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On the Primary Experience of the Cosmos

On The Primary Experience Of The Cosmos

The experience of the cosmos existing in precarious balance on the edge of emerging from nothing and returning to nothing must be acknowledged, therefore, as lying at the center of the primary experience of the cosmos.

 – Eric Voegelin, Order and History, 2000.[1]



In a seminal passage, Eric Voegelin spoke of “the primary experience of the cosmos.” By this phrase, he did not mean that, to find it, we should hurry to look through a space telescope, walk on a moon of Saturn, or grasp the formulae of the constants of spatial order, not that there was anything wrong with doing these things. He did indicate, however, that this experience of the cosmos has a “center”; that is, a point, perhaps an intellectual point, around which all else revolves. The existence of this very cosmos, moreover, is “precarious”. We are aware that it is. It does not explain itself. This universe need not be, but is. It stands at the “edge” of nothingness. Without the sustenance of that which brought it into being in the first place, it returns to that same nothingness.  That we can even understand the word “nothingness” implies that something, though it may be capable of being denied by us, remains there before us, evident to us.

What precisely must we acknowledge about this cosmos? We must affirm that it is contingent; that it need not be. This “need-not-be” condition applies also to us, the knowers in the universe. We abide here one by one, each briefly, within this same cosmos. We do “experience” this very cosmos. We seek to know the status of its whole being together with that of all its parts. We want to know the order of things. Why do some things fit together, while others do not? We want to know why some things work, while others do not. At the center of the things that we know, we find a continual passingness, itself surrounded by limits, what Aristotle called act, potency, and change. This primary experience sets us to wonder about the ground of this being of this cosmos in which we dwell, in which we know that we too exist. We seek the source of the life and being that we behold and confront that swells up within us. We know that we stand outside of nothingness, on its “edge”, as Voegelin put it.

Within this universe, man is designated as a “micro-cosmos”, a whole, a small world is contained within himself. Even though he can imagine other worlds, he is not in another world unrelated to the reality before him, to what is. His micro-cosmos is confronted with the macro-cosmos before him, the one in which he dwells, the “vast spaces”, that frightened Pascal. He is not an illusion, nor is the cosmos. The uniqueness of his particular standing within the universe means that within his reality are found the other levels of being that are scattered about in the universe outside of him in other form of being. Understanding himself may be more difficult than understanding rest of the cosmos. He is the being who has weight, who vegetates, senses in various ways, and thinks, all in one unified way. Each individual is a whole composted of diverse functioning parts that enable him to know and act. He realizes that he is like other things and, at the same time, unlike them in his very likeness.

Man is distinguished most graphically because he knows that he knows. He knows what is not himself; but his knowing does not change what is known. It does change him, however. The primary object of his knowing is what is not himself. His object of knowing is what is out there, whatever it is. He only knows himself, and this reflectively, when he is knowing something that is not himself. Know thyself! Know what is not thyself! These are the two upsetting, prodding, and delightful charges that we human beings have been given from our beginning. We did not ourselves create them. They could not have evolved from nothing—ex nihilo nihil fit. We found them the same way we found ourselves, already there with these powers of soul firmly implanted in us, already operating as we grow and age.

We can, perhaps, imagine the same cosmos that we know as existing without any presence within it of a race of beings that have the power of knowing. But what possible purpose could such an empty cosmos have? Why would a divine being ever bother with it since He would already know it in knowing Himself? Rather, it seems, that the cosmos exists also in order that it be known by a non-divine intelligence within it. This intelligence knows the world by living in it, working in it, and learning about it.

In this sense, the cosmos is not complete unless and until there exists within it a race of intelligent beings, whose purpose it is to learn what the world is from within it. Why is the human race the way that it is? Why is this thing not that thing? And if a finite, intelligent being did come to know the order of the world, would this satisfy it? Is this full knowledge of the cosmos, on completion, itself ordered to something else by being what it is? To know the cosmos from the inside would still leave us to wonder: Why it is there as it is? Why is it not configured otherwise?


Yet, we can wonder more: Why do we have a world in which living finite beings slowly, over generations and eons, learn what it is? Their knowing includes the memory of their coming to know. Does this knowing have anything to do with the knowers, what they are? Why they are? It is not perhaps an accident that the race of men have sought to establish a city within the cosmos, a human city, this city of man at his best. In it, the most complicated individual beings within the same cosmos would order themselves into a series of relationships that would take care of their needs, their minds, and the work of their  hands.

We are familiar with the notion in Genesis that man is given “dominion” over this creation that is spread out before him. He is to cultivate the earth and make it bear abundantly, as it was evidently made to do but only with man’s input. He is to build homes in which he can beget and rear his children. He can let one generation pass to the next. He builds monuments lest he forget his past, writes books to retain what he has learned and what he knows.. He organizes academies better to teach and learn in. The abundance of the cosmos is to be used, not simply preserved. The universe itself is ultimately finite. Its end times and man’s end times, though related, are not necessarily the same. For man, the end times are laid in the judgment of each, one by one, as Plato saw at the end of the Republic.

