The Hermetic Way of Knowing

This morning I’ld like to return to an earlier subject that I referred to as “empathetic epistemics” in previous posts in The Chrysalis. This bears on an important aspect of Hermetic epistemology — that is, “to really know the thing you must become the thing you want to know”. This principle is, of course, the direct contrary of what we normally assume to be the proper path to knowledge — the objective, distancing, or perspectivist. But, in effect, to know something really you must employ both approaches, and this is why a “both/and” type logic of the paradox must come to supersede the dualism of an “either/or” type logic. This paradox is very much implicated in what Jean Gebser calls “aperspectival consciousness” or what Rosenstock-Huessy calls “metanoia” or “New Mind”.

The Hermetic way of knowledge is quite difficult for the Modern Mind largely because of the so-called “empathy deficit” associated, too, with what Christopher Lasch calls “the culture of narcissism”. This duo of empathy deficit/culture of narcissism is an impediment to the Hermetic way of knowledge, and is at the root of most of our contemporary crises. This is what Gebser means by our present “distantiation” from the “vital centre” — W.B. Yeat’s “widening gyre” of his poem “The Second Coming“. This is also called “alienation”.

The Hermetic way of knowledge may be called “the immediate” and the perspectival way of knowing (which we call “the objective attitude”) may be called “the mediate” way inasmuch as it relies on method or instrumentalist thinking. Nietzsche uses the terms “intuitive” and “rational” for this, and it is implicated in what he described, too, as his “unique ability” to switch between background and foreground perspectives, to be both immersive and also distancing in succession. This is why Nietzsche uses the metaphor of “dance” or music for proper thinking.

Both types of thinking, which we may describe as the immediate and the mediate, are implicated in what Jean Gebser calls “new consciousness” or “aperspectival” or “integral” consciousness, and this, too, is the initial promise of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

The immediate or immersive way of knowing associated with Hermeticism as “empathetic epistemics” is what is also often referred to as “participation mystique” (which, as usual, is often not correctly understood by the mental-rational or perspectival logic). This is the type of consciousness that Gebser calls “unperspectival” because it is unable to gain distance on itself or dissociate. This ability to dissociate, though, is the specific secret of the modern mind, but which has also led to its becoming unhinged from reality and from the true sources of its own vitality and identity. So, the culture of narcissism, the empathy deficit, and alienation from life are perhaps the most significant symptoms of the perspectival or mental-rational consciousness structure having now entered its decadent or “deficient mode” of functioning, as Gebser describes our times.

(There are actually four modes of knowing, as William Blake, Jean Gebser, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Aurobindo, and now Iain McGilchrist apparently also acknowledge, but we will deal with these two modes of knowing here).

The problem of the Late Modern mind is its one-sided attitude. Jacques Ellul called it the ideology of “the one best way”, Herbert Marcuse called it “One-Dimensional Man”, and William Blake decried it as “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”, for such an attitude must conclude in totalitarianism, and it is against this that Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, Blake. Aurobindo, and others have warned by emphasising the paradoxical nature of life and recognising that human beings are actually quite polymorphic and polychrone beings (ie, “the multiformity of man” or Blake’s “fourfold vision”). Today’s “identitarianism” is this decaying residue of Single Vision.

Striking the proper balance, becoming whole, is a matter of integrating these four modes of knowing, which is essentially the meaning of “integral consciousness” and “fourfold vision”.

Now, bearing on this, we have also noted in the past the odd dialectical relationship that exists between the words “symbolic” and “diabolic”, one meaning to “bring together” and the other to “divide” or “to thrust apart” (or to throw obstacles in the way), and so their relationship to the meanings of “integrate” and “disintegrate”. These, then, correspond to what we might call the “metaphorical” mode of thinking (associated with McGilchrist’s “Master” mode) and the “analytical” mode of thinking (associated with McGilchrist’s Emissary” mode) and which we call the “rational”. These two modes are also implicated in Gebser’s distinction between the Whole and the Totality.

