Whom The Gods Would Destroy

“Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad” — old “heathen proverb”.

It is somewhat sobering to reflect on this old proverb in the context of “post-truth society” and “the collapse of reality”, or in light of those ominous and prophetic words uttered by “Seth” some half-century ago. Whoever first uttered the proverb wasn’t thinking so much of individuals, I suspect, but of whole civilisations and societies or Ages. There are enough examples of this in history — whole Ages gone mad (the Late Middle Ages, for example). And history appears to be repeating itself in Late Modernity. What does it mean for whole Ages to go mad?

We call madness “losing touch with reality”. Yet, what do we mean by “reality”? Everyone has a different conception of what it means to be “real”, and oftentimes they do not intersect at all.

For most people, “real” is what is “out there” — the external, outer, or objective world. That’s a pretty narrow definition of the real, and we must admit that “real” includes not just the outer aspect of our being but also the inner aspect. To go mad, in that sense, is also to lost touch not only with the outer aspect of our existence, but also the inner aspect of our existence.

Most people would, I suspect, be satisfied to conclude that, yes, “real” includes both the inner, subjective aspect of our existence and the outer objective aspect of our existence, although there are (amazingly) some who deny the reality of the “subjective” completely.

But that’s not all there is to the “real”. The real also includes time — the past, our collective history. Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg write of “post-historic man” as a species of forgetful human that has lost touch with the past and with history, even very recent history. George Orwell even described the type that would espouse today the exact opposite of what they espoused yesterday without the slightest awareness of their inconsistency. There is certainly plenty of that happening today.

Ok then. Some will now admit that “real” includes the objective aspect of our being, the subjective aspect of our being, and the historical aspect of our being and that to lose historical memory is also a kind of madness.

But then, there is also the aspect called “future”. It is just as real. It may be the unknown, the uncertain, the unpredictable. But it doesn’t make it any less real for being the unknown or the potential.

So, “real” is what has four aspects — an objective or outer aspect, a subjective or inner aspect, an historical aspect, and a future aspect (or prospect). To lose touch with reality is to lose the connection with one or more of these aspects of reality, if not all of them. This is what is represented in Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” which has four aspects — the “trajective” (or past aspect), the “prejective” (or future aspect) as well as the subjective and objective aspects of the real.

Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”

It is our consciousness that stands at the centre of this quadrilateral, although William Blake would call that vital centre “Divine Imagination”, the core of his “fourfold vision”. Likewise, Blake’s “four Zoas” of “Albion divided fourfold” are representative of these same orientations. For Blake, though, past (origin) and future (destiny) as well as the inner and outer aspects of the real were all transparent to his “vision”.

From this arrangement it is possible to interpret that old proverb that “those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”. To go mad is the failure to acknowledge the truths of the past (“post-historic man”), or the truth of the future (“denialism”) in terms of the time fronts of an Age, or the truths of the objective front (the “facts of the matter”) and of the inner or subjective (“the truth that sets free”). We call this all-round failure “delusion”.

In the case of the Late Middle Ages, this failure of the cross is rather evident. It is a particularly instructive example of the old proverb that “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”, for it is a particularly instructive study of the breakdown of a civilisation’s “cross of reality”. But it is also a particularly instructive example of the German poet Hölderlin’s remark that “where the danger is greatest, there lies the saving power also”. For what saved the continuity of Western civilisation from the madness and collapse of the Late Middle Ages was the emergence of this new attitude and new historical type — the “Free Thinker”, the man of critical thought who began laying the foundations for a new “cross of reality” on a more secular foundation where philosophy would take over from theology.

The Free Thinker was a founder of this Age we call “Modern”, which has now run its course and is now, too, passing away in a pandaemonium of “post-truth” and the “collapse of reality”. The “post-modern madness” we are witnessing today, (and somewhat ably described in the case of modern Russia in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True Everything is Possible) is the breakdown and collapse of modernity’s “cross of reality”.

