Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, Cyril Smith (2002)
Although Aristotle’s Metaphysics was one of the most influential of philosophical documents over the past two millennia, his attempt to discuss the nature of human productive activity (poesis) had no successor for most of that time. In Book Zeta, (Met. VII, 7 and 8), the Philosopher explains three kinds of ‘things that come to be or are generated, some by nature, others, by art; still others, “automatically”.'
It is by art that those products come whose form dwells in the mind, where by ‘form’ I mean what it is to be that product, its first or primary being. ... (I)t would be impossible for anything to be if nothing were present previously ... thus, the material part is essential, since it is in process, and it is this material that comes to be something.
So we have three elements in production: agency, form and material. Aristotle has nothing to say about where the first and third of these come from, and on the second, form, he says:
(T)he form, or whatever we want to call the shape in the perceived object, is not produced; nor is there ever any production of it; no intrinsic nature is ever made.
The production of, say, a bronze sphere, consists of a workman, who has the spherical form in his head, putting some bronze into the shape of the sphere. Aristotle follows this with a careful discussion of many other aspects of form, for example, how wholes and parts are related. When production is completed, something new has come into being. For Aristotle, form was the active generator, the father, while matter was the feminine, the passive and so – quite obviously to him – inferior.
In his Poetics, he discusses the production of poetry, the only kind of making that later philosophers thought elevated enough to merit philosophical interest. By defining it as ‘imitation of action’, he is able to include it within his general idea of poesis. Aristotle can never ask how socio-political relations are ‘generated’, because for him they have no history. Nor does he need to ask how the world as a whole is generated: his world is eternal. His ‘Unmoved Mover’, the original cause of all motion, is indeed ‘divine’, but ‘the divine’ and its life are ‘the activity of mind ... life unending, continuous and eternal’. (Met, XII, 7.)
Many centuries later, when Aquinas roped Aristotle into the service of the Catholic Church, he had a hard job reconciling the pagan philosopher with the Christian story of Divine Creation. How could you reconcile God creating the world from nothing (ex nihilo), the official Catholic view since Athanasius, with the principle that ‘nothing comes from nothing’ (ex nihilo nihil fit), or even with Greek belief in the eternity of the world?
Humans have been trying to understand the world and their own place in it for a long time. They have generally expressed their efforts in terms of some kind of religious or mythical account. This has helped to shape the way people lived because it was a way of explaining the unity of the world, including the natural and the social world, as well as the relation between the two.
How people thought about their lives, their origins and their destiny could not be separated from a story of the way the world got started. (Jews and Romans, for example, have a conception of history beginning after this starting point, while Greeks didn’t think much about the question of creation at all.) In modern, more ‘enlightened’ times, the attempt is made to explain the world without such stories, which are dismissed as mere superstition. It is hoped that a phrase like ‘Big Bang’ will make the problem go away.
The problem which keeps recurring is that God is the eternal, infinite and unchanging Creator, but his creation is finite, changeable and imperfect. Does creation occur in time, or does time itself only begin when everything else begins? Modern ‘Big Bang’ stories, are, of course, much more sophisticated, but still stumble on the same difficulty. But that leaves the big question unanswered: ‘In what kind of world is it possible for conscious humanity to exist?’ All the discussion of how the world started is really about this issue, I believe.
In some accounts of Creation, God has to work a bit like a human producer. Creation takes time and effort. Each of the six days’ output has to be checked to see if it was good. (Luckily, it was.) In the orthodox versions of the three big monotheistic religions, Almighty God, (who is bound up with the almighty powers on Earth), produces the whole show and writes the script. If you complain about how dreadful it is for most people to live in, you are fobbed off with a story about free will; this is God’s alibi, a Divine trick to put all the blame on us mortals. But the problem refused to disappear. What are we to make of the existence of evil-doing, pain, disease, famine, violence, greed? Are these part of God’s wilful design? But if so, what chance do we have of making the world a decent place to live? The Catholic Church in particular fought for centuries against dualist answers to this conundrum, those conceptions that saw the world as a product of both Good and Evil, ‘matter’ being the evil part.
After the Greek language had been forgotten in Western Europe, the dialogue Timaeus, one of Plato’s later works, was the only part of his output to be remembered. It is also the only place where Plato considers questions of cosmology and cosmogony. Like other Greek texts, it was known only to Arab scholars, and then in Latin translation. Earlier, it had formed the basis for the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (205-70). By the way, that had nothing to do with Zeus and the other Greek Gods. Unlike the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks believed in Gods who were themselves created, following on from Titans and other older entities.
Significantly, Socrates begins the Timaeus by outlining his ideal society. His friend Timaeus then proceeds to explain that the cosmos must have had a beginning and a constructor, because it is perceptible by the senses, and so changeable. Its maker was the Demiurge, the divine workman, who, says Timaeus, was good and so ‘had his eye’ on an ideal and unchanging blueprint, which was a living being.
God therefore, wishing that all things should be good, and so far as possible nothing be imperfect, and finding the visible universe in a state not of rest but of inharmonious and disorderly motion, reduced it to order from disorder, as he judged that order was in every way better.
That is how he came to make the world a living being with ‘reason in soul and soul in body’. Timaeus goes on to describe the construction of the physical world and the human soul. For example, because it was perfect, it had to be spherical and ‘a single complete whole’.
Accounts like this are much, much older than Plato, of course. About 2000 years earlier, the Egyptians had the story of how the ordered cosmos emerged from chaos which had always been there. Sometimes, this was the work of the Sun-god Ra, ably assisted by his secretary, the moon-god Thoth. A sort of cosmic project-manager, Thoth was not just important for setting the show up, but also for keeping it going. (We shall meet him again, but under the Greek name ‘Hermes’ and the Latin ‘Mercury’.) Even before this, the Mesopotamians had a similar creation-myth, in which the demiurge has the benefit of many assistant gods and the opposition of a mass of disorderly demons. In all of these accounts, cosmic order involves the struggle of opposites and is bound up with political order.
When Plotinus (205-270) built up his highly complex world-picture on the basis of the Timaeus, the ultimate reality was the One, an unknowable Being which was also the Good. Matter, which was Evil, was not real. Emanating from the One, as light emanates from the Sun, were the Intelligences, [nous] and from them the Soul. Individual souls were eternal, migrating from body to body [metempsychosis]. For Proclus (412-85), who systematised Neoplatonism, these individual souls were drawn to return to the One. By philosophically contemplating the One, they could get back to Square One, completing the loop.
Now we must turn to several varieties of mysticism, which we shall need to talk about Hegel, and thus Marx. Thomas Aquinas defined mysticism as ‘the knowledge of God through experience’. Many mystics seek, not just knowledge, but ‘mystical union with God’. Each variety of mysticism is characterised by the particular set of religious views and particular conception of God inside which it develops.
Gnosticism was a term used by the heresy-hunters in the early Church to refer to a cluster of unorthodox notions. Similar ideas were also to be found among the Jewish and Christian-Jewish sects which abounded in the first and second centuries and connections can also be made both with Neoplatonism and with Eastern religions. These trends also believed that the material world was made by a Demiurge, but they identified him with the angry God of the Old Testament. Evil was his work. The true God was far above him and was unknowable. Christ was the messenger of the true God, who only appeared to take human form, so that the Crucifixion was merely apparent. The world and its history were driven by a war between Good and Evil, with angels and demons carrying out the work of the Demiurge. Only through the internal spiritual work of the individual believer, the ‘pneumatic’, was the Kingdom of God created. Thus God needed those people to complete his work.
The founders of the Church tried very hard, and with true Christian brutality, to eliminate these ideas, but could never quite succeed. Until fairly recently, our knowledge of these groups was only via the writings of their enemies the heresy-hunters. Only after the discovery of a cache of Coptic translations in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt was it possible for us to read actual Gnostic writings. Medieval heretics often held Gnostic conceptions, as we know from their recorded statements to the Inquisition before they were burnt. Bogomils, Cathars (Albigensians) and Waldensians, rebelling against the orthodoxy of the Church, all espoused dualist, Gnostic ideas. Traces of these were still current in the peasant movements of the Reformation.
A Hebrew word meaning ‘the tradition’, Cabbala covers a long history of Jewish mystical teachings. These texts were believed to be very ancient, conveying the wisdom imparted by God to Adam, and then to Moses. In fact, they seem to have originated about two millennia ago, beginning as a mixture of Jewish Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. However, Cabbalists were always confronted with the impossible task of reconciling their ideas with the strictly monotheistic Rabbinical conceptions of God.
Two events in the history of European Jewry prompted the flourishing of Cabbala mysticism as we know it now. First, at the start of the second millennium, centuries of murderous Christian barbarism known as the Crusades erupted. Second, at the end of the fifteenth century, the defeat of the Muslim civilisation led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Each of these catastrophes brought the problem of evil into sharp relief: if God is both good and omnipotent, and if the Jews were indeed his chosen ones, how could He let such things happen to them?
From twelfth-century Provence, where the influence of Catharism might have added its contribution, Cabbalism moved into Spain. The thirteenth-century ‘Sefer ha-Zohar’ ('Book of Splendour') comes from the town of Gerona in Catalonia. At the time of the expulsion, the Centre moved from there to Safed in Upper Galilee. Here worked, among others, Moses Cordevero (1522-70) and his student Isaac Luria (1534-72), ‘the Ari’. It is their later Cabbala with which we shall be mainly concerned.
The Rabbis had prohibited enquiry into what happened before Creation: you were not allowed to ask God for His cv. And this was precisely the enquiry in which the Cabbalists were engaged, as they sought to understand the origin of Evil. Each aspect of the mystical account of Creation, and what went on before it, was the subject of fierce controversy, but a rough outline involves the following. Corresponding to the Neoplatonist ‘One’, Ein-Sof, the Infinite, is absolute and undifferentiated perfection. It is completely unknowable. Even the mystic who engages in deep meditation can only glimpse it through its manifestation in material Creation. Ein-Sof emanates the whole of existence through a complex system of ten elements called the Sefiroth. All things come from the One, which breaks into the many. Thereafter, all things yearn for reunification. But this is a cyclic process, for God also yearns to create, and so Cosmogony – the origin of the universe – is at the same time Theogony – the origin of God. The Divine both conceals and reveals itself in a continual process of self-creation.
In the very beginning, the Sefiroth are in a state of perfect equilibrium. In the account developed by Luria and his followers, Creation is a violent crisis which disrupts this delicate balance. Only in this catastrophe does the Divine reveal itself. For example, before the crisis, Power [Gevurah] or Judgement [Din], is balanced with Beauty [Tiferet] and lovingkindness [Tifereth]. But after the catastrophe of creation, the imbalance of this system turns each fragment into a source of evil. Since Creation, the world has been alienated from its source, Ein Sof. In the theory of Luria, Contraction [Zimzum] was the convulsive movement in which the Divine pulls itself into itself and away from the world. In its following expansion, the Divine light fills the Sefiroth as ‘vessels’, and smashes them, causing sparks of divinity to scatter into the material world. How is this to be put right? Humans must carefully gather up these ‘sparks’ and re-assemble the original perfection. This mending [Tikkun] is the responsibility of the Jews, whose righteousness is essential if the world is to be redeemed.
(I must reveal my own feelings here: I am immensely impressed with the struggle of Cabbalists to express very difficult notions of universal importance. At the same time, I am repelled by the narrow ethnocentricity of their work.)
I have so far omitted an important aspect of Cabbalism which it would be wrong to ignore. ‘Practical Cabbala’ or magic, not only plays a vital part in its influence, but also links it to many other mystical trends. Every culture and religious scheme has known the idea that wise men and women could find out how to predict the movements of natural forces and influence them in favour of human interests. (For all our ‘enlightened’ ideas, new forms of this notion are with us still!) The Cabbalist outlook is naturally favourable to the notion that, by means of prayer, incantation, interpretation of dreams, contemplation of mystical symbols and so on, those who know the workings of reality can control it in some way. The world, being divine and, moreover, still under construction, contains angelic and demonic forces which might be commanded by people with special knowledge. In particular, since God created the world out of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, manipulating these letters and their numerical equivalents in the text of the Torah, especially the names of God, would give inside information of the divinity. If you did it right, it might grant the practitioner magical power.
When Christian scholars found the way to read the Hebrew texts of Cabbala, it was often this aspect which attracted and excited them. Even before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 brought these texts to the attention of Latin and other translators, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) had read some of the Zohar and connected it with his humanist and Neoplatonist ideas, and especially with his work on magic. This great Renaissance thinker wanted to integrate the whole of religion and philosophy, linking Islamic, Jewish and Christian sources. This got him into trouble, both with the Church and with the Cabbalists.
