Metamorphoses of the Spirit: Transfiguring our Thinking (Part I)
Astute readers would have noticed we have discussed the "Spirit" extensively in the last two parts of this essay, Breaking Bad Habits and Incarnating the Christ, but we have spent little time discussing what the "Spirit" actually is. It just made sense to us that the Spirit somehow fit into our 'equation' with its metamorphic activity. Perhaps that is even true for those who had never come across the philosophers discussed or do not consider themselves "spiritual". In any event, what I have meant by "Spirit" in this essay is our Thinking activity in its broadest and deepest sense. Reason, Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition are four pillars of our spiritual activity.
This spiritual activity is most readily accessible to our experience. Our willing, which is operative in many of our internal physiological systems, goes completely unnoticed until it is expressed in some 'outward' bodily action. Our feeling stands in the 'middle' of our willing and thinking, often unnoticed by us until we are in particularly emotional situations. Thinking, however, is always accessible to us in an immanent manner. As we discussed in Part I, perceiving and thinking are inseparable. We cannot perceive a sensible world without thinking and we cannot think about the world unless there is some percept we are thinking about. Our thinking activity most immediately presents itself in the meaning of whatever we are perceiving; a meaning which is shared by all, even if perceived from different angles.
The implication of this experiential fact is that thinking, in its essence, is also a perceptual organ like our eyes, noses, ears, tongues, and skin. We can perceive thought-forms with thinking just as we can see colors, smell odors, hear sounds, and feel surfaces. Indeed, that is how the ancient Greeks perceived the world of ideas, which is also clearly reflected in the mythology of all cultures prior. We will return to the inner workings of this spiritual activity later. For now, we should remember that thinking is the only process in which we can directly observe our own activity immediately after it occurs, in contrast to willing or feeling where the object of our activity is observed as 'ready-made' and independent of us, so we must go searching for its source. It is also bound up with all phenomenal appearances of the world, as expressed in the quote below:
It is quite arbitrary to regard the sum of what we experience of a thing through bare perception as a totality, as the whole thing, while that which reveals itself through thoughtful contemplation is regarded as a mere accretion which has nothing to do with the thing itself. If I am given a rosebud today, the picture that offers itself to my perception is complete only for the moment. If I put the bud into water, I shall tomorrow get a very different picture of my object. If I watch the rosebud without interruption, I shall see today's state change continuously into tomorrow's through an infinite number of intermediate stages. The picture which presents itself to me at any one moment is only a chance cross-section of an object which is in a continual process of development. If I do not put the bud into water, a whole series of states which lay as possibilities within the bud will not develop. Similarly I may be prevented tomorrow from observing the blossom further, and will thereby have an incomplete picture of it. It would be a quite unobjective and fortuitous kind of opinion that declared of the purely momentary appearance of a thing: this is the thing.
What we add to the perception by thinking is just as much of the processes we perceive as any properties which arrive to us 'ready-made'. We will return to this topic later. First we must review some important history of spiritual thinking activity which has brought us to where we are today. Our spiritual activity has metamorphosed from total unity of sensing-thinking in pre-history, to polarity of sensing-thinking around the Axial Age (they were distinguished from each other but never divided from each other), and finally to duality of 'inward' sensing and 'outward' thinking in the modern era. Through Kant's naïve acceptance of this modern dualism, we arrived at the flawed assumption that thinking activity can be rigorous and systematized only in the 'outer' realm of matter, but not the 'inner' realm of Spirit-Soul (psyche).
That assumption, which we identified as a bad mental habit, should have been dispelled by any number of systematic theories of the 20th century in fields ranging from phenomenology and depth psychology to cognitive science and theoretical physics. The fact that it has not yet been dispelled is a testament to the habit's despotic power over the modern Spirit. As soon as we feel that we have escaped its clutches, we let our guard down and we are dragged right back into its embrace. Our thinking snaps back to its abstract intellectual mode which cannot perceive its own essence. It is an addiction of the most powerful kind and must be monitored incessantly whenever we engage in spiritual Thinking activity, at least until we have 'deprogrammed' the habit.
One good strategy for resisting the Cartesian-Kantian dualisms is to keep the metamorphic process of the Spirit in our back pocket, ready to remind us of how we arrived to where we are at a moment's notice. We should broaden our temporal horizon wide enough to remind us that we have only existed with these hard dualisms for a tiny fraction of human history, from the 15th century onwards. Before that, Spirit and Matter were considered two essential poles of a polarity. In the previous parts, we discovered that the metamorphic process is analogous to fractal iterations across the temporal dimensions of our existence, i.e. our daily life, our biological life, and the life of humanity as a whole.
We can add now that the process also iterates across the 'spatial' dimensions of our existence, i.e. the far East, the near East, and the West. What was once a 'perennial philosophy' of all humans in existence became differentiated into seemingly incompatible spiritual traditions across these regions. I will not argue this point now, but simply remark that I can see no other possibility under the metamorphic view. We are now attempting to once again reconcile philosophy-science with spirituality by reintegrating the 'outer' and 'inner' realms; by reunifying the temporal divisions of humanity between archaic-modern and the spatial divisions between East-West.
I say "once again" because there was a peculiar stage of humanity's progression in the late medieval period which we must contemplate deeply. In this period, we find a brief window of time when philosophical (logical) thought was as rigorous as it has ever been, even more so than it is now, and humanity's scientific mode of consciousness was also coming into bloom. That period was characterized by a resurgence of ancient Greek thought with emphasis on those aspects which harmonized with the Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition. It was a period of immense questioning by the human Spirit of how it fits into the Divine cosmic order.
Modern scholarship, however, has failed to recognize the true import of the questions being asked during this time precisely because it has failed to take into consideration the spiritual metamorphoses we have outlined. In the medieval period, the Spirit was well into its process of 'individuation', which carries a 'bottom-up' emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility (see Nominalism). At the same time, ancient Greek thought and Plotinism-Neoplatonism made its way back into the Western Church and retained an emphasis on the collective striving of humanity back to the One true Source of its existence (see Realism).
Within that ongoing dialectical struggle, we find the most profound spiritual thinking of the Scholastics beckoning to us. The Scholiasts were dealing with a very concrete problem in that day, one which has become too abstract for modern man to find relatable. It was the problem of how the individual human being can experience the Divine realm, each by his own contemplative path, but also as a member of humanity writ large, the institutional Church and the 'body of Christ'. Below, we will briefly discuss some very important voices of this remarkable period before continuing on to assess the implications they carry for us today.
We must remember what is written below is the most cursory overview of this period of deep spiritual contemplation. It should be understood that we are dealing with real personalities who were struggling with real spiritual issues which carried the highest of stakes in their minds (as it should in ours as well). They were the first humans to ever face the problem of how pure thought abstractions, divorced from sensuous perception, can relate the human individual to the spiritual realm through the faculty of Reason, because, prior to this period, such pure thought abstractions simply did not exist.
It was the period of humanity's adolescence and we can clearly discern within it the 'identity struggle' we have all experienced during that time of our lives. In order to fully appreciate those struggles, we must first secure our footing through a much earlier personality who was, by all accounts, way ahead of his time. He was a fierce personality who was caught between the collective spiritual orientation of the ancient world and the individual spiritual experience of the centuries to come. We will see, however, that the former was still too strong to be overcome by the latter.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430 A.D.)
And what is this? I asked the earth, and it answered me, "I am not He"; and whatsoever are in it confessed the same. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the living creeping things, and they answered, "We are not thy God, seek above us." I asked the moving air; and the whole air with his inhabitants answered, "Anaximenes was deceived, I am not God. " I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, "Nor (say they) are we the God whom thou seekest.
-Saint Augustine, Confessions Book X
Saint Augustine thus speaks of the fact that he can no longer perceive the work of the Spirit in the world of appearances. Try as he did by solemn inquiry, he could no longer detect what the ancient Greeks detected when speaking of these appearances - their living spiritual essence. Homer's Iliad opened with, "Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus..." and his Odyssey with, "Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero...". The significance of Homer letting the Goddess and the Muse sing and speak in place of himself should not be lost on us - poems and plays simply were not told by any one individual human at that time, but rather by a sensuous 'collective psyche-soul' operating through the individuals.
By the time of Augustine roughly a millennium later, human individuals were much more familiar with the experience of producing their own creative works, or at least contributing a great deal to them. Augustine himself, however, does appear to have progressed more in that regard than his peers. Augustine's spiritual activity was therefore very strained by the individual-collective tension. Just as the appearances could only reply to him that "[God] made us", his spirit within his material body could no longer claim direct knowledge of God with any confidence.
On the other hand, the culture surrounding him was not so advanced in its progression as his own and he could remember the more holistic philosophy and spirituality of the ancients. He retained a view of humanity as a collective spiritual whole through his intellectual absorption of Plotinus and Neoplatonism. Plotinus had experienced the spirituality of the ideal world 'above' in its emanation from the One. The Spirit permeated 'matter' to such an extent that the latter scarcely existed. Augustine could not similarly experience the One, but he still carried over its ideal content into the treatment of humanity in his theology.
It was a treatment where human individuality scarcely factored in. From that treatment, we get from Augustine the inception of John Calvin's doctrines of "total depravity" and "predestination", yet many centuries earlier as a prefiguration of what was to come. Humanity as a whole was deserving of God's wrath, but humans could not yet be clearly defined as individual souls, so Augustine proposed that there were two camps of humanity - one predestined to "salvation" by God's grace and the other predestined to "damnation" by God's wrath. The good character or even faith of the human individual played very little role in this scheme.
Augustine certainly experienced his own individuality, but it still had no place to fit into his systematic theology for public consumption. We then find the beginnings of a particularly pernicious dualism which remains today; the dualism of the life-afterlife; the saved-damned; heaven-hell. I cannot stress enough that we are viewing these seminal figures of Western civilization through the lens of the metamorphic perspective. Statements such as those above will make little sense to the religious scholar who rejects such a perspective out of hand or refuses to factor it in despite the overwhelming evidence for its occurrence.
Those scholars deal with the history of mere ideas rather than the history of the Spirit. By the latter, we now see the context in which the Scholastic theologians must be placed. While Augustine could still find good reason to reject theological consideration of humanity in its individuality, the Scholastics were left with no such excuse. In fact, it was the aspect of human experience which had to be considered more than any others. It had to be reconciled with all Church dogma and ecclesiastic tradition which came before.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.)
… it should be noted that different ways of knowing (ratio cognoscibilis) give us different sciences. The astronomer and the natural philosopher both conclude that the earth is round, but the astronomer does this through a mathematical middle that is abstracted from matter, whereas the natural philosopher considers a middle lodged in matter. Thus there is nothing to prevent another science from treating in the light of divine revelation what the philosophical disciplines treat as knowable in the light of human reason.
-Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae
The question which faced Thomas Aquinas, among others at that time, was 'how do the contents of individual human reason relate to the contents of human faith'? Put another way, how does what is individual to each man's soul-spirit relate to what is universally human? The answer Aquinas derived, in the most rigorous and logical fashion imaginable, was that our individual Reason can take us very far in our journey towards the Divine, because it emanates from the Divine. At some point in that journey, however, we must enter a region of pure faith where what is individual to man merges with what is universal, our Father, through the Being of Christ.
Such an answer was necessitated at that time because it was not clear how Reason itself could be immune from the "total depravity" of original sin; that pernicious doctrine we found before in Saint Augustine. It was not at all clear to Aquinas how Christ's redemption of man from sin attained on the Cross could be applied to the world of pure thought, so that the latter could truly merge with the Divine of its own accord. What was much more clear to Aquinas, though, was that the ideas existing in the spiritual realm were real and living ideas working through man in the 'physical' realm.
They were archetypal forces 'reaching down' from the Spirit to transfigure man in his sinful state. Aquinas had no doubt that Reason aided the individual human immensely in his spiritual journey back 'up' to his Source. He also had no doubt that our journey back to the Source was a reunification of God with man, i.e. theosis - "...full participation in divinity which is humankind's true beatitude and the destiny of human life". Therefore, Aquinas also did not doubt that what we do during our life on Earth, especially through our contemplative spiritual activity, is of critical importance to our spiritual destiny. That is a view modern man will be hard-pressed to find in the Church.
