Neo Platonism was Byzantine, basically Constantinople. The Hermetic Corpus was largely Alexandrian. There were also Christian Platonists in Alexandria. There were certain centers: Rome, Alexandria, Byzantium, Heliopolos in Egypt was a cult site that was maintained for a very long time. If you're interested in this stuff but don't like to absorb it this way, Flaubert, of all people, the Flaubert of Madame Bovary, wrote an incredible novel called The Temptation of St. Anthony in which he describes second century Alexandria in a fictionalized form and gives you a real flavor for the intellectual complexity of the Alexandrian world. Christianity had not yet gelled, it was many things, so you not only have Gnostics of five or six schools: Simonists, Valentinians, Baselideans and so forth, but you also have Christians, a numbers of cults calling themselves Christians, who were in fierce competition. Docetists, Montanists, and later Nestorians. There were Gymnosophists from India, people who were actually carrying yogic doctrines into the Mediterranean world, plus you then have all the surviving cults of the older Egyptian strata, the Cults of Isis, and Seville, and Dionysus, and Adonis, it just goes on and on. The richness of this intellectual world is very, there's nothing comparable in our experience and it shows the passion with which people were trying to understand the dilemma of a dying world because this is what they were confronted with. The intellectuals of the empire could feel it all slipping through their hands. Flaubert gives a wonderful picture of this. Flaubert has a very romantic streak. It's like smoking hashish, reading this book - the attention to fabrics, architecture, food and odor. And because the subject matter is the temptation of St. Anthony, it's an excuse to describe these temptations in all their sensual richness and erotic kinkiness. It's a wonderful way to absorb this material.


Somebody else raised the point of the elitism, of an elite group of people. And if one considers a society like the one you had in Alexandria, or some of the other centers, the only people who really had access to this were first of all people who had money and who were well educated and could read so already you had an elite group...


Yes, definitely. What survives from a civilization is it's literatures and these literatures are usually the production of an elite. We have to remember, don't have any illusions about the Roman Empire. I always think of the wonderful description, I don't even know why it's there, Boris Pasternac, in Doctor Zhivago, goes off on a riff about Rome and he describes it as a bargain basement on three floors. This was an empire that lived by human cruelty. It was on the backs of slaves that this airy, intellectual speculation was based. It was a tremendously pluralistic society but that pluralism was maintained by standing armies of enormous size and policies of occupation of enormous cruelty. Because of our relationship to the Christian tradition we're aware of such things as the Zealot revolt of 69 and the reign of Herod Antiochus in Jerusalem, but that was just one little corner of the empire and in Armenia, in Gaul, in Spain, in North Africa, military governments were carrying out outrageous suppressions of native populations, it was not a pretty time to be alive. And what comes down to us then is the yearning to escape. No wonder these people saw the earth as a cesspool and a trap because that's what it was for them. Our own age is very similar. We do not have slavery but we suffer under propaganda -mass manipulation of ideas and the degradation of exploitation of the third world on a scale the Roman Empire couldn't even dream of. So, there is a great affinity.


If any of you are interested in this kind of thing, I highly recommend a book by Hans Jonas called The Phenomenon of Life. It's a book of philosophical essays but there's one essay called "Gnosticism and the Modern Temper" in which he shows that once you take Gnosticism and dump all the angels and all the star demons and all the colorful bricabrac of late Roman thinking what you have is a thorough going existentialism completely compatible with Jean Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and the kind of intellectual despair that characterized the post WWII generation in Europe. Heidegger is thorough goingly Gnostic in his intentionality, it's just that the language is modern and stripped of this magical thinking and by being stripped of this magical thinking in a way modern, the modern resintion(?) of that state of mind is even more hopeless and disempowering.


Fortunately, I think we're moving out of the shadow of that, but I'm 44 years old, I grew up reading those people and it made my adolescence much harder than it needed to be. I mean, my god, there wasn't an iota of hope to be found anywhere. That's why, for me, psychedelics broke over that intellectual world like a tidal wave of revelation. I quoted to you last night Jean Paul Sartre's statement that nature is mute. Now I see this as an obscenity almost, an intellectual crime against reason and intuition. It's the absolute antithesis of the logos and much of our world is ruled by men, older than I am, who are fully connected into that without any question and they just think that the rest of this is just namby pamby ecological softheartedness of some sort. There is no openness to the power of Bios, to the fact of a living cosmos. This is what Rupert Sheldrake is always trying to say. The reinvestuture of spirit into matter, the rebirth of the world soul is a necessary concomitant to what we understand about the real nature of the world. In a way, the theory of evolution, which was born in the 1850s, was the beginning of the turning of the tide because even though the first 100 years of evolutionary theory was fantastically concerned to eliminate teleology, eliminate purpose, nevertheless nobody ever understood that except the hardcore evolutionists. To everyone else, evolution meant ascent to higher form. I once heard someone say "if it doesn't have to do with genes, it ain't evolution." Well, that's a tremendously limited view of what evolution is. The inorganic world is evolving, the organic world is evolving and there the currency is genes but also the social and intellectual world of human beings is evolving and there the currency is not genes but means so that idea carries with it the implication of ascent to higher form and correctly broadened and understood becomes permission to optimism and to the kind of hope that these folks were trying to articulate.


...the concept of mind as something that is attainable and not necessary is a separation and therefore for me it's a lie and so I want ...I don't know, I assume there are many different definitions of mind, I don't mean functions of mind, I mean definitions of mind, and I'm toying now with the notion of meshing of the notion of mind and the notion of logos. For logos is, and it seems to me that mind is, if it is available through trial then we're back in a separation...and this is to me a false separation


Yes, you're right, but it's a separation necessary for philosophical discourse, that's why philosophical discourse is not the top of the mountain. Language itself is the process of making distinctions that are false. This is why all language is a lie. This is why the ultimate truth lies in something unspeakable but the ascent to the philosophical is through this kind of philosophical analysis.


Language is only the vehicle...


Well it's the vehicle but eventually there's no road and you have to park the vehicle and get out and walk, and that's the journey. Plotinous, the great Neo Platonist has this wonderful phrase. He calls the mystical experience "the flight of the alone to the alone." I love this image. It's so uncompromising and it's about as true as something can be and still move in the realm of language, because it's saying: finally words fall away and finally there is only that which cannot be said. Many of you who've stuck with me know that I love to quote this poem by this obscure poet who died in the trenches in France in the first World War, Trumble Stickney, and he wrote a poem called "Meaning's Edge" and the punch line goes like this "I look over meaning's edge and feel the dizziness of the things you have not said," and I think that every one of these weekends, this is the effort - to carry you to the edge of an abyss and then push you over into the dizziness of the things unsaid and they will always be unsaid.


Wittgenstein, God bless him, had the concept of the unspeakable. He said "philosophy operates in the realm of the unspeakable but eventually we must confront that which cannot be said." The dizziness of things unsaid, and there's where real authenticity then flows back into the world of community and speech but it comes from a place of utter silence and unsayability. How could it be otherwise? What hubris would it be to expect that the small-mouthed noises of English could encompass being. That's a primary error that all philosophy chooses to make at the beginning of it's enterprise in order to set up shop at all. No, these are lower-dimensional slices of a reality that is ultimately unitary, ineffable, unspeakable, and dazzling.


Philosophical discourse is verbal and mental masturbation?


Absolutely. Masturbation, because it's, there's a pun here, it's autopoetic, it is completely out of yourself, there is no union with the other and the other is what you're always trying to get to. The other is a common term in these literatures. The other is that which cannot be fully known. I always like to quote the British enzymologist JBS Haldane, who made a wonderful statement. He said, "the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose." That's a dizzying perception. It's one thing to think it's very strange. It's another thing to think it's stranger than you can suppose. You may suppose and suppose and suppose and you'll fall so short of the mark that it's absurd. That's what it means to be in the presence of a mystery. The modern word mystery translates out to unsolved problem. That's not what a mystery is. A mystery is not an unsolved problem. A mystery is a mystery and raciocination(?) can exhaust itself and make no progress with it and that's what's at the core of our being and that was what was at the core of this ancient perception. These were thoroughly modern people. They were shoved up against the same things that tug at our hearts and our minds and our souls and beyond that there's not a whole hell of a lot that you can say about it.


I just wanted to add that the idea of the earth as a living organism makes an appearance in psychology at the end of the last century with Gustave Fechner who survives in footnotes of textbooks as the father of experimental psychology. I read a book about the soul life of plants also and that whole part of his work is utterly ignored...influenced anybody but William Jameson


This is an idea that will not die but it's practitioners end up in footnotes. They do not have a happy fate. Certainly Henri Birkson, with his idea of the elan vitale, this is an effort to preserve the idea of a world soul and yet the fate of Birkson, his influence on modern philosophy is certainly minimal. Alfred North Whitehead is my great favorite. I think that he's the cat's pajamas and he has this idea of the living cosmos - that life and vitality extend right down to the electron yet in spite of his mathematical contributions, the fact that he wrote Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell, Whitehead is not taught. I think there's one university in this country where they take him seriously. Modern philosophy is a desert for my money. Who cares about it? Nobody cares about it. Who's living their life according to the perceptions of modern philosophy. Nobody, as far as I can see. But yes, vitalism was this impulse in biology that persisted right up to the 1920s with embryologists like Dreche and his school and mechanical biology has been at great pains to suppress that. That's why Rupert Sheldrake is such a breath of fresh air, because he can be seen as a person carrying the vitalist message back into science. His new book on the greening of science and nature is nothing more than a manifesto for the re-recognition of the presence of the world soul.


What about the Native Americans, their philosophy?