Man is as much a part of this universe as any other being within it. Whatever caused the universe to be also caused him to be. Yet, even at his best, he has a sense of homelessness about him. He finds himself, as Chesterton once put it, homesick at home. But becoming what he ought to be and doing what he ought to do within the cosmos reveal to him that he is not only made for this world. Yet, what he does or does not do in the time he is individually given in this world seems to be the locus in which he reveals what he is to be permanently. It is possible for each existing man not to reach the end for which he exists. The only way this could happen would be for him to reject the reason for his being and being what he is. The real drama of the finite universe lies here.

One generation follows another. Nations rise and fall. First a few hundred thousand human beings appear on the planet, then millions, then tens and hundreds of millions, then billions. They leave records, words, artifacts, and bones. Some one hundred billion of our kind are estimated to have now lived on the planet, Earth. Some seven billion are still alive. The rest are dead. They completed their initial purpose in their living. Today, we have never known more about our planet or the objects in space around it—comets, moons, planets, stars, and black holes. We know about distances in terms of light-years. The moment of our appearance on this planet seems to be something like 13.7 billion years ago. Mankind does not exist as one single being. It exists in multiplicity. Each existing individual makes a mark, a dent in the cosmos, fleeting perhaps, but there. The whole seems to be something more than the sum of its parts. The universe stands on the edge of nothingness in order that what is not nothing may be present to it.

What is unique about the human “wholes” (i.e., persons) that are parts of the universe is that their final place in the whole is itself a function of their own choice. This truth brings us back to the question of why, within the universe, we have a race of beings that are delegated to know it from within it. The race of men is not placed in a perfect world. The cosmos as it stands needs completion by something within it. It is to this completing task that men are brought into existence in this world. Yet, this completing task is not merely an understanding of the make-up of the world by beings within it. The very carrying out of this completion reveals the souls of those who complete it at whatever level, small or great. The rational being must decide, each one, whether this life he has given, this cosmos present before him, indicates to him what is to be understood and how he ought to live out its being understood.


We can also approach the existence and purpose of the cosmos from outside of it, not merely at the “edge” of nothingness. We begin with the fullness of being. We begin with revelation and its manner of address to us. It has its own inner logic that is uncannily related to what we learn and do not learn about ourselves and our cosmos by our own efforts. We again affirm that the world need not exist. Nor does it somehow cause itself to spring out of nothingness. The world is not a necessary emanation from some necessary process. It is put into being for a purpose, a purpose that is not of its own making. Strictly speaking, by himself man could not see the exact purpose of his being made. It comes to him as a gift. Yet, vestiges of this origin are found within the world. The world reveals constant intimations of it. As Anaxagoras said, the world is full of mind, of intelligibility that it received but did not make.

The seminal explanatory passage comes from Aquinas. It reads as follows: Homo naturaliter non humanus sed superhumanus est. (Naturally man is not human but superhuman). Natural man, as such, never existed in this universe. What existed from the beginning was man whose individual end was completed in transcendence, not merely in formation of the cities of this world. The existence of the world is, as it were, something of an afterthought. At the origin of being, God did not first create an empty cosmos and then, later, look around for something to put in it. The whole existence of the cosmos and what is contained within it is, as it were, related to a “drama” that took place within the Godhead. How to understand this drama?

God would be God even if the world did not exist.[2] God plus the world does not make God more God. God is not “part” of the world. God minus the world does not make God less God. Why is there a God plus the world when the world need not exist? Aristotle had wondered whether God was alone, whether He lacked that highest relation of friendship that we find in the finite, rational beings of the race of men. Just who could God be friends with? Two absolutely identical Gods are impossible to conceive.

What Aristotle broached here, in an incipient way, was the nature of the Trinity. The Godhead was not inert but contained within itself an otherness of persons who shared the same divine nature. God as God was not lonely. Hence, hence He did not need to create in order to complete something lacking in Himself. If anything besides God were to exist in the universe, it would have to exist by non-necessity, that is, by abundance of being and gift. The being of real, finite things displays an openness to what is beyond itself in the realization that not everything is known about even the tiniest existing thing. Finite being stands outside of nothingness and outside of God.

In the beginning there was only God who lacked nothing. If something besides God were to exist, it would have, as it were, two aspects. It would appear against the background of nothingness. But it would also “be” with an origin in the cause of what is. If God would not create a universe in which no race of finite rational creatures existed, still He could, without contradiction, create a world in which they did exist. The essential question came down to this: Could God invite finite rational creatures to participate in the abundance of His own inner life? The key word here is “invite”. The inner life of the Godhead is such that no one could be there who did not both know it and choose it. This is key to the ultimate contingency in the universe, one of the reasons, as it were, why human nature exists in a vast multiplicity of finite persons over time.

