‘The Great World Decays in the Little’

The Historical Position of the Theory

The last chapter may prompt the question as to whether the texts quoted were ever given an importance sufficient for them to dominate the official ideas of world history. The simplest way of answering this is to refer to the debates on the meaning of world history during the transition to modern times. The title of this chapter is quoted in a book devoted to a seventeenth century controversy between an Anglican bishop, Godfrey Goodman, and an Aristotelian philosopher and archdeacon, George Hakewill, who debated the question as to whether the world had been in a state of ongoing decline ever since the Fall.1

Part of my reason for introducing this subject is to show that the idea of cosmic decline had been an assumption of Christian orthodoxy until the second half of the seventeenth century. This may well be surprising to many minds which are so steeped in the idea of progress and of the accommodation of religious belief to it that they are unaware of the part played in the history of thought by the ideas in the above book. The psychological effect of an unquestioned belief in progress is all too evident in the author of All Coherence Gone himself, where he says:

the scientists ultimately rejected the belief in decay not only because of the empirical evidence against it, but because it was based on a teleological view of the universe.2

This is said as though science knew nothing of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which requires that an irreversible ‘decay’ must result from every physical operation of nature, and it shows how progressive ideologies can result not merely in a distortion, but in an actual inversion of the scientific principles involved. Moreover, Harris’s conviction that Hakewill is in the right in denying the cosmic decline is not disturbed by the fact that nearly all of Hakewill’s arguments depend on the Aristotelian belief that the heavens were made of an incorruptible substance quite different from terrestrial matter, a belief which was even then being exploded by Galileo’s experiments. Goodman’s arguments, on the other hand, will be seen to be of a kind that are not dependent on changes in scientific theory.

Concerning the earlier history of belief in the continuing corruption of the world, Harris quotes from a book by Polydore Vergil dating from 1499, to the effect that ‘an ende by putrifaction’ is the conventional Christian position.3

The fact that this idea was defended by bishop Goodman is in any case a good indication of its traditional position, because the Reformers were not religious innovators in any creative way, but differed from Catholic tradition only in what they rejected. However one may explain the way it came about, therefore, the long-term decline of the natural order is an ancient belief, one which appears in the Patristic writers, notably in the writings of Saint Cyprian. Its establishment may have owed much to the effect of the barbarian invasions on Saint Augustine’s idea of history, and to the effect of the Dark Ages on many other influential minds. Be that as it may, it is a logical setting, maybe the only fully logical one, for a religion which is concerned above all with salvation. The progressivist philosophy cannot provide any such setting, and in a religious context it can only be a popularized form of the belief that man can save himself by his own efforts alone. So seductive to human nature is this belief that the combined forces of reason and constant experience can hardly dislodge it.

The Microcosm and the Macrocosm

The ‘little world’ or microcosm in relation to the ‘great world’ plays an important part in the cosmological controversy, besides which it is specially relevant to its wider issues treated here, not least because it has a decisive effect on our relation to the vast quantities peculiar to time and space. Instead of feeling dwarfed or threatened by such immensities, one may on this basis see them as component though peripheral parts of one’s own being when that being is understood as microcosmic by nature. Thus the experienced immensity would be a property of the soul or self in which the universe is reflected. Without this property of the human state, moreover, the problem of knowledge must remain insoluble, and the question of man’s place in the universe will not be understandable in a way that could be humanly realistic. This truth is expressed by Nicolas Berdyaev who fully realized its importance:

Man is a small universe—that is the basic truth for knowing man, and the basic truth which precedes the very possibility of knowing. The universe may enter into man, be assimilated by him, be attained and known by him only because in man there is the whole component of the universe, all its qualities and forces—because man is not a fractional part of the universe but an entire small universe himself. . . . Man and the cosmos measure their forces against each other, as equals. Knowing is a conflict between equal forces, rather than between a dwarf and a giant.4

Because this conception is so often not understood, with its implication that the humanly experienced world is a private representation in each soul, the unimaginable quantities of the universe can appear as a threat to the significance and even to the reality of the individual. The endlessness of outer space in which the earth is but a point, the aeons of time, and the incalculable number of souls that have had embodied lives may astound the imagination, but for all that these quantitative magnitudes are logical inferences and are never directly experienced or even experienceable.

