Ian Whicher on Yoga and freedom

 

In his article ‘Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga’1 Ian Whicher has sought to counter a dualistic and isolationist interpretation of Yoga he believes is presented by many scholars. He does this by analysing cittavrttinirodha (‘cessation of the turnings or modifications of the mind’), a notion central to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. He argues that far too often misinterpretations and misrepresentations have resulted from partial and misleading definitions of terms. His argument is built on the assertion that Patanjali defined Yoga as ‘the cessation of (the misidentification with) the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)’.2 Rather than purusa misidentifying a relationship with prakrti – a relationship he holds to be of fundamental importance, Whicher locates the misidentification within that necessary relationship.

He claims that scholars and other writers argue that Patanjali taught a radical dualism on the basis of nirodha meaning a negation of the ‘mind’ for the purpose of spiritual liberation, resulting in the separation of purusa from prakrti (of which citta is an element), the divorce of pure consciousness from the world. By explaining nirodha as the cessation of vrttis, scholars have presented Yoga as a form of world-denial, rendering life in the world for the yogin as a purposeless existence that has no connection with consciousness. For Whicher, nirodha refers to the cessation of the empirical effects of the vrttis on the yogin’s consciousness, not the complete cessation of vrttis. He asks how one could attempt to obey a teaching that advises ‘death’ of the ‘mind’ when the ‘mind’ is what is necessary to both daily life and to the path of liberation. Exclusive identification with material existence as one’s true self is the source of duhkha. It is this misidentification and not the ‘mind’ that must be discarded. Not only is nirodha not the cessation of vrttis, it involves an expansion of perception such that the yogin can, as untainted pure consciousness or purusa, perceive the interconnectedness of reality. Further, the process of nirodha involves sacrifice of the yogin’s ego and surrender of his perspective and prepares him for a life of ethical compassion and service, a life very different from that led by the disengaged person who would result from the dualism that Whicher critiques.

Again, Whicher opposes those interpreters of Yoga who subscribe to a separation between purusa and prakrti leading to the eventual disappearance of prakrti. This impoverished split between spirit and matter derives from the Samkhya philosophy and Whicher argues that to apply this split to Patanajali’s Yoga trivialises it. Such separation implies the absence of the body. What Yoga involves is the absence of ego, towards the ending of samsara. Whicher writes that to even question why purusa would want to be integrated with prakrti is elitist. He questions when they have ever been separate – the integration of both is a unification and liberation of seer and seeing. Patanjali utilised the concepts of purusa and prakrti in the Samkhya world view to instil an orientation in the yogin that is both spiritual and practical, in which body, ‘mind’ and the world are not denied as is the case in idealistic interpretations. Purusa brings consciousness to prakrti and prakrti brings the content of experience to consciousness so that consciousness can function practically. To separate purusa from prakrti would result in an imbalance that would reflect on notions of the self inimical to Yoga – narcissism, egocentrism or a sense of isolation impelled towards self-negation might result.

Citta can be harnessed, not to ‘disentangle’ purusa from prakrti but to disentangle the nature of their true relationship, that between reality and appearance. The state of kaivalya (‘aloneness’) that Patanjali advocated was not one of solipsistic isolation nor a dualistic state in which there is a division between knower and known, seer and ‘seeable’ as is often maintained as the goal of Yoga, it is the ineffable ‘aloneness’ of the power of ‘seeing’ in its purity and clarity.3 Its attainment requires the integration purusa and prakrti in the act of pure seeing – purusa provides the consciousness of the seer and prakrti the realm of the seeable. In it, prakrti has been liberated from ignorance and purusa and citta attain a sameness of purity and balanced harmony. In it, the yogin has no misidentification with vrtti.

The yogin, having undergone the process of nirodha, lives a balanced and fulfilled life in this world, free of attachment, able to express the full range of emotions without being overtaken by them. This is obviously very different from the yogin who severs all ties with the world. Patanjali’s Yoga, defined as cittavrttinirodha is the eradication of spiritual ignorance. It is this ignorance that is the cause of our misidentification with and attachment to the world. Whicher argues that Yoga is a highly developed and integrated state of mystical illumination that enhances our self-identity, that Patanjali’s Yoga does not imply the extinction of our selfhood, together with the material world, but it entails the opposite.

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Notes

1. Ian Whicher, ‘Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga’ Philosophy East and West, vol. 48, no. 2 (April, 1998), pp. 272-322

2. Ibid., p. 273

3. Compare with the concluding words of The Enneads VI,9.11: ‘This is the life of gods and of the godlike and blessed among men, liberation from the alien that besets us here, a life taking no pleasure in the things of earth, the passing of solitary to solitary.’ Plotinus, The Enneads, third ed. abridged.,  Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, p.  549

The expunged two thousand year history of Indian materialism

Hegel on contradiction: part four

 

…internal self-movement proper, instinctive urge in general, (the appetite or nisus of the monad, the entelechy of absolutely simple essence), is nothing else but the fact that something is, in one and the same respect, self-contained and deficient, the negative of itself. Abstract self-identity is not as yet a livingness, but the positive, being in its own self a negativity, goes outside itself and undergoes alteration. Something is therefore alive only in so far as it contains contradiction within it, and moreover is this power to hold and endure the contradiction within it. But if an existent in its positive determination is at the same time incapable of reaching beyond its negative determination and holding the one firmly in the other, is incapable of containing contradiction within it, then it is not the living unity itself, not ground, but in the contradiction falls to the ground. Speculative thinking consists solely in the fact that thought holds fast contradiction, and in it, its own self, but does not allow itself to be dominated by it as in ordinary thinking, where its determinations are resolved by contradiction only into other determinations or into nothing.


G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, pp. 440-441

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Part four/to be continued…

The philosophy of Plotinus

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

28.10.1997

Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

Plotinus, the main expositor of Neoplatonism, was critical of democracy, had friends in the Roman aristocracy, and, despite the rejection of his proposal for the construction of Platonopolis, to be a city of philosophers functioning according to Plato’s Laws, was highly regarded by the emperor Gallienus. His writings, in the Enneads (according to Porphyry, from the age of forty nine), represent his mature thought.

Within this body of pacific austerity, Plotinus’ mysticism builds to a rationalised ecstasy. Reflecting this tension, his equation between contemplation and activity is central to his doctrine. By turning away from the external world1 and an inward concentration of spiritual energy through ‘reason’, the aim of his philosophy was that his soul and the souls of others might re-discover their true self and ascend to union with it and with their common source in god.

Although he was the last great philosopher of Western antiquity, developments on his treatment of spiritual freedom and purpose have continued to the present.2  His work is a blend of the writings of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers (particularly the Stoics.3 Major sources from his own time were Numenius of Apamea and Ammonius Saccas, of whom he was a pupil. His dominant influence, however, was clearly Plato.

Plotinus was open in his regard for Plato – ‘that godlike man Plato’,4 ‘the illustrious Plato’.5 His debt to Plato, as revealed in the Enneads, was always in his thoughts. He regarded his own writing as following and interpreting Plato’s philosophy, even attributing his mysticism to him.

The Plotinian scholar Paul Henry believes that the continued life of Plato’s philosophy is borne within that of Plotinus, in which dialectic becomes metaphysics – and that as a mystic, Plotinus has been perhaps a greater inspiration for Western philosophy than even Plato himself.6

Such distinctions between Platonic dialectic and Neoplatonic metaphysics are misleading since the differences which exist lie essentially in points of form not in the process of the philosophers’ intent.7 Plotinus developed on a philosophy which itself underwent significant development by Plato. The shift by the latter in his treatment of non-discursive elements (particularly the emotions) in relation to ‘reason’ – first banishing them, then in his later dialogues, allowing them a role in the soul’s aspiration to truth8 – is carried further by Plotinus, in whose philosophy they were central to the attainment of the Good.

Both Plato and Plotinus distinguished between the realm of Ideas beyond time, and the sensible world of matter, existing in time. They also held to a transcendent God, beyond even Ideas and, following from Socrates, both considered the soul to be immaterial and immortal.

One variation between the philosophies of the two men concerns the location of the Forms. For Plato, they exist in the ‘place above the heavens’9 but for Plotinus they are more forcefully tied to the nature of soul. Yet, both in the general inward tenor of his philosophy, and overtly, Plato prepared the ground for Plotinus believing that the Forms can exist within the individual.10

Movement and the tension between it and the Good is central to Plotinus’ philosophy and is considered to be another difference between the doctrines of the two men,11 but again, Plotinus developed on what lay in the work of his predecessor. ‘Thought’s’ double movement of ascent to and descent from the most general concepts of the higher world, around which the Enneads were written, was established in the Republic.12 The importance Plotinus accords to the emotions, in both his style – eager and inspired with spiritual purpose – and in his method, is reflected in the significance movement has in his philosophy.  His positioning of vitality and intuition as non-discursive means embodies this.

In order of rank and emanation, the three hypostases around which the Enneads are built are the One (the Good – for which Plotinus frequently used masculine pronouns), Intellect (Divine Mind or Thought – the realm of Forms) and Soul (All-Soul, the Principle of Life). Nature is a quasi-hypostasis. The Gods are frequently mentioned. Beneath the universe of Intellect is the universe of matter. Each hypostasis is inferior to the one preceding it and good to that which follows it, matter having the lowest standing.13

Part one/to be continued…

Notes

1. Porphyry wrote that Plotinus ‘laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life’. Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of His Work’  in  The Enneads. Third ed. Abridged. Trans. S. MacKenna. London: Penguin, 1991, cxxi.

2. Ficino’s translation into Latin of Plotinus’ philosophy in 1492 was pivotal to this. (He produced the first Latin translation of all Plato’s dialogues in 1484.)

3.‘In style Plotinus is concise, dense with thought, terse, more lavish of ideas than of words, most often expressing himself with a fervid inspiration. He followed his own path rather than that of tradition, but in his writings both the Stoic and Peripatetic doctrines are sunk; Aristotle’s Metaphysics, especially, is condensed in them, all but entire.’ Porphyry, op. cit., cxii. (Porphyry wrote a [lost] commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, known to Arab scholars.) MacKenna, consistent with his lyricism, wrote that the Enneads embody the pouring of new wine into very old bottles. See MacKenna’s notes in Plotinus. The Enneads. Third ed. Trans. S. MacKenna.  London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

4. Enneads  III,5,1. Further citations from the Enneads will omit the title.

5. IV,8,1.

6. P. Henry. ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’. In The Enneads. Third ed. Abridged, op. cit., xlii – lxxxiii.

