“Progress” in Retrospect: Part I

May 14, 2018

Wolfgang Smith

Editor’s Note:  The first installment of a three-part critique of modernity, the following was originally published in Cosmos & Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief in 1984.  Prof. Smith’s reflections prove to remain just as timely today as when they first appeared in print.

Every age, every civilization, has a spirit of its own. It is this that determines the habitual outlook, the typical way of looking at things, the values, norms and interdictions — in short, the essentials of the culture. It is quite certain, moreover, that most individuals will conform to the prevailing tendencies of the civilization into which they have been born, and this applies also no doubt to the majority of those who consider themselves to be non-conformists. On the other hand, it must also be possible to transcend cultural boundaries: there can really be no such thing as a rigid cultural determinism. But yet this crossing of boundaries turns out to be a rather rare occurrence; it happens much less frequently than we are led to suppose. We must not let ourselves be fooled. It is true, for example, that in modern times there has been an unprecedented interest in the study of history; and yet one finds that it is almost invariably a case of history truncated by the mental horizon of our age and colored by the humanistic sentiments of our civilization. The Zeitgeist  is indeed a force to be reckoned with, and it is never easy to swim against the stream.

Yet this is precisely what must be done if we are to gain an unbiased perspective on the modern world. To put it rather bluntly, we need to break out of the intellectual smugness and provincialism of the typically modern man, the individual who has become thoroughly persuaded that our civilization represents the apex of a presumed “human evolution,” and that mankind had been groping in darkness until Newton and his scientific successors arrived upon the scene to bring light into the world. Now this is not to deny that bygone ages have known their share of ignorance and other ills, and that in certain respects the human condition may have been improved. Our point, rather, is that these supposedly positive developments which figure so prominently in the contemporary perception of history represent only a part of the story: the lesser part, in fact. We see the things that we have gained and are blind — almost by definition — to all that has been lost. And what is it that has been lost? Everything, one could say, that transcends the corporeal and psychological planes, the twin realms of a mathematicized objectivity and an illusory subjectivity. In other words, as intellectual heirs to the Cartesian philosophy we have become denizens of an impoverished universe, a world whose stark contours have been traced for us by the renowned French rationalist. At bottom there is physics and there is psychology — answering to the two sides of the great Cartesian divide — and together the two disciplines have in effect swallowed up the entire locus of reality: our reality, that is. Beyond this we see nothing; we cannot — our premises do not permit it.


But what then is out there that could possibly be seen? And by what means? The answer is surprisingly simple: what is to be seen is the God-made world, and this seeing — this prodigy — is to be accomplished through the God-given instruments consisting of the five senses and the mind. In this way we actually come into contact with the real, objective cosmos, which turns out to be a live universe full of color, sound and fragrance, a world in which things speak to us and everything has meaning. But we must learn to listen and to discern. And that is a task which involves the whole man: body, soul, and above all, “heart.” Everyone has seen a bird or a cloud, but not everyone is wise, not everyone is an artist in the true sense. This is of course what an education worthy of the name should help us to achieve: it should make us wise, it should open the eye of the soul.

One question remains: what is it that Nature has to tell — if only one has “ears to hear”? Now to begin with it speaks of subtle things, of invisible causes and of cosmic harmonies. There is a science to be learned, a “natural philosophy” that is not contrived. But that is not all; it is only the merest beginning. For at last — when “the heart is pure” — we discover that Nature speaks, not of herself, but of her Maker: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” Or in the words of the Apostle, “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world have been clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.”

But as we are well aware, the very recollection of this exalted knowledge began to wane long ago and by the time of the Renaissance had grown exceedingly dim, except in the case of a few outstanding souls. When it comes to Galileo and Descartes, moreover, it would appear that the light had gone out entirely: their philosophy of Nature leaves little room for doubt on that score. And from here on one encounters a prevailing intellectual milieu that is truly benighted, whatever the history books may say. To be sure, there have been some notable voices crying in the wilderness, and yet it is plain to see that “Bacon and Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel” have carried the day, and that their “Reasonings like vast Serpents” have infolded “the Schools and Universities of Europe,” as Blake laments to his everlasting glory. It was the victory of “single vision”: a kind of knowing which paradoxically hinges upon a scission, a profound alienation between the knower and the known. Now this is the decisive event that has paved the way to modern culture. From that point onwards we find ourselves (intellectually) in a contrived cosmos, a world cut down to size by the profane intelligence — a man-made universe designed to be comprehensible to physicists, and for its very lack of objective meaning, to psychologists as well.

