By Joseph Milne
“One must also consider in which of the two ways the nature of the whole contains what is good and what is best, whether as something separate, itself by itself, or as the order of the whole of things.” Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1075a
Philosophy, poetry, religion, and myth all began in the human sense of cosmic harmony. Human consciousness itself is rooted in a primordial intuition of this harmony, and so the human soul finds itself placed within this vast, complex, mysterious unity. This beginning is experienced by every person who falls still and gazes at the night stars, or upon a horizon of distant mountains, or who listens to the motion of the ocean lapping the shore, or morning birdsong. As Plato says in the Timaeus, “Sight is the source of the greatest benefits to us; for if our eyes had never seen the sun, stars, and heavens, the words which we have spoken would not have been uttered.”99
In abiding in the presence of these mysteries, the soul may come to peace. Yet this peace has within it a call to respond. The universe, Nature, summons the soul to bear witness and give to all things their names and to affirm their goodness of being. This first silence of the soul before all things is the birthplace of thought and speech. They arise in answer to the call from the order of things that they be known and be said to be known. For, even as each human person is made whole in being known, so the universe longs to be known and brought before human reflection for this end.
The birth of thought and speech in reply to the cosmos is, therefore, also the birth of the human species, distinguishing it from all other creatures, for it is Anthropos alone who wonders and enquires into the truth, order, meaning, and goodness of things. But this birth of thought and speech is also the birth of self-reflection and of the mysterious knowledge that the soul must give account of itself before the cosmos. Consciousness and conscience arise together in the human soul. The sense of ‘I’ and the sense of the ‘Whole’ come into existence at the same moment, and from this arises the knowledge that the human being must seek to live rightly and wisely and in accord with the harmony of cosmos. Cicero expresses it in this way:
The primary duty is that the creature should maintain itself in its natural constitution; next, that it should cleave to all that is in harmony with nature and spurn all that is not; and when once this principle of choice and rejection has been arrived at, the next stage is choice, conditioned by inchoate duty; next such a choice is exercised continuously; finally, it is rendered unwavering and in thorough agreement with nature; and at that stage the conception of what good really is begins to dawn within us and be understood.
Every creature has a duty to maintain its integrity and, while the other creatures do this spontaneously through natural inclination, human nature must take up that obligation voluntarily and deliberately. This is because human nature maintains its natural constitution through aligning itself with the cosmic harmony. So that we may, “cleave to all that is in harmony with nature,” as Cicero put it, Plato says in the Timaeus that, “God gave us the faculty of sight that we might behold the order of the heavens and create a corresponding order in our own erring minds.” The mind is ordered when brought into agreement with the ‘order of the heavens’, and departs from its own nature when out of agreement with this divine order of things. Knowledge of the heavenly order comes to the mind as a gift from Nature. That is the most ancient experience. The cosmos discloses itself to the soul in four ways: philosophically through understanding, poetically through beauty, mythically through wonder, and religiously through veneration. Each of these four ways are responses to revelation. In their origin, they are utterly innocent.
The original goodness
So the intuition of humanity in its beginning, in time before time, is of Paradise. This is our original belonging as a people of the Earth. This is an original symbolic knowledge, and we cannot unravel what is expressed symbolically or through the narrative of myth. The original Garden embodies all perfections, all goodness, all abundance, a completeness of life, peace among all creatures, and the true relation between heaven and Earth. This cannot be translated into rational terms because it is a foun- dational memory in the soul of the primordial condition of things against which the unfolding story of Anthropos moves and takes shape. From that memory, every human being knows they are a sojourner in the world, who one day shall return home to Eden. With this ancient memory also comes the intuition of estrangement, the sense of a lost kingdom. These elements shape all the great myths and sagas of departure and return, from Homer to Tolkien, or from Genesis to Apocalypse.
Plato likewise speaks of the immortal soul descending from the eternal abode of divine truth into the mortal body of material flux, where appearance and truth no longer directly correspond. And so all true knowledge is for Plato anamnesis, recollection of what the soul once beheld directly in eternity. But the embodied soul must learn to distinguish this true knowledge that informs all visible things. Those with the clearest memory are born poets and philosophers, the poet ever seeking beauty, and the philosopher ever seeking wisdom. Yet these callings, although springing from recollection, have within them a yearning and discontent. Like Odysseus, they are driven by the desire to return home. The poet desires to unite with beauty, while the philosopher desires to unite with wisdom. This desire to unite is the ground of love, of Eros. In its longing for unity Eros gives birth to poetry and philosophy, which is to say, the birth of speech or language. “The gifts of speech and hearing were bestowed upon us; not for the sake of irrational pleasure, but in order that we might harmonise the courses of the soul by sympathy with the harmony of sound, and cure ourselves of our irregular and graceless ways,” as Plato further explains in the Timaeus. Philosophy and poetry are, in a certain sense, healing for the soul, and the philosopher and the poet are also physicians to society.
For the ancients, human society maintains its own nature through being brought into accord with the heavenly order. For Plato, there is a corre- spondence between the cosmos, the city, and the citizen. The city, the natural human dwelling place, governed by speech, is a small cosmos after the pattern of the great cosmos, and the individual citizen is a small city after the pattern of the great city. For Plato, this means that the polis takes form through a combination of correspondences between the divine cosmic order and the order of the soul. In one sense, the polis is a microcosmos, and, in another sense, it is a macroanthropos, the soul writ large.101 The polis flourishes in peace when its laws spring from and embody this threefold harmony. Then the citizens love the laws and education, and the arts nurture the natural order of the soul. The opposite condition is where the city splits into factions and is at war with itself, and where chaos threatens to overthrow the natural order. Even now, when this sacred order of society has been largely forgotten and abandoned, the greatest fear is the descent of society into chaos. It then dawns on people that their individuality, which our current age holds in such high regard, is wholly dependent on the common good and lawful order of community, and that the community exists prior to the individual. This was always the ancient under- standing. Out of the whole arises each part and each part has its integrity through living and flourishing in accord with the whole.