The individual human state is at the center of all these macrocosmic realities in a much more profound sense than that of spatial centrality. The metaphysical truth in this was once conveyed to mankind by Ptolemaic astronomy with its geocentric description of the universe, and it stood for something much more profound than a supposed need to enhance human feelings of self esteem. In the Copernican revolution, this was replaced by a technically more effective model, but one which obscured the truth of man’s relation to his world. But regardless of the prevailing theory, the quantities proper to the spatial and temporal world are present in each consciousness in a mode that makes them intelligible to us.

The relation of macrocosm and microcosm, like all dualities, points the way to a third reality which creates equilibrium between them. In this case, the third reality would be a greater macrocosm or ‘metacosm’ which would comprise the macrocosm and the grand total of all the representations of it realized in individual beings. On this basis, the real world would then be in effect a community of spirits, rather as Leibniz conceived it. Such an enlarged and spiritualized idea of the macrocosm makes it easier to understand the mutually corrupting (and conversely, mutually regenerating) roles ascribed to microcosm and macrocosm in the Goodman-Hakewill controversy. Some such interaction is also indicated by Berdyaev where he says that ‘the destinies of the microcosm and macrocosm are inseparable—they rise or fall together. The condition of the one is imprinted upon the other; they mutually penetrate each other.’5

Because of the mutual interpenetration of the great and the little worlds, the corruption of man has its effects on the physical processes of his world, so that much more is involved than questions of personal and social value. In the biblical account of the Fall, the earth is said to be cursed because of Adam, so that it loses much of its fertility. This in turn requires of Adam a different relation to the world as painful work with its attendant discomforts becomes necessary. In the life of the rational soul, therefore, the macrocosm may be either spiritualized by being joined to the will of God through the mediation of the human soul, or corrupted by being separated from it. When it is said that the microcosm ‘reflects’ the macrocosm, this does not mean that it has a purely passive function like that of a mirror. On the contrary, the formation of the reflection or representation results from the soul’s constant flow of volition. But although the soul is essentially activity, the direction of this activity is liable to vary in the manner of the symbolic circles or circulations described by Plato in the Timaeus and in the passage quoted in the previous chapter. This comparison with clockwise and anti-clockwise motion highlights the idea that the microcosm’s creative energies can be deployed either in harmony or disharmony with the normative cosmic motion.

In theory, these considerations would allow no more scope for the degeneration of the world than for its regeneration, since the mutual influence for good or ill by the great and little worlds need not imply an excess of one influence over the other. The miraculous powers attributed to saints manifest the positive potential of this possibility, and in them the macrocosm is raised to its highest potentiality in anticipation of its ultimate redemption. But while the regenerative process never actually ceases, the balance of forces tells increasingly against it over the greater part of history, simply because numbers are not on the side of those who follow the regenerative way.

The idea of the human soul as a microcosm is implicit in all biblical and traditional teachings which link natural disasters and disorders to corresponding moral and spiritual disorders in individuals and in societies. Once the theoretical reasons for this are appreciated, there is no need to see such teachings as merely the work of pre-scientific minds which failed to understand causality. The main barrier against such insights is the near-universal belief that the human mind relates to its world only in the way of a piece of photographic film to its objects. This belief is a result of ignorance of the creative power of the human state, and of the fact that even the simplest perception does not arise without the application of a mental act to it similar to that of reading a word or decoding a symbol. The world of experience results from the activity of the individual mind in concert with all other human minds together, and while the world in itself is not created by the individual mind, nor even by the sum total of them, it is nevertheless conditioned by the latter to such a degree that the moral, intellectual and aesthetic development of mankind as a whole has a cosmic significance.