Or this is where we would find ourselves, better said, if the great modern movement had fully succeeded in converting us to its pre-conceived notions. But that is not really possible; on closer examination we are bound to discover that there is in fact no one on earth who fully believes — with all his heart — what science has to say: such a Weltanschauung  can speak only to a part of us, to a single faculty as it were, and so it is in principle unacceptable to the total man. Still, there is no denying that collectively we have become converts to a high degree. And if the vision does not fit the whole man, he can learn to live piecemeal, by compartments so to speak. Having become alienated from Nature — the object of knowledge — he becomes in the end estranged from himself.

We are beginning to see that the cosmological train of thought which started idyllically enough with the garden meditations of Descartes has had cultural reverberations. Roszak is unquestionably right when he insists that “cosmology implicates values,” and that “there are never two cultures; only one — though that one culture may be schizoid.”1Where the Wasteland Ends  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), p. 200. He may also be right when he speaks of the outward consequences of this cultural neurosis in the following terms:

We can now recognize that the fate of the soul is the fate of the social order; that if the spirit within us withers, so too will all the world we build about us. Literally so. What, after all, is the ecological crisis that now captures so much belated attention but the inevitable extroversion of a blighted psyche? Like inside, like outside. In the eleventh hour, the very physical environment suddenly looms up before us as the outward mirror of our inner condition, for many the first discernible symptom of advanced disease within.2Ibid., pxvii.

*   *   *

Following upon these summary observations, it may be well to reflect on the first major achievement of modern science, which is no doubt the Copernican astronomy. One generally takes it for granted that the displacement of the Ptolemaic by the Copernican world-view amounts to a victory of truth over error, the triumph of science over superstition. There are even those who perceive the Copernican position as a kind of holy doctrine having Giordano Bruno as its martyr and Galileo as its saintly confessor. But strangely enough it is forgotten that twentieth-century physics is in fact neutral on the entire issue. There was first of all the question whether the sun moves while the Earth remains fixed, or whether it is really the Earth that moves, and not the sun. Now what modern physics insists upon — ever since Einstein recognized the full implication of the Michelson-Morley experiment — is that the concepts of rest and motion are purely relative: it all depends on what we take to be our frame of reference. Thus, given two bodies in space, it makes no sense whatever to ask which of the two is moving and which is at rest. So much for the first point of contention. The second issue, moreover, related to the position of the two orbs, each side claiming that the body which they took to be at rest occupies the center of space. And here again contemporary physics sees a pseudo-problem arising from fallacious assumptions. The question is in fact senseless on two counts: first, because (as we have seen) one cannot say that a body is at rest in an absolute sense; and secondly, because there is actually no such thing as a center of space. Thus, whether one conceives of cosmic space as unbounded (like the Euclidean plane) or as bounded (like the surface of a sphere), there exists in either case no special point that is marked out from the rest, and so also no point which could be taken as the center of space. But in the absence of a center the Copernican debate loses its meaning; from this perspective the entire controversy appears indeed as the classic example of “much ado about nothing.”

Yet this way of looking at the matter — which equalizes the two contesting sides — turns out to be no less deceptive than the popular view which bestows the palm of victory on the Copernicans. If the popular verdict is based on little more than prejudice and propaganda, the scientific appraisal for its part rests on the no less gratuitous assumption that cosmology is to be formulated in purely quantitative and “operationally definable” terms. One tacitly assumes, in other words, that quantity is the only thing that has objective reality, and that the modus operandi  of empirical science constitute the only valid means for the acquisition of knowledge. Now historically this is just the position to which Western civilization has been brought through a series of intellectual upheavals and reductions in which the Copernican revolution has played a major role. In fact, the new outlook stems directly from the later Copernicans, individuals like Galileo, whose thought was already modern in that regard. One should also remember that these (and not Copernicus) are the men who ran afoul of the ecclesiastical authorities and precipitated the famous debates. It was in the year 1530, let us recall, that Copernicus communicated his ideas to Pope Clement VII and was encouraged by the Pontiff to publish his inquiries; and it was a century later (in the year 1632) that Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition. The point is that there was more to the celebrated controversy than first meets the eye; and while overtly the debate raged over such seemingly harmless issues as whether it is the Earth or the sun that moves, one can see in retrospect that what was actually at stake was nothing less than an entire Weltanschauung.

