The Ideal of Hierarchy
by David A. Beardsley
This work is copyrighted © 2013 under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience
The sense-objects are higher than the senses, and the mind is higher than the sense objects; but the intellect is higher than the mind, and the Great Soul is higher than the intellect. Katha Upanishad (I:3,10), trans. Swami Ghambirananda
I will grant this is rather a clunky title, but it comes closer than the alternatives– scale, continuum, ascent, ladder, gradation–to describing what I wish to talk about. As an organizing system for human interactions, the hierarchy is ubiquitous throughout history, in governments, the military, businesses, institutions of most every kind. As a structure to carry out a particular mission, its success is evident–there are those who have the power and give the orders, and those who have less (or none) and carry them out. Over time, though, they tend to collapse under their own weight. This structure also exists in philosophical schools as well as in our own belief systems, and this is what I would like to concentrate on.
Originally applied to a person, a hierarch or kind of a chief priest, from hier (“sacred”), and arché (“ruler”), in its more general usage it applies to any ordered system in which the “lower” elements are dependent on the “higher” elements for their existence. Almost everyone knows that in Plato’s hierarchy, the Ideal or the Intelligible is contrasted with and superior to the material or the visible, but it is at the same time more complex and more simple than that.
But first, a few points of clarification. I would say that citizens of liberal democracies, starting with the 5th century BC Athenians, have a deep distrust of of hierarchies as a result of having suffered through their excesses. It seems as if every human institution goes through a period of extreme hierarchy, with one or a few powerful archons at the top, and the rest of its populace relegated to second or third class citizenship. We need look no further than all of Greece at that time–even Athens at certain points–any monarchy or tyranny, most religious systems: chief priest, priesthood, hierophants. Usually, infidels, or “the other” are also an important component. The tyranny is perhaps the most extreme form of hierarchy, and Plato ranked it as worst in his own classification of governments, but he was also wary of the “tyranny of the mob,” as he thought of democracy.
Over time there is a tendency for the power to be taken, by force or non-violent means, by the people, the “lower” elements. Some monarchies manage this better than others and stay in power longer–think of the British–but they do so by relinquishing real power, and becoming essentially wards of the state. At the least, though, order is maintained, unlike, say, revolutionary France which descended into a period of chaos and horror (“Aprés moi, le deluge”) before emerging into another monarchy. The American revolution and subsequent democracy has long been seen as a glaring or glowing exception to this general rule.
This same process can be seen in other fields; for example, information technology. When computers first appeared, they were huge mainframes attended by a priestly class of programmers. After some time they began to be networked, the mainframes connected to dumb terminals. Then the terminals got smarter. Little by little, this distributed intelligence became the dominant model, to the point now where we can carry in our shirt pockets smart “phones” that have way more power than those first mainframes, whose function has been taken over by the “cloud.” These computers now speak our language rather than we having to learn theirs. We are still connected through the crowd in the cloud, but usually this connection is seamless and invisible. We have gained a certain degree of power–I am able to distribute this essay because of it–but we have paid a price in terms of sheer quantity of information, most of which goes undigested because of a shortened attention span. We seek minute-by-minute updates from our friends and of the news, but at the price of wisdom. (Each update is accompanied by an advertisement, of course, so we come to be defined primarily as consumers.) We can transmit messages instantly around the world, but have lost our ability to say anything that will last.
I am certainly not claiming that more hierarchical systems are in any way preferable; in fact all of the writers in the Ideal tradition depended to some extent on the freedom of thought and expression that is valued in “flatter” structures. Many had to dance around the dogmas held by the establishments of their time, and Emerson had to leave the ministry because he couldn’t hold to its rituals. There is a balance to be had which allows the “wisdom tradition” to be maintained and transmitted, and not disregarded because it is “ancient history.” A tradition that appreciates that Plato’s Ideal is not a mental abstraction he thought up one day, but a real “place” that can be known as the causal form of our individual beings. A tradition that teaches that we are not alienated consumers, but that each of us is a particle of the Ideal, and are in fact not differentiated from it. Each a bit of distributed intelligence, if you will.
We’ve seen that one of the first hierarchies in the West was that of the Greek pantheon, and this served as a model for the more or less tyrannical structures of most Greek city-states. Zeus was the undisputed “archon,” surrounded by an inner circle of close relatives, and then other layers of gods and goddesses with narrower spheres of influence. This was followed by a level consisting of titans, furies, sprites and monsters, but also some human heroes. At the bottom was the rest of humanity whose function was to fear and worship the higher-ups.
This division of the universe into the invisible realm of the gods and the material realm of humans is mirrored in the descriptions given by many Pre-Socratic writers, who used this analogy to help us understand what cannot be seen. One who preceded Plato was Empedocles who saw the condition of the world as one moving between Love (φιλία, philia) and Strife (νεῖκος, neikos). Love is that state of Unity that produces the four basic elements of earth, air, fire and water, which combine in various forms and produce various degrees of neikos. Although it can never be pure, the state of Chaos (χάος, kaos) represents the furthest extreme of Strife, with the elements warring with each other, lacking the unifying power of Love. It is not necessarily disorder in the sense that we use the word, but can also represent the state of undifferentiated raw materials from which the world, and our thoughts, are made. We as humans can locate ourselves (if we care to) at some point on this continuum, and also see which direction we are facing.
As we’ve seen from the example of Odysseus, this analogy also serves as a structure for the hero’s quest in many mythological traditions. The hero may begin in a state of Love, but something pulls him away and he must journey into the land of Strife, from which he returns, transformed, with a more profound sense of Unity, rather like the caterpillar that completely dissolves inside its cocoon and emerges as a more beautiful butterfly.
Perhaps the best known of these hierarchical formulations is the “Divided Line,” from the Republic by Plato. Although it is quite logical and orderly, Plato’s (through Socrates) description is rather dense, and I hope you will forgive my presumption in adding some of my own interpretation to it. Socrates is explaining to his interlocutors, Glaucon and Adeimantus, why philosophers should be the kings (archons) of the Republic: it is because of their special knowledge of the Good (ἀγαθοῦ, agathou) or the Ideal (ἰδέα, idea), without which knowing everything else is useless (Socrates: “Or do you think there is any profit in possessing everything except that which is good, or in understanding all things else apart from the good while understanding and knowing nothing that is fair and good?” (Rep. 6:505b)) Plato makes the basic analogy between the Good and the “child (or offspring) of the Good”–the sun. The sun is the counterpart in the visible world of the Good in the nonvisible. Just as the sun is the cause of the things we see in its light, the Good is the cause of the “things” we know in mind.
“The sun, I presume you will say, not only furnishes to visibles the power of visibility but it also provides for their generation and growth and nurture though it is not itself generation.”
“Of course not.”
“In like manner, then, you are to say that the objects of knowledge not only receive from the presence of the good their being known, but their very existence and essence is derived to them from it, though the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power.” (Rep. 6:509b)
He then elaborates the two basic divisions:
“You surely apprehend the two types, the visible and the intelligible.”
“Represent them then, as it were, by a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio (the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order), and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images. By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth and bright texture, and everything of that kind, if you apprehend.”
“As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.” (Rep. 6:509d-610a)
So Plato has set up a two-part hierarchy, the visible and the intelligible, each of which also has two parts. In one part of the visible realm, there are the actual objects we see in the world and in the other their shadows or reflections. What we have then is one set of things that are “real,” and another that is their reflection, and which is dependent on it for its (apparent) existence. Take away the object and its shadow disappears also.
Fair enough, but now it gets a little more complicated. Plato makes the same distinction for the intelligible realm, using geometrical objects.
“Consider then again the way in which we are to make the division of the intelligible section.”
“In what way?”
“By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumptions from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning or principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas.” (Rep. 6:510b)
At which point Glaucon, I think speaking for all of us, says: “I don’t fully understand what you mean by this.” So after a little more explanation Socrates says:
“Understand then,” said I, “that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which the reason itself lays hold of by the power of dialectics, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting-point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas moving on through ideas to ideas and ending with ideas.” (Rep. 6:511b)
Not a whole lot better, but I think what Socrates is saying is that there is a realm of mental objects (noumena) which he generally calls assumptions or hypotheses (hypo, “under,” and thesis, “placing”). These can be drawn and demonstrated, and are themselves the “causes” of the objects in the visible realm. In geometry, they are “true,” but not self-evident; they can require proofs, such as in the case of the Pythagorean theorem, but once proven they can become the starting-point for further arguments and proofs. As thoughts, each of them exists as an intelligible “form” in the way an object–say a teapot–exists in the mind of of the potter before she makes it.