7. Compare the best-known ‘distinctions’ between the two philosophies – alternately, Plotinus’ division of reality into levels and his postulation of a One superior to the realm of Forms – with the sub-sections in Plato’s analogy of the Divided Line (Intelligence, Mathematical Reasoning, Belief and Illusion) Republic VI, 509d-511e, reflected in the hierarchy of both Plato’s ideal state and model of the soul, and ‘“The good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their being and reality; yet it is not itself that reality, but is beyond it, and superior to it in dignity and power.”’ Republic VI, 509b. Further, ‘…on at least one occasion (Plato) lectured to a general audience. We are told by Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, that many in Plato’s audience were baffled and disappointed by a lecture in which he maintained that Good is one.’ The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Ed. R. Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 623.) Panofsky, for example, accepted Plato at his word, confusing the reason of cognition with the non-discursive ‘reason’ of dualist contemplation, contributing to the maintenance of both a false distinction between Plato and Plotinus and a barrier to an understanding of their philosophies, of the relationship between them, and of their impact on Western culture. ‘Ultimately the theory of Ideas, originally a philosophy of human reason, was transformed almost into a logic of divine thought.’ E. Panofsky. Idea: A Concept in Art Theory. 1924. Reprint. Trans. J. Peake. New York: Harper and Row,1968, 38. Nietzsche made the same error, regarding Platonic dialectic as a development on Socratic rationalism (The Birth of Tragedy (1872) Section 13, in The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967, 88-89). Similarly Deleuze, who, despite noting Bergson’s ‘obsession with the pure’ and that his method of intuition was Platonic in inspiration, distinguished between Bergson and Plato on the point of the latter’s dialectic (writing that Bergson considered Platonic dialectic to be valid only in the beginning of philosophy). G. Deleuze. Bergsonism. Trans. H. Tomlinson, B. Habberjam. New York, 1988, 22, 120. Again, Stern-Gillet: ‘He (Plotinus) locates selfhood in the soul, further specifying that the inner core of our being is that ‘part’ of the soul which is capable not only of discursive thinking directed at the forms immanent in this world, but also of the intuitive understanding of intelligible realities as such.’ S. Stern-Gillet. “Plotinus and His Portrait.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 37, 3 (July 1997): 211-225, 214. In the Timaeus, Plato distinguished between the ‘rational’ and the scientific. He equated dialectic with ‘pure thought’, ‘intelligence’, and the direct apprehension of truth. Republic VI, 511b. Plotinus regarded Platonic dialectic as ‘authentic science’ which he opposed to ‘seeming-knowledge (‘sense-knowledge’)’ I,3,4, and defined it as ‘the Method, or Discipline, that brings with it the power of pronouncing with final truth upon the nature and relation of things – what each is, how it differs from others, what common quality all have, to what Kind each belongs and in what rank each stands in its Kind and whether its Being is Real-Being, and how many beings there are, and how many non-Beings to be distinguished from Beings.’ I,3,4. He correctly believed that Platonic dialectic is concerned with ‘realities’ (the Forms) and not with ‘words’ (the logic of discursive reasoning). I,3,5. For Plotinus, the hypostasis of Intellect is the site of reason. Intellect makes Soul rational by giving it a copy of what it has. The rational soul is the true man, within.

8. ‘The cultivation of Reason remained at the centre of the Platonic life-style, but non-intellectual elements were now incorporated into the life of the soul, as energising psychic forces on which Reason draws. On the other hand, it also complicated Reason’s struggle for purity. Both aspects of the divided-soul model emerge in the Phaedrus metaphor of the soul as a pair of winged horses, joined together in natural union with their charioteer. One horse is white, noble and easily guided; the other is a dark, crooked, lumbering animal, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.’ G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1984, 20. In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that conflicting desires enables the love of wisdom. ‘The later Plato…thus saw passionate love and desire as the beginning of the soul’s process of liberation through knowledge’. Ibid. 21. In the Symposium, ‘in Diotima’s version of the lover’s progress Reason does not simply shed the perturbations of passion but assimilates their energising force. Reason itself becomes a passionate faculty and a creative, productive one.’ Ibid. 22. As an example of the function of another non-discursive element, the Republic’s myth of Er exemplifies Plato’s belief in the truth-revealing power of imagination.

9. Phaedrus 247d5ff. Here Plato was referring to the moral Forms. For Plotinus, righteousness is a beautiful ‘active actuality’, like a statue in intellect.

10. ‘“On the other hand, to say that it pays to be just is to say that we ought to say and do all we can to strengthen the man within us…’”. Republic IX, 589a. On his ideal society Plato wrote ‘“Perhaps,” I said, “it is laid up as a pattern in heaven, where he who wishes can see it and found it in his own heart. But it doesn’t matter whether it exists or ever will exist”’. Republic IX, 592b. Plato believed that the Forms are sources of moral and (particularly from the perspective of my thesis) religious inspiration.

