Cosmobiological Tradition

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Before the victory of the modernist mindset of separation and atomization, the Renaissance had attempted the construction of a participatory worldview, which Loren Goldner calls the cosmobiological tradition.


Loren Goldner on the cosmobiological tradition of the Renaissance [1]

Here is how he explains his strategy to recover this tradition:

"Our starting-point must be the direct opposition between the body of doctrine which came to be known as ‘Marxism’, codified in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Internationals, and the ideas of Karl Marx. After separating these two, I want look at the relation between ‘Marxism’ and the body of ideas known as the Enlightenment, chiefly those of the French eighteenth century thinkers. Then I should turn to the earlier tradition sometimes called ‘Hermetic’, which includes magic, astrology and alchemy. I want to show how, when modern rational science defeated this outlook, it also lost something of value: its attitudes to humanity and nature. Following the work of Magee, I would then point out the deep immersion of Hegel in that old mystical tradition, and his direct opposition to the ideas and methods of Enlightenment thinking. Finally, I should return to Marx to see how his demystification of the mystics preserved the core of their profound insights."

( )


Goldner on the 'forgetting' of the cosmobiological tradition:

“The Foucaultian and Frankfurt School critics of the Enlightenment live off the impoverishment of the left by its extended romance with a one-sided appropriation of the Enlightenment, by the left's century-long confusion of the completion of the bourgeois revolution by state civil servants with socialism, and by the worldwide crackup of that project. The pre-Enlightenment, Renaissance-Reformation cosmobiology which passed through German idealism into Marx's species-being means even less to them than it does to figures such as Habermas. Yet the usual critique of them is undermined by the tacit agreement across the board that "nature is boring", i.e. the realm of mechanism, as Hegel, articulating the ultimate state civil servant view, cut off from practice in nature, said. Both sides of this debate still inhabit the separation of culture and nature, Geist and Natur, which came into existence through the Enlightenment's deflation of cosmobiology. It is the rehabilitation, in suitably contemporary form, of the outlook of Paracelsus and Kepler, not of Voltaire and Newton, which the left requires today for a (necessarily simultaneous) regeneration of nature, culture and society, out of Blake's fallen world of Urizen and what he called "single vision and Newton's sleep".



The History of the Cosmobiological Tradition

Gary Hampson:

"A brief introduction to the five orientations in the Western genealogy of integrative thinking now follows. These comprise Hermetism, Neoplatonism, Renaissancism, German humanism, and reconstructive postmodernism, respectively.

(note: I leave out the latter)


"The term Hermetism is identified by Faivre (1998) as referring to pre-Renaissance address of Hermes Trismegistus, whilst Hermeticism more comprehensively includes the broader range of Western esotericism following Renaissance thought (Hanegraaff, 1998). Hermes Trismegistus is a mythologised character involving a fusion of the Ancient Greek god Hermes and the Ancient Egyptian god Thoth. Goodrick-Clarke (2008) describes Hermes-Thoth as “rather like a Bodhisattva who has attained immortality but remains in the human world as a channel for the divine” (p. 18). Various texts written between the first century BCE and third century CE—notably the Corpus Hermeticum of the second and third century CE—were ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (Faivre, 1998). “Hermetism” refers to this literature (the Hermetica). Key themes include particular relations between human and divine (partnership between humanity and God) that can be described as a form of nonduality (e.g. the world as spiritual), involving holography as meta-phor/ physics (“as above, so below”), a living universe, and depth (the world as infused with divine symbolism), such that it is possible for the human individual or collective to (directly) regenerate, redeem or transmute themselves toward the divine (alchemy as transformation toward potential); levels of reality are also posited through the notion of spiritual intermediaries (Goodrick-Clarke, 2008). Jung (1943 / 1970) indicates that Hermetic understanding includes the assemblage of all conceivable opposites—one might say an archetype of dialectics or nonduality. This includes that between ego and id, eros (life, creativity, desire, sexuality) and thanatos (death), passion and reason (Faivre, 1995). In contrast to the dominant modern (post-eighteenth-century) episteme of “solipsism, atomization, [and] incommunicability,” (p. 70) the Hermetic offers “the path of otherness, of living diversity, of communication of souls” (p. 70)—a substantively relational template-sensibility that accords with contemporary (post-mid-twentieth century) academic interest in such items as “relativity, pluralism, polarities, [and] polysemiology” (p. 49): Hermetism as complexly integrative. Hermetism proved to be a robust stream of thought, forming part of the prevailing theological paradigm in the Middle Ages in the West (and also in classical Islamic civilisation) (Faivre, 1998), even though it was marginalised by Aristotelian scholasticism. As a mainstream interest, it can be evidenced at least as late as Isaac Newton’s prolific output of Hermetic and alchemical writings (Linden, 2003a). Somewhat paradoxically, Newton’s and Kepler’s Hermetic orientation could potentially facilitate a deconstruction of the technicist anti-Hermetic Newtonianism of modernism."


"Neoplatonism pertains to spiritual philosophy evolving from the thought of Plotinus (3rd century CE), including the later thinking of such figures as Iamblichus. As the term indicates, a main source of inspiration for Plotinus was Plato, foregrounding Plato’s metaphysical and mystical aspects (Bussanich, 1996). However, it is also the case not only that “the Metaphysics of Aristotle is extensively employed” (Gatti, 1996, p. 11) but that Plotinus’ understanding diverges from Plato’s in significant ways.

Stamatellos (2007) identifies, for example,

- that “Plotinus seems to accept Heraclitus’ position that the everlastingness of becoming is expressed in the form of an endless cosmic flux” (p. 127).

Neoplatonism thus supports theoretical approaches entailing creative becoming. This understanding could be identified as (part of) radical Neoplatonism (noting, in this instance, that “radical” etymologically relates to “root”) that may be distinguished from (what might be termed) “traditional” Neoplatonic interpretations in which this is not the case.

In terms of its major schema, professor of Western esotericism, Goodrick-Clarke (2008), identifies that:

- Neoplatonic thought is characterized by the idea that there exists a plurality of spheres of being, arranged in a descending hierarchy of degrees of being. The last and lowest sphere of being comprises the universe existing in time and space perceptible to the human senses. Each sphere of being derives from its superior by a process of ‘emanation,’ by which it reflects and expresses its previous degree. At the same time, these degrees of being are also degrees of unity, whereby each subsequent sphere generates more multiplicity, differentiation, and limitation, tending toward the minimal unity of our material world. (p. 21)

As part of this schema, a key Neoplatonic orientation—in some ways analogous to God—is that of the One:14 O’Meara (1993) describes the Neoplatonic One as “beauty above beauty” (p. 99) whilst Tarnas (1991) identifies that the One “is infinite in being and beyond all description or categories” (pp. 84-5).

Aspects of this understanding permeate contemporary integrative thought, including Wilber’s (1995) valorization of hierarchy, intellect and Spirit. In contrast to the Wilberian orientation, however, Tarnas’ (1991) reading also indicates the relevance of archetypes and anima mundi for integrative thought. In keeping with Wilberian integral (and Bhaskar’s (2002) meta-Reality), however, lies Plotinus’ identification of the nondual: that “the soul is one with the One” (Rist, 1967, p. 227). Moreover, the One is paradoxical: it is, as Bussanich (1996) indicates, “everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere” (p. 38). Indeed, Bussanich continues that “the One is the center of a vibrant conception of reality many of whose facets resist philosophical analysis” (p. 38). This points to the transrational aspect of Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus’ thought, the rationality of the world and of the philosopher’s quest is but the prelude to a more transcendent existent beyond reason” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 84).

