Saturday, January 27, 2007

Invasion of the Ultra-Subtle

Drawing: pineal gland

Reposted from retired "Conversion" website , October 15 - 2005. Slightly revised.

One purpose of cultivating true religion is to teach instincts how to function as protections, so that souls may turn the invasions of the ultra-subtle to learning moments rather than occasions for hapless subjection. The ultra-subtle rains continually into human life like cosmic dust, and for the most part these invasions are absorbed without conscious awareness. This arena of spiritual battle has been tucked away out of sight nowadays -- we call it the "Unconscious," and thus feel we have understood it. In this way we relinquish the knightly task - the part of us that needs to be awake, the part that needs to fight and oppose -- the part that needs to keep the sword ever sharp and at the ready. Important areas of our human experience are thus left exposed to the forces of devastation.

I wish to describe an infinitely small incident yesterday that took place in the question and answer session following a talk on the "ghostly tales" of Russell Kirk. An academic scholar read a long paper, lasting an hour, about Russell Kirk's literary works, and he used the term "experiments" to describe Kirk's ventures into supernatural fiction. This academic paper, competent and detailed though it was, seemed long. The mood lightened considerably when Dr. Kirk's widow spoke, telling stories and filling in some of the human background of her life with Russell Kirk, and some of the characters in his stories.

During the questions, I raised my hand and indicated that I was directing my comment to the scholar. I mentioned that I had read Kirk's Lord of the Hollow Dark, a novel of supernaturalism inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, also Watchers of the Strait Gate, a collection of short stories. I recalled having read Dr. Kirk's introduction to said stories, in which he made the point that such fictions were "experiential." That was to say or to affirm that the encounters with mystery and supernatural were, for Russell Kirk, real experiences -- not mere "experiments."

A kind of icy shudder held for a split second, while the professor appeared to wrestle with my comment as with an invisible opponent, finally throwing it down upon the ground in a gesture of spurning rejection. I don't know if was anything that he said, or indeed if he said anything. I attest to feeling a sense of panic, fear, or rejection emanating from him. For if what I said was true, then all the professor's careful delimitation of Kirk's supernaturalism could not be true. For how can a "ghostly tale" be a mere experiment, given what Kirk himself had written, and given the premise of his tales? This premise was well stated by T.S. Eliot when he wrote something to the effect that that the authentication of religion lies in the fact that spiritual reality is a discovery, not an invention. An "experiment" is an invention; an "experience" is a discovery. But doesn't the whole intellectual world also stand or fall on this distinction as well -- that is, whether our intellectual understandings are mere inventions, or whether they are authentic discoveries? I think that the professor knew this -- "subliminally," not consciously -- and that he was profoundly chagrined that my question had "exposed" him. My question forced him for a moment to war with himself, for it brought up the issue of the validity of the paper he had just read.

Mrs. Kirk, true to her Catholic upbringing and gracious sense, decisively saved the moment by remarking, "That is a good point," and a palpable sigh of relief seemed to move through the room like a lifting shadow. She took the professor's own muteness from him, and rode the reproach of his unsaid words to joyous victory.

More and more I am convinced that our ultimate human fate will depend on whether or not we succeed in wresting the intellectual life from the professoriate. I believe that in this little tiny incident, Satan, or one of his minions, had come to call -- that he left us his calling card in that momentary ice, that hushed uncertainty and fearful anticipation. The moment called for a decision, and the execution of such decision is only possible for someone with trained instincts. The human and gracious religiously-cultivated goodwill of Mrs. Annette Kirk was able to cut through the fog of the soul of a man dangling in the pride of Satan - which is to say, a man unwilling to renounce his pride.

Above all Satan wants to form a wall of inventiveness around the exercise of intellect, so that there will be no real experience to suggest intercommunion - whether among souls, or between souls of this world and the spiritual world. Mrs. Kirk demonstrated how Catholics, trained in the Holy Obedience, can win through to the Holy Initiative - by keeping the doors to the worlds open.

