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.

annuit coeptis

“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.



22 responses to “Renaissances Old and New”

  1. donsalmon says :

    Very interesting. I’ve often heard of the battle during the Renaissance between the mechanists an the organicists. Of course, the mechanists won, leading to Descartes, Bacon and Newton (with his single vision) on down to the most deficient of deficients, the 4 horsemen of the New Atheist apocalypse, Dennett, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens (sounds kind of like that law firm, “Dewey Cheathem and Howe”).

    Another related point – Alan Wallace considers Cusa to be a mystic of the first order, on par with some of the greatest Buddhist sages.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I will, in a subsequent post, also draw this into McGilchrist’s neurodynamics of the divided brain, and especially as it showed itself in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience of her “stroke of insight”, particularly her analogy of how the left-hemisphere functions much like a “serial processor” while the right-hemisphere functions much like a “parallel processor” (or respectively McGilchrist’s “Emissary” and “Master” modalities).

      I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, and that “paradigm shift” has to do with the shift in the modalities. We can say, with some confidence I think, that Hermetic Philosophy approaches the Master mode, while Deism and Natural Reason rely on the left-hemisphere or “Emissary” mode. This is a little simplified, because the brain has also posterior and anterior modalities too, but it serves a purpose to present it like that, even though it’s more involved. We can say that Hermeticism corresponds to “parallel processing” by its embrace of the paradoxical, while the mechanical or Natural Reason very much functions like the serial or linear processor – one damned thing after another.

      • Scott Preston says :

        As you can see, too, not only is this organisation of the brain — left, right, anterior, posterior — connected with the “four modes of knowing” but also with Blake’s fourfold vision and four Zoas.

        If we have four ways of knowing, then a triangular or tripartite-term logic is deficient, and we need to have a quadrialteral logic, a fourfold logic. In effect, a whole brain logic. We have pretty much left the definition of the meaning of “human” and “human nature” to the left-brain (or Emissary) — also “truth” — and this has become inadequate.

        • donsalmon says :

          Very interesting. John Yates (known by his meditation teacher name, Culadasa) has written what I think is the single best meditation manual to date, “The Mind Illuminated.” His background is in Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and he was a neuroscience professor for some years.

          There is very little brain language in the book, but if you recognize it, you can see it is deeply “neurologically” informed. For example, (and I’ve mentioned this here before), he notes the 2 primary modes of attention, selective attention and peripheral awareness (SA and PA). SA he actually describes in terms of linear processing. It is very self-focused, top down processing, quantitative, can’t understand the context, etc etc. PA involves massive parallel processing, can appreciate the unknown, mysterious, qualitative (mythic!) and is absolutely necessary to provide the context, and to go beyond the separative ego.

          I mentioned this on his forum, which I joined recently, and referenced McGilchrist. It turns out (synchronicity!) that he had just recently discovered McGilchrist’s writings and immediately saw the obvious parallels, and asked me to describe that work in more detail.

          I’ve found his practical explanations more helpful to my meditation than anything i’ve found in years. it’s gotten MUCH easier to concentrate, for example, and with almost no effort.

          he explains that most people – given our modern civilization overemphasis on SA, when they’re told to “concentrate” on the breath, take it to mean exclusive concentration and immediately engage in a power struggle to try to overwhelm their “opponents” – the “distractions” of thoughts, sounds etc. By simply pointing out that the art of meditation is really about balancing SA and PA, and gently tending to the breath while being fully open to SA, the whole dynamic shifts and suddenly you’re fully engaged with, immersed in experience while simultaneously finding it easy to attend to the full flow of the breath.

          He also extends this in many very colorful and easy to apply examples to daily life. Once you “get” how SA and PA are constantly functioning (right now, reading this, allowing sounds, body sensations, thoughts, memories, internal images, etc to be gently present in a broad, open field of peripheral awareness) it really leads to a radical shift in your experience.

          And nobody here will be surprised that as the stages of meditation progress, rather than being 2 apparently “separate” things there is an increasing INTEGRATION of SA and PA.

          neuroscientists frequently tell us that multitasking is bad, and that you can’t really attend to 2 things at once, that when you think you do (like doodling while listening to a professor) your mind is alternating very rapidly between the two, and this uses up a tremendous amount of mental energy.

          But more accurately, SA can’t do this, but PA CAN take in the whole field at once. And most interesting, as the integration proceeds, selective attention becomes more open, more field like, and whatever is in peripheral awareness, rather than being vague background information, becomes brighter, clearer, more distinct. When they are perfectly integrated, the mind is silent. There’s no more random thoughts.

