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Towards a Charter for a New Global Philosophy

by James Cowan

Also by James Cowan:

Climbing Mount Toubkal by James Cowan

An Interview with James Cowan, Australian Novelist and Poet, about his new book on St. Anthony

James Cowan on John of the Cross


Sometimes in an age of relativism it is important to rediscover the value of absolutes. While these may not appeal to an age wedded to the chimera of change, nonetheless absolutes have their place. They are the bedrock, the foundation of all cultural aspiration. In themselves they contain no power other than as an expression of their luminous point of origin. They are the guardians; they hover like Fra Angelico’s angels above the tumult, intimating a beauty that is changeless. Even if their presence goes unfelt, it does not mean that they do not exist. It simply means that we who have chosen to co-habit with them within the realms of time and eternity are not listening to what they have to say.

It is important to allegorize occasionally. Modernism, as we know, does not like taking this path towards insight or revelation. Scientific rationalism has taught us to be wary of cloaking concepts in that coat of many colors known as the image. Even today the poet finds himself reduced to abstraction, shunning the metaphor, the adjective or the simile as being too potent a brew. After all, the image can be inebriating. Trapped in psychological thinking however he sometimes cries out in pain, longing to see himself once again wearing the bright garb of the muse, his every gesture the sum of language raised to its highest power. In our hearts we sympathize with his predicament. We know, as Orpheus did, that truth can never be silenced, even when its head is carried off to a remote island where prophecy is still sanctioned.

What is global must therefore be determined by its root in the sphere, in roundness, in the lack of relativity or definition. These are qualities that confound us since they defy our need for exactitude. Yet the sphere exists. For Parmenides, that keen old man from Elea in Magna Graecia, the sphere signifies completeness, and a non-necessity to reach out indefinitely into empty space. All is equally real in every direction, is corporeal, continuous, eternal and immovable. It is what the ancients called a plenum, a supra-sensible containment of all that is. What goes on inside this sphere is open to interpretation of course, but one thing is evident: it contains an energy and beauty that is ageless just so long as humankind chooses to acknowledge its existence.

Moreover that canny Sicilian philosopher, Empedocles, who is said to have leapt into Etna to prove himself a god, went on to describe what was not in the sphere in rather more vivid terms. ‘In the sphere are distinguished neither the swift limbs of the sun, no, nor the shaggy earth in its might, nor the sea – so fast indeed was the god bound by the close covering of Harmony, itself so spherical and round, rejoicing in its circular solitude.’ We are immediately alerted to the fact that this sphere is enclosed in harmony, and that all that is in it is subsumed by harmony. One begins to suspect that for the ancients at least, the sphere – that is, the world - is by its nature governed by harmony, by a neutralization of opposites. To this concept most modern scientists would agree, especially ecologists and cosmologists. Their research proves that the world, this sphere, if left to its own devices will, over time, manifest an immutable tendency towards harmony.

I like that. It is an absolute that no dialectician can refute. Living on the earth - living globally, that is - is therefore not only an affirmation of the plenum, but also of a desire to live in a state of concord. As Empedocles remarked, ‘There is no discord and unseemly strife in his limbs’, referring of course to the essential nature of those things existing inside the sphere. The god of the sphere is the way the earth entertains itself. It is the way we embrace the plenum, accept its rules and constraints, in order to live and rejoice in our own circular solitude. One must not be dismissive of such a condition, this circular solitude, as being some sort of lonely outpost of the mind or spirit. It is, rather, a call to stillness, to understanding that we must be careful not to embark upon a course of action that is agitating in our bid to ‘globalize’ the world.

This is where allegory takes us – into a realm where thoughts and ideas are no longer nude but clothed. The ancient philosophers as well as poets tell us that we must be careful about falling through the grid of abstraction as we struggle to bring universality to the world. Talk of economic forces, free-trade zones, the propagation of democratic values, reducing poverty, raising living standards, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, combating ecological destruction, destroying animal habitat, non-nuclear proliferation, eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the decline of cities, and so on… and on - these are all part of our desire to rationalize and confront our anguish about a world on the verge of sailing over the edge of itself. Like a caravel drifting south into the doldrums beyond Cape Bojador where the known world was said to end, the earth is suddenly in danger of self-destruction. Of course this is an example of millennial thinking. A part of our myth is to believe that we have the power to manipulate nature ad infinitum, and so become poisoned by an elixir of our own making.