Note: My 1989 and 1993 reviews of Russell Kirk's ghostly tales are posted to the Sword in the Mouth website.

Additional Notes (Added Sunday, January 28)

"City of Swine - Re: Atheists," posted to "Sober Passion." Correspondence with atheists who do not respond.

Archives to retired website, "On Intelligent Design," containing the not-to-be-missed satirical piece, "The Conformity Postulate: Unintelligent, Ill-Designed, and On Purpose," plus interesting news item about music and genetics, posted here

Archives to retired "Poetry Plot," containing two essays on Owen Barfield and one piece on poet Kathleen Raine, posted here.

Archive of retired "Conversion" website: here

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Toynbee uses the word “etherealization” to describe the process of the transference of words from a secular to a religious usage, noting that this is a “symptom of growth.” In this post I want to record some of his examples, noting the secular derivations and the later religious meanings of the words, which we may call the “upslope.” On the “downslope,” the process is reversed: a religious or spiritual meaning loses its aura and sinks into materialization, if not materialism.

First, a brief remark about “etherealization.” “Ethereal” in common usage is associated with faintness or ghostliness, a not-quite-material presence, which is a very English, very empirical way of looking at it. It would be characteristic of the physical-science bent of the English mind to look at it that way – “ethereal” is less palpable, therefore “unreal.” It has a different connotation in the traditional meaning of the word, where “ethereal” is the but adjectival form of “ether,” a Greek-derived word for the heavenly realm – space or the “firmament.”

Debate over the existence of an ether in space occupied much the early 20th century physics and astronomy, which culminated with Einstein. Though the debate seemed to have closed down for good, in reality this may not be the case. The key to the “ether” is life – at least to the spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner, which claims the existence of the etheric realm as the basis of the life-processes in plants, animals, and man.

The “etheric body” is not exactly what we mean by a “body,” and it is only perceivable by a clairvoyant. And yet remembrances of this stratum of man’s being haunt us all through history. The halo, the crown, and the headdress are evocations of the “etheric body” which was once perceivable (in a visionary way) as protruding from the head. It is only when this living membrane “contracted” to the sphere of the brain, that mankind could be the possessor of thoughts in the modern (or even pre-modern,) sense. This stupendous event of compression or contraction is commemorated in the story of Abraham, the First Patriarch, who, it is said, spent his early life in a “cave.” This was a way of sheltering himself from the purview of Nimrod, but the metaphoric connection of cave and brain is recognizable. The skullcap of latter-day Jews also hearkens to this compressive view of the etheric membrane, shrunken into the cranial cavern. This “compression” of the etheric to the brain and the removal of thoughts and feelings from the participatory life in nature has characterized the Jews all throughout their history.

In Steiner’s view of history, this contraction of the etheric body was a necessity for the arising of an independent life of thought and of the possibility for freedom of individual persons. But the process that Abraham initiated in circa 2000 B.C. has been turned around, today, circa 2000 A.D., to the opposite danger, which is an excessive “retreat” of the etheric into a ghostly intellectualized thinking. The modern West in particular exhibits this fatal danger of loss of vitality in thinking, partly because the science that the West has developed has never resolved its intrinsic conflict regarding its own method of knowing. Is knowledge to be viewed as an “alien” condition – that is, as non-participated, cut off from its life ground, and therefore “objectified,” or is it better understood as a process of participatory rationality, in which knower and known are in a dynamic of mutual relation?

The rebels against the “alien” view were first numbered among the Romantic poets, and they have been joined in later years by some historians and even scientists. But the rebels have not yet succeeded in winning a decisive victory.

