Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part VIII

Music, Love, and Justice

Justice as a Concors Discordiae

The Law of Correspondence

The “Justice” of the Cosmos:  Homer, Anaximander, Greek Tragedy

Hybris and the Law of Compensation…

     The analogy between David and Orpheus as singers of cosmogony suggests the final and most symbolically resonant way in which the music of the spheres can reawaken the divine self that sleeps in the depths of the soul.

     To understand this we need to remind ourselves of the association of music with justice as we have encountered it so far.  Recall that the music of the spheres is invoked in Cicero’s Somnium in the context of a larger work, which like Plato’s Republic, sets itself the imaginative task of founding the Just City, and in the more specific context of a vision in which Scipio the Elder exhorts his grandson to dedicate himself to the just administration of the commonwealth, which he says is as one of the highest vocations of the wise man.  The just functioning of the commonwealth, says Scipio, depends upon the harmonious interaction of its various estates whose interests are often at odds.  It is, as such, as kind of concors discordiae—a harmony of discord.

     Remember too that in Lorenzo’s evocation of the theme, the contrast between the Justice of the Old Law and the Mercy of the New is obviously the central theme of Shakespeare’s play.  In the Christian dispensation, Justice and Love are opposites, while at the same time merely different aspects of the same quality; reconciled in the New Law, they produce, once again, a concors discordiae.

    For related reasons, Justice, Love, and the music of the spheres have always been symbolically assimilated.  The conflation of these concepts goes back, in fact, to the very beginning of Western thought.

     The music of the spheres is produced by the revolutions of the stars and planets, and as moderns we might wonder why these inanimate and impersonal bodies should behave as if they were living beings constrained by the same moral laws that regulate human society.  The short answer is that they areliving beings, celestial animals, as Plato calls them, whose spherical material bodies are animated by indwelling souls he calls Intelligences.  Indeed, the cosmos itself is, in Plato’s phrase, a divine animal, whose visible materia is God’s body, and whose invisible form is God’s soul–his “immanent Mind”, to use Virgil’s phrase.

     Such philosophical metaphors merely illustrate the habit of the primitive and mythogenic psyche to project itself into the material universe, finding there the fundamental human dichotomy between body and soul, and all the emotions, virtues and vices, qualities and conditions of ordinary human experience, including Justice, Love, and so on.  In later literature and philosophy, this reflex is rationalized as the law of correspondence, according to which everything in the great world (the macrocosm) exists in miniature in the little world of man (the microcosm).  The law of correspondence, therefore, suggests that the just, orderly, and harmonious operations of the human collective (the polis) and the human individual (the moral psyche) have their counterparts in the justice, order, and harmony that govern nature on a universal scale.  

     The idea of the “justice” of the cosmos also goes back to the very beginning of European thought.  Both Homer and Hesiod refer to the just and equal apportionment to Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus of the government of the four regions into which the universe is divided—the underworld allotted to Hades, the sea to Poseidon, and the heavens to Zeus, with the earth and Mt. Olympus shared amongst the brothers.

     This is the sacred decree that is alluded to in a famous passage–the subject of endless allegorical commentary–in Iliad XV, where Zeus, enraged at the meddling of Poseidon in the war between the Greeks and Trojans, sends a messenger to command him to withdraw from the Trojan plain.  To Zeus’ highhanded decree, Poseidon protests angrily:

No, no.  Great though he be, this that he has said is too much,
if he will force me against my will, me, who am his equal
in rank.  Since we are three brothers born by Rheia to Kronos,
Zeus, and I, and the third is Hades, lord of the dead men.
All was divided among us three ways, each given his domain.
I when the lots were shaken drew the grey sea to live in
forever; Hades drew the lot of the mists and the darkness,
and Zeus was allotted the wide sky, in the cloud and the bright air.
But earth and high Olympos are common to all three. Therefore
I am no part of the mind of Zeus.  Let him in tranquility
and powerful as he is stay satisfied with his third share.

The three brothers have been given their provinces by “lot”, that is, by Moira or Destiny, and therefore any encroachment upon the province of one by another is fiercely resisted as an injustice, insofar as it threatens the balance of power upon which the peaceful government of the cosmos depends.

     As you remember, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were, from the very earliest stages of Greek philosophy, conventionally interpreted naturaliter as allegorical symbols of the elements fire, water, and earth, respectively.   But even if as a rational philosopher (as opposed to a “lying poet”) you conceive of these as “inanimate” elements, they are, all the same, as bound as any Olympian god by the same sacred law of justice not to encroach upon the province of the other elements.

     Here is the teaching of the sixth-century B.C. Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander of Miletus, as outlined in a late-antique commentary by Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics:

Anaximander…asserted that the source and element of existing things is “The Infinite” [to Apeiron].  He was the first to introduce this name for the source of all.  He says that it is neither water nor any of the other so-called “elements”, but of another nature which is infinite and eternal, from which all the heavens and the world-orders in them arise…

…He says that all existing things come into being and pass away according to what must be; for “they make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time”, as he puts it in somewhat poetical language. (On Aristotle’s Physics [6th A.D.])

 From other fragments preserved by later authors, we can piece together what this cryptic statement means.  According to Anaximander, before they are “separated out” of The Infinite into a world-order, the elemental opposites—hot and cold, wet and dry—are all mixed up together in a formless heap, a state of mutual aggression, in which they commit “injustice” by overstepping their bounds, invading each other’s provinces, for which they must eventually make “reparation” if the balance is to be restored.  The same principle governs the revolution of the seasonal year—the meaning of Anaximander’s phrase “according to the ordinance of time”–, in which the excessive heat of summer is forced to withdraw and “make reparation” to the advancing cold, and the excessive cold of winter must make reparation for the injustice it has done to the hot.  This is Anaximander’s moral “law of compensation”, and it governs the human microcosm as it does the macrocosm.

     In our first series of essays (Involuted Mysteries) on numbers, we discussed the law of compensation as it applies to the human body, which falls into disease whenever one of the opposites becomes dominant in the form of an excess of one of the humours, the health of the body depending upon the restoration of balance amongst all four. The same law of compensation governs human society.

     We see the dire consequences of its violation most dramatically in Greek tragedy, with its admonition against hybris, the tragic failure of the protagonist to recognize his proper place in the cosmos–to “think mortal thoughts”, as the Apollonian aphorism goes–, the inevitable consequence of which is his payment of reparation in being cast down even lower than the position from which he originally aspired.  As the Chorus admonishes at the end of Sophocles’ Antigone:

Above all, happiness depends
On wisdom.  It is never right
To sin against the gods.  Great blows
Repay great words of boasting men,
And teach us wisdom in old age.

      The fall of the tragic hero is just payment for his overweening pride, especially his lack of regard for the rights of the gods.  So Oedipus and Jocasta who once scoffed at the oracle are repaid; so Agamemnon, who destroyed the altars of the gods at Troy, pays the penalty at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra.