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Process and the Derailing of Reality: Love and Violence (Part V)

Process And The Derailing Of Reality: Love And Violence (Part V)

In this fifth part of the essay I would like to consider what a Platonic speculative realism might tell us about Eros – desire in all its polymorphous, perverse and polyvocal glory. To begin, let’s return to Schelling once again where we left him in part four of this essay. As John Milbank argues, in spite of the millenarian claims made by Schelling, there remains a “positive” core to his thought because of the recognition of the importance of the Christian message of love:

“While Schelling’s schema is Joachite and heterodox, it remains closer than Hegel to an orthodox Christian sense in that, since love is a matter of contingent willing and acting, the pattern of love in Christ and fidelity to the spirit of that pattern in the “Church” (the true human community) is indispensable to our understanding of love.”[1]

However, Schelling’s cosmology with its four “wills” might well seem an “ontologically violent” and voluntarist version of Christian Neo-Platonism – something Radical Orthodoxy (RO) thinkers would surely not forgive. All is crashing and bashing between the start and the end, a millenarian Romanticism of epic proportions, in which man and God finally come to exist in perfect mutual tension through the legacy of Christ’s incarnation and its message of love: “Violence, severity and power must precede in the revelation of the Eternal; and only then can He himself appear on the gentle breeze of love.”[2] Like Hegel, Schelling sees humanity as a whole spiritually “growing up”, from ancient paganism to the Old Testament and finally the New. Unlike Hegel, however, he does not announce a series of “unhappy consciousnesses” that proceed from the supersession and “death” of the old gods and finally the Christian God as well. Instead he puts his faith in a radical love destined to alchemically transfigure all of reality and bring the violence of process finally to an end. Yet, as Voegelin observes of The Ages of the World, there would seem very little that is pacific about human or creaturely existence in Schelling’s own experience of things:

“Schelling considers this experience as revealing the character of the universal process in general. It is a futile endeavour to explain the manifoldness of nature as a peaceful interpenetration and harmonization of different powers. All that comes into being can do so only in restlessness and discontent (Unmut), and as anxiety is the fundamental feeling of every living creature, so is everything that lives conceived and born in violent strife.”[3]

Clearly the ontological transfiguration of the world from violence into love is still a long way off, whether for Schelling or ourselves. It rests on the dim possibility of a future time, a not yet, for all the wars and rumors of wars. One might contrast Schelling’s ontology of violence with anthropologist René Girard’s “mimetic desire” thesis. Girard views human beings as creatures of violent competition and imitation. Nature is filled with “mimetic violence,” but in man this capacity to imitate has been hypertrophied.[4] Humans have only been able to build complex societies by developing sacrifice and scapegoating rituals to assuage snowballing resentment. To Girard the uniqueness of Christ is that he comes to cancel the “sacrificial economy,” absorbing all of humanity’s sins forever as supreme scapegoat.[5] Thereafter, however, it would seem that for Girard humanity is on its own in the old age of the world, left at the mercy of the very human apocalyptic Lords of This World, who, so it is hoped, will eventually one day put away their violence.[6]

As Voegelin once said, the declaration of living in the saeculum senescens (old age of the world) “lies like a blight” on Christianity, but especially upon Augustinian theology.[7] It was always going to invite millenarian attempts to complete the system, especially as European Christendom began to materially flower in the High Middle Ages and went in search for explanations for the rapid deterritorialisation of its prior certainties.[8] Millenarianism poured into the secular and captured the question of order in history, promising the “adulthood of man” in place of decrepit old age. The wandering pilgrims of the Earthly City’s ecclesia, far from their true heavenly home, might gain some taste of the shared divine agapē to come amidst worldly violence and sin, but this could do little to explain why violence and strife still remained the condition of all living creatures and even seemed to be accelerating. Eight hundred years after the Joachites it is still accelerating, whither we know not, and as risible as the adulthood of man might now sound. As I argued in part four of this essay, turning away from the curse of the Ages of the World towards an anamnetic “Non-All” provides a very good beginning to overcoming this problem. But the overwhelming fact remains: what is to be done with all this violent strife?

Cosmic Desire

Indeed it is quite possible to read Schelling for the violent strife alone, as does psychoanalytic Marxist Slavoj Žižek, who seems to find Ages very useful for developing a theory of the emergence of the human psychological subject and its desires.[9] As a Freudo-Marxist thinker, receiving a dose of Gnostic “projectionism” from both sides, Žižek can only view Schelling’s A0 splitting into other Powers as the “mad God” of the human psychoanalytic subject’s cleavages and dissonances. So too as a Hegelian and Lacanian he cannot seem to help but “tarry with the negative” – to lean too hard on A1 at the price of the other Powers – because he takes desire to be an intrinsic lack and perpetual incompleteness in the subject. As Milbank observes:

“[Žižek’s] “love” is finally Hegelian and not Schellingian after all, because it is no positive, seeking desire (as with Deleuze and Guattari), but rather . . . the disillusioned free embrace of the contingent as the contingent in admission of the impossibility of discovering any general amorous truth or any reality to erotic union.”[10]

Žižek can only give us Schelling’s “freedom” in the form of the hungry will chained-up, whipping around in fury, and man as a creature of a Trieb (drive) that is all “death drive” – something forever stumbling about in incurable misery and pain.[11] What is this death drive?