Before going on to the meanings in language liberated through the process of “etherealization,” I would just add that the etheric realm is by no means confined to the process of generating thoughts or new meanings from words. Living processes, that is, forms of the etheric, underlie the faculties of memory and imagination as well. Their biological dimension in regeneration, rejuvenation, growth, and embryonic development, are now presenting themselves to the eye of science as externalized objects (or what could be called “objectified processes”) subject to manipulation. Modern-day ethics flails about these realities with limited success in curbing them but without seizing on the central issue. Being thus a form of “wish-fulfillment” or of the desire for power and control, rather than of moral growth, this modern technique is predatory and destructive. But if approached in a spirit of complementarity or marriage, the life-liberated consciousness of man could meet life’s unfolding stages more fruitfully – even “procreatively.” The unfolding stages of life would then be recognized as symbolizing definite stages of intellectual and spiritual growth in mankind, and their vulnerability would evoke a chivalrous spirit of protectiveness rather than the vindictive strain that has accompanied science like an undercurrent from its beginnings.

The discovery and perhaps even the harnessing of etheric forces awaits a more spiritualized thinking, a thinking in participation with life and not, as we have come to expect and dread, a thinking that is alienated from, and striving against, life.

Our time calls for a new Abraham, but one who will recapitulate the achievements of the first Abraham in reverse. That is, the “new Abraham” must embody a participatory rather than a separated rationality. Human thinking needs a regenerative act. It needs to acquire life-characteristics consciously. This will be very difficult, for it is a moral, not solely a cognitive task.

Why? Because the “moral” is always embodied in particular circumstances, that is, the mores, the customs or ways of a particular part of mankind. These customs, habits, cultures, events and particular histories are what enable us to achieve thinking in the first place, and they presuppose and elicit our participation, yet modern science as it has come to be practiced today discourages this participatory outlook. A regenerative act of human thinking will mean a different view of science as well.

The particularity of words is a good place to start the discussion of “etherealization,” for in the process of the acquisition of a new meaning, or the liberation of a meaning to a religious or spiritual dimension, we are watching the historic occasion of the mind regenerating itself. It is man acquiring a new dimension of himself, and this is why Toynbee calls the process a “symptom of growth” – although I do not sense that he possessed an exact knowledge of the etheric process underlying the “symptom.”

Here are some words and their developments of meaning:
Ecclesia – in Athens, a general assembly of a citizen body meeting to transact political (as opposed to judicial) business. In Christian usage it came to mean both a local Christian community and the Church Universal.

Laity- archair Greek laos, for people, as distinct from those in authority

Clergy – Gk. kleros, “lot,” as e.g. an allotted share of an inherited estate – Christians adopted it to mean “the portion of the Christian community that God had allotted to Himself to serve in his professional priesthood.”‘

Orders’ –(ordines) politically privileged classes in the Roman State, e.g. ordo senatorius, ordo equestris

Overseers – episkopoi – Spartan State for members appointed to supreme executive office by election but who served as constitutional despots during their term of office

Scriptura - vocabulary of roman inland revenus, a tax payable for the right to graze cattle on certain public lands

Testaments – diathekai, Gk and L. testamenta, -- thought of as equivalent of legal instruments which God had declared in two installments

Ascetic – Gk. askesis, physical training of athletes

Anchorites – Gk. anachoresis – withdrawal from productive economic activity as protest against heavy taxations

Solitaries, monks, monachoi – a creative contradiction, a society of solitaries. In previous Latin usage the word meant something combining the meanings of a quarter sessions and a chamber of commerce

Liturgy – Gk. leutourgia – ‘public service,’ when originally informal proceedings had crystallized into a ritual

Holy Communion – L. sacramentum, a pagan Roman rite in which a new recruit was ‘sworn in’ to the Roman Army. In the Latin Church this dual meaning, sacrament and military oath, was present from the beginning.

In the Greek, koinonia (L. communio) both signified participation, but first and foremost membership in a political community

Transgression – Gk. parabasis, term of art in Attic drama meaning the parade of the chorus from one side of the theater to the other. In Christian language, a figurative ‘side-step’ in the spiritual sense of sin

In the downslope, meanings regress from a religious to a secular significance:
Cleric – to “clerk,” one who engages in minor office work (England) or store salesperson (US)Communion- “waged in ever grosser terms for an ever more material stake.”
In 14th c. Bohemia, the issue was Communion for both clergy and laity.
By the 20th century it came to be associated with the struggle for economic equality in the adoption of the term ‘Communism.’

