A New Way of Seeing with John Vervaeke

My discussion with John on spiritual intelligence and perceiving wider reality: covering shifts of consciousness, the links between ascent and descent, simplicity and unity, 4E cognition, the transformation of freedom, and the centrality of love in knowing and participating.

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Psi and the Limits of Science

This piece was written for The Idler.

The modern world swears by science. If your intervention or idea is not evidence-based, you risk instant dismissal. So it’s odd when the same mindset refuses to acknowledge phenomena supported by way more evidence than, say, intergalactic dark matter or the chemical soup theory for the origins of life.

I’m talking about psi – the mental happenings that range from psychokinesis to precognition, from telepathy to synchronicities. My friend, Rupert Sheldrake, never tires of saying that such experiences are widespread in the population. He’s documented hundreds of cases of individuals anticipating when someone is about to phone, as well as pets who know when their owners are coming home. (If you want a lockdown treat watch his YouTubes on the telephone telepathy enjoyed by The Nolan Sisters and, to be truly amazed, Nkisi the apparently psychic parrot.)

Scientists are generally allergic to investigating these everyday occurrences, fearing ridicule, and the amount of money allocating to funding research is small. But enough brave individuals have done the work and proven that psi happens.

Consider the witness of just one, Jessica Utts, who is significant because she was the president of the American Statistical Association: if there is anyone who knows how to assess the evidence, it’s her. And this is what she’s said: “Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established.”

In fact, because of the aversion with which the establishment reacts, psi experiments are often better designed and more robust than other trials. If you want to know about controls or double-blind protocols or replication, ask a psi researcher.

A longstanding player in this field is Jeffrey Kripal. His new book, The Flip, is an ideal, up-to-date primer. It’s well written, wide ranging, and doesn’t hold back on implications and insights. He is a psychologist, known for his work on religious ecstasy, UFO encounters, near death experiences, and the many and varied links between sci-fi and psi.

In this book, his aim is straightforward: to show that many people who otherwise prefer to stick to the world as described by scientific materialism find themselves “flipped” by inexplicable and unignorable events. The stories of the well-informed and intelligent are particularly striking.

Mark Twain dreamt of his brother’s death. He saw him in a metallic coffin, garlanded with white and red roses. A few weeks later, his brother died suddenly and Twain witnessed what he had seen, unfolding before his eyes.

Barbara Ehrenreich was raised a passionate atheist. Then, one day, whilst walking home in a little town called Lone Pine, she had an epiphany of the cosmos flaring into life. It completely upset her worldview. She has subsequently speculated that we might be living symbiotically with psychic creatures who cohabit with us, much as bacteria do biologically in our gut.

Personally, my experience of psychotherapy convinced me of the presence of everyday, humdrum synchronicities. I’ve learnt to trust them as winks and nods, much like I’ve learnt to trust dreams. Sometimes they seem relatively inconsequential, like the time I was leaving a talk about the mischievous spirits known as djinns, immediately to see passing a delivery cyclist working for a company called Djinns.

At other times, I wonder where they might lead me, like the time I was reading a book by the angel seer, Lorna Byrne. She advises asking your guardian angel to show itself to you, which I decided to do. Then, I left the house to catch a bus. At the bus stop, I took out her book to carry on reading, and flicked through to find the page. The first words I read were: “you may be at a bus stop”.

I got interested in angels because I started to take seriously what some of the greatest minds in human history said about them. Consider Socrates. It’s well attested that he was accompanied through life by a daemon, the ancient Greek name for go-between spirits. Of course, he lived in different times to ours. The world was assumed to be enchanted back then. But our ancestors could also discern between mental ill-health, superstitious fears, and ethereal entities. I’ve concluded that it’s our times which are foolish to dismiss them.

Just how we might re-engage them is a fascinating question, and Kripal can help here, too. He applies theories of human perception to his investigations, as it’s clear that how we perceive the world is profoundly shaped by what’s already in our minds. This is why Catholics have visions of the Virgin Mary and Hindus, the goddess Siva. He has also concluded that this is why hundreds of thousands of people in the US see flying saucers. American culture is saturated with stories of space as the final frontier, seeking out new civilisations, and boldly going where no-one has gone before.

We experience what’s otherwise beyond comprehension through the myths available to us, which is not to say that we aren’t experiencing something real. And this is why it matters. As Plato taught: human beings desire to become consciously aware of all levels of reality – physical, psychological, ethical, social, intellectual, cosmic, spiritual, divine. If we cut out parts of reality, we cut off parts of ourselves. Doing that precipitates compensatory excesses, from substance abuse to runaway consumerism.