But these shapes or thoughts, which we normally think of as ultimate, are themselves reflections of the pure forms that exist in the highest realm of the intelligible. These forms are axiomatic, from ἀξίωμα (āxīoma, “to deem worthy” or “require”), and can be approached only through dialectic, a “talking-through.” This is the realm of reason and of “pure ideas moving on through ideas to ideas and ending with ideas.” Still rather abstract, but that is because we normally are not aware of the presence of this realm, which corresponds to the sun in the previous analogy–it is the medium that allows us to see and “manipulate” these objects of mind; consciousness itself. The different hypotheses that are maintained by the mind (and these also consist of our own ideas about what we are) are not truly first causes:
“…the soul is compelled to employ assumptions in the investigation of it (this class of the intelligible), not proceeding to a first principle because of its inability to extricate itself from and rise above its assumptions, and second, that it uses as images or likenesses the very objects that are themselves copied and adumbrated by the class below them, and that in comparison with these latter are esteemed as clear and held in honor.” (Rep. 6:511a)
This is obviously not going to win any Strunk and White awards, but I think it may be seen more clearly with an example (or hypothesis): If I ask who or what you are, you may respond with any number of descriptions probably centered around your lineage (name, race), sex, hometown (if elsewhere), and go on from there to your occupation, hobbies, etc. These can all be seen as hypotheses or assumptions. I could demand proof by asking to see some kind of identification card or demonstration of your skill at stamp-collecting. This level of assumption though is “higher” than the level on which activities take place in the physical world. Your actual collecting of stamps is dependent on your self-identification as a stamp collector.
But if I ask if you are–whether or not you exist–you can have only one answer: yes. This is axiomatic, a “first principle,” and cannot be disputed: I am, therefore I think. Your other self-descriptions can be disputed–they all follow from the fact of your existence and can change over time. They constitute the (frequently wrong) “assumptions” we make about other people before and sometimes after we meet them, and prevent us from seeing them primarily as beings who have, as Marcus Aurelius says, “…a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” (Meditations, II. 1) These assumptions are just the imaginings of the mind, often obscured by the clouds of our own desires for people to be a certain way, and they cut us off from the realization of our common Being.
And it should be said that it is not just our “hypotheses” about others that are limiting–the ones we hold about ourselves are perhaps worse. Our minds provide a steady stream of assumptions that help us create and maintain our own “identity:” race, gender, sexual orientation, religion (or not), political beliefs, talents, ambitions, fears, desires and on and on. But we cannot see them as such “because she (the soul) is unable to rise above the region of hypothesis,” to realize that there is a state of Being without descriptions or limitations–kind of like the one we knew as children before the adults got their hands on us. It provided a way of Knowing without examples or hypotheses. And I would also say, a way of Happiness that is not pleasure, and which does not depend on circumstances. This state, which Plato calls “intellection or reason (noesis)” is non-dependent and closest to the Good.
Another way of seeing it is that we all have thoughts and desires, which we may call hypotheses, playing constantly in the mind, but we also have something that is capable of observing them. When this occurs–and we cannot say how it does–we can see their enervating effect, how they function as background noise to our true song. Resting in that state of observation, we also know that it exists as a refuge from that noise, and offers the constant possibility of rising above it. As Emerson says, “When the act of reflection takes place in the mind, when we look at ourselves in the light of thought, we discover that our life is enbosomed in beauty.” (Spiritual Laws)
So Socrates has created a scale or hierarchy, starting with this first principle of the Good, and followed by others, each of which is derived from the one immediately preceding it. It can be summarized:
1. νόησις, noesis, Philosophical knowledge, Reason. Ideas or forms.
2. διάνοια, dianoia, Mathematical knowledge, Understanding. Mathematical forms.
3. πίστις, pistis, Beliefs. Physical objects.
4. εἰκασία, eikasia, Opinion. Shadows or reflections.
This scale is further illustrated immediately after by Socrates in Book 7 with his famous Allegory of the Cave. We needn’t repeat it here, but just say that it makes more vivid (and human) this journey from the illusory world of shadows up to the world of the soul’s sunlight where it “would be able to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.” (Rep. 7:516b) One would be able to see the Good itself, “the universal author of all things beautiful and right.” It is this move from identification with our thoughts to the realm of the Ideas that produces them that constitutes our spiritual work. But it is fear of the unknown that holds us back, even though that realm we seek is the source of all peace and love, and the elimination of all fear.
It should be mentioned that this description in spatial or temporal terms can create its own hypothesis, which can be taken up by the discursive mind as something else to be thought about. We should remember that this state of Reason (as distinguished from reasoning) is always available to us–it can be known at any moment–although for most of us it does require the work of seeing through all the supposed barriers in our way. It consists of learning to discriminate between the true/eternal, and the limited/temporary at each moment. The usual ideas we hold are not really “false”–just not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
It also should be mentioned that this hierarchical image is used in Plato’s Symposium to describe the ascent of the soul from a self-centered fixation on one particular instance of beauty (often a person) through more expansive examples up to the universal and eternal “sea of beauty.” But again, because we remain focused on beautiful things rather than the Beautiful itself, few of us ever get there in person.
If I may be permitted one more analogy, I think what Plato is describing is a kind of spiritual centrifuge, with the Good at its center and increasing degrees of density as we go toward the perimeter. Our own enlightenment depends at any point on what position we occupy on this continuum, and which direction we are facing. As Plato says, “they participate in clearness and precision in the same degree as their objects partake of truth and reality.” (Rep. 6:511e)
It should be said that Plato refuses to allow himself to be pinned down to something that could be taken as dogma, and in other places he uses different analogies to describe these different levels. I think he is only too aware that these Ideas, falling into the wrong minds, will then fall down the scale and become objects of belief, or god forbid, opinion. And this is to a large extent what happened; after the death of Plato, his work was carried on by men who were capable, but not as visionary, and his Ideas themselves became hypotheses–something to be taught and discussed rather than pursued and experienced directly. But occasionally someone would appear who saw the reality behind them, and it is to them that we now turn our attention.
Plotinus, who lived in the 3d century in Rome is credited with reviving Platonism, although it is obvious from his writing that he has his own experience of the Good and is often using Plato’s terminology just for convenience. As Pierre Hadot says in Plotinus: The Simplicity of Vision,
Plotinus expresses his inner experience in terms consonant with the Platonic tradition. He situates himself and his experience within a hierarchy of realities which extend from the supreme level–God–to the opposite extreme: the level of matter. According to this doctrine, the human soul occupies an intermediate position between realities inferior to it–matter and the life of the body–and realities superior to it: purely intellectual life, characteristic of divine intelligence, and, higher still, the pure existence of the Principle of all things. (p. 26)
Although Plotinus is obviously aware of the different hierarchies proposed by his predecessors (Enn. V:I, 8-9) he does not allow himself to follow their or Plato’s pattern slavishly. He usually does not even deign to acknowledge the physical world in his formulations, as befitting someone who was said “to be ashamed of his body.” His teachings are of hierarchies that are within. Again, Hadot:
The point that interests us here, however, is that all this traditional terminology is used to express an inner experience. All these levels of reality become levels of inner life, levels of the self. Here we come upon Plotinus’ central intuition: the human self is not irrevocably separated from its eternal model, as the latter exists within divine Thought. This true self–this self in God–is within ourselves. During certain privileged experiences, which raise the level of our inner tension, we can identify ourselves with it. We then become this eternal self; we are moved by its unutterable beauty and when we identify ourselves with this self, we identify ourselves with divine Thought itself, within which it is contained. (p. 27)
Plotinus himself recounts his own “privileged experiences:”
Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme: yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be. (Enn. IV:VIII, 1)
He is back in the world of “placing under.”
Plotinus has a rather complex and inconsistent teaching about the levels of Being, which is not to say that they’re unworthy of consideration. His terminology and descriptions may be “consonant with the Platonic tradition,” but they are fluid and also impossible to pin down–which may be his point. Since the One (the term he uses most often for the Good) transcends time and space and our usual categories of understanding, we cannot hope to reduce it to an object of thought. And since his writings run to tens of thousands of words, it is impossible to reduce his ideas to a neatly ordered table. There is also the consideration that as far as we know, Plato wrote all his own works in his own hand, whereas Plotinus wrote some of his own works (with a noteworthy disregard for the niceties of Greek grammar) but many others were essentially transcribed from lecture notes by his student Porphyry. Plotinus is a prime example of what Emerson had in mind when he said, “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then?” (Self-Reliance) Plotinus never really contradicts himself, but those looking for a neat system must go elsewhere.
Still, certain generalities can be made, and they all resolve into what Plotinus calls The One. It is the first of three “hypostases” (hypo, “under” + stasis, “position, state”), or substrates, which compose the Divinity: the One (or the First), the Divine Mind (or the Intellectual-Principle), and the Soul (or World-Soul). In perhaps his most succinct statement on the matter he says:
It is precisely because that is nothing within the One that all things are from it: in order that Being may be brought about, the source must be no Being but Being’s generator, in what is to be thought of as the primal act of generation. Seeking nothing, possessing nothing, lacking nothing, the One is perfect and, in our metaphor, has overflowed, and its exuberance has produced the new: this product has turned again to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle.