11. See, for example: Plotinus. Enneads Trans. A.H. Armstrong. In seven volumes. London: William Heinemann, 1966-1988, vol. V, 25

12. Republic VII, 514-521. Plato argued that we should develop the motion of our (non-discursive) ‘thought’ as much as possible to reflect (restore to likeness with) the motion of the universe and of divine thought. ‘Among movements, the best is that we produce in ourselves of ourselves – for it is most nearly akin to the movement of thought and of the universe…’ Timaeus 47, 89, in Timaeus and Critias. Trans. D. Lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, 120, and ‘There is of course only one way to look after anything and that is to give it its proper food and motions. And the motions that are akin to the divine in us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. We should each therefore attend to these motions and by learning about the harmonious circuits of the universe repair the damage done at birth to the circuits in our head, and so restore understanding and what is understood to their original likeness to each other. When that is done we shall have achieved the goal set us by the gods…’ 48, 90, ibid., 121-122.

13. Armstrong described the often obscure Enneads as ‘an unsystematic presentation of a systematic philosophy’. Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xv

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Some thoughts on mysticism

M100: A Grand Design Spiral Galaxy

M100: A Grand Design Spiral Galaxy

Hello Moshe,

I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier. I wanted to sit with your question. And I could sit with it a great deal longer.

Mysticism for me is the deepest feeling for and orientation to the whole, yet sensitivity to the parts that comprise it (in each part is the whole), to the relationship between whole and parts, to their infinite complexity and unceasing motion – and that awareness is essentially ineffable, yet intuitively understood.

If you remove ‘feeling’, ‘the ineffable’ and ‘intuition’ from this statement you have the description of a relationship that bears comparison with the first words of Lenin’s ‘On the Question of Dialectics’ – ‘The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts…is the essence (one of the ‘essentials,’ one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) or dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter (Aristotle in his Metaphysics continually grapples with it and combats Heraclitus and Heraclitean ideas).’

My comparison is appropriate, because mystical philosophy, as Marx acknowledged (particularly its Germanic current culminating in the philosophy of the ‘German Proclus’, Hegel), is the philosophical core, stood by Marx on its feet, of dialectical materialism.

Lenin went on: ‘the correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science.’ This can be simply demonstrated – if you hold a rock in your hand, you hold a unity. While it looks utterly still – in its composition, in its parts, it is in unceasing motion. The contradictory motion of those infinitely divisible parts is the very thing which results in the apparently stable unity you hold in your hand (I am reminded of Plotinus’ profound and profoundly poetic position regarding his One – that it is the greatest activity in the greatest stillness).

And the interaction of this rock, this material composition, with the greater, infinite material whole will one day result in the passing of the form and contents of that stone into other material structures.

Thus everything passes, and only matter (objective reality) driven by the (theoretical) absolute of change remains.

While capitalist ideologues treat mysticism like pornography as they secretly study and draw from it, claiming, as true patriarchs, that their appropriations are the result of the most rigorous conceptual ‘reason’, materialists should be proud of their philosophical heritage and continue to mine it for more philosophical gems.

Intuition’ is one such. I believe it is a form of reasoning far more holistic and connected to our ‘emotions’/our ‘feelings’, our ‘sense of self’ than is the reason of language and concept. The latter, while its benefits and the achievements made with it are obvious, comparative to intuition (which is always functioning in the background), is plodding.

An example: suppose you were to walk around a corner while another did the same thing walking towards you. You bump into each other. Your eyes meet. Without doubt you would both have an instantaneous wealth of thoughts and feelings so rich and complex that thinking linguistically in and of that moment would not only be an impediment, it would be an impossibility.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), ‘Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’, marble, 1647-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), ‘Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’, marble, 1647-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Yet the thoughts and feelings you both have in those few seconds will be formative, evidence of a type of reason which I think is central to our sense of self.

When the monotheist prays to God – ‘God, give me guidance’, they are calling on that other form of reason which requires emotional ‘stillness’ to be heard and listened to. They speak of ‘stillness’ and ‘listening’ at such times.

It is a flux of reason that draws on their life’s experience, on their spiritual connection to the world, on all that comprises them.

‘Spirituality’ – a concept I rejected for many years – for me is the feeling for and knowledge of profound material connectedness.

Intuitive reason is like ‘another’ to that of our usual, linguistically conditioned self.

There is certainly nothing of the patriarch to it, yet if you fail to listen to that ‘voice’, you do so at your peril. You will be like the man in the toothpaste aisle at the supermarket – reading all the labels, unable to choose, looking for an impetus and answer only in words, his linguistic ‘self’ disconnected from that other, deeper, more holistic, intuitive ‘self’.

In this unity of self (both linguistic and intuitive) and the world is to be found the unity of both mystic and materialist – it is one, unwilled yet profoundly dialectical, profoundly ‘poetic’ world.

When I am presented with any problem, I first try to intuit a way forward or a solution, then I apply my ability to reason linguistically. And although the results are usually different (my intuition seems consistent with necessity – which supports my understanding of intuition), I play those two results against each other to arrive at my answer.

These are a few of my thoughts on the subject of mysticism.

What are some of your thoughts on the subject?

Best regards,

Phil

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Images: 1st/2nd

The philosophical origins of Western patriarchy

Rodin, 'Le Penseur', 1904

Auguste Rodin, ’Le Penseur’, 1904, bronze, Musée Rodin, Paris. A testament to both patriarchy and the ‘feminine’ reason of the mystical.

Christia Mercer, ‘The Philosophical Origins of Patriarchy’, The Nation, 02.07.19

Plato, Hippocrates, and Aristotle laid the foundations on which centuries of sexism were built.

Why are Republican men so eager to subjugate women’s bodies?

Among the 25 Alabama state senators who voted on May 14 to pass the country’s most repressive restriction on women’s health care, every single one was a man, many of them joyous in protecting the sanctity of motherhood and saving women from themselves. One of the sponsors of the bill, Senator Clyde Chambliss, defended the “purity” of the law, which denies abortion to survivors of rape or incest, explaining, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” Whatever else we might say about Chambliss’s argument, it has an ancient pedigree and impeccable logic: It is the duty of those men able to discern the divine goodness in the world to protect women’s procreative powers.

The audacity of Chambliss’s pronouncements can be traced back through thousands of generations of powerful men to the earliest writings on women’s bodies. If patriarchy is the system by means of which men control women and, in the recent words of Kate Manne, sexism is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalises a patriarchal social order,” then misogyny is “the system that polices and enforces” patriarchy’s “governing norms and expectations.”

Ancient intellectual greats like Plato, Hippocrates, and Aristotle laid the foundations on which centuries of sexism were built. Although these Greek authors did not invent sexism, their writings contained ideas and arguments that were used to rationalise a particularly virulent form of misogyny. Once these ancient trend-setters devised arguments for female subjugation in the name of a divine good, it became self-confirming in the sense that women were taken to be naturally inferior to men, treated differently from birth, and trained to subjugate themselves, which itself further supported views about female imperfection and the disempowerment that entailed.

To be sure, at every stage of Western thought, there were women who were resourceful and rebellious within the restrictions forced upon them. In almost every era, there were moments when the tide might have turned away from ardent sexism. But it never did. The proponents of female inferiority were always victorious. The ancient Greek arguments for sexism both reflected and supported patriarchy, and gave powerful men what they considered to be excellent reasons to control women’s bodies in the name of the good. However resilient women were, misogynistic enforcement of divine order always won out.

The notion of teleology—and its relation to female procreative powers—helps to cast the history of misogyny into sharp focus. The simplest version of teleology is that some things happen, or exist, for the sake of other things. If I read The Nation for the sake of political and social insight, then the latter can be identified as the end or goal of the former. From Plato and Aristotle to Chambliss and Mike Pence, powerful men have believed in a divinely created natural order in which human beings should act for the sake of the good. For many such thinkers, women’s procreative powers were their only means to contribute to the good, from which it followed that those powers must be properly controlled by men with insight into divine intentions.

Plato’s account of the health of the soul and the steps required to achieve the good set the stage for millennia of discrimination against women. In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that a soul will not attain “the true moral ideal” unless it purges itself of bodily concerns and“abides in reason.” The Platonic soul appears to be genderless, from which it would seem to follow that women’s souls are identical in power and capacities to men’s. And yet women are virtually absent as interlocutors in the dialogues, even as the sacrificial victims of the Socratic method.

How might someone who endorses Plato’s views about soul, body, and the good explain the paucity of female interlocutors in the dialogues? Might there be something about a woman’s body that makes it harder for her soul to “purge” itself of bodily associations so as “to concentrate itself by itself”? A Platonist could consistently believe both that all souls are equal in capacities and that female bodies are more difficult for the genderless soul to escape. Plato suggests something like this in the Timaeus, his mythic account of how the world might have been created. There, the narrator spins a tale according to which the gods first created men and then punished those “who lived lives of cowardice or injustice” by turning them into women in their next lives. That is, the Timaeus suggests that women are a degraded state of humanity, a kind of punishment that follows from unwise behaviour. What about women’s bodies might make them so degraded?

The earliest period for which we have detailed written accounts of women’s bodies is classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, the period when various texts, long associated with Hippocrates, were written. These multi-authored medical writings, roughly a quarter of which concern the health and diseases of women, contain the first clear differentiation of female and male bodies and were foundational in the Western medical tradition.

The Hippocratic authors agree that the bones or infrastructure of a human body are covered with flesh, which is constituted of different kinds of fluids, which themselves are more or less hot or cold and moist or dry. Before the advent of dissection, an account of the body based on fluids must have seemed eminently plausible: A human body is full of blood, guts, bile, and stuff to be vomited; and such fluids do seem fungible in that, say, food becomes other sorts of fluids which have a range of qualities. If we endorse the idea that human flesh is fundamentally a collection of fluids in various forms of “concoction,” then it is reasonable to see human health as depending on their proper balance. In the words of one Hippocratic author, a human being “enjoys the greatest health, when these [fluids] are in balance to each other in terms of mixture, power, and quantity.”

Two features of the female body convinced the Hippocratic authors of a crucial difference between female and male bodies: Women have menses and a womb (or uterus). The need for women to bleed regularly was taken to prove female flesh to be moist, porous, spongy, and cold, in contradistinction to men’s dry, firm, hard, and warm flesh. Because of their cold sponginess, women’s bodies absorb more fluids, must shed blood regularly, and so are naturally imbalanced. Because the heat and dryness of men’s bodies absorbs excess liquid, they do not need to menstruate and semen is the only excess fluid they emit. Women’s health, then, is more tenuous than men’s, in that it depends on their bodies’ powers either to use up or expel excess fluids.

The Hippocratic texts seem to imagine a woman’s anatomy as a central tube with mouths at either end. Both mouths have a neck (cervix) and lips (labia), which are connected by a subsystem of tubes and containers. When the tubes and pathways are working properly, there is a clear passageway between the two mouths. A neat experiment to detect if a woman is fertile involves putting garlic in her vagina at night and then examining her breath the next morning. If her breath smells of garlic, her tubes are clear and she is open for business, that is to say, for conception. But when the pathways are not working properly and the fluids are out of balance, she will not be fertile, and illness will occur: “Now when, in a woman who has not given birth, the menses fail to appear and cannot find their way out, a disease arises.” An imbalance in fluids can have a tragic impact on mental health. For example, sometimes at the onset of puberty, a girl will be bleeding “copiously,” but the blood will “have no means of egress” so that it “leaps up…to the diaphragm.” The results of this are symptoms that include aggression and the tendency for girls “to leap around, to fall down into wells and to hang themselves,” and to “take on a desire for death, as if it were a good thing.”

The second distinguishing mark of women’s bodies, the womb, is critical to her health. The infamous “wandering womb” theory is rooted in the idea that the womb is kept in place only when a woman’s fluids are properly balanced. When they become imbalanced, the womb is more likely to “turn aside” from its proper position, often in search of hydration. Doctors must keep close tabs on this most important of female parts because “when the uterus moves out of its natural position, wherever it comes to rest it provokes violent pains” and illness. Cures involve rebalancing of fluids, especially the kind resulting from heterosexual sex. The remedy for many health problems requires the woman to “have intercourse with her husband.” One author offers a simple way to cure inappropriate behaviour in adolescent girls: “My advice to young girls…is to have sexual intercourse with a man as soon as possible.” Even better is for the girl to become pregnant, so that her excess blood can be wholly emitted. That is, a woman is more likely to be healthy when she is married and has lots of sex with her husband so that her fluids are fully employed and thereby properly balanced.

It’s easy for modern readers to respond to Hippocratic theories with ridicule. But to brush them aside as bad science is to miss a crucial point about Western medicine, its construction of gendered bodies, and persistent sexism. These first gynaecologists, who seem genuinely concerned about their patients’ well-being, took the flourishing of every single woman to be bound up with her reproductive organs and related fluids, so that her health and the good of her society depended on her subjugation to procreation.Mothers, fathers, husbands, and of course young women themselves were led to believe that female health demanded regular sexual intercourse and pregnancy.

When the Hippocratic authors placed women in bondage to their procreative powers and to their husbands, they initiated a long-standing strategy in Western thought of reducing women’s health to their reproductive capacity and making men their wardens.

To return to the question provoked by the Phaedo, might there be something about women’s bodies that makes it harder for them to purge their souls of bodily associations? The answer in the Hippocratic corpus is compelling: Women’s physical and mental health requires them to engage regularly in heterosexual sex and to procreate. Were a woman to be moved by the rightness of Plato’s account of the good and its demand to reject bodily concerns, she would have to choose between the health of her soul and that of her body. And were she to choose the health of her soul, then the Hippocratic corpus suggests that her body would likely suffer illness, which would in turn diminish her mental capacities.

Robust teleology is the animating impulse of Aristotle’s philosophy. All living things seek the good, which for humans is “rational activity in accordance with virtue.” Although Aristotle’s ethical writings suggest that women might attain virtue, his biological works tell a different story. When women produce “another creature of the same kind as the former,” they contribute to the good, though that is their only significant contribution. They cannot attain full virtue and happiness, since their cold and “heavy” blood renders them less spirited and more inclined to vice. We can begin to understand what led Western philosophy’s first systematic biologist to proclaim, “the female is…a mutilated male” and must be treated accordingly. “As regards the sexes,” writes Aristotle in the Politics, “the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male the ruler and the female the subject.” Aristotle’s works exemplify how easy it was for ancient thinkers to see all the parts of nature as fundamentally good and all human beings as actively contributing to the good, while comfortably accommodating female inferiority and subjugation as a part of the world’s order.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence these ancient ideas had on the history of Western thought.

Plato’s views about the soul and its need to “dwell in itself” grounded early Christian commitments to spiritual purification and celibacy, supporting centuries of misogyny. As Paul insists in the New Testament, “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness,” for “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (Timothy 2:12).

Aristotle’s philosophical and biological proposals were mixed with Hippocratic ideas, found their way into medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thought, and became the centrepiece of Europe’s first universities. Whether young men studied philosophy, theology, law, or medicine, they absorbed the causes and extent of female inferiority. Medical doctors through the 19th century continued to rely on Aristotelian and Hippocratic medical ideas. One prominent Victorian doctor, referring explicitly to these ancient sources, describes the attitude physicians take toward their female patients, “We are the stronger, and they the weaker. They are obliged to believe all that we tell them. They are not in a position to dispute anything we say to them, and we, therefore, may be said to have them at our mercy.” We see the same smug pride in the pronouncements of Chambliss and his ilk: These men are the wise wardens of women’s bodies.

It’s unsettling to witness the ease with which a few men writing over two millennia ago laid the groundwork for centuries of sexism. It’s crushing to realise that so many of our contemporaries embrace the logic of those ancient arguments and happily subjugate women’s bodies in the name of the good. But I find some comfort in understanding how these sexist attitudes arose, how they maintained themselves, and how utterly contingent they are. If knowledge is power, then understanding the ancient sources of current misogyny might aid us in the ferocious fight we now face to wrench our health and our bodies out of the hands of conservative men and their false sense of the good.

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The letter of Lord Chandos

Morning mystery

Morning mystery

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The Letter of Lord Chandos

This is the letter Philip, Lord Chandos, younger son of the Earl of Bath, wrote to Francis Bacon, later Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, apologising for his complete abandonment of literary ac­tivity.

…To sum up: In those days I, in a state of continuous in­toxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society; in everything I felt the pres­ence of Nature, in the aberrations of insanity as much as in the utmost refinement of the Spanish ceremonial; in the boorishness of young peasants no less than in the most deli­cate of allegories; and in all expressions of Nature I felt myself. …

Abundance

Abundance

…For what had it to do with pity, or with any comprehensible concatenation of human thought when, on another evening, on finding beneath a nut-tree a half-filled pitcher which a gardener boy had left there, and the pitcher and the water in it, darkened by the shadow of the tree, and a beetle swimming on the surface from shore to shore, when this combination of trifles sent through me such a shudder at the presence of the Infinite, a shudder running from the roots of my hair to the marrow of my heels? What was it that made me want to break into words which, I know, were I to find them, would force to their knees those cherubim in whom I do not believe? What made me turn silently away from this place?

July quiet

July quiet

Even now, after weeks, catching sight of that nut-tree, I pass it by with a shy sidelong glance, for I am loath to dispel the memory of the miracle hovering there round the trunk, loath to drive away the unearthly tremors that still pulse around the nearby foliage. In these moments an insignificant creature – a dog, a rat, a beetle, a crippled apple tree, a lane winding over the hill, a moss-covered stone, mean more to me than the most beautiful, abandoned mistress of the happiest night.

Drenched

Drenched

These mute and, on occasion, inanimate creatures rise toward me with such an abundance, such a presence of love, that my enchanted eye can find nothing in sight void of life. Every­thing that exists, everything I can remember, everything touched upon by my confused thoughts, has a meaning. Even my own heaviness, the general torpor of my brain, seems to acquire a meaning; I experience in and around me a blissful, never-ending interplay, and among the objects playing against one another there is not one into which I cannot flow.

Falling

Falling

To me, then, it is as though my body consists of nought but ciphers which give me the key to everything; or as if we could enter into a new and hopeful relationship with the whole of exist­ence if only we begin to think with the heart. As soon, how­ever, as this strange enchantment falls from me, I find myself confused; wherein this harmony transcending me and the en­tire world consisted, and how it made itself known to me, I could present in sensible words as little as I could say any­thing precise about the inner movements of my intestines or a congestion of my blood. …

Busy as

Busy as

…For my unnamed blissful feeling is sooner brought about by a distant lonely shepherd’s fire than by the vision of a starry sky, sooner by the chirping of the last dying cricket when the autumn wind chases wintry clouds across the deserted fields than by the majestic booming of an organ. And in my mind I compare myself from time to time with the orator Crassus, of whom it is reported that he grew so excessively enamoured of a tame lamprey – a dumb, apathetic, red-eyed fish in his ornamental pond – that it became the talk of the town; and when one day in the Senate Domitius reproached him for having shed tears over the death of this fish, attempting thereby to make him appear a fool, Crassus answered, “Thus have I done over the death of my fish as you have over the death of neither your first nor your second wife.”

Luminescence

Luminescence

I know not how oft this Crassus with his lamprey enters my mind as a mirrored image of my Self, reflected across the abyss of centuries. But not on account of the answer he gave Domitius. The answer brought the laughs on his side, and the whole affair turned into a jest. I, however, am deeply affected by the affair, which would have remained the same even had Domitius shed bitter tears of sorrow over his wives. For there would still have been Crassus, shedding tears over his lam­prey. And about this figure, utterly ridiculous and contempti­ble in the midst of a world-governing senate discussing the most serious subjects, I feel compelled by a mysterious power to reflect in a manner which, the moment I attempt to express it in words, strikes me as supremely foolish.