In short, it’s worth finding a place for psi as part of the remedy for modern despair or, to put it the other way around, psi phenomena are the evidence that there’s more to life than meets the scientific eye. “Whatever they are (or are not), such flips appear to be scripted as goads and inspirations not as blocks and trips,” Kripal writes. “They appear to be pointing us to the new real and to the future of knowledge.” I agree. Let’s follow them.

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Philosophy & The Creation of the Individual

Mark Vernon chronicles a revolution in consciousness, published in Philosophy Now.


(Dust in the Wind, kenlaidlaw.com)

Why do we think of philosophy originating with the ancient Greeks? After all, it’s clear that the ancient Egyptians, who preceded Pythagoras and Plato, Parmenides and Aristotle, by 2,500 years, practiced wisdom too: “The power of Truth and Justice is that they prevail,” reports The Wisdom of Ptahhotep from around 2350 BCE.

In his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Bertrand Russell argued that it’s right to think of philosophy beginning in the sixth century BCE with the Greeks (in Miletus, a Greek colony in what is now Turkey), because it was only then that philosophers began to distinguish thought from theology. As is often the case in his entertaining volume, though, Russell was making a point rather than making a case. After all, the thinker who is called the first philosopher, Thales, is remembered for remarking, “All things are full of gods.”

In A New History of Western Philosophy (2004-7) the Oxford philosopher Anthony Kenny proposes that philosophy really begins with Aristotle (384-322 BCE), because Aristotle was the first philosopher to systematically summarize the teachings of his predecessors in order to criticize them. I think there is something in Kenny’s case, because to systematize is a new departure. It’s an approach that Aristotle’s great teacher, Plato, didn’t adopt.

We can gain a sense of the radical nature of Aristotle’s move if we consider some of the words he creates in order to make it. For example, Plato had the word ‘analogy’ but not the word ‘analysis’. The word ‘analysis’ was invented by Aristotle. This implies that, whereas Plato assumed that the purpose of argument was to point towards truth, Aristotle found that argument could break down the subject under study, much as dissection could cut up flowers and fish. Similarly, Plato had the word ‘quality’ but not the word ‘quantity’ – another word Aristotle coined. It’s why Plato is always more interested in oneness, twoness and threeness than one, two and three. His approach to mathematics is contemplative, as is indicated in his story about Socrates observing two raindrops colliding to form a single silvery ball of water. “Where did the twoness – the separation, the duality, the independence – go?” he has Socrates ask. But Aristotle is different. He can also contemplate numbers mathematically. He does argue that ‘3’ is a perfect number because it contains a beginning, middle and end; but he’s also interested in ‘how-muchness’ – which is what ‘quantity’ means. After this, thinkers became interested in the calculable aspect of objects in an empirical world. That’s something new. Owen Barfield writes that, with Aristotle, “The human mind had now begun to weigh and measure, to examine and compare; and that weighing and measuring has gone on – with intervals – for twenty-three centuries” (History in English Words, 1926, p.111). You could say that, after Aristotle, practical knowledge could be distinguished from theoretical knowledge. That’s different from the wisdom of myths and traditions, in which those two aspects are seamlessly intertwined.

It’s worth dwelling on just how profound this shift in thinking was. For millennia, our ancestors had felt they dwelt in a cosmos that was pervasively populated by living entities, and that these intelligences shaped how the world worked. When Ptahhotep wrote about Truth and Justice, he wasn’t thinking of abstract ideas as we do, he was thinking of personal characteristics of the god Maat. “Great is Maat!” his wisdom writing states. This is an act of divine praise. Truth and Justice prevail because Maat lives forever.

The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has been studying ancient mentality to think about the origins of religion. He has become fascinated by how hunter-gatherer groups engage in trance states, and has come to believe that in the Middle Paleolithic period, about 250,000 to 50,000 years ago or so, humans discovered that they could induce such altered states of consciousness. This discovery led to what he calls ‘immersive religion’, based on experiences of the spirits and beings that are revealed in visions and shamanistic practices. Communal dances and powerful rituals had the adaptive advantage of releasing endorphins that surged through the bodies of participants, which Dunbar believes proved invaluable. A by-product of such physical ecstasy is opioids, which would have eased the tensions that inevitably exist in large groups of people. Trance, therefore, not only led to perception of the gods, it greatly enhanced the sociality of humans. Whereas the communities of our primate cousins, such as chimps, are limited in size by the number of members that can be mutually socialized by grooming, this early religious experience meant that communities of humans could grow into tribes and, eventually, cities. In short, humans took an evolutionary path in which survival, stories, and a sense that the cosmos is enchanted, are intimately linked. To break those links was no mean feat, although it could be said that this is what philosophy achieved with its newfound analysis.

