to see that they are no more important than any other life form. Our “anthropocentric” view has led to the despoiling of the earth and the extinction of other creatures, who have as much right – even more, some would say – to exist as we do. We are, they say, no more significant or “special” than slime moulds or giraffes or the animalcules in a puddle of rain water. Even more, we are much more dangerous than they or other organisms because of our mistaken idea of ourselves as somehow unique and significant. It is this that has led to the environmental crises that threaten the future of not only mankind but the earth itself. Climate change is only the most recent expression of this and the Extinction Rebellion movement only the most recent response to it.

This assessment of human importance is behind the kind of “enlightened misanthropy,” as we might call it, that is voiced by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First! and other similar “biocentric” organisations, biocentric meaning “life centred” as opposed to human centred. (We could say that they prefer a “biosophy” rather than an anthroposophy.) According to Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, we are all animals, and “an individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear.” Foreman goes on to add that he and many others would actually argue that the Grizzly Bear has more claim to any kind of importance than we do. How Foreman or anyone else could argue this isn’t exactly clear, given their premise that all life is of equal significance, but let’s leave that for now.

We may think that extreme remarks from radical activists can have little effect on the general consciousness of society. They are ranting from the side lines. But much of the rhetoric they employ is echoed by more respected thinkers. One such is the social philosopher John Gray, who in a series of popular and highly respected books has presented a misanthropy that, to my mind, frequently borders on the fanatical. Although couched in “environment friendly” language, his books really express little more than Gray’s profound dislike for human beings. For Gray, from the perspective of Gaia, the earth, “human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould.” But while this can be seen as expressing solidarity with other biocentrists, Gray goes further. We are not homo sapiens, as we narcissistically believe ourselves to be, but homo rapiens. We may agree that, yes, we have abused our power and laid waste to much of the earth, but is there nothing redeeming about us? For Gray, the answer is “No.” “A glance at any human,” he tells us “should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being.” We are simply a species that is highly successful at ravaging others. We need to jettison all pretence to being anything other than this – that is, to any “higher” notions of our humanity. It is, in fact, precisely this that has allowed us to rampage as we have. It is time, Gray says, to see ourselves as we truly are.

Now Gray is as entitled to his opinion about humanity as anyone else is entitled to theirs. But in our time, faced as it is with enormous challenges, of which our environmental crises make up a large portion, it seems more responsible, honest, and serious to agree with him, at least to the popular mind. The spirit of the time seems to compel us to embrace a collective mea culpa and to own up to our crimes. To not do this, and to argue that, even with all the damage we have done, there is still something different about human existence and our role here, that sets us apart, seems somehow aberrant. As a case in point let me mention that when, a few months ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris went up in flames, I posted some remarks on social media expressing my sadness at the tragedy. While many shared my feeling, more than a few people wrote to say that fires destroy forests every day and that they are more of a loss than a church. Why was everyone so concerned about some cathedral? I certainly agree that a burnt forest is a loss, but while there are many trees there is only one Notre Dame. But the people making these remarks remained adamantly pro-forest and anti-cathedral and nothing I could say seemed to shake that opinion.

Now, while I in no way am suggesting that we shouldn’t face the crises that our own success as a species has created, I am also wary of the kind of indulgence in guilt and the peculiar self-satisfaction that it can bring. It strikes me that we live in a time when, because of our feelings of guilt, someone like Gray can be seen as an important, profound thinker, precisely because he makes us feel so guilty. We live in a “confessional” time, as any viewer of television talk shows knows. People today love to admit to their mistakes, their sins, their transgressions, and to do so in front of as large as audience as possible. But while they seem to be admitting their failures, it strikes me that there is a certain pride in doing so. Paradoxically, admitting your sins can be just another way of announcing your importance. And admitting your helplessness can be a way of avoiding your responsibilities and letting yourself off the hook. As the eighteenth century mystical philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said, such humility may be admirable, but it may also be an excuse to accept the laziness and cowardice that allows one to avoid the responsibilities that come with being “the highest in the universe,” and a way of shirking the effort and suffering that taking on those responsibilities entails.

 

I mentioned that in my book I draw on other spiritual traditions along with the Hermetic, in order to express my sense of ourselves as cosmic caretakers. One such tradition is the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism. In the tradition of the sixteenth century Kabbalist Isaac Luria, human beings have a profound responsibility: we are a kind of cosmic repairman. In Luria’s creation myth, when God created the universe, he really made a mess of things. The sephiroth or vessels of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, that were supposed to contain the divine energies, were either not strong enough to contain them or too shallow to hold them. So what happened was not a big bang but a big spill, with the divine energies overflowing and getting mixed up with each other and with lower forces and energies, what we call matter. The result is the world we live in, with sparks of the divine trapped in the dense unwieldy world of matter – the similarity to the Hermetic account can be seen. In this world, “nothing is where it should be,” everything is jumbled up, and because of this we experience pain and suffering, and the divine energies, which are really one, are fragmented into opposites, at war with each other: good and evil, male and female, light and dark, and so on. Our job is to unite the fragments, reconcile the opposites, and put the cosmic Humpty Dumpty back together again.

How did we get landed with this responsibility? When he saw the mess He had made, God realized he needed help in sorting things out and so he created a helper, that is, us, humanity. We are here to perform what is called tikkun, which means “repair.” Our job is to release the divine spark trapped in the shards of matter, freeing them from the negative energies, known as klipoth. We find the sparks everywhere; in nature, in others, and in ourselves. As we perform tikkun through acts of awareness, kindness, and love – what the eighteenth century scientist and religious thinker Emmanuel Swedenborg called “doing the good that you know” – we clean up the mess God made and return the world to the state it was supposed to be in before He made a wreck of things.

Failure to perform tikkun means that we fail at our task as humans. And it is only by performing tikkun that we can be “fully human.” This idea of being “fully human” is not one that we easily embrace. It places a great burden and responsibility on us. After all, it is no small matter to be responsible for cleaning up after God and repairing the universe. It is no wonder then that many of us, if not most, shy away from this obligation. Faced with the great task placed before us, we say “What can I do? I am only human”

 

Recognizing the difference between being “fully human” and “only human” wasn’t limited to sixteenth century Kabbalists. In fact it formed the central idea of one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Abraham Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, started out as a Freudian but he soon became disenchanted with Freud’s approach. One reason he did was that the only people he met in his practice were sick ones. He grew tired of this as it understandably made him depressed. Maslow then hit upon what at the time seemed a radical idea. He decided that he wanted to study healthy people instead, to develop a psychology based on health, not illness. He did and he came up with some remarkable results. One was that all the healthy people he studied seemed to have what he came to call “peak experiences,” sudden moments of joy, happiness, fulfilment, that seemed to come for no reason at all, spontaneously, out of the blue. These were not “mystical” experiences per se, although they could lead to something like that. They were simply sudden realizations that life was good, that we all have an enormous amount to be grateful for, simply because we are alive. They were a kind of sudden, vivid remembering of the good we already have, a waking up to it. These peaks brought great self-confidence, a sense of strength and a deep feeling of purpose, something very different from the depression, anxiety and feelings of meaninglessness that Maslow had come to discover in the sick people he had studied. The “peak experience” gave Maslow a standard by which to gauge psychic health. They also provided a way of recognizing what being “fully human” would be like.

Maslow recognized that, psychologically, human beings seem to climb what he called a “ladder of needs.” Our first needs are the basic ones for food and drink. Then with these met, we need shelter, a home of some kind. Then we have a need for love, companionship, a relationship to others. When this is satisfied our need to be recognized and respected, for self-esteem, to be thought well of, becomes active. All of these needs are what Maslow called “deficiency needs,” because they are concerned with something we lack. I need food, a home, love, and self-esteem and feel their lack if they are missing. But Maslow found that in some people – not all,  but many – there are other, higher needs, what he called “meta-needs.” These are needs not based on a “lack” of something, but on the need to use our powers and abilities in some creative way. They are needs based on what we have, not on what we are missing. They are creative needs. They express the need to “self-actualize,” as Maslow put it, to become fully ourselves. In other words, to become “fully human.”

Although Maslow did not speak of tikkun, the way in which he describes a “self-actualized” person seems in many ways to parallel what a person who performed tikkun would be like. Self-actualized people are, paradoxically, not obsessed with themselves; they have a profound interest in the objective world and do not like being trapped in their personality. They are not in competition with others. Although they generally strive to be the best they can be at their work, whatever it is, it is not in order to be “No. 1,” but for the sake of the work itself; doing it well is its own reward. They are not interested in material gain or power or dominance, and in general are less concerned with their ego and have a sense of humour about themselves. They are more concerned with what is going on inside themselves than in what is happening outside and are content with simple pleasures and are tolerant of others. Although they are always striving to be more – they are what the philosopher Nietzsche called “self-overcomers” – they are happy with who they are. They accept themselves but paradoxically are not complacent.

Self-actualisers are also very disciplined and self-motivating and are generally good workers. They are not lazy and are not afraid of challenges. In fact they thrive on them. Maslow believed that we all have the potential to actualise ourselves, to be “all that we can be” and to become fully human. He also argued that if we fail to do this, the consequences can be dire. He famously said that if we deliberately plan on being less than we are capable of being, we will be unhappy for the rest of our life. Maslow’s vision was the furthest from the Freudian one of sick people that he started out from, but he was dismayed late in his life to discover that many people, it seemed, did fail to self-actualise, and did so, it seemed, on purpose. He once asked the students of one of his classes how many of them expected to become outstanding in their fields, to go on to do great work, to be creative successes? When hardly anyone raised their hand, he asked “Well, if not you, then who? Someone will. Why not you?” They had no answer to that. Indeed, we always think that someone else will be great, creative, successful, but not ourselves. Why?

Why do most of believe that we will not be great, or if we do think so, shy from admitting it? Peer pressure, of course. But this only begs the question of why our peers assume they will be mediocrities and chide those who think otherwise. But if Maslow is correct, we will be mediocrities because we decide to be. We choose to be less than we are capable of being on purpose. Why? Because we are afraid of the responsibilities and obligations being all we can be entail. Maslow christened this propensity in many of us to avoid actualizing ourselves “the Jonah Complex,” based on the Biblical story of Jonah, who tried to avoid the destiny God had in store for him. As we know, Jonah tried his best to avoid his destiny as a prophet, but in the end he had to accept it. He might have saved himself and God a lot of trouble if had done so from the start.

 

People who are subject to the Jonah Complex do not wish to be “fully human” and try to be satisfied with being “only human.” They try to avoid the destiny that their nature compels them to fulfil. In fact, they can be quite militant about this, accusing those who do want to actualize their potentials of being elitist, of thinking of themselves as somehow “special,” somehow “better” than others. This disparaging of those who try to be “fully human” by those content to be “only human,” is an expression of what the twentieth century German philosopher Max Scheler called resentment, an attempt by the “have nots” to make the “haves” feel guilty about themselves – the “haves” in this sense not people of material but of inner wealth. Towards the end of his life – he died in 1970 – Maslow was concerned that in the near future there would be a kind of “uprising” of non-self-actualisers against the self-actualisers, fuelled by a kind of “actualisation envy.” And it strikes me that in many ways, something like this informs a great deal of our postmodern culture. Many years ago, the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine wrote an essay called “The Use of the Beautiful,” in which she lamented the loss of the beautiful in modern culture, and suggested that this was in part motivated by a resentment against the high standard that beauty sets, and which we find difficult to meet. Instead of striving to approximate it as best we can, we instead dismiss it as oppressive, unrealistic, stuffy, old fashioned or what have you, and are happy instead with “what we like.” Much of modern art, beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal and including Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, can be seen as an attack on the idea of the beautiful, and on the idea of art itself. In the nineteenth century, the idea behind mass education was that it would help raise the average person up to a higher level. What seems to have happened is the opposite, with the higher being brought down to the lower. In many, if not most universities these days, the idea of the “great books” as agents of self-improvement is laughed at when it is not militantly attacked, and PhDs and other high degrees are offered in “popular culture.” I know this because I have spoken at more than one academic conference about this. My usual remark about this development is that back in the day, we made popular culture, we didn’t study it.

This desire to remain average and to be “just like everybody else” also informs the “good enough” ethos that makes up a large part of our contemporary sense of identity. We no longer strive to be good but to be “good enough,” a “good enough” parent, or a “good enough” husband or wife. In one sense, this is a reaction against the pressures placed on us to be “perfect,” the “perfect” mother or father or husband or wife. But there is a difference between being “perfect” and being “perfectly”, that is “fully” ourselves. “Perfect” is an abstract standard, an outside criterion we are asked to meet. Being fully yourself isn’t. That standard comes from within. It is the same challenge that the psychologist Jung called “individuating,” “becoming who you are,” with the emphasis on “you.” We decide what standards we will set for ourselves and which we will meet. What Maslow and Jung discovered is that for many of us, while we recognise what we could be, we nevertheless settle for something less, for being “good enough” versions of ourselves. And what is true of us as individuals is also true for the culture and society at large. Nietzsche saw this in his bible of self-overcoming, Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he spoke of the “last men.” This was a society and culture of the future, that embraced the “fallacy of insignificance” happily,  rejected all heroism and greatness, and was content with mediocrity, “good enoughness,” “only humanness”, creature comforts and an easy life. It was in many ways a society and culture not vastly different from our own. Today, the most popular thing on television are “reality TV” shows, in which people “just like us” are the stars. There are even television shows about people watching television shows that are about people “just like” those watching them. In Orwell’s 1984 the government kept the populace under constant surveillance. Now we do it ourselves and even jokingly call the most famous reality TV show Big Brother.

 

One sign that suggests we are living in something like the society that Nietzsche envisioned is the emphasis today placed on groups, on communities, and the suspicion that the individual who falls outside these groups is somehow not quite right. Self-actualisers, “individuaters,” those who are striving to become who they are, and not as the group is, are seen as selfish, as “lone nutters”, as somehow aberrant, and more and more the message is that we all need to belong to one group or another. If we don’t, there must be something wrong with us. But while self-actualisers are not misanthropes – quite the contrary – they are not particularly gregarious. Contrary to the old song, people who need people are not the luckiest people in the world. They often have nothing going on in their lives, and need other people to fill them up. What many people talk about most of the time is other people. Without them, they’d have little to say. Not self-actualisers. Often self-actualisers meet the psychological profile of the individuals Colin Wilson calls “Outsiders,” people whose need for meaning and purpose – “meta-needs,” according to Maslow – can’t be met by belonging or identifying with some group or other, but by a profound acceptance of a kind of solitariness, the solitude needed for creative work. Becoming yourself is lonely work, Jung tells us. It is the hardest thing we can do and no one can do it for us. Those who try to become themselves are often afflicted with a sense of guilt, with pangs of what Nietzsche called the “herd instinct.” Without doubt we are social animals. But those who are trying to become “fully human” often must give up the warmth and comfort of the herd and strike out on their own. And the price they pay for doing so is often guilt, isolation, and loneliness.

I should say that at the same time as there is an anti-individual sentiment today, there is also a kind of celebration of the average person, the common man or woman, exactly as he or she is, with no need to be any better. We all want respect. We all demand it and get angry if it is not immediately forthcoming. We are all special, notwithstanding that in such an arrangement no one is special, as being special, by definition, means standing out from the average. We all want to be applauded, not for any particular accomplishment or achievement, but simply for being us, as we are, run of the mill and rank and file, with no particular claim to any exceptional gift. In the words of another old song, these days, everybody is a star. Popular culture endorses this view. One sign of this is that more times than not, people of exceptional intellectual accomplishment are portrayed in films and television as somehow deeply flawed. So the contemporary Sherlock Holmes – portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – is shown as practically autistic. There is something wrong with him, unlike the Everyman Watson, who is “just like us.” This is a far cry from Conan Doyle’s original conception of the character.

At the same time, the widespread addiction to social media, in which people post practically everything about themselves for all to see, is a sign, I think, that western society has reached Maslow’s self-esteem level on the ladder of needs. We are all pretty fascinating individuals, just as we are, and we want everyone to know this and to agree. And while this may suggest a kind of collective narcissism, it may also suggest that there are some of us out there who are moving into the level of the meta-needs, the need to self-actualise. That is my hope. These are the people I call the “creative minority.” But unlike those still obsessed with self-esteem, they do not broadcast their activities, mostly because they are too busy being active with them. They do not draw attention to themselves nor do they demand that everyone respect them. They are not particularly interested in what other people think about them, and they do not think very much about other people. They do not attend rallies or demonstrations or shout for this cause or another. They do not occupy Wall Street. Instead, they occupy their minds.

 

And here we come round to the question of exactly how we can take care of the cosmos. The subtitle of my book is “Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World.” One reader, a friend and fellow writer, was a bit put off by this, thinking that it suggested that the book was yet another call for ecological and environmental responsibility. I in no way suggest, in the book or anywhere else, that the more immediate ways of taking care of our particular patch of the cosmos, our earth, should be ignored, and I endorse them wholeheartedly. But while a great deal has been said and needs to be said about taking care of our physical environment, there is another environment which, it seems to me, doesn’t receive the attention that it should. I mean our inner environment, our inner world, that other nature that the Universal Mind in its wisdom has saddled us with. It is in relation to this that I speak of our other environment, our outer world, the physical one, as unfinished. To make clear what I mean by this will require some explanation. Let me see if in the time remaining to me I may be able to make a start on this.

One of the central tenets – if not the central one – of the Hermetic teaching, and of the other philosophies and teachings making up what is known as the Western “inner” or “esoteric” tradition, and which I have written about in several books, is that in it mind, spirit, or, as we would say today, consciousness is paramount. What does this mean? It means that unlike our contemporary scientific accounts which put the physical, material world in first place, and strive to derive our inner, metaphysical or spiritual world from it, the situation is actually reversed. For these traditions, mind, spirit, consciousness occupies first place and in some way that we do not fully understand, the physical, external world is derived from it. As the philosopher of language, friend of C. S. Lewis, and interpreter of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield succinctly put it, “Interior is anterior,” that is, it is earlier than the exterior, it comes before it. Although there have always been those who took the materialist stance as the correct one – our idea of the atom goes back to the ancient pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus – it has really only been since the seventeenth century that mind has lost the prestige it used to have, and has been seen as something that needs to be “explained” in terms of material processes. A book of mine, A Secret History of Consciousness, is devoted to taking this view to task. This development is itself part of a long process, an evolution of consciousness, that I have written about in this book and some others and forms, as it were, the common thread among all my books. What this suggests is that the materialist view, which has been dominant for the last few centuries, is not the final view or verdict on the nature of reality. It has been arrived at historically and is itself subject to change. And I would say that in recent times it has shown signs that it is past its “sell by” date, and that it’s shelf life is running out, if it isn’t already past due. Developments like deconstructionism, postmodernism and other, earlier changes in our worldview brought about by quantum physics, suggest as much. What will arise to take its place remains to be seen. We may be experiencing the first stages of the breakdown of the materialist, rationalist paradigm – this is what the philosopher Jean Gebser, whom I have written about in some of my books, argues – but it is not clear what it is making way for. That may not be clear for some time. But there may be some indications available to us now.

 

I haven’t mentioned Rudolf Steiner in this talk, except for name-dropping him a moment ago. But one of the strangest things Steiner said – and, depending upon your perspective, he said a number of strange things – was that the future physical condition of the planet will depend on the thoughts that people have now. So, according to Steiner, what we are thinking now will in some way influence the physical character of the earth in the future. Indeed, as Steiner said this a century ago, according to him, the thoughts of the people he said it to have presumably had something to do with the world as it is today. Whatever we may think of this, we must admit, somewhat radical remark, its essence is that the mind, our minds, affect reality. This is certainly a way of expressing Owen Barfield’s dictum that “interior is anterior.” We can say then, as I have in some interviews, that according to this view, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the mind doesn’t stay there. It reaches out into the world and changes it.

Now this is as radically other than what our accepted scientific tradition tells us as we can get. Since the philosopher John Locke stated it in the seventeen century, our mainstream intellectual tradition has accepted that “there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” According to this view we are born, as Locke says, as tabula rasas, “blank slates,” empty until experience writes upon us. We are like unfurnished flats until we go out to Ikea to buy stuff to and fill them with. But what Steiner and the tradition he belongs to, which includes people like Plato, Goethe, Jung and many others, says is the opposite. We do not come into the world with empty heads. The world that we mistakenly believe writes upon us is itself blank, empty, until our minds give it form. Whether it is the Platonic Forms or Jung’s archetypes or the categories of Immanuel Kant, for this tradition, something in our minds reaches out and gives shape and contour to the raw material of experience. The world that Locke believed writes upon our minds is itself written upon by them. This is what Steiner meant when he said that we are “not only here in order to form for ourselves a picture of the finished world.” No. We “cooperate in bringing the world into existence.” And as he added: “The content of reality is only the reflection of the content of our minds.” In other words, no mind, no world.

The Corpus Hermeticum tells us exactly the same thing. As the Universal Mind tells Hermes Trismegistus, “within God everything lies in the imagination.” For the Hermetics, the imagination was everything. It was capable of remarkable feats; it’s abilities transcended the limits of our earthly nature easily. “Command your soul to go anywhere,” Hermes is told, “and it will be there quicker than your command. Bid it to go to the ocean and again it is there at once… Order it to fly up to heaven and it will need no wings.” “If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand him. Sense as one within yourself the entire creation… then you can understand God.”

This recognition of the tremendous power of mind or the imagination is at the heart of what, in another book, I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” This knowledge was lost to the mainstream western intellectual tradition round about the time that Locke’s “blank slate” version of the mind came into prominence. But some never lost sight of it. So for the poet William Blake, “The world of Imagination is the world of Eternity.” It is an Infinite and Eternal world where exist “the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in the Vegetable Glass of Nature.” (And here we see Blake contradict Locke outright.) “All Things Exist in the Human Imagination,” Blake insists, echoing the Universal Mind. “In your Bosom you bear your Heaven and Earth and all you behold; tho’ it appears Without, it is Within, in your imagination…”

I don’t know if Rudolf Steiner ever mentioned William Blake in any of his lectures, but it is clear that they were both speaking about the same thing. But Steiner did not have to know of Blake, as both were speaking out of the same tradition, the one that, as Owen Barfield, who did know both visionaries, said has consciousness or mind taking precedence over matter, that has the “interior” as “anterior.” All three wanted to awaken their readers to the insight that the world we see around us is rooted in some profound yet mysterious way in our interior worlds. Although the world we see when we open our eyes “appears without,” it is really “within.” And again, in some mysterious way, this inner world is projected out of our consciousness and, as Steiner says, co-operates in bringing the world into existence.