Complicated

Complicated

Now and then at night the image of this Crassus is in my brain, like a splinter round which everything festers, throbs, and boils. It is then that I feel as though I myself were about to ferment, to effervesce, to foam and to sparkle. And the whole thing is a kind of feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more immediate, more liquid, more glowing than words. It, too, forms whirlpools, but of a sort that do not seem to lead, as the whirlpools of language, into the abyss, but into myself and into the deepest womb of peace.

The price of gold

The price of gold

I have troubled you excessively, my dear friend, with this extended description of an inexplicable condition which is wont, as a rule, to remain locked up in me.

You were kind enough to express your dissatisfaction that no book written by me reaches you any more, “to compensate for the loss of our relationship.” Reading that, I felt, with a certainty not entirely bereft of a feeling of sorrow, that neither in the coming year nor in the following nor in all the years of this my life shall I write a book, whether in English or in Latin: and this for an odd and embarrassing reason which I must leave to the boundless superiority of your mind to place in the realm of physical and spiritual values spread out har­moniously before your unprejudiced eye: to wit, because the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me, a lan­guage in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge.

Glow

Glow

Fain had I the power to compress in this, presumably my last, letter to Francis Bacon all the love and gratitude, all the unmeasured admiration, which I harbour in my heart for the greatest benefactor of my mind, for the foremost Englishman of my day, and which I shall harbour therein until death break it asunder.

This 22 August, A.D. 1603

PHI. CHANDOS

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With many thanks to Steven Baird for his permission to use his images

‘To hold fast to the positive in its negative…’

Hand_holding_burning_coal

‘Take a burning coal and put it on my hand. If I said the coal burnt my hand, I would do it injustice. Were I to say truly what burns me, it is negation, for the coal contains something that my hand has not. It is this not that burns me. But if my hand contained all that the coal has or can effect, it would be all of the nature of fire. Then, if anyone were to take all the fire that ever burnt, and poured it out on to my hand, that could not hurt me.’

From Sermon 13 (b) in Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, Trans. and Ed., Maurice O’C. Walshe, Crossroad, New York, 2009, 109

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Study for cembalo

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

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Hegel on the role of academic philosophers – priests at ‘a continual divine service’

Cloister garden, Domkerk, Utrecht

Cloister garden, Domkerk, Utrecht

“This conceptual cognition of religion is by its nature not universal, but is rather only the cognition of a community. For that reason three stages take shape in regard to the kingdom of the Spirit: the first estate is that of immediate, naive religion and of faith; the second is that of the understanding, the estate of the so-called cultured, of reflection and the Enlightenment; and finally the third estate is ‘the community of philosophy.’”

In a note the Editor commented: “The ‘community’ (Gemeinde) – the community of faith, of the Spirit, the Christian community – seems now to have passed over into the philosophical community, and along with it its cognitive (i.e., its theological) activity.”

G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion vol. III, The Consummate Religion, ed. Peter C. Hodgson, trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 247

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The ascetics Proclus and Nietzsche on eternal recurrence

Proclus 412-485 C.E.

Proclus (412-485)

‘Prop. 199. Every intra-mundane soul has in its proper life periods and cyclic reinstatements.

For if it is measured by time and has a transitive activity (prop. 191), and movement is its distinctive character (prop. 20), and all that moves and participates time, if it be perpetual, moves in periods and periodically returns in a circle and is restored to its starting-point (prop. 198), then it is evident that in every intra-mundane soul, having movement and exercising a temporal activity, will have a periodic motion, and also cyclic reinstatements (since in the case of things perpetual every period ends in a reinstatement of the original condition).’

‘Prop. 206. Every particular soul can descend into temporal process and ascend from process to Being an infinite number of times.

For if at certain times it is in the company of gods and at others falls away from its upward tension towards the divine, and if it participates both intelligence and unintelligence (prop. 202), it is plain that by turns it comes-to-be in the world of process and has true Being among the gods. For it cannot (have been for an infinite time in material bodies and thereafter pass a second infinite time among the gods, neither can it) have spent an infinite time among the gods and again be embodied for the whole time thereafter, since that which has no temporal beginning will never have an end, and what has no end cannot have had a beginning. It remains, then, that each soul has a periodic alternation of ascents out of process and descents into process, and that this movement is unceasing by reason of the infinitude of time. Therefore each particular soul can descend and ascend an infinite number of times, and this shall never cease to befall every such soul.’

Proclus, The Elements of Theology, Trans., E.R. Dodds, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, 175, 181

‘At the twilight of antiquity there were still wholly unchristian figures, which were more beautiful, harmonious, and pure than those of any Christians: e.g., Proclus. His mysticism and syncretism were things that precisely Christianity cannot reproach him with. In any case, it would be my desire to live together with such people. In comparison with them Christianity looks like some crude brutalisation, organised for the benefit of the mob and the criminal classes.

Proclus, who solemnly invokes the rising moon.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, ’We Philologists’, Trans., J.M.Kennedy, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delphi Classics, Hastings, East Sussex, 2015, 7535

NIetzsche_the_birth_of_tragedy

Nietzsche_Thus_spoke_zarathustra

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.'”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Trans., Josefine Nauckhoff, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, 194-195

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