Introduction II.B:

1. The Ancient Theology

  1. Origins
  2. Divine & Living Nature and the World Soul
    1. The Macrocosm
    2. The Microcosm
    3. Feminine Nature
    4. Divine, Living Nature

a.    Origins

In 1439 the Council of Florence was held in the hope of healing the millennium-long split between the eastern and western Christian churches.  Among the attendees from the east was George Gemistos (c.1360–1452), who called himself "Plethon," a Greek scholar of Platonic philosophy, who lectured on the superiority of Platonic to Aristotelian philosophy.  These lectures so impressed Cosimo de' Medici (1389–1463) that he resolved to found a Platonic Academy in Florence, and when he accomplished it in 1462, he placed a young scholar, Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), in charge.  His first job was to translate the works of Plato into Latin, which he did, making them accessible to western scholars for the first time in many centuries.  However, before Ficino had completed this task, Cosimo acquired a manuscript of writings attributed to a legendary sage, Hermes Trismegistos.  He was so excited by this text, that he ordered Ficino to interrupt the translation of Plato and to devote all his attention to the Hermetic Corpus.  These texts were discovered to be similar in outlook to the more esoteric writings of the later Platonic philosophers, whom scholars call the Neo-Platonists.  Ficino made these texts and translations available in the west for the first time in many centuries.

At this time the supposed author of the Hermetic texts, Hermes Trismegistos, was supposed to have been a contemporary, or even a predecessor, of Moses, and therefore that the Hermetic texts represented the original, pure, and universal "ancient theology" (prisca theologia) given to humanity by God.  Later textual analysis (Isaac Casaubon, 1614) showed that the Hermetic corpus was not this old (dating rather to between the third century BCE and the first CE), but previously they were believed to be divine revelations of immense importance.

b.    Divine & Living Nature and the World Soul

Common to most versions of the Ancient Theology was a Neo-Platonic world-view, which may be summarized as follows.

i.    The Macrocosm

As in Aristotelian philosophy, the things in the world can be analyzed in terms of form and matter.  However, in contrast to Aristotelianism, in which the forms are believed to exist only in material objects, Platonism asserts that the forms exist primarily in an archetypal realm of idealized Forms; often the archetypal Forms are conceived of as Ideas in the mind of God.  The Ideas are indeed eternal for the realm of Forms is outside of time and space.

Abstract, mathematical numbers are the most familiar examples of eternal, archetypal Forms.  Also, the ordinary objects of our world are pale and imperfect images or shadows of the eternal Forms.  For example, you and I are two different images of the eternal Form of Human being, and this particular dog Rover is an image of the Idea of Dog.  It is by participation in the Forms that things are what they are (e.g. that Rover is a dog), that is, things have their being by participation in the Forms.  Whereas the Forms, in the realm of Being, are eternal and unchanging, material things exist in the realm of Becoming, wherein things come to be and pass away (e.g., as material beings, we are born, transform through time, and die).

[Fludd's diagram of Natura]To establish this connection between material objects and the immaterial Forms a sort of bridge is required, a mean connecting the two extremes, and in Neo-Platonic philosophy this is provided by the World Soul, whose function is to manifest the non-temporal, non-spatial Forms in the material world of space and time.  To put it differently, if the realm of Forms is an abstract, eternal system of Ideas in the mind of God, then the World Soul thinks the Ideas sequentially (as we think) and uses them to inform and govern motion and change in the material world.  That is, there is (1) a World Mind (the Mind of God), eternal, outside of space and time; (2) a World Body, the material universe, extended in space and time; and (3) a World Soul, which binds the two together, ordering material change in accord with the eternal Ideas (see figure).

ii.    The Microcosm

This is the structure of the Macrocosm, the universe at large, which is mirrored in the Microcosm (small universe) of the individual human, for we too have an immortal mind or spirit, a material body, and a soul, which connects the first two.  (Sometimes the words "soul" and "spirit" are used with exactly the opposite sense!)

iii.    Feminine Nature

For a number of reasons, which will become clearer as we progress through this course, the World Soul has been perceived as feminine; as already mentioned, the notion of "Mother Nature" is very common.  To give just one example of how human sexuality has been projected onto cosmology, we may speak of the Ideas or Forms of God the Father being implanted like seed in the womb of Mother Nature, who then gives birth to our material world.  We can also see here a parallel to the Aristotelian-Thomistic worldview: the superior, male World Mind corresponds to the immortal spirit, a realm of abstract Ideas, whereas the subordinate, female World Soul nurtures the changeable World Body.  Similarly, whereas woman has a creative body, which creates by means of matter, man has a creative mind, which creates by means of ideas and words.  So there are social and political issues also implicit in this idea of Nature.

iv.    Divine, Living Nature

It is important to notice that although, according to Hermetic philosophy, Nature is considered subordinate to God the Father, she is nevertheless divine.  That is, everything is understood to be connected in a "Great Chain of Being" that extends from the archetypal Ideas, through the World Soul, into the material objects than manifest them.  As a consequence every material thing is understood as an emanation of God, and therefore, to the limits possible for its kind, each thing in nature is divine.  Further, just as the human body is alive by virtue of being infused with a vital soul, so also the World Body is alive by virtue of the World Soul.  Therefore, according to the Hermetic philosophy, the natural world is neither inert, nonliving matter nor diabolical, but rather a living, divine emanation of God.  Only human egotism prevents us from recognizing that all Nature is, to some extent, sentient.  As we shall see, such a perspective led to a different orientation toward Nature than did the other philosophies.

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