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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Source

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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Images: top/below left/below right

NASA, ESA and a fine paragraph by William Franke

1. Flaring black hole accretion disk in the binary system V404 Cygni

1. Flaring black hole accretion disk in the binary system V404 Cygni

‘My own belief is that apophatic or negative theology holds in its keeping a key to the perennial vitality of philosophical reflection that does not simply define and then exhaust arbitrarily laid down, heuristic limits for its thinking. The willingness to let go of all definitions, to negate all its own formulations, opens thought to what is moving within it, beyond or beneath the definitive grasp of words and concepts. Philosophy at this level is not merely cognitive but also shades into and merges with other dimensions of human experience and being, such as the affective and conative (or wilful). In the ancient world, notably among the Neoplatonists, philosophy was so understood as a spiritual exercise involving all the human faculties of intellection and sensibility and praxis.’

William Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014, 200-201

2. The sparring Antennae galaxies

2. The sparring Antennae galaxies

3. A cosmic couple - the star Hen 2-427 and the nebula M1-67 surrounding it

3. A cosmic couple – the star Hen 2-427 and the nebula M1-67 surrounding it

4. The Veil Nebula supernova remnant

4. The Veil Nebula supernova remnant

5. The Little Gem Nebula - planetary nebula NGC 6818

5. The Little Gem Nebula – planetary nebula NGC 6818

6. The barred spiral galaxy NGC 986 discovered in 1828 by James Dunlop

6. The barred spiral galaxy NGC 986, discovered in 1828 by James Dunlop

7. NGC 7714

7. NGC 7714

8. The ‘anaemic’ spiral galaxy NGC 4921

8. The ‘anaemic’ spiral galaxy NGC 4921

9. The Tadpole Galaxy, Arp 188. Its tail is about 280 thousand light-years long.

9. The Tadpole Galaxy, Arp 188. Its tail is about 280 thousand light-years long.

10. NGC 5972 - ghost of a quasar

10. NGC 5972 – ghost of a quasar

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Images: 1./2./3./4./5./6./7./8./9./10.

Nicholas of Cusa on the world

1. This artistic illustration is of a binary black hole found in the centre of the nearest quasar to Earth, Markarian 231, 600 million light-years away. The central black hole is estimated to be 150 million times the mass of our sun and the companion weighs in at 4 million solar masses.

1. This artistic illustration is of a binary black hole found in the centre of the nearest quasar to Earth, Markarian 231, 600 million light-years away. The central black hole is estimated to be 150 million times the mass of our sun and the companion weighs in at 4 million solar masses.

‘Who would not admire this Artisan, who with regard to the spheres, the stars, and the regions of the stars used such skill that there is – though without complete precision – both a harmony of all things and a diversity of all things? (This Artisan) considered in advance the sizes, the placing, and the motion of the stars in the one world; and He ordained the distances of the stars in such way that unless each region were as it is, it could neither exist nor exist in such a place and with such an order – nor could the universe exist. Moreover, He bestowed on all stars a differing brightness, influence, shape, colour, and heat. (Heat causally accompanies the brightness.) And He established the interrelationship of parts so proportionally that in each thing the motion of the parts is oriented toward the whole. With heavy things (the motion is) downward toward the centre, and with light things it is upward from the centre and around the centre (e.g., we perceive the motion of the stars as circular).

With regard to these objects, which are so worthy of admiration, so varied, and so different, we recognise – through learned ignorance and in accordance with the preceding points – that we cannot know the rationale for any of God’s works but can only marvel; for the Lord is great, whose greatness is without end.’

Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance), 1440, II.13, in Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance, Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1990, (online) 100

2. A massive black hole hidden at the centre of nearby galaxy Centaurus A, feeds on a smaller galaxy in a spectacular collision.

2. A massive black hole hidden at the centre of nearby galaxy Centaurus A, feeds on a smaller galaxy in a spectacular collision.

3. Large Hubble survey confirms link between mergers and supermassive black holes with relativistic jets

3. Large Hubble survey confirms link between mergers and supermassive black holes with relativistic jets

4. A ‘rose’ made of galaxies. Interacting galaxies Arp 273

4. A ‘rose’ made of galaxies. Interacting galaxies Arp 273

5. Spiral Galaxy M96 from Hubble

5. Spiral Galaxy M96 from Hubble

6. Hubble observes merging galaxies’ evolution in slow motion - NGC 3921

6. Hubble observes merging galaxies’ evolution in slow motion – NGC 3921

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Images: 1./2./3./4./5./6.

Imagine

W5: Pillars of Star Creation. Double-click to enlarge. ...Are we thinking Dante?

W5: Pillars of Star Creation. Double-click to enlarge. …Are we thinking Dante?

Gustave Doré’s 1855 illustration for The Divine Comedy: ‘Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean’.

Gustave Doré’s 1855 illustration for The Divine Comedy: ‘Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean’.

‘How is that Power present to the universe?

…Conceive it as a power of an ever-fresh infinity, a principle unfailing, inexhaustible, at no point giving out, brimming over with its own vitality. If you look to some definite spot and seek to fasten on some definite thing, you will not find it. The contrary is your only way; you cannot pass on to where it is not; you will never halt at a dwindling point where it fails at last and can no longer give; you will always be able to move with it – better, to be in its entirety – and so seek no further; denying it, you have strayed away to something of another order and you fall; looking elsewhere you do not see what stand there before you.’

Plotinus, The Enneads, Third ed. Abridged, Trans. Stephen MacKenna. Penguin, London, 1991, VI.5.12

Imagine if someone inverted this philosophy, giving it a material basis – a basis in the objective world.

Marx did this. He stood it on its feet.