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud describes in detail a theory that the majority of organic life is taken up with defensively maintaining the existence and homeostasis of life itself: “every modification which is thus imposed upon the course of the organism’s life is accepted by the conservative organic instincts and stored up for further repetition.” What is repeated in the animal is both the endless “striving” return to the original inorganic state from which life arose when a creature dies, but also the attempt to assuage this through repeated behaviour that can itself turn into insane repetition, self-destructive habits. Yet to Freud: “the aim of all life is death”. Life is simply increasingly complex “detours” or “circuitous paths” before returning to the “ancient goal” of Nonlife.[12] Perhaps the most hyperbolic version of the “circuitous paths” towards Death ever articulated is that of Nick Land’s nihilistic notions that the negentropy of capitalism is destined to eventually replace human desire with the Nonlife of robots.[13]

As Catherine Pickstock observes of Freud: “when his theories have been deconstructed, sex is the thing that Freud least of all believes in, even less than religion . . . for Freud there is only identical repetition . . . .not even life has life; it is reduced to an inert, dead and non-repeated item.”[14]  Žižek’s interpretation of Thanatos (death) through Schelling’s Powers simply consigns A1 to an undead lack, an unconscious Real that exceeds all symbolic systems, at once opening the door to the self-destructive repetition of the drug addict and the political revolution that emerges out of the unconscious to destroy the social “symbolic order.” Žižek is a funny fellow with all his dirty old Soviet dad jokes, but his entire ontology is one of intense wretchedness. The only remedy it promises is the contingent possibility that there might be something violent and revolutionary for people to temporarily take their minds off their own innate emptiness. The Lacanian version of Freud is, we must recall, and for want of a better term, cock-blocked by the cosmos.

Nonetheless, the cosmology of Schelling is unabashedly erotic. As Voegelin writes, Schelling’s union of feeling is a cosmic “orgasm of powers . . . the term potency was chosen with an awareness of its sexual implication. And, to the extent to which it rests on this aspect of the protodialectic experience, the Potenzenlehre would be a mathematizing speculation on the experience of the procreative act.”[15] It might well seem as though by taking desire cosmically with Schelling one moves close to the sort of bizarre ideas we might associate with Wilhelm Reich and his cosmic sexual orgone energy, which had a profound effect on Deleuze and Guattari’s positive “seeking desire” (as Milbank terms it).[16] However, the “cut” made between Lacanians and Deleuzians on desire as lack and desire as positive force would seem impossible to bridge. Yet, once again invoking Étienne Souriau (see part two), perhaps this is more of a question of “surexistence” – that one may do justice to one and then the other, but not both at the same time. Schelling’s ontology, like the Five Most Important Classes in the Sophist emphasises antithesis – contrast, juxtaposition, even violently so in the ongoing processes of reality. To reduce Potency in Schelling’s Ages of the World to merely the negative or the positive misses this all-important fact.

In spite of this it does sound very strange to turn out or “project” our hungry desires into the cosmos at large, just as Whitehead turned Lockean sensation outward and invested it in each any every actual occasion’s prehensions of one another.[17] Unsurprisingly, the recent “speculative realist” breaking down of the Kantian inside and outside has brought with it curious results that come close to returning to animism, vitalism and panpsychism. [18] Gilles Deleuze mixed the cosmic voluntarism of Spinoza and Nietzsche with Bergson and Gilbert Simondon’s theories of individuation to create an unabashedly vitalist worldview. Today a great many Deleuzians read this as simply a chaos theory cosmology of seething, differentiating “vibrant matter.”[19] Yet, by generalising liveliness and will to the cosmos, this paradoxically can also seem to cancel the uniqueness of living agents and recentre cosmology around the non-living as the real possessor of historical agency. Deleuze believed that the history of metallurgy showed that metal was “alive” and evolved, rather like the machines in Samuel Butler’s satire Erewhon that required human pollination in order to reproduce (and, which, thankfully the Erewhonians eventually banished to a museum).[20] Today we have the insensate unliving agency granted by Deleuze’s children to the Cthulhus and Molochs of capitalism and oil we find in Land and Negarestani – deathless elder gods before which human beings, like little pollinating bees, are very small indeed.[21]

More interesting is the avenues this turn has opened for exploring non-Western peoples’ conceptions of living and non-living entities with agency, such as we find in Viveiros de Castro and Elizabeth Povinelli.[22] These are very interesting and both thinkers obviously have a great deal of experience working with Amazonian and Australian native peoples respectively. Nonetheless, one does wonder if both are speaking more about the collapse of Western thought into post-human immanentism than about the actual cultures in question. Viveiros de Castro’s promised “Anti-Narcissus” of non-Western anthropology through Deleuze does not wholly convince that it is not still stuck looking at its own dowdy post-structural reflection of assemblages nailed haphazardly together. So too, in the end, does Povinelli’s geontopower seem to have much less to do with how Aboriginal peoples view the world, animate smoke and all, and a great deal more like the Freudian Positivism with extra steps. Life is an anomaly of little importance compared with the Neo-Darwinian deep time of geological Non-Life for Povinelli, especially in the face of climate change, before which our post-humanists seem capable of little more than cashing in on naming their own cute variation on the epoch: Cthulhucene, AnthROBocene, Meteorocene, Platonationocene, Capitalocene . . . [23]

In light of the immanent agency granted to Non-Life, one might do well to recall Voegelin’s observations at the beginning of part one of this essay that in the past couple of centuries of immanentism “every possible locale where one could misplace the ground has been exhausted.” So too might one note the “law of the conservation of mana” D. E. Harding spoke of – chop down the angels and the immanent becomes flushed with power.[24] It is just too easy to fall into the romantic trap that sees Western thought as somehow uniquely cursed and only now emerging from this to shake hands with everyone else, who, for some strange reason, all now seem rather suspiciously to believe in complexity, immanence and assemblages. We’ve already been through this rigmarole with Whitehead this past century, as I also noted in passing in part one of this essay. But if it comes to aestheticising capitalist greed loosing chthonic powers upon the world, perhaps one might recall Dis’s exclamation to Fortuna in the Satyricon on Rome’s prosperity “raging to its ruin”:

