The Original Participation or, if you prefer, the archaic at-one-ment remained the paradigm or form of human consciousness for perhaps 150,000 years. The content of the First People's consciousness grew and changed as they learned from their experience; but the form of their consciousness did not. All the while, as part of the experience of at-one-ment, there were along with all the positive qualities possible for humans all the negative emotions, cruelty, murder, and war that we're still dealing with today. In other words: the First People are at-one with the dark aspects of the Goddess as well as the light.
Then in 1600 B.C.E., Semitic scribes invented a revolutionary new communications technology that gave birth to a new paradigm of consciousness. In an earlier posting, I defined 'consciousness' as an individual's or a group's qualitative way of being-in-the-world, and compared the form our consciousness takes to a recipe composed of three main ingredients: physicality, emotion, and intellect. I suggested that changing the proportion of one or more of the ingredients in significant ways produces a new form of consciousness. The 3000-year transformation that began with the invention of the alphabet, and grew into the Literacy Revolution, changed consciousness by changing the way humans think.
In contrast to the archaic at-one-ment, the core feature of the literate paradigm was the 'subject/object split' - a phrase coined by the West's second great post-philosophical thinker, Martin Heidegger. The split consisted in a polarizing of human experience into a 'subjective' perceiving self, and an 'objective' perceived reality. Over the centuries, as the Literacy Revolution expanded, the split became the dominant psychology of Western culture. In so doing it fueled a dramatic upturn in the history of Western consciousness that - for our purposes here - we'll call: the Ascent.
This upward trend affected all aspects of Western culture - from the expansive power of Mozart's music, to the towering spires of Gothic cathedrals. Symbolic History, Charles Bell's stunning visual history of consciousness - a 40-part slide show available on DVD from SymbolicHistory@gmail.com - includes a broad cultural overview of this remarkable historical process. Seeing Bell's masterful juxtaposition of the various aspects of the Ascent, one immediately gets what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead meant when he suggested that the process is the reality.
As the literate thinkers of the Ascent learned how to make the world into an object, and to manipulate the results for their own and humanity's benefit, the West unleashed an immense new power. The unprecedented results of objective thinking found their initial, and ultimately most distilled, expression in the history of philosophy. The 'examined life' of the philosopher just isn't possible without the ability to objectify; and the subject/object split, as a form of mass consciousness, isn't feasible without the widespread dissemination of alphabetic literacy. Is it just coincidence that the man who’s considered to be the father of Greek philosophy - Thales of Miletus (634-546 B.C.E.) – is born less than two centuries after Phoenician traders first bring their version of the alphabet to the bustling seaport of Athens?
What began with the philosophical push for objectivity underwent further development in philosophy's principal offspring: science; and then in science's principle offspring: technology. All three endeavors became ongoing experiments in objective thinking; and all three became the theatre wherein this emergent form of human thinking gets perfected. As part of the same process, all three helped to develop the related ability to think abstractly, meaning: the ability to recognize what is common to many particulars, and to construct a generalization based on these common features; and the ability to think conceptually, meaning: the capacity to construct and manipulate exportable ideas. Certainly there was thinking before any of this; but the First People's thinking didn't take the form of objectivity, abstraction, and conceptualization.
As the new astrologers of the book ascended further and further into the heights opened by the split, they willingly abandoned the embodied functionality of the old ritual. The traditional Greek word for the beginning of a ritual is: katarche; and the word for its end is: apotelesma. For the original shamanist understanding of astrological practice, this grand apotelesma is literally a dis-aster. But for the practice of astrology in general, it's a new katarche - and one that promises to be a very uplifting experience!
THE EYES HAVE IT
It's time for us to move into the next phase of our journey through the history of astrological consciousness. We’ve seen what was like in the ritualistic, shamanic phase of practice. Now let’s see how our practice goes into and through its ascending phase. We’ll use the words of Kate Horsley, from her novel Confessions of a Pagan Nun, to put ourselves back into Ireland in 520 C.E., where the Literacy Revolution is just beginning to take hold.
Imagine that you and I are sitting at a sturdy table in the common room of the beautiful, austere Monastery of Celldara, which means: 'Church of the Oak'. It's a damp, blustery autumn day. A fire is burning comfortably on the room’s large hearth. Brigid, the iconoclastic founder and Abbotess of Celldara, is telling us the rather frank story of how she first learned to read and write...
