Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | September 13, 2011

Rasma Haidri Reviews Cosmosophia.

Below is the latest review of Cosmosophia, by Rasma Haidri.

This summer I read Theodore Richards’ Cosmosophia while on vacation in France. It is an ambitious book of just under 300 pages that attempts no less than to describe a new world order based on insights culled from cultural anthropology, human genetics, psychology and quantum mechanics. Among other things.

I was reading Cosmosophia on the metro, seated across from an Asian woman who busied herself by dropping bottle caps into wrinkled paper bags that were stuffed into larger canvas bags at her feet. She produced a gray chicken thigh and began tearing at the rubbery flesh with her teeth. Her trousers were too large for her, but fit snugly because the pockets were stuffed with what appeared to be surplus clothing and sundry small items. As I regarded her I was struck by a fundamental question: Why am I not her? The thought no sooner crossed my mind than I knew the truth of the matter was that I am indeed more her than not her. I also knew that it was due to reading Cosmosophia that I saw the two of us as only a hair’s breadth apart from being the same person.

I was reading Cosmosophia in Versailles, at the French version of McDonalds known as a McCafé, when a man plopped down at the next table, took out a cell phone and began loudly berating someone named Louise about a failed business deal. His angry one-sided conversation dominated the room, as did the long wet slurps by which he quaffed his café au lait. I could not go on reading, but strangely enough I was neither annoyed nor filled with resentment at what I might have labeled an oaf’s appropriation of my peace and quiet. For a moment the world held only us: him at his table with his phone, I at this table with my computer, my daughter beside me drinking her first coffee, the teenager in a brown shirt mopping the floor, a figure passing by on the street below. My lack of annoyance felt like acceptance. Or is this what Richards meant by compassion? Once again, reading Cosmosophia caused me to react in a new and more empathetic manner to a stranger. I had not applied something I learned from the book to the situation. I was just different, and this, if nothing else, speaks to the value of Cosmosophia coming into the world at just this juncture in – if Richards will pardon my Cartesian reference – time.

Through erudite argumentation that leaves no stone, prehistoric or otherwise, unturned, Richards proposes a paradigm in which humanity is viewed in accordance with the principles of current scientific knowledge, specifically quantum mechanics. In a very small nutshell, quantum theory shows the interrelatedness of everything. According to Richards, the same forces that are behind the expanding universe are behind everything else, from the evolution of species to the rise of cultures. Our Newtonian-Cartesian ideology of fixed reality and linear progress believes our economies, governments, indeed each generation, to be an improvement upon its predecessor. According to Richards, and quantum theory, this is not the way things work. Pre-modern civilizations had an innate sense of place within the rest of the universe, and expressed this in drawings, songs and stories. Richards calls for a new myth, a viable metaphor to describe our interrelatedness. He proposes the metaphor of a cosmic womb, but adds that many metaphors may grow out of a collective dialog about our place in the cosmos. It is this dialog that Cosmosophia wishes to instigate.

I tend to be wary of anyone who wants to tell me that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and ought to be fixed. I was not very far into reading Cosmosophia when I knew that this is not Richard’s agenda. Rather than grousing about a world on the brink of disaster, Richards tells a compelling story of how we got to where we are today. If nothing else, Cosmosophia is an exhaustive source of scientific and cultural history. Are you fuzzy about what that college astronomy course taught you about Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo? Do you have trouble remembering the difference between Plato and Aristotle, or how Alexander the Great connects to them? Do you know the significance of Einstein’s error, or what precipitated the Neolithic village? If you say these details bear no relevance for you today, Cosmosophia will show you that they do. History, according to Richards, is not the past that we grow away from and leave behind. It is the process by which we have evolved and will continue to evolve. To have wisdom is to embrace this on such a fundamental level that it permeates our societies, cultures and way of being. In coining the term “cosmosophia” Richards has melded sophia, (Greek for wisdom) with cosmos (order or world) to denote the wisdom that is inherent to the universe. Richards’ agenda, if he has one at all, is for us to embrace ourselves as “the anthropos cosmosophos — the cosmosophical human, the human as an expression of the wisdom of the cosmos.”

