When I read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, anytime I read Dune, I get the same vibe as I’m planning to chat with you about in this post…that there’s something ominous and huge going on – a belief system or set of myths or larger than life history affecting events. I dig that tremendously; and I look for it in things I enjoy reading. In fact, when I was growing up, you were either a Luke Skywalker guy or a Han Solo guy – meaning you wanted to be the space cowboy or the brooding, mythic hero. I was a Luke Skywalker guy. The literary take on this is it’s much more interesting in your fiction should you plan to include some sort of belief system if you don’t just recreate the Greek Gods or rip off the American Indians with a ‘Great Spirit’ thing-a-ma-bob.
So I’m going to go deep with this one. Stick with me. I finished an interesting study recently that went way farther that I’d expected. I was googling and flipping through the original materials madly, chasing a huge idea that kept getting bigger. It was like pulling up one of those weeds where the roots keep popping up out of the ground and you finally just cut it when you can’t tell how far it’s really going to go. For me, it started with a random book on my shelf from years ago that had an article about the I Ching in it.
Anyway, another article in that book that caught my attention was about the Kabbala’s Sefirot. The idea of treating a deity like an engineered contraption, like a set of physics rules you just needed to respect to make jedi-mind-trick things happen tickled both the logic and artsy sides of my brain. So I went deep into the Kabbala – read several books and spent some time reading what its believers found attractive about it. No offense if that’s your thing; but I ultimately found it full of promise and marketing but a big fizzler when you try to pin it down to something useful. It did strike me as fascinating though, the nebulous descriptions of the highest realms of reality – a nameless and unapproachable perfect being so incredibly pregnant with the potential of creation it’s provoked by nothing more than a state of mind. The sefirot idea stuck with me, so I poked into where it came from.
Read the Sefer Yetzirah if you like; but it’s gibberish to me. That was where the sefirot were first described. I bought the Pritzker Edition of The Zohar though, because that’s the big daddy of Kabbala, the place where it really took off. Get far enough into The Zohar; and you’ll get the feeling that nobody’s saying what they really mean and you can stretch and pull to make anything mean what you want it to. Still though, the massive superstructure of the universe having a secret dimension to it, a direct line of sight to a divine machinery, kept things popping. So I went deeper to see what influenced Moses DeLeon (the 13th century Spanish author or the channeler, whichever you dig).
I’ll speed up to make my point, though this took a while to trace. What I found was a pattern of about every two or three hundred years, a very similar theoretical apparatus was showing up in some famous writings. The themes are these:
- There’s an indescribable, unapproachable entity way up in some higher dimension ready to burst with creative potential
- This entity is either intelligent or just a principle of the universe, depending on who you’re reading; but it can be influenced either way
- Since this thing’s perfect, it can’t produce things that aren’t perfect, yet here we are with cancer and weeds and birth defects
- So this thing has levels beneath it, where things get progressively farther from the top and so are less perfect till you get to us
- That means there are perfect versions of things somewhere, like flawless templates from which all matter is descended
I had discovered what they call Neo-Platonism. If you already knew that, good for you. I didn’t. It made me think of Object Oriented Programming, because it’s exactly the same idea where you have ‘classes’ defined as templates, then make ‘instances’ of them to tweak for where you use them. Going successively back in time…
- John Scottus Eriugena (800-877AD) said the entity at the top was God; and He was creating stuff so that He could understand Himself. He said the primary Forms I was talking about above were the patterns of all things located in God’s mind. Eriugena was probably influenced by…
- Pseudo-Dionysius The Areopagite (late 5th, early 6th century AD) who shared the view of a procession of realms from God but said a rock or a worm was a window upon the entire universe if you only knew how to look at it. He was intrigued by finding his place within that procession and seeing himself inside it, focusing on the sacraments as a way to engage with the apparatus. This guy was probably influenced by…
- Proclus (412-485AD) who was head of the Athenian school and thought Plato was divinely inspired. This guy wasn’t Christian, so his view of the thing at the top was more of a nameless ‘One’ you could influence with magic rituals. He was influenced by…
- Plotinus (205-270AD) who studied Plato religiously. This guy had an inherent distrust of material things because they were a poor image of something higher. He said the supreme dealie-o at the top was a transcendent ball of potentiality, without which nothing could exist. He also said because of its nature of perfection, it couldn’t have a will of its own and couldn’t engage in any activity without becoming imperfect. So he had a procession downwards as well, culminating in matter.
- The Gnostics were around this same time period, thinking the same sort of thing about matter being wicked and only a pale reflection of the perfect templates up there somewhere.
- You see how big this is getting, right?
- Plato (4th century BC) developed in The Phaedo and in The Republic what’s called his Theory Of Forms . He likened us to people who’ve spent their lives watching shadows on a cave wall, thinking the shadows were what’s real when in fact there’s something making the shadows. Plato extrapolated from this idea that the soul was also a Form, and therefore perfect and unchanging, so..you know…reincarnation. He may very well have been influenced by…
- Parmenides (5th century BC) who revolted against the sciency philosophers by suggesting there was actually a difference between true, objective reality and the stuff we can see. I’m not sure he started all this though because of…
- Heraclitus (535 – 475BC) which is where my story ends. I read Remembering Heraclitus by Richard Geldard. Here’s a deep well like you wouldn’t believe. Heraclitus may have written a book and just dropped it off in the famous temple at Ephesus, and soundly changed the world. He described ‘the logos’ as a fiery, invisible rational principle that embedded the universe (like the Force, surrounding us, binding the galaxy together). It’s the wisdom of all of creation. Entirely possible it’s this guy that kicked the whole thing off that led to the same theoretical apparatus inspiring people for millennia.
My point is that this nebulous, vague description of a cosmic apparatus appeals to the logical side of your brain because it sounds like machinery; and you want to figure out how to make it work. It appeals to the creative side of your brain because it leaves so much for you to interpret and add to it. In fact, ,that’s just the way the I Ching appeals as well, presenting itself as reflecting the universe in a little microcosm so you can leverage what it’s up to as it changes.
Since the I Ching has been around in some form for 3,000 years; and the ideas the Kabbala built its palace on for not much less than that, those systems have something to say about how to make your manufactured belief systems resonate with people. Appeal to both the right brain and the left. Show how it could make people’s lives better in some way.
I took a real stab at this myself in Tearing Down The Statues, focusing on the idea that history repeats itself at different scales.
Now you go try and let me know how it turns out for you!
“The cosmos was not made by immortal or mortal beings, but always was, is and will be an eternal fire, arising and subsiding in measure.” -Heraclitus