The Presence of the Spoudaios, Spoudaic Potential, and the Spoudaic Spectrum in Western Literature From Shakespeare to the Present

HomeArticlesThe Presence of the Spoudaios, Spoudaic Potential, and the Spoudaic Spectrum in Western Literature From Shakespeare to the Present

The aim of this article is to propose the notion that the spoudaios, spoudaic potential, and the spoudaic spectrum are constantly recurring figures in literary texts in both poetry and prose. To demonstrate this, I will present some theoretical ideas and apply them to an analysis of two literary examples: an incident in Hamlet and Ted Hughes’ poem The Thought Fox. It can be considered an introduction to the topic which could be the basis of a more comprehensive future project.

The principal justification for this approach would come from the philosophical ideas of Eric Voegelin and Bernard Lonergan.  Following Aristotle both of these philosophers would agree that human beings are motivated “by a desire to know” and that, in principle, this desire is unlimited. Thus,” to quote Glenn Hughes, “it is an unrestricted questioning, oriented cognitively to the goal of unrestricted knowledge and morally to the goal of an unrestricted good” (G.Hughes 2003: 18). The spoudaios would be a character, or perhaps a narrative voice, that exemplifies this approach as they aspire toward or attain their spoudaic potential. The concept of the spoudaios can be traced back to the Pre-Socratics and Plato; it is allied to the latter’s daimonious aner – the spiritual man. Its antithesis, or opposite pole, is the phaulos1.  However, it is Aristotle’s notion of this figure that is of most interest to Voegelin and Lonergan. Webb sums this up as “Aristotle’s term for the ‘mature’ rational and ethical person, the fully developed human being capable of intelligent thought and responsible decision and action” (Webb 1981: 288).

There is another important element to the quality of the spoudaios which is an aspect of both Lonergan’s and Voegelin’s perspective. To quote Hughes again, “Both philosophers, emphasizing that a human being is first and foremost a questioner, analyze and develop the implications of the human capacity to out question the finite and the knowable and thereby to encounter transcendent meaning” (Hughes 2003: 17), thereby manifesting “the human longing for divine presence [that] legitimately leads to recognition of a radically nonfinite, nontemporal, nonspatial, nonfigurable reality of ultimate meaning” (ibid: 168). So the spoudaios takes on new and surprising dimensions when filtered through the philosophies of Voegelin and Lonergan and becomes something or someone that goes beyond earlier usages and that, further, has intriguing implications for modern literature.

But who or what, more precisely, is this “new” type of person? And by “new” I do not mean to suggest that the “type” itself is new. Just that the symbolization of it has evolved, this type will have “evolved” over the time-period of our focus:  the type may be “timeless” but its presentation in literature will necessarily be historicized. Thus, “our” spoudaios is a person, a “fully developed human being” in all the senses described above in Webb’s summary of Aristotle’s position with potent addition from Voegelin and Lonergan of their very specific notion of the encounter with transcendent meaning.

To return to the term person: John Zizioulas has some interesting and useful conceptual comments on exactly what may constitute this kind of “fully developed human being.”  Although, as he states, “the human person is not able to free himself absolutely from his ‘nature’ or from his substance,” by which Zizioulas basically means biological necessity, the human person is nevertheless able to become one “who loves freely – that is, who freely affirms his being, his identity, by means of an event of communion with other persons” (Zizioulas 1985: 18-19). And this can become one of the “measures” of the type of spoudaios we are describing; and that is the extent to which a character succeeds or fails to, as it were, “measure up,” although I will suggest it must be a false measure.

An incident from a scene in Hamlet may serve as an example in which a character, Hamlet himself, that seems initially to have the potential to measure up spoudaically but is prevented from doing so by adverse circumstances. Around two thirds or so of the way through Hamlet, our eponymous hero has an encounter which is perhaps more peculiar and yet more significant than is commonly realized. I refer to his meeting with the Norwegian Captain (Act 4; Sc. 4) who, while on his way to see the Danish king, is “chanced” upon by this Prince who would/should be the Danish king.

A very curious dialogue ensues between them in which Hamlet asks how the Captain and his soldiers are “purposed” which receives the reply, “Against some part of Poland,” urging Hamlet to speculate and ask the Captain, whether they “go against the main of Poland, sir,/ Or for some frontier?”; but it transpires that, as the Captain explains:

We go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath no profit but the name.

To pay five ducats – five – I would not farm it.

Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole

A ranker rate should it be sold in fee.

(4. 4. 16-21)

To which an apparently astonished Hamlet reasonably responds:

Why then the Polack will never defend it.

(4. 4. 22)

But the Polack will defend it; in fact it is “already garrisoned.” Yet, far from five ducats Hamlet exclaims that surely “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats/Will not debate the question of this straw.” Nevertheless, Hamlet’s amazement has infected the thought process that has been set in motion by this exchange. And he proceeds to draw the wrong conclusions.