Nonetheless we need to take note of our situation. The world is in a state of deep agitation, and not at all living in ‘circular solitude’. The ancients would be aghast at our predicament today. They would suspect immediately that we are trying to break out of our sphere and dismantle the plenum. Are they so wrong? In spite of our desire to reach the stars, to plumb the depths of the sea, or to interfere with the chemistry of life through adverse and often unethical experimentation, our yearning is forever conditioned by some inordinate need to become gods ourselves. The ancients would have seen such activity as a provocation, an act of hubris. For them, the sphere was shelter from what Pascal called those frightful ‘infinites spaces’ of self-absorbion and aggrandizement. They knew, as did Pascal, that there was tremendous risk in wearing the mantle of a god.

Dismantling the sphere is thus to befoul the nest. A mind that is genuinely global cannot countenance such behavior. Restraint therefore is part of a true global ethic. Living in a world that is constantly in a state of expansion is to create the conditions for a catastrophic Big Bang where all that is in the sphere will be scattered beyond recognition or re-collection. Parmenides and his generation would, necessarily, find themselves pressed back into their bottles as little more than deformed homunculi of thought whose brief stay in the world was characterized by a recognition and reverence for the gods, in whatever form they took. Being regarded as men governed by superstition and ignorance (in relative terms) is not sufficient reason for putting them back in their bottles, however: they were men on the side of the sphere, true globalists themselves, at a time when the world was mired in its own state of provincialism and conceit. These men should not be excluded from the modern world, or its debates, simply because they reduced matter to a few elements.

I am here to defend the sphere when the box, the rectangle, and the square appear to be the operative dimensions of our time. It seems that rationalism and its child, scientific materialism, have their own unique geometric shape. Together they move across the world like tinkers across a landscape. They ply their wares at every opportunity, selling this prophylactic or that palliative to a gullible populace. We are all on the lookout for a quick fix, a way of making life easier, more secure, and topping up those coffers dedicated to containing personal wealth and growth. Easefulness is the condiment of our time. We spread it over everything. What the sphere contains in a natural way must be manipulated, intensified, cloned, genetically modified and finally marketed so that it produces the perfect annual report or share price.

The sphere has become everyone’s slave. Beclouding natural forces and energies in the jargon of science has lead to a situation where everything that is now generated in the laboratory is regarded as man-created, when in reality it is still the preserve of the sphere and its gods. But no one talks about any such act of dispossession, or of the gods being diminished each time someone makes a new ‘discovery’ capable of benefiting human-kind. The gods are not credited with these gifts. They have been reduced to being the peons of molecular behavior, drones in a chemical equation, or lonely vagabonds of an age that has long since dismissed their inchoate powers. They have been forced to tramp the high road to nowhere singing their plaintive song. The gods are now exiles in this world; they have been removed from the test tube as so much dross.

I am concerned therefore that globalization is just another catch-phrase, another mechanism of exploitation. If it means larger international markets, tariff reduction, or the homogenization of culture the world over, then I see it as being yet another act of conformity pressed upon us in the name of ‘economies of scale’. St. Bonaventura did much the same thing in the thirteenth century when he insisted on the primacy of faith as the dominant theory for his time. He even went so far as to argue that lack of faith is the root of the mistakes of Plato, Aristotle and other pagan philosophers. Faith became an overarching and all-pervading ethos, just as globalization is in our time. But with one difference: at least St. Bonaventura recognized that there was a path to be taken through faith in order to attain ‘serenity of reason and contemplation’. Whereas in the globalization debate all we hear about are the so-called material benefits and the wealth that might accrue. It may be that globalization is just another stricture that we must deal with before we are able to attain true ‘serenity of reason and contemplation’.

Today we listen more to the prognostications of economists than we do philosophers. A Federal Reserve pronouncement carries more weight than a papal bull from Rome. The Index, as we know, is now crammed with outmoded economic theorists and their work, rather than those of Arian non-conformists or the writings of heretics and pantheists. We want to hear how, magically, money makes money, as if it were the result of some alchemical experiment in the pursuit of gold. Probably it is so: after all, we are able now to transform Borneo forests into massive repositories of wealth, whale hunting into favorable details on stock market reports, and uranium mining into vast outputs of industrial energy. If globalization means anything in our present stage of development surely it is that of exploitation, an indifference to the plight of nature, and an enslavement of those mysterious forces whose sole instinct is to produce a flower or a butterfly from a seed or chrysalis.

Actually I am beginning to think that real globalization should be an inversion of all the cross-border energies that are at present in circulation. Isn’t it extraordinary how some men can retreat into a cave or monastery, there to live in seclusion for a lifetime, yet somehow generate such a huge international following without stepping beyond their cell? I am thinking of a Carthusian monk of the fourteenth century, Jan van Ruysbroeck by name, who retired to a hermitage with a few friends at a place called Green Dale in Belgium. His intention, I suspect, was not to retire from the world but to attain a certain clarity of thought that might help him to consider its predicament. He recognized that the world – that is, its cosmic dimension – could only be realized by developing what he called a ‘super essential life’, which in itself allows one to gaze upon a ‘blissful and transcendent unity’. Such a life, it seems, has all the ingredients of a true global perspective.

We are a long way here from the idea of a global market economy. But in a sense we are not. The global market economy is about doing away with borders, with sovereignty, and with the constraints of trade. Is this not some form of reaching out towards a higher ideal of community? Perhaps. Perhaps it is a simplified and more prosaic version of Ruysbroeck’s ‘dark stillness and wild desert’, which he saw as an example of infinite transcendence. What he was looking for was a way to inhabit a much larger world characterized by an illuminatory presence that he called ‘ghostly light’. This light, apparently, shone across the broad expanse of our inner world of understanding, thus enabling us to discern many ‘diverse things’. In other words, globalization was to Ruysbroeck a state of abyssal and unconditioned Good, not readily accountable except in terms of oneness and undifferentation.

Probably he was talking about the economy of the spirit. Now this is something that the Federal Reserve does not account for in its deliberations on the worldwide economic situation. Where Allan Greenspan and Jan van Ruysbroeck part company is in the way they deal with multiplicity. For Greenspan multiplicity means increased production, greater market penetration, higher interest rates and a healthy balance of payments. For Ruysbroeck multiplicity is a product of restlessness and instability. ‘For those who possess today the heritage and the revenue,’ he remarked, using terms reminiscent of Greenspan himself, ‘which were given to those others out of love and because of their holiness, they are unstable of soul, restless, and in a state of multiplicity. They have altogether turned towards the world, and do not thoroughly apprehend in their ground those things and that business which they have in hand.’ For Ruysbroeck turning ‘towards the world’ was an act of worldliness, not one that led to international concord or oneness.

Clearly, then, globalization means different things to different people. To the economist it is a way of contracting the world into organized supply systems, a sort of geomantic patchwork of ley-lines that link up every factory to supply source, every production worker to consumer. In the process all human energy is reduced to a mechanism designed to increase productivity levels and so enhance profits. Product becomes the worshipful outcome, bestowing its radiance upon consumers in Tokyo, Timbuktu, Tamerasset and Tierra del Fuego. Ruysbroeck’s ‘pure and simple Radiance, which encloses all the heavens and all bodily and material things’ has become a rather pallid light in the aftermath of commercial demands. The life of the spirit has no market value other than when it impacts on international travel to guru destinations in India or Arizona.

‘The sphere which is nearest to this glowing heaven is called the First Movement’, Ruysbroeck pronounced. Once more we are in the domain of the spheroid. Clearly, for him, this First Movement was much more than an export drive or the establishment of a communications network. He argues that everything in the sphere is linked to this First Movement, that in unity there is both a natural and supernatural abundance, which far exceeds any issues of trade or notions of capital spreading its tentacles throughout the world. Somehow I get the feeling that he was trying to alert his contemporaries to a need to consider the world less spatially in terms of its oceans, mountains, deserts and plains. He wanted them to understand that the First Movement was a call to action in realizing the ‘sphere of the glowing heaven’ as contributing to a true global imperative.

Such is the challenge that we face. We are bound together by sunlight and the air that we breathe. This too is a form of globalization: we all share the same wonder when the morning bestows its newness upon the world. Salutary therefore are the sphere’s gifts. Ruysbroeck, as did Parmenides, spoke of it as being a repository of ‘supernal stillness’. Now that sounds like an interesting counter-balance to our present level of movement, agitation, and unmitigated activity that we presently pour into the world. Is it that we are afraid of emptiness, of the vacuum? Do we see ourselves having to consume things, and on a global scale, in order to justify the elimination of what we perceive as essentially a negation? If we do, then we are denying what has already been established. Empedocles was the first to say that in All there is naught empty. I think he meant that emptiness is a state of mind, a consummation of what is boundless.

Therefore we must consider globalization as being something more than a charter for commerce, scientific inquiry or new geo-political alignments. Ever since the return of Marco Polo and the Franciscan friar Giovanni del Carpini from their journeys to the East there has been an emphasis on how people engaged with themselves before that of any interest in commerce. The ancient explorers were fascinated in what men believed before they sought to purchase their wares. Globalization was an act of intellectual and spiritual converse, a bartering of new ideas and concepts. Without this exchange, would we have returned to us by the Arabs the works of Aristotle, or received Dionysius the Aeropagite’s desert epistles, which were later translated into the first Gothic cathedral at St Denis? I doubt it. The globalization of ideas has always preceded the works and activities of man; his thoughts have invariably graced camel bags in preference to salt or dates.

So, in the end, we dream the world. It is a sort of angel that hovers before the mind’s eye. A free-trade zone in China or a container ship sailing through the Suez Canal cannot compare to the eternal migration of ideas from one continent to another. Birds teach us that boundaries are to be crossed, that even the air is a bridge between concepts. Augury, after all, is their preserve. They translate those subtile emanations from the world into a mandate for action, just so long as the conditions are right. Adat, or customary lore as the Iban people of Borneo adamantly maintain, must be consulted before global decisions are made. Otherwise disruption and cosmic upheaval may ensue. As Heraclitus suggests, if the sun transgresses its measure, then the Furies, those ministers of justice, will soon find out. Balancing the contending forces of the cosmos depends on exercising restraint in the face of excess, it seems.

We must view globalization not as an economic necessity but as contiguity between peoples. This leads us away from a vision of factories, supermarkets, and shipping warehouses into a maze of alleys that house cultural and spiritual assets. True globalization is about integrating all that is realized by the human mind into the sphere’s destiny, whether it be a death mask from New Guinea or a waterwheel from a central Sahara oasis. These objects are a part of the way we manifest our inner world. The gods gave us this ability to bring into being what nature loves to hide. It is up to us how we cherish these things and place them in the pantheon of creation. The difference between an armillary sphere and satellite is marginal: each is a technical system designed to reveal to us more about the heavens than we already know.

Nor am I talking about astronomical or indeed cosmological issues. The beauty of the armillary sphere, for example, is in the inadvertent mathematical errors formalized in its original construction. But as a scientific instrument it embodies a much older intimation of the so-called Music of the Spheres. Pythagoras and his friends were its chief advocates – and they had probably learnt of it from the Egyptians. Knowing that from the heavens emanated a sound that could only be heard by an ear attuned to the subtlest movement of the stars suggests yet another dimension to the global argument – that the earth receives its direction not from us but the universe! Does it not acknowledge the sun and moon as its cousins? Does it not look beyond, to Mercury and Saturn, in order to make comparisons? After all, life on earth must be adjudged superior to dust clouds on Jupiter or those ancient geological outposts of barren rock that we see on Mars. All this, I suspect, was imbedded in the construction of the first armillary spheres by their early technicians. They wanted to make sure that the universe surrendered its affections and antinomies to the earth in order that harmony might prevail. Probably they knew, better than most, that the stars teach us ethics.

The problem of globalization is thus more complex than a bill of lading detailing a cargo and a destination. When I see how Cicero returned from Rhodes after studying philosophy and natural science under his friend Posidonius, and Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi journeyed from his home in Spain throughout North Africa and the Middle East in pursuit of knowledge at the feet of sages, I know that the plenum is more to do with attaining wisdom than ensuring a record crop production. When a man is prepared to travel great distances, and suffer discomfort and grave risk to his person in order to hear another pronounce on what he knows, I begin to suspect what globalization is really about. Traveling lightly in the world, being ready to stop at the most unlikely caravanserais whilst in transit – these are the true nutrients of thought. Men of global perspective are indeed travelers: they welcome risk and uncertainty as their companions more than most.

So what are the qualities that pertain to being a global man? I think we should ask this question; otherwise we are merely skirting the issue. We can do no better than join Cicero in Rhodes at the feet of his friend and teacher Posidonius. This man was one of the first to see the need to link physics to psychology in order to devise a viable system of ethics. In so doing, a man could ceaselessly engage in a microscopic version of reducing chaos to cosmos by re-establishing the balance between the activity of our intelligence and matter. He understood that the qualities in matter were essentially passive and needed to be celebrated. It was in this act of celebration that things came into being. The world of objects however was always under the aegis of its origin. Heaven then became a paradigm for man: he must pursue his duties without emotional involvement and without expectation of results. As well, he argued that detachment was a primary condition of the cosmos. The essential nature of each individual became a direct reflection of the entire structure of it as well. Man in his essence should be as detached as mistletoe clinging to a tree: he should thrive on being attached even as he is removed from any particular genus. This is the first law of a global philosophy: true detachment can only exist in a condition of attachment.

Posidonius too was an advocate of the sphere, so we are in good company. He readily acknowledged that in this sphere there are limits. This may come as a shock to those who believe that, particularly as a result of modern scientific inquiry, there can be no limits. Matter, and by implication nature, is there to be laid on a butcher’s block and cut up. In this act of dismemberment the cow looses its identity and becomes, simply, meat. In the same way, Posidonius argues, when we investigate matter in too much detail we run the risk of destroying nature. He understood better than most that if we choose to pursue investigation beyond the limits we run the risk of unleashing the daimon of chaos. How are these limits determined? The answer lies in mathematics. Posidonius insists that numbers, which are a product of harmony, govern all forms in nature. To ignore their inherent mathematical life is to undermine their unique harmony. This is the second law of global philosophy: all existence is underpinned by numerical valuations, which in turn contain (that is, suppress) the daimon. Globalization is about honoring the ancient edict of number.

Of course number in this context is not about quantity, nor is it an unwitting affirmation of statistics. That would be to simplify the problem. The mathematics that Posidonius propounds is one of sacred number, the numerology of the sphere. He readily understood the difference between adding up and subtracting a few drachmae in the local market, and observing the symbolic valuation of objects when determining their essential reality. This is the key. Number comprises harmony. It sketches out the limits of being. Thus, to embark upon a course of genetic modification in order to increase profits is to tamper with number, and so with the idea of harmony. The number of genetic disposition is suddenly mixed in with the possibility of increasing shareholders’ dividends. The pool becomes muddied, as we see. In the end we do not know what is at the bottom of it.

