When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fulness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.
- Plato, Timaeus
The true self is one, divine, and eternal. This much we can accept on the authority of our predecessors; but it must never be forgotten that whatever authority these predecessors have was earned not through faith alone but by their own hard-fought journeys to discover how and why the self has eternity, unity, and divinity, and how we as living humans can lift our own visions to attend to and participate in these things. We do not accept their authority for its own sake, and indeed none of them would want us to do so. We simply trust that the dialectic process and the meditative practices they have handed down may afford us ways to experience exactly what they have experienced, and wonderfully this is a hypothesis which can and should be directly tested in your own life.
What I am going to attempt here is to give a very basic outline of some early rungs of this ladder, an account of why and how you have found yourself immersed in your present condition, and of how and why you may come to recognize and remedy it. I think that none of my diagnoses or prescriptions will be very disagreeable to any but the most ill and imbalanced soul, even if the understanding of them remains on only a physical or practical level that does not yet grasp the invisible forces that make them work. This is because all of these things take place within one ultimately united continuum, and by the hermetic principle of correspondence the things which bring about unity, focus, balance, health, strength, and peace in the mind and in the heart will do the same in the body and in the bodily experience of life. By the grace of great Hercules, people of little faith who undertake these practices with an eye towards bringing these good things into a bodily life only for the sake of pleasure may still find themselves opened to the possibility of greater wisdom. This is how most will stumble onto the path, and was indeed how I myself began. Where before they saw only a vague intimation of goodness calling to them through the hazy mediums of desire or aversion, they may now see the always-outstretched hand of Hermes, the faithful Hermes who shepherds souls both upwards and downwards according to their own fascination - a reminder that the divine will always be close by to offer help, but that ultimately you are your own responsibility.
The central Mercurial symbol, the Caduceus, is rife with layers of symbolism, so I am going to offer the interpretation that I think will be most useful to us right now. Notice the two serpents coiling around a central staff; for our purposes we will consider these snakes to be the twin powers of Time and Space. They are the created moving images of the rod they encircle, attempting but unable to perfectly mimic its unbending unity which represents ideal eternity. The Caduceus is said to awaken the sleeping and to put the awake to sleep; compare the image offered in the myth of Er, of souls both descending from Heaven and ascending from Hades to meet in the fields of judgement.
The snake itself is another dense and layered symbol, but the key to understanding her is deceptively simple; just imagine you are on a walk through a forest trail, and a long cobra rises up from a bush in the corner of your eye; what is elicited in you is of course shock and fear, but underlying these things something else has happened. You find yourself staring intently at it, anticipating a strike, becoming extremely careful in your movements. In short, you have become aware, aware of her and of yourself in relation to her - and this awareness was enabled by a perception of danger, by a perception of the snake’s ability to “put you to sleep.”
Now, you must understand - your presence in the body is serpentine. The body subsists through space and through time, and it demands attention by offering up sensations of pleasure and pain towards which the soul becomes desirous or averse. It is not malicious in doing so, it is simply carrying out its own dharma, a dharma that is entwined and aligned with all other dharmas including those of your soul and intellect. We ought to look at the body in a similar way that we look at a kitten given to a small child as a lesson in responsibility. Just as that child, in learning to care for the kitten, might prove her ability to babysit her siblings or care for herself if left home alone, the methods we learn in caring for our bodies will serve us well in learning to care for our souls.
Because the extension of the body is spatial and temporal, obviously the care we give to it must also be. Just as the cosmos is the moving image of eternity, the well-ordered body is the moving image of a well-ordered soul, and actions taken on either plane will reverberate in the other. Plato tells us the soul has three “parts” or functions: The epithumetikon, or appetite, the thumos, or will/ego/“heart,” and the logos, or reason, which directs the others but which is liable to having its values or priorities distorted by their influence. And so how does the body express these three faculties in everyday life? through routine and the allocation of time. Just as each portion of the soul corresponds to parts of the body - trunk, chest and limbs, and head - the way we use our time and what activities we devote our bodies to reflects the balance of our soul. For example, an imbalanced appetite may show itself in excessive eating or anorexia, in hypersexuality or asexuality. Imbalances of thumos will usually appear as issues with self esteem or narcissism, and an unstable logos will have trouble implementing even small changes through conscious effort. Just as a good exercise routine splits up which muscles are worked each day throughout the week in order to give all of them adequate attention, a good life which seeks to balance itself in toto will split up its time and energy between a well calibrated procession of activities that address each of these portions of the soul.
Though specifics of course vary, this is the basic idea of various religions’ festival calendars and of ritual applications of astrology. In determining what times are appropriate for which activities, these calendars usually employ, intentionally or otherwise, a sort of magical thinking in mapping out correlation between the cycles of the seasons and the spiraling motions of the human processes of learning and integration. The most famous examples are the various celebrations that occur roughly around the times of solstice or equinox. This, of course, is effective because all of existence has inherent unity with itself, and by that unity is able to establish links of likeness and sympathy between its many moving parts. The human individual may think his skin is a hard barrier, and indeed the reductive patterns of European “enlightenment” thought have worsened this base tendency, but the truth is that his powers of vision and perception extend his subjectivity far beyond the flesh - and, if exercised rigorously, perhaps beyond the veil of death. Even if, as some pessimists have suggested, his perceiving faculties work only by carving effigies into his brain in imitation of impressions received on his sensory tissues, there is still a fundamental likeness of number and form that fastens him to an “objective” reality - or rather, to a reality that is born of the intercourse of subject and object, God and Goddess.
Hearing this may be scary to the modern reader because we are socialized into an atomized definition of the self. We understand the individual to be something that starts in the brain and ends at the skin, and we invest great moral value in the “independence” of this unit. I am going to state this plainly: This idea is false and is damaging your ability to understand the world and the proper way to act within it.
The Buddhists can tell you that when you dig into the “individual” and examine it you will eventually find a thing that is “empty of self-essence,” which is devoid of its own causation. Which, in other words, depends on other things in order to exist at both the highest and the most basic levels. The self relies on energy from food and light for its body’s existence, and likewise the body must have received its consciousness - or rather, its participation in consciousness - from somewhere. Only when we free ourselves from the conception of the self as being bound by the body are we able to start getting closer to where our consciousness must have originated. When we follow the new line of questioning which is opened up by this, we are able to see ourselves in our environment and in our social groups. We are able to accept that a messy room and a clean room have tangibly different effects on our well-being because they are literally a part of ourselves, interacting with our hormones and nerves and all of the other constituents of our bodily selves.
- Your Idea of “Self” Is Killing You
Now that we have established that human subjectivity extends beyond the body, I will add that the body is a tool of perception but not the cause of it. Consciousness pervades the soul like the ray of the sun pervades the air as it strikes the atmosphere, and just as the myriad chemical reactions triggered by light and heat enable the growth of vegetable life, the soul’s powers of order and motion cause bodies to emerge as cold matter accumulates around it like a rolling snowball, its perfect passivity roused to strive cloyingly after the soul by the irresistible beauty of its heat and life. This is why we confess that the world-soul is an image of and providential gift from Venus, who is wedded to form-crafting Vulcan but pursued by divisive Mars and indeed sometimes in liaison with him.
That may have seemed a pretty lofty tangent, but we can easily reconcile it with the important subject at hand of daily life and its total integration. Even before the discussion of the soul, it was hopefully clear enough that what I mean by “a well calibrated procession of activities that address each of the portions of the soul” is the establishment of a schedule of healthy habits, and to be honest the implications here are shamelessly cliché. It means quite plainly that you should be eating well, exercising, and meditating, which of course entails the sometimes slow and frustrating process of researching and practicing how to do these things and filtering good information from unreliable information or information that doesn’t actually apply well to your position. Most importantly, all of these things demand conscious attention and presence. The thing is, that tangent was necessary because in all likelihood you already “know” that you should be doing these things - as in, you have an abstract or un-integrated idea that these things are good, but that idea has so far failed to move you as a multi-layered entity with impulses and interests that pull you in many different directions. The challenge of learning to integrate that idea so that it can yoke your diffuse and dissipating impulses and forge your body’s temporal motions into a pointed whole that sharpens and beautifies itself and its surroundings is an excellent practice and preparation for doing the same thing to your soul.
What I hoped to introduce by the discussion of the soul and its investment with consciousness are a few points that I think are vital to both of those parallel integrations and to their union in a life of arete, or the fulfillment of total human excellence. Firstly, there are many important implications introduced by the realization that human subjectivity extends beyond the body. Among these is the understanding of man as a creature who is utterly intertwined both with other humans and with the environment that envelops and shapes him - that he is not just a social animal, but an environmental animal. This in turn means that just like we have to care for our physical and temporal bodies physically and temporally, our efforts towards total arete have to include caring attention towards our fellow beings and towards our environment, and such attention necessarily involves attempting to align both things with the Good.
We will now explore the particulars of both intertwinements, starting with the first. It is another cliché that “if you wish to help yourself, try to help another.” This is a common theme of Platonism - that we often find ourselves taking a long and winding path only to end up justifying some ancient piece of common sense. Yet I think this is worthwhile, because by that effort we wash away the derogatory patina of '“cliché” and allow that wisdom to appear to us as fresh. At any rate, though the revelation that we should cultivate virtue and justice and kindness in our dealings with other creatures is not revolutionary, we cannot pass over it lightly and deny that we as a culture have started to neglect many of the particular techniques of treating each other well and bonding with each other. I do not need to deploy studies or statistics to put forth the thesis that we are growing more isolated and antisocial, most of you will be able to recognize what I mean immediately from experience. Luckily, because we humans are fortunate enough to be fairly similar, this is not a difficult issue to address so long as it is mutually acknowledged that solutions should be sought after together. For reasons I’m going to outline below, though, I do believe that a large part of bringing these techniques of social cohesion back into our lives will have to be the intentional arrangement of environments conducive to them.
The ramifications of our intertwinement with our environment is a field of study which has opened up relatively recently because of the upheaval of the ways we live occasioned by industrialization and by digitization. For thousands of years it was taken for granted that the human habitat was something like a village made up of several connected family groups and embedded into a particular natural landscape that would influence everything from diet to fashion to what structures families would use to organize themselves. The high speed modern environment not only de-localizes people by turning their housing, food, and clothing into a lifeless, interchangeable, expendable, standardized mess, it unroots them from the social environments in which humans are most at home, the social environments whose particular demands were responsible for the entire structure of our inherited systems of law, etiquette, and morality. Much of the political upheaval of the last century could in fact be attributed to the frustrated lashings-out of populations who were newly homeless in a profoundly bizarre and alienating way and who struggled to develop moralities that would integrate more easily with the demands of their new environment.
We can recognize where issues begin to arise if we are willing to admit to ourselves that a less natural environment will produce a less natural morality, and that actually yes, there is an objective Good to measure these things against. The discernment of how to align worldly affairs with that good is the difficult part, and because culture itself is a blind composite-daemon it relies on founding visionaries to implement relevant and culturally appropriate moralities which can provide them an inertia towards goodness. That inertia, however, will be short lived without a mechanism of self-renewal, and renewal is only possible through the passing down of teachings that will allow future generations to more easily discern the proper alignments for themselves. Western culture today lacks such a mechanism in any coherent way, or at least in any way agreeable to the sensibilities of a very dysfunctional youth cohort. The great challenge of any person who earnestly desires a better world is to rediscover and re-implement that mechanism - and there is not a single way in which it would ever be possible to do so without first imposing the practice of wisdom and unity onto one’s own life, slowly chiseled into the temporal body by a controlled appetite, a finely calibrated thumos, and an empowered logos. Whoever achieves this will find themselves like a survivor of a shipwreck, head bobbing precariously above the waves, still stranded but at least in sight of land.
Such a person is the true “ubermensch” who justifies the human race not by the creation of new values but through reunion with eternal ones. He does indeed reach beyond simple prescriptive morality, and in many cases his journey is indeed occasioned by a “death of god” or loss of meaning, but in the end his “creation” of value and meaning is only a midwifery of these things into temporally intelligible images, because, as Hera teaches us, all creation is such a midwifery.
Whoever saves himself saves all of mankind no matter how many or how few particular individuals he brings with him to shore because he dusts off the pillar of light that is always and forever suspending the world in its perpetual presence to and imitation of the Father Creator. Nietzsche was wrong to frame the man who masters the world as neglectful of the spirit, and indeed mastery of the world is not only pointless but outright impossible unless an intimacy is cultivated with the forces and intelligences that draw it forth from the murky depths of potentiality.
The first of these forces are the previously mentioned powers of the individual soul who perform this function for our own ego-constructs. Mastery of them is the necessary first step to properly spiritually engaging with the world because it is their likenesses with corresponding forces in the cosmos that make our interactions possible at all. It is at this junction that our discussion of sociality and environment returns to relevancy, because there are feedback loops between these things and ourselves that we must become aware of and adjust towards alignment with good ends.
For example, living far away from our friends can damage our social lives, making us lonely and depressing our natural flow of inspiration and activity. Living in close proximity to people we aren’t emotionally close with can do the same, with the added pressure of making it harder for us to adjust our environment into a personally comfortable space conducive to good habits. Maybe your room is simply messy because you are busy or never made a habit of cleaning it, and something as simple and trivial as that clutter subtly puts your brain into a state of anxiety or apathy which in turn makes you less eager to socialize. On the other hand, spending a good amount of time with friends who lift our mood or inspire good patterns of thought and living in intentional spaces designed to make positive habits less obstructed have a cascade of positive effects on our bodies and minds that make it so much easier to be present and in-control instead of being forced to spend our whole lives simply responding to external stressors as if we were trudging through an unpleasant dream.
Of course there is the caveat that this is exactly what most of us are already doing, and what is most needed first is a simple lifeline reminding us that peace is possible, desirable, and in our own hands to attain. What is needed first is a simple vision that can ignite a will to be alive and be awake. For this most basic and most foundational of steps, we are utterly dependent on the grace of two beings: Aphrodite and Eros, Beauty and the compulsion towards it. They are the kindlers and sustainers of that lantern upon which our entire journey relies.
We could in fact summarize the entire practice of living well as learning to love the right things. Endless accumulation of particulars will never suffice. It can only be a treading of water, and for as long as you go seeking that accumulation Hermes will allow senseless glut to continue sticking to you like that rolling snowball. But if you find that delicate lantern and hold it aloof from all the moths who would claim it, then the venom of the Caducean serpents will become its own antidote.
Aphrodite’s first lesson is this: You are always doing what you want to do. If you think you aren’t doing what you want to do, you need to dig deeper into your own desires and to the different parts of yourself that possess differing desires. You will most likely discover a misalignment between your logos, thumos, and appetite, and it will then be your task to balance them. Doing so means deepening your understanding of what is good and figuring out how to provide each portion of yourself with the right tools to fulfill its stake in applying goodness to your entire unified experience of life. Attempt this, and Hermes will shepherd you from the left hand of Venus into her right, and your desires will no longer drag you towards expenditure and dissolution but towards a unitive, purifying enactment of the divine image that is your birthright.
Much can be said on what those tools might be, but I think it would be far more helpful of me to give a suggestion on how to explore and examine the original desires before discussing the tools, because a good method of exploration will better put you on track to discerning some of those tools for yourself. In fact you probably already abstractly know many if not most of them, and they are simply waiting for you to fully integrate knowledge of why they’re helpful and should be desired.
To begin, I am personally convinced that there is no escaping the necessity of prayer. Specifically, in this endeavor, to Aphrodite. Regardless of your opinions or reservations about what the mechanism for prayer’s efficacy might be, even in the most vulgarly materialistic sense we cannot deny that a structured, vocal meditation on the Goddess and what she can offer us is a good way to spur us to consider our desires and their causes. You can use this simple template and build on it however feels best: “Lady Aphrodite, I thank you for your presence and for (insert anything you might be grateful for). I ask that you may guide me and help me to discover and follow a good path in life.”