We tend to forget that the Ptolemaic world-view was incomparably more than simply an astronomical theory in the contemporary sense; we forget that it was a bona fide  cosmology as distinguished from a mere cosmography of the solar system. Now to appreciate the point of this difference, it must be recalled that the ancient Weltanschauung  conceives of the cosmos as an hierarchic order consisting of many “planes,” an order in which the corporeal world — made up of physical bodies, or of “matter” in the sense of modern physics — occupies precisely the bottom rank. This implies, in particular, that whatever can be investigated by the methods of physics — everything that shows up on its instruments — belongs ipso facto  to the lowest fringe of the created world. Newton was right: we are  only gathering pebbles by the seashore; for indeed, the physical sciences, by their very nature, are geared to the corporeal order of existence. Now basically this is just the world that is perceptible to our external senses; only we must remember that even this lowest tier of the cosmic hierarchy is incomparably richer than the so-called physical universe — the ideal or imagined cosmos of contemporary science — because, as we have had ample opportunity to see, the corporeal world comprises a good deal more than simply mathematical attributes. Thus, if we wanted to locate the universe of modern physics on the ancient maps, we would have to say that it constitutes an abstract and exceedingly partial view of the outermost fringe, the “shell” of the cosmos. A bona fide  cosmology, on the other hand, in the traditional sense, is a doctrine that bears reference — not just to a single plane — but to the cosmos in its entirety.

The question arises, of course, how the Ptolemaic theory, which after all does speak of the sun and its planets, could “bear reference to the cosmos in its entirety,” seeing that the corporeal order as such constitutes no more than the smallest part of that total cosmos. And the answer is simple enough, at least in principle: the things of Nature point beyond themselves; though they be corporeal, they speak of incorporeal realms — they are symbols. In fact, there is an analogic correspondence between the different planes: “as above, so below” says the Hermetic axiom. We must not forget that despite its hierarchic structure the cosmos constitutes an organic unity, much like the organic unity of mind, soul and body which we can glimpse within ourselves. Does not the face mirror the emotions or thoughts, and even the very spirit of the man? We have become oblivious of the fact that the cosmos, too, is an “animal,” as the ancient philosophers had observed.

This, then — the miracle of cosmic symbolism — is what stands behind the Ptolemaic world-view and elevates it from a somewhat crude cosmography to a full-fledged cosmology. There was a time, moreover, when men could read the symbol, when they sensed that the solid Earth as such represents the corporeal realm, which stands at the very bottom of the cosmic scale; and that beyond this Earth there are spheres upon spheres, each larger and higher than the one before, until one arrives at last at the Empyrean, the ultimate limit or bound of the created world. They sensed too that there is an axis extending from Heaven to Earth, by which all these spheres are held together as it were, and around which they revolve; and they realized intuitively that the relation of containment is expressive of pre-eminence: it is the higher, the more excellent, that contains the lower, even as the cause contains the effect or the whole contains the part.

