Mysticism, Metaphysics, and Medieval Mind
This post is the fifth in my quest to explore foundational ideas that contribute to two widespread related axioms commonly held to be true by many individuals belonging to Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Magickal and New Age communities. It is my hope that this examination will be of service as it attempts to uncover some context for these ideas and to also examine their spiritual and philosophical significance. Again, these ideas are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities” along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or the belief that all individuals are 100% personally responsible for what happens in their lives. I will again provide links for further detail from Wikipedia and elsewhere.
So far, this content has been fairly dense–not necessarily an easy read, and I sincerely hope that I am not putting off any readers, and that my readers won’t assume that all my blog posts will be equally impenetrable. This hasn’t been the most approachable material for me either, although I have to confess, it continues to be a very interesting process.
I’ve had to take “intensity breaks” in the creative, pixel-bending other cortex simply to refresh…and I begin to understand the stereotype of the somewhat disarrayed, possibly unwashed, argumentative and ink-stained philosophers who are “out there” on some metaphysical plane, or deep in their own worlds, following strange ideas all night, swilling coffee to finish an article, and getting increasingly difficult to understand as they go along. I hope I can reverse the latter trend at the very least.
In my previous post I explored Neoplatonism in the context of the Rise of Christianity.
Some scholars describe the death of one particular Neoplatonic thinker as the end of the Classical period. This was the murder in 415 AD of the Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia, also a noted mathematician and astronomer who fell afoul of a mob of Christians who accused her of inciting religious turmoil. She was a follower of Plotinus (see previous entry ), like him favoring logic and math over evidence gleaned through observation. Hypatia’s gruesome murder (dragged through the streets naked and then set on fire) provides quite the object lesson for those interested in what it was like for female pagan philosophers during the decline of poly- and pantheist Pagan thought and the emerging rise of monotheism as interpreted by Christianity.
Even after Hypatia’s murder, as the light of Classical Learning dimmed and was finally extinguished, Neoplatonic influences remained, transformed but surviving in Christian Mysticism, the Judaic Kabbalah, Ishraqi and Sufi Esotericism, and Islamic Philosophy.
What characterizes a mystic tradition, including Christian Mystics, Kaballah within Judaism, and Sufism within Islam, is that in each case mystics form sub-groups within what is usually a more conservative, mainstream religious viewpoint. Mysticism tends to emphasize a more direct experience and relationship with divinity over doctrine or religious training, and because mysticism is also inclined to express its practices and meanings trough esoteric and subjective language and practices, it is often the case that the mainstream religious paths view their particular mystics with skepticism and distrust.
An approach that goes beyond the mainstream devotional and liturgical practices of the “parent” religious perspectives is likely to be related to the goal of our exploration here. This is because reality formation, specific metaphysical practices aimed at positive outcomes, and personal responsibility for those outcomes, are ideas which are rooted in intrinsic, internal and subjective spiritual insights that any person can access. It is therefore more likely that in mysticism we may encounter religious concepts that encompass reality formation. This likely relationship with our axioms of interest is further made probable by mysticism’s general belief that the ordinary, everyday reality is superficial, that there is a more fundamental underlying state of existence within or beneath the ordinary, mundane perception of the world, and that it is possible for initiates of a mystical path to navigate these inner worlds and realities through specific pursuits and practices.
As I said above, the emphasis upon subjective direct experience of both divinity and the underlying mystical world, makes mysticism suspect to those who emphasize the empirical. Partly in response to this questioning of mystical religious perceptions and knowledge, there is a tendency for mysticism to draw upon justifying ideas and practices to be found in the more “mundane” sciences of the time. Of course, this practice can also be seen as an openness to explore outside of traditional religious ideas for practices that will enhance or advance mystical goals.
A widely held view in mysticism is a belief in some form of immanence; as mystics directly experience divinity and the foundational inner world, they tend to de-emphasize the importance of an afterlife. This often brings them into conflict with their “parent” religion’s mainstream doctrinal claims. Mysticism’s belief in immanence is also another factor related to the axioms that are the subject of our inquiry. Direct divine experience, or a belief in the existence of divinity in all things, can easily be seen to imbue the mystical practitioner with God-like abilities including reality formation and influence over outcomes.
