P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 171
7th April 2012
I. 'Is Metaphysics a Waste of Time?' by Peter Jones
II. 'Plotinus' Mystical Empiricism in Relation to the One' by Katelis
III. 'Spirit, Essence and Form in William Wordsworth's The Prelude'
by Pedro Blas Gonzalez
In this issue of Philosophy Pathways we explore an area of philosophy
which is lamentably underrepresented in the academic curriculum: One
hesitates to use the term 'mysticism' which today has unwelcome
associations. The term 'metaphysics' would be appropriate, had it not
been taken over by philosophers in the analytic tradition to denote
something much more limited in its scope and ambitions. I am talking
about the ultimate, arguably perennial questions of existence: the
relationship between the temporal and the eternal, the search for an
understanding of the unity of all things.
Peter Jones, expanding on his ISFP Fellowship thesis, 'From
Metaphysics to Mysticism: Exploring the Case for a Neutral
Metaphysical Position' (www.philosophypathways.com/essays/#jones)
takes the editors of the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics to task for
offering a self-defeatingly negative characterization of the nature
of metaphysical inquiry. The goal, he argues, can be nothing less
than a fully consistent account of the nature of the world as a
whole. There can only be one coherent metaphysical position. We reach
that position by seeing that for every other more or less partial
metaphysical theory, there exists an equally defensible refutation of
Katelis Viglas did his postgraduate studies at the School of
Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, writing his thesis on
Neoplatonism. He has authored many articles on Byzantine Philosophy.
Here, he offers an exposition of what he terms the 'mystical
empiricism' of Plotinus. However, this isn't 'empiricism' as students
of Locke, Berkeley or Hume would recognize it. The stress is not on
given experience as the source of factual knowledge, but rather as
something that links us to the ultimate source of all things in the
One, that which cannot be literally described but only talked about
indirectly, through dialectic and through metaphor.
In his second article for Philosophy Pathways, ISFP Board member
Professor Pedro Blas Gonzalez of Barry University, Miami Shores,
Florida offers an illuminating account of the metaphysical and
mystical philosophy of Wordsworth in his great poetical work, The
Prelude. Arguing forcefully that Wordsworth has been wrongly labelled
as a 'Romantic poet', Professor Gonzalez describes the elements of a
finely articulated philosophical view focused on the particularity of
human existence and experience yet influenced strongly by the
Platonic/ Neoplatonic tradition.
On the Anniversary of Wordsworth's Birth: 7 April 1770
I. 'IS METAPHYSICS A WASTE OF TIME?' BY PETER JONES
Metaphysics serves as a common foundation for the natural sciences
and without it they would not, so to speak, have leg to stand on. So
it is odd that these days the study of it is quite commonly dismissed
as a waste of time. Perhaps to some extent this is a consequence of
poor media management. Certainly a scientifically inclined layman
reading the preface to the Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics would have
no difficulty in concluding that the subject is not worth their
It is not an accident that none of the included essays
attempt to say what metaphysics is, to describe the methods
for doing it and the rules or criteria for assessing the
success of a metaphysical theory. For all such
metaphilosophical attempts have failed miserably.
It is not easy to see any other interpretation of this statement than
that metaphysics is for people with nothing better to do. That such a
statement can be approved for publication makes abundantly clear the
failure of western academia to understand even the simplest thing
about the metaphysics of the Buddha and Lao-tsu, perhaps even that
there is such a thing, and it is even oblivious to important parts of
the western tradition. Regardless, a person new to the topic, who
might naturally assume that a respected publisher's general guide
might be a good first book to tackle, would take it for granted that
this statement is true, and if it is true then the rest of the book
and the whole of the discipline would have to be a waste of time. If
any doubts remain they are soon banished.
But the history of metaphysics, as well as the essays in
this volume, shows that one can successfully engage in the
metaphysical language-game even though one cannot
articulate the rules of the game in virtue of which we can
keep score and thus determine who wins and who loses.
It seems unlikely that many people would agree that engaging
successfully in this sort of metaphysical language-game would be a
worthwhile ambition or even a challenging one. A game for which
nobody knows who is winning or losing with rules that cannot be
articulated, if such a thing is logically possible, would be a game
not worth playing. The next sentence nails the lid shut on the coffin.
Not all philosophers accept this favourable evaluation of
the history of metaphysics.
Not all philosophers would accept that this evaluation is favourable,
and some would see it as a hatchet job. Those of us who see
metaphysics as the only way forward for theoretical physics and
consciousness studies, the only discipline capable of a fundamental
theory, the only science with the tools to face up to the mind-matter
problem fairly and squarely, must despair at the way in which
metaphysics can sometimes be presented even by its friends. Many
metaphysicians hold a very different view and would regard this
characterisation of their field of study as unrigorous and
misleading. Here is alternative view, one that is no less legitimate.
Metaphysics can be defined as the study of the world as a whole. The
principal method by which it proceeds is that of dialectic
refutation, the falsification of propositions concerning the world as
a whole by the derivation of contradictions. It is by virtue of the
rules for the dialectic that we decide which propositions are right
and which wrong. The method works perfectly well and produces no
results known to conflict with scientific observation or reported
personal experience. By the use of this method, the rules for which
were codified by Aristotle, metaphysics is able to determine that all
metaphysical position except one are logically indefensible, can be
logically refuted, are 'wrong' according to the rules. This may be
its most important and best known result, and the main reason why
metaphysics is so difficult to do in the first place. It is a result
that we would expect, and it gives us confidence in our method, for
there cannot be more than one correct metaphysical theory.
More specifically, metaphysics does not endorse a partial, selective
or positive world-theory. This perennial result steers us towards a
different kind of theory. The metaphysical scheme of the Buddha and
Lao-tsu now becomes highly plausible, since it is not partial,
selective or positive, cannot be refuted in the dialectic and is the
only one left. It is not demonstrably correct and it never will be,
but it is unique among metaphysical theories in that it is not
demonstrably wrong. Thus, on this view, metaphysics is a quite
straightforward study by which we eliminate logically indefensible
theories to leave only those that might be correct, given only the
starting assumption that the universe obeys the laws of dialectic
logic or 'laws of thought'.
If we take this simple and more optimistic view of metaphysics then
we can explain why so many people, even many philosophers, consider
metaphysics to be unimportant or even pointless. The pessimism found
in western metaphysics, well illustrated in the above extracts but
prevalent across the literature, can be explained by the fact
mysticism is widely considered to be a waste of time, or at any rate
no solution for metaphysical problems. It must be seem clear to many
metaphysicians that mysticism has no systematic metaphysic
underpinning all its fine talk of cosmology and soteriology, and its
metaphysical scheme is therefore little studied and a dismissive view
of mysticism can persist in certain areas of metaphysics.