Let us add that in attempting to appraise these ancient beliefs we must not be put off by the fact that their erstwhile proponents — men who supposedly had some intuitive apprehension of higher realms — were evidently ignorant of things that are nowadays known to every schoolboy. We need not be unduly astonished, for example, that Ptolemy took our planet to be fixed in space because “if there were motion, it would be proportional to the great mass of the Earth and would leave behind animals and objects thrown into the air.”3Quoted by E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science  (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p. 35. Childish, yes; but we should remember that the Book of Nature can be read in various ways and on different levels, and that no one knows it all. To be sure, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Getting back to the Copernican debate, it has now become apparent that the change from a geocentric to a heliocentric astronomy is not after all such a small or harmless step as one might have imagined. The fact is that for all but a discerning few it has undermined and discredited a cosmic symbolism which had nurtured mankind throughout the ages. Gone was the visible exemplification of higher realms and the vivid sense of verticality which spoke of transcendence and of the spiritual quest. Gone was the world that had inspired Dante to compose his masterpiece. With the demise of the Ptolemaic world-view the universe was in effect reduced to a single horizontal cross-section — the lowest, no less. It has become for us this narrow world, which remains so for all the myriad galaxies with which we are currently being regaled. Nature has become “a dull affair,” as Whitehead says, “merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.” One might object to this assessment of what was actually at stake in the Copernican issue on the grounds that a heliocentric astronomy too admits of a symbolic interpretation, since it identifies the sun — a natural symbol of the Logos — as the center of the cosmos. But yet the fact remains that its rediscovery by Copernicus has not been propitious to a spiritual vision of the world; “rather was it comparable to the dangerous popularization of an esoteric truth,” as Titus Burckhardt observes.4“Cosmology and Modern Science,” in The Sword of Gnosis  (Baltimore: Penguin, 1974), p. 127.

One must remember that our normal experience of the cosmos is obviously geocentric, a fact which in itself implies that the Ptolemaic symbolism is apt to be far more accessible. Moreover, the Copernican victory came at a time when the religious and metaphysical traditions of Christianity had already fallen into a state of partial decay, so that there was no longer any viable framework within which the symbolic content of heliocentrism could have been brought to light. As Hossein Nasr has pointed out, “the Copernican revolution brought about all the spiritual and religious upheavals that its opponents had forecasted would happen precisely because it came at a time when philosophical doubt reigned everywhere…”5Man and Nature  (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 66. It was a time when European man was no longer especially attuned to the reading of transcendental symbols and had already to a large extent lost contact with the higher dimensions of existence. And this is what lends a certain air of unreality to the Copernican dispute, and what from the start assured the eventual triumph of the new orientation. By now the wisdom of bygone ages — like every truth that is no longer understood — had become a superstition, to be cast aside and replaced by new insights, new discoveries.

*   *   *

With the disappearance of the Ptolemaic world-view Western man lost his sense of verticality, his sense of transcendence. Or rather these finer perceptions had now become confined to the purely religious sphere, which thus became isolated and estranged from the rest of the culture. So far as cosmology — Weltanschauung  in the literal sense — was concerned, European civilization became de-Christianized.

At the same time a radical change in man’s perception of himself was taking place. We need to recall in this connection that according to ancient belief there is a symbolic correspondence between the cosmos in its entirety and man, the theomorphic creature who recapitulates the macrocosm within himself. Thus man is indeed a “microcosm,” a universe in miniature; and that is the reason why, symbolically speaking, man is situated at the very center of the cosmos. In him all radii converge; or better said, from him they radiate outwards in every direction to the extremities of cosmic space — a mystical fact which we find graphically depicted in many an ancient diagram. No doubt the reason for this centrality is that man, having been made “in the image of God,” carries within himself the center from which all things have sprung. And that too is why he can understand the world, and why in fact the cosmos is intelligible to the human intellect. He is able to know the universe because in a way it pre-exists in him.

But of course all this means absolutely nothing from the modern point of view. To be sure, once the cosmos has been reduced to the corporeal plane, and that in turn has been cut down to its purely quantitative parameters, there is little left of the aforementioned analogy. Admittedly our physical anatomy does not  resemble the solar system or a spiral nebula. It is first and foremost in the qualitative aspects of creation, as revealed to us through the God-given instruments of perception, that cosmic symbolism comes into play. We need not be surprised, therefore, that a science which peers upon Nature through lifeless instruments fashioned by technology should have little to say on that score.