Now, we might say that Blake, Steiner, and Barfield were poets and visionaries and so might be expected to grant the imagination more power and importance than it might warrant. Yet in recent times, something as rigorous and unpoetical as neuroscience seems to confirm what they are saying. In his important book The Master and His Emissary, the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist reboots the right brain/left brain discussion that had petered out, after an initial excitement, some time in the 1990s. What McGilchrist did was to show that what was important about the differences between our two cerebral hemispheres was not so much in what they do, as had initially been suggested, but in how they do it. Put briefly, our right cerebral hemisphere, which is the older of the two and the one McGilchrist calls “the Master,” presents a global, holistic, but vague, fuzzy “big” picture of reality, one geared toward overall meaning and connectedness. The left brain, or “Emissary’s” job is to unpack this global picture, to finetune it, to subject the whole to an analysis that distinguishes its parts. So we can say that while the right brain sees the forest, the left sees the individual trees, and also the individual leaves on one tree, and even the veins running through each leaf.

But what links McGilchrist’s work to what we are talking about here, is his suggestion that in conveying the “big”, global picture of reality, the right brain helps “bring it into being,” performing the task that Steiner places on each of us. He also suggests that while the left brain, because of its analytical mode, is geared toward controlling reality, “mastering” it – and the left brain, let me say, is the cerebral hemisphere responsible for the scientific and technological wonders that have made us the dominant species on the planet, thereby creating the crises that face us today – the right brain is more concerned with caring about and for reality. As McGilchrist says, if one brain is responsible for our “exploitation” of the world – the sort of behaviour that a misanthrope like John Gray takes argument with – the other is more of a “guardian” of reality. As I say in my book, a guardian, a repairman, and a caretaker all seem to share some similar functions. So it would seem that according to McGilchrist, at least in this regard, contemporary neuroscience and Hermeticism and Kabbalah have much in common.

Given this, a word of caution does not seem out of place. If the world outside us depends in some mysterious way on the one inside us, we would be wise to aware of what is going on inside our heads, because, as Steiner, Blake, Barfield and split-brain psychology seem to tells us, sooner or later we will run into it in the outer world. That we create our own reality is, of course, a commonplace of much New Age thought. It has by this time become something of a cliché. But clichés become clichés precisely because they have a basis in truth. Blake’s one time teacher, Swedenborg, taught him and the rest of us that heaven and hell are not places we will go to after our death, but are within us now. We create them with our own attitudes and inhabit them long before our body dies. Jean Paul Sartre may have believed that hell is “other people,” but Swedenborg knew better. Hell, he knew, as well as heaven, is ourselves. While much of the attraction to the idea that we “create our own reality” is motivated by using the imagination to acquire health, wealth and power, the deeper appreciation of this insight is geared toward understanding how we are responsible for the reality that already surrounds us, how we unconsciously project our fears and desires out into the world, and mistakenly blame others or a cruel fate for what is really our own handiwork. Poets, who are always more aware of the power of the imagination than the rest of us, have always known of this and have spoken words of warning. Goethe tells us to beware of what we wish for in youth, for we will get it in middle age. And W. B. Yeats, who took the imagination seriously enough to discipline his own through his serious study of the western inner tradition, tells us that “whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.”

If remarks like these, urbane and dramatic as they are, were solely rooted in a poet’s fancy, we could accept or reject them as we wished. But when we are told that the magnificent organ lodged within our skulls – to date, the most complex thing in the known universe –  is somehow responsible for bringing the world we see each day into being, we may be excused for giving such pronouncements more consideration. And when to this is added the wisdom of a long tradition which places our consciousness, our minds and imagination, at the fount of creation, then the idea that, in ways we do not fully understand, we are indeed caretakers of the cosmos, guardians of the world, or repairmen of the universe, we may be forgiven if we begin to take the idea seriously. This is not to celebrate our importance, or to applaud our significance, to pat our mutual backs in smug self-satisfaction. Far from it. It is to recognise that we each have a responsibility, an obligation, to actualise within ourselves the power that can help move the universe along, and that by becoming fully human, we can do our part to make the world a better place for our being in it.

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Wilson, Henry Corbin, Kathleen Raine

You don’t get these three together that often, although in his early days, Wilson did meet Raine – he tells the story in his account of the Angry Young Men, The Angry YearsI met Wilson and Raine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raine and Corbin met; I haven’t come across an account of them meeting, but they moved in the same circles and knew the same people. Their reason for appearing here is that I am posting links to two recent lectures. One is another of my ongoing conversations with Jeffrey Mishlove for his New Thinking Allowed series, this time about Colin Wilson. The other is the last lecture in my Lost Knowledge of the Imagination series of talks given for Jeremy Johnson’s excellent Nura Learning site. I write about Wilson in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson and I write about Henry Corbin and Kathleen Raine in Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, so if you watch the talks and want to know more, those are the best places to start. Once again, happy new year. If enough Outsiders use their imagination, we may just be able to pull this one out of the fire.

Happy New Year

And may 2019 be gentle to us all. Many thanks to all of you for making 2018 possible. Without you it couldn’t have happened. That’s something to think about. In the meantime, I wish I could give you all something in return. Alas, all I have is a link to my latest interview with Jeffrey Mishlove for his excellent New Thinking Allowed series. It’s about Madame Blavatsky. She may have been teetotal, but I bet New Years’s Eve was a hoot – or a Koot Hoomi – with her around. My next interview with Jeffrey, about Colin Wilson, will be released in January, and I’ll post the link when it is. Until then, all the best and sincere wishes for a truly human new year.

Transcendent Functions, Peak Experiences, and a Different Way of Knowing

Here are links to two lectures I’ve given recently. One, on “Jung’s Search for Meaning,” was given for the Weekend University here in London last summer. The other, “A Different Way of Knowing,” is the first part of the three part seminar on Lost Knowledge of the Imagination I’ve been giving through Nura Learning. I imagine a lecture should speak for itself, but here’s the general idea: In the first I try to bring together Jung’s notion of the “transcendent function”   – the “lift” the psyche gets when the conscious and unconscious minds reach an agreement – with Maslow’s “peak experiences” and Colin Wilson’s Faculty X. In the second, I take the class through the first chapter in Lost Knowledge, trying to bring out exactly what a “different way of knowing” might be like. You should be able to take it from there.

Mozart and the Stars

Here is the text of the talk I gave for the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, in Calw, Germany earlier this month. Calw is the home town of Hermann Hesse, and Hesse readers will know that the title of this post comes from his novel SteppenwolfBecause of the Hesse connection, I geared my talk accordingly. A few slightly awkward moments occurred during the talk – which was ably translated by my excellent translator Isabel – because of the significance a glass of wine has in the story. My Rosicrucian hosts were tee-total, but humor, another factor in the novel, saw us through. The afternoon we spent the next day at the Hesse museum  in Calw made up for any misunderstandings.

I had brought a new translation of Steppenwolf  – picked up at a charity shop – in honor of my adolescent obsession with Hesse. I dutifully read it while in Calw, but I have to say I was put off by its “updating” of the language and so-called “corrections.” Changing the famous tag line “For Madmen Only,” to “For Mad People Only,” just didn’t work and smacked too much of politically correct editing. Mensch in Germany means “man” or “one”, not “male,” just as “man” in English does not mean “male,” but “one” or “human”, unless of course you are referring a particular man. (A lot of ink has been spilled and feathers ruffled over this misunderstanding.) I’m glad that the original English translation by Basil Creighton, with all its poetry and romanticism, is still available. I have a hard cover first edition of the English translation from 1929 that has served me well for the past thirty-five years or so (I got it at a second hand shop in Los Angeles in the early ’80s.)

On the way to Stuttgart Airport for my flight to London, I was treated to a special, exclusive tour of the Johanes Kepler Museum in Weil det Stadt. Kepler featured in my talk and although the museum is closed on Mondays, the curator very kindly opened up for us and gave us the royal treatment. I first read about Kepler’s fascinating if difficult  life in Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, a brilliant and very readable history of the early years of modern astronomy. We had a further enlightening experience as we enjoyed the guided tour of Tubingen, the university town that in the late eighteenth century numbered Hegel, Holderlin, Schelling and many other important Germany philosophers and writers among its inhabitants, given by friends of my host. Tubingen was also an important center for the original Rosicrucians of the the early seventeenth century. It was out of the “Tubingen Circle” that Johann Valentin Andreae, most likely responsible for much of the Rosicrucian Manifestos, emerged. I write about this in Politics and the Occult – which, incidentally, will soon be available in audio format. (I sent off the Introduction earlier this week.)

Here’s the talk. Some of the ideas I touch on in it will be discussed in the Nura Learning course on the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination starting on November 17.

 

Regaining the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination: A Talk for the Lectorium Rosicrucianum Calw, Germany 20/10/18

This afternoon I’m going to talk about what I call “the lost knowledge of the imagination.” But before I start I should say that the phrase itself comes from the English poet and essayist Kathleen Raine. For many years Kathleen Raine guided the Temenos Academy in London, an alternative learning establishment whose aim was to keep alive what she called “the learning of the imagination.” It is still active today, running lectures and courses devoted to this learning.

“Temenos” is a Greek word meaning the “sacred space” or “gathering” before the temple, and it is an apt name for Raine’s academy. Raine, who is perhaps best known as a scholar of  William Blake and other English Romantic poets, discovered that there was a whole tradition in the west of what we can call “imaginative knowledge,” that was lost to us. This was a knowledge that was as “real” and “true” as the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with – scientific knowledge or practical knowledge – but that concerned itself with aspects of reality that our more commonplace knowledge ignored or was unaware of or, in many cases, actively rejected.

What is this other kind of knowledge and why was it rejected? In a broad, general sense we can say that where the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with deals with the outer, external world –  how to manoeuver through it and control it, the kind of knowledge that is absolutely necessary for life –  this other, imaginative knowledge is concerned with our inner world, with what we used to call the soul but which we now speak of as consciousness. It is concerned with our inner experience, with states of being, with values, meanings, insights, intuitions and the other mysterious phenomena that make up our interior landscape and help make us human.

This kind of knowledge was rejected because it is precisely these kinds of intangible things that the kind of knowledge we are more familiar with cannot deal with adequately. It can tell us what is wrong with our car engine or how to get to the moon, but if we want to know the meaning of life or why a sunset is beautiful, it is irrelevant, absolutely useless. No amount of scientific analysis of a sunset will reveal to us the mystery of its beauty, just as no amount of pragmatic advice about how to “get on” in life will tell us its meaning. For this kind of knowledge, “meaning” and “beauty” are only subjective, they exist only “inside our heads”. My car engine and the moon are outside; they are objective, “real.” What I know about them is real knowledge and true for everyone. What I find meaningful and beautiful is true only for me. According to our common ideas, that is not knowledge. At best, it’s opinion, and only as good as any other.

Although living and influential in the past, this imaginative tradition, Raine saw, had been lost or, more accurately, pushed aside and relegated to the gutter, with the rise of the modern age and the development of what we know of as science and the measurable, quantifiable knowledge associated with it. At this time, around the early seventeenth century, for something to qualify as knowledge it had to be amenable to being measured and quantified. The sort of interior experience the tradition of imaginative knowledge was concerned with could not meet this requirement. It was concerned with quality, not quantity; with meaning, not measure. The sorts of things it engaged with could not be encompassed with a slide rule or measuring tape . They could not be touched or felt or weighed or in any way perceived by the senses. Because of this they soon found themselves being regarded as non-existent, or at best understood as negligible by-products of the actual measurable – that is physical – processes that the new quantifiable knowledge believed accounted for them.

This belief in the unreality or insignificance of our inner experience – from the quantitative perspective – remains today.  It is very easy to find evidence for it. The whole push to “explain consciousness” in physical terms – as a product of neurons and electro-chemical exchanges in the brain – that has been going on for some time now, is an example. But because the new, quantitative way of knowing was so impressive and successful and seemed to put an enormous power into man’s hands, it went ahead with confidence, and either ignored the warnings about the consequences of the loss of our inner world or rejected them as nonsense.

The tradition of imaginative knowledge lost a great deal of its prestige at this time. Up until then it was not considered, as it is today, mere nonsense and superstition, but a legitimate concern of scholars and philosophers, and its fall from grace was considerable. But, as Raine saw, it did not disappear. It merely went underground, and became a kind of subterranean stream, surfacing from time to time, and informing sages and poets like Swedenborg and Blake, but also Goethe, Novalis and the German Romantics, and many other artists and poets and musicians and philosophers. By the late nineteenth century it flowered forth as the modern “occult revival,” responsible for Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. By the early twentieth century we have Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, the work of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and even psychologists such as Carl Jung drawing on elements and ideas bubbling in the underground stream of our lost tradition.

In my books The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus and The Secret Teachers of the Western World, I write about the history of this “lost tradition,” which has been lost only for the past four centuries. “Misplaced” or “hidden” may be better ways to characterize it, as something being “lost” implies that it has gone missing accidentally,  and the disappearance of this tradition of imaginative knowledge had nothing accidental about it. It was deliberately relegated to the rubbish bin of ideas, and as I show in Secret Teachers, was subject to a kind of “character assassination.”

In these books and others, I show this tradition’s roots in the ancient philosophies and beliefs of antiquity and how, with the rise of quantifiable knowledge as the only accepted form of knowledge, it fell from a position of considerable prestige into ignominious disrepute. When we recognize that figures such as Copernicus and Isaac Newton, architects of the modern age, and other A-list western intellectual stars, such as Dante and Plato, subscribed to much of the lost tradition, we can see that it is something of value and significance and that to lose such a learning is indeed a loss.

Raine herself saw the Neoplatonic tradition, with its vision of the One, the varied forms of the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World, and the struggle of the individual soul to free itself from material bondage – its exile in the world –  and return to its source, as the guiding idea behind the symbols and metaphors that inform the Romantic lyrical tradition. What this poetry was about fundamentally was the soul, and its journey here, in an often dark world. Ultimately this vision went back to Plato. But she knew that Neoplatonism was not the sole source of the knowledge of the imagination she discovered in Coleridge, Yeats and other poets. It was one of many sources rooted in the past, such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and also the wisdom of the East, that fed the subterranean stream of the lost tradition. The tradition of the imagination has appeared in many forms, each related to the others, but each also unique. But each also fed and drank at the same source.

All of these traditions offered a different way of knowing the world and a different way of understanding our place in it, than that of the quantifiable, measurable view. In a general sense we can say that they spoke of a world that was living, conscious, interconnected, and receptive to human entreaty. Human beings themselves were a part of this world and shared in its spiritual, vital character. We could communicate with it. We participated  in it. We could speak with the spirits of nature and commune with the gods. It was a world that we can only dimly envision now, through our imagination – or remember it from our childhood – but it was a world in which imagination was the fundamental medium linking all together.

But with the rise of the new quantitative way of knowing, all this changed. The gods and spirits were evicted from the world. In order to understand the laws of planetary motion, we had to reject the idea, expressed eloquently by Dante, that it was the angels, or love, that moved the stars. Yet, Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion which we use today to send our probes out into the further reaches of space, was himself a passionate devotee of our lost tradition.

If someone responsible for the knowledge that allows us to send interstellar probes out beyond our solar system and into the infinity of space was a student of our lost tradition, it behooves us, I believe, to try to understand why this should be so. It is also a reminder that in trying to revive or restore or renew this lost tradition, the aim is not for it to replace the kind of knowing we associate with science and the practical business of life, but to complement it. Both are absolutely necessary and it is only by embracing both that we are fully and truly human.

The true source of this tradition of imaginative knowledge, however, is the imagination itself. All gods exist and have their origin in the human soul, William Blake tells us. He goes even further. The entire world we perceive with our senses is a product of imagination – not in the sense of it being “fake” or “unreal” but in the sense that our inner world, our mind, for sake of a better word, has precedent over the outer one and is indeed responsible for it. As the essayist and philosopher of language Owen Barfield – a friend of C. S. Lewis and a brilliant expositor of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner – said, “Interior is anterior,” meaning that our inner worlds come first, before the outer world. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what modern science tells us today. For it, the outer, exterior, physical, material measureable world comes first and is, in some way they can’t explain just yet – but they are working on it – responsible for our inner ones.

I don’t accept this and I don’t believe the people in this room accept it. But that is the situation today. And it is because that is the situation today that we have what this conference is concerned with: a crisis of the ego. What I hope to do in this talk is to show that by regaining this lost knowledge of the imagination, by becoming aware of and participating in this tradition of the imagination, we may be able to overcome this crisis. With a grasp of what this knowledge of the imagination truly means, we can pass through this difficult time, this “time of troubles,” as  the historian Arnold Toynbee spoke of the crises that challenge civilization, and begin to work on the real challenge, that of taking the next step in the evolution of consciousness.

For that is what I consider our current crises to be. The environmental, social, political, economic and other planetary challenges facing us are the hurdles we have to leap, the barriers we have to surmount, in order to make the shift into the next stage in human consciousness. Or, rather, it is by making that shift that we will be able to face these challenges successfully. The two are intertwined. Toynbee saw “challenge and response” as the motor of history. If a challenge facing a civilization is too great, it fails and goes down. If it is too easy, the civilization becomes complacent and decays. But if the challenge is “just right”, then the civilization finds the will and creativity to meet it, and continues to grow. I call this the “Goldilocks theory of history,” and it is something, I think,  that we can apply to human consciousness itself. If you know the English fairy tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, you will know that out of three choices, she always finds what is “just right.”

There are no guarantees and it is up to us to pull it off. But if we don’t, I see little hope of a bright future. I don’t mean to be gloomy here, just realistic. The environmental challenges facing us are enough to suggest this, and the political ones are no help either.

But how can a tradition of imagination, however important, help deal with the kind of real, solid, hard, physical crises involving climate, wealth, social justice and so on that face us today? To answer that I will need to take a look at what I mean when I speak of imagination.

When we think of imagination we usually see it as some kind of “substitute” for reality. We think of fantasy, day-dreams, wish-fulfilment musings offering unsubstantial realizations of a life much more interesting, fascinating, exciting – in general in all ways much better than our own. We think of imagination as “make believe,” as pretence, and sigh wistfully about  “having our dreams come true,” and are usually woken up with a start and the admonition that we have let our imagination “run away with us.” We drift into a fantasy of some more satisfying way of life, then sigh and admit that it was “just our imagination.”

Or we think of imagination as a tool for being innovative, for coming up with novelties that will keep us at “the cutting edge” of our profession. It helps to bring us the latest in technology, and keeps it “state of the art” and “fresh from the drawing board.” Imagination in this sense can be applied to anything, from computers to lipstick, from automobiles to swim suits. It is responsible for fashion – or perhaps we should say that a lack of imagination is responsible for that.

Of course we also give imagination an important, essential place in the arts. This is where it is most respected. Great literature, great painting, great music are all dependent upon the powers of the imagination, as are the lower ranks in these pursuits. This is perhaps the one realm in which the quantitative way of knowing will allow its qualitative way some freedom, although of course we know that many serious people see the products of imagination in this way as little more than ways of “escaping reality.” We say that people who spend too much time reading fiction or watching films are guilty of escapism, of running away from life – although much of the fiction and the films made today seem themselves something to run away from.

But ultimately, when it gets down to business, however powerful and moving a novel, painting, symphony, or even a film may be, in the end it, like the other substitutes for reality, is “unreal.” They are fiction, even if the novel, such as War and Peace, is about “real” events, or the painting depicts an historic scene. And if it is, like music, a non-representational art, then it is in the end really nothing more than nice sounds, vibrations of air that, for some odd reason, give us a sense of joy or comfort or what have you.

The point here is that no matter how powerful or meaningful we find a work of art, in the end, for the quantitative way of knowing, that power or meaning is less real than the paper, ink, canvas, paint or vibrations of air that convey it. Paper, canvas, ink and vibrations can be measured; meaning can’t.

This prejudice toward the unreality of the imagination is a difficult thing to excise. It is emphasized in the very definition of the word, at least in English. The Oxford Dictionary calls it a “mental faculty of forming images of objects not existent.” The Cambridge Dictionary calls it “the ability to form pictures in the mind that you think exist or are true but are in fact not real or true.” Merriam-Webster calls it “the ability to imagine things that are not real.”

We get the point. There are two things I want to say about this. The first is that although “imagining” in the sense of making a mental picture of something is, of course, a great part of “imagination,” it is not the only thing that is important about it or the only “power” possessed by imagination. The way I see imagination, it is not a faculty or a power in a specific sense, in the way that, say, our eyes have the “power” of sight or our ears the “power” of hearing. It is the means by which we have any experience at all. You can have 20/20 vision and hearing like sonar, but if you lack imagination you will be blind as a bat and deaf as a log. Imagination is something so fundamental that we cannot point to one limited expression of it and say, “That’s it. That’s imagination.” It is a kind of “intuitive glue” that holds all of our experience together; without it, everything would break apart into disconnected fragments. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be without imagination, because we would need imagination in order to do so.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke of the fundamental elements of our experience as things “incapable of analysis in terms of factors more far-reaching than themselves.” These are things so basic that we can’t get under or away from them. We can’t analyse anything without already taking them for granted. Imagination, I think, is one of those things. It is so much a part of memory, self-consciousness, thought, perception, and the rest of our inner experience that it is almost impossible to pry it apart from them or any of them from each other. We can talk about these elements of our inner world as separate phenomena but we soon find that they blend into each other and that to demand an unyielding, fixed definition of “imagination” or any of these other imponderables would actually make them more obscure. We recognize what they mean tacitly, implicitly, and to throw the spotlight of analysis on them too harshly causes them to fade from our grasp. They have their own character, their own shading, contour and shape, but they run in parallel with each other.

The other thing I would say regarding a definition of imagination is that the one I do find most profitable to follow comes from Colin Wilson, a British writer and philosopher whose work has been an enormous influence on my own. He saw imagination as “the ability to grasp realities that are not immediately present.” Not, as our official definitions have it, as a means of creating “mental images” of non-existent things. But a means of grasping reality itself. I would only add to Wilson’s definition the fact that we often need imagination to truly grasp the reality that is right in front of us, staring us in the face.

Wilson knew this, and it is this kind of passivity before the outer world that our consciousness often exhibits – what he calls “robotic consciousness” – that he spent a lifetime analysing in order to overcome. But what he meant by “realities that are not immediately present,” is that we are often hypnotized into accepting whatever “reality” may be in front of us at the moment as the whole of reality, or at least of the reality available to us at the time. We are, he says, “stuck” in the present, hemmed in by our immediate experience in the same way that we would be hemmed in by four walls if we were locked in a room. Plato, in fact, knew this ages ago, when he compared human beings to prisoners chained and forced to live in a cave, and who take the  shadows they are compelled to see for “reality.”