Aristotle didn’t change everything overnight himself, of course. In fact, I think he would have been amazed at how people read him now, as he himself experienced his practical and theoretical insights as divine revelations. This is why he advised his followers not to think as mortals, but to enjoy the way in which we share the life of immortals, when cultivating ‘the best thing in us’, which is our understanding. Aristotle’s ecstasy was to see how his mind could grasp cosmic wisdom through intuition and reason. However, in time it turned out that Aristotle’s innovations in the means of thought made possible a very different way of experiencing the world. What we now call the exact or empirical sciences are the offspring of his work. In our time, it has become possible to describe the world without reference to guardian spirits and transcendental intelligences at all.

Fundamental Changes in Thought

So Kenny is right, in a way: Aristotle was key to the development of what is specifically philosophy. However, my sense is that a prior move was also necessary. Something else had to happen before Aristotle’s revolution, which prepared the ground for people being able to appreciate the value of thinking in terms of quantities and analysis. This was another shift of consciousness – the birth of a mentality that was required to detect these aspects of reality, and make them stand out against the background flux of gods and living things.

The scale of this prior shift of consciousness can be perceived when if we ask what it takes to do what Aristotle did. He wrote on ‘ethics’, for the first time giving a systematic account of how to flourish. He described ‘logic’, the abstract rules that can guide thought. He derived ways of understanding the world that are not spontaneously found in nature by using ‘categories’, ‘species’, and ‘mechanics’. To do all this, he had to be able to take a step back mentally. He had to have an inkling of what Thomas Nagel famously called ‘the view from nowhere’. Only with such a detached, intellectual perspective could he have written ethics, logic, and all the rest. But this standpoint was not, in fact, his achievement. It was the achievement of his philosophical forebears.

Consider one of the Presocratic philosophers, Anaximenes (c.586-c.526 BCE). He is remembered now for his experiments. For example, he blew on his hand in two ways: first with his mouth open, then with his lips pursed. And he noticed something. When his mouth was open, the air felt warm; when his lips were pursed the air felt cooler.

What’s so interesting about the experiment is that countless people before Anaximenes had had the same experience. What makes Anaximenes different is that he paused, stood back in his mind from the experience, and asked that little question: Why? Why is there a difference? What’s going on?

Nowadays we’d say he’d stumbled across the basis for refrigeration: when gases expand, they cool, which is what happens when the lips are pursed. It’s called Boyle’s Law. But Anaximenes didn’t think to operationalize his discovery by taking out a patent and launching an industrial revolution. What Anaximenes was remembered for in antiquity was, rather, the shift of mindset evidenced by experimental curiosity. At the time, it was far more remarkable to point out that human beings could take a step back from their immersion in the flows of everyday experience.

Taking a step back was radical. Indeed, some people were alarmed by the suggestion. In time, philosophers were persecuted for asking their questions, leading to the execution of some, including Socrates. The problem was not just that philosophers challenged received wisdom: they disturbed people, too. That’s a much more unsettling challenge, though it’s one that in time can lead to revolutions of thought. Aristotle’s brilliance was that he could consummately ride the wave begun by the Presocratics. He paid the price for it, too, by being twice exiled from Athens.

However what was even more radical, was that by taking a step back from their experience, a person could discover their interiority : they could clearly distinguish their own thinking from the rest of the world. I think one can go so far as to say that for the first time in human history, there emerged people – philosophers – who strove to have their own thoughts. What these thinkers had done was invent the sense of being an individual.

Dunbar’s theory of the origins of religion can be used to flesh out this claim. After the discovery of the trance state, Dunbar believes, a second type of religiosity gradually emerged. It was based not on transcendent states of mind, but instead upon the everyday use of more humdrum rituals and rites. Pouring libations, saying prayers, sacrificing in shrines, visiting shamans and priests for charms and healing: these activities routinised religious experience and ways of life. Among other things, this meant that people did not have to go to the lengths of achieving altered states of consciousness in order to gain the social benefits of religion. Visiting spirit worlds and the ancestors could be reserved for festivals and feast days.

Dunbar calls this second type of religiosity ‘doctrinal religion’. He argues that it happened most clearly during the Neolithic Revolution (c.10,000-5,000 BCE), when our ancestors domesticated animals, began farming, and began living more settled lives. It’s when they also began building temples.

Ancient Egypt was one of the greatest manifestations of this way of life. Its legacy of great pyramids and funerary art can still astonish us today. It speaks of the second phase. In this phase, the god Ra could be felt to have won the eternal struggle against the god Apophis every time the sun rose in the morning.

Individuality Through Philosophy & Religion

Returning to how philosophy relates to these developments, I suspect that Plato learnt about the ancient Egyptian way of thinking, after Socrates was executed in 399 BCE. Plato’s interest in Egyptian religiosity is captured in later dialogues, such as the Timaeus, where he describes Egyptian priestly rituals and temple rites as becoming mechanical and ossified. I guess he visited regions of the Nile, participated in the mysteries, and found them wanting. They didn’t connect him to Ra and the other gods.

His diagnosis of the failure was that a new consciousness was emerging – that of the individual. He’d felt this supremely in the questioning of Socrates. Socrates was the personification of the new individual, and it cost him his life. The ‘gadfly of Athens’, as Socrates was called, irritated people so profoundly because he had made asking ‘Why?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ a way of life. He was tried for treason and found guilty because he was perceived to have withdrawn from the collective way of life of his fellow citizens: part of the charge against him was ‘the introduction of foreign gods’. And rather than participating in collective religion, Socrates had a personal vocation – a private connection to the god Apollo. As Plato has him say in the Apology : “This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me.”

This refined sense of individuality was ripe for Aristotle. He could extend the innovative approaches to life it makes possible, captured in his neologisms and philosophical works. Put it like this: if you want to know why Aristotle was subsequently so important to European thinkers for the next two millennia, one answer is that his work crystallised and empowered consciousness.

New types of consciousness are not born every day. They also take time to sprout and flourish. This is what happened through the emergence of ancient Greek philosophy. The type of mentality that we can relate to, based upon individuality, came to the fore from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE in Greece. And philosophy as we know it was born with the creation of the individual.

That said, I don’t think this new consciousness immediately became widespread with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But the most popular of the Hellenistic schools in the centuries that followed, the Stoics, did much to spread it. They developed techniques that strengthened the sense of individuality when they noticed that it had therapeutic benefit. They were practices of self-examination, self-awareness, and self-expression that developed self-knowledge of personal errors and weaknesses, virtues and strengths. The aim was to secure an interior equanimity. The historian of ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010), called these techniques ‘spiritual exercises’ because they worked at the level of the interior life of the individual: “Spiritual exercises almost always correspond to the movement by which the ‘I’ concentrates itself upon itself and discovers that it is not what it had thought,” he explains in What is Ancient Philosophy? (1995, p.190).

The new sense of being an individual became widespread after the birth of Christianity. Following thinkers such as Owen Barfield, I’ve come to believe that the democratization of individuality was a major reason that Christianity became so popular in the early centuries of the first millennium CE.

Christians believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that his message was for all people to personally accept. This idea transformed individuality from being a philosophical achievement to being an ideal for all humanity.

Once more, evidence for this shift can be found in the new words that pop up. For example, in the second century, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr described for the first time what it is to have ‘free will’ with a sense that we would recognise – that of personal agency. Alternatively, the first person is accused of ‘plagiarism’ at about the same time, because for the first time it was possible to worry about authorship, since the individual who wrote a text now mattered. Christians also started fraternising with one another not because they belonged to the same families or cities, as was standard in the ancient world, but on the basis of personal conversion and commitment to the new faith. They could connect as individuals, rather than as relatives or citizens, and this is why Christianity spread. “Christianity’s sharpest advantage was its inexhaustible ability to forge kinship-like networks among perfect strangers,” writes the historian Kyle Harper in The Fate of Rome (p.156, 2017).

Their consciousness was like ours, in that it had individuality. But it was not the same as ours because, through late antiquity and the medieval period, individuals still felt themselves to be connected to nature, the cosmos, and God. They no longer felt that they were being swept along by the god of fate and other spirits; rather, they felt that if they lived virtuous lives their individuality could reflect the life of God. However, nowadays consciousness has shifted again, and it’s become possible to doubt that reciprocity, even doubt the existence of deities or spirits. We can become isolated individuals alienated from the world around us, which it’s possible to regard as having no inner life at all.

