Mary Barnes' collage and commentary, posted below on Dec. 18th, brings up one of the most enduring questions of our history: the distinction between the Evanescent and the Eternal. Along with the pursuit of the eternal, it runs throughout the history of our religion and our philosophy.
Our Western philosophy really begins with the revolution of nascent empiricism and rational thought around 600 BC with Thales of Miletus, on the western coast of Turkey. He asserted that water was the true essence of everything – behind or underneath all these things we see, which are changing all the time, there is just the one element: water. Others came after him making their mark and declaring other principle elements as the archē (ἀρχή), being the source or first element. Edward Edinger really expresses well the marvel of this development:
"Looking over the phenomenon of Greek philosophy as a whole, one has the impression that the initial and overriding interest of the Greek philosophers was in what lies beyond the visible world. They sensed that there was something behind what was ordinarily seen. Their basic questions were metaphysical, that is, beyond the physical. It is remarkable to see that the dawning rational consciousness of our species made that assumption so gratuitously: that there is something beyond what one can see. As we now understand it, that assumption demonstrates the projection of the reality of the psyche, which lies behind sensible, concrete existence." (Psyche in Antiquity: Book One, Early Greek Philosophy, p10)
One of the most striking ideas of this Milesian school came from Anaximander (610-546 BCE), a pupil of Thales. Anaximander reportedly drew the first map of the world, as he imagined it, and introduced the Babylonian gnōmōn (γνώμων) to the Greeks, a simple kind of sun-dial, and he also gave us the first surviving text fragment of our Western philosophical tradition. Most interesting for me, however, is that he seems to be the first to project the psyche onto the cosmos. He believed the underlying first principle, or archē, to be the apeiron, or the boundless. This Greek word is related to the verb peirō (πείρω), to pierce through, or to fix on a spit. The α‑prefix, or alpha-privative, negates that quality or action, much as in our word atypical. So Anaximander’s apeiron is unfixed, or unbounded, but also without qualities and unchanging, but out of which came the primary opposites, hot and cold, moist and dry, which made up the earth and all we see.
Furthermore, the one surviving fragment we have from Anaximander, first fragment of our Western philosophical tradition, has had a great numinous allure for scholars who have spilled much ink arguing over its meaning:
ἐξ ὧν δὲ ἡ γένεσίς ἐστι τοῖς οὖσι, καὶ τὴν φθορὰν εἰς ταῦτα γίνεσθαι κατὰ τὸ χρεών·
διδόναι γὰρ αὐτὰ δίκην καὶ τίσιν ἀλλήλοις τῆς ἀδικίας κατὰ τὴν τοῦ χρόνου τάξιν.
"Out of that from which existing things have their beginning (γένεσίς, or genesis), they perish too into that same thing, by necessity; for they make amends and pay restitution to each other for their injustice (ἀδικία) in the order of time (χρόνος, or chronos)."
And here we see the alpha-privative form (ἀδικία) of the Greek word for justice (δίκη). But a truly remarkable image right at the start of our philosophy. It also may be a striking idea to consider our existence as a kind of crime, or transgression, against our original boundless, formless source, but as we see from Jung, "life itself is guilt":
"Even a life dedicated to God is still lived by an ego, which speaks of an ego and asserts an ego in God's despite, which does not instantly merge itself with God but reserves for itself a freedom and a will which it sets up outside God and against him."
(Mysterium Coniunctionis, par. 206)
The Flower and the Rhizome
The opening of Jung’s memoir paints a memorably poetic version of Anaximander’s fragment above:
"The life of man is a dubious experiment. It is a tremendous phenomenon only in numerical terms. Individually, it is so fleeting, so insufficient, that it is literally a miracle that anything can exist and develop at all. I was impressed by that fact long ago, as a young medical student, and it seemed to me miraculous that I should not have been prematurely annihilated.
Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away — an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains."
(Memories, Dreams, Reflections 1989, p. 4)
This is an age-old search, the search for the elusive thing that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux of fleeting appearances, ephemeral fashions, remaining unmoved beneath the restless passage of innovations and constant storm of opinions. This search extends from these Pre-Socratic thinkers, like Thales and Anaximander, through Socrates and Plato, up to the 20th century and Jung’s momentous discovery of the reality of the psyche.
Over the centuries, of course, there also has been the denial of the rhizome and the presumptuous attempt to control the flux of events absolutely. Writing on Samuel Beckett, Professor Paul Davies describes modern life caught between these two opposing forces:
"One is the rational-(izing) principle, cogito, abstract reasoning, the conscious mind, will and design, determinism, positivism, the imposition of extrinsic order... Beneath, above and against this force, is the opposite force, often hidden, as yet inaccessible to conscious will: a sense of the primordial spring of life... In psychology, this force was the province of Jung's theory. Its world-view is the synergetic, integral or holistic. Its philosophy is the esoteric tradition. Jung's understanding of the unconscious saw it as empowering the whole cosmos, whereas Freud's reduced the unconscious to the individual alone."
(The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, edited. by J. Pilling, p. 43-44)
Later in his memoir, in the chapter On Life after Death, Jung makes the crucial point for us:
"The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance. Thus we demand that the world grant us recognition for qualities which we regard as personal possessions: our talent or our beauty. The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change. In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted." (Memories, Dreams, Reflections 1989, p. 325)
As Christmas now approaches with the New Year soon to come, fast on its heels, I pass on warm wishes of the season as you embrace the essential within.