Plato believed the pursuit of philosophy was a way of exiting the cave. He is right. It is, and the Neoplatonists whose vision informed Kathleen Raine’s Romantic poets knew it. But sometimes we can find ourselves outside the cave and in the bright daylight spontaneously. It is in such a moment that imagination in the sense of “making real” “realities that are not immediately present,” comes into play. And even here, the notion that imagination, instead of “make believe” – which is how we usually understand it – is really about “making real,” is expressed quite clearly. Anytime you “realize” something – that is, make it real to you – you use your imagination to do so. That is what “realizing” something means: making it real.

Let me give you an example of such a moment that Wilson refers to in his books and which seems rather appropriate for the setting of this conference. It comes from the novelist Hermann Hesse, from his novel Steppenwolf, and here we are in Hesse’s hometown. I’m sure you know the story. Harry Haller – who we must assume is in at least some ways Hesse himself – is a middle-aged intellectual who really has nothing to complain about. He has enough money to live on, the freedom to do what he wants, and no responsibilities of any kind. Yet, he spends his days avoiding suicide. Why? Why should his freedom, which is something he has always wanted and has struggled and sacrificed to attain, have become a burden? It makes no sense. Yet it has and in the beginning of the book we find him wandering around an unidentified city – most likely a blend of Basel and Zurich – avoiding the razor blade.

At one point he sits at a café and orders a glass of wine. Then, as he sips his good Elsasser, something happens. His despair lifts and suddenly he is transformed. “A refreshing laughter” rises in him, and from out of nowhere, he is flooded with memories: of paintings he has seen, places he has been, of experiences he has had but of which only he knows. “A thousand pictures” were stored in his brain, and now they have come back to him, not as dim, faint recollections, but as living, vital realities. These things have been and still are real, and the recognition of their reality, the realization of it, has now completely changed the wretched Steppenwolf’s mood. He is not trapped in the prison of the present moment, and the dullness he feels toward life is a colossal mistake, his ideas of suicide an absurdity. As he becomes aware of more reality, he becomes more real himself. “The golden trail was blazed and I was reminded of the eternal, and of Mozart and the stars.” Would that we all were!

Harry Haller was reminded of the reality of the stars, of Mozart and of the eternal. But did he actually forget that Mozart existed, or that the stars did? (We can put the eternal aside for a moment.) Did he forget about their existence in the same way that he might have forgotten his keys or a friend’s telephone number? What exactly is he “remembering” here?

What Hesse means by being “reminded” here is not the same as when we are reminded of some fact we have forgotten, say, the year of Mozart’s birth or when he composed the Jupiter Symphony. What has set the golden trail ablaze is not some fact like this coming to the Steppenwolf’s attention. He does not say “Oh yes. How could I forget? Mozart existed and wrote all that music. And the stars and the eternal exist too. How silly of me.” He was in full possession of these facts before he drank his glass of wine. But he was not in full possession of the reality of those facts until he did. Something prevented him from remembering it or somehow came between the acknowledgement of the fact and the appreciation of its meaning. And now the wine has somehow removed this impediment and the reality of things – or at least that part of it he has “forgotten” – comes rushing in. No surprise that wine and poetry have long been fellow travellers.

And it is because the Steppenwolf is not in full possession of reality that he finds the “lukewarm and insipid air of his so-called good and tolerable days” absolutely unbearable and he spends his evenings wondering whether or not he should slit his throat.

What has saved him from doing so that particular evening is precisely the reality of other times and places, coming back to him and rescuing him from the misconception that reality is whatever happens to be in front our noses at the moment. It is not. These things that come rushing to him really happened and they are really a part of his life. They happened in the past, yes, but what of it? What is time that it should decide whether something is real or not? It is all well and good to “be here now,” as much sage wisdom advises. But it all depends on how big is “here” and how long is “now”. “Here” can mean the entire universe and “now” all eternity – if, as the teachers of the imagination tell us, we know how to enter them. At that moment when the wine released the restraints on his imagination, the past was as fully real to the Steppenwolf as the present was. Even more real, as the present he had taken for reality was a confidence trick that, luckily, he has seen through.

So that is an example of how imagination, rather than dealing in unrealities, is an absolutely necessary ingredient in our capacity to fully grasp actual, well-established realities. And again, this is not some metaphor or “manner of speaking.” Harry Haller may be a fictional character, but anyone who knows about Hesse’s life knows that an H.H. turns up in more than one novel and is usually not very far removed from Hesse himself. I think we can take it as given that the kind of experience Harry Haller had was also had in some way by Hesse himself. He certainly entertained suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion. It was precisely in order to understand the meaning of such experiences, that Hesse wrote Steppenwolf and his other novels.

In general Hesse’s heroes find something “missing” in life and head out on the road in order to find it. And on the way they have strange moments when what is missing is suddenly found. And like Harry Haller they do feel “How could I forget?,” but not about this or that fact, but about the reality of their experience. Indeed, how could they forget that? What is missing? Reality, or our grasp of it. How can we regain it? Imagination.

This is not a talk about Hesse, so I should move on. But you can find other examples of the “Mozart and the stars” experience in Steppenwolf and in Hesse’s other novels. Now let me offer a few examples of other types of experience associated with the “learning of the imagination.” Let me give you one from a younger contemporary and countryman of Hesse, although one who had very different views on life and society.

In his unclassifiable work The Adventurous Heart, the writer Ernst Jünger has a section entitled “The Master Key.” In it he offers an example of a kind of imaginative knowing that is direct, immediate, much in the way that the reality of the past came to Hesse’s Steppenwolf directly. “Our understanding is such,” Jünger writes, “that it is able to engage from the circumference as well as at the midpoint.” “For the first case we possess ant-like industriousness, for the second the gift of intuition.” Jünger comments that “for the mind that comprehends the midpoint, knowledge of the circumference becomes secondary – just as individual room keys lose importance for someone with the master key to the house.”

Knowing from the mid-point, or, we could say, at the bull’s eye, is a way of knowing that is direct, not discursive. It does not follow steps or stages but goes straight to the center, to the heart we might say. It possesses a miraculous accuracy but it has one drawback. It is unable to explain how it knows what it knows, how it came to its knowledge. Intuitions come to us, suddenly, out of the blue, and we just know they are right, even though we can’t explain why or how. That is the benefit of the ant-like industriousness of those who proceed from the circumference – that is, using our usual way of knowing, with all the individual keys to all the separate rooms. It is dull and repetitious, but once we know something in this way, we can tell someone else how we know it, and show them so that they can know it too. I can’t share my intuitive bull’s eyes in the same way, although if I am an artist or creative in some way, I may be able to create something that can spark an intuition in you. But I can’t write out a formula for one in the same way that I can, say, for a chemical experiment.

This kind of direct knowledge appears in different ways. Goethe experienced something of it when he perceived his Urpflanze in the Botanical Gardens in Palermo during his famous Italian Journey. Gazing at the plants there in the hot Mediterranean sun, Goethe believed he could see what he called the “Primal Plant,” the archetypal plant from which all others emerge and with which all others are still in sympathy, that is, connected. It was “real” but it was not physical, and to see it require a long training and discipline in the imagination which, for Goethe, was as precise an instrument as any used by his fellow scientists. Goethe wrote about his experience of “seeing ideas” – as his friend Schiller called it – but he knew that it was “impossible to understand just from reading.” One had to see the Primal Plant for oneself, and that meant training the imagination to do so.