His famous defence, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, begins like this:
Most esteemed Fathers, I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvellous than man. And that celebrated exclamation of Hermes Trismegistus, “What a great miracle is man, Asclepius'’ confirms this opinion.
This Hermes Trismegistus (’thrice Great'), quoted thus as an acknowledged authority, plays an important part in Renaissance attempts to bring Jewish, Christian and Islamic ideas together. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, translation of Greek authors, preserved until then only by Islamic scholars, opened up new ways of thought. The writings attributed to Hermes were widely studied as a body of work whose roots are extremely ancient. The manuscripts are now known in fact to be Gnostic texts of the second century. Together with Cabbala, they had for centuries formed the basis for alchemy, astrology and natural magic, but now, and for the next three centuries or more, they were the background to the thinking of the leading figures in European thought in the run-up to modernity. It was this intellectual world that actually saw the birth of modern science. Lorenzo di Medici set Pico’s colleague Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) to work translating these writings, as well as the Zohar, even instructing him to give this job priority over the translation of Plato.
As a scientific picture of the world, many of the results obtained by the alchemists and magicians look somewhat bizarre today. But the undoubted triumphs of modern scientific rationalism can blind us to what is important in the world outlook of the Hermeticists. First of all, they saw that the contrasts and oppositions between the divine and the human, like those between spirit and nature, were not unbridgeable. The cosmos was a whole, its parts held together by a series of internal relations, correspondences and ‘sympathies’. The most important of these is the connection between humanity and nature, in which the human individual is a microcosm whose physical and mental structure corresponds to that of the macrocosm, so that each individual included the whole world within itself. ‘As above, so below’, as the opening words of the Corpus Hermeticum put it. This was an active connection: when God created the world, he had not completed the job, and to rectify the remaining imperfections required human subjective activity. Indeed, the question: ‘why did God create the world?’ could only be answered in terms of His need for humanity to do this work.
Through his own personality and imagination, the Magus called down cosmic forces, which his knowledge enabled him to direct. Thus the Magus himself participated in the Great Work of Creation, and so identified himself with the world, even with God. (You had to be careful: in the wrong hands, this knowledge could bring demons instead of angels into the picture: big trouble. So to become an ‘adept’ required a long apprenticeship, in which false ideas were purged. This is what Goethe’s poem, the Sorcerers Apprentice, is about.) So whatever the oddities of the results of particular experiments, they were founded on a pattern of united activity in which mind, hand and matter all participated.
Now let’s look very briefly at some individual figures who played a part in developing these ideas. This list is unified by actually forming a connected sequence which is crucial for Hegel’s thought.
Eriugena (= ‘born in Ireland'), (810-877) is usually known as John the Scot. (He must not to be confused with Duns Scotus, who was, of course, an Englishman.) He was a scholar studying Greek texts before the ‘Dark Ages’ had come to an end, and had much in common with the Greek church. He seems to have been familiar with some Islamic mysticism (Sufism), and maybe some earlier forms of Cabbala.
For him, God could not be known except via the symbols given in the Bible. He believed that God does not create the world in one go, but eternally, through ‘primordial causes’. Everything finite is contained within his infinite nature and returns to it. Nature is an active process, ‘natura naturata’. Eriugena’s book, On the Division of Nature, was condemned by various Church bodies, but, despite this, continued to be read surreptitiously over the later centuries. For example, he was important for the Spaniard Ramon Lull (1235-1316), who was already aware of Cabbalist writings. (I have included him on this list, because, although Hegel does not seem to have been aware of him, others who Hegel talks about certainly were.)
(b) Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) was an abbot in Calabria. His account of the unity of truth and ignorance and his conception of Divine Knowledge anticipates Hegel in many ways. Joachim believes that God is knowing and self-revelatory. Joachim identifies the structure of the Trinity with three stages of divine history. The third of these stages, identified with the Holy Spirit, was about to begin at any time now, when the ending of the corruption of the Church would usher in a thousand-year Utopia, a communal life of poverty and humility. This was to happen in time, not at the end of time, and it was for everybody, not, as with the Augustinian doctrine, a prize in the spiritual lottery called ‘God’s grace’.
