In late November, I finished writing an article about the Nobel laureates in physics, which focused on providing a citation analysis of each of them after a brief summary of the black hole science that led to their awards. In writing the narrative, I realized fairly early on that I could draw on what Proclus wrote about what Plato wrote about time and the heavens — specifically how Proclus seems to have interpreted them (O! the engrossing history of science anecdotes), with the heavens obviously signifying the parts of the cosmos beyond Earth’s fragile blanket of atmosphere (we’re in the sublunary realm, to adapt the vocabulary that he uses). The point that I made at the beginning was a bridge between the first person to propose something black hole-like (John Michell, a scientist looking at the Newtonian implications for very massive objects), the terminology that was used at the time (“fixed stars” and so on), and ancient conceptions of the fact that, while visible, the perfection of the heavens must obviously be greater than the changeability and strife on Earth.
However, over the past few centuries, we have steadily learned that this is not the case. The matter up there is just as partial as the matter down here (although a physicist could argue that planets containing life unleash entropy faster because life is fun like that and thus maybe things are a bit more calamitous downworld), which, at least for me, leads to the question “what could the heavens signify here?”
The true cosmic horror is just how violent the cosmos is, that everything within it — from newborn stars shocking away their natal chambers and quenching new star-forming to sibling binary stars being ripped apart from one another (one sibling flung out at high speeds and the other trapped in a close orbit or worse) due to gravitational/orbital dynamics around a galaxy’s central black hole. In the deep past, there were the massive emissions from galaxies’ central black holes devouring everything.
To this day, there are galaxy mergers — Andromeda and the Milky Way will eventually combine into one — and the scale of a human life relative to these processes provides us with an illusion of calm. Plato’s Timaeus notes that time and the heavens, if they could ever be destroyed, would have to be destroyed together (38b); Proclus says that this means it’s impossible; and yet time and space are unravelled entirely at the singularities within black holes, an agalma of light, geometry, time, and silence, whose event horizons conceal the mysteries of what happens as matter is shredded into bits and time becomes spacelike, space timelike, as the dance comes to its fatal conclusion. In the paper, I stopped when pointing this out; because it’s social science and not theology, it wasn’t possible to extend this out to “so what now, and what perspective shifts happen as our physical cosmological models change, if anything?” I wasn’t 100% satisfied by that stopping point. It felt like I was doing the Platonists I’ve spent so much time reading a disservice.
There is always this other danger, one that Proclus points out right at the beginning of the Timaeus commentary, of prioritizing the material cosmos so much and of being so reliant on data and physical measurements that the Gods and all of the metaphysics are completely ignored. Any account of the physical world cannot be lasting; if we let ourselves stand upon it, we are anchoring ourselves in something as dynamic as an undertow, and as it takes us down, we lose sight of the agalmata and seats of the Gods all around us.
When I think about the higher status Proclus constantly gives the heavens’ matter, I do agree that there must be a purer form of it somewhere, but I am skeptical that we could take that purer thing to be something as sense-perceptible as the agalma of the Moon streaming down through the window to my right or the chair beneath me or the book on the table. There is always this danger that we are just constantly falling back to new models of what the more put-together matter might be
first the bodies orbiting the Earth
bodies orbiting the Sun
orderly beauty of our galaxy and its central point
galaxies accelerating away from us
our unmooring from spatial prioritization beyond that we are at the center of our sphere of what is observable in the universe
abandonment of steady-state theory
likely (now certain) existence of singularities
and that is not a very sustainable approach to anything, definitely in line with what Proclus cautions against at the beginning of the Timaeus commentary. It’s just hopping from one false opinion to the other based on incomplete sense-observations of what lies around us. The Timaeus is providing an account and a “likely” story of how generation comes about. What is common to the geocentric model of their times and our current model is that there is a systematic orderliness to how the entire universe operates, and whatever that is, that must be the heavens that is referred to — the piece(s) who are eternally dancing with Khronos and that truly do mark everything out, the parts that leave their traces in everything we see, touch, taste, and feel.
Now when the Father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight he thought of making it more like its model still.Plato. Timaeus 37c in Plato: Complete Works ed. Cooper.
I think there are other questions, though, that arise from the non-physical idea of “heavens,” namely a holistic understanding of the sacred in terms of what we know now about the cosmos from a polytheistic perspective. This is a good deal harder than a lot of UPG or modern adaptation because there is no ancient author who will provide a citation to tell us how to factor black holes into our model of the sacred; I can say that they are sacred to Apollon until I am blue in the face (or red, if I’m redshifted relative to you because I’m about to fall through the event horizon ,,,) and the most I can provide is intuition and my interpretation of geometry and light with a salute to Pythagoras.
Since stars die, what about the souls of the stars? How do the stellar remnants fit into this? What about habitable worlds? What of the concept of “fixed stars,” and is that to be compared with gravitationally-interacting bodies closer to a subjective reference point? Is Gē, ever at the center, at the center of each habitable world in potentiality or actuality, depending on the solar system’s circumstances? To whom are the Earth’s year around the Milky Way’s center sacred, and do they have names?
These are questions I’ve started exploring in poetry (like the second part of Acts of Speech, which taught me that I want to continue in endeavors like that) and prose more earnestly now even though the underlying questions have occupied me for years. If one writes, one might as well write a hymn, after all.
They are also questions that are in the back of my mind when pressing my hands together for Selene when I see the bright moon at night or for Helios when I open the East-facing blinds and the Sun pierces through the buildings and trees. In the Theology of Plato, Proclus writes, “For it is necessary to venerate even the ultimate echoes of the Gods, and venerating these to become established in the first paradigms of them” (125.5f, trans. Taylor). What is the difference between body and echo, of the visible signs and tokens of each God and the names that we adorn them with like garments that change with the seasons of a language’s life?
I wrote down a ritual for Selene in late October and performed it a few days ago. White linen. Aromatic incense, a sandalwood blend. Coconut milk. Prayers. A glass of water. That hum inside where the mind feels like a rippling current because the ritual works well enough (there are things I want to modify before next time). A sense of standing upon the world when I closed my eyes after sharing the water that I had presented to the visible moon, the heavens so close around me, my tongue with no hymn to utter. (In the spirit of “after the spiritual experience there’s still dirty laundry,” the rest of my life this week has been a dizzying fog of late-stage virtual event planning, so the ritual was a nice counterpoint to how much time I’ve spent putting out logistical fires.) I felt a lot of gratitude for the Gods, especially when the horizontal rain and thrashing wind abated to mostly-cloudy and the moon reclined in a halo of clarity only shortly before I started the ritual. She was like candles lit upon a shrine to mark the Goddess’ presence.
The physical universe is a conflict-saturated place, regardless of scale, but it is also a place of such stunning beauty.