The ultimate contingency, the risk of God in creation, is the fact that His invitation to the finite rational being to participate in His inner, Trinitarian life must be chosen and accepted by the finite creature during the course of his time within the cosmos.[3] What does this affirmation presuppose? In the beginning, there is God and nothingness. In the order of intention, God does not first think of creating a universe as a display of His power. He first thinks of associating within His inner life other beings that are capable of knowing and loving this life, these divine Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. These knowing creatures are not gods. Unlike angels, human beings are naturally composed of body and soul as one being. They need not exist. From before creation, in God’s plan, they are ordered to a supernatural life, that is, a life above that which is naturally due to their level of being. This order to something higher is possible because man is a being capable knowing all that is, but this is possible only with added grace which is there from the beginning. Any being who can know God by his own powers is, logically, already God.

Thus, though a thinkable possibility, no purely “natural” human being ever existed in this cosmos. What existed were beings already from the beginning ordered to a life higher than their being would warrant. The cosmos that we contemplate is a consequence. In logic, it follows from this initial purpose of associating other free beings in the inner life of the Godhead. What is first in intention can be last in execution. Man does not appear first but last in the order of time.

Once in existence, the cosmos is the arena in which this divine invitation is to be carried out and completed. This higher orientation of each person to an end beyond his given nature does not obviate the goodness of creation itself or the purpose of man to have dominion over the earth to carry out the task of completing within the world the building a city worthy of human nature. Indeed, it is precisely within this city that the transcendent selection of each person is made about the ultimate states of his existence before God. He makes this choice in the light of the powers of his own reason and his response to the revelation that is given to him about what he is to know and how he is to live.


The particular universe we live in is one in which man initially rejected the invitation of God to live the inner life of the Godhead. In this sense, the universe we know is a remedial universe, after the Fall. That is, it is a universe in which God achieves His initial purpose even in the light of the rejection we know as original sin, the effects of which remain among us. That part of revelation known as redemption had to achieve its purpose while leaving intact the freedom of each man to accept or reject this invitation. Again, no one could be drawn into the life of the Godhead unwillingly. A coerced or determined friendship and love is not possible. It is on this basis that redemption, as we know it, was through the Cross. Man learns by suffering, as the Greeks said.  But the worst evil was not suffering. It is better to suffer evil than to do it, as Socrates also taught.

The heart of redemption in the fullness of time is the divine intervention in history at the birth of Christ, the Word of the Father, made flesh. Looking at this event in history at a definite time and place, two things are clear. The first is that Christ is who He said He was. The second is that each finite human person must choose his own final end, as Plato also taught. Each person is to make this choice in the city in the time in which he lived. He manifests his decision by the kind of life he leads in the city in which he dwells, by his response to reason and the commandments.

The this-worldly mission of man over time is to know the world, to have dominion over it, and to make it a city. In this way, a grounding or setting is established whereby myriads of human choices, good and bad, are carried out in time. The redemption is carried out in a context of forgiveness and repentance, of the abiding possibility that God brings, out the good in which evil is manifested, a greater good. Each finite being is given every opportunity to accept the divine invitation, but it must be willed. What follows are death and judgment. Without these latter the world cannot be complete or reach the end for which universe exists, namely as a locus in which finite beings are invited to accept the original divine intention and to plan for existence outside of nothingness. This whole scope of meaning is summed up in Ignatius of Loyola’s famous principle: “Man was created to know, love, and serve God and, by these means, to save his soul.”

One final thing needs to be added. All existing human beings die. No human being is complete that is not a whole, body and soul. In this sense, the resurrection of the body, the central teaching of Christianity about our final status is needed to complete the initial divine purpose. This means that the logic of the resurrection confirms the experience of man in the cities of the world, namely that he is not complete unless he is whole. The immortality of the soul is true but not enough. The primary experience of man in the cosmos includes Plato’s concern the world was unjust if the evils that occurred within it were not properly punished and the good properly rewarded.

But Plato’s logic, while valid, was not quite complete. Though he could not see how, it needed the resurrection to complete the intelligibility of the initial divine intent in creation of the cosmos; namely, to associate finite, free and rational beings into the life of the Godhead, a life that was a double gift, a gift of being what it was—man did not make man to be man—and a gift of redemption whereby in the end all things, including evil, are ordered to their initial purpose.



[1] Eric Voegelin, Order and History IV (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press 2000), 123.

[2] See Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 1991).

[3] See James V. Schall, The Universe We Think In, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 2018), 121-32.

James V. Schall, S.J.James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J. was a Professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is author and editor of over thirty books, the latest being Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught (St. Augustine's, 2016).

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