By leaping to this unverifiable conclusion metaphysics shoots itself
in the foot, however, for if there is no systematic metaphysical
theory underpinning the teachings of the Buddha and Lao-tsu then
metaphysics can never have a solution for its problems and is bound
to remain more or less useless for anyone not earning a living from
it. It would be doomed to remain forever Kant's 'arena for mock
fights', a phrase for which we might read 'waste of time'.
Fortunately, however, it has never been shown that this view of
mysticism is justified. This is to the credit of metaphysics. In
metaphysics, if we play by the rules, we cannot dismiss the
philosophical foundation of mysticism as either wrong or a waste of
time since we cannot show that it would give rise to logical
contradictions. All we can do is dismiss our method of refutation as
a waste of time for failing to falsify it, as, in effect, the
Blackwell Guide advises us to do. There is nothing to stop us doing
this, but there is a high price to pay. Now we cannot complain when
other people dismiss our discipline as unscientific or a waste of
time, for it is we ourselves who have made it so. Were we to stick to
our method and pursue our analysis to its bitter end then we would
arrive where metaphysicians always arrive, at the conclusion that all
positive metaphysical theories are unsatisfactory.
We now face a simple choice. We can choose to see this conclusion as
a dead end, or we can see it as a secure fact from which to derive an
extended metaphysical theory. That there is this choice divides
discursive philosophy into 'eastern' and 'western'. The confusion and
depression prevalent in our western metaphysics is not caused by its
failure to produce a result but by its refusal to accept it. A claim
that we have no rules for decision-making may allow us to avoid
having to accept it, but this is a little like deliberately upsetting
the board at the last minute to avoid losing at chess. Metaphysics is
then reduced to the sham science described by the Blackwell guide to
it. This metaphysics might be thought of as a waste of time, for
while it is capable of establishing the problems of philosophy it
rules out of consideration the only available solution for them. But
this is not all of metaphysics, merely a particular approach to it,
one we have known not to work at least since the days of Plato. In
addition to this there is the metaphysics of Parmenides and Zeno,
Heraclitus and Plotinus, Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Jung,
Schopenhauer and Schrodinger, Bradley and Nagarjuna, Lao-tsu and the
In answer to the question in the title, then, we could say that
whether we see metaphysics as a waste of time will depend crucially
on whether we accept its results or ignore them. In the western
tradition they are ignored, thus the negative evaluation that even
many metaphysicians award it, while in the eastern tradition they are
accepted, and this would explain not only the greater optimism but
also how it is possible that the metaphysics of the east can be so
very different from ours that we may miss the fact that it would
qualify as part of the same discipline. Having missed this, we are
likely to find ourselves proposing that metaphysics is a
language-game that cannot be won.
It may not be an easy concession to make, but once one gets past the
idea that metaphysics has nothing to do with mysticism then it
becomes easier to do. It would not be easy to thoroughly learn its
history, understand all the various competing views that have
accumulated over the centuries, and by the standards of most people
one would have to be almost a genius to become a professor of it, but
asking a metaphysical question and trying to answer is all that would
be required for actually doing it, and asking a few of them soon
brings us to the point where the two main traditions part company on
how to interpret the failure of metaphysics to reach a positive
result. Now we have found the exit from the arena and must choose
whether to stay or leave, whether to accept this result or reject it.
Once out, if we choose to leave, all theories except one can be
abandoned and we can focus on reaching an understanding of just one.
When starting out it is almost certain that we will adopt a more a
less correct method. Aristotle's rules for the dialectic are intended
as a formalisation of the way in which human beings naturally and
probably unavoidably think. They describe the way our minds work. So
we need not study the method before getting started. My interest was
initially sparked by the Something-Nothing problem, the question of
whether the universe begins with, reduces to, is emergent from or
simply is one or the other. In hindsight this was a fortunate place
to start, since it is one of the most approachable of metaphysical
problems and not as easy as some to overcomplicate. At least
discussions of it tend to be more brief and straightforward than for
some others, even if they are ultimately no less confusing.
Most people, if they ask themselves this question, will soon discover
that the idea that the universe begins with Something or Nothing makes
no sense. Both horns of this dilemma can be refuted in the dialectic,
which is why it is a dilemma, and ideas that can be logically refuted
never make sense to us. We may reach this conclusion after quite a
short time and in quite an amateur way but we should not doubt that
it is an important philosophical result. It tells us something quite
extraordinary about the universe and about the way in which we think.
Or, at least, it will if we trust our reason and accept it as a
result. If we proceed in this fashion, approaching in turn the
dilemmas of freewill-determinism, externalism-internalism,
mind-matter, one-many, dualism-monism and so forth, then we will
eventually end where everybody ends up, having to choose between the
view that metaphysics and mysticism are in full agreement and that
neither is a waste of time, or the view that metaphysics has no
decision-making procedure and is a mock science, with the unavoidable
implication that mysticism has no philosophical foundation and is also
a waste of time.
It would not be difficult to verify the starkness of this choice for
ourselves. There would be no need for us to work through all the
different problems, as metaphysicians have already done all the hard
work. All we need do is confirm that the Something-Nothing problem
and all the other well-known ancient and venerable metaphysical
problems remain as problems in metaphysics today, something we can do
by reference to a general introduction, an online browse or perhaps
even just by extrapolation from the preface to the Blackwell guide.
If all these questions are still problems today, after centuries of
painstaking analysis, then it can only be because all their positive
answers break the rules of Aristotle's game such that they must be
That metaphysics has refuted all positive or partial metaphysical
theories might be its proudest achievement. If the only alternative
to such a position is the one endorsed by the Buddha and Lao-tsu,
with all that this would imply for the natural sciences, the nature
of reality and the meaning of life, it would be difficult to argue
that metaphysics is not an important area of study. Only if we reject
its conclusions would metaphysics have to become a snake-pit of
competing theories none of which work, scorned by physics and
scientific consciousness studies for its endless prevarication,
absent of any method for making decisions or even of exiting the
arena, rather than a quite straightforward discipline akin to
mathematics that may be used to prove a result that we might have
predicted, that all metaphysical theories save one give rise to
logical contradictions, and also something more surprising, that the
only one that does not is the 'doctrine of the mean', in philosophy a
form of global compatibilism, as endorsed by all the world's principle
(c) Peter Jones 2012
II. 'PLOTINUS' MYSTICAL EMPIRICISM IN RELATION TO THE ONE' BY KATELIS
On close reading of the Enneads, the work written by Plotinus, we can
see that the One, the ultimate factor in his system of hypostases, can
be examined on the base of many concepts that are interwoven, creating
many paths for approaching the divine level. Of course, since all the
hypostases, Matter -- Nature -- Soul -- Intelligence, are dependent
on the infinite power of the One, theoretically and practically
everything can be related to the One or the God or the Good. But
there are some modes of existence most related to the One, thus
illuminating the Plotinian mystical empiricism. The One, on the one
hand, is related to empiricism as It presupposes the immediate
approach of It, being immanent and transcendent at the same time, and
on the other hand, It is related to mysticism as It cannot be
perfectly conceived and experienced otherwise than through the
In the Plotinian ethical and metaphysical cyclic system, the One is
the absolute creative power, while the matter can be characterized as
non-being and evil, because of its remoteness from the prime
principle. The kind of knowledge the One allows humans to obtain,
presupposes the exercise of the moral faculties of the soul.
The Plotinian epistemological project begins by defining the ethical
targets in life, and through a pedagogical procedure leads to an
ascent into the higher levels of existence. The way of perceiving the
sensible realities, bringing them to the intelligence, and connecting
them with the memories of the world of ideas, cannot be separated
from the imaginative faculty. The importance of the present instant
in human life is not neglected since the Plotinian metaphysics aims
at elevating it to eternity. The empowerment of life is a sine qua
non, and is based on the spiritual exercises. The openness to the
infinity was a new possibility, which characterized the pagan and
Christian Monotheism of the era. The beauty of the sensible world is
not disputed as it is an imitation of the intelligible realm. The
ultimate metaphor taken from the sensible world for the
representation of the One was that of the light and the sun,
constantly repeated in the Western literature since the time of the
Pre-Socratics, and it continued throughout the Middle Ages. Nothing
can be compared with the light and the beauty of the One, as It
provides the soul with the sense of mystery and wonder, in an
experience similar to the initiation of the adepts in the mystery
cults. To those who have the will, the only option is the anagoge to
the intelligibles, where they can unite in ecstasy with the One,
through an absolute flight of consciousness.
One's generative power
If the One is the absolute difference, which generates the world of
the intelligible being and the sensible reality, It is as principle
and generator of beings, as transcendence, staying always completely
self-sufficient. The One is neither non-being nor being; it is an
abundance of beauty and positive power. Only matter can be
characterized as non-being, and as the world of action, is a shadow
of contemplation and reason, a state of attenuation. Plotinus
considers the One at top of the ontological climax, ranking
hierarchically the hypostases. As regards the dynamic of his system
of thought, there is the cyclic Neoplatonic process of
'progression-return-rest': One creates the hypostases as overwhelming
entity, creating matter, which is as non-being as moving away from the
One; and everything comes back to the source of everything.
This attitude is justified from the cosmological character of the
One, because it hasn't any immediate influence to the sensible world,
but only through the mediation of hypostases, making It a
non-immediate productive power. The process of creation of the
sensible world, through the Intelligence and the Soul, is the
prerogative of the One, and this mediation can apply not only to the
humanity, but clearly to the metaphysical world which is independent.
So in the metaphysics of Plotinus the intelligible forms create the
Approaching to the One
The One of Plotinus is the principle of everything (arche panton),
that is, an enological principle. Thus, the epistemological approach
of the One is difficult, since it is beyond the Intelligence, the
simplest, and It can be partly approached through rational
categories. Plotinus' syllogism seems to play with the words, when
he tries to demonstrate the epistemological accessibility of the One.
knowledge is 'one thing' (ena ti), but that is one without
the 'thing' (ti); for if it is 'one thing' (ena ti) it
would not be the 'absolute One' (autoen), for 'absolute'
(autoen) comes before 'something' (ti).
Granted this epistemological and discursive difficulty of approaching
the One, it is not possible to find the words to speak about It,
because 'we don't have It'. But is it possible to have It, if we
cannot speak about It? Plotinus says that as those who have a god
within them, and are in the grip of divine possession, may understand
that they have something greater within them, even if they do not know
So we seem to be disposed towards the One, divining, when our
intelligence is purified, that is becomes really internal. The One
can generate for the soul both love and a nephalion methe, which is a
kind of apathetic passion. Although the enthusiasm is indeed a
situation related to the One, especially in the way we possess It, is
connected with a logical sobriety, which enlarges at the same time the
distance while trying to develop a relation with It. So the One of
Plotinus causes a kind of enthusiasm, and this word in ancient Greek
means that one is possessed by a god. Nevertheless, the One
sometimes surpasses even the concept of deity, being a nameless
Plotinus considered any artistic and literary activity of imagination
in direct reflection of the ideas, and in some way connected to the
One, but without giving to the artistic forms and structures the same
ontological status as to what directly emanates from the One. The
ultimate goal for Plotinus is the final release from the material
elements, so as to ascent to the real Being, that is to the
intelligibles, from which we fell down in the world of becoming; from
the use, to go to the user, from the world of 'genesis' to return
to the real destination, of which we bear a faint memory. In
Plotinus' work, there is the function of the intelligible's memory by
the soul, when it was in a state of bliss, before its fall to the
The experience of metaphysical instant was related with a change of
the view of the world. At the time of Plotinus, there was the
feeling that the instant, this very elusive, meets the magnificent
and eternal. The question for Plotinus was how changing man can avoid
a miserable daily life in order to achieve the experience of
immortality, not just for a few moments, but forever; that is how he
can immobilize time and ascent into the metaphysical level of all
great human and divine beings. For Plotinus, it is the aim of
Platonic philosophy to lead the soul to absolute calmness in the
eternal intelligence. Time in the sense of historicity is not
presented in the Enneads. The Judaeo-Christian meaning of historical
time is entirely absent as well; myth and time are connected and are
commented only by Soul's life. That was the way Plotinus succeeded
in bridging the gap between the eternal and temporal, by the
'temporalization' (echronose) of the individual and catholic Soul.
An important dimension of mystical experience is its use as source of
power for the people of the third century A.D., as being an answer to
their need for vitality. The great natural phenomena lead to the
traces (indalmata) of the One which are everywhere in this living
organism, that is the world (zoon). The opening exists mainly for the
metaphysical world, but without the present of the structure of the
Roman state and the Greek Ecoumene, it ceases to exist as latent in
the way the hypostases are organized. The challenge was to
experience, through the civil, cathartic, theoretical, and
paradigmatic levels of the four platonic virtues that are temperance,
courage, justice, and prudence, a transfiguration of human life. The
apotheosis of life is a metaphysical achievement of empowerment that
leads to and is lead by Goodness.
One's infinite power, radiation and mystery
The primary unity of Being is infinite not by its magnitude or number
but by its unintelligible possibilities; the Plotinian One is powerful
in the same way that God is infinite in power. The aim was the
concentration to this infinity in which the One is represented,
in a journey of human soul. The One is above the Intelligence,
nor does the word 'One' express it perfectly. It is the
self-sufficient, the unintelligible or the super-intelligible, that
which needs neither generation nor ignorance.
According to the Enneads when one goes beyond substance and thought,
one arrives at something wonderful. The real beauty is normally
placed by Plotinus near the One, inside the intelligible realm of
Ideas, but sometimes he does not separate it from the
super-intelligible. When the Soul is led to the One through the
renunciation of earthly pleasures, it sees a heavenly vision, flooded
with intelligible light, or rather pure light. For the highlighting of
the greatness of the One, Plotinus uses the metaphysics of light.
In other words, there is the mystic statement by Plotinus that the
interiority is filled with light. The glorification of the One
coincides with a constant reference to light, which is seen even when
one closes one's eyes and rubs one's eyelids. The real light that
radiates from the One is intelligible and pure without involving
anything between it and the subject who sees. Once continuous vision
is achived, the self is no longer hampered by any material barrier.
The One, apart from the morality it contains, possesses a place near
Platonic Idealism as expressed in the Neoplatonism of Plotinus.
However, for Plotinus, although the One is mainly identified with
absolute Goodness, the situation before the mystical union with it,
in the threshold of Being and Intelligence is compared with the
feeling of the sacred in the mystery cults. In Plotinus there is a
desire in every being for the Good or the One (ou oregetai pasa
psyche), the mystic language expresses for Plotinus the situation
of mystical union; he says: pos tis theasetai kalos amechan on oion
endon en agiois ierois menon ouden proion eis to exo ina tis kai
bebelos ide. This is not just the feeling of beautiful or the
Goodness, but of the absolute mystery of being, world and divinity.
The specific sacred language of Plotinus, when referring to the union
and rest into the One, suggests a sense of awe mixed with the
fascination which was connected with the pagan religions and later
with Theurgy. But the identification with the One signifies a
surpassing even of the feeling of the sacred.
Flight to the ecstasy of the One
The function of anagoge is a common characteristic of the One, as far
as opening the possibility of being accomplished in the timeless and
spaceless interiority (eis to eiso epistrephein, kakei poiein ten
prosochen). The main target of Plotinian philosophy was the love
for the Good (o eros pros ten tou agathou physin), through the
elucidation and the empowerment of consciousness and the pedagogy. So
it can be considered as the one of the most important recorded
elaboration of Antiquity, of a flight of consciousness, which
appears in the Chaldean Oracles, the Corpus Hermeticum, and the
Christian experience of deification as ecstasy in the present life,
which will repeated very often in the Middle Ages, in the mystic
literature. In Plotinus, the approach to the One is accompanied
by ecstasy, simplification (aplosis), giving oneself over (epidosis),
which presupposes the participation to the intermediate state of
logical categories, of the sensible and intelligible world, as in
Soul's journey back to the 'beloved fatherland' (pheugomen de philen
es patrida), as in the process of creation of Being by the One.
Ecstasy and reduction to the absolute are not only a kind of
escapism, but the approach to the real being, even if, by surpassing
it, they attempt to progress beyond everything. The Neoplatonic sage
tries to approach that which always slips past his attention, the
undetermined One. To the extent that the One is found to be in that
era not only at the highest level of thought, but at the limit of it
as well, the One is unthinkable, incredible, beyond reality, filling
at the same time a contradictory target: absolute stability through
By pointing out the above concepts, we did not aim to show the
intellectualistic character of the Plotinian One, as being analyzed
in and bound to a conceptual frame that would limit or illuminate Its
complexity. On the contrary, most of the Plotinian concepts related to
the One reveal Its practical and empirical aspect. The One is not an
object of thought, It is beyond the Intelligence. Every effort to
grasp Its specific character or to attribute permanent properties to
It, it is destined to fail. Nevertheless, the mystical way of
conceiving and experiencing the One, does makes It necessary to human
beings because of their need for a horizon of infinity which by
surpassing life, existence and thought, at the same time guarantees
their openness to the unknown.
1. Enneads, VI.1-3. P. Henry and H.-R. Schwyzer, Plotini Opera.
Porphyrii vita Plotini. Plotiniana Arabica/ ad codicum fidem anglice
vertit Geoffrey Lewis, Museum Lessianum. Series Philosophica, 33, 34,
35, Editio maior, Vol. I-II, Desclee de Brouwer, Paris-Bruxelles, Vol.
III, Desclee de Brouwer, Paris-Leiden 1951-1973.
2. Ibid., V.3.12.40-53. Cf. Plotinus, Enneads V.1-9, Transl. A. H.
Armstrong, Harvard University Press/Cambridge Massachusetts --
William Heinemann LTD/ London 1984, 116.
3. Enneads, V.3.14.9-10.
4. Ibid., V.3.14.13-16.
5. Ibid., III.5.7.1-4; V.8.10.32-5; VI.7.35.23-7.
6. Ibid., VI.9.11.13.
7. Ibid., ?.1.3.20-26.
8. P. Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. Spiritual Exercises from
Socrates to Foucault. Edited with an introduction by A. I. Davidson,
Translated by M. Chase. Blackwell, Oxford UK and Cambridge USA, 1995,
259-260. It wouldn't be strange to think here the similar Christian
view for the present time as the already from now eschatological
experience. See E. R. Dodds, Pagans and Christians in an age of
anxiety. Some aspects of religious experience from Marcus Aurelius to
Constantine, Cambridge University Press 1991 (1965), 98-100.
9. J. Guitton, Le Temps et l'Eternite chez Plotin et Saint Augustin.
Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1971 (4ieme edition), 46.
10. Enneads, ???.7.5.
11. Ibid., I.9.6: megiston gar apanton ou megethei, alla (...)
apeiron... to aperilepto tes dynameos.
12. Ibid., VI.7.40.27-28: all'epekeina exei ousias kai noeseos epi ti
13. Ibid., I.6.9.39-40.
14. Ibid., V.3.8.19-25: Epei kai entautha e opsis phos ousa, mallon
de enotheisa photi, phos ora.
15. Ibid., V.3. 8.25-29.
16. Ibid., I.6.7.1-2.
17. Ibid., ?.6.8.1-6. The Six Enneads / Plotinus Transl by Stephen
MacKenna and B. S. Page, Foreword by E. R. Dodds. Introduction by
Paul Henry. Faber, London 1957, 78: 'How come to vision of the
inaccessible Beauty, dwelling as if in consecrated precincts, apart
from the common ways where all may see, even the profane?'
18. Enneads, V.1.12.14-15.
19. Ibid., III.5.4.24.
20. I. Couliano, Experiences de l'extase. Extase, ascension et recit
visionnaire de l'hellenisme au Moyen Age, Payot, Paris 1984, 12sq.
21. E. R. Dodds, loc.cit., 98.
22. Enneads, I.6.8.16.
(c) Katelis Viglas 2012
Web site: http://katelisviglas.com
III. 'SPIRIT, ESSENCE AND FORM IN WILLIAM WORDSWORTH'S THE PRELUDE'
BY PEDRO BLAS GONZALEZ
My heart leaps up when I behold
A Rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So it is now I am a Man;
So be it when I am a Man;
So be it when I am old,
Or let me die!