          At that point, you now have the perfect instrument to turn the mind around (the turning around at the deepest seat of consciousness, according to the Lankavara Sutra), and “see” what it is that is seeing; in other words, you discover your True Nature.

          • Steve Lavendusky says :

            William Johnston, in what he calls the “new mysticism,” has four elements all of them rooted in the body and in the earth. In the Second Axial Consciousness you have first of all a kataphatic mysticism, a mysticism of light. Then a feminine mysticism that emphasizes the earth. Then a mystical theology like that of Teihard de Chardin that sees God in all things-not as a flight from matter but by entering more deeply into matter. And a mysticism that is inspired by social justice and care for the poor. All related to creative reality and the body.

            • donsalmon says :

              Steve, you might enjoy this from Michael Murphy, which also has all 4 of those aspects:

            • Steve Lavendusky says :

              “To make the distinction unmistakably clear: Civilization is the vital force in human history; culture is that inert mass of institutions and organizations which accumulate around and tend to drag down the advance of life; Civilization is Giordano Bruno facing death by fire; culture is the Cardinal Bellarmino, after ten years of inquisition, sending Bruno to the stake in the Campo di Fiori…”
              ― Edward Abbey

          • Sue says :

            Wending their way through the air from the US to me in Australia are two requested birthday presents – The Ever-Present Origin and, after reading of your praise for it here, donsalmon, The Mind Illuminated. Summer beckons here in the southern hemisphere and it feels quite delicious anticipating these two.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          And the fifth? Pseudoscientific theory holds the pineal gland in high esteem.

  2. Steve Lavendusky says :

    GREEN HERMETICISM: Alchemy and Ecology by Christopher Bamford.

  3. Charles Leiden says :

    Scott, good writing. Glad to see the name of Bruno, who I agree is a very underrated writer and someone who is important today.
    Are you familiar with Arthur Koestler? A good writer and very erudite. His writings and books touch on many these themes. He was open to ideas and didn’t accept the truth of orthodoxy of the day, whether political or scientific.

  4. Dwig says :

    Here’s another take on “chaotic transition”, from Ursula LeGuin:

    I was struck by the number of themes and references that her essay has in common with those explored here. (It rewards a slow reading, visualizing the emerging rich picture she paints.)

    Another of her themes that might merit some consideration here is that of the trickster, symbolized in Native American cultures by Coyote. (Interestingly, coyotes seem to be flourishing in our societies, even in the densest urban environments, while humans are finding them increasingly deficient.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      That’s a wonderful essay by LeGuin which bears reading a couple of times, and lots there to comment on too. “Euclidean mind” is a good term for “mental-rational” or perspectivist consciousness. Her distinction of past and future in terms of Arcadia and Elysium is also very useful and suggestive.

      Her most important theme (she repeats it three or four times in the article): “If the word [utopia] is to be redeemed, it will have to be by someone who has followed utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s vision, and who then has clambered out on the other side”

      That’s Nietzsche-Zarathustra’s “stare into the abyss” as well as Dante’s journey through the Inferno — in essence, the only way out is through, and that’s another way of describing “the dark night of the soul” — the Kali Yuga of the soul. That is even represented in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which has some of the mythical elements of the journey through the abyss and the dark night of the soul.

      Nietzsche-Zarathustra also described himself in terms of Coyote — the seducer of the young into dark alleyways — going sideways rather than backwards or forwards in much the same terms LeGuin uses.

      I would say that true anarchy (or isocracy) as authentic self-rule and self-government would be possible if we collectively understood the meanings of Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, and ecologics and the Sacred Hoop too. Also Blake’s formula for politics: “The Arts and all things in common” would be achievable as well if we gain insight into his fourfold vision (which we might call “whole-brain thinking”, too).

  5. Risto says :

    Hi Scott et al.!

    Thought I could participate to discussion again. I’ve been listening interviews of british author Colin Wilson from Youtube. I think readers of The Chrysalis would be interested in his thoughts because they very much relate to integral consciousness. His topics range from existentialism to the occult phenomena and he was talking 20 years ago about the different modes of attention. He died in 2013 at age 82. Gary Lachman was a friend of his and wrote his biography which was published few months ago. Here’s a interview from 1996 where he discusses for example the history of the Sphinx and the brain divide.

    Also if you haven’t noticed Iain McGilchrist gave a speech in Blake Society’s Annual lecture this year.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Excellent lecture by McGilchrist, one of the great ones. Thanks Risto. McGilchrist doesn’t deal much with Blake at all in The Master and His Emissary, so it was fascinating to see him do that here in this Blake Lecture. Very rich stuff.