For Posidonius number, true number, unifies. It is the heart and soul of the sphere. Residing on his tiny island of Rhodes, he compiled a history of the world while working on his theory of tonus or tensility. At the heart of all intellectual activity and its relationship with matter was tension, a stretching-out between the active and passive. Posidonius believed that man was the initiator of this stretching-out, this tension. He alone possessed a particular spiritual root-substance, an oikeiosis or self-awareness, which enabled him to oversee the relationship between cosmos and chaos, and so neutralize its conflictual nature through rational application. Oikeiosis or self-awareness is thus a primary instigator of right action. It unifies opposing forces, the rational and the irrational. Global man is thus a bridge between opposites, a true pontus. He is responsible to put in place social structures that maintain and nourish the tensile. In the process he becomes a genuine cosmopolitan able to embrace the world as something mysterious yet composite. This is the basis of the third law of globalism: respect the law as the repository of tonus. It is the law that provides a shelter for the development of self-awareness.

It would be easy to continue elucidating aspects of this new global philosophy. These three edicts should suffice, however, in making us aware of the timeless nature of ethics. Men like Posidonius and Ibn Arabi felt no compunction about traveling to the ends of the earth in order to acquire this knowledge. For them, the global perspective was about interaction between themselves and the best minds of their generation. It becomes clear to me that global man sees the world as a ganglion of ideas filled with disparate energies moving back and forth across the surface of the universe. His perception is not confined by the limitation of fact or the impedimenta that certainty engenders. His world – his sphere – is diaphanous, capable of revelation even as it observes the doctrine of limit.

Restraint, limit, number, law and tensility – these are just a few of the qualities that will be required to live a global life in the future. In many ways they are contrary to the values of our present mode of existence. I use the word ‘existence’ deliberately, as I believe this is all we are capable of in our present stage of development. There is no real life in excess, unbounded activity, the derogation of number, lawlessness (both personal and public) and the ease that we attempt to cultivate in our personal lives. None of these can possibly contribute to what Nietzsche called a ‘style of life’ as they are steeped in the physical at the expense of that root-substance, oikeiosis. Self-awareness is derived from the pure definition of the sphere and all that it contains, not some prolonged dalliance in the realm of quantity. There unmitigated experience is the despot, condemning us to an interminable round of activities linked to no object but themselves. Because we are without mutuality we are left to wallow in our appetites, feeding upon the waste that we create and then discard. For Dante, this represented the gateway to the City of Dis.

It may seem that I am harking back to an earlier age in order to enunciate a charter for the future – a global future. This is to assume of course that what is ‘in the past’ is indeed that, and not in itself timeless. We readily accept the virtues of the Ten Commandments or the Upanishads, so there is really no reason why we can’t explore time-honored concepts developed by others as a way of dealing with our situation today. Primordial values, wherever they might originate, are like spokes in a wheel: they maintain the possibility of movement. We should not deny them their role in preserving roundness, the sphere. Globalization is about resuscitating virtue in the face of an increasing tendency to relativize, to discard, and to discount. A future world needs to ransack its own intellectual history and put into practice what is appropriate.

Which leaves me to believe that we need to re-invent that old yet enduring collaboration between philosophy and science. Science, as we know, severed this relationship more or less after the time of Descartes. For some reason it did not wish to be burdened by theology, which it saw as an impediment in its path. In the process science became increasingly isolated from man’s world, the world of ethics, of limits and tensility. Science proceeded to dominate our world by its increasing control of numbers, which had been wrenched from the domain of harmony, from Pythagoras’s heavenly spheres, and placed in the service of calculation. It follows that for a true global philosophy to come into being we must find a way to enact a rapprochement between the sacred and physical sciences. This alone is globalism’s greatest challenge.

Let the angels of pure being once more hover above us. After all they embody the true atomic structure of the sphere’s existence. Call them gods or Mimi spirits or atomic particles, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that they contribute to the ongoing and enveloping nature of the world as both a construct of matter and of thought. We dream our world. The future of the world is based upon collaboration between matter and thought, between nature and spirit – and the sum of our collective endeavor to bridge these, to apply tonus to all things. Boethius said it succinctly in the sixth century when he wrote, ‘…that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what is what may be properly be said to be eternal.’ The future is about remembering origins, celebrating them, and doing what Homer advised us do more than 2,600 years ago: allow our heads to touch the heavens.