Conversion – no longer of souls but of coal, hydropower and oil.
To a financier, conversion means the rate of interest on a loan to a lower rate than originally guaranteed.
To a detective – the misappropriation of funds, “which distinctly indicated that funds were the commodity in which Modern Western Man had reinvested the treasure his Christian forebears had once placed in his soul.”

Salvationsalvage, rescue of junk; salve, an ointment; saved, savings – money deposited in a bank. The older Latin meaning of Salvator was ‘conservator,’ for which our usages ‘a conservative estimate’ or ‘a conservative figure’ bear some faint lineage.
But, Toynbee continues, “it would be difficult to whitewash the meaning of ‘conservative’ in 20th century politics – that is, a supporter of the political party devoted to defence of material vested interests.”

The “liberation” of meaning is also to be found in other fields. To take a random example, Kepler used the term ‘focus,’ [foci] from the Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace,’ for the orientating points of his ellipses. The development of meaning through analogy and metaphor is a huge area of language and thought.

Universal states:
“…universal states arise after, and not before, the breakdowns of the civilizations to whose bodies social they bring political unity. They are not summers, but ‘Indian Summers,’ masking autumn and presaging winter. In the second place, they are the products of dominant minorities: that is, of once creative minorities that have lost their creative power…Universal States are symptoms of social disintegration, yet at the same time they are attempts to check this disintegration and to defy it.” Pps.3, 4, vol VII]

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Universal State

The Universal State
Saturday January 13, 2007

In A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee [April 14, 1889 - October 22, 1975] studies the genesis, growths and breakdowns of world civilizations but ultimately pursues the question of the role of the higher religions in history. Writing in the middle of the 20th century after having witnessed two violent World Wars, Toynbee’s mind regarding the role of religion underwent a sharp metamorphosis from his earlier views, which were more in line with late 19th-century rationalism and optimism.

Instead of seeing the reproduction of a civilization “as an end in itself,” he becomes converted to the view that civilizations play a secondary and subordinate role in the history of religion. The best fruit of a “Universal State” such as ancient Rome may have been that its existence made possible the arising of Christianity. That is, the importance of civilizations may lie in their effects upon Religion, and not the other way around. This view was held by the Church Fathers Ambrose and Augustine, and later argued by Bossuet, the French historian. Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, which argued that the collapse of Rome was “the triumph of barbarism and religion” – a view certainly not friendly to Christianity – helped to fuel the unfolding rationalism of post-Reformation Western society.

Toynbee, looking at all of this from the perspective of the “last generation of Western neo-pagans” – those “rational, unenthusiastic and tolerant” men who were swept away in the cataclysms of the 20th century, finds Gibbon and his heirs mistaken. For the “Universal State” is already symptomatic of spiritual decline.[1] But that such a State should die fruitlessly – for such would its death be, if it were seen as an end in itself-- it would mean that human life was “a tragedy without a catharsis.”Toynbee thus turns his interest from seeing civilizations and their climactic “Universal States” not as ends, but as the means, through their agonies of dissolution, of giving birth to the Higher Religions. Such a view would not have been welcome in the high tide of Western post-Reformation civilization, riding high on its scientific discoveries [2] and in the process of re-instituting “the worship of Leviathan.”

He comments that Westerners of the writer’s generation not only took it for granted that the Christian Church had served its turn in bringing a new civilization to birth in the West; they looked upon this new civilization as having been immature so long as it had remained under Christian auspices; and after having waited with impatience for it to get through its medieval Christian childhood, and having joyfully greeted the repudiation of its Christian origins with which it had celebrated its coming of age, they had focused their attention on the rise of a Modern Western secular way of life…(p. 446, vol VII)

But what if this secular movement that so elicited their admiration were merely one of “the vain repetitions of the heathens” – “an almost meaningless repetition of something that the Hellenes had done before them, and done supremely well – then the greatest new event in the historical background of a Modern Western Society would be seen to be … very different. The greatest new event would then not be the monotonous rise of yet another secular civilization out of the bosom of the Christian Church in the course of these latter centuries; it would still be the Crucifixion and the Crucifixion’s spiritual consequences.” [Italics mine]

