Making the Most of Meaningful Coincidence

JUNG & SYNCHRONICITY – Making the Most of Meaningful Coincidence

© 2007

by Debra Moolenaar

The more Barbara reflected on a 12th century saint’s words – ‘being a feather on the breath of God’ – the more real feathers she’d find.  One day while walking a labyrinth and grappling with whether to take her vows in a religious order, Barbara found a special feather, – a dark curved one with wispy white fronds.  When she picked it up, a small voice inside told her to ‘be a feather’.   Barbara left the order and moved to New Mexico, where her connection between feathers and spiritual inspiration grew ever stronger.

Although there’s no apparent cause and effect link between Barbara’s finding feathers and receiving spiritual guidance, we sense it’s more than an inconsequential coincidence.  Caught up in the meaningful collision of apparently unconnected events, we feel something otherworldly at work – the God-like hand of fate.  So what are we to make of it?

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that certain coincidences carry meaning.  He coined the term Synchronicity to refer to a series of thoughts and external experiences that, although isolated in time and space, appear to be connected in a ‘meaningful way’.  Not all coincidences are synchronistic.  Some – like the book you need jumping off the shelf and landing at your feet – are just fun to relate.  But real synchronistic experiences hold your attention much longer.  Their significance can take years to play out.

Jung believed synchronistic experiences mirror deep psychological processes that further ‘individuation’ – the process by which we gain understanding of our place in the world.  In Jungian thought, society’s mass-mindedness creates a ‘collective’ repository of emotionally loaded wish-fantasies that are hard to resist.  Consider the steadily growing number of worldwide reports of Mary (‘Mother Mary’ or ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’) apparitions.  Jung wouldn’t be surprised.   Increasingly complex technological advances threaten to annihilate our spiritual heritage.   Yet according to Jung, our spirituality is the very thing that makes us individuals.

Statistically, synchronicity shouldn’t happen.  Although modern society encourages us to be ‘normal’ or ‘average’, we can use our synchronistic experiences to assert our individuality.  Jung believed real life to be made of individuals – not averages.  He also said that it’s by thinking outside the box that we’ll find our personal worth.

Like dreams, synchronistic experiences naturally occur when our unconscious is trying to tell us something.  Archetypes – the building blocks of the unconscious – are the key to understanding the message.  Jung described archetypes as concentrations of psychic energy that manifest as particular themes and motifs – like the spiral found in seashells.  Such motifs appear widely across history and cultures.   The unconscious connects us with the archetypes, and the archetypes trigger synchronistic experiences.

Synchronistic experiences always involve an archetype.  Consider the case of the golden beetle.  While Jung’s client was relating a dream in which she’d received a gift of a golden scarab (a large dung beetle held sacred in ancient Egypt), Jung heard a gentle tapping on the window.  He opened it and caught a beetle whose gold-green color was the same as that of the golden scarab his client had described.   When Jung related that the scarab was a classic rebirth symbol depicting the archetype of self-transformation – exactly the issue with which she’d been struggling, the client was shocked enough to break down her resistance to therapy.

Archetypes often depict universal life events such as birth, puberty, marriage, parenthood, and death.  They also depict the classic character types associated with those events.  Confronting archetypes through synchronistic experience alerts us to personal issues of which we might not otherwise have been aware.

Archetypes have been with us forever.  They speak to our hearts, and we intuitively understand.  As the result, archetypal themes underlie most myth, literature, and cinema classics like the box-office hit ‘Star Wars’, which was based on the archetype of the Hero’s journey.  Myth is a great starting point when looking for the meaning behind a synchronistic experience.

We can also extract meaning from synchronistic experiences through Jung’s technique of ‘amplification’.  For example, with Barbara’s experience, we’d  examine the associations others have had with feathers.  Throughout history, feathers have been used by shamans and priests.  They’ve long symbolized the sacred power of the archetype of the healer.  Feathers are also believed to be mystical signs,  carrying messages and opportunities.  As scraps of synchronicity in the flow of universal meaning, feathers have comforted us and renew our hope for the future.

The more in touch we are with our unconscious, the more likely that we’ll notice synchronistic events and be spiritually and psychologically transformed by them.  This certainly seems to have been Barbara’s experience.

On a bright summer’s morning a year ago, Barbara crossed the border into New Mexico and pulled into the first rest stop.   She was exhausted.  When upon opening the car door she found a raven’s feather, at last she was certain she’d made the right decision.


Body & Soul – Harnessing the Renaissance Magic of Marsilio Ficino

BODY & SOUL – Harnessing the Renaissance Magic of Marsilio Ficino

by Debra Moolenaar

© 2006

Open your life to soul.  Take control of your thoughts and emotions.  Align them with the heavens, and you could you literally realign the energies surrounding you here on earth.  By changing your frame of mind, you’ll make different choices.   You can beat those empty feelings that fuel compulsions like excessive eating, drinking, or shopping.

If you’re seeking happiness, Renaissance astrologer and magician Marsilio Ficino believed that happiness comes with the good things in life – health, wealth, position, and power – to name a few.  But having them isn’t enough. They must be desired, acquired, and used with wisdom.

Do this, he says, through natural magic.  Because soul works through symbols and images, you absorb planetary rays through food, music, talismans, and medicines that correspond to, or vibrate in sympathy with, the planetary energies you need. Imagine two violins.  Sympathetic vibration occurs when two strings are tuned to the same pitch.  When one is plucked, the other will sing out in ‘in sympathy’.  Take care of soul and it will take care of you. In this regard, soul is a quality rather than a quantity. It’s an intensity of experience. It’s best to speak of ‘soul’, rather than of ‘a soul’.  Other words for soul might include daemon or muse.

Ficino (1433-1499) was the consummate Renaissance man. He was a physician, musician, priest, astrologer, mystic, and vegetarian.  As the protégée of Cosimo de Medici, one of the most powerful men in Renaissance Europe, Ficino’s work had a profound effect on the direction of the Italian Renaissance and on European thought in general.

But Ficino was more than a scholar and philosopher.  He was also an accomplished magician. He didn’t just contemplate the good life, but made it happen with help from soul.  Because Ficino believed that the good life lies in a ‘well-tempered’ life – lived in harmony with the heavens, by following his lead, your goal is to become ‘as celestial as possible’ through soul.

Cultivating soul is like getting a liberal arts education.  It isn’t about making money, but about developing personal values.  When you move through life from this deeper place with insight into your personal nature, all else falls in line.

Your good life starts with the idea that the universe moves in ordered cosmic harmony according to a divine plan.  If, as Ficino believed, soul, with help from the planets and all things celestial, sows the seeds of this divine plan into the material world through archetypal energies resembling rays, then wisdom, your key to happiness, comes from absorbing as many different rays as possible.

It’s the quality of objects – the shapes, sounds, colours that speak to soul.  There’s a psychological element too.  For example, if you want to cultivate solar energies, you use sun-related paintings, sculpture, jewellery, household furnishings, clothes, or even houseplants to keep solar attributes in the forefront of your mind.

In Ficino’s solar system, there were only seven planets (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto had yet to be discovered).  To thrive, soul needs exposure to each.  You shouldn’t ignore the more challenging ones like Mars and Saturn and concentrate solely on the easy ones like Venus and Jupiter.  Remember the goal is to lead a balanced well-tempered life.  One way to accomplish this might be to focus on the planetary energies associated with each day of the week.  The connection between the planets’ names and the days of the week is ancient. It appears in many languages.  For example, Sunday is the Sun’s day, Monday the Moon’s day, Tuesday is Mar’s day, Wednesday is Mercury’s day, Thursday is Jupiter’s day, Friday is Venus’ day, and Saturday belongs to Saturn.

The Sun symbolizes the qualities – insight and imagination – that are uniquely human. Thus solar energy is associated with consciousness, rational thought, and the pursuit of truth and honour.  The Sun’s healing powers are unrivalled.  To cultivate solar energies, avoid all things sad and dusky.  Instead, take care to warm your heart with cordial and joyful things.  Overexposure to the sun can dry you out, so use it with caution.

Cultivate solar energies through solemn music, all things gold coloured, nutmeg, heliotrope, myrrh, honey, crocus, corn, cinnamon, aloes, lions, swans, beetles, and chickens. Visualize a king on a throne in a yellow garment, along with a raven and the form of the sun.

Light is prized above all else.  ‘Nothing recalls the nature of goodness more than light.’ Plato compared the Sun to God himself, and Ficino agreed, teaching that man could best know the virtue and divinity of God through the light of the Sun.

