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Tag: Gospels

Eco: The Concordia Universalis of Nicholas of Cusa


Meister des Marienlebens, Kreuzigung, Passionsalter aus Bernkastel-Kues, 1460. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The seductive potentiality of Lull’s appeal to the principle of universal concord is revealed by the resumption of his project, two centuries later, by Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas is famous as the figure who revived Plato during the years between the crisis of scholasticism and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Nicholas also propounded the idea of an infinitely open universe, whose centre was everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. As an infinite being, God transcended all limits and overcame every opposition.

As the diameter of a circle increased, its curvature diminished; so at its limit its circumference became a straight line of infinite length.

Likewise, in God all opposites coincide. If the universe had a centre, it would be limited by another universe. But in the universe, God is both centre and circumference. Thus the earth could not be the centre of the universe.

This was the starting point for a vision of the plurality of worlds, of a reality founded on mathematical principles, which can be submitted to continuous investigation, where the world, if not infinite in a strict sense, was at least capable of assuming an infinite number of guises.

The thought of Nicholas is rich in cosmological metaphors (or models) founded upon the image of the circle and the wheel (De docta ignorantia, II, 11), in which the names of the divine attributes (explicitly borrowed from Lull) form a circle where each supports and confirms the others (I, 21).

The influence of Lull is even more explicitly revealed when Nicholas notes that the names by which the Greeks, Latins, Germans, Turks and Saracens designate the divinity are either all in fundamental accord, or derive from the Hebrew tetragrammaton (see the sermon Dies sanctificatus).

The ideas of Lull had spread to the Veneto towards the close of the fourteenth century. Nicholas probably came into contact with them in Padua. Their diffusion was, in part, a reaction against a scholastic Aristotelianism now in crisis; yet the diffusion also reflected the feverish cultural atmosphere generated by close contacts with the East.

Just as Catalonia and Majorca had been frontier territories in contact with the Muslim and Jewish worlds at the time of Lull, so the Venetian Republic had opened itself to the world of Byzantium and of the Arab countries two centuries later. The emerging currents of Venetian humanism were inspired by a new curiosity and respect for other cultures (cf. Lohr 1988).

It was thus appropriate that in this atmosphere there should have reemerged the thought of a figure whose preaching, whose theological speculations, and whose research on universal language were all conceived with the aim of building an intellectual and religious bridge between the European West and the East.

Lull believed that true authority could not be based on a rigid unity, but rather on the tension between various centers. It was the laws of Moses, the revelations of Christ and the preaching of Mohammed that, taken together, might produce a unified result.

Lull’s doctrine acted as a mystical and philosophical stimulus and seemed an imaginative and poetic alternative to the encyclopedia of Aristotelian scholasticism, but it provided a political inspiration as well.

The works of a writer who had dared to put his doctrine into the vernacular proved congenial to humanists who, on the one hand, had begun to celebrate the dignity of their own native tongues, but, on the other hand, wondered how it was possible to establish a rational discussion which broke the boundaries of national traditions, a philosophy which could reanimate the body of encyclopedic scholasticism by injecting the leaven of exotic new doctrines, expressed in languages still entirely unknown.

In his De pace fidei, Nicholas opened a polemical dialogue with the Muslims. He asked himself Lull’s question: how might the truth of Christian revelation be demonstrated to followers of the two other monotheistic religions?

Perhaps, Nicholas mused, it was a mistake to translate the persons of the Trinity as “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Ghost.” Perhaps they should have been given more philosophical names (better understandable by other cultures).

In his ecumenical fervor, Nicholas even went so far as to propose to the Jews and the Muslims that, if they would accept the Gospels, he would see that all Christians received circumcision. It was a proposal, as he confessed at the end, whose practical realization might present certain difficulties. (De pace fidei, XVI, 60).

Nicholas retained from Lull the spirit of universal peace as well as his metaphysical vision. Yet before the thrilling potential of Nicholas’s own vision of an infinity of worlds could be translated into a new and different version of the art of combination, new ideas would have to fertilize the humanist and Renaissance world.

The rediscovery of the art of combination would have to wait for the rediscovery of Hebrew, for Christian kabbalism, for the spread of Hermeticism, and for a new and positive reassessment of magic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 69-72.


Eco: Before and After Europe


Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-89), The Tower of Babel, 16th Century, Kröller-Müller Museum. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Stories accounting for the multiplicity of tongues appear in divers mythologies and theogonies (Borst 1957-63: I, 1). None the less, it is one thing to know why many languages exist; it is quite another to decide that this multiplicity is a wound that must be healed by the quest for a perfect language.

Before one decides to seek a perfect language, one needs, at the very least, to be persuaded that one’s own is not so.

Keeping, as we decided, strictly to Europe–the classical Greeks knew of peoples speaking languages other than theirs: they called these peoples barbaroi, beings who mumble in an incomprehensible speech.

The Stoics, with their more articulated notion of semiotics, knew perfectly well that the ideas to which certain sounds in Greek corresponded were also present in the minds of barbarians.

However, not knowing Greek, barbarians had no notion of the connection between the Greek sound and the particular idea. Linguistically and culturally speaking, they were unworthy of any attention.

For the Greek philosophers, Greek was the language of reason. Aristotle’s list of categories is squarely based on the categories of Greek grammar. This did not explicitly entail a claim that the Greek language was primary: it was simply a case of the identification of thought with its natural vehicle.

Logos was thought, and Logos was speech. About the speech of barbarians little was known; hence, little was known about what it would be like to think in the language of barbarians.

Although the Greeks were willing to admit that the Egyptians, for example, possessed a rich and venerable store of wisdom, they only knew this because someone had explained it to them in Greek.

As Greek civilization expanded, the status of Greek as a language evolved as well. At first, there existed almost as many varieties of Greek as there were Greek texts (Meillet 1930:4). In the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, however, there arose and spread a common Greek–the koiné.

This was the language of Polybius, Strabo, Plutarch and Aristotle; it was the language taught in the schools of grammar. Gradually it became the official language of the entire area of the Mediterranean bounded by Alexander’s conquests.

Spoken by patricians and intellectuals, Greek still survived here under Roman domination as well, as the language of commerce and trade, of diplomacy, and of scientific and philosophical debate.

It was finally the language in which the first Christian texts were transmitted (the Gospels and the Septuagint translation of the Bible in the third century BCE), and the language of the early church fathers.

A civilization with an international language does not need to worry about the multiplicity of tongues. Nevertheless such a civilization can worry about the “rightness” of its own.

In the Cratylus, Plato asks the same question that a reader of the Genesis story might: did the nomothete choose the sounds with which to name objects according to the object’s nature (physis)?

This is the thesis of Cratylus, while Ermogene maintains that they were assigned by law or human convention (nomos). Socrates moves among these theses with apparent ambiguity.

Finally, having subjected both to ironical comment, inventing etymologies that neither he (nor Plato) is eager to accept, Socrates brings forward his own hypothesis: knowledge is founded not on our relation to the names of things, but on our relation to the things themselves–or, better, to the ideas of those things.

Later, even by these cultures that ignored Cratylus, every discussion on the nature of a perfect language has revolved around the three possibilities first set out in this dialogue.

None the less, the Cratylus is not itself a project for a perfect language: Plato discusses the preconditions for semantic adequacy within a given language without posing the problem of a perfect one.

While the Greek koiné continued to dominate the Mediterranean basin, Latin was becoming the language of the empire, and thus the universal language for all parts of Europe reached by Roman legions.

Later it became the language of the Roman church. Once again, a civilization with a common language was not troubled by the plurality of tongues.

Learned men might still discourse in Greek, but, for the rest of the world, speaking with barbarians was, once again, the job of a few translators, and this only until these same barbarians began to speak their Latin.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 10-2.

I.P. Cory on Paganism

” … But the internal heresies of the Church were not the only ill effects which the misguided zeal of the fathers, in forcing upon Plato the doctrine of the Trinity, brought about.

Though it is possible, that by pointing out some crude similarity of doctrine, they might have obtajned some converts by rendering Christianity less unpalatable to the philosophical world of that day, yet the weapon was skilfully turned against them, and with unerring effect, when the Pagans took upon them to assert that nothing new had been revealed in Christianity; since, by the confessions of its very advocates, the system was previously contained in the writings of Plato.

In the third century, Ammonius Saccas, universally acknowledged to have been a man of consummate ability, taught that every sect, Christian, Heretic or Pagan, had received the truth, and retained it in their varied legends. He undertook, therefore, to unfold it from them all, and to reconcile every creed.

And from his exertions sprung the celebrated Eclectic school of the later Platonists. Plotinus, Amelius, Olympius, Porphyrius, Jamblichus, Syrianus, and Proclus, were among the celebrated professors who succeeded Ammonius in the Platonic chair, and revived and kept alive the spirit of Paganism, with a bitter enmity to the Gospel, for near three hundred years.

The Platonic schools were at length closed by the edict of Justinian; and seven wise men, the last lights of Platonism, Diogenes, Hermias, Eulalius, Priscianus, Damascius, Isidorus and Simplicius retired indignantly from the persecutions of Justinian, to realize the shadowy dreams of the republic of Plato, under the Persian despotism of Chosroes.16

From the writings of these philosophers is collected the bulk of the Oracles of Zoroaster. A few of them were first published by Ludovicus Tiletanus at Paris, with the commentaries of Pletho, to which were subsequently added those of Psellus. Chief part of them, however, were collected by Franciscus Patricius, and published with the Hermetic books at the end of his Nova Philosophia.

To the labours of Mr. Taylor we are indebted for the addition of about fifty more, and for the references to the works from whence all were extracted. I have arranged them according to the subjects, which are said to be occultly discussed in the Parmenides of Plato, viz.: Cause or God, the Ideal Intelligible or Intellectual world, Particular Souls, and the Material world.

