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Eclecticism and SynthesisEclecticism is often depreciated. It might be said about someone following their own way that they are a "mere eclectic", taking and choosing what suits them from the diversity of opinions around them, or from the spiritual supermarket of New Age beliefs.
This attitude is promulgated by conservative people who, while perhaps well-meaning, are nevertheless threatened by those who think for themselves. For the fact is that eclecticism is the first step in the path of true creative thought. It means that one is not satisfied to merely swallow whole the worldview or ideology that is dished out to them. And I say this with no judgment on the quality of that worldview. It may indeed be a very sublime one, but to accept by rote the teachings of, say, Sri Aurobindo is just as bad as to accept by rote a literalist-fundamentalist interpretation of Bible, Koran or Gita. First one should look and think for oneself. Then one can return to Bible, Koran or Gita, if one wishes, with a new and broader understanding; or reject them in favour of another perspective if one is so guided.
But while eclecticism is the first stage, it is by no means the last, although for many it is all that is required. But those who wish to explore and envisage further may develop their own unique synthesis, not just an assemblage of facts, but those facts welded into a new cosmology or understanding from their own insight; or rather, from the descent of the higher light working through their mental being and coming to new combinations and new partial truths. These truths may often be the equal of those of the worldview they left, or they may be the superior of them (or the inferior of them, it can go any way, but even if "objectively" inferior these new truths are still right for the person in question, which is why he or she was guided to formulate them)
A synthesis may be loosely or poorly constructed, it may simply be a patchwork with a weak central theme, and different subtruths uncomfortably joined together, or it may be a magnificent and harmonious whole, a new integral truth that does not negate or ignore the parts of which it is composed
Grand Synthesis through the AgesThe following is an extremely brief and incomplete review, more a glance or short and partial synopsis than anything else. At the end I provide a statement of my own goals here.
For tens of thousands of years, since the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens, human consciousness and knowledge did not change. The only knowledge was tribal lore, carried down by word of mouth, taught by the elders to the young, who in turn in the fullness of time became elders to teach and guide the next generation, and so on. Writing was unknown, and the entire universe was encompassed by the community of one's own tribe, the immediate environment, and the tribes in the next valley
This is a society that is astonishingly static. Before the coming of the white man, Australian Aboriginal society had changed little (if at all) in fifty thousand years, and Amazonian Indians lived as they must have ten thousand years ago. And it's not hard to see the reason why. A prehistoric buddha may arise and be known as a great healer, revered for many generations and placed with the other ancestors in the sky, but their message would soon be lost. A stone age shakespeare may invent some great stories, some of which are added to the tribe's repartee, but he would not further the culture of development of the tribe as a whole.
The development of ideas only began with the discovery of writing, which in turn was only made possible by the agricultural revolution, which provided surplus that freed people from the need to hunt for food every day (although it would also enslave many in much worse conditions, as serfs and labourers toiling in the fields), and resulted in the rise of the first cities and stratified societies. In a word, civilization.
Once you have writing and a literate scribe or priestly caste, it becomes possible for anyone who can read to have access to the thoughts of those who came before them. They are then free to add their own ideas and interpretations, to build upon the earlier ideas. With surplus you have the possibility of trade, and hence the exchange of ideas with other city-states and empires, other peoples and civilizations (You also have a much-loved (as representative of the gods on Earth) but autocratic monarch, a standing army, and invasion and conquest of those neighbours who are weaker than your own city state, but that's another story.)
For three thousand years, societies evolved and developed, empires rose and crumbled. We cannot know who the first great thinkers were, but surely one of the earliest people we know of to develop a "theory of everything", a true synthesis incorporating the spiritual and the material, must have been Pythagoras. Pythagoras had the benefit of Greek philosophy, science, culture, and freedom of thought, had travelled to Egypt and met with the priests there, and even, so the story goes, been as far as India, where he had encountered the teachings of the "naked ascetics" (the Vedantic Yogis one might assume).
Pythagoras explained everything in terms of harmonies, so that the same forces that moved the celestial spheres could be seen in the mathematical ratio between musical notes, and the proportions of geometrical figures. He was both mystic and scientist, taught the virtues of a pure vegetarian diet, the transmigration of souls, the relation of spiritual and sensory reality, and the archetypal attributes of pure number (a concept not very different to ideas in modern physics). He founded the Pythagorean school of the mysteries, and his ideas formed the foundation of the Platonic tradition, and hence of western philosophy as well as of the Western Wisdom Tradition as a whole.
Late antiquity was also a time when profound developments of mystico-philosophical thinking were taking place. The edifice of knowledge and understanding advances by the assimilation of new insights, which are then added onto what has come before, to create new interpretations, visions, and worldviews. But new insights can only come about in two ways: through new and unique experiences of individuals (for example the Enlightenment of the Buddha, or the thought-experiments of Einstein), and through meeting with other cultures, which have had centuries to develop their own unique perspectives. Or preferably, both.
And, equally important, new ideas and new worldviews can only flourish in an environment free of religious oppresion
And this is what happened in the Hellenistic world of Roman civilization. First Alexander, and then the Romans, had conquered many other empires, as well as trading with those in the Far East beyond their borders. At this time, Roman society was secular (with token acknowledgment to the Emperor as God on Earth), so it was a good opportunity to explore new visions of the universe without the stranglehold of conservative authoritarian religion that always tends to retard these things. The abundance of mystery schools and sects of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Near East, a spirit of anxiety and uncertainty (all those barbarians at the borders), and the insatiable human hunger for a spiritual aspect to life, which can never be denied, no matter how hard secularists try (the 20th century's failed Marxist experiment for example, now on it's last legs), all added to the mix. Indeed, the late Roman Empire has been often compared to the modern West in these ways, although these comparisons may be misleading.
In any case, this period saw the development of several attempts at Grand Synthesis of all previous philosophical schools, spiritual and esoteric teachings and religious pantheons. The Middle Platonic and Neopythagorean schools and the inscrutable Chaldean Oracles gave way to the profound summation of all classical thought in Neoplatonism, a tradition that itself became more all-encompassing and elaborate as the earlier founders like Plotinus and his student Porphyry were replaced by the more theurgic Iamblichus and theosphical Proclus. With these latter two Neoplatonism became truly a Grand Synthesis of cosmological and Philosophical thought.
At the same time, new eclectic and syncretic religions like Pauline (which welded Pagan thinking (the suffering god-man) with original Jerusalem-Christianity) , Johanine (mystic revelation), Alexandrian (middle Platonic) and Augustinian (Platonic) Christianity, Gnostic sects with their baroque and pessimistic cosmologies, and Manichaeism which integrated Christian, Greek, Buddhist, Gnostic, and Zervanite and Mazdian Zoroastrian approaches, developed. This period interestingly also saw the rise of Mahayana Buddhism (which incorporated Hellenic elements) and Tantra in the East.
The closing of the last Neoplatonic academies, and the conquest of a long declining Rome by new barbarian leaders, signalled an end to this original age of freedom, and the West entered the dark ages of religious fundamentalism and oppression of those who would think differently to the Church. Meanwhile, civilization flourished in the Islamic world, where **** [need to add text] **** combined exoteric islam with aristotlean thought, and Avicenna
It was in the Islamic world that the precious knowledge of the ancients were preserved (that much of it that had survived the burning of the library of Alexandria that is), and form where it was rediscovered and translated in **** [need to add text] ****ushering in the return of classical learning in the renaissance. This flood of lost knowledge and wisdom into city states in which the Christian Church was reasonably tolerant, triggered a period of incredible syntheses, in the work of ,
This was also the last time that it was possible for a single gifted individual to actually be an authority on everything. **** [need to add text] **** the Encyclopaedists were not synthesisers, they simply collected and compiled information, in the spirit of making knowledge available to all. The age of the Renaissance Man, with his Grand Picture of the workings of the universe, human nature, and God, was over.
In the 18th century, the American and French revolutions and parliamentary reforms in Britain demolished the divine right of kings, literary scholarship showed the Bible to be a work written in stages rather than a monolithic revelation from God, developments in science and philosophy provided rational explanations to the workings of the universe and of economics and human society, and the increasingly comprehensive findings of geology and other areas of science meant it was no longer tenable to believe in a literal 6000 year old universe. All this paved the way for the paradigm shift that was the Darwinian revolution in the mid 19th century, which confronted people at a very deep level by forcing them to question (or not, as the case may be) their long-cherished religious literalism. At the same time, scholars like Schopenhauer looked more sympathetically to the East, and instead of new and very different sects of Christianity like Christian Science, and mysterious occult societies like the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and the Golden Dawn sprang up, based on empowering human nature rather than man as a helpless little insect before God.
And this brings us to the next great Synthesis, the marriage of East and West, Science and Religion, Secular Learning and Occultism. In a sense, this was the greatest synthesis ever, because never before had so much information been made available, thanks to the widespread and cheap distribution of the printed book, and a secular Western society that encouraged learning and education, and an educated elite hungry for knowledge and understanding of the Big Picture.
H.P. Blavatsky was not in any way a talented writer. Her style is heavy and disjointed, and larger parts of her writing have been plagiarised from other sources. She invented a myth of hidden masters, as a way of justifying her teachings (possibly in part channelled communications?) as revealed through "Mahatma Letters", as well as doing other things like burying tea cups and pretending to find them as apports. But her magnum opus, the Secret Doctrine, set the tone for all occult, esoteric, and New Age thinking since, provding a cyclic-evolutionary, east-west paradigm that was (and in a sens estill is) truely revolutionary.
Were this the classical world, Blavatsky's theosophical synthesis would have lasted a thousand years (just as Pythagoras' did). But the technological West is not the classical world. Science marches on, at an accelerating rate that can surely only culminate in a Singularity and the birth of a new primary Kingdom of evolutionary existence. And so within only a few short decades Blavatsky's Victorian-era pop-science ("the iguana lizard, a diminuative descendent of the giant Iguandon", etc) was looking ridiculously out of date. Her cosmology of rounds and cycles could no more be considered believeable than a literalist take on Genesis. Neveretheless, successive generations of Theosophists and off-shoots like Steiner (by far the most innovative and creative of all the theosophical-occult teachers) continued to hold these views, as did his followers and the Anthroposphical organsiation as a whole.
Because of his conservatism and backward-looking tendency, I do not consider Steiner an innovatiove thinker in the manner of Blavatsky. This is not to say that he did not say some very fascinating things; he most certainly did. But his cosmology - valuable as it is as metaphor, and as a new revisioning o the old medieval pre-/anti-modernist tradition in the mould of Guenon, Schuon and others - cannot serve as a Grand Picture for all age. For that we need a paradigm that does not have to deny or give a forced interpretation to the findings of geology, palaeontology, and so on. (As I suggest in Towards a Foundation of a Universal Esoteric Science, On matters of physical reality, Esotericism should defer to Science.)
A mere few decades to a century or so after Blavatsky, a number of thinkers had proposed various manners of Grand Synthesis. Never had there been so many Theories of Everything proposed. For this was the twentieth century, a period of unprecedented technological, scientific, social, economic, psychological, and philosophical prgress, where academic specialistation, rapid communications and the information revolution saw the amount of new knowledge increase literally exponentially (as indicated the number of new academic journals that are published each year).
It may be argued that this sort of endevaour is simply doomed from the start now. Arvan Harvat says
"It's nonsensical to speak of grand synthesis now, simply because the scope of knowledge has exploded in such a manner that no person can know what's going on even in his limited field (not to speak of other stuff.). Poincare (died 1912.) was the last universal mathematician, and Alonzo Church the last universal logician. No man in the world can know (seriously), say, 10 % of contemporary mathematics. And "grand synthesizers", like German methapysician Nicolai Hartmann (active mainly before WW1 and between wars) are necessarily an oddity, something like fossils and eccentric curiosities...The antiquated synthesizers [of the Classical and Renaissance world] tried to construct a system of "all" when such an effort still possessed some sense (or was on the verge). Now synthesis of "all" is ridiculous from the start. ...[Consider such ] diverse fields like genetics, astrophysics, brain science, information theory, mathematical linguistics,..."The following very partial and incomplete esoteric-spiritual Grand Synthesisiers are listed here, but many more could be mentioned, especially from areas of learning that I am not conversant in. So if there are no names on this list that should be, please let me know. Note that this list does not include visionaries in only specialised fields, no matter how far reaching those fields may be. These are people who literally incorporate everything (not just provide a theory that might explain it, but include at least the bare basics of just about everything in their systems of correspondences), in a pythagorean vision of a unifying principle behind the diverse multiplicity
- Teilhard de Chardin's omega theology, which unites evolutionary science (which means the entire physical universe, from atoms to man) and Christianity
- Sri Aurobindo, the first truely Integral Thinker (more recently this term has been appropriated by Ken Wilber) who showed that this-worldly Materialism and other-worldly Mysticism/Spirituality were just equally one-sided perspectives, and proposed a cosmotheology in which the static transcendent Absolute Reality adopts a dynamic form (Supermind) through which the cosmos and all finite beings come about. His evolutionary philosophy, culminating in the divinisation of matter itself, paralleled Teilhard's in many ways, although neither knew the other (Teilhard's Phenomenon of Man was only published after his death)
- Buckmister Fuller (synergy, and other ideas)
- Edward Haskell's Unified Science
- Oliver Reiser's Cosmic Humanism
- Arthur M Young's Reflexive Universe
- Erich Jantsch's Self-Organising Universe
Now, in the first decade of the 21st Century, where the Internet has enabled a truely amazing dissemination of information, and where there is even more information around than ever before, it is time for a new synthesis, a grand synthesis of grand syntheses. This is what I am proposing here.
Obviously, I am not the first to attempt such a task, as there are many who are undertaking this sort of thing right now. Increased information and data flow encourages increased interpretaion and revisioning of that data flow, in a positive feedback loop that sees us roaring to the Singularity, with many "cells" of the global "noosphere" working in parallel
Perhaps the most ambitious of the current grand synthesisers of grand synthesisers - the meta-grand synthesisers if you will ;-) - would have to be the american philosopher Ken Wilber, whose flawed yet still immensely ambitious Integral Synthesis serves as a current indicator and touchstone of where we are at right now. It is worth pointing out that although Ken Wilber pays homage to Sri Aurobindo (who he completely misunderstands) and Erich Jantsch, among many many others who he has been inspired by and integrated into his grand synethsis (or Integral System) he does not include innovative thinkers like Haskell, or Stan Gooch (who although primarily psychologically-orientated, makes many important contributions)
What I humbly intend to do is to create a larger and grander Integral Worldview, my own version of the Theory of Everything.