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- Man or Matter - 20/74 -
doctrines of Augustine were undoubtedly more appropriate than those of Pelagius; Augustine was in fact the more modern of the two.
And now, if we move forward a dozen centuries and compare Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant from this same point of view, we find the same conception of man again triumphant. But there is an essential difference: Kant carried all before him because he based himself on an age-old view of human nature, whereas Reid, uncomprehended up to our own day, pointed to a picture of man only just then dawning on the horizon of the future. Just as through Pelagius there sounded something like a last call to European humanity not to forget the cosmic nature of the soul, so through Reid the memory of this nature announced its first faint renewal. It is common to both that their voices lacked the clarity to make themselves heard among the other voices of their times; and with both the reason was the same: neither could perceive in fullness - the one no longer, the other not yet - the picture of man which ensouled their ideas.
The certainty of Reid's philosophical instinct, if such an expression be allowed, and at the same time his tragic limitations, due to an inability fully to understand the origin of this instinct, come out clearly in the battle he waged against the 'idea' as his immediate predecessors understood it. We know that Plato introduced this word into the philosophical language of mankind. In Greek ιδέα (from ιδεῑν, to see) means something of which one knows that it exists, because one sees it. It was therefore possible to use the word 'to see' as Plato did, because in his day it covered both sensible and supersensible perception. For Plato, knowing consisted in the soul's raising itself to perceiving the objective, world-forming IDEAS, and this action comprised at the same time a recollection of what the soul had seen while it lived, as an Idea among Ideas, before its appearance on earth.
As long as Plato's philosophy continued to shape their thought, men went on speaking more or less traditionally of Ideas as real supersensible beings. When, however, the Aristotelian mode of thinking superseded the Platonic, the term 'Idea' ceased to be used in its original sense; so much so that, when Locke and other modern philosophers resorted to it in order to describe the content of the mind, they did so in complete obliviousness of its first significance.
It is thus that in modern philosophy, and finally in ordinary modern usage, 'idea' came to be a word with many meanings. Sometimes it signifies a sense-impression, sometimes a mental representation, sometimes the thought, concept or essential nature of a thing. The only thing common to these various meanings is an underlying implication that an idea is a purely subjective item in human consciousness, without any assured correspondence to anything outside.
It was against this view of the idea that Reid took the field, going so far as to label the philosophy holding it the 'ideal system'. He failed to see, however, that in attacking the abstract use of the term he was actually in a position to restore to it its original, genuine meaning. If, instead of simply throwing the word overboard, he had been able to make use of it in its real meaning, he would have expressed himself with far greater exactitude and consistency.5 He was prevented from doing this by his apparent ignorance of the earlier Greek philosophers, Plato included. All he seems to have known of their teachings came from inferior, second-hand reports of a later and already decadent period.
* * * There are two historic personalities, both in England, who witness to the fact that the emergence of Reid's philosophy on the stage of history was by no means an accidental event but that it represents a symptom of a general reappearance of the long-forgotten picture of man, in which birth no more than death sets up an absolute limit to human existence. They are Thomas Traherne (1638-74) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Wordsworth's work and character are so well known that there is no need to speak of them here in detail.6 For our purpose we shall pay special attention only to his Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, where he shows himself in possession of a memory (at any rate at the time when he wrote the poem) of the pre-natal origin of the soul, and of a capacity for experiencing, at certain moments, the frontier which the soul crosses at birth.
If, despite the widespread familiarity of the Ode, we here quote certain passages from it, we do so because, like many similar things, it has fallen a victim to the intellectualism of our time in being regarded merely as a piece of poetic fantasy. We shall take the poet's words as literally as he himself uttered them. We read:
'Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison house begin to close Upon the growing Boy. But he beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature's Priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended."
'Hence in a season of calm weather Though inland far we be, Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither, Can in a moment travel thither, And see the Children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.''
The fact that Wordsworth in his later years gave no further indication of such experiences need not prevent us from taking quite literally what he says here. The truth is that an original faculty faded away with increasing age, somewhat as happened with Reid when he could no longer continue his philosophical work along its original lines. Wordsworth's Ode is the testament of the childhood forces still persisting but already declining within him; it is significant that he set it down in about the same year of life (his thirty-sixth) as that in which Traherne died and in which Goethe, seeking renewal of his being, took flight to Italy.7
Of Traherne, too, we shall say here only as much as our present consideration and the further aims of this book require. We cannot concern ourselves with the remarkable events which led, half a century ago, to the discovery and identification of his long-lost writings by Bertram Dobell. Nor can we deal with the details of the eventful life and remarkable spiritual development of this contemporary of the Civil War. These matters are dealt with in Dobell's introduction to his edition of Traherne's poems, as also by Gladys I. Wade in her work, Thomas Traherne. Our gratitude for the labours of these two writers by which they have provided mankind with the knowledge of the character and the work of this unique personality cannot hinder us, however, from stating that both were prevented by the premises of their own view of the world from rightly estimating that side of Traherne which is important for us in this book, and with which we shall specially concern ourselves in the following pages.
Later in this chapter we shall discuss Dobell's philosophical misinterpretation of Traherne, to which he fell victim because he maintained his accustomed spectator standpoint in regard to his object of study. Miss Wade has, indeed, been able to pay the right tribute to Traherne, the mystic, whose inner (and also outer) biography she was able to detect by taking seriously Traherne's indications concerning his mystical development. Her mind, however, was too rigidly focused on this side of Traherne's life - his self-training by an iron inner discipline and his toilsome ascent from the experience of Nothingness to a state of Beatific Vision. This fact, combined with her disinclination to overcome the Augustinian picture of man in herself, prevented her from taking Traherne equally seriously where he speaks as one who is endowed with a never interrupted memory of his primeval cosmic consciousness - notwithstanding the fact that Traherne himself has pointed to this side of his nature as the most significant for his fellow-men.
Of the two works of Traherne which Dobell rescued from oblivion, on both of which we shall draw for our exposition, one contains his poems, the other his prose writings. The title of the latter is Centuries of Meditations. The title page of one of the two manuscripts containing the collection of the poetical writings introduces these as Poems of Felicity, Containing Divine Reflections on the Native Objects of an Infant-Eye. As regards the title 'Centuries of Meditations' we are ignorant of the meaning Traherne may have attached to it, and what he meant by calling the four parts of the book, 'First', 'Second', etc., Century. The book itself represents a manual of devotion for meditative study by the reader.
Let our first quotation be one from the opening paragraph of the third 'Century' in which Traherne introduces himself as the bearer of certain uncommon powers of memory and, arising from these powers, a particular mission as a teacher:
'Those pure and virgin apprehensions I had from the womb, and that divine light wherewith I was born are the best unto this day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the gift of God they attended me into the world, and by His special favour I remember them till now. Verily they seem the greatest gifts His wisdom could bestow, for without them all other gifts had been dead and vain. They are unattainable by books, and therefore I will teach them by experience.' (Ill, 1.)
The picture thus remaining with him of his nature of soul in his earliest years on earth he describes as follows:
'Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys. My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostacy, I collected again by the highest reason. I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory, I saw all in the peace of Eden; Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator's praises, and could not make more melody to Adam, than to me. All Time was Eternity, and a perpetual Sabbath. Is it not strange, that an infant should be the heir of the whole world, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?' (Ill, 1, 2.)
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