The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

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What Sumerian priests discovered 5,400 years ago was synchrony between goings-on in the night sky and human labors on Earth below—on both daily and yearly scales of events.

What they didn’t discover was the cause of that dual synchrony in the daily rotation of Earth on its axis, together with its annual and seasonal journey around the sun, with the planes of those two motions tilted at an angle of twenty-three-and-a-half degrees one to the other.

Instead, the stars and planets themselves were credited with their own self-propulsive powers as inherent in the cosmic order fulfilled nightly overhead.

How marvelous that daily and yearly procession must have seemed. It was truly a revelation. A grasping of the stunning difference between chaos and cosmos, disorder and order. What a powerful idea! That a system with so many moving parts was ruled by the gratifying harmony of motion that joined Earth, planets, sun, moon, and stars in unison together as one idea or system of ideas. Not for a day, a season, a year, but—as evidence and wonder accrued from generation to generation—seemingly forever.

If we put ourselves in that era of grand discovery, the temple priests who formulated that formative cosmology were clearly on the leading edge of their personal experience, and the collective experience of their people.

Their grand vision of cosmic harmony (as of 3,200 BCE), combined with belief that the power of self-motion was shared by stars, planets, and humans as indubitable proof of the motive power of the living soul (because only living beings could move of their own will)—that coupling of ideas was the intellectual achievement of their time in expressing their early grasp of cosmology in the intuitive concept that bound human understanding and labor to the very force that drove the universe.

It was apparently the Sumerians who saw that each point of light in the sky reflected the overall scheme of a world (or cosmic) soul as the driving force behind the evidence they beheld with their own eyes.

Do stars have meaning for humans? Indeed, as profound as meaning can be. Practical meaning. Cultural meaning. Historic meaning. Religious meaning. Aesthetic meaning. Ideal meaning. Survival meaning. All taken together surely amounting to the truth. Or at least an approximation of the truth. A truth that would stand until a more durable one came along. A truth in the fallible human mind. Which, no matter how many people believe it, is where all concepts-ideas-thoughts-truths reside.

The fragility of this particular truth was compounded in coming generations by the combined musings of Plato, Aristotle, and both their Neoplatonist and Christian heirs early in the new millennium—unto Thomas Aquinas and the builders of Mediaeval cathedrals who expressed this singular truth in stone and stained glass—in idealizing and personifying the idea that drives the universe as the principle of absolute reason, goodness, and harmony at the core of a universe such as they chose to believe in.

 

Projected onto the stars, the meaning that some of our distant ancestors found in their orderly procession was that they were compelled as one body by a prime mover, alleged source of, and driving force behind, the rational, harmonious order of the universe.

The notion of a prime mover was wholly a fiction in human minds, a product of deluded imaginations in not being able to detect their own planet’s motions because as a people they moved with the Earth and had no reference other than the stars to gauge that impression by.

So if the stars seemed to move, that was enough to convince them that that must be the true state of affairs. Many believed it, and said so. Opening the door to a myriad of profound consequences, which still persist among us today.

Wars have been fought, millions killed, heretics burned at the stake as a result of such beliefs, or, rather, the denial of such beliefs. Those deadly consequences, as residing in human minds as matters of orthodox faith and belief, are what I am concerned with in these several posts dealing with our human engagements with the stars as I develop the big picture based on my reading and experience.

Along with the concept of one turning in reference to the nightly round of the stars, several other concepts accompany that of the prime mover; the idea of harmony as the essentially rational and defining characteristic of the stars moving in unison to constitute a cosmos in contrast with a disordered chaos; and the idea that deviation from harmony was a message played like notes against a musical scale intended to call people on Earth back into harmony with the circling stars.

The five visible, star-like planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), as well as sun and moon, did not share in the disciplined rotation of the stars, but travelled their own ways among them along a broad pathway of their own in the middle reaches of the stars overhead. That pathway was not random but stuck to a middle way along a particular band of stars that ancient peoples visualized as forming twelve houses or constellations, the band coming to be known as the ecliptic, the celestial path among the stars along which the messenger planets (Greek angelos, messenger) traveled and, when those paths coincided, conjunctions and eclipses might occur.

The twelve, thirty-degree zodiacal houses (constellations) along the ecliptic were deified as domains ruled in monthly succession by twelve godlike figures, together forming the ring of zodiacal signs marking the progress of the seven angelic messengers.

No one realized that that background of stellar houses was far behind the moving planets, so had nothing at all to do with them because it seemed to observers on earth that the stars and planets were equidistant, so that the luminous messengers traveled among and briefly resided in stellar houses that existed solely in human imagination.

Once the stars became animated by ancient humans projecting their quest for order onto the cycling radiance overhead, the stage was set for conception and projection of prime movers, creators, supreme beings, and rulers of the (supposedly) one-turning universe.

The stars and the messengers weaving among them bore whatever meanings arose in those who projected their minds in beseeching the cosmos for guidance in conducting their Earthly lives and affairs. Temples and sanctuaries such as those structures at Göbekli Tepe, Stonehenge, and in Sumer at the head of the Persian Gulf were in many instances built as stellar observatories to mediate the traffic of signs between heaven and Earth, local authorities assuming the office of translator of heavenly messages so their followers would receive the proper message and behave accordingly.

So did religion become a fact of life on Earth in binding human labors to the will of the gods above, or most particularly to the will of the prime mover who set the cosmos in orderly motion for the purpose of inviting humans, if they knew what side their bread was buttered on, to partake in the rational order exemplified by the stars overhead.

Sumerian minds, looking up from their marshy homeland in the delta of the combined waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, became famous for conceiving of such deities (shining or radiant ones, later depicted with haloes) some five- or six-thousand years ago.

Among other gifts to their descendants, the Sumerians are now famous for leaving behind them a great trove of statuettes of worshippers with folded hands and dilated, dark-adapted eyes, only much later to be discovered by archaeologists within the past 150 years.

The figures depict worshippers in the grips of a variety of fraught human situations beneath the stars at night, looking to be told by the messenger stars what to do because that was their duty, to heed the will of Sumerian gods.

What the Sumerians invented—along with cuneiform writing on clay tablets; an extensive literature of poetry, myths, lamentations, hymns, and wise sayings; and religion built around a priestly profession as we know it today—was an intricate system of awe so lustrous as to have a compelling effect in organizing the behavior of a people who sought answers to their most pressing problems from the seemingly informative movements of the planets weaving among the orderly motions of stars along the ecliptic.

The Sumerians placed not one but three gods in the heavens, one for each of the three regions: celestial polar region, residence of the creator and prime mover, Anu: zodiac against which the seven messengers moved, ruled by Enlil, king of the gods; and outer fringe thought to be closest to Earth on the outskirts of the cosmic dome, home of Enki, source of divine wisdom.

It was a great scheme by which the Sumerians mapped out the heavens some 5,400 years ago, a scheme still with us today in the doctrine and structures of the church. The essential teaching of that scheme was “On Earth as in Heaven,” a notion backed up by the seasonal return of the sun to the same house along the ecliptic, signing the start of a new year and another round of the liturgical calendar. Genius; pure genius. Because it was true: human affairs on Earth do run according to a calendar dictated by the seasons, and the seasons by the stars.

The hitch is that it wasn’t that the stars were moving according to the prime mover’s plan, so seeming to dictate to people what they should be doing with their limited bodily energies; those stellar motions were really due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis and simultaneous orbit around the sun. There was no prime mover at the celestial pole. There was no godly king of kings managing the motions of planets along the ecliptic. There was no divine wisdom filtering down from the stars for human guidance.

We already had the seasons to alert us to our proper annual labors; the stars were incidental to what we already knew. They were an offshoot, not the source of our wisdom. The stars told us nothing we didn’t already know.

It was the Sumerian priesthood that maintained that the heavens were the center of Sumerian life on Earth, and that the people needed their lofty interpretation of signs and directives—otherwise they’d be out of a job. Priesthoods offer the best job security on Earth if they can convince flocks to behave as they already know they should.

There is a font of circular reasoning at the heart of every religion. And we have such a plethora of religions precisely because each one has to develop a convincing rationale for the people to support the local priesthood in its annual rounds of reasoning.

These comments are what I was talking about in developing the big picture of our human engagements with the stars. For much of my life I have read Joseph Campbell, Samuel Noah Kramer, E.O. James, and James Frazer, and others of similar bent in bringing ancient ideas to life. For me this has been recreational reading to accompany my fascination with fossils and the expanding literature of evolutionary biology. Looking both to the past and the future, I was doing my best to keep pace with the world I lived in, which was expanding at an ever increasing rate.

