Friday, August 4, 2023

Strange and Blessed Fire 3: Certain Poets

In The City of God, St. Augustine deconstructs the entire pantheon of Roman gods. He argues, quite convincingly, that the gods are ineffective, immoral, unjust, contradictory, overlapping in functions and thus redundant, irrelevant, irrational, trivial, too abstract, introduced from abroad, solely the inventions of poets, etc., etc.

Yet all of these gods, as represented within the various schools of pagan Hellenic philosophy, came to be considered as facets of the One, and subsequently psychological aspects of the soul. Augustine seems to dismiss this idea and rejects the gods as being wholly demonic.

But the fact is, the One cannot be approached except through imagesthat is,  through the imaginationand of course the images generated by humans fall far short. The point, as Fyodor Dostoevsky reiterated, is to keep refining the image, to make it clearer and clearer, ever more perfect. For Dostoevsky, this image was that of the Christ and the aim was to get closer and closer to it.

It is not enough to define morality as fidelity to one’s own convictions. Even more one must endlessly stimulate within oneself the question: are my convictions true? Only one verification of them exists—Christ. But this is no longer philosophy it is faith, and this faith is a red color . . . 

I cannot recognize one who burns heretics as a moral man, because I do not accept your thesis that morality is an agreement with internal convictions. That is merely honesty (the Russian language is rich), but not morality. I have one moral model and an ideal, Christ. I ask: would he have burned heretics?—no. Well, that means the burning of heretics is an immoral act . . . 

Christ was mistaken—it’s been proved! A scorching feeling tells me: better that I remain with a mistake, with Christ, than with you . . .

Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1881 notebook entry, quoted in “Bakhtin’s Poetics of Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky’s Christian Declaration of Faith” by Robert Louis Jackson

As an image of the ideal that propels us forward, even if mistakenly, Jesus really is the Imagination, as Blake taught.

C.S. Lewis adds consideration of our inner conscience into the mix; our souls are eternal and with all of our choicesfree will being granted explicitlywe make our souls ever more angelic or ever more infernal. Heaven or hell or somewhere in between is thus our own choice, like the mysterious workings of karma. We daily transform our own souls and save or damn ourselves accordingly.

The process of purifying our conscience or soul is thus the same process as creating a more lucid image of the One. Our souls naturally gravitate towards a central image, and the conscience reflects the image as the image reflects the soul. This is an ongoing, life-long process, as Dostoevsky recognized.

Lewis, unlike Augustine, understood that the old gods could be used as partial or entire images of the One, particular attributes of eternity. Even Augustine admitted that the philosophers were able to provide transcendent interpretations of the gods as sang by the poets. But maybe, after all, the poets should be understood as being the greater psychologists.

The polytheistic experience of the gods is fully immanental. It imbues all things with divine meaning and presence. This is the excellence and strength of pagan polytheism. But within each of these images of the lesser gods there is a potential portal into the One. Meaning intensifies and deepens into the infinite, and the bewildering and often contradictory flurry of gods and demigods does not alter this.

Yet the image of Christ could be the clearest and strongest image of all, as it incorporates both myth and history. It is intended as an image of the One and as the Perfect Man. It is the consummation of both the ubiquitous and perennial Dying God myths and of the Logos formulations of the philosophers.

St. Augustine may have demonstrated that a rational polytheism is not really tenable because of the inherent contradictions it incorporates, but the gods are redeemable as both irrational and rational, psychological and physiological aspects of the One. 

From Parmenides and Empedocles on through Plato, the Stoics and the Neoplatonists, this was in fact the understanding. By dismissing the multitude of gods as evil demons, by failing to acknowledge the potentially salvific function of sexuality, the feminine, the body and nature herself, Augustine exposes his Manichaean and dualist background.

Both in the Hellenistic period and then more fully during the Renaissance, there nearly developed a Hindu-like henotheistic theology of the West, which combined Christian mysticism, Neoplatonism, the Kabbalah, southern and northern pagan mythology, Hermeticism, Gnosticism etc., until it was almost entirely stamped out by the reaction of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

C.S. Lewis, an author knownaside from the far more popular Narnia fantasiesfor his mainline Christian apologetics, was centrally aware of this great synthesis of the Renaissance and celebrated it throughout his works.

I have called this system, as Ficino himself calls it, ‘Platonic theology’, to distinguish it from the Platonism on which lectures are given in a modern university. It is not sufficiently distinguished even by the term ‘neo-Platonism’. It is a deliberate syncretism based on the conviction that all the sages of antiquity shared a common wisdom and that this wisdom can be reconciled with Christianity.

If Plato alone had been in question the Florentines would in fact have been attempting to ‘baptize’ him as Aquinas had ‘baptized’ Aristotle. But since for them Plato was merely the greatest and most eloquent of the consenting sages, since Pythagoras, the Hermetic Books, the Sibylline Books, the Orphic Books, Apuleius, Plotinus, Psellus, Iamblichus, and the Cabbala all meant the same, their task was hardly distinguishable from that of reconciling paganism, Judaism, and Christianity in general.

C.S. Lewis, English Literature In The Sixteenth Century, Introduction

Integral to this Renaissance synthesis was the goal to draft or formulate, as object or concept or both, a pan-comprehensive symbol that would represent and contain all knowledge, all experience and light the way to the One. John Dee's monas hieroglyphica and Giordano Bruno's geometric memory wheels and sigils and so on were attempts at this, a return to the pagan Hellenic or Alexandrian aim to unite the symbols of disparate cultures and traditions into a coherent whole. 

Echoes of this quest can be found in the Romantic period, but now confined within the arts alone, in which the imagination was reactivated and reinvoked to understand nature and the self within subjective and aesthetic experience. 

Subsequent, more underground, waves of this grand syncretic synthesis deepened with Symbolism, Modernism, Surrealism and Postmodernism, becoming ever more subversive of both Christian and Jewish orthodoxies, national governments and rigid scientific materialism.

The accompanying resurgence of occultism deeply shared this aim, but it hampered itself with its anti-Christian severance from tradition. The extremely influential Inklings sought to repair this breach by venturing outside and beyond the Classical world into Norse and Celtic myth etc. and finding the prisca theologia, the “archetypal antecedents,” even here. 


In short, St. Augustine condemns paganism because its adherents worship malign demons which they take to be the gods and goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology (and that of other countries.)

He is especially against the pageants of the theatres where the transgressions of the gods are reenacted to the delight of the people and apparently to that of the gods themselves. Augustine abhors the “abominations” that he has seen on stage (and used to cheer on himself.)

Augustine examines the threefold division of theology presented by Marcus Terentius Varro: the “fabulous” or mythical theology of the theatres, invented or transcribed by the poets; the civil theology of the temples, presided over by the priests; and the physical or natural theology of the philosophers.

Augustine believed that the first is shameful and should be outlawed, but the second is nearly as bad or worse because the rites of the temple repeat, justify and sanctify the first. Both are ineffective to help one achieve eternal or even worldly good.

The third type, the natural theology of the philosophers, Augustine finds to be most acceptable and closest to his own (Catholic) attitude. He examines if this third type can help to win eternal life.

Of the philosophers, Augustine affirms that Plato and the Platonists “approach nearest to us” because they conclude that the one God is the drafter of the first principles of nature and all within it (metaphysics), that He is the light by which the doctrine of truth is revealed and everything is made known (epistemology), and that He is the Good by which things are accomplished and happiness in life is achieved (ethics).

But beyond merely the Platonists, Augustine confesses that Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans have also held these true positions and, astoundingly, he similarly accepts the wise people and philosophers among all nations and lists “Atlantics [from Atlantis??], Libyans, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Chaldeans, Scythians, Gauls, Spaniards, or other nations.”

Whatever philosophers, therefore, thought concerning the supreme God, that He is both the maker of all created things, the light by which things are known, and the good in reference to which things are to be done; that we have in Him the first principle of nature, the truth of doctrine, and the happiness of life,—whether these philosophers may be more suitably called Platonists, or whether they may give some other name to their sect; whether, we say, that only the chief men of the Ionic school, such as Plato himself, and they who have well understood him, have thought thus; or whether we also include the Italic school, on account of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, and all who may have held like opinions; and, lastly, whether also we include all who have been held wise men and philosophers among all nations who are discovered to have seen and taught this, be they Atlantics, Libyans, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Chaldeans, Scythians, Gauls, Spaniards, or of other nations,—we prefer these to all other philosophers, and confess that they approach nearest to us.

Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, 9, p.253-4

Augustine then goes on to say that the reason why such diverse sages have all nearly discovered the authentic path is best discovered in scripture. He quotes Romans 1:19-20:

Because that which is known of God is manifest among them, for God has manifested it to them. For His invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, also His eternal power and Godhead.

Romans 1:19-20, quoted in Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, 10, p.254

This is essentially an affirmation of the perennial philosophy, of timeless theosophythe ultimate heart of all traditions on Earth.

In Him we live, and move, and have our being . . . as certain also of your own have said.

Acts 17:28, from Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book VIII, 10, p.254

What then sets Platonism, or the wider traditions, apart from Christianity? Many of these traditions were earlier than Christ of course so naturally they could not worship Jesus as Christ, but they do seem to prepare the way for His coming mission. Yet they go astray according to Augustine, even the illustrious Plato himself, because they allow for the worship of both the gods and daemons or demons. 

Augustine does largely accept the Platonic categorization of these latter beings. Gods are rational animals (animated) with immortal lives and “impassible” (non-passionate) souls. Demons are rational, immortal yet passible (passionate or changeable), and men are rational, mortal and passible. Demons were taken by the Platonists as being the intermediaries between men and the gods. This last item is the sticking point for Augustine.

For him, demons are wholly malign (while the gods, understood in the proper theological sense, are in fact the benign angels), so it would not be possible for them to act as intermediaries as such. But here is the rub. As there are good and bad (because passionate) men, could there not be good and bad (because passionate) demons? Augustine’s entire distinct Christian theology seems to hinge on this point.

Augustine feels that the crucial flaw in Platonism is that it allows for the worship of and sacrifice to gods and demons when it is fully aware that the highest principle is the One, but at the same time it rejects the reality that this principle is solely manifested on Earth with the Incarnation of Christ.

Augustine does not accept theurgy, a type of “divine” magic advocated by particular Neoplatonists, because it seeks boons and wisdom from entities lesser than God. The good gods (or angels) in Augustine’s reckoning would decline any worship of themselves because they would feel that all praise must be given to God alone, and the bad gods (demons) are unfit to receive either worship or sacrifice in the first place.

The main reason Augustine understands all demons as being intrinsically evil is because they have a passionate soul (therefore they suffer emotionally like men) and yet as they are immortal they cannot change their conditions as men can with death, so they are eternally trapped by their own passions. There is no chance for them to rise above their fallen state and as such they are likely to be envious, spiteful, deceptive and ultimately evil. They are clearly unworthy mediators between men and the gods.

Christ is the only possible mediator as He is mortal like men, yet He is able to overcome death and is blessed even more than the angels, being the Son of God. Therefore, given the Gospel, theurgy is useless at best and demonic idolatry at worst. It is intrinsically an advanced tool of the Devil’s deception.

Yet this still does not seem to rule out the possibility of wise daemons, which are surely those that the Platonists thought would be mediators. Just as a man could become wise in seeking the One, why not the daemons? Their immortal lifespan would only increase their wisdom. 

There is certainly a high probability that many demons would feel trapped in their position and go wrong, but it is reasonable to conclude that others would make gaining wisdom their highest priority. And if so, why not whole cultures of these good demons?

The fairies and elves and other such liminal creatures, explored at length by G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis etc., and sang about in mythologies and folktales across the globe and throughout history, are an example of a class of potentially good demons/daemons.

Augustine decries the fact that in Greek and Roman paganism, demons and gods/angels are worshiped when only God, the One, is deserving of worship. But even Augustine acknowledges that within the Roman Catholic Church, the saints receive prayers and reverence which are hard to distinguish from worship. It seems, as is only natural, that there are degrees to reverence, worship and sacrifice.

Augustine also appears to manipulate scripture to his own advantage. In the Bible verse quoted above, the saint omits the word “poets” to apparently better make his case: “In Him we live, and move and have our being, as certain of your poets have said” (Acts 17:28). As Augustine argued that the poets were singularly damned for praising the gods, he seems loath to admit that the Bible recognizes their wisdom.

In Ephesians 6:12 we read the following: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

To my knowledge, Augustine does not comment on this verse (at least in The City of God), but it is necessary to understand what is meant by powers, principalities and rulers in high places. These cannot be demons, as the verse refers to beings that dwell beyond the the lunar sphere, whereas demons are by station confined to the sublunar and aerial spheres and below. 

Not possibly demons, these entities dwelling in high places can only be orders of angels! And in fact, in later Catholic theology in succession from Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, two of the higher angelic orders in the celestial hierarchy are explicitly called Principalities and Powers. What is going on here? 

It appears that this verse reveals a very close affinity to most sects of Gnosticism, in which the angels of the cosmic spheres were thought of as being oppressive Archons who actively hinder the soul’s attempted flight to the One. If the demons have a possibly ambivalent role, is it likewise possible that the angels may not be exclusively or by necessity “good” either? A sobering thought.

However, as we have seen, Neoplatonism, following from Plato in the Timaeus and elsewhere, came to accept the world, the Demiurge and his Archons, as being ultimately good, as being lesser emanations or representations of the One itself. Creation is revealed or experienced as being emanatory and this idea is thoroughly reconcilable with the general Platonic view of daemons. 

According to this understanding, a movement upward through the spheres to the One is a movement through subtler and subtler forms of matter, or less and less dense forms of spirit. 

Each “layer” or emanation thus provides a link or transition to those above and below it. Gnostic and Neoplatonic thinkers tended to excessively inflate these emanatory layers, but the reasoning behind this inflation is very similaran ontological “jump” between layers is too far without intermediary stepping stones. 

Hence, our earthly bodies require the mediation of the aerial bodies of the daemons in order to reach the ever more aetherial “bodies” of the angels/gods. All are indispensable links of the Golden Chain. And each of these links can appear to either harm or help the ascending or descending soul.

Augustine, as a Christian, understandably sees Christ as the only needed intermediary between Matter and Spirit, and from this angle he overplays the harmful aspect of the aerial demons while downplaying the potential hindering aspects of angels (or what pagan considered to be gods).

But all this changes if the Incarnation is accepted, like the imagination and like perception, as being entirely diffuse throughout the world, as a decentralized centre present in all things. 

There is then less a movement from matter and the flesh to pure spirit, then an epistemological shift from seeing ourselves as being wholly separate from God and the rest of creation (what contemporary analytical idealist philosopher, Bernarno Kastrup, suitably calls “dissociation”) to the awareness of our actual and eternal union with the mind of the One, Plotinus’ henosis.

In our own era, and unlike Augustine’s time, a very reductive materialism reigns supreme—to the point where this paradigm tints and taints the day-to-day experience of hundreds of millions of individualseach convinced that his or her own consciousness is walled off in the skull, forever separated from other human consciousnesses let alone any minds extra-human (itself an even more ridiculed and verboten notion). 

During such a time, theurgy has almost revolutionary implications against the materialist order. This is an order ruled over by its own fallen iteration of the Powers and Principalities and their priesthood of the scientific dictatorship. These rulers are wholly bent to contain all souls, like they themselves are contained, below the sphere of the Moon.

Theurgy, in this revolutionary sense, is a step towards Owen Barfield’s “final participation,” at once a venture towards full epistemological and ontological liberation and a move fraught with intense and terrifying danger. 

Counterfeits and simulacra abound, alongside false revivals, counter-initiations, strange fire, antichrists and imposters. Once the spell, or counter-spell, of materialism is fully shattered then all the gods will return. Signs and wonders, old men seeing visions, young men dreaming dreams, the Day of the Lord cometh. 

The surety of death being the Big Sleep evaporates like the puff of smoke that it is, and the primal nightmares of the underworld begin once again to bleed into our own. 

In René Guénon’s term there is “a breach in the wall,” and according to the psychedelic Apocalypse of Patmos, our guide for the times, the Great Deceiver will be permitted to rule “for a little while.” More than ever, a living image of the unfixed centre is needed.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” p.15-6

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