The child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Much has been made by historians and literary critics about the
alleged debt that Romantic poets and thinkers owe to the age of
Romanticism. The prevalent view among many cultural critics has been
to focus attention on the style and content of the work of the
writers of that period in lieu of the spirit of the age. This seems
reasonable. After all, it is an undeniable reality of human life that
man must live during a given time and occupy a specific place, and
that we either embrace, reject or live totally oblivious to some or
all of the prevailing ideas, mores and customs of our time.
For a long time, literary and cultural critics have accepted this
seemingly reasonable truism as a matter of course, one that is part
of our quest to understand human cultural development. However, this
basic tenet of what I will refer to as historical realism, has been
increasingly exaggerated in recent times, and as a consequence has
been deformed into destructive historicism. In many instances, this
viewpoint has metamorphosed into a stale reductionism that has come
to have little bearing on the work of many writers and thinkers that
lived during the age of Romanticism.
In other words, writers and thinkers of what is considered the
Romantic period have been pigeonholed to fit the constrained image
that historicists have of them. The latter is essentially a viewpoint
that holds that writers and thinkers create according to the age in
which they live, and are often motivated to rebel against the
preceding age. This, I will argue, is simplistic. In many regards,
this viewpoint is more amenable to art history than it is to
intellectual history. This is the case for several reasons. Suffice
it to say that while art history depends a great deal on evolving
artistic techniques and the evolution of the materials at an artist's
disposition, the same cannot be said for the intrinsic purpose of
aesthetic contemplation, the nature of transcendence, the interaction
with the sublime, the discovery of objective principles, and essences
that all great writers and thinkers address. The latter are all
relevant characteristics that inform William Wordsworth's thought and
In many instances, historical reductionism only works to accentuate a
stereotypical and cliched view of the age of Romanticism (1798-1823),
one that may be more a product of the cultural biases of the current
age, than it is an accurate portrayal of the Romantic period. A
reductionist view of the Romantic age can only be accepted to a
certain extent before the validity of such an interpretation becomes
damaging to writers and thinkers and robs them of the merit of their
individual voice. The latter naive interpretation of intellectual
history fails to recognize the contributions that personal vocation
makes to culture, civilization and the history of ideas. One can cite
many anomalies in Romanticism that cannot, in good will, be easily
explained away as being a mere reaction to the Enlightenment
(1650-1700). In the case of William Wordsworth, a careful and sincere
reading of his work, especially The Prelude, quickly dispels the many
vacuous and irrelevant claims of historicists.
To make matters worse, because historicism, in all its variegated
forms, has taken a markedly philosophical materialist direction in
more recent times, whatever value one could formerly reap from
historicity as a valid method of lived-historical analysis, like in
the philosophy of Wilhelm Dilthey, for instance, has now been turned
into an unimaginative handmaiden of philosophical materialism.
Unfortunately, the latter brings with it many calamitous social/
political trappings that actually do much to negate the worth and
impact of imagination and the creative process, and which ultimately
undermine philosophical reflection altogether.
There is an abundance of such irregularities in Romanticism which
negate the suggestion that that period simply came about as a
reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. While it
is correct to assume that the turn from objectivity to subjectivity is
a central component of Romantic thought, this is by no means exclusive
to Romanticism. Actually, the former is a concern that is encountered
in the history of philosophy and the history of ideas dating back to
Gilgamesh's search for immortality, for instance. In addition,
respect for individual, concrete persons is another aspect of
Romanticism that is not the discovery of Romantic thinkers. Again,
these are two fundamental and recurrent themes that one encounters in
Wordsworth's Encounter with Spirit
Perhaps it is appropriate that I begin my exposition of Wordsworth's
The Prelude by citing another of his majestic works: 'Ode:
Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.'
This ode to immortality is a work that Wordsworth finished in 1804,
during the period that he was writing The Prelude. This is
significant because even though this is a much shorter, less
autobiographical work 'Ode to Immortality' contains many of the
central themes found in The Prelude.
It is not difficult for discerning, straightforward critics to
realize that the creative process, much as is also the case in
personal life, must eventually come to the stubborn realization that
human existence must confront objective reality. It is for this
reason that Wordsworth's reflection on the nature of the self
eventually leads him to an encounter with spirit. The negation of the
importance of spirit by some writers and thinkers is an aberration of
cultural and intellectual history that appears to be more motivated
by self-serving social/ political ideology than from an understanding
of the role of spirit in human existence.
Reflections on immortality rarely make an impression on us when these
are merely abstract in nature. What purpose can such abstractions
serve? Wordsworth's thought, on the other hand, is profoundly
metaphysical and existential, not abstract. His work never meanders
far from the practical concerns of human beings as concrete persons.
For instance, Wordsworth's many depictions of being in open fields --
in nature -- as he calls, only serve to heighten his awareness of his
On the ground I lay
Passing through many thoughts, yet mainly such
As to myself pertained.
Besides remaining vital in scope, this aspect of Wordsworth's thought
has the added benefit of keeping him from falling prey to pedantry. By
all accounts, Wordsworth's reflection and articulation of the question
of immortality remains as personable as writing can attain to.
Also of tremendous importance to any accurate portrayal of
Wordsworth's contributions as a poet and thinker, is his ability to
tackle themes that make up the essential repertoire of the perennial
philosophy. Among the prominent themes of philosophia perennis et
universalis, one finds: the passage of time, self-realization and
autonomy in individuals, transcendence, the nature of objective
reality, Being as logos, and differentiated spirit as this is
manifested in the cosmos. Conscientious observers of the history of
philosophy will notice that the aforementioned themes have always
made up the bulk of genuine philosophical reflection. At least as
pertains to Wordsworth, any claim of these and other Wordsworthian
themes as being merely part and parcel of the Romantic period, is
simply an exaggeration.
Consider that the vast portion of The Prelude is a reflection on man
in the cosmos, not just the world. Nature and the world serve as the
vehicles for man's growth, and the pursuit of autonomy that spirit
seeks. Wordsworth has a keen understanding of man's dual nature as
spirit and flesh. This insight commonly goes unnoticed by many
critics who merely concentrate on questions of poetics. Wordsworth's
idea of man's attainment of self-knowledge -- what is auto-knosis --
is encountered by man's spirit as embodied flesh. That is, the
cosmos, the world and human reality as we know it, all serve as the
stage and setting for spirit to flourish or to become consumed by the
banal aspects of day-to-day existence. For instance, this is the
central theme of 'The world is too Much with Us,' where Wordsworth
writes, 'The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and
spending, we lay waste our powers.' Here the poet's lament is
man's lack of perspicuity on matters of life and death regarding the
fleeting nature of time.
