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]

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