With Aquinas, we see an abstract yet vital penetration of the psychic realm into the physical realm, so that they can, in fact, be regarded as one and the same realm. If the matter had been left there, then natural science would have proceeded in the light of the Spirit's powerful illumination. Yet such a development never came to pass for reasons we will explore soon. There are several other profound thinkers during this medieval period who should be mentioned before continuing. Some are considered "Christian mystics" who are generally associated with a lack of emphasis on Thinking. Yet that is again an artifact of our failure to seriously consider the metamorphic process.
These mystics, like Aquinas, were living at a time when the Spirit had the tightest of tensions between Divine revelation and personal knowledge. They were experiencing, in real time, the increasing abstraction of human concepts, so they naturally chose to re-emphasize what was being lost to mere intellect - our collective participatory experience. In that sense, they viewed the process of Thinking in a much higher spiritual light than we do now. For the sake of brevity, I will only name them with a relevant quote before moving on. All of those listed below deserve more contemplation when time permits, as they participated deeply in the metamorphoses of the Spirit which have shaped the modern world.
Dionysius the Areopagite (5th to 6th Century A.D.)
It is no mistake then to speak of God and to honor him as known through all being… But the way of knowing God that is most worthy of Him is to know Him through unknowing, in a union that rises above all intellect. The intellect is first detached from all beings, then it goes out of itself and is united to rays more luminous than light itself. Thanks to these rays it shines in the unfathomable depths of Wisdom. It is no less true, however, as I have said, that this Wisdom can be known from every reality.
John Duns Scotus (1265-1308 A.D.)
If all men by nature desire to know, then they desire most of all the greatest knowledge of science. And he immediately indicates what the greatest science is, namely the science which is about those things that are most knowable. But there are two senses in which things are said to be maximally knowable: either because they are the ﬁrst of all things known and without them nothing else can be known; or because they are what are known most certainly. In either way, however, this science is about the most knowable. Therefore, this most of all is a science and, consequently, most desirable.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1328 A.D.)
Some people want to look upon God with their eyes, as they look upon a cow, and want to love God as they love a cow. Thus they love God for the sake of external riches and of internal solace; but these people do not love God aright... Foolish people deem that they should look upon God as though He stood there and they here. It is not thus. God and I are one in the act of knowing.
Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464 A.D.)
I made many attempts to unite my thoughts about God and the world, about Christ and the Church in one fundamental idea, but of them all none satisfied me until finally, during the return from Greece by sea, the gaze of my spirit lifted itself, as if through an inspiration from on high, to the view in which God appeared to me as the highest unity of all contrasts.
Paracelsus (1493-1541 A.D.)
This is something great you should consider. Nothing is in heaven and on earth that is not also in the human being, and God who is in heaven and on earth is also in the human being.
Valentin Weigel (1533-1588 A.D.)
Since in natural perception there must be two things, namely the object or counterpart, which is to be perceived and seen by the eye, and the eye, or the perceiver, which sees and perceives the object, therefore, consider the question, Does the perception come from the object into the eye, or does the judgment, and the perception, flow from the eye into the object.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600 A.D.)
For, just as we do not recognize colours and sounds with one and the same sense, so also we do not recognize the substratum of the arts and that of nature with one and the same eye, [because we] see the first with the physical eye and the second with the eye of reason.
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624 A.D.)
The whole birth or geniture, which is the heaven of all heavens, as also this world, which is in the body of the whole, as also the place of the earth and of all creatures, and whatever thou canst think on, all that together is God the Father, who hath neither beginning nor end; and wheresoever and upon whatsoever thou thinkest, even in the smallest circle that can be imagined, is the whole birth or geniture of God, perfectly, incessantly and irresistibly.
Angelus Silesius (1624-1677 A.D.)
When I leave time, I myself am eternity. Then I am one with God And God is one with me.
After the brief resurgence of Realism in the Scholastics and mystics, Nominalism reappeared and dominated the philosophical scene. The living and dynamic reality of ideas and their images was replaced with the cold corpses of abstractions from sense-perceptible and isolated 'things' in the world (it is helpful to recall Barfield's distinction between 'images' and 'things' discussed in the previous installment). The entire philosophical endeavor became less concerned with how our well-reasoned ideas relate us to the world of universal Spirit and more concerned with how our reason can give us any knowledge of the world whatsoever.