On this basis, there is a close parallel between the relationships between man and God and between nature and man, and a given change in the one relation automatically produces a corresponding change in the other. If human minds grow increasingly closed against God, nature will grow increasingly closed and hostile toward humanity, as appears in the fact that ever greater ingenuity is needed to keep the world inhabitable. The microcosm concept is also relevant to this inasmuch as the positive role of the microcosm in relation to the macrocosm is unrealizable except where the divine law is acknowledged. The will of God coincides with the realization of this cosmic role.

The Traditional Arguments

When we consider the arguments used to justify the belief in the world’s decay as they were used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they evidently assume an experience which is not shared by modern minds. It is as though up till about three hundred years ago mankind still shared a race memory of a higher state which had been lost, a memory which could be awakened by natural evils which followed upon that loss. For this reason, the arguments deriving from such sources will not be relied upon for the present purpose qua arguments; rather it is the existence of such arguments and their widespread acceptance prior to the eighteenth century which is the main issue.

Harris observes that there was a belief that all the different forms of corruption that result from the Fall had the effect of suppressing two distinctions, one of them between the Fall itself and the continuing decay of the world, and the other one between the decay of the macrocosm and that of the human microcosm. These distinctions were of course insisted on by those who, like Hakewill, argued against the world’s decay. But a corruption confined solely to man would refute man’s place in nature, and a Fall without ongoing consequences would be reduced to a mere historical incident.

In the course of the controversy, it was only possible for Hakewill to deny the orthodox position, breaking the dependence between microcosm and macrocosm, on the grounds that the visible heavens were made of an incorruptible matter. In that case, the macrocosm would be safe against the unhindered spread of decay in a way that man was not. While the scientific discoveries made at this time disposed of this belief that the heavens were incorruptible, the simultaneous discovery of increasing numbers of scientific laws was to give rise to a belief in a permanent world-order based on the unchanging truth of equations like the laws of motion. The philosophical impact of these laws was in effect a resurrection of Aristotle’s incorruptible crystal spheres in a more abstract form, without giving any real guarantee of the stability of the physical world. The eternity of natural laws reveals only the patterns of creation as they are in the mind of God, while no such eternity is imparted to the material world. To think otherwise would be like supposing that Socrates must be immortal because it is eternally true to say that Socrates is mortal. But this did not deter the new vision.

Goodman’s motive in arguing for the world’s decay was to teach the folly of relying on nature, so that one would see the need to seek God instead, and in this he was only saying what orthodoxy has always said. Signs of nature’s corruption were besides to be used to put mankind in mind of the end of the world:

Any denial of the decay was an un-Christian denial that the world would end. Churchmen of all denominations were eager to defend the world’s mortality against the Aristotelian doctrine of its eternity; and this desire, together with the popular expectation that the end would come soon, did much to bring converts to the belief in decay.6

The arguments for the decay of nature proceeded as though the doctrine could be confirmed by simple observation. The increasing loss of fertility in the soil, and the way in which only useless and harmful plant growth could still flourish in it, was taken as an outward sign of the inner condition of mankind, as also was the fact that most of the world was not inhabitable for one reason or another. Such signs included things as diverse as the preponderance of evil over good in the world, enmity between mankind and the animals, the necessity for tilling the soil (it was believed to have been so fertile at one time that this was not necessary), the humiliating conditions of birth and death, and the preponderance of trouble and sorrow over happiness. Even the arts and sciences were said to exist as a result of the need to repair some of the ruination caused by the Fall. As man was the center of creation his corruption made it increasingly rotten at the core and so much the more able to spread the evil, as one man with the plague could infect a whole city. The fact that man suffered the effects of corruption to a greater extent than the irrational creation simply reflected the divine justice.

The continuing decay was manifest in the extinction of species and in a weakening of the life-giving influences of the heavens. Much use was made of the Aristotelian idea of privation, the idea that the number of Forms instantiated in matter was always much less than it could have been, so that matter unmastered by Form could so much the more easily revert to chaos. (The Principle of Plenitude implies the material realization of endless possibilities, but not their permanence in the world.) The dominance of evil was said to appear in the fact that it was always much easier to destroy than to build or create; likewise the difficulty of learning and the ease of forgetting; wealth is gathered with so much labor, but so easily lost; for how much of life man was weak either through immaturity or old age; there was but one way to be born, but innumerable ways led to death.

Nature’s corruption was hastened by an increase of privation, which meant that the relation of matter and Form was diluted by a real nothing. This not-being supposedly mingled with the things that were, and showed in a weakness, slackness, and instability in all things. Thus they were more vulnerable to the violent alternations of contrary forces which hastened nature back toward the nothing from whence it was created. Man’s physical weakness and susceptibility to pain and sickness were said to be greater than ever before, and his intellectual powers appeared to decline in a similar manner. Only man suffered from idiocy and insanity, which was said to be a condign punishment for the sin of curiosity which was instrumental in causing the Fall. It was part of the same punishment that the desire for knowledge was nearly always frustrated, and that man was ignorant of what he most needed to know, his own soul. While sorrow was real, joy was said to be mainly illusory because it was so largely involved with recollection and anticipation rather than with the present, besides which happiness and pleasures took much time to reach, but were very soon over when reached. The future, whether in this life or the next, was a source of constant anxiety which spoiled much of the peace and happiness one could have at any given time.

Most of these evils were said to be rooted in the conflict between the body and the soul which had arisen since the Fall. The Fall had resulted in the body’s becoming corruptible, whereas the soul was not so affected, and this was what produced a profound disharmony between them:

The spiritual soul, ‘exempted from any elementarie composition,’ must nevertheless be coupled with the base body. It is no wonder that neither part of man understands the other. The two belong to different worlds, ‘and therefore in reason should not admit any fellowship or societie betweene themselves, much lesse be the members of one and the same corporation.’ The understanding is betrayed by the body, so that sense rather than intelligence dominates man, whose concern is thus with particulars instead of generals and whose actions are guided by his passions instead of by his rational soul.7

Man was created with sovereignty over all creation, and now all that was left of that was his sovereignty over woman, and even she was turning rebellious. Heresies, and confusion and disputes about religion were increasing, while a decline in the practice of religion was continuing as it had done since ancient times, and Goodman’s fear was that the whole world would finally turn infidel in its last dotage. But material and spiritual things always declined equally, and so there was a diminution of wealth in the world, while the goods that money could buy became both more scarce and poorer in quality. He observes the improvements in man’s methods for controlling natural forces and for deriving benefits from them, but these things showed only how feeble nature had become, that it had to be submitted to human action in order to be capable of any good. Greater efforts were always needed for the same results.

This kind of thinking relies on a sense of the potentialities in man and the world which belong more to their archetypal causes than to them, and it makes the contrast between the ideal and the actual the more painful in proportion to this perception. Intelligence in earlier centuries was more developed on the intellectual than on the rational plane, and so could reach the essence of things when its rational arguments could not convince modern minds which have developed rationality almost to the exclusion of the intellect. But what matters here is that the declining world-order was always a part of orthodox thinking until quite recent times, and was expressed in a huge literature. Traditional thought was guided by the image of the microcosm which summed up the Christian idea of the whole organism, uniting in man the corrupt and the incorruptible, the elemental and the celestial, and intelligence and sensory perception. Man’s seven ages are linked to the seven planets, in a way that heaven and earth, stars and elements are all in some sort in man:

Even in the body of man, you may turne to the whole world; This body is an illustration of all Nature; Gods recapitulation of all that he had said before, in his Fiat lux, and Fiat firmamentum, and in all the rest, said or done, in all six dayes.8

Cosmic Pessimism and the Modern Reaction

For all its negative implications for the material world, the old cosmology was far from negative in its effect on human minds and wills. Belief in the world’s decay was held with increased conviction during the century before it began to be abandoned in the later seventeenth century, so that it was the dominant idea of history throughout the period of the Renaissance. This fact is significant for any understanding of the meaning of cosmic pessimism. It clearly did nothing to inhibit creative inspiration in any field, and may rather have stimulated it. The same observation applies to Classical Antiquity, which was even more devoid of any idea of progress. The world’s decay evidently confronts man with the alternatives of either combating it or of becoming part of it. The belief in progress which displaced it appears in contrast as a consoling sedative which allows the higher potentialities to rest and sleep. This does not mean it does not stimulate desires, since it undoubtedly creates greater expectations of financial and material improvement. But the energies it stimulates are almost entirely industrial and economic, so that its purpose could almost be defined as that of the channelling of human energies into economically-related activities.

Authors advocating the idea of progress began as a small and obscure minority in the sixteenth century and grew in numbers and influence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their arguments were nearly all empirical, and did not dispute against metaphysics so much as ignore it. Material improvements already achieved were examined and set up as patterns for more of the same in the future. Later on the accumulation of advances in the production of wealth were thought to have gone on long enough for material progress to be an actual law of history.

It could be said that the idea of progress was talked into existence by a long succession of thinkers, the great majority of whom were French, according to the account given by J.B. Bury.9 One of the earliest such thinkers was the historian Jean Bodin who asserted the uniformity of nature’s powers and rejected the idea of universal degeneration. About the same time Francis Bacon published his ideas for the domination of nature through scientific discoveries. The new idea very early found itself in conflict with the doctrine of Providence, which taught that events were ordered by God for the sake of the Church and the salvation of individuals. This belief had to be discredited if progress was to be the ruling principle of explanation, and events could be reinterpreted as human means to economic ends, and not divine means to spiritual ends. The newly discovered natural laws played a part in this change, because they at least appeared to imply that God could not act directly, so that Providence would have to wait on the operation of physical laws if it were active at all. This is not to say that there is any logical conflict between natural laws and Providence, but that the new concentration of minds on the details of short-range natural causality created a mindset which was not open to the wider perspective of Providential ordering. In reality, God’s dispositions of things come from outside the time series just as much as do the natural laws themselves.

The central role of French thought during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in bringing the idea of progress from obscurity to worldwide dominance is illustrated by the names of the thinkers whose work is reviewed by J.B. Bury. Following Bodin, they include Fontenelle, the Abbé de Saint Pierre, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Turgot, Diderot, Condillac, Helvetius, Condorcet, Chastellux, Auguste Comte, Guizot, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Renan, to name the principal ones. Despite the contribution made by Bacon and Hobbes and other non-French thinkers, the strange fact remains that the amount of materialistic and atheistic works of French origin exceeded that of all the rest of Europe put together during those three centuries. Their success can be attributed largely to the fact that they told the public something it naturally wanted to believe, and substituted an idea which demanded only a certain amount of energy for one which contained a moral challenge as well. It was in this connection that Guénon applied the aphorism that vulgus vult decipi,10 which is the more appropriate in that the modern spirit of rational criticism is notably inactive in relation to modern culture as such, where it might do some good and expose the negative motives behind the trends of modernity.

The eventual abandonment of the traditional cosmology by Christian thought in the wake of its rejection by secular thought was a change in the form of belief which was wholly owing to cultural, historical and economic pressures, not to any new discovery in theology or metaphysics. It has been observed that Christian thought had hitherto retained the idea of the world’s decay but not that of world-cycles, and it will later have to be considered whether the abandonment of the latter was also brought about by human contingencies, or whether by a deeper insight into the nature of time.

1. Victor Harris, All Coherence Gone, The University of Chicago Press, 1949.

2. Ibid., chap. 1, p. 5.

3. Ibid., chap. 4.

4. The Meaning of the Creative Act, chap. 2.

5. Ibid., chap. 2, p. 72.

6. All Coherence Gone, chap. 1, p. 3.

7. Ibid., chap. 2, vi, p. 40.

8. Ibid., chap. 5, iv.

9. The Idea of Progress.

10. ‘The multitude is willing to be deceived.’

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