      I’ll get around to Wilson later today when I have a spare moment or two.

  6. Charles Leiden says :

    Risto mentions Colin Wilson. I agree. – I am reading that biography at present entitled Beyond The Robot. He wrote about a”new existentialism” that goes beyond the “passive fallacy.” This is based on a mechanical model of reality in which forces working on each of us from the outside. Consciousness is the key. It is intentional. Like Gebser, Wilson understood that the purpose of being human is increasing our consciousness.

    Here is a good discussion with Iain McGilchrist about his work.

  7. abdulmonem says :

    All roads lead to god,provided we release ourselves from prejudices, purify our hearts and stop our chattering mind. Contrary to those who see the cosmos as mere dead mass,many awaken souls with their divine given consciousness start to behold the cosmos as living vitality,never ending activities of continual artistic creations, the original conscious one in whom the human conscious wholeness is swimming in his conscious wholeness and his conscious particle swims in the human conscious wholeness. He is in us and we are in him. A constant conscious exchange, entering and leaving in a non-stop processes and in an always renewal fashion, no flash repeats itself twice. In a constant play of earned and given new flashes in an ever-rising consciousness, trying to catch up with his uncatchable consciousness, never to lose our attention of him or our intention to move toward him, in an attempt to enter the isthmus domain where the barrier between matter and energy, between revelatory and scholastic knowledge is no longer there. This attention and intention to move consciously toward him will provide us with understanding capacities that surpass our present conscious level It is a mutual movement, we to him and him to the world. God eternal desire is always present in his cosmos despite the attempts of so many perverted to deny his presence, the presence that will be felt in this time of crises through his corrective measures ( let the oblivious beware) to assure both the faithless and the faithful of his presence. The expansion in human consciousness is a sign of his closing down consciousness and changing mood. The question is not how we acquire our knowledge but how to apply this knowledge which has been misused and abused for a long time and whose negative cycle is coming to an end as so many signs are pointing to that change. The spirit never sleeps or slumbers as the quran puts it, it knows what is a head and what s behind, it encompasses the heaven and the earth and what are in them with untiring awareness ,the high and the great.

    • donsalmon says :

      What a beautiful post, abulmonem. Well, actually, it reminds me of this from our yoga psychology book:>))

      Prelude – The Dance of Consciousness

      Consciousness is… the fundamental thing in existence – it is the energy, the motion, the movement of consciousness that creates the universe and all that is in it.
      Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga

      The Divine is a radiant and joyful Reality, ecstatically bringing forth the universe from its own Being, within its own Consciousness, at every moment; playing out the infinite possibilities of its infinite Being, simultaneously in the eternal Now. It is the shift of Its attention that creates the sense of sequence in time, and the shift of its attention that creates the sense of movement through space. As the One Infinite Consciousness gazes in one way, the universe is birthed. As that gaze shifts, the stars are “born,” planets and solar systems take shape, the adventure of evolution unfolds. Beyond time and space altogether, the supreme, infinite Conscious-Being sees within Itself its myriad, infinite possibilities, and in that very seeing joyfully, blissfully, manifests the all that we see around us.

      All is the play of Conscious-Being and Conscious-Energy, Shiva and Shakti, Soul and Nature. In any act of “conscious-ing,” that which is known (the “object”) is a movement of Conscious-Energy. The movement is itself an act of will – a shift of attention of the Divine Conscious-Being (the “subject”). This movement (the “object” created by the shift of attention) is known as it is willed into being. Thus, the object is inseparable from the act of knowing it. The myriad objects of our universe – apparently separate but always one with the Infinite – are nothing more than infinite acts of shifting attention of the One Divine Being. These acts of knowing-and-willing – which manifest as the universe – exist inseparably within the Delight of the Divine Being. It is the movement of apparent separation and reunion that is experienced by different creatures as attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain, love and hate, and ultimately as unbroken Delight by the fully awakened seer.

      All is the One Conscious-Being knowing and feeling itself in infinite ways, in infinite forms. The individual Soul is a particular focus of consciousness, the various planes of consciousness each a particular kind of interaction between Conscious-Being and Its Conscious-Force, between Soul and Nature. When Consciousness is absorbed in the play of forms, identifying with a particular part of the Field, the result is Ignorance. Over the course of evolution, there is a progressive freeing of the embodied consciousness from its exclusive identification with a small part of the Field. The essential Nature of this whole interaction between Soul and Nature, Shiva and Shakti, is infinite Joy, Ananda, Bliss.

  8. Charles Leiden says :

    “All roads to lead to God” true. But what is God but a metaphor for idea of the unity of creation.

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