My bookshelves today are lined with such books, testament to the interests that have sustained me throughout adult life. Now that my life is winding down, the residuum of my reading takes on a greater importance because I see so much harking back to a more comfortable (because familiar) world rather than a willingness to enter the next stage of human development and understanding. If I do not contribute to that understanding, why have I lived through the past exciting years?

So here I sit at my computer keyboard in Bar Harbor, Maine, blogging about what matters to me at my time of life, adding my thoughts and observations to the great flow of human engagement with our Earthly surroundings.

Should I live so long, you can expect that I’ll have more to say about our stellar engagements tomorrow.

399. Total Immersion

January 7, 2015

To insist on adherence to the rules of logic and reason at all times leads us astray. At the core, we are neither logical nor reasonable. We are what we are, doing the best we can to put pieces of the mind puzzle together however they might fit. If we don’t give ourselves to solving that puzzle by its own dictates, we’ll never impose a solution that fits from outside. Too much of our most intimate mental makeup marches to a series of different drummers, with beats that change and never settle down into a regular rhythm. Imposing a certain order on what we allow ourselves to think encases the mind in cement.

But the mind is not a rigid thing. It is a fluid organ that shapes itself to the demands of the moment. That is the genius by which we have survived all these millennia, not by being “right” and “proper,” but by adapting to the situation we are in. By detecting the structure of unique moments of history from inside our personal experience of those moments, not by imposing a predetermined structure from without.

As with our thinking, so in our acting do we need to prepare ourselves over the years by practicing the moves that are important to us. The best method is total immersion in what we want to do, trying it over and over again. Nothing worth doing comes easily. Practice is the secret of success. Not good looks. Not youth. Not luck. Not money. Not connections.

Practice.

We often give credit to talent and gifts, but the secret of talent and gifts is disciplined hard work. Think of Fred Astaire rehearsing fourteen hours a day to appear effortlessly graceful. We have to train our bodies, arms, hands, and fingers to do what we want. Mind over matter. Which is the true challenge we face. Make that mind over muscle—and tendon and joint and bone. Our minds and bodies are made to do the work, and to sharpen our performance through years of dedicated practice.

It helps if we break our task into stages that build one on another. Which is the nature of projects. We can’t tackle every challenge all at once. The recipe for successful action is to break it into sessions for working on one thing at a time. When we get good at one subroutine (in Tai Chi, say), we move to the next, rehearsing earlier ones as we go, adding new moves every day until we become masters of the whole. Then we move on to the next scene, paragraph, chapter, or movement of whatever we are engaged in building or perfecting.

Projects are a means of achieving concentration on one part of a complicated process after another, and concentration is of the essence in directing our full mental attention on both perception and action at the same time, that is to say, on our engagement with a particular activity.

Projects are behavioral units in which energy is consistently directed toward attaining a particular goal.

I have made over eighty PowerPoint presentations, each aimed at a particular audience to achieve a desired effect. Some I have made in a day, others have taken me months to perfect. Each slide has its place in the series so it adds to the plot by which the overall show builds to a fitting finale.

Each such presentation is the result of a project to which I give my focused attention to the same program over time, with frequent breaks lasting hours, days, or weeks between sessions. Eventually I finish a given show and move on to the next.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal, Bar Harbor, Maine, USA

One show I call “Heavy Metal” was built from photographs of cast-iron drain and manhole covers on the streets of Bar Harbor. Some castings were made in Portland, Maine, others in Canada, France, or India. It took me several weeks of patrolling the streets on the lookout for variations on my theme. When the lighting was wrong, I went back several times until it was right (showing the texture and design of the metal to good effect).

Fungal underworld

Hidden habitat of fungal underworld

My wanderings may have appeared random, but each foray contributed to the overall effect, and eventually I judged the project finished, then moved on to the next—the secret underworlds beneath caps of mushrooms, stems of trees in the Acadian Forest, estuary wildlife, horseshoe crabs, eelgrass meadows, and so on. Each show resulting from a project of concerted effort assembled over time.

 

Solo horseshoe crabs

Two solo horseshoe crabs pass side-by-side