As with much Ancient Greek ethical theory, Neoplatonism carries a normativity in the form of well-being or “eudaimonia”—“that which makes life satisfying, successful, complete” (O'Meara, 1993, p. 100): specifically, it holds an interest in spiritual emancipation and its possibility for humanity (Bhaskar, 2002; Tarnas, 1991), notably through “the quest to maintain the integrity of the soul” (Blumenthal, 1996, p. 89). The aim is less to see spiritual realities than to embody such realisations, as Rist (1967) indicates: “For Plotinus, “the aim of the mystic is not a seeing, but a being” (p. 221). Such being requires wide awareness, receptivity and trust of that beyond reason as Rist observes: “To proceed beyond  is to take a leap, and in a sense it is a leap into the unknown” (p. 220). It “is a tremendous demand of the self” (p. 220) yet simultaneously “simply” requires substantive accord with the One—a (Zen-like) one-pointedness or singularity of consciousness (Hines, 2009)."


"The greatest regeneration of Hermetism and Neoplatonism took place in fifteenth century Italy. The city state of Florence was the first to witness the self-proclaimed flourishing of a new consciousness—a “radical enlightenment” (Gare, 2005)—which Tarnas (1991) describes as “expansive, rebellious, energetic and creative, individualistic, ambitious and often unscrupulous, curious, self-confident, committed to this life and this world, open-eyed and sceptical, inspired and inspirited” (p. 231). The newfound sense of human dignity and the exalted place of humanity in the cosmos—as straddling the mortal and immortal—was exemplified by Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486/1965). Humanity was now identified to a large degree as self-created—“as a sculptor gives form to a statue” (Miller, 1965, p. xv).

Such Hermetic-Neoplatonic spirit gave rise to the birth of modern science (Tarnas, 1991):15 “Kepler confessed that his astronomical research was inspired by his search for the celestial ‘music of the spheres’” (Tarnas, 1991, pp. 294-5) whilst Newton’s law of gravitation was “modelled on the sympathies of Hermetic philosophy” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 295).16 Paradoxically, Gare (2005) notes that “modern science [simultaneously] developed in reaction to and in opposition to Renaissance culture, both the civic humanism that had developed in the Renaissance and the more radical ideas of the ‘nature enthusiasts’ who had celebrated nature as divine” (p. 57): the legacy of Hermetic-Neoplatonism is a complex yet fertile one. Complicit in such fertility was the radical relationalism and syncreticism in Renaissance thought. Such “determined ‘decompartmentalization’” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 230) included the notion of Greek philosophy (including Hermetism and Neoplatonism) and the Judeo-Christian tradition as jointly expressing a single spiritual philosophy (Miller, 1965). Radical relationality also surfaces in Renaissance dialectics with “its simultaneous balance and synthesis of many opposites: Christian and pagan, modern and classical, secular and sacred, art and science, science and religion, poetry and politics” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 229).

Abrams (1971) furthers this identification of defragmentation and connectivity, ascribing to the Renaissance

- "an integral universe without absolute divisions, in which everything is interrelated by a system of correspondences, and the living is continuous with the inanimate, nature with man, and matter with mind; a universe, moreover, which is activated throughout by a dynamism of opposing forces. (p. 171)

Syncretic integration also fostered the polymathic ideal of homo universalis as exemplified by the broad scholarship at Marsilio Ficino’s Academy. The general sensibility was one of “a tolerant eclecticism, an open-minded, receptive attitude” (Miller, 1965, p. x) whether with regard to philosophico-spiritual traditions or across the range of scholarly and artistic interests. This united into such singularities as Pico della Mirandola’s complex philosophy involving an integral knowledge uniting both spirit and matter in which “a truth about any one part immediately reverberates through the whole, and discloses truth about every other part” (Miller, 1965, p. x). Altogether, in contrast to the perceived stultifications of the scholasticism of the time, the novel infusion of the Platonic and Neoplatonic “offered a richly textured tapestry of imaginative depth and spiritual exaltation. The notion that beauty was an essential component in the search for ultimate reality, that imagination was more significant in that quest than logic and dogma” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 212). The insights and sensibility of the Italian Renaissance did not remain an isolated occurrence, however: they experienced a recapitulation a few centuries later in Germany."

The Nexus of German Classicism, Romanticism, and Idealism

"Inspired by such figures as Böhme17 and Kant, the German nexus of classicism, romanticism and idealism developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Hanegraaff, 1998). Key figures included Herder, Goethe, Schiller—classicism; Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, Hölderlin, Novalis—romanticism; and Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling—idealism (noting that the three categories are by no means mutually exclusive).