That station towards the one [the fact that something exists in presence of the One] establishes Being; that vision directed upon the One establishes the Intellectual-Principle; standing towards the One to the end of vision, it is simultaneously Intellectual-Principle and Being; and, attaining resemblance in virtue of this vision, it repeats the act of the One in pouring forth a vast power.
This second outflow is a Form or Idea representing the Divine Intellect as the Divine Intellect represented its own prior, The One.
This active power sprung from essence [from the Intellectual-Principle considered as Being] is Soul.
Soul arises as the idea and act of the motionless Intellectual-Principle–which itself sprang from its own motionless prior–but the soul’s operation is not similarly motionless; its image is generated from its movement. It takes fulness by looking to its source; but it generates its image by adopting another, a downward, movement.
This image of Soul is Sense and Nature, the vegetal principle. (Enn. V:2,1)
It is from this “All-Soul” or “soul-entire,” that individual human souls descend.
In the Intellectual, then, they remain with soul-entire, and are immune from care and trouble; in the heavenly sphere, absorbed in the soul-entire, they are administrators with it just as kings, associated with the supreme ruler and governing with him, do not descend from their kingly stations: the souls indeed [as distinguished from the kosmos] are thus far in the one place with their overlord; but there comes a stage at which they descend from the universal to become partial and self-centred; in a weary desire of standing apart they find their way, each to a place of its very own. This state long maintained, the soul is a deserter from the All; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weakened, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole, it nestles in one form of being; for this, it abandons all else, entering into and caring for only the one, for a thing buffeted about by a worldful of things: thus it has drifted away from the universal and, by an actual presence, it administers the particular; it is caught into contact now, and tends to the outer to which it has become present and into whose inner depths it henceforth sinks far.
With this comes what is known as the casting of the wings, the enchaining in body: the soul has lost that innocency of conducting the higher which it knew when it stood with the All-Soul, that earlier state to which all its interest would bid it hasten back.
It has fallen: it is at the chain: debarred from expressing itself now through its intellectual phase, it operates through sense, it is a captive; this is the burial, the encavernment, of the Soul.
But in spite of all it has, for ever, something transcendent: by a conversion towards the intellective act, it is loosed from the shackles and soars–when only it makes its memories the starting point of a new vision of essential being. Souls that take this way have place in both spheres, living of necessity the life there and the life here by turns, the upper life reigning in those able to consort more continuously with the divine Intellect, the lower dominant where character or circumstances are less favourable. (Enn. IV:8,4)
As we’ve seen elsewhere, events over the next couple of hundred years replaced the Platonic conception of hierarchy with the Christian, with which there are many parallels: God, the Trinity, Archangels, angels, saints, man, other creatures. But with the rise of Christianity, other schools of thought (αἵρεσις, hairesis, “chosen school”), became, well, heresies, and with the closing of the “pagan” schools in 529 by the emperor Justinian I, they were dissolved or forced underground.
Or they became Christianized. The Roman Catholic church was and is of course heavily hierarchical, and writers in the Ideal tradition learned to couch their views in words that would be acceptable to it. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example can be seen as an elaborate retelling of the cave allegory, ascending from the darkness of ignorance to the light of consciousness, using the Christian hierarchy of Hell (Inferno, Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). Marsilio Ficino postulated that there was an Eternal which radiated Love and by which we are drawn back to it.
The church also taught a hierarchy of sin–serious cardinal sins such as blasphemy and murder, as well as less serious venial sins. There are seven deadly sins and seven corresponding virtues, which are useful and provide a good example of the kind of categories required to maintain a corporate structure independent of the people who populate it.
But I’d like now to look at what can be seen as an inner ethical hierarchy, whose structure is rooted in Christianity, but which defies rigid classes. This “system” permeates the works of Shakespeare, offering a model for human interactions that is not based on the idea of sin and fear of eternal punishment. For what follows I am of course deeply indebted to John Vyvyan’s analysis of the Shakespeare plays from The Shakespearean Ethic. It is little else than a summary of his penetrating insights.
Vyvyan sees Shakespeare as constructing a moral continuum that runs from love and grace at one end to alienation and death at the other. (The similarities to Empedocles’ Love and Strife are obvious.) All his characters reside somewhere along this continuum, and are facing and moving in one direction or another. As Vyvyan says, “Shakespeare is never ethically neutral. He is never in doubt as to whether the souls of his characters are rising or falling.” (p. 11)
First Vyvyan considers the tragedies, and describes the downward journey made by some of his most memorable characters–Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear. They are shown as “progressing” systematically, although not inevitably, through the stages that lead to their doom. As Vyvyan says, “It is sometimes said that the downward path is easy; it is not. Love must be fended off at every step.”
Here is his description (p. 5):
First: We are shown a soul, in many respects noble, but with a fatal flaw, which lays it open to a special temptation.
Second: The ‘voices’ of the coming temptation are characterised for us, so that we may have not doubt that they will persuade to evil.
Third: There is a temptation scene, in which the weak spot of the hero’s soul is probed, and the temptation is yielded to.
Fourth: We are shown an inner conflict, usually in the form of a soliloquy, in which the native nobility of the hero’s soul opposes the temptation, but fails.
Fifth and Sixth: There is a second temptation and a second inner conflict, of mounting intensity, with the result that the hero loses the kingship of his own soul.
Seventh: The tragic act, of act of darkness.
Eighth: The realisation of horror.
Not a journey any of us would make if we saw the full itinerary, of course, but we seem to think we can hover around steps three and four without consequence. And although we will not kill anyone, it can be said that we have all lost the “kingship of (our) own soul,” and there are any number of acts of darkness of which we are capable. We like to think of ourselves as nice people who wouldn’t do anyone harm, but as the song says “If it wasn’t for bad, you’d be good.” If we are not on the path to unity, we are on the path to multiplicity. We allow our egos to indulge in continuous thought-streams of self-superiority, criticism, self-justification and envy. (We reserve our love for those who share our genes or opinions.) Because everyone seems to do it, we are not aware of the corrosive effects of these dark acts on our own souls. But “…a soul that makes itself the grave of love inevitably becomes the womb of hate.” (p. 44)
This elicits a point that I hope is evident in Vyvyan and from these essays: that they are not just about Plato or Emerson or Shakespeare. They are about us and the choices we make. Each choice has an effect, but we rarely see that by desiring the consumer goods with which we’re bombarded, getting angry with the car that cuts us off in traffic, feeling a degree of lust for that good-looking body walking down the street, we are giving into temptations whose effect is to keep us alienated from the kingdom of the soul. We do a less obvious version of this descent throughout the day, but the result is the same. And believe me, I count myself among those treading that path.
But the news is not all bad. “Spiritual power is always paramount; and when it is invoked, in the right way, it can arrest the tragic course.” (p. 68) What Shakespeare invokes as an antidote is the principle of “creative mercy.” This is not a not just a closing of one’s eyes to injustice, but a realization that when we are tempted to follow this downward course, there is an alternative based not on ego and revenge, and which draws on our capacity for compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. It is guided by a realization that we are all human, and that we can learn to see “others” as not other than our own self.
This “pattern for regeneration” is described (unfortunately not until late in the book) as follows (p. 176):
First: We are shown a soul containing the principles of strength which will enable it to pass the coming tests.
Second: The voice or voices of the higher Self, which will help the hero in his temptations, are characterised for us.
Third: There is a test or temptation scene, in which the hero triumphs, because his is true to the Self and faithful to Love.
Fourth: There is a confirmatory experience, tending towards inner sovereignty or lordship of the soul.
Fifth and Sixth: There is a second test and a second confirmation.
Seventh: The act of creative mercy, including self-forgiveness.
Eighth: An experience of enlightenment.
Ninth: The symbolic union of love.
In the case of Hamlet, for example, before auditioning the theatrical troupe, he instructs Polonius, “Let them be well us’d.”
Polonius: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
Hamlet: God’s bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. (Act II, sc. 2, 1600)
Hamlet rejects the common view of “equal” treatment in favor of one that is “much better.” He seems to realize that no act is ethically neutral, and invokes a response that will come from one’s own sense of “honor and dignity.” (Unfortunately, in the matter of his own father’s death, he goes on to ignore his own advice. He has an opportunity here to listen to the voice of the higher self, but chooses to continue on the downward path leading to revenge, madness, and death.)
It is necessary to remember that climbing this upward path is not the same as doing good in the hope of some future reward, or condoning a “sin” in the expectation that it can be confessed and forgiven at some point. It follows like a hypothesis from Shakespeare’s axiomatic “This above all: to thine own self be true.” It is a realization that “There is Always a Choice,” and the consequences of our choices on this ethical hierarchy are immediate–they move us either toward or away from the true self, the kingship of our own soul, which is the source of Love and its bounty. When we reach that place, what seemed like a concrete series of steps will happily dissolve into the One.