Richards chronicles how we arrived at our very modern and very non-cosmic focus on the individual. This way of thinking took root in Platonic realism and bloomed when Descartes’ declaimed Cogito ergo sum. The Age of Enlightenment brought us unparalleled individual rights while “injustices and exploitation continued to occur throughout the world, and the individual became isolated and alienated as never before.” I find this part of Richards’ treatise most compelling. We are indeed all about the individual. Our goal is for individuals to coexist in harmony as each engages in a personal journey toward salvation, enlightenment or gain. Mind, soul and body are separate entities that receive varying degrees of importance, depending on, well, the individual. The fundamental principle at work in western societies is that of personal preferences. Herein lies the source of our discontent. Richards would go so far as to say that this focus on individualism contradicts our very nature. When every man is an island we lose sight of the ocean floor that connects us. This is far more serious than losing our ability to get along, own things in common or share like-mindedness. Our disconnected way of being defies the very processes at work in the universe. Richards asserts that as we succeed in attaining the individual freedom that we believe to be the point of it all, we feel more and more lonely. We look to consumerism for something to care about, and when that fails fundamentalism. I was reading Cosmosophia in a French village on the afternoon of July 22nd when my daughter looked up from her computer in disbelief. A bomb had gone off at government headquarters in Oslo. A few minutes later someone was gunning down teenagers at a Norwegian Labor Party summer camp. The eyes of the world turned toward our home country, waiting to see which fragmented fundamentalist was behind the horror. There are so many to choose from these days.

It is one thing to chronicle history and connect the dots to show how this or that ancient issue developed, such as why mankind migrated out of Africa in the first place. It is another to do that and logically conclude with the impending global crisis we face today from fundamentalism. Although Richards wrote this book well before the events of July 22nd, the case he draws is relevant to understanding them. Norway’s immediate response was to meet the “hate of one man with the love of all of us”. The buzzword was unity as political opponents and ordinary citizens marched together in the streets, fists clenching roses. Yet after reading Cosmosophia I cannot help but see the award ceremony to commemorate “the individuals who went out of their way to help” as yet another indication of our mutual isolation. After all, altruism assumes a status quo of separateness. What we are really lauding these days is the rare feeling that we are all in this together. Richards would have us consider what science knows about the interconnectedness of the cosmos to understand that we truly are, and always have been, in this together. The shift to this mindset requires a momentous leap. One of the surprises of Cosmosophia, is that Richards calls on poets and artists to enact this change in perception. It is only with a new mythos, the imagery, language and metaphor to express our innate interconnectedness, that we will begin to perceive a new status quo. Some people might argue that we are not as disconnected as Richards would have it, given the massive social communities connecting us across the globe. Let us not confuse mass communication with interconnection. These communities appeal to our need to relate to each other, but do not satisfy it. On the worldwide web today, as on the elementary school playgrounds of a generation ago, individuals assert their importance by the masses of individuals that flock around them. Follow me, I’ll follow you. I collect friends, you collect friends, we all tally up friends. What social communities do, in effect, is enable an assertion of individuality, even provide a platform for individual branding.

Is it really possible to change our individualistic mindset? Since it is merely an ingrained perception and not inherent to our natures, then of course it is. Richards proposes a way to get started: “Simply walk outside, pause, and look at the shining stars, or see a child being born, or listen to a tree’s leaves rustling in the wind, and be amazed. Until we regain this capacity, no set of ideas can save us from ourselves.” The ability to be amazed might sound simple, but as Van Gogh wrote, “Le simple, c’est difficile.” We must not dismiss Richards as a pie-in-the-sky idealist when he talks about leaves rustling or dwells on his baby daughter with all the fascination of a new parent. He speaks with authority, backed up by a profusion of footnotes, about everything from cave paintings and market economies to dark matter and Freud as he builds his case for a radical change in our view of (so-called) reality. The change can start with reading Cosmosophia. As I sat in the McCafé at Versailles, observing the fact that I was not annoyed with the man on the cell phone, he changed. He started speaking kindly to Louise. Did I make that happen? Probably not. Was I part of it happening? Absolutely. This is where interconnectedness has been all along – between us – we just didn’t see it. In 2003 when local protests against the US invasion of Iraq grew vehement, my ex-husband assessed the situation with this remark: “If you really want to stop the war in Iraq, go home and hug your child.” I knew then that this was true. After reading Cosmosophia I know why it is true. It has to do with quantum mechanics, but you don’t have to be a physicist to understand it. You can be, like me, a simple poet grappling with the alchemy of words. After reading Cosmosophia I simply cannot think in the isolationistic terms that I did before, and this alone demonstrates the consequence of Richards’ work. Cosmosophia won’t be read by everyone, but everyone will be touched by what it manifests in those who do. And thus begins the conversation in which our post-Enlightenment future will be born.

You can find out more about Rasma Haidri at www.rasma.org

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