In terms of its relationship with the current genealogy, Abrams (1971) states:

- The basic categories of characteristic post-Kantian philosophy, and of the thinking of many philosophical-minded poetics, can be viewed as highly elaborated and sophisticated variations upon the Neoplatonic paradigm. (p. 169)

Specifically, classicism attempted to realise integrative forms at multiple levels in relation to life and culture (Richter, 2005). This drive overlapped with romanticism, which included:

- organic unities in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts; - the primacy of process, temporal consciousness; - helixes of development-and-return; - the value of diversity; - imagination as a creative force; - valorisation of the symbolic; - the significance and liminality of philosophy and literary plot; - and redemption as self-education

(see Abrams, 1971; Hanegraaff, 1998).

Tarnas (1991) observes that “from the Romantic’s perspective…the literalism of the modern scientific mind was a form of idolatry” (p. 369). Instead of a fundamentalist science, Goethe’s approach involved integrative dialogue between science and art through realising their unity as spiritual manifestations. A valorisation of the genus of art (music, literature, drama etc.) was seen as critical. Indeed, the artistic was elevated to an exalted role—the discipline of imagination facilitating spiritual emancipation (Tarnas, 1991). Despite the Romantic contestation with mechanistic science, the significance of German romanticism nonetheless stretches into modern science. Richards (2002), for example, identifies that “Charles Darwin[’s]…conception of nature owed much to German Romantic sources” (p. 10).

In terms of idealism, Beiser (2000) (who interprets idealism widely) identifies that,

- "All its various forms—the transcendental idealism of Kant, the ethical idealism of Fichte, and the absolute idealism of the romantics—were so many attempts to resolve [the] aporiaia of the Enlightenment. …what all its forms have in common is the attempt to save criticism from scepticism, and naturalism from materialism." (p. 18)

Of notable inclusion are Schelling’s (1800 / 1978) Transcendental Idealism and Hegel’s (1807 / 1977) Phenomenology of Spirit."


More information

Key Books to Read


1) Loren Goldner. ‘Vanguard of Retrogression: Postmodern Fictions as Ideology in the Era of Fictitious Capital’, (Queequeg Publications, PO Box 672355, New York, NY 10467) ; See: Postmodernism as Middle Class Radicalism

2) Glenn Magee. ‘Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition’. Cornell University Press, 2001;

3) online version of a book on Marx and the future of humanity, by Cyril Smith, at

Recommendations from the "Order of Sophianic Marxists" [3]:

  • See Karl Marx as a Religious Type (1906) by the former Marxist Sergei Bulgakov, in which Marxism is construed as a variety of immanentism, i.e., a variety of religious consciousness that denies the principle of transcendence;
  • Eric Voegelin’s essay “From Enlightenment to Revolution” (1975), which interprets Marxism as a secular Gnosticism;
  • British Marxist Cyril Smith’s Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005), which asserts that Marx may only be understood through the lens of the mystical-Hermetic conception of man, which forms the core of his ideas;
  • Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (2008) by Glenn Alexander Magee, which demonstrates convincingly that Hegel’s speculative philosophy is a specific avatar of Hermetism;
  • as well Erica Lagalisse’s recent book Occult Features of Anarchism (2018), which analyzes the close connection between the antiauthoritarian movement of the New Era and Gnostic/Hermetic philosophy.
  • I will, moreover, point to numerous contemporary convergences of magic and neo-paganism and Marxism (Rhyd Wildermuth, among others), and
  • to Andy Merrifield’s book Magical Marxism (2011), an attempt to restore Marxism to its original power of the imagination — a central power in Hermetism. All these references to relevant books, along with the brief description of the core of the Gnostic/Hermetic tradition as a subversive chromatic (i.e., immanentist dual-nondual) praxis aimed at achieving freedom from determination, omnipotence, and immortality through man’s inherent divine nature, are merely concessions to the potential skeptic, who (still) doubts the (still) incredible fact that Marxist theory may be construed as a specific variety of Gnosticism/Hermetism. "