The Sacred and the Challenge of Modernity
by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD
The context of the present symposium is that of modernism. Modernism has been with Western tradition for a long time and it will, in all probability, continue for some time to come. The advantage of the present time is that for the first time in its history, modernism has exhausted itself and has come to form part, at least theoretically, of past history, of one of the shores of the next dialectical move in the movement of history. Properly speaking, what we are doing here today is part of a new period known as post-modern.
Modernism has had a long history with us. Though it is mostly identified with the rise of Cartesianism, i.e., the identification of knowing only that which can be known by reducing human and other bodies to systems functioning as if they were machines, its roots go as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle made fashionable an external division of the world through genera and species, separating philosophy and fashion from the legitimation of inner acts that divide the world by an inner lineage of quality, as Plato had suggested. Augustine contributes to the spread of modernism through an exaggeration of individuality and the individual will, while identifying (reducing) transcendental power (the Trinity) to the model of the human powers (human brain) discarding imagining and introducing ideology as the main faculty of reason. Through ideology thinking is reduced seriatim to having thoughts, and thoughts to behavior and finally information. Knowing, ultimately, and decision-making, will be reduced to manipulation of information. Knowing and power will be linked together in the public domain, from politics to religion to education.
It is in this context that the human soul suffers from an agonizing dualism. On the one hand it has developed a habit of reading the world (theories of knowledge) through theories that give form to possible experience and legitimize it. On the other hand it has to contend with a theory of verification that claims that it is a reflection of real experience (empiricism). Human life, under this metaphysical constraint, defines itself as a continuous series of experimentations, as temporary commitments, as the absence of maps, as a des-centered chaos at the root of identity. Difference is the only center, and this difference lets out an internal shout of a soul affirming its own power in a reverberation of madness, as its own eternal movement of eternal difference. The soul witnesses in itself the rise of the spectral simulacra of its own des-centered affirmation. The false has risen to power. The Same and the Like (in Plato’s sense), the model and the copy, have fallen under the power of the false (the simulacrum). Hierarchies have been made to disappear and thus there is no possible participation in anything, in the determination and distribution of value. The world of humans has become an eternal difference of nomadic and consecrated anarchies. Foundations have floundered and the only hope (entelechy) is the total collapse, the joyous event the modern soul looks forward to.
Taking hold of this historical moment, one hopes to single out those qualities of modern society and those qualities of modern humans that could be cultivated for the advent of the new age, the post-modern age.
Recovery of the Sacred
And to those of you who are no longer children, I leave Memory and the poetry of the Ages.
– Last Will and Testament of a Poet
The boundaries of the present paper are marked by what is normally or abnormally understood as Western culture. The “recovery of the sacred” is proposed as a project that encompasses two moves; the first, listening to the poetic and mystical voices of the West; the second, embodying the technologies that make those voices possible. A full recovery of these voices is incomplete unless we journey East, to the Indian Forest.
The alternative we are trying to divert is that of the “prophetic voices” of the same tradition, those from the Old Testament and those prophetic voices from modern and ancient philosophy. Why mix philosophy in this project? The answer is inevitable. Philosophy, as actually practiced in the last twenty centuries in this same tradition, has been the meta-language and legitimation domain of the social practices of Western people. These social practices, be they religion, theology of the sacred, or science, do not have their own legitimation language in their practice. Thus philosophy has marked its path through the ‘legitimation’ of conflicting claims about knowledge that historically appeared to be incommensurable without actually (inspite of such practice) disqualifying itself as a way to legitimate knowledge.
But both philosophy and the prophetic voices have proceeded in the past as if neither Plato’s project for philosophy nor the ‘composition’ of the New Testament (how the Christian documents were humanly created) had ever taken place. On this large omission and lapse of memory we base our ‘recovery of the sacred.’
In positive terms we propose that the recovery of the sacred is at hand on two conditions. First, the return of philosophy to the project that Plato proposed for philosophy and Indic Texts exemplified before him. Second, the embodiment, through training, of those human faculties needed to carry out such a program of philosophy that coincides with the practices of some mystics and that created the Classical Texts of India and the New Testament in the first place. (Philosophy and embodied training will not cause the sacred to happen. But without them the sacred will not return as a present possibility. They are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the sacred.) This recovery is proposed as a journey of memory and recollection, not ideology and speculation. Our reading is of the past, not the future.
To proceed systematically I will leave for the end the contribution of the Classical Indic Texts and focus now on the better known scenarios that Plato proposed for himself in the Republic: a) the house of Polemarchus, where a community of speakers is formed; b) the Cave, the description of the modern and post-modern condition; c) the world of Er, death and resurrection, as the conditions of the sacred and the communal and social consequences. This whole project Plato described in the ‘divided line’ where knowledge means an embodiment of all the technologies involved in cognitive and imaginative acts so that the philosopher is free to act with justice for all. Lets detour first with the impediments we have found in history to carry out the project we are proposing.
The Prophetic Voice
The prophetic voice, both in the Bible and in philosophy, is a dangerous voice for the one sustaining the vision and for those listening. The prophetic voice always acts alone, away from the group and its desires, and unable to separate itself from the speaker’s own projects and desires. It is a symbol of disembodied contemplation, of a profound disharmony between the will of another and the will of the existing social order. It is a voice that illustrates an extraordinary capacity for self-criticism. On listening to the prophetic voice in the Bible, one has to wonder if what we scholars do to the Bible, with all our different readings, is more dangerous to the soul than what the Bible does to us, and to those that read it, with its prophetic voices. Given the prophetic voice, we have inherited such a critical attitude that we are unable to be satisfied with any given state of culture and need, therefore, to keep changing constantly. What does not change is our will to change. In this vision, cities are evil. Cultures, like that of Egypt, are evil. Wealth is treacherous. Any “way of life” is subject to incur pride and error, even a man’s righteousness is suspect: “Though I count myself innocent, it may declare me a hypocrite.” (Job 9:20)
The role of the prophets is to denounce the culture and probe it to its foundation until it is unmasked of any ideology. Instead of investing sacredness to the “various cultures,” they obliterate any preferences. In front of their vision of Yahweh, all men and their petty distinctions are as the undifferentiated dust of the desert. The prophetic seers make alienation their home. They make those that listen to them at home in this alienation by making them share in the seer’s vision, and then they sit back and contemplate in perfect stoicism the prospect of social disorder. The prophets were the first to discover the sound of the skeptical voice, often a mocking spirit that long since has pervaded the intellectual life of Western culture. To that voice, no matter what happened in history, even the destruction of prophecy, the content – the avid need for change – never changes.
This prophetic project is nowhere more evident than in Nietzsche. The critical attitude that philosophy claims from Kant has deeper roots in the prophets of philosophy, and at their hands nothing stands still. When Nietzsche claims that the history of philosophy is a deliberate effort to overthrow Platonism, many took it that this was Nietzsche’s own project. It was not, but the skeptical voice was too busy being skeptical to build a nonideological counterproposal or even resurrect Plato. One would have even been content if Nietzsche had tracked down the motivation for this overthrow to clear the ground from the dust of the tomb so that a resurrection might be possible. Instead we have, once more, the destruction of the idols of the past: God has no Being, being is not analogous, the word is not a mystical experience, faith is not an experience, not something man is capable of, God cannot be thought of as a substance, God’s works cannot be conceived as causality, sacred history cannot be conceived as a process, things have no being, no nature, no essence, no appearance; there are no models to be copied, no ideals that are eternal, no basis for values, no guide (except for some loose messages given through the prophets themselves) for morals, no sacred institutions, no sacredness in human action, for the vision of the prophet is invariably wholly transcendent. The only thing that is permanent is the continuity of the prophetic vision. (Scheneidau, 1976)
The prophetic voice proceeds by borrowing from the exterior any present state of affairs and demanding that it be changed because it is not good enough; thus it interiorized a critical attitude that it is only critical to the extent that nothing can measure up to the wholly transcendent prophetic vision. Modernity will simply cancel the transcendent vision and proclaim that the prophetic voice be kept alive if only to protect humans from having, conceiving, reviving in any form, any possibility of transcendent models, images, icons, or origins to which human acting must conform. Modernity is the age of the simulacrum (in Plato’s formulation) giving truth to the power of its own affirmation as the different. And this brings us back to the motivation of why Plato had to be dethroned.
First Scenario: Polemarchus House
“I went down to Peiraeus…” says Socrates and with these energetic words Plato launches the listener in the Republic, and the generations of philosophers that followed, into one of the most astonishing quests of the human spirit: Philosophic wisdom, that is philosophic wisdom about the Good life. Its goal being the ability to choose always and anywhere the better life from among those that are possible. And this would be done by training the philosopher in particular habits of action that would guarantee a habitual practice of virtue. Philosophy was conceived in its origin as the visible aspect of performing “virtue by habit.”
As the narrative of the Republic develops we find that Socrates agrees to the initial “robbery” by the young men who want to make him talk in order to form a “community.” The spaces of discourse (and also of mental acts) in the Republic keep shifting as this community moves. Each space demands a different language, a different inner technology for its use; each a different embodiment from the practitioner. The plurality of these embodiments are the condition for all of human knowledge to find a philosophical legitimation. These embodiments and these plural inner technologies form the whole narrative of the act and language of what Plato projected as philosophy.
In appearance the prose of the Republic leads the listener/reader along a smooth and easy path; there are changes of direction and delays in the journey, but all in all there appears to be a progressive development, and intimation that the listener/reader is nearing home. To this point prophets and sophists would find common ground for communication: the affirmation of change is their only similarity. But suddenly Socrates takes over, (from being a sophist he moves to being a philosopher) introducing sudden shocks and abrupt discontinuities and setting the familiar expectations on their head. At the end of Book Six of the Republic, he introduces the ‘divided line,’ to be followed by the Cave and the narrative of Er.
The ‘divided line’ ought to be a simple exercise in reading (509b-511e). How difficult could it be to divide a line into two unequal segments? One must be larger than the other; one must be labeled intelligible the other visible. Which one is which? Are opinions, images from empirical objects, objects of art and science visible or intelligible? Is the epistemic part (the larger one, and which Plato divides in the Sophist 236b, 264c into icons, good images, and simulacra, semblances without likeness), visible or intelligible? For this the listener/reader must make a decision. Plato/Socrates does not say which part is which. If the listener/reader makes no decision, then he/she has no ground on which to do philosophy. If he does make a decision, then philosophy will suffer reductionism.
Philosophers after Plato have answered this question choosing a priori which part of the divided line was visible and which intelligible. Opinions, images from empirical objects, objects from art and science are all visible; ideas, models, theories are all intelligible. Plato never said in the Republic or anywhere else which part is which. A commitment to either side would have ruined his philosophical project. Plato is pointing out acts to be performed, and therefore all should be embodied. Plato’s project of philosophy is primarily concerned with inner acts that take as primary their relation of Sameness and Similarity to an original invisible form. The performance of those acts will make the invisible visible, and Plato’s guide to sort out the claims of his community of speakers will be their relation to those origins, i.e. are they good at forming good icons? The life in the cave is only the predominance of the intelligibles as simulacra, bad images, which are not only bad as images but even worse because they negate the need and existence of original images. Er will be the model for turning the dead into a source of exercise to bring to life what has already happened: creation in the past, the inner act of creating, the power of memory to bring, through imagining, the dead to life. For Plato remembering is bringing from the text of the living body of humans those acts they have already embodied as humans, and that, therefore, make up the “primary text” of philosophy. The human body is such a text – as opposed to theories disembodied in the air or transcendent beings disengaged from the human. As humans we are neuro-physiologically connected to a common enterprise: the fitting of our soul to the Good, not to the goods we are going to critique and discard. This “fitting” is the primary philosophical exercise. This “embodied text” is the primary, referential study of all analysis. It is co-extensive with embodied habits of humans found in history and, therefore, with human history. This is the reason why “remembering texts” in the present is simultaneously the building of history. Philosophically, one does not need to be a transcendentalist or have such belief in order not to be committed to the prophetic voice or the need to destroy inner icons and the technologies of their formation.
Second Scenario: The Cave
After Socrates introduces in the dialogue of the Republic the ‘divided line’, the house of Polemarchus is transformed into a new place. It becomes the “cave.” The Sun is now “up,” the cave is now “down” and in between there is the mid-region of the “fire” where the intelligible forms they had been discussing previously are seen as causing the shadows on the walls that govern the prisoners below. Prisoners and speakers live under those shadows, are sensitized by them and feel their own emptiness. The region of the sun is obviously the “solitary region” where no one dwells. Life is in the “cave.”
It is here in the mid-region in front of the fire that the prophetic voice turns to writing. All things are turned to writing. This is the birth of ideology, or rather this is where ideology is seen, in Plato’s terms, as being the cause of the shadows. The enemy is within.
This is the prophetic voice that reemerges with a vengeance in Christianity through Augustine. St. Augustine’s ultimate quest is identical with the ultimate form of the desire of the soul (desiderium beautitudinis). As soon, however, as he sits in front of the fire of reflection, this desire of the soul is translated by him as “the desire to be” (desiderium essendi). The history of this reduction, from the desire of the soul to the desire of the mind, is worth dissecting.
Augustine, searching for that experience of “being with God” (esse cum Deo), remained with the Manicheans for several years, studying their doctrines and imaginative practices. But Augustine turned out (De Vera Religione) to be a total failure at imagining. No experience came to him through imagining. He never mastered those technologies. As Augustine narrates in his Confessions IV: 16-31, he moved on trying to reconcile the Manichean doctrine of two substances, spiritual and material. Ambrose’s preaching set him on the track of an ultimate principle, even at a time when Augustine was not capable of conceiving a purely spiritual reality (Confessions V: 10-20). In moral desperation he tried to look for help in the Gospel. Thus the new Augustinian text was born (Confessions: VIII: 12, 28-29).
Augustine entered philosophy the way one enters religion, for the salvation of his soul. This project of salvation at his hands undergoes several transformations. It is first an exercise in reading the Scriptures as an alternative to reading the sciences (Zum Brunn 1978). Second, this exercise is made possible with the aid of the “books of the Platonists” that Augustine found to replace the Manichean exercises. Third, this intellectual quest was for the sake of understanding his faith, the Old Testament and the New: Exodus 3:14 (I am who am), and John’s 8:58, 8:24 and 8:28 (“Before Abraham was, I am”). As Augustine summarizes in the Dialogues his quest is: to “have God” (habere Deum), to “be with God” (esse cum Deo) since He is “Being itself” (ipsum esse) (Zum Brunn, 1969). Augustine travels from faith to the understanding of faith and thus in turn to a state of intellectual intuition. Augustine thus reduces the text of Christianity to the understanding of faith that grounds faith: “sic sum ipsum esse ut nolim hominibus de esse” (I am Being itself in such a way as not to mislead men) (Sermon 7). In this manner the intellectual acts of the mind become primary technologies in Augustine for health and salvation. Once this is established, the role of Christ as Mediator is reduced in this plan of salvation to the salvation of what Augustine understood for reason, since Christ had come down to teach us the doctrine of reason (Zum Brunn 1978). Thus Augustine does not even blink, when, in his work De Trinitate, XIV, he introduces chapter four with the following thesis: “The image of God is to be sought in the immortality of the rational soul. How a Trinity is demonstrated in the mind.” Thus Augustine reduces his whole thesis to the natural operations of memory, understanding and will; this thesis is reformulated in Confessions IX and X, and in De Musica VI. If the soul has any hope, it is not in the here and now but in its immortality. Augustine cannot forget his own failure at imagining and adapts it to his own doctrine: “Whoever thinks that in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginations as to possess the undoubted light of changeless truth, and to cleave to it with the unswerving constancy of a spirit wholly stranded from the common ways of life…he understands neither what he seeks, nor who is who seeks it.” (De Ordine 1: 8, 24)
Here Augustine gives us the hybrid text shared by so many Christians. A form of reflection and prayer, of thinking and salvation unified in a common project of transformation, a clear hybrid mixture of reason and will, thought and tears, intellection and occultism at the service of a particular human vision limited by its own failure at mastering the technologies of imagining and those humble virtues of imitating the perfect act with others. The only transcendence in this text lies in the hope of immortality, a hope that becomes hopeless in the face of empirical evidence. The conditions for the kind of knowledge that Augustine proposes disappear with death through the disintegration of those same faculties and the conditions for their operations. And yet this hybrid text has survived in Christianity as a “habit of mind” for those philosophers that take philosophy as a project of salvation, where “to save is to redirect essence with the aim of making it reappear, for the first time, in the manner that is proper to itself” (Heidegger, 1958).
Christians, above all young Christians, do not believe that the kingdom of the Spirit functions under human models. As far as they are concerned the facts of the Spirit are clear and indisputable. But this is not the case. The world of the Spirit labors as much under interpretative models as does physics or economics. The only difference being that in physics and economics, people work under the assumption that those models might be wrong and are always ready to make new ones. In the case of the models governing the Spirit, the model, by remaining tacit, supplants the source of revelation and inflicts despair where there is only human ignorance and pride. St. Augustine is an obvious case, but the discovery was traumatic. Augustine did not model man on God’s image, but rather he modeled the Trinity on man’s mortal faculties. Revelation was thus closed.
St. Thomas Aquinas is another example of the same reduction. The Trinity at the hands of St. Thomas is reduced to the formula “God becomes man.” Jesus, the Mediator, becomes identical with the God/man. But this is not exactly the Trinitarian origin of Jesus. In the Trinity, Christ is the Second Person, not the whole Trinity. It is not the case, therefore, that God became man; rather, it is the case that the Second Person of the Trinity became man. Through his mediation the other two Persons are made present; revelation may thus be opened to humans through Christ. If this happens, other actions are opened to humans besides guilt and grace. For those who would follow Augustine’s model the image of God coincides with the actions of their human faculties as a mirror coincides with its image; life is closed, individual, agonic, passionate, but this life, this individuality, agony and passion is closer to human models than God’s images. The images feeding this type of life are borrowed from the external world, not from the inner world of imagining. Revelation is closed, but the hope of “grace” is inevitable in the face of a hopeless situation.
For those following St. Thomas’ model, humans and “nature” are an analogy of God, a model-at-a-distance, from which, again, a participation in Revelation has been subtracted. On this model cognition is dependent on the external world and the best styles of life, that is, Christian life, are equated with individual perfections, individual superheroes, celibate isolation, avoidance of the world, theoretical contemplation. Modernity, it appears, is a condition of all ages.
The negativity of modernity may only be understood within the compound of the cave in that its only positive sign is its total power of negation. But the motivation for this negation is only understood against what Plato proposed as the project of philosophy. And this again may only be seen in the “cave.”
Just as the sun sets over Athens, Plato introduces in the Republic the technologies by which the sun is always present, even when all human life is in the cave. This theme is found earlier in the Symposium as Plato traces the genealogy of love. Love is the offspring of Poros (abundance, exuberance, superfluity) and Penia (scarcity, necessity, privation) (Symp. 203c-204a). Consequently, love lives in midair, in a region as vast as it is endless, in a homeless land (Symp. 203c-d). Love is never entirely full, never entirely empty (Symp. 203e); it rests somewhere between complete wisdom and complete ignorance (ibid.); it is the eternal mediator between heaven and hell (Symp. 202e) and must remain in midair: a move too close to either side would be the demise of love. Since love has no home, it is only in loving (the act) that love makes a home. Of itself it has no nature but finds itself only in the decisions and acts of love. It loves to give birth to beauty (goodness) (Symp. 206b), and through these acts prolongs itself into immortality (Symp. 207a). In creating goodness and beauty one becomes rid of the indeterminedness of the mid-region, the homeless ground, and becomes one with the immortal (Symp. 207a).
How does a mortal perform this fantastic transformation? In Symposium 210a-212a, Plato discards as the proper way to reach or join the path of love the technologies of logic, rhetoric, logical acts and acts of thinking. He proposes technologies that more closely resemble “initiations” into mystery religions, technologies closer to the mystics than to Aristotle. In Symposium 109a-210a these technologies are identified as acts of “imagining,” of a very special kind of imagining. For this imagining is not an abstraction from objects empirically given to the senses, but rather an imagination that begins to act only when the senses and the external world that sensitize them and their images are canceled. As in the Republic, in order to enter this world one must drink the “milk of forgetfulness.” In Symp. 210e-211a, he describes negatively the kinds of imaginings that are not proper: “(It) will not take the form of a face, or of a hand, or of anything that is of the flesh. It will be neither words, nor knowledge, nor something that exists in something else, such as a creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is…” In the Phaedo he gives us the positive clues: “the real earth…is multicolored and marked out by different colors, of which the colors we knows here are only limited imitation…there, the whole earth is made up of such colors and many others far brighter and purer still. (Phaedo, 110b-c) In that other world of imagining, colors are sharper, mountains and stones smoother and even transparent, better than the precious stones we know empirically (Phaedo, 110c-e).
In the Republic 508e-511e and 532a-534e Plato summarizes the inner technologies of this transformation: “a) the soul must be turned into an opposite direction; b) we must use a different faculty than that used to create opinion, abstractions from empirical objects (images), thinking and cognizing through thinking; c) we must create different objects and different signs for reading; d) we must produce a different kind of knowledge that overcomes the soul and the body in their totality, so as to be able to choose of the possible, the best.” Plato repeats these criteria for imagining in the Phaedo 67-c-d and 79e-81a as an exercise of creating “experiences after death,” or of achieving experience “through practicing death,” by accustoming the soul to “withdraw from all contact with the body and concentrate itself on itself…alone by itself.”
In short, Plato understands the project of philosophy as a unique concern, a unique motivation in its own activity, with the quality of all the acts it performs. Quality of performance concerns itself with directing the will to select, sort out, those acts that are historically capable of being remembered and therefore executed. The distinctions and divisions leading to these acts are to be found in the quality itself of the acts performed, not in the external properties of objects and their external relations. Thus, according to Plato, we may distinguish between “things” and “images,” between “originals” and “copies,” between “models,” and “simulacra” (fictions). Divisions, in Plato’s scheme, are made for the sake of an inner genealogy that identifies the pure from the impure, the authentic from the inauthentic, and it is not at all concerned with classification through genus and species. It equally applies to the sorting of gold, as in the Republic, as to the sorting of claims as in the Statesman, the Phoedrus or the Symposium. (“I am the shepherd of men.” “I am the possessed, the lover.”)
The selection of the pure act works in Plato under the strict necessity of the model. A model that is approached though an exercise in building cities through music, or tuning the soul through musical modulation as in the Republicin books 8, 9 and 10 through the marriage myth, the myth of the Tyrant, the Myth of Er, and equally in the circulation of souls in the Phaedrus, the myth of archaic times in the Statesman, to the World-Soul in the Timeaus. The equality of this act is the criterion of selectivity that needs to be applied to all claims. The mystical is the ground of the philosophical. And the philosophical has to deal with the selection of foundation, the object of claims and claimant; in Platonic terms, the unsharable, the shared, the sharer, (the father, the mother, the offspring.)
Plato’s philosophical corpus divides into those texts that establish the foundations for the claims (authentic claims) (Timeaus, Critias, Republic, Symposium, Laws) and those that hunt down the false claimant (Phaedrus, Statesman, Sophist). Plato is as rigorous in establishing the positive path of and for philosophy as he is in predicting the possible false (fictive) path of the same. The fictive, for Plato is the power of the simulacrum, and he is aware that the simulacrum not only negates the original, but has also the power of preventing any original from emerging. Philosophy may be performed not only as a false copy of the philosophical act but, even more, the false copy may (it has the power) put into question the very notion of copy and of embodied models.
For a copy to be like the original, that is, well grounded in an identity of acts, the copy must retain both the image and the likeness of the original. In the Sophist, Plato distinguishes between iconic copies (likenesses) and phantasmatic simulacra (semblances) (Sophist 236b, 264c). Icons are good images, they are endowed with resemblance, that is, relations and proportions (as in the musical model) that constitute inner performance. The claimant conforms to the real only insofar as the operations through which he/she reaches it conform to the operations modeled by the Idea, the ground and claim of all copies. It is a lineage of qualities, on how to derive semblances that equal the original modeling. (of an act with an act.)
The simulacrum, on the other hand, is not just a copy of a copy, a degraded icon, but rather it is an image without a resemblance. It is a fallen angel, a fallen creature that retains the image of God while loosing the resemblances. This is the state of sin of philosophy. We have internalized a dissimilitude. The simulacrum includes within itself the power to cover and exclude all originality, all history, by forming those constructions that include within them the angle of the observer. This blind center, this des-centered perspective, this point of view occupied by the observer is the true flight from the original image, it is a process of progression towards the unbound, a gradual subversion of history, an avoidance of the limit, of the Same and the Like. It is also the negation of both original and copies, model and reproduction, it is the birth of simulation, of the inauthentic, providing no criterion for repudiating the false claimant. Philosophy has thus entered the modern age and the sin of modernity.
The modern soul has even lost faith in the stories, the larger narratives, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Marx. Skepticism about narratives is universal. And with this skepticism the contemporary modern and post-modern individual is even more sensitized to perpetual change, and even his ability to sustain the incommensurable is thereby reinforced. And yet this is the kind of individual capable of returning to the call of the sacred.
Third Scenario; Er and the Return of the Sacred
The place of death in the Republic is also the place of resurrecting the dead. Plato does not only make justice visible to the community with him but also establishes the ties that keep this community together. Homer was a bad poet. He left nothing behind but imitations and also buried the dead. Pythagoras, on the other hand, was good. Look at the community he left behind. So Plato starts by resurrecting the dead that Homer buried. He rewrites the Iliad. Hector/Er bring back from the past the images that will rebuild the present and the future. Plato does not name Achilles in his story and thus holds back the hand that killed memory and thus is able to tell the “whole story.”
Er’s place is Hades, a place of total human bereavement. None of the familiar sensations are present. The worlds, as we know them are forgotten, canceled. The only visible things are images through images, total lives through total lives at a glance. Choices are made on the ability to see in this manner. This is the place of decision. Er is a man of every tribe. He is not a Greek, nor an Athenian, nor Thracian, nor Persian. He is a Pamphylian, a man who makes his home everywhere. He is every man. He is also Socrates and Plato. He is the warrior for whom every place is all the life there is. He is always in the presence of death. His place is the death of the worlds around him. (He is also the messenger, with no freedom to refuse). It is with Er that Plato/Socrates use a journey of twelve days to describe in detail how the visible is brought to humankind, to the cave again. Er is systematically dismembered, as witness to be into a plurality of sound, sight, smell, touch, taste and movement. This dismemberment is the condition for the message to become the messenger’s own, embodied, and thus it guarantees its delivery to the cave. What he tells is the following: What happened to other men is “empirically dead”; that if the dead may live again among the living, they need to be remembered by retelling. Retelling needs first turning the past into living memories by injecting into it the sensation of sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and movement. Imagining is turned thus into the life of humans. The neural link is the ability to capture the act of imagining in the total purity of the original. Acts will speak only if they produce visible, good effects.
Philosophy, however, in its effort to create visibles out of the past is a humble, obedient exercise. The vision of the sun may give us worlds, but not yet communities, societies or cultures. That vision needs training first, and then it needs to be shared with others, mediated through others, lived in the company of others. The vision needs to be shared with other humans who have experience in “reading” the signs of that experience and the vision of the sun. Plato found Socrates; Socrates, Er; Er, Hector and the past.
In whose company are we sharing the recovery of the sacred? For remember it is this company from the past that holds the model of the act that needs to be performed, that will both be sacred and at the same time be legitimized by the tradition that holds the public domain. Plato can now do the latter. We need to find only the empirical centers that hold the model of the sacred. For, as Socrates/Plato reminds us at the end of the Republic: “Now, here my dear Glaucon, is the whole risk for a human being…And on this account each one of us must, to the neglect of other studies above all see to it that he is a seeker and a student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always choose the better from among those that are possible…” (Republic 618b)
For a Christian, and I have limited myself to this fold, the lifeline of Christian experience resides, first in the New Testament, second in the testimony of the mystics. For obvious reasons I have to exclude theological narratives. (They either include the des-centered view of the times or of the theologian propounding them, or both.)
What originally separated Christianity from the many mystery religions, moral reformers, free lance worshippers and groups that followed specific rites was the Will of God. This Will created the world out of nothing (the Father); became human flesh in history in the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son); and performed these deeds out of love (the Spirit). This Trinitarian experience is the origin of Christianity. It is also an origin and an experience that has already happened. It can only be recovered by another act of love distributively performed by every Christian. Imagination, memory and love will form the cornerstone of the regaining of this experience. Because it does not appear in time but as a manifestation, that is, as origin, it remains hidden outside of time, and it needs as its most valuable technology the ability to create out of nothing, to fire the imagination with images not yet born.