In any case, along with the Ptolemaic theory the ancient anthropology fell likewise into oblivion. Man ceased in effect to be a microcosm, a theomorphic being standing at the center of the universe, and became instead a purely contingent creature, to be accounted for by some sequence of terrestrial accidents. Like the cosmos he was flattened out, shorn of the higher dimensions of his being. Only in his case it happens that “mind” refuses to be altogether exorcised. It remains behind as an incomprehensible concomitant of brain-function, a kind of ghost in the machine, a thing that causes untold embarrassment to the philosophers. The fact is that man does not fit into the confines of the physical universe. There is another side to his nature — be it ever so subjective! — which cannot be described or accounted for in physical terms. And so, in keeping with the new outlook, man finds himself a stranger in a bleak and inhospitable universe; he has become a precarious anomaly — one could almost say, a freak. There is something pathetic in the spectacle of this “precocious simian”; and behind all the noise and bluster one senses an incredible loneliness and a pervading Angst. Our harmony and kinship with Nature has been compromised, the inner bond broken; our entire culture has become dissonant. Moreover, despite our boast of knowledge, Nature has become unintelligible to us, a closed book; and even the act of sense perception — the very act upon which all our knowledge is supposed to be based — has become incomprehensible.

What then are we to say concerning the stupendous knowledge of science? It is evidently a knowledge that has been filtered through external instruments and that partakes of the artificiality of these man-made devices. Strictly speaking, what we know is not Nature but certain methodically monitored effects of Nature upon that mysterious entity termed “the scientific observer.” It is thus a postivistic knowledge geared to the prediction and control of phenomena, and ultimately — as we know — to the exploitation of natural resources and the practice of terrestrial rapine. All euphemisms aside, science — like most else that modern man busies himself with — is well on the way to becoming simply an instance of “technique” in the sense of the sociologist Jacques Ellul.

Meanwhile all the ideal aspects of human culture, including all values and norms, have become relegated to the subjective sphere, and truth itself has become in effect subsumed under the category of utility. Transcendence and symbolism out of the way, there remains only the useful and the useless, the pleasurable and the disagreeable. There are no more absolutes and no more certainties; only a positivistic knowledge and feelings, a veritable glut of feelings. All that pertains to the higher side of life — to art, to morality or to religion — is now held to be subjective, relative, contingent — in a word, “psychological.” One is no longer capable of understanding that values and norms could have a basis in truth. How could this be in a world of “hurrying material”? And so man has become the great sophist: he has set himself up as “the measure of all things.” Having but recently learned to walk on his hind legs (as he staunchly believes), he now fancies himself a god! “Once Heaven was closed,” writes Schuon, “and man was in effect installed in God’s place, the objective measurements of things were, virtually or actually, lost. They were replaced by subjective measurements, purely human and conjectural pseudo-values.”6Light on the Ancient Worlds  (London: Perennial Books, 1965), p. 30.

Thus, too, all the elements of culture, having once been subjectivized, have become fair game to the agents of change. Nothing is sacrosanct any more, and at last everyone is at liberty to do as he will. Or so it may seem; for in reality the manipulation of culture has become a serious enterprise, a business to be attended to by governments and other interest groups.

We find thus that cosmology does indeed “implicate values”; one could even say that eventually it turns into politics. So too a pseudo-cosmology necessarily implicates false values, and a politics destructive of good. It is by no means a harmless thing to be cut off from the higher spheres or from the mandates of God. Our civilization has forgotten what man is and what human life is for; as Nasr notes, “there has never been as little knowledge of man, of the anthropos.”7“Contemporary Man, between the Rim and the Axis,” Studies in Comparative Religion, 7 (1973), p. 116. To which one might add that apparently no previous culture has managed to violate so many natural and God-given norms to any comparable extent.

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1. Where the Wasteland Ends  (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), p. 200.
2. Ibid., pxvii.
3. Quoted by E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science  (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p. 35.
4. “Cosmology and Modern Science,” in The Sword of Gnosis  (Baltimore: Penguin, 1974), p. 127.
5. Man and Nature  (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 66.
6. Light on the Ancient Worlds  (London: Perennial Books, 1965), p. 30.
7. “Contemporary Man, between the Rim and the Axis,” Studies in Comparative Religion, 7 (1973), p. 116.