Review of the book by David Fideler, subtitled:
‘Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence’.
This is a story that cannot be told too often – our story from the beginnings to now, in the tradition of such a magnificent telling as Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind first published in 1991.
David Fideler’s great breadth of knowledge and understanding is on show in this tour de force, as he traces human development and our relationship with the natural world over millennia.
May I be forgiven for attempting a brief outline of some of the key points:
- We come from the stars, and starlight was a major inspiration for early humans, inspiring wonder and contemplation, and the alignment of ancient monuments such as Stonehenge.
- Emerging from an immersed and non-reflective time before the written word, the early Greek ‘pre-Socratic’ philosophers described an integrated, living, beautiful universe.
- Pythagoras discerned a mathematical order that was a symbol of cosmic attunement, a qualitative decription. Socrates and Plato had an ’emotional and aesthetic engagement with the living universe’.
- Aristotle lost this engagement but gained a ‘demand for intellectual certainty’, which began to ‘close off from the numinosity of the universe’. He began the school and library at Alexandria, then a crossroads for the world.
- There were Epicureans who saw the world as atomised, and Stoics who saw happiness as living in harmony with the world.
- The neoplatonism of Plotinus (now AD205-270) described the essentially spiritual nature of the universe, the One. The central task of philosophy was to remember our essential nature.
- The alchemists sought through chemical means to understand nature and to transform themselves.
- The monotheistic religions naturally arose in the deserts of the Middle East, the poytheistic religions in the fertile lands.
- In the Christian view in late antiquity nature was dead and God was a distant reality. Knowledge stagnated in Europe for nearly a thousand years.
- The 12th century saw a reawakening, the first Renaissance, the rediscovery of Plato, the great gothic cathedrals representing the underlying harmony of the universe. Translations of Aristotle led to Scholasticism and theology soon took over again.
- The 15th century saw an even more remarkable second Renaissance, with the redicovery of Roman works and the entire body of Plato’s writings. Living nature and the anima mundi were rediscovered. The flowering of imagination was reflected in great art.
- Galileo led the charge to experimental science, but Descartes established a ‘mechanical’ view of the world, even living creatures – which the church adopted.
- The invention of clocks led to God being perceived as the ‘divine clockmaker’. Newton worked on this model publicly, but privately researched alchemy.
- Francis Bacon proposed the project to ‘control nature’ through science. Nature became seen as having no value in itself. (Utilitarian philosophy.)
- While Christianity continued with a designer God, those such as Laplace dispensed with the idea altogether.
- The Romantics rebelled against the mechanical philosophy of a dead universe, reviving the idea of a world soul. Goethe, Schelling, Blake, Wordworth and so on. Imagination was the way to reunite with nature.
- Freud and Jung articulated the discovery of the unconscious and eventually modern psychology.
- The development of modern science, particularly electromagnetism and quantum theory, showed all aspects of Newton’s model of the universe to be false. There is no objective ‘out there’ and nothing exists until subjectively perceived.
- Darwin and Wallace developed the theory of evolution, initially a mindless and random affair.
- Modern understanding of dissipative systems, complexity theory, autopoietic systems, holarchy, symbiosis etc. suggest that evolutionary theory can be applied to everything in a living universe.
- The experience of seeing the earth from space has had a profound effect on our perception of the world – clearly seen as a living entity.
- Recent development of a new kind of science, working in collaboration with nature. Engagement and participation, not control. The restoration of paradise.
These are bullet points, giving just a flavour. You have to read the book to understand.
The message is clear. We are on the threshold of a further Renaissance which will bring us back into the mindset of a living and participatory universe. The self regulating systems of our earth, such as the feedback provided by global warming, are forcing us back in that direction.
History shows that a great creativity is unleashed by periods of Renaissance, and such is the need of our times, which are still based on an economic system modelled on the approaches of the long-discredited mechanistic model.
Do read David Fideler’s book, and Rick Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind.