Wednesday, January 19, 2011

With a Keener Edge: A Traditional View of Justice and Cosmos

"Speechless, she raised her hands to speak her prayers;
But, turned to fire, Procne scolded her
And cried, "Now is no time for tears; we need
Good steel, something that has a bolder strength
Than iron, and with a keener edge, my dear."

-Ovid, The Metamorphosis

"Sing in praise of holy Themis and Pytho,
And the centre-stone of earth, whose word is Justice..."

-Pindar, Pythian Ode 11

We who choose to consciously embrace one of the many Traditional religious or philosophical perspectives usually find ourselves surrounded by countless other perspectives that often run contrary to our reason, our intellect, and our intuitions. These "other perspectives" are emergent properties of certain contemporary cultures that are almost always inimical to our beliefs, our liberties, and sometimes even a danger to our lives, depending on what part of the world you live in.

In this situation, wherein the weight of the mainstream/prestige cultures often crushes the air out of the cistern of dialogue, we sometimes find ourselves mired in doubt about our way. Do the Traditional Religious perspectives and Philosophies offer strong a moral, spiritual, or ethical "codes" or "ways of seeing" which can compare with the later ideological systems that came to overlay them? Are the Traditional ways comparable to, or intellectually competitive with, the creeds offered by the mainstream religions of our western world?

Naturally I believe they are; I believe that the Ancient wisdom offered, in many beautiful ways, the deepest and most profound explications of that immortal Justice and Law which is found indelibly within Nature or the Cosmos, and I believe that it offered, again in many ways, a worldview permeated with natural morality, beauty, and wisdom. I believe that the Traditional families of religion, and the many strains of philosophy which appeared alongside them, oftentimes from within them, are superior in every way that matters to the institutions of "philosophy" and "religion" that are ascendant- and also declining- in our world today.

I feel inclined tonight to start this discussion- which will be an ongoing discussion, Fates willing- with a brief talk about some Traditional perspectives on the Law of Nature, and Just Retribution.

The Ancients knew of a powerful non-human person- a Goddess, in fact- named Dike, also called Nemesis, whose name in our English means "Just Retribution." Her mother was Themis, whose name means "Law of Nature" or "Divine Law", literally "That which is put in place." It is difficult for us to comprehend that things that would appear so abstract as Just Retribution and Nature's Law should be conceived of as persons, and even experienced in that way. But if the Traditional Religion teaches us anything, it is precisely this: humans are not the only beings in the cosmos to have personhood.

This naturally leads us to the wise Polytheism enjoyed by our Ancestors, in the most direct way imaginable. There is more than one way to experience the phenomenon of the cosmos; sense impression is only one among many ways. This is not to say that Divine non-human persons like Themis or Dike are mere "personifications" of concepts; I would no more advance such a shallow notion as I would continue the atrocious accommodation of our spiritual history that would have us believe that Thundering Zeus was merely a "personification" of weather. Not "personifications", but persons are the subject of my present discourse.

You, dear reader, are as free now as every man or woman has been free for ages to decide, for yourself, just how the Person of a divinity relates to the phenomena or concepts that they have been traditionally associated with. But to collapse them together, and suggest that Traditional Religion was a superstitious or primitive game, or to assume the whole matter a matter of "poetry" is, I think, to commit a grave error of understanding something very sacred and very subtle.

At any rate, Carl Kerenyi has this to say about Themis: the word and the name means "a law of nature"- "(Themis is) the norm of the living together of Gods and of beings generally, especially beings of both sexes. It is easy to obey, but it also forbids many things. The Goddess Themis unites the Gods in assemblies, and does the same for human beings. It is Themis, also, then, that men and women should come together and be united in love." (Gods of the Greeks, p. 102) He then discusses the daughters of Themis, the Horai:

"Hora" means "the correct moment." Its Goddesses are the three Horai, who do not betray or deceive, and are therefore rightfully called truthful. They bring and bestow ripeness, they come and go in accordance with the firm law of the periodicities of nature and of life. They were entrusted with the guardianship of the gates of Heaven and of Olympus, through which Hera entered and departed..."

The Horai, daughters of Themis, were Eunomia, "Lawful Order", Dike or Nemesis, "Just Retribution", and Eirene, "Peace". Kerenyi says "such were the gifts that these Goddesses, whom Zeus begat upon Themis, brought into the world."

There is much wisdom deeply implanted in these words, in these names, and in these seed-understandings of an ancient worldview. I can only make the briefest of notes on the matter, with a promise to expand on these topics- and many others- as this blog grows.

Themis as primordial Prophetess,  
And the original power behind the Oracle at Delphi

Most people already know that the Ancients believed in Fate- or in Fates, should I say, powerful and mysterious divine persons whose activities decided the length and end of every life, and the end of every age. Even the mighty Gods, we are told, respected Fate and bowed to its inexorable power. Moira, the Ancient name of the power of Fate, means "part" or "portion", and the Moirai, the Fates themselves, were a trinity of powerful, nigh-incomprehensible non-human persons whom none could withstand. They were the "apportioners"- and their activity, of spinning Fate, was actually an apportionment of what was just to all beings, places, things, and even ages in the cosmos.

Most former schoolboys and girls these days, used to thinking of the Fates in terms of linearity and time ("one decided birth, one decided the length of life, and the last cut the thread of life at death") are not well equipped to grasp the more ancient truth about the Moirai and Moira itself- the concept of Fate or "apportioning" was a spatial concept, more than a temporal one.

Why the mountain range over there, and the forest over here? Why that particular tribe of people there, and another here? Why that river over there, and why this lake here? Why the drought here, and the deluge there? Why the beasts in that forest, and why the beasts in another? Why the Gods above and below, and mankind here in the middle of them? Because that is how Moira's lots were apportioned and spun out. To every person or every thing is given a lot, a portion which is just to them.

And this immediately brings to mind another concept tied to this spatial quality of "lotting" or "apportioning"- the notion of boundaries. As "things" emerge from the matrices of cosmic law and cosmic force, in accordance with their proper allotment, boundaries are naturally present. To each "locus" or "entity" is given a portion, a lot, a life, a place, in accordance with Eunomia, Lawful Order. Within the boundaries of that person or thing's portion, they are justly placed, and to violate those boundaries unjustly is to violate the deepest of natural laws, and to upset the cosmos-order.

This deed of violation- on any level- immediately invokes none other than Nemesis, or Just Retribution. She comes, the divine person in whose mighty hands are given the power to destroy or avenge, for one purpose alone- to reestablish lawful or just boundaries and right the intrusion, often to the extreme detriment of the intruder. She is the reparationist of the cosmos. Nemesis does not act from a heart of vicious enjoyment at the suffering of beings upon whom she falls; her species of justice is detached and mechanical, no matter how vicious it may seem to our unwise eyes.

My favorite example may be the most salient for most discussions of morality and law these days- murder. A murder will always be a violation of an allotted boundary; it will always be the crossing of a murderer into the fatefully apportioned life-space of another, and the vile desecration and destruction of the life-force in that apportioned space, which may be seen as a sort of life-sanctuary. Just as Nemesis once guarded sanctuaries, and indeed, was the very awesome divine presence of vengeance that hung over the protected, sacred (and sometimes secret) precincts of temples and guarded groves, she also stands guard over all Fatefully-drawn boundaries, in the cosmic sense.

The murderer faces the Nemesis they invoked, in this life or the next. In this life, which Nemesis can freely affect, her will and activities can emerge in numerous ways. From within some murderers comes a self-loathing, an angst that will not allow them to have peace, and sometimes a will to end their own lives. In others arises madness in many forms. For some, Nemesis may not scourge their interior selves, but she implants loathing and longing for justice in the hearts of many other men and women, who then work with a great and inspired purpose to hunt and punish the murderer for their terrible deed. Sometimes, the headsman's stroke is Nemesis finally manifesting. Whatever the case, she always strikes at "the correct moment." And her vengeance is unavoidable, for the order of the cosmos itself requires it, and naturally gives birth to it (as I said before) in an emotionless, mechanical sense.


And there are many "moments" for her to strike, in this world or beyond. At times, Nemesis and her ministers torment the released soul of the guilty after death. There is no region that Nemesis is forbidden within, no realm of experience that she cannot manipulate because her doings are the work of the cosmos order itself.

All of these notions are pointing to a common place, a common "meeting place"- they bring us to the fact that, buried deeply within our minds, bodies, and souls, is a presence of natural law, a natural sense for boundaries and the forbidden, a thirst for justice, and a universal appreciation for (and desire for) peace. Nemesis is not merely the righteous wrath of the human psyche in the face of crime and murder, but she can be experienced in that way, too. And where such a wrath is felt, she has walked. Themis- Justice or Law- always demands exact returns- and her daughters and ministers obey her will to perfection.

And when Nemesis has restored her sister, Eunomia (Lawful order) we have left only Eirene, the Goddess of Peace. It is odd to some that the Goddess of peace is sister to the goddess of wrath and retribution. Looking at it honestly, it appears that there cannot be one without the other- there is no peace without the proper and just allotments of things being protected, and the order of things being held and preserved with integrity. This is why those who degrade their own lives by continually violating the sacred boundaries of the lives and minds of others do not have peace, but those who live to protect those things and constructively help them to flourish always know a measure of great peace.

