The Stellar Sphere

It would be a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought.

It is no coincidence that the first philosophers were astronomers, leathery desert men who squinted into the night and believed the stars were the souls of the wise. “The truly virtuous rise to the stellar sphere,” said Posidonius. “And there they spend their time watching the stars go round.” He wrote this two thousand years ago, describing a sensation deep within our bones: a longing to join the heavens. Perhaps this craving is more than a metaphor. After all, science tells us that forty-percent of the human body is made of stardust. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulphur were forged by the stars—and although we can measure and name these elements, this does not prove they are not souls. As the first cracks began to appear in the Roman Empire, a homesick Egyptian named Plotinus gazed at the sky and decided that the soul must join the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.”

Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead us to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of snark and outrage, these encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to the echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky.

Artwork

Collage by Candy Chang

Filed Under

Loss & Myth

Further Reading

Posidonius; Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy; Plotinus.

October 2017

Remarks

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