This issue of The Meadow comes at a time of great change. In the recent past lies the crisis in worldwide banking, threatening the shaky economic structures which have propped up apparent western prosperity for the last few centuries; we are today witnessing the decline in the integrity and power of some democratic governments through the replacement of principle with pragmatism, and the avarice and corruptibility of some politicians. Ahead lie disquieting prospects such as continuing West/Middle Eastern tensions, declining oil and water resources, the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change and the acquisition of nuclear arms by States most politely described as unreliable.
As if in response to this increasingly volatile situation, teachers have appeared in the West - as indeed they have been appearing throughout human history – offering a consistent message which one of them summarised in four words: “Wake up, or perish.”
It takes a certain courage to face the possibility of mankind’s extinction. The presence of human beings on the earth has come to seem like a permanent certainty, something immune from threat. Yet a little reflection shows that this is a blinkered attitude; humanity had a beginning – a very recent beginning in terms of known history – and everything that has a beginning must have an end. What is born must also die, be it an individual, a species or an entire race.
Only what is not born does not die. And a central theme of all true teachings down the ages is this: that the ultimate reality of any human being is not its physical body, nor its accretions of possessions, nor its life story, emotions, opinions and beliefs - nor even its powers of thinking and knowing and creating; the ultimate reality is being itself, awareness itself, light itself.
What is true of individuals must be even more true of the whole of which those individuals are a part. If each individual human is a soul using a physical body as its vehicle, might it not also be true that humanity as a whole is a soul using the body of humanity as its vehicle. Just as a colony of ants is best understood by seeing it as a single organism, may not humanity be best understood by seeing it as a whole with this one difference, that each human soul is self-moved, which each individual ant is not.
In Alcibiades I, Plato examines the question – what kind of creature are we? Are we bodies? Are we souls? Are we a mixture of the two? The conclusion of that dialogue – that we are in truth soul and soul only – is reflected throughout all the writings of Plato and of the Neo-Platonists as well.
Proclus wrote in his commentary on that dialogue: (1) “The most peculiar and firm principle of all the dialogues of Plato, and of the whole theory of that Philosopher, is the knowledge of our own nature; for, this being established as an hypothesis, we shall be able accurately to learn the good which is adapted to us, and the evil which opposes this good..” (ed. emphasis)
If we think that our nature is essentially material we will be bound to believe that our best good is to be found in material things. This attitude has been growing in acceptance for hundreds of years, and today we could say that it is the attitude which dominates the worlds of science, of politics and of law. “We are material beings pursuing material goods for material fulfilment” – this is how it is, broadly speaking. The consequences of this belief are now becoming apparent; it underlies all the ills and difficulties we face, and it becomes increasingly clear that no lasting solution can be found on the level of that underlying mistake.
Philosophy tells us that we are not a body, but a soul; and that the good of the soul is entirely different from the good of the body it rides on. It also tells us that the lesser cannot satisfy the greater, and that we would do well to look to the well-being of the soul first and let material considerations take their proper place which is of course entirely valid but is also secondary and consequent.
It might also tell us that if, through unwise choices, mankind has rendered the form of its present embodiment unsustainable, then that form may be discarded and another form taken on. (This is something we might examine further in future issues of The Meadow.)
Philosophy – real philosophy – is always asking what is truly real, what is the truth of our nature, and where is our real good to be found. Any individual soul turning in that direction and opening mind and heart to the realities it will discover, cannot fail to gradually transform its own nature and, in the process, affect not only its immediate surroundings but also the nature of humanity as a whole to some extent. This is not only the best use of our energies, as Proclus says; it is also perhaps the only effective action we can take, as miniscule parts of the great whole, to bring real improvement to the present state of humanity. Clearly, this is no overnight solution; but neither are we living with an overnight problem. It has been slowly overwhelming us for many centuries and the reversal of the process may take just as long.
“With worthy men”, writes Proclus, “there is much of that which is within our power; for they use all things, modifying even those that are out of our power (i.e. things external to the soul) on account of virtue, and always adorning the present circumstance.”(2)
All the pieces in this issue of The Meadow bear directly or indirectly on this great endeavour of the soul.
1 Proclus, Commentary on the First Alcibiades, 1, (Works of Plato 1, TTS IX, p. 99).
2 Proclus Providence, Fate and That Which is Within our Power, 61,11 (TTS Vol XVIII p. 40).
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