contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Neo-Platonism

WORKING WITH TAROT IMAGES

One of my inquiry intentions this year is to live the wheel of the year with heightened attention. For the Innerworld aspect of this journey, I am working with the Wildwood Tarot (1). I like its strong wheel of the year orientation, its choice of imagery and its focus on resiliency.

Tarot images are often described as archetypes. The word is derived ultimately from Plato’s eidos – the ideal forms that he saw as building blocks of the universe. They can be abstract – Justice, Wisdom, Beauty – or concrete – Horse, Wheel, Tree. Without these ideal forms in the mind of a Creator, their worldly approximations could not exist. They are “the absolute changeless objects of knowledge.” (2)

In the early 20th. Century, C.G Jung brought the archetypes into the realm of human history and psychology. June Singer explains how, for Jung, “the term archetype indicates the presence of … a universal and collective image that has existed since the remotest times. Archetypes give rise to images in … tribal lore, in myths and fairy tales, and in contemporary media. They are, by definition, unconscious, and their presence can only be intuited in the powerful motifs and symbols that give definite form to psychic contents.” (3)

The shift from ‘archetype’ to ‘archetypal image’ is a helpful one for me and can be taken further. James Hillman, a modern Platonist, pupil of Jung’s, and founder of an Archetypal Psychology, asks what makes an image archetypal, and concludes that: “any image can be considered archetypal … by attaching archetypal to an image, we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest and deepest possible significance.” (4) ‘Archetypal’ is a word that gives value, influencing our own response to an image and the way we treat it, contemplating it carefully, taking it into our hearts, and letting it work with our senses, feelings, intuitions and thoughts arising from it. With this approach, the descent from heaven to earth is complete. We are free to understand archetypal images as products of human consciousness that have the power to move and change us. Extending our imaginations, they extend our realities.

This is how I am going to work with The Wildwood Tarot. I am aware that the images can be mapped onto the Western Mystery tradition’s version of the Kabbalist Tree of Life, a highly conscious and artful meta-archetype, or blueprint for the cosmos. The greater trumps are archetypal images; the classical elements are archetypal images; each number is an archetypal image; key figures in patriarchal royal courts are archetypal images. All are linked together in an elaborate web of archetypal imagery. The architecture and arrangement of the Wildwood Tarot are fairly conventional, if I take the Rider Waite Tarot, understood as the effective origin of the modern form, as my point of comparison. But the concern with the wheel of the year, aspects of the narrative, and much of the imagery point in a somewhat different direction. I feel able to engage in a fresh way that both honours tradition and feels empowered to enter new and unexpected spaces. This process has already begun, and forms part of my inquiry.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

(3) June Singer Androgyny: Towards A New Theory of Sexuality London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977

(4) The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire introduced and edited by Thomas Moore London: Routledge, 1990

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

THE DREAM OF SCIPIO

Dream of Scipio“He went into the chapel and looked at the pictures she had studied, and saw them through her eyes. He looked at the picture of the blind man and Sophia, her gesture so tender, his so responsive, and saw again how she had made it her own. She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution.”*

This post is stimulated by a novel, but too personal to be a book review. It is energised by my belief that the best poetry and fiction are more supportive of spiritual inquiry than most texts designed specifically for spiritual teaching. The same can be said of visual arts and music. For me, spiritual understanding is not a body of information available for download from the cosmos. It does not arise from surrender to a persistent monologue. A certain kind of peace and safety might come from this, but the full fruits of the meeting between wisdom, love and creativity are missed.

Iain Pears’ novel The Dream of Scipio has inspired my spiritual direction whilst not directly defining it. I like novels as a medium for their ability to shift between different points of view and see people developing in a context of living relationships and events. They can look at the cultural and political impact of belief systems over time, as well as personal experience in the moment. The main protagonist in this novel is a philosopher and teacher from late antiquity. Actually named Sophia, she is in the tradition of Hypatia of Alexandria, now celebrated as both a Pagan and an Atheist martyr.

Pears’ story has three timelines, with two main point of view characters from each. We are presented with thoughtful people doing what they see as their best in specific contexts of time, place and culture. In each case the setting is the south of France, east of the Rhone. The first and in many ways defining period spans 475-486 and the ending of Roman rule. The second is 1342-8, mostly set in Avignon during its period of Papal residence. It includes the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death. The third is 1940-1943, covering the defeat of France, the Vichy regime and then full German occupation as resistance strengthens and the tide of war begins to turn. In each case the plot turns on experiences of a Sophian figure and a man in some form of relationship with her. On the political level the focus is on crisis, choices, and consequences – especially for the Jewish community of the region.

In 475 Sophia runs a modest philosophy school in Marseille, inherited from her father Anaxius. They are insecure migrants from Alexandria.  Anaxius had been a pupil of Hypatia and can’t live there anymore.  Marseille is relatively small, provincial and in decline. But it is a Greek city in origin and part of the Mediterranean world. Southern France is a land of highly Romanised Celts, with significant Greek and Jewish communities in the larger towns.  Both as an independent woman and a philosopher in the Greek tradition, Sophia is an anomaly in a society of increasing religious conformism and narrowing cultural horizons. She presents herself as a guide, not a teacher, available to help without being an instructor. She asks people to speak freely and not to believe anything she says. She wants to emphasise the distinction between understanding and believing. Her theology is a rather austere neo-Platonism. “Let us take the premise” she says, “that the individual soul likens himself to God through the refinement of contemplation, and that virtue is a reflection of this understanding”.

Sophia’s main pupil is Manlius, a Gallo-Roman aristocrat who provides protection for Sophia as the school dwindles away and life gets more difficult. This supports his self-image of upholding the best of an old culture in bad times through an act of discerning patronage. They are attracted to each other, but the relationship is not consummated. They are holding to an ideal that “pure love is a reflection of the beautiful and a striving to return to it. Only through its accomplishment is the soul freed”. They both agree that Manlius should take a role in public life by making a formal conversion to Christianity and accepting the offer of a Bishopric. With the collapse in Roman military capacity the Romanised upper class is dependent on what we now call ‘soft power’. The church is its vehicle, and wants Manlius for his wealth, his family name and his administrative capacity. Manlius goes on to use his new office to negotiate a Burgundian occupation of his region as a means of maintaining order and keeping out the harsher Goths. This is presented as realistic in its own terms, though it involves the betrayal and killing of old friends who still want a Roman solution. However, even with the political settlement achieved, Bishop Manlius still needs to enhance his Christian credentials with the local population. They are not quite sure of his faith. So, taking advantage of a disturbance involving a Jewish criminal, he gives the entire local Jewish population three choices: conversion, exile or death. Most choose one of the first two options, but some are killed. From this time on Manlius is treated as a saint. He has solved the issue of the Christ killers on his patch.

Sophia is appalled. The point of public office lies in the opportunity to exercise virtue. Manlius was meant to take it to avoid it going to someone worse – someone bigoted or cynical. His behaviour is a betrayal of everything her teaching stood for. Manlius thinks of it as effective statecraft through the willingness to take hard decisions. Sophia still has to rely on Manlius’ protection – at one point to obtain her release from prison – and she moves to a small hermitage on his land. She and her role are no longer possible in the city. However, this doesn’t stop her from confronting him, expressing shame at being his teacher and breaking off the friendship. Manlius writes A Dream of Scipio (where she is his guide in the dream) as a kind of apology and tribute to her teaching, and to express his private opinions. Sophia refuses to read it.

Sophia survives Manlius. She lives on at the hermitage, protected by the good will of a Burgundian war lord who inherits the estate. He feels an odd respect for her though he can’t make her out and is easier to deal with than Manlius had become. Over time local people, especially women, have begun to treat her as a holy woman and seek her advice on personal and family problems.  After her own death, she is woven into legend as St. Sophia – the most faithful of a group of women gathered around Mary Magdalene when forced to leave the Holy Land. On arrival in the south of France, Sophia becomes a teacher and healer second only to Mary herself. A favourite story is the curing blind of Manlius, for example, who went on to become the holy Bishop of Vaison after regaining his sight and who rewarded her with the hermitage. The chapel built on the site becomes a centre of pilgrimage.

In the medieval part of the story, a young Italian painter experimenting with a more humanistic and representational art paints scenes from St. Sophia’s life on the chapel walls. They include the saint curing the blind Manlius.  Real people, younger and naiver than their originals, are used as the models. The Sophia figure is Rebecca, an orphan from the officially extinct Cathar community, working as the servant of a Jewish rabbi. Manlius is Olivier (and actually Rebecca’s lover), the young secretary of a Cardinal and also a poet in a new and evolving style. He finds an old manuscript of The Dream of Scipio. Its language is haunting and challenging. Some of the things Rebecca says, when she lets him know who she is, remind him of this manuscript and this is woven into the attraction. The chief political event is a knife-edge Papal decision to prevent a massacre of Jews rather than promote one as strongly advised. (The plague is widely blamed on the Jews.) The connection between Olivier and Rebecca makes a difference to this outcome, though at the eventual cost of Olivier’s life.

In the World War II part of the story, Julien is an academic and Julia a painter. They’ve known each other, on and off, for some years. Julia comes from a Jewish family but doesn’t think of herself as Jewish until forced to. After the occupation Julia manages to get exit papers from France but her ship is diverted to Cuba where U.S. authorities deny her permission to enter the United States, thus getting round a promise that no Jewish refugee will be turned back from a U.S. port. No other country will take her and she is forced back to France. Julien has a job as a Vichy censor based in Avignon (accepting it to prevent someone perceived as worse from having it). He is able to help Julia hide out discreetly, and she enters a highly productive phase as an artist. An important source of inspiration is the old Chapel of St. Sophia, its legends, and the medieval paintings that, somewhat the worse for wear, are still there. She makes use of the themes – especially the healing of blind Manlius by Sophia. However, she also becomes more visible – used by the Resistance to forge money and documents, and also because a Resistance co-ordinator flown back to France from Britain creates a cover role as an art dealer and sells some of her pictures. Julia is supposed to be put on a flight and taken out of harm’s way, but she is just too skilled and useful and her extraction keeps being delayed. When arrested she affirms her Jewish identity to half-hearted French police who are hoping that she will deny it (the arresting officers don’t know about her connection to the resistance, which one of them will shortly join). She is last known of on a train taking Jews to the camps. Julien, remorseful about failing to save her, dies whilst trying to save another resistance member from arrest.

There is a good deal about this book that is grim, and a good deal that is inspirational. If Sophia represents a spiritual wisdom, love and creativity, then the book has something to celebrate about these wonderful qualities as true human resources. Yet they are fragile. The book also speaks of dark times and the choices people make. The culture of the three periods is presented as accurately as possible and the major events all happened. Many possible lessons are suggested, and none are imposed. I found it very rich, and it’s one of the few novels I reread from time to time.

*Pears, Iain The Dream of Scipio London: Vintage, 2003

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

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