Yes, well, Aboriginal people, not only the Native Americans but the tribes of the Amazon, if you live next to nature this is such an overwhelming perception that it's never called into question. But you see we, most of us, trace our civilization to desert dwellers who invented agriculture which lead to surpluses so then we had to build walled enclosures to defend our surpluses from starving neighbors and we're talking 6,000 BC at Jericho for this kind of stuff. So,we have been cut off from the natural mind longer than any other group of people on earth. This is how we're able to carry out the demonic, in the negative sense, reconstruction of the world that we have. If there is a sin then we have sinned. Robert Oppenheimer said beyond all rational argument the physicists have known sin and it's because they reached into the heart of matter without reverence and their greatest trick was to call down the light that burns at the center of stars and they call it down to the test centers of the deserts and onto the heads of our enemies, if necessary. But this is a cosmic sin, it's an abomination. It's the story of Western Civilization.


The first great error was the urbanization, well, I don't know, the first great error, the invention of agriculture was a pretty staggering bad turn, then urbanization and then a piece of bad luck which we didn't need to befall us was the invention of the phonetic alphabet. And with the invention of the phonetic alphabet we moved away from symbolism and lost even the symbolic connection to the world and that happened with the evolution of Demotic Greek and even earlier languages - linear A and B and that kind of stuff. McLuhan talks a lot about this. We live in a universe so alienated that we can barely conceive of the way back but hopefully. Archeology is a wonderful thing. We are actually digging into the stratographic layers of our past and reconstructing these ancient intellectual machines and setting their gears going and seeing how it works and hopefully when we recover, we're like amnesiacs, people who don't remember who they are or where they came from, we just wander mumbling through the streets of our cities foraging through garbage cans and frightening other people and yet if we could wake up, and archeology and the rebirth of an awareness of the Goddess and the pushing of science to the point where it's irrational foundations become clear - this is all part of an awakening, an archaic revival which will then make us part of the living world and not a disease, a parasitic force upon it.


It struck me that one comment you read there talked about the creation of the world. It said the elements were brought forth and at first I was thinking earth, air, fire, and water but I was thinking in relationship to some other...of life that...being, life, and intellect and being, life, and intellect are what that come into manifestation from the one who pours forth the world and creates the world and those are the first elements that come into existence - being, life, and intellect. Life itself is an element of the cosmos as it were. It's an irreducible aspect of things and you're paying respect to the fact that life is an omnipresent thing in the foundation of things. It's one of the elements.


I think that in one of the other things I read it said that everything that exists, that ever has been, that ever will be, is alive.


I'll read a bit more of this. This refers to the theme I touched on a little bit last night of the importance of the imagination and how I think that our destiny lies in the imagination. "God is ever existent and makes manifest all else. But he himself is hidden because he is ever existent. He manifests all things but is not manifested. He is not himself brought into being in images presented through our senses but he presents all things to us in such images. It is only things which are brought into being that are presented through sense. Coming into being is nothing else than presentation through sense." This is so thoroughly modern, it's staggering. For 1,500 years people couldn't say anything that clearly. "It is evident then that he who alone has not come into being cannot be presented through sense and that being so he is hidden from our sight. But he presents all things to us through our senses and thereby manifests himself through all things and in all things and especially to those to whom he wills to manifest himself. For though thought alone can see that which is hidden inasmuch as thought itself is hidden from sight and if even the thought which is within you is hidden from your sight, how can he, being in himself, be manifested to you through your bodily eyes. But if you have power to see with the eyes of the mind then, my son, he will manifest himself to you, for the Lord manifests himself ungrudgingly throughout all the universe and you can behold God's image with your eyes and lay hold on it with your hands."


To my mind, this is permission for the psychedelic experience. We lay hold of the ineffable through the eyes. "If you wish to see him, think on the sun, think on the course of the moon, think on the order of the stars. The sun is the greatest of the gods in heaven. To him as to their king and overlord, all the gods in heaven yield place and yet this mighty god, greater than earth and sea, submits to have smaller stars circling above him. Who is it then, my son, that he obeys with reverence and awe. Each of these stars too is confined by measured limits and has an appointed space to range in. Why do not all the stars in heaven run like and equal courses? Who is it that has assigned to each its place and marked out each for the extent of its course." And then it goes on and on. And then here is an amazing modern anticipation of modernity. "Would that it were possible for you to grow wings and soar into the air. Poised between earth and heaven you might see the solid earth and the fluid sea and the streaming rivers, the wandering air, the penetrating fire, the courses of the stars and the swiftness of the movement with which heaven encompasses all. What happiness were that, my son, to see all these borne along with one impulse and to behold Him who is unmoved moving all that moves and Him who is hidden made manifest through his works." This is an image of the planets seen from space. It's absolutely the unified image of our planet. It is, I think, the central image in this early hermetic thing. This is the unifying, this is as close to an image of what godhead is that they were able to reach.


Table of Contents