"That night I dreamed that I showed my breasts to Giannon and that they grew large in his hands. When I asked my mother what his powers were, she told me that his greatest power was to dispel merriment in others. But she said also that he could take words out of peoples mouths and turn them into marks that he put on stones or leather as a man makes a diagram of his home in the dirt with a stick. She said that he could then read these marks at a later time; these marks could be read by another man even years after the one who made them was dead. Then, the one who was reading would hear the exact words of a man long dead and turned to dust. This began the period of my life which I call the Breathless Times."
It’s so easy for us to forget just how profoundly transformational the experience of learning to read and write really is. For us its no big deal, because the literate environment has always been there. We’ve never known anything else - at least until now; so we take its influence completely for granted. I'll bet you can't remember the name of the first book you ever read. Or recall how proud you were when you completed it, and found yourself beginning your own 'Breathless Times'. So imagine how extraordinary it must have been when this amazing technology was still new and difficult to access…
“The word ‘grammar’, the first step in the course of classical study that molded all educated men from Plato to Augustine, will be mispronounced by one barbarian tribe as ‘glamour’. In other words, whoever has grammar, whoever can read, possesses magic inexplicable.” (Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization.)
Perhaps because he's a sleight-of-hand magician himself, David Abram certainly understands how the magic of literacy is a portal to another world. "It's not by coincidence that the word 'spell' has this double meaning — to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, or to cast magic. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. These two meanings were originally one and the same. In order to use this new technology, this new play of written shapes on the page, to learn to write and to read with the alphabet, was actually to learn a new form of magic, to exercise a new form of power in the world." (http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/abram.html)
There is, however, a two-fold price attached to literacy. The first is the one exacted in our bodies when we first take possession of this particular magic...
"A remarkable change took place in the human condition, culminating about three thousand years ago with the rise of Euclidean space, three dimensional perspective, and above all, the phonetic alphabet. Each of these inventions favored the eye at the expense of all other senses. The value accorded the eye destroyed the harmonic orchestration of the senses and led to an emphasis upon the individual experience of the individual sense, especially the sense of sight. Where other senses were employed, it was with the bias of the eye. The result was that literate man synchronized his senses.... Synchronizing the senses means that one sense dominates all others. Under literacy that sense is sight." (Edmund Carpenter, "Worlds Within," Filmmaker's Newsletter, Sep. 1971.)
The Literacy Revolution destroyed the balanced sensory experience of humans in the pre-literate environment. Still today, learning to read and write destroys the balanced sensory beginnings of each of our childhoods. It narrows our perceptual capacities by raising the eye to dominance, forcing our locus of awareness to ascend in the physical body. Just four centuries after the Phoenicians brought the alphabet to Athens, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) is counseling his readers: "Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight." (Aristotle, Metaphysics.)
Historically, the Literacy Revolution was an epochal turning-point. One world ended, and a new world began - not everywhere, nor all at once. The Revolution took time. But like a rolling blackout in an electrical grid, once it gained momentum, it spread relentlessly...
"We know that in the developing brain of a child, differing kinds of learning will strengthen some neuronal pathways and weaken others. Extrapolating the experience of an individual to a culture...when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabetic literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric ones, which manifests in a decline in the status of images, women's rights, and goddess worship." (Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.)
Still today, even as the Digital Revolution is once again re-molding the plasticity of our consciousness - and, in the process, re-envigorating the status of images, the rights of women, and the veneration of the goddess - learning to read and write continues to be an initiatory experience. For each of us as, a brain-altering revolution begins when we have our first meeting with the alphabet.
THE MAGICAL SPLIT
I've been quoting extensively here with respect to the psychology of literacy - not because I'm too lazy to put it all into my own words, but to dispel the possible impression that my emphasis on the importance of the Literacy Revolution in the history of Western consciousness, and in the history of astrological practice, is nothing more than my own personal obsession. Other factors certainly helped drive the Ascent; but none was as significant as alphabetic literacy.
So if the loss of our harmonic orchestrated sensibilities is the first price literacy exacts, what’ s the second?
Our entrainment by the psychology of literacy begins with learning to read aloud and in the company of others, and then progresses to learning to read silently to oneself...