Mystics in Abrahamic religions are marginalized to varying degrees: in Judaism, the Chasidic Kabbalists are respected by the mainstream; in Islam, Sufism is tolerated; in western Christianity, mysticism is actively opposed and feared as cultic or even “evil”. In the latter case, a practice and belief system that is already highly subjective and internal has additional reason to cultivate secrecy as part of its practices.
Subjective, internal, and occult mystical practices are deeply couched in ambiguity, contradiction, and malleability. The mystic tends to interpret experience through a different set of assumptions from those present in “ordinary, mundane existence”, and because mysticism often advocates distance and separation from the ordinary as part of its practice, mystical approaches tend towards idiosyncrasies and esoterica. This may convey mystical truths for the mystic but non-practitioners may view such practices not only with skepticism, but even with alarm.
Mystical practices and language do not offer rational questions with final linear conclusions. A mystic would say that these practices, for example Zen koans, are particularly designed with one intent; the purpose is to open a mind that has been closed by habitual responses to the world and mundane reality.
The mystic often views the world as clouded by misconceptions rooted in habitual responses we learn from the mainstream and in the ideas and habits we form though our experiences in education and in life–experiences which we take to be “reality”. Mysticism often teaches that this experience-driven formation of habits, externally validated by peers and teachers, quickly solidifies into “law”. To address this hardening, mysticism often seeks to upset or dislocate the ego and the mind from habitual views of reality and to open itself to alternative possibilities and deeper enlightenment–to alternate realities and truths.
Zen mystical teachers insist that the meaning of a koan can only be demonstrated directly in a living, physical interaction. Despite this, the Zen tradition has produced a great deal of literature, including thousands of koans and countless volumes of commentary. Countering this apparent contradiction, teachers warn students of the problem inherent in confusing a koan’s interpretation with the realization of that koan.
“Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon.” –a Zen aphorism
Similarly, apparent contradictions and non-linear thought can be seen in Judaic mysticism:
“The Kabbalah is not a single system with basic principles that can be explained in a simple and straightforward fashion, but consists rather of a multiplicity of different approaches, widely separated from one another and sometimes completely contradictory.”
—Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem
Mystics tend to explore specific methodologies intended to bring about a religious insight or experience and usually offer their approaches to a broad range of interested individuals without regard for previous training. Because of the systematized nature of mystical practices and their replicable, direct availability to practitioners, mysticism often comes to be seen as a divine science. Because mystical sciences do remain couched in ambiguity, they are not as well received by the non-mystical sciences they may seek to embrace, instead provoking skepticism and controversy among those who value empirical knowledge, or “proof”.
I will address modern mysticism, quantum mysticism, and the relationship of modern mysticism to science, quantum physics, etc. in a separate blog post.
Just as mysticism does not lend itself easily to external tests, evidence, or proofs, the related metaphysical beliefs are similarly called into question.
Metaphysics is often characterized as the intent to explore and shed light upon the most important aspects of human nature, coupled with an effort to comprehend the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, define our relationship to that universe, and understand our movement with “all that is” towards our eventual, often similar or mutual ends. Metaphysics also involves a philosophical inquiry into (and search for) explanations about existence. For this reason, metaphysicians and metaphysicists also explore fundamental questions of origin, possibility, causality, spacetime, and ontology, or the study of physical things and their inter-relationships.
Subsequent to the development of the scientific method, metaphysics has increasingly explored that part of philosophy and religion that involves non-empirical inquiries into the nature of existence. This exploration includes theories about what constitutes a “real” being, what the nature of such a being might be, and what sort of language and concepts are best utilized in the description of such beings. This approach includes explorations of the nature of perception, ideas, memories, intentions, consciousness, motives, and similar mental phenomena falling into a metaphysical “theory of mind”.
More typically, metaphysics explores questions about the nature of reality, formulating theories such as dualism and materialism .
Questions as to free will and determinism also fall under the mantle of metaphysical studies, as well as the quest for explanations of why things exist rather than nothingness, whether the universe has always existed, whether there is life after death, the nature of substance, the existence of spiritual beings, what constitutes the “supernatural”, etc.
Metaphysical claims therefore, often treat with ideas and issues that are not easily measured. They also offer competing and contradictory theories which cannot be resolved through empirical testing to determine the truth. This non-empirical focus has led to criticisms similar to those raised about mysticism.