For centuries after Joachim’s death, rebels against the feudal order were describing themselves as ‘Joachimites’. Indeed, we only know of them largely because the Inquisition recorded the trial statements of these millenarians before it burnt them. Some of their ideas are still echoed in the radical writings in seventeenth-century England.
(c) Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), a German Dominican monk, was the first to develop the terminology of philosophy in German, translating and adapting Latin terms. For him, God becomes conscious of himself only within his creation, which took place through the ‘creative ideas’ in his Son. So he knew Eriugena’s book, despite the ban. Eckhart also argues that Divine Knowledge is ‘the negation of negation’. As with other mystics, Eckhart’s aim was the unification of the soul with God. Christ is continually born within each believing soul. Each soul derives its essence from God and so is not merely finite. ‘The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see Him; my eye and His eye are the same... If He did not exist, nor would I; if I did not exist, nor would He.’ It turns out that this startling statement, which Hegel picked up half a millennium later, was actually a Sufi saying, a Hadith.
(d) Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) (Cusanus) was a pillar of the Church, a Cardinal, no less. Nicolas seems to have been the first to use the word ‘absolute’ to refer to God as unconditioned by anything else. He annoyed many of his fellow-Catholics when he argued that God was united with his creation. His famous book, Of Learned Ignorance, contains direct references to Eriugena’s banned work, defending his ninth-century predecessor against the charge that he associated with Cathars and other dangerous people. The universe, including the human being, must be divine, and therefore infinite, says Nicolas, with its circumference nowhere and its centre everywhere. This ‘coincidence of opposites’ preceded Copernicus (1473-1543) by a century, who prudently published his rather scaled-down version of Nicolas’s idea only on his death-bed. (By the way, Copernicus also referred to the authority of Hermes to back up his heliocentric argument.)
(e) Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) was a German nobleman who was educated in Italy. He aimed to unify the knowledge of his time as a combination of Christian Cabbala, Neoplatonism and Hermeticism. He held up publication of his main work, The Occult Philosophy, for over twenty years, rightly fearing the attacks which it would attract from the Church. His version of Aristotelean physics includes the influence of ‘occult virtues’ from the World Soul, which, if we were clever enough, would enable us to move objects as we desired. Cabbala would make it possible to gain power over demons and angels by means of operations on letters and numbers. He always insisted, however, that this White Magic was in co-operation with God and His Angels, and had nothing at all to do with demonic Black Magic.
(f) Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known as Paracelsus, is often referred to as the founder of modern medicine and chemistry, and he did indeed aggressively pioneer the rejection of the old Aristotelean and Galenic ideas which still held those fields in an iron grip. He opened up the use of herbal and chemical substances in the cure of many illnesses, drawing on the wisdom of peasant men and women. He was also the first to study an occupational disease, in his work on the ailments of miners. Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote him a letter, thanking him for his successful medical advice.
But he was also an alchemist and Hermeticist, keenly interested in magic. In his medical work, Paracelsus took very seriously the Hermetic formula ‘as above, so below': the human had the same structure as the cosmos.
What else could fortune [Glück] be than living in conformity to nature’s wisdom? If nature goes well, that is fortune; if it does not, that is misfortune. For our essence is ordained in nature.
He saw the work of the physician as a practical activity which drew from his own imagination to tune in to the physical problems of the patient. Intuition, not logical reasoning was the heart of medical science. For Paracelsus, astrology was mistaken only in that it concentrated on the influence of the stars on the human individual, and ignored the reverse influence of the magus and his imagination on the stars. Imagination for Paracelsus is not a passive depiction of the world, but an active power to change it. Pathological symptoms exhibit the ‘signatures’ of an out-of-balance in nature and the magus has to correct this by his art.
An opponent of both the Church hierarchy and of Luther, whose oppression of the peasants offended him deeply, he was a firm Neoplatonist and student of Cabbala. So his world is an emanation of the One, produced by the ‘separation’ of the elements from ‘Prime Matter’, and this individuation is a ‘fall’ of nature and of man. The purpose of human activity is to perfect an imperfect world, and this is the role of alchemy and magic.
From the stars to the human individual and from angels and demons to the mind, the world is a unity which has become divided. Everywhere, Paracelsus shows us a loop from the One to the multiplicity and back, with human conscious activity bringing about the return journey.
