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 X

Clement’s Orpheus-Christ…

The New Song as the Creator of Cosmic Order and Harmony…

Cosmogonic Love…

     Inevitably, as you won’t be surprised to learn, these ancient moral themes continued to be projected upon the cosmos throughout the Christian era.

Clement of Alexandria, for example, while reading all of the classical pagan motives we encounter in Ovid into the cosmogony in Genesis, writes that it is the New Song of Christ that fashions the world out of chaos.

The passage in question, not coincidentally, follows hard upon Clement’s comparison between Orpheus and David, and between Orpheus and Christ (the New David), in the first chapter of his Protrepticus or Exhortation to the Greeks.  Orpheus’ song, writes Clement, charmed the beasts, uprooted trees, and inspired even stocks and stones to follow him; but Christ has “tamed the most intractable of all wild beasts, man”, transforming his animal pleasures and passions into habits of self-mastery and gentleness, and raising up men of stony ignorance and hardened hearts “unto children of Abraham” (Matt. 3: 9).

In the usual way, then, Clement merely appropriates for the biblical Christ the whole Orphic mystique and power of music and poetry to temper the passions and ennoble the human soul.  And then, in the next paragraph, he inevitably modulates into cosmogony:

See how mighty is the New Song [i.e, of Christ].  It has made men out of stones and men out of wild beasts.  They who were otherwise dead, who had no share in the real and true life, revived when they but heard the song.  Furthermore, it is this which composed the entire creation into melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the whole universe might be in harmony with it.  The ocean it left flowing, yet has prevented it from encroaching upon the land; whereas the land, which was being carried away, it made firm, and fixed as a boundary to the sea.  Aye, and it softened the rage of the fire by air, as one might blend the Dorian mode with the Lydian; and the biting coldness of air it tempered by the intermixture of fire, thus melodiously mingling these extreme [i.e., opposite] notes of the universe.  What is more, this pure song, the stay of the universe and the harmony of all things, stretching from the centre to the circumference and from the extremities to the centre, reduced this whole to harmony…The Word of God …by the power of the Holy Spirit arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man too, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instrument of the universe He makes music to God…

We see in this grand conceit nothing less than the grafting of the whole Hellenistic legacy onto the biblical root-stock.  The cosmogonic function of restraining the aggression of the elemental opposites, allocating them within their proper provinces, and thus ordering the universe in justice and harmony, which Ovid attributes to Nature, Clement now ascribes to the Spirit who brooded over the biblical abyss of Genesis 1 (duly identified with the Greek Chaos), and that Spirit is in turn identified with the Christian Logos.  The Logos is now the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres, the cosmic music that attunes the heavens, reconciles the opposites, and ensouls the world.  The mythological attributes and powers of Orpheus as the mythic incarnation of the harmonia mundi and the healer of men’s disordered spirits are also, once again, reinvested in the Christian Deity, and through Orpheus the biblical personality of Christ is not only enlarged but transformed beyond recognition.

 

The assimilation of this ancient imagery, begun in the Patristic period, is a major project of the Christian Middle Ages.  Here (at the beginning of the sixth century) is Boethius’ prayer in book I, meter 5 of The Consolation of Philosophy: 

Creator of the star-filled universe…, You move the heavens in their swift orbits.  You hold the stars in their assigned paths…When the cold of winter makes the trees bare, You shorten the days to a briefer span; but when warm summer comes, You make the night hours go swiftly. Your power governs the changing year:  in spring, Zephyrus renews the delicate leases that Boreas, the wind of winter had destroyed; and Sirius burns the high corn in autumn that Arcturus had seen in seed.  Nothing escapes Your ancient law; nothing can avoid the work of its proper station.  You govern all things, each according to its destined purpose.  Human acts alone, O Ruler of All, You refuse to restrain within just bounds…

O God, whoever you are who joins all things in perfect harmony, look down upon this miserable earth!…Ruler of all things, calm the roiling waves and, as You rule the immense heavens, rule also the earth in stable concord.

In book II, meter eight, we have another statement of the theme, in which the cosmic justice that binds the warring opposites together in concord and harmony is identified ultimately with Divine Love:

That the universe carries out its changing process in concord and with stable faith, that the conflicting seeds [semina = “elements”] of things are held by everlasting law, that Phoebus in his golden chariot brings in the shining day, that the night, led by Hesperus, is ruled by Phoebe, that the greedy sea holds back his waves within lawful bounds, for they are not permitted to push back the unsettled earth—all this harmonious order of things is achieved by love which rules the earth and the seas, and commands the heavens.  But if love should slack the reins, all that is now joined in mutual love would wage continual war, and strive to tear apart the world which is now sustained in friendly concord by beautiful motion.  Love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends.  O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens rule also your souls.

     In Edmund Spenser’s statement of the topos in his Hymn of Love, Love does not merely maintain the universe in order and harmony, but is in fact the Creator-God that plays the role of Ovid’s Nature in pacifying the aggression of the elemental opposites in the primordial Chaos.

The earth, the air, the water, and the fire
Then gan to range themselves in huge array
And with contrary forces to conspire
Each against other by all means they may,
Threat’ning their own confusion and decay:
Air hated earth and water hated fire,
Till Love relented their rebellious ire.

He then them took and, tempering goodly well
Their contrary dislikes with loved means,
Did place them all in order and compel
To keep themselves within their sundry reigns
Together linkt with adamantine chains:
Yet so as that in every living wight
They mix themselves and show their kindly might.

So ever since they firmly have remained
And duly well observed his behest,
Through which now all these things that are contained
Within this goodly cope, both most and least,
Their being have.

 

According to another, related commonplace, the divine Love that gave birth to the world, holds the warring opposites in its embrace, and regulates the harmonious succession of the days and seasons, also inflames that mystical yearning that draws back the entire creation into its Source.  Boethius, once again, provides a classic statement of the theme, in Consolation book IV, meter vi:

If you wish to discern the laws of the high and mighty God, the high thunderer, with an unclouded mind, look up to the roof of highest heaven.  There the stars, united by just agreement, keep the ancient peace.  The sun, driven by red fire, does not impede the cold circle of Phoebe.  Nor does the Great Bear driving its course at the world’s top, hide itself in the western ocean; it never wants to drown its flames [i.e., the elemental fire] in the sea [i.e., water]…The faithful Hesperus announces the approach of night at the assigned time; then, as Lucifer , it brings back the warming day.

Thus mutual love governs their eternal movement and the war of discord is excluded from the bounds of heaven.  Concord rules the elements with fair restraint; moist things yield place to dry, cold and hot combine in friendship; flickering fire rises on high, and gross earth sinks down.  Impelled by the same causes, the flowering year breathes out its odors in warm spring; hot summer dries the grain and autumn comes in burdened with fruit; then falling rain brings in wet winter.   This ordered change nourishes and sustains all that lives on earth…

Meanwhile the Creator sits on high, governing and guiding the course of things.  King and lord, source and origin, law and wise judge of right.  All things which He placed in motion, He draws back and holds in check; He makes firm whatever tends to stray.  If He did not recall them to their true paths and set them again on their circling courses, all things that the stable order now contains would be wrenched from their source and perish.

This is the common bond of love by which all things seek to be held to the goal of good. Only thus can things endure:  drawn by love they turn again to the Cause which gave them being.

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