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, 

‘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.”

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. 



The Nature of Nature

In his Studies in Words (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), C.S. Lewis devotes a whole chapter to the word nature.  The various ways in which we use that word today, he suggests, can be traced back to the Latin natura, the English kind (gecynde, cynde, kynde, etc), and the Greek phusis. Of the three roots, it is the Greek phusis which gives the most trouble, and it is a particular development of that word which is the subject of this essay.

Lewis reminds us of Aristotle’s famous definition of phusis as ‘whatever each thing is like  when its process of coming to be is complete’ (Physics, Book II) and then goes on to make the point that, long before Aristotle, the word phusis had taken on another and quite different meaning.  The Presocratic Greek philosophers, he tells us, had the idea of taking all of the subject matter of human knowledge (gods, people, plants, animals, minerals) and assigning it to a class or category which they called phusis. In short, phusis was the ‘whole shebang’. And so, phusis moves from being a word like ‘sort’ or ‘quality’ or ‘character’, to a word describing all of the objects of human thought.  This is why the written works of the Presocratics often bore the title Peri Phuseos – ‘about nature’ or ‘about the things that are’.  In case you think that this latter term takes the cake in terms of all-encompassing titles, then you have forgotten Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness!  I would be interested to hear from anyone who can suggest a more ‘global’ title for a work.

Jonathon Barnes, a modern commentator on the Presocratics (Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, 1987), has a slightly different take to Lewis. He supposes that the Greek word kosmos, as used by Heraclitus, is a description of everything – the whole world.  He leaves us uncertain, however, as to whether kosmos included the gods.  Whatever the case, Barnes finds it extraordinary that these early Greeks should have felt the need for a word to describe the totality of things. But why should it be any more extraordinary for them than it is for us today?  Barnes, I fear, suffers from what Owen Barfield has called ‘logomorphism’ –our tendency to suppose that we can deduce just what the ancients might have thought (or not thought) by projecting our own ideas back in time but imagining them in a ‘primitive’ mind.  In any case, the word kosmos was more often used to describe an orderly arrangement of things or an ‘adornment’.

Irrespective of whether we consider either phusis or kosmos, nature as ‘everything’ is not a very helpful word.  As Lewis points out, nature in this sense has no opposite – ‘when we say that any particular thing is part of nature, we know no more about it than before.’  ‘Everything’, as Lewis says, ‘is a subject on which there is not much to be said.’  Indeed, there is a certain sense in which strict monism creates huge problems for us.  If, for instance, we conceive of the Parmenidean ‘One’ as the only Reality then, logically, we must suppose that the human self is not different from this Reality. But, we cannot talk about ‘the One’ without identifying it as an object of thought over and against oneself as subject.  In other words, merely by positing all human activity (including thinking) as part of an all-encompassing Reality, Parmenides must step outside this Reality in some way in order to say anything about it at all. You cannot describe a total system from the inside.

The Demotion of Nature

In any case, as Lewis points out, nature as a sort of absolute collectivity was soon demoted in the history of Western thought.  Rather obviously, Plato’s famous Theory of Forms saw the objects of the sensible world as mere copies or shadows of the archetypal Forms – there were now two orders of reality.  Opinions may differ as to how Plato conceived of the Forms in relation to the sensible objects of this world but, without doubt, the objects perceived by the human senses were less real than the archetypal Forms.  Now there was phusis, and there was the world of the Forms.  There followed, of course, the Christian conception of nature as a creation of God.  Here, much as in Plato’s Timaeus, the sensible world was an artifact – the creation of an Artist.  Indeed, even throughout the Middle Ages, this idea of a nature created by God retained some of the earlier Platonic ideas. It was generally accepted that the realm beyond the moon contained the unvarying heavens and these were an expression of the divine order.  By contrast, the sublunar realm was the domain of chance, mutability and death. Nature had now been demoted even further.  It was not the kosmos, but only part of it – that part subject to corruption, decay, and death.

But those same medieval commentators who regarded nature as the realm of decay could also think of nature as some great and benevolent force.  In The Romance of the Rose, the fight of ‘Dame Nature’ against corruption and death is beautifully portrayed.  We find nature as ‘the vicaire of the almighty Lorde’ in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foulys (line 379).   We find similar sentiments in Piers Ploughman (Book XI, B text) where the author marvels at Nature and at the lessons she teaches.  Nature, in this sense, remains with us today as a very powerful idea.  Lewis calls the idea ‘Great Mother Nature’.  If I were asked to demonstrate its clearest modern expression, I think I would elect those Disney wildlife films so popular about two or three decades ago.  You can even catch a whiff of it in Sir David Attenborough’s whispered commentaries in spite of his scientific determinism.  Of course, we should not suppose that ‘Mother Nature’ was a medieval creation.  One can trace the idea back as far as Homer where, in Book IV of the Odyssey, we have that account of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, transforming himself into all of the manifestations of the natural world.  He is a sort of ‘Father Nature’.

While it may be true that ‘Mother Nature’ continues to be an important idea, modern empirical science seems to drain it of any real meaning.  For the empiricist, there is nothing beyond the material cosmos as a vast collection of ‘matter’ and ‘forces’ obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and evolution.  ‘Mother Nature’ is merely a sentimental depiction, albeit socially useful, for that vast entity called ‘the web of life’.  Moreover, when it is all boiled down, humans are merely one ‘node’ in that vast web of life.


Is Nature a Unity or a Plurality?

And so, the critical question is whether ‘nature’ considered as a whole is greater than the sum of all the parts that make it up.  In metaphysical terms, is the One merely another name for the collection of the Many?  It is precisely here, I think, that the empiricists run into trouble and that particular trouble has been greatly accentuated in recent decades by the rise of what I will call ‘environmental consciousness’. In modern environmental thought, there is that very strong sense of humanity (especially Western humanity) running contrary to nature. There is also an associated idea, albeit somewhat vague, of nature possessing its own élan vital, a la Bergson and, thereby, establishing the basis for qualities like intrinsic value. Many environmentalists also regard the earth as a single, vast organism – the Gaia of James Lovelock, for instance. But, if nature (of which we are a part) is merely a vast collection of materials obeying blind laws (physical, chemical, evolutionary) through a causal chain, then where does the question of value or of right and wrong arise?  These are merely subjective, human tags. Why should nature, in this sense, have a value like beauty, for instance? One man’s waterfall is simply another man’s hydro-electric opportunity. Of course, there are other problems for the empiricist. If we suppose that humans are merely rather intelligent, trousered or skirted apes, then we must at least question what it is in us that allows such an estimation.  How do we explain the ability of reflection in biological terms?

 Is Human Nature ‘Natural’?

Again, if we want to suppose that the human species, like any other species, is totally the product of a natural, evolutionary process, in what sense can the actions of modern humanity be seen as ‘destructive’ or ‘unnatural’?  One might argue that, in multiplying their numbers, building their cities and devouring an ever-increasing amount of the earth’s natural resources, humans are simply acting out some genetically or environmentally determined role under a process of natural selection. Ecological harmony, after all, is the harmony of balanced warfare, since the blind process of natural selection knows nothing of charity and moral virtue.  The cuckoo survives by destroying the embryos of its avian relatives and replacing them with its own so that it holds its neighbours in no higher regard than slavish wet nurses. For humans, there is no room for genuine freedom because this hints at some sort of transcendental Reality. Real freedom would imply that, at least in some respects, humans were not ‘part of nature’. The argument can be put in fairly simple terms: if humans are wholly ‘within nature’, then everything that they do is ‘natural’. Philosophers often put this sort of argument as ‘no ought from an is’. That is to say, from a set of statements about how things are in nature, we cannot deduce how things ought to be vis a vis human behaviour.

Of course, it would be silly to suppose that these objections to the empiricists’ view of nature cannot be challenged.  The usual objection raised here is that humans have ceased to be under control of natural selection and are, instead, governed by a process of social or cultural selection. But we must then ask how a species can ‘escape’ as it were, from the processes of natural selection. There is a whole new discipline called ‘environmental philosophy’, where these questions are subjected to minute scrutiny and where arguments for ‘intrinsic value’ in nature (to take but one example) are prosecuted with great vigor.  The nature-culture debate is also a hot issue and the empiricists are not without some defense against similarly awkward questions. A case in point is the recent book Human Natures by Paul Ehrlich (Island Press, USA. 2000). In a book marshaling over 1700 footnotes and 2500 references, Ehrlich attempts to show how the totality of human natures (he is opposed to the idea of a single ‘human nature’) can be explained in evolutionary terms. Despite this prodigious show of scholarship, his case is hardly convincing.  As he himself says in a masterly understatement, ‘the details of the process of cultural evolution are not well understood’. The implication is that science will one day provide the needed answers, but it is difficult to see how any new information can obtain an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

The Modern Notions of Nature

Let’s get back to nature!  I have tried to give a very brief account of one particular elaboration of this word – nature as representing the entire material world.  But it is not as simple as that.  In our everyday conversation we often use the word natural as the opposite of artificialNature then becomes all of those things that occur ‘of their own accord’.  We are now getting much closer to the modern ‘environmental’ view of what constitutes nature.  Nature is that which has not been interfered with.  But every part of nature interferes with every other part in a great causal chain, so this clearly is not what the environmentalists mean.  On closer examination, nature is all of that which has not been altered by human activity so as to become a sort of artifice. The natural is the opposite of the cultural. Indeed, this sort of meaning can also be traced back to early Greece – to the distinction between phusis and techne.  But, as Lewis points out, ‘if ants had a language, they would, no doubt, call their anthill an artifact and describe the brick wall in its neighbourhood as a natural object.’

We now begin to see that nature is, in fact, a wholly human creation.  We may not have physically created the matter of the universe but we have certainly created nature.  In the same way, we have created concepts like ecosystem and wilderness area. This is why such commonplace terms as ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (this last, a term beloved of government bureaucrats and uttered as a sort of mantra) are so problematic.  No two people will have exactly the same idea of what constitutes a ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘pristine wilderness’. These are not mathematical truths or ‘objects’ with an unambiguous empirical reality (inasmuch as the latter is allowed in these post-Kantian times).  Rather, they are something akin to Universals, whose existence relies on our tacit agreement.

The English writer Peter Coates (Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, Polity Press, UK, 1998) gives us a very good example of the sort of problem we are up against:

The suburban lawn may seem an unlikely choice but it illustrates nicely the clumsiness of the received categories of nature and culture. We might conclude that, while grass seed and blades of grass are part of nature, they enter the realm of artifice through their collective identity as a lawn. Yet the seeds themselves are completely domesticated, bred for shade tolerance, for instance. Does the lawn become more natural, however, if dandelions, daisies and moss – the spontaneous products of ‘nature’ – establish themselves?

Coates goes on to point out that many of the so-called ‘natural environments’ in the UK are very largely the product of human activity over thousands of years.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any reasonably accessible part of Europe as being in a wholly natural state if we wish to define nature in the way I have suggested above.  In his essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell referred to ‘the ancient bone-heap of Europe where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies.’

Nature in the New World

When you come to think about it, the undoubted dominance of American writers in the broad area of nature conservation (I am thinking of people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold) is hardly surprising.  Only in the ‘New World’ could the effects of European civilization upon a certain perception of nature (nature as wilderness) be clearly observed in the course of a few generations.  The changes were both obvious and rapid.  By contrast, in Europe, the landscape had been changing under human influence for thousands of years so that some benchmark or starting point of ‘pristine nature’ was not available.  It is true that the word ecology comes from Germany, not America, but the originator, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was not really thinking of ‘pristine’ nature.  Rather, his emphasis was on an anti-mechanistic and holistic approach to biology.  It was the approach, not the subject matter, which concerned him in the main.

And this, I think, also explains why we in Australia tend to accept the American model so readily.  Like the Americans, we are in a position to observe rapid changes in our ‘natural environment’ over a relatively short time.  When I was at school, the frontispiece of the Victorian Readers Eighth Book included a reproduction of McCubbin’s Pioneers as a fit subject of admiration –here were people who had made Australia liveable for us. Further on in the book one could find similar sentiments in poems and stories. George Essex Evans’ The Nation Builders praised the sturdy timber cutter of the east coast ‘where the axe is ringing in the heart of the ranges grim’. Nowadays, a large proportion of the population regards the cutting down of native forests as a necessary evil at best and an act of vandalism at worst. We now equate all human-implemented change in this category of nature as a fall from harmony.

But the climate has changed even further in some quarters.  If one has some concept of a pristine nature – a modern ‘wilderness area’, let us say – then there are other interesting situations which arise.  Take the question of wildfires, for instance.  If a lightning strike causes a wildfire in some ‘wilderness area’, should we as humans endeavor to put it out?  The situation is similar regarding the notion of ‘maintenance of biodiversity’ (another very hazy term beloved of bureaucrats).  At the present time we have a certain suite of ‘indigenous’ species of plants and animals.  Every effort is being made to prevent further extinctions and yet, as the evolutionary biologists tell us, extinctions are a normal process in nature.   Of course, we can argue that recent human activity has greatly hastened the process of extinction of species.  Nonetheless, it remains true that if we were able to completely prevent further extinctions we would, and in so doing, we would be acting against ‘evolutionary forces’.  In short, our actions would be unnatural.  Had we been about in the days of the dinosaurs and taken every effort to prevent their extinction, the particular degree of biodiversity that we now have may very well have been less.  Who knows?

Nature, Purity, and Health

There are many other curious features of the modern view of nature.  One is the view that prehistoric human societies (and, indeed, many historical hunter-gatherer societies in the ‘New World’) were ‘part of nature’, whereas modern and premodern human societies are not.  In other words, the whole history of Western civilization is seen in terms of a sort of ecological declension.  One other very strange notion of nature can be seen in any supermarket aisle.  This is the identification of natural with pure, or health giving.  Hence product titles such as ‘Pure and Natural’, ‘Nature’s Own’, ‘Nature’s Bounty’, etc.  What exactly does natural mean here?  It cannot mean ‘unprocessed’ (in the sense of not being interfered with by humans) because there it is in a plastic bag, or tin, or cardboard box.  Neither can it mean ‘healthy’ in any general sense because many ‘natural’ products are deadly poisonous.  Botulinum toxin is natural.  So is fluoroacetic acid – a deadly poison occurring in many native plants.  When, in Auguries of Innocence, Blake wrote ‘The Strongest Poison ever known/Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown’, he was giving us a double truth.

Closely allied to this are particular usages of the words organic and environment.  A neighbour down the road – one of the last farmers in this district – sells organic milk!  Indeed, it is only because he has organic milk that he is still able to operate his business as a small family farm.  He has a marketing edge over the big operators.   Our local supermarket has ‘chemical-free’ chickens and our greengrocer has lines of organic vegetables.  Here, organic and natural are almost interchangeable words.  And yet, of course, the vast majority of human-manufactured chemicals are organic chemicals. For the biochemist, of course, the idea of ‘chemical-free’ chickens is a bit hard to take – the more hard-line biochemists would probably suppose that a chemical-free chicken was an entity entirely lacking in substance – a mere potentiality!.

Likewise, the word environment really means ‘surrounding; surrounding objects, region, or conditions, especially circumstances of life of persons or society’ (OED).  But that is not how the word is generally used today.  In our district, most of the waste disposal people class their trade as ‘environmental services’.  As far as I am aware, only one brave soul sticks to ‘desludging of septic tanks’.  I am particularly impressed with the professionalism of this operator.  He calls his business ‘Smithy’s Takeaways’ and, just above the main outlet valve on his huge tanker truck are the words ‘Another load of politicians’ promises’.  ‘Smithy’ himself is a very likeable and intelligent character who loves his job and takes the septic tank business very seriously indeed.  He obviously takes a keen and discerning interest in politics too!

Environment now means ‘clean and green’.  A healthy ‘environment’, is generally one devoid of any sort of by-product resulting from human activity –right the way from human excretory products to carbon dioxide emissions from industry. In other words, environment is gradually being transformed so as to have a meaning almost synonymous with natural (in the modern sense of that word).  Hence, the term human environment is almost an oxymoron.

The Demonisation of Human Activity in Nature

We might argue that this whole business of our use of nature, natural, etc. is harmless enough and that common sense usually prevails.  But I think there is a danger, and I see that danger increasing as time passes.  It is the danger that young people, continually bombarded with these ideas, will come to see every human production as being in some way a ‘denaturing’ process.  It is, of course true that the idea of human as intruder in nature is not a recent invention.  In his Intimations Ode, Wordsworth laments his loss of innocence in nature:

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

We ought to note, however, that Wordsworth was no denigrator of humanity.  He could find ample recompense for his sense of the loss of ‘natural man’ in the power of human imagination, so beautifully expressed in the Tintern Abbey poem.

Perhaps closer to this modern sense of the ‘unnatural human’ is Albert Camus’s idea of the absurdity of human life and a feeling of alienation from nature.  Thus, for instance, in The Myth of Sisyphus he says:

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.

Or again,

We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty.  Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the colour of printer’s ink.

But Camus wrote this before the advent of the ‘age of ecology’. A new brand of hopelessness has since entered the scene.  And so, in the end we come to a sort of contemptus hominis – hatred for all that is human- made or human altered, especially if the humans happen to belong to Western civilisation.  A typical example comes from Ian McHarg (Design in Nature. Natural History Press, N.Y.1969)

Such is our inheritance.  A ragbag of ancient views, most of them breeding fear and hostility, based on ignorance, certain to destroy, incapable of creation.  Show me the prototypical anthropocentric, anthropomorphizing man and you will see the destroyer, atomic demolition expert, clear feller of forests, careless miner, he who fouls the air and the water, destroys whole species of wildlife: the gratified driver of bulldozers, the uglifier.

Commenting on similar but more extreme examples from the writings of animal liberationists, Bernard Levin, a well-known English columnist, has this to say:

This is, I think, a phenomenon very much of our time.  St. Francis loved the beasts and preached to the birds; indeed, he spoke kindly of a flea.  But his love of animals stemmed from his love of mankind, and it would never have occurred to him that the one precluded the other; in his father’s house there were many mansions.  Now, we hear on all hands that man is the enemy, that the planet cannot stand much more of him, that only animals are noble and pure.  I think it is worse than that; I think there is a hatred of life itself somewhere down in the cellarage, an unbearable rage at the very fact that there is a universe and that we are in it, for good or ill, along with the animals.

There is something in what Levin says.  We need to realise, as Peter Coates says, that nature is, in a sense, never itself but always ours.  If we downgrade the human then, automatically, we downgrade nature as well.

In all of the above, of course, I do not deny that the environmentalists have real concerns.  We are causing real damage in nature. No one could deny, for instance, the reality of the salinity problem in Australia.  My point is that we cannot hope to find a solution to our problems by relying totally on scientific advances or, alternatively, by reverting to some sort of hunter-gatherer livestyle.  A large part of our problem is deeply connected with our perception of what it means to be human. In a contribution to Quarterly Essay (Issue 10, 2003), Barney Foran, a well-known and respected environmental scientist in Australia, urged us to ‘start valuing people as solutions rather than relying on technological wizardry’.  He spoke also of needing to substitute ‘the rush and excitement of a real life for the rush brought on by buying and owning things.’

It is something of a savage irony that at a time when we can boast of having ‘conquered’ so much of ‘nature’ in the Baconian sense, we now feel so isolated from that which we purport to understand so well.  In successfully demythologising nature and our own past we have, in that very process, lost all sense of meaning and purpose for human life.  In becoming fully ‘part of nature’ as intelligent apes in the evolutionary schema, we now perceive the whole human enterprise as being no more than a destructive perturbation on the idiot face of a blind nature. We are no more than a brief irruption – like a mouse plague – on a tiny planet in a tiny corner of an immense universe.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago (in The Abolition of Man), we have not conquered nature; she has conquered us.


The late Victor Borge, musician, entertainer and comic genius, died in the year 2000.  He was ninety one years old.  Among his many creations was an account of a domestic situation in which he ‘inflated’ each mention of a number so that ‘once’ became ‘twice’ and so on.  Here is an excerpt:

Twice upon a time there lived in sunny Califivenia a young man named Bob. He was a third lieutelevenant in the U.S. Air Fiveces. Bob had been fond of Anna, his one and a half sister ever since she saw the light of day five the second time. And they were both proud of the fact that two of his fivefathers had been among the creninetors of the U.S. Constithreetion.


I sometimes think that the Danes gave us the irrepressible, inflationary, Victor Borge to make up for having earlier given us the melancholic, deflationary, Søren Kierkegaard.  It’s just a theory!

I was reminded of Borge’s account just a couple of days ago when an ambulance went past our door, siren screeching and lights flashing.  On the side was written the word ‘Paramedic’.  Here, I reflected, is inflationary language of another sort.  People who operated ambulances were once called ambulance drivers or ambulance officers.  Now they are paramedics. It sounds so much more technical and important.  Likewise, there are no farmers these days, only people in agribusiness or agrotechnologists (like that marvellous Peter Simple character, Seth Roentgen). There are no septic tank desludgers only businesses in environmental services, no knackeries only organic recyclers, and no pawnshops only cash converters.  Hack writers like me are no doubt called ‘freelance literary practitioners’ or some such. Actually, I am a retired rabbit poisoner, so my correct modern title is probably Animal Damage Control Operator.  And, of course, I didn’t kill things – I ‘managed populations’.

While this trend is a general one, it is most noticeable in the education industry. There are very few schools left nowadays.  They have all been converted to colleges and their physical locations, once simply called ‘grounds’ are now ‘campuses’.  This means, of course, that those institutions that were once colleges have found it necessary to move up in the pecking order so as to avoid being identified with their once lowlier cousins.  They become ‘senior secondary colleges’. Meanwhile, the old trade schools have become institutes and the institutes have become universities.  Even the kindergartens are involved in this inflationary language stuff.  A while back, our local rag carried a story of a ‘graduation ceremony’ from a local kindergarten (now called ‘pre-school centres’ of course).  The tiny tots were all decked out in gowns and mortar boards and each received that all important roll of paper.  This is all true and I have not exaggerated in any way.

But, of course, this trend is not an open-ended business – you cannot inflate to infinity. The buck has to stop somewhere. In the education industry, the endpoint is reached with the universities. They have nowhere higher to go. The inevitable consequence is a sort of vocational traffic jam with a huge range of human activities all mixed up at the end of the road and milling about with nowhere to go.  Thus courses in medicine or in analytical philosophy will be jostling against courses in podiatry, outdoor education (this is not a ‘hedge school’), and business studies.  At this stage, certain enraged readers will have already picked up their pens to protest, in the strongest possible terms, against my obvious showing of elitism, chauvinism, etc. etc.  Let me ease their troubled minds.  I am not suggesting that a PhD in say, podiatry, is less worthy than a PhD in nuclear physics.  I have no way of measuring such worth.  That’s part of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the term ‘university degree’ has now changed so utterly as to be devoid of virtually any meaning at all.  If we can have degrees in nature tourism, podiatry, and nursing, why not in plumbing, cabinet making, taxidermy, and home birthing?  Do the nature tourists and nurses consider themselves a cut above the plumbers?  I hope not, because if so, I will be picking up my pen to protest against their elitism.  Do they want to tell me that the business of nature tourism, for instance, is far more intellectually demanding than that of plumbing?  If so, they might like to come and talk to my plumber mates who are trying to keep up with the latest building code regulations, instruction sheets for solar-assisted hot water units, etc.  Getting approval for a new septic tank system is now of the same order of difficulty as writing a treatise upon, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, or the half-life of  quarks.

The whole thing has reached the point of madness.  Unless we can agree on some set of criteria for the demarcation of educational responsibilities, the farce can only get more pronounced.  One possible solution is for those areas of study traditionally associated with universities for the last five hundred years or more to demote themselves and form separate institutions called ‘schools’.  Their staff would, of course, have to accept lower wages, lower general status, and the loss of brightly coloured academic dress (gowns, mortarboards, and associated paraphernalia). They would also have to attract full fee-paying students because, initially at any rate, no government would touch them with a twenty-foot pole. In other words, this might not be a goer, to put it rather mildly.  And yet, some move will be necessary if we are to avoid a situation where every human occupation requires a university degree.  Of course, it might be possible to get the current holders of the title ‘university’ to move up to ‘duoversity’ (páce Victor Borge) so as to free-up the old name. ‘Diversity’ has already been spoken for, unfortunately. Indeed, there’s probably a uni course with that name.

There are many, detailed, structural, and procedural matters which impinge upon the proper functioning of an education system and I am not qualified to suggest improvements in these areas. Come to think of it, as a retired rabbit poisoner, I am not qualified to give opinions on any matter outside the dietary preferences of Oryctolagus cuniculus and its tolerance to certain substances!  But I want to suggest that, in the matter of education and its role in society, there are certain commonsense principles and certain observations which require no great scholarly learning and no more than a very general understanding of the human past.

In fact, what fuels the current silliness is well known and it has been written about elsewhere ad nauseam. It is a preoccupation with a sort of frenzied democratisation of all aspects of human endeavour. The people involved are the modern ‘Levellers’. The old ‘Levellers’ were a Puritan sect in England during the period of the Civil War.  Cromwell suppressed them rather vigorously, but I doubt that he could even dream of the possibility of a secular version turning up a few hundred years later.   The mere suggestion that some young people may be capable of higher intellectual achievements than others sends them into fits of apoplectic rage and they reach for their tomes on equal opportunity legislation.  Mind you, they are not always consistent in this respect.  “Your levellers’, said Dr. Johnson, ‘wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves’.

The curious thing is that tradespeople and other degree-deprived workers have absolutely no thoughts along these lines.  On the contrary, they consider themselves immensely superior to the ‘eggheads’ or ‘nerds’ in every way.  They point to the fact that such people are often completely impractical and wholly reliant on others to look after them.  Why, some tradespeople will even tell you that boffins need assistance with the very simplest practical actions of human hygiene. Of course, the ‘tradies’ describe the shortcomings in more direct terms than I have been able to do here.

To my mind, the supposed need for fully democratised learning across the board and dramatic changes to some existing or earlier system of education arises, in part, from a total misunderstanding (or ignorance) of the traditional systems involved in the organisation of human work and of the way in which the natural subordination of human activities was understood in earlier times. It arises, too, from the very nature of secular democracy itself, but I will deal with that theme later.  We hear calls to ‘correct the injustices of the past’. But our past was not always unjust in the matter of education and careers.  What characterised this earlier organisation, right from medieval times, was a system of what I will call parallelism.  Questions of superiority or inferiority simply did not arise in the way that they do today.  If we take the trades, for instance, the guild system of masters, journeymen, and apprentices afforded a career path which ‘paralleled’ the university system. Indeed, in some cases, the master craftsman was deemed to have a much higher status than that of university teachers. For instance, in the massive, four volume, History of the University in Europe (ed. Walter Rüegg), the example is given of master-builders in university towns. Their responsibilities afforded them a status in society which could call forth the envy of university teachers. I wonder how many people today have reflected upon the origin of the word masterpiece?

In the modern era, of course, all that changed.  We may want to say that education and employment opportunities have changed for the better but I think it at least possible to argue that job satisfaction for many people today is hardly a matter upon which we should be congratulating ourselves. It is easy enough to see just how the changes came about. For instance, the loss of the old trade schools and the radical alteration of the traditional apprenticeship system partly accounts for the push towards some alternative system of acquiring status.  Not all that long ago, a person could take great pride in belonging to a particular trade because terms like ‘Master Builder’ or ‘Master Butcher’ really did carry weight in the community.  The trade was a vocation for which one trained long and hard under the guidance of a master.  Leaving aside the obvious impact of industrial age and the factory system, part of the blame for the destruction of this system rests with the evolution of the do-it-yourself handyperson and the supply of ever more idiot-proof or pre-fabricated products.  The expert is no longer needed. A Master Builder now spends most of his or her time on the telephone arranging for the ‘subbies’ to put all the prefabricated bits together with their pneumatic nail guns and fast-grip glue.  Let me recount a true story in order to highlight just how much our general attitudes have changed in this regard over the last sixty years.

Many years ago, one of my work colleagues was a man who had been trained as a cabinet maker in Europe. Why he became a rabbit poisoner is another story.  He underwent a very long and difficult apprenticeship under a very stern and exacting master.  For the first year of his apprenticeship he was not allowed to use any wood working tools and was given the most menial of tasks.  Eventually, he was shown all the secrets of the trade and was allowed to build pieces of furniture on his own.  This man told me that, in his little village, the simplest little home repair job was always left to a qualified tradesperson.  No-one would think of fixing his or her own door handle for instance.  This principle of action extended right down to the provision of coffins for the dead.  It was inconceivable that the undertaker should screw down the coffin lid.  This had to be done by the person who had made the coffin.  As you might have guessed, this happened to be one of the first major responsibilities given to my cabinet-maker colleague.  The corpse in question belonged to a village dignitary who happened to be fairly rotund and my friend had underestimated in regard to height of the coffin.  When it came to screwing down the lid, he found that he had to sit on top of it and apply his screws against considerable pressure.  Being a small village, it was customary for everyone to attend the funeral.  The coffin-maker was required to walk behind the coffin during its procession from the church to the cemetery. My friend then recounted the circumstances in this fashion (I will not attempt the accent): ‘All of the others were praying for the man’s soul, but I was praying for the screws to hold’.

Our dilemma today is not just in working out just how the education of our young should be organised to maximise the potential in each and every student.  It is also how human endeavour and human achievement should be valued. The question of who should be allowed to enter a university and what should be taught at such a place is obviously not a new one.  It must have arisen at the very same time as the emergence of the universities themselves. Why were the four typical faculties of the medieval university the artes, medicine, law, and theology?  Why not the technological sciences, the artes mechanicae?  As Walter Rüegg points out, neither the demands of society, the subject itself, nor the classification of the sciences in general, can explain the persistence of the patterns of four faculties of the medieval university into the nineteenth century.  Rather, the adherence to this particular schema seems to be the result of what might be called ‘natural selection’.  As Rüegg says, ‘faculties emerged only where there were previously schools which transmitted knowledge as a public good and where attendance was basically open to everyone capable of performing at the required intellectual standard’. What gave meaning to the system was the fundamental significance of the amor sciendi – the concept of intellectual integrity, broad learning, and conceptual clarity. These qualities, rather than perceived social needs determined the structure of the university. The university was the institutional form of the amor sciendi.  The standards set themselves, as it were.

The idea of knowledge as a good in itself has, for the universities, been almost entirely obliterated.  Knowledge is good only insofar as it can contribute to the Gross National Product.  That is to say, ‘good’ is merely a contingent value, not an absolute one. This is another reason why teaching in all sorts of human occupations has gravitated towards the universities.  If the universities can make a quid out of it, or demonstrate to government that the nation will make a quid out of it, then it is ‘good’ and will be taught without any reference to its suitability as a university course.  Contrariwise, it is not very difficult to understand why the traditional subjects of the artes liberales are under the hammer today.  They do not perform well under the strict economic system of cost-benefit analysis.

It is in the word value, I think, that we come to the nub of the problem.  The push for ‘equality of outcomes’ (that weasel phrase) and university degrees for all is merely the symptom of something much deeper – the loss of meaning and of objective value. Most modern conservatives/liberal democrats (the two terms are virtually interchangeable today) say all sorts of nice things about ‘the Western Tradition’, the positive value of religious belief, the existence of Truth, and so on.  But, because they are pluralists you cannot run them to ground on these issues. If you did run them to ground, they would no longer be pluralists.  Thus, religion is good while it stays private and Truth is something of a homeless creature whom you greet fondly but at a distance, lest you are forced to declare your colours and invite it indoors. For some form of Truth standing beyond the human order, there is no room at the inn.  It is no longer even a possibility because it would entail some limits to pluralism and to the autonomy of the individual.

There is, in human affairs, a great battle of ideas. A major role of the university is to ‘adjudicate’ in this debate, as it were.  But it cannot do so without reference to unvarying principles – each argument needs to be tested against such principles.  If the principles are not in place, then the role of the university is otiose. For me, at any rate, there is no escape from what many others will see as a shocking reversion to the superstitions of the past for, in the last analysis, those principles are not derived from human experience but are revealed in religious traditions. That, at any rate was how the matter was seen in the West for something like two millennia.  And I place some value on the weight of history.  Indeed, that is precisely what the word ‘conservative’ stood for until the modern liberals took it over.


Now you can see why I was a rabbit poisoner.




Metaphysics and the Realm Of Faerie


Text of the April 2018 Meeting Presentation

There is a certain paradox in modernity concerning the status of spiritual beings.  On the one hand, our scientific age tends to regard all talk of ‘spirits’ as mere hocus pocus or superstition. It is a sort of reversion to medievalism or primitive tribalism. And yet, modern stories, television series and films dealing with ‘spiritual” beings have never been more popular. Indeed, many of the fairy stories or related stories of fantastic beings which were once found in children’s books and comics are now hugely popular amongst adults. ‘Spiritualism’ and the occult is also flourishing.

This suggests some sort of innate ‘need’ for such a category of beings.  In this paper, I wish to explore this area in a little more detail.  I intend to omit from my discussions the special case of the term ‘spirit’ as it applies to the soul in religious belief and, especially, in Christianity.  My main concern will be with what are often termed ‘nature spirits, and I include in this term such entities as fairies, elves, dwarfs, and so on. I give to them the class name ‘faerie’.

In traditional metaphysics – that is, the science of being – it was commonly supposed or postulated that there was a class of being intermediate, as it were, between humans and angels.  That is one explanation of the realm of faerie which we need to look at in some detail. The other common explanation is that the faerie is simply that collection of nature spirits which, in some way act as the active agents in nature.

Let us begin with nature spirits as active agents in nature and go back to the very beginning – in other words, to Homer. It is clear that, in Homeric Greece, what we might call the efficient cause of some natural event was always considered to be a spiritual action, not a material one. The ancient Greeks did not suppose that tree spirits, for instance, were simply tiny anthropomorphic creatures like ‘Gumnut Babies’ who activated the leaves etc. It seems to me that they were much more like Platonic formal causes which were also efficient causes.  By way of example, let’s look at Homer’s taxonomy of waves.


If we take up the action in Iliad, Bk 18 we find that Hector has killed Patroclus and Achilles mourns.  His (Achilles) mother, Thetis, carries the news to all the water –nymphs (of whom she is regent). At this point, we get a remarkable and very beautiful account of all the sea nymphs or Nereids, each one named for a particular attribute. Here are the relevant passages in Chapman’s Homer – that translation which so moved John Keats:


… To her plaints the bright Nereides

Flocked all, how many those dark gulfs soever comprehend.

There Glauce, and Cymodoce, and Spio, did attend,

Nessea, and Cymothoe, and calm Amphithoe,

Thalia, Thoa, Panope, and swift Dynamene,

Actaea, and Limnoria, and Halia the fair,

Famed for the beauty of her eyes, Amathia for her hair, Isera,

Proto, Clymene, and curled Dexamene, –

Pherusa, Doris, and with these the smooth Amphinome,

Chaste Galatea so renowned, and Callianira, came,

With Doto and Orythia, to cheer the mournful dame.

Apseudes likewise visited, and Callianassa gave

Her kind attendance, and with her Agave graced the cave,

Nemertes, Msera, followed, Melita, Ianesse,

With Ianira, and the rest of those Nereides

That in the deep seas make abode; …


Thirty-three names are given, but Hesiod tells us that there are fifty. All are females of great beauty. In considering the names of these spirits of the sea, Hilaire Belloc suggests that they denote types of waves and he credits Homer with such an intimate knowledge of the sea that he can supply a full taxonomy of waves. Thus, for Belloc, Limnoria denotes “the wave that runs along the shore”, although other sources suggest the translation “of the salt marsh” and elect Actaea as the Nereid “of the sea shore”. Certainly, in Chapman’s translation, we get strong hints of the Nereids as waves – “calm Amphithoe … swift Dynamene … curled Dexamene … smooth Amphinome”.


But perhaps it is much more than a mere taxonomy of wave-types.  We need to see the names as representing the ‘informing’ spirits which give each type of wave its particular character. Without this background, such a taxonomy is impossible – waves are merely momentary aspects of moving water, nothing else. This notion of a wave’s ‘spirit’ is difficult for us to comprehend, because the modern ‘scientific’ mode of thought precludes any such descriptions.  The shapes and movements of waves are wholly explicable in terms of natural cause and effect and one cannot impose a particular form on any wave. You need to think of Homer as giving us a description not of the material and short-lived wave-form but rather the actual Platonic Idea of that wave-form. In other words, he sees all of nature sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity.


“The wave that runs along the shore” is, perhaps, the most familiar to us. It has a particular character, running up the sand with a sort of hissing noise and pushing a fringe of foam before it.  Its advance and retreat is graceful. It is, in fact the last action of a dying wave, caressing the shore after a journey of who knows how far. John Keats saw it and gave this memorable description to a friend:


The rocks were silent—the wide sea did weave

An untumultuous fringe of silver foam

Along the flat brown sand. I was at home,

(Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds, last stanza).


There are other reasons to take Belloc’s idea seriously.  The Nereids are by no means the only spirits of the sea. The ancient Greeks had a multitude of sea deities or semi-deities, but none of their names seem so well attuned to the shape of waves.  Take, for instance, Leukothea (white goddess), who saves Odysseus after his shipwreck.  Modern commentaries often suggest she is the spirit of a sea bird – a gannet or gull.  And yet Homer gives her the epithet ‘of the slim ankle’ – a most beautiful description, for we at once associate her with feminine beauty. A Platonic Form perhaps?


Elsewhere in early Greek literature, we get an account of tree spirits and, again, a sort of taxonomy.

Meliae             Oak Trees

Oreads                         Mountain Pines

Meliades                      Fruit Trees

Daphnoi                      Laurel

Balanis                        Ilex

Karyai                         Hazelnut

Moreau                        Mulberry

Hamadryads              Oak Trees (mortal- die with the tree)



Now , as an aside, when you first read the Odyssey in a good translation (I use E.V. Rieu), you have that sense of everything in nature being “brand new” – shining and resplendent and without any defects. It has those “new car” attributes of sight and smell and sound. I want to suggest that this is precisely for the reasons I have given above – Homer sees all nature sub specie aeternitatis.


And now, back to metaphysics. There were, I think, three reasons why early philosophers, both Neoplatonic and Christian, seriously considered the realm of faerie and all three can be sheeted home to Plato, especially in the Timaeus.


We recall that, in this Dialogue, the creator of the world does not do the actual creating but gives the job to the Demiurge – a sort of lesser God, one presumes. The reason is simple.  Plato and the Neo-Platonists who followed him held to a principle that C.S. Lewis has dubbed “the Principle of the Triad”. They reasoned that an all-powerful and perfect God would not be directly involved in the production of mutable nature – it was below his or her station!  Logically, there needed to be a third party.  We might be tempted to see the Christian notion of Angels in this fashion but, of course, the Christian God, as the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was very much involved in this material world.  Leaving this aside, we can see a possible explanation for intermediate spirits in terms of ‘agents’ for some higher power.


The second possible explanation also comes from Plato. Again, in the Timaeus – one of the few Platonic texts available to the medieval scholars we have this explanation for the creation of the world:

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.

Now, if not to Plato himself then certainly to the Neo-Platonists who followed him, what this meant was that the ideal Absolute, in order to be ideal, must express all possibilities of being in order to be beyond all possibilities of enhancement or diminution.  This, in turn led to a concept called ‘The Great Chain of Being’.  Here we must imagine a hierarchy of being, with God at the top and stones and other inanimate objects at the bottom. Humans are towards the upper end, jellyfish toward the lower. Importantly though, there can be no gaps – that is, no vacancy where there is the possibility of some form of existence without its actuality.  For the early scholars, then, one had to allow for the possibility of creatures somewhat below the angels but not quite human or animal. Opinions differed. Some scholars thought that the Longaevi (the Medieval name for fairies, elves, etc.) might be angels who, at the time of the rebellion were neither on Lucifer’s side or Michael’s. Others thought that they were a third rational species, existing between angels and humans. By the time of James the First in England, though, the Longaevi were regarded as a species of devil and denounced.  If you want a paradox, consider this. At about the same time that Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene in honour of Elizabeth I, old women were being burnt to death for supposedly consorting with fairy folk and ‘the Queen of Elfame’.


Closely related to the Great Chain of Being is the “Principle of Plenitude” – a name coined by Arthur Lovejoy in his classic work The Great Chain of Being.  Since the creator God is omnipotent, every possible form of existence must be present, as I pointed out in the last paragraph.  To suggest otherwise is to suggest the possibility of some deficiency in power. In other words, all possible niches (I borrow a word from ecologists) must be populated. St Thomas Aquinas famously wrote that “a world comprised of one angel and a stone is more complete than a world containing two angels”.  Does this sound familiar? Indeed, it is a very popular notion in modern ecological thinking.

And so, if you think that the old notions of ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and of “plenitude’ are now dead, think again.  Almost daily in the media someone announces that this forest or that reef must be protected to ‘maintain biodiversity’. Why is a forest of say, eighty species better or more complete than one with twenty? “Because it is more diverse”, people say.  But that does not answer the question because the argument is circular.  “Because the gene pool is greater” say the Darwinists. But this, too, is circular. Why is a bigger gene pool better?  Because it allows for more diversity.  The simple fact of the matter is that we value diversity in itself. We cannot blame the ancients, then, if they took the argument a step further and ensured that all ecological niches, including spiritual ones, were filled.  Fairies increase diversity! Can we have a “National Recovery Plan for Threatened Longaevi”? We might even get a new series from David Attenborough – The Life of Elves.

There remains now the difficult business of commenting upon the relationship between the world of faerie and the world of humans.  In today’s children’s books, fairies are tiny, gossamer-winged females with wands who go about the world distributing goodness. It was not so in the past. True enough, when we read Homer, most of his nature spirits seem friendly enough (or quite uninterested in humans).  The exception might be the Erinyes or Furies (the Harpies of Virgil), but they are not really nature spirits in my interpretation of that term.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages though, the faerie folk are much more dangerous.


Not only were they responsible for a great deal of ordinary mischief  – nasty natural events like whirlwinds – but also for much more serious things such as stealing or changing children and even taking human lives.  Think of those stories about Changelings, or of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Host of the Air, where the Sidhe (ancient and dangerous spirits of sky and earth) take away a young bride. The dark side of the fairy world is very apparent in the story of Thomas the Rymer, who disappears and is bound in the service of the Elf-Queen for seven years. The journey to her kingdom involves travel through a terrible landscape:

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.


One has the impression of the Longaevi existing more or less parasitically on human suffering and death. The description of the approach to Elf-land is very reminiscent of Homer’s description of the approach to the underworld. Thomas the Rhymer was almost certainly the inspiration for a famous poem by Keats – La Belle Dame sans Merci.


Perhaps this dangerous aspect of the faerie that we find in old literature and poetry has some link to the Old Testament because there, the spirits of nature in the desert wilderness are decidedly nasty. Spirit creatures like Azazel, Lilith, Seirim and Tanin are truly frightening. The daemons of the Greeks have become demons.  Some scholars suggest that the Old Testament desert spirits are a sort of remnant of Zoroastrian dualism which the Jews would have encountered during the Babylonian captivity. The really horrific demons are nearly always depicted as being either partly formless or combing two forms in some unnatural way. This is the ultimate in devilish anti-Platonism.  Have a look at the famous painting by Bruegel the Elder entitled The  Fall of the Rebel Angels. This captures the idea perfectly.

But there us another possible reason for the idea of the dangerous fairy.  When you read Thomas the Rhymer, it is clear that what the realm of faerie offers is a ‘third way’, between good and evil (not in the Nietzchean sense). In this poem, Thomas is shown three paths – the narrow path to heaven, the broad path to hell and the path to elf-land. The catch is that you surrender your free will if you chose the middle way.  That is why the faerie world is dangerous.

But, for all that, it has to be said that the realm of faerie is full of contradictions and paradoxes.  This is nowhere better illustrated than in the traditional view of fairies that one could still find in Ireland, Scotland and Wales until relatively recent times. There were good and bad fairies but, even with the good fairies, one never quite trusted them.  Perhaps that is why they departed from us!  I leave you with Richard Corbett’s famous poem on that departure:



Farewell, rewards and fairies,

Good housewives now may say,

For now foul sluts in dairies

Do fare as well as they.

And though they sweep their hearths no less

Than maids were wont to do,

Yet who of late for cleanness

Finds sixpence in her shoe?


Lament, lament, old Abbeys,

The Fairies’ lost command!

They did but change Priests’ babies,

But some have changed your land.

And all your children, sprung from thence,

Are now grown Puritans,

Who live as Changelings ever since

For love of your demesnes.


At morning and at evening both

You merry were and glad,

So little care of sleep or sloth

These pretty ladies had;

When Tom came home from labour,

Or Cis to milking rose,

Then merrily went their tabor,

And nimbly went their toes.


Witness those rings and roundelays Of theirs, which yet remain,

Were footed in Queen Mary’s days

On many a grassy plain;

But since of late, Elizabeth,

And later, James came in,

They never danced on any heath

As when the time hath been.


By which we note the Fairies

Were of the old Profession.

Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’,

Their dances were Procession.

But now, alas, they all are dead;

Or gone beyond the seas;

Or farther for Religion fled;

Or else they take their ease.


A tell-tale in their company

They never could endure!

And whoso kept not secretly

Their mirth, was punished, sure;

It was a just and Christian deed

To pinch such black and blue.

Oh how the commonwealth doth want

Such Justices as you!