You can learn to make informed choices about which specific energies you want. For example, if you were tired or disappointed, you’d call upon Jupiter and the Sun to give you a lift. If you were annoyed, you’d ask Venus to tame your anger.  You could also invoke particular planetary powers to assist with current astrological transits.

Some planets work well together while others do not. For example, the bright beneficial power of the Sun and Jupiter mix easily to good effect.  But Saturn and Jupiter are natural enemies and counterbalance each other.  Everything in moderation! All the planets have both positive and negative effects.  It’s important to avoid too much of a good thing.

The Moon’s endless monthly cycles of death and rebirth are clearly visible to the naked eye. In earlier times, farmers would plant when she was waxing and harvest when she was waning. Along with Venus, the Moon signifies the procreative force and is associated with the human body and all natural processes.  Observe the lunar cycle. It’s an important guide to auspicious rhythms – especially when performing magic and healing.  Because of her associations with birth, the Moon is the key to making ideas and fantasies become real. Knowing ‘when’ to do something is as important as knowing ‘what’ to do.

The lunar cycle reminds you to hounour your downtime.  Just as there’s a time to sow and reap, there’s a time to lay fallow.  How can anything survive running at top speed twenty-four hours a day – seven days a week?  Instead, live in sync with the Moon’s cycles, beginning projects with the new moon, harvesting them with the full moon, and winding down with the waning moon.  You’re ready to start again!  Cultivate lunar energies through things that are white, moist, green, silver, as well as through crystal, pearls, and silver marcasite.  Visualize a beautiful girl seated on a dragon or a bull.  She has horns on her head, and serpents above her head and under her feet.

Mars is the God of War. He signifies anger, violence, bitterness, and all types of aggression.  But he also signifies courage and, according to Ficino, he fortifies the soul.  Cultivate Mars through materials that are fiery or red, red brass, sulphurous things, iron, and bloodstone.  Visualize a man armed and crowned.

Mercury is a natural-born interpreter and, in ancient myth, he was the god of communication. He knows there are multiple meanings behind even the simplest of objects, and his job is to connect you with them.  Mercury’s quick and bright, so if you need insight, turn to him. But he’s also duplicitous.  Functioning as the trickster, he forces you to see things differently.  For example with dreams, images of one thing prompt understanding of something completely different.  Mercury stimulates your curiosity – but doesn’t deliver answers.  He leaves that to you.  Cultivate mercurial energies through tin, silver (especially quicksilver), silver marcasite, agate, glass (especially yellow mixed with green-emerald), clever animals such as monkeys and dogs, and people who are eloquent, sharp, and versatile.  Visualize a winged man wearing a crested cap and multi-colour robe.  He has eagle’s feet and is seated on a throne holding a reed in his right hand, a cock in his left.

Jupiter is the mind and spirit of the universe supporting all civilized aspects of humanity including culture, religion, philosophy, and law.  Ficino called Jupiter the ‘helping father’ because he transforms our imaginative visions into the realities of collective living.  Jupiter brings joie de vivre and carefree enjoyment of life, strengthening and moderating all things with which he associates.  He’s always beneficial and brings luck in all matters. Jupiter can make Venus more sweet, and Saturn less sour.  Ficino often spoke of using Jupiter in conjunction with other planets to counteract, temper, or magnify them.  Cultivate Jupiter’s power with jacinth, crystal, wine, sugar, white honey, peppermint, peacocks, and the colours of sapphire, rich purple, gold mixed with silver, and green.  Visualize a man crowned, sitting on an eagle or dragon, and wearing a gold robe.

Venus is the Goddess of Love, and Ficino suggested there are two kinds of love, human and divine; Venus expresses both.  Like Plato, Ficino believed that the sight of sensuous bodily beauty arouses an appreciation of divine beauty.  Thus Venus is not just to be admired, but to be used for spiritual growth as well.  Along with the Moon, Venus signifies the natural and procreative force.  She presides over the lush green fertility of spring.  She confers a prosperous life making you fruitful and happy.  But Venus has a dark side as well. So many myths caution against the dangers of staying wrapped in her seductive pleasures for too long, that you should take these warnings to heart.  Cultivate Venus through corneolus (a flesh-like stone thought to stop the flow of blood), coral, turtles, turtledoves, pigeons, and through all things gay, festive, and pleasurable.  Modesty forbade Ficino from revealing a full list of correspondences.  Visualize a young woman dressed in yellow and white, holding apples and flowers in her hand.

