Overreach and Nemesis

We are reminded by historians now and then that the breakdown and collapse of empires and civilisations is often due to something they call “overreach”. In a sense, the reach of empire exceeds the grasp, or “pride goeth before a fall”.

In effect, “overreach” is just another term for what the ancient Greeks called “hybris”, and what others called “sin” or “transgression”. Hybris was inevitably followed by Nemesis. “Nemesis” is what I’ve often referred to here by other names as “revenge effect”, “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence”, “reversal of fortune” or “ironic reversal”. It is, of course, connected with the meaning of enantiodromia — the tendency of all action to negate or contradict itself at the extremity or limit. Enantiodromia is the result because coincidentia oppositorum is the rule, not the exception. And all these — hybris, nemesis, enantiodromia, coincidentia oppositorum — are aspects of the karmic law of action and reaction.

“Overreach” belongs to the karmic law also, for it is, after all, only another term for hybris. Therefore, to understand how overreach results in demise, we need to carefully consider and understand the meaning of hybris, too — and that is to say as much as to understand the nature of “sin” itself. We really do not understand “sin” as such. We think we do, but our understanding of “sin” is quite perverse and distorted. And because we don’t truly understand it, we keep repeating it, and none more habitually and blindly than the self-righteous.

Overreach means loss of balance, loss of homeostasis. It means an exaggerated action or development in one direction. “Overspecialisation” is just another term for overreach or hybris itself. The balanced condition is what the ancient Greeks referred to as “The Golden Mean” and it referred to the proper “ratio” of things. “Nothing too much” or “nothing in excess” were their bywords. “Reason” or “rationality” was always the preservation or restoration of the Ratio — the proper balance of forces and powers, particularly of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

“Overreach” is easy to understand, in that regard. You know what happens when your momentum exceeds your sense of balance. Your stride begins to exceed your pace. You lose your balance. You stumble and fall. That has become the formal definition of death, by the way: homeostatic failure. The loss of balance. And you really can’t understand the meaning of the old saying that “the wages of sin is death” without understanding the fuller meaning of homeostasis.

Expressed in the physical organism, homeostasis is the balanced and coherent functioning of the respiratory, circulatory, metabolic, and nervous systems which are, of course, integrated with the primal elements of air, water, earth, and fire respectively. In strictly psychological terms, this corresponds to the fourfold Jungian “Self” in terms of Jung’s four functions of consciousness — thinking, sensing, feeling, intuiting or willing. The integral or harmonious functioning of these four also belongs to homeostasis, which is also the Heraclitean dynamic equilibrium.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“, or “the more things change the more they stay the same”. If you have ever wondered why this “eternal recurrence of same” must be so, it lies in the nature of this dynamic equilibrium or principle of homeostasis — the perpetual restoration of the fourfold balance. It matters little whether the four “powers” or “forces” are called earth, air, fire and water or, as today, gravitational force, electro-magnetic force, or the strong and weak nuclear forces and the problem of their integration in and through a fifth or “theory of everything” — the quintessence. It is simply the translation of the very same dynamic equilibrium into new terms. In that sense, indeed, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

The “shape” of this dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis is the mandala. The mandala is the symbol of the fourfold dynamic and as such is the most appropriate representation of the human form and of human society. This is why Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” or quadrilateral logic of his “grammatical method” also takes the form of a mandala.

Rosenstock-Huessy's "cross of reality"

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” or “speech-thinking” is a mandala form of thinking, and corresponds somewhat to what William Blake called “fourfold vision”. The “cross of reality” is an representation of man and society in terms of dynamic equilibrium or homeostasis.

“Overreach” is a case of getting “carried away” in one exaggerated direction of this reality. This getting “carried away” can look like “progress”, whereas it can be, in fact, fatal because it induces a disequilibrium and a loss of homeostasis. It is the meaning of hybris. Recovery has always been the attempt at a restoration of the equilibrium between past and future, the inner and the outer; or, the equilibrium of the psychic functions of thinking, feeling, willing, and sensing.

“Progress” may, in fact, be completely delusional. It can be easily confused with what is actually fatal to society — overreach. One front of this mandala becomes hyper-active at the expense of the others, upsetting the equilibrium. The intuition of this problem is what makes for our concerns about “over-specialisation” of functions.

The human is a fourfold being. We may express that by insisting that “man” is a creature of body, mind, soul, and spirit. Whenever the human has ignored or forgotten this, the equilibrium of things has become upset; “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats put it. Former and present civilisations exaggerated one facet of the fourfold human. “Overreach” was that hybris which inevitably invoked Nemesis. We know Nemesis as the problem of overreach in terms of “revenge effect”, “blowback”, “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence” or “ironic reversal”, which are the very things we grapple with today at our “end of history”, or “mind at the end of its tether” as H.G. Wells put it.

“Overreach” is Wells’ “mind at the end of its tether”. “Overreach” is Heidegger, the man of reason, despairing that “only a god can save us now”. Overreach is hybris. Hybris the loss of equilibrium which invokes Nemesis or “revenge effect”.

It is not that the human must learn to become comfortable with limits. That is not the case. It is the case that the human must learn to develop abilities and potentialities in more than one direction, holistically. Properly understood, “globalism” and the emergence of “the global soul” is this process now unfolding, which for lack of a better term is being called “integral consciousness” or “supramental consciousness”.


One response to “Overreach and Nemesis”

  1. jangoorissen says :

    Hello Scott,

    First of all, I thank you for your great depth and intensity in writing about you perceive as a new dawning consciousness. Hardly ever have I seen someone explaining, excavating, zealously promoting and eloquently expressing the felt necessity of our adaptaion to unexpectedly widening horizons. In your writing about the coincidentia oppositorum I would like to point to a literary image that has intrigued me for a long time. It is the image of the main character of the fantasy novel Earth Sea by Ursula leGuin. This character is a gifted young sorcerer (aren’t we all somehow?) who proudly tries to prove his special skill to his peers and therewith creates a monstrum that is utterly dangerous to him and the world at large: if in power it will disrupt the existence of the world. Leter in the story this character, in his multileveled self-search, discovers that he has to ‘hunt and meet’ this creature. He sets out in a small sailingboat, held together by spells, fiends an old friend who is willing to go with him, and he sails to the extremes of the earth. There, where space itself seems to collapse into a singularity he meets the creature and calls it by its proper name. He then merges with it and restores the damage done. So here it is: reconciliation in the extremes, not revenge. The overreach is done from the ego, the reconciliation is performed by embracing the evil away from ego, because there is the sacrificial willingness to perish in the deed. I do understand the signs you are trying to convey; and it seems a bit like the index finger sticking out from a lighthouse at the storminfested coasts of Newfoundland. But, we’re not in a Stephen King novel here. I am trying to perceive glimps of light in the Armageddish messages you spread. The light is there, but, as mystics would perhaps say: it is still a black light, or with Goethe: our eyes are not yet fit to perceive it.

    In admiration for your work, Jan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: