Tuesday, 30 September 2014

In Search of a New Almagest

Only a day after I posted last week, I had the good fortune of receiving three very good critiques of the position I took against David Suzuki's Blue Dot Tour. All three were well-reasoned and deeply felt, and all three left me thinking hard about the issue, as well as about how cool my friends are. As a result of those conversations, I did two things this week worth mentioning.

One, I bought a ticket to see David Suzuki when the Blue Dot Tour comes to Kitchener this coming Monday. If I'm going to write publicly about the man and his ideas, it makes sense that I'd go hear him speak when he takes the trouble to visit my end of the country, especially since this is being billed as his last national tour. He's an engaging, frank, thoughtful, and warm-hearted man, and his thought has been a guiding star in my own quest to figure out what is up with this world and where I fit into it.

Two, one of the critiques I mentioned reminded me of how that star came into my life, and spurred me to revisit the thoughts it inspired in me. Dave's suggestion in a comment last week to "consider all of the various traditional cultures around the world that speak of the four sacred elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire" pointed me straight toward a book that was already leaping off my shelf and into my hand. That book is The Sacred Balance, by David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell.

The Sacred Balance is an almagest, a long and distinguished genre named after the Latin Almagest celebrated in medieval Europe and originally written in Greek by Claudius Ptolemy, or in Arabic by Ibn al-Haytham, depending on whom you ask. (The original manuscript is long, long lost). It's a treatise on astronomy, mathematics, and alchemy that describes the shape and structure of the world as it was conceived toward the end of the Classical age and throughout the Middle Ages. In those days, the heavenly bodies occupied a series of nested crystal spheres, each rotating independently according to fixed mathematical laws, and all 'singing' beyond the range of mortal hearing, in harmonic ratios proportionate to their relative velocities. The earth was fixed at the centre of these spheres, and it was as round then as it is today. (The idea that people used to think the earth was flat is just a myth; Columbus' big innovation was that it was pear-shaped, with a 'nipple' at one end).

The nested music of the spheres constituted a beautiful vision, and whether or not it was Ptolemy or Ibn al-Haytham or someone else who articulated it first, it came to be known as 'Ptolemy's System'. In the image below we see the whole thing borne up on the back of 'heaven-bearing Atlas', the Titan of Greek myth, which is likely either an artist's fancy or an anachronism, or both. For the medievals, beyond the farthest sphere was the realm of God and the angels, while within the fires at the centre of the earth dwelt Satan.

Illustration of the Ptolemaic world system

The term 'almagest', as I'm using it here, refers to any work that attempts an over-arching description of the world as a whole, articulated using the concepts of the day. This is also known as cosmology. You can see by the cover of Suzuki's book that he's invoking the medieval astronomers who are his intellectual forebears as a scientist in the Western tradition, and the book beneath that cover is indeed a cosmological vision for our time. But it's not heavy or academical to read. He relates modern scientific concepts using layman's language, and he does so within a framework that feels familiar because it's drawn straight from our medieval Western European roots.

Suzuki's approach is to consider the sacred balance that sustains all life on earth. Each chapter addresses one of the elements that make up that balance, and the first four would have been familiar to anyone in medieval Europe, regardless of social standing: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. To these, Suzuki adds three more necessary elements: Biodiversity, Belonging, and Spirit. It's interesting to watch him combine the scientific and the sacred in one mode of speaking, but what's even more interesting to me is the opportunity to reflect on the fact that our modern sensibility perceives the scientific and the sacred as two separate phenomena in the first place.

Medieval Europeans lived in a world much more suffused with sacredness than the one we inhabit. Although some form of dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane in Western thought is at least as old as Plato, medieval people still lived in a world where the works of the One who had made it could be read either in Scripture or in the so-called Book of Nature. The world around them radiated meaning. If they looked to the stars they could see the celestial beings whose motions profoundly influenced their lives on earth. If they looked to their own bodies they could discern the four elements of which the earthly sphere was composed, represented within them by the four corresponding Humours, or Spirits: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Not until the age of Harvey and Newton did the old world give way to one in which first earthly bodies and then heavenly bodies could be explained as the workings of sophisticated machinery.