In his book The Ever-Present Origin, this breakdown is connected with what Jean Gebser calls “distantiation” from “the vital centre”, which is also a way of saying “alienation” but also delusion. It’s possible to interpret the meaning of that “distantiation” through Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and, contrariwise, what Gebser means by its corrective “presentiation” as a return to the vital centre. The truths of origin and destiny, and the truths of soul and nature or world meet only at the vital centre. This is also why my indigenous friends here say that a man or woman who “speaks from the centre of the Voice” speaks also from the centre of the Sacred Hoop, which is another representation of the cross of reality

Sacred Hoop /Medicine Wheel

The vital centre is the “crux” or “crucis” and therefore the crucial centre. Only here is “presentiation” possible, which is integration of the cross of reality — Origin and Destiny, Soul and Nature. Gebser calls this “waring” — waring the truth of the past, the truth of the future, the truth of Nature and the truth of the Soul.

The four beasts of John’s vision who surround the throne of God in Revelation are the same “Zoas” of Blake’s fourfold vision and the same “Guardians of the Four Directions” we find in other cultural lore, such as Buddhism (here, again, is the Buddha receiving the Guardians upon his enlightenment)

The Buddha receiving the the Guardians of the Four Directions

The same four beasts or Guardians become the dreadful “Riders of the Apocalypse” when the truths of origin or destiny, or soul and nature are debased or neglected, and they symbolise the awful consequences that come as a result of the collapse of an Age’s cross of reality.

Know this, then — the “body is the temple of the living God” and the four beasts who surround the Throne of God are also the “four might ones in every man” or woman (Blake) — the four Zoas who “reside in the Human Brain”, and they do not take abuse or neglect very lightly. They are also the four arms of the “cross of reality”. They are the “gods” of the proverb because, after all, “all godes reside in the human breast”.

10 responses to “Whom The Gods Would Destroy”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    After I posted this, an article appeared in my inbox entitled “The Birth of Fuckery”. That’s something beyond even “bullshit”, apparently, but it’s a good illustration of the current falsification of reality in terms discussed above


  2. InfiniteWarrior says :

    George Orwell even described the type(?) that would espouse today the exact opposite of what they espoused yesterday without the slightest awareness of their inconsistency. There is certainly plenty of that happening today.

    Yet, there is also plenty of this happening today.

    Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today. ~ R.W. Emerson, Self-Reliance

    I trust the reader is fully capable of discerning the difference.

    • Dwig says :

      IW, the Emerson quote reminded me of another: “Lord, make my words tender and sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Emerson and Dickinson, of course, were contemporaries and the Emerson quote continues: “Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Is Sabine Hossenfelder right to say that stagnation characterises the state of contemporary physics?


    That would be another symptom of the exhaustion of the mental-rational.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I have spelled out many times, very clearly, what theoretical physicists should do differently. It’s just that they don’t like my answer. They should stop trying to solve problems that don’t exist.

      Sounds like good advice to me.

      I’m not a physicist and, so, I wouldn’t know, but I have to wonder if it would help to map classical and quantum physics to McGilchrist’s left and right hemispheres and “modes of perception.” I imagine that could go a long way toward explaining why time “just disappears” from the Wheeler-Dewitt equation, for example. Then again, maybe not. It couldn’t be that simple. Could it?

      • Scott Preston says :

        This “stagnation” is probably related to Bronowski’s “crisis of paradox”. Physics ends up playing whack-a-mole with the same problem in its paradoxical aspects. “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” or “eternity in the hour” is a paradox. Blake already foresaw that problem of the eventual stagnation of science in his manifesto “There is No Natural Religion”.

    • Dwig says :

      … or another example of Kuhn’s model of a science ripe for revolution.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    It is said that on his death-bed in 430 A.D., in Hippo, Augustine could hear both the cheers of the excited crowd at the spectacles in the arena and at the same time the cries and clamour of battle at the walls of Hippo, when the Vandals besieged the city. Put another way, the past and the future became simultaneously audible to Augustine.

    It’s an example of the proverb “those who the gods would destroy they first make mad”, for seemingly the allure of the circus and the spectacle was more important than the defence of the city, although it would be interesting to have taken a poll to find out what was going through the minds of the denizens of Hippo at this juncture.

    The anecdote is interesting also for what it says about our own times, of course — simply substitute “climate change” or “Age of Extinction” for “Vandals” and the present “Society of the Spectacle” for the circus/arena of Hippo and you have a parallel scenario.

    A rather exact one, in fact. But it does illustrate the meaning of “crisis” in the sense that time past and time future become, as it were, co-present.

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