Challenging Boundaries

NICK CAMPION

First of all, many congratulations to this year’s graduates for passing an extraordinarily rigorous and demanding course – and thanks to Kepler College’s founders who, in the last century, had an educational vision which is now being fulfilled.

This talk is about challenging boundaries. The boundary I wish to address is that between heaven and earth. What is it, I ask, about the sky, that excites human feelings about deity and soul? Is it, the excited shout of Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace: ‘that’s me up there!’? I read this passage when I was sixteen and have wondered ever since what it means to be ‘me up there’. What does looking at the stars do to our minds? I want to address this problem partly by treading lightly around the views of some of our greatest philosophers.

 

The great philosopher Plato, on whose summary of fifth century beliefs about the cosmos, most of the philosophy of astrology is based, argued that the celestial harmony of the universe points to the existence of the gods.1 God must exist, he believed, because the universe is so incredible that somebody has to have designed it. It is impossible, he argued elsewhere, that one can be both an astronomer and an atheist.2 He believed that astronomers are likely to 'concede that the artisan of heaven (i.e. God) fashioned it and all that it contains in the best possible manner for such a fabric'.3 It is still the case today that only a tiny number of astrologers, perhaps 5%, claim to be atheists.

Like Plato, Aristotle declared the spectacle of the starry sky to be (together with dreams) one of the origins of religion. In his lost work, De Philosophiae, he imagined a race of men who lived underground, and described what might happen on their first sight of the sky:

When all at once they saw the land and sea and sky, beheld the majesty of the clouds and felt the power of the wind, and looked at the sun in its splendour, and came to understand its power, how it brought day-light to the world and shed its light across the sky; then, when night cast its shadow over the earth, they saw the whole heaven bright and glorious with stars, the varying brightness of the waxing and the waning moon, the rising and the setting of these heavenly bodies, and their sure and changeless course through all eternity. When they saw all these things, would they not be immediately convinced of the existence of the gods and that all those wonders were their handiwork?4

Cicero, following both Plato and Aristotle, argued that 'as the stars arise and are born in this element [aether] we must infer that they are conscious and intelligent beings. From this it follows that we must include the stars in the company of the gods'.5

The belief that Heaven was located in the sky, rooted as it was in Platonic teachings and for so long a feature of Christianity, was derived both from the Babylonians' identification of their most important creator deities with the sky and stars and Egyptian astral theology. As earth divinities appear to have been progressively devalued so, it seems, the celestial gods and goddesses had become all important.

When Plato borrowed and democratised the Egyptian concept of the soul, he located its source and origin in the stars, sowing the seeds for those Hermetic, Gnostic and Mithraic cosmologies which envisaged a literal pathway through which it might travel between the stars and earth; the soul descended from the stars at birth, returned at death and, in the meantime, salvation might be achieved by the practice of the necessary stellar-related rituals and morality. In such a world, familiar in Europe until the seventeenth-century, the starry sky was a mirror of perfection, a source of divine inspiration, and the structure of the cosmos was moral as much as physical.

If it can be argued that the inspiration upon which religion is based was derived from the very sight of the sky, then astronomy and religion share common origins, a hypothesis for which the surviving evidence is found in sacred calendars. The observation of the sun, moon and stars is also universal and, if religion has an astronomical component, even if only as respect for the alternation of light and dark through the movements of the sun and moon, then astronomy – and astrology - as a religious phenomenon, must have emerged in parallel with human consciousness. To emphasise the point, Ernst Cassirer noted how, amongst all peoples and in all religions, creation begins with light, together with the perception of space that allows people to orient themsves to the heavens.6

The origins of astronomy and astrology are still often attributed to the numinous awe of the heavens supposedly felt by ancient people: where Cumont spoke of the 'splendour [and] awe of the eastern night',7 van der Waerden described the 'beauty and sublimity of the stars that lies at the heart of both ancient astral religion and modern astronomy.8 Pannekoek admitted the influence of the numinous awe experienced by the beauty of the starry sky. He asked,

Was it the beauty of the starry heavens, of the countless radiating points in a wonderful variety of brightness, colour and pattern, that caught his eye? Did the stately regularity of their motion across the vault with irregularities superimposed, provoke his curiosity as to the cause?'9

From a primitive concern with the sun, the theory continues, ‘attention to the heavenly phenomena themselves became necessary when labour developed more complicated forms’.10 It follows that the expansion of production, perhaps of stone axes, perhaps of copper ore, stimulated trade, which required navigation and - in turn - demanded a knowledge of the sky.

The sight of the night sky might be comforting as much as inspiring. And, as Ed Krupp pointed out, arguing from a broadly evolutionary perspective, the projection of order and meaning onto the heavens may operate as a survival tool,11 facilitating the construction of instruments of social order. Keith Thomas said something similar when he argued that astrology became the basis of natural law. Writing of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in particular, he argued that,

In the absence of any rival system of scientific explanation and in particular of the social sciences - sociology, social anthropology, social psychology - there was no other existing body of thought, except religion, which offered so all-embracing an explanation for the baffling variousness of human affairs. Nor had medicine, biology, or meteorology developed enough to offer a convincing and complete understanding of the world of nature. This was the intellectual vacuum which astrology moved in to fill, bringing with it the earliest attempt at a universal law.12

Is humanity, in the familiar modern computer-inspired metaphor, hard wired to find meaning - or inspiration - in the sky? Stephen Pinker, perhaps the most prominent evolutionary psychologist, regards 'meaning' as an essential human attribute, an argument he has developed extensively in How the Mind Works.13 In an interview in 1999 he claimed that 'We have meaning and purpose here inside our heads, being the organisms that we are. We have brains that make it impossible for us to live our lives except in terms of meaning and purpose'.14 Is astrology, in the computerised symbolism of the twenty-first century, hard-wired into the brain? Perhaps, but in any case, Pinker’s opinion reinforces C.G. Jung's (profoundly Platonic) claim that 'it is only meaning that liberates':15 if meaning is found in the sky, does, then, the sight of the sun, moon, stars and planets then liberate us? For Condos the night sky naturally invites speculation: we have an innate and natural tendency to project meaning on to the Heavens.16

Mircea Eliade, one of the twentieth-century's most prolific historians of religion, developed this idea:

... the discovery that your life is related to astral phenomena does confer a new meaning on your existence. You are no longer merely the anonymous individual described by Heidegger and Sartre, a stranger thrown into an absurd and meaningless world, condemned to be free, as Sartre used to say, with a freedom confined to your situation and conditioned by your historical moment. Rather, the horoscope reveals to you a new dignity: it shows how intimately you are related to the entire universe.17

Jim Gunn, an astronomer, expressed the modern secularised version of the soul's journey to the stars when he said that,

I think that we should care about our place in the Universe because, as far as we know, we are the only species who wonders where we came from and where we're going. It's one of the greatest adventures of the human mind to try to understand the Universe around us.18

But where does this take us educationally? The astrology we examine in a cultural and historical context at Kepler College was once a recognised methodology for understanding the processes of history, the state of one’s soul, one’s psychological strengths and weaknesses and the multifarious conditions of one’s life. Such uses have been hived of into other specialities (such as sociology, as Keith Thomas noted, as well as psychology). However, the fact is that astrology remains such a methodology, even if one which caters for a minority and arouses considerable hostility in many quarters. This hostility is in itself a matter of cultural interest. It is, however, not set in stone. After all, there is no such thing as an academic monolith in which the criteria for what constitutes a legitimate area of study is defined for ever. Far from it: the very nature of the educational world demands change. It cannot tolerate stagnation.

I am currently the External Examiner for the MA in Transpersonal Art and Practice at the University of Chichester in the UK. This is a most innovatory programme in which, following on the close connection between alchemical thought and Jung’s development of analytical psychology, the alchemical process of transformation from lead to gold, from matter to spirit, becomes the basis for the educational journey. Following the precedent set by phenomenological approaches, research into transpersonal psychology and advances in the theory of qualitative research, the MA blurs the traditional boundaries between the ‘objective and ‘subjective’ in a scholarly context.19 This is precisely the kind of area I am interested in exploring in a pedagogical context over the next few years.

Back to the boundary between heaven and earth, I’d like to finish with a quite from that other great boundary-breaker, Emmanuel Kant: Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.