It is precisely because of the fact that this experience has already happened–that for every Christian to know is to remember. Shared memories, the affective bond, is what makes of Christians communities and centers of the sacred. It is the common ground of memories on which all Christians stand that joins them as community. Without memory Christianity could not be articulated. Christ has already set down this law; “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke22:19) When the Father sends, in Christ’s name, the Comforter, the Spirit, He will do it to “bring all things to your remembrance.” (John 14:25)
But turning all things into remembrance is not an easy task. All cognitive cyphers must be reoriented in view of the new imagination, the new turn of direction of the soul. Look at the writing of the Gospels. What is written of the Gospels. what is written down as the experience of Jesus is a reformulation of the expectations of the Jewish audience. Prophecy had been fulfilled. They need not look to the future. The future has already happened. Mark recounts the experience of Jesus in his ministries as a verification of what was prophesied in the Old Testament. Matthew and Luke extend this narrative to cover the childhood of Jesus, again coinciding with the Old Testament stories and expectations. John, or his community, carries this original experience outside of time, in the experience of the Trinity as the origin of Christian Faith. It is the Will of the invisible Father that is being manifested through the revelation of Jesus. Jesus is the mediation to reach that origin, beyond the Patriarchs, to the Trinity. Paul, who never saw Jesus, proclaimed that the inner vision he had of Him, was on par with that of the Apostles who saw him. On this experience and re-creation of the origin Christianity stands.
One need only read, or better still “make” the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius de Loyola” (or follow other mystics) to understand and discover the inner technologies of imagining that links in one community the recreation of Christianity, the birth of the sacred. Only God, he believes owns the human center (Exer. 316, 322, 329, 330). But this center is covered by a communications system, a natural attitude, a self-indulgence, that impedes human access to it. The efforts to break through are the exercises of the soul, the quality of acts mounted one upon another, so that through this training the will of the retreatant and that of God coincide. For this Will of God must be brought to the world at the expense of the will of the retreatant. To this end, the retreatant is asked to look for a place (Exer. 20), a lonely room, a different room away from habitual places; he must find a position (Exer.74, 75, 76, 77); develop new body habits (Exer. 81, 258). The whole body must be surrounded as if with a repellent to the external communications systems. All habits must be gone over as if in slow motion to develop new ones. But above all, the will of the retreatant needs retraining. It is turned into a surgical knife to cut openings into the inner world. It must turn inward, cut to pieces the different lived moments of life, of a year, of a day, of an hour of meditation (Exer. 24, 25, 16, 27, 33, 34, 38, 42, 43). And he must learn to discover the new signs formed: “intense pain and tears” (Exer. 55), “ugliness and evil…of sin” (Exer. 57), the birth of comparing his acts to those of God: wisdom and ignorance, omnipotence and weakness, justice and inequity, goodness and selfishness (Exer. 59); pay attention to the affective language appearing: shouts, self-pity, gratitude, amazement, disgust, consolation, desolation (Exer. 62). Slowly an inner clock will start keeping time internally. This is the timetable of eternity. The clock of the “solitary region” begins to run. Waking up is determined by this clock (Exer. 74), and so is prayer, the kind of prayer, the examination of conscience (Exer. 43), the type of prayer to be used (Exer. 238), the chasing after the greatest feelings or desolations/consolations (Exer. 62), and diet (Exer. 84), and the way to sleep (Exer. 85), and even while going to sleep there is no stopping this clock: one should prepare oneself by going over the memory-points of the meditation to be made in the morning (Exer. 73), but not for long for one must sleep. The same on waking. (Exer. 74)
The sacred is simply bringing all things to memory in meditation, remaking it in imaginings and memory: “bringing to memory” the first sin of the angles (Exer. 50) and that of Adam and Eve (Exer. 51), and our sins (Exer. 52) and the sins of a lifetime, year by year, place by place, sin by sin (Exer. ibid). In fact, the whole experiment of the Exercises is an exercise in memory. The retreatant is left to his/her own abilities to imagine. The images of imagining are the actual exercise of the exercises. Thus Ignatius is more concerned with the preparation, the technology that accompanies imagining, than in guiding it. Concentration in order to bring out the pure image is all he prepares the retreatant with. The rest is whatever he/she does. This pure image is the one that must penetrate the material body of the retreatant and through it reach the public domain. This material body is the one Ignatius places facing the scene of meditation contemplating the place (Exer. 112), hell, (Exer. 65) or a synagogue (Exer. 91) or the Three Divine Persons (Exer. 102).
The image on recall is to call it to memory. The actual birth of the signs does not take place until the retreatant proceeds through imagining to “read” the image through his own dismembered sensorium. The perfect image, the sacred image, is set into motion as the retreatant’s senses are run, one at a time, through the image. It takes the “reading” of the image by each sense so that it becomes a mediation of signs. The efficacy of the image is made possible on condition that the subject be kept elusively absent, as a fixed unity, while imagining. What the retreatant does is to lend sight, sound, smell, touch and movement to the image. The image is sensitized through the “reading” of each sense through the image. The retreatant lends the image his/her own dismembered sensorium. By each sense reading the image separately, each sense thus sensitizes the image separately, each sense must read/write the image separately. What is done through visualization must be repeated through hearing, smelling, touching, moving, tasting. This applies to the making of one and all images.
It is the exercise of imagining that makes signs appear and the articulation of both as a language is made possible. Thus a community of readers/writers may be formed around the creation of this experience. An affective bond is established because of a common practice and the articulation of that practice through a language of reading/writing. All the participants, however, must be sharers of the common activity of reading/writing imagining acts. This makes possible a language that may be articulated either privately to a spiritual guide, a member of the community, or may even become a public articulation and join thus, or even transform, the public domain.