Perhaps the “agonies of dissolution” of Two World Wars made people in England and America momentarily receptive to Toynbee’s message -- as indicated by the cover of Time Magazine -- but I think his hope that it might strike a deeper root has gone unfulfilled. Toynbee’s encompassing yet detailed vision of human civilizations has been succeeded by the scrapings of little men and little women, generations of the small-minded, positivists, data-gatherers, pontificators of progress, anti-spiritual and anti-metaphysical to the bone. [3]

Yet I think that Toynbee’s canvas is as large and as generous as the view of the world offered by Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, only it is more accessible than the latter because it is oriented towards the known world of history rather than the unknown realm of the occult and the spiritual. Yet both of these large canvasses, had they been received in the spirit in which they were offered, would have had the power to set Western culture upon a new path instead of the terrible hardening of the arteries and suicide of intelligence that are everywhere in evidence today.

Fantasy and technology have come to occupy the niche formerly assigned to the operations of intelligence, and almost no subject in the so-called “human affairs” departments – which include everything from diplomacy to painting – has any grounding any more. Such departments of knowledge only exist in the sense of being related to words that once carried with them certain obligations about life and “deportment.” But all “deportment” has been vacated to the status of mere “departments,” and the message about how to live one’s life in these “departments” of knowledge has been lost.The generations of Western mankind have been succeeded by a generation of mayflies, all buzzing fretfully yet with zealous unanimity toward the creation of the Universal State of Incoherence… with the climate, politics, economy, and everything else not far behind.

Truly, Toynbee came at a time and with the message of a pearl of great price – the pearl of wisdom gained through suffering. It was a rare, unique, and unrepeatable historical opportunity for Western man to expand, deepen and integrate his intelligence through a Christian re-appropriation of his history.It was an opportunity murdered, missed, lost, squandered, obliterated, buried -- as far as I can tell, for the past five decades in the history of the West, for now, and to all appearances for the foreseeable future. But whether that promise can reawaken remains the centrally important question of our being. This is the challenge buried in our souls and in our history that cries out for response.

[1] “…universal states arise after, and not before, the breakdowns of the civilizations to whose bodies social they bring political unity. They are not summers, but ‘Indian Summers,’ masking autumn and presaging winter. In the second place, they are the products of dominant minorities: that is, of once creative minorities that have lost their creative power…Universal States are symptoms of social disintegration, yet at the same time they are attempts to check this disintegration and to defy it.” Pps.3, 4, vol VII]

[2] “One of Man’s fundamental and perennial errors – an error that is both an intellectual and a moral lapse – is to idolize discoveries of his own making that enhance his power.” P. 468]

[3] Such ones attacked Toynbee’s work as “metaphysical speculation dressed up as history” – the worst word in the modern vocabulary being, apparently, “metaphysical.”It is interesting that, of Western philosophers contemporary or later than Toynbee, only Ortega y Gasset really heard the message of life, and turned his philosophy to its good account in his essays on “vital reason.” Yet even Ortega was not wholly in Toynbee’s camp. He thought that Toynbee showed too little esteem in being English – and he thought it boded ill for the future of the world that such a man felt no particular partiality for his own people and nation. Kedourie, an economist, attacked Toynbee for not taking responsibility for the retreating British Empire and in failing to uphold democratic values in countries it had once controlled. But in the light of Toynbee’s view of “Universal States” and their imperialism, this criticism seems to beg the question of the very spiritual disintegration that A Study of History was in large part describing. But in a more particular sense, especially in relation to Palestine, this criticism does not seem just. Of Palestine, Toynbee remarked that it was not just a local tragedy, but “a tragedy for the world.” He was very aware of the menace to democratic values represented in the fate of Palestine. Perhaps Toynbee's views on this matter were especially unwelcome in the circles of our culture, which already viewed with distrust his comprehensive view of history, deeply informed by a Christianized intelligence.