“They build with gold, and make their houses rise to the stars, water if driven back by their stone piers, the sea is borne into the fields, and they rebel by overturning the order of nature. They seek my realm too! Earth has been dug up for insane structures and gapes open, in mined mountains caves moan, and while a precious stone finds useless uses my infernal shades say they hope to see the sky.”[25]

This marvelous little fragment is but part of a “hurried attempt” by Petronius to illustrate that poetry should be a prophetic raving, that it should turn language into a “deadly catapult.” Indeed, before the apocalyptic business of climate change is done we are likely to see a multitude of raving prophets preaching messianic violence and peace, but probably very few who are capable of building a half-decent siege engine actually capable of changing things. Capturing living human desire and turning it towards better things remains the priority, which we shall return to in detail in part six of this essay.

An Alternative History of Unconscious Desire

Now of course the Platonic legacy is no stranger to vitalisms, animisms, panspychisms. From world-souls to metempsychosis it proclaimed and sustained them for thousands of years, attaching itself both to Christianity and Islam, even if relationships were sometimes strained. The living Platonic cosmos survived at least down as far as Kepler’s final Epicurean surrender of the planets moving via anima motrix (motive soul) in favor of vis motrix (motive force), the convoluted spiritologies of the Cambridge Platonists, and perhaps last of all the Over-Soul of Emerson.[26] The Deleuzian vitalism is simply a reworking of the Stoic conatus vitae (life and desire as exertion outwards, the desire to stay alive). This has gelled well with the voluntarist dispositif of modernity, echoing from Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza down through Nietzsche and Schelling. The Platonic vitalism is that of living, intelligent cosmic order of love. Like its Aristotelian brother with its teleological unmoved mover that turns the world through love it has not fared very well in comparison to the voluntarists, of whom mindless power is a very good description indeed.

Perhaps our conceptual device needs to return to the root of the epochal articulation of this problem in the debate between Aquinas and Scotus on whether the intellect or will is prior in God. On the side of the former, the side of the Platonists, we will endeavor to argue that analogically at least, it is reason and love that informs the will of both God and His creatures. Nonetheless, should we decide to take the current neo-vitalist-animist wedge from behind (to use a Deleuzian expression), we must do so knowing that, as Souriau reminds us, we will get what we deserve. I certainly have no feeling of obligation to proclaim that “it was all just chaoplexity all along” like the tiresome New Age pulp of Fritjof Capra. Moreover, we have already burned our boats – we have admitted that we not only are interested in cosmic Eros and Life, but also that we are interested in cosmic Reason. We are already lunatics beyond saving in just about any modern sense. We might as well make our speculative adventure and likely damnation worth our while. We are going to have to go back much further than Schelling’s cosmic “wills” and unconscious to the now forgotten early modern Neo-Platonic thinkers who preceded his ideas.

Let’s begin with perhaps the most totalizing Platonic erotic theory ever devised, that of Giordano Bruno for whom everything is held together by Eros – it is the vinculum vinculorum (the bond of bonds). For Bruno even hate is a form of bonding or attraction that deep down is a product of Eros.[27] One might go as far as to call this Eros “synaptic” in Souriauian terms – it is process, conjunction and disjunction between ontics. An even more Platonic (and Christian) solution might be to consider it to be logos – that which bonds the world from top to bottom in the name of love and goodness given freely. And yet Bruno’s inclusion even of hate as an epiphenomenal form of cosmic Eros is startling and ontologically violent in a way perhaps even greater than Schelling’s “Powers” or Girard’s mimesis. Nonetheless, the astounding thought is that perhaps Bruno’s is the most Platonic answer ever offered – that the world from top to bottom, villains and all, is wholly good and is to be accepted as an expression of order and love.

Historian of occultism Ioan P. Couliano insightfully argues that Bruno’s On Magic and On Bonding in General contain a precocious theory of mass psychology more fitting to the politics of our age than anything Machiavelli ever said.[28] Leaders and influencers are, like Eros in the Symposium, “sorcerers of desire.” They can place in men’s minds images and affects they would like them to feel and believe, they bind them to them. Yet it is much easier to bond a crowd of people than it is an individual, as Bruno claims:

“Different individuals are bonded by different things. And even though the same object binds both Plato and Socrates, it binds each of them in a different way. Some things excite the masses, some things affect only a few; some things affect the male and manly, other things the female and the feminine.”[29] 

The key to Bruno’s thesis is that no one truly knows all their desires. The magus must then learn to know them better than they know themselves. Bruno was on the cusp of developing not only a theory of the unconscious but also its mass manipulation hundreds of years before anyone else would articulate such things. He is a proto-Freud or Gustav Le Bon or Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and modern consumer advertising.[30] But why did the Nolan manage to get here long before anyone else? The fact is that the emanationist cosmology of Neo-Platonism that strongly influenced Bruno (and Schelling too of course) always implicitly contained the unconscious in its motive descent from the One and the Realm of Mind downwards into man, creatures and finally matter, where the process comes to an end in “dead logoi” that cannot produce any further. In Bruno’s early mnemonic work Sigillis Sigillium (The Seal of Seals) we find him declaring in rather Averroist tones that although we judge perception to be our own, “we are not always thinking about things (non semper intendimus), nor always being illuminated.” In order to be present in us, the intellect takes possession of us in a mutual tension – we address (adpellere) it, it addresses us.[31] If Bruno had linked his works on desire more closely with this, we may well have had a very different modernity indeed.

Moreover, it was also another Platonic thinker less than a century later, Ralph Cudworth, who was the first to name the unconscious, or “inconscious” as he termed it.[32] The discovery stems from a section in Plotinus’ third Ennead on the vitalist “plastick power” that Nature seems to contain in order to give form to entities. Cudworth alighted upon the Neo-Platonist’s use of the analogical comparison between how much this power’s “life” must differ from sense and understanding as a man’s consciousness differs between sleep and waking.[33] Cudworth turned the analogy back upon itself, seeing this “inconscious Nature” at work in all manner of human activities and learned hexis (habit), from people singing in their sleep and the muscle memories of musicians and dancers to a geometer being able to draw shapes without even consciously thinking about it.[34] As an observant reader might notice, this is, once again, an example of the long and fecund history of the problem of the khora, which we met in part 3 of this essay. Bruno too had lingered over Plotinus’ vital power within matter, arriving at the gloriously eccentric image of a single substance expanding and contracting “through an internal pulsion, like a slug, gathering itself up in a thick mound. At times it gives itself no shape at all, but then it will order small horns to appear on its front, and it will produce a head and send forth a mouth. In outward appearance, its agile body stretched out, it proceeds like a worm.”[35]

Nonetheless, Cudworth did very little with his revolutionary discovery of the “inconscious.” He refused the possibility that Nature, which he called a building site of stupid yet obedient “drudges” at the bottom of creation, could do anything except what God instructed,[36] just as he refused even the smallest modicum of consciousness and reason to non-human animals.[37] As Lancelot Law White once mused “a Christian post-Cudworth school of scientific thought might have enjoyed the world fame of Marx and Freud together, and more, but he preferred the status quo.”[38] Admittedly it is almost impossible now to read about Cudworth’s building site without thinking of Deleuze and Guattari’s “factory” of unconscious “desiring production”, or for that matter humorously imagining some Gnostic myth of the drudges slowly becoming conscious an und für sich and rebelling against God to make their own little world.

Yet there is also another far better Plotinian image that Cudworth utilizes for illustrating the “plastick power’s” relation to God: the nymph Echo dancing to the tune of Pan’s piping. This is a mimetic image, of a cosmic desire to “ape and mimick the divine Art and Wisdom.”[39] It is an image, one should note, that was also highly appealing to Isaac Newton, who, in Pythagorean strains, wrote of gravitational proportion as the Pipes of Pan in his scholia.[40] Nonetheless, it is fair to say that after Newton every vitalism and eroticism has been doomed to hide itself behind mimetic scientistic “energies,” waiting out its time until the moment it is uncovered and banished as heresy. There certainly are quantifiable forces in the world, but the synaptic action of repeated conjunction and disjunction between ontics, the repeated habits of process, seem slightly more than this. Like Pickstock (see part three) we are still asking why the world seems recurrently “punctuated” the way it is. If, like Pickstock, we are looking for a poetic language to express our quest, perhaps the old Pythagorean-Platonic symbolism of the cosmos as musical might still be worth something. That the cosmos “inconsciously” responds to proportion with concitation and conjunction, with “dancing,” is a beautiful conception indeed. The cosmos may truly be a terra mille saltationum.

Indeed, Cudworth could have gone much further and turned this analogy of the dancing Echo back upon itself and considered the possibility that Nature too, like a dancer, could learn new hexeis (habits). Perhaps with Cudworth we could have had a Christian Platonism of ongoing divine creation “after finitude.” In his passing consideration of whether every planet might possess its own “plastick power” Cudworth could have asked whether different planets might have grown up very differently in their evolving dance of varied repetitions. Some dances might be filled with all kinds of ontics with nothing resembling what we might consider recognisable as the habit of Life to bond them.[41] The strange thought is not that perhaps there might be planets out there of some great “inconscious” entity heaving and bringing forth shapes like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, but that the Earth itself is an extraordinary Solaris of a sort. Everything down here is very close to one another and very odd. Ours is a planet, a khoric zone, where a habit called Life has grown up filled with a hungry desirous violence, as Schelling, Girard, Bruno and others have seen. Such a Great Animal in the scheme of things could be very bizarre indeed.

Nevertheless, it is not our part to blame the dastardly Demiurge for the fact that down here the plants and creatures endlessly trick, mimic and devour one another and that only man has thus far become clever enough to curse the whole damnable thing (for many other creatures seem very perturbed that they too must suffer and die). Nor might it be that the Earth is uniquely some silent planet or sunken place of sin. An all too typical reincarnation of this old horror is Cthelll, Nick Land’s perverted variant on the world-soul, in which more than a hint of Schelling might be detected. Cthelll is the primordially tortured world-soul of the Earth, passing its wounding on to all creatures since the very moment the Earth began to come into being through the molten crashing together of space debris.[42] Chthelll is the Earth as Hell. We have been here before of course many times during crises of faith, from the Earth as the Devil’s arsehole or a rotten chicken’s crop (according to Luther), the dregs at the bottom of creation (Milton). Should anyone go about today saying that the world is very good, let alone the best of all possible worlds, she would likely be regarded as an utter monster, but this would not in any way be a novel problem. The best of all possible worlds has always been the edgiest claim, shadowed closely by its pseudos, falling in love with the ktetic and phantasmic aspects of the world as the only true and eternal reality.

Cthelll is what you get when you can only believe in the illusory, unmediated Same of ontological violence all the way down, rudely pasting over any erotic goodness between things, from the mutual beneficial symbiosis of species to the fierce protective love creatures have for their offspring. As Plato’s Sophist proclaims, the very participation of the Other in being that brings forth infinite diversity brings with it phantasms and ktetics of all sorts out of necessity. Here there is no “Fall” – there is simply plenitude. At very least to the Thateroplatonist who takes his lead from the Sophist, Christ may appear as the greatest denouncer and illuminator of the ontological phantasms on which all mimetic violence, apatē, and wicked-minded sorcery of desire depends.[43] Perhaps Christ comes very differently to many other worlds. Perhaps there are worlds where desire and life do not bond in mimetic violence to overcome the Different, but instead there is simply too much Same, creatures caught in endless hypnotic echoing of one another to their own starvation and destruction. As I argued in part four of this essay, it is these sorts of speculative and creative considerations of the Other World that reflexively draw the nature of our own into tight focus.

To Cudworth’s contemporary Anne Conway, that first Baroque Christian mystic to take infinite space and time seriously, Christ offers the supreme example of virtue: the love of God and of all his creatures. For Conway creatures means even the very stones, for to her everything is alive and composed of infinitesimal “monad” spirits.[44] Conway is a panpsychist – every little monad is capable of feeling some tiny semblance of joy, misery, love. All res are braces of specters held together by God’s love until they become corrupted by the Devil, collapse and are combined again and again by God to make others. Conway rereads the Kabbalah gilgul (reincarnation) as non-identical repetition – the world is endlessly moving, a great flow of ghosts coagulating and loosed again and again – an infinite past’s colossal moral weight “haunting” an infinite future. There is both Motion and Rest, process and “things”. Conway’s spectral ontology is a combination of the Neo-Platonic view of matter as phantasmata that we spoke of in part two of this essay with the Lurianic Kabbalah belief that the world is made of tiny “sparks” (nitzotzot) seeking redemption. What God offers His creatures to Conway is a long slow tiqqun olam, a restitution of the world over aeons, the possibility of infinite potentiality towards moral goodness, but no “end” in perfect actuality, for that alone belongs to God and Christ.[45]

Conway is about as “heterodox” as one can get. Hers is an ontology without Trinity or Heaven or Hell. That Christ, the First among Creatures, comes to Earth in human form is because unlike prior creatures, human beings are capable of being conscious enough to know God and that what he wishes for his creatures is love. Yet, unlike Bruno and Cudworth, Conway never quite manages to spell out the “inconscious” in her metaphysics. This is even if, to borrow a term from Pickstock, there are “Brunonian undercurrents” at work in Conway. It was Bruno who coined the term “monad” to describe the tiny feeling particles he believed composed the cosmos. However, Bruno’s metaphysics went through a great many stages and changes in vocabulary as they developed and “monad” is only very rarely used. In fact, if Conway had not picked it up and then later lent it to Leibniz, perhaps no one today would have ever heard the term.[46] Yet, if Edward Butler is correct, Bruno’s On Magic and On Bonding In General with their emphasis on the notion that we are filled with a multiplicity of conscious and unconscious desires with minds of their own is simply an expansion of this monadic theory.[47]

One wonders what a Conwayan mass psychology would look like. If anything, as a Quaker and due to her metaphysics being a virtue ethics hinging on imitating the example of Christ, perhaps political Conwayism would be too apolitical. One might note Voegelin’s theory that the Franciscan attempt to imitate the life of Christ too closely led not only to Joachism but to the belief that mortal men could live without political institutions.[48] John Milbank has recently revisited Voegelin’s theory, emphasising how the Franciscan Occam’s descacralization of the political order begins the work of secularism.[49] We are still yet to see hide or hair of an anarchism from either the secular or the imitatio Christi that saves us from the Lords of this World. Perhaps such a thing, in line with the long slow redemption of the world in Conway, might take thousands of years to come. As I will argue in part six of this essay what we need now is to try to build better institutions where good mimetic desire can flourish.

Nonetheless, Conway’s Christian-Platonism “after finitude” still possesses a profound value as a place to start. To entertain Conway’s thesis is to believe that man is given chance after chance to become an excellent creature through love, to improve himself towards the good over generations. Yet, of course, such a chance might never be taken. Should humans fail, especially in regard to their metabolic violence towards their environment, this will not necessarily be the end of the habit of Life on this planet. But it will mean that what we do now will continue to “haunt” the Earth for a long time yet to come, and that many beautiful future human cultures and creatures will be impoverished or robbed of existence. Conway’s Christianity is already “post-humanist” before the big M Man of atheist-millenarian modernity has even been thought. True love for God and his creation “after finitude” is perhaps the generosity of leaving a healthy world to one day be inhabited by people and creatures far different from those of the present.