"A child learns to separate the senses when he learns, in class, to read silently. His legs twist, he bites his tongue, but by an enormous 'tour de force' he learns to fragment his senses, to turn on one at a time and keep the others in neutral. And so he is indoctrinated into the literate world." (Edmund Carpenter, They Became What They Beheld.)
It actually took centuries for Westerners to master the ability to read silently. Until the 7th century C.E., Greek and Latin manuscripts contained minimal punctuation, the words running together like a Joycean stream of consciousness. In order to distinguish the individual words, the text had to be read aloud. In other words: the emerging literate culture was still all mixed up with the fading oral culture.
During the 7th century, monastic scribes began placing spaces between the words. This made it possible to read to oneself coherently without needing auditory confirmation. “As the practice of spacing and punctuating the written texts was taken up by more and more monasteries, the ability to read silently spread slowly throughout Europe. Yet it was not until the twelfth century that silent reading finally became commonplace among literate Europeans.” (David Abram, Becoming Animal.)
This hard-won ability had huge psychological implications. By reading silently to oneself over a sustained period of time, the reader gradually constructs a totally unique body of literate experience, and thereby begins to cultivate the kind of private point-of-view that we today value so highly and take completely for granted.
But the defining transformation in the rite-of-passage that learning to read and write certainly is, the really magical act that's only further enhanced when we learn to do both silently, is the manufacturing of the subject/object split. By facing the written page again and again, the reader learns to separate out her-self or him-self from the un-self-conscious at-one-ment of the Original Participation – a phrase that not only describes the root psychology of the human race, but the earliest stage in each of our own psychological developments as well.
The consequence of this amazing feat of perceptual sleight-of-hand is that the reader comes to identify more and more with the subjective pole of the split and its constructed sense of self, becoming eventually what Alan Watts so insightfully characterized as: “a skin-encapsulated ego.” When everyone around us is immersed in the same magic, the split becomes our cultural reality - which is why the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) really did go right to the heart of the matter when he asserted that it’s impossible for Westerners today to think in any way other than objectively.
So the first price of literacy is exacted on our bodies. The second is exacted on our psychologies in the form of the subject/object split. The split has estranged us from nature, and this estrangement is the reason the Western-inspired global techno-culture is trying so hard to be ecologically terminal. Even the etymology of the words ‘subject’ and ‘object’ serve as a continual reminder of the truth that this division between perceiver and perceived is ultimately our own creation.
The word ‘object’ comes from the Latin ‘jacere’: ‘to throw’, and ‘ob’: ‘before’ – thus, ‘to throw before’. OK, but thrown before whom or what? Before the perceiver of the object, i.e. the ‘subject’, from ‘jacere’: ‘to throw’, and ‘sub’: ‘under or beneath’ – thus, ‘to throw beneath’. Therefore, when thinking objectively I throw forth a world that simultaneously throws me beneath it. In other words: when the world becomes object, ‘I’ of necessity become its subject.
THE LITERAL BRAIN
An environment is invisible as long as we're completely immersed in it. To be able to perceive it, we somehow have to get outside it. Pilots flying over Los Angeles in the 1950's became aware of the city's growing air pollution problem long before residents ever did. The environment created by the Digital Revolution has extracted us from the literate environment. Because of this, we’re now able to perceive the nature of the literate environment, and understand better how it has shaped the form of human consciousness.
So why should the alphabetic form of literacy have played such a significant role in conjuring up the psychology of the split? After all, the Egyptians whose translations established the foundation of the Western astrological tradition were from a literate culture. So what made the letters of the alphabet so different from the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the scripts derived from them?
A hieroglyph is like a tiny symbolist poem, crafted to correspond to some sensible aspect of the natural world. The reader is continuously reminded of this correspondence by the glyph’s physical appearance, and most probably is by its pronunciation as well – although this possibility, if it did exist, has all been lost. As a consequence of the intentional correspondence, hieroglyphic literacy actually reinforces one’s participation in nature.
The Semitic alphabet do largely the same; but all this changes with the alpha-beta of the Greeks. The names assigned to the individual letters of the Greek alphabet have no correspondence whatsoever to natural phenomena. Exactly why they did this isn't clear; but its consequence is unequivocal. Deprived of any correspondence to nature, the Greek alphabet could no longer antidote the polarization of the subject/object split. Instead of counterbalancing it, the Greek alphabet actually enhanced the split.
