Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Loss of Wisdom

Alice C. Linsley

"As in the Heavens, so on Earth": that is something that tribal peoples understand, but it is lost wisdom to the empirically-minded West. There is still the Christian prayer that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven", which represents the ancient concern that the celestial pattern, which was regarded as perfect and eternal, should be replicated on earth. In the Judeo-Christian view, Heaven is the archetype for ideal life on earth.

Plato conceived of archetypes as the pattern of real things. He didn't invent this idea. He borrowed it from the ancient Egyptians, who asserted that the pattern is the real thing and the earthly shadow, but a reflection. In this view, the material world resembles, participates in and aspires to the transcendent Forms. To understand the ancient world, we must begin from this assumption, which is contrary to the prevailing materialism of western society.

The Romanian social anthropologist, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) observed that for archaic man, “real” objects and events are those that imitate, repeat or are patterned upon a celestial archetype. Since the pattern that was to be followed was found in the heavens, ancient civilizations had skilled observers of the heavens. These were usually priests, shamans or sages. There was considerable pressure for these men to make accurate calculations. Those who failed to predict the date of celestial events might be executed, as happened to the Chinese astronomers who failed to predict the solar eclipse of 2134 B.C.

The need for accuracy in observing the heavens led to the development of sidereal astronomy. The sidereal day is the time required for the earth’s rotation to be synchronized with fixed stars. It is about four minutes shorter than the solar day. Solar time is the measurement of time according to the earth’s rotation around the sun, whereas sidereal time is the measurement relative to a distant star. It is used to predict when a star will be overhead and it works because the stars and constellations move relative to one another in a clock like fashion. Sidereal astronomy was the beginning of the science of astronomy. Unlike popular astrology, which is based on culturally-determined symbolism, sidereal astronomy is based on the actual observed location of stars and constellations.

Ancient astronomers observed that the positions of the stars and constellations relative to one another reveal a fixed pattern of movement and fixed boundaries. This suggested that there is also a fixed pattern and fixed boundaries on earth. Observation of patterns on earth points to a binary order in creation. The binary order is evident in binary opposites: heaven-earth, male-female, night-day, Sun-Moon, life-death and good-evil. Between the two there appears to be a boundary. The earliest ethical considerations were concerned with honoring the boundaries between Creator-creature, male-female, life-death and good-evil.

In western societies, the pattern seen by the ancients is rarely discerned and the boundaries are for the most part ignored or denied. Thus the controversial issues touch on life and death: abortion and euthanasia; on gender distinctions: homosex and feminism; and on the relativity of moral good.

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