Hamlet withdraws from his companions and does what he’s been predisposed to throughout the entire play: he debates the problem with himself thus removing the possibility of broadening his understanding through effective dialogue with any other person. He thereby “condemns” himself to his own solipsistic perspective. This diminished, overly introverted perspective of Hamlet’s is clear from the start as he bemoans: “How all occasions do inform against me.” Yet he immediately reduces this potentially broad objective focus to something too subjectively specific: “And spur my dull revenge.” Now, whereas it may be possible to sympathize with how Hamlet feels, nevertheless it is perhaps difficult to accept his logic. Shakespeare is inviting us to ask why do occasions spur precisely “revenge”? It is the first sign that Hamlet’s thinking is going seriously awry here. He debates with himself about the nature of human being and seems to conclude “that he that made us” and gave us “such large discourse” did certainly not intend “That capability and Godlike reason/To fust in us unused.”

So far so good, as it were, but determining not to use that “Godlike reason” is exactly what Hamlet now proceeds to do. Having valorized “reason” Hamlet immediately castigates himself for failing to act in revenge because “Of thinking too precisely upon th’event.” In other words he abandons reason at the moment that he identifies it as his most “Godlike” quality. Shakespeare is being supremely ironic: Hamlet does not think precisely enough “upon th’event”! This is not reasonable: it is illogical. He justifies is decision by referring to the conversation he has just had with the Captain, abandoning his previous criticism with its correct negative evaluation concerning men who are prepared to die for “straw” by re-interpreting this as a manifestation of what he now calls “honour.”

Then, he conflates reason and emotion (“Excitements of my reason and blood”) and concludes that “for a fantasy and trick of fame” it is worth going to one’s “grave.” Shakespeare has him attempting to differentiate his position from that of the soldiers by invoking the image of his “father killed” and his “mother stained” but, again, his logic is “faulty”: he is not comparing like for like. Hamlet has reasoned:

Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honour’s at the stake.

(4. 4. 52-54)

Yet, surely, finding an equation between the soldiers’ willingness to die pointlessly and even stupidly but in the name of some kind of “honour,” would it possible if one had determined to let one’s “thoughts be bloody or nothing worth”?

Hamlet has thus consigned reason to oblivion at the moment when he needs it most! Ironically from now on his thoughts will become increasingly nihilistic and “worth nothing.” Hamlet will no longer ponder such questions as whether it is better “To be or not to be” but will now simply “Let be” as a kind of fatalistic nihilism increasingly becomes his way of perceiving and, ironically enough, acting. We need to ask what Shakespeare might be doing here. Since all of Hamlet’s actions subsequent to this point head directly to the play’s final cataclysm, it seems to me that the dramatist can hardly be sympathetic to his hero’s choice, even though, like us, he can sympathize with his predicament.

Shakespeare seems to have Hamlet come to situate himself in something like a cosmos in the Greek sense of an ontological unity; or, as Zizioulas puts it, “a harmonious relationship of existent things among themselves.” Yet, as Zizioulas goes on to say, “Not even god can escape from this ontological unity and stand freely before the world, ‘face to face’ in dialogue with it” (1985: 29). The problem with this view of the universe, in which Hamlet’s access to the transcendent in the Voegelinian/Lonerganian sense, is severed. There is no room for any kind of personal freedom: a human being, like all existent things, is merely the consequence of something like the “necessity” of “fate.” This is precisely the “nihilistic fatalism” that Hamlet epitomizes more and more as the play develops.

But this is not how man wants to be, and neither does Hamlet. His comment “Let be” (5. 2. 201), in the sense of letting things remain this way or, worse still, just happen, can be read, in the light of spoudaic aspiration or potential, as one of the most ironic stated by any of Shakespeare’s protagonists. Hamlet would not act even if he is compelled to act. The person would wish to be free and therefore autonomous would like at least some control over their fate, and Hamlet is the same. Yet the question must be asked, and Shakespeare does have Hamlet ask it throughout the play, how can one be free, how to be free to escape the supposed ontological unity of the cosmos in which “it is impossible for the unforeseen to happen or for freedom to operate as an absolute and unrestricted claim to existence” (ibid: 30).

This seems to be a problem in Zizioulas, and it is certainly a problem for Hamlet. It is, as Zizioulas also states, “the theme of ancient Greek tragedy.” I suggest it is also Shakespeare’s. As Zizioulas puts it: “It is precisely in the theatre that man strives to be a ‘person’, to rise up against this harmonious unity which oppresses him as rational and moral necessity. It is there that he fights with the gods and with his fate” (ibid: 32). Yet even then man’s freedom is circumscribed – and a “circumscribed freedom” would be a contradiction in terms – consequently his “person” is nothing but a mask” (ibid: 32).

Precisely, that is, the kind of mask, literal or metaphorical, that an actor wears, which raises exactly the question about what constitutes “authentic” human behavior, the sort of question that we see Hamlet wrestle with when confronted with the apparent genuineness of the Players as they performed The Mousetrap in Act 3 of the play. Again, Zizioulas makes the point, “The mask is not unrelated to the person, but their relationship s tragic” (ibid: 33). Hamlet’s conundrum is that he cannot find the moment of authenticity, the point at which persona (mask) becomes a person (authentic subjectivity) in the “rotten’ state of Denmark.”2 Hamlet is hypostasis (condition of being), a person depleted of its spoudaic potential and emptied of ontological content. It is a mirror of Nature, but it is the Nature of the Greek tragic cosmos in which man is little more than a cipher.3

What I have tried to do here, is describe Shakespeare’s presentation of a character who has spoudaic potential but who is prevented by circumstances from realizing it. It would be possible to demonstrate characters that seem to have absolutely none of this potential. These are comparatively rare in literature and in actuality: luckily few of us are completely unredeemable. Nonetheless, consider Iago, for an immediate example from Shakespeare; Shelley’s Count Francesco Cenci, too, would be an interesting case; as would Browning’s “monstrous” Duke of Ferrara. Equally, it would be possible to describe those that are or become the opposite: Joyce’s  Leopold Bloom; Wallace’s Don Gately in Infinite Jest; the narrative voice in Eliot’s Four Quartets; some of Morrison’s women in Paradise.4 Obviously, I don’t have the platform here to develop these suggestions, but I hope I will have demonstrated some of the vitality of the spectrum of spoudaic potential.

Perhaps the ontological closure faced by Hamlet has parallels with something like the “tyranny” of cause and effect in “Newtonian” logic and Comptean Positivism. Yet the development of quantum theory, especially as it feeds into the biological sciences, can offer some interesting areas to explore. I am thinking of Stuart Kauffman’s work, particularly his notion of the “quantum brain.” Kauffman, in this very new and admittedly still controversial concept, suggests “that consciousness is associated with a poised state between quantum ‘coherent’ behavior and what is called ‘decoherence’ of quantum possibilities to ‘classical’ actual events” (Kauffman 2008: 197). Voegelin, too, following Plato, has consistently described the human condition as in-between or metaxic:

“When existence becomes noetically luminous as the field of pull and counterpull, of the question of life and death, and of the tension between human and divine, it also becomes luminous for divine reality as the Beyond of the metaxy which reaches into the metaxy in the participatory event of the movement. There is no In-Between of existence as a self-contained object but only existence experienced as part of a reality which extends beyond the In-Between. This experience of the Beyond (epekeina) of existence experienced, this consciousness of the Beyond of consciousness which constitutes consciousness by reaching into it, is the area of reality which articulates itself through the symbols of mythical imagination” (Voegelin 1990: 188).

I quote at length because this passage utilizes some of the key philosophical ideas that would underpin the notion of spoudaic potential, being something like a brief synopsis of the spoudaic mindset.5

Turning, now, to another literary example, Ted Hughes’ poem The Thought Fox, which provides us with one of kind  “solution” to the problem we have encountered in Hamlet.  In this poem, Ted Hughes describes a type of encounter. This much would seem to be indisputable. However this immediately compels the question: “What, precisely, is the nature of this encounter; what type of an encounter is it?” Well, apart from not having the adverse quality that Hamlet’s encounter with the Norwegian Captain has had, Hughes is relating here is an encounter with what Eric Voegelin calls It-reality. Voegelin tells us that:

” . . . consciousness has a structural dimension by which it belongs, not to man in his bodily existence, but to the reality in which man, the other partners to the community of being, and the participatory relations among them occur. If [a] spatial metaphor be permitted, the luminosity of consciousness is located somewhere ‘between’ bodily existence and reality intended in its mode of thingness” (Voegelin 2000: 29-30).

I will propose that what Hughes is doing in this poem is, in a very tangible way, giving “body” to the spatial metaphor as the luminosity of the poet’s particular experience of participation in an encounter with the community of being becomes (via. the reader’s participation in the act of reading the poem) itself a part of the community of being that is ashared reality which both is and yet is also much more than metaphorical in any commonly accepted sense of the notion. But to begin to describe this “new” sense of metaphor, we will need to be better acquainted Voegelin’s “new” understanding of consciousness:

“On the one hand, we speak of consciousness as a something located in human beings in their bodily existence. In relation to this concretely embodied consciousness, reality assumes the position of an object intended. Moreover, by its position as an object intended by a consciousness that is bodily located, reality itself acquires a metaphorical touch of external thingness. We use this metaphor in such phrases as “being conscious of something,” ‘remembering or imagining something,’ ‘thinking about something,’ ‘studying or exploring something.’ I shall, therefore, call this structure of consciousness its intentionality, and the corresponding structure of reality its thingness. On the other hand, we know the bodily located consciousness to be also real; and this concretely located consciousness does not belong to another genus of reality, but is part of the same reality that has moved, in its relation to man’s consciousness, into the position of thing-reality. In this second sense, then reality is not an object of consciousness but the something in which consciousness occurs as an event of participation between the partners in the community of being” (ibid: 44).

The Thought Fox is the record of an event of precisely this type. It is a form of complex experience in which, according to Voegelin:

” . . . reality moves from the position of an intended object to that of a subject, while the consciousness of the human subject intending objects moves to the position of a predicative event in the subject “reality” as it becomes luminous for its truth” (ibid: 45).

It is this luminosity – a structural aspect of consciousness – that Gerhart Niemeyer describes as consciousness’s discovery “that it is participating in a reality in which it has partners comprehended by that reality” (Niemeyer 1989: 116). It is the “motive force,” a structuring element within the comprehending reality that has occasioned the event, the prehension, that is this poem. This comprehending reality is almost synonymous with It-reality. And if this is the case, then the poem both is (in that it is an entity which dynamically exists) and is also the description of an encounter that is of the type that confronts and comprehends transcendence. In doing so, the “normal” relations of the spatio-temporal world are set aside and transcended:

Through the window I see no star

Something more near

Though deeper within darkness

Is entering the loneliness:

Space is collapsed, folded in, the stars are exchanged for something intimate; yet it is an intimacy that still comprehends and remembers that look “Through the window.” This is an inwardness that is of the same stuff as the vastness of space and the distance of stars. It is an experience of consubstantiality. And, as such, it will transcend time’s ticking away too  as “the clock’s loneliness” – our loneliness – in this reminder of that ultimate, solitary confrontation every individual has to face, when time can no longer be transcended but has run out. Forgotten in this encounter in which “everything” is present and therefore is, not out of time, but beyond time is timeless. It is an account of what Voegelin calls, ” . . . the experienced presence, the Parousia, of the formative It-reality in all things” (Voegelin: 2000, 44). It is this “flux of presence” which endows ” . . . all the phases – past, present, and future – of external time with the structural dimension of an indelible present” (ibid: 45).

The poet can say “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest” and as he writes his poem the “blank page where [his] fingers move,” like God’s pondering the potentiality of the empty space of a pre-created universe before initiating the big bang and the incoming order of our post big-bang world.6 It will become the printed page that is a part of the reader’s reality, an image become a “material” object. But this was always more than “just” an image: “Something else is alive.” Something other than imagination; other than the imagined  fox. What else is alive? Where is it alive? We are sucked in by the alliterative “m’s” and spat out again by the harsh sibilance, asking our questions. Hughes will give us some kind of answers, will describe what is “entering the loneliness” in this communion with the “deeper . . . darkness.”

Hughes here will certainly maximize the metaphoric and poetic potential of language as his speaker continues to describe this communion-communicating event: is it like the communion of prayer? The “o’s” (soothing this swooning soul?) seem to suggest so, as they resonate with that most primal of “o’s” – the infinitely drawn out “o” in loneliness; the invocatorily assonant “o’s” in “snow”, “nose”, “hollow”, “Shadow”, “own”; the “less” assonant “o’s”, that we see more than hear: “Cold”, “fox”, “touches”, “body”, “bold”, “Coming”, “hole”, and the howl of “now/ And again now, and now, and now . . . ” This is the “movement” of creation that we are invited to see and stand in awe-struck homage before all our eyes (and all the “I’s”) become ‘Two eyes [that] serve a moment”; our eyes (aye’s?) as we look at the “movement” itself reciprocating our vision in the metaphor of fox’s eyes looking at us. The “movement”  is a completely unified dynamic, a description and an instance of consubstantiality.

The metaphor’s vehicle – its partner in the community of being – is appropriately a fox: this cunning-creator creates his universe step by wary step “delicately as the dark snow” and as his “nose touches twig, leaf” they are there: brought into existence. But where? Do we or the poet still “imagine this midnight moment’s forest”? Of course we do. Yet to produce or become aware of images as our sense of consubstantiality grows is surely to change both the quality and the substance of the image. As the fox moves through this newly (re)created world and from delicate tactility we see “Something” that aspires toward solid actuality:

Between trees, and warily a lame

Shadow lags by stump and hollow

Of a body that is bold to come . . .

This is a body that, like all bodies, will want and need its material space (and time) to be:

Across a clearing, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,

Brilliantly, concentratedly,

Coming about its own business . . .

We are certainly in some kind of world here; and almost with a shock we can begin to see things which we (re)recognize: in “clearings” (it is becoming clearer), a “deepening greenness” (this is after all, is it not, a natural world), coming to light (“brilliantly”), and focus (“concentratedly”) – Its” business is our business. “Two eyes” (all the pairs of them – including all of ours) have become “an eye” – an I. But this not a world: it is a “new” world, and yet it is our world. A world that Hughes, and we as readers, have created, or rather built upon, the “old” world. It is, then, a world of eyes, and of all-seeing “I’s”: a world with us in it. It is a world in which ” . . . consciousness is experienced as an event of participatory illumination in the reality that comprehends the partners to the event . . . ” (Voegelin 2000: 18).

Who and what are the partners of this event? Manifestly the poem is an event, as is our reading of the poem. It is an event in the mind of the poet, in the mind of the reader, and it is an event with a specific spoudaic quality. We have been invited, as it were, to share the speaker’s experience and his unrestricted questioning of that experience. Further, that experience in its nature, has been of something, at least potentially, that has the boundless quality of the “unrestricted good.” There has been the event of writing the poem, following the essential genesis of the writer’s ideas; and their exodus into the text to become, in turn, the genesis of ideas in the reader’s response, and so on. Ultimately, perhaps, there is a kind of “being-event,” an event of substance, presence, Parousia – but our signifiers are at the “edge” of their signifying ability where the language of words must give way to another language: the language of It-reality.

Yet here I have possibly gone too far, we need to – fox-like – retrace our steps. And also we need to look further at what an “event” in the complex sense(s) that we are using actually is. We must make our signifiers work for us (as Hughes does) even if, paradoxically, that seems to require taking them further than they can go. Voegelin attempts to clarify the nature of It-reality:

“To denote the reality that comprehends the partners in being, i.e., God and the world, man and society, no technical term has been developed, as I know, by anybody. However, I notice that philosophers, when they run into this structure incidentally in their exploration of other subject matters, have a habit of referring to it by a neutral “it” that also occurs in everyday language in such phrases as “it rains”. I shall therefore call it therefore the It-reality, as distinguished from the thing-reality” (Voegelin 2000: 30).

