The Limits of the Limiting: The Failed Suicide of Philosophy
Western philosophy begins with a critique of Homer, and as a critique of what Homer and mythology represent: visible, material existence. The findings are all in favor of abstraction. While it was assuredly progress of a kind to articulate philosophical meaning, rather than simply exhibit it symbolically like the barley sheaf of Eleusis, jettisoning the visual entailed considerable loss. In fact, the more abstract and colorless we make philosophy, the more limited the meaning it actually possesses. While a mythical image is potentially infinite in content, ever capable of being understood more deeply, the thought that is wholly abstracted from physical forms is no more than a ghost - of a kind too feeble to frighten any but overeducated adults.
Admittedly, once "picture-thinking" is excised, one can achieve the sterility, the sheer boredom that makes it clear to every reader that philosophy is a serious business. But not only is distancing philosophy from myth a questionable undertaking, it is an impossible one. Within philosophy, the suppressed pictures re-emerge. And they are no more mere metaphors than dreams are mere phantasmata. They contain the inmost truth of philosophy. At a time when the death of philosophy is generally acknowledged (which is not at all the same thing as being proved), we might well consider so questionable a project as giving the images an equal weight with the texts in which they occur, like raisins in the bread of intellection.
Likewise, it is worth our while to consider anew the images in scripture, that intermediate stage between mythology and philosophy, and re-understand them for their philosophical content. Insofar as the stories in the Bible are meaningful, what they mean may be articulated in abstract and rational terms. There has been no shortage of homily, allegory, mystical maundering, and now even literary criticism directed at scripture, but no in-depth analysis of what philosophic content its holy histories hint. The myths and images of scriptural religion, which contain the richest kernels of its meaning, have been as scrupulously ignored as those of philosophy. At best they are exalted as objects of dumb veneration: that is, as themes for art. The most serious analyses of images in religion, Eliade's, stopped short at archaic mythologies, which survive too sparsely be studied except in their most general sense. Eliade never really explored the content of religion for the period where it is sufficiently documented to sustain philosophic analysis, that is, the scriptural period.
It may seem a singular undertaking to make a synthesis of elements such as Schelling's idealism and Biblical myth, Eliade and Ibn Arabi. But the sense of peculiarity should evaporate when we consider the real continuities, intellectual, pictorial and narrative, among these equal sharers in scriptural and Neo-Platonic tradition. And after the twentieth century, that dreary low water mark of philosophy, in which pride of place was held by the spiritual poverty of Existentialism, the philosophical enquirer should be willing to entertain any serious proposal, and especially one that is not "serious."
Egypt is, from the Biblical point of view, the historical embodiment of the realm of the senses. Here was the boundless wealth from which all neighboring countries came to borrow in times of famine. Egypt, which never tired of gloating over its own richness, to the point of making its very alphabet a natural-history picture book, abundant Egypt receives no description in the book Exodus, of which it forms the setting. Why did such detail seem superfluous to the Biblical authors? They offer no more than occasionally name of a city or a river, as if Egypt's supersaturated existence had no deeper meaning a set of time-space coordinates, an empty "here" and "now."
The Bible, for reasons we will examine later, felt Egypt could be severely summarized. Egypt itself felt a similar, though less draconian, need to control its overwhelming burden of physical specificity. It did so by representing all the different instances of contingent things as immobile types, as universals. Hieroglyphs, like all Egyptian art, never depict the particular but always the general. The plant, the house, the foot. Written Egyptian is a language where every word, nay every letter, is a stylized outline of the part of sensory experience that is particularly meant. In portraiture, all pharaohs look like the first pharaoh, just as all ducks look like the one true duck whose profile everyone recognizes. Despite the richness of Egyptian existence, Egyptian expression of it is always poor and generic. This is not a shortcoming in Egyptian art: on the contrary, it is an indictment of the poor truth-value of sensory experience. Perhaps the Biblical authors only took the Egyptians' own attitude to its logical conclusion?
The ambivalence about sensory experience is not unfounded. The dazzling outer appearance of the world ceases to entrance us as soon as we ponder it for content. Thus the most luscious poets, like Vergil, Shakespeare or Goethe, are the weakest thinkers. They splendidly reflect their world to the degree they do not reflect upon it. And this is what makes them untranslatable. There isn't enough meaning there to translate.
It is due to this paradoxical poverty in direct, unexamined sensory data that sensual indulgence teaches one nothing, and old rakes are old fools. The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom only insofar as it leads one, in the long, away from excess. The material world exhibits easily only temporary and external relations. One must do more with sensory appearances than just sense them to discover the internal necessities which underlie them, the logic of their structures and the meaning of their forms. Not even science can do this, for science is nothing but sense perception become systematic. Only philosophy can show the meaning of the physical, which Egypt attempted to do by translating all real things into symbols. This was intuited by the seventeenth century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who "translated" hieroglyphics on the basis of his own religious imagination, assuming they were original language of Adam and Eve, expressing the mysteries of existence in occult symbols.
Modern Egyptologists have no use for Kircher, whom they dismiss as an religious kook, which in fact he was. But his undertaking was more profound and philosophical than the scientific study of hieroglyphics that began in the nineteenth century with Champollion and the Rosetta stone. A real understanding of Egyptian language is a dull tool indeed without the spirit of Kircher. After a course in Egyptology, one ends up feeling that hieroglyphics had more to offer before they were deciphered. If you ask an Egyptologist about Egyptian philosophy, he will direct you to Egypt's so-called "wisdom literature." This consists of nothing but compendiums of proverbs. The pithy distillates of common sense are only the first degree of thought above simple sensory awareness, and far below the level one could call real reasoning. Common sense, the populist basis of proverbial wisdom, really has only one trick, the ability to distinguish between the general and the particular, the one and the many, the unity and its components. Hence the common-sensical man's delight in possessions. One has wealth, one counts the money. One has children, one names them. And this everyday class of understanding is not without its elaboration. Accounting is the theology of common sense, finance its speculative philosophy, collecting its art, and completeness its aesthetic. Hence the Egyptian horror vacui: not an inch of tomb wall unfilled by pictures and glyphs.
The man of common sense, of "sound understanding," the practical man, whom we recognize in the consumer class, the beery sentimental Egyptians of the modern world, is really incapable of duplicity. Cynicism requires the use of abstract reason. The only way simple, practical souls survive in high school or the workplace is by confusion, inconsistency and lack of attention. This is the "prudence" of the bureaucrat, and the secret of his "banality of evil." Such people really aren't capable of fully consenting to their own actions, because they don't acknowledge them as fully their own. As indeed they are not. Of such persons Confucius said, "They may be caused to follow the Way, but not to comprehend it."
All this is not to relegate the Egyptians to the bottom of the spiritual evolution chart. They do have a philosophical depth and complexity, combined with a simplicity of expression, which is entirely unsurpassed. So much so that we shall ourselves return, like Plato, for secret initiation in the shadow of the pyramids. Just not in the shadow of its Wisdom Literature.
Egypt translated physical objects into half-abstract symbols, and these universalizing emblems seemed so sufficient an expression of reality that they became the entire vocabulary of Egyptian art, and indeed the entire vocabulary of Egyptian vocabulary. But the cost of such substantial adequacy in representing things was that the representation was nearly as cumbersome as the thing itself. The universals of Egyptian thought, despite some surprising sophistication in their manipulations, are still as much physical as intellectual. The Egyptians hadn't yet realized that the idea is essentially different from the thing. (At the end of our initiatory journey, we shall see that how it actually is also the same as the thing, but after a different, more arduous fashion.) Thus for the Egyptian to make an image of a sacrificial offering, or to recite a description of one, was the same as to actually perform the rite. The pyramids, in their senseless immensity, are the world's greatest monuments to literalness.
But the Egyptians were no fools, and the problem with which they grappled hieroglyphically is not easily solved, even with the advantages of modern fonts and secular ideas. Egypt addressed the central questions about being itself. How can we be sure of continuities in a world we see ever changing? of order, in a world that appears so frequently chaotic? of objective certainty, in a world we experience only subjectively? These are some of the ways the conundrum of being has appeared to philosophers over the last two and a half millennia. Egypt understood this metaphysical problem in its own idiom, which was highly physical: in terms of personal life and death.
The universals, the symbolic forms, by their recurrence in temporary things, suggested to the Egyptian mind a means of survival for the contingent and individual. The sunrise after night, the sprouting of barley from the evidently dead and assuredly buried seed, the succession of Pharaohs who were somehow all the same Pharaoh, these were taken as signs that life might never have to be annulled. Every Egyptologist is eager to recite this platitude as though it told us anything deeper, or different, than the philosophy one finds rhymed in a valentine or a condolence card.
If we advance a peak further up the mountains of the mind, and look down on the simple pedants of Egyptian philology, we may understand how something so true as their insight could be so uninteresting. The truth in question has been presented as a dimensionless, positive scientific fact, without any inherent self-contradiction: it is not a full truth, only a truism.
Yes, the Egyptians saw the implications of limitless existence, eternal life, in the consistent forms of the physical. And to mouth the next truism in the standard sequence, the Egyptian obsession with eternity explains the "true-fix'd and resting quality," the air of simple, calm sublimity, that makes their art so immediately engaging - after all, one hastens to add, it was the foundation of that pinnacle of artistic achievement, Greek sculpture, &c. &c. ad nauseam.
I have several times noted the literalness of Egyptian thought, its rootedness in the real, its near-equation of the eternal and the temporal. This gave a physical immediacy to their most abstract formulations, both intellectual and graphic. But the price of this eye-pleasing sensory accessibility was a sensory weight that kept the Egyptians from attaining the goals they set themselves. The Egyptians' closest approach to eternity was endless repetition. Instead of achieving really individual immortality, they were only able to achieve the everlastingness of a species, an "archetype." The dead Egyptian lives on only insofar as he "becomes an Osiris."On the one hand, this gravity-bound materialism in their thinking prevented the Egyptians from ever devaluing the physical existence to mere illusion, but on the other it ensured that life eternal could never be definitively and irrevocably achieved. No pyramid would ever be big enough encompass the infinite flux of existence. And the task of erecting new ones could never end. Thus the best energies of what was really a cheerful and optimistic civilization, were paradoxically consecrated to death.
We have advanced beyond the insights of the Egyptologists, for we have dug deep enough to uncover the emotional earnestness and the staggering labor-cost of Egypt's impossible spiritual gambit. But we are not yet entitled to feel either edified or superior. After all, to be more a man than Mardian is no fierce achievement. We have gone beyond the achievement of the Doctors of Egyptology, who lead tourists through a museum of ancient symptoms. We have ventured a diagnosis - but that is not yet a cure. The myth of Osiris still remains an outworn fable for us, better understood but no better believed.
Real initiatory understanding of Egyptian myth would show the career of Osiris as a track through the labyrinth of our own existence, and answer the riddles of our existential condition. We would achieve a magical re-comprehension of existence that so far unified and redeemed it that we would see the underworld maze we wander through in life has no false turns or unnecessary detours, every error is necessary, and every deluding funhouse mirror is a window as well. Such an understanding is precisely what I shall endeavor to impart here. This is much to promise, and only a promise for the moment, for the problem must be fully posed before the solution can be understood.
The Jewish revelation develops out of the Egyptian. Whether we understand this as a natural growth and trace it, as I do, following Freud, to a historically plausible source in Akhenaten, or whether we prefer the supernatural explanation offered by a literal reading of the Bible, the facts that matter to us are unchanged. The Jewish and the Egyptian views of reality are precise counterparts, and the logic of their relation is inescapable.
Whereas Egypt sought the eternal and divine in the unchanging and the archetypal, Israel sought the same in the mutable, the temporary, the irrepeatably unique. Moses' "bush that burns and is not consumed" is a spiritual vision of mortal, contingent being. Vegetation is a universal symbol of the perishable, while fire, heat and light are equally universal emblems of divine power (as in the shaman's ability to handle fire, the tapas or spiritual heat radiated by a yogi burning off his attachment through austerities, or the scriptural metaphors of enlightenment and illumination.) The paradoxic image of the bush, that living twig of kindling that fire makes more real rather than reducing to ashes, is an image of the deity's present in the contingent, and one so explicit that it literally speaks for itself: from it God utters his secret name, that is, the name that reveals his inner meaning. This is Yahweh, a form of the verb "to be" which is properly translated "becoming."
This divine self-disclosure, if accepted, annihilates any Egyptian-style preoccupation with further worlds. "The kingdomes of this world are become the kingdomes of our Lord," as the Book of Revelation states after the seventh angel sounds his trumpet. All that actually is, is here. Thus there is no heaven or hell in Mosaic Judaism. If everything real is here and now and for us, miracles, spirits and visions of the beyond have only decorative value. It might well be asked whether this is even religion. It might appear that we have a materialist monism, like that of Spinoza, expressing itself in religious language that adds nothing but emotional color. But the transcendent is indeed intrinsic to the Hebrew worldview: it just doesn't reveal its deepest meaning, as it did for Egypt, directly in mythological shapes. Scripture includes myth, but combined with articulated meaning in oblique and unexpected ways.
When the eternal world-ordering forms are sought, without mediation, in the world of men, they appear not as myths but as morals. Life is not prized for its potential attainment of eternity, but for its potential attainment of goodness. Not solid existence but solid worth is desired. Not the ability to resist change, but to act positively within it becomes the proof of spiritual attainment. The Egyptian search for an eternal realm only involved them more deeply in materiality, to the point where they had to try and to remake the world in stone. The Hebrew focus on the human realm, which turned their attention to morality, enabled them to experience a more abstract existence, and actually diminished their interest in the material world. Thus we find a general lack of physical description in the Bible, and indeed the prohibition of images. These were as irrelevant to the venture of Judaism as the shape of the chess pieces would be to a grand master at a tournament.
From the point of view of Egypt, the insight Moses offered was a magical one. It opened an occult realm of pure moral ideas beneath the surface of real things, a realm where thought could realize its own nature as different from physical reality. Thus Moses was taken to be a consummate magician, superior to all of pharaoh's conjurers, though they could turn their staves into snakes. Now the Egyptian serpent's emblematic value is most fully expressed in the ouroboros, the snake that devours its own tail, a symbol of time, an image well familiar to us from its adoption into Greek alchemy. In the ouroboros, Egyptian thought redeemed the transitory by elevating it to the cyclical, the illimitably repeated. The perception of change was accommodated, and suppressed, made a mere moment of the abiding. But what abided here, what we kept returning to, wasthe grave. The snake is an underworld creature. His self-renewal, the shedding of his skin, is accomplished at the price of existence as a cold-blooded subterranean (nowadays we might call it an "unconscious") monster. In the Egyptian phrase, being itself has "become an Osiris." The contradictions of life and death, change and continuity ,are in Egypt preserved, formalized, made hieratic, but never thought through - they are merely annulled in the immobility of a cycle which cycles ever on. In the symbol of the ouroboros, time goes on forever, but true eternity is the cessation of time.
Moses' vision of God as here and now, as the endless present of "becoming," presupposes, "refutes," and in this sense includes the Egyptian ouroboros. In narrative, his snake devours theirs.
Moses takes up his serpent and it becomes a staff again, no fatter for the nourishment. How is this possible? Perhaps there was only one snake after all? If this is the case, we can understand why Moses' act was a magical one. It's a trick.
Moses implicitly reveals the meaning of the ouroboros, as a symbol of the highest philosophical synthesis, the union of opposites and passing beyond them, the "impossibility" of existence, which somehow fuses being and nothingness, that which always is and the many things which pass away. The Egyptian symbol suggested that the one could go on forever. Moses showed that the many were also one: that the many "thens" of time ansd sequence are united in the ever-present "now," the only moment we can ever actually experience, and the only opportunity for moral action.
We miss the deeper insight if we see Moses' thought only an evolutionary advance over Egypt's. Both ideas are moments in a larger concept. The burning bush, the serpent stave and all the rest of wonders accomplished in Egypt are only hints of this The earnest journey through the Sinai desert of Law, the working out of the implications of Moses' thought, has to be accomplished before the unpronounceable name of God can be heard and fully understood.
All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
A word to the wise is sufficient, even more so when that word comes from the wise. The quotation offered above, no doubt immediately recognized from the first paragraph of Ecclesiastes, attributed to Solomon, is the classic formulation of a certain sort of wry pessimism. The case for gloom could be made more tellingly and gruesomely if one quoted from Buddhist scriptures or the news, but for our purposes this should suffice.
The material world would be an entirely satisfactory place if it would only stay still. Kinesis, "change," gives the lie to all appearances and lends its truth to the sour pronouncements of books like the Dhammapada. We are content that unpleasant circumstances should alter, for this places a time limit on suffering. But that the meter should be running on pleasure as well, that is indeed a dispiriting thought.
In fact, one of the defining marks of the highest pleasure is a sense of its transition. This perception is handsomely expressed by Chapman is his Odyssey translation. He says of a performance by the bard Demodocus,
This the divine expressor did so give
Both act and passion, that he made it live
And to Ulysses' facts did breathe a fire
So deadly quick'ning, that it did inspire
Old death with life, and rendered life so sweet
and passionate, that all there felt it fleet . . .
The dossier on this subject is ample, since poets tend to be a whiny lot, and suffering is the most over-rated of human pastimes. The Japanese, for example, gave the insight plaintive and classical form with the phrase mono no aware, literally, "the pathos of things." This is an awareness of the transience of all beneath the moon, and a bittersweet sadness at its passing. It is the hallmark mood of the Tale of Genji, that splendidly elegant epic of middle-aged regret.
Pleasure itself may be called to the witness stand to testify to life's unsatisfactoriness. What does one do about it? Usually nothing, since matters must reach an extreme before people will bestir themselves to change their lives in any way. But given sufficient impetus, that is to say, sufficient pain, humans usually opt for either libertinage or asceticism. As for the first option, Ecclesiastes puts it clearly
I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.
As for the second option, one could quote most of the New Testament. Both extremes are unwholesome and exhausting: the bulimia and anorexia of the spirit. One could well complain, like the Exodus Israelites,
Oh, that wee had died by the hand of the Lord in the Land of Egypt, when wee sat by the pots of meat and when wee ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
But from this point a retreat to the brute existence of "slaves in Egypt," that is, of slaves to sense perception, is no longer possible. Once we have noticed the instability and intrinsic disappointment of the material world, we cannot return to it even if we are still there - particularly not with tools, taken up unimproved, from Egyptian myth.
My observations on pessimism are so obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to make them. However, since such glumness still passes with mediocre thinkers as good taste, and even as philosophy, it's worth a moment to acknowledge this view's oddly appealing minim of truth, the better to pass beyond it. And this requires that we also pass beyond our modern distaste for scripture as an outdated impediment to our wishes. The immediate realization of all our physical desires, with never a "shalt not," would make us no freer or wiser than before. And it probably would do nothing to improve our digestion.
Seen from a higher perspective, change is not the problem with contingent existence, but its condition, and the sign of its origin in the immutable. Moses' vision takes tacit account of this, and give material being a positive valuation that could make even a real desert richer than all of symboled Egypt. And this was why the Hebrews followed him, despite their complaints.
The Sea Battle
"You cannot step twice into the same river." Pharaoh made costly proof of Heraclitus' formulation, at the Red Sea. But the Israelites, under Moses' tutelage, were by now well familiar with such rivers, and how to find firm footing within them.
Tell the children of Israel to go forward. But lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it. And the children of Israel shall walk upon dry ground in the midst of the sea.
Pharaoh and his armies were left behind, drowned in the flood of material existence and unassimilated sense-perception. Not so much through a want of piety as through a lack of philosophy. This didn't seem to bother the Egyptians a bit, and their history makes no mention of the debacle at the Red Sea, the pivotal event in Jewish memory. Not surprising since the Egyptians considered drowning the most blessed of deaths: annihilation in the Nile was the beginning of Osiris' deification.
The Egyptians were only metaphorically destroyed by the waters, but for all that, they did not pursue the Israelites further. The Egyptians had no interest in mad possibilities beyond their borders. Meanwhile the Israelites strolled through Egypt's ocean, and Jesus would later walk on similar waters, as did such of his disciples as understood the significance of the act. Now the art of walking on water is properly acquired on the shore, that is, on the verge of sense perception. Here we discover how very shallow the waters in question are - shallow as the whinings of the poets who want their pleasures to go on forever.
One of the many exasperating things about poets is that, not only are they all liars, they're good at what they do. They know how to mix a little truth in all their impostures, though they never understand it as more than another coloring element. But if we no longer take our cues from the poets and their artistic myths, we can see that although existence has many shortcomings, at least they reduce the clutter. One has passed beyond the Red Sea into the desert, that is, one accepts and exults in the material world as mere unstable appearance, a flickering mirage, ever-shifting sands. The allure of sense perception has vanished (whence the tradition that on the night of the Exodus the Hebrews looted Egypt.) Henceforth we cannot take the visible world at face value, like animals or poets. We see through it. But beyond appearances are, what? Apparently nothing, as the Israelites complained. Had Moses led us out to perish in the void?
The Tranquil Kingdom of Laws
In this desert, on the most uncompromising rock-peak in the whole desolate landscape, on Mount Sinai, the law emerges. It is given, and indeed it is a given. It establishes what Jesus would refer to as "the kingdom of heaven," a moral foreshadowing of what what Hegel would call "the tranquil kingdom of laws." Here time stops: Plato's "moving picture of eternity" has become an eternal picture of movement.
Moses condensed the laws of existence into ten commandments. Jesus would improve these into two. The terminology was moral and theological, but the content was philosophic monism. To assert the unity of God and his world, and the equality of man with man, is to assert the unity of all existence. This is Heraclitus' "The many emerge from the one and are reabsorbed into it," expressed with human warmth rather than rational coolness, but the statements are roughly equivalent. What is interesting about these declarations is not their agreement but their utter inadequacy - insofar as they are bare abstractions. This becomes apparent the moment we try to apply them to reality. All such powerful and condensed formulations, once employed, promptly radiate into a cosmos of sub-laws and exceptions, a limitless plurality of postulates. The one reveals itself as the many. Thus the Law is given in Leviticus, only to be given anew in the candidly named Deuteronomy. The Koran undertakes the task afresh, as though it had occurred to no one before. The laws become specific to the point where they have considerable historical interest: they are less prescriptions than descriptions. Law itself breaks down between the opposed claims of generality and specificity. (This is just a different statement of the same problem we encountered in Egyptian sense perception, when the demand for eternity collided with the evidence of contingency, leading to a an pseudo-eternity comprised of endless repetition, nightmarish as Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence.")
The law shatters through its own contradictions, just as classical mathematics broke down when full account was taken of the irrational numbers between the whole ones we count with. In narrative, Moses smashes the tablets. In disgust, the Israelites return to the Golden Calf, the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and celebrate their re-immersion in the world of unreflecting sense-perception.
. . . the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
The law, which was the secure and moral inner being of material reality, has now fully revealed an inner side to its own interiority: an impossible situation. One cannot go forever closer to the core like an ingrown version of the arrow in Zeno's paradox. For the inner of the inmost is - the outer. Once one has reached the center of existence, one proceeds outwards. Here at last our understanding may begin to be adequate to reality, and to it we may return. We pass beyond the law, which has proved to be another "veil of appearances," like sense-certainty. One begins to suspect that the veils are themselves illuminations, moments in the process of realization.
This inner which is the outer, where things ever become their opposites, where laws and rules refute themselves, is what makes reality real, limitlessly living. Hegel says,
This bare and simple infinity, or the absolute notion, may be called the ultimate nature of life, the soul of the world, the universal life-blood, which courses everywhere, and whose flow is neither disturbed nor checked by any obstructing distinction, but is itself every distinction that arises, as well as that into which all distinctions are dissolved; pulsating within itself, but ever motionless, shaken to its depths, but still at rest.
This dazzling passage follows Hegel's account of the "tranquil kingdom of laws" overthrown by its own implicit contradictions. He is not speaking of codes of law but individual perception, and the mind's attempts to bring system to what it understands. But it is equally apt as an analysis of the attempt to bring moral order to what we do.
Egypt Ptah decreed into being the other eight gods of the pantheon. Yahweh sent down ten commandments. Newton's revealed the even more numerous laws of physics. All this inflation proved a poor ploy to resolve the paradoxes of reality. Laws can only vacillate between the claims of unity and the ever widening demand for specificity until all decrees collapse in upon themselves. The stable interior of existence reveals its instability. The unfixedness of existence Moses had thought to escape from into the world of moral verities now reappears within ourselves, within the reasoning power we made use of to tame the flux of life. The starry heaven above once more appears as a chaos, for the moral law implodes within.
This lawless realm, this desert, is what Hegel calls the "inverted world," a topsy-turvy kingdom where all valuations are reversed, where night is day, where one walks upside down on a floor that was recently ceiling. The deepest revelation of the law includes its reversal, and the dissolution of stable existence. We may recognize in this "looking-glass world" the characteristics of the world of the dead. The Israelites understood this clearly at Sinai's brink, when they said "Let the Lord not speak to us directly, lest wee die."
The application of Hegel's dialectic to religious law is not without its perils, regardless of whether we realize that this is what we have done. If we pause now, at the moment of antithesis, we are left floating in antinomianism, moral nihilists. This was the position the Gnostics arrived at, and Paul, who was a sort of vanilla Gnostic, had to do some fast talking to escape this conclusion.
All things are lawfull vnto mee, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawfull for mee, but I will not bee brought vnder the power of any.
Paul's insight into the impossibility of definitive revealed law had particularly dramatic consequences, since he was a prophet, not a philosopher. Paul occupied that mid-region between mythic and abstract thinking which easily conflates different aspects of reality. For Paul, the limiting force of physical and moral laws seemed the same, and formed one edifice of death, the source of sin. In Paul's phrase, "the letter killeth." Paul leaves us nearly abandoned in a God-condemned law-driven material-moral world.
Hegel too, we have seen, saw life as refuting "the tranquil kingdom of laws." He viewed this "inverted world" of lawless man as driven by the grimmer aspects of a Freud-like psychology and the Hobbesian state of nature: the murderous force of desire (Begierde). Rather like Paul's idea of sin, but unrelieved by Paul's idea of grace. Nor is this the only price of Gnostic antinomianism. With the total rejection of laws, be they physical, intellectual, or moral, the world becomes (respectively) unpredictable, unintelligible or irredeemable. Thus for Paul and Hegel the achievement of freedom must be infinitely deferred, to the Christian day of judgment, or the Hegelian self-realization of absolute spirit.
Moses' moral, world-affirming insight turned Egypt itself into a desert of meaninglessness, where senseless men worshiped dead images of a irrelevant material world. But the attempt to found an inner world on revealed laws foundered on literalism. Attempting to perpetuate a prophetic state, the Hebrews founded a national one, with an immense temple that all but eclipsed the mystery implied by the tokens of Moses preserved in its inmost shrine. It was Egypt all over again. Specificities could not be made eternal and universal by inscribing them on two tablets of stone, nor could God himself enforce them, even by shouting, as in the tale of how he thundered from Sinai.
But the angry imperatives, which is what a few Jews and all the Christians heard, was not, as we shall hear, if fact what God said. To understand the revelation at Sinai, we must look beyond the surface and learn, not the words inscribed on stone, but the alchemical mysteries that pebbles remember and rocks recall. Not the Torah we hear rumbling its rules from above, but the secret things of God that thunder mutters and lightning writes.Tweet