Toward a Return to Mythic Consciousness
Guest Post by Ramon Elani
For the demon ego
Locks me in the dungeon
Of the day’s dim dream.
O sorrow, sorrow! Into lightless depths
You tumble downwards, cosmic soul!
The shadow of the ego thrashes wildly,
As it bursts forth from Lethean waters.
Hearken to the rush and roar!
The lying mask of life
Erupts into the holy darkness,
And the feeble rays of dawn are weaving now
Deceiving webs of being!
Now my ear can tell the sighing
Of the cold winds through the tree-tops
From the crowing of the cock.
O cosmic soul, you plunge me
Into fatal slumbers, whirling me about
Within the frenzied waves.
Once more, I am condemned
To think the mad thoughts of existence,
Whilst I struggle like some banished being
In the storm-erected tidal waves
Of ancient strife.
In a fundamental sense, we experience the modern catastrophe, which presently reaches its climax, in the realm of consciousness. One may be tempted to say, of course, that we are equally, or even more so, impacted by the degradation of the human body and wanton destruction of nature, but it may ultimately be the case that these symptoms themselves are the products of tragic, unbalanced shifts in consciousness. What is it that makes it possible for man to carelessly watch his body rot and decay, while his mind is reduced to an endless, meaningless sequence of pleasure centers being compulsively lit up until the very capacity to feel is so diminished that one must resort to more and more extreme forms of stimulation, culminating in all manner of perversions? What is it that makes it possible for man to continue clear cutting forests, mining into the flesh of the earth, and turning the ocean into a bubbling, hot, poisonous cesspool despite decades of well meaning warnings and increasing threats of doom?
Increasingly man is aware that he has lost something or made a poor bargain. The narrative of progress has begun to lose something of its luster. As society fragments and turns in on itself, some have started questioning the virtues of democracy and the cause of universalism and egalitarianism. As the planet gets closer and closer to becoming uninhabitable, it suddenly seems that the cost of industrial growth and prosperity may have been too great. As advances in science and technology threaten to undermine humanity and biological life itself, we see the first flickering suspicions that we have unleashed something that we shouldn’t have.
We may say, again, that what mankind has lost certainly extends beyond his experience of being: Vibrant life and vitality, unspoiled nature, an integrated society and community. But in that same fundamental sense, it is his consciousness, his manner of understanding himself and the world, his means of perceiving and experiencing, and his sense of place in the cosmos that has altered. Modern man sees himself as hopelessly isolated from the universe, which has itself been utterly denuded of meaning. He himself counts for nothing, he believes. And the universe, which means nothing to him and to which he bears no meaningful connection, counts for nothing. Meaning, to modern man, lies neither within nor without. There is, in his mind, no connection between the inner and the outer. But it matters little to him, so profound is his nihilism.
In 1486, the twenty-three year old Pico della Mirandola announced the coming of a new type of man defined, in particular, by a radically new way of thinking. This new perspective placed mankind outside and above nature, entirely self-creative, and without limits. It has taken five hundred years for the full implications of Mirandola’s vision to become clear:
Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature. We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.2
Mirandola and the other blind, deluded fools of the Renaissance have had their way in the end. Failing to understand that the lowest beast, constrained utterly by nature and natural law, experiences life more fully and more joyfully than the most liberated human subject, man has released himself from all bonds and remade himself and the world as he wills it and according to his own judgment and value. As Alain de Benoist puts it: “it is only modernity that, quite logically, would create novum as a value in and of itself, by redefining freedom as the ability to break, to secede, and to produce something new that owes nothing to nature or to ‘past’ models.”3 And so, having successfully severed all ties to nature and each other, we have come to the abyss. The world of chaos and ruin which surrounds us is a world with man at the center.
Richard Tarnas writes:
Perhaps the most concise way of defining the modern world view is to focus on that which distinguishes it from virtually all other worldviews. Speaking very generally, what sets the modern mind apart is its fundamental tendency to assert and experience a radical separation between subject and object, a distinct division between the human self and the encompassing world. This perspective can be contrasted with what has come to be called the primal world view, characteristic of traditional indigenous cultures. The primal mind does not maintain this decisive division, does not recognize it, whereas the modern mind not only maintains it but is essentially constituted on it.
The primal human being perceives the surrounding natural world as pereated with meaning, meaning whose significance is at once human and cosmic. Spirits are seen in the forest, presences are felt in the wind and the ocean, the river, the mountain. Meaning is recognized in the flight of two eagles across the horizon, in the conjunction of two planets in the heavens, in the unfolding cycles of the Moon and Sun. The primal world is ensouled. It communicates and has purposes. It is pregnant with signs and symbols, implications and intentions. The world is animated by the same psychologically resonant realities that human beings experience within themselves. A continuity extends from the interior world of the human to the world outside. In the primal experience, what we would call the “outer” world possesses an interior aspect that is continuous with human subjectivity. Creative and responsive intelligence, spirit and soul, meaning and purpose are everywhere. The human being is a microcosm within the macrocosm of the world, participating in its interior reality and united with the whole in ways that are both tangible and invisible.4
What Tarnas describes above as the “primal world view” is the world view shared by all ancient and traditional peoples. It is the worldview of the Gods and heroes of ancient sacred texts, of the Homeric epics, of the Ramayana and the Vedas, of the Eddas, of the Mabinogion, and of the folklores of the world. It is the worldview that can be found in the hidden heart of all the world’s religions, though it is covered over by a thousand years of world-and-life denying moralizing. It is the worldview of “those golden and silver ages during which, to employ an expression of Hesiod, men were like children or even like plants that sprout up from the soil.”5
Ludwig Klages argued that the world view of the gold and silver ages, which corresponded historically to the neolithic and Bronze age, was best represented by the so called “Pelasgians”, who are well documented by classical authors such as Homer, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Herodotus, Pliny, and Thucydides. The Pelasgians are believed to have been the indigenous people of Minoan Crete and perhaps parts of the Greek mainland, as well. The Pelasgians of Klages are passive, contemplative, pacific and Goddess worshiping, at one with nature, resembling the so-called “old Europeans” described by Marija Gimbutas. Klages believed that the Pelasgians inhabited a dreamlike state of unity with nature and the Gods. They were able to directly perceive and understand the cosmos. In contrast to the dominating war-like Indo-Europeans with their vengeful sky-father Gods, Klages sees the Pelasgian cosmology as oriented around the Earth-Mother. Minoan society, by extension, allowed much greater freedom and status to women. If Minoan society was not outright matriarchal, it is clear that kings ruled by the will of the Mother Goddess and represented her on earth. When the Mycenaeans eventually conquered the Minoans, the paradisal golden age of the Mother-Earth Goddess came to an end.
With the close of the golden age, the first (for our purposes) of three major shifts in consciousness occurred. Klages writes:
Threefold model: the primordial-sleepwalking state in which decision and volition… have not yet been sundered; perhaps the best word for this stage would be plant-like; the second stage is the magical, during the course of which the priestly caste emerges. The third stage is the mechanized, which is dominated by deed, work, and science.6
If the first historical age was marked by total integration between man and cosmos, requiring, in essence, no mediation. The second age, which Klages defines here as “magical” and elsewhere as “heroic”, requires the emergence of a priestly class, whose role is to negotiate between man and the divine and nature. Elsewhere Klages states that this stage is epitomized by the Titan Prometheus who delivers fire to mankind. At this point, in other words, mankind has already lost some element of the immediacy of being and the fire of life. Hence, a hero like Prometheus or a priest must symbolically bring the holy fire to man. This second phase ends with the renaissance and Mirandola’s new conception of man.
The third, and final, phase of Klages’ historical model, “the mechanized” is represented by the figure of Heracles. From this point on, the long lost joy of being and vitality has been replaced by toil and drudgery. Like Heracles, Klages writes, “when confronted by the choice between life and spirit, mankind chose the road of thinking and willing, and, like Heracles, man has found naught upon that road but sorrow, hardship, and frightful adventures.”7 Modern man has condemned himself to endless struggle. It is at this point, in the modern age, that mankind begins insisting that purposeful intellect, cognition, and the will are the defining characteristics of man:
After the first assault of mechanistic thought, which was naturally directed against the universe, and won those great conquests of physics (Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Huyghens, Newton) which the nineteenth century could do no more than perfect, there followed a self-reflection of the organ of thought, mediated by the question of the range of the use of understanding and the reasons for the inviolability of its results. The self-analysis of reasonableness, which sometimes took a speculative and dogmatic, and sometimes a purely analytic turn, was given the somewhat too narrow name of “critique of cognition”; and, since Kant, no small credit was taken for a renunciation of metaphysical desires.8
If the world view of Mirandola and the renaissance, however, celebrated the limitless ability for man to create himself and the world, by the nineteenth century it was clear, at least to sensitive souls, what mankind had paid for his “freedom”. As Nietzsche writes:
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?9
Truly, mankind has become untethered and lost all orientation or sense of direction. In the world we have emptied of meaning, we don’t know where to look. For all our technical skill, we know better than to look for meaning within ourselves. Deep down, we know that we don’t have the answers. The explanation of life and the universe offered by subjective reason is cold and meaningless. As we have suggested above, inner and outer are linked. If one has no meaning, neither does the other. Richard Tarnas puts it thus: “The lonely island of human meaning is now so incongruent, so accidental, so ephemeral, so fundamentally estranged from its vast surrounding matrix, as to have become, in many senses, insupportable.”10 Man’s subjectivity, in other words, the only source of valid meaning according to the modern consciousness, must inevitably turn against itself: I determine truth and value. But who am I? Benoist again: “He [man] can only be a creator of order if there is no order outside him. It is necessary for nothing to surpass him so that he can be exactly what he claims to be. Finally it is necessary that the world is nothing but an object so that he is able to declare himself its master.”11 It is a lucky thing that modern man never inquires into himself. If he did, there is no limit to the fantasies and illusions that would collapse and bury him. To know the self is to perceive the self as small, fragile, helpless, and weak. To experience life, contrarily, is to experience strength, vigor, and beauty. Klages brilliantly describes how progressive humanity has confused the issue:
he [man] has somehow managed to convince himself that every increase in mankind’s power entails an equivalent increase in mankind’s value. We must doubt, however, whether he is able to experience true joy, and not just the hollow satisfaction afforded him by the mere possession of power. By itself, however, power is completely blind to all values, blind to truth as it is blind to justice. Finally, power is undoubtedly blind to all the beauty of life.12
For all the power and freedom of modern man, is he happy? Is he kind and just? If he is not then what value is the self creative power of the modern subject? He can make himself and his environment into whatever he wants and yet happiness and meaning evades him. Benoist puts it thus:
modern man has only managed to make into a general rule the struggle of all against all, the universal hostility of all separate parties. He aims to be free and creative; but he has never been as alienated, anguished, and as impotent before the rising tide of non-sense, before the explosion of everything elementary into chaos, the dissolution of all social bonds, and the absurdity of a world that he has reshaped as he pleased.13
If freedom means being completely cut off from the light of the cosmos, from the vitality of nature, from harmony between men and women, then we must conclude that the exclusive aim of world politics over the last three hundred years has been a tragic mistake.
This problem is, in a very fundamental way, a product of Cartesian and Kantian dualism. The split between subject and object already reveals everything we need to understand about this problem. Klages, who places the birth of the modern world-view with Descartes’ cogito, reminds us that consciousness refers both to “the substance, or content, of experience, and second, the critical empiricism which observes that experience.”14 In this arrangement, however, the terms are unequal. The observing mechanism requires something to observe but the thing itself does not require observation in order to exist. Does the hound require consciousness to run? Does the tree depend upon consciousness to grow leaves? Is the sun able to shine without consciousness? Obviously, suggesting that cognition precedes existence is the height of absurdity. There can be no observing self before that self exists as a vital being. But Klages aptly warns us against taking this matter too far in the opposite direction. The materialist interpretation is no nearer the truth. Man is not, in essence, any more dumb matter than he is disembodied cognition: “neither cogitare nor esse, neither spirit nor matter, but rather that which for beings inhabiting the temporal realm is far more important than either: life!”15 We can live, in other words, or we can simply observe our life. Eventually, if we follow the latter course, we will eventually find that our life itself consists of nothing but observation. And at that moment the soul expires altogether.
Klages’ history of consciousness is ultimately tragic. It is a story that ends in defeat. For Klages, the constructive, creative forces “nature, sensuality, and heart…life, cosmos, and soul” are destined to be overthrown and subjugated by “will, deed, Logos, mind, ‘idea,’ ‘God,’ ‘supreme being,’ the pure subject, the absolute ego, and spirit.”16 The primal consciousness of the Pelasgians, which we may define as dream-like or even plant-like and in which the boundary between the human self and the cosmos was permeable or even nonexistent, is first disrupted by Socrates and Plato. This disruption, of course, is only the first of several disruptions, the consequences of which have only reached fruition in our own contemporary dark age.
While the Pelasgians, and the Presocratics, who retained some traces of the old Minoan world view, insisted upon placing instrumental consciousness at the service of living being, Socrates began the blasphemous process of inverting this relationship. Klages writes:
Socratism is founded upon a faith in the exclusive worthiness of conceptual thought (or consciousness). Regardless of whether an act was performed by a superior or an inferior person, the act can have no serious consequences so long as the person in question understands the motives for his actions; instinct, drive, and finally life itself are explained by Socrates as ignorance, and not, as with St. Paul, as sin. On the other hand, all good arises from (reflective) cognition. The Socratic method entails the Socratic findings, about which we will now have a few words. Vice, sin, and deficiency of all sorts, arise in error; virtue, excellence, and privilege are the results of correct insight (Phronesis). Phronesis can be taught, because its substance already resides within the soul of the erring person; but it is, as yet, only unconscious… It is merely a matter of formula when we are told that the true measure lies not outside us but rather within. Telling us that the true measure can be found within us remains the last word of Socratic morality.17
From this point on, man begins looking less and less to cosmos, nature, and the gods for meaning, guidance, and value. He perversely begins to think that what happens in the world is less significant than what happens within his mind. What is real and good is not actually what happens, but only the ideas that inspired the occurrence. If an action is the product of measured and considered thought, it is, Socrates ensures us, thereby guaranteed to be virtuous. By contrast, any action which emerges mysteriously from the realm of the unconscious, which is to say, from the instinct, from inspiration, or from passion, is, by definition, erroneous and suspect. Needless to say, it is quite clear to us that while the dark chthonic realms of the unconscious lie entirely outside of man’s control, we are able to entertain the fantasy that cognition will content itself to serve as our instrument until the very moment it turns on us and destroys us. At this point, mankind has set off down the path which leads to the Cartesian split and the nihilistic relativism of late modernity.
Once Socrates and Plato establish the superiority and truth value of cognitive thought over the inferiority and inauthenticity of life and being, we suddenly find ourselves in a disenchanted world:
The world thus collapses, falling into two completely alienated halves: a bodiless spiritual half and an embodied mechanistic half. All that we seem to lack, to paraphrase Goethe’s poem, is “the living bond”! The “divorce” to which I have just referred… was first formulated during Plato’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the most flagrant and dogmatic revival of this style of thought began at the Renaissance. On one side, there is “matter”; on the other, we have “spirit.” Now matter is spatial and embodied, while spirit is non-spatial and bodiless; matter obeys every law promulgated by our mechanistic science; spirit functions on the basis of an autonomous “freedom.”18
As we shall see, it is not dualism per se that Klages opposes but the false dualism of Platonism and renaissance humanism. Mind versus matter. Returning to Mirandola, we can see how the insidious philosophy of Socrates was perfected in the modern world view. As Tarnas writes, the “epochal transformation of the triadic relationship between divinity, humanity, and the world was already set in motion with the emergence of the great world religions and philosophies of transcendence during that period of the first millennium BCE named by Karl Jaspers as the Axial Age.”19 It was Christianity that would ultimately make the rupture between consciousness and being, first developed by Socrates, into the defining characteristic of the modern. The hatred of the body and life that one eventually finds in the world religions and in Christianity in particular appears already fully formed in Plato, who writes: “if we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the actual realities with the eye of the soul alone.”20 It is Socrates who first erects the idol of the egoic self, though it has been observed that by Socrates' time mythological consciousness had already passed out of the world.
Once the cosmos had been stripped of significance and human consciousness had been enshrined as the sole source of dynamism and creativity on earth, the only missing piece was the insertion of the concept of a transcendent divine. The human consciousness, understood as purposeful, cognitive, intellectual, reflective thought, is supreme because it has exclusive and unique access to the divine that stands above and apart from nature and the cosmos. After this, it only took the Reformation to secularize the process, to turn Christianity’s critique upon itself and jettison the transcendent divine altogether, for us to arrive at the nihilism of the present, at which point there is nothing left to believe in other than a completely alienated and self referential subjectivity. Tarnas again:
The two processes–constellating the self and appropriating the anima mundi–have been mutually supportive and reinforcing. But their joint consequence has been to gradually empty the external world of all intrinsic meaning and purpose. By the late modern period, the cosmos has metamorphosed into a mindless, soulless vacuum, within which the human being is incongruently self-aware.21
The radical incoherence between a meaningless universe and a meaningful self finally appears to be making an impact on mankind. Unsurprisingly, the sense of meaning constructed by such a fragile instrumental mentality is so uncompelling that humanity appears to be in the process of collectively committing suicide.
Have we discovered too late that we spent more than two thousand years developing and cultivating the wrong skills? Two thousand years worth of progressively fatal errors, stemming from a simple misunderstanding. As Klages put it:
Life is not “observed,” but it is felt with all of our darkest powers. And we are only able to achieve access to this feeling of living actuality with complete certainty in our deepest inwardness; beyond that, nothing can be definitely asserted. Whether we judge, assert, will or wish, dream, or fantasize, each and every one of these activities is supported and penetrated by the self-same stream of elementary emotional life, which is incomparable, irreducible, and beyond the reach of rationalization or coercion.22
The ancients knew how to feel and they knew how to think as well, when it suited them and provided it was kept on a short leash and never allowed to supplant its master. Analyzing life, unfortunately for modern man, reveals very little. So, indeed, we are left with very little.
As we have suggested previously, the error is not in proposing a dualistic conception of the human self. It is the content of that dualism which is incorrect. Separating man into “mind” and “body” tells us nothing useful. In fact, it leads us into delusion, as we have seen. Here, then, is Klages’ ultimate genius: soul and body are not opposed, they belong to the same order of things, which is life itself. “Mind”, we are shocked and relieved to discover, is not synonymous with “soul”. In fact, it is this pernicious thing we often call “mind” which stands in murderous opposition to soul-body, which is to say, life. Body and soul are distinct, to be sure, but they exist inseparably and, as Klages puts it, are essentially expressions of each other:
The true state of affairs is that the connection between the soul and the body is even more intimate than has ever been suspected, since nothing can transpire on the side of the body that does not coincide with an event on the side of the soul, just as no event transpires on the side of the soul without a corresponding event on the side of the body. In other words: the body and the soul subsist in a polar connection and the most concise formula that we can devise in order to express these relations is: the body is the phenomenal manifestation of the soul, just as the soul is the meaning of the living body.23
The sensual, feeling, vigorous body and the dreaming, intuitive, unknowable, vast soul are, properly speaking, reflections of each other. Just as a vital soul cannot hope to inhabit a diseased, rotten body, a wretched, petty soul finds no habitation in the muscular limbs and clear eyes of a body in the prime of its strength. We return here to the notion that within and without are mirrored or “as above, so below.” It is no surprise that Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus were early dissenters against Cartesian thought. Not only is the body and soul not separate or opposed, they are precisely co-constitutive!
Klages’ notion of polarities must be expanded upon. Just as body-soul represents one such polarity, this relationship extends to day-night, sun-moon, brain-ganglion, waking-dreaming, woman-man, and macro-micro: “1. Essential-Cosmic; 2. Telluric-Sidereal; 3. Fixed-Wandering; 4. Cell-Element; 5. Chaos-Wotan.”24 We may also suggest here conscious-unconscious. What is vitally important here is to recognize that cognition, reason, rationality, intellect, or mind, does not appear as a part of any of these polar relationships. Presently, we shall see why. Polarities are joined together, bound, in a continuous Heracleitan process of cyclical transformation, flux, and change. One ascends and the other descends, and occasionally they merge entirely: “In the fall of rain we find the marriage of the telluric and sidereal elements.”25 The nature of life is thus fundamentally rhythmic. It functions according to the principles of expansion and contraction, growth and decay. There is nothing static in life. That there is conflict between these polar forces goes without saying and by no means suggests a fundamental disequilibrium. The waves crashing against the shore or the lightning striking a tree in the forest, these things are violent and can be destructive, but they are natural and proper. This is certainly true of the emotional life of man, which is condemned and dismissed by the Platonic, mechanistic, modern world view as false disturbances, akin to viruses against which one must be vaccinated or inoculated.
The correct posture for man is that of receptive, passive contemplation. In this posture, he may receive what the gods and the cosmos send to him in the form of inspiration, visions, prophecies, dreams, sensory perception, moods and emotions. He may be spurred to action but only as a consequence of such external stimuli. Nothing could be further from the modern man of will, who acts only because action itself, the deed, is of primary value. Klagesian man sings when he is moved to sing, fights when it pleases him to fight, and loves when the radiance of the Gods is personified in the body of his lover, all according to the rhythmic pulsation of life. This is why the man of the heroic epic experiences both the thrilling passion of battle with its clamor and screeching and hewing of limbs and the peaceful quiet that comes with gazing at a log burning on the hearth in the evening with perfect contentment. He allows himself to be driven by the forces of nature and the cosmos.
So, we have established both what constitutes the “primal” versus the “modern” world view as Richard Tarnas puts it, or in Klages’ terminology, “life” versus “consciousness” or “the heroic” versus “the mechanized.” We have described how the former has been supplanted by the latter. We understand the implications of this process and the impact it has had on humanity and the world. Two questions remain. The first is: why?
Klages’ answer is shocking and deeply unsettling. At first one is likely to want to dismiss it because it so vitally threatens so many of our modern nihilistic assumptions. Non dualism or relativism, in this regard, has confused much for modern man. The awful and obvious truth, Klages tell us, with grim certainty, is that there is an enemy inside of us: a hostile, malevolent, alien entity, which has infiltrated and penetrated our most inviolate inner sanctum. This betrayer has supplanted life, the true master of humanity, and, aside from myriad symptoms, which our society ensures us have other, unrelated causes, we do not even suspect the existence of this serpent, dripping with poison, so effectively is it concealed. And yet Klages names it thus:
THE INVADER. The history of mankind shows that there occurs within man–and only within him–a war to the knife between the power of all embracing love and a power from outside the spatio-temporal universe; this power severs the poles of life and destroys their unity by ‘de-souling’ the body and disembodying the soul: this power is Spirit (logos, pneuma, nous).26
Right away, we are drawn to the most surprising idea here: that the force, power, entity which Klages names “Spirit” or logos is not native to this world or even this plane of existence but from “outside the spatio-temporal universe”. Non dualism has frequently stumbled on this very issue. If everything is one, does that not force us to accept factories and cell phones as an equally valid part of the whole? Thus Klages demonstrates an incredible boldness and courage in his formulation of spirit or logos as a thing that is not part of the world or nature. It is other.
As we have said, the natural condition of life exists between the poles of body and soul. This polar relationship, again, is complex, changeable, and frequently involves conflict. But it is natural and universal. It is the life that man shares with everything else that exists. The struggle of man within the poles of body and soul is essentially the same struggle that occurs within the smallest microscopic organism. It is this relationship that spirit interrupts and sunders. Spirit is not neutral or benign, spirit cannot be harnessed for good, it is not an inescapable fact of reality of nature. It is the enemy of life. We do not only speak metaphorically here. Klages writes that spirit seeks “to smother any life that this unity [of body and soul] can attain.”27 This smothering is frequently literal: “excessive thought leads to shallow respiration and shortness of breath.”28 Tragically, it is unlikely that anyone has not experienced the ways that cognitive thought is able to spoil and destroy anything it touches. There is no happiness that, once reason has fixed it in its sights, can survive the pitiless power of rationality.
We find in Klages, therefore, a manicheanism that bravely asserts itself in the face of modern nihilism. Human consciousness, for only humanity is cursed with spirit, over the past three thousand years has been the battleground for a war between: “THE ADVERSARIES. Life and Spirit are two completely primordial and essentially opposed powers, which can be reduced neither to each other, nor to any third term.”29 Those who ultimately hope for resolution, who subscribe to an essentially progressive or evolutionary viewpoint, will claim that there must be synthesis and a coincidence of opposites. A third option must reveal itself with time. Klages denies this utterly. Synthesis itself, the very notion of resolution or ultimate unity, is a ruse of spirit! The dialectic is nothing but the bastard offspring of spirit. Life knows nothing of synthesis, only an endless repeating sequence of transformations. Day and night, dreaming and waking. There is no third position in life but an oscillating between polarities.
Before we go further, the ignoramus will object, with all the smug cleverness of the fool, that this is just a lot of intellectual energy spent in the service of critiquing the intellect. This is a laughable objection. What Klages demonstrates to us is that we need not accept the simpleminded dualism of Kant and Descartes. The invader, spirit, may certainly be defined as “the intellect” but it is certainly not synonymous with wisdom or knowledge. Klages himself perfectly describes this distinction:
TYPES OF KNOWLEDGE. There is a knowledge that kills and a knowledge that awakens. The first can be seen in the verbal jugglery of our intellectuals; the second blossoms in the dithyrambic creativity of the poet and the visionary. As has been said of the latter type, he lives his life to the full as long as he inhabits the earth. He renews himself as if by a perpetual series of rebirths. The other sort is merely the mummified ash-heap of a once-living fire, the fossilized relic of a perished substance. His knowledge does produce mechanized results, but as he manipulates his carcasses, he speaks as if this dead matter were yet among the living. One sees with horror how he deludes himself into believing that he finds life only within his clockwork mechanisms.30
One notes, of course, that in addition to being an accomplished poet, Klages frequently employs the language of the poet in his scientific or philosophical works, which is one of the reasons that translating and comprehending Klages is so challenging for so many. His terminology, though comprehensive, is frequently inexact and metaphorical. His tone shifts abruptly from the systematic to the lyrical.
As we have said, we must distinguish between false dualism and authentic dualism. That which may appear from a Cartesian perspective as dualistic may in fact exist in what Klages defines above as a “polar” connection. But these polar forces may be drawn into the larger scale war between life and spirit, as we see here: “DAY AND NIGHT. In day-consciousness we perceive, but in night-consciousness we experience visions. Only into day-consciousness could the a-cosmic Spirit erupt.”31 Day and night, and the form of consciousness each engenders and reflects, are certainly polar. And yet, we must recognize that while the day-consciousness itself is not the same thing as spirit, it is certainly the door through which spirit has entered. Thus we must be wary of the day-consciousness and not allow it to become dominant. With spirit, there is no truce or compromise, with the day-pole there must be.
It is certainly true that the most powerful adversary to the spirit is the soul. Thus when the soul is at its strongest, in deep sleep, in dream, or in states of somnambulism, the spirit is utterly defeated. But Klages is not suggesting that man can only experience life when he is unconscious or asleep:
SPIRIT AND SOUL. Only when Spirit sleeps does the soul awaken. Spirit sleeps most deeply when the senses slumber. But even in the waking state there is a sleep of the Spirit. In every act there are moments when Spirit nods and the soul opens wide its eyes. Ever richer is our life at the moments when Spirit passes through the realm of sleep. Then we are more profoundly alive, as each moment passes into the next. At such times, our eyes shine…32
Here Klages gestures toward the possibility of ecstatic experience, or the standing outside of one’s “self”, in waking, conscious life. Sensory perception, of course, can only occur in a state of consciousness and it is through sensory perception that Klages believes we access the truth of the world. It is, Klages insists, in the appearance of things that their essence is revealed. Similarly, the truth of a man cannot be understood by navel gazing or analytical “knowing”. Even during seemingly mundane occurances the soul can burst into flames and bring us into the fullness of life. For instance, we may think of moments of passion or joy, moments of intense bodily exertion, moments of deep contemplation, in which the cognitive spirit plays no part and the imagination reigns, or simply being immersed in nature and allowing our senses to be fully engaged in our surroundings.
Klages had no hope for modern man, whom, he was convinced, had been so utterly possessed by spirit that he had, generally speaking, lost the ability to experience life altogether. Without connection to body and soul, modern man becomes a creature entirely of the spirit. And so, animated by nothing beyond the will, certainly one of the “four horsemen” of the spirit or logos, Klages believed that mankind was destined to destroy the world and himself. The Romantics were, for Klages, the last flickering candle representing man’s wavering link to life. By the time we reach Nietzsche, as Tarnas observes above, we have already lost everything. Only if, somehow and against all hope, humanity could recover the meaning of love and life, would there be a future for our species. And yet it was not clear to him how or whether that love could be recovered. Is modern man capable of correcting himself? It appears that Klages ultimately believed that the Heracleitan flux would inevitably bring about some change, whether for the better or worse, whether or not humanity would survive to see it. All things change, it seems, was the best he could do.
One last question remains for us. What, if anything, can be done, apart from patiently awaiting the apocalypse, which is destined to bring about a new world? We will seek to answer this question by summoning a champion on the side of life: myth. To return to our initial posing of the war between life and spirit as a conflict between two different modes of consciousness, let us suggest that these two modes may be defined, in addition to “primal” and “modern”, according to the ancient concepts of mythos and logos. Logos, of course, is one of the primary terms which Klages uses to define spirit. Here, therefore, we will attempt to identify mythos with Klages’ “life”.
Alain de Benoist draws our attention to the differences between the two here:
Mythos and logos both signify the “word.” But is it the same word? Etymology reveals a difference. Logos derives from the root leg-, which is common to both Greek and Latin and evokes the idea of “sorting,’ and thus the attention involved in giving something a second look. This is confirmed by the Latin neglegere, “to disregard, ignore, neglect,” which represents the opposite. Going back as early as the time of Homer, logos was the word that had been weighed and given careful consideration. Plato said that the logos was “diplous, alethes te kai pseudes” (Cratylus, 408c), “twofold, both true and false.” Therefore, by its very nature, the logos is not of the order of truth… Mythos does not have this “twofold nature.” While the logos can be true as well as false, the mythos remains far short of the distinction between true and false. In its original deployment, mythos is the word that escapes criticism to the very extent that it is unthinkable to call it into question.”33
A number of important points are raised here. Clearly there is a fundamental difference in kind between mythos and logos, another dualism, we might say. Benoist draws our attention to precisely the link between synthesis or dialectic and spirit which we discussed above. Logos is capable of being simultaneously “both true and false.” Mythos is not. Thus we see two distinct types of thinking or consciousness: one which is suitable for analysis and intellectual consideration, which can be seen now one way and now another, precisely the type of consciousness that modern mechanized humanity understands and excels at, and another which completely resists rational thought, or spirit, in any way and remains beyond the scope of comprehension or the kind of “grasping” we associate the the cognitive mind.
Yet, Walter Otto cautions us that “Authentic myth is neither a mode of thought nor a conception, nor is it some kind of ingenious or profound fantasy; it is rather the self-revelation of Being, and as such it seizes man in his entirety and gives form to his existential bearing.”34 We might likewise question whether Klages would approve of the use of the word “consciousness” to define the experience of life! But however we marshall these terms, Otto’s words above certainly evoke Klages’ sense of life as an eruption of vitality not to be confused with a mere mental construct (spirit or logos). If, for Klages, man’s capacity to experience life has been progressively eroded by the spirit, mythic consciousness suggests a road to recovery.
