The Body and Climate
Last evening I watched a flick on Youtube called The Last Air Bender. (“Flick” is a bit dated, now. More like a “stream”). It’s a silly movie in some respects but with a serious theme derived from Taoism and other sources, principally the doctrine of the four elements. In the scenario depicted in the movie, the earth’s peoples are divided into four nations — Fire Nation, Water Nation, Earth Nation, and Air Nation. The Fire Nation has gone somewhat beserk and hubristic, and now attempts to violently dominate the other nations bringing about a warring of the elements. Into this chaos arises “the Avatar” who, though primarily of the “air” element (an “air bender”) is tasked with integrating the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
So, as you might see, there is something here also of Blake’s “four Zoas” and their re-integration in “Albion”, who is the avatar of the Atman.
Rudolf Steiner once stated that we can know Nature intimately in and through the body, for the body is Nature. This is an ancient idea that we find also in classical Greece. Nature (in Greek, Physis) was a structure of the four classical elements and their relations, interactions, transformations, and mutations — Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These elements are powers, and the human form is a composite of these powers or elements, although the “soul” tends to have a predilection towards, or alignment with, one or another.
We find this idea still in Heraclitus, too, where the soul is described in such elemental terms — airey, watery, earthy, or firey. When we say, today, that someone is “in their element”, this is a tacit recollection or recognition of the soul’s affinity for one or another of the elements or powers, even though the human form as a whole remains a composite of these energies, and in a relative equilibrium we refer to as “homeostasis“.
Health is, basically, effective homeostasis or equilibrium. The official definition of death, even today, is “homeostatic failure”, which is a breakdown of the equilibrium of the physical systems that comprise the body. And those physical systems are, principally, associated with the classical elements as circulatory system (water), respiratory system (air), nervous system (fire), and metabolic system (earth). Today, these are referred to in terms of thermal energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, and the mechanical energy that comprise the human form. And to be well, or healthy, is a matter of the coordination and synchronisation of these energies, which is called “homeostasis”, which is also implicated in “equanimity”.
So, when Heraclitus says “ethos anthropos daimon” (usually translated as “character is fate”) we need to recall the fact of this predilection of the soul for one or another of the elements. “Ethos” must imply this predilection or affinity for one or another of the elemental powers.
Where Yeats’ writes that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” in his ominous poem “The Second Coming”, this is a reference to the loss of homeostasis.
Even at the most primitive level of our organic functioning this pattern holds. Neurologists largely agree that the most primitive functions or drives of the brain can be classified as the “four F’s” — feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fucking. What is missing in this account, though, is the function with coordinates and synchronises these drives. This is the “integral priniple” coincident with what is called “the vital centre” which remains unknown. This vital or integrating centre is very likely what Heraclitus called “the Logos” whereas “ethos” would refer to one of the predilections or inclinations or affinities.
Most of our secular institutions exist primarily to organise and satisfy one or another of these “four F’s”, do they not? Army, corporation, government, marriage, and so on are ways of organising human activities to effectively satisfy the primal drives, which largely inform the survival mind-set of what is called “the Lizard Brain”. And in many respects, the human intellect is still subordinate to the impulses and imperatives of the Lizard Brain.
These four F’s comprise what Aurobindo refers to as the Body and the Vital Nature, both called “infrarational”, although Aurobindo insists that there is still a latent creative and “divine” factor even here, which is the task of the “supramental” consciousness (or integral consciousness) to reveal and make manifest. This is also the meaning of the Hermetic “Great Work” — to reveal and make manifest the gold that is hid within the base metal or lead.
The Hermetic Philosophy has preserved some of the ancient doctrine of the elements and the affinities, and has emerged once again as a very serious challenger to the hegemony of the Mechanical Philosophy and worldview. It largely informs the writings of William Blake, Jean Gebser, and Carl Jung, for example, but is also attracting renewed interest in some natural sciences, especially those grappling with “the crisis of paradox”. This is rather key to understanding the whole matter. Hermeticism has always been comfortable with the paradoxical in a way the Mechanical Philosophy and dualistic reasoning never was or could be. And in this Age of Paradox the Mechanical Philosophy has now shown itself to be obsolete.
And that’s also one of the reasons for renewed interest in the teachings of Heraclitus or for that matter Buddhism, as well as the Blake revival among other matters. While the “crisis of paradox” drives some people mad others are “in their element”, as we say. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical method” embraces the paradox as central to its quadrilateral logic.
The truth is, that we are creatures of paradox and that is a fact that has never been admitted by the Mechanical Philosophy. Recognising that we are a paradox will save us from what Marty Glass and others have described as “our mutation into machinery”. Today, Nature has again revealed herself to quantum physics as a paradox, too, which is a feature we share with Nature and know through our own bodies. The same elements and energetic processes that comprise what we call “climate” are exactly the same elements and energetic processes that comprise and inform the human body. There is an immediate affinity between the body and its vital processes and the Earth and its climate, as goes one, so goes the other.
This should be just the common sense but its amazing just how dissociated or naive people are about this inescapable fact that the body is not in competition with “Nature” but is Nature, and this is beginning to take hold as the “field concept” in some contemporary schools of thought, such as David Bohm’s “holomovement” or Sheldrake’s idea of “morphic fields”. The field concept also represents a serious challenge to the mechanistic worldview.
So, as silly as The Last Air Bender was a movie, still underlying it was a serious theme associated with ancient knowledge of the affinities and interesting parallels between Blake’s “four Zoas” and the “four Nations” of the movie recognised by their affinity for one or another of the primal elements or powers of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water and “the Avatar” as the conscious integration of these powers or elements just as Blake’s Albion is the conscious re-integration of the four Zoas of the fallen “Adam”. There are indeed “species of consciousness” which were already recognised in ancient times as the particular affinities of the soul for the earthy or airey or watery or firey elements. And implied in a lot of Greek philosophy was the quest for the principle of integration and equilibrium called “the Golden Mean” rooted in what Heraclitus called “the Logos“.
The Greek Mind largely inquired into Physis and the nature of Physis not from any mere abstract curiousity but as a quest for vital knowledge of the right way to live, in harmony with the elements, for the harmony of the elements was the happiness or equanimity of the body and soul, too. They were dreadfully concerned about hubris (or excess) and its consequence — Nemesis or what we call “blowback” or “revenge effect” today.
Some of this ancient knowledge is returning today with the “return of the repressed”, along with some rather more devilish and demonic things. But that “you are the world” — this is simply a fact which we deny to our peril in the context of climate change. Any child who has ever had a fever can understand the meaning of climate change and in a very real sense your real body is the whole of the Earth. If you convert the Earth to a machine, you will become the machine as well.
“You are the world” is the first essential truth to realise. You are Nature, or rather your body is Nature and Nature is your body. There are quite a few implications that follow from that, and so it matters very much how you understand the meaning of names like “nature” or “world”, since these understandings become autobiographical.
We’ll look at some those implications subsequently.