Even so, we can still read Plato, Aristotle and the Hellenistic philosophers and find they illuminate our lives to a degree, because, in certain ways, we still share their consciousness. When we learn about Socrates’ life and death, we are learning about what it took for individuality to be born. There’s a sense that his sacrifice is what it took for our type of experience of life to emerge. We admire him. He seems not like a traitor but a hero. This is why we think of philosophy as originating with the ancient Greeks.

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From Ulro to Eternity: William Blake’s fourfold vision

This is the second half of a talk given to The Integral Stage as part of its series, The Future Faces of Spirit.

The complete talk, along with links to others, is online here.

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

In episode 14 of The Future Faces of Spirit, Mark Vernon, a psychotherapist and the author of A Secret History of Christianity, invites us to consider the gifts of William Blake’s “four-fold vision” and the power of an integrated imagination for bringing forth an integral religion of the future.

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An introduction to Plato’s dialogues – online course

An Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues with Mark Vernon and Tom Hodgkinson

We’ve all heard of Plato, Socrates and the dialogues, particularly the Republic.

But who exactly were these brilliant Greeks? How did they live and what did they teach? What was each dialogue about?

In this thorough course, Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson quizzes Plato expert Dr Mark Vernon on each of six dialogues, in an attempt to understand what Plato was trying to get across.

Together with Tom we learn about the fascinating life and death of Socrates, and discover what made him the founding father of the new science of philosophy.

We look at who Plato actually was before going on to discuss and explain six dialogues: the Apology, the Symposium, Phaedrus, the Republic, Timaeus and Phaedo.

The course is fact-filled and will allow you to hold on your head up high when the subject of Plato is mentioned.

But more than that, this course will help you to live your life well. You’ll get a deep insight into the life and teachings of Socrates, the genius of the human spirit who wrote nothing down, and his pupil Plato, who started life with aspirations to be a playwright and who channelled his considerable creative energies and intellect into his writings.

The course and further information is online here.

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What would Plato do in a pandemic?

What did he do? He’d treat it not only as a problem to solve but as an experience to understand. And what might be understood? “Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.”

A piece at The Idler, launching our new Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues.

How might Plato address the pandemic events that now dominate our lives? It might help, first, to identify a route he wouldn’t have taken. It’s a thought experiment, beloved of modern philosophers, called the Trolley Problem.

Imagine a runaway train carriage that is about to kill six people. You are a guard with the power to switch the points so that the carriage is diverted. The catch is that this would result in the death of one. Should you do it? Should the one death save the many?

Philosophers today like it because it appears to mirror the ethical dilemmas that politicians and doctors are apparently facing. But the approach begs a far deeper problem.

Plato would have seen that treating life as, at base, a series of calculations is flawed. It’s not that there are not pandemics, that life isn’t agonizing and tragic, that death does not exist. Rather it’s that we’ve lost sight of the highest and widest horizons with which we’re capable of participating.

Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.

He signalled a richer view with his invocations of “the good, the beautiful, the true.” He showed how the world’s soul and transcendent sight can be experienced intimately, by following the dynamics of love and longing. His most inspiring teachers were not logicians or debaters, figures he despised as sophists. They were geniuses of the human spirit, like the eccentric follower of the god Apollo, Socrates, and the adept in life’s mysteries, Diotima.

His dialogues contain lots of arguments, for sure. But don’t imagine that they are what is nowadays called “Socratic dialogue”, meaning the abstract quest for coherent definitions. The dialogues are weaves of inventive myths, everyday encounters, divine invocations and troubling experiences. When Plato deploys reason, it is used to take people to an edge where they are forced to let go of what they think they know, and discern something more tremendous, more surprising, more life-giving.

Plato’s aim is to use whatever life throws at us to show that there’s always more to life than meets the eye. He knew about plague and war, by the way. His life was affected by truly horrific incidents of both. But because he didn’t see life as a problem to be solved, but as an experience to be understood, he was able to inspire not only his generation, but generations for millennia.

There are some modern philosophers who understand the difference. Take Albert Camus, though it’s telling that he denied he was a philosopher.

His best-known works are novels and The Plague is clearly the one for now. It imagines an African city cut off from the world by bubonic plague. It addresses the crisis by telling stories, describing reactions, illuminating psychology, testing meaning. It is brave, direct, honest. It concludes: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

To know such truths in your soul is to start to share Plato’s perception. He would help us have it once again. I hope that the new online Idler course, introducing Plato’s dialogues, can be a guide towards this alternative, the original, vision for philosophy.

An Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues with me and Tom Hodgkinson is now available at The Idler.

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Our spiritual future, a talk featuring William Blake

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? This is my contribution to a conversation hosted by The Integral Stage.

My sense is that we need to feel next steps, rather than design new systems that will inevitably be limited by current perceptions, and that William Blake offers imaginative tools for discernment as we listen into the future.

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How Socrates can teach us to die

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of the Idler magazine. Order a copy or subscribe here.

I’m going to talk about death. There are two reasons why you shouldn’t stop reading. First, death is the ultimate idling. “Rest in peace” we say. It’s one moment in life when we actually mean it. Second, all the great wisdom traditions insist that, in spite of appearances, death is the pathway to life. It offers liberation, transformation, regeneration.

Death has come a lot nearer in recent months, so I want to ask: what can this conviction possibly mean?

A good way into the question is with Plato. One of his dialogues, the Phaedo, doesn’t just talk about death. It features a death, that of Socrates. It’s a short work of genius. It’s had a massive impact upon how people in the West have approached death. It aims to offer not just consolation but a radical conversion of sight.

Plato begins by stressing that he really is talking about death. He’s not trying to go over it, or under it, or around it. He’s going to take us through it. That’s crucial. The dialogue opens with the eponymous Phaedo being asked by a friend whether he was there when Socrates “drank the potion in the prison”. You’ll recall that Socrates had been sentenced to death. This is now the day, in 399BC, when he is going to imbibe the fatal hemlock.

It sets up a tension. We know that by the end of the discourse, the poison will have done its work. Socrates will no longer be talking, breathing, blinking. A cold, waxy body will dominate the final scene.

I stress the fact because feeling into the presence of death is a crucial dynamic. When we feel death drawing close, all sorts of novel feelings and thoughts become possible. Plato wants us to sense this energy because he knows, by some alchemy, that it can change us.

He is not alone in this recognition. The Death of Ivan llyich, by Leo Tolstoy, tells of an antihero who had lived an empty, bourgeois life. Now, as his mortality becomes real, his vanity burns way. It leaves exposed a radically different, entirely unexpected perception of life. “He searched for his old habitual fear of death and didn’t find it,” Tolstoy writes.

What Ilyich found instead is the subject of the Phaedo. Plato wrote his dialogue in order that we might find it, too.

It moves through a series of arguments. Each of them is offered as evidence that there’s more to life than its termination at death. However, each of them fails to do so.

An early suggestion is that the soul is separate from the body and so capable of floating off at death. Not if a soul is to the body as the music is to a lyre, Socrates says. No lyre, no music.

Isn’t life cyclical, another person asks? The sun sets and rises. The seasons pass and return. Why would life be any different? Not if our individuality disintegrates, Socrates says, and lives on as an echo or memory for others.

A third possibility they consider is how we experience eternity in the here and now. To quote the famous lines of William Blake: on occasion, we see heaven in a wild flower and hold infinity in the palm of our hand. Doesn’t that mean we have something of the deathless in us? If we didn’t share in divine life, how could we possibly know about it?

There is much in what you say, Socrates affirms. But maybe we need a body to experience it, unlike the gods.

By this point in the dialogue, his friends are starting to panic. Remember, Socrates is going to die. That much is certain. What if the last utterance of the greatest philosopher is an admission that he couldn’t answer the biggest question?

Socrates goes quiet. In deep thought, he tousles Phaedo’s hair. And then he has a new thought. The deaths of all their arguments is precisely what they needed, he says. The failures clear the way for a new truth to shine through, which is what death itself does.

The point is that we don’t possess life, any more than we possess evidence that life survives death. Giving up that delusion makes way for something else. Life is bigger than death in the same way that life is bigger than us.

Put it like this, Socrates continues. Ask yourself, why is he in prison awaiting the hemlock?

A strict materialist would say it’s because his legs moved in a certain way and his brain fired in a certain way. That’s part of what’s happened but it’s not the cause. A cause might be that the Athenian judiciary found him guilty, which is to say that justice and morality are the reason he’s there. They are bigger than his life. That’s true. But there’s something bigger than them as well.

Socrates could have gone into exile. It was standard practice to pay a bribe and self-isolate. He didn’t because his life as a philosopher had led him to see that his soul received its vitality from what holds us in life: the good, beautiful and true. That’s why he is in prison now. He trusts what is true.

Put it like this. He knew that his intelligence is part of cosmic intelligence. His consciousness shares in the consciousness of the gods. His being springs from Being itself. We don’t own life, it owns us. Much as the sun can only admit light, so life can only admit existence. With death now moments away, he sees it.

The same realisation came to Ivan Ilyich. “Where was death?” Tolstoy has Ilyich ask with his final breath. “What death? There was no fear, because there was no death. Instead of death there was light.”

Phaedo reports that Socrates died beautifully, calmly. He stopped wrestling with arguments about life and death because he realised something profound. By facing death, we can find more. Life is not a moment in death. Death is a moment in life.

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Barfield, Coleridge and the Imagination

On Friday 1st May, I presented at an online gathering of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism, with Douglas Hedley, Malcolm Guite, Jacob Sherman, Owen A. Barfield, Gareth Polmeer, Jacob Sherman, Maria Shaskolskaya and Jake Grefenstette.

The discussion is now online.

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Dante, Erotic Love, And The Path To God

This year, 2020, marks the 700-year anniversary of the completion of the great Divine Comedy. The final part of Dante’s masterpiece, Paradiso, appeared the year before he died, in 1321. The poem is many things: a celebration of human qualities; a warning that this life matters; a path of awakening; an odyssey; a diatribe against the church of his day. But it was born of a crisis. Dante begins his journey by waking up in a dark wood. The air tastes bitter. He grows fearful. The way forward seems firmly blocked.

His predicament resonates with where we find ourselves now, in the middle of various emergencies, with a spiritual crisis underlying them all. Individually and collectively, we must see the world afresh and find ways to re-orientate ourselves. Alongside other divinely inspired texts, I believe Dante can help us discover how. In this piece, I want to pick one strand in the golden thread of Dante’s vision: the role of erotic love.

It is the type of love that tends to be viewed warily in monotheistic religions, particularly in their institutional forms. They are more comfortable when love manifests in other guises, like agape or friendship. Christianity provides an obvious case in point. Punitive attitudes towards eros set in from its earliest days, explains the historian of late antiquity, Kyle Harper, in his brilliant book, From Shame To Sin. For example, Saint Paul felt that sex provided a test case for how the new freedom to be found in Christ differed from the old freedoms of Roman citizenship. For the Roman freeman, a key demonstration of liberty was doing what you willed sexually with your and others’ bodies. But Paul preached a different liberty. It was not civic but spiritual, known through belonging to Christ. Sexual acts, of any sort, were therefore interpreted as an implicit rejection of divine grace.

“I wish that all of you were as I am,” he writes to the Corinthians, which is to say, celibate. As Saint Augustine was later to teach, the one thing that erotic love reveals to us is that its surges of desire spring directly from humanity’s rebellion against God. At best, it is what you might call a necessary evil.

Eros as daemon

What is striking is that these worries and prohibitions stand in marked contrast with the attitudes towards eros found in mystical and visionary traditions. These tend to take a very different view, in the West reaching back to Plato. He taught that Eros is a go-between spirit or dynamic, known in the ancient world as a daimon, whose embrace widens and deepens perception. In the Symposium, he tells of how the priestess and prophet, Diotima, taught Socrates that the ‘arts of love’ can lead to the highest mysteries of sight, ultimately catching glimpses of what’s good, beautiful and true.

Dante clearly felt a tension between the two attitudes towards eros in his life. His early poems describe the agony of controlling sexual impulses. His muse was, of course, the young lady, Beatrice. Her image utterly, almost ruthlessly, seized his imagination. He reached a pivotal moment in his spiritual and poetic struggle when he realised that exulting the beauty he saw in her could be an end in itself. He gradually found a way of harmonising the love she inspired in him with the ascent of the soul to the divine.

It required a combination of eros and logos, meaning the intelligence or insight that can discern the presence of God. This is because the divine image itself can be known as a combination of eros and logos. “Beatrice is Dante’s pole star for finding his way through love’s vicissitudes, in his search for what is constant and eternal in love and desire”, maintained Andrew Frisardi in his recent series of lectures at the Temenos Academy.

In short, the right use of eros is at the heart of Dante’s message and he presents a key moment of realisation during Canto 9 of Purgatorio.

Violent dreams

The moment comes after Dante and Virgil have emerged from the subterranean darkness of hell. The first part of The Divine Comedy, Inferno, relates how their journey begins with a descent into it. They witness the numerous ways in which human beings can become trapped by their desires. It is a crucial part of the journey for Dante because, when meeting these souls, Dante simultaneously encounters the darker parts of himself. Seeing the extent of these shadows is also to begin to open up to how they may be transformed.