You may very well be surprised at what sort of insights will arise seemingly spontaneously into your mind, especially if you are troubled with some specific issue. For example, a prayerful conversation about a recent heartbreak or a potential new partner has the potential to bring to light new understandings about what qualities you value in people and therefore yourself, what it is you are actually seeking from romance, and how other people impact your patterns of behavior.
As you learn more and more about the good and how to relate to it by contemplating your own life and reading the works of our wisest predecessors, the practice you gain from these prayers will help you to interrogate yourself more deeply in every area of life and in domains belonging to many other gods. Such interrogation is vital to producing an accurate self-image that serves its proper purpose as a map of desires and behaviors that you are sovereign over and that you are empowered to alter and perfect as you gain a better and better image of what is good and what constitutes a good life.
Now, because the success of these prayers and interrogations in part depends on your own powers of focus and persistence, a simple starting point for ensuring those faculties increase alongside your understanding will be the last thing I discuss in this piece. It is a single very basic meditative practice that I have found to have profound positive ripple effects. Every single night, without exception, just as you are about to sleep, once your lights and clothes are already off, assume a seated meditative pose and take a set number of breaths as deeply and slowly as you find yourself physically able. Strive to keep your head clear and your focus entirely upon controlling your diaphragm and counting your breaths. I do 33 each night, which takes me around 15-20 minutes. You are of course welcome to start with 10 or 20.
This practice does a few things. Firstly, it establishes a routine, which is vital practice for establishing further routines with more specialized goals. Trying to go from zero routines at all to several strict ones, which I know we have all had a 3 AM surge of inspiration to attempt, will almost never work. Successfully implementing structure into your life starts with experiencing the success of adding a single simple routine to your schedule, giving you a model for how future ones may be added. Secondly, this practice exercises your power of intention and focus towards a concrete goal, again a skill that is amazingly transferrable across your entire life. It is exactly the sort of purifying, distilling practice that halts, at least temporarily, the glut of particular worries, thoughts, and desires that accumulate into that bad-dream snowball. Finally, slow breathing has immediately tangible physiological benefits for cellular respiration and will also produce a satisfying sense of calmness perfectly suited to improving your sleep. Mastering our sleep is vital - we want to make our sleep as restful as possible so that we can be fully awake when we are not asleep.
I believe that the integrated combination of these benefits, which are both long term and short term, mental and physical, make this a perfect first step to filling one’s life with similar practices that each contribute to the culmination of a cohesive life that is united in all its parts. I will finish by saying even this one small activity may surprise you with its effects on your consciousness. The first night I tried it, I did 100 full breaths instead of 33. I found myself constantly miscounting and having to re-count my breaths because it was confusing keeping track while breathing so slowly. But when I finally settled into a rhythm and was able to relax, I was surprised to find myself flooded with memories that I had no clue still existed, memories of small lazy days from years ago in weirdly specific phases of my life or of people I had totally forgotten about encountering. It was as though I was finally breathing deeply and slowly enough for the air to actually circulate through my whole body and loosen up years of residue I hadn’t even realized I had accumulated. It wasn’t just a release of tension and of accumulation, it was a revelation of it, and it was this sensation that convinced me I had to stick with the practice.
Since then I have found that these nightly breathing sessions give my system a chance to integrate my days neatly into clean understandings as they happen instead of depositing them as globs of unsorted junk to sift through down the road. There are some nights I stop counting at 33 but keep breathing for an indefinite time because it has become so enjoyable. I hope that all of you will give it a try and experience something similar. This may seem to be a tame and mundane note to end an essay with such a bombastic title on, but I also hope I have made an adequate case that such lofty goals absolutely require such small blocks to build themselves on, and I hope I will have made the best contribution I can to waking up a will for mastery in some of you and supporting its development with a concrete prescription.
Thank you for reading. If you’re curious about praying to Aphrodite or other deities, it’s a topic I discuss in much greater detail in my book “Hymns for the Gods”
Just reread this for a third time, excellent article.
Great text. It is wonderful to see people intent on putting these ideas into practice