The symbolic truth of Medieval Cosmology

    In this post, I want to discuss how medieval cosmology is symbolically true.  This post will be highly speculative and outlandish, but none of the ideas discussed are original to this post; they all have been around for a long time.  Indeed, I think that they show that ancient and medieval people had insights into the nature of reality that have been lost in modern times.

    I have become increasingly convinced that the medieval world system is true, but symbolically, not physically.  They did not have our physical science so they did not know as much about the physical universe.  In addition, one of Owen Barfield's ideas about the evolution of consciousness is that as consciousness has developed through time, thought has become more separated.  For instance, the word "pneuma" meant both "spirit" and "wind."  So, the people of the Middle Ages might not have distinguished between the physical and symbolic interpretations to the same extent we would have.  

    The following picture, from Peter Apian's Cosmographia shows the medieval universe: 


Here is another picture in color, from the luminarium website: 

    In the medieval world system, the Earth is situated at the center of the universe, then above the Earth are concentric spheres, which form the Heavens.  The boundary between the Earth and the Heavens is the sphere of the Moon.  Then above the moon we have the spheres of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the stars.  

    Everything above the sphere of the Moon was believed to be unchanging, while in the air, between the surface of Earth and the Moon there lived "airy beings," subtle creatures, neither angels nor demons but perhaps kin to fairies or such legendary creatures.  

    In his post "We Are Not Alone", William Wildblood writes: 

    "The physical world we are aware of is something like the outermost crust of  sphere of being which has many levels corresponding, no doubt, to the many mansions that Jesus told us were in his Father's house.  There is this difference though.  Whereas in, say, the case of an orange the outer skin is the largest part of the whole, the exact opposite is the case with this order of reality.  Every inner section or plane is greater than the one external to it, and, not only that, but it includes further dimensions beyond he three we know as well.  Langugae fails here or, at least mine certainly does, but the idea that the inner is greater than the outer should not be so difficult to grasp if we think of the outer as essentially projected from the inner or a more limited version of it."

    This corresponds with the medieval model, except in that model the higher levels are outer rather than inner.  For example, the sphere of the Moon contains the sphere of Earth and the sphere of Mercury contains the spheres of both the Moon and the Earth.  But in both cases we are using a spatial metaphor to describe something that goes beyond the spatial, so both ways are helpful.  

    According to this idea, we should think of the spheres not as physical expanses, but as levels of reality.  Each higher level is less restrictive in terms of consciousness and other aspects than the preceeding level.  

    But, perhaps there is a distinct break corresponding to the boundary between the Heavens and the Earth at the sphere of the Moon.  In his book The Discarded Image (which is about the Medieval cosmology), C.S. Lewis writes that below the sphere of the Moon was the world of Nature, the physical world of change with which we are familiar.  I believe that the people of the Middle Ages were basically correct in this.  But rather than viewing the world of Nature as simply the Earth, we should consider it to be the entire physical universe.  

    In all the levels of reality above the physical universe, there is no entropy.  Rather it is what Bruce Charlton has called "open-ended creation."  So all change is positive, adding to what exists rather than taking away.  The people of the Middle Ages made a mistake in equating change with degeneration, but their insight is correct if we substitute change for entropy. 

    I believe that entropy is just the tendency of the universe to return to its original state of chaos.  The alchemists and Aristotelians were right to envision matter as pure potentiality, the ability to take on any form.  This form comes from the spiritual realms, the levels of reality above the material universe.    This undifferentiated matter naturally shapes itself to take on whatever qualities are presented to it, but after a period of time, the qualities leave to go somewhere else.    

    And if we view the physical universe as a level of reality, then that might make sense of the multiverse.  I am not sure whether to attribute this statement to William James Tychonievich or not, since he heard it in a dream, but it is a sensible assessment of the idea of a multiverse:

     "This has convinced me that there is no such thing as a parallel universe.  The universe we are in is in fact the only universe.  And that means it is real -- fully real."

    Two parallel universe theories, the quantum multiverse and the string theory landscape both consider the universe as merely an instantiation of one of many possibilities.  The fundamental reality is the spectrum of possibilities.  On the contrary, if there is a single universe, then it comes from some deeper reason, something more real and more meaningful.  

    Just for the sake of interest, I include this quote from Plato in the Timaeus, where Timaeus raises and rejects the possibility of a multiverse (the word used is world, but since later in the dialogue different planets and stars are discussed, it is clear that in this case world means the entire cosmos): 

    "Are we right in saying that there is one world, or that they are many and infinite?  There must be one only, if the created copy is to accord with the original.  For that which includes all other intelligible creatures cannot have a second or companion; in that case there would be need of another living being which would include both, and of which they would be parts, and the likeness would be more truly said to resemble not them, but that other which included them.  In order then that the world might be solitary, like the perfect aniimal, the creator made not two worlds or an infinite number of them; but there is and ever will be one only-begotten and created heaven."

