Renaissances Old and New
To continue from the previous post on Renaissances, old and new….
One of the key figures of the Old Renaissance, the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), is not even mentioned in Ian Goldlin’s and Chris Kutarna’s The Age of Discovery. Yet, Bruno was one of the most interesting and intriguing characters of the European Renaissance, along with cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus 1401 – 1464) who was one of the chief figures of Renaissance humanism. Cusanus is also not mentioned in The Age of Discovery. And yet, Bruno and Cusanus both had a more accurate understanding of the cosmos than Copernicus, as it turns out.
In fact, no Hermeticists come in for a mention in The Age of Discovery, which is a serious defect of the book it seems to me.
Among Bruno’s doctrines was “cosmic pluralism” and his belief that the cosmos, being infinite, had no “centre”, which Cusanus had proposed earlier. This was well ahead of Copernicus and his heliocentric theory. Bruno’s cosmic pluralism is what we would today call “many worlds theory” or “probable worlds theory” and it was one of the doctrines that got him convicted and executed for heresy. Both Bruno and Cusanus before him simply held that “God was a circle whose circumference was nowhere and whose centre was everywhere”, and that this was reflected or echoed in the infinite cosmos. For this he was also accused of pantheism, although it was probably more akin to panentheism. The difference between pantheism and panentheism is “God in all things” or “All things in God”. But God as a circle “whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere” is the keystone of Hermetic philosophy which underpins the other doctrines of coincidence of opposites or the doctrine of the affinities, and so on. And this was the basis also for Bruno’s belief in cosmic pluralism or many worlds, and that there is no privileged “centre” to the infinite. The paradoxical here is that if no privileged centre to the cosmos existed, then everywhere was the centre of it. What is, is not, and yet is.
Historians of the Renaissance, with the prejudice of hindsight, too often discount the role of mysticism or Hermeticism in the Renaissance and its contributions to it. History is written by the victors, as they say, and this is true of the contest between Hermeticism and Natural Philosophy or “Natural Reason” (and subsequently “Natural Religion” as Deism). When Francis Bacon weighed the merits of “science” or “magic” for man’s conquest of nature, and came down on the side of “science” (or Natural Reason and Natural Philosophy) Hermeticism (and its praxis as alchemy) was discounted and consigned to the outer darkness — the “occult”, which was a new word at the time. “Consciousness”, also a new word at the time, became associated with “mind” and “mind” with “Natural Reason” which is what we call today “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” or “the Greek Mind”. The chief difference between the Hermetic Reason and Natural Reason was, one embraced the paradoxical and the other excluded the paradoxical via the law of noncontradiction in logic. And it was in those terms that one came to be called “mystical” and the other “logical”, and so “irrational” and “rational” likewise.
The precedent for that, of course, was the old philosophical contest between Parmenides and Heraclitus which stands at the very root of the history of mind and philosophy. Heraclitus, the “Greek Buddha”, was also consigned to the outer darkness later called “occult” as “Heraclitus the Obscure” or “Heraclitus the Dark” because the paradoxical was at the centre of his thinking. Bruno and Casunus are in the tradition of Heraclitus. “Natural Reason” was in the tradition of Parmenides, for it was Parmenides, and not Descartes, who first declared that “thinking and being are the same”, and which later becomes Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”.
We should understand what Bruno’s “cosmic pluralism” signified for his time as it now relates to our own time. In Bruno’s time, many new pathways into the future opened up at the same time as some were shutting down. Bruno’s many worlds theory, or cosmic pluralism, reflected the fact that the old Renaissance opened up a range of probable futures, possible realities and worlds, until Bacon, largely, shut them down, and Hermeticism then became the road not taken, also in the name of what Descartes called the need for “clear and distinct ideas”, which automatically suppressed the paradoxical. Things had to be “either/or” and not “both/and”.
Today, Bruno’s Hermeticism and cosmic pluralism is vindicated in “probable worlds theory” and the coincidence here is that now, as then, many new pathways or probabilities are opening up into the future, while many others are now shutting down and closing off for us. This is the meaning of “crisis” or crossroads and now, as then, the future timeline we will follow depends on the crucial decision of which probable world we will choose to actualise and realise.
“Renaissance” simply means “rebirth”. It doesn’t necessarily imply that what is reborn is good. It’s we who decide what shall be reborn. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is also about a “Renaissance”. But what is reborn there is the sphinx, “the rough beast” (who is also a riddle and a paradox).
The return of the many worlds theory in our time signals a “return of the repressed” — the ascendancy now of the Hermetic Philosophy that was consigned in the early modern period to the outer darkness by the perspectivist consciousness structure. And much of the present chaos and turbulence in society, now as then, simply reflects the fact that while one future pathway is unraveling, many other doorways and pathways are opening into the future, and the choice is bewildering to the multitude and the cause of much contemporary paranoia, uncertainty, anxiety, and “identity crisis”. Crossroads were always considered evil places.
As Bruno’s cosmic pluralism reflected the fact then that many possible futures or probable worlds — timelines for the evolution of consciousness – were emerging, and this was seen as threatening to the then status quo, so today, too, probable worlds theory reflects the same possibility for evolving consciousness. It can go in many directions. We need to choose wisely, because there is no guarantee that the “New Renaissance” or “rebirth” will be one of heaven or of hell — of Yeats’ “Rough Beast” in all the malice of its indifference to life or death as it slouches towards Bethlehem to be reborn. That, too, is “renaissance”. This is the real tension that underlies the conjunction of “genius” and “risk” in Goldlin’s and Kutarna’s “New Renaissance” as the new Age of Discovery — a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” is the eye of Urizen, which is also the eye atop the pyramid of the mental-rational consciousness.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the keystone”, and this applies to the Renaissance old and new. It’s not just that the Hermetic Philosophy is having the last laugh on “Natural Reason”, but that 2500 years of Western intellectual tradition is being discombobulated by the fact that Heraclitus, and not Parmenides, is in the ascendancy today and that means the truth of the paradoxical and the paradoxes of time. Our received logics cannot handle the paradoxical, or of time. But the Hermetic Philosophy can and does, and it is insinuating itself today into all kinds of new disciplines, or transforming old ones, in which the paradoxical has to be recognised and embraced rather than ignored or suppressed.
So, in that sense “post-rational” and “post-truth” society may well be taken as a restructuration of what we mean by “rational” and by “truth” (and subsequently even what we mean by “human nature”). We simply need to become conscious of this transition from “Natural Reason” to Hermetic Reason, then represented by Bruno and Cusanus in particular, but today represented by William Blake, Carl Jung, Jean Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, and many others. In them lies our hopes that the “New Renaissance” will not be a rebirth of the Rough Beast as “Natural Reason” and the mental-rational/perspectivising consciousness and its constructed world continues to disintegrate.