History in the West is a perfect storehouse of memories of humans, and the human body is the storehouse of acts to be performed with those memories. Through memories and imagining those conditions of the sacred may be released.
In A Forest of India
Many years before Pythagoras and Plato proposed the way of philosophy as the reconciliation and implementation of diverse technologies in the unity of decision- making, the forests of India were already peopled with the practice of philosophy in the same sense. India was ahead by centuries over the rest of Western humanity using music as epistemology, musical spaces for the habitation of gods, multiple technologies for the development of neural individual chains, heart over head in order of genealogy and ability to bring health, and heart-ethics over head-ethics in the ability to make decisions instead of just following blind rules. In Indic texts a person would have to take care first of his/her artha (economic needs), his/her kama (sensuality), his/her dharma (household duties)before proceeding to the forest (vanaprastha) to learn at the hands of a guru the technologies of Moksha (liberation). It also turns out that this liberation, as seen in the Gita, consists in the ability to make decisions, from among the many present the best. One need only read the Upanishads, the teachings in the Forest, to see that this is as stated. Or one can read the Gita or the Rg Veda to come to the same conclusion. Generations of practitioners, lives lived in the forest, left for us meditating position after meditating position in the different yogas, rules for finding the spot of meditation, what to look for in meditation, instruction as to the grammatical case of the subject in meditation, agent or instrumental, nominative or ablative, active voice or passive, focusing on the heart or the head, integrating technologies and making decisions. And this was not only the primary aim of all those instructions but the only one, and not for a few but for all those engaged in practice. Meanwhile the Forest was alive with infinite numbers of chants and OM after OM of chanting gurus. Why has this debt not been paid to India? The absence in India of the history that made the West a self-hero does not cover the fact that the West borrowed what India had, and also had to kill the “mother” so that her children would live. The technologies of meditation and the ability to make decisions is the inheritance the West received from India, but not primarily through books but more importantly through the effort Indians made to imprint those skills in the human neurobiology so that we, later on, away from India would be able to repeat and perform the heroic acts India was performing ahead of us all. I don’t need to develop here what I have done in several other books from 1971 to the present.
It will be sufficient to suggest now what we all know but are afraid to repeat in case our Universities close our departments. But the return of the sacred will be impossible if as a culture we fail to return to our true origins, first to Plato and Pythagoras, and then to India, to its forest where Moksha and its technologies are flourishing.
The return of the sacred, the recovery of the sacred, is more easily in the hands of mystics and poets than prophets. Mystics are trained–they train themselves to turn to the past and find the common ground of sacred life. One would expect, in view of this historical fact, that the universities and the churches would have centers of training of the will, or imagining, of turning all things into remembrance that are required for the performance of a continued re-creation. If nothing else, those centers might contribute to the maintenance of an equality in human life that is becoming more and more elusive. If we wish to recover the sacred we must make it sacred. Or in the words of Tennyson in his Camelot: “…the city is built to music, therefore never built at all. And, therefore, built for ever.”
We must stop the pretense that truth can be best expressed, most would want it, exclusively expressed, in concepts. But there are truths that can only be captured in images, for it is always against the wall of an image that all concepts rebound. The sacred cannot be expressed, made, rebuilt, re-created in concepts. The simulacra may. In the beginning was the image, and in the middle and in the end. The quality of the act by which those images are made is the guarantee that the sacred lives amongst us.
In summary, I would like to close with one poem. It came directly from my daughter Tara when she was four-years-old. On Easter Sunday as we returned from church she confronted me with what she thought was my sadness at the events she witnessed in church. The poem was my first true confrontation with the fact that our theological stories do not work anymore. It should join us more effectively and affectively into the community we already are.
EASTER SUNDAY.(Borrowed from my daughter Tara when she was four years old)
“Daddy, if Jesus was God why did He let them kill him?”
I answered some prose.
“Daddy, if his father was God why didn’t He save him?”
I gave her more prose.
“Daddy, don’t be sad. The story is really a bad one!”
(1976) Scheneidau, Herbert N. Sacred Discontent, Louisiana University Press. Baton Rouge.
(1978) Zum Brunn, Emilie. L’exegese augustinienne de ‘Ego sum qui sum’ et la metaphysique de l’Exode” in Dieu et l’Et. Paris, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
(1969) Le dilemme de L’etre et du Neant chez Saint Augustin Paris.
(1958) Heidegger, Martin. “La Question de la Technique” in Essays et Conferences. Trans. Andre Preaud. Paris: Gall.
(1986)de Nicolas, Antonio T.Powers of Imagining. SUNY Press, Albany N.Y.
(2003) de Nicolas, Antonio T. Meditations Through the Rig Veda. iUniverse.com Lincoln, San Jose, New York, Shanghai.
Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.
A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.
His books of poetry: Remembering the God to Come, The Sea Tug Elegies, Of Angels and Women, Mostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:
from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”
from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”
from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”
Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.