The Hermetic mode of knowing is highly metaphorical and symbolic, and this is the mode employed by William Blake in his prose and poetry, while the Scientific Mind is highly analytical and prosaic. The former, then, is strongly affiliated with McGilchrist’s “Master” mode and the latter is strongly affiliated with the “Emissary” mode, and this is associated with the meaning of the “diabolic” mode. In fact, whole brain thinking or integral thinking or lucid thinking requires both modes of attention, and this is largely what informs Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. We can hardly have a “bringing together” (symbolic mode) without a corresponding “falling apart” (diabolic mode), or an integration without a corresponding disintegration, you see. This is reflected in Gebser’s idea of “the double-movement” of our times, which is something akin of Shiva’s Dance — the interplay between the symbolic and diabolic forces.

This is essentially what Jacob Bronowski calls “the crisis of paradox” and why we refer to our times — Late Modernity or Post-Modernity — as “chaotic transition” or metamorphosis or a transmutation.

Now, we know that the Emissary is in the throes of a disintegration (sometimes called “loss of self” or other terms like “21st century schizoid man” or Jekyll–and-Hyde syndrome, etc) and this has resulted in much anxiety, panic and paranoia such as exemplified in “identitarianism” or what is also called “neo-reactionary” politics, which we might think of as the “pilot wave” of the return of the repressed or the chaotic transition, to borrow a metaphor from David Bohm’s physics, because certainly “behind” this current wave is the emergence of the “Master” mode of perception and consciousness, for along with all these aberrant manifestations of the return of the repressed, we are also beginning to see things that were strongly associated with the Hermetic Philosophy, and that belongs to “the Master” mode of perception very strongly involved with what Gebser anticipates as “aperspectival consciousness” or the integral. And what we call “empathy” is the natural and quite spontaneous mode of McGilchrist’s “Master”. This isn’t any different from what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Oversoul”.

The Oversoul is one reason I also place quite a bit of emphasis on the meaning of the advent of the so-called “Overview Effect” and its connection, too, with Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk on her own “Stroke of Insight”

These two films should give you a pretty good idea of what is truly awakening within the human soul and is beginning to assert itself, and it is what Blake foresaw as “the Universal Humanity” named “Albion” in his Prophetic Books, and is the real meaning of the Nietzschean “transhuman”.

Gebser, of course, foresaw the kind of Angst or anxiety about “identity” that would come with the breakdown of the mental-rational or the modern ego-structure and was concerned enough about it to write a separate book on the matter — Keine Angst vor der Angst — which hasn’t been translated from the German, but which more or less translates as “Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself”. But he did think we were in for a pretty rough time of it during the transition to the new consciousness.

In any case, what we call “empathy” is what is meant by “compassion” in Buddhism. This isn’t really pity, but the ability to enter fully into the consciousness of others which corresponds to the Yogic principle “Tat Tvam Asi” or “Thou Art That”. That, of course, is the natural implication, too, of Jung’s idea of “the collective unconscious” which somewhat corresponds also to what Gebser means by “the archaic consciousness”. That’s the primal condition that Blake knew as the time “when the Soul slept in beams of light”, only now we must enter into it fully awake and completely lucid. This is what is meant by the Zen koan “Show me your face before you were born”.

Basically, too, that is what Nietzsche means by “Become what you are!”

In closing here, then, I’m reminded of an anecdote I read recently about a former neo-Nazi skinhead. He had been raising a stink in a fast food restaurant when a black woman approached him and said simply “this is not who you are”. She said it with such conviction that it hit him like a sledgehammer, and he had a breakdown right then and there. Sometimes it’s like that — the simplest thing. He became a Buddhist and a very valuable source of information on what makes for reactionary thinking and behaviour.

Of course, it became his story. But I’ve often wondered who that woman actually was that she had that remarkable gift of penetrating insight which seems to correspond to Gebser’s idea of “diaphaneity”. She was apparently a cashier in a MacDonald’s. It just goes to show that mahatmas or “Great Souls” may be found anywhere, even in the humblest of circumstances and conditions.


7 responses to “The Hermetic Way of Knowing”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Jean Gebser, born on this day, August 20th 1905. From Decline and Participation, written towards the end of his life (1973):

    “The divided human being is replaced by the whole human being;
    The emptiness of the limited world is replaced by the open expanse of the open world.”

  2. Steve says :

    Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take
    And stab my spirit broad awake;
    Or, Lord, if too obdurate I,
    Choose thou before that spirit die,
    A piercing pain, a killing sin,
    And to my dead heart run them in!

    • Steve says :

      ” The simple is in us. It is participation –
      participation in that which is unknown
      yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which
      contains all transparency – the diapha –
      nous world, the most irradiated and most
      sober beatitude. It is so completely com –
      prehensive and whole that neither our in –
      telligent, super – clever, caged – in thought
      nor our pitiable and needy –
      strong longing – how much poverty
      it renders visible! – can even divine it.
      And yet, it is within us. ”

      Jean Gebser

  3. InfiniteWarrior says :

    “As we radiated hate and violence into the world, the world handed it back to us….”

    But for the intercession of such persons as that wonderful McDonald’s cashier, et alia.

    Reminiscent of the aptly named, though perhaps little understood, “Rule of Three,” which — in its most generic form — is often stated as:

    Whatever (energy) you send out (or into the world) will return to you threefold.

    Think of its modern expressions what we will, I suspect this is actually an attempted “retrieval” of this otherwise long-lost “Hermetic code,” which of course has its parallels in Buddhism, Hinduism and nearly every other world religion and philosophy. (See, especially, the section in the Wikipedia article headed: “‘Anthroposophy’.”)

    Along with the apparent “fourfold logic” of the Cosmos, we have these equally apparent and unshakable intuitions regarding what Gebser termed “the Law of the Earth,” which — perhaps, needless to say — a great many indigenous people, e.g. Oren Lyons, have attempted to get across to “Modern Man” as “the Natural Law.”

    At the same time we are “retrieving” this “Hermetic code,” we might also consider “retrieving” Lyon’s, et al, definition of “common sense.” That propagandists of “the New Normal” would have us think of “common sense” wholly different than it actually is, common sense just happens to be among humanity’s finest attributes.

    Though Saul appears to draw up short of the ubiquitous “seven” attributes or qualities extolled by our wisdom traditions and apparently thinks that “compassion is really what comes out of the proper balancing of these qualities,” rather than (perhaps) preceding them, his is nonetheless a valuable contribution to the public conversation.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    beginning to look like the old Mayan prophecy (and Blake’s) that this age will pass away in fire is true

    • Steve says :

      Scott, I’m trying to tackle Sorokin’s 4,000 page magnum opus, Social and Cultural Dynamics. How does Sorokin mesh with Gebser? He believes that our history makes pendulum swings back and forth between two tendencies.
      One is a period of “extreme religiosity,” the other is a phase of “extreme materialism.” Culture continually transforms itself from religion “ideational,” based on ideas of transcendence to materialism “sensate,” based on the five senses. But there is a third inbetween phase called idealistic. This is a brief but important transitional moment in which the two opposites are integrated and something new emerges.

      • Scott Preston says :

        That’s ambitious. I’ve only read precis of Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics, and am familiar with his distinctions between ideational, idealistic, and sensate consciousness through another book of his entitled The Crisis of Our Age (which I should reread again). It certainly has some value, and would be certainly worth comparing with Rosenstock-Huessy’s own model of social and cultural dynamics based on his “cross of reality”.

        But, in some respects, this “ideational” versus “sensate” corresponds to the old distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal aspects of the real, and while it can certainly be cast in such a framework (corresponding today to McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” modes of attention) I think the issue is more nuanced, as we find in Gebser. Oddly, Sorokin doesn’t appear in Gebser (at least, not in The Ever-Present Origin) but there are some similarities between Sorokin and Gebser’s cultural philosophies.

        So, I would look forward to your own assessment of that after you make it through Social and Cultural Dynamics. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to that myself.

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