In doing so, he took this theory of knowledge to its most developed stage.

Now it must be taken further.

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Images: top/bottom

Contra sacerdotes latentes: Phillip Adams vs. ‘god’

Gilded mummy portrait of a woman, probably from er-Rubayat, Egypt, Roman Period, about AD 160-170. This image is often used to depict Hypatia of Alexandria because it dates from about the same time, comes from the same region and is beautiful - she was supposed to have been beautiful. A more life-like reproduction of this image is in The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt by Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Thames and Hudson, 1995. The original is in the British Museum, London.

Gilded mummy portrait of a woman, probably from er-Rubayat, Egypt, Roman Period, about AD 160-170. This image is often used to depict Hypatia of Alexandria because it dates from about the same time she lived (c. AD 350-415), comes from the same region and is beautiful – she is supposed to have been beautiful. A more life-like reproduction of this image is in The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt by Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Thames and Hudson, 1995. The original is in the British Museum, London.

Originally posted 30.03.14

Email sent to Phillip Adams 06.09.09

To Phillip Adams, host of Late Night Live, ABC Radio National, copied to John McDonald

Hi Phillip,

Would you be interested in delivering a very serious blow against ‘god’, against time-serving academics in a dozy, servile culture and in so doing, delivering an immense blow for intellect, the love of knowledge and the freeing-up of the potential of the most advanced organisation of matter yet known to us in the universe – what we all have between our ears?

If so, I strongly urge you to consider contacting and interviewing on Late Night Live William Franke from Vanderbilt University regarding the 2 vol. anthology he edited – ‘On What Cannot be Said’.

Despite one student posting on RateMyProfessors.com ‘Dr. Franke is the most boring professor I have ever had. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I sit in the back of Benson 200 and wait for death. Also, he answers every question with “Yes, that’s a question, isn’t it?”‘ and despite his intent in his editorship being far more limited than the result he achieved, he has compiled a body of texts from Western religion, philosophy and arts that, together, have the potential to contribute most significantly to the above.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora (2009)

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora (2009)

In his anthology Franke presents the history of mysticism in Western culture till now, the evidence that clearly indicates the degree to which it suffuses our culture and underlies and informs the work of many of our culture’s most significant figures and particularly, he addresses how it functions now, despite the denials of those who would be thought of as representatives of ‘reason’ and the new – when in fact they argue for mysticism and the ancient. Franke himself believes his anthology comfortably extends the academic corpus – he does not see the former’s liberating potential.

The teaching of mysticism is rejected from Australian universities – ‘If you want that’ those in ivory towers behind cloistered walls believe, ‘do not even stop at religious studies, go straight to a college of theology – you will find one at the dead end of the street.’

Michael Lonsdale as Theon and Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora (2009)

Michael Lonsdale as Theon and Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria in Agora (2009)

As a materialist (those who describe themselves as ‘physicalist’ or ‘realist’ cause me to think of a mouse trembling before a trap, the cheese on which is ‘materialist’, the trap being ‘communism’…) I argue that the failure to even know about and understand this theological current let alone to teach it (not to advocate it but to teach the analysis of it, the understanding of it) as fundamental to our culture, which analysis and understanding is again fundamental to moving forward in the most rounded way, is the most massive failure, the most massive display of determined ignorance, dishonesty and servility to the dominant ideology by generations of academics – those in philosophy and the arts hold the greatest responsibility.

In relation to ‘god’, the most sound way for knowledge to progress is not to deny the concept, to dismiss it, to mock it. Doing this rejects engagement with it and does not show respect either for the religious who believe in that concept (for the a-theists who reject it – because they describe themselves against it) or for the cultural achievements made in its name. It is to do as Franke has done. He not only traced the history of mysticism in the West, but thereby showed how the arguments in its maintenance developed. He let ‘what cannot be said’ speak for itself. To fully understand the work of so many, particularly those in philosophy and the arts who dissemble about their sources and influences, would be impossible without such work.

Of the greatest importance, in his two volumes, Franke has unerringly and unintentionally flushed out a concealed priesthood, a priesthood that argues it is doing nothing other than the most principled and often most abstract reasoning – a priesthood that often denies its belief. With this priesthood, Franke has flushed a living ‘god’ into the open. And behind this ‘god’ there stands a dominant class and the most fundamental question of all – which precedes which – consciousness/thought or ‘matter’ (that which exists independently of consciousness/thought)?

I have tried for 25 years to get academic support towards my analysis and exposure of the impact of this mystical current on the visual arts – and to date have met, in the end result, with the most adamantine commitment to the dominant bourgeois ideology re- this crucial subject from academics in the visual arts and philosophy.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria and Oscar Isaac as Orestes in Agora (2009)

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria and Oscar Isaac as Orestes in Agora (2009)

I know of no university in this country where one of the greatest philosophers and aestheticians in the West (in terms of an impact comparable with that of Plato and Aristotle) – Plotinus – is taught. It is an outrage against intellect, an utter failure in social responsibility by time-serving academics in their guardianship of a distorted and limiting understanding of ‘reason’. To expose and exemplify the extent to which mysticism pervades what they believe to be the products of the best ‘reason’ and what it has inspired in philosophy and the arts must challenge their understanding of ‘reason’ itself – an understanding increasingly at odds with the exponential growth of knowledge in brain science.

A couple of weeks ago you interviewed Jane Montgomery Griffiths re- the Neoplatonist Hypatia. For the sake of doing something truly new for philosophy and the arts in this country – and that to begin with, I urge you to expand that focus immensely, beyond Hypatia, to address the current of which she was a part, and interview Franke on your program.

Regards,

Philip Stanfield

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Images: top/2nd, 3rd and 4th/bottom