Saturn is associated with death and misfortune and, because he constrains movement, you’ll naturally meet him when ill or depressed.  Dark moods and melancholy aren’t usually welcome, yet Ficino believed they were vital to provide time and space for contemplation.  In Ficino’s world, Saturn marked the boundaries of the solar system thus reminding you that all things on earth must come to an end. As the highest and most exalted of the planets, Saturn encourages you to move beyond the material world to higher ground – to the heavens and the true home of soul.  Because Saturn is rooted in tradition and he’s a natural builder, you can call upon him when facing hard work or serious study.  As the ruler of stability and perseverance, he can give you the strength to achieve your goals.  Cultivate Saturnian energies through all things earthy, dusky, and leaden, as well as through smoky jasper, lodestone, cameo, solemn music, sapphire, and gold.  Visualize an old man dressed in a dusky robe, sitting on a high throne or dragon.  His head is covered with a dark linen cloth and he’s raising his hands above his head, holding a sickle or some fish.

What happens once you’ve become ‘as celestial as possible’?  How do you use your gifts and achievements wisely?  You could start by envisioning yourself, as did Ficino and his contemporaries, as an integral part of a comprehensive totality, and focusing your efforts not just for yourself, but for the greater good of all and the glory of God.

Regarding the way to happiness, Ficino wrote In a letter to Cosimo de Medici, “…for thus our soul becomes most like to God, who is wisdom itself.  According to Plato, in this likeness consists the highest state of happiness.”


The Many Faces of God

“God” is a dicey word.

Not only is it downright dangerous to use the word “God” at the wrong time or in the wrong place, but even when you do get it right there’s no guarantee the person with whom you’re speaking entertains the same ideas about what you mean by “God”  as do you.

Having been brought up as an open-minded Christian, I was still very surprised to learn there were so many possible definitions or images of God.

The following are just several broad images of what has over time been meant by “God” (with many variations on the main themes).  As you’d expect each has its strong points and each has its weaknesses too.  Which do you choose and more importantly, why?

  1. Deism – God created the world and then bowed out to leave us to it.  The problem with this definition is that it leaves us no one to pray to when the going gets rough – or rather if we do pray there’s no one there to hear it.
  2. Pantheism – God is transcendent and immanent – God is me and I am God (more or less).   The problem with this definition is that if God is me and I am bad, then God is bad and that can’t be right can it?
  3. Animism – God is ‘soul’ and ‘soul’ is in every rock, tree and especially in me.   The problem with this is that many are unwilling to believe that animals have ‘souls’ and if they do then aren’t they on the same level as humans?  When we throw chicken breasts on the BBQ are we really prepared to eat someone’s soul?
  4. Theism – God made the world and he’s right here by our sides taking care of it (and by implication – us).  Despite a few inconsistencies this concept works fairly well.  This could be why it’s been adopted by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
  5. Dualism (Ditheism) – God is good and he has a twin God who is bad and the battle rages on through eternity.  This has in part been embraced by Christianity in the form of Satan.  The problem with this definition is that if God is good (and omnipotent) and good is the only way, then why can’t the good God ever win?  Is it because he is impotent (i.e. not omnipotent) or is it because he doesn’t want to win (in which case he’s bad).  Either way is a dilemma.
  6. Polytheism – God takes many forms – usually like the Greek or Roman pantheon where there’s a top dog god who presides over his cabinet.  In some cases, this manifests in a coalition government rather like the one we now have it Britain.
  7. Panentheism – God = nature.  The problem with this is that when nature goes (i.e. an atomic bomb or the collision of earth with an asteroid) where does that leave God?
  8. Process Theology – God made the world and he’s obliged to stick around and manage the process.  This is an attempt to integrate evolution with God.   The problem with this is that if God is perfect, then why isn’t His creation perfect?  (which it clearly isn’t if He has to micromanage it).

In the Age of Aquarius What Happens to God?

Today, many believe that the Christian God of our forefathers – a god distinct from and superior to man – is dead.  Astrology concurs with this conclusion.  For a preview of what might come next, read on.

For the last 2000 years, we’ve been living in the Age of Pisces – the symbol of which is two fishes swimming in opposite directions.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that one fish is moving upwards toward heaven while the other is moving parallel with the earth plane.  The underlying assumption is that the material and spiritual worlds are separate and distinct.

At the beginning of the Piscean Age, it was Plato who first formatted this distinction; the earth plane symbolising the world of the senses and the heavens symbolising the eternal world of ideas.   Early Christian theologians renamed  Plato’s eternal world ‘Heaven’ and dubbed its architect as ‘God’.   The Christians further borrowed from Aristotle the notion of God as both the ‘Prime Mover’ of the cosmos and the ‘First Cause’ of everything that exists.

Over time, philosophers have challenged these notions.  When scientific discoveries made Descartes wonder ‘what can I know for certain’, he comes to the famous conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’.  But his matrix keeps God as the ‘First Cause’ of – and the only link between – a divided universe where subjectivity ‘(“I think”), remains isolated from objectivity (the world which ‘I perceive’).

Next comes Hume claiming that the only thing of which we can be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas.  Under his ‘radical skepticism’, we can’t even be certain there’s something called the mind to contain these ideas because the mind may be itself, just another idea.

Then comes Kant who suggests we can only ‘know’ the sensory world and just ‘believe’ in any world beyond that.

Finally Nietzsche announces that “God is Dead” and worse – that it is we ourselves who have killed him by scientifically collapsing the metaphysical assumptions upon which He was based.  With this comes the dawning of the Age of Aquarius where it’s no longer possible to legitimately argue that anything of substance lies beyond our earth plane.

The symbol for Aquarius is the “Water-Bearer” and if you look closely you’ll find he’s not ‘bearing’ but ‘pouring’ something to earth from the sky.  Because of the link between Aquarius and immorality giving waters like the flooding Nile, there’s reason to believe he’s not pouring ordinary water.  Some suggest that instead, he’s pouring a stream of universal consciousness – that because it’s distributed (like the internet) to everyone regardless of race, colour, or creed, will promote a deeper understanding of our humanity.  Aquarius is very democratic in thought, word, and deed.

Nietzsche suggested that man was something that must be overcome to order to allow the God who had long been projected to the beyond, to be reborn within the human soul.

Likewise, in the Age of Aquarius, man will reposition himself  vis à vis God.  The mythological symbolism of Aquarius gives clues how this might work.  Take for example, Prometheus who is associated with Aquarius because he overstepped the divine bounds by stealing fire from the gods to give to mankind.  Some suggest that the Promethean urge to transcend our humanity – i.e. to  play God –  must bring disaster.  Just look at Icarus, Frankenstein, the Tower of Babel.

Instead, I believe  that in Aquarius man will reach to the stars not by playing God – but instead by creating his reality through his ideas.

Like Nietzsche, I believe that man’s striving toward the future will result in the birth a new being who will incarnate the meaning of the universe. Look carefully at the symbol for Aquarius – two parallel lines.  Might this not represent our new status with God?

As noted above, in Descartes’ matrix, which still underlies most of our thinking, the problem of the separation of mind and body is due to a difference in kind.  In theory the non-spatial mind and the mechanistic body shouldn’t interact but in fact they do so in the human body.  Through scientific research, Descartes’ problem is being reworked so that the distinction between subject and object is collapsed.  Even now some scientists consider the mind to be no more than a material function of the body.

With such advances, humans will become both the creator and the created and – as such – will finally be free to put to rest their distinct and superior, creator God.

Playing God – Religious Experience in the 21st Century

At the turn of the last century, the famous philosopher and scientist William James asserted

“….the mother sea and fountain-head of all religions lies in the mystical experience of the individual”.

James believed that the key to understanding such experience, was to be found in the manner in which our eyes and minds, together, created our world.  Quite simply, for James the varieties of religious and mystical experience were dependent on the varieties of human nature, which in turn, were dependent on the nature of consciousness itself.

Has much changed in the 21st century where we embrace anything from artificial intelligence to ‘uploaded consciousness’ – the transfer of the human mind to an artificial substrate? I suggest that it has.  We have now moved beyond human to post-human.

In the post human matrix, consciousness is a function of the entire organism – not just the brain.  As any holistic practitioner will tell you,  our minds and bodies act together; it is impossible to know the whole of something from the sum of its parts.   Interesting enough, but in and of itself, not earth shattering news.

The important point is that in the post human matrix, we now control both our minds and our bodies. We began with pacemakers and artificial joints.  We now use a myriad of drugs to control our emotions.   Soon enough, we will have computer implants that will seamlessly perform as another brain hemisphere.  In other words, in the post human matrix, man controls his experience – religious or otherwise.

Assuming we control our experience of God, does this mean that in essence, we control God?  In some sense, I believe it does.

James believed that just as a novelist plays ‘God’ by taking his fictional characters to the heart of their consciousness through interaction with their world, we do the same through our interpretation of own experience of our own world.  Our minds are the essence of our humanity.  We participate in reality.  We make our own truth.   This has always been matter of perception.    But now we control our perception.

In this way, I suggest that the post human experience will make redundant our most fundamental assumption that God is superior to man, and that man is in turn superior to nature.  The Rationalists eliminated God and the Post humanists are eliminating humans.  After that, there’s nothing left but nature.

The funny thing is – and I suggest James would agree – that all these distinctions were man-made in the first place.

Selling Spirituality – where on the package does it say no pain – no gain?

Without qualification we accept that a personal sense of self (an ‘I’ that does things and a ‘me’ to whom things are done) is essential for a healthy, happy every-day kind of life.

Yet throughout history mystics from all religions have sought the opposite experience of ‘no-self’ to grasp the ultimate truth – a reality so vastly different from that otherwise experienced that the only way to describe it, is to describe what it is not.

Today, it’s more fashionable than ever to pursue such spiritual enlightenment in any number of well-marketed ways.  Wander through the appropriate section in your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean.  Although consumers of spirituality may not know exactly what it is that they seek, they are certain that once they’ve found it they’ll have achieved an infinite love and bliss they couldn’t have afforded to miss.

But what if it isn’t like that?

I’ve just read Suzanne Segal’s biography Collision with the Infinite – A life Beyond the Personal Self.  In it she relates that rather than being joyful, the experience of ‘selflessness’ engenders such fear, loneliness, and profound disorientation that she was marked by society as pathologically ‘disordered’ or even insane.

I find it stunning in such a psychologically and spiritually progressive society as our own, that after her enlightenment it took Suzanne over twelve years and ten therapists to find anyone who remotely understood what she was going through.

As she so eloquently puts it:

“People have always looked for things they can navigate by, signs that point the way and tell them when they have arrived at their destination.  The interpretations of spiritual experiences have been managed or organised by this need to navigate and thereby lost their validity.”

Does this suggest we ought not to seek spiritual enlightenment?  I think not.  But what it might mean is that before we start down any path, we ought to find out more about it than what’s promised on the tin.

Suzanne started her own quest though transcendental meditation.  Years after she’d stopped practicing, she got more than she bargained for.  Ultimately, she found the answers she’d been seeking.  But the process was long and hard and above-all painful both for herself and for those around her who cared.  As the saying goes (and Suzanne discovered), ‘no pain no gain’.

Rousseau’s Social Contract & Why the Rich Get Richer While the Poor Get Poorer

My husband and I recently visited a charming 280-acre National Trust property nestled in the green hills of south Oxfordshire.  First built in the late Middle Ages, Greys Court comprises a substantial complex of sandstone buildings and walled courtyard gardens.  Enjoying coffee and cake in a long, low building said to have garrisoned Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War, we contemplated battles long since fought and won. With dozens of other tourists, we rambled  through the three-gabled Elizabethan house dreaming of what it must have been like to have grown up  in such a comfortable and privileged home .

But it was while admiring century-old wisteria awash in a sea of bluebells that I remembered Rousseau’s observation that the ‘fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.  If this were true, then why do some families flourish on 280 acre country estates while others scratch out their survival in a city slum? Rousseau suggests a diabolically simple answer:

“The first man who having enclosed a piece of ground, thought up the statement this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him…was the real founder of civil society.”

Society yes.  Civil no.  It was Rousseau’s view that the social contract devised by men to make their property secure was not in accord with the ‘natural order’, but instead was a hoax perpetrated by the rich on the poor.  In other words, the poor (majority) had been tricked into agreeing to give their right to share in the wealth of the land to the rich (minority).   According to Rousseau in exchange for peace and protection:

“All ran headlong to their chains, believing they had secured their liberty.”

I question whether such a social contract remains in society’s best interest in the 21st century.  Do we still require privileged property owners to care for us?  Or in a post-modern democracy are we capable to taking care of ourselves?

If we conclude the later, then is it not up to each one of us work toward changing the terms of the social contract?  Do we really want that in the interests of all, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?

Or might we rather like it the other way around?

The (Philosophical) Demise of Democracy

Of late, there’s been much debate about the collapse of authority in the UK.   It would appear a consensus  of sorts has finally been reached this is not a good thing.  However the hope is the new government will sort it all out for us.  I wonder.

In The Republic, Plato reminds us that just as surely as Democracy evolves from Oligarchy (a system of government where the rich rule the poor), that Democracy evolves into Tyranny.  While the first transition results from an excess of wealth, the later results from an excess of freedom.  He provides some startlingly scary examples of the warning signs:

“Father and son, citizen and foreigner, old and young are all on a level; fathers and teachers fear their sons and pupils, and the wisdom of the young man is a match for the elder, and the old imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose.  Slaves are on level with their masters and mistresses, and there is no difference between men and women.  Nay, the very animals in a democratic State have a freedom which is unknown in other places.”

Plato then goes on to remind us that bloated with desire to do whatever we wish whenever we wish, the citizens of democracy will at last become so sensitive we no longer can endure ‘the yoke of laws’.

This is the beginning of the end.

“… for there is a law of contraries: the excess of freedom passes into the excess of slavery, and the greater the freedom the greater the slavery.”

It happens like this: because law and order have vanished, the disgruntled citizenry elect a champion to seize control.  All goes well until inevitably, the champion oversteps his bounds.  When the citizenry tries to remove him, they discover their champion turned tyrant is even more lawless than they.

I suggest that a little more respect for authority won’t kill us and in regards to freedom, a little less emphasis on our ‘rights’ might help us come to terms our  ‘responsibilities’.   Don’t leave the preservation of what you hold most dear to the government.  You might not be too pleased if you do.

“Know Thyself” but then what?

Inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself”.  Certainly good advice.  But before we can follow it, we need to dig deeper into the nature of the ‘self’ that we wish to know.

This is harder than you  think.  In the West there is no consensus of what is ‘self’.  Add that to the Eastern tradition that ‘self’ is a mirage and it’s little wonder we’re confused (or should be if we took time to consider it).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume, that the following is necessary for ‘self”: (1) continuity of perception, (2) awareness of such perception, and (3) ability to recall such perception across a time/space continuum.  Further, if we are to ‘know’ this ‘self” we must assume capacity for both self-reflection and verbalisation of those reflections.

How might this all fit together to form the ‘self’ as we experience it everyday?  The fashionable narrative theory offers a fascinating perspective .   The idea is that as we become socialised, we make narratives about ourselves and how we  interact with our environment.  For example, when Mom says “you went to school today didn’t you Johnny?”, Johnny nods and adds this idea of being a ‘school-goer’ to his definition of himself.

So far so good. It’s easy enough to imagine ourselves as the product of the stories we (and others) tell about our lives.  But what about revision?

As every writer knows, a good story is the product of numerous drafts and revisions – a process, which for the sake of holding the reader’s attention necessarily alters mousy brown hair into something more exciting – i.e. the “long silken tresses the colour of freshly mown hay on a crisp autumn morning” type of thing.

Revision is good stuff for fiction.  We don’t know how good it might be for our notion of ‘self’.   However one thing that is certain is that the more we tell and retell our narratives, the further we move away from an accurate picture.

Perhaps instead of seeing ourselves solely in terms of our history, we  might acknowledge that although things did (or did not) happen to us, we can still understand ourselves as something more than a product of our past.  In other words although we may refer to ourselves in terms of what we have or haven’t done, we do not need to define ourselves by it.

This require a more detached view of the ‘self’ than most Westerners currently take.  But it is possible to change.  Instead of being so wrapped up our accomplishments that its nearly impossible to view ourselves as separate from them, we might instead learn to take a more happy-go-lucky, see-what-comes point of view.

I suggest that until we can do that, we stand no chance of meeting the challenge to ‘know thyself’ – as the ‘self ‘ that actually is rather than the ‘self’ we would like to be.

When is Fiction Art and Why Does it Matter?

Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable.  Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.

Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.

Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their  relative worth.  This would lead to impossible questions about morality and  religion.

Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature).  This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part,  psychologically defined.

If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed?  Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that  enhance understanding of the human condition.  But is this enough?

I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives.  Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy.  He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.

To accomplish this is a tall order.  It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing.   It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being.  Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.

I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art.  Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.