The Outlaw Spirit: William Blake
My use of the term “outlaw spirit” over the last couple of posts is meant to draw attention to the largely neglected or suppressed history of dissenters from the “Age of Reason,” and to highlight the fact that, not one, but two models of reason were in contention at the onset of the Modern Age, like the Biblical parable of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau and their competition for the birthright of the firstborn.
This situation is what led Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, (1561 – 1626) to shape his famous question in the way he did — whether “science or magic” was to provide the philosophical foundations for the New Age emerging amidst the ruins and from the rubble of the Old World in the breakdown and collapse of the civilisation of the Middle Ages (and which now, also, appears to be the equal fate of the Modern Age itself).
This is not a minor issue. It is our autobiography. It has shaped who and what we have become even in our daily life.
Conventional histories largely run roughshod over the whole matter. In them, the social and historical struggle in the transitional age is misrepresented as a struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, between “Age of Reason” and “Age of Faith”, or between the revolutionary Secular against the reactionary and decadent Ecclesiastical power.
But by the 16th century, when Bacon put his question about whether science or magic were to provide the philosophical foundations of the New Era, it was only a question about what would be the shape of the New Age and the form of its self-consciousness and self-understanding, because by then the old order of Christendom had already been irrevocably swept away or persisted only as a lost cause. The struggle — as is the often the case in all revolutionary victories — was now principally between two streams of the triumphant revolutionary forces, both previously suspect, or suppressed and outlawed as heretical, that now turned on each other for the inheritance like Jacob and Esau: representative of those streams are Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) or Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) or “the Devil’s Doctor” Paracelsus (1493 – 1541).
It is quite possible that Bacon even had the alchemist Paracelsus specifically in mind when weighing the options of science or magic.
As mentioned, the form of the question “science or magic” is summary for a choice between what was then called “Natural Philosophy” (or “the Experimental Philosophy”) or the Hermetic Philosophy (alchemy). One of the things that almost universally characterised the adherents of the Hermetic school was a complete rejection of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics — the very same thing that William Blake later denounced as “Aristotle’s Analytics” in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and is what Rosenstock-Huessy refers to as “the Greek Mind”.
At root, then, the controversy was quite simple, and continues in some form or another even to this day — the choice was between an Aristotelian logic of “either-or” or a non-Aristotelian logic of “both-and”; or, to put that another way — between a dualistic and a non-dualistic way of thinking.
This is the very crux of the entire issue and the problem of dualism, but which achieved its most articulate representation in the metaphysical dualism of Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) resulting in a radical dissociation and contradiction of subject and object, mind and body, spiritual and physical, or consciousness and reality. It was this dichomisation of reality into discrete separate worlds of spirit and matter that was completely rejected by the Hermetic school as false, and whose own mode of cognition and perception was non-dualist, and had to be so given their root principle of “coincidentia oppositorum” or “the coincidence of opposites”.
The root issue is very simple, isn’t it? Dualistic versus non-dualistic consciousness, and this, in turn, goes back to the very roots of the entire Western intellectual tradition in the controversy between the Greek philosophers Parmenides — the philosopher of “Being” — and Heraclitus — the philosopher of “Becoming” and of the coincidence of opposites. So, by extension, Bacon’s question has deeper roots in the conflict of philosophical moods of Parmenides or Heraclitus.
Nothing can be simpler or clearer to understand: the “law of contradiction” (or dualistic logic) was in direct conflict with the principle of “coincidence of opposites”, or non-duality and the doctrine of affinities. The unity of consciousness and reality was at stake, and therefore of man’s powers to even identify with the life process and to know it through the faculty of empathic identification or “intuition”. For the Hermeticists, therefore, the form of Bacon’s question and the triumph of Cartesian rationalism and dualism was a human disaster, for it meant that man had formalised and adopted an attitude and mood of opposition and contradiction to life and creation itself, or as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, ” the body was delegated to the struggle for food and shelter; the ‘mind’, however, with the optimism of the age of reason, was contemplating the truth of the matter”
It is in this context that Blake’s dissent from “single vision & Newtons sleep” and “Aristotle’s Analytics” must be understood, for Blake is in the Hermetic tradition and of the school of Heraclitus, “for man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern” — that is, from behind the walls of the physical senses (or in what Pitrim Sorokin calls “Sensate Culture”) by adopting this dualism, in effect amputating and divorcing himself from the life-process itself, as Nietzsche later argued. “We murder to dissect” was Wordsworth’s summary judgement on dualistic rationality itself — sterilising and anti-biotic.
Dualistic versus non-dualistic modes of cognition characterise much of the intellectual struggles of the early Modern Period, as exemplified in the career of Paracelsus. The victory of the “Greek Mind” forced the Hermeticists underground, where it became “the occult” (a word which only came into existence then), like the mad twin brother who was locked away in the cellar as being something shameful, unseemly, or embarrassing. Dissenters from dualism have been uniformly rounded up and stuffed into the camp called “Counter-Enlightenment” or “romantics”, as if they belonged to the reactionary past, which was not true. Only if by “Enlightenment” and “Age of Reason” we understand Cartesianism or the logicians of Port Royal, or “the Greek Mind” as Rosenstock-Huessy calls it, is “counter-enlightenment” intelligible at all.
The refinement of the Hermetic philosophy is what you find in the works of Jean Geber or Rosenstock-Huessy. Jean Gebser with his attacks on dualistic thinking and perspectivising logic in favour of “polarity” or “complementarity” and for “integral consciousness” belongs to classical Hermetic reasoning. Likewise, Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method” and his integralist programme of “synchronising antagonistic distemporaries” or the concordance of contradictions is classical Hermeticism, and Rosenstock-Huessy has eloquently defended the reputations of Heraclitus and Paracelsus for similar reasons. And Carl Jung, obviously, also belongs to the Hermetic school. The necessity of countering the pernicious consequences of rationalism and dualism — not least of which is “the culture of narcissism” — is why the Hermetic philosophy is now enjoying something of a Renaissance itself.
The very basis of all Hermetic philosophy — the thing that is implied even in the principle of polarity or “coincidence of opposites” — is empathy or affinity. Because of the problems generated by the “deficiencies” of the mental-rational structure of consciousness, as Gebser describes it and as Ralston Saul dissects it in Voltaire’s Bastards, we are now taking a hard second look at the alternative and its meaning that was rejected and denied back then as “magic” or “occult” — Hermeticism.