Restoring the Soul of the World
“We have the greatest technological knowledge of any civilization, but we have forgotten what it means to be alive in the world, to be alive in a living universe. Yet without this living connection to the world, our lives become trivial, routine, and mechanical. Being cut off, we start to wonder about the meaning of life and raise other abstract questions, while meaning itself is an experience of being bonded to the world and others at the very deepest level.”
With that thought provoking opening, David Fideler embarks on a journey that has one goal in mind. His mission is to restore a soulful respect for our world by reacquainting us with the spiritual essence of our intelligent, living cosmos, which was “pushed underground with the mechanistic worldview.”
Restoring the Soul of the World educates, inspires and challenges the reader as it weaves a path from ancient times to a vision for the future. Fideler draws on his rare breadth of knowledge to tell the story of human conquest over nature and the subsequent disconnection from her which now threatens our psychological well-being and future survival. Ideas have consequences; that becomes evident as he traces the historical chain of thought which separated us moderns from our ancient ancestors who gained insight and inspiration from their intimate relationship with nature. For the ancients,
[T]he world for them was alive, numinous, and sacred—animated by a living spirit. And they were part of that world. Every part of creation spoke to them—brooks, trees, and mountains—and they responded appropriately with myth, story, and song, in a vital spirit of participation. (p. 2)
The ancients Fideler refers to are not prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Instead, he points to those who laid the foundation of Western civilization—the Greeks.
The ancient Greeks saw life and divinity in all things. Deeply moved by the order and beauty of nature, the ancient thinkers set out on a quest to understand the cosmic pattern and our own relation to it. (p.3)
Ironically, as the author makes clear, this picture of “the cosmos as a living organism with which we are bound in vital participation” was maintained by the greatest thinkers in the West until it was replaced by a mechanistic view of the universe during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then, did the West lose its connection with the living cosmos. The result has been nothing short of catastrophic for our souls and our environment. The current state of affairs is not the result of science per se; it is the result of the outdated mechanistic worldview assumed by moderns as they deploy science. The resulting existential angst is palpable in modern society. In our haste to rid ourselves of myth and superstition, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We now stand disconnected from the intelligence of Nature because we no longer view her as a sacred being. Nature is, for most moderns, simply a resource to be exploited—a means to curb the insatiable appetite of mankind for more comfort, pleasure, and possessions.
As Fideler points out, there is still hope. However, our hope hinges on our ability to reconnect with our source—Nature. He describes one such reconnecting experience he had while wandering into nature at night:
Suddenly, as the brilliant stars came into focus, blazing like diamonds and colored gems, a feeling of wonder and amazement began to overpower the ego’s frail timidity. Under the sparkling cover of starlight, our souls open to the depths of the universe. Overpowered by a sense of astonishment and belonging, our fears begin to fall away. (p. 9)
In spite of his frequent use of beautiful and inspiring language, Fideler does not engage in romantic historicism that bemoans the evils of modern science. Quite the opposite, Fideler’s point is that we must rely on a scientific understanding of nature to restore our environment. However, he submits we must restore our relationship with the living cosmos first. Only then, he suggests, will we stop viewing nature as a “mechanized, objectivized, and conceptualized system” and start learning from her genius. Without being alarmist, Fideler points out there is no time to waste. Rapid human growth has already made “sustainability” strategies untenable. The survival of our species now depends on learning how to “biomimic” the regenerative and restorative processes of nature herself. We must heal the damage already done to nature as we simultaneously learn to do no more.
For practicing Stoics, Fideler’s book appeals on two levels. First, he is an advocate for reconnecting us with the intelligence that is omnipresent within the cosmos. The Stoics called this intelligence universal Reason or logos, and they considered it divine. Within his Meditations, we see Marcus Aurelius’ contemplation on his place in the cosmos. As Fideler points out,
Wondering about our place in the cosmic pattern is the beginning of all philosophy, science, and religion. (p. 10)
In the beginning, philosophy and science were the same—and both were connected with religion, because the desire to understand the cosmos has always been a spiritual quest. As Einstein wrote, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” The order and beauty of nature awakens wonder, awe, and amazement. Thus, the sense of wonder is the cosmological impulse, the common seed from which religion, philosophy, and science emerge. (p. 10)
Second, Restoring the Soul of the World provides a clarion call to all of humanity to begin living within our means—not just our financial means, our ecological means. We have been living above and beyond the earth’s means to support human life for a long time now. In the twenty-first century, Stoics can be exemplars by living consciously and modestly. Moderation is a virtue in Stoicism, and this is one area where practicing Stoics can immediately begin living their philosophy.
THE ATOMISTIC UNIVERSE VS. THE INTELLIGENT COSMOS
Readers who are interested in Stoicism will discover many gems in this book. In Chapter 3, Fideler puts the ‘providence or atoms’ disjunction into historical context. He points out that “both the Epicurean and the Stoics appealed to scientific ideas in support of their opposing viewpoints” (p. 58). Further, he highlights one of the frequently overlooked motivations for the Epicurean theory of the cosmos:
The materialism of the Epicureans was used as a means of refuting popular superstitions regarding the afterlife. If someone coined a motto to sum up the thought of the Epicureans, it might read “science removes the fear of the gods.” (p. 59)
As Fideler notes, the Stoics had the same goal of eudaimonia in mind; however, they took an entirely different path.