In addition, the loss of correspondence between symbol and nature has a direct effect on brain function. The multi-dimensional, associative quality of hieroglyphs engages the brain’s associative right hemisphere. Reduced to one-dimensional signs, the letters of the Greek alphabet more readily activate the linear capabilities of the left hemisphere. This shift in hemispheric emphasis changes the nature of the human participatory experience.
This term ‘participation’ is key if we're to understand the differences between pre-literate, literate, and post-literate human consciousness. It comes to us from the Latin verb participare, meaning: ‘to have a share in’, or ‘to take part in’. It’s an old philosophical term first used by Plato to describe how an actual being relates to its governing ‘Idea’, or ‘Archetype’. For example: an oak tree possesses the quality of ‘tree-ness’ - i.e., it is what it is - because it participates in the Idea of ‘Tree’.
As a philosophical concept, ‘participation’ is literate Western culture’s fading memory of the original at-one-ment. Usage of the term peaks in medieval European philosophy. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) employs the word on almost every page, but never once does he define it; and he doesn’t have to since his contemporaries know exactly what he means - in the same way that we today often use the term 'consciousness' without feeling the need to define it.
After the Renaissance, philosophers employ the term with less and less frequency. Come the Enlightenment (18th century), and it gets dropped altogether from the philosophical lexicon. To a historian of consciousness, this change is neither arbitrary nor accidental. The term may disappear from popular usage, but the experience doesn’t - it just gets redirected. Building on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s argument that human perception is inherently participatory, David Abram argues in The Spell of the Sensuous that learning to read and write shifts our participatory tendencies from the natural world to the written page. In other words: the reader falls out of love with nature, and falls in love with letters.
THE CHANGING NATURE OF METAPHYSICAL INQUIRY
In the 2nd century B.C.E., native Egyptian astrologers in love with the Greek alphabet inaugurated the Ascent of Western astrology by creating the world's first literate form of practice. The Greek alphabet was the 'gift' - as much as any weapon of colonization can ever be viewed in such a way - of Alexander the Great. Today we know the result of this fated confluence as 'Hellenistic' astrology.
Three centuries later, Claudius Ptolemaeus (90-168 C.E.) – better known as Ptolemy – elevated the Hellenistic form even further by philosophically re-framing it as an Aristotelian natural science. Ptolemy's accomplishment is a hugely important moment in the history of astrological consciousness because it legitimizes and institutionalizes the objectification of practice begun by literacy. It's true that the first Hellenistic astrologers were all Greek-literate and trained in philosophy; but they were also from a culture that still honored the Original Participation. It's Ptolemy who's the first to actually think astrologically as a philosopher - i.e., in the manner determined by the subject/object split.
Ptolemy's objective, systematic presentation of astrological principles went on to become the gold standard against which all future expressions of literate astrology have been measured. Today his name remains almost synonymous with the astrology of antiquity, despite the fact that there were far better astrologers than he amongst his predecessors and contemporaries. Once astrology was being thought philosophically, it began to be categorized philosophically, finding its place in the intellectual life of the Ascent as a branch of metaphysics.
That astrological practice should be seen as a form of metaphysical inquiry, however, was really nothing new since that's actually what it was right from the start. What was new, however, very new, is what the word 'metaphysics' - and by extension, the practice of astrology - was becoming for the philosophers, scientists, and other thinkers of the split.
For the Greeks, the word ta physika originally meant 'nature as it appears'. ‘Meta-ta-physika’ then meant ‘what stands behind and sustains the appearances of nature’. Nothing better illustrates the uplifting nature of the Ascent, and its affect on astrological practice, than the way it transformed the nature of metaphysical inquiry. So let's take a few moments to experience what metaphysical inquiry was like before the psychology of literacy takes over; and then we'll contrast that with what the inquiry becomes as the subject/object split becomes the dominant paradigm of human consciousness...
THE HARMONY OF THE SPHERES
Imagine now that you and I are in the Greek colonial city of Crotona, on the southern coast of Italy. It's late summer in the year 515 B.C.E. The alphabet's been an increasingly important part Greek culture and education for close to three centuries now. But whether it's coincidental or intentional, Crotona's remote location - both geographically and with respect to mainstream Athenian culture - serves the purposes of the metaphysical 'school' we're about to visit and its famous founder: Pythagoras of Samos.
