The sun moon and planets are unwitting actors that we have cast in a drama of our own contriving.
Wagner’s Lied an den Abendstern (‘O Star of Eve’ – here intriguingly rendered on the musical saw) is not addressed to the second