But how can we be sure that Hughes’ encounter is with, or takes place within, It-reality? Voegelin also talks of recognizing ” . . . a plurality of true stories [that] has been observed as a phenomenon as far back as records go . . . ” (ibid: 43). By “true” here Voegelin means the genuine attempt to symbolize through language an experience had in actuality, including pre-linguistic actuality. The true stories are the numberless attempts to communicate those “had” experiences of the fullest actuality. I am proposing that The Thought Fox is a true story of precisely this type: the attempt to symbolize a genuine experiential encounter and, as perhaps all such experiences are and must be, this is an experience in and with It-reality. It is also an example of an event in Whitehead’s sense of a “prehension” and as such it is an experience that makes manifest the transcendent, and the function of language most suitable, certainly in this instance and perhaps in general, is metaphor.

A student can learn what a metaphor is and how it works, and that student should, more or less easily, be able to comprehend the main metaphor in The Thought Fox: the one we all know about the creative process and the nature of writing it. However, I want to suggest that this poem’s metaphor, on the occasion/event of its writing and the subsequent events of its being read, is much more than “just something” about the creative process of writing.  I want to propose then that this (the artistic totality of writing and the reader’s reading of the poem) is both a metaphor and that it is more than “just” metaphor. This formulation itself would simply be another metaphor if it were not for the instance of transcendence which is the body of the poem itself. And the body of the poem certainly exists in a comprehending reality as the very act of reading it is the tangible proof.

What is specific to the poem is the reflective distance that Hughes brings to it: an element of his creative consciousness that becomes an element of ours, consubstantially, so to speak. Glenn Hughes describes “reflective distance [as] the primitive complex of elements that consciousness encounters when it achieves an adequately differentiated understanding of its own ontological structure” (Hughes 1993: 37). Ted Hughes’ consciousness possesses “an adequately differentiated understanding” and is able, through this encounter which is primitive in the sense that its content is simple enough at one level yet complex in its symbolic potential as “this blank page” representing the writer’s receptivity. It becomes, in the creativity of writing the poem, the creation that is the finished work of art, and also a symbol of the ontological structure of consciousness itself, especially as we read it. That this is indeed, at the least, a different way of understanding consciousness is acknowledged as, discussing Voegelin’s ideas, Glenn Hughes asks ” . . . just what Voegelin’s theory is, in contradistinction to other types of philosophy of consciousness’ (ibid: 36). He goes on to say:

“He himself asks the question, rhetorically, as In Search of Order proceeds: are the terms of his own analysis – such as tension, luminosity, and so on – to be taken as unambiguous concepts? as evocative luminous symbols? The answer is neither. They belong, he claims, to a third genus of formulation distinct from the other two. The “tension’”of participatory consciousness, the “poles” of the tension and its “metaxy,” “‘intentionality,” and “luminosity” are neither the hard and fast categories of a definitive logical or scientific account of consciousness, nor mythopoeic symbols providing assistance in spiritual practice but, as Voegelin now calls them, “reflective symbols,” heuristic categories” (Ibid., 37).

It is reflective symbols, these heuristic categories, that enable the perspectives of reflective distance and this is made evident in all the elements in the poetic experience: a complex entity that both is and yet moves beyond this “isness” in the mutual act of writing/reading in the comprehending reality. To reiterate the fundamental point, this “blank page” is transformed as if conjuring something out of nothing. This cunning writer “Sets neat prints into the snow,” and thus as these become words on paper, ‘The page is printed” and will be in a recurrence that is as perpetually repeatable as the act of reading and re-reading the poem where, as Voegelin puts it, “reality itself acquires a metaphorical touch of external thingness” (Voegelin 2000: 29) in its mutuality with consciousness. When there are no more copies and no more memories of the poem, will it still recur or continue to “exist” in It-reality? Will it become indelible in the panentheistic cosmic mind when the One and the Many have become reunited as the One in the Many. This is undeniably a description of a mystical experience yet Hughes’ poem does seem to exemplify William James’ four categories of mystical experience: ineffability, noetic quality, transience and passivity.

However that may be, the page has been printed; the poem’s end as writing is its beginning as an object to be read, with its invitation to transcend  itself in the smithy of the poet’s creativity/creation which burns into the reader’s head. We are transformed and re-enter time-transformed:

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.

The window may be starless still, but it hardly matters because the important space, the dark hole of the head, has been filled in this encounter with the poem/poet’s encounter. The Thought Fox (in all its senses) has moved beyond metaphor, both in itself and as it has entered the reader’s experience and it become part of their reality, even as they reflect upon the “nature” of this process, even as it, and they create and recreate this process. The poet may have “imagine[d] this midnight moment’s forest,” but “Something else” certainly is alive: it is the encounter with transcendence itself that is “alive” because it is an encounter with the reality behind or beyond reality: It-reality – where the true stories are truly told.