Like the Epicureans, the Stoics sought to discover a pathway to an untroubled life of self-sufficiency—but beyond that similar desire, no two perspectives could be further apart. (p. 60)
For the Stoics, the entire universe was a living organism, synonymous with God, and permeated by a vital, animating spirit. This spirit or pneuma, like everything else, is ‘material,’ but at the same time intelligent and dynamic. (p. 60)
Fideler concludes his description of the Stoic worldview with this succinct yet profoundly accurate summation of Stoic physics and theology:
Zeno rejected atomism because the universe is finely ordered. Atomism left too much to chance. For Zeno the world is divinely ordered, but like every other Greek philosopher he did not suggest the existence of an external creator God that brought the universe into being, like an engineer who draws up a plan. Instead, Zeno’s universe arose from a divine ordering principle that was synonymous with the universe itself and existed at the heart of creation. This principle he called the Logos, which might best be translated as “intelligence.” (pp. 60-1)
Moreover, Fideler employs Stoic concepts like living in accordance with nature and cosmopolitanism as tools to restore our connection to the cosmos. Like the ancient Stoics, Fideler understands there is a correlation between our relationship with the cosmos and our relationship with our fellow humans. Fideler also refers to the Stoic spiritual exercise known as “the view from above” and quotes Pierre Hadot’s classic book, Philosophy as a Way of Life:
Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality. (p. 230)
Fideler suggests three things we moderns need to learn from the ancients in order to live in a “new cosmopolis.” They are:
- A real, felt sense of our bond with the transcendent order of which we are a part
- A vision of living nature and an appreciation of nature’s intelligence
- An ethical concern for society based on our intrinsic kinship with others. (p. 232)
Stoics will immediately recognize each of these are consistent with Stoicism. This book is not explicitly about Stoic theory or practice; nevertheless, I think everyone attempting to practice Stoicism as a way of life will benefit from reading it.
THE ALCHEMY OF ENGAGEMENT
In the final chapter of Restoring the Soul of the World, Fideler provides the wakeup call we all need to hear—our current level of consumption is not sustainable. However, he does not conclude his book with doom and gloom; he points to scientific research under the moniker of Biomimicry that can help us regenerate and restore the living organism—Earth—of which we are part. He refers to the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, by Janine Benyus, and highlights the three principles of biomimicry:
- Nature as model
- Nature as measure
- Nature as mentor
Here again, the practicing Stoic can easily see how these principles align with the Stoic admonition to live according to Nature. Biomimicry requires us to learn from nature rather than simply learning about nature. That distinction is subtle yet critical. Fideler writes,
I’ve often noticed how people talk about “the environment” with clinical detachment, as though nature is not alive, and not really our home, but more like a sterilized hospital room or laboratory setting into which we were placed by accident. (p. 245)
This clinical detachment is far removed from the ancient philosophers conception of nature as “teacher and guide” and the Stoic’s conception of “nature as animated and intelligent” (p. 247). From this ancient perspective, we moderns can allow this holistic ecosystem we call Mother Earth to teach us her intrinsic rejuvenating and restorative processes. Science can help us understand and mimic those processes to repair the ecosystem we humans have damaged. To do so, we must move beyond the mechanistic view of nature and begin treating nature as a living organism of which we are a part. The intelligence within the cosmos gave rise to the intelligence within mankind, and the connection between the two must be restored. Man is not the measure of all things, Nature is. The longer we hold onto the hubristic idea that the goal of humankind is to establish dominion over nature, the more damage we will do to nature and ourselves.
David Fideler does a wonderful job of pointing to the path that can lead us forward, and that path leads through some ancient wisdom we have ignored far too long. The ancients understood the necessity of our physical and psychological connection to the cosmos; that connection was an essential aspect of their thoughts and lives. The first step toward Restoring the Soul of the World is restoring our individual soul connection to the cosmos. The ancient Stoics taught us that our soul is a fragment of the world-soul—our reason is a fragment of universal Reason. The misconceived conception of nature that resulted from the scientific revolution has led us astray. Science is not the enemy; scientism—the misuse of science is. Science enables us to understand and mimic the healing processes of nature. Nevertheless, the appropriate use of science depends on a view nature as the model, measure, and mentor for our lives rather than as a means to solely human ends.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many people are searching for meaning in their lives. Something is missing, and we seem incapable of putting a finger on it. Fideler’s book does not complete the puzzle; however, it does provide a critical piece that can help us find our way forward by employing the wisdom of the ancients. At the very heart of our environmental problem is a spiritual problem. We are separated from Nature by a mechanistic worldview that denies the divine order within the cosmos. Science is not the cause of the problem. It is the mechanistic interpretation and commercial application of science, absent any soulful reverence for Nature, which created our current spiritual and environmental catastrophe. As Fideler points out quite clearly, there is no fundamental antipathy between scientific discovery and spirituality. In fact, many of scientific theories and discoveries which engendered our modern age came from deeply spiritual thinkers. As Einstein famously stated, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Regardless of what modern people may think about God (which has for many become a concept), I think it is very important for us modern people to understand and embrace the experience of the sacred, which, at its core, is not a concept, but a human experience of belonging to a larger reality that transcends our limited selves. (p. 256)
It is time for humanity to look beyond lame science and blind religion to find an answer for the common causes of humanity and the well-being of our ecosystem. Fideler’s Restoring the Soul of the World draws upon the wisdom of the past to create a reasonable path forward—a path that begins with the restoration of our relationship with our living, intelligent, and sacred cosmos.
 quote from Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell, p. 273