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Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of March!
Snowpocalpyse at Deep Springs
According to tradition, this month is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. The reverse was true of the February I’ve just had, which began with chilly but mild weather and ended in a snowpocalypse. We were due a bit of snow overnight last Friday and I woke up on Saturday morning to find the entrance to my house blocked by hip-deep snow. It kept coming down most of Saturday for a total of somewhere between three and four feet of snow in a 24-hour period. Deep Springs Valley is a semi-desert environment. Apparently the last time they had weather anything like this was 1969.
We lost electricity on Saturday morning and ran out of running water on Sunday morning. I’m writing this newsletter on Tuesday thanks to a backup generator. But we’re keeping warm with wood fires and getting water from snow melt and it looks like help is near at hand. It’s a remote valley across a mountain pass, which is why it’s taken such a long time to get the roads cleared and electricity back online. In the meantime, I’m so impressed with the good spirits and hard work with which the whole community has pulled together.
These circumstances have forced a pause in my online class on humans and other animals but I look forward to picking things back up next week when the power’s back on (inshallah). The storm delayed but didn’t quash a blog post in which I explore a distinct kind of suffering: the predicament of feeling shouldered out of the life that’s most properly one’s own.
This coming month I look forward to sharing some of my thoughts about human–animal relations with a wider audience. I’ve been invited to speak on March 21 as part of the monthly Metanoia series organized by the World Community for Christian Meditation.
The idea of meditation is more familiar in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions than in Christianity. It’s worth remembering, though, that the word “meditation” was chosen as a translation of the Sanskrit word dhyāna because “meditation” already had a longstanding use in Christian practices of contemplation. And the idea that meditative or contemplative practice is central to philosophy also has deep roots in the West. I’ll take up that theme in the mini-essay below.
My talk is entitled “The Multi-Species Community.” I’ll propose that we look differently at the characteristics that mark human beings out as different from all the other animals. You have to be trying very hard not to see that there’s something different about humans. Other animals use tools, but only humans have sent rockets into space; other animals use verbal communication, but nothing with anything like the scale or sophistication of the Mahābhārata. But both of those examples are the products of densely settled civilizations. And dense human settlement only became possible with the domestication of plants and other animals. The most remarkable differences that set us apart from other animals obtain because we’ve lived for millennia with other animals. If we want to understand the nature of these communities, we have to understand them as multi-species communities.
Needless to say, the WCCM is a warm and open community and you don’t have to identify as Christian to attend (full disclosure: I don’t).
It’s calving season here at Deep Springs and so a lot of anxious heifers are heavily pregnant in weather that must be even more confounding to them than it is to us. The newborn calves are all in good health so far.
The strangest conference I’ve ever attended took place in a converted country house just outside London in the summer of 2014. The conference theme aligned with material I’d been working on and I was planning to be in the UK that summer anyway so I didn’t look too closely at the details of the conference before submitting a paper proposal.
The conference was organized by the Prometheus Trust, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the thought of Thomas Taylor (1758–1835), a Platonist and scholar who was the first to make a complete translation of Plato and Aristotle into English. So far, so good. I’m not a Platonist by any stretch, and the Prometheus Trust isn’t a university-based organization, but they seemed to have a commitment to serious scholarship.
I wasn’t wrong about the commitment to serious scholarship. The other speakers at the conference were all working philosophers or graduate students. What was unusual were the attendees of the conference. I don’t think there were any jobbing academics besides the conference speakers. The audience consisted of the Trust’s avid membership, trending elderly and female, and for whom Neoplatonism was literally a religion.
Neoplatonism has its roots in the thought of Plotinus (204–270), arguably the most significant philosopher of late antiquity. His influence extends to his student Porphyry (234–305) and later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus (245–325) and Proclus (412–485) and on into the Middle Ages and beyond. When a Renaissance thinker like Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) writes about Plato, the version of Plato he has in mind is filtered through Plotinus.
The “neo” in “Neoplatonism” is a subject of contestation. Plotinus and his followers saw themselves simply as Platonists, providing commentary and elaboration on the great master and nothing more. The idea that originality is valuable in its own right is of fairly recent vintage, and although Plotinus was dazzlingly original, he didn’t think of his originality as something to trumpet.
Plato is famous for his Theory of Forms, which conceives of abstract, universal concepts like Justice and Beauty as real entities, and indeed more real than the changing, imperfect instances of justice and beauty that we encounter in the world. In his Republic, Plato conceives of a master Form of the Good, which is the highest principle from which all the other Forms emanate.
In his Enneads, Plotinus refigures Plato’s Form of the Good as the One: the absolutely perfect, simple, and complete first principle of everything there is. Everything, according to Plotinus, is an emanation of this first principle. Plotinus offers a sophisticated account of how intellect emanates from the One, and soul from intellect. Matter figures farther down Plotinus’s scale of being. Human beings are special in having bodily form but souls that can reach up toward higher principles. The ultimate goal of human existence is to achieve mystical union with the One, a state Plotinus calls henosis.
An imperfect fleshy body housing a soul that yearns for union with the highest power—if all this gives off religious vibes, you’re not far off the mark. Although not a Christian himself, Plotinus had a profound influence on Christian and Jewish theology and Neoplatonist thought later informed the theological formulations of early Islamic thinkers as well.
Thomas Taylor thought the incorporation of Neoplatonist ideas into Christianity was a step too far. Taylor and his wife Mary were so enamored of the ancients that they spoke to one another only in Ancient Greek. In addition to his legacy as a scholar, Taylor promoted Neoplatonist philosophy as a spiritual teaching that guides us toward the divine—and as a superior teaching to Christianity.
Which brings me back to the conference hosted by the Prometheus Trust. A young Italian scholar was giving what felt to me like a dry and painstaking analysis of some finer point in Porphyry when the old woman sitting next to me let out a sigh of rapture. In several talks (but not in mine!) I would hear more sighs and even ecstatic exclamations. Was I at a conference with a Neoplatonist bent or at a religious revival meeting?
Well, a bit of both. During a break I chatted with one of the organizers about the Trust’s other activities. They have weekend retreats where they carefully study a dialogue of Plato or a text by Plotinus or Porphyry. And are there more explicitly spiritual practices, I asked? Well, sometimes we chant the Orphic hymns, she noted matter-of-factly. The whole thing felt a bit New Age, and yet old school.
The funny thing, I realized, was that this mode of engagement with Plato and his followers was likely truer to the spirit of the original thinkers than the work of my academic colleagues. Plato, Plotinus, and the rest saw philosophical argument and investigation as one part—granted, a central part—of a broader way of life that was essentially mystical and spiritual in its outlook. The idea that philosophy might be in service to something other than spiritual enlightenment is a fairly recent development.
There’s a tendency to talk about Western “philosophy” in contrast to Eastern “spirituality,” as well as to the allegedly less rationally grounded “religions” of the Abrahamic faiths. But these are all really branches of the same tree. The practicing Buddhists in the world today far outnumber those who take their spiritual orientation from Plato. But the members of the Prometheus Trust inherit a tradition nearly as ancient as the one founded by the Buddha. And both Platonism and Buddhism, properly understood—not to mention Christianity—involve both philosophical investigation and spiritual contemplation.