The term “metaphysics” is derived from the Greek μετά (metá) (“beyond”) and φυσικά (physiká) (meaning “physical”)
The practices and inquiries of metaphysics far predate the Classical era, with metaphysical study called the “Queen of Sciences” by Aristotle. The three main branches of traditional Western Metaphysics are drawn from the three main sections of Aristotle’s book on what he called “First Principles”. These metaphysical branches are ontology, natural theology, and universal science.
Clearly, aspects of the two axioms that have prompted my rather exhaustive (exhausting?) blogging–both the ability to “create reality” and a “100% personal responsibility for outcomes”–raise metaphysical questions which fall under all three of Aristotle’s categories. Examples of these metaphysical questions include:
* What actually is the reality that one creates?
* What steps or processes are involved in current reality formation?
* Does one completely create all that one experiences or are there external principle(s), or Principal(s) at work?
* What is created when one does not pay specific attention to reality formation?
* If each of us creates our own reality, is there an interface with other realities created by other beings and if so, what is the nature of that interface?
* If one creates one’s own reality, can one get “better at it” with some sort of specific practice? If so, what does mediocre reality formation cause?
* What is the relationship between creation of reality and mishaps or random occurrences (if either exist)?
* If there “are no accidents” why does it appear that there are?
* If one is responsible for the outcomes in one’s life, is there any other agent at work?
* If one takes steps to manage positive future outcome, what is the relationship between time, space, other reality and outcome designers, present and past actions and the eventual realization of outcome goals?
* What steps might be taken to avoid events emerging from non-omniscience and unexpected consequences of reality formation and outcomes?
* What are the ethics and responsibilities that result from reality formation?
* What is the relationship between individual beings creating reality and any supernatural beings or divinity/ies?
* What is the place of “randomness” in a perspective that embraces reality formation or 100% responsibility for outcomes?
* What happens when two beings directly attempt to create opposing realities?
* If everything that one experiences is personally created, possibly prior to birth or even in previous existences, does this form a new sort of determinism in which one does not have the free will to escape those previous choices put in place?
* If each of us is 100% responsible for our outcomes, and each individually creates reality, can anyone or anything else really exist, and if so, are there multiple realities in which they and we exist; and, are those realities layered, interwoven, independent or co-created?
As I said above, philosophical and religious metaphysical questions about existence and transcendent realities do not easily lend themselves to empirical scrutiny but do easily provoke skepticism and even disdain, as do the efforts of mystics to explore these questions within the context of their various “parent” religions.
When attempts to explain these questions have given rise to different answers, a clash resulted (and still results) not only in the disputes of ideas but in more dramatic conflicts including acts of war, genocide, and localized attempts to eliminate alternative views (Joan of Arc, Hypatia).
Hypatia of Alexandria died in 415 CE. By 450 CE, the “light” of any open, non-Christian approach to metaphysical inquiries was almost entirely extinguished. The concept of heresy and similar restrictions became increasingly prevalent. Medieval Christian philosophy was largely disengaged from the political and cultural currents of the time, so it is significant that so much intellectual energy continued to go into addressing issues of faith.
Western medieval philosophy is an often-overlooked period that basically acts as a bridge between ancient thinking and the modern era, stretching as it does from the Classical period to the Enlightenment. During the Middle Ages (cerca 450–1500 BCE) in the Western world, the primary philosophical pursuits revolved around attempts of Christian leaders to reconcile Christian ideology and religious practices with Classical philosophy and Hellenic and Hellenistic ideas.
Particularly focusing upon the ideas of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, medieval Christians attempted to apply their methodologies to Christian theology, probing deeply into the fundamental nature of Christian thought. Primarily, medieval philosophers were interested in methods that would demonstrate ways in which Christianity can be seen as consistent with what can be demonstrated through reason.
As I did with the Classical and Neoplatonic philosphers, I am going to restrict this discussion of Medieval thinkers to avoid remaining forever in a preamble to the analysis of the stated topics of the larger discussion. For the most part, ideas about personal reality formation do not dovetail easily with medieval or Abrahamic-based religious thought. With regard to responsibility for outcome, the Western medieval take on this primarily involved Christian ideas about sin, the avoidance of sin, damnation, and the afterlife.