And I have placed under a separate head the Magical and Philosophical precepts and directions. There can be no question but that many of these Oracles are spurious; all those, for instance, which relate to the Intelligible and Intellectual orders, which were confessedly obtained in answers given by dæmons, raised for that purpose by the Theurgists;17 who, as well as all the later Platonists, made pretensions to magic, not only in its refinements, which they were pleased to designate Theurgy, but also in that debased form which we should call common witchcraft.

Nevertheless, several of the Oracles seem to be derived from more authentic sources, and, like the spurious Hermetic books which have come down to us, probably contain much of the pure Sabiasm of Persia, and the doctrines of the Oriental philosophy.”

I.P. Cory, Ancient Fragments, 1832, Introduction.

Secret Teachings

“Despite later distrust and suppression by Pauline orthodoxy, mysticism flourished in the early church.

Master Yeshuvah taught one set of teachings openly to the public, and another set of secret teachings privately to his most advanced disciples. The Gospels themselves attest to this, and Clement of Alexandria wrote about such a secret teaching as late as the third century CE.

Of all the Christian mystical literature, the most enigmatic and passionately discussed is the Revelation of John. It opens with a description of John’s vision of the Ancient of Days with fiery eyes and a two-edged sword coming from his mouth, etc.”

–Daniel Feldman, Qabala: The Mystical Heritage of the Children of Abraham, 2001, pg.  71.

On Fear, Anxiety, Angst, and Mythology

“Fear is to be met and managed by the hero on his path to manhood, and an encounter with fear plays a major part in initiation ceremonies.”


Simply, there are two faces to panic: lived out in relation to a stimulus and called fear; held in with no known stimulus and called anxiety. Fear has an object; anxiety has none.  There can be panicky fear, a stampede, say; there can be panicky anxiety in a dream. In either condition, death can result. Psychoanalytic and psychosomatic case reports, as well as dream research and anthropological studies (for instance, on Voodoo death) provide instances of the fatal consequences of anxiety.

The anxiety dream can be distinguished from the nightmare in the classical sense. The classical nightmare is a dreadful visitation by a demon who forcibly oppresses the dreamer into paralysis, cuts off his breath, and release comes through movement. The anxiety dream is less precise, in that there is no demon, no dyspnea, but there is the same inhibition of movement. (A collection of these dreams is given by M. Weidhorn, “The Anxiety Dream in Literature from Homer to Milton,” Studies in Philology 64, pp. 65-82, Univ. of NC., 1967). A literary prototype of the anxiety dream, emphasizing an inhibited peculiarity of movement, occurs in the Iliad xxii, 199-201 (Achilles in pursuit of Hector):

“As in a dream a man is not able to follow one
who runs from him, nor can the runner escape,
nor the other pursue him, so he could not run
him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.”


Contemporary existential philosophy gives to anxiety, dread or Angst a more intentional, a more fulsome interpretation. Angst reveals man’s fundamental ontological situation, his connections with not-being, so that all fear is not just dread of death, but of the nothing on which all being is based. Fear thus becomes the reflection in consciousness of a universal reality.

Buddhism goes yet further: fear is more than a subjective, human phenomenon. All the world is in fear: trees, stones, everything. And the Buddha is the redeemer of the world from fear. Hence the significance of the mudra (hand gesture) of fear-not, which is not merely a sign of comfort but of total redemption of the world from its “fear and trembling,” its thralldom to Angst. Buddha’s perfect love, in the words of the Gospels, “driveth out fear.”

“…to further mix the contexts: let us say that the world of nature, Pan’s world, is in a continual state of subliminal panic just as it is in a continual state of subliminal sexual excitation. As the world is made by Eros, held together by that cosmogonic force and charged with the libidinal desire that is Pan, an archetypal vision most recently presented by Wilhelm Reich–so its other side, panic, recognized by the Buddha belongs to the same constellation. Again, we come back to Pan and the two extremes of instinct.

Brinkman has already pointed to the bankruptcy of all theories of panic that attempt to deal with it sociologically, psychologically or historically and not on its own terms. The right terms, Brinkman says, are mythological. We must follow the path cleared by Nietzsche whose investigation of kinds of consciousness and behavior through Apollo and Dionysos can be extended to Pan. Then panic will no longer be regarded as a physiological defense mechanism or an inadequate reaction or an abaissment du niveau mental, but will be seen as the right response to the numinous.”

–W.H. Roscher, Pan and the Nightmare: Ephialtes–A Pathological-Mythological Treatise on the Nightmare in Classical Antiquity, & An Essay on Pan by James Hillman, 1972. Pp. xxvi-xxviii. (James Hillman, “An Essay on Pan.”)

The Lost Writing of Jesus

“A teacher selects a pupil, but a book does not select its readers, who may be wicked or stupid; this Platonic mistrust persists in the words of Clement of Alexandria, a man of pagan culture: “The most prudent course is not to write but to learn and teach by word of mouth, because what is written remains” (Stromateis), and in the same treatise: “To write all things in a book is to put a sword in the hands of a child,” which derives from the Gospels: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” That sentence is from Jesus, the greatest of oral teachers, who only once wrote a few words on the ground, and no man read what He had written.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

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