Pythagoras (569-475 B.C.E.) is already a middle-aged man. As a youth, he's said to have visited Egypt where he studied geometry - and based on what we've learned from the work of the Egyptologist Rene Schwaller de Lubicz, that means sacred geometry. And to have visited India - where it's likely he studied yoga and meditation. He's also learned 'astronomy' from the Chaldeans - which probably means astrology as well, since amongst the ancients the title 'Chaldean' was usually code for astrologer.
Pythagoras has been in Crotona now for almost fifteen years. The school he runs is more like a monastery, and not the kind of academy that Alexander's will leave in the wake of his conquests, and that the Egyptians who translate their traditional form of astrological awareness into written Greek texts will attend just three centuries from now. Pythagoras isn't teaching his students to read and write, and isn't teaching the art of public speaking - as is customary in Greek education.
Why would a man who will never write a book himself be interested in teaching the skills of literacy? And as for public speaking, the first thing you and I notice as we observe his inner circle of students - known as 'learners' - assembling on this very early morning is that everyone is going about their preparations in utter silence. No, Pythagoras has a much different experience in mind - teaching what he's actually known for: his enlightened way of life.
Without fanfare, the teacher himself enters the hall and, without saying anything, walks slowly towards a large doorway that opens to the eastern sky and the pale luminous promise of dawn. Immediately stopping whatever they're doing, everyone in the hall follows - including you and I. Once outside, we find ourselves on a spacious stone patio overlooking the sea. It's still quite dark; but we can readily hear surf crashing far below. There before us is the morning star, Venus, glistening in a clear sky, just above the faint glow of the rising Sun. A beautiful, crescent, almost-new Moon hovers slightly up and to the right of Venus.
The thirty or so 'learners' space themselves comfortably to both sides of and behind their teacher, and then unroll small reed mats. Still standing, everyone raises their arms, palms facing each other, in a salute to the celestial goddesses standing right before us. Pythagoras says a brief prayer; and then all sit crossed-legged on their mats. After a few more moments of silence, a third of the group begins to sound a single tone - the 'note' of Venus. Because each individual is sounding and breathing in their own rhythm, the tone we hear is continuous.
A few minutes later, another third of the group begins to sound a slightly different tone - the 'note' of the Moon. The two groups sustain their respective notes, and all of us participate in this musical meditation, for what seems like a very long time. All the while, Venus and the Moon slowly float above the increasing light - the initial faint yellow glow having morphed into a band of orange, and then into one intensely red.
This continuous sounding has a calming effect on our minds and thoughts. The steady vibratory quality of the tones is quite likely having a beneficial effect on our endocrine systems as well. Crotona is known for its skilled physicians, and there are probably some here today. Perhaps later we can find one with whom to discuss their understanding of the physiology of all this!
Suddenly, the first rays of the rising Sun break across the horizon and reveal a broad, blue expanse of eastern Mediterranean. With this, the last third of the group adds a still deeper tone to the mix. The Pythagoreans believe that the Sun, Moon, and planets all move according to mathematical equations that correspond to musical notes, and that taken together produce a 'symphony'. After a few moments of all three tones in beautiful harmony, individual sounders begin to drop out until, with the last note, everyone has gone silent. No one is moving, no one is speaking.
In response perhaps to some unseen signal, mats are rolled up and set aside; and then all rise to begin a series of graceful fluid movements that remind us of a combination of Chinese Chi Kung and Kashmiri Yoga. These movements are all done in silence as well. After forty minutes or so, the moments are completed and there's a closing prayer. Then everyone disperses. All will reconvene later in the day for discussion and instruction, when the 'learners' will be joined by the 'listeners', the outer circle of Pythagoras' students. But for now, you and I sit at the edge of the patio, while seabirds wheel about us, and we slowly digest all we've just experienced.
THE METAPHYSICS OF THE CONCRETE
Let’s call this experience we've just imagined: 'the harmony of the spheres'. For the Pythagorean community in Crotona, this kind of communal meditation is metaphysical inquiry. It's something they do, not something they think. For them, as for everyone not yet entrained by the split, metaphysical inquiry is an activity designed to encourage direct personal experience of what sustains the appearances of nature - which, for the Pythagoreans, was best experienced through play with mathematical relationships and proportions.