The cosmos, of course, remains despite modern mankind’s war against life and nature. We can kill many animals and devastate the world but the Gods and vitality cannot be destroyed. Furthermore, mankind has certainly allowed both body and soul to rot and degenerate but the body’s capacity to perceive the dew drops sparkling in the morning sun remains, as does the soul’s capacity to be inspired by the mist gently coming down the mountainside. Therefore, particularly if myth is beyond the realm of truth or falsehood, “the opposite of mythos is…not “error” (pseudos) but forgetting (lethe), the veiling of truth (aletheia).”35 Myth becomes a way to reconnect with what has merely been obscured. Again, how does spirit or logos destroy life according to Klages? By inserting itself between body and soul and suggesting, deceitfully, that the two are not connected. The relationship is still there. Myth allows us to reestablish this connection. As Heidegger puts it: “nothing religious is ever destroyed by logic”36 Mythos and logos are of different orders entirely and the latter, with its endless sorting and considering, can do nothing to the former.
Ultimately, myth represents that which is outside of history, outside of human cognition, outside of logos. It enables us, not to return to the world of the Pelasgians, for that world has most assuredly passed and will not occur again, but to reconsecrate the same bonds the Pelasgians honored. Returning to the eternal is not returning to “the past”, as Benoist suggests:
“Walter F. Otto reminds us that the eternal “is not infinite duration, but a dimension outside time.” By this, the myth posits itself as continuity where human history introduces discontinuity and rupture. So nothing can be more antagonistic toward myth than the vectorial, monolinear notion of history.”37
Reconnecting to what is eternal may be seen as synonymous with reconnecting to life and love. To reject the linear progressive modern notion of history, for example, is to reconnect to the eternal and life. To learn to heed, as Klages repeatedly implored us, the wisdom of the presocratics, is to reconnect to the eternal and life. To experience nature, not as material or inert matter to be manipulated at will by the “creative” subjective self, but as a living throbbing fullness, which has been wistfully seeking, for five hundred years, to reestablish communication with a wayward cousin or relation, is to reconnect to the eternal and life.
As Otto writes, however, the one thing which will certainly not connect us back to nature, the cosmos, life, love, and myth, is ourselves. We are reminded of Nietzsche’s observation about staring into an abyss. Otto puts it thus:
“‘Depth psychology,’ from which many today await the final word on myth, belongs–along with its entire mode of thinking–to the opposite world to that of myth. It sends the individual back into himself and closes him off from the divine spirit that shines out of the open world. Thus, it is wholly the product of our time–an era in which the world has been stripped of gods, an era that says “nature” where it has concepts of understanding and experimentation in mind, and that says “being” where it analyzes mental states.”38
Myth and life, the eternal, cannot be recovered by descending further into the spirit-possessed self but by expanding outward in the cosmos. We cannot know ourselves. The self is a trap, laid by spirit and logos. If the Gods have fled from the world, they certainly have not hidden themselves in the very heart of the thing that has chased them from the forests and hills. No, the vital flame can be found in the pouring rain, where we drift outside of our logical selves and laugh at the sheer joy of life. The Gods are where they have always been, we have simply stopped looking for them.
We close with words from Benoist, who reminds us that if something is indeed eternal, then it can always be recovered. We need never despair of losing life, it is always waiting for us to touch it.
“The original should clearly be understood as being of the order of the primordial, without thus implying–except metaphorically–that the primordial should be taken simply as “the most remote past.” In this regard, it is an error of Traditionalist thought (such as one finds in Rene Guenon and Julius Evola) to identify the origin with a “Golden Age,” that is to say, with a very remote past, which, without being thereby “historical,” would not be any less theoretically datable. From the perspective of myth, that which is primordial is not so much what is situated in a past anterior to history, strictly speaking, but what can always hatch in the present moment precisely because it is not part of the order of human temporality. What is “original” is not something that has happened once and for all; it is what repeats and continuously occurs, here and now, each time that someone conforms to it, which is to say each time we listen to the origin, perceived as an unveiling.
Hence, the presence of myth is no longer a matter of memory (the “longest memory”). Instead it falls into the category of the immemorial, which is to say, something that, by escaping from temporal categories, cannot be a simple recalling of the past. “Memory is for those who have forgotten,” said Plotinus.”39
De Benoist, Alain. The Empire of Myth. Translated by Jon Graham. North Augusta: Arcana Europa Media, 2021.
Heidegger, Martin. What Is Called Thinking? Translated by J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper Perennial, 1976.
Klages, Ludwig. The Biocentric Worldview. Translated by Joseph D. Pryce. London: Arktos, 2013.
—. Cosmogonic Reflections. Translated by Joseph D. Pryce. London: Arktos, 2015.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974
Tarnas, Richard. Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. New York: Plume, 2007.
Klages, The Biocentric Worldview 144
Cited in Tarnas 4.
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Klages, Cosmogonic Reflections 38
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