We have already touched upon Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) who was influenced by Plato’s distinction between the intelligible realm, which is perfect and accessible only by the mind; and the sensible realm, which is imperfect and comprehensible through the senses. Augustine argued that God’s perfection and goodness is equally manifest in both spheres. Augustine’s writings indicate that he did not support the idea of human reality creation (assuming that such creation emerges from our minds). For example in this famous passage from the Confessions he wrote:
“If we both see that what you say is true, and we both see that what I say is true, then where do we see that? Not I in you, nor you in me, but both of us in that unalterable truth that is above our minds.” (XII.xxv.35).
Boethius (c. 476–c. 526) who wrote his influential The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution, personified philosophy as a woman who shows him how human freedom and moral responsibility are possible within God’s providential governance of the universe. The Consolation involves a dialectic with the personified Lady, and a good portion of this work touches upon areas related to our inquiry.
“Unlike many modern philosophers, Boethius did not believe that the will can remain free, in the sense needed for attribution of moral responsibility, if it is determined causally. Moreover, Philosophy insists that the causal chain of providence, as worked out in fate, embraces all that happens. In V.1, when Boethius asks about chance, Philosophy explains that events are said to happen by chance when they are the result of a chain of causes which is unintended or unexpected, as when someone is digging in a field for vegetables and finds a buried treasure. Philosophy’s solution is to argue (V.2) that rational acts of volition, unlike all external events, do not themselves belong to the causal chain of fate. This freedom, however, is enjoyed only by ‘the divine and supernal substances’ and by human beings engaged in the contemplation of God. It is reduced and lost as humans give their attentions to worldly things and allow themselves to be swayed by the passions.”
— taken from Boethius entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The dominant Classical influence on medieval philosophers remained the works of Plato until the 13th century, when the translation of most of Aristotle’s works into Latin offered a potent and divisive tool for systematizing Christian thinking. The philosophers below engaged primarily with this new trend.
Bonaventure (1217–74) was willing to borrow Aristotle’s teachings when he found them useful, as in his account of theoretical knowledge; but he rejected Aristotle’s view that the world has always existed and argued passionately against what he took to be excessive enthusiasm for Aristotle. He did say that:
“Things have existence in the mind, in their own nature (proprio genere), and in the eternal art. So the truth of things as they are in the mind or in their own nature — given that both are changeable — is sufficient for the soul to have certain knowledge only if the soul somehow reaches things as they are in the eternal art”
–De Scientia Christi
This idea may impact our two axioms, if we posit that our own souls can be creative at the level of reality formation in “an eternal art” emerging after we “reach things as they are”.
Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) used the works of Aristotle as his primary philosophical inspiration, developing arguments for the existence of God as well as an account of the powers and limits of human reason in knowing God. Aquinas wrote that humanity’s goal is union with the loving will of God. He wrote that this was achieved through a “beatific vision” in which one comes into direct contact with the essence of God. This direct contact results in a perfect eternal joy and is achieved after death by those who have been redeemed by Christ while yet alive.
This goal of union with God through a beatific vision is significant for those yet alive, as Aquinas pointed out that will must be directed towards virtues such as holiness and charity. This can be seen as Aquinas’ take on reality formation and positive outcome. By ordering a moral life in quest of happiness through union with God, Aquinas argued that “The relationship between will and goal is antecedent in nature ‘because rectitude of the will consists in being duly ordered to the last end [that is, the beatific vision].’ Those who truly seek to understand and see God will necessarily love what God loves. Such love requires morality and bears fruit in everyday human choices.” (from Wikipedia’s entry on Aquinas )
William of Ockham (c. 1288–1347) is most famous for the principle called “Ockham’s razor,” which gives preference to simplicity in explanations. His tenacity in using this principle led to a breakdown in a harmonious relationship between theology and philosophy as envisioned by Aquinas. An important contribution of William of Ockham to our topic lies in his argument that while human beings have a natural orientation towards their own ultimate good, this orientation does not restrict their will.
Like Aristotle and Aquinas, Ockham believed that humans can choose the means to achieve their ultimate good. The natural orientation and tendency toward that good is built in; this is inescapable. However, Ockham breaks with Aquinas in his argument that humans still have the will and choice as to whether or not they will act to achieve this orientation. They can choose to take no action, and even to act directly against their own good. Humans then, can knowingly choose evil.
By the end of Ockham’s life Aristotelianism was waning quickly. Within a generation, a new Renaissance examination of Platonism was blossoming and pervasive. As a result, the medieval philosophical era both began and ended with variations on a Platonic worldview.
Next time: I drink, therefore I am. (Just kidding!)
All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.