The kind of inner seeing that Goethe practiced in order to see his Urpflanze has much in common with what the alchemist and Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz called “the intelligence of the heart.” This was a way of understanding the world that de Lubicz believed was at the center of ancient Egyptian religion and civilization. It too was a way of seeing into things, of looking into their interior and grasping the interconnectedness of all experience. De Lubicz speaks of a way of knowing the world in which we can “tumble from the rock that falls from the mountain,” “rejoice with the rosebud about to open,” and “expand in space with the ripening fruit.” As with Jünger’s “master key,” “the intelligence of the heart” is a way of going directly to the center of experience, of participating with it, in a way that our usual way of knowing, from the outside, finds incomprehensible. It is a way of knowing that, using a term from the esoteric tradition,  we can call a gnosis.

There are other forms of imaginative knowing, such as the inner journeying of seers such as the 11th century Persian mystical philosopher Suhrawardi, the Swedish scientist and religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, the psychologist Carl Jung, and the 20th century Iranologist Henry Corbin. I explore them in my book Lost Knowledge of the Imagination and unfortunately I can only mention them here. In this talk I have focused on one aspect of our imaginative knowing, that of its power to grasp reality. But as I say, reality extends into more directions than we might immediately recognize. What Suhrawardi, Swedenborg, Jung, Corbin, and many others discovered was that our imagination is our entry point into the little explored universe each of us carries around inside our heads. A world extends outside of us infinitely. There is also an inner world that extends into an equal infinity within our minds, with its own landscapes, geography, laws, and, most strange, inhabitants. But that I will have to leave for another talk.

What I want to do now, as I see I have to bring this talk to a close,  is to show why I think recognizing that imagination as a means of grasping reality is something of vital importance to us, and why it is necessary in order to meet the challenges facing us in our crisis of the ego. The importance of having a good grasp on reality should not require too much argument, to be sure. What is necessary is to show that although we think we already have reality well in hand, we don’t. And again, what I mean by “reality” here isn’t anything abstract or metaphysical or spiritual or cosmic. I mean common, everyday reality, the unavoidable kind. It was his weak grasp on this reality, the reality of his life, that led Hesse’s Steppenwolf to grow to hate his pleasant, comfortable existence and consider slitting his throat as a stimulating alternative. We can say this is our existential reality.

If a man as intelligent, cultured, and mature as Hesse’s Steppenwolf – and, we can assume, Hesse himself – could so lose his grip on what was real and meaningful about his existence – “Mozart and the stars” – that he could be brought to thoughts of suicide, how better would a less developed individual fare when subject to the same tendency we all have to what Colin Wilson calls “life-devaulation,” which is really a way of expressing our common sin of getting used to things and taking them for granted? What does “getting used to” or “taking for granted” mean? It means that we begin to notice only the fact of some reality or other, and lose sight of its meaning. It means a failure of our imagination to hold on to the full reality. We devalue it. The mere fact is easy to retain – our senses help us here. To retain the meaning requires a kind of effort on our part, and we easily forget this or find it too taxing to make. And because we fail to make this effort, we fall into the trap of accepting the half-reality we perceive – the side of it available to our senses – as the whole of reality, and we base our decisions about life on this diminished picture.

Because of this we are apt to make bad decisions, ones based on only what is immediately before our eyes. That is, short-sighted ones.

This cannot be good.

We can say that all acts of imagination are designed to in some way retard or reverse this process. Going about life in this state is only a kind of half-living. We are all subject to this. We are all Steppenwolves, of one kind or another. But we too can all remember Mozart and the stars. And it is important that we do because the crises facing us will require our grip on reality to be as firm and tenacious as we can make it. In fact, it’s the case today that in many ways “reality” is up for grabs. This is something I have written about in my most recent book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, which looks at how certain ideas about how we “create our own reality,” stemming from occultism and postmodernism, have informed contemporary politics in the United States, Russia, and also in Europe. So the question of securing a firm grip on reality is not solely a philosophical or psychological one. It has also bled over into politics. I would say that in general today, reality is under threat.

Regaining the lost knowledge of the imagination, or even recognizing that such a knowledge is there to be regained, can, I believe, help us here. It may be a means by which we can find a way through our crises that brings the two dimensions of our experience – facts and their meaning – together in a collaboration that is “just right.” If so, that would be a reality worth creating.

 

 

 

 

 

Germany, Japan, Italy? It’s not the Axis Powers but Dark Stars and Lost Knowledge.

I will be in Calw, Germany, later this month giving a talk on the Lost Knowledge of the Imagination at a conference on “The Crisis of the Ego” held by the Rosicrucian Society on October 20-21. Calw is the birthplace of Hermann Hesse, whose books I devoured as a teenager in the early 1970s, along with several million other of his posthumous readers. Some years ago I visited Hesse’s home in Montagnola, Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1962. Seeing his birthplace completes the circle as it were.

I’m looking forward to the conference for several reasons, but an especial one is that I will have a chance to see my friend Rudiger Sunner’s new film, about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – another German language writer whose work I’ve read and re-read more times than I can remember. Angel Over Europe: Rilke as God Seeker promises to be a spiritually insightful and culturally significant work – if any of Rudiger’s other films are anything to go by.

The Japanese and Italian rights to Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump have been sold. My Italian publisher, Tlon – their name comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, about an imaginary country – has asked me to write an introduction to the Italian edition, bringing the book up-to-date on events in Europe and especially in Italy, with the rise of the populist movement there, spurred on by Steve Bannon’s European crusade. I’m glad that my editor feels the book is very timely, but concerned that as its relevance increases, the dangers it points to increase as well.

I also have an article spelling out the differences between the “ancient wisdom,” perennial philosophy, and Traditionalism in the latest issue of New Dawn. The people there have been very helpful with suggestions and material useful for my current project, a book about the “return of Holy Russia” that I am doing for Inner Traditions and which I assume will be out sometime next year. I never thought I’d be writing a kind of mini-history of Russia but destiny doesn’t always announce itself ahead of schedule. I’m glad I’ve had a reason to go back and re-read early inspirations such as Dostoyevsky, the Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, and the tragic genius Gogol, among others, and also to explore new material. A lot has been churned up by our recent plunge into occult politics, but it isn’t only the nasty bits that rise to the surface.

And I am happy to announce that one of the rarest of Colin Wilson’s early works, his collection of essays on writers and literature, Eagles and Earwigs, has been published in a new edition. It’s edited by Wilson bibliographer Colin Stanley, published by Todd Swift at Eyewear Publishing, and has a preface by me, recounting, among other things, my visit to Wilson back in 1983 and my joy at finding a copy of the book at the old Reading Room of the British Museum. You may not be able to meet the author, but you can have the pleasure of reading his assessment of writers like Ayn Rand, John Cowper Powys, David Lindsay, L H. Myers and others.

Madame Blavatsky, P.D. Ouspensky, and Magical Politics

I’ve posted some video recordings of some recent talks on You Tube. I tweet about them when I post, but I’m not sure if everyone here sees this, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to put the links together in one place. So, in chronological order:

Madame Blavatsky, The Mother of Modern Spirituality, Thomas Carlyle House.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

In Search of P.D. Ouspensky, Kensington Central Library.

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book.)

Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, Conway Hall

(The amazon.com and amazon.co.uk links for the book)

An interview with me about Dark Star Rising for Rebel Wisdom.

For those in the London area, I’ll be talking about Jung, Maslow, and Colin Wilson in the context of Individuation, Self-Actualization, and getting “beyond the robot” at the Day on Meaning at Birkbeck College, University of London, this July 29th. Some tickets are still available.

My talk on Aleister Crowley for the Century Club 18 July is sold out. An encore is scheduled for September.

I’ll be giving the closing talk for the Decadence, Magic (K) and the Occult conference at Goldsmith’s College 20 July. My topic is “Occultism in the World Today” and will focus on all the strange occult politics I’ve been writing about of late.

On 9 August I’ll be giving a free talk at Watkins Bookshop on Dark Star Rising. I’ll post details when they’re available.