Edmund Spenser and the Mystic Universe

By Stroe, Mihai A. | Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

Edmund Spenser and the Mystic Universe


Stroe, Mihai A., Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity


From Plato to Aristotle

The Spenserian quaternary--earthly love and beauty, and celestial love and beauty --corresponds to Plato's binary-opposition structure in the nature of Aphrodite: Aphrodite Urania and Aphrodite Pandemos, i.e. Uranian-celestial-heavenly -intellectual beauty-love versus earthly-worldly-sensual beauty-love. About his first two hymns that are dedicated to earthly love and earthly beauty, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) declared they were expressive of his Platonic conception of love and beauty, whereas the other two, dedicated to heavenly or celestial love and beauty, were to satisfy the religious scruples of Ladie Margaret Countesse of Cumberland, and Ladie Marie Countesse of Warwick.

Spenser's thought seems nevertheless to be closer to Aristotle's than to Plato's system, for when Spenser says that "soule is form, and doth the bodie make" (An hymne in honour of beautie 133; Spenser 1959: 591), he is actually stating the Aristotelian theory of being: for Aristotle, the two "poles" of being were the "being in potentia" and the "being in act." The first is matter or potency as a sort of pure non-determination and the second (the "being in act") is form as determination. In Aristotle's system, form causes matter to become manifest ("actual") (Graf & Le Bihan 2000: 72). Aristotle's theory is that being tends to leave matter and indeterminacy and to "plunge" more deeply into a determined form. We find the same idea in Spenser, although the following formula is somewhat ambiguous: "the earth, the ayre, the water, and the fyre" are taken by Love and are placed in order, and compelled, "[t]ogether linkt with Adamantine chaines" (An hymne in honour of love, 78, 89; Spenser 1959: 587). Spenser's "Adamantine chaines" seem to point to the Platonic idea that the earthly matter is a prison for the soul, but the chains may well be also a positive image of an ontic chain, namely the image of the great Chain of Being. The idea about the Great Chain was adopted by the church in the age of Enlightenment directly from Plotinus via Origen and Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite; it was embraced also by numerous other authors like Addison, Pope, Thomson, Akenside, Buffon, Goldsmith, Diderot, Kant, Herder, Schiller, etc. (neoclassics, pre-romantics and romantics): Nature and the Great Chain of being was to become "the sacred phrase[s]" of the 18th century (cf. Lovejoy 1964: 184; apud Wilber 1995: 405).

The chain and space-time binding

The image of the chain may point also to a linking medium such as gravitation (which is known to have been commonly represented as a chain after Isaac Newton's discoveries of the laws of universal gravitation; cf. Hilton 1996: 81). A similar linking medium was postulated in the 20th century by Erich Jantsch in his idea of "time binding" in which he sees a universal characteristic of evolution: the binding force in the universe, the force that is triggered after symmetry breaks. "Time binding" is the power that reconstructs symmetry in the cosmos--and is more or less equivalent to Spenser's Love binding things together with "Adamantine chaines."

This idea was suggested to Jantsch, among others, by Alfred Korzybski's system (see Korzybski 1924, 1926, 1949, 1971), in which this binding element refers only to the human sphere--time binding in Korzybski's equation is human language as a medium to accumulate knowledge from generation to generation. Jantsch thus generalized Korzybski's hypothesis at the level of the entire universe, adding also the idea of a spatial binding (which in Korzybski's equation is instinctual knowledge --such as operating in the animal kingdom--which accumulates only slowly or not at all): linear self-reproduction by celular division is an example of temporal binding, while genetic transference among bacteria is an example in which a spatial binding is added (cf. Marcus 1985: 115). It is significant that by this approach (two papers written between 1924-1926) Korzybski raised the question of a general semantics, which, according to Jantsch, may be considered as the foreshadowing of a cybernetic theory of living systems, given the fact that here man is considered as being an organism whose behaviour acts on the environment in a holistic manner. …

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