    But suppose there are other intelligent beings?  Where would they be?  Rather than thinking of multiple cosmoi, multiple planets makes sense.  Since this level of reality is physical, then it makes sense that the realms of these beings would be separated by a physical means.  The universe is so vast and there are so many stars that I do believe some have planets which are inhabited.  However, the inhabitants of any planet seem to be prohibited by vast distances from visiting any other planet.  One reason might be to prevent beings from one planet from destroying or corrupting others from another planet.  

    Also, suppose we interpret the air between the Moon and the Earth symbolically, as subtle realms between the physical and the spiritual?  William Wildblood has written about this, referring to it as the psychic plane:

    "The psychic plane is higher than the physicla (higher meaning freer and more expansive) and relates to it as the mind does to the body.  But still it is the plane of subjectivity, being comprised of our thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs and experiences, both individual and collective.  This gives us the clue that it is largely a creation of the created.  Spirit and matter are divine realities but the psychic plane is the product of human and non-human thinking and imaging.  (Non-human as it contains entities that are of a different order to ourselves, entities known in folklore and myth).  It is both formed of and contains the psychic impressions and experiences of all created life."

    What about the level directly above ours?  I think Dante had insight into this when he put the Garden of Eden directly atop the mountain of Purgatory, right below Heaven.  Indeed, I believe the level directly above ours is indeed the Garden of Eden.  That would mean the Fall of Man was indeed a fall, from a higher level of reality to a lower one.  If there are beings on other planets, they may have their own Edens, different realms from ours but in the same level of reality.  

    If that is true, then that level may be very similar to the Earth as we know it, while others may be much difficult to imagine, not because they are alien but because they are richer and more expansive than the physical universe.  For example, someone hearing the word hippopotamus, which literally means "water horse" may think that a hippo is just some exotic type of horse, when it is really a qualitatively different animal.  It's not that a hippo is alien; it is just difficult to imagine some things without experiencing them.  For example, in 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4, Paul spoke about seeing the Third Heaven, which I would interpret as the level of reality three levels above this one.  There may be some connection between the levels of the spiritual realms and the 9 choirs of angels, where each choir of angels qualitatively differs from the preceeding level.  If there is any truth to this traditional classification, then perhaps each choir lives on a different level.

    A natural question is, is there a level of reality below the physical universe, one more restrictive?  Yes, I think so.  That is the level that is called Sheol or Hades, the underworld depicted in mythology, which Bruce Charlton has written about.  I would distinguish Hades from Hell.  Hell is not a level because the levels of reality are not evil in themselves, they are just states of being.  Hell is parasitic on Creation.  It is using the power of wicked souls to corrupt Creation, to carve out a space of concentrated evil, excluding good.  

    Although, the story of the rebel angels being cast out of Heaven probably means that Hell can only exist in the physical universe, in Hades, or on the psychic plane.  There may well be parts of Hades that have been taken over and are what we refer to as Hell, but I do not believe that this is true for all of Hades.

    Interestingly enough, the spirits of the dead in mythology are depicted as demented and witless, which corresponds with a level of reality where consciousness is so restricted, that it is almost impossible to think.  Also, it seems that the higher levels can give "energy" to the lower levels.  One example would be a miracle.  If matter naturally shapes itself according to the spiritual, then an angel who wanted to heal someone would have no need to make use of such crude methods as surgery.  The angel could simply tell the matter what to do and it would shape itself according to the form presented to it.  The ancient Greeks also seemed to have a similar belief with regard to our world and Hades.  This is recorded in the story of the Odyssey, where Odysseus kills a sheep so that the shades of the dead can drink its blood and speak to him.  In other words, they are dependent on the energy within the blood of the sheep in order to speak.  

    This also relates to the tradition that between His death and Resurrection, Jesus descended to Hades, referred to in 1 Peter 3:19, where it is said that Jesus spoke to the "spirits in prison."  No one but Jesus had the capability to leave Hades under their own power.  

    I will close with a quote from The Discarded Image

    "a medieval man on a nocturnal walk was 'looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonont with music.'  The modern man looking at a night sky feels he is looing out; medieval man was looking in


  1. "I have become increasingly convinced that the medieval world system is true, but symbolically, not physically."

    May be more physically true than people currently think.


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