Now stop for a moment. Didn't our visit to Crotona seem somehow very familiar? Well it should have if you’ve read the previous posting because 'the harmony of the spheres' is a more sophisticated version of what we imagined the First People doing, maybe 20,000 years earlier! Pythagoras and his students are still cultivating the Original Participation. Unlike the First People, however, where it was all instinctual and unconscious, now the at-one-ment is being re-membered intentionally. This means that Pythagoras' school is functioning as a time-capsule of sorts, designed it to reinforce and renew the at-one-ment experience and pass it forward through a less-than-friendly environment and time.
As we've just seen as well, in addition to meditation and instruction Pythagoras is requiring his students to immerse themselves in a disciplined program of psycho-spiritual exercise. In The Greeks and the Irrational, E.R. Dodds tells us that Pythagoras inherited his movement practices (praxes) from Greece’s ancient shamanic lineages. In other words, they've come to him directly from First Shaman.
Pythagoras himself seems to be part of this lineage. According to Aristotle, he communicates with plants and animals, and travels through space and time - which most likely means he knows how to undertake shamanic journeys. Pythagoras also has his students observe certain dietary and life-style conditions that traditions incorporating the exploration of altered states of consciousness often employ to ground the practitioner and counter-balance the diffusive, chaotic tendencies of extreme states. And the way of life he's teaching revolves around the observance of religious ceremony in a way reminiscent of all the ancient rituals of at-one-ment.
Today we view Pythagoras and his contemporaries as part of a transitional group called the 'pre-Socratics’. One could say that they’re almost philosophers - but not quite! Like the Egyptian translators who found the Western astrological tradition, they have one foot in each of two worlds. Pythagoras knows how to read and write, having received a conventional Greek education; but at the same time he chooses to cultivate the at-one-ment - and the old ‘oil and water’ dichotomy does to a large extent apply. When a psychologist friend, with a strong aptitude for shamanism, offered to teach his Huichol mentor to read and write, the old man declined saying he feared that reading would destroy his shamanic abilities.
Putting weight on their philosophical foot, the pre-Socratics call that which sustains the appearances of nature: ‘being’. In their view, the normal human state is one of non-being because humans usually attend more to the appearances than to what sustains them. In this state, being is hidden or concealed by the appearances. Two of Pythagoras's contemporaries - Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.E.) and Parmenides (515-450 B.C.E.) - tell us that un-concealing can only take place if one makes an intentional effort to do so. This effort – which was the whole raison d'être of the metaphysical praxes - eventually came to be known as: ‘the Work’.
"Beings are more in being the more present they are." The Work of metaphysical praxis develops one’s capacity for presence. Since a sense-engaged state of being present was the defining hallmark of the Original Participation, the Work effectively returns the psychology of the practitioner to its pre-literate condition. It reverses the being-concealing trend of movement up and away from orchestrated sensation that's the price we pay for the gifts of literacy, and serves as a psychological counter-balance to the split. In other words: the experiential metaphysical praxis loosens one’s participatory tendencies from their fascination with the letters on the page, and re-members them once again with the natural world. (Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics.)
THE METAPHYSICS OF THE ABSTRACT
Now imagine this...
You and I are sitting in a classroom at New York University in the spring of 1986. We’re here to attend a lecture on the body/mind problem by Professor Thomas Nagel, because we found the title of his lecture, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” - which is also the title of one of his more widely read papers - to be quite intriguing.
Dr. Nagel begins his talk by addressing the question: “Why am I choosing to ask what it’s like to be a bat, rather than say a flounder?” A bat he explains, although more closely related to us than a flounder, presents a range of activity and a sensory function so different from ours that it exaggerates the question of our ability as humans to understand what it’s actually like to be a completely different form of consciousness. “Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is like to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.” (Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, Reprinted from The Philosophical Review 83, 1974, Cornell University.)
As Dr. Nagel proceeds, it’s hard for us to see the continuity between what he’s doing here today at Hew York University and what we experienced Pythagoras doing in Crotona; and yet if we were to approach either of these men, and ascribe to him the term ‘metaphysician’, I doubt either would find fault with that characterization. But Nagel is a trained academician, specializing in Philosophy of Mind; and because of the primacy given to his literacy-based training, is firmly entrenched in the subject/object split. So the whole drift of his lecture is a cataloguing of all the reasons why it’s impossible for us to ever really know what it’s like to be a bat, since the subjectivity of a human, and the subjectivity of a bat, are so very different.
Listening to his arguments, it’s obvious to us that Thomas Nagel is no shape-shifter. For him, metaphysical inquiry consists entirely in conceptualization and ideation. He rejects imagination because for him it’s just another instrument of the split, rather than a way to possibly transcend it. And so, in the end: “Reflection on what it is like to be a bat seems to lead us, therefore, to the conclusion that there are facts that do not consist in the truth of propositions expressible in a human language.” In other words: game over, because understanding the subjectivity of a bat is an insurmountable task for a human subject. (Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, Reprinted from The Philosophical Review 83, 1974, Cornell University.)
As we leave the lecture hall, we cannot help but wonder how Pythagoras - the man who, if you remember, talked to animals - would have addressed the same topic. An analogy comes to mind that I decide to share with you as we prepare to go our separate ways. In Classical Western logic, one can either say something is true (assertion), say it’s not true (denial), say it’s both true and not true (contradiction), or say it’s neither true nor not true (tautology). One has to go to one of the four ‘corners’, as there are no other choices.
The Buddhist logicians, however, proposed a fifth alternative. They called it: the ‘Four Cornered Negation’. One can simply walk away from the whole conversation.
ASTROLOGY IN THE ABSTRACT
By institutionalizing the subject/object split, the Literacy Revolution completely transformed the nature of metaphysical inquiry – and with it, the nature of astrological practice. Western metaphysicians fell out of love with the traditional form of metaphysical inquiry: the presentational ('making present') praxis, with its emphasis on concrete, participatory experience; and replaced it with a love of ideas: conceptual re-presentations of experience to the mind's eye.
For example: when we were in Crotona, 'the harmony of the spheres' was a time and place-specific practice facilitated by musical harmonies. All of us attending were at-one with that particular Moon/Venus conjunction. For our hosts the Pythagoreans, pre-Socratics that they were, it was also a grand idea. The Sun, Moon, and planets all move according to mathematical equations which correspond to musical notes and all together produce a 'symphony'. But at some point along the way, as the psychology of the split deepened its hold on the Western psyche, the concrete practice got left behind and 'the harmony of the spheres' became just the idea.
As Westerners increasingly substituted ideas about being for the immediate experience of being, the old metaphysics of the concrete morphed into the new metaphysics of the abstract. "The metaphysics of the concrete stands in contrast to the long tradition of the metaphysics of the abstract, from Plato to Whitehead, a history of systems presenting structures of universal scope, applicable to the totality of existence." (Paul Schmidt, Rebelling, Loving, and Liberation.)
From the very outset, however, it’s clear that this re-defining of the inquiry is causing major confusion. Plato himself (429-347 B.C.E.) writes: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being’. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” (Plato, The Sophist.)
Still, for the next 2500 years, philosopher after philosopher will attempt to dispel the confusion by conceptually re-presenting the nature of being, and the 'totality of existence', in a more skillful manner. Each will contribute some new model, present some new explanation, or invent some new system in an attempt to answer, once and for all, what Heidegger insists is the fundamental question in the history of metaphysical inquiry, both concrete and abstract: what is being?
However because ‘being’ is a dynamic experience that escapes any finality of conceptual re-presentation, no Western philosopher is ever able to accomplish this lofty goal; and it takes an outsider, a writer named Jorge Luis Borges, to see the irony of this. Borges sees what the philosophers cannot; and sums up the whole history of the philosophical Ascent in eighteen words. “Every philosopher," he writes, "sets out to explain the world, and ends up as a chapter in a history book.” (Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Nonfictions.)
So much of the way that you and I simply are in the world today, how we experience ourselves as human and relate to the rest of creation, is a consequence of the Ascent. As the endgame of this bounded historical process, Friedrich Nietzsche has a name for us. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls you and me: "the Last Man;" and then enigmatically adds: “The Last Man lives longest.” So what does he mean by this? Heidegger explains: "The last man - the final and definitive type of man so far - fixes himself, and generally all that is, by a specific way of representing ideas." (Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?)
In other words: by repetitiously entrenching herself or himself in the literate, re-presentational form of human thinking, the Last Man unconsciously holds human sensation in its visually-dominant 'synchronized' configuration, human perception in the subject/object split, the history of Western consciousness in the Ascent, and the practice of astrology in its objective formulation.