Once again, we encounter the plight of spirit fighting
objectification by the order of human reality and other people in
'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early
Childhood.' In Part V of that poem Wordsworth offers us a glimpse of
his metaphysical thought in vivid, vital language:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended:
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Far from being a spiritual tabula rasa, Wordsworth's conception of
man as spirit is that of a being that brings with it at birth an
essence that can only be fully manifested and ratified, as it were,
in the arena that is the world. If birth serves as an anamnesis of
our spiritual essence -- our nature -- as Wordsworth argues, then it
seems appropriate to ask: What then is the role of the physical world
in light of spirit? This is a thematic that we encounter in many other
thinkers, from Plato, to Baltasar Gracian, to Schopenhauer, to
Calderon de la Barca; the latter, who refers to life as a dream.
Much as some critics may be correct to argue that poets of the
Romantic period shift their focus from the objective to the
subjective realm, Wordsworth cannot be considered one of these
writers. This is paradoxical, though. The only way that the
differentiated subject, that is, the autobiographical commentator of
The Prelude can even come to contemplate self-understanding and
attain spiritual autonomy, is because the objective realm serves as
the backdrop for spirit to possess itself. Very early on, In Book I
of The Prelude, we hear the narrator mention spirit for the first
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services: great hopes were mine;
My own voice cheared me, and, far more, the mind's
Internal echo of the imperfect sound;
To both I listened, drawing from them both
A chearful confidence in things to come.
Even as a young boy, the narrator discovers the dualistic nature of
man. Drawing from the advice of both, spirit and mind, the narrator
draws careful conclusions as to what direction to embark on. Here we
encounter echoes of Parmenides' Fragments in 'The Way of Truth.'
In essence, this challenge that the narrator accepts is a classic
attribute of the spirit of philosophical reflection, whereby the
seeker of truth allows himself to be guided by all of the tools at
his disposition: spirit, reason and experience. However, contrary to
the opinion of historical reductionists, this search makes for a
rather more complicated approach to life, than, say, reducing all of
human existence to one dimension or category.
We get a glimpse of this search by paying close attention to the joy
that the narrator feels in setting out on his life-long search. The
outcome of his search is anxiously anticipated because it promises to
enlighten the narrator as to the objective nature of human reality. It
is doubly important that the narrator seek the appropriate course of
action; a false start will undoubtedly set the course of his life on
the wrong track. Hence, the very understanding that the narrator has
of being a 'chosen' spirit in his trek for truth is proof that spirit
is differentiated. This condition makes spirit responsible for
penetrating into the secrets that the order of the cosmos yields to
those who cultivate self-knowledge. This is what Wordsworth means by
nature. Nature -- the nature of reality -- is tantamount to being the
order of objective reality, or stated in other terms, the order of
things. Again, it is important to stress that if the narrator is
singled out 'for holy services,' it is because this is a task that
can culminate in the possession of objective understanding. This is
the point in Wordsworth's thought when differentiated subjects and
objective reality unite in a marriage of objective truth as the
latter informs spirit.
However, a note of caution seems in order at this point regarding
Wordsworth's idea of spirit. While it may remain tempting for some
critics and commentators to equate Wordsworth's idea of spirit with
Hegel's diffused and abstract notion of spirit, there is at least one
major difference between the two that must be pointed out. Hegel's
cosmic spirit which, he argues, is collective in nature, and which
comes to full possession of itself as absolute spirit through a
dialectical process, leaves no room for spirit as the differentiated
entity that one encounters in beings of flesh and bones. For Hegel
differentiated and autonomous beings are not capable of
self-knowledge. In contrast to Hegel, spirit for Wordsworth is
encountered by the subject, through what existentialist thinkers
would later refer to as existential inquietude. The latter means
personal longing. Unless spirit is understood as an originator and
motivator of psychical processes, then it makes little sense to talk
about overcoming strife and difficulty in human existence. What
overcoming can there be if there is not a self-aware being to
register, and thus to resist the objectifying force that human
reality exerts on us? Consider the importance of the following lines
in reference to spirit:
Into a steady morning: if my mind,
Remembering the sweet promise of the past,
Would gladly grapple with some noble theme,
Vain is her wish; where'er she turns she finds
Impediments from day to day renewed.
Spirit finds impediments everywhere in the objective realm and
throughout all times of its embodiment in the flesh. The theme of
human existence as heroic is one that man has confronted for as long
as we have had the capacity for self-knowledge; Gilgamesh
demonstrated this in his search for immortality, and Parmenides'
seeker of truth is confounded by the sheer difficulty and teasing
nature of truth as revealing-unrevealing. In addition, existential
thinkers have even been known to become tormented by
human-existence-as-resistance. Wordsworth enlightens us with this
same line of thought:
The Poet, gentle creature as he is,
Hath, like the Lover, his unruly times,
His fits when he is neither sick nor well,
Though no distress be near him but his own
Wordsworth's treatment of spirit throughout The Prelude is in-depth.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to comment on the many instances
that spirit is mentioned in the work. The Prelude is a reflection on
human life as this is understood through the passage of time, and the
latter's relation to differentiated and vital existence. Of course,
what marks The Prelude as an original and insightful work is what
Wordsworth means by 'nature' and 'life.' He does not offer the
standard dictionary definitions that we are accustomed to.
The Romantic poets took nature to mean several things. Wordsworth,
too, utilizes several variants of this word. Even when nature is
taken to mean the natural processes of life on earth, Wordsworth
manages to showcase man's ability for vital reflection and
self-awareness as being extra-natural. Self-reflection, as this
phenomenological process necessitates a greater understanding of
human consciousness, separates man from the background of nature.
Actually, the two most interesting renditions of nature that
Wordsworth offers are: 1) Nature as the order of the cosmos, and 2)
Nature as an omnipotent force that does not leave anything to chance.
It is only when one understands the extent and significance of the
latter two meanings of nature that a proper understanding of spirit
in Wordsworth's work is possible. He reflects:
But I believe
That Nature, oftentimes, when she would frame
A favored Being, from his earliest dawn
of infancy doth open out the clouds,
As at the touch of lightning, seeking him
With gentlest visitation; not the less,
Though haply aiming at the self-same end,
Does it delight her sometimes to employ
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, and so she dealt with me.
Wordsworth explores the mystery of Being that informs nature in the
act of 'framing a favorite being,' from the time of its infancy, to
becoming a recipient of the logos of human reality. This passage
serves as a significant philosophical reflection which demonstrates
Wordsworth's turn from being a descriptive poet to his embrace of the
lyrical magnitude that The Prelude attains to. Nature, when considered
in any of her possible renditions, manages to awaken Wordsworth's
narrator to the need for knowledge. However, not being one to settle
for the kind of technical knowledge that science offers, the narrator
turns the spark of knowledge that nature offers into wisdom and
self-knowledge. So endearing and vital is the latter kind of
knowledge that the narrator eventually comes to lament the loss of
innocence. Nature acts as a guiding spirit that enables us to make
coherent sense of the objective make-up of human reality.
Yet Wordsworth also entertains the question of just how much reality
we are able to handle. This is when the loss of innocence is felt the
most. Wordsworth addresses this question earlier than Nietzsche, for
instance. 'Ode to Immortality' and 'Tintern Abbey' explore this
theme. Self-knowledge, Wordsworth argues, comes about through the
province of spirit. This is comparable to the Christian idea of
Grace. In Wordsworth's work, imagination leads to knowledge, and
knowledge to joy. On the other hand, Wordsworth reminds the reader
that no one has ever suffered a loss of innocence by practicing the
Essence and Form in The Prelude
It is not difficult to make the case that The Prelude is a work that
conceives of differentiated human existence as an epic of man's
vitality. An epic, of course, must take into account the passage of
time, especially as this pertains to a given individual. I will argue
that this aspect of Wordsworth's thought is a boon to the history of
Book V, which is entitled 'Books,' looks at the great gulf that
exists between book-knowledge and vital understanding. We ought not
to forget that part of Wordsworth's genius as a thinker and writer is
his ability to articulate the nature and role of spirit in human life.
The narrator's descriptive dream of the Arab horseman is indicative of
the nature of philosophical reflection as this is a tool in the
service of vital, differentiated life. Wordsworth contrasts human
existence as an epic -- one that is capable of self-understanding --
with its opposite: pedantry and intellectual bloating. Wordsworth's
dream is akin to Coleridge's seer, the ancient mariner, and
Nietzsche's Zarathustra. The horseman carries with him a book and a
shell, symbols of science and poetry, respectively. The dream is an
ominous one when man destroys himself due to a lack of
self-knowledge. Book V of The Prelude explores the narrator's coming
to terms with his understanding of the transitory nature of
In progress through this verse, my mind hath looked
Upon the speaking face of earth and heaven
As her prime Teacher, intercourse with man
Established by the sovereign Intellect,
Who through that bodily Image hath diffused
A soul divine which we participate,
A deathless spirit. Thou also, Man, hast wrought,
For commerce of thy nature with itself,
Things worthy of unconquerable life;
And yet we feel, we cannot chuse but feel,
That these must perish. Tremblings of the heart
It gives, to think that the immortal being
No more shall need such garments;
Of course, one would be remiss to consider Wordsworth's philosophical
findings in The Prelude as being solely of subjective value, or even
the much cited and cliched notion of the zeitgeist. Instead,
Wordsworth's genius enables him to realize that objective reality is
discovered by autonomous, independent thinkers. He also concedes that
this often comes about as the result of tremendous personal sacrifice
and suffering. Solitude and alienation in Wordsworth are coupled with
the potential power over the self that self-knowledge enables us to
achieve. Consequently, the latter, Wordsworth tells us, is blissful
Many critics have failed to recognize that The Prelude demonstrates
that the only reason that subjects can know anything at all, is
because there exists objective knowledge in the first place. Stated
in simple terms, the marriage of subjectivity and objective reality
remains the stuff of which great artistic works are made. The
vital-biographical growth that Wordsworth's narrator undergoes,
whether this is Wordsworth himself or not, is not so important to the
overall value of The Prelude as what the narrator uncovers in human
reality that is transcendent in nature.
In Book I, the narrator tells the story of how he took a short trip
in a shepherd's boat, a skiff that delivered him to an enlightening
and mysterious lake. This story is important given that the shepherd
metaphor is a prominent one in Wordsworth's thought. This metaphor is
consistent with the solitary journey that all who embark in
auto-knosis eventually encounter. Shepherds, by the very nature of
their chosen work, must be independent thinkers. This is commensurate
with the desire to remain objective, for the cost of self-delusion to
life and limb in that line of work can be catastrophic. The shepherd
must respect and embrace objective reality simply because his life
may depend on his sincerity in remaining objective.
Moreover, the importance of that particular passage in Book I cannot
be ignored as being simply a lively metaphor or an engaging poetic
image. This passage is quite reminiscent of what one finds in Plato's
Cave allegory and the allegory of the Sun and the Good. The sensual
images of the lake, mountains and moon that the narrator describes on
his short-lived excursion as he rows the skiff, are later transformed
into mental forms. Wordsworth tells us how this takes place:
And, through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
This is a significant passage that early on in The Prelude helps to
dispel what the author means by discovery: there can be no
self-knowledge if we lack essential, transcendent knowledge. The
narrator's short trip on the lake serves as a rite of passage that
the narrator must undergo in order to proceed to a more vital form of
self-knowledge. Of course, this form of knowledge comes to him after
much reflection. Only then does the narrator begin to ponder the
essential nature and importance of first-principles to human
existence. Subsequently, the narrator comes to the realization that
genuine understanding -- wisdom -- is a rite of passage that those
who desire to 'see' must be willing to undertake if they are to
attain knowledge of the sublime and transcendent. The aforementioned,
Wordsworth suggests, are hierarchical in nature. Thus, it is not a
coincidence that those who we call Romantic poets and thinkers
possess the kind of time-tested awe and wonder that has delivered
many a deserving thinker to wisdom. The narrator goes on to add:
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of Thought!
That giv'st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain,
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of Childhood didst Thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human Soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man,
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.
In Book I Wordsworth also suggests that form may be finite in nature.
And there is there one, the wisest and the best
Of all mankind, who does not sometimes wish
For things which cannot be.
In addition, let us also consider the following lines:
In tranquil scenes, that universal power
And fitness in the latent qualities?
And essences of things, by which the mind
Is moved by feelings of delight.
The Prelude is a poetic odyssey that makes use of refined and
sensitive language that tries to capture the nature of human
existence. This is what great poetry accomplishes. Moreover, I will
suggest that one of the characteristics that make The Prelude much
more than a Romantic period work is Wordsworth's profound grasp of
the importance of qualitative phenomena. However, because Wordsworth
does not treat his seminal work as an essay in philosophy, many
critics are quick to concentrate solely on the merits of the work as
poetry. One way that Wordsworth compensates for this has to do with
the sheer length of The Prelude. This is a very ambitious work by all
accounts. With a length of 215 pages and 13 books, Wordsworth has
ample time to contemplate themes that other writers articulate in
Wordsworth embraces questions relating to essence and form much in
the same manner that the metaphysical poets did before him and T.S.