No-one sees what is hidden in him [the human being], but only what his works reveal. Therefore man should work continually to discover what God has given him.
(g) Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a strong advocate of the ideas of Copernicus. However, Bruno was certainly not influenced by Copernicus’ caution, openly flaunting the most heretical implications of Nicolas’s ideas and taking them as far as they would go. Born at Nola, near Naples, Bruno had joined the Dominican Order, but soon quarrelled with it, and spent the rest of his life as a wandering scholar, annoying the established authorities wherever he went. Eventually, he was arrested by the Inquisition and burnt after several years of torture. (The Holy Fathers of the Inquisition were determined to complete this job: they took Bruno’s burnt bones out of the fire and smashed them up with hammers.) If you go to the Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the place where he was burnt, you will see his statue, erected in the 1860s to celebrate his importance as a martyr for modern science. In fact, this idea of him was quite misleading, for Bruno was a magician and mystic.
Strongly against the Aristotelean stranglehold on cosmological ideas, his development of the Copernican cosmology led him to some very modern ideas about the universe. He influenced people like Kepler (a fellow Neoplatonist) and perhaps Galileo too. He was ahead of them in his rejection of the necessity of circular planetary orbits, for example, and anticipated many of Galileo’s arguments for the movement of the Earth. But his outlook combined Hermeticism and Neoplatonism with ideas derived from the Zohar. Although he seems not to have known Hebrew, he studied several of the Cabbalist texts, which were by his time causing great excitement among Renaissance scholars.
But we should not include him under the heading of Christian Cabbalism, because it is not at all clear that he was a Christian. His overt religious views actually hide the fact that he is much more an adherent of what he thought was the ancient Egyptian religion. He thinks he has found this in the Hermetic manuscripts, and from this source he knows that the Earth is alive and moves itself round the Sun. In general, matter is permeated with life and form, continually transforming itself.
Above all, his studies continually strive to probe the deepest relationships between humanity and the movements of the material world.
To recognise the unity of form and matter in all things, is what reason is striving to attain to. But in order to penetrate to this unity, in order to investigate all the secrets of Nature, we must search into the opposed and contradictory extremes of things, the maximum and the minimum.
(h) Jakob Böhme (1585-1624) was a shoemaker of Goerlitz, a town between Silesia and Bohemia. He had only an elementary education, but in 1600 he begins to write a huge mystical manuscript, which he only finishes twelve years later. Despite orthodox disapproval, he continues writing for the rest of his life. Amid the troubles of Europe at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, he struggles to reconcile the ordered cosmos with freedom. He brings into this work that combination of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Cabbala and Hermeticism we have found in earlier writers. He uses the language of alchemy to express his human-centred conceptions of the world, which, as with those of Paracelsus, link God, Nature and individual psychology.
The book in which all secrets lie hidden is man himself; he himself is the Book of the Essence of all Essences. ...He is like unto God. ...Why do you seek God in the depths or beyond the stars? ...Seek him in your heart, in the centre of your life’s origin. There shall you find Him.
Hegel devotes 30 pages of his ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’ to Böhme – John Locke gets about half as much! – and this is not surprising when you read passages like this one:
Nothing can be revealed to itself without opposition: For if there is nothing that opposes it, then it always goes out of itself and never returns to itself again. If it does not return into itself, as into that from which it originated, then it knows nothing of its origin. Böhme, ‘The Way to Christ’. Quoted by Hegel, op cit, Volume 3, p 203.)
Böhme is also an inspiration for many other writers, notably for the poet Blake, and in the twentieth century with Jung and the surrealists. Many of Böhme’s notions, often expressed with great obscurity, may also be linked with the Islamic mystics, the Sufis. All three, Christian, Jewish and Islamic heresies, maintained a centuries-long collaboration and dispute. ‘Nature is God’s body’, writes Böhme: Creation is not ex nihilo, from nothing, but ex Deo, from God. That is how God reveals Himself. Only with great difficulty does he avoid saying outright that God must therefore be the source of evil.
For all life is steeped in poison and the light alone withstands the poison, and yet is also a cause that the poison lives and does not languish.