Thinkers like Bruno, Cudworth and Conway may seem very eccentric to us. Yet this would only be because they represent a forgotten Alt-Platonic response to modernity that barely had the chance to get started before it was derailed by John Locke’s disinfected concept of “mind” and inane refusal to believe in the unconscious. Between Locke and Schelling the “inconscious” is almost wholly forgotten.[50] Although Voegelin, like just about everyone else in the past couple of centuries, had nothing to say on Bruno or the Baroque Cambridge Platonists, he was more than able to realise that Locke won through cheating, by appealing to Puritan Bourgeois self-satisfaction and little else. As Voegelin wrote to Strauss of Locke: “[he was] the most repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of humanity . . . an ideological constructor, who brutally destroys every philosophical problem in order to justify the political status quo.” Elsewhere in The New Order and Last Orientation we similarly read:

“He did not attempt to penetrate the elements of human nature but was satisfied with a description of man as he appeared to him and the average people of his social group… The man of his Treatise is the evocation of the victorious Puritan bourgeois in politics… he drew the picture of the new man as the new man wanted to see himself.”[51]

Yes indeed Locke was the cheap ideologist of the vacuous new money dullards of the Baroque and their flat-headed descendants. Maybe the fault of the Cambridge Platonists was that unlike Locke they did not perceive that the world was changing and thus did not opportunistically attach their ontologies and epistemologies to the rising political culture.[52] Maybe it was simply that no one was interested in their eccentric visions of an occasionalist God of reason and love. Perhaps some remainder of the forgotten moment of Bruno and Cambridge Platonism escaped through into Romanticism, Transcendentalism and Theosophy, but this was a very poor remainder indeed. At very least one must treat our forgotten early modern Platonists as posing launching points – “the inconscious,” “sorcery of desire,” Christianity “after finitude” – that have still not been amply answered and are now more relevant than ever.  Maybe the time has indeed come to offer White’s “post-Cudworth” Christian alternative to Freud and Marx that never was, especially to the Freudo-Marxist theories of unconscious desire that dominated the last century and continue to limp along into our own. This is what we shall turn to in the sixth and final part of this essay.



[1] John Milbank in John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2011, p. 148.

[2]  F. W. Schelling, in F.W.J Schelling/Slavoj Žižek The Abyss of Freedom/The Ages of the World, p. 179.

[3] Eric Voegelin, The New Order and The Last Orientation, pp. 215-6.

[4] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1987, esp. pp. 86-9.

[5] Ibid, see chapter 2 “A Non-Sacrificial Reading of the Gospel Text.”

[6] Ibid, pp. 249-62. In this it is quite possible to read Girard as a “death of God” thinker, or at very least this is how he has been taken by some such as Slavoj Žižek, in Slavoj Žižek and Boris Bunjevic, God in Pain, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012. One might note that we never seem to see Žižek engage with Girard directly, but only through Girardian Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mark of the Sacred, trans. M. B. Debevoise, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2013.

[7] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas Vol I: Hellenism, Rome and Early Christianity, Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 19, ed. Athanias Moulakis, University of Missouri Press, Columbia MS, 1997, pp. 211-2.

[8] Idem, Plato, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1966, p. 147 explicitly connects Joachite millenarianism with “civilizational order reach[ing] the breaking point” concerning the saeculum senescens.

[9] Slavoj Žižek/F. W. Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/The Ages of the World. See a similar take on Lacan’s debts to Schelling in Adrian Johnston, “Ghosts of Substance Past: Schelling, Lacan and the Denaturalization of Nature,” in Slavoj Žižek (ed.), Lacan: The Silent Partners, Verso, New York and London, 2006, pp. 34-55.

[10] John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, p. 155

[11] See Slavoj Žižek, The Abyss of Freedom, esp. p. 38. Cf. idem, The Parallax View, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 2006, p. 62. Cf. p. 182.

[12] Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey, Hogarth Press, London, 1961, pp. 32-3.

[13] Nick Land, “Machinic Desire” and “Making it With Death,” in Fanged Noumena: Collected Works 1987-2007, Urbanomic, Falmouth, UK, 2011.

[14] Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, p. 113.

[15] Eric Voegelin, Last Orientation, p. 117.

[16] For fun one might note Charles Rycroft, Reich, Fontana Modern Masters, Collins, Glasgow, 1971, pp. 92-3 which insists that Reich’s orgonomy presents a cosmos which might be construed as homoerotic (or even autoerotic!) because it downplays and even seems to erase the female. The author even accuses Reich of being a repressed homosexual. Today one is sure that Reich would probably just be accused of “phallogocentrism” or something similar.

[17] A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 51-60.

[18] See esp. Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2014.

[19] Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Zone Books, New York, 1991, esp. p. 94 where Deleuze argues that Bergon’s elan vital is all about the virtual becoming actualized and entities splitting and differentiating. Note especially: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy, trans. Graham Bell and Hugh Tomlinson, Verso, London and New York, 2015, p. 213 makes the curious division of two forms of Vitalism. One is of a force that acts but does not exist – i.e it is the name for what is going on in an entity observed from the outside. The other is a force that is but does not act – i.e. it is internal awareness, cognition. The authors choose to side with the latter because they regard it as as explanatory of how habits and thought emerges due to external stimuli. Cf. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, New York, 2010, esp. pp. 55-6 on Deleuze and Simondon in relation to hylomorphism, vitalism and metallurgy. On the passage concerning metallurgy in situ: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2009, pp. 410-11.

[20] Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Penguin Books, London, 1983, esp. “The Book of the Machines.”

[21] See esp. Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia,, Melbourne, 2008.

[22] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, trans. P. Skafish, Univocal, Minneapolis MI, 2014; Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geonologies, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016.

[23] There are ‘cene kids everywhere. See this book where there seems to be at least ten different variations on the theme: Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, trans. David Fernbach. Verso, New York, 2015.

[24] D. E Harding, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, Shollond Trust, London, 2011.

[25] Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, section 120, lines 87-93, or, in some editions 139-146 if the poem’s lines are counted from the start of section 119.

[26] On Kepler see: Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, Penguin Books, London, 1964, pp. 261-2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” in Essays: First, Second and Third Series, Ward Lock and Co, London and Melbourne, 1911, pp. 122-136.