We end up with Descartes discarding the question, 'what does my thinking tell me about Reality?' and replacing it with the Cogito - 'because I think, I am'. That statement is no doubt true, but we can also see how it is now pointing humanity in the complete opposite direction from the late medieval period. We reversed from asking, 'how can I know ever-more about the world?' to asking, 'how can I know that everything I experience is not a complete fantasy or deception?' And, in such a reversal, we find nearly complete the division of the spiritual realm from the realm of everyday experience.
Francis Bacon further contributed to this division with insistence that the spiritual realm, unlike the 'physical' realm of senses, is untouchable by empirical method. The spiritual realm becomes a black hole of experience particularized to each individual. Any overlap between individual experience comes from 'supernatural' or 'material' processes entirely external to us. It is rather obvious how we go from that insistence to Kant's impassible boundary between the realm we experience (phenomenon) and the realm of 'things-in-themselves' (noumenon) we can never experience (see my Res Ipsa Loquitur post for more details).
Without figures like Descartes, Bacon and Kant, modern science would not have been possible and, therefore, our current standards of living would not be anywhere close to what they are. Therefore, if we find ourselves approaching these figures with self-righteous judgment, we should stop and reorient towards humility. What happened is what happened and it is useless to now question the Wisdom of the Spirit's progression in that manner. The authentic Spirit only looks to the past for helpful information as it orients towards its future becoming. We are not seeking to morally judge here, but rather to clearly discern what sort of Reality we are involved in, since we cannot make the proper choices otherwise.
We spoke of breaking the bad Kantian habit before, but now we must specify what happens after we break the habit. How do we locate the place Christ has prepared for us in our Father's house? The modern Church will present all sorts of answers to that question, depending on where we live, what denomination we belong to, what Church we attend, and many other circumstances mostly outside of our control. If we feel that approach is too murky and relative - too abstract and fragmented - then our intuition is working properly. Our intuition will likely be telling us to look within ourselves for the standards of spiritual knowledge that we are usually hoping to gain from external sources.
Monism will have to recognize that naïve realism is partially justified because it recognizes the justification of the world of percepts. Whoever is incapable of producing moral ideas through intuition must accept them from others. In so far as a man receives his moral principles from without, he is in fact unfree. But monism attaches as much significance to the idea as to the percept. The idea, however, can come to manifestation in the human individual. In so far as man follows the impulses coming from this side, he feels himself to be free. But monism denies all justification to metaphysics, which merely draws inferences, and consequently also to the impulses of action which are derived from so-called “Beings-in-themselves”. According to the monistic view, man may act unfreely when he obeys some perceptible external compulsion; he can act freely, when he obeys none but himself. Monism cannot recognize any unconscious compulsion hidden behind percept and concept. If anyone asserts that the action of a fellow man is done unfreely, then he must identify the thing or the person or the institution within the perceptible world, that has caused the person to act; and if he bases his assertion upon causes of action lying outside the world that is real to the senses and the spirit, then monism can take no notice of it. According to the monistic view, then, man's action is partly unfree, partly free. He finds himself to be unfree in the world of percepts, and he realizes within himself the free spirit.
- Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom (1895)
What can be concretely gained from the monistic view will be discussed in the next and final part of the essay, which will be posted within a few days. We will see how the spiritual connection wrenched away from the human individual by the Cartesian-Kantian dualisms in modernity will be given back to humanity in a much higher form when it is illuminated by Christ within us, working through our spiritual activity. We can then have a genuine hope, a genuine faith, that the metamorphoses of Spirit illustrated here will continue in the world's progression, and that our spiritual activity will not only be transformed by that process, but also transfigured.
“Furthermore, I must confide to you that I am very close to discovering the secret of plant generation and organization, and that it is the simplest thing one could imagine... The archetypal plant will be the most magnificent creation in the world, for which nature itself will envy me. With this model and the key to it, one can then go on inventing plants forever that must follow lawfully; that means: which, even if they don't exist, still could exist, and are not... the shadows and illusions of painters or poets but rather have an inner truth and necessity. The same law can be applied to all other living things.”
- Goethe, Letter to Herder
"...and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light." - Matthew 17:2