Saving the City and Giving It Gods: The Strange Philosophy of Gemistos Plethon

Jonathan Ratcliffe


Georgios Gemistos Plethon

From a fresco by Bennozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.

“I myself heard [Plethon] at Florence … asserting that in a few more years the whole world would accept one and the same religion with one mind, one intelligence, one teaching. And when I asked him “Christ’s or Muhammad’s?” he said, “Neither; but it will not differ much from paganism.” I was so shocked by these words that I hated him ever after and feared him like a poisonous viper, and I could no longer bear to see or hear him.”

 – George of Trebizond, Comparison of Plato and Aristotle.[1]

Recently, while speaking with a friend about Renaissance Platonists, I decided to pop the ultimate question of quatropunk pretence: “What do you think of Plethon?” I asked. After a moment or two my friend responded: “Plethon represents the best and worst of the Hellenic tradition.” Now I do not think that my friend, a very erudite little fellow, was hedging his bets here. Plethon, once known, is not someone one can be tepid about. In his rejection of Neoplatonism, Christianity and the Byzantine Empire in favour of reviving a polytheistic pagan civic religion and pleas to rulers to build a Platonic society in the Peloponnese, it is hard not to think of him as either a genius or insane. As obscure as he is, Plethon is an epochal figure, not merely in Renaissance thought, but in the history of philosophy in toto. While for much of the 20th century interest in Plethon was rather small, in the past couple of decades thinkers have increasingly begun to address his importance, even hailing him as the first modern political thinker, the first modern neo-pagan, Spinoza before his time, and “the last of the Hellenes.”[2]

In the essay that follows we will look closely at Plethon, both as Platonic metaphysician and as political thinker. To write it I have been strongly dependant on Niketas Siniossoglou’s 2011 Radical Platonism in Byzantium, perhaps the only book that deals with Plethon in both of these capacities, though, as we shall see later, I certainly have a few criticisms to make on some of its key theories. This essay acts as an accompaniment to the recorded talk that I was to deliver viva voce on March 6 2020 to the Bendigo Philosophical Society, but, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic (galloping bat-pox to its friends), I was unable to. The essay is a lot more technical than the recorded talk, especially the long section on ontology. Sadly, the question of Being, that most empty yet all-important of questions, so Heidegger famously put it, is also an immensely abstract and tortuous business. I have done my best to keep it as comprehensible as possible, but if one is to understand the uniqueness of Plethon’s thought on this subject it is very much necessary to understand the debates of his age and predecessors. Should the reader have any questions, I would advise him or her to please email me at or talk to me in person at the next live-action philosophy meeting.


Georgios Gemistos was born between somewhere 1355 and 1360 into a well-to-do Byzantine Greek family. He was sent to Constantinople for education, and then to Adrianopolis, which although it had fallen to the Ottomans shortly after his birth (1365), still remained an important centre of learning for Greeks. Here Gemistos met Judaeus Elissaeus, who taught him about Zoroastrianism. Elissaeus was burned at the stake for heresy, causing the young Gemistos to realise it was time to move on and travel a little. [3]  Back in Constantinople Gemistos became a prominent teacher of philosophy and a senator. Early in the 15th c. century the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos sent him to the city of Mystra in the Peloponnese to serve the court of his brother, Theodore Palaiologos, the Despot of Morea. He was to remain in Mystra for the rest of his long life, and seems to have passed away around 1452, shortly before Constantinople fell to the Turks. In later life Gemistos came to be known as Plethon, though no one seems to know if this was a self-granted name due to his enthusiasm for the similarly named Plato, or, like Plato’s own name, a nickname granted due to his bulky physique.[4]

During his lifetime Plethon seems to have been held in very high esteem for his learning, both in Morea and in Constantinople. In 1438-9 he was even chosen to be a prominent speaker on behalf of the Byzantine Orthodox Church at the Conference of Florence, a long ongoing attempt to reconcile the Latin West with the Eastern churches. While Plethon was in Florence, so a popular story goes, he so impressed Cosimo de’Medici with his discourse on Plato at the house of Cardinal Cesarini that the Florentine ruler established his new Florentine Academy because of it.[5]

The quattrocento is indubitably the century of Platonic revival. Increasing links between East and West led to access to a massive new wealth of Hermetic and Platonic texts in Greek – but especially the works of Plato himself, who in the Latin West had been reduced to very little but Calchidius’ Latin commentary on the Timaeus for most of the Middle Ages. In Florence there was Marsilio Ficino – the first great modern Latin translator of Plato – and his young friend Pico della Mirandola, who at age twenty-three precociously rocked up to Rome with 900 philosophical theses gathered from the great Pagan, Jewish, Christian and Islamic sages and the belief that deep down that all agreed with one another. In Germany there was Nicholas Cusanus and his mystical docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) and fascination with mathematical proportion. And in Mystra, in a small corner of Greece, there was Plethon and his small circle of followers.

Plethon’s most important work was his Nomoi, or Laws. In this text Plethon not merely criticised the Neoplatonic monastic culture of his day, he also dared to outline a polytheistic pagan civic religion as an alternative to it. For Plethon to take Plato seriously also meant taking ancient Greek religion seriously. Zeus replaces the Christian godhead. It is highly doubtful that Plethon was just playing around with the ancients as a spot of fun. The work was so shocking that following Plethon’s death it was burned, most likely by his enemy and former student Scholarios, who by then had become Gennadius II, Patriarch of Constantinople.[6] All that was left was a syggraphe (draft) of its content preserved by one of Plethon’s students, Bessarion.[7] Much will be said about what we can reassemble of this text and its complex pagan ontology in the next section of this essay.

Another important work of Plethon’s is the treatise On the Differences Between Aristotle and Plato, in which he argues to his Christian audience that the former’s conception of deity was far closer to the Christian God and that the latter’s ideal life of idle theoria (contemplation) was little better than the sort of lazy hedonism one might associate with Epicureans and the worst excesses of monasticism.[8] As well as this Plethon also wrote two Prosphonematia, or Memoranda, to the emperor Manuel and the despot Theodore, in which he laid out radical programs of political reform for the Peloponnesian region.[9] These not only borrow very strongly from Plato’s Republic and Laws in their advice to collectivise land and divide society into a tripartite class system, but may also be the first modern Utopian political project. We will turn to these in the second part of this essay.

  1. Plethon the Pagan

“Somewhere Aristotle himself says that ‘beings abhor a state of disorder’ (Metaphysics 1076a3-4)’, and he quotes: ‘the rule of the many is not a good thing – let there be one ruler… (Iliad 2.204)’. His words are impressive in theory, but in practice it is he himself who introduces the disorderly state of beings by refusing to allow the unity of Being.”

 – Plethon, Differences.[10]

In order to understand Plethon’s Nomoi and the reasons why he attempted to revive ancient Greek paganism as a civic religion it is first necessary to understand the intellectual world that Plethon was born into – its debates and terms, its preoccupations and fears. Key to this is the history of ontology – the branch of philosophy devoted to the subject of Being and existence. Plethon’s “revival” of the pagan Plato is an explicitly Parmenidean revival, one aimed against the Neoplatonic Christian mysticism that at the time held sway both among the Byzantines and in the Latin West. Parmenides, who first lifted up the question of Being in Greek thought, presented it as a great trivial One in which all things existed equally in spite of the “two-headed” human habit to negate the existence of some things and affirm others. To Parmenides everything is. There is no is not.[11]

Plato was strongly indebted to Parmenides, and famously even had the philosopher, in a dialogue named after him, meet with and refute the young Socrates and an early version of his Theory of Forms.[12] However, Plato himself was a very ambitious and adventurous ontologist. In the Timaeus he presented a cosmology in which permanent Being and mutable Becoming are sharply differentiated. In the late Sophist dialogue we even find Plato putting into the mouth of an “Eleatic Stranger/Guest” the need to disobey both the sophists and Parmenides by taking the existence of Non-Being seriously.[13]

Most influential of all, however, in the genesis of what was to become Neoplatonism was the series of puzzling statements that are presented from the mouth of Parmenides in the Parmenides dialogue, especially the argument that forms part of its Second Hypothesis that the One and Being are not the same.[14] That the One is beyond Being was adopted by the Neoplatonists to express the radical transcendental otherness of the One from worldly existence. Plato in the Republic had said that the Form of the Good was beyond Being in his allegory of the sun, so this seemed fitting.[15] Nonetheless, Plotinus’ student Proclus was obliged to differentiate “two” Parmenides because of this – that of the poem who had said that Being is One, and that of the Platonic dialogue who had differentiated the One and Being.[16]

Through the influence of the Neoplatonic mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius both Greek and Latin Christendom developed strains of thought that emphasised the radical otherness of God from creation. In the Latin West this took the form of the via negativa, or negative path to enlightenment, in which God could only be expressed through negations – God is not this, not that – and pure personal mystical experience.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Cloud of Unknowing in which the reader is charged to put a “cloud of forgetting” between themselves and the world in order to pierce the “cloud of unknowing” that separates themselves from the transcendental God.[17] Among the Byzantines, especially after the rise of Palamism a century before Plethon, the emphasis was slightly different – the xene physis (alien nature) of God was beyond both Being and Non-Being. God’s “energies” could be experienced in the world, but not his “essence” – because God is in fact “super-essential.”[18] The problem with this sort of thinking of course is that a great chasm opens between God and His creation and it becomes very difficult to outline how the two might relate or interact at all.

All of this was only further complicated by the growing revival of the works of Aristotle from the 12th century. On the topic of Being, Aristotle described it as equivocal – as a word “said in many ways” with a number of very different meanings. When we say that something “is” we can mean that it exists (X is), that it has certain qualities (X is Y), we can simply be affirming something (X is Y), we can mean the ontological difference between beings and Being-in-itself.[19] The great Scholastic Thomas Aquinas utilised this to outline his theory of the analogia entis (analogy of Being), in which the essence of beings is that they participate in God, who is Being-in-itself.

To Aquinas creation is not radically other from the nature of God. Rather, because there is a mix of univocity and equivocity in Being, creation reflects God analogically and leads back towards God.[20] Against this Duns Scotus declared that the Being of God and his creation was in fact only univocal. They both meant exactly the same thing. God simply differed in degree from his creation, not in kind.[21] In order to argue this Scotus was reliant upon another of Aristotle’s ideas – that of the phylon (phylum, genus). For Aristotle all entities are organised into genera, but every genus has a primum in genere, a foremost, most essential member that epitomises the entire genus. Scotus thus insisted that Being was a genus and that God was its primum – He is simply more existent than every other existent.

It is at this point that Plethon makes his entrance. More than anything what Plethon does is choose Proclus’ first Parmenides of the Oneness of Being over the second Parmenides for whom the One was beyond Being, and who, for more than a thousand years, had been the far more influential. In the Differences, as we see in the quote given at the start of this section,Plethon adamantly argues that the Aristotelian equivocity of Being would mean ontological chaos, a God completely divided from creation. Now, had Plethon stopped here he may well have been simply a rather boring fellow and no one would have likely ever burned his work. At most perhaps he would have been accused of “idolatry” (and he was anyway) for rendering God too close to creation, for this was always a concern of the Palamites worrying that a too-similar deity would lead to the ultimate fear of both Judaeo-Christianity and Platonism: the worship of mere simulacra.

Nonetheless, it was Plethon’s “Hellenism” that seems to have been the far greater offence. The Byzantines had long had a very strange and strained relationship with the pagan ancients. The Church Fathers had been strongly reliant upon them in order to draw sophisticated philosophical arguments to legitimise and systematise Christianity. The Byzantines preserved the Greek wealth of antiquity as a result – its philosophies and histories and poems – which supplied wonderful source of lexis, or models to imitate. But at the same time, they always seemed to feel the need to constantly distance themselves from its pagan uncleanliness. There were recurrent bouts of taking the imitation too far and succumbing to “Hellenism”, just as one might expect. Plethon was certainly not the first to have succumbed to such things. He was however, perhaps the last, and perhaps the greatest.

What Plethon did was to present in the Nomoi an ontology and cosmology through a series of prayers to the pagan Olympian gods as metaphysical principles. Chief among these is Zeus, whom Plethon used as a replacement not merely for the Christian God, but for the Scholastic God of Being-in-itself, Good-in-itself, Truth-in-itself and One-in-itself. To Plethon Non-Being is impossible. There is nothing beyond or outside of Zeus qua Being. From this Zeus there is generated a series of “seven superior gods”, who represent a metaphysical scaffold within Being. First there is Poseidon, who represents nous (mind) and actuality. Then there is Hera who represents matter and potentiality. Thereafter: Apollo (Sameness), Artemis (Difference), Hephaistos (Rest), Dionysus (Self-Movement) and Athene (Movement by External Factor). [22]

This conversion of the pagan Greek gods to cosmic principles is not an original invention on Plethon’s part. In the Chaldean Oracles, on which Plethon wrote a commentary, we find a paternal First Intellect from which proceeds his son, a Second Intellect, and also a female force called Hecate from whom the world-soul proceeds. In the Orphic Sacred Discourse in Twenty-Four Rhapsodies we find another trinity – Cronos, Rhea, Zeus.[23] Also notable is Henry Corbin’s suggestion that during his education in Adrianopolis Plethon may have absorbed the basis for Poseidon’s procession from Zeus from the work of Platonic Sufi Suhrawardi, for whom there is a “Unique Separate Light” than emanates from the “First Being.”[24]

Even should such things be granted, the source for the majority of Pletho’s eight main principles is quite obviously Plato’s Sophist dialogue. There Plato presents an ontology of Five Most Important Things (Pente Megista Gene) – Being, Sameness, Difference, Rest and Motion. However, the entire point of this Five is for Plato to talk about the existence of Non-Being, which, as emphasised, Plethon adamantly rejected. In the Sophist Plato uses Non-Being in many different senses – he discovered the equivocity of Non-Being, but not that of Being, so we might say.[25] But the foremost use is to describe those members of the Five that are absolutely necessary for any cosmology, but are not themselves Being. Instead these Four participate in Being, and by doing so participate in koinonia (commonality, sharing) with one another to produce the diversity of creation. [26]

To the Plato of the Sophist, Non-Being is present all the way down through existence, a key factor of this being the participation of Difference as much as Sameness in things. For instance, Plato says that through negation what we are saying is simply that something is different. Thus, Non-Being opens up infinitely – there are always more negations that can be made.[27] The most important aspect of the Sophist, however, is Plato’s use of existent Non-Being as phantasma or illusion in order to a define the difference between the true philosopher and the false sophist. Plato creates a “fourfold” of a sort – both the gods and men are capable of creating true and false things.[28] And yet, the Eleatic Stranger does not crown this ontology with an onto-theological god of the One from which all beings proceed. Instead it is left an open question as to whether it was simply Nature or some unknown god(s) that brought everything about.[29] If anything, both divine and human creators are secondary products of the Five, in which the Same/One does not dominate any more than the Different/Many.

If there ever was an insertion of chaos into Being then it is to be found in Plato’s Sophist. Yet, like almost everybody in the history of philosophy, Plethon chose not to pick a serious fight with this bizarre late Platonic dialogue. Instead he simply stole its infrastructure and pretended that it did not concern the existence of Non-Being one jot. The other principles that Plethon makes use of – actuality, potentiality and the differentiation of motion into self-caused and initiated by something else – are key parts of Aristotelian metaphysics. Plethon may have railed at Aristotle for the “equivocity of Being”, but like the Italian Renaissance Platonists who came after him, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, he had been educated as a Scholastic and simply added Plato on top of his schooling. But whereas Pico and Ficino sought to continue the ancient tradition of the quest to prove the symphonia (agreement) between Plato and Aristotle, Plethon openly expressed his disbelief in it for the sake of his Parmenidean Plato.

Plethon does not stop at the replacement of Plato’s Five with an Eight. A second generated group of principles follows in two sections: Astral Nature under Atlas (which includes Tithonus = Planets, Dione = Fixed Stars, Hermes = Daemonic Nature and Pluto = The Human Soul) and Corporeal Nature under Rhea (which includes Leto = Ether and Heat, Hecate = Air and Cold, Tethys = Water and Flow, Hestia = Earth and Solidity). What we see here is quite reminiscent of the creation of eternal entities by the Demiurge and the Four Elements in the Timaeus. And yet, as should be rather obvious to anyone who possesses even a passing acquaintance with the ancient Greek Olympian pantheon, Plethon’s deities/titans and their begetting of one another has almost nothing in common with the genealogies of ancient pagan religion at all.

Plethon’s next set is Temporal Deities under Cronos (Time). Here we arrive at the lower sphere on plant and animal life. Aphrodite is curiously consigned to the lowly task of Reproduction in Plethon’s system, there being no “higher” form of Eros at all. Rather, this key aspect of Platonic thought is instead associated with Dionysus as principle of Self-Motion: “It is you who are the cause of motion produced by the love (eroti) for the Good (esthlou) and aspiration towards the Better (epi loion).”[30] After Aphrodite next Pan, Demeter and Persephone follow as Animal Nature, Plant Nature and Human Mortal Nature respectively. While Aphrodite, Demeter and Persephone were all important members of the Twelve Gods in Olympian tradition, Plethon has chosen to demote them beneath obscure Titans such as Tethys and Dione.

The reasoning would seem to be an implicit assumption about the primordial and “elemental” nature of the titans, as well as a Platonic deprecation of gods of birth and generation. Plethon even calls the Temporal Deities “illegitimate” compared with the higher set. At once Plethon is outlining a theogony of begetting and a generative logic leading away from Zeus as Father and his legitimate offspring down to the illegitimate:

“Let us sing of the creator of mortal nature, king Cronos, son of Jupiter, the eldest of his illegitimate children, who are the Titans, the gods of Tartarus. We will sing of them too, for all of them are good and free from all evil, even though they say that they were created from mortal beings and are subject to evil. Let’s sing also of Aphrodite, the holy wife of Cronos, and Pan who presides over animals, Hestia over plants, and Persephone over our mortal nature, and finally all the others.”[31]

It is very curious that Plethon refuses for these Titans to be “subject or evil”, while at the same time insisting on a mysterious illegitimacy that is never explained. In Neoplatonism the emanations are usually regarded as increasingly partaking of Non-Being and diminution as they drift further and further from the One. For Pletho, to whom there is no Non-Being, all there is instead is the necessary though unexplained invention of impure generative lineage.

Even so, Plethon still has another important section to go, one that seems simply to repeat the higher principles at a lower actualised level.  We have the actual individual sun, moon, planets, fixed stars and demons, followed by actual rational humans, irrational animals, plants and finally, at the very bottom, dead matter that is simply pure potency and no actuality. Once again, in keeping with the language of begetting, the former group is regarded as legitimate and the latter as illegitimate.

Another thing becomes very clear at this point. In order to replace the diminution of Being Plethon needs the Aristotelian principles of actuality and potentiality to do the work instead. The cosmos moves from absolute actualisation to absolute pure receptiveness. Neoplatonism had long since adopted these Aristotelian principles, but had also insisted on referring to matter as a kind of “phantasmic” existent Non-Being, even amusingly as “the flying absurdity”.[32] With Plethon we see for the first time Neo-Platonic emanationism pushed to purely “positive” limits. Hereafter one must wait for Spinoza in order to meet another One in which there is no negation, simply modes of existence, but so too none of the generative “skeleton” that Plethon had taken from the Sophist and rendered wholly positive.


The most burning question is whether Plethon actually believed in any of these gods as gods, and not simply as a convenient symbolic means to represent a logic of cosmic generation. In some cases in Plethon’s prayers we seem to see not merely a simple metaphysical principle at work, but also certain other aspects more closely associated with traditional understandings of these deities. For instance, in the following prayer to Athene (Movement by External Factor), we also see that she is regarded as the patroness to wise and parsimonious thinking, both in the creation of things and in the mind of the philosopher:

“Lady Athene,  you who rules and governs the concrete form not separated from matter, it is you who produces it in accordance with mighty Poseidon, who takes from you all form; you are also the cause of all movement communicated by impulsion; finally it is you who takes back each and every thing that would be useless or superfluous. And every time that our foolishness might carry us towards some fault, it is your inspirations, O Goddess, in accordance with matters of intelligence, who brings back our soul to how it should be.”[33]

Moreover, following these prayers the draft of the Nomoi turns to consideration of their practical application. The prayers are organised into two yearly ones, thirteen monthlies (including one for the occasional intercalendary month), six sacred hymns for various holy days each month, and six daily ones for the second to seventh days of each week. Plethon even goes into great detail in reorganising the calendar into 29-day months and on the sort of melodies to be used for the different hymns– phrygian, hypophrygian, dorian, hypodorian.[34] Plethon appears to have assumed that these would indeed be performed regularly and, to boot, as part of a civic religion in which there were temples given over to these pagan deities/principles.

At very least there seems more at work here than Niketas Siniossoglou’s claim that Plethon’s “religion” was henotheistic – that it principally concerned Zeus qua Being and the other gods/principles were of very little importance.[35] These other gods and titans seem very important to the cycle of the year as a re-enactment of the generation and celebration of the entire cosmos, even if Zeus qua Being is indeed the paramount deity/principle because of his establishment of the entire ontology. If, as Siniossoglou seems to think, Plethon foreshadows Enlightenment Utopian rationalism, then the first thing that might come to mind is the bizarre French Revolutionary Cult of Reason and its renaming of the days of the week and months.

In his 2011 book Radical Platonism in Byzantium Siniossoglou uses the case of Plethon to claim that pagan and Christian ontology are “essentially conflicting modes of existence”.[36] To Siniossoglou the former is rational, Utopian, monist and optimistic about man’s capacity to know the whole of things; the latter is mystical, millenarian and deprecatory of human knowledge of the whole.[37] One wonders what Siniossoglou might make of the eccentric Christian Parmenideanism of Jesuit Emanuele Severino, who claimed that all western nihilism might be put down to Plato’s admission of Non-Being into philosophy.[38]

Siniossoglou’s argument hangs on his insistence that when Plato had said that the Good was epekeina tes ousias (beyond Being) in the Republic, all this had really meant that Good was at the apex of Extreme-Being. This understanding, so a number of scholars have claimed, was taken to be the case down through the Middle Platonists, only to be derailed by Plotinus’ placing of the One beyond Being.[39]  Yet, even if this single famous example in Plato happened to be true, this does not explain away the aporias of Plato’s Parmenides concerning the One and Being, nor, for that matter, the Sophist’s active disobeying of Parmenides in order to take the existence of Non-Being seriously. Just as Plethon systematically ignored the discourse on Non-Being in the Sophist, Siniossoglou does as well. The notion that “pagan” Platonic ontology was a purely Parmenidean ontology of Being=One and that Plotinus seems to expect the “Christian ontology” that would make so much use of him, is not only naïve – it’s a bit silly to say the least. In the end one is compelled instead to realise that the ontological battle between Plethon and the Palamites is an “in-house” Platonic problem more than anything– that of Proclus’ “two Parmenides.”

In comparison, let us have a look at what an anti-Christian self-consciously pagan Platonist had to say about Plethon – Thomas Taylor – a name which I believe quite a few readers may recognise because of his importance as a thinker to the late Roger Sworder. Taylor’s 1812 A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle is one of the few works aside from Siniossoglou’s ever to take Plethon as a serious pagan thinker. It is then very interesting that what Taylor has to say is positively damning. Taylor begins by inveighing against Plethon that he was not merely “satisfied” to try to prove that there was “great difference” between Plato and Aristotle “but he even proceeded to great invective against Aristotle.”[40]

Following this Taylor adds: “And to those who are adepts in the theology of Plato it will be sufficient to observe as a proof of his ignorance of it that in his epitome of the dogmas of Zoroaster and Plato, he makes Jupiter to be the greatest of the gods, and Neptune to be his most ancient offspring.”[41] As Taylor explains, Jupiter was not the “highest god” to Plato or in the Chaldean Oracles attributed to Zoroaster – but the One. Amusingly, one might note, it was Plethon who was likely responsible for this attribution of this collection of Neoplatonic oracles to the ancient Persian sage.

Siniossoglou mentions Taylor’s condemnation, calling it the accusation of “a straightforward Platonic heresy.”[42] He is very much correct that Taylor condemns Plethon for giving up on the symphonia (agreement) between Plato and Aristotle, and for elevating Zeus to the position of the One. Contrary to Siniossoglou, however, nowhere does Taylor charge Plethon with the Platonic “heresy” of claiming that “the cause of all is knowable.” This seems to be a misunderstanding of Taylor, who simply mentions that to Plato the demiurge of the Timaeus is not “perfectly ineffable” but is still difficult to explain and “impossible to reveal him by words to all men.”[43] This merely seems to be the listing of an interesting factoid as part of his explanation of Plato’s theology and not an accusation of Plethon concerning the limitations of human knowledge. If anything, it would suggest that the teachings of the Timaeus are for pious and educated men alone and not for general consumption. Let us not forget that Socrates was put to death for inventing new gods, let alone that Pletho’s Noimoi were burned.

Nevertheless, Siniossoglou’s theory that Plethon prefigures Enlightenment modernity in his “epistemic optimism” about human beings being able to come to know and express the cause of all things is well worth discussing. The fact is that Plethon never emphasises this “optimism”, even if logically this might seem a consequence of his rejection of the Neoplatonic One beyond Being and the radically alien nature of God. Instead Siniossoglou focuses on Plethon’s commentary on the Chaldean Oracles and the way in which he differentiated his understanding of them from that of the influential 12th c. Byzantine philosopher Michael Psellos before him. The Chaldean Oracles are a rather Gnostic late antique tract in which the world and human body are treated as prisons from which an elect few are capable of transcending to attain unity with the First Intellect qua God through the highest part of their minds.[44]

The ancient Neoplatonists were particularly keen on the theurgic aspects of the Oracles insisted that only through purificatory rituals could the soul make its journey. However, Psellos as consciously Christian reader of the Oracles also saw in them the idea that only through God’s grace was enlightenment possible. Plethon, in an Aristotelian (Averroist?) strain, instead argued that the Demiurge had put images of intelligible things potentially in the soul, but it was up to the individual to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge through reason for them to be actualised. In short, Plethon put the onus on the individual rather than on waiting upon divine grace from the outside.[45]

Nonetheless, what does seem to be missing from Siniossoglou’s book (and from Plethon himself) is the Hermetic Corpus, which was traditionally attributed to the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus. In regard to the thesis of “epistemic optimism” and modernity, a great deal has been said over the years about the influence of the Corpus Hermeticum on modernity and its regard for Man as a “kind of god”, to borrow a hermetic-inspired phrase from Renaissance Platonist and first Latin translator of the corpus, Marsilio Ficino.[46] One only need look at Hermetica X, “The Key”:

“For none of the heavenly gods will go down to earth, leaving behind the bounds of heaven, yet the human rises up to heaven and takes its measure and knows what it is in its heights and its depths, and he understands all else exactly and – greater than all of this – he comes to be on high without leaving earth behind, so enormous is his range. Therefore, we must dare to say that the human on earth is a mortal god but that god in heaven is an immortal human. Through these two then, cosmos and human, all things exist, but they all exist by action of the one.”[47]

One of the most oft-cited examples of this hermetic “optimism” is Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration of the Dignity of Man”, or so it has been popularly known since its adoption by 19th century humanists in search of ancestors.[48] Pico’s “Oration” centres around a hermetic understanding of man as a “chameleon” – a creature that partakes in and can comprehend the entire cosmos, from its apex in unity with God to its lowest depths.[49] Siniossoglou does indeed mention Pico several times in his work, especially the “Oratio” as a symbol of Popper’s “the rationalism of the Renaissance”, but it is as though we are supposed to assume that this was only because of a hidden Plethonean undercurrent.[50] Even when Siniossoglou later attempts to show that Pico’s On Being and the One is “a work that has been rightly seen to be a Neoplatonist’s reaction to Plethon’s Differences…Obviously Plethon managed to stir the waters” this is not particularly convincing. [51] On Being and the One was indeed intended as the first part of a work showing the agreement of Plato and Aristotle that Pico never managed to finish, but the topic of symphonia was a very popular one at the time. In fact, it is very difficult to establish if Plethon ever really influenced anyone substantially. Pico never mentions his name once. All that he ever warranted from Ficino was the dubious story that the Medici had built their Platonic Academy because of him, and a passing reference as a notable supporter of the univocity of Being.

At the same time, it has also been very much possible to argue that it was only through a “negative” hermeticism that much of what we think of as modern thought, especially scientific thought, was able to begin to emerge. Key to this is the 15th c. figure of Nicholas Cusanus, who brought together negative theology, hermeticism and the natural sciences in works such as De Beryllo (On the Eyeglass) and De Conjecturis (On Conjectures).[52] Cusanus simultaneously emphasised the hermetic thesis that man was a “second God” on Earth with the need to realise man’s finite limits in relation to the infinite nature of God.[53] To Cusanus, only by developing a docta ignorantia (learned ignorance) of the limits of human reason and rejecting the Platonic Forms in favour of conceptualist “conjectures” that never completely capture the way in which things really work, is man able to begin to learn.

From Ernst Cassirer to Hans Blumenberg, many prominent 20th c. historians of ideas have found in Cusanus the first true modern thinker. Most interestingly, Blumenberg argued against thinkers such as Carl Löwith who claimed that the idea of progress was merely secularised Christian Millenarianism, that Cusanus instead opened up the immanent world and future to a potential infinite progress of human knowledge without perfection.[54] At very least it is quite obvious that without Cusanus, Hegel’s metaphysics of immanent negation and contradiction would not have been possible. Here it is imperative to emphasise that this development was due to Cusanus’ reception through Proclus of a watered-down version of the existence of Non-Being thesis outlined in the Sophist. To Cusa only in God is all Otherness resolved as Same. From the angels down through man and nature any posited thing always contains contradictions, for the “true cannot be partaken of otherwise than with a degree of otherness.”[55]

This genealogical chain is in complete distinction to Siniossoglou’s claim that only through positive “epistemic optimism” and ontological monism and univocity was modern thought possible. If anything, were we to take current philosophical divisions as a measure of things, all that Siniossoglou’s thesis would seem to lead towards is the realisation that Plethon is an ancestor of the anti-Hegelian, univocal Spinozan thought of Gilles Deleuze and its refusal of the existence of negativity in Being. Thus, when Deleuze cheekily claimed that “there has only ever been one ontological position: Being in univocal. There has only been one ontology, that of Duns Scotus…from Parmenides to Heidegger”, [56] the very least he could have done was perhaps mention Plethon too.

  • The Politics of Plethon

“Et omniformis,” Psellos, “omnis

 “Intellectus est.” God’s fire. Gemisto:

“Never with this religion

“Will you make men of the greeks.

 But build a wall across Peloponesus

 And organize, and…

damn these Eyetalian barbarians.”

  • Ezra Pound, Canto XXIII.

Plethon was not limited to merely the consideration of a revived pagan civic religion. In his two Prosphonematia (Memoranda) to the Despot Theodore II and the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, estimated to have been written around 1416 and 1418 respectively, Plethon attempts to turn the political philosophy of Plato to the practical matter of saving the Byzantines from the rapid decline and conquest by the Turks under which they had found themselves. Plethon’s aim was to convince these powerful men of the superiority and feasibility of creating a new spoudaiotate politeia (best political order) in the Peloponnese region that would revitalise the military, land cultivation and taxation systems.[57]

 Although the two “memos” differ on certain important matters, the key to both is the very Platonic division of the population into three distinct classes and the collectivisation of all arable land. Both of the memos went unheeded by Manuel and Theodore, though perhaps like Plato with Dionysius of Syracuse, Plethon only wrote them because he had become firmly convinced that such rulers were those rarest of creatures –philosopher kings. Nonetheless, in their insistence that everything must be completely transformed and that no expense should be spared for the sake of the common good, the memoranda do indeed seem to be, so Siniossoglou claims, “…an excellent candidate for the first modern plan of Utopia.”[58] Let us look at all this in detail.

In the Republic Plato famously divides the population of his theoretical Kallipolis (Best City) into three classes based on their inherent aptitudes. There is a Guardian class of philosopher warriors who are dominated by the rational part of the soul (nous); an Auxiliary class of soldiers dominated by the courageous part of the soul (thymos); and a class of workers and artisans dominated by the lowest appetitive part of the soul (epithymia). Plethon makes somewhat similar divisions in his Memoranda.

First there is the archikon phylon (ruling class) tasked with administration, justice and military protection. At the top of this class is a king of the polis, though he is not to be put above the law.[59] Beneath this is a second class, though the memos differ greatly on what it is. In the memo to Manuel this class is simply the military. The most important thing that Plethon has to say about this class is his insistence that they are to be homophylon (homegrown) in opposition to the unreliable mercenary forces that the Byzantines had become increasingly dependent upon. This means that the entire economic system has to be turned over to the reliable production and maintenance of soldiers. More will be said on this in a moment.

 In comparison, in the memo to Theodore the second class is the class of merchants and sellers, whom Plato famously limited to almost non-existence in his Republic because of the corruption of the people through luxuriance that he believed they engendered. Plethon also takes this to be true, riling against malakia (softness) and truphe (luxury), and arguing for the strict regulation of imports and exports and the heavy taxation of commodities not regarded as absolutely necessary to the citizen body. So too does he emphasise the need to ban foreign bronze coinage that was then devaluing the Byzantine currency.[60]

 Like Plato’s “closed society”, to utilise Karl Popper’s useful but problematic term,[61] Plethon’s aim is for as much as possible to be homegrown, self-sufficient and controllable by the rulers. Most important of all, however, is that Plethon was well aware that many of the archons or local rulers in the Byzantine Empire were simply rich merchants acting out of their own greedy self-interests. The archons would have to go. Only the moderately wealthy are to be admitted into the ruling class to avoid both the greed typical of the extremely wealthy and the nepotism that often took place among the Byzantines when members of poorer families were elevated to power.

The final class, termed the anagkaiotaton (most necessary), is indeed the most vital in Plethon’s scheme(s). This is the class of the farmers and herdsmen who supply the economic base for the rest of the society to function. It is here that Plethon’s most revolutionary reforms are focussed. The pronoia system of free land grants to aristocrats had to go, as well as the tax-exempt status in perpetuity that monastic institutions and many aristocratic families (including Plethon’s own) had been granted.[62] Instead the workers would be the ones entirely responsible for paying taxes so that the military class could be maintained tax-free. In the memo to Manuel Plethon even reanimates the dastardly old word “Helot” to describe the workers – the term for the Spartan agricultural underclass who were treated with impunity.[63] More than anything, however, this was likely just to legitimise his proposed political project in the Peloponnese by reaching back to the glories of ancient Sparta, which of course had also strongly informed the social system in Plato’s Republic.

That the “Helots” were to bear the entire tax burden may seem a little harsh. However, when we see how Plethon understood taxation it seems to make quite a bit more sense. Plethon’s taxation system is divided, once again, into three classes – the farmers and herdsmen, those who supply the capital needed for the workers to perform their function such as owners of herds, oxen for ploughing and vineyards, and finally the soldiers who protect the other two. The workers are to save a third of their produce to pay for the needed capital, are to keep a third themselves and the final third is to go in tax to the soldiers and community. This is to hold true even if the workers use their own capital to pay for the use of oxen etc. A third must still go to the community.[64] In fact, so Plethon estimates, each worker should responsible for the maintenance of one soldier.

Most dramatic of all, however, is Plethon’s decision to communalise land in order to encourage the active cultivation of as much of it as possible. Plethon grounds this in the maxim that “all nature is by nature common to all inhabitants and no one may claim any individual right to any part of it.”[65] Where did Plethon get such a radical idea? One suggestion has been that this stems from Stoic conceptions of the original “Golden Age” of mankind before society. Such myths of the “state of nature” had of course a very profound influence later on Enlightenment thought, from Locke to Rousseau, on the question of land ownership. However, as Siniossoglou notes, Plethon may simply have taken the idea from the Natural Law tradition.[66] He certainly does not invoke any myths of “Golden” primitivism, whether pagan or Christian, in order to ground his thesis.

What was most important for Plethon was maximal cultivation, however. By deprivatising land ownership and redistributing land that was being poorly cultivated or left unused, he seems to have thought that good cultivation could be incentivised. To work a piece of land was the right of anyone willing to do the work. The right to work a piece of land could also still be inherited from father to sons for Plethon, but if the sons lost interest or misused it, then they would lose it and it would be given to someone else. As Siniossoglou says, for Plethon: “private property is not inalienable, but labour is.”[67] The whole purpose of Plethon’s economic base is the production of autourgoi – self-regulating workers – in order to pay to militarise the state effectively. As is Plethon’s maxim: “We must become like an eagle, not like a peacock.”

It is difficult not to find Plethon’s proposals radical, even in our own time. Siniossoglou goes as far as to say of them:

“The transferability of this idea to the whole of the Peloponnese implied the collective abandonment of all domestic ties at the social level… in place of family and social ties Plethon introduces a notion of proto-national identity unprecedented in the history of Byzantium. This call for absolute ideological commitment and the subordination of all subjects to the single cause of soteria


. The new morality entails the creation of a Hellenic nation-state in the in the ethnically riven fifteenth-century Peloponnese.”[68]

Plethon does not go any way as far as Plato did in the Republic with his communisation of children and eugenic breeding of the Guardians, the “bastards in a bureau” as C. S. Lewis famously put it. Yet, at the same time perhaps Siniossoglou is correct when he asserts that Plethon’s rejection of the Christian soteria (salvation) that could only be found in Heaven or the coming of the Millennium in favour of the Platonic soteria of the city is a fundamental break in Byzantine thought at very least.[69] Plethon certainly seemed to believe that his radical social engineering project would “not be impossible, nor too difficult” as long as the people were willing to act “with one soul” for their own collective benefit.[70] For dealing those unwilling to change, violence would be necessary, though, in Platonic fashion it must be a violence informed by reason. Perhaps such sentiments do sound a little like those that the Enlightenment was later to bring. Nonetheless, in comparison with the crumbling Byzantine empire the Latin West was already witnessing the genesis of what were to later become modern nation states. Though the French Revolution was to first begin the invention of “civic nationalist” culture as we know it today,[71] one does sense that a little is indeed already prefigured in the obscure Plethon.

For the few who have ever taken much notice of Plethon’s Memoranda, the Platonist Thomas More’s Utopia is an understandably common comparison. Some have even wondered whether More was directly influenced by Plethon, though there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest so. [72]  Moreover, while Plethon might have chosen to communalise land, More’s Utopians are far more “communistic” in their complete rejection of private property and discarding of all money within their “closed society”. More’s impetus to communise was the increasing closure of the commons and transformation of the British peasantry into floating vagabonds for the sake of the wool trade, summarised in his famous dictum that sheep, once placid, had become man-eating animals.[73]

Nevertheless, Siniossoglou may well be correct that More misunderstood Plato’s Republic, in which only the Guardian class share all things in common.[74] Indeed, so I have long thought, the Utopians in their rejection of gold seem far closer to Herodotus’ fantastic stories about the Ethiopians.[75] Ironically, the Utopians’ use of money only for bribing outsiders to fight one another is a strategy that was used extensively by the Byzantines for dealing with Slavic and Inner Asian tribes,[76] though we find no such proposals in Plethon, who instead seems to simply be satisfied to ring his “closed” Peloponnesian city state with high walls and to keep out foreign enemies, currency and luxuriance.

All differences aside, Plethon and More belong to the same strange, small camp of thinkers who have ever taken Plato’s Republic and Laws seriously as guide-books offering alternative suggestions to their own troubled times. While there is an old story that Plotinus tried unsuccessfully to convince a Roman Emperor to undertake a Platonic political experiment, besides Plethon and More perhaps only Averroes (Ibn Rushd of Cordoba) would make the list.[77] Unable to find a copy of Aristotle’s Politics on which to make a commentary to please his patrons, Averroes instead chose Plato’s Republic. In it he found a social model far more perfect than any existing in cities in his own days, and even under the just rulers of recent history.

Averroes even found Plato’s communisation of wealth and children among the Guardians to be fitting, and seemed especially taken by the idea that women should be able to perform the same work as men. Women in his time seemed sadly reduced to little more than mindless “plants” in comparison, impoverishing the life of cities both intellectually and economically.[78] Even so, the greatest problem for Averroes was perhaps the same as that of Plethon – the difference between the Platonic idea of the “closed” city state and the ecumenical world-systems in which they lived, one rapidly declining Orthodox Empire, the other Islamic ummah (community). While Averroes agreed that Plato’s Kallipolis was the best possible city, as Siniossoglou notes, he was obliged to conclude that Aristotle’s philosophy (though he had not read the Politics) was perhaps better suited to the universal ummah of Islam.[79]

At this point we might then return to the quotation with which this whole piece began, George of Trebizond’s disgust with Plethon for claiming that a universal pagan religion would soon arrive. If indeed Plethon did make such a claim, and whether or not he was only being a provocative “edgelord” as the kids would say, this would seem to sit in stark contrast with his “closed” political project for the Peloponnese. In light of this it is very interesting to note that another work of George of Trebizond, On the Truth of the Christian Faith, addressed to the Turkish sultan Mehmet II, had similar universal pretensions. While it is far more likely that by arguing that Christianity and Islam were so similar George was seeking simply to convert the Turks to Christianity and create a single universal ecumene of faith, it has also been argued that the real intention was to create a new super-religion that mixed elements of both.[80] Perhaps against the backdrop of Byzantine collapse Plethon was not the only political and religious eccentric.  

Strangest of all today we might seem to find ourselves facing similar problems that our Platonic writers faced long ago in their opposition between the “closed” Platonic society and larger universal system. The globalised world order we live in today is a secularised outgrowth of the ecumene of Latin Christendom and its system of nation states and international laws, but so too with it the notion of a single (noble?) humanity independent of nation states. Nonetheless, over the past few years it has become increasingly apparent that large proportions of the population, especially in the West, are tired of the species of globalisation (often labelled “neoliberal” among other things) that has held sway in politics for the past forty or so years, and which, in retrospect, seems to have done little more than enrich certain global “world cities” at the expense of increasingly “peripheral” industrial capitals, regional cities and rural populations.[81]

The common cry of reactionaries and populists towards this is that of “globalism,” as though there were some sophisticated, thick One-World cosmopolitan ideology in play. In truth, perhaps this ideology is a lot weaker than one might think, a mere ritual feeling preserved from the days when powerful global communist vanguard parties still existed, there was far greater faith in the need for organisations like the League of Nations/UN to prevent World Wars, and public intellectuals like Bertrand Russell endorsed One-World government as a serious proposition.

What remains of One-World humanism is very thin indeed, and what all this is really about, so it would seem, is a network of world-cities rather than some One-World ecumene that has never materialised and likely never will. The nation-state-based responses to the current pandemic crisis seems to have shown up whatever skerrick was left of such beliefs. The gap now is between a network of successful cities and the populist appeal to the nation-state system. Whichever side one is on (and one might hope that there are rather more than two), things begin to appear as though one belongs to something small trying to close and preserve itself against a large and dangerous outside. In such an atmosphere I would not be surprised at all if one were to see many Plethons in our immediate future, each with his or her own radical proposal for the salvation of a discreet political community.

[1] George of Trebizond, Comparatio Platonis et Aristotelis, fol. v63 ap. Woulter Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, p. 38.

[2] See esp. François Masai, Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra, Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 1956; Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986; Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium: Illumination and Utopia in Gemistos Plethon, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011; Vojtech Hladky, The Philosophy of Gemistus Plethon. Routlege, New York, 2017.

[3] For an interesting introductory biography of Plethon see: Bruce Merry, “George Gemistos Plethon (c. 1355-1452),” in Alba Amoia and Betina Knapp eds, Multicultural Writers from Antiquity to 1945, Greenwood Publishing, Westport and London, 2002, pp. 127-30. Some of this information may be subject to debate and somewhat dated. See more recently: Woulter Hanegraaf, Esotericism and the Academy, pp. 30-40 and Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, passim for the most complete (albeit also somewhat controversial) work on the subject of Plethon.

[4] Plethon is Greek for “full”, which is also the meaning of the name Gemistos. Nonetheless, as Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 9 n. 30 notes this name may have also referred to Plethon’s physique. Plethon’s remains were moved to the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, Italy by his admirer Sigismundo Malatesta. In 1756 the sarcophagus was opened and the skull of Plethon was reported to be very broad and large. On this see: Ricci, Il Tempio Malestiano, Bestetti e Tumminelli, Roma- Milano, 1924, pp. 291-2.

[5] This story comes from the introduction to Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads and has been debated in recent years, largely because the very existence of the Academy has been doubted, Ficino never actually seems to have met Plethon, and what he has to say about him isn’t particularly nice. See: Monfasani, “Marsilio Ficino and the Plato-Aristotle Controversy,” in M. J. B Allen et al eds, Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, Brill, Leiden, 2002, pp. 185-200.

[6] See Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 138-41.

[7] There is no English translation of the Syggraphe. There is however a Greek-French parallel text, which I used for the several translations of prayers given later in the essay:Pléthon, Traité des Lois, trans. C. Alexander and A. Pelissier, Libraire de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils etc, Paris, 1858.

[8] There is an English translation of the Differences in Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes.

[9]. The only English translation of the Memoranda is to be found in an Christos P. Baloglou, “George Finlay and Georgios Gemistos Plethon: New Evidence from Finlay’s Records,” Medioevo Greco, 3, 2003, 23-42, but this text is very hard to get hold of. We have been obliged to do our best based on the paraphrases and translations in situ of others. I have found even Greek publications of the Memoranda are very hard to come by with my limited resources.

[10] Plethon, Differences, 324.33 cited with intertextual references to Aristotle and Homer in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism in Byzantium, p. 234.

[11] Parmenides, fragment 8 lines 1-62 ap. John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, Adam and Charles Black, London, 1958, pp. 174-6. For the sake of brevity classical and mediaeval primary sources will be cited in traditional abbreviated form without reference to specific modern editions unless there is some ambiguity.

[12] Plato, Parmenides, 132a-134e.

[13] Idem, Sophist, 258c-d. 

[14] Idem, Parmenides, 142b-d.

[15] Idem, Republic, 509b. Proclus, Commentary on the Parmenides, 1241.7-8. See Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 240-2 on Proclus’s “two Parmenides.”

[16] Proclus, On the Parmenides, 1240.29-37.

[17] See: Clifton Walters trans., The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Penguin Classics, London, 1983.

[18] See: Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, esp. pp. 246-7, 278f.

[19] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003a33, 1017a23,1045b28-9. See: Joan Kung, “Aristotle on ‘Being Is Said in Many Ways’,” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 3.1, 1986, pp. 3-18.

[20] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.13.5. See also: Idem, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.33.295, 1.34.148, De Veritate, 2.11.122-4, De Potentia Dei, 7.7. A good overview: Roger M. White, Talking About God: The Concept of Analogy and the Problem of Religious Language, Ashgate, Surrey UK, 2010.

[21] See esp. Duns Scotus, Ordinatio

[22] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, pp. 202-219. For an excellent breakdown of these and a chart see: Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 281-91.

[23] On these see the introduction in Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

[24] Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J., 1969, p. 20-1.

[25] On the equivocity of Non-Being in the Sophist see: Jonathan Ratcliffe, “Process and the Derailing of Reality, Pt 2: Haunted Ontologies and Different Modes of Existence,” VoegelinView, 5 November 2019,

[26] Plato, Sophist, 254b-d

[27] Ibid, 256e-257a.  One might note that Badiou’s ontology of the Void of the “pure multiple” is strongly indebted to both the hypotheses of the Parmenides and the infinite Non-Being of the Sophist. On the latter see esp. Alain Badiou, Logic of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2013, p. 302.

[28] Plato, Sophist, 265ab-d, 266b-c.

[29] Ibid, 256c.

[30] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, p. 212-13.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Plotinus, Enneads, III. 6.7.10-15. This is reiterated almost word for word in Porphyry, Launching Points to the Realm of Mind, s. 21.

[33] Pléthon, Traité des Lois, pp. 210-11.

[34] Ibid, pp. 231-241.

[35] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 43, 238, 245.

[36] Ibid, p. 19.

[37] Ibid, pp. 21-38.

[38] Emanuele Severino, The Essence of Nihilism, trans. Giacomo Donis, Verso, New York, 2016. Against Siniossoglou’s claim of the inherent “essential” difference between Christian and pagan ontology, yes indeed a Parmenidean Christianity is at least theoretically thinkable.

[39] Ibid, p. 244. See also: Matthias Baltes, “Is the Idea of the Good Plato’s Republic Beyond Being?” in Mark Joyal ed, Studies in Plato and the Platonic Tradition, Routlege, Aldershot and Hampshire, 1997, pp. 3-25.

[40] Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle, Robert Wilks, London, 1812, Ch IV, pp. 418-9. 

[41] Ibid.

[42] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 165 n. 8.

[43] Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation, p. 419.

[44] The easiest available collection of the Chaldean Oracles is that at Sacred Texts but it does not include full commentaries: There is a French translation of Plethon’s commentary: Brigitte Tambrun-Krasker, Oracles Chaldaïques. Recension de Georges Gémiste Pléthon, Corpus Philosophorum Medii Aevi 3, Akademy of Athens, Athens, 1995.

[45] Plethon, Oracles, 28a ap. Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 219.  This sounds rather like Averroes’ understanding of the need for studium (training) in order to attain unity with the Agent Intellect. It is worth mentioning here that Pico della Mirandola’s nephew Gianfrancesco in his De Rerum Praenitione (On the Premonition of Things) went to great lengths to denounce Averroes in order to claim that only through divine grace was enlightenment and prophesy possible. See: Guido Giglioni, “Phantasms of Reason and Shadows of Matter,” in Anna Akasoy et al eds, Renaissance Averroism and Its Aftermath, Springer, Dordecht and London, 2013, pp. 183-4. See also: Noel. L. Brann, The Debate Over the Origin of Genius in During the Italian In the Renaissance, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2002, pp. 177, 183-4.

[46] Marsilio Ficino, “The Soul of Man,” in James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin eds, The Portable Renaissance Reader, Penguin, London, 1986, p. 388.

[47] Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica, X.25 p. 36.

[48] Idem and Charles B. Schmitt, A History of Western Philosophy 3: Renaissance Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 163-6. More recently there has been this wonderful survey of the reception of Pico in the last century: Brian P. Copenhaver, Magic and the Dignity of Man: Pico della Mirandola and his Oration in Modern Memory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2019, pp. 313-4.  Ernst Cassirer in his early work on Pico famously viewed him as a proto-Kant for his celebration of worldly human dignity, but by the 1940s had realized that Pico was not quite so worldly after all and instead desired above all else erotic unity with God: Ernst Cassirer, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of Renaissance Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2.2 (1942), pp. 123-44.

[49] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” trans. Elizabeth Livermore Forbes, in Ernst Cassirer et al eds, The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971, p. 225-6.

[50] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 164-5. Here five things are listed in common with Pico’s Oratio and Plethon’s Nomoi – 1. The importance of Zoroaster and Plato. 2. Plato’s concept of man as methorion capable of ascending or descending to the uppermost and lowest limits of the cosmos. 3. The Platonic and Plotinean image of man as self-sculptor. 4. The importance of natural philosophy. 5. The fact that Pico mentions Plutarch who was “one of Plethon’s favourite sources.” The last of these is especially weak. As to the other four, these were very common Renaissance Platonic preoccupations and it is very hard to specifically find the direct influence of Plethon. As to 2 Hermes Trismegistus, whom Pico mentions many times in the speech, is likely the cause. 

[51] Ibid, pp. 249-50. See:  Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, On Being and the One, trans. Victor M. Hamm, 1943 available from The argument of this work is very loose and difficult to follow. Siniossoglou views it as “follow[ing] the standard Neoplatonic interpretation of the first hypothesis of the Parmenides: the One/god is superior to Being” for its claim that “the essence of Beings is only derivative (esse participatum).” That final term should perhaps give us a clue that more than standard Neoplatonism is at work. As is argued by Victor M. Salas, “Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola on Being and Unity: A Thomistic Solution to an Ancient Quarrel,” The Thomist, 78.3, 2014, pp. 351-77, Pico’s answer is in fact one of Thomist ontological participation.

[52] Nicholas of Cusa, Metaphysical Speculations, trans. Jasper Hopkins, Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1998-2000, “De Beryllo (On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses),” Vol. I, pp. 790-838, “De Cojecturis (On Surmises),” Vol II, pp. 161-297.

[53] Idem, “De Beryllo,” section 7.

[54]Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1983, p. 529.

[55] Nicholas Cusa, “De Cojecturis,,” section 110. On the chain of Proclus-Cusa-Hegel see: Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory, Chicago University Press, Chicago and London, 2014, esp. pp. 46-9.

[56] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, p. 35.

[57] Here once again I am highly dependent upon Siniossoglou’s 2011 Radical Platonism in Byzantium. Just about everything he says here is simply repeated in “Plethon, Scholarios and the Byznatine State of Emergency,” in Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou eds, The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017.  But please see also: N. Patrick Peritore, “The Political Thought of Gemistos Plethon: A Renaissance Byzantine Reformer,” Polity, 10.2, 1977, pp. 168-191; François Masai, Pléthon et le Platonisme de Mistra; Christopher M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes. I have not been able to get hold of and spend time with this recent book in modern Greek: Yannis Smarnakis, Byzantine Anagennese kai Outopia: O Plethon kai to Despotato tou Moria, Ekdoseis Eurasia, Athens, 2017.

[58] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 344.

[59] The idea that there is a Plethonean “political theology” in which his political system reflects his ontology with its three main sections of deities/principles and Father Zeus on top is certainly an interesting possibility.

[60] Ibid, p. 340 which cites Men. II. 262.14-17.

[61]  Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies Vol 1: Plato, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966 sees Plato as the original fascist enemy of the liberal “open society” in comparison to Socrates, whom he views as a cosmopolitan liberal figure.  As Eric Voegelin recognised, to create the “open” and “closed” thesis, Popper made use of Henri Bergson’s two varieties of religion – one dogmatic, the other open to new experience. Yet, because he had no interest in the religious dimensions of either Socrates or Plato, Popper, so Voegelin thought, was abusing Bergon’s and Plato’s work. Voegelin basically calls him a coffeeshop hipster. See: Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2004. However, I do think that the “open” and “closed” labels remain useful for describing the difference between s0cieties self-consciously attempting to retract themselves from a world-system they developed in that is now regarded as having become detrimental to the populace. Such phenomena are much bigger than simply 20th century liberalism and fascism. More will be said on this later.

[62] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 339.  Cf. pp. 341-2 where Siniossoglou notes that Plethon does not suggest that monastic land should be confiscated, likely because Manuel had recently granted back land confiscated from the monasteries. Nonetheless, Siniossoglou seems to imagine that Plethon was happy enough for the monasteries to be “left to die morally as well as economically” in his new system. This is probably taking things a little too far, even if Plethon did refer to monks as “idle” and “dronelike” on a number of occasions in his works, this being an allusion to wastrels described in Book 10 of Plato’s Laws.

[63] Ibid, p. 332, which cites Plethon, Memoranda 1.119.5-28 and II. 255.18 for comparison on the use of Helot and its absence in the two.

[64] Plethon, Mem. I. 123.15-124.5 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 339.

[65] Plethon, Mem. II. 260.3-12 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 337.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid, p. 334.

[69] Ibid, p. 345.

[70] Plethon, Mem. I.129.12-130.5 cited in Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 329. 

[71] D. Hopkin, “Folklore Beyond Nationalism: Identity Politics and Scientific Cultures in the New Discipline,” in T. Baycroft. ed, Folklore and Nationalism in Europe During the Long Nineteenth Century, Brill, London, 2012, 371-401.

[72] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 338.  Cf. Peter Garnsey, “Gemistus Plethon and Platonic Political Philosophy,” in Ph. Rousseau and E. Papoutsakis eds, Transformations of Late Antiquity, Taylor & Francis, New York, 2007, p. 57.

[73] Thomas More, Utopia, Penguin Classics, London, Book 1 p. 46.

[74] Niketas Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, p. 338.

[75] Herodotus, Histories, Book III. 21-3.

[76] See my article on Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ use of bribery to deal with barbarians: Jonathan Ratcliffe, “Aesop and the Fall of Moravia, or How to Save the Byzantine Empire,” Melbourne Historical Journal 41, 2013, pp. 20-44.

[77] See: Averroes, On Plato’s Republic, trans. Ralph Lerner, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1974. The well-read reader might also try to suggest Tomaso Campanella’s City of the Sun and even Francis Bancon’s New Atlantis, but there is not much consciously Platonic about these fantastical New World “knowledge societies.”

[78] Ibid, sections 53-54. One might note that Plethon seems to have had no interest in Platonic gender equality whatsoever. He was also particularly harsh on homosexuality, suggesting that it should be treated with burning alive.

[79] Ibid, sections 44-46. See: Siniossoglou, Radical Platonism, pp. 415-6.

[80] Michel Balivet, Pour une concorde islamo-chritiénne, démarches byzantines et latines à la fin du Moyen-Age (de Nicolas de Cues à Georges de Trébizonde). Pontificio istituto di studi arabi e d’islamistica, Rome, 1997. Cf. Rustam Shukurov, The Byzantine Turks: 1204-1461, Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2016, p. 386. Coman, “How the Megacities Europe Stole a Nation’s Wealth,” The Guardian, 10 November 2019, 

T.S. Eliot and the Modern Condition

It is now almost one hundred years since T.S. Eliot began work on his most famous poem, The Waste Land. The completed poem was not published until 1922 after earlier revisions to the draft, many of them suggested by Ezra Pound.  Most critics agree that this poem was one of the most important poems of the twentieth century and I know of no poetic production of the last two decades to measure up to it.

Millions of words have been written about the poem and its setting. It has given rise to books, myriad scholarly essays and, no doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of PhD dissertations.  And yet today, the work is probably known to relatively few people (in comparison to say, 50 years ago).  Eliot is out of fashion, having been declared a misogynist, anti-Semitic, etc.  In fact, let’s be honest and admit that all Western literature is out of fashion.  If you need any proof, just consider the howls of indignation when Sydney University recently proposed a “Western Traditions” course.

Eliot was a modernist in poetic style – that is to say, he believed that it was no longer possible to produce poetry in the accustomed earlier styles because these could not reflect the realities of the present day. Europe had just been torn apart by the First War – a war of mechanised killing which claimed over 10 million lives on the Wester Front alone. Eliot was, by this time, living in London, and what he saw about him in the lives of ordinary citizens was hardly conducive to heroic or romantic poetry.  Indeed, one might say it was not conducive to any poetry. Eliot was a realist who wanted to depict nothing less than the whole of his civilisation as he saw it– its public places and its private lives. And so, most of his early poetry is bleak and forbidding. And yet there is another side to these early poems which redeems them, as it were. And it makes them hugely relevant to our own position today when the outlook is perhaps even bleaker than it was in Eliot’s day.

In the first place, Eliot was a poet of precision and power.  By this I mean that his knowledge and use of the English language was such that each word, each phrase or sentence, is honed to a razor edge. The language is made to carry an almost intolerable load of meaning.  When I read The Waste Land for the first time, it seemed to be just a jumble of words and images, thrown together in a haphazard way.  And yet, I found certain phrases sticking indelibly in the mind. Even the evocations of decay and hopelessness, everywhere evident in the poem, had a sort of stark beauty.  The poem seems to act on the unconscious mind  in a powerful way.  You cannot forget its images and its echoes. This is a mark of great poetry.

We should not suppose that the various images presented to us in The Waste Land “stand for” something other than themselves. His images are real and his meanings are direct.  When, for instance, we read the phrase “Unreal city” – an exclamation called out by the sight of crowds of people streaming across London Bridge and avoiding each other – Eliot means what he says.  London is indeed “unreal’ in that it has lost contact with some higher reality. Some months ago I reviewed a book which had the title “Freedom from Reality”. It concerned the self-destructive potential of the modern notion of freedom – a freedom solely occupied with the senses and, as such, crippling the traditional and proper notion of freedom as a liberation from the restrictions imposed by the senses.  This is precisely the metaphysical sense that Eliot uses.

And yet, it is dangerous to assume that the poem must have some hidden meaning which the reader needs to uncover.  As I have indicated above, the first-time reader is usually perplexed by the work and is moved to ask “What is it about? What is its meaning”? To which, the most appropriate answer might be; “the poem is only problematical if you persist in looking for a meaning. Why not just read it for the sounds and images contained”? And that is a perfectly proper thing to do with a poem. And yet we seem to be drawn irresistibly to the need for some underlying meaning to ‘explain’  the work. I have now watched many video lectures on the work, given by prominent Eliot scholars. Most of them make exactly the point I have made above – don’t look for some overarching explanation.  And then, of course, they spend the next hour or so doing just that!  We cannot help ourselves, and maybe that is part of the genius of the work.

That, then, will be my excuse for what follows below.

The poem may perhaps be explained by an analogy. Let us speculate that the worst had happened and the recent Notre Dame fire had indeed caused the great rose windows to fall into a thousand broken shards, so that the scenes they had depicted now lay broken and scattered.  What story do they present to us now?  Nothing but unconnected fragments laying about the ruins.  This is what Eliot conveys to us in his poem – the unconnected, twisted ruins of what was once called Christendom. And so the other point to make about the poem is simply this.  It might be a bleak and forbidding picture (or series of unconnected images) that is conveyed to us, but it is only made so by reference to some other and higher standard or aspiration.  That is to say, we only see the depth of the decay because we – and Eliot – have some intimation of a better and more proper mode of existence for a human life. In short, the Real.

And indeed, Eliot gives us hints of this higher mode of life right throughout the poem.  Those who know their English literature will pick up references to earlier and famous works in the Western Canon – works by Dante, Homer, St. Augustine, and so on. I am no literature academic, but I might just mention once such reference made by Eliot and show just how he uses it to depict the depth of our decay. 

In the third section of The Waste Land, the famous “Fire Sermon”, we get this opening description of the Thames in London:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;

Departed, have left no addresses.

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

Here, in the repeated phrase, “Sweet Thames, run softly” Eliot is referencing a famous poem, Prothalamion, by Edmund Spenser (16C).  Spenser wrote the verse in honour of the double marriage of ‘Ladie Elizabeth and Ladie Katherine Somerset’. The setting for the poem is the Thames, and we get this beautiful description:

Along the shore of silver streaming Thames, 

Whose rutty bank, the which his river hems, 

Was painted all with variable flowers, 

And all the meads adorned with dainty gems, 

Fit to deck maidens’ bowers, 

And crown their paramours, 

Against the bridal day, which is not long: 

      Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song. 

Each stanza of the poem ends with the refrain: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.

The contrast with the Thames of Eliot’s time could not be more stark and, of course, Eliot’s borrowing of the phrase “Sweet Thames run softly” is the last twist of the knife. He puts in the rubbish and pollution of the present world and takes it away again, leaving only the waste land of the title. Later in ‘The Fire Sermon’ we get these two lines:

The river sweats

Oil and tar.

Here, in just six words, is a powerful evocation of foul pollution. The word ‘sweats’, in particular, carries enormous weight.

But, for all this negativity, we need to remember that by naming this section of the poem “The Fire Sermon”, Eliot is referencing a sermon from the Pali Canon where the Buddha preaches liberation from suffering through detachment from the senses. There is, then, a spiritual agenda at work in Eliot’s poem, and in later poems from Eliot, it becomes more and more apparent. In fact, in his “Notes” accompanying the poem, he tells us that his reference to the Buddha and a later reference to St Augustine (“To Carthage then I came”) are connected: “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident”.

And now we get to the nub of the matter – the underlying drive or motivation which compels Eliot to write as he does.  He might begin as a modernist poet, but he most assuredly does not end as one – not, at least, in the common understanding of the term ‘modernist’.  Eliot did not repudiate the past but, rather, looked for ways in which he might properly live in his own age and attempt to come to terms with it. His was, at bottom, a spiritual quest:  how does one live spiritually in such an age? It is the question facing all of us. To the Bloomsbury crowd and to other secular intellectuals of his age, Eliot came to be seen as almost a traitor to their cause.  He had become, in their eyes, part of the Conservative establishment. But the truth is that Eliot was involved in a great spiritual crisis of his own.

It was not possible for Eliot to simply dismiss the “big questions” concerning life.  He had to face them squarely. He could not accept that life was essentially meaningless – a Darwinian struggle of sophisticated and self-assembled molecules – but neither was it easy for such a brilliant mind to submit blindly to Faith. But indecision was not an option. The consequences of indecision in this matter are starkly laid out for us in his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a rather pathetic figure who desperately wants to be in the company of ladies but cannot summon the courage to make the first move.  At a deeper level the poem gnaws at all of us:

Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

Many commentators on the life of Eliot will tell you that he “converted” to Anglo-Catholicism, perhaps implying an earlier atheism or agnosticism. This is not true because he was born into  a rather strict Unitarian family in the USA  and, as far as I am aware, never really abandoned belief in God. But, for him, the Unitarianism of his parents and their circle was too arid, too much of “this world” (too comfortable, perhaps), and seemed to lack a deep spiritual underpinning.  Meaningful ritual, the sacraments, and the general notion of withdrawal from the world of the senses were all of importance to Eliot and this drew him to Anglo-Catholicism – a ‘movement’ within Anglicanism rather than some separate religious entity.

What particularly concerned Eliot was the sense that we are creatures of time and, therefore, cannot escape its restrictions. Time is the necessary precondition for our salvation. And this brings us to the last and perhaps greatest of his poems, the Four Quartets.  Here at last, we see Eliot contemplating what he called “the Dance”, and how we might come to reflect upon it:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Here, at ‘the still point’, is the Holy Spirit, hovering over all things and imparting harmony to the cosmos. What then, as creatures of time, should be our response?

            … You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

The poem ends with an affirmation not just of hope, but of certainty, repeating a phrase from Julian of Norwich in the late 13th century:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

In his book Dove Descending, the well-known Eliot scholar, Professor Thomas Howard, says of the Four Quartets: “In my own view, this sequence of four poems represents the pinnacle of Eliot’s whole work. Four Quartets stands as Eliot’s valedictory to the modern world. I would place it, along with Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and Mozart’s Requiem, as a major edifice in the history of the Christian West.”

For those readers unfamiliar with Eliot’s poetry, perhaps the best introduction is not by reading, but by listening.  True enough, Eliot arranges his verses for  visual effect as well as other kinds, but the sound of the poem is, perhaps, more important. And for first time readers, getting the sound of the poem can be difficult. My own introduction here was via the reading of Eliot’s major poems by Sir Alec Guinness.  Here, for the first time, the various ‘voices’ in The Waste Land came to life for me. I had earlier listened to part of Eliot’s own reading, but found it rather remote and uninteresting (this was a deliberate ploy by Eliot – he wanted the listener to do all the work here).  Guinness reads with obvious sympathy and an understanding of the underlying themes. He himself converted to Catholicism and, like Eliot, did so without any great “Damascus Road” experience. As he said: “There had been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues; just a sense of history and the fittingness of things.”

Just so! All manner of things shall be well.

‘Sequence Literature’ and Tradition

I use the term ‘sequence literature’ to denote two different types of literary output. The first and most obvious is that literature which is published in instalments such that one long narrative or argument is published in a sequential manner.  Usually, with this type of literature, one must have some idea of the content of past instalments to understand the current one. Perhaps the most famous example in this genre are some of the original fictional works of Charles Dickens which were published in this manner.

There is a second class of sequence literature where a particular work, though offering a complete account in itself, draws heavily on some earlier work such that a full understanding or appreciation of the work would require some familiarity with the predecessor upon which draws. This short essay is concerned with this second class of ‘sequence literature’. An example that springs to mind here is the well-known short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne titled The Celestial Railway.  The plot of this story and, indeed, the names of many of its characters, relies heavily on knowledge of another famous work, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. There are many other famous examples in this genre, one of the more obvious being the relationship between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Indeed, one could argue that a reading of Virgil’s Aeneid greatly benefits from a prior acquaintance with Homer’s Odyssey.

If one reflects further on this second ‘class’ of literature, then it becomes obvious that the general idea can be expanded greatly to cover all of the important literature of the past. That is to say, a full appreciation of any work of literature would require knowledge of all predecessor works in the same category. For, only then can the reader really assess the true value or import of the work under scrutiny. To come to any work, especially any current work, without such a background is akin, in a fashion, to listening to a single episode of Blue Hills, without having a knowledge of previous episodes.

This, in part, was the argument made by T.S. Eliot in a famous essay, published in 1921 (in The Sacred Wood).  Such background knowledge, Eliot said

cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

Here, of course, Eliot was concerned mainly with poetry and with the producer of poetry, but the idea has much wider application. It can apply equally well to the reader, to the writer’s audience. I can give a good example from my own and very limited history as a reader of literature.  As a young schoolboy, I was introduced to the famous poem by Tennyson, Ulysses. There were a couple of lines in that poem which I found immensely appealing and memorable, but I had no idea of their full meaning:

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: …

I had a vague impression of a rainy day at sea and a vague sense of what might be meant by the words ‘scudding’ and ‘vext’. Only decades later, after having read the Odyssey and having some additional notion of the relationship between the various stellar constellations and their influence on earthly affairs, did any real understanding of Tennyson’s poem come to me.

Let me take another example from the area of philosophy.  I am not familiar with the content of modern university courses in this area of study but I suspect that there will be a substantial bias towards modern empiricist philosophy and very little at all on earlier philosophy. Perhaps a lecture or two on Plato and Aristotle, a mention of Descartes and a dismissive nod towards Aquinas and Augustine. After all, philosophy is now only a minor discipline in most universities – in order to follow the money, you must concentrate on STEM courses. But, in order to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of any of the more modern philosophies, one really needs a good grounding in the whole history of philosophy. The example I will use here is the work of Etienne Gilson. In his book, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Gilson surveyed almost eight centuries of philosophical thought from Peter Abelard to Karl Marx and found one consistent theme: whenever philosophers use the techniques of disciplines other than philosophy to investigate philosophical questions, they inevitably fall into error and their theories are eventually abandoned or severely modified.  Thus, Abelard had recourse to logic alone, whilst Descartes employed mathematics and geometry.  With Kant, it was what Gilson calls ‘physicism’ and with Comte and his followers, ‘sociologism’.  These observations led Gilson to erect several ‘laws’ or principles pertaining to the philosophical method:

  • Philosophy always buries its undertakers.  By this he means that each new theory, hailed as the ‘solution’ to philosophical problems – i.e. the death of philosophy – is regularly attended by its later revival in some newer scheme which, in its turn, is superseded, and so on.  I recall reading, I think in Ben Rogers’ biography of A.J. Ayer, that Ayer himself, after publication of Language, Truth and Logic, had (only half-jokingly) talked of ‘the end of philosophy’.
  • By his very nature, man is a metaphysical animal.  By this, Gilson means that the failure of philosophical schemes invariably relates to their abandonment of basic metaphysical principles natural to human thought.  Discussing Hume and Kant, he puts this principle in perspective this way:

“Hume had destroyed both metaphysics and science {Humean scepticism}; in order to save science, Kant decided to sacrifice metaphysics.  Now it is the upshot of the Kantian experiment that, if metaphysics is arbitrary knowledge, science also is arbitrary knowledge; hence it follows that our belief in the objective validity of science itself stands or falls with our belief in the objective validity of metaphysics.  The new question then is no longer, why is metaphysics a necessary illusion, but rather: Why is metaphysics necessary, and how is it that it has given rise to so many illusions?”

Gilson answers this last question by developing a series of arguments leading to conclusions which comprise the remainder of his ‘laws’ or principles:

  • Metaphysics is the knowledge gathered by a naturally transcendent reason in its search for the first principles, or first causes, of what is given in sensible experience.
  • As metaphysics aims at transcending all particular knowledge, no particular science is competent either to solve metaphysical problems, or to judge their metaphysical solutions.
  • The failures of metaphysicians flow from their unguarded use of a principle of unity present in the human mind.
  • Since being is the first principle of all human knowledge, it is a fortiori the first principle of metaphysics
  • All failures of metaphysics should be traced to the fact that the first principle of human knowledge has been either overlooked or misused by the metaphysicians.

Moving back now to the relationship between literature and the Tradition, T.T. Eliot explains just how some new work is related to the past and becomes incorporated as it were, in that past:  

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity…

  The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

Home Thoughts From Abroad

A Reflection on Neo-Platonic Diversity and the Return of Individual Souls to the Unity of the Good

 In an early passage from the Timaeus, Plato, speaking through the person of Timaeus, gives us the reason why the material world came into existence:

 Let us therefore state the reason why the framer of this universe of change framed it at all. He was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore without envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible. This is as valid a principle for the origin of the world of change as we shall discover from the wisdom of men, and we should accept it.

 Note here that Plato is not claiming this explanation as an absolute fact – it is merely as good an explanation as one might obtain by human reasoning.  And Plato expects his God to be reasonable. We must also note that Plato’s God does not quite start from scratch like the Christian God – a sort of world already exists but it is in a state of chaos and lacks order.  We do not know whether this ‘chaos’ exists as a separate principal (ie apart from God) but the passage in the Timaeus suggests that it does. This, in itself, creates some problems for us in understanding how Plato’s ‘God’ can be all encompassing. As Plato implies in the above passage, we cannot expect too much from ‘the wisdom of men’.

 But leaving that problem aside, there is another sort of antinomy at work in Plato’s account of ‘the Good”.  In other of Plato’s dialogues, we get the distinct impression that God is fully self -sufficing and perfect.  Yet, in the Timaeus, we find him needing to improve on things.  In Arthur Lovejoy’s succinct phrases “the concept of Self-Sufficing Perfection, by a bold logical inversion was …converted into the concept of a  Self-Transcending Fecundity.”

 The later Platonists, and particularly Plotinus, took Plato’s account of the formation of the visible universe a step further.  Where Plato says that God, “being … without envy … wished all things to be as like himself as possible”, they interpret this to mean that God ‘overflows’ with goodness and so acts to produce a world of diversity and order (insofar as the ‘raw material’ of chaos will allow this – it is not fully tractable). That is to say, in order to realize all possibilities inherent in the Divine, the finite cosmos came into being ( Plato tells us it is the only universe because unity is perfection  Timaeus 31). Here again, the logic is difficult to follow – for me at least.  The Divine can only ‘overflow’ if it has a limit – something to surpass.  But if it has a limit, how can it be absolute?  To me, superabundance is a very strange notion for an absolute – it’s all that there is plus a little more (like an advertisement for an American automobile).  Again, if the Good needs to realize all possibilities, why does Plato allow only one universe?  Why not every possible universe? Note also, that there is no conception of Divine love here – the Good ‘overflows’ as a sort of mechanical necessity.

 As Lovejoy points out in The Great Chain of Being, Plato’s account of the Divine and his explanation of the material world and its origin was to have an enormous impact on the future path of philosophy and theology in the West.  Working from Plato’s basic premises, later thinkers developed what Lovejoy calls ‘the principle of plenitude’ – in producing the various kinds of things in the Cosmos, the Good must cover every possible ‘type’ of existence (Timaeus 41).  That is to say, every possibility must be realized.

Now, this ‘principle of plenitude’ and the idea of an ‘overflowing god’ had another important consequence in the West. In one important strand of theology, the created cosmos was thought to have ‘emanated’ or ‘radiated’ from the Divine in a ‘chain of being’, with the Divine at the very apex and then, in order of ‘perfection’, angels, humans, animals, plants, and inanimate nature.  There must be no gaps between any one ‘class’ of being and the next, since such a gap would mean that certain possibilities were not realised – a violation of the law of the ‘principle of plenitude’. But what of the gap between the Good and the next class of being in the scale of perfection?  Surely the gap between these two is infinite and, therefore, infinite possibilities of being remain unrealised?  Plato himself seems to be aware of the problem and suggests that the gap can be bridged only by an intuitive leap. 

But let us leave all of these problems aside and now consider the position regarding the human soul in the schema outlined above.  In Neoplatonism and certain other religious traditions, we have the view that the human soul loses its individuality upon returning to the Good – i.e. its ‘individuality’ in the material realm arises purely by virtue of its association with matter.  Once it returns to the Good, it will be totally re-absorbed in the unity of the Divine Being. Otherwise, so the reasoning goes, the perfect unity of the Good would be violated.  But if the Good produces souls which ‘individuate” in separate corporeal beings then revert to the undifferentiated Good at death, what happened to that ‘superabundance’ which needed to express itself in diversity?  Part of the full realisation of the Divine is plenitude. If that plenitude reverts to a unity in the Good, then it seems that the Good is deficient because it no longer realizes all possible modes of representation – the mode of diversity is missing. 

The usual rejoinder is that the Good is outside time so that there is no sense of ‘before’ or ‘after’ regarding the individuation of souls as a manifestation of the Divine.  But these souls are manifested in the temporal order and in that order they undergo experiences.  These experiences of the individual soul in the temporal order are, by virtue of the principle of plenitude, part of the diversity of the Good.  How can they be jettisoned when the soul returns to this supposed unity? 

There is yet another aspect of the Neo-Platonic view of the soul which requires comment. Here, the human soul is more or less identified with the Divine – it is the manifestation of the Divine Unity in man.  This, of course, leads to a serious problem when the concept of sin arises, for it must be that sin arises only by virtue of the soul’s association with matter (the soul, being identified with the Divine, cannot sin).  It is matter which drags the soul into error, matter which is (or, at least, causes) evil.  But how can matter be evil if it, itself, is a product of the Divine Mind? 

In summary, the problem with the Platonic approach to the unity of the Divine is that it completely jettisons human history and devalues the world of matter.  Souls leave the Divine for their sojourn on earth and then return to the Divine. They are, to use Yeat’s words “fastened to a dying animal’. Our animal natures are at best a dead weight – an impediment to the soul.  The individual experiences and identity of the soul in this earthly realm are lost upon their return to the Divine. There is no net gain, merely a sort of diversion of the Divine into a temporal order – like a river breaking into anabranches which then rejoin.


We ask ourselves; ‘was it worth the effort’?



Timaeus 9 (41-)

There are three kinds of mortal creature yet uncreated, and unless they are created the world will be imperfect, as it will not have in it every kind of living creature which it must have if it is to be perfect

 Now the mortal creature man, has, as part of his makeup, the experience of individuality.  This experience comes about by the process of self-reflection – an attribute of the soul itself.  If such an attribute is deemed necessary in order to fulfil the requirements of the Demiurge for ‘perfection’, then how can it be lost when the individual soul returns to the unity of the Good?


Plato’s soul is tripartite, having a divine part (reason), an emotional part, and an appetitive part (Timaeus 38). Unlike the mortal parts of the human, the divine part of the soul is created by the Demiurge himself (Timaeus 9). We get the strongest impression that the divine soul is, in fact part of that unity called “The Good” – ie. corresponding to the Christian notion of God.  For example, if we go to Book 6 in the Republic, we get (490b) this passage:

Then shall we not fairly plead in reply that our true lover of knowledge strives for reality, and will not rest content with each set of particulars which opinion takes for reality, but soars with undimmed and unwearied passion till he grasps the nature of each thing as it is, with the mental faculty fitted to do so, that is, with the faculty which is akin to reality, and which approaches and unites with it, and begets intelligence and truth as children, and is only released from travail when it has thus attained knowledge and true life and fulfilment?

 Again, in Book 7 of the Republic, Plato suggests that the final object of pure reasoning is to unite oneself with The Good (532b):

So when one tries to get at what each thing is in itself by the exercise of dialectic (the transcending of the human mind in infinite regression), relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refuses to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm as the man who looked at the sun was of the visual realm.


At 533b, Glaucon asks Socrates to delineate that path of enquiry which will lead to ‘the end of the journey’ of the soul.  Socrates replies:

My dear Glaucon, you won’t be able to follow me further, not because of any unwillingness on my part, but because what you’d see would no longer be an image of what we are talking about but the truth itself……


Bird Talk

Do birds sing, or do they just ‘vocalize’? To put it another way, can birds feel happy or sad and express such feelings by the sounds they make, or is it all down to instinctive behaviour? I suspect that animal behavior experts would opt for the latter.  Birds call, they say, because they wish to attract mates or defend a territory or keep in touch with the rest of their flock.

That’s the sort of world we live in now.  Magpies do not carol in the mornings because they are happy to see the sun rise.  It’s simply a vocalisation to reinforce territorial rights.  And kookaburras do not signal the end of the day to all the other creatures by giving their last laugh just at that moment when dusk turns to darkness.  They, again, are simply letting neighbouring kookaburras know who is in control of the local territory.  Creatures respond to external stimuli, or hormones, under a strict system of genetic coding. It’s the territorial imperative or the selfish gene as popularised by Robert Ardrey and Richard Dawkins, although to be fair, Descartes started the whole idea of the mechanical animal hundreds of years earlier. Animals are just glorified CD players where you shove in DNA instead of a disc.  Faced with this sort of bleakness, you can sympathize with Wordsworth:

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. – Great God!  I’d rather be

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

And Wordsworth is right. We have progressively isolated ourselves from the rest of the natural world.  Even as little as fifty years ago, we had a far closer relationship to the natural world than we do today.  And that’s despite all sorts of recent proclamations such as ‘ecologically sustainable development’, ‘maintenance of biodiversity’, ‘clean and green’ and all those other modern mantras.

Let me give you an example.  Most Bendigonians will have travelled through the district of Sutton Grange at some stage.  It lies just south of Bendigo and not far from Mount Alexandra.  For the locals, the most significant piece of history associated with Sutton Grange revolves about a particular schoolteacher at the little granite school, Albert Cox. He taught at the school from 1920 until 1961. As far as I am aware, this record has been topped by only one other Victorian schoolteacher.   Mind you, in other trades the service records can be far more impressive.  There is a story about a local man up here who started at an engineering works when he was fifteen and was given his gold watch and heavy handshake fifty years later.  Angry at his forced retirement, he began his farewell address with these words: ‘Had I known that this bloody job was only temporary, I would never have taken it in the first place’.

But it was not just his length of service at the little school that made Cox a remarkable schoolteacher.  It was what he taught his students.  In addition to the ‘three R’s’, the children learned a great deal of natural history, because Albert Cox was himself a keen amateur naturalist.  Each day, the children were encouraged to make a note of what birds or other animal and plant life they had seen on the way to school.  These observations were then written into the Observations Book, under the careful eye of the teacher. Records were entered into this book from 1926 through until 1960, with a break during the War years only.  The following entry, made by Cox himself, tells its own story of the man’s love of the natural world about him and, more especially, of the way he saw the relationship between wild creatures and humans:

On the morning of the 26th September, 1951 the thrush that had been for such a long period a friend of all at the Sutton Grange School was found dead beside the residence garden.  This bird was well over thirty years old and had nested around the school residence all these years, many seasons being spent in an old billy hanging under the verandah.  The bird had died of old age, being found lying with an insect still in its beak.  It died in the middle of the nesting season leaving a mate to hatch out, and rear a family.

Here was a man recording the death of an old friend. This friend and close neighbour had died at work.  It had performed its duty as a parent right to the very last.  The whole thing is intensely anthropomorphic and modern animal behaviour experts would scoff at it.

Have you ever wondered why Sir David Attenborough speaks in a whisper when he is describing the lives of creatures?  It’s because he is on the outside looking in and it is almost embarrassing.  He is a bit like a voyeur peeping through the keyhole.  And you will note, if you listen to his commentary carefully, that everything is down to scientific principles of behaviourism and genetics.  All is neatly packaged as cause and effect. His animals are glorified machines to be marveled at like the intricate, jeweled workings of a Swiss watch. Granted, there is some sense of wonder, but that wonder is built on the complexity of things, not simply on the existence of things.  Even Disney’s outrageously contrived world of nature was better.  His animals in the early TV nature shows, all decent, God-fearing American citizens circa 1960, at least had some sense of not being pre-programmed.

It’s almost as if the Fall of Man is still going on.  Christians tend to read the account of the Fall in Genesis as an historical event.  But part of it may not be.  One of the consequences of the Fall was a destruction of that harmony which previously existed between humans and all other life on earth.  Perhaps the process of estrangement is a long-term business and we are not at the end of it yet.   When you examine history, that proposition certainly seems to carry some weight.

Since we started this discussion with a quotation concerning a dead thrush, let us stick to the world of birds and to the history of their interactions with humans.  There is a name for that interaction. It is called birdlore.

For us in the West, the place to start is the Greece of Homer’s time.  Anything earlier is mere conjecture and anything later runs a poor second to the richness of Homer’s descriptions.  For him, birds are not only closely associated with humans, certain of them are also particular favourites of the gods. The scene at Calypso’s cave will suffice to make the point:

The cave was sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses, which was the roosting place of wide-winged birds, horned owls and falcons and cormorants with long tongues, birds of the coast, whose business takes them down to the sea.  … It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight.

There is something of a parallel here with the situation for the Aranda Aborigines in Central Australia, early last century.  In their account of the Aranda (formerly known as Arunta), Balwyn Spencer and F.J. Gillen indicate that the sacred sites where the Spirit Ancestors live (the Ertnatulunga) are a haven for all sorts of wild animals, including birds. Spencer and Gillen would want us to believe that the birds and animals cluster around the sacred sites because they are not hunted at or near those spots. The Aranda would regard this as ridiculous.  The birds and animals are there simply because the sites are sacred – richness of fauna is one of the manifestations of sacrality.

But, going back to ancient Greece, the most important relation between birds and humans is one of language.  Humans who can understand the language of birds are seers. The birds have important things to tell us.  Indeed, one of the Greek words for divination is oionopolia or ornithomanteia – ‘bird language’ or augury.     Both Pliny the Elder and Aelian tell us that that the seers or augurs are not just skilled at interpreting the language or the actions of birds, they are also skilled in natural history.  So, for instance, Aelian says:

I have heard that some people practice divination by birds and devote themselves to their study and scrutinize their flight and quarters of the sky where they appear.  And seers like Teiresias, Polydamas, Polyeidus, Theoclymenus and many another are celebrated for their knowledge of this art …. . (On the Animals VIII.5).

Now, before you dismiss augury as so much nonsense, it pays to remember that this and other forms of divination were of the utmost importance to both the Greek and the Roman Empires at the height of their respective powers.  For instance, Pliny gives us this account of the importance of poultry in Imperial Rome:

These are the birds that give the Most-Favourable Omens; these birds daily control our officers of state, and shut or open to them their own homes; these send forward or hold back the Roman rods of office and order or forbid battle formation, being the auspices of all our victories won all over the world; these hold supreme empire over the empire of the world, being as acceptable to the gods with even their inward parts and vitals as are the costliest victims. (Natural History.  Book X. xxiv. 49)

But we should not suppose that divination of this sort was regarded as some species of magic or that it was necessarily divinely inspired.  Pausanias’ (2nd C. AD) view of Greek religious practice is that of a ‘moderate realist’.  That is to say, his criteria for what to believe and what not to believe concerning these matters certainly involved a notion of religious faith, but they largely involved human observation and human reason:

This poetry [that of Iophon of Knossos on Amphiaraos, the famous seer] of his had an intoxicating attraction to common people, but in fact apart from those who suffered Apollonian madness none of the soothsayers in antiquity was a prophet; they were good at exegesis of dreams, the diagnosis of flights of birds, the scrying of holy entrails.

Pausanias clearly believes that true prophesy is very limited and he makes a clear distinction between inspiration and exegesis. For him, there is no ‘magic’ or divine intervention in the case of augury – it is simply a matter of correct diagnosis. I should mention in passing that Pausanias himself was a great bird lover.  In his old age he took to bird watching and travelled far and wide to catch sight of different species.  No doubt, he kept a bird list like any modern ornithologist.

Mind you, in order to make the correct diagnosis, you need to understand the birds and the granting of that power is a much trickier business for us to understand.  For one thing, in ancient Greece, that power seems to have been often mediated by snakes!  The famous seer Melampus saved the young of two dead snakes. Later, when he was asleep, these young snakes licked his ears. When he awoke, he found he could understand the language of birds.  Snakes also licked the ears of Kassandra and Helenos, giving them the power of the seer.

In other cases, the gift of understanding birds seems to come by direct association with the gods.  Thus, Parnassos, the inventor of divination by birds, had the nymph Kleodora for his mother and Poseidon as his father.  Likewise, Teiresias was the son of the nymph Chariklo, and Phineus, another blind seer, was also the son of Poseidon.  One could quote many other examples from the ancient literature.

But why should birds be important as bringers of knowledge?  Part of the answer may have to do with their ancestry.  In ancient Greek mythology, birds often begin as humans transformed by gods. Perhaps the most famous example is Alcyone.  She was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “Halcyon Days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs. Pliny gives us a detailed account:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed ……  They lay five eggs. (Pliny, Natural History, X.xlv.90-91)

Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  As far as I can ascertain, taxonomists still recognize both the genus Halcyon and the genus Ceyx amongst our kingfishers. In Australia, bird books still list Ceyx azureus as the Azure Kingfisher but our Sacred Kingfisher is no longer in the genus Halycon. In ancient times members of the two genera were commonly thought to fly together.  The story of Alcyone led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.  Perhaps we can take this as proof that birds continue to inspire us!

This early Greek notion of the human origin of many bird species has close parallels in other cultures.  The totemic spirit ancestors of the Aborigines, for instance, were often bird-men. In their study of the Aranda of central Australia, Spencer and Gillen report that the spirit ancestors are so intimately associated with plants and animals, the name of which they bear, that an Alcheringa (Dreamtime or primordial time) man of say, the Emu totem, may be spoken of either as a man-emu or emu-man.  One can begin to understand from this, just how close was the relationship between the Australian Aborigines and the world of nature around them.

By the time we get to Plato (circa 400 BCE), city folk are already losing interest in the bush and its denizens. As far as we know from Plato’s account, Socrates only went voluntarily outside the city wall on one occasion and even then, it was not to admire the birds (Phaedrus).  He seemed a lot more interested in a young boy (interestingly, Sixty Minutes has not followed up on this case). When he is asked about the spirits of nature, he gives this reply:

Now I have no leisure for such enquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous.  And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me …….  I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.

But, of course, Plato is by no means divorced from the world of birds.  Indeed, he supposes that the noblest of human souls can be re-incarnated in birds whereas less deserving souls will choose lower animals.

When we move into the Christian era, we can still find evidence of a close relationship between humans and birds.  Consider, for example, the enormous popularity of the medieval “Bestiary” (and the closely related “Aviary”).  These were collections of lore in animal allegory which serve to illustrate Christian ideas in a simple way such that they might have appeal (to those lower orders of the Church and the laity) where heavy theological treatises would not.  The common ancestor of these medieval bestiaries is thought to be the Physiologus – a text which may date back as early as the 2nd century AD and whose author is unknown. Here, each animal is given a chapter in which its physical and behavioral characteristics (real and imagined) are presented and moralized for a Christian audience.  The later bestiaries of the medieval period follow this model, often drawing from a wide range of sources including the Bible itself, Aristotle, Pliny, and other Greek and Roman authors of antiquity.

That these works were designed to give moral instruction to the unlettered is made abundantly clear in the Prologue to Book One of Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (circa 1150) where he says:

Desiring to fulfill your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove … and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind’s eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so.  I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text, I may represent a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.

In the Aviarium, some thirty bird species are presented and, for each, certain biological information is used to draw an analogy to the proper conduct of a Christian life.  Thus, for instance, part of the entry for ‘The Goose’ reads:

There are two varieties of geese, that is to say, the tame and the wild.  The wild ones fly aloft and in an order, and denote those who, far from worldly affairs, preserve an order of righteous living.  The domestic ones, however, live in villages; they cry out frequently; they tear at themselves with their beaks.  They signify those who, even though they love the monastery, have time nevertheless for loquaciousness and slander.

Whether these moralizing allegories had the effect of giving heightened respect for animals is a difficult question.  Certainly, many of the species chosen were farm animals, routinely slaughtered for food. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such a reverse anthropomorphism did not lead to some special consideration for the species involved.  When the medieval peasants saw in the great Cathedral or Church, an image of the Pelican (representing Christ – the Pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood), it is hard to imagine that they could not have some lingering association when the real Pelican was sighted on the lake.

In another sense, we know that the sort of associations given in these moralizing accounts went deeper than mere allegory.  Even in this writer’s memory of living in a small rural community in Victoria, it was considered improper (bringing bad luck at the very least) to destroy the nests of Swallows, even when such nests on house walls caused a good deal of fouling with faecal remains.  For a more powerful example, we need look no further than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, where the killing of an Albatross has truly terrifying consequences.  Nor is this mere poetic fancy.  In Melville’s Moby Dick, the author gives us (in a footnote) his actual experience on first sighting an Albatross at close quarters:

 I remember the first Albatross I ever saw. … I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime.  At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark.  Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it.  Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress.  Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. … I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then.

What Melville attempts to express here is an experience of the Numinous – what Professor Rudolph Otto calls the ganz andere – the “totally other”.  We should not suppose that such experiences came only with Enlightenment learning or Romanticism.  It is much more likely that close encounters with living, wild animals have evoked these sorts of responses from time immemorial.

Not long ago, I read of a new report on the state of the environment in Australia.  The outlook is not good.  It is forecast that, by the end of this Century, Australia may have lost about half of the species of birds known to occur at the time of European settlement.  No doubt, all sorts of valid scientific reasons will be put forward in support of this bleak forecast.  Equally, the sorts of solutions proposed will be scientific solutions – ecosystem rehabilitation, and the like.  I cannot help but wonder, though, whether the first requirement might simply be a return to that earlier sense of awe that we had for the feathered world. Birds were not just sophisticated bio-mechanical machines whose behaviour was genetically controlled. In my youth, the Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike was called the “Summer Bird”, because when it appeared, you knew that summer had set in. Its appearance was a matter of good fortune, not of blind mechanical necessity.  Likewise, the Pallid Cuckoo was the welcome harbinger of spring. It need not have come. Indeed, spring need not have come. And birds sang (these days they only vocalize) because they were happy or sad, or grateful, not because of some theory of B.F. Skinner or E.O. Wilson. Like the ancient Greeks, we did feel that birds had something to tell us.  I suspect that, until we get back to such an understanding, none of the proposed scientific solutions will encourage the birds to return.


Truth as “a function of power” has a nice ring to it—for some people. The rise of a cynical relativism that declares that truth doesn’t exist as anything “objective”, i.e. outside our perceptions of it, has parallels in the relativisation of morality. If “good” cannot exist unless, as Hamlet once put it, “thinking makes it so”, then good is relative to human beings, and we know from experience that different historical times/different circumstances “construct” the thinking of different people, so if it’s thinking that constructs the idea of the good then objectivity of morals is dead in the water. But does it follow that even if we accept this questionable sort of reasoning about “good” we should accept that truth must go the same way?

Nietzsche actually didn’t say that truth was a function of power[i], but he could see how possession or control of what was seen as the truth could provide the power to dominate how people think about reality: declaring some accounts of reality true and others false are power plays in larger struggles over defining reality. But from here do we inevitably go to “there is no truth”? The end-point of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was, depending on the edition, either “2 + 2 = 5” or “2 + 2 = ?” and the two slightly different conclusions to draw are, respectively, “absolute power determines what we agree to call reality” or “absolute power makes it impossible to know what is reality”. In neither case is it inevitable that the absolute power decides what is true, only that the absolute power controls people’s access to the truth. Orwell wasn’t postmodern enough to make the external reality in the novel subject to the same “suspicion” that is engendered by the “unreliable narrators” and frequent shifts in perspective that call into question all perspectives, which are the staple of some 21st century literary fiction. The only “suspicion” of all perspectives is the suspicion engendered in the characters in the novel by the controlling power. The “truth” that is a “function of power” is only the pseudo-truth of Big Brother that is ground into the denizens of Airstrip One so comprehensively that they lose all faith in there being any other reality, or any “real” truth.

There is a logical fallacy in the reasoning that conflates “truth” with the dictates of power. The PoMo “suspicion” that would relativise truth out of existence works fine at a first-person level: what I perceive to be true is, tautologically, what I perceive to be true. The fact that I can’t get “outside” my perceptions to somehow “perceive” the noumena rather than the phenomena has tempted many modern thinkers to apply (subjective) first-person criteria to (objective) third-person phenomena and conflate the two realms, thus relativising the objective realm by sleight-of-hand.

While we’re on Nietzsche, his idea of “Perspectivism” is most apposite to talk of truth. The notion that he put forward, in a muddled way perhaps, was that a broader perspective gave one a closer approximation of truth. There’s an obvious dependence on the simple visual analogy that goes: observer A sees one person, observer B sees two, one of whom from A’s viewpoint is hidden behind the other.  A says there is one person, B says there are two… being familiar with visual perspective I will judge (“objectively”) that A is wrong and B is right. But Nietzsche’s melange of “perspectivist” theorising was immediately reduced, by various thinkers, to “relativism”. He didn’t endorse a full-blown relativism, but some of his less-considered remarks can be construed that way. A C Graham did a very careful analysis of Nietzsche’s “Perspectivism” and found that it did not reduce to relativism:

Throughout much of his work Nietzsche is faithful to the visual analogy, and assumes that the wider the range of perspectives from which one views the better one knows, the nearer one approaches the kind of objectivity he recognises…[ii]

Graham then quotes various passages from Nietzsche’s works that either support or undermine the non-relativist theme. But he believes that there is one “rescuable” argument in Nietzsche for a Perspectivism that does not reduce to relativism:

It is inherent in the visual analogy that perspectives are related, not to the persisting and self-centered viewpoints of individuals or communities, but to the vantage-points towards which, as with spatial positions, they direct themselves in order to get the most informative view of the scene. Nietzsche is always searching for the unnoticed perspective from which what he has himself said is revealed to be inadequate; and this constant requestioning is for him not a plunge into skepticism but a strengthening and enriching of knowledge.[iii] [My itals]

Graham allows that Nietzsche’s discussions of truth and knowledge are “very varied”:

Nietzsche may be seen as ranging between two poles; at one he rejects their very possibility, at the other he dismisses the all-or-nothing truths affirmed from single perspectives only to insist on the more-or-less of truth in multi-perspectival views.[iv]

It is when he unduly privileges the Ubermensch that Nietzsche leaves himself open to charges of relativism; this and the “will to power” form a very important strand of his thought, and it is this aspect that gives rise to distortions like “Truth is a function of power”. However, in Ecce Homo he talks of having “an eye beyond all merely local, merely nationally conditioned perspectives; it is not difficult for me to be a ‘good European’ ”—a superior perspective to the German historians’, who have “utterly lost the great perspective for the course and values of culture…they have actually proscribed this great perspective. One must first be ‘German’ and have ‘race’, then one can decide about all values and disvalues…—one determines them.”[v] Here, Nietzsche disavows the “truth as a function of power” perspective that was later formative of Nazi ideology.

We can talk of “telling truth to power” and as long as the Bear, or the Panda, or the Eagle doesn’t just obliterate us, because any of them can, we can be sanguine about the relationship of truth to power. But first we must consider where power really lies in our post-millennial new world…

Globalisation, turbo-capitalism and exponential growth in digital technologies have created massive inequality, socioeconomic distress and the destruction of communities, and this has seen a profound shift in the locus of power, which has altered the pattern of winners and losers from the system—financial and technocratic elites operating at a global level are appropriating the power that was once invested in liberal democratic nation states. Technology is a relentlessly dynamic force that recognises no limits other than the limits of possibility (consider how the “limits of possibility” have changed in just the last two decades…). A technocracy is by nature totalitarian, the rule of a self-perpetuating system with no controlling centre and therefore no bearers of political responsibility and no real accountability. Liberal order, in what is left of “democracy” before it is subsumed in plutocratic totalitarianism, is reactive to technology, but it cannot control it: consider the recent Facebook man’s stonewalling of a parliamentary “grilling” as merely the first failure in a losing battle. Michael Hanby[vi] sees technocratic totalitarianism as “post-political” and suggests that post-political absolutism may inflame the desire for a political absolutism that promises to restore control, perhaps partly explaining the Trump phenomenon.

The unstoppability of technology, with the limits of the possible heading exponentially upwards, has led to the notions of desirability, morality and truth being perceived as old-fashioned and irrelevant beside the beckoning glitter of the rewards from the monetisation and the commodification of everything in the reign of quantity that consumer capitalism has ushered in. Truth is not so much a function of power, but the new power coming up—rich techno-power—is in essence totalitarian and anti-human, and, importantly, it relies on the trashing of the concept of truth in order to continue expanding like a cancer. And why is this? Well… the whole concept of “telling truth to power” conceives of truth as an absolute, and totalitarian states do not countenance any absolutes other than themselves, but our situation is more complex than that, and has deep historical roots.

Close analysis of the building-blocks of modern academic philosophy reveals various ideological constraints on what they can say about truth, knowledge and meaning, which conspire to render today’s philosophy inadequate to fully explore the concept of truth. Grossly oversimplified, three general ways to truth have had broad acceptance in Western philosophy over its history: “rationalist” contributions, which suggest that truth is amenable to reason; “empiricist”, or experience-based contributions (the modern materialist/scientific worldview is associated with the empirical approach); and modern and “postmodern” approaches to truth after Kant, which have called into radical question the traditional approaches and in many cases have called into question the notion of truth itself. “Modern” and “postmodern” philosophy in the Anglosphere grew out of the empiricist tradition—the Anglo-American “broadly analytic tradition”, as some call it, owes much to the 17th Century rise of empiricism as a philosophy, whilst “postmodern” strands owe as much to Continental neo-rationalist ideas and also to the social sciences.

While “philosophy bakes no bread” is a truism, there is a trickle-down effect from an academy that is so obviously opposed to the notions of “traditional wisdom” and the Learning from History that used to be part of an ongoing intellectual endeavour. With neo-liberal capitalism and the marketisation and commodification of everything, education was unlikely to escape, and there was a (predictable in hindsight) synergy between the need to price everything and sell everything and the sort of thinking that became, increasingly, “privileged” in the universities: i.e. there is no truth, no certainty; the “grand narratives” of the Western tradition are rationalisations that legitimise racism, sexism and persecution of minorities; the way forward is to fight for the individual rights of the oppressed… This led to the identity politics and narcissism which took the heat off the systemic wrongs and emasculated any genuine opposition to the political/social/technological system that was being established. The “postmodern suspicion”, ostensibly of all grand narratives, becomes a sort of paranoid obsession, and it permeates the modern world. One of the early results of this trickle-down suspicion in the world at large is the destabilisation of a culture of truth as a strong concept, which allows the “newspeak” merchants, the plutocrats and the opportunists, aided by various forms of mass media, to behave with cavalier disregard for anything but self-interest and the accumulation of wealth and power.

Parallel with the rise in narcissism and focus on the individual, which has been exacerbated by the overwhelming surrender to digital technology and “social” media that is presently moronising the population, is the naturalising of the market as the universal arbiter. The market allows only quantity as a yardstick (quality is an inconvenient judge of the value of anything measured in saleable units…), and a concomitant of this is that everything has its price; anything outside the market—things with no monetary value—are seen as valueless (love, compassion, community feeling, spirituality, etc.), and thus human life is degraded. The opportunity to “like” anything and everything renders everything “measurable” and for sale…

Measurable, quantifiable, numerable, countable—the C17th rise of science, and the parallel rise of Empiricist philosophy, saw the enshrining in the Western mind of the logical part of human thinking. It severely impeded academic philosophy in the UK and The US (the “broadly analytic tradition”) by denying it access to what might be 80 to 90% of human thinking.  A. C. Graham makes it abundantly clear that “analytic reasoning” is but a small part of our thinking:

Logicality itself is only one of the varieties, and not necessarily the most important for judging someone intelligent.   Reason in the narrow sense can presume too much on being the capacity which distinguishes human from animal; an exclusively logical mind, if such is conceivable, would be less than animal, logical operations being the human activity most easily duplicated by a computer.[vii]

And back to Nietzsche: his “Perspectivism” can be nicely aligned with Graham’s version of how we think, viz: the “constant requestioning” that is for Nietzsche a “strengthening and enriching of knowledge” allows all relevant perspectives to be taken into account:

There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity” be.[viii]

And the main “affects” that analytic philosophy denies itself are those available via the arts:

The arts can develop, clarify, and intensify awareness at any or every level, sharpening sense impressions, vivifying imagination, waking to unnoticed similarities, loosing correlation from conventional schemes, educating the incipient simulation by which we understand persons from within – analysing too, but never like philosophy and science uprooting the logical form from its bedding in other kinds of thinking. [ix]

The separation of the “rational” from the “emotional”, and the concomitant diminution of perspective, has been a trend since the C17th which has become chronic in the C21st. The “bubbles” and “echo chambers” of the internet reinforce tribal beliefs and actively work against reasoned debate, or even exposure to thinking outside the thought-bubble straitjacket. There are parallels with the phenomenon, just prior to wars, of the vilification of “the enemy” as other than human; many stories attest to the difficulty in killing a fellow human being if he/she is perceived as such. (Orwell’s vignette of the Spanish Civil war—he found he could not shoot a running man who was obviously trying to hold his trousers up after losing his belt to some exigency—illustrates just this human trait. Soldiers are routinely brutalised to minimise its effect, and propaganda emphasises the “otherness” of the enemy.) In the same way, exposure to only “our” ideas makes others’ ideas alien. The concomitant narrowing of the human thinking process is cause for alarm—Facebook addiction in hoi polloi is one thing, but a generalised closing-off of the rational element in our thinking is dangerous: it is exactly what is required before the propaganda victory that creates “the enemy”…

The emotional/non-rational/irrational wave of C21st radical fundamentalism is to be expected as an equal and opposite reaction to the “scientistic” trend in analytic philosophy and the hyper-rational successes of technology. The trend to “spiritualism”, Eastern religious and yogic practices, etc., but without any but superficial grounding in traditional ideas that might give them depth, is also part of the push-back against hyper-analytic thinking. The internet is awash with “alternatives” to the modern hyper-rational world, most alas modelled on the neo-liberal consumerist blueprint and competing for attention in the Babel of shouting, over-simplified messages online.

The hyper-rational pole is represented in this environment too: dip not too far into Google Scholar and people are discussing the “quantified self” (there is even a “Quantified Self movement”). They speak of a “qualified self”, constructed by applying the same Big Data algorithms and devices to track and alter mood, emotion, etc. Individuals will have “an increasingly intimate relationship with data as it mediates the experience of reality”—“creating qualitative feedback loops for behaviour change”… (Guénon’s “reign of quantity” might seem old hat.)

That these “poles” are further “polarising” would appear to be a verifiable fact. The fact that they have been poles apart for some time is verifiable, too: C P Snow’s “Two Cultures” (1959) is well-enough known, but C S Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (1943) is most interesting to revisit in the light of our present juxtapositioning of the rational/irrational poles.    Lewis wrote his three-chapter polemic in response to a textbook for senior high-school students that sought to “modernise” their thinking. What he railed against was its unconscious acceptance of a bias of the then-current Oxford philosophy that denigrated emotion, in the sense that it sundered fact from value. The is/ought impasse was cutting-edge then, and the well-meaning English teachers who wrote the book were utterly submerged in that zeitgeist. Lewis speaks in a language alien to the C21st, but he put his finger on the same sort of polarisation we are seeing today in a slightly altered form. He was defending the objectivity of values at a time when radical subjectivism, emotivism and the “linguistic turn” were coming into the ascendant—and he correctly identified what a distorted focus on an exclusively rational analysis would lead to. Because, as David Stove puts it:

It does not follow…because no reason can be given to believe p, that it is unreasonable to believe p, or that belief in p is groundless Unless some propositions were known directly or without benefit of reasons for believing them, none could be known indirectly or by means of reasons.[x]

Or, as Coleridge put it, more poetically,

From the indemonstrable flows the sap, that circulates through every branch and spray of the demonstration.[xi]

As Lewis saw it, in the teachers writing the textbook and in the philosophical mainstream at the time:

Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, … obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open.[xii]

Practically all traditions throughout recorded history show a striking convergence in the sorts of beliefs, behaviours, rules and attitudes that comprise the right way to live—the “perennial philosophy” has many strands, many different applications in many different cultures and traditions, but, mutatis mutandis, all these strands comprise the same Way. In the first chapter of The Abolition of Man, Lewis outlines what he is going to mean by “the Tao”:

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.  Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao.  … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar [for Lewis, Christ].

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.  … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.[xiii]


Lewis saw the polarisation as being “follow the Tao”/return to a state of “nature”.  “Follow the Tao” can be simplified for our purposes (but not by undue distortion) as a paraphrase of Stove’s “unless some propositions are known directly or without benefit of reasons for believing them, none could be known indirectly or by means of reasons”; if you reject these universal values that cannot be derived from reason alone, you can have no grounds for judgement—all your reasoning floats without foundation:

My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse…

For without the judgement ‘Benevolence is good’ — that is, without re-entering the Tao — they can have no ground for promoting or stabilizing these impulses rather than any others. By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses as they come, from chance. And Chance here means Nature.[xiv]

And “return to a state of ‘nature’” can also be aligned with our polarities.  By “nature”, Lewis does not mean Tao as “Nature … the Way, the Road…”. He says it (nature) has varying meanings, and proceeds to define it via its opposites (“the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural”). From “nature” come our basic drives, impulses and emotions. For Lewis, the intellect (reason) alone is inadequate to keep these in check. In a nod to Plato, he uses a three-part notion of the human as comprised of head, heart and gut: the intellect, the sentiment (the “heart”) and the aforesaid basic drives. By following the Tao, the heart can be educated, emotions can be civilised, and basic drives can be kept in check. A very traditional notion of the human, and one that has been desperately unfashionable for almost a century, but the relativisation of values has had certain effects—of which Lewis was perhaps not too dimly prescient in 1943.

There is irony in the current polarisation: of the hyper-rational techno-elite world of Google, Amazon, et. al. and the hot, primitive emotions moiling on the world wide web. Science, and scientistic and empiricist/materialist thought—in the academy, in business, in planning, in politics (“it’s the economy, stupid!”)—has moved away from the non-rational, the emotive, that which cannot be pinned down in propositions that can be manipulated and tested. This provides a rich matrix for two sorts of reaction: the anti-rational rise of populism seen everywhere, and the hyper-rational rise of techno control. On the surface these seem diametrically opposed, but they are two sides of the one phenomenon. Two sides of the same coin are not the “full two bob” in themselves, of course, and one of them is being duped—some hoi polloi who fulminate on twitter, who vote for the likes of Trump or just about anyone out of the current sad crop, who have knee-jerk reactions to everything from individually-crafted inducements to buy to traffic-rage outside their kids’ school, no longer accept the old “values” of community, democracy, decency, etc., which have been “shown” to be fabricated by a system that is unfair— one that has been exploded by the academy… these hoi polloi are surrendering, via the technology they have become addicted to, to the purely rational/analytic control of elite very rich groups.

And the crushing irony is that the rational/irrational dichotomy is a false one. If, as A. C. Graham has demonstrated, 80+% of thought is “non-rational” from the point of view of analytic reasoning, the two sides are part of the same coin: Graham explores this notion in a number of essays in Unreason Within Reason: essays on the outskirts of rationality. There is no “rational” way to prove just about any answer to any of the “big” questions, and in fact there is no “rational” way to prove that a “logical” argument actually “proves” its conclusion. As David Stove said: “The greatest logician in the world cannot explain, any more than the layman can, why ‘All swans are black and Abe is a swan’ entails ‘Abe is black’.”   What are our reasons for believing:

  1. a)  M a P      [all M’s are P’s]
  2. b)  S a M       [all S’s are M’s]
  3. c) \S a P      [all S’s are P’s]   ?

Graham, a sinologist and not an analytic philosopher, but one with a strong empiricist bent, had an acute and unconditioned mind to bring to the “problems” of rationality, consciousness and the fact/value dichotomy that have perplexed the broadly analytic tradition for many years. After showing, with a rather delightful allusion to Pavlov, that most of our thinking is correlative, he demonstrates that we have an emotional response to facts as well as a (probably later) rational one. In fact, most of our thinking is correlative; as Graham asserts:


…all analysis has its starting-points in the pre-logical underground of thought – in concepts born from spontaneous correlations, which may be discredited if the conclusions drawn from them are contradictory or refuted by observation, but can be replaced only by a spontaneous correlative switch; and from spontaneous motivations which are to be evaluated by the degree of awareness of oneself and of the objects to which one finds oneself responding. (p208 my emphases)

And it is this “spontaneous correlative switch” that happens when we are open to wider and wider perspectives which causes us to “change our minds”—no-one is persuaded by rational argument to adopt a different view: it is only when we have “decided” pre-rationally to allow ourselves to be moved in a particular direction, in the light of a wider array of facts about it, that we choose a “position”.

A most important observation of Graham’s, in the present context, is that:

No mode of thinking, poetic, mythic, mystical, whatever you please, is to be called irrational merely because it is pre-logical, but it is irrational to accept it without having a test which it satisfies. Rationality is intelligence excusing none of its varieties from logical tests. (p15, my italics)

And my thesis is that the great divide, which probably started during the Enlightenment or before, is a traducing of the human, which has always had two at least (and pace Plato, possibly three) components, which, when properly aligned in the “right” proportions, has resulted in the Tao, or the right way to live. A purely analytic-rational focus denies important parts of being human and important ways of arriving at truths—the juggernaut of technology is a totalitarian force that by “uprooting the logical form from its bedding in other kinds of thinking”, to use Graham’s words, has taken the locus of power out of human hands. And the only sorts of truths it recognises in this supposedly “post-truth” era are the thin truths, the truths that are instrumental in consolidating its absolute power.[xv]

The pressing question for our age is how to reconcile the two divided parts of our humanity, somehow to heal the rift, and thus to show that C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” and C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man are not accurate predictions of our near future. At present, “telling truth to power” is a fraught undertaking, because those who might do so are hampered by the legacy of the last three hundred-odd years and its insistence on truth’s only being available via the narrow analytic-rational route, which is the operating system of the main technological and financial power blocs in today’s world. A recognition that human rationality is much broader and more varied than logical operations might be a good place to start on the “reconciliation”.

Tom McWilliam

[i] “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth” are said to be Nietzsche’s actual words… [my italics] [  ]

[ii] Graham, A. C. Unreason Within Reason: essays on the outskirts of rationality, Open Court, Illinois, 1992, p30

[iii] Ibid. p31

[iv] Loc. Cit.

[v] Ibid. pp30-1

[vi] Hanby, M. “A More Perfect Absolutism” in First Things Oct. 2016, p26

[vii] Graham, Op. Cit. pp15-16 (my italics)

[viii] Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morals, in Graham Op. Cit. p30

[ix] Graham, Op. Cit. p215 (my italics)

[x] Stove, D. The Rationality of Induction, OUP, UK, 1986, p180 (my italics)

[xi]  Coleridge, S. T. (ed. I. A. Richards) The Portable Coleridge, Penguin/Viking, N. Y.

[xii] C.S. Lewis.  1944.  The Abolition of Man, Ch. 3

[xiii] Ibid. Ch. 1

[xiv] Ibid. Ch. 3

[xv] What might seem apposite here, perhaps, is Aphorism 4 of Beyond Good and Evil: “TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”

J.A. Froude on the Coming of Modernity

James Anthony Froude (1818–1894) was an English historian whose work has been somewhat neglected in our time.  This excerpt demonstrates his power as a writer and his respect for past ages – something rather rare in the Victorian era:

A change was coming upon the world, the meaning and direction of which even still is hidden from us, a change from era to era. The paths trodden by the footsteps of ages were broken up; old things were passing away, and the faith and the life of ten centuries were dissolving like a dream. Chivalry was dying; the abbey and the castle were soon to crumble into ruins; and all the forms, desires, beliefs, convictions of the old world were passing way, never to return. A new continent had risen up beyond the western sea. The floor of heaven, inlaid with stars, had sunk back into an infinite abyss of immeasurable space; and the firm earth itself unfixed from its foundations, was seen to be but a small atom in the awful vastness of the universe. In the fabric of habit in which they had so laboriously built for themselves, mankind were to remain no longer.

“And now it all gone – like an unsubstantial pageant faded; and between us and the old English there lies a gulf of mystery which the prose of the historian will never adequately bridge. They cannot come to us, and our imagination can but feebly penetrate to them. Only among the aisles of the cathedral, only as we gaze upon their silent figures sleeping on their tombs, some faint conceptions float before us of what these men were when they were alive; and perhaps in the sound of church bells, that peculiar creation of medieval age, which falls upon the ear like the echo of a vanished world.”

SOURCE: J.A. Froude, History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 12 volumes (revised edition, 1893).

The Legacy of Enlightenment Philosophy

When we think of “Hipster café culture” we can be dismissive of something easily caricatured as vacuous, narcissistic and intellectually not up to much. What a contrast, we might think, with the coffee-houses, salons and public meeting-places of the C18th. The intellectual ferment of the “Century of philosophy”, we feel, was something qualitatively different from the life of the mind in the C21st. And yet we are told by many that The Enlightenment ushered in the early modern world; The Enlightenment, in the words of a year 11 essay on the subject,

…was a way of thinking that focused on the betterment of humanity by using logic and reason rather than irrationality and superstition. It was a way of thinking that showed scepticism in the face of religion, challenged the inequality between the kings and their people, and tried to establish a sound system of ethics.[1]

But “The Enlightenment”, scare quotes and all, is perceived as a contested site by the modern academy. Before expanding on this, let us consider the enlightenment period and its legacies from a variety of different perspectives. Nietzsche always looked for the additional, wider perspective that would show his as inadequate, but he didn’t dissolve into relativist despair at the prospect—this constant re-questioning led not to scepticism but to a strengthening and enriching of knowledge. We might do well to follow his example.

From one perspective, perhaps the broadest one available, “enlightenment”, “seeing the light” and the “light of reason” have always been associated with progress towards a clearer grasp of reality and truth. Labelling one short period in history “The Enlightenment” may seem offensively self-congratulatory and serve to negatively characterise other periods, like the “Dark Ages” before it, as unenlightened. The tradition of “Wisdom” (the demeaning inverted commas conferred only in the C20th), or the Perennial Philosophy, has long held that certain truths about reality have always been available to humans, and that various traditions, most often religious ones, have approached these same truths via different paths. Perennialism suggests that, rather than a syncretic amalgamation of these traditions in a New-Age pot-pourri, what is essential in all of them can be seen—on a higher level—as a way to true enlightenment.

A radically different way of viewing the intellectual ferment of the late C17th and the C18th is the “Enlightenment-bashing” postmodern characterisation of it as just a flimsy intellectual cover for Europe’s aggressive colonialization of most of the rest of the world: reason’s claim to universality and bringing the light to the benighted is nicely exposed in a Cook cartoon of 30 or more years ago, with Malcolm Fraser, apparently struggling under a huge box labelled “The White Man’s Burden”, waving off a black man offering to help him carry it with, “There’s nothing in it”. Since then, of course, that “burden” has been read as the burden of oppression, one that imposes an obliterating white “reason” on the kaleidoscopic variety of other cultures, previously seen as benighted.

“Enlightenment values”—if we take the clichéd ones in the Year-11 essay above—are like Motherhood statements for most people in today’s world. Who would cavil with “reason” as against “superstition”, or social reform that sought to reduce inequalities? A standard characterisation of The Enlightenment (capital ‘T’, capital ‘E’) has it that what this century of ferment brought into being was akin to a maturing of humanity, a time when we threw off shackles of tradition and superstition and started to think for ourselves as a species. Certainly it was a time of radical change: the scientific “revolution” of the centuries before, which threw into turmoil most of the received ideas about how the universe formed and functioned, and caused huge reaction and major re-thinking on the part of religious philosophers whilst inviting sceptical speculation about the accepted order, was one cause of “disruption”. Another disrupting factor was the “age of exploration” from mid-C15th to the C17th, which by bombarding Europe with new discoveries considerably widened the “possibility field” and legitimated thinking outside the usual parameters. It has been noted that the two periods which have contributed most to Western thought—C5th and C4th BCE Athens and C17th and C18th CE Europe —have been periods of upheaval and radical change in the circumstances of their respective populations. It could be that we are in another such period, and have much to learn from the Greeks and from the Enlightenment…

So, to look closer at this “Enlightenment”—examining some typical statements of major Enlightenment thinkers might allow us to discern certain themes and emphases.

In France, Voltaire:

“Prejudices are what fools use for reason”

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”

“The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost their reason”

…and Montesquieu:

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy”

“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them”


“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”

“Conscience is the voice of the soul; the passions are the voice of the body.”


“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”

“Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things”

One might be forgiven for thinking an anti-authority, anti-clerical temper pervaded the French enlightenment. It is only when we probe a little deeper than the caricature that quite fundamental differences in outlook can be discerned. Nietzsche, whose aphoristic and rhetorical work might be seen as “uneven”, could nevertheless come up with the sharpest insights.  He spoke of the “serenely elitist Voltaire” and the “enviously plebeian Rousseau”, saying Voltaire was an “unequivocal top-down moderniser” whereas Rousseau saw that the “Enlightenment project of willed, abstract social reform” could “cause deracination, self-hatred and vindictive rage”. Perhaps in the light of the Terror after the French Revolution we could accede to Nietzsche’s observation, whether Rousseau grasped all the implications or not.

And in England, the “Enlightenment” took a slightly different course: what was an anti-authority ferment in France played out differently in England’s constitutional monarchy (Voltaire was “exiled” to England for a time, and took on many of Locke’s empiricist ideas). There was a widely-held view, in what has become the “broadly analytic tradition” in modern Anglo-American philosophy, that the most important thing that was happening in England from the early C17th through the C18th was the gathering ascendancy of “British Empiricism” as a world-view.

The 17th and 18th century development of the British Empiricist School was closely paralleled by the exponential growth of the experimental sciences and their discovery of an identity distinct from pure mathematics.   Russell’s notion of a “reciprocal causation”, between the circumstances people live in and what they think, helps explain this synergistic flourishing.   But, of course, the empiricist “attitude” is not new with the birth of modern science: a curiosity giving scope to observation and experimentation has always been at least a small part of being human and has been responsible for enormous changes in what we know of the world.

An important perspective on the Enlightenment period sees it through the lens of the “Rationalist/Empiricist” dichotomy. The simplistic “England was Empiricist and the Continent was Rationalist” is just that: simplistic and virtually useless as an explanation of what was going on. David Hume, whom we will get back to later as one of the most “reasonable” voices of the Enlightenment, said that the central philosophical debate of his day was waged between “speculative atheists” and “religious philosophers”. In the England of the late C17th it was possible to offer a publicly persuasive “confutation of atheism” – the title of the first series of Boyle Lectures, by Richard Bentley in 1692, which gave natural theology a prominent place in intellectual discourse. The lectures delivered over the period 1692-1732 were widely regarded as the most significant public demonstration of the “reasonableness” of Christianity in the early modern period, characterised by that era’s growing emphasis upon rationalism and its increasing suspicion of ecclesiastical authority. Significant empiricist philosophers like Locke and Berkeley, and scientists of the stature of Newton, were advocates of some of the then current (rationalist) arguments that sought to prove the existence of god. And on the continent, quite radical empiricist voices punctuated the generally rationalist tone: Voltaire, as mentioned above, was greatly influenced by Locke’s empiricism, adopting his refutation of innate ideas to criticise Descartes, and making fun of the famous rationalist philosopher Leibniz in Candide; Condillac took Locke’s empiricism to a much more extreme position in his Traité des sensations, and de la Mettrie the extreme materialist wrote Man a Machine. On the other hand, J S Bach, who flourished in the first half of the C18th, might be read as presenting a mathematically precise musical argument for faith arrived at by reason.

It seems that once we characterise an era by its prevailing ideology, we are drawn to view the entire period—with its seething mass of conflicting ideas, interests, personalities, politics and events—as best understood from that perspective alone. Once embarked on a theme, our thoughts move effortlessly among ideas marked by similarity and contiguity. Confirmation bias lights the way through deeper and more thorough research in the construction of a forming thesis. David Hume pointed out this “habit of mind”, and it was, I believe, one of his most important insights. But its importance was also the most overlooked. To understand why this was so it will be useful to survey several perspectives on Hume, which stridently assert different versions of Hume’s place in the “Enlightenment” milieu. Firstly, the “British Empiricism” perspective—Hume was third in the triumvirate of Locke/Berkeley/Hume.

He is often described as representing the “dead end” of empirical philosophy, of arriving at such “shocking conclusions” that philosophy has been reeling ever since. Bertrand Russell talks of the “self-refutation of rationality”, sees Hume’s scepticism as being “inescapable for an empiricist”, and expresses the “hope that something less sceptical than Hume’s system may be discoverable.” Hume took the empiricist project to its logical conclusion. What we can know for certain by the application of empirical principles is strictly limited. Locke said as much, Berkeley halved what Locke believed we could know, and Hume put paid to most of the rest. There is at least a surface parallel with Socrates’ insistence on human ignorance needing to be understood before knowledge is possible, but there seems to be a difference in what is possible after this “extent of human ignorance” is grasped.

The consequences of Hume’s philosophy are no less than the death of all rationalistic metaphysics and ethics, the acceptance of a purely descriptive role for natural science, and the inclusion of human thought and action as natural processes within the province of biology and psychology.[2]

And how did he do this?   Ostensibly by the application of empirical methods. The “British Empiricists” are seen as primarily concerned to provide an account of the philosophical foundations of human knowledge in general, and of modern science in particular. There is a definite ideological overreach in Macnabb’s summation of Hume’s legacy, but the same ideology forms an important strand running through the broadly analytic “tradition” that is still the dominant philosophical milieu in the Anglosphere, postmodern relativist incursions notwithstanding. The gospel of British Empiricism has been parodied along the lines of:

“Let there be light!” and there was light, and He called it “renaissance”, but saw that there was still darkness, so He took a rib of the renaissance with which to make greater light. But the rib broke, and there arose two false lights, one Bacon, meaning “Father of the British Empiricists” and one Descartes, meaning “Father of the Continental Rationalists”. And the Creator saw that they should war, so he divided them by a great gulf, until there should arise in the east a great philosopher who shall be unlike them and yet like them, who will bring true light and unite them. And thus it was that Bacon begat Hobbes, and Hobbes begat Locke, and Locke begat Berkeley, and Berkeley begat Hume. And thus it was that Descartes begat Spinoza, and Spinoza begat Leibniz, and Leibniz begat Wolff. And then it was that there arose the great sage of Konigsberg, the great ImmanueI, Immanuel Kant, who, though neither empiricist nor rationalist, was like unto both. He it was who combined the eye of the scientist with the mind of the mathematician. And this too the creator saw, and he saw that it was good, and he sent goodly men and scholars true to tell the story wherever men should henceforth gather to speak of sages past.[3]

And of course this history of early modern philosophy has been called into serious question, but it still has explanatory power, and leaves a void to fill if it is rejected outright.

Another perspective claims to fill that void. Rather than seeing Hume as the apotheosis of British Empiricism, we should situate him in his historical, social and political context. If, as he suggested, the main philosophical debates of the time were between “Religious Philosophers” and “Speculative Atheists”, it would be fair to assume that Hume had a position on this debate. And we do encounter religion in the bulk of his philosophical writings. The perspective that Hume’s was a “philosophy of irreligion” suffers from the usual pejorative connotations of that term. The Australian OED gives “indifference or hostility to religion”, and a moment’s thought shows that this is a strong disjunction: you cannot be indifferent and hostile at the same time. The proponents of the “irreligious” perspective seem on close reading to equivocate between the two denotations, or if they make a definite case for “indifferent” they allow the pejorative connotations around that word free rein, perhaps occluding the standard “having no partiality for or against”. Hume was hostile to the robust theism in the major religions, especially Christianity, because he saw that people believed it to legitimise the various atrocities that have been associated with religious wars, crusades and the like; however, he never espoused the aggressive and pugnacious atheism of someone like, say, Dawkins in our era. Hume apparently once said to Baron d’Holbach, “I’ve never even met an atheist”. Like the “British Empiricism” perspective, the “Irreligious” one is useful but partial.

A further way of viewing Hume is that throughout the twentieth century and up to the present time Hume’s philosophy has generally been understood in terms of two core themes, scepticism and naturalism. The obvious difficulty is how these two themes are related to each other and which one represents the “real” Hume. How to reconcile Hume’s radical scepticism with his efforts to advance a “science of man”—a tension that pervades Hume’s entire philosophy and is most apparent in his Treatise, has exercised many good minds. It has given rise to technical arguments about sets and sub-sets of Scepticism; arguments about whether Hume actually believed that the Pyrrhonian end-point was unavoidable; questions about how a “moderate” scepticism could be advanced after an “obvious” acknowledgement of Pyrrhonianism; Hume as pursuing an essentially destructive or negative philosophical program, the principal aim of which is to show that our “common sense beliefs” (e.g. in causality, the external world, the self, and so on) lack any foundation in reason and cannot be justified. This sceptical reading of Hume’s philosophy dates back to its early reception, especially by two of Hume’s most influential Scottish critics, Thomas Reid and James Beattie. Viewed this way, Hume’s reputation is well summed-up by Bertrand Russell:

David Hume is one of the most important among philosophers, because he developed to its logical conclusion the empirical philosophy of Locke and Berkeley, and by making it self-consistent made it incredible. He represents, in a certain sense, a dead end: in his direction, it is impossible to go further.[4]

In important ways, philosophy in the English-speaking world has been “after-Hume” in accord with these perspectives on his work. And in important ways these sorts of perspectives exacerbate a tendency that has been building since Bacon and well before: philosophy begins in wonder, but when certain ideologies are adopted, what it is acceptable to wonder about is categorised, and other types of enquiry outside these categories are “sequestered”—sometimes as scientific disciplines, sometimes as theology, sometimes as “nonsense”. The empirical philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries set new bounds for what could be “seriously” considered—the doctrine that all knowledge is ultimately based on sense-experience placed religion and metaphysics outside the realm of the knowable, and thus out of the realm of philosophy. Reduction to the material oversimplifies and distorts. And the analytic tradition has imbibed, to near-intoxication, the caveat on emotions that goes back at least to Plato. Part of Martha Nussbaum’s thesis in Love’s Knowledge is that it is only via literature that certain truths are apprehensible, because it is only literature that can explore some of their depths—“powerful emotions have an irreducibly important cognitive role to play in communicating certain truths”.[5]

The “style” of the modern analytic tradition was set by Locke’s tone: it powerfully conveyed the belief …

…that the truths the philosopher had to tell are such that the plain clear general non-narrative style most generally found in philosophical articles and treatises is in fact the style best suited to state any and all of them.[6]

“Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white is an honest attempt to encapsulate something of the “essence” of truth in a proposition that the analytic tradition finds unexceptionable.   It doesn’t profess to “reconnect us to higher possibilities”.   As a most obvious, uncontroverted and uncomplicated thing that can be said about the meaning of “truth”, it has about as much resonance as a mission statement. However, it is an end-product of generations of struggle to dispose of the unwieldy mass of superstition, metaphysical confusion and unwarranted conflation of related concepts that philosophical discourse on truth, under analysis, proves to be. Outsiders bemusedly ask what went wrong – how could such labour produce such seemingly insignificant results?

The answer lies in the ideology of the modern analytic tradition, which has developed from the empiricist mindset that defined what was and was not part of philosophy, whilst incorporating only selected features of older traditions.   This sequestration has simplified philosophy within the analytic tradition. Read a certain way, David Hume can be seen as doing the most thoroughgoing hatchet-job: his “consign it to the flames” at the end of the Enquiry became a manifesto for many. But what we have in the intellectual milieu of the C21st is a bastardisation of Hume: Russell’s idea—of a “self-refutation of rationality” derived from Hume—has fed the sceptical/relativist postmodern zeitgeist, while Hume’s perceived “extreme” empiricism has fed into the analytic tradition in ways that have spawned behaviourism and radical scientistic materialism.

I believe that Hume was better than this. Might I, as “diffidently” as Hume might, suggest another perspective to cast long-overdue light on his (overlooked) contribution? Russell’s “self-refutation of rationality” was a step too far: the scientistic/materialist mindset has an ideological propensity to view “rationality” as the logical 1-2-3 analytic sort of thinking that is part of rationality, but perhaps, as A C Graham says…

Logicality itself is only one of the varieties, and not necessarily the most important for judging someone intelligent.   Reason in the narrow sense can presume too much on being the capacity which distinguishes human from animal; an exclusively logical mind, if such is conceivable, would be less than animal, logical operations being the human activity most easily duplicated by a computer.[7]

This embedded hyper-rationalism within the basically empiricist tradition has had far-reaching ramifications for the modern mind: Hume’s uncoupling of cause/effect, is/ought and the “necessary connexion between any two ideas whatsoever” either does or does not put paid to “rationality”, as Russell so melodramatically asserted. If rationality is conceived as reason in the “narrow sense” that Graham alludes to above, then Hume does mark an end point, and modern philosophy since should have descended into Pyrrhonian scepticism or moved in a completely different direction. But it did neither. Yes, there are extreme relativistic and sceptical camps out there, and yes, there have been attempts, often via “French theory”, to branch out in new directions… but to various dead ends. And yes, before that we had the “linguistic turn” that sought to make meaning out of language, and yes, we have had logical positivism, reductive materialism and many other isms, but Hume’s actual nailing of what human rationality was all about at a basic level has not had the effect it should have had on the way we think today.

Hume’s important insight, as flagged earlier, was not to call rationality into question, but to show that using (exclusively) the small part of it that is narrow, analytical reasoning to “argue for” any certain conclusion at all—God, causality, induction, the boiling point of water—cannot deliver any “proof” that can be demonstrated. Simone Weil, in Gravity and Grace, wrote: “The intelligence has nothing to discover, it has only to clear the ground. It is only good for servile tasks.” But to jump from this sort of insight to a belief in the impossibility of meaning/knowledge/truth requires an “ideological irruption”. Note, the intelligence is good, albeit for servile tasks. To write off the intelligence as worthless because it cannot guarantee the conclusions it reaches is tantamount to an all-or-nothing deductivist scepticism that writes off any incomplete, less-than-perfect train of thought that doesn’t converge on an “entailment”. It is using a type of analysis that is only a part of thought to stand in for all of thought.

Hume was no sceptic (capital S): he understood scepticism to be a useful tool, but a barren religion:

The chief and most confounding objection to excessive scepticism is that no durable good can ever result from it; while it remains in its full force and vigour.[8]

And he also recognised, with that last clause “[while] it remains in its full force and vigour”, the emotional content of our motivations to accept or reject so-called objective reasonings.

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.[9]

This chimes with what A C Graham says in “Poetic and Mythic Varieties of Correlative thinking”—there is “something about objective knowledge that obstructs a subjective recognition that our choices are between directions in which we are being moved by conflicting forces from outside ourselves” (my italics) and “The analytic remains imprisoned in itself, seems to start from itself, forgetting its dependence on spontaneous correlation for its concepts and on spontaneous motivations for its prescriptions.”[10]

It seems that we live in a time like the Enlightenment, like C5th Greece, in an onrush of potentially cataclysmic change—foundations are being challenged; the very ways that foundations can be challenged are being challenged; fundamental concepts like truth are under attack—and our ability to cope, to take control, to find a way through, has been fatally compromised by the new great schism, between reason and unreason, that we see everywhere, and which is in part a legacy of how the “Enlightenment” has been interpreted. The current polarisation, of the hyper-rational techno-elite world of Google, Amazon, et. al., and the moiling of hot, primitive emotions on the world wide web, is one end result of a particular focus on reason—not the beneficent light of reason that seeks to encompass all things, but the spotlight of a reason confined within its own limits that can see its own progress only as an unmixed good. This hubris provokes the equal and opposite reaction of populism; distrust in experts; blind rage at a regime that does not take into account the crucial parts of being human that are not measurable, monetise-able, or reducible to propositions that can be manipulated; and, ultimately, to bloody revolution.

A judicious mix of Nietzschean Perspectivism and Humean reason might afford us the best means of making sense of the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Tom McWilliam, September 2018







[1] Part of a sample essay for students to consider when they are “researching” the period:

[2] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Fontana 1962, 11-12)

[3] [With apologies to David Fate Norton. ]

[4] Russell, B. A History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1947: 685

[5] Nussbaum, M.  Love’s Knowledge,  1990, 7

[6] Ibid, 8

[7] Graham, A. C. Unreason Within Reason: essays on the outskirts of rationality, Open Court, Illinois, 1992,

[8] Hume, D. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, OUP, 1980 12, 23

[9] Hume, D. A Treatise of Human Nature Bk 2, Pt III, sect III, OUP 1960, 415

[10] Graham Op. Cit. 221


D.C. Schindler on Plato, Locke and the Great Liberal Death Wish:  The Aug 2018 Meeting Address

Society members will no doubt remember a very entertaining talk by Rod Blackhirst about a year ago when he spoke about Neo-reaction, Mencius Moldbug and a new critique of the whole liberal democratic ethos from a very unlikely source.  In this talk, I wish to comment upon an important new book by Prof. D.C. Schindler, a young American academic, whose recent critique of liberalism comes from more of a Traditionalist perspective.  His approach is via metaphysics and, in parts, bears a remarkable similarity to the writings of René Guénon – a Traditionalist writer well-known to many Society members.

Perhaps a quick overview: Schindler’s approach is to consider the classical versus the modern notion of the term freedom and he takes the ideas of John Locke in this area as representing a sort of watershed in this respect. The classical approach, deriving from Plato and Aristotle (importantly, Schindler insists that Aristotle is a Platonist), regards freedom as being a quality, a sort of directed generosity, of The Good –which translates as a freedom to attain the Good. The modern approach, typified by Locke (though he is merely a representative and not the sole founder) is to regard freedom in terms of power – power to change. I should hardly need to say that the implications arising from these two different conceptions of human freedom are of huge importance to us today.

Roger Sworder could never understand why Locke was so dismissive of Plato.  This book explains why.  Roger would have loved it and disagreed with it at the same time.  I dedicate this talk to him.

Before I begin this rather hastily prepared talk, there are a few points I need to mention.  The first is that the book I will be discussing is a very difficult one to read – difficult for me at any rate.  I have no formal training in general philosophy, metaphysics or ontology.  In fact, by training, I am a rabbit poisoner. The little I do know in these areas, I gleaned from some limited reading and from conversations with Roger Sworder and other of my mentors at La Trobe University.

Secondly, though I will be using the term liberalism right throughout this presentation, it is important to understand that it has nothing to do with party politics – either with the Liberal party in Australia or similar parties in other Western democracies. Guenon and Schindler would, I am sure, point out that all political parties in the West today are liberal parties simply because they all share the same overarching concept of the nature of human freedom. I made this point in my last book, which explains why it fell stillborn from the presses.

Lastly, there is the obvious problem of perspective. As most of you know, I come from a science background and when scientists give papers, the question of their own position vis a vis the subject matter does not arise because there are shared standards concerning both the methodologies and the analyses of scientific data. This is not the case with philosophy. In philosophical discussions, each of us necessarily bring certain background assumptions to the debate – there is no set of objective standards beyond such things as the principle of non-contradiction and the internal integrity of arguments. Was it Aristotle who said that even to deny philosophy, one has to be a philosopher?  Now, while there is a bewildering array of philosophies floating about, they really fall into only two categories – those that accept some form of transcendent reality and those that don’t.  By transcendent reality, I simply mean some form of reality which stands above individual human subjectivity, and I don’t mean any more than that. Alternatively, you could simply denote the two categories as those who accept metaphysics and those that don’t. Broadly speaking, most modern philosophies fall into the non-transcendent category and are often lumped under the catch-all phrase, Broad Analytical Tradition. Continental Philosophy occupies a sort of no-mans-land between the transcendent and the non-transcendent. What about postmodern philosophy then? Well, I’m afraid I regard it not as a class of philosophy but as a disease of philosophy. This, of course, is my bias. In the Western tradition, philosophies holding to some form of transcendent reality dominated from the time of Parmenides up until the Enlightenment.  This, I will call traditional philosophy.

Now, I count myself as a Traditionalist in the broad sense that I have just given, and so my presentation is necessarily biased in favour of Schindler’s position. Like him, I regard myself as a Christian Platonist. Both he and I are Catholics with traditionalist sentiments – an increasingly rare species.  However, in my defence, I would argue that the position taken by Schindler is in general conformity with a wider Traditionalist perspective which involves important commentators from many different religions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and others. There you are! That’s my bias.  I will not enquire as to yours.

There is one final bias I have, simply by virtue of now being an old man. In the Ars Poetica, Horace advises young actors and playwrights of the difficulties they will face in trying to amuse old people.  They are, he said, “testy and querulous and much given to praising the way things were when they were young. They love to act as the censor and critic of their age.”  How much of that describes my position, I do not know.  I do know that, without optimism, a civilisation will die.  But I know too, that even optimistic societies can go under.

Now, something about the book and its author.    The cover (and title) has to be one of the best I have come across in terms of representing the subject matter. Why choose Locke? Well, in America he is considered as a sort of Godfather for the Founders of the Constitution and of the modern notion of liberty. The founding fathers were hugely influenced by the philosophy of Locke. For Schindler though, Locke’s philosophy is simply a representative of a much wider change in perspective as the Enlightenment cast aside that which had come before.  Note that Locke is looking both ways at once – a marvellous touch.  Part of his face is in monochrome, part in full colour – potential versus act – a very Aristotelian touch.

Schindler is only a relatively young bloke.  His father, also a Professor, is still teaching.  Young Schindler received his PhD in 2001.  His degree course was at Notre Dame University. He now lectures at the Catholic University of America. He has already written several books, including one on Plato. He is, as far as I know, editor of a very high-powered journal called Communio and has also contributed to a journal called the Owl of Minerva, which is very fitting because Athene is our Society emblem.  He is fluent in German and French as well as in classical Greek and Latin.

Now, perhaps the best place to start is not with Schindler’s book, but rather with the general social and political situation we find ourselves in today. A philosophy – any philosophy – ultimately engenders or presupposes a sociology and a political content. Marxist philosophy is the obvious example.  Those of you who take an interest in the broader issues of modern society will have noticed a very strong surge in anti-liberal sentiment in recent years.  Mencius Moldbug and his associates are just one example.  There are many others. For instance, about a year ago, a prominent Polish politician and member of the European Parliament, Ryzard Legutko, published a widely cited book entitled “The Demon in Democracy’.   Remember that Legutko is a Pole. He has very good reason to defend rather than criticise democracy, because he has experienced totalitarianism. There have been many other such books.  Why are more and more people taking this stance?  Well, there are a variety of reasons and I hope to cover some of them later.  For the moment, we might just consider the prodigious increase in laws, regulations, permits etc., all supposedly designed to protect our freedom, but in fact, we find that we are ceding more and more of our freedom to the State all the time.

In my wallet I have the following permits: Licence to drive a vehicle, licence to drive a boat licence to own a firearm, licence to work with children, licence to use agricultural chemicals, licence to go fishing (now covered by my State issued seniors card – which is a licence to be old). When fishing, of course, I must obey size limit rules, bag catch rules, rules concerning methods of catch, etc.

Somewhere or other I have a birth certificate, a marriage licence and, one day, I will have a death certificate. If Bond was licenced to kill, I must be licenced to live and to die.

My car must be registered, my boat must be registered, I must wear a seat belt, I must wear a lifejacket, I must register my firearm, my house must have a certificate of occupancy, and any building alterations at my house must have a compliance certificate issued. I must register a dog, if I have one. The dog must be microchipped. Before long, all of us will be microchipped – not forcibly, of course, but just in the interest of efficiency and ease of getting around. We will happily follow the bellwether to the slaughterhouse. If the NBN comes past my house, I must connect. If I ride a bicycle, I must wear a helmet. My front fence must be less than 1.2m high.  I must not remove any trees from my property without authorisation. If I wish to burn off fallen leaves and twigs, I must notify the fire brigade.  I must not use town water to wash my car. Once a month, on a Sunday morning, I read part of the Scriptures to about 20 octogenarians at my Church. For this I now have to sign a special three-page document which states that I am a low risk as a paedophile. I must not smoke in a public closed space or within so many metres of a building. Soon, I suspect, I must not smoke at all.   If I drive into Bendigo and walk around the streets, I am recorded by speed cameras and by strategically placed surveillance cameras – just in case I try to improve the Mall by blowing the bloody thing up. Which I should do as a public duty. It reminds me of John Betjeman and the industrial town of Slough: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now”.  The internet has a vast compendium of information about me – where I live, what I buy, what books I read, and who knows what else.  Who has access to it? – I have absolutely no idea.

There are other aspects of modern life too, which seem to be self-defeating, in a sense. They are beyond our focus tonight, but I will just mention one.  We live in an age in which we enjoy unparalleled standards of living and good health.  The average lifespan has increased enormously. And yet, the incidence of serious depression has risen to alarming levels. I read that one in five Australians suffer some sort of mental problem and one in six will, at some point, suffer from depression.  Suicide rates, too, are alarmingly high.

And so, we are forced to ask ourselves: how is it that we got to such a point?  How can it be that our modern notion of freedom in a liberal democracy is so self-subverting? This is what Schindler wants to investigate and he thinks that the only way it can be adequately explained is by going back to the bedrock of ontology and metaphysics.  For this reason, the book is hard going and I will not pretend that I have an adequate grip of it, even though I have read many chapters two or three times. So, unless you have read the book yourself, you must put up with my rather halting account of the whole business.

Let me now try to explain the traditional concept of human freedom as Schindler sees it. In the Meno, Plato famously said that you cannot look for something unless, in some sense, you have already found it. So what would this ur-concept of freedom look like? Surely the ability to achieve something or some state, otherwise why would we even consider it?  In other words, it has to be a positive sense of freedom – a freedom FOR not a freedom FROM. If it was simply a freedom from some perceived restraint, what would be the point of it unless, in some sense, the offending restraint prevented us from attaining something positive?

And here we come to the nub of Schindler’s thesis.  That positive sense of freedom implies that we have some goal or desired outcome.  For Plato, it was the apprehension of the Good, for Aristotle the achievement of some proper telos or end state. Schindler supposes both to be essentially the same. They boil down, in fact, to an apprehension of the REAL. The REAL is THE GOOD. This ought to be obvious in Plato, for when he talks of the ‘Really Real”, he obviously means the world of perfect forms.

Now, for Aristotle, this perfection is equated with Actuality or pure Act as against Potentiality. To put it another way, any being aspires towards full actuality – i.e. the full realisation of its potential. The Good is the fully real. So then, the freedom we require is none other than the freedom to attain or strive towards pure act.  When people say that someone or thing has attained its full potential, they really mean it has converted all its potentiality into act – which is full reality.

At this point, we must introduce Locke.  In his first edition of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke deals with the question of human freedom but is notoriously difficult to pin down.  To this day scholars are divided as to whether Locke was a compatibilist or a libertarian.  In other words, did he think that our freedom is not pure, but partially determined by outside influences, or did he think that in the matter of freedom we were entirely unconstrained i.e. with no blueprints or suggested paths? In this first edition he seems to suppose that while our actions are free, our volitions are determined to some extent. This, I suppose we might call the Tao as C.S. Lewis did – a sort of universal natural disposition toward the Good. He came under criticism for this stance – especially from certain clerics. One of the reasons was what the Greeks called akrasia – the ever-present possibility of going against your better judgement. This is only possible, they argued, if your will is totally free. And so, in the second edition of the work, he made subtle but important changes. Now, he seems to construe human freedom in terms of power – the power to overrule each and every inclination coming from a source other than the individual will itself. That, at any rate is my understanding but I ought to point out that Schindler devotes a whole chapter to it.

In the next move, Schindler applies some metaphysical principles to these two conceptions of freedom. Power can be equated to potentiality. A thing that has the potential to move to some other state has a certain power.  So, in positing freedom as a power, Locke gives it precedence over Act. In traditional metaphysics, act always takes precedence over potentiality because, when you think about it, there must be something for the potentiality to move towards.  For Plato, Aristotle and the scholastics, that movement was towards the Good, construed of course in different ways, whether it be full actuality, the Good, or God.

Freedom (as potentiality), in Locke, is now cut loose, as it were, and is cast adrift on what Plato calls ‘the vast sea of infinite dissimilarity’. However, as soon as it determines on some specific course or puts down an anchor in some port or sheltered cove, it is no longer totally free and, therefore, at the very heart of this new notion of freedom is a principle of self-subversion.  Freedom as power constantly undermines itself.

This self-subversion Schindler calls the diabolical.  He is not talking about a cloven-hooved creature with horns and a pitchfork.  He is using the term diabolic as the opposite of symbolic. The words have a Greek origin:  sym-ballō means ‘to join together: ‘dia-ballō’ means to divide.   In further fleshing out the meaning of the term’symbolical’, Schindler turns to the thoughts of two heavyweight 20th C philosophers in the Continental tradition, Hans-Georg Gadamer (German) and Paul Ricouer (French). Symbols, in the Roman world, were originally the tesserae hospitales – pieces of bone or pottery broken apart and distributed to members of a bond, to be re-joined by those members or their descendants in a future act which is both one of remembrance of the original and a new event in itself.  Enlarging on this Paul Ricouer describes the pre-modern cosmos as one in which all things are tokens of the good that stands at the origin as first cause and so, they have a certain aptness or natural inclination towards what Schindler calls a “generous and generative unity”.

Now, at this point, those of you who were students of Harry will recall the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign merely points to something else and shares nothing with that other thing. A symbol, by contrast has a sort of share in that which it represents. What I have been talking about above should ring some bells.

If we now turn back to the diabolical as the very opposite of the symbolical, it represents a radical sort of disjunction or tearing away from the Good or the One or the Absolute or, for Aristotelians, the Real. Schindler characterises it as having the following features:

  1. It presents a deceptive image that substitutes for reality. I take it that he means by this some sort of potentiality masquerading as act.
  2. It is essentially negative. Here I want you to think about the modern notion of freedom. It is essentially a negative freedom – a freedom from.  Freedom consist of annihilating anything that stands in its way in terms of a perceived constraint, but of course it has no way.  If it had a way it would immediately perceive itself to be shackled in some sense, so as no longer to be free.
  3. And so this brings us to the third point which is that it is self-destructive. I tried to explain this earlier on it the talk in relation to our modern notion of freedom. The more freedom we suppose that we have, the more, in fact, we surrender to the State.
  4. It renders appearance more decisive than reality. Here of course we are back into the familiar territory of Plato’s cave and, indeed, Schindler devotes a chapter to the cave.
  5. Not only is appearance more decisive than reality, it is better than reality, because it is more convenient and more efficient. We can all relate to this in our modern world and I hardly need to give examples. If I did, I would choose modern advertising, which is the perfect case of appearance being more effective than reality.

In his discussion of the diabolical Schindler has a few very important sentences which relate directly to Guenon’s Reign of Quantity.  Now, curiously, Schindler never mentions Guenon but then he is only a young bloke, perhaps exposed to a more narrow conception of the Traditionalist oevre. Remember that he is a Catholic like me, and schooled in Catholic universities. Here are the sentences in question:

The reduction of actuality to potency is a subsumption of reality into what can be calculatively determined [Quantity]. From this perspective, potency reduces at least in one respect to the power possessed by a subject. If we know how effects are produced, we can control those effects and so if we identify what something is with the effects it produces, that is, with its functionality, then what things are lies in a certain sense within our power. In the diabolical order, then, reality becomes little more than what we want to see, as it were.

This is a perfect description of scientific reductionism as we see it all about us today.

In the next section of his book, Schindler goes on to consider the operation of the diabolical in a whole raft of so-called modern rights or freedoms – choice, self-determination, autonomy, privacy, equality, freedom of thought, freedom of the press, power to vote, and so on.  Now there is no way in the time available that I can demonstrate the self-subverting nature of each of these.  For this, you will need to read the book.

I might just pick a couple and deal with them briefly.  Let us begin with the notion of the free market and see where Schindler takes us.  Here, he relies heavily on the famous work of Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation.  According to Adam Smith our propensity to barter, trade and exchange is an entirely natural thing, there from the very beginning. We were always interested in gain. Now, as Polyani points out this is nonsense.  Before the modern era the economic system was based on exchange, not gain, and the exchange was always in the service of social and human ends. The word economy simply meant household management.  It was almost entirely unconnected with money.

Consider now the modern free market. It is essentially self-regulating and operates from internal necessities alone. There were always markets and always market scams (those of you who took ancient Greek with John Penwill will remember a text dealing with an early ‘bottom of the harbour’ scam designed to collect insurance). However, early markets were always embedded in some larger order and so, had some external regulation. With the emergence of the modern market, we see the transformation of three things in particular – land, labour and money. They now become commodities, pure and simple. But of course, they are not commodities.  Labour is another name for human activity, which goes with life itself and land is the natural surroundings in which that activity exists. Money, for its part, was simply a token of purchasing power.  Strictly speaking, it is not a commodity since it is not produced but rather comes into being through the mechanism of banking.

Schindler then goes on to deal with the consequences of this change and of the pathologies it has produced.  I cannot delve into those in any detail because of time constraints. I might just mention the stock market by way of example.  It essentially has a life of its own and we cannot either predict its actions in the future or take substantial measures to prevent booms and busts.  Each night, the stock market report takes precedence in news bulletins and we anxiously await reports of its health or otherwise.  It controls us, we do not control it. This is why economics is called the dismal science. This is the diabolical in Schindler’s terminology.

Perhaps I will pick on one more aspect and try to deal with it in a little detail before I finish. This is Schindler’s treatment of technology.  At first glance, technology ought to enhance our freedom insofar as increases our capacity to effect change.   But we need to dig deeper and Schindler reminds us of Heidegger’s distinction between the pre-modern notion of technē and the modern.  In ancient technē, human activity is fundamentally responsive to what gives itself by nature.  In a sense there is a sort of gratitude built in to technē. To be sure, the human operation transforms nature in ways it might not change if left untouched. However this transformative activity recollects the natural reality at its root.  What comes to my mind are things like harvest festivals or even the thanksgiving ceremonies of tribal cultures after an animal is killed.  Another example is the work of a carver or cabinet maker in bringing out the natural beauty held in potential, as it were. To go back to metaphysical terms, the potency in technē is a participation in or a relatedness to the actuality.  And this, in a sense, is what makes the work symbolical – a direct connection to the real.

In modern technology, by contrast, “what gives itself naturally is not positively and integrally affirmed as a foundational part of the activity but is merely acknowledged to the extent necessary for use”. In other words, it is merely a raw material and the transformative activity is merely a process, sometimes not involving human input at all.

To further illustrate the contrast, Schindler gives us the example of a stone wall and a wall of concrete constructed from those same stones, now reduced to pebbles. In the former, the stones are used as stones, in the latter the stones are eliminated qua stones – their usefulness is derived from them in spite of their natural form rather than because of it. It is quite significant here to record the human experience upon looking at a stone wall as against a concrete one.  In looking at a stone wall we somehow feel our own humanity enhanced but this is not the case when faced with a concrete wall.

The human input too, must be considered.  Consider the difference in operating a sailboat as against a motor boat.  You connect rather directly and necessarily with the weather and natural conditions in a sailboat, and so you connect with nature – the actuality – simply, as it were. This is not the case with a motorboat where the actuality (wind, currents etc) is more or less irrelevant. In other words, in the contemporary world we have lost a great deal of that sense of encounter that occurs between man and reality in manual labour – an actual working on things with one’s hands. Perhaps I can give a personal example of such an encounter with reality. I was born at the end of the age of horse and plough.  My father was a soldier settler – a maimed survivor of Passchendaele.  When he ploughed with his horse there was first that direct encounter of resistance from the soil – tending to throw the plough offline as it were. There was an art in holding the plough.  There was an art in speaking to the horse – a direct communication between man and beast. The operation was more or less silent – what one heard was a gentle slicing sound, coming from the coulter, the ploughshare and the mouldboard itself as it turned the clod. There was the smell of freshly turned soil. Dozens of birds attended the process, darting in for worms and grubs. The paddock ran beside the road and neighbours might come by, stopping to talk of the weather, the price of lambs, the new arrivals in the district, and so on.  In other words, the work had a sort of social setting too. Now picture today’s farmer in his giant tractor, air conditioned and stereo-equipped with headphones so he can listen to Phillip Adams on a chat show. The tractor is guided by GPS – he does not even drive it.

These considerations, as Schindler says, may seem simply an exercise in romantic nostalgia, but they are not. The point about connecting with the real has profound implications for a human life and, once that connection is lost, certain pathologies arise. We are seeing them all around us today.

And remember too that while in ancient technology there is certainly some enhancement or amplification of human agency – a hammer is more effective in driving a nail than is a fist – in modern technology the effect is not so much an enhancement as it is a total removal of the human agent.

I must draw this to and end now, but before doing so, make one last reflection on the diabolical in technology.   When Silicon Valley jubilantly announced the World Wide Web and the massive benefits, resulting from infinite connectivity and access to information, we might have supposed that, for instance, millions of young people would then go online to improve their knowledge – read the classics for free, download poetry, enrol in language courses, philosophy courses, millions of neo-Reaction sites, perhaps.  Instead we have a sort of mass narcosis as the streets the trains, the trams are filled with young people thumbing their screens and exchanging pap or playing games. They are the lotophagoi – far more stupefied than Homer’s. Remember why Odysseus forbad his men to eat the fruit – Because they would forget their home – the telos. These are our displaced people, the digital orphans. No home, just the infinite sea if dissimilarity stretching out forever and a billion glowing screens, networked and Facebooked.  And so, I end with Tennyson and a world of pure potentiality: 

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, 

Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave 

To each, but whoso did receive of them, 

And taste, to him the gushing of the wave 

Far far away did seem to mourn and rave 

On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, 

His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; 

And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake, 

And music in his ears his beating heart did make. 



Henry Vaughan and his Poetry

Incised in stone above the west door of the little Gothic church at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, is the following inscription:

In the yeare 1653

When all things Sacred were throughout ye nation

Either demolisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley, Barronet,

Founded this church;

Whose singular praise it is,

To have done the best things in ye worst times,


Hoped them in the most callamitous

The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

We are told that Sir Robert Shirley, a Royalist, had refused to assist Cromwell.  He was sent to the Tower and died there, aged twenty-seven.  These were strife-torn times.  The Civil War had ended in victory for the Parliamentarian cause in 1646 and the Monarchy did not return until 1660.  It was during those same strife-torn times that Henry Vaughan ‘The Silurist’ wrote his most memorable poetry and it might be said of him, also, that he ‘done the best things in the worst times’.  Vaughan, a Welshman, was born in Breconshire at Newton-upon-Usk in 1621 and died in 1695, not far from his birthplace. The Civil War was to have a very important influence on both the man and his poetry.

Today, Vaughan is chiefly remembered as one of the so-called ‘metaphysical poets’ of the 17th C. The other important members of the group are Donne, Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, Marvell, and Traherne.  The term ‘metaphysical’ seems to have been invented by John Dryden but was made famous by Dr Johnson who first used it to describe a type of poetry employing unusual and paradoxical images, relying on intellectual wit and upon learned imagery and subtle argument. For Johnson, it was meant as a pejorative term:

Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found. [Lives of the Poets: Cowley]

Such a judgement from an 18th C critic is hardly surprising.  In an age that placed all of its hope on human reason and Baconian science, the highly imaginative poetry of the preceding century was largely dismissed as a ‘conceit’[1].  Indeed, even in Henry Vaughan’s own times, allegorical habits of mind were being replaced by more realistic ones (Bacon published his Novum Organum the year before Henry Vaughan was born) and, in this sense, Vaughan’s poetry looks back towards the Middle Ages rather than to his own times.  Fortunately both literary tastes and philosophical opinions were to change again in later times.  In the early 20th.C, both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were to discover deep affinities with the ’metaphysicals’ and today, their poetry is well represented in most anthologies of English verse.  In was in his essay on the metaphysical poets [1921] that Eliot made his now famous suggestion of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that marked the end of what we might call the metaphysical style.  The basis of this style, Eliot thought, was the poet’s ability to constantly amalgamate disparate experiences to form new wholes.  The metaphysical poet ‘possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  It is with Milton and Dryden – those giants of the 17th Century – Eliot suggests, that we see this ‘dissociation of sensibility’ come to the fore and to manifest itself in the work of later poets such as Collins, Gray, Goldsmith and the great Dr Johnson himself. The language of these poets may have become more refined, but (so Eliot thought) the feeling had become more crude.

As so it was that, after more than two centuries of virtual obscurity, the poetry of Henry Vaughan came to be valued again.  Between 1679 and 1847, there was no new edition of Vaughan although one of his poems had been anthologized as early as 1803. But, if influential modern critics like Eliot and Pound had some hand in restoring the fortunes of the ‘metaphysicals’, so much more so did the Zeitgeist – by the time Eliot died (1965) the bankruptcy of positivism was clearly in evidence. Given that Edmund Blunden had written on Vaughan in 1927 and Siegfried Sassoon had visited Vaughan’s grave and penned a sonnet on that visit in 1928, we might regard these poets as early prophets who, in the wake of the Great War, perhaps foresaw a re-emergence of interest in the imaginative and allegorical as a sort of counter reaction to the Slough of Despond which had developed out of the hell of Flanders.  One might see the emergence of a wider and more general interest in Blake’s poetry in the same light, although W.B.Yeats and Edwin Ellis first edited Blake’s work in 1891-3.

Insofar as the poet himself is concerned, as distinct from the poetry, we owe the resurrection of Henry Vaughan in large part to two grand ladies of literary leanings, the Misses Louise Guiney and Gwenllian Morgan. Miss Morgan was a ‘local’, so to speak, and lived most of her long life in Breconshire, dying there in 1939 in her 88th year.  The daughter of a local pastor, she was a keen historian and intensely interested in Vaughan. She was also the first woman in Wales to serve the office of mayor.  Miss Guiney, by contrast, was an American Catholic, with no close connection to Wales.  She was, nonetheless, an ardent Anglophile, with a particular love for the Royalist poets and a sympathy for the Royalist cause.[2] Morgan and Guiney gathered together what scant information we have today concerning the life of Henry Vaughan. Unfortunately, both these ladies died before they were able to publish their biography of Vaughan.  That task was taken up by F.E. Hutchinson, an Anglican Divine and onetime chaplain of Kings College, who published his account (heavily reliant on Morgan & Guiney’s researches) in 1947.[3]  One other biography has appeared since then, that of Stevie Davies in 1995.[4]  Her account, though, introduces no new material and is largely concerned with a personal appreciation of the poet.

It is perhaps something of a blessing that we know relatively little about Vaughan the man for this has largely spared us those usual, weighty volumes where the minutiae of daily life is drawn into interminable discussion regarding ‘influences’ on poetic production.  We have no images of him, no descriptions of his personality and only a fairly sketchy record of his time on this earth.  Even so, I note that Stevie Davies has a whole chapter (‘The Crucible of Twinship’) where an elaborate superstructure of critical analysis and comment rests on the scant knowledge we have of the relationship between Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, Thomas.

Of Vaughan’s early life we know virtually nothing save that he and his twin brother were taught at a nearby school by one Matthew Herbert, an Anglican clergyman.  Later, Henry Vaughan may have attended Oxford University although the records establish only that his twin brother did.  Whatever the case, he certainly went to London and seems to have studied law for a period.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned home and there, for a short time, was secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, chief justice of the sessions.  We know that Vaughan was married to Catherine Wise by 1646 and that the couple had four children.  Catherine appears to have died very young, almost certainly within a decade of the marriage. Vaughan married again, probably around 1655. His second wife, Elizabeth, was his former wife’s sister and she too, bore him four children.

The question whether Henry Vaughan bore arms in the Civil War has been much discussed.  Hutchinson is of the view that Henry did take up arms for the Royalists but Vaughan’s first modern editor, H.F. Lyte (1847) took an opposite view.  Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the Royalists, together with the death of his younger brother, William (in 1648), had a profound effect on Vaughan. This is evidenced by the sudden change in both the nature and the quality of the poetry he wrote.

As to his profession in later adult life, there are indications that he may have been a doctor but little evidence of any training in this field.  In a letter to John Aubrey in 1673, Vaughan talks about his brother, Thomas, and then says: ‘My profession also is physic which I have practised now for many years with good success …’. Earlier (1640s), Vaughan was probably employed as a secretary to Judge Lloyd (and soon after, Hutchinson surmises, as a soldier).

With this brief biography serving as a sort of introduction, we turn now to the poetry.  His first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished, was published in 1646.  A second volume, entitled Olor Iscanus (Swan of the Usk) appears to have been completed by 1647, but was not published until 1651. It is in this second volume that Vaughan gives himself the title of ‘Silurist’ – a reference to the ancient tribe, the Silures, which inhabited the south-east of Wales and which was mentioned by Tacitus as having caused the invading Romans a good deal of trouble. I assume that the Silures also gave us the geological term ‘Silurian’.

Of the bulk of these early poems, perhaps the less said the better.  They are largely very conventional, secular poems, often imitating earlier poets such as Habington or Randolph.  I think it fair to say that if Vaughan’s reputation rested on these alone, he would be largely forgotten today.  The first volume includes a number of love poems, almost all of which are addressed to Amoret, a sort of generic title for the female subject.  Here, Vaughan follows earlier poets such as Lovelace, Browne, Lodge and Waller.  Nonetheless, some of the poetry is memorable.  Here, for instance, is a little vignette of the London of Vaughan’s student days:

Should we go now a wandering, we should meet

With catchpoles, whores, & carts in every street:

Now when each narrow lane, each nook & cave,

Sign-posts, & shop-doors, pimp for every knave,

When riotous sinful plush, and tell-tale spurs

Walk Fleet street, & the Strand, when the soft stirs

Of bawdy, ruffled silks, turn night to day;

And the loud whip, and coach scolds all the way;

When lusts of all sorts, and each itchy blood

From the Tower-wharf to Cymbeline, and Lud,

Hunts for a mate, and the tired footman reels

‘Twixt chair-men, torches, & the hackney wheels...

A Rhapsody (lines 35-46)

Here is a picture of the seamier side of London, with that sort of eye for all the sordid detail which we might expect of Hogarth or Dickens.  The phrases ‘riotous sinful plush’ and bawdy, ruffled silks’ are particularly well contrived.

The second volume of Vaughan’s poetry is somewhat more adventuresome and treats a wide range of themes.  It includes translations of Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  Looking at the index in Alan Rudrum’s splendidly annotated edition of Vaughan’s poems[5], one cannot help but notice how the lengthy titles, often overweighed with effusive praise of their respective human subjects, contrast with the short, pithy titles of the later religious poetry (and, indeed, many of the religious poems are untitled).  Thus we find, for instance:

To the Truly Noble, and Most Excellently Accomplished, the Lord Kildare Digby


An Elegy on the Death of Mr R.W. Slain in the Late Unfortunate Differences at Rowton Heath, near Chester, 1645

One has the impression that the poem has, in each case, occasioned less literary effort than the title!  For my own part, when I read these titles I cannot help but compare them to the equally ponderous titles so beloved of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their paintings.  My second example from Vaughan, for instance, bears comparison with Holman Hunt:

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions.

But, perhaps in Olor Iscanus, we should particularly note Vaughan’s choice in translating Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  If, as some commentators suspect, Vaughan translated his selections in the order given here, then we see a gradual progression towards more serious philosophical and religious themes.  Casimir (Mathias Casimir Sarbiewski) was a Polish Jesuit whose poetry often addressed religious themes.   We might also expect that, in his reading of Ausonius, Vaughan would have learned of Paulinus of Nola at this time.  Later (1654), Vaughan was to publish a rather free translation of the Life of Paulinus (from Rosweyde).

As I foreshadowed earlier in this essay, the events associated with the Civil War, combined with the death of his younger brother were to have a profound effect on Vaughan and his poetry.  Other commentators have also suggested that Vaughan himself may have endured some serious illness at about this time and that such illness brought the fact of human mortality sharply into focus.  As Dr. Johnson once said, ‘the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind’!   Irrespective of which of these influences assumed the most importance in the mind of the poet, what we see in the poems of his 1650 edition, titled  Silex Scintillans, is a virtual transformation.   Even if Vaughan’s earlier acquaintance with the work of Casimir (and, perhaps, other and earlier Christian writers) is taken into account, there is nothing to prepare the reader for what F.E. Hutchinson calls the ‘heightened feeling and majestic utterance’ that we get in so many of the poems of Silex scintillans.

From the lovesick, young gallant who pens his rather conventional, foppish, and formulaic verses to Amoret, we come to this:

I saw Eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright,

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driven by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.

(The World)

Hutchinson is in no two minds about what has happened to the poet.  He refers to it as a conversion.  This, I think, is a little too dramatic.  There can be no question regarding the sudden new direction in Vaughan’s poetry, but he was always a believing Christian.  He was not converted to Christianity, but simply lifted to a higher plane of spiritual understanding.  This is very obvious when one considers the subject matter of his religious poetry.  Alan Rudrum’s notes to the Silex Scintillans poems run to well over 100 pages of tight text. The vast majority of the references are biblical ones, some quite obscure, and we can only conclude that Vaughan had a prodigious knowledge of the bible.  Such knowledge does not come abruptly with conversion but is the fruit of years and years of reading.   The raw materials were surely latent in Vaughan and, as he himself says in his introduction to the first Silex Scintillans volume, what ignited his poetic imagination was the divine flash of the Spirit on a reluctant and hardened heart:

You have attempted many times, I admit, to capture me without injury, and your voice, haunting me, has endeavored without words to make me heedful.  A more divine breath has entreated me with its gentle action and admonished me in vain with its holy murmur.  I was flint – deaf and silent ……..   You draw nearer and break that mass which is my rocky heart, and that which was formerly stone is now made flesh.  See how it is torn, its fragments at last setting your heavens alight ……… [6]

These fiery sparks from the heart constitute the best of Vaughan’s poetry.  In poem after poem of the Silex Scintillans collections (1650 and 1655), we have that direct evidence of a man who:

…. felt through all this fleshly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

(The Retreat)

A few short extracts may serve to give something of the flavour for those who are not familiar with Vaughan’s poetry:

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

Shined on my soul, I felt through all my powers

Such a rich air of sweets, as evening showers

Fanned by a gentle gale convey and breathe

On some parched bank, crowned with a flowery wreath;

Odours, and myrrh, and balm in one rich flood

(Mount of Olives, II)


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast

Like stars upon some gloomy grove,

Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,

After the sun’s remove.

(‘They are all gone into the world of light!’)


My soul, there is a country

Far beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

All skillful in the wars,

There, above noise, and danger

Sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,

And one born in a manger

Commands the beauteous files


The themes treated by Vaughan in these poems have been the subject of much scholarly questioning over the last eighty years or so.  To what extent was Vaughan influenced by the Hermetic Philosophy?  To what extent was he influenced by Platonism?  Was Vaughan a true mystic and, if so, did he follow the via negativa or the via positiva?  Was Vaughan a true ‘nature poet’ in the sense of being a precursor to the English Romantic poets?   Here, I cannot attempt to deal in any detail with all of these ‘problems’ which the critics see in Vaughan’s religious poetry.  However, a few general comments might help to resolve some of these supposed difficulties or, at least, put them into some sort of perspective.

In the first place, it is absolutely clear that Henry Vaughan is a Christian traditionalist in his religious outlook.  This is not to suppose that he does not bring in ideas from the Platonists and Neoplatonists, or from Hermeticism, but rather, that he assimilates such ideas within a thoroughly traditional, Christian framework.  If Vaughan’s Christianity appears a little ‘unorthodox’, it is perhaps because he is a man out of his time – his religion often tends to look back toward what he saw as more primitive but purer expressions of Christianity.  We need to remember that the Civil War cast Vaughan adrift from his traditional church environment and he was forced to find his own expression of Christianity.  In so doing, he borrowed freely from many traditions, both within pre-Civil War Anglicanism and further afield.  The religious poetry of George Herbert, for instance, was to exert an enormous influence upon Vaughan and he freely acknowledges his debt to Herbert in some of his poems.

With regard to Platonic influences, many possible correlates present themselves in the poetry.  The first is the theme of childhood.   In what is probably Vaughan’s most famous poem, The Retreat, he begins:

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my Angel-infancy.

Here is the clear notion, not only of childhood innocence, but also of childhood understanding and acceptance of the spiritual realm. This theme appears in many of Vaughan’s poems.  It is tempting to suppose that Vaughan alludes to the Platonic notion of anamnesis and pre-existence and, indeed, that may have been an influence upon him.  We ought to remember, though, that Vaughan was a man who knew his bible backwards and it is more likely that he had in mind that injunction in Matthew 18.3:   ‘Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (KJV).

Another clear debt to Platonism comes from Vaughan’s notion of a cosmos of spheres or rings with ordered motion and we tend to immediately associate this with Plato.  One peculiarity of Vaughan in this respect is his association of ordered motion with silence.  Time after time we get that notion of the profound beauty of silence.  When he saw eternity (The World, I) it was:

All calm, as it was bright

Of the stars (The Constellation), he says:

Fair, ordered lights (whose motion without noise

Resembles those true joys …

And, perhaps his most beautiful depiction of the Platonic Beauty (Mount of Olives II):

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

There are, of course, other echoes of Platonism or Neo-Platonism in Vaughan’s poetry but, very often, they have come down to him from that earlier Christian tradition drawing upon the Augustinian world-picture.  The idea of this world as an imperfect image of the real world leads naturally to the concept of contemptus mundi, implicit in Augustine and so evident in much of Vaughan’s work.  Indeed, Vaughan’s translation of the De Contemptu Mundi of St. Eucherius of Lyon (5th C) is, as far as this writer is aware, the only English translation of the work.  But it would be wrong to suppose that Vaughan or, for that matter, Augustine, regarded matter as evil or deprecated the created order.  Quite the reverse in  Vaughan’s case.  He saw all plants and animals as responding to the Divine and even lifeless stones paid a sort of tribute to their Maker (‘By some hid sense their Maker gave’).

Vaughan’s association with the Hermetic philosophy is based upon certain direct evidence in the poems themselves as well as the fact that his twin brother, Thomas,  delved into alchemy and was well acquainted with the writings attributed to ‘Thrice-Great Hermes’.  In his published work, Thomas also quotes from Paracelsus, Robert Fludd and Cornelius Agrippa.  Nonetheless, Thomas saw himself as ‘neither Papist nor Sectary but a true, resolute Protestant in the best sense of the Church of England’.  Despite these assertions by Thomas, his writings on alchemy do suggest a more erratic and headstrong approach to the subject matter than his brother, Henry who, as Hutchinson says:

passed the Hermetic ideas and terms so integrally into the common language of Christian tradition that they do not disconcert the reader; they are not resented as the technical terms of an unfamiliar way of expressing his conviction of the ‘commerce’ between heaven and earth.

Other authors, though, believe that Hermetic influences are much more important in Henry Vaughan’s work than that assumed by a simple borrowing of Hermetic terms to illustrate or ‘flesh out’ an otherwise conventional, Christian understanding.  Miss Elizabeth Holmes devoted a whole book to the subject and it has been discussed by many other commentators.[7]  And yet, Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism is very difficult to pin down. It appears as only scattered references throughout the corpus of his work and, in the end, one tends to agree with Ross Garner who says (of Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism):

Vaughan does not make out of God a scientific principle, an adjunct of matter by which it may be governed.  He takes explanations of the physical universe of which he is aware and uses them parabolically to adumbrate Christian doctrine.[8]

And so, while we may come across references to Hermetic terms such as signatures, rays, beams, sympathies, magnets, and so on, these are terms which Vaughan assimilates effortlessly into his Christianity..

For all that, the words that crop up most frequently in Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans poems are biblical words – shoots, buds, dew, doves, stones, roses, light, to mention but a few of his favourite themes.  There can be little doubt that Vaughan’s main source is the bible and that other influences are secondary by comparison. But the word white, so often used by Vaughan as an epithet for that he holds in high regard (e.g. ‘white, celestial thought’ in The Retreat)), is probably not of biblical origin and deserves special mention.  Hutchinson points out that the Welsh counterpart, gwyn signifies not only white but fair, happy, holy, blessed.  ‘There is’, he says ‘no more frequent epithet in Welsh poetry’.  As an example, he goes on to point out that the Welsh word for Paradise is gwynfyd – literally ‘white world’.

The question of Vaughan’s mysticism is also problematical.  Very often, you will see Vaughan (and Traherne for that matter) described in anthologies of English poetry as ‘a Seventeenth century mystic’  It’s not that easy, for there are mystics and mystics.  If we are talking of a person who has achieved a full unity with the Divine – a man, as it were, living wholly in another world – then Vaughan was not a mystic.  For one thing, there are practical considerations which are not lost on Stevie Davies in her account of Vaughan’s life.  She wonders (and so do I) how someone with eight children by two marriages manages to get enough ‘quiet time’ to meditate at all!  Most of Vaughan’s important religious poetry was written before he was thirty-five years old and between his twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth year, four children were born into the Vaughan household. The house would have been a fairly lively place, certainly no eremite’s cell.  Moreover, either as a secretary or a doctor, we assume that Vaughan had to earn a crust.  Mind you, J.S. Bach was in the same boat, but I note that no less a critic than H.C. Robbins-Landon has described him as being ‘in many respects a genuine mystic’.[9]

More likely, I think, is Ross Garner’s appraisal.  In discussing one of Vaughan’s better known ‘mystical’ poems, The Night, he supposes that what characterises Vaughan’s religious experience is that of a longing for mystical union, not its achievement. And yet, when we read his great religious poems, is it not the case that we, ourselves, feel as if Vaughan has achieved some sort of mystical union.  That this should be so is the mark of great poetry.  Now, it is interesting to note that T.S. Eliot supposes Vaughan to be a ‘minor religious poet’ precisely because his poetry is the product of  ‘a special religious awareness, which may exist without the general awareness which we expect of the major poet’.[10]  In other words, Vaughan’s poetry is simply ‘devotional poetry’ –like say, Helen Steiner Rice. But this is surely not true!  Some of his religious poetry is of this type no doubt and Hutchison refers to certain of it as ‘plodding couplets of conventional piety’.  But most is far more universal in its appeal.  Vaughan, of all people, is a generalist, not a specialist. He lived at a time when the particular symbols and practices associated with his form of Anglicanism were shattered by the Civil War. As Kathleen Raine reminds us: ‘Iconoclastic Protestantism largely destroyed, in England, the images which always had been, and must normally be, the natural language of spiritual knowledge’.[11]  For this reason, if for no other, he was inclined to draw his inspiration from wider sources and, most especially, from the natural world around him. But Vaughan’s nature was not Wordsworth’s nature.  It was at the same time a reflection of the Divine and a veil, obscuring the Divine. Vaughan, I think, would have agreed with William Blake – ‘Mr Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is not to be found in Nature’.

It is true that there are many enigmas in Vaughan’s poetry, but I suspect these are of our making, not his. Vaughan can appear to hold the things of this earth in contempt, yet regard them as hierophantic.  At some times, his poetry hints at an immanent spirituality, at others, a transcendent spirituality. His poetry can appear very simple yet, upon closer study, it reflects all of the complexities inherent in the Christian tradition.  But it is the mark of a truly imaginative spirit that such contraries can be held together without conflict.  Vaughan’s best poetry transcends such concerns and draws upon a world of the imagination which is outside time and outside history.  No one has put it better than Raine:

Those who look to a timeless world are least likely to fall into archaisms of style, for the world of imagination is outside history altogether.  Pope, Dryden and Auden are dated in a way that Dante, Milton, Coleridge, and Yeats, even when these embody in their imaginative world themes from history, can never be.[12]

I think I would be tempted to add to these two lists given by Raine.  To the first list of Pope, Dryden and Auden, I would add Eliot.  To the second list, I would add Vaughan.  The Waste Land may well reflect a modern, fragmented mind at the end of its tether and it may well be the best poem of the last hundred years (as some think it is).  But it can only have meaning in an age as terrible as ours.  Vaughan’s best poems, on the other hand, are outside the context of history and they supply an intellectual nourishment of real substance, not the sort of literary Bovril so lauded by many modern critics. They are, in all truth ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’.



(This essay first appeared in Connor Court Quarterly, No. 7, 2013)


[1] The word did not yet bear its current meaning (though it was on its way to doing so).  It still bore its older meaning of ‘concept’. Used pejoratively, it meant a poetry of clever ideas.

[2] Such intensity of feeling some 250 years later may seem a little odd, but is by no means unique.  I am indebted to John Julius Norwich for the following pieces which appeared consecutively in the In Memoriam column of The Times in London On 3rd Sept., 1969

OLIVER CROMWELL, 25th April, 1599 – 3rd September 1658.  Lord Protector, 1653-1658.  Statesman, General and Ruler.

‘Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered’.  Psalm 68, verse i.

In honoured remembrance.

CROMWELL. – To the eternal condemnation of Oliver, Seditionist, Traitor, Regicide, Racialist, proto-Fascist and blasphemous Bigot.  God save England from his like. – Hugo Ball.



[3] Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation. Oxford Univ. Press. London. 1947.  260pp

[4] Henry Vaughan.  Seren (Poetry Wales Press), Border Lines Series. Bridgend, Wales, 1995.  213pp.

[5] Henry Vaughan.  The Complete Poems.   Penguin Books, London.  1983 Revised Edition. 718pp.  All extracts of poems quoted in this essay come from Rudrum’s Edition.

[6] Here I use part of the translation by Alan Rudrum of Vaughan’s Latin original.

[7] Henry Vaughan and the Hermetic Philosophy.  Oxford, 1932.

[8] Henry Vaughan: Experience and the Tradition.  Univ. Chicago Press, 1959.

[9] Handel and his World.  Flamingo (Harper Collins), London 1992 pg. 285

[10] ‘Religion and Literature’ in:  T.S. Eliot. Selected Essays.  Faber & Faber. 1972 (3rd edit).

[11] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg.118

[12] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg 122