C.S. Lewis explained the anthropomorphism of the ancients in terms of psychology. How did they think about reality? He concludes that they did not think in terms of “literal” versus “metaphorical” but they thought of things in pictures. “Deep” meant “death,” “spirit” and “life” were synonymous, so “sex” and “love”, etc. Modern man categorizes all things in a bifurcated manner. We seek to either “look at” the object or “look along.” For example, Lewis recounts his experience of seeing a sunbeam through a hole in the roof of a toolshed. If he stood beside the sunbeam and examined it he thought of it in terms of its hugh, brightness, and so on. But if he stepped within the sunbeam he actually began to experience the effects which cannot be perfectly quantified. The problem with many modern scientists, says Lewis, is that they believe that “looking at” the sunbeam is sufficient for gaining a complete knowledge of that subject without actually experiencing or “looking along.”
As I was reading through Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus I found very interesting similarities between Lewis’s thought on beauty, myth, and metaphor and Plotinus’s beliefs concerning the Forms, Nature, and Life. For Plotinus the Forms of things are like Hieroglyphs, which are little pictures of incarnate knowledge. He explains:
In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality …. Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.” (Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9, as cited in Hadot, p. 40.)
For Plotinus, like many others, these Forms are the life principle behind things which come to be when the Intellect contemplates itself. Man cannot know these forms as a scientist or metaphysician seeks to know the cause of a particular anomaly or thing. Rather, man must put aside the natural desire to know the cause, because there is no separate cause to be found. Contemplation must take the place of reflection.
The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts. For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).
The Intellect is beautiful; indeed it is the most beautiful of all things. Situated in pure light and pure radiance, it includes within itself the nature of all beings. This beautiful world of ours is but a shadow and an image of its beauty …. It lives a blessed life, and whoever were to see it, and – as is fitting – submerge himself within it, and become One with it, would be seized by awe. (Enneads, III 8, 11, 26-33, in Hadot, p. 43.)
It is no wonder that Augustine liked Plotinus, who became for him a praeparatio evangelicae. All of this has a bit to do with the relationship between nature and the supernatural. Even nature points beyond herself, being infused with a copy of God’s own beauty that calls us to look beyond to that Beauty that is desired for its own sake. Nature is inherently mythical. When we attempt to “look at” apart from experiences our gaze into the mirror will produce a mere reflection of ourselves.