Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Eleusinian Mysteries & The Evolution of Species (Six Degrees of Charles Darwin, Part Two)

"We grow out of this world ...
if evolution means anything it means that."

Alan Watts
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a genuine Renaissance man, as evidenced by the fact that he was not only a practitioner, but a great master, of the now almost forgotten art of didactic poetry, in which scientific and philosophical ideas are put to verse. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of an artform that so seamlessly bridges the chasm that, to the modern mind, so forbiddingly divides what C.P. Snow famously called "the two cultures."

In addition to being an influential and admired poet, Erasmus Darwin had a very successful career as a medical doctor (he was once invited to be King George III's private physician, but he declined), and he was also an accomplished inventor, whose designs ranged from windmills to rocket engines.

Darwin titled his last major poetic work The Temple of Nature, or, The Origin of Society. This was published posthumously in 1804, five years before the birth of his famous grandson, Charles Darwin. A section of that poem was quoted at the end of the previous post in this series (link). A comparison of this passage with the three paragraphs from Descent of Man quoted at the beginning of that earlier post shows that Charles Darwin's notion of "sympathy", or compassion, toward all sentient beings, was not at all some newfangled idea that Darwin had either dreamed up all on his own, or possibly borrowed from Buddhism.

Which raises the question, then, of where Erasmus Darwin's conception of "sympathy" had come from?

The author's brief preface to The Temple of Nature ends with these words:

"In the Eleusinian mysteries, the philosophy of the works of Nature, with the origin and progress of society, are believed to have been taught by allegoric scenery, explained by the Hierophants to the initiated, which gave rise to the machinery of the following poem."
Far from being any sort of "one off", this allusion to the ancient religious mysteries of Demeter and Persephone is also reflected in the Latin epigraph that appears on the title page of Temple of Nature:
Unde hominum pecudumque genus, vitæque volantum,
Et quæ marmoreo fert monstra sub æquore pontus?

Igneus est illis vigor, & cælestis origo.
[Vergil, Aeneid, VI. 728]
Here is an English translation of these lines:
From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,
and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.
The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine.
This is taken from the famous sixth book of Vergil's Aeneid, in which we are told of Aeneas' journey to Underworld. And this is the very episode of the Aeneid that has been suspected by some of being "no other than a figurative description of an initiation, and particularly a very exact picture of the spectacles in the Eleusinian mysteries, where everything was done in show and machinery." That is a quote from Bishop Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses, which I have written about previously in this blog: Luck on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis (AND Luck on Gibbon on Warburton on Vergil on Eleusis).

Something of the impact that Warburton's thesis (that Book VI of the Aeneid is a "figurative description" of the Eleusinian Mysteries) has had is indicated by the opening paragraph of the entry for "Aeneid" in the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, by Albert G. Mackey and H. L. Haywood, published in 1909:
AENEID: Bishop Warburton (Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated) has contended, and his opinion has been sustained by the great majority of subsequent commentators, that Vergil, in the Sixth Book of his immortal epic, has, under the figure of the descent of Aeneas into the infernal regions, described the ceremony of initiation into the Ancient Mysteries.
Even more important, at least to the present discussion, than the high regard still given to the Divine Legation by Freemasons 130 years after the death of it's author, is the fact that we happen to know that Erasmus Darwin was himself not only familiar with Warburton's writings, but that he found the argument in the Divine Legation worthy of close study and praise. In an October, 1789 letter to Josiah Wedgwood (whose daughter, Susannah, married Erasmus' son Robert in 1796, making both Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood Charles' grandfathers) Erasmus wrote:
Dear Sir,
I received your excellent critique upon my explanation of the Portland vase, and shall correct it according to all your remarks. If you read Warburton's whole account of the ancient mysteries in the Divine Legation -- and not the part only, which belongs to Virgil's 6th book -- I think you will see a greater probability in his conclusion, that these fables were from great antiquity represented scenically or emblematically in those mysteries.

Pray send me D'Hancarville. I will also peruse Spence's polymetis, and Bryant's mythology (the Bacon's works I saw were at Sir B. Boothby's in quarto), and try to add more learned quotations. Indeed the explanations of those figures were I think what I had chiefly from you. I take no merit about it, I only wish to make the figures more interesting by connecting them as it were in one history.
All here beg to be remember'd to all at Etruria.
Adieu from dear Sir
your affectionate friend
E Darwin
I have disobey'd you, and shewn your Vase to 2 or 3, but they were philosophers, not cogniscenti. How can I possess a jewel, and not communicate the pleasure to a few Derby Philosphes?

[Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin, Desmond King-Hele, editor, pp. 347-348. Original: Cambridge University Library, DAR 227.1:117]
[The Portland vase, mentioned in the letter above, is no ordinary piece of pottery. It has its own wikipedia entry and at least one youtube video. It made an appearance in Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 science fiction short story All The Time In The World. The vase has also been at the center of scholarly controversy concerning it's date, and is the subject of the 2005 book The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure.]
The three Latin lines that Erasmus Darwin chose to set the stage for Temple of Nature were from the speech delivered by Anchises to his son in answer to Aeneas' query about the "mad longing for life" of those who have already lived and already died and who are now anxiously awaiting their next incarnation. Below is a more substantial excerpt from this speech, using H.R. Fairclough's 1916 prose translation (found here):

"First, know that heaven and earth and the watery plains the moon’s bright sphere and Titan’s star [the sun], a spirit within sustains [spiritus intus alit]; in all the limbs mind moves the mass and mingles with the mighty frame. Thence springs the races of man and beast, the life of winged creatures, and the monsters that ocean bears beneath his marble surface. Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those seeds of life, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, or earthly limbs and frames born but to die. Hence their fears and desires, their griefs and joys; nor do they discern the heavenly light, penned as they are in the gloom of their dark dungeon. Still more! When life’s last ray has fled, the wretches are not entirely freed from all evil and all the plagues of the body; and it needs must be that many a taint, long ingrained, should in wondrous wise become deeply rooted in their being. Therefore are they schooled with punishments, and pay penance for bygone sins. Some are hung stretched out to the empty winds; from others the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out by fire till length of days, when time’s cycle is complete, has removed the inbred taint and leaves unsoiled the ethereal sense and pure flame of spirit: each of us undergoes his own purgatory [quisque suos patimur manis]. Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body."
Here is a quick and dirty paraphrase:
A single vital force pervades the Cosmos and is the source of all motion, life and thought. Individual living things carry within them this same force, in whom it is like a fiery divine seed. These seeds survive intact after the death of the body, but they retain the imprint of wrongful deeds performed during the previous life, and so they must undergo purification. A few, like Anchises, who are most virtuous are able to enter Elysium, while the vast majority, after one thousand years of purification, are brought to the river Lethe where they drink and, therefore, forget all that has happened before, and then they are once again reincarnated in new bodies on earth.
[my own paraphrase]
The important thing here is that Erasmus Darwin has chosen his three line epigraph to deftly indicate the broad sweep of classical Pagan theology, inclusive of pantheism, polytheism, panpsychism, metempsychosis, and, most importantly of all, the interconnectedness of all things in the Cosmos by way of sympatheia. Not only did this world-view grounded solidly in ancient Pagan thought directly influence Charles Darwin's own views on sympathy, but they also clearly form the foundation for the theory of evolution itself.

For a little more on how all the various aspects of Pagan theology named above are interconnected see my previous post on Children of the Gods: Stoic Theology from a Modern Pagan Perspective, as well as other links below.


[The image priestesss.jpg at the top of the post is from an entry titled "Seer" at the blog here, where it is credited to "Suzanna / Comtesse de Wurzeltod".]