The Light of Natural Philosophy

Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.

We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.

Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.

– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri

Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols.  Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.

We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence.  Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.

What provided James with an inspiration to move beyond religionist blindsides is what also lies at the roots of Secular Humanism’s often uncritical dismissal of metaphysical inquiry. If we approach beliefs at the experiential level, we start to see similarities among disparate traditions. This is a delicate path to tread, however, as it’s all too easy to aestheticize these similarities while missing their actual import.

Too weak to see into the original mind and to live on your own resources, you hid your pettiness and insignificance behind the castoffs of others: piling up points of view, cultivating their nuances, differences and convergences.

What fakes! Because you can amaze idiots with tricks like this, you imagine yourselves enlightened?

You have seduced yourselves! Your sickness is entirely incurable!

– From The Sayings of Old Ch’eng, trans. Mike Dickman (Brooklyn: Cool Grove Press, 1999)

In a lament about the movement of one of the forefathers of Secular Humanism, Paul Kurtz, toward a more ecumenical tone,  the biologist PZ Myers wrote in 2010 that he defines Secular Humanism’s mission as “rejecting the power of invisible gods and refusing the promise of eternal life in paradise, and further, we’re in the business of telling believers that their most cherished fantasies are lies. If we aren’t offending them, we are hiding the implications of our ideas and are not doing our job.” A venomous statement, this, and from a biologist whose career puts him constantly at the hem of nature’s veil. It leads one to wonder exactly what sort of philosophy of life can come out of a purely acrid intention.

“Stereotyped images of religion cannot possibly connect with the potent intermixing of experiential phenomena and imagination that occurs every day in the world around us. Neither transcendence nor materialism is capable of delineating reality.”

Unable to separate gold from dross, and lost focusing on aesthetic similarities, strange interpretations emerge.  Stalwart mechanistic orientation fails to account for some of the odder facets of nature, but there is also something lost when we only accept systematically rigorous theology or propagandized images of religion as valid reference points. Stereotyped images of religion cannot possibly connect with the potent intermixing of experiential phenomena and imagination that occurs every day in the world around us. Neither transcendence nor materialism is capable of delineating reality.

What is this “paradise” that is being refused by Myers and his fellow Humanists?? When we enter the garden of stars, is there a choice? And these “invisible gods” — what of them?  Are these the ancient gods who were once themselves human, raised in dignity until their memory is formed by constellations? Are these the innate forces whose likeness was recorded, and mapped, through cosmological models dealing with the seven planets of ancient astronomy? Or are they potent mythotypes that presage, and more accurately exemplify, contemporary psychology?

Christianity, with a supposedly life-hating philosophy, affords humanity a place second only to the creator itself. What benefit comes from a philosophy that would, rather than foster the dignity of man, strip away everything until we are left with nothing but painted corpses in an existential mortuary?

Yet, “being purified, then illuminated,” even a mortuary can be a place of beauty. Raw materia still speaks of the essence:

A drowned beer-hauler was heaved onto the slab.
Someone had wedged a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I reached through the chest
under the skin
with a long knife
to cut out the tongue and palate
I must have bumped the flower, for it slid
into the brain lying alongside.
I packed it into the chest cavity
with the sawdust
as we sewed up.
Drink your fill in that vase!
Rest in peace,
little aster!

– “Little Aster” by Gottfried Benn, trans. Supervert

But to speak of the essence, it must be a materialism that relies on immanent ground, and not dirt, to open us to reality.

Most important to remember is that Mirandola’s humanism is a threefold system wherein we move beyond even this immanence: “Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.” Writing a few decades after Mirandola, Michael Sendivogius, the scientist who first identified oxygen, in his New Chemical Light lays it out fairly succinctly:

Simplicity is the Seal of Truth

and continues with:

Our longing for an increase of knowledge urges us ever onward towards some final goal, in which we imagine that we shall find full rest and satisfaction, like the ant which is not endowed with wings till the last days of its life. In our time, the Philosophical Art has become a very subtle matter; it is the craft of the goldsmith compared with that of the humble workman who exercises his calling at the forge.

We have made such mighty strides in advance that if the ancient Masters of our science, Hermes and Geber and Raymond Lullius, were to rise from the dead, they would be treated by our modern Alchemists not as Sages but as only humble learners. They would seem very poor scholars in our modern lore of futile distillations, circulations, calcinations and in all the other countless operations wherewith modern research has so famously enriched our Art though without understanding the sense of the ancient writings. In all these respects, our learning is vastly superior to theirs.

Only one thing is unfortunately wanting to us which they possessed, namely, the knack they had of actually preparing the Philosopher’s Stone. Perhaps, then, their simple methods were after all the best; and it is on this supposition that I desire, in this volume, to teach you to understand Nature so that our vain imaginations may not misdirect us in the true and simple way.

In the end, one cannot be a humanist philosopher or a religionist philosopher, for philosophy alone, the pure love of embodied wisdom, is, in itself, enough.

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on July 31, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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