Yet we must return, for now, to the world of time and space. But it is not the same world: it is a world that imagination has made replete beyond “mere” language or description because, as Voegelin says:

“Imagination, as a structure in the process of reality that moves toward its truth, belongs both to human consciousness in its bodily location and to the reality that comprehends bodily located man as a partner in the community of being. There is not truth symbolized without man’s imaginative power to find the symbols that will express his response to the appeal of reality; but there is not truth to be symbolized without the comprehending It-reality in which such structures as man with his participatory consciousness, experiences of appeal and response, language, and imagination occur. Through the imaginative power of man the It-reality moves imaginatively toward its truth” (Voegelin 2000: 52-53).

The Thought Fox is an example of just such imaginative power. It is a participatory encounter, a heuristic structure in which the participatory consciousness of a man – the poet/speaker – and, with him, the participatory consciousness of humanity (in the structure of his readers’ consciousnesses) become consubstantial with the It-reality as it moves imaginatively toward its truth. Thus the poet/speaker has been realizing their spoudaic potential, as has the sensitive and attentive reader in the act of reading the poem and, indeed, in reading or seeing a performance of Hamlet.

Even so we may seem to have journeyed some way from Hamlet’s encounter with the Norwegian Captain but if Hamlet’s problem was authenticity – in his failed reaching toward a kind of realer or really real experience – then what the speaker in The Thought Fox seems to capture is precisely this deeper encounter with reality. Alfred North Whitehead describes the event, which is the event of experience as the realest reality. As Whitehead says, “apart from experience there is nothing, nothing, nothing” (Whitehead 1929: 167). What here is especially important for us is the moment, in the overall process,  of what Whitehead terms “concrescence” which is when the experiencer acts, following a prehension, bringing history, the past, both personal and cosmic, into its unique future. By the process of a free decision, in the “moment” of the “atomic” now, a kind of “space,” our signifiers begin to move inevitably toward metaphor.7

But this is a crucial difference in the quality of the experiences of Hamlet and those of the speaker in The Thought Fox. Hamlet’s universe is, or has become, ontologically closed, which invites his fatalism, whereas for the speaker in the poem, it is ontologically open and thus invites creativity. This amounts to feeling that the cosmos is either free, alive, and full of limitless potential or it is closed, dead, and mechanistically determined. Thus we can see that to decide to “Let be,” as Hamlet so fatefully does, would lead to radically different consequences in these radically different universes, as it does in our examples from Shakespeare and Hughes.

Which leads us back to Kauffman’s idea, which is no mere analogy8, and has immense implications for our notions of free will. As he says, “The problem of causal closure, which seems to render free will an illusion, disappears because in an entirely acausal quantum mechanical account of conscious experience and free will, here is no unmoved mover9, for the quantum behaviour is acausal.” He goes on to say, “other . . .  philosophical problems, moral responsibility, mental causation, and epiphenomenalism, also seem to disappear or may be open to resolution” (2008: 199). Perhaps in this post-post modern the acausal ontological openness of Hamlet’s either/ or problem could have resolved itself into a “letting be” of a very different spoudaic/metaxic kind.

For Ted Hughes’ speaker, however, things seem otherwise: open to experience in the broader sense of the Voegelinian/Whiteheadian prehensive entity that is the event – reality itself  and It-reality – and thus “something else is alive” and that something seems to be the cosmos itself transmitting the pure potential which the speaker creatively transforms the printed page. As a result, he brings the transcendent into the human: the subliminal has partaken of and entered and transformed positively the supraliminal.10 Whereas Hamlet’s spoudaic potential has, as it were, stalled; the speaker in the poem’s spoudaic potential has been seen as creatively realized. They are at different points or stages of or on the spoudaic continuum. This can, in turn, be interpreted more broadly as illustrating how the human and the transcendent act and interact which is also a story and a history of failure and success.

I suggest that this amounts to a new kind of interpretation of literature, one that presents the spoudaios, spoudaic potential, and the spoudaic spectrum as a vital presence in effective and affective texts and that the analysis of these elements can be a fruitful mode of inquiry. The specific element of interest and practicality in this notion is that it refers particularly to characters and characterization which are central to literary creativity. This would be effectively a new theoretical approach, and one that could further integrate the ideas of Voegelin, Lonergan, Whitehead et al. into the burgeoning field of Voegelinian literary theory and its use as a methodology for analyzing literary texts.



Griffin, David Ray. (2007) Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy (An Argument for its Contemporary Relevance), Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Hughes, Glenn. (2003) Transcendence and History, The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Post Modernity, Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.

Kauffman, Stuart A. (2008) Reinventing the Sacred, A New View of Science, Reason and Religion, New York: Basic Books.

Lonergan, Bernard. (1957/1992) Insight: a study of human understanding, Collected Works Volume 3, ed. by Frederic E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Myers F. W. H. (1903) Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, London: Longmans and Co.

Niemeyer, Gerhart (1989) God and Man, World and Society: the Last Work of Eric Voegelin, The Review of Politics 51: 107-123.

Voegelin, Eric. (1990) Published Essays 1966-1985, Collected Works Volume 12, edited by Ellis Sandoz, Baton Rouge and London:  Louisiana State University Press.

Voegelin, Eric. (2000) Order and History, Volume V, In Search of Order, Collected Works Volume 18, edited by Ellis Sandoz, Columbia and London, University of Missouri Press.