A person living rightly- justly- would no more topple the mountains into the lakes or divert the rivers into the forests than they would murder, for all of these notions fall under the purview of Moira, and of Natural Law. But wait! As clearly as the Ancient tradition speaks, we can all see how human beings, for ages, have been engaging in precisely the opposite behavior- violating boundaries in this world, between beings, between even the Gods and Men, wantonly. Where is Divine Justice and Just Retribution now?

The answer is "no longer on the earth." This is, perhaps, the hardest answer to hear coming from the ancient Tradition, but it is the answer that wisdom demands nonetheless. Hesiod tells us that the Goddesses Aidos and Nemesis- Shame and Just Retribution- clad in white, would forsake mankind one day, due to the coming wickedness of our future eras. Kerenyi says that this story of Aidos and Nemesis "is really a story of Dike. It was told of her that she had already withdrawn into the mountains when mankind ceased to heed Dike or Nemesis- which in our language means not only just retribution, but also justice generally. When still worse things thereupon followed, Dike or Nemesis forsook the earth, and can be seen in the sky as the constellation Virgo." (Kerenyi, p. 103)

As human beings violated one natural boundary after another, and as human societies came to accept regular violations of sacred boundaries as acceptable, and in some, even commendable practices, Justice was forced to withdraw, further and further, still about her task, but harder and harder to find. The ancient laws and forces of this cosmos still bind us- every one of us- and still work on behalf of the cosmos and ultimate peace and harmony for things. There can be no doubt about this. If you or I invoke Nemesis through unjust deeds, we must suffer the cosmic cost of that, unavoidably. Truly, it's nothing "personal"- just the business of deeper forces.

But the divine non-human person of Justice or Just Retribution has withdrawn from our world. She could no longer bear to see what had arisen, and what she knew was coming. It is believed that in far distant former times, humans did pay heed to natural law and sacred boundaries. In those times, she walked close- she and many other divine non-human persons. Now, such that things are, and such that they were even in former times, divine persons are harder to find.

This goes a great length towards explaining the orgy of injustice that politically and spiritually defines our times, and it was foretold with great poetry by the Ancients. What passes for "justice" in the human sense is now a pale reflection of what divine Justice entails. It is questionable, indeed, to what extent mortals, with all their lack of Metis, have ever captured the numina of Justice amid their own legal proceedings. In our times, we need not even wonder.

The Moirai, the Fates themselves, drove the mighty titaness Themis to Father Zeus' table, to be his bride- his primordial first bride, actually. You know of his children with Themis, but his marriage to her- the consent of such a mighty God as Zeus to enter into a marriage-contract with the being whose allotted realm is the ineluctable Law of Nature- represents what the Ancients always knew; that the Gods love Natural or Cosmic Law. They are bound to it, and obedient to it.

Even the wrath of the Gods against those humans who transgress Moira's boundaries (particularly those who fall victim to hubris) and the violence of the Gods against humans who unjustly defile the parts, portions, and lots of the world, all serves Justice and the cosmos. Even the Gods are moved to Just Retribution, through the power of Just Retribution herself, as we see many times in the myths and sacred stories. This lays to rest the complaints of those who call the Gods "cruel and petty", I hope, just as I hope that my discussion of Apportioning, Justice, and Retribution will lay many other ghosts of misunderstanding to rest.

* * *
My words on this topic are nearly complete. I hope that I have demonstrated some small taste of what amounts to a comprehensive and powerful moral and ethical system, tied deeply into the most primal of myths and legends, the most primal of wisdoms from our Ancestral past. Does this not compare to the understandings of others? In poetry and in its venerable antiquity, it easily exceeds all others known to me. Does it not offer a sense of beauty and just order, and a strong warning for those who would thoughtlessly violate the boundaries that their own hearts- sometimes- warn them not to?

Does it not offer water to the throats of those thirsty for justice, who can be at peace knowing that this cosmos is, at bottom, concerned with peaceful order and justice? Does it not, in a profound and organic way, give us a positive means to respectfully view the world and work to be preservers, and not unjust destroyers, of the dignity and integrity of other persons and places?

I believe that it does these things, but it is just a beginning, just a taste, just the first chapter. These sorts of religious and philosophical perspectives, upon which one may rightly base a life, are good steel, something that has a much bolder strength and a keener edge than the dull iron of the flawed religious perspectives that are fading around us, fading  because of the work of Nemesis and Natural Law. We need the keener edge- and we have it. If we would participate in giving a voice back to the Traditional Religion and the Traditional Philosophies, we will reclaim nothing less than wisdom itself, and perhaps feel something again of the greatness that was.

More than prayers to the heavens, we need strong trust in the wisdom of old, strong principles, and strong philosophy. Marcus Aurelius once asked "Are my guiding principles healthy and robust?" "Upon this", he said, "hangs everything."

May this blog, which I devote to the majestic Horai, be part of the testing process for healthy spiritual and philosophical principles; may it be part of the rebirth and regeneration of Traditional Religion and Philosophy.