So what if we were to bring this posting to a close by imagining how the Last Man re-presents human experience through the concepts of astrology? In other words: just who is 'the Last Astrologer'?
THE ENDGAME OF THE LITERATE PHASE OF WESTERN ASTROLOGICAL PRACTICE
As the Last Astrologer, you and I think our practices re-presentationally, meaning: from out of the subject/object split. We use the language of astrology, its vocabulary and syntax, to articulate objective models of persons, situations, or the world in general. Such re-presentational modeling is postulated as the only legitimate form of astrological practice. It’s touted as ‘the real astrology’, rather than appreciated for the literacy-conditioned phase of astrological practice it really is.
As the Last Astrologer we justify our re-presentations by appeals to either science or metaphysics (philosophy). As different as these modalities may seem because of their varied contents, both are formally congruent because each is thought in exactly the same objectifying manner. Even though their respective proponents are very often at odds, epistemologically they're Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Since they are seen as the only choices we have available to us, we fail to comprehend that neither is a very good frame for understanding the real possibilities of astrological awareness.
When an objective re-presentation is not experienced as such, but taken to be what the world is ‘in itself’, it becomes what the historian of consciousness Owen Barfield terms: an ‘idol’. Through such unconscious idolatry, we turn our practices into fortune telling. Situations tend to be presented as immutable, and outcomes as foregone. And since consciousness is usually excluded from the model in any practical way, the client is deprived of her or his ability to affect the outcome through the Final, the conscious, Participation.
As the Last Astrologer we spend our time and energy trying to objectively prove astrology to other objective thinkers. Astrology’s ‘fit’ with the pillars of the literate paradigm – philosophy and science - has been tenuous at best. We’ve been the proverbial round peg in a square hole for a long, long time now. Personally I'm tired of it all; are you?
As the Last Astrologer we espouse the conviction that astrology is a ‘language’; but then operate on a false understanding of how language actually works. The ‘picture theory’ of language is our current default setting. It was first articulated a long, long time ago by one of the early pillars of the Ascent: St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Product of the subject/object split that it is, the picture theory holds that the function of language is to accurately re-present in words a reality that is fundamentally independent of those words.
Never questioning the picture theory, we believes that an astrological con-sid-eration (literally: ‘being with the stars’) can produce an exact or complete picture of a person or situation. So we search tirelessly for the 'best' astrological system: the system with supposedly the most accurate match between symbol and experience. Either we haven’t discovered it as yet through efforts at historical retrieval; or we have yet to invent it.
Bewitched by at least two grammars - that of our native tongue, and that of the language of astrology - we get carried away from the experiential rhythms that are the foundation of all astrological perception, and into the logic of our symbol system and the description of the world imposed by its grammatical patterning. “If we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language.” (Benjamin Lee Whorf, in Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carrol.)
When thinking astrologically, we automatically drift into generalized concepts. We tend to think of a sign of the zodiac, for example, as a set of qualities that are supposedly appropriate in all cases and substantiated by generations of observation, rather than as one of the twelve energetic phases of the yearly seasonal cycle that has accrued a literate body of objective correlations. For another example: the uniqueness of a particular Moon/Venus conjunction gets lost, and its particular quality subsumed in generalized observations, such as: "Moon/Venus conjunctions symbolize moments of beauty."
As the Last Astrologer we favor astrological systems: groupings of astrological concepts organized to form intellectual wholes. Our client, or their situation, is then conformed to the system, which means: classified according to the system’s internal logic. This logical description then gets confused with the real client or world-in-itself.
In a counseling situation, we engage our clients by making objective statements about the symbols, rather than using the symbols to engage the clients through participatory techniques such as questioning. As a consequence, we reinforce participation in our symbol systems – the ‘letters on the astrological page’ (i.e., the re-presentational chart) – rather than encouraging participation with the flesh and blood client.
As the Last Astrologer we overlay conceptual ‘nets’ on our client’s experience. It doesn't matter whether it be a school of psychology, a religious tradition, an esoteric system, or a scientific model. An overlay of any kind distracts both ourselves and our clients from the experiential immediacy of the celestial dance, entangling them instead in the description inherent in the conceptual overlay.