I can only mention the Islamic contribution to our story very briefly, but I think it will be seen to link up with many other episodes. Even more than either Judaism or Christianity, Islamic orthodoxy would seem to be hostile to the trends we have been discussing. Allah’s distance from the material human world is of a still higher order of infinity that that of Jehovah and the Christian God. But ideas cannot be separated from each other, even by the efforts of the most ferocious dogmatism.
Quite early in the history of Islam, the orthodox upholders of tradition had to fight to combat other influences, especially that of Greek philosophy. Neo-Platonic and Aristotelean strands began to be interwoven with the concepts of the Koran, until, by the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, Arabic philosophers were the only ones to maintain the traditions of Greek thought, and to transmit them to the West. All of the problems which beset the other religions recur, of course, above all, the problems of evil and of human free.
Mystical ideas, often influenced by Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Hinduism, also begin to be combined with Islam throughout the Muslim world, sometimes in opposition to the Greek influences. Despite the vast difference between Allah and the human, the mystic seeks unity with God. In 922, the great al-Hallaj met his death, executed for declaring – at least according to his accusers – ‘I am God!’ Centuries later, in 1191, al-Shurawadhi faced death in Aleppo for similar crimes. He had set himself the task of rediscovering the theosophy of ancient Iran, linking Plato with Hermes.
Muslim mystics (Sufis) had to exercise great ingenuity in avoiding charges of polytheism and pantheism, finding support in quotations from the Koran and the Hadith. Even the ascetic denial of marriage by some of them raised difficulties not faced by their Christian counterparts: it could be taken as criticism of the Prophet, who was definitely married.
But despite all these obstacles, Sufi teachings gained many followers and their writings in poetry and prose flourished. It is important that Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) (1165-1240), the greatest scholars of their times, responsible for preserving and developing the works of Aristotle, were also involved in the mystical speculation of Sufism.
Islamic mysticism is concerned chiefly with the spiritual journey of the individual soul. Contemplating the Divine, the Contemplator is himself the Contemplated, and the seeker is himself a particle of the Divine Light that he seeks. At the end-point of this journey, the individual souls are all united. The Sufi teachers attempt to describe the course of the journey and the visions which mark its stages, often making use of alchemical terms.
Some of these descriptions centre on the colours which the visionary sees. These ideas recur centuries later in the colour doctrine which Goethe, with the enthusiastic support of Hegel, counterpoised to the theories of Newton – or at least, those attributed to Newton by the Newtonians. The ‘Newtonians’ wanted colour to be a function of an objective phenomenon called light, while Goethe and Hegel, who were aware of the mystical background to this discussion, insisted that it was simultaneously objective and the result of subjective activity.
In our time, Sufism has made a surprising entry into the literary world of the US. In 1995, when a translation of the poetry of Mevlana Jelauddin Rumi was published, it became a major best-seller. Rumi (1207-1273), born in what is now Afghanistan and living in Anatolia in Turkey, was a leading Sufi scholar and poet. Founder of the Mehlevi order of dervishes, the so-called ‘whirling Dervishes’ (darwish = ‘poor in spirit'), Rumi tried to express the mystical experience in poetry, together with the ideas he learned from Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). Hegel is also said to have encountered a translation of some of Rumi’s poems and to have been very impressed by them.
Nearly all of the people on it are mentioned with approval by Hegel. He does not seem to have encountered Eriugena, nor does he seem to be aware of Nicolas of Cusa. However, these names belong here because of their importance for each of the others.
Another character ought to appear on our cast-list, but doesn’t. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is the most famous name in the history of Hermeticism, but Hegel, like most of us until quite recently, did not know this. Newton kept completely secret the facts that he spent much of his working life as an alchemist, had the largest collection of Hermetic literature in his library, and translated some key manuscripts in the Corpus Hermeticum. His life-long studies of the Book of Daniel and the dimensions of the Great Pyramid seemed to be unconnected eccentricities. Only towards the end of the twentieth century has the real story been uncovered, in the work of Betty-Jo Dobbs. Meanwhile, learned authorities still insist on gibbering about ‘the Newtonian mechanical universe’.
What all of these people have in common is a conception of Creation as self-creation. For them, God, in bringing the world into being including humanity as a special part, also brings Himself into being, and conscious human productive activity has the starring role. Moreover, God puts Himself into his work, so that Nature and humanity are aspects of the divine. That is why these people were certain that knowledge of nature and humanity were possible only to those who achieve mystical union with God.