[27] Giordano Bruno, “On Bonding in General,” in Cause, Principle and Unity and Essays on Magic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

[28] Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, pp. 89-106.

[29] Giordano Bruno, “A General Account of Bonding,” section 12. “No Particular Thing Can Bind Everything,” p. 149.

[30] On Freud’s own early foray: Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Study of the Ego”, in Peter Gay (ed), The Freud Reader, Vintage Books, London, 1989, pp. 626f. Cf. Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, LLC Books, eBook, 2013; Edward Bernays, Public Relations, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK, 1952.  And of course: Wilhelm Reich, Mass Psychology of Fascism, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2013.

[31] Giordano Bruno, “Sigillis Sigillium,” in Jordani Bruni Nolani Scripta Quae Latine Confecit Omnia, Vol. II, Stuttgart, ex bibliopolio Brodhagiano, 1836, p. 563.

[32] Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, Thomas Tegg, London, 1845, Vol. I.  Conscious: pp. e.g. 215-16, 244-84 passim; inconscious: pp. 215, 260, 272-3, 283.  . See pp. 66-7 on the history of the development of the use of the terms conscious and unconscious, which were very rare until the 19th c.

[33] Plotinus, Enneads, III.8.3. See section 16 of Ralph Cudworth, “Digression on the Plastick Life of Nature,” in The True Intellectual System.

[34] Ralph Cudworth, “Digression,” section 13.

[35] Giordano Bruno, “De Immenso et Innumerabilibus,” Book 8, Ch. 10, in Jordani Bruni Nolani, Opera Latine Conscripta, Recensebat F. Fiorentino, Apud Dom. Morani, Napoli, 1884, p. 313. Cf. idem, Cause, Principle and Unity and Essays on Magic, p. 87 in which Bruno’s conclusions to his explorations of cause and unity are that being is one, there is nothing beyond being, there is only one substance and that there are in fact no distinct beings! We are already ¾ of the way to Spinoza and pantheism here, so it might seem. Bruno could have certainly done with some equivocity of being, as too could have Cudworth. For a “speculative realist” take on Bruno see Graham Harman, “On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno and Radical Philosophy,” in The Speculative Turn, pp. 21-40 and Iain Hamilton Grant’s reply to this that follows directly after. The argument here primarily concerns whether individual objects have their own substances. As the first modern thinker who rejected this Aristotelian doctrine, Bruno’s single substance is a form of “occasionalism” – i.e. it requires divine will for any res to be shaped, cohere or function. Pickstock’s “Judgement of God” and Cudworth’s “plastick power” would also seem to epitomise this sort of thinking, but perhaps Anne Conway’s God who gathers up each and every entity from microscopic monadic spirits and must battle the Devil inside each and every one is the most commensurate. If we are to be “occasionalists,” then, at least let us reaffirm analogically at least that God works out of reason and out of love, from which the will only subsequently proceeds.

[36] Ibid, sections 4-5.

[37] Ibid, section 14. Not all Platonic thinkers have refused our fellow creatures at least “incipient” reason and consciousness: Origen, First Principles, III. 1.3; Giordano Bruno, The Cabala of Pegasus, Yale Uni Press, New Haven, 2002, p. 54. Bruno in his discussion of metempsychosis goes as far as to claim that the only real difference between men and animals is that the latter cannot remember their former lives, which is a very curious “cut” to make.

[38] Lancelot Law White, The Unconscious Before Freud, Social Science Paperbacks, London, 1960, pp. 95-7.

[39] Ralph Cudworth, “Digression,” section 13. Cf. Plotinus, Enneads, III.2.16.

[40] See: J. E. McGuire and P. M. Rattansi, “Newton and the ‘Pipes of Pan’,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 21,2, 1966, pp. 108-143.

[41] On the generative plurality of world-souls one might do well to recall that A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp.  91-2 believed that Plato would be very open to the ideas of particle physics because he understood that the Demiurge’s manufacture of the world was but one possible “cosmic epoch” chosen due to reason, necessity and persuasion. Today we might be more used to hearing about all manner of parallel and alternative universes, because science’s Platonic genealogy refuses the possibility that the rules of this universe might be totally different on different planets. As a result scientific speculation about life on other planets is generally rather unimaginative stuff.  Let us instead at least play a little with the notion that each planet is a khora (place) where different habits grow up over time.

[42] Nick Land, “Barker Speaks,” in Fanged Noumena, pp. 498-9.

[43] Girard has little to say on Plato, but a student of his, Eric Gans, in “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought,” Anthropoetics II, 2, 1996-7 once attempted to argue that Plato, and thus the rest of the history of “metaphysics” thereafter, attempted to shift the center of attention away from the central sacrificial ritual towards the hyperouranios topos (the region beyond the heavens). Gans argues that the touted ending of the God of metaphysical “onto-theology”, to whom one cannot pray nor sacrifice, causes us to realize the true superiority of Jerusalem over Athens in the ostensibility of Christ in the immanent. Gans claims that the theory of Girardian mimesis is pre-metaphysical (simply because it is about evolutionary anthropology), which seems slightly naïve. Moreover, seeing that Gans views the origins of not merely sacrifice, but of language in efforts to diffuse the primeval scene of violence that gave birth to society, perhaps he should have noted the strangely discursive quality of creation in the Timaeus (a text on which he has close to nothing to say), in which Reason persuades Necessity to have the Demiurge  create the Forms and then the best moving image of eternity possible. To the Platonist the primeval scene of creation is mediated from the very start by mimesis, both in the persuasion of Necessity and the Demiurge but also in the mimesis of the world of Becoming. Human logos is a mimetic echo of this process. Plato had faith that even in the human political community Necessity might be persuaded by reason to create the best outcome. While the Timaeus might seem too much of a closed cosmology and single act of creation for today’s mores, perhaps its discourse on mimesis and persuasion could be applied to the more opaque cosmogenesis of the Sophist. We might say that the Demiurge was persuaded to create the basis for our “cosmic epoch” in a manner both poietic and ktetic so that the world might be as full of the participation of the Other in being as possible and that by this consciousness might be slowly awoken in some creatures by the realization of the need to sift the genuine from the phantasms.

