PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 171 7th April 2012
I. 'Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?' by Peter Jones
II. 'Plotinus' Mystical Empiricism in Relation to the One' by Katelis Viglas
III. 'Spirit, Essence and Form in William Wordsworth's The Prelude' by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
In this issue of Philosophy Pathways we explore an area of philosophy which is lamentably underrepresented in the academic curriculum: One hesitates to use the term 'mysticism' which today has unwelcome associations. The term 'metaphysics' would be appropriate, had it not been taken over by philosophers in the analytic tradition to denote something much more limited in its scope and ambitions. I am talking about the ultimate, arguably perennial questions of existence: the relationship between the temporal and the eternal, the search for an understanding of the unity of all things.
Peter Jones, expanding on his ISFP Fellowship thesis, 'From Metaphysics to Mysticism: Exploring the Case for a Neutral Metaphysical Position' (isfp.sdf.org/essays/#jones) takes the editors of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics to task for offering a self-defeatingly negative characterization of the nature of metaphysical inquiry. The goal, he argues, can be nothing less than a fully consistent account of the nature of the world as a whole. There can only be one coherent metaphysical position. We reach that position by seeing that for every other more or less partial metaphysical theory, there exists an equally defensible refutation of that theory.
Katelis Viglas did his postgraduate studies at the School of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, writing his thesis on Neoplatonism. He has authored many articles on Byzantine Philosophy. Here, he offers an exposition of what he terms the 'mystical empiricism' of Plotinus. However, this isn't 'empiricism' as students of Locke, Berkeley or Hume would recognize it. The stress is not on given experience as the source of factual knowledge, but rather as something that links us to the ultimate source of all things in the One, that which cannot be literally described but only talked about indirectly, through dialectic and through metaphor.
In his second article for Philosophy Pathways, ISFP Board member Professor Pedro Blas Gonzalez of Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida offers an illuminating account of the metaphysical and mystical philosophy of Wordsworth in his great poetical work, The Prelude. Arguing forcefully that Wordsworth has been wrongly labelled as a 'Romantic poet', Professor Gonzalez describes the elements of a finely articulated philosophical view focused on the particularity of human existence and experience yet influenced strongly by the Platonic/ Neoplatonic tradition.
On the Anniversary of Wordsworth's Birth: 7 April 1770
I. 'IS METAPHYSICS A WASTE OF TIME?' BY PETER JONES
Metaphysics serves as a common foundation for the natural sciences and without it they would not, so to speak, have leg to stand on. So it is odd that these days the study of it is quite commonly dismissed as a waste of time. Perhaps to some extent this is a consequence of poor media management. Certainly a scientifically inclined layman reading the preface to the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics would have no difficulty in concluding that the subject is not worth their effort.
It is not an accident that none of the included essays
attempt to say what metaphysics is, to describe the methods
for doing it and the rules or criteria for assessing the
success of a metaphysical theory. For all such
metaphilosophical attempts have failed miserably.
It is not easy to see any other interpretation of this statement than that metaphysics is for people with nothing better to do. That such a statement can be approved for publication makes abundantly clear the failure of western academia to understand even the simplest thing about the metaphysics of the Buddha and Lao-tsu, perhaps even that there is such a thing, and it is even oblivious to important parts of the western tradition. Regardless, a person new to the topic, who might naturally assume that a respected publisher's general guide might be a good first book to tackle, would take it for granted that this statement is true, and if it is true then the rest of the book and the whole of the discipline would have to be a waste of time. If any doubts remain they are soon banished.
But the history of metaphysics, as well as the essays in
this volume, shows that one can successfully engage in the
metaphysical language-game even though one cannot
articulate the rules of the game in virtue of which we can
keep score and thus determine who wins and who loses.
It seems unlikely that many people would agree that engaging successfully in this sort of metaphysical language-game would be a worthwhile ambition or even a challenging one. A game for which nobody knows who is winning or losing with rules that cannot be articulated, if such a thing is logically possible, would be a game not worth playing. The next sentence nails the lid shut on the coffin.
Not all philosophers accept this favourable evaluation of
the history of metaphysics.
Not all philosophers would accept that this evaluation is favourable, and some would see it as a hatchet job. Those of us who see metaphysics as the only way forward for theoretical physics and consciousness studies, the only discipline capable of a fundamental theory, the only science with the tools to face up to the mind-matter problem fairly and squarely, must despair at the way in which metaphysics can sometimes be presented even by its friends. Many metaphysicians hold a very different view and would regard this characterisation of their field of study as unrigorous and misleading. Here is alternative view, one that is no less legitimate.
Metaphysics can be defined as the study of the world as a whole. The principal method by which it proceeds is that of dialectic refutation, the falsification of propositions concerning the world as a whole by the derivation of contradictions. It is by virtue of the rules for the dialectic that we decide which propositions are right and which wrong. The method works perfectly well and produces no results known to conflict with scientific observation or reported personal experience. By the use of this method, the rules for which were codified by Aristotle, metaphysics is able to determine that all metaphysical position except one are logically indefensible, can be logically refuted, are 'wrong' according to the rules. This may be its most important and best known result, and the main reason why metaphysics is so difficult to do in the first place. It is a result that we would expect, and it gives us confidence in our method, for there cannot be more than one correct metaphysical theory.
More specifically, metaphysics does not endorse a partial, selective or positive world-theory. This perennial result steers us towards a different kind of theory. The metaphysical scheme of the Buddha and Lao-tsu now becomes highly plausible, since it is not partial, selective or positive, cannot be refuted in the dialectic and is the only one left. It is not demonstrably correct and it never will be, but it is unique among metaphysical theories in that it is not demonstrably wrong. Thus, on this view, metaphysics is a quite straightforward study by which we eliminate logically indefensible theories to leave only those that might be correct, given only the starting assumption that the universe obeys the laws of dialectic logic or 'laws of thought'.
If we take this simple and more optimistic view of metaphysics then we can explain why so many people, even many philosophers, consider metaphysics to be unimportant or even pointless. The pessimism found in western metaphysics, well illustrated in the above extracts but prevalent across the literature, can be explained by the fact mysticism is widely considered to be a waste of time, or at any rate no solution for metaphysical problems. It must be seem clear to many metaphysicians that mysticism has no systematic metaphysic underpinning all its fine talk of cosmology and soteriology, and its metaphysical scheme is therefore little studied and a dismissive view of mysticism can persist in certain areas of metaphysics.
By leaping to this unverifiable conclusion metaphysics shoots itself in the foot, however, for if there is no systematic metaphysical theory underpinning the teachings of the Buddha and Lao-tsu then metaphysics can never have a solution for its problems and is bound to remain more or less useless for anyone not earning a living from it. It would be doomed to remain forever Kant's 'arena for mock fights', a phrase for which we might read 'waste of time'. Fortunately, however, it has never been shown that this view of mysticism is justified. This is to the credit of metaphysics. In metaphysics, if we play by the rules, we cannot dismiss the philosophical foundation of mysticism as either wrong or a waste of time since we cannot show that it would give rise to logical contradictions. All we can do is dismiss our method of refutation as a waste of time for failing to falsify it, as, in effect, the Blackwell Guide advises us to do. There is nothing to stop us doing this, but there is a high price to pay. Now we cannot complain when other people dismiss our discipline as unscientific or a waste of time, for it is we ourselves who have made it so. Were we to stick to our method and pursue our analysis to its bitter end then we would arrive where metaphysicians always arrive, at the conclusion that all positive metaphysical theories are unsatisfactory.
We now face a simple choice. We can choose to see this conclusion as a dead end, or we can see it as a secure fact from which to derive an extended metaphysical theory. That there is this choice divides discursive philosophy into 'eastern' and 'western'. The confusion and depression prevalent in our western metaphysics is not caused by its failure to produce a result but by its refusal to accept it. A claim that we have no rules for decision-making may allow us to avoid having to accept it, but this is a little like deliberately upsetting the board at the last minute to avoid losing at chess. Metaphysics is then reduced to the sham science described by the Blackwell guide to it. This metaphysics might be thought of as a waste of time, for while it is capable of establishing the problems of philosophy it rules out of consideration the only available solution for them. But this is not all of metaphysics, merely a particular approach to it, one we have known not to work at least since the days of Plato. In addition to this there is the metaphysics of Parmenides and Zeno, Heraclitus and Plotinus, Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Jung, Schopenhauer and Schrodinger, Bradley and Nagarjuna, Lao-tsu and the Buddha.
In answer to the question in the title, then, we could say that whether we see metaphysics as a waste of time will depend crucially on whether we accept its results or ignore them. In the western tradition they are ignored, thus the negative evaluation that even many metaphysicians award it, while in the eastern tradition they are accepted, and this would explain not only the greater optimism but also how it is possible that the metaphysics of the east can be so very different from ours that we may miss the fact that it would qualify as part of the same discipline. Having missed this, we are likely to find ourselves proposing that metaphysics is a language-game that cannot be won.
It may not be an easy concession to make, but once one gets past the idea that metaphysics has nothing to do with mysticism then it becomes easier to do. It would not be easy to thoroughly learn its history, understand all the various competing views that have accumulated over the centuries, and by the standards of most people one would have to be almost a genius to become a professor of it, but asking a metaphysical question and trying to answer is all that would be required for actually doing it, and asking a few of them soon brings us to the point where the two main traditions part company on how to interpret the failure of metaphysics to reach a positive result. Now we have found the exit from the arena and must choose whether to stay or leave, whether to accept this result or reject it. Once out, if we choose to leave, all theories except one can be abandoned and we can focus on reaching an understanding of just one.
When starting out it is almost certain that we will adopt a more a less correct method. Aristotle's rules for the dialectic are intended as a formalisation of the way in which human beings naturally and probably unavoidably think. They describe the way our minds work. So we need not study the method before getting started. My interest was initially sparked by the Something-Nothing problem, the question of whether the universe begins with, reduces to, is emergent from or simply is one or the other. In hindsight this was a fortunate place to start, since it is one of the most approachable of metaphysical problems and not as easy as some to overcomplicate. At least discussions of it tend to be more brief and straightforward than for some others, even if they are ultimately no less confusing.
Most people, if they ask themselves this question, will soon discover that the idea that the universe begins with Something or Nothing makes no sense. Both horns of this dilemma can be refuted in the dialectic, which is why it is a dilemma, and ideas that can be logically refuted never make sense to us. We may reach this conclusion after quite a short time and in quite an amateur way but we should not doubt that it is an important philosophical result. It tells us something quite extraordinary about the universe and about the way in which we think. Or, at least, it will if we trust our reason and accept it as a result. If we proceed in this fashion, approaching in turn the dilemmas of freewill-determinism, externalism-internalism, mind-matter, one-many, dualism-monism and so forth, then we will eventually end where everybody ends up, having to choose between the view that metaphysics and mysticism are in full agreement and that neither is a waste of time, or the view that metaphysics has no decision-making procedure and is a mock science, with the unavoidable implication that mysticism has no philosophical foundation and is also a waste of time.
It would not be difficult to verify the starkness of this choice for ourselves. There would be no need for us to work through all the different problems, as metaphysicians have already done all the hard work. All we need do is confirm that the Something-Nothing problem and all the other well-known ancient and venerable metaphysical problems remain as problems in metaphysics today, something we can do by reference to a general introduction, an online browse or perhaps even just by extrapolation from the preface to the Blackwell guide. If all these questions are still problems today, after centuries of painstaking analysis, then it can only be because all their positive answers break the rules of Aristotle's game such that they must be judged wrong.
That metaphysics has refuted all positive or partial metaphysical theories might be its proudest achievement. If the only alternative to such a position is the one endorsed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu, with all that this would imply for the natural sciences, the nature of reality and the meaning of life, it would be difficult to argue that metaphysics is not an important area of study. Only if we reject its conclusions would metaphysics have to become a snake-pit of competing theories none of which work, scorned by physics and scientific consciousness studies for its endless prevarication, absent of any method for making decisions or even of exiting the arena, rather than a quite straightforward discipline akin to mathematics that may be used to prove a result that we might have predicted, that all metaphysical theories save one give rise to logical contradictions, and also something more surprising, that the only one that does not is the 'doctrine of the mean', in philosophy a form of global compatibilism, as endorsed by all the world's principle wisdom traditions.
(c) Peter Jones 2012
II. 'PLOTINUS' MYSTICAL EMPIRICISM IN RELATION TO THE ONE' BY KATELIS VIGLAS
On close reading of the Enneads, the work written by Plotinus, we can see that the One, the ultimate factor in his system of hypostases, can be examined on the base of many concepts that are interwoven, creating many paths for approaching the divine level. Of course, since all the hypostases, Matter -- Nature -- Soul -- Intelligence, are dependent on the infinite power of the One, theoretically and practically everything can be related to the One or the God or the Good. But there are some modes of existence most related to the One, thus illuminating the Plotinian mystical empiricism. The One, on the one hand, is related to empiricism as It presupposes the immediate approach of It, being immanent and transcendent at the same time, and on the other hand, It is related to mysticism as It cannot be perfectly conceived and experienced otherwise than through the mystical union.
In the Plotinian ethical and metaphysical cyclic system, the One is the absolute creative power, while the matter can be characterized as non-being and evil, because of its remoteness from the prime principle. The kind of knowledge the One allows humans to obtain, presupposes the exercise of the moral faculties of the soul.
The Plotinian epistemological project begins by defining the ethical targets in life, and through a pedagogical procedure leads to an ascent into the higher levels of existence. The way of perceiving the sensible realities, bringing them to the intelligence, and connecting them with the memories of the world of ideas, cannot be separated from the imaginative faculty. The importance of the present instant in human life is not neglected since the Plotinian metaphysics aims at elevating it to eternity. The empowerment of life is a sine qua non, and is based on the spiritual exercises. The openness to the infinity was a new possibility, which characterized the pagan and Christian Monotheism of the era. The beauty of the sensible world is not disputed as it is an imitation of the intelligible realm. The ultimate metaphor taken from the sensible world for the representation of the One was that of the light and the sun, constantly repeated in the Western literature since the time of the Pre-Socratics, and it continued throughout the Middle Ages. Nothing can be compared with the light and the beauty of the One, as It provides the soul with the sense of mystery and wonder, in an experience similar to the initiation of the adepts in the mystery cults. To those who have the will, the only option is the anagoge to the intelligibles, where they can unite in ecstasy with the One, through an absolute flight of consciousness.
One's generative power
If the One is the absolute difference, which generates the world of the intelligible being and the sensible reality, It is as principle and generator of beings, as transcendence, staying always completely self-sufficient. The One is neither non-being nor being; it is an abundance of beauty and positive power. Only matter can be characterized as non-being, and as the world of action, is a shadow of contemplation and reason, a state of attenuation. Plotinus considers the One at top of the ontological climax, ranking hierarchically the hypostases. As regards the dynamic of his system of thought, there is the cyclic Neoplatonic process of 'progression-return-rest': One creates the hypostases as overwhelming entity, creating matter, which is as non-being as moving away from the One; and everything comes back to the source of everything.
This attitude is justified from the cosmological character of the One, because it hasn't any immediate influence to the sensible world, but only through the mediation of hypostases, making It a non-immediate productive power. The process of creation of the sensible world, through the Intelligence and the Soul, is the prerogative of the One, and this mediation can apply not only to the humanity, but clearly to the metaphysical world which is independent. So in the metaphysics of Plotinus the intelligible forms create the beings.
Approaching to the One
The One of Plotinus is the principle of everything (arche panton), that is, an enological principle. Thus, the epistemological approach of the One is difficult, since it is beyond the Intelligence, the simplest, and It can be partly approached through rational categories. Plotinus' syllogism seems to play with the words, when he tries to demonstrate the epistemological accessibility of the One. He says:
knowledge is 'one thing' (ena ti), but that is one without
the 'thing' (ti); for if it is 'one thing' (ena ti) it
would not be the 'absolute One' (autoen), for 'absolute'
(autoen) comes before 'something' (ti).
Granted this epistemological and discursive difficulty of approaching the One, it is not possible to find the words to speak about It, because 'we don't have It'. But is it possible to have It, if we cannot speak about It? Plotinus says that as those who have a god within them, and are in the grip of divine possession, may understand that they have something greater within them, even if they do not know what.
So we seem to be disposed towards the One, divining, when our intelligence is purified, that is becomes really internal. The One can generate for the soul both love and a nephalion methe, which is a kind of apathetic passion. Although the enthusiasm is indeed a situation related to the One, especially in the way we possess It, is connected with a logical sobriety, which enlarges at the same time the distance while trying to develop a relation with It. So the One of Plotinus causes a kind of enthusiasm, and this word in ancient Greek means that one is possessed by a god. Nevertheless, the One sometimes surpasses even the concept of deity, being a nameless entity.
Plotinus considered any artistic and literary activity of imagination in direct reflection of the ideas, and in some way connected to the One, but without giving to the artistic forms and structures the same ontological status as to what directly emanates from the One. The ultimate goal for Plotinus is the final release from the material elements, so as to ascent to the real Being, that is to the intelligibles, from which we fell down in the world of becoming; from the use, to go to the user, from the world of 'genesis' to return to the real destination, of which we bear a faint memory. In Plotinus' work, there is the function of the intelligible's memory by the soul, when it was in a state of bliss, before its fall to the bodies.
The experience of metaphysical instant was related with a change of the view of the world. At the time of Plotinus, there was the feeling that the instant, this very elusive, meets the magnificent and eternal. The question for Plotinus was how changing man can avoid a miserable daily life in order to achieve the experience of immortality, not just for a few moments, but forever; that is how he can immobilize time and ascent into the metaphysical level of all great human and divine beings. For Plotinus, it is the aim of Platonic philosophy to lead the soul to absolute calmness in the eternal intelligence. Time in the sense of historicity is not presented in the Enneads. The Judaeo-Christian meaning of historical time is entirely absent as well; myth and time are connected and are commented only by Soul's life. That was the way Plotinus succeeded in bridging the gap between the eternal and temporal, by the 'temporalization' (echronose) of the individual and catholic Soul.
An important dimension of mystical experience is its use as source of power for the people of the third century A.D., as being an answer to their need for vitality. The great natural phenomena lead to the traces (indalmata) of the One which are everywhere in this living organism, that is the world (zoon). The opening exists mainly for the metaphysical world, but without the present of the structure of the Roman state and the Greek Ecoumene, it ceases to exist as latent in the way the hypostases are organized. The challenge was to experience, through the civil, cathartic, theoretical, and paradigmatic levels of the four platonic virtues that are temperance, courage, justice, and prudence, a transfiguration of human life. The apotheosis of life is a metaphysical achievement of empowerment that leads to and is lead by Goodness.
One's infinite power, radiation and mystery
The primary unity of Being is infinite not by its magnitude or number but by its unintelligible possibilities; the Plotinian One is powerful in the same way that God is infinite in power. The aim was the concentration to this infinity in which the One is represented, in a journey of human soul. The One is above the Intelligence, nor does the word 'One' express it perfectly. It is the self-sufficient, the unintelligible or the super-intelligible, that which needs neither generation nor ignorance.
According to the Enneads when one goes beyond substance and thought, one arrives at something wonderful. The real beauty is normally placed by Plotinus near the One, inside the intelligible realm of Ideas, but sometimes he does not separate it from the super-intelligible. When the Soul is led to the One through the renunciation of earthly pleasures, it sees a heavenly vision, flooded with intelligible light, or rather pure light. For the highlighting of the greatness of the One, Plotinus uses the metaphysics of light. In other words, there is the mystic statement by Plotinus that the interiority is filled with light. The glorification of the One coincides with a constant reference to light, which is seen even when one closes one's eyes and rubs one's eyelids. The real light that radiates from the One is intelligible and pure without involving anything between it and the subject who sees. Once continuous vision is achived, the self is no longer hampered by any material barrier.
The One, apart from the morality it contains, possesses a place near Platonic Idealism as expressed in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. However, for Plotinus, although the One is mainly identified with absolute Goodness, the situation before the mystical union with it, in the threshold of Being and Intelligence is compared with the feeling of the sacred in the mystery cults. In Plotinus there is a desire in every being for the Good or the One (ou oregetai pasa psyche), the mystic language expresses for Plotinus the situation of mystical union; he says: pos tis theasetai kalos amechan on oion endon en agiois ierois menon ouden proion eis to exo ina tis kai bebelos ide. This is not just the feeling of beautiful or the Goodness, but of the absolute mystery of being, world and divinity. The specific sacred language of Plotinus, when referring to the union and rest into the One, suggests a sense of awe mixed with the fascination which was connected with the pagan religions and later with Theurgy. But the identification with the One signifies a surpassing even of the feeling of the sacred.
Flight to the ecstasy of the One
The function of anagoge is a common characteristic of the One, as far as opening the possibility of being accomplished in the timeless and spaceless interiority (eis to eiso epistrephein, kakei poiein ten prosochen). The main target of Plotinian philosophy was the love for the Good (o eros pros ten tou agathou physin), through the elucidation and the empowerment of consciousness and the pedagogy. So it can be considered as the one of the most important recorded elaboration of Antiquity, of a flight of consciousness, which appears in the Chaldean Oracles, the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Christian experience of deification as ecstasy in the present life, which will repeated very often in the Middle Ages, in the mystic literature. In Plotinus, the approach to the One is accompanied by ecstasy, simplification (aplosis), giving oneself over (epidosis), which presupposes the participation to the intermediate state of logical categories, of the sensible and intelligible world, as in Soul's journey back to the 'beloved fatherland' (pheugomen de philen es patrida), as in the process of creation of Being by the One.
Ecstasy and reduction to the absolute are not only a kind of escapism, but the approach to the real being, even if, by surpassing it, they attempt to progress beyond everything. The Neoplatonic sage tries to approach that which always slips past his attention, the undetermined One. To the extent that the One is found to be in that era not only at the highest level of thought, but at the limit of it as well, the One is unthinkable, incredible, beyond reality, filling at the same time a contradictory target: absolute stability through absolute escape.
By pointing out the above concepts, we did not aim to show the intellectualistic character of the Plotinian One, as being analyzed in and bound to a conceptual frame that would limit or illuminate Its complexity. On the contrary, most of the Plotinian concepts related to the One reveal Its practical and empirical aspect. The One is not an object of thought, It is beyond the Intelligence. Every effort to grasp Its specific character or to attribute permanent properties to It, it is destined to fail. Nevertheless, the mystical way of conceiving and experiencing the One, does makes It necessary to human beings because of their need for a horizon of infinity which by surpassing life, existence and thought, at the same time guarantees their openness to the unknown.
1. Enneads, VI.1-3. P. Henry and H.-R. Schwyzer, Plotini Opera. Porphyrii vita Plotini. Plotiniana Arabica/ ad codicum fidem anglice vertit Geoffrey Lewis, Museum Lessianum. Series Philosophica, 33, 34, 35, Editio maior, Vol. I-II, Desclee de Brouwer, Paris-Bruxelles, Vol. III, Desclee de Brouwer, Paris-Leiden 1951-1973.
2. Ibid., V.3.12.40-53. Cf. Plotinus, Enneads V.1-9, Transl. A. H. Armstrong, Harvard University Press/Cambridge Massachusetts -- William Heinemann LTD/ London 1984, 116.
3. Enneads, V.3.14.9-10.
4. Ibid., V.3.14.13-16.
5. Ibid., III.5.7.1-4; V.8.10.32-5; VI.7.35.23-7.
6. Ibid., VI.9.11.13.
7. Ibid., ?.1.3.20-26.
8. P. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Edited with an introduction by A. I. Davidson, Translated by M. Chase. Blackwell, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA, 1995, 259-260. It wouldn't be strange to think here the similar Christian view for the present time as the already from now eschatological experience. See E. R. Dodds, Pagans and Christians in an age of anxiety. Some aspects of religious experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, Cambridge University Press 1991 (1965), 98-100.
9. J. Guitton, Le Temps et l'Eternite chez Plotin et Saint Augustin. Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1971 (4ieme edition), 46.
10. Enneads, ???.7.5.
11. Ibid., I.9.6: megiston gar apanton ou megethei, alla (...) apeiron... to aperilepto tes dynameos.
12. Ibid., VI.7.40.27-28: all'epekeina exei ousias kai noeseos epi ti thaumaston.
13. Ibid., I.6.9.39-40.
14. Ibid., V.3.8.19-25: Epei kai entautha e opsis phos ousa, mallon de enotheisa photi, phos ora.
15. Ibid., V.3. 8.25-29.
16. Ibid., I.6.7.1-2.
17. Ibid., ?.6.8.1-6. The Six Enneads / Plotinus Transl by Stephen MacKenna and B. S. Page, Foreword by E. R. Dodds. Introduction by Paul Henry. Faber, London 1957, 78: 'How come to vision of the inaccessible Beauty, dwelling as if in consecrated precincts, apart from the common ways where all may see, even the profane?'
18. Enneads, V.1.12.14-15.
19. Ibid., III.5.4.24.
20. I. Couliano, Experiences de l'extase. Extase, ascension et recit visionnaire de l'hellenisme au Moyen Age, Payot, Paris 1984, 12sq.
21. E. R. Dodds, loc.cit., 98.
22. Enneads, I.6.8.16.
(c) Katelis Viglas 2012
Web site: http:---
III. 'SPIRIT, ESSENCE AND FORM IN WILLIAM WORDSWORTH'S THE PRELUDE' BY PEDRO BLAS GONZALEZ
My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So it is now I am a Man;
So be it when I am a Man;
So be it when I am old,
Or let me die!
The child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Much has been made by historians and literary critics about the alleged debt that Romantic poets and thinkers owe to the age of Romanticism. The prevalent view among many cultural critics has been to focus attention on the style and content of the work of the writers of that period in lieu of the spirit of the age. This seems reasonable. After all, it is an undeniable reality of human life that man must live during a given time and occupy a specific place, and that we either embrace, reject or live totally oblivious to some or all of the prevailing ideas, mores and customs of our time.
For a long time, literary and cultural critics have accepted this seemingly reasonable truism as a matter of course, one that is part of our quest to understand human cultural development. However, this basic tenet of what I will refer to as historical realism, has been increasingly exaggerated in recent times, and as a consequence has been deformed into destructive historicism. In many instances, this viewpoint has metamorphosed into a stale reductionism that has come to have little bearing on the work of many writers and thinkers that lived during the age of Romanticism.
In other words, writers and thinkers of what is considered the Romantic period have been pigeonholed to fit the constrained image that historicists have of them. The latter is essentially a viewpoint that holds that writers and thinkers create according to the age in which they live, and are often motivated to rebel against the preceding age. This, I will argue, is simplistic. In many regards, this viewpoint is more amenable to art history than it is to intellectual history. This is the case for several reasons. Suffice it to say that while art history depends a great deal on evolving artistic techniques and the evolution of the materials at an artist's disposition, the same cannot be said for the intrinsic purpose of aesthetic contemplation, the nature of transcendence, the interaction with the sublime, the discovery of objective principles, and essences that all great writers and thinkers address. The latter are all relevant characteristics that inform William Wordsworth's thought and poetry.
In many instances, historical reductionism only works to accentuate a stereotypical and cliched view of the age of Romanticism (1798-1823), one that may be more a product of the cultural biases of the current age, than it is an accurate portrayal of the Romantic period. A reductionist view of the Romantic age can only be accepted to a certain extent before the validity of such an interpretation becomes damaging to writers and thinkers and robs them of the merit of their individual voice. The latter naive interpretation of intellectual history fails to recognize the contributions that personal vocation makes to culture, civilization and the history of ideas. One can cite many anomalies in Romanticism that cannot, in good will, be easily explained away as being a mere reaction to the Enlightenment (1650-1700). In the case of William Wordsworth, a careful and sincere reading of his work, especially The Prelude, quickly dispels the many vacuous and irrelevant claims of historicists.
To make matters worse, because historicism, in all its variegated forms, has taken a markedly philosophical materialist direction in more recent times, whatever value one could formerly reap from historicity as a valid method of lived-historical analysis, like in the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey, for instance, has now been turned into an unimaginative handmaiden of philosophical materialism. Unfortunately, the latter brings with it many calamitous social/ political trappings that actually do much to negate the worth and impact of imagination and the creative process, and which ultimately undermine philosophical reflection altogether.
There is an abundance of such irregularities in Romanticism which negate the suggestion that that period simply came about as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. While it is correct to assume that the turn from objectivity to subjectivity is a central component of Romantic thought, this is by no means exclusive to Romanticism. Actually, the former is a concern that is encountered in the history of philosophy and the history of ideas dating back to Gilgamesh's search for immortality, for instance. In addition, respect for individual, concrete persons is another aspect of Romanticism that is not the discovery of Romantic thinkers. Again, these are two fundamental and recurrent themes that one encounters in Wordsworth's work.
Wordsworth's Encounter with Spirit
Perhaps it is appropriate that I begin my exposition of Wordsworth's The Prelude by citing another of his majestic works: 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.' This ode to immortality is a work that Wordsworth finished in 1804, during the period that he was writing The Prelude. This is significant because even though this is a much shorter, less autobiographical work 'Ode to Immortality' contains many of the central themes found in The Prelude.
It is not difficult for discerning, straightforward critics to realize that the creative process, much as is also the case in personal life, must eventually come to the stubborn realization that human existence must confront objective reality. It is for this reason that Wordsworth's reflection on the nature of the self eventually leads him to an encounter with spirit. The negation of the importance of spirit by some writers and thinkers is an aberration of cultural and intellectual history that appears to be more motivated by self-serving social/ political ideology than from an understanding of the role of spirit in human existence.
Reflections on immortality rarely make an impression on us when these are merely abstract in nature. What purpose can such abstractions serve? Wordsworth's thought, on the other hand, is profoundly metaphysical and existential, not abstract. His work never meanders far from the practical concerns of human beings as concrete persons. For instance, Wordsworth's many depictions of being in open fields -- in nature -- as he calls, only serve to heighten his awareness of his self:
On the ground I lay
Passing through many thoughts, yet mainly such
As to myself pertained.
Besides remaining vital in scope, this aspect of Wordsworth's thought has the added benefit of keeping him from falling prey to pedantry. By all accounts, Wordsworth's reflection and articulation of the question of immortality remains as personable as writing can attain to.
Also of tremendous importance to any accurate portrayal of Wordsworth's contributions as a poet and thinker, is his ability to tackle themes that make up the essential repertoire of the perennial philosophy. Among the prominent themes of philosophia perennis et universalis, one finds: the passage of time, self-realization and autonomy in individuals, transcendence, the nature of objective reality, Being as logos, and differentiated spirit as this is manifested in the cosmos. Conscientious observers of the history of philosophy will notice that the aforementioned themes have always made up the bulk of genuine philosophical reflection. At least as pertains to Wordsworth, any claim of these and other Wordsworthian themes as being merely part and parcel of the Romantic period, is simply an exaggeration.
Consider that the vast portion of The Prelude is a reflection on man in the cosmos, not just the world. Nature and the world serve as the vehicles for man's growth, and the pursuit of autonomy that spirit seeks. Wordsworth has a keen understanding of man's dual nature as spirit and flesh. This insight commonly goes unnoticed by many critics who merely concentrate on questions of poetics. Wordsworth's idea of man's attainment of self-knowledge -- what is auto-knosis -- is encountered by man's spirit as embodied flesh. That is, the cosmos, the world and human reality as we know it, all serve as the stage and setting for spirit to flourish or to become consumed by the banal aspects of day-to-day existence. For instance, this is the central theme of 'The world is too Much with Us,' where Wordsworth writes, 'The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.' Here the poet's lament is man's lack of perspicuity on matters of life and death regarding the fleeting nature of time.
Once again, we encounter the plight of spirit fighting objectification by the order of human reality and other people in 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.' In Part V of that poem Wordsworth offers us a glimpse of his metaphysical thought in vivid, vital language:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended:
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Far from being a spiritual tabula rasa, Wordsworth's conception of man as spirit is that of a being that brings with it at birth an essence that can only be fully manifested and ratified, as it were, in the arena that is the world. If birth serves as an anamnesis of our spiritual essence -- our nature -- as Wordsworth argues, then it seems appropriate to ask: What then is the role of the physical world in light of spirit? This is a thematic that we encounter in many other thinkers, from Plato, to Baltasar Gracian, to Schopenhauer, to Calderon de la Barca; the latter, who refers to life as a dream.
Much as some critics may be correct to argue that poets of the Romantic period shift their focus from the objective to the subjective realm, Wordsworth cannot be considered one of these writers. This is paradoxical, though. The only way that the differentiated subject, that is, the autobiographical commentator of The Prelude can even come to contemplate self-understanding and attain spiritual autonomy, is because the objective realm serves as the backdrop for spirit to possess itself. Very early on, In Book I of The Prelude, we hear the narrator mention spirit for the first time:
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services: great hopes were mine;
My own voice cheared me, and, far more, the mind's
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from them both
A chearful confidence in things to come.
Even as a young boy, the narrator discovers the dualistic nature of man. Drawing from the advice of both, spirit and mind, the narrator draws careful conclusions as to what direction to embark on. Here we encounter echoes of Parmenides' Fragments in 'The Way of Truth.' In essence, this challenge that the narrator accepts is a classic attribute of the spirit of philosophical reflection, whereby the seeker of truth allows himself to be guided by all of the tools at his disposition: spirit, reason and experience. However, contrary to the opinion of historical reductionists, this search makes for a rather more complicated approach to life, than, say, reducing all of human existence to one dimension or category.
We get a glimpse of this search by paying close attention to the joy that the narrator feels in setting out on his life-long search. The outcome of his search is anxiously anticipated because it promises to enlighten the narrator as to the objective nature of human reality. It is doubly important that the narrator seek the appropriate course of action; a false start will undoubtedly set the course of his life on the wrong track. Hence, the very understanding that the narrator has of being a 'chosen' spirit in his trek for truth is proof that spirit is differentiated. This condition makes spirit responsible for penetrating into the secrets that the order of the cosmos yields to those who cultivate self-knowledge. This is what Wordsworth means by nature. Nature -- the nature of reality -- is tantamount to being the order of objective reality, or stated in other terms, the order of things. Again, it is important to stress that if the narrator is singled out 'for holy services,' it is because this is a task that can culminate in the possession of objective understanding. This is the point in Wordsworth's thought when differentiated subjects and objective reality unite in a marriage of objective truth as the latter informs spirit.
However, a note of caution seems in order at this point regarding Wordsworth's idea of spirit. While it may remain tempting for some critics and commentators to equate Wordsworth's idea of spirit with Hegel's diffused and abstract notion of spirit, there is at least one major difference between the two that must be pointed out. Hegel's cosmic spirit which, he argues, is collective in nature, and which comes to full possession of itself as absolute spirit through a dialectical process, leaves no room for spirit as the differentiated entity that one encounters in beings of flesh and bones. For Hegel differentiated and autonomous beings are not capable of self-knowledge. In contrast to Hegel, spirit for Wordsworth is encountered by the subject, through what existentialist thinkers would later refer to as existential inquietude. The latter means personal longing. Unless spirit is understood as an originator and motivator of psychical processes, then it makes little sense to talk about overcoming strife and difficulty in human existence. What overcoming can there be if there is not a self-aware being to register, and thus to resist the objectifying force that human reality exerts on us? Consider the importance of the following lines in reference to spirit:
Into a steady morning: if my mind,
Remembering the sweet promise of the past,
Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,
Vain is her wish; where'er she turns she finds
Impediments from day to day renewed.
Spirit finds impediments everywhere in the objective realm and throughout all times of its embodiment in the flesh. The theme of human existence as heroic is one that man has confronted for as long as we have had the capacity for self-knowledge; Gilgamesh demonstrated this in his search for immortality, and Parmenides' seeker of truth is confounded by the sheer difficulty and teasing nature of truth as revealing-unrevealing. In addition, existential thinkers have even been known to become tormented by human-existence-as-resistance. Wordsworth enlightens us with this same line of thought:
The Poet, gentle creature as he is,
Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times,
His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Wordsworth's treatment of spirit throughout The Prelude is in-depth. It is beyond the scope of this essay to comment on the many instances that spirit is mentioned in the work. The Prelude is a reflection on human life as this is understood through the passage of time, and the latter's relation to differentiated and vital existence. Of course, what marks The Prelude as an original and insightful work is what Wordsworth means by 'nature' and 'life.' He does not offer the standard dictionary definitions that we are accustomed to.
The Romantic poets took nature to mean several things. Wordsworth, too, utilizes several variants of this word. Even when nature is taken to mean the natural processes of life on earth, Wordsworth manages to showcase man's ability for vital reflection and self-awareness as being extra-natural. Self-reflection, as this phenomenological process necessitates a greater understanding of human consciousness, separates man from the background of nature. Actually, the two most interesting renditions of nature that Wordsworth offers are: 1) Nature as the order of the cosmos, and 2) Nature as an omnipotent force that does not leave anything to chance. It is only when one understands the extent and significance of the latter two meanings of nature that a proper understanding of spirit in Wordsworth's work is possible. He reflects:
But I believe
That Nature, oftentimes, when she would frame
A favored Being, from his earliest dawn
of infancy doth open out the clouds,
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentlest visitation; not the less,
Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
Does it delight her sometimes to employ
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, and so she dealt with me.
Wordsworth explores the mystery of Being that informs nature in the act of 'framing a favorite being,' from the time of its infancy, to becoming a recipient of the logos of human reality. This passage serves as a significant philosophical reflection which demonstrates Wordsworth's turn from being a descriptive poet to his embrace of the lyrical magnitude that The Prelude attains to. Nature, when considered in any of her possible renditions, manages to awaken Wordsworth's narrator to the need for knowledge. However, not being one to settle for the kind of technical knowledge that science offers, the narrator turns the spark of knowledge that nature offers into wisdom and self-knowledge. So endearing and vital is the latter kind of knowledge that the narrator eventually comes to lament the loss of innocence. Nature acts as a guiding spirit that enables us to make coherent sense of the objective make-up of human reality.
Yet Wordsworth also entertains the question of just how much reality we are able to handle. This is when the loss of innocence is felt the most. Wordsworth addresses this question earlier than Nietzsche, for instance. 'Ode to Immortality' and 'Tintern Abbey' explore this theme. Self-knowledge, Wordsworth argues, comes about through the province of spirit. This is comparable to the Christian idea of Grace. In Wordsworth's work, imagination leads to knowledge, and knowledge to joy. On the other hand, Wordsworth reminds the reader that no one has ever suffered a loss of innocence by practicing the scientific method.
Essence and Form in The Prelude
It is not difficult to make the case that The Prelude is a work that conceives of differentiated human existence as an epic of man's vitality. An epic, of course, must take into account the passage of time, especially as this pertains to a given individual. I will argue that this aspect of Wordsworth's thought is a boon to the history of modern philosophy.
Book V, which is entitled 'Books,' looks at the great gulf that exists between book-knowledge and vital understanding. We ought not to forget that part of Wordsworth's genius as a thinker and writer is his ability to articulate the nature and role of spirit in human life. The narrator's descriptive dream of the Arab horseman is indicative of the nature of philosophical reflection as this is a tool in the service of vital, differentiated life. Wordsworth contrasts human existence as an epic -- one that is capable of self-understanding -- with its opposite: pedantry and intellectual bloating. Wordsworth's dream is akin to Coleridge's seer, the ancient mariner, and Nietzsche's Zarathustra. The horseman carries with him a book and a shell, symbols of science and poetry, respectively. The dream is an ominous one when man destroys himself due to a lack of self-knowledge. Book V of The Prelude explores the narrator's coming to terms with his understanding of the transitory nature of biological life:
In progress through this verse, my mind hath looked
Upon the speaking face of earth and heaven
As her prime Teacher, intercourse with man
Established by the sovereign Intellect,
Who through that bodily Image hath diffused
A soul divine which we participate,
A deathless spirit. Thou also, Man, hast wrought,
For commerce of thy nature with itself,
Things worthy of unconquerable life;
And yet we feel, we cannot chuse but feel,
That these must perish. Tremblings of the heart
It gives, to think that the immortal being
No more shall need such garments;
Of course, one would be remiss to consider Wordsworth's philosophical findings in The Prelude as being solely of subjective value, or even the much cited and cliched notion of the zeitgeist. Instead, Wordsworth's genius enables him to realize that objective reality is discovered by autonomous, independent thinkers. He also concedes that this often comes about as the result of tremendous personal sacrifice and suffering. Solitude and alienation in Wordsworth are coupled with the potential power over the self that self-knowledge enables us to achieve. Consequently, the latter, Wordsworth tells us, is blissful joy.
Many critics have failed to recognize that The Prelude demonstrates that the only reason that subjects can know anything at all, is because there exists objective knowledge in the first place. Stated in simple terms, the marriage of subjectivity and objective reality remains the stuff of which great artistic works are made. The vital-biographical growth that Wordsworth's narrator undergoes, whether this is Wordsworth himself or not, is not so important to the overall value of The Prelude as what the narrator uncovers in human reality that is transcendent in nature.
In Book I, the narrator tells the story of how he took a short trip in a shepherd's boat, a skiff that delivered him to an enlightening and mysterious lake. This story is important given that the shepherd metaphor is a prominent one in Wordsworth's thought. This metaphor is consistent with the solitary journey that all who embark in auto-knosis eventually encounter. Shepherds, by the very nature of their chosen work, must be independent thinkers. This is commensurate with the desire to remain objective, for the cost of self-delusion to life and limb in that line of work can be catastrophic. The shepherd must respect and embrace objective reality simply because his life may depend on his sincerity in remaining objective.
Moreover, the importance of that particular passage in Book I cannot be ignored as being simply a lively metaphor or an engaging poetic image. This passage is quite reminiscent of what one finds in Plato's Cave allegory and the allegory of the Sun and the Good. The sensual images of the lake, mountains and moon that the narrator describes on his short-lived excursion as he rows the skiff, are later transformed into mental forms. Wordsworth tells us how this takes place:
And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
This is a significant passage that early on in The Prelude helps to dispel what the author means by discovery: there can be no self-knowledge if we lack essential, transcendent knowledge. The narrator's short trip on the lake serves as a rite of passage that the narrator must undergo in order to proceed to a more vital form of self-knowledge. Of course, this form of knowledge comes to him after much reflection. Only then does the narrator begin to ponder the essential nature and importance of first-principles to human existence. Subsequently, the narrator comes to the realization that genuine understanding -- wisdom -- is a rite of passage that those who desire to 'see' must be willing to undertake if they are to attain knowledge of the sublime and transcendent. The aforementioned, Wordsworth suggests, are hierarchical in nature. Thus, it is not a coincidence that those who we call Romantic poets and thinkers possess the kind of time-tested awe and wonder that has delivered many a deserving thinker to wisdom. The narrator goes on to add:
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of Thought!
That giv'st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain,
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human Soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.
In Book I Wordsworth also suggests that form may be finite in nature. He wonders,
And there is there one, the wisest and the best
Of all mankind, who does not sometimes wish
For things which cannot be.
In addition, let us also consider the following lines:
In tranquil scenes, that universal power
And fitness in the latent qualities?
And essences of things, by which the mind
Is moved by feelings of delight.
The Prelude is a poetic odyssey that makes use of refined and sensitive language that tries to capture the nature of human existence. This is what great poetry accomplishes. Moreover, I will suggest that one of the characteristics that make The Prelude much more than a Romantic period work is Wordsworth's profound grasp of the importance of qualitative phenomena. However, because Wordsworth does not treat his seminal work as an essay in philosophy, many critics are quick to concentrate solely on the merits of the work as poetry. One way that Wordsworth compensates for this has to do with the sheer length of The Prelude. This is a very ambitious work by all accounts. With a length of 215 pages and 13 books, Wordsworth has ample time to contemplate themes that other writers articulate in essay form.
Wordsworth embraces questions relating to essence and form much in the same manner that the metaphysical poets did before him and T.S. Eliot in the twentieth century, especially the latter's Four Quartets. Neither the metaphysical poets nor Eliot can be considered Romantic poets.
Because The Prelude is a personal lyrical odyssey, one where the writer allows himself to be taken on a tour of life, as it were, his findings are those of a lifetime. Wordsworth's laboratory is no less than the daily dealings that he undergoes with the world of men and nature. This necessitates a sense of realism that is not easily associated with a poetic temperament. As the narrator advances through the many stages of his life, we witness how he changes from a callow young man into an experienced and wise exponent of differentiated spirit as the vehicle that propels human history. Yet nowhere in the The Prelude do we witness the narrator's understanding of human reality to deteriorate into destructive cynicism or skepticism. It is primarily for this reason that Wordsworth turns away from what he considers the superficial world of the social/ political. This break takes place for him after the downright hatred, resentment and envy that he witnessed during the French Revolution.
Wordsworth's wisdom can only be described, as all wisdom must, as being the gift of perspicuity. Rather than opting for the dead-end that is social-political ideology, Wordsworth begins to recognize the human world as being a kind of spectacle. What he notices most, and most importantly does so as a young man, is the great pride that most of mankind takes in saving appearances: giving each other baseless awards, etc. Wordsworth's perspicuity allows him to debunk the notion that what most men actually value most is the world of seeming and appearance, and thus the social/ political categories that so many people blindly embrace, and not the pursuit of truth. This attitude allows Wordsworth to sit back and take it all in, as it were. He writes in Book III,
I was the Dreamer, they the Dream;
Delighted, through the motley spectacle;
Gowns grave or gaudy, Doctors, Students, Streets,
Lamps, Gateways, flocks of Churches, Courts and Towers:
Strange transformation for a mountain Youth.
His discovery or awakening to the human world as a spectacle goes a long way in helping to explain Wordsworth's idea of human reality, and the extent to which most people care to embrace or reject it. The following lines make this line of thought clear:
At least, I more directly recognised
My powers and habits: let me dare to speak
A higher language, say that now I felt
The strength and consolation which were mine.
As if awakened, summoned, rouzed, constrained,
I looked for universal things; perused
The common countenance of earth and heaven;
And, turning the mind in upon itself,
Pored, watched, expected, listened; spread my thoughts
And spared them with a wider creeping; felt
Incumbences more awful, visitings
Of the unholder, of the tranquil Soul,
Which underneath all passion lives secure
A steadfast life.
One surprising and unintended consequence of being a seeker of truth, Wordsworth informs us, is the unpleasant discovery that many who merely pass themselves off as intellectuals are in reality little more than posers. Such intellectuals, I will argue, are mere scholastic technicians. In Book III, he tells us what a devastating realization this is to a young thinker. It also remains important to point out this central aspect of The Prelude because it allows us to link Wordsworth's world of appearance, what is literally the philosophical problem of 'the One and the Many,' with truth.
Again, I will reiterate that Wordsworth's work cannot be reduced to being a product of the Romantic period. The care that he takes to dismantle man's embrace of timely appearances helps to prove this. In addition, let us not confuse the words 'historicity' and 'historicism.' The latter can be directed at the fact that all thinkers must of necessity live in a place and time. This is merely to stress the obvious. However, historicism, which is the form of relativism that many reductionist critics have pegged on poets and thinkers from the Romantic era, simply does not stand up under scrutiny. Let us consider another fine example of Wordsworth's thought that addresses this concern:
If these thoughts
Be a gratuitous emblazonry
That does not mock this recreant age, at least
Let folly and False-seeming, we might say,
Be free to affect whatever formal gait
Of moral or scholastic discipline
Shall raise them highest in their own esteem;
let them parade, among the schools at will;
But spare the House of God.
Wordsworth eventually came to the realization that abstractions have no place in our search for truth. Turned off by the excesses and murderous abstractions that he encountered in those who fanatically embraced the French Revolution, Wordsworth had no choice but become reticent of the dangers of abstraction in our ability to live as independent and autonomous beings who respect the limitations of the human condition.
The last three books of The Prelude do a marvelous job of embracing objective forms and essences as being two of the tried-and-tested, fundamental principles of human reality. He says the following about the French revolution:
This was a time when, all things tending fast
To depravation, the philosophy
That promised to abstract the hopes of man
out o his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth
For ever in a purer element
Found ready welcome.
Wordsworth goes on to contrast the blind frenzy that is cast on youth and those whose understanding never progresses beyond the practice of sophomoric whims, with the delight that those who have come to possess self-knowledge, feel. He adds:
But, speaking more in charity, the dream
Was flattering to the young ingenuous mind
Pleased with extremes, and not the least with that
Which makes the human Reason's naked self
The object of its fervour. What delight!
How glorious! in self-knowledge and self-rule,
To look through all the frailties of the world.
Wordsworth captures form and essence by contrasting these with the fleeting order of time. The bard treats lived-time as an instance, a moving image of eternity as sub specie aeternitatis. This is way he shows great disregard for the, 'pompous names/Of power and action,' which distract man from contemplation of the sublime. It remains the task of individuals who have been touched by a divine vocation to uncover the seemingly invisible world of form and essence that is hidden beneath the veneer of material reality. Wordsworth is very clear in this regard. He reminds us of the vocation that some poets and thinkers possess in uncovering form and essence in Book XIII, when he writes:
They need not extraordinary calls
To rouze them, in a world of of life they live,
By sensible impressions not enthralled,
But quickened, roused, and made thereby more fit
To hold communion with the invisible world.
Such minds are truly from the Deity,
For they are Powers; and hence the highest bliss
That can be known is theirs, the consciousness
Of whom they are, habitually infused
Through every image, and through every thought,
And all impressions; hence religion, faith,
And endless occupation for the soul
Whether discursive or intuitive.
The Prelude comes to an end much as it begins, with the illumination that awe and wonder -- what amounts to an essential form of vocation that only some individuals care to cultivate -- uncovers in the loud and dusty, everyday-doings of a world that is always too much with us.
1. William Wordsworth. The Major Works. Edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 246.
2. Mary Moorman. William Wordsworth: A Biography: The Later Years 1803-1850 (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1965).
3. The Major works, p. 377.
4. Ibid., p. 270.
5. Ibid., p. 299.
6. Ibid., p. 376.
7 Parmenides of Elea. Fragments. Edited by David Gallop (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), p. 49.
8. The Major Works, p. 378.
9. Ibid., p. 378.
10. Ibid., p. 384.
11. Ibid., p. 434.
12. Ibid., p. 385.
13. Ibid., p. 385
14. Ibid., p. 392.
15. Ibid., p. 401.
16. Ibid., p. 405.
17. Ibid., p. 407.
18. Ibid., p. 415.
19. Ibid., p. 552.
20. Ibid., p. 553.
21. Ibid., p. 570.
22. Ibid., p. 581.
(c) Pedro Blas Gonzalez 2012