Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin


In 1600, Jacob Boehme was sitting in his
room one day when "his eye fell upon a burnished pewter dish which reflected
the sunshine with such marvellous splendour that he fell into an inward
ecstasy, and it seemed to him as if he could now look into the principles and
deepest foundations of things.  He
believed that it was only a fancy, and in order to banish it from his mind he
went out into the green fields. 
But here he noticed that he could gaze into the very heart of things,
the very herbs and grass, and that actual nature harmonised with what he had
inwardly seen."[i]

There are two kinds of mystical experience: the vision of the
Creator and the vision of the created. 
The latter can be further subdivided into two sorts: the vision of the
Beloved and the vision of Nature. 
Boehme was one of the great Protestant mystics, a key figure in the link
between Renaissance Neoplatonic thought and the Romantics.  His experience is the first I am aware
of which constitutes what I am calling the vision of Nature.  It is still quite common these
days.  For example, in 1969, Derek
Gibson was travelling to work by motorcycle when he noticed that the sound of
his engine had faded to a murmur.  "Then everything suddenly changed. 
I could clearly see everything as before with form and substance, but
instead of looking at it all I was
looking into everything.  I saw beneath the bark of the trees and
through the underlying trunks.  I was looking into the grass too, and all was magnified beyond measure.  To the extent that I could see moving
microscopic organisms!  Then, not
only was I seeing all this, but I was literally inside it all.  At the same time as I was looking into
this mass of greenery I was aware of every single blade of grass and fold of
the trees as if each had been placed before me one at a time and entered into."[ii]

In the vision of Nature, every object is imbued with significance
and importance.  Everything is a
presence.  Everything is ensouled.  In religious language, everything is
holy — sometimes filled with as much holy dread as holy joy — but always
awe-inspiring.  The ego is
abolished, one is neither self-conscious nor detached, but conscious of one's
self in intimate participation with every other self.  There is no desire, except to continue in that state of what
the art connoisseur Bernard Berenson called Itness:

"It was a morning in early
summer.  A silver haze shimmered
and trembled over the lime trees. 
The air was laden with their fragrance.  The temperature was like a caress.  I remember — I need not recall — that I climbed up a tree
stump and felt suddenly immersed in Itness.  I did not call it by that name.  I had no need for words.  It and I were one."[iii]

The Jesuit
priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called "It" the inscape of things:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself
it speaks and spells

Crying what I do is me: for
that I came

The Vision of Nature does not seem to have been recorded much before
the beginning of the 17th century.  This time was a historical watershed, when the old medieval
world-view began to be turned upside-down by our modern scientific
world-view.  We suddenly found
ourselves standing apart from Nature and observing it objectively rather than,
as before, participating in it.  So
we might say that the vision of Nature is only a return to the norm before we
divided consciousness from the "outside" world.  Do we now call mystical what is commonplace for traditional
cultures and once was for us?

If so, this is perhaps why the vision of Nature in our culture most
often occurs in childhood or adolescence, before we have become "educated"; or
in those people, such as Wordsworth, who — according to his friend, Coleridge —
never lost that child-like perception of Nature by which

…with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.[v]

Such visions are
not only the impetus behind works of art but also behind scientific
investigation because, as Plato remarked, the beginning of every kind of
philosophy is Wonder.

Mystical experience is also an extreme example of a kind of
knowledge we all have, even those scientists who deny that it is knowledge at
all.  It is not objective
cognition, but subjective recognition — in Plato's sense, of knowledge as a
recollection of the reality we knew before birth.  It is immediate and intuitive, what used to be called gnosis: we know a thing by imaginatively
participating in its unique quality rather than by objectively measuring its
quantity. The sudden illumination at dead of night, the flash of lightning in
the darkness, the "Newton's Apple" moment — these provide the germ of a theory
or of a whole vision of the world which is then painstakingly confirmed by
empirical methods.  A single
mystical experience, maybe lasting only a minute — whether of Nature, of
another person  or of God — will be
one of the defining moments of our lives, a touchstone of knowledge against
which we measure all other kinds of knowledge for their portion of truth.  It is a rare experience, but not as
rare as we think.  Sir Alistair
Hardy's research project at Oxford in the 1970s found that thirty-six percent
of British people have had mystical experiences.[vi]

Wendy Rose-Neill's encounter with Dame Kind took place while she was
gardening.  She suddenly became
intensely aware of her surroundings: the scent of grass, the sound of birds and
of rustling leaves. "I had a sudden impulse to lie face down in the grass," she
said, "and as I did so, an energy seemed to flow through me as if I had become
part of the earth underneath me. 
The boundary between my physical self and my surroundings seemed to
dissolve and my feeling of separation vanished.  In a strange way I felt blended into a total unity with the
earth, as if I were made of it and it of me….  I felt as if I had suddenly come alive for the first time —
as if I were awakening from a long deep sleep into the real world….  I realized that I was surrounded by an
incredible loving energy, and that everything, both living and non-living, is
bound inextricably within a kind of consciousness which I cannot describe in

Everyone who has a mystical experience agrees, firstly, that it is
difficult to talk about, not just because it is intensely personal but also
because the experience itself transcends language.  Secondly, it is always given
— that is, it cannot be induced by an effort of will, although a degree of
preparation or training can help. 
What Christians call grace, the free gift of God, seems to be
operative.  Thirdly, all mystical
experiences are not only more important to the beneficiaries than their normal
state, but infinitely more meaningful. 
They are revelations of reality. 
No one says after the experience: "I see now that it was all a dream or
a hallucination or a delusion, but now I've come to my senses." They say the opposite: "Ordinary life
seemed like a dream in comparison to the reality I saw."  At the same time, ordinary things are
not distorted as they can be in dreams. 
Everything is the same as usual, but more vivid, colourful and above all
charged with significance.

It is impossible to say for certain whether different accounts of
mystical experience among, say, Christians and Hindus are accounts of different
experiences or of the same experiences filtered through different languages,
cultures and beliefs.  All we can
say is that the experience is never completely separate from the subject's culture. 


The Vision of the Beloved

Whereas the
Vision of Nature seems to be available to everyone in all cultures, there is
another kind of mystical experience which seems to be peculiar to Western
culture.  It might be called the
Vision of the Beloved. The English language is handicapped here because our
word "love" has to stand for at least four distinct kinds of love for which the
Greek words are epithymia, which is,
roughly speaking, synonymous with lust; philia,
which is the mutual love of friends or family; eros, which is sexual love; and agape
which in Greece signified a "love-feast" or community of love, but which
Christians adopted to indicate love between members of the Church and, notably,
pure love of God.  So the Vision of
the Beloved might more accurately be called the Vision of Eros.[viii]

If the Vision of Nature is the mystical experience of the multiple,
non-human, impersonal Soul of the World, the Vision of Eros is the mystical
experience of a single, human person, like the very image of one's individual
soul.  It can happen on the instant
— love at first sight — and its characteristic features are an experience of
awe: the Beloved you revere is above you, and you are beneath their
notice.  There is sexual desire,
but not lust in which, by definition, the Beloved is made an object and is therefore

This vision of love seems to have arisen among the medieval
troubadours who sang of a "courtly love" in which knights chastely adored and
obeyed their ladies, who were placed on pedestals and worshipped from
afar.  Indeed the beloved lady might
not even know that she had a knightly lover, secretly performing noble deeds he
dedicated to her.  This kind of
love later became the template for our modern idea of "romantic" love, which we
believe transforms the lover's character for the better.  We also believe that it is available to
everyone, almost that we all have a right to fall deeply in love, even though
it is in fact a comparatively rare experience.  Nevertheless its after-image, so to speak, persists today
for everyone who is tortured by unrequitable love for some remote Beauty, from
an unattainable film star or pop icon, to a senior boy or girl at school.  Like courtly love there is no question
of philia — that love which is based
on friendship, companionship, shared interests etc. — which, mixed with eros, seems to give the best chance of a
happy marriage.

In addition, our modern emphasis on falling in love is an experience
unknown to tribal people and to Western culture before the medieval
period.  In other words, it is
culturally determined, more the effect of the cult of courtly love than its
cause.  The most famous example is
that of Dante. He sees Beatrice on the streets of Florence and is instantly
smitten.  A voice says "Now you
have seen your beatitude."[ix]  Her beauty is not like Plato's idea of
it, as if there were some objective and impersonal standard of beauty.  On the contrary, Beatrice may or may
not have been more or less beautiful than other girls.  The point is that, to Dante, she is
absolutely beautiful because she is Beatrice.  There is also a strong sense that love of her is analogous
to love of God; that, to love her is a short step to loving God, and the more
so because her beauty is a sign of her grace — when she  dies she will go to heaven.  Famously, she does die; and Dante's The Divine Comedy is the account of his
journey through the Otherworld — hell, purgatory, paradise — in order to find
her again.  For Beatrice is the
very image of his soul; his journey, like all our journeys, a search for his own

A further development of the Vision of the Beloved was the various
stories which together comprise the myth of Tristan and Isolde.  It provides the root-metaphor for our
modern belief — I should say, hope — that romantic love need not be the
unrequited yearning for a superior beloved, but a relationship in which love is
mutual.  Tristan and Isolde are
both heroic figures in the epic style: they are both aristocratic — he, the
most handsome, brave etc.; she, the most beautiful, virtuous etc.  They fall in love.  But they cannot marry because Isolde is
already married to King Mark, to whom Tristan owes absolute loyalty.  Their relationship is a torment, not
because they cannot have sex — they do have sex, albeit very infrequently —
but   because their sexual
desire is actually "the symbolic expression of their real passion which is the
yearning of two souls to merge and become one, a consummation which is
impossible so long as they have bodies, so that their ultimate goal is to die
in each other's arms."[x]  Which is what happens, because the
merging of two souls can only happen after death.

Their love is essentially religious because each is an absolute, and
the ultimate good, for the other.  
All relations to other people or to the world pale into insignificance
beside it.  In his book Passion and Society, Denis de Rougemont
argues — convincingly, I think — that such tales of the troubadours were in
fact propagating a heretical, Catharist form of Christianity, and that their
courtly love of a knight for his unattainable lady was code for the soul's
yearning for a remote God.  At any
rate, both Plato and Dante agree that love of a beautiful human is meant to
direct the lover beyond the human to the "uncreated source of all beauty."[xi]  The difference is that, with Plato, the
ascent is impersonal and transcends the body; in Dante's Christian vision, it
is personal and includes the body. 
When he at last meets Beatrice again in the earthly paradise he
re-experiences his original love, but more intensely.  And Beatrice now stays with him as he makes his last ascent
towards God.

This suggests that love does not have to be either unrequited
yearning or the desire to become one person.  It can be mutual, providing that each person also loves
something greater than the other, as if love must circulate through the other
to the Source of love and back again in a dynamic reciprocal process.  We retain an inkling of this idea when
we insist on getting married in church, "in the eyes of God," as so  many people do who otherwise never set
foot there.  An essential part of
this dynamic is the imaginative ability to put yourself in the other's
shoes.  It is the prerequisite of
compassion, of course, but it is also the beginning of love.  This love becomes mutual when the
Beloved reciprocates by putting himself or herself in your shoes.  In his book The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams called this reciprocity
the doctrine of substitution (I am in you) and exchange (as you are in me).[xii]  He thought that it only occurs in a
Christian culture because it is founded on the idea, unknown to the Greeks for
instance, that we can be "in Christ" as Christ can be "in us."  "I have been crucified with Christ," as
St Paul said, "and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."[xiii]  For Willliams, substitution and
exchange is the model for all relationships, especially that of lover and
beloved.  It is what marriage is
about.  Even the impersonal Vision
of Nature is about experiencing yourself as "in" everything, as everything is
in you.

Substitution depends on the
imaginative act of placing oneself in the Other; exchange depends on faith —
that the Other will reciprocate. 
The Greeks could make the first movement, but they lacked the idea of
the second.  They had the concept
of an individual soul but they lacked the concept of the personal. Other people
were not immortal souls analogous to oneself in whom one could find mutual
love, like Dante and Beatrice. 
Their beauty was an impersonal attribute by which one climbed the ladder
of contemplation to a knowledge of the Form of Beauty itself.  So, too, the Greeks lacked the idea of
a God who could love one personally — an idea also absent in the Old Testament
but introduced by Christ.  We are
so imbued by Christianity, whether we know it or not, that we have forgotten
that mystical experience – indeed, love — can be impersonal, as it was for the
Greeks.  It is quite possible that
many people who call themselves atheists simply have a much stronger sense of
the impersonal order of the world than of a personal God.  They love the Soul of the World in its
impersonal aspect, so to speak, rather than in its manifestation as a personal

The consummation of desire is what we spend most of our lives
seeking.  If we find it, it is
fleeting and we long to recapture it. 
If we do not find it, we still try to recapture it because we have all
seen the divine Forms, including the Form of Beauty, before birth.  And so desire is nothing other than the
unconscious longing for a return to that unutterable fulfilment.  Desire itself is an expression of our
mortality, our separation from the Ground of all Being to which we ache to

Our separation brings suffering.  We cannot stand the pain of unconsummated desire.  It creates in us an emptiness, a
void.  We are tempted to fill it
illegitimately.  (The modern
mystic, Simone Weil, puts it starkly: "All sins are attempts to fill voids.")[xiv]  Desire, which is good, becomes
degraded.  In seeking to assuage
our pain we distort infinite desire into that limitless craving which used to
be called concupiscence.  Its
essence is to want pleasure and satisfaction through another — but not to want
the other.  The soul's yearning for
the unattainable Beloved becomes the
promiscuous person's attempt to leave soul out of sex
altogether, and to substitute numerical quantity for the quality of intimacy
and depth.  As for Don Giovanni, we
recall from Mozart's opera, what is important to him is not love, or even sex —
but the list of his conquests. 
Women become an interchangeable set of parts, like the hard-core
pornography which butchers the beauty of women down to anatomical detail.  Porn is not about evoking Eros but
about disenchanting beauty of its power to evoke the pains of love.

Analogously, the shadow of mutual love is the sickness of sexual infatuation
so well described by Marcel Proust. 
Here, even the act of sex brings no satisfaction because what is desired
is the total absorption of the other, body and soul, into oneself.  A hopeless desire, in other words,
which Tristan and Isolde could only resolve by death; which brings us jealous
possessive rage, anguish, despair and an exponential increase in craving, like
an addict's, as each act of sex fails to assuage a desire grown limitless.  The Greeks may not have had a concept
of the transforming power of mutual love made possible by the Christian concept
of a personal soul, but they knew all about violent sexual passion.  They regarded it as a kind of madness —
possession by Eros — which deprived you of all dignity and made you betray your

Nowadays we are particularly prone to such madness because we have
lost the religious depth which would contain and define the soul's desire for
something beyond the human.  This
loss forces us to invest far more in other individuals — family, children and
friends as well as lovers — than they can bear.  This leads to inevitable disappointment when our Beloveds
turn out not to be the idealised divine figures we adore.  The paradox is, that we can only truly
love each other when we also love something beyond each other.


The Vision of God

If, on the other
hand, we do not try to satisfy our desire; if we simply hold fast to our
hunger, then we are transformed by our longing, as if desire were cutting into
itself.  We are emptied of
everything until we are an aching void which, like a vacuum, draws in the
mighty rush of Love itself.  This
can result in a vision of God.  It
takes place, as one anonymous medieval mystic put it, in "a cloud of unknowing"
where you must "reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is
necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love….  You must enter a state of nothingness…
a state of 'nowhereness,' where you are not outside or above yourself, nor
behind or beside yourself either."[xv]

Unlike the Vision of Nature or of the Beloved, this experience does
not  usually happen spontaneously,
to anybody at any time — it needs a degree of preparation, such as prayer,
fasting, meditation and self-denial. 
Some may attain it sooner than others if they have a talent — that is, a
vocation — for it; others may never attain it at all.  It is the kind of experience that Plotinus had those four
times: a union with the One, with God, with the Ground of all Being; but it is
most associated with Christians in medieval times, from Walter Hilton and
Richard Rolle in England, to Johann Tauler and John Ruysbroeck in Germany, to
the great Spanish mystics of the 16th century, St Teresa of Avila
and St John of the Cross.

Of course mystical experience had been acceptable in the Christian
world ever since St Paul's second letter to the Corinthians[xvi] "I know a man," he writes, referring to himself, "who fourteen years ago was
caught up to the third heaven. 
Whether it was in the body or out of the body or apart from the body I do not
know — God knows.  And I know that
this man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God
knows — was caught up to Paradise. 
He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to

But the man who was most responsible for the medieval outpouring of
mystical experience was Dionysius the Areopagite.  As well as his thoroughgoing
angelology, Dionysius outlined two ways of salvation, two paths to God.  The first was the Affirmative Way
whereby the soul reaches God through intermediaries, from the hierarchy of the
Church in the earthly sphere to the hierarchy of angelic powers in the
heavenly.  His system of divine
intermediaries was lifted straight out of Neoplatonism, whose daimons he
Christianised into angels.  This
Way asserts that all things are good, and from God; and He can be reached
through the things of this world, whether through Nature or through other
people, just as the two visions of Nature and of the Beloved suggest.

The second path to God is the Negative Way, whereby all sensory
experience, all desire, all thought — even all understanding — has to be
renounced in order to reach God. 
Even the idea of God Himself has to be given up.  The soul enters a profound darkness
from which only the grace of God can deliver it.[xvii]  There, in the darkness that is not even
darkness but beyond darkness and light, the spirit merges ecstatically with the
Uncreated Light, yet its identity is not submerged; for all things in the "Super-Essence" are "fused yet distinct."[xviii]  Sometimes the darkness is no darkness
at all but the illusion of darkness created by the light of God which blinds
the soul with its brilliance.  No
genuine mystic, incidentally, has ever claimed that such an experience is
either necessary for salvation or a proof of sanctity.  As St John of the Cross reminds us: "All visions, revelations, heavenly feelings, and whatever is greater than
these, are not worth the least act of humility…."[xix]

Because there are no words to describe the encounter with God, the
mystic can only say what it is not; or else use metaphors drawn from human love
(just as the Vision of Eros uses metaphors drawn from divine love).  In his most famous poem St John
describes the rapture of his soul's union with God in terms of a lover slipping
away at dead of night, climbing the secret stair of the hushed house, with no
other guide than his own burning heart, to where his Beloved is waiting.[xx]  The night is his "Dark Night of the
Soul," in which he is purged of all natural sense, all human longing and
knowledge, in order to achieve divine vision.  The myth of Psyche and Eros also seems to tell in  terms of human love a tale of the
soul's initiation into divine love.

Another popular metaphor for the love of God is light and, in
particular, fire, like the "flame-coloured cloud" which suddenly enwrapped
Richard Maurice Bucke while he was driving home in a hansom cab.  "For an instant I thought of fire, an
immense conflagration somewhere close by… the next, I knew that the fire was
within myself.  Directly
afterwards, there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness… an
intellectual illumination impossible to describe…."[xxi]

Bucke called this experience "cosmic consciousness"; and it seems to
have been the same kind of experience that the religious mathematician Blaise
Pascal underwent on 23 November, 1654, when "From about half past ten in the
evening until half past midnight," he wrote on a piece of parchment found sewn
into his clothing at his death in 1662,


God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers
and scholars.

Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace.

God of Jesus Christ…

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy."[xxii]

Plotinus describes the path to mystical union with the One in three
ways or, rather, a single way expressed in three spatial metaphors[xxiii]:
a journey upwards towards a spiritual
summit; a journey within, where the
summit is found within one's own depths, from which all external images —
sensory perceptions, intellectual ideas or spatial concepts — have been
removed; and a journey back, an epistrophé or "turning back" to the
origin and source of everything, including oneself.[xxiv]  Self-knowledge is knowledge of that
from which we came.  All these can
be summed up in his last words (according to Porphyry's arrangement) of his
writings: "The flight of the alone to the Alone."

For Plotinus, uniting with the One was also a uniting with oneself,
and so the soul does not lose its identity in the One.  Nor is the soul's path linear but,
rather, a circular turning about its source and centre, just as Jung describes,
in order to weave itself into a unity where the two become one.  Plotinus preferred the first way, the
journey "upwards," which he based on the ascent to absolute beauty as described
by Plato in The Symposium — which can
therefore be understood as an initiatory text as much as a dialogue about human
love.  Plotinus describes his own
mystical experiences enigmatically as being awakened out of his body into
himself, becoming external to all things and contained within himself.  He sees a marvellous beauty and is sure
that he is communing with the highest order of things, becoming one with the

His ascent, unlike that of Christian mystics — which it closely
resembles — is intellectual, non-reciprocal (the soul desires the One, which
cannot itself desire) and less the result of supernatural grace than of a
natural predilection of the soul. 
Since it is naturally rooted in the divine ground, the soul can return
there in accordance with the psychic law that all things tend to revert to
their source.[xxvi]  Plotinus' union with the One therefore
sounds a bit cool to our sensibility, a bit impersonal compared to the
Christian encounter with a personal God whose sudden flaming out of the
darkness burns you away in ecstasy.


Our double nature

The Negative Way
and the Affirmative Way are extreme examples of two basic human constituents or
tendencies.  There have been many
ways of characterising them.  For example,
male and female, intellectual and emotional, consciousness and the unconscious,
yang and yin, left brain and right brain, sun and moon, unity and multiplicity,
Classical and Romantic, Apollonic and Dionysian, light and dark, and so
on.  Each pair is a metaphor for
the two-fold tension in our lives or selves.  The terms I have chosen to express this tension are "spirit"
and "soul" because they are large resonant terms with religious
connotations.  They are not to be
understood as substances or even as theological concepts, but rather as
symbols.[xxvii]  As such they cannot be exactly
defined.  They can only be grasped
elliptically, by the associations they evoke.

The Vision of Nature and the Vision of Eros belong to the
Affirmative Way.  They are visions
of what is created.  They are so to
speak soul visions.

The Vision of
God belongs to the Negative Way. 
It is a vision of the Creator, or of the Source.  It is a spirit vision, which always desires unity and rejects soul's vision
of multiplicity.

Spirit is expressed in metaphors of ascent, height and light.  He flies and soars like Peter Pan or
Icarus.  He longs for
transcendence, to rise above the world. 
Quickly, arrow-straight, he climbs the holy mountain of self-denial and
prayer towards Illumination; or the ladders of Reason towards
Enlightenment.  Pure reason, pure
philosophy, pure mathematics, pure light, pure love…  Spirit is a puritan, his goal the pure life of the ascetic
monk in his cell or the pure scientist in his hygienic laboratory.  He turns his back on what he sees as
soul's contamination and  muddle.

Soul is expressed in metaphors of descent, depth and darkness.  She favours the Underworld and the
circuitous route.  She is not
transcendent but immanent, lying hidden within the world.  Slowly, meanderingly, she follows the
downward spiral of imagination towards its dark wisdom.  She prefers the twilight to the light,
where things mingle and worlds intersect. 
She is suspicious of "purity," knowing that reality is complex and

Spirit resents the way that soul is always trying to hold him down
or entangle him just as he has leapt out of bed to make a fresh start, wipe the
slate clean, embark on a big new adventure.  Soul brings him down with the residue of an anxiety dream or
clips his wings with a sudden fit of peevishness or mood of pointlessness.  Her images and urges, memories and
fears, farts and fits of giggles are always breaking in on his high-minded,
solemn meditations.  His important
work is interrupted, as mine is now, by stomach-rumblings and daydreams.  He strives to bring soul to heel,
control her desires, empty out her imagination, make her forget her dreams; but
the more puritanically he denies these daimons the more strongly they return,
ever more distorted, like the sexy demons who tempted poor St Anthony in his
desert cave.

Spirit wishes to die literally to the world, shedding all its images
and its attachments in the pure, clean, empty air of the desert and
mountain-top; soul dies to the literal world, finding truth and meaning in the
depths of all images and attachments.

Spirit is humourless. 
If he makes a joke, it is of the "cosmic" variety — that is, not
funny.  Soul adores every kind of
joke, from the finest wit to the most grotesque buffoonery.

Soul says that the basis of all reality is image, myth, story,
fiction — in short, imagination. 
Spirit says that all this is unreal, illusory, against reason.  He prefers "facts," preferably "hard"
facts.  If a thing is not literal,
it is not real.  Soul replies that
it is literalism that is not real but only a product of spirit's literalistic perspective,
like the ascents he turns into literal mountain-climbing or the Otherworld
journeys he turns into literal pilgrimages, while she stays put in
Imagination's gleaming caverns. 
Facts, she says, are only spirit's fictions.

Sharp-edged spirit always wants things cut-and-dried, black and
white, either-or; soul says that things are not like that: they are always
ambiguous, paradoxical, both-and. 
Spirit has big ideas which he insists are brand new.  Soul says that there are no new ideas,
only old myths re-cast in modern garb, which we need new insight to see

Spirit resists disease and flees death; soul sees disease as one of
her treasured manifestations, and death as her own proper realm.  She savours death, whose bitterness is
an initiation; spirit leaps over death and its darkness to emphasise the light
of rebirth.

Soul is poetry;
spirit, prose.  Books with "soul"
in the title are usually about, and by, spirit — and full of abstractions and
generalities about the delights of Light, Love, Oneness, God, Energy,
Consciousness.  Our difficulty in
staying awake when reading such books is owing to soul's desire that we should
return to her realm of dreams and images, or pick up a book with a good story in
it.  She closes our eyes against
the mystic dazzle; she closes our ears against the banality of transcendence,
against large pronouncements, against the preachy platitudes of would-be gurus
or of "channelled" spirits, angels and space brothers.  "Glory be to God," says soul (through
G. M. Hopkins) "for dappled things," whatever is "counter, original, spare,
strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)."[xxviii]  She regards spirit much as Virginia
Woolf regarded Lowes Dickinson: "Always live in the Whole, Life in the One;
always Shelley and Goethe, and then he loses his hot-water bottle; and never
notices a face or a cat or a dog or a flower, except in the flow of the
universal."  For the trouble is,
said Woolf, "One can't write directly about the soul.  Looked at, it vanishes; but look at the ceiling, at Grizzle,
at the cheaper beasts in the zoo which are exposed to walkers in Regent's Park,
and the soul slips in."[xxix]

Spirit wants to commandeer soul for his own purposes — progress,
growth, improvement.  He turns
soul's playful self-sufficiency into practical self-help.  Indeed, our passion for self-help is
underpinned by that muscular Protestant work ethic, replete with guilt, which
was so admirable in the Pilgrim Fathers and still sees America as its spiritual
home.  Soul sees spirit's rigorous
régimes of meditation as a form of repression, denying her infinite variety of

Spirit loves humanity but, unlike soul, is less interested in
people.  He is high-minded and
serious, looking down on soul's love of gossip, rumour and myth-making.  He is suspicious of appearances,
disapproves of make-up and fancy hair-dos and smart shoes.  He does not see that soul's gossip and
chat is a concern with relationship and personal connections; her liking of
personal adornment, an expression of her concern with Beauty, which spirit
always tries to "get behind," get to Truth.

It is spirit which always postulates something "higher," "behind" the
image, such as a noumenon behind a phenomenon, a god behind a daimon, or one
God behind the gods.  But soul says
that this is not literally so.  The
sense of "behindness" is built into soul's vision, supplying her sense of
dimension, mystery and depth.  So,
too, the structures and hierarchies we are so attached to are spirit's
impositions on soul's flow.  We are
allowed hierarchies, as Plotinus is allowed his system of emanations and the
evolutionists are allowed their vision of a great chain of being, providing
only that we use them as tools, as ways of seeing, rather than asserting that
they are the case.

It was this perceived rigidity that caused W.B. Yeats temporarily to "mock Plotinus' thought and cry in Plato's teeth," as he writes in his poem "The Tower"; but, later, he recanted.  "I forgot that it is something in our eyes that makes us see them as all
transcendence.  Has not Plotinus
written: 'Let every soul recall, then, at the outset the truth that soul is the
author of all living things, that it had breathed the life into them all,
whatever is nourished by earth and sea, all the creatures of the air, the
divine stars in the sky; it is the maker of the sun; itself formed and ordered
this vast heaven and conducts all that rhythmic motion — and it is a principle
distinct from all these to which it gives law and movement and life….'"[xxx]

To spiritual, hierarchical thinking, the daimons are at best the
missing links between this world and the world "above."  But to soul they are the very fabric of
a single world which shifts shape — shows us many different aspects, including
the spiritual and the material, according to whatever perspective, whatever
god, we are looking through.

Spirit is a Utopian, always flying off to forge a new future, always
plotting a social programme to usher in the New Jerusalem.  He cannot wait to forget the past,
leave home, shake off family ties and old traditions.  Soul is an Arcadian, always wishing to return to the Golden
Age, always waiting to re-instate the conditions of Eden.[xxxi]  She loves memory, the past, the
ancestors and old customs.  She
likes the unchanging cycles of seasons, festivals and sagas.

Whereas spirit sees the past as a static, backward, primitive,
superstitious and unhygienic Dark Age, soul sees it as a  nourishing wellspring of sacred
culture, social harmony and right relations with Nature.  In our secular culture soul returns —
if the British TV ratings are anything to go by — as an interest in gardens,
old buildings, antiques, archaeology, 
genealogy, and Nature programmes.

When the poet Kathleen Raine heard two young girls singing as they
brought in the washing on the Scottish island of Eigg, with no accompaniment
other than birdsong, the sound of sheep and of the sea — no modern sound — she
remarked: "it was not so much the past that we seemed then to enter, but the
permanent, the enduring norm, the familiar."[xxxii]  And this, too, is part of the joy of
the vision of Nature, that it seems the way things should be — and are, if we
but open our eyes and hearts to what is not beyond this beautiful world but
enfolded within it.


One and Many

If I am giving
the impression that spirit and soul are opposed to each other, it is not
necessarily so.  It is the result
of the preponderantly "spirit" perspective of our culture, founded on a
monotheism which tends to polarise — whether spirit and soul, Affirmative and
Negative, this world and the next, angels and demons or spirit and matter.  Such oppositions have been carried over
into modern society where subject is at odds with object, mind with matter,
fact with fiction and so forth.

A wholesome life, it seems, is made out of holding spirit and soul
together, in tandem and in tension. 
Religiously speaking, this means balancing the One and the Many – one
God with many gods.  All the great
Renaissance magi, from Ficino and Pico, to John Dee, were Christian
polytheists.  Ficino, for example, "worshipped God simultaneously both beyond and within Creation."  For him, "the world was 'full' of a god
who transcends it: Iovis omnia plena
[all things are full of Jupiter]."[xxxiii]  Their faith was biblical and
monotheistic, but their theology, as it were, came from Plato and
Plotinus.  The Romantic poets too
were usually Christian; but they also were drawn to pagan Neoplatonism.  William Blake's work is the paradigm
for Christian polytheism.  They all
managed to resist monotheism's tendency towards superiority and its perennial
wish to break free from soul's manyness. 
Even Iris Murdoch who, as a novelist as well as a philosopher should
have known better, asserts that "theological mythology, stories about the gods,
creation myths and so on, belong to the realm of image-making and are at a
lower level than reality and ultimate religious truth, a view continuously held
in the east, and also in western mysticism: beyond the last image we fall into
the abyss of God."[xxxiv]

Soul  might well
expostulate: "But, but… 'abyss' and 'God' are also only images in my vast
treasure-house of images.  Indeed,
I am myself the abyss — for I am, as Heraclitus says, fathomless — in which the
image of God is contained." 
Recognising this truth, perhaps, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich
was forced to postulate, in the fashion of pure spirit, a "God above God"[xxxv];
a God, that is, who is unknown and unknowable, beyond any image of God we can
conceive of.  But is this not also
an image…?  Must there not then be
a God above God above God…?

In other words, there is no monotheism which is not besieged by
soul's fragmenting daimons; and there is no polytheism which does not
acknowledge, however dimly, some overriding deity,[xxxvi]
whether it is Zeus among the Greek gods, Ra among the Egyptians, Wakan-Tanka among
the native Americans of the Plains, the "Spirit of the Forest" among the
Pygmies or the shadowy creator god of the Eveny reindeer-herders, Hövki.  Even Plato's Form of the Good can be
seen as the assertion of an impersonal unity over against the many personified
gods of Homeric polytheism, rather like the way the Buddha emptied out the
Hindu deities into the ‘void' of Nirvana. However, neither of these banished
the gods altogether as jealous Jehovah did.

In his desire to break free of soul, spirit turns his back on her and
flees as if from his own shadow. 
But if he faces his own shadow he finds his own reflection.  For when soul is working together with
spirit, she contains and defines him, slows him down and fleshes him out, gives
him bulk and substance, roots his airy ideas in concrete images, brings
imagination to his single-mindedness, encourages him to turn things over in his
mind, to brood and gestate before bringing forth.  Above all, soul reflects; and spirit can only know his own
truth through her.

Reciprocally, spirit invigorates soul, who is tempted to remain in
the valley of dreams, to hide in fetid mists, to stagnate in the past[xxxvii]
— her love of beauty degenerating into an empty aestheticism, her polytheism
surrendering to fatalism.  She
needs spirit's fire and wind to burn away her haze and give her lift-off.  She needs his lightning-strike to
germinate her imaginative fertility, his inspiration to breathe zest into her.  In spirit soul sees her own beauty.

Thus soul and spirit can only be grasped in relation to each
other.  I have been opposing them
in order to bring out their differences; but opposition is only one way in
which they relate, albeit the way favoured by modernity.  Really, they are forever intertwined,
mutually mirroring.  Whatever is
said about the one is necessarily from the standpoint of the other, like Jung's
anima and animus.  Jung called this
pairing a syzygy.  It is a term
taken from the conjunction of planets in astrology.  Our imagination is bounded by syzygies.   We can only imagine in  pairs, like the tandems of our mythic
tales: twins, brothers and sisters, heroes and damsels, heroes and dragons,
fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and so on.  The union of consciousness and the unconscious in the Self
is symbolised in alchemy by a hermaphrodite.  The usual symbol of the union of soul and spirit is, of
course, simply marriage – for every Dante a Beatrice, for every Psyche an
Eros.  All the Elizabeth Bennetts
get their Mr Darcys.  Every soul is
secretly a Princess with her own Prince Charming.

This implies that this writing should be as much a study of spirit as it is of soul.  I expect you have noticed that it
already is, because all descriptions or"‘definitions" of soul are reflections
of one or another perspective of spirit; or, to put it slightly differently,
soul's own reflections in spirit's mirror.

Nowadays the outlook of spirit is most often carried by what we call
the ego.  And it is this archetypal "spirit" perspective which I want
to look at in the next chapter. 
But before I do this I would like to append a cautionary  tale about the fate of daimons who fall
into the hands of unbridled spirit.


The flaying of Marsyas

was a daimon — a satyr, in fact — who stumbled one day across a flute that,
unknown to him, had been cursed by Athena.  He went about Phrygia in the train of Cybele, one of the
great Middle-eastern goddesses, delighting the peasantry with his playing.  It was soon rumoured that even Apollo
himself could not make such marvellous music.  This made Apollo angry.  He invited Marsyas to meet him in a musical contest, the
winner of which could choose whatever punishment he wished for the loser.  Marsyas foolishly agreed.  The Muses, who were elected to judge
the contest, were equally delighted by both contestants.  So Apollo challenged Marsyas to do as
he did, which was to turn his instrument upside-down, and play and sing at the
same time.  This was quite easy for
Apollo to do with his stringed lyre, but impossible for Marsyas to do with his
flute.  The Muses had no choice
but, in spite of the cheat, to declare Apollo the winner.  Whereupon the god took a cruel  revenge on the satyr: he flayed Marsyas
alive and nailed his skin to a tree.

Now, this may be a reference to the ritual removal of
an animal skin from a satyr or silenos, a man who danced in a Dionysian rite
while wearing a goat-skin and horse's tail.  But it also tells us a lot about unbridled Apollo.  Although there are many kinds of
spirit, "more and more the notion of 'spirit' has come to be carried" (James
Hillman tells us) "by the Apollonian archetype, the sublimations of higher and
abstract disciplines, the intellectual mind, refinements and
purifications."  A-pollo means "not
many" and so "far-seeing" Apollo is the god of unity.  As we have seen, he is also the god of science who,
unrestrained by the influence of Hermes or Dionysus, may lapse into
monomaniacal scientism, which feels it is above soul — but not above
tampering with the facts in order to defeat its competitors; which hates and, I
dare say, fears soul's irrational eruptions of goaty daimons, playing their
maddening Dionysian flutes — and wishes to flay them alive. 


For information on Patrick Harpur's books click here. 

[i] Quoted in Wilson
(1989) p.24

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Berenson p.18

[iv] From ‘As
kingfishers catch fire…' in Hopkins p.51

[v] ‘Lines composed
a few miles above Tintern Abbey…' in Wordsworth p.47-9

[vi] See Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man (Oxford,

[vii] Quoted in Wilson
(1989) p.43.  For a fuller version,
see Coxhead, Nona. The Relevance of Bliss
(London, 1985)

[viii] This discussion
is indebted to W.H. Auden's essay ‘The Protestant Mystics' in Auden (1973)

[ix] See the
discussion of Dante's La Vita Nuova
in Williams (1943)

[x] Auden (1973)

[xi] Ibid. p.102

[xii] Williams (1963)

[xiii] Galatians 2: 20

[xiv] Weil (1972) p.21

[xv] The Cloud of Unknowing p.53-4; 135

[xvi] 12: 2-4

[xvii] Dionysius the
Areopagite p.194; 200

[xviii] Ibid. p.201

[xix] Quoted in Auden
(1973) p.73-4

[xx] ‘En una noche
oscura…' in St John of the Cross p.26-9

[xxi] Quoted in Wilson
(1989) p.44-5

[xxii] Pascal p.309

[xxiii] Henry, P.
Introduction to the Enneads in Plotinus p.lxxxvi

[xxiv] Plotinus IV, 9,

[xxv] IV, 8, 1

[xxvi] Dodds (1965)

[xxvii] Some of the
following distinctions between soul and spirit are indebted to Hillman (1975)
p.67-70 and Hillman (1989) p.57-69

[xxviii] Hopkins p.31

[xxix] Quoted in ‘A
Consciousness of Reality' in Auden p.415

[xxx] Yeats (1967)

[xxxi] For the
distinction between Arcadia and Utopia, Eden and the New Jerusalem, see
‘Dingley Dell and the Fleet' in Auden (1964) p.409f

[xxxii] Raine (1991)

[xxxiii] Quoted in Wind

[xxxiv] Murdoch (1993)

[xxxv] Tillich p.180-3

[xxxvi] See Miller

[xxxvii] Hillman (1989)


Image by Aube insanité, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 


Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!