Eliot in the twentieth century, especially the latter's Four
Quartets. Neither the metaphysical poets nor Eliot can be considered
Because The Prelude is a personal lyrical odyssey, one where the
writer allows himself to be taken on a tour of life, as it were, his
findings are those of a lifetime. Wordsworth's laboratory is no less
than the daily dealings that he undergoes with the world of men and
nature. This necessitates a sense of realism that is not easily
associated with a poetic temperament. As the narrator advances
through the many stages of his life, we witness how he changes from a
callow young man into an experienced and wise exponent of
differentiated spirit as the vehicle that propels human history. Yet
nowhere in the The Prelude do we witness the narrator's understanding
of human reality to deteriorate into destructive cynicism or
skepticism. It is primarily for this reason that Wordsworth turns
away from what he considers the superficial world of the social/
political. This break takes place for him after the downright hatred,
resentment and envy that he witnessed during the French Revolution.
Wordsworth's wisdom can only be described, as all wisdom must, as
being the gift of perspicuity. Rather than opting for the dead-end
that is social-political ideology, Wordsworth begins to recognize the
human world as being a kind of spectacle. What he notices most, and
most importantly does so as a young man, is the great pride that most
of mankind takes in saving appearances: giving each other baseless
awards, etc. Wordsworth's perspicuity allows him to debunk the notion
that what most men actually value most is the world of seeming and
appearance, and thus the social/ political categories that so many
people blindly embrace, and not the pursuit of truth. This attitude
allows Wordsworth to sit back and take it all in, as it were. He
writes in Book III,
I was the Dreamer, they the Dream;
Delighted, through the motley spectacle;
Gowns grave or gaudy, Doctors, Students, Streets,
Lamps, Gateways, flocks of Churches, Courts and Towers:
Strange transformation for a mountain Youth.
His discovery or awakening to the human world as a spectacle goes a
long way in helping to explain Wordsworth's idea of human reality,
and the extent to which most people care to embrace or reject it. The
following lines make this line of thought clear:
At least, I more directly recognised
My powers and habits: let me dare to speak
A higher language, say that now I felt
The strength and consolation which were mine.
As if awakened, summoned, rouzed, constrained,
I looked for universal things; perused
The common countenance of earth and heaven;
And, turning the mind in upon itself,
Pored, watched, expected, listened; spread my thoughts
And spared them with a wider creeping; felt
Incumbences more awful, visitings
Of the unholder, of the tranquil Soul,
Which underneath all passion lives secure
A steadfast life.
One surprising and unintended consequence of being a seeker of truth,
Wordsworth informs us, is the unpleasant discovery that many who
merely pass themselves off as intellectuals are in reality little
more than posers. Such intellectuals, I will argue, are mere
scholastic technicians. In Book III, he tells us what a devastating
realization this is to a young thinker. It also remains important to
point out this central aspect of The Prelude because it allows us to
link Wordsworth's world of appearance, what is literally the
philosophical problem of 'the One and the Many,' with truth.
Again, I will reiterate that Wordsworth's work cannot be reduced to
being a product of the Romantic period. The care that he takes to
dismantle man's embrace of timely appearances helps to prove this. In
addition, let us not confuse the words 'historicity' and
'historicism.' The latter can be directed at the fact that all
thinkers must of necessity live in a place and time. This is merely
to stress the obvious. However, historicism, which is the form of
relativism that many reductionist critics have pegged on poets and
thinkers from the Romantic era, simply does not stand up under
scrutiny. Let us consider another fine example of Wordsworth's
thought that addresses this concern:
If these thoughts
Be a gratuitous emblazonry
That does not mock this recreant age, at least
Let folly and False-seeming, we might say,
Be free to affect whatever formal gait
Of moral or scholastic discipline
Shall raise them highest in their own esteem;
let them parade, among the schools at will;
But spare the House of God.
Wordsworth eventually came to the realization that abstractions have
no place in our search for truth. Turned off by the excesses and
murderous abstractions that he encountered in those who fanatically
embraced the French Revolution, Wordsworth had no choice but become
reticent of the dangers of abstraction in our ability to live as
independent and autonomous beings who respect the limitations of the
The last three books of The Prelude do a marvelous job of embracing
objective forms and essences as being two of the tried-and-tested,
fundamental principles of human reality. He says the following about
the French revolution:
This was a time when, all things tending fast
To depravation, the philosophy
That promised to abstract the hopes of man
out o his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth
For ever in a purer element
Found ready welcome.
Wordsworth goes on to contrast the blind frenzy that is cast on youth
and those whose understanding never progresses beyond the practice of
sophomoric whims, with the delight that those who have come to
possess self-knowledge, feel. He adds:
But, speaking more in charity, the dream
Was flattering to the young ingenuous mind
Pleased with extremes, and not the least with that
Which makes the human Reason's naked self
The object of its fervour. What delight!
How glorious! in self-knowledge and self-rule,
To look through all the frailties of the world.
Wordsworth captures form and essence by contrasting these with the
fleeting order of time. The bard treats lived-time as an instance, a
moving image of eternity as sub specie aeternitatis. This is way he
shows great disregard for the, 'pompous names/Of power and action,'
which distract man from contemplation of the sublime. It remains
the task of individuals who have been touched by a divine vocation to
uncover the seemingly invisible world of form and essence that is
hidden beneath the veneer of material reality. Wordsworth is very
clear in this regard. He reminds us of the vocation that some poets
and thinkers possess in uncovering form and essence in Book XIII,
when he writes:
They need not extraordinary calls
To rouze them, in a world of of life they live,
By sensible impressions not enthralled,
But quickened, roused, and made thereby more fit
To hold communion with the invisible world.
Such minds are truly from the Deity,
For they are Powers; and hence the highest bliss
That can be known is theirs, the consciousness
Of whom they are, habitually infused
Through every image, and through every thought,
And all impressions; hence religion, faith,
And endless occupation for the soul
Whether discursive or intuitive.
The Prelude comes to an end much as it begins, with the illumination
that awe and wonder -- what amounts to an essential form of vocation
that only some individuals care to cultivate -- uncovers in the loud
and dusty, everyday-doings of a world that is always too much with us.
1. William Wordsworth. The Major Works. Edited by Stephen Gill
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 246.
2. Mary Moorman. William Wordsworth: A Biography: The Later Years
1803-1850 (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1965).
3. The Major works, p. 377.
4. Ibid., p. 270.
5. Ibid., p. 299.
6. Ibid., p. 376.
7 Parmenides of Elea. Fragments. Edited by David Gallop (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press), p. 49.
8. The Major Works, p. 378.
9. Ibid., p. 378.
10. Ibid., p. 384.
11. Ibid., p. 434.
12. Ibid., p. 385.
13. Ibid., p. 385
14. Ibid., p. 392.
15. Ibid., p. 401.
16. Ibid., p. 405.
17. Ibid., p. 407.
18. Ibid., p. 415.
19. Ibid., p. 552.
20. Ibid., p. 553.
21. Ibid., p. 570.
22. Ibid., p. 581.
(c) Pedro Blas Gonzalez 2012
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