That was the moment at which the Christian God could begin to be perceived not as the breath and life of the world, sustaining it in his very hands from one sunrise to the next, but as a mere watchmaker, the mechanic who set the whole thing in motion and then sat back to watch it go. It's not a very emotionally appealing conception of the divine, so it's no wonder that this God was killed off during the age of Nietzsche (who, it may be recalled, was quite distraught about the murder, even to the point of madness). The non-interfering watchmaker God was not compatible with orthodox Christian thought, which is premised on divine intervention in human history; nevertheless, the fact that his mechanical servants kept appearing where spirits and celestial beings had dwelt up until that point made it harder and harder to resist the inevitability of his existence, and more and more necessary to violently reject his existence altogether.

Thus I see Suzuki, from the dying years of the twentieth century, reaching back through the 'Disenlightement' of the seventeenth toward those luminous concepts that spoke of the celestial and the earthly as being of one nature, and that nature as sacred. I highly admire this approach, and while there are aspects of medieval thought that I'm glad we've left behind, I think Suzuki is right to acknowledge that the new branches of our understanding stem directly from the trunk and roots of older understandings, and where new understandings have arrived from elsewhere, they must be grafted in if they are to be thinkable by people of the Western family tree. Hence his project of relating modern scientific understanding of the chemical elements and their interplay back to an older, spiritual sense of our participation in the earthly elements that make us up.

The most valuable aspect of The Sacred Balance, in my view, is that Suzuki writes out of a true sense of that epistemological humility which is proper to all scientists everywhere. He admits from the get-go that scientific knowledge can only give us theories and descriptions, never facts and meanings. Science is by its nature a matter of disciplined and creative guesswork, not a stepladder to ultimate truth. You hear this again and again from respected and well-published scientists, which is perhaps why the great scientific minds have retained the sense of all-suffusing wonder and awe that Nietzsche saw being bludgeoned to death in the popular thought of his own time. 

Because scientific suspension of belief is not what you see in popular thought today. Instead we say quite matter-of-factly that we live on a planet called the Earth, that both our inner lives and the world around us can be explained as a series of interlocking mechanisms, that planned processes of human intellect combined with will produce predictable results in the marketplace, in the environment, and in the bedroom, and we take all this as incontrovertible fact. The modern, post-scientific faith in our ability to explain the world denies us the privilege of admitting, like the medievals, that the world is actually kind of confusing and mysterious, and that our ways of explaining it are at best a kind of collective hallucination in whose perpetuation we ourselves participate each time we consider it.

Participation is the key concept here, because if I'm right that ancient and medieval peoples had any sense at all of their role in 'creating' the world around them by means of inadequate but beautiful concepts (and the evidence suggests that they did) then they were miles ahead of us. Our fallacy is not that our cosmological abstractions are out of touch with what nature's telling us, nor even that those abstractions are rooted in hierarchical power relations that distort our sense of our relationship with nature; our fallacy is that we deny the existence of our cosmological abstractions at all. We see an image of the world created by a camera floating in outer space and believe that it is the world, the real world, made visible and comprehensible. We are encouraged to feel devotion and reverence for the image, forgetting that it only represents the ongoing mystery of rocks, trees, and rivers. Meanwhile rocks, trees, and rivers are made comprehensible not through a participatory revelation of their sacred relationship to each other and to us, but through their transformation into minerals, lumber, and effluent.

The Planet is an idol. It teaches us to substitute a man-made image for sacred reality, and then to deny the hand of man in its creation and exalt the image as divine, objective reality. There may be an objective reality, but the genius of ancient and medieval societies was that they understood that it was beyond them, just as God was beyond the furthest sphere of the heavens, yet somehow actively sustaining the world and holding it in his hands. When we depict the Planet in the hands of a human child, we commit blasphemy, according to the proper theological sense of 'putting oneself in the place of God'. More gravely, we reveal the extent to which our manipulation of images is unconscious, both in terms of those images' meaning and in terms of their function in creating human perception. This unconsciousness in turn leaves us open to the manipulation of those who understand very well the meanings and functions of images, and who will not hesitate to turn their understanding into power over our deepest thoughts and yearnings.

That's my exegesis of David Suzuki in a nutshell. I'm looking forward to seeing him, and also to seeing Jon Young speak in Guelph this Thursday and teach at Sticks and Stones Wilderness School all weekend. I've mentioned Jon before in these writings; he's a naturalist and bird language instructor, and I'm going to be taking his Bird Language Intensive course this weekend. He's also, if I can take this opportunity to coin a phrase, as much an Almagist as Suzuki, and comes at his description of the world from a different angle but out of a similar motivation. So by next Tuesday there will be plenty of new thoughts to consider here on A Wizard of Earth.

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