[44] Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Chap I, section 2. See Chapter VII for full details on the spirits.

[45] Ibid, Chap. IV. Section 3. Cf. Chapter VI, section 3.

[46] “Monad” as the name for living, feeling bodies of the smallest corporeal magnitude animating the world does occur in the work of Giordano Bruno, Jordani Bruni Nolani opera latine conscripta publicis sumptibus edita, D. Morano, Neapoli, 1889 Vol 1.3, pp. 139-140 and is likely where Conway derived the term. On the links between Conway, Van Helmont and Leibniz see Marjorie Nicolson, The Conway Letters, revised by Sarah Hutton, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, p. xxviii; Alison P. Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah, Kluwer, Dordrecht and Boston, 1994, esp, Ch 2-4.

[47] Edward P. Butler, “Transformation and Individuation in Giordano Bruno’s Monadology,” Socrates, 3,3, 2015, pp. 57-70. See: Giordano Bruno, “On Bonding in General” in Cause, Principle and Unity and Essays on Magic, p.  137 on the multitude of spirits and souls in us.

[48] Eric Voegelin, History of Political Ideas II: The Middle Ages to Aquinas, Missouri University Press, Columbia MS, 1997, pp. 135-43.

[49] John Milbank, “Oikonomia Leaves Home: Theology, Politics, and Governance in the History of the West,” Telos, 178, esp. p. 94.

[50] It is astounding to think of the damage that Locke did to the development of the unconscious, perhaps retarding it by a century or more. In John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter XXVII, section 9 Locke states that “it [is] impossible for anyone to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.” The Cambridge Platonist John Norris took Locke to task for this because it seemed to completely ignore the question of things existing virtually in the memory without our knowledge. This led Locke to make an amendment to the tune that Mind has a “power” to revive things stored away, which completely sidesteps the question of the existence of memories when they are not being revived. On this see: W. J. Mander, The Philosophy of John Norris, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, pp. 172-3; John Locke, Human Understanding, Chapter II, section 10.2.  One might also note that G. W. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, Book II, 116, section 15 takes L0cke to task in defense of the existence of “insensible perceptions”. A person who lives next door to a noisy mill can soon not even notice the sound, but clearly it is there. As is detailed by George Makari, Soul Machine, W. W. Norton and Co, London and New York, 2015, pp. 214-8 French thinkers like Voltaire had a great deal of trouble trying to translate Locke’s disinfected “mind” into French, as they only had âme (soul) and esprit as options, and conscience meant pretty much the same as it does in English – one’s moral conscience. Mentalité for a way of thinking was possible, but there was no term for what was thinking and perceiving without immaterial connotations. Makari on p. 218 observes that this may have been both a good and a bad thing: “watched by authorities, some radicals may have taken comfort in such double-talk” – it enabled the French Enlightenment thinkers to hide behind terms that conveyed elements of the Scholastic anima and spiritus, while attempting to divest them of such meanings. Moreover, as Lancelot Law White, The Unconscious Before Freud, pp. 66-7 long ago pointed out, French did not have a term for the unconscious, inconscient, until the 1850s and even in the late 19th century it was very uncommon. The Germans on the other hand had it a little easier. Bewusstlos and Unbewusstsein are first attested by one E. Platner in 1776 and were very common in German by 1850 after Schelling.

[51] Peter Emberly and Barry Cooper, Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 1934-1964, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 2004, p. 96; Eric Voegelin, The New Order and The Last Orientation, p. 141. See also: Scott Robinson, “Redefining Rebellion: John Locke’s Sleight of Hand,” VoegelinView, 15th January 2015. For an interesting take that attempts to defend Locke’s religious sensibilities as serious, but acknowledges that Voegelin may have been right about the political laziness of Locke’s obsession with “tolerance” see: Donald Devine, “Understanding Voegelin’s Critique of Locke,” The Imaginative Conservative, 30th November 2018,

[52] One should note that the Cambridge Platonists were largely cloistered academic deans or aristocrats and did most of their work during the Restoration period following the Civil War. Anne Conway converted to Quakerism, which was socially anathematic at the time, but she was still the wealthy Lady Conway. Margaret Cavendish, who fantasied about being empress of a whole world, was the Duchess of Newcastle. Although she and her husband were impoverished by the English Civil War, they can’t have been too badly off.


This is the second of six parts. Also available are “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Voegelin, Process and the New Realism,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Haunted Ontologies and Different Modes of Existence,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Catherine Pickstock and the Return of Platonic Cosmology,” “Process and the Derailing of Reality: The Strange Curse of the Ages of the World,” and “Process and the Derailing of Reality: Erotic Theology.”

Jonathan RatcliffeJonathan Ratcliffe

Jonathan Ratcliffe

Jonathan Ratcliffe is Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a doctoral candidate in Asian History at the Australian National University. He is working with Chris Heggie-Brown on a history of technology and politics, provisionally titled "Voegelin Among the Machines."

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