Webb, Eugene. (1981) Eric Voegelin, Philosopher of History, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. (1929/1978) Process and Reality: an essay in Cosmology, London: Cambridge University Press.

Zizioulas, John D. (1985) Being and Communion, London: Dartman, Longman and Todd.



1. For a fuller account of the phenomenon of the phaulos see my article Browning’s Monstrous Duke.

2. One of the specific ways in which Denmark is “rotten” is the extent to which it has fallen away from Lonergan’s notion of cosmopolis. In Lonergan’s view in a cosmopolis there is dialectical analysis and a refusal to refuse insight, to which the opposite is “the Babel of our day [where there] is the cumulative product of refusals to understand” (Lonergan 1957/1992: 267). Hamlet, like any would-be spoudaios, is also the would-be cosmopolitan, but in this “rotten State” he is given over to the debased desire and will of one man (and Claudius is another anti-spoudaios and perhaps a phaulos) and a Court motivated, probably from Gertrude own (Ophelia and Horatio are important exceptions), self-interest. The courtiers are effectively become ontologically “sealed” cosmions – that this sort of tyranny promotes. Everything is soon enveloped by the miasma of scotosis that has infected Denmark. A cosmopolis, then, in this Lonerganian sense, is a kind of metanarrative expressing a universal or universalizing view of humanity that would thus understand itself (this, its humanity) as “oriented cognitively to the goal of unrestricted knowledge and morally to the goal of an unrestricted good.”

Precisely this is an utter refusal to acknowledge the human limits of our metaxic condition that manifests itself as a mania to control those proper limits through the assertion of  human will over the world (see my article, “Language, Power, and the Reality of Truth in Nineteenth Eighty-Four“). Claudius, of course, is the main culprit here, yet like so many of Shakespeare’s anti-spoudaic characters who have lived as if the world was “nothing more” than a totality of immanence. When the transcendent has re-asserted itself, as manifest in their desire to pray (and we remember Richard III, Macbeth, lady Macbeth, Othello), they find that the Beyond that they denied has indeed proved to be the ultimate without which they, and the material worlds they have tried to create and manipulate, are become literally nothing. This, too, is an area that the project would analyze fully in the whole context of presentations of the spoudaios and the spoudaic spectrum.

3. In Voegelinian terms Hamlet’s condition is a form of gnostic deformation of consciousness, leading to an apocalyptic state of mind. In this state the radical otherness of the transcendent has been “collapsed” or closed into the spatio-temporal realm. In other words Hamlet has “lost sight” of the incommensurability of the immanent and transcendent, but he has also lost sight of the actual metaxic nature of human consciousness and the actual reality.

This Voegelinian understanding would not deny the actuality of the physical world of time, nor the ultra-cosmic “reality” of the timeless transcendent which, in the case of “the world” of Hamlet. The eponymous character would restore (absolute) “freedom” to the transcendent and also an at least conditioned by it. This, of course, does not happen in the play, and Shakespeare has other objectives. But it would make Hamlet’s rather curious statement at 5.2. 197-203, where he “Calvinistically” misinterprets Matthew 10.29. Any “misinterpretation” is to be understood as Hamlet’s not Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare seems to want the audience to consider, among other things, what kind of special providence could possibly be effective in this ontologically closed Danish State (especially after the reductio ad absurdum of the graveyard scene) and if we’ve recognized Shakespeare’s intense irony, a suitably apocalyptic end is soon forthcoming!

However, the relevance of all this to the project proposed here is that while Hamlet’s  were shifting backwards on the spoudaic spectrum, Hughes’ speaker in The Thought Fox can be considered to be moving forwards on it. Hamlet can thus be seen as a potential place from which to start the overall spoudaic spectrum/spoudaious project. He could be followed by moving even further “backwards” to Iago and then “forwards” to Prospero, as characters who are “behind” and “in-front” of Hamlet on the spoudaic spectrum. This could be followed by a look at the rising mania for “impositions” of order in the eighteenth century, Romanticism, the serious diremptions caused by Darwin and the burgeoning natural sciences in the nineteenth century. This is, of course, highly provisional, and an alternative approach could take a different tack and focus on just one, or perhaps a few, specifically chosen cases at great depth.

4. The list of characters is easily produced – almost any character can be placed on the spoudaic spectrum – one of the objectives of the project should be be to produce a coherent overview of the literary presentation of the individual spoudaios and the spoudaic spectrum from appropriate selected texts that will demonstrate the importance, continuing relevance, and vitality of the concept across historical and cultural epochs. However, my specific focus, once I have established the criteria of the spoudaios qua “fully human being,” will be those characters (or narrative voices) who are presented as having “attained,” or virtually attained, their fullest spoudaic potential, because they would seem to manifest a curiously interesting response, and adaptation to, our increasingly (in the senses that Charles Taylor has made explicit) “secular society.”

5. Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of Voegelin’s thought is the exact nature of his concept of transcendence and, more precisely, its relationship to the metaxy. It is important here to recognize that transcendence is not a “place” or “thing” that exists “somewhere;” rather it is a dynamic element of the metaxic in-between structure of human consciousness that is the reality of its always reaching beyond itself in its ability out question the finite through the participatory event of the movement towards the infinite. For Voegelin the infinite is the unattainable Ground, and for Lonergan it is the formally unconditioned ultimacy, beyond but grounding our virtually conditioned actuality. For both these must remain the “ineffable” that is always the “Beyond” of our full linguistic symbolization, even as our “experience” of metaxic “participation” confirms its presence. The spoudaios would be seen as an exemplar of the need to maintain the apparent paradox that is the essential tension between the physical sensorium (the material human brain) and the site that is that same brain in its transcending mode as it apperceives transcendence itself.

It will always however remain a difficult “balancing act” to maintain the metaxic tension between (material) immanence and (divine) transcendence. Perhaps the concept of panentheism will be of use here: the notion, in a subtle distinction from the more commonly encountered pantheism. The transcendent is not thingness – it becomes (to use Voegelin’s term) luminous as being itself. In other words, immanence and transcendence are poles of each other which, co-present in human consciousness, especially in its recognition that is “always a part of the reality that it is conscious of.” Therefore we are aware of that the “greater reality” (what Voegelin calls It-reality or the comprehending reality) is always, at once, both here (immanent and material) and beyond (transcendent and immaterial).

If, to return to Hamlet, like Hamlet, we lose the balance because death will follow sooner or later or the transcendent will re-assert itself in some debased, form. “Ay, there’s the rub,” as Hamlet will say, as the transcendent does assert itself into his thoughts as “something [apparently rather unpleasant] after death.” It is in any case “The undiscovered country” that reminds Hamlet of the fullness of his moral responsibility, even as he would wish to flee from it. Hamlet, like so many, would wish to de-sacralise the world, only to find that, through the “mechanism” of its panentheistic condition, it re-sacralizes itself. It will resist ontological closure.

In Hamlet this is a consequence of Shakespeare’s art and dramaturgy, which invests both the play and the character with “universality.” And, to this extent, Shakespeare represents the spoudaic potential at least nominally present in all of us. Further, what Shakespeare is also providing us with is a kind of spoudaic myth, the story of the universal spoudaios in its struggle with the contingency, irony and, in this case (to paraphrase Richard Rorty) lack of solidarity shown through the actions of the other characters. It is the universal quality of the spoudaios, and the “universalizing” quality of spoudaic potential, that the dramatic conflicts that result from encounters with others at different “stages” on the spoudaic spectrum.

6. This perhaps curious remark needs some justification. It alludes to Whitehead’s notion that (to quote D.R. Griffin) “ . . . the world’s existence is not ‘“wholly derivative,”’ not entirely contingent. This denial does not mean that our world, with its electrons, protons, and inverse square law of gravitational attraction, exists necessarily. This world came into existence at some point in the past – evidently, it now seems, about 14 billion years ago. Its coming into existence, however, was ‘“not the beginning of [finite] matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of order”’ (PR 96). That is, the creation of our particular world, which Whitehead called ‘“our cosmic epoch,”’ involved bringing order out of chaos, or at least inducing the rise of a new type of order out of a previous type.” (Griffin 2007: 27 with Griffin is quoting from the 1978 edition of Process and Reality).

7. Metaphor, here, is moving very close to becoming something like the creative process itself, creating “new” forms of reality itself. One of the senses in which “metaphor is more real than reality” i.e., more real than merely mundane material straightforward cause and effect reality.

8. Kauffman undoubtedly does not intend this to be understood analogically with regard to the brain. If we are to regard literature as nothing more than analogy with nothing “real” to tell us about ourselves, it seems to me that we are stuck within that old post-modernist cliché about language as metaphor. But if all language is metaphorical what, exactly, is it a metaphor of? Human history itself becomes an analogy of exactly nothing in its fullest nihilistic sense. My contention is that the spoudaios and the spoudais spectrum offer a serious and ongoing challenge to this (outdated) existentialist/materialist perspective. This would become another major theme of the future development of this perspective as a whole.

9. This, of course, is not to suggest that Kauffman’s ideas are any kind of perfect “fit” with those of Voegelin or Lonergan, both of whom would adhere to something like the necessity of the Aristotelian unmoved mover. Where Kauffman will state “here is no unmoved mover,” the Voegelinian/Lonerganian position would be closer to saying that what may be being revealed is some part of the metaxic ontology of the human brain-state, an aspect of its in-between immanence and transcendence condition. Interestingly, for this project, what this highlights is precisely the sort of historicized, socio-cultural background that must itself condition the spoudaic spectrum and its manifestation in the individual spoudaios in both history and literature, which too would become another major theme of the overall perspective I have been developing.

10. This comment alludes to the work of F.W.H. Myers whose observation that “That which lies at the root of each of us lies at the root of the cosmos too” (Myers, 1903, Volume 2, p 277). It is much more fully expressed in his overall concept of the subliminal/supraliminal (which receives its fullest expression in the two volumes of Human Personality – see Bibliography) which is, in many ways, the precursor to the work of William James as well as Whitehead, Voegelin and even Lonergan.


Also see “Teaching Hamlet: The Play’s The Thing“; “Hamlet, The Affective Roots of Decision, and Modernity“; and “Romancing the Sources: Framing Tales in Hamlet and King Lear.”

Stephen H. Conlin

Written by

Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.