This is what begins to happen on Mount Purgatory, in the second part of The Divine Comedy. The setting of Canto 9 is the end of the first day of ascending the mountain. During the day, Dante has been finding his bearings in the second domain of his pilgrimage. Exhausted, he now falls asleep and as he sleeps, he dreams.

He dreams that he is snatched from the mountain by an eagle. It carries him into the high heavens, much as Jove abducted Ganymede, lifting him into a burning fire. In Mark Musa’s translation:

I saw him circle for a while,
then terrible as lightning, he struck down,
swooping me up, up to the sphere of fire.

Then, Dante wakes with a jolt. He is dazed, “feeling the freezing grip of fright”. It takes some comforting words from Virgil to calm him down, and what Virgil tells him is a revelation. In fact, his guide explains, whilst he slept, a lady from heaven appeared. She is Lucia and, as the day’s climb had been hard going for Dante, she had carried him a little further up the mountain. She told Virgil that she wanted to “speed him on his journey up”.

Much ink has been spilled over the meaning of the dream, but it is pretty clear that the dream and what happened whilst he slept are in stark contrast. The dream was a nightmare of barely disguised sexual violence, an insight that is underlined by several allusions to uncontained lust that Dante makes in other parts of Canto 9. The reality, whilst he slept, is of love coming to his aid.

Lucia is significant because she is one of three beautiful souls who keep a benign eye on Dante from the celestial heights. The other two are Beatrice and the Virgin Mary, and note: he has not one but three beautiful ladies loving him. This is one indicator of how eros’ passion is transformed. What might be judged almost as a kind of promiscuity becomes an excessive desire and power to help.

As to the dream, I think what it implies is something like this. If inwardly, Dante had experienced the outward actions of Lucia as a kidnap, almost a rape, as he awakens he realises how profoundly mistaken he is. She was actually speeding him on his journey towards divine love.

The implication is that the transformation of eros from its dark manifestations to its true character requires him to work on his perceptions. He must hold in mind both images – one of violent and lustful snatching, the other of divine embrace and carriage. In so doing, the possessive character of eros that currently dominates his mind is revealed by the dream, and it might give way to the dominant character of divine love, which is of dynamic participation. As it is summarised by the famous last line of Paradiso, this is “the love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Using Eros

The shift is key to Dante’s transformational erotic spirituality, and it seems to be confirmed by what happens next in Canto 9. It turns out that Lucia has carried Dante, with Virgil walking alongside, to a gateway. It marks the start of purgatory proper, which Dante is now ready to enter, having oriented himself and gained a first taste of the dramatic changes in him that the ascent will demand. Dante sees that the gateway can be entered by ascending three steps. The first looks like glass; the second like cracked pumice; the third like flaming blood spurting from a vein.

The steps are usually interpreted allegorically by commentators, but I feel a more natural and penetrating way to explain them arises from the experience he has just had. He sees his image in the first step of glass, much as he has seen an aspect of himself in the dream. This is represented in the second step, which he is now able to step onto because he can tolerate the cracked and troubling erotic impulses inside him. And because that disturbance is born, a third step up becomes possible, when this flaming passion, now in the process of being changed, can bear him to a threshold.

You might say that the dream, the carriage and the gateway are an initiation. Dante still has a long way to go and his erotic desires will require further work. As he follows the path, he learns much more about how his ambivalence about eros has to do with human ignorance and youthful experience, as well as the painful struggle to align his desires, his perceptions, his knowledge and his will so that he can become capable of paradise.

But Canto 9 conveys a central element: that which seems monstrous, feels dark, frightening, possessive, wild – like an uncontrolled rape of life itself – is something remarkably different. If we can bear ourselves, and allow ourselves to be borne, then we will become able to enjoy a free, indulgent and delightful participation with what is beautiful, good and true. Eros can be transformed, not condemned. It is a love to befriend, not reject. It can energise our steps up Mount Purgatory and then our flight into paradise.

Dante said that he wrote for the benefit of a world which lives badly, not least in its poor use of the divine gift of erotic love. Contemplating each step of his journey might foster the transformation of our own mixed passions. It offers a pathway to liberty, which speaks as profoundly now as it did 700 years ago because Dante charts how the arts of love can foster the highest mysteries of sight.

My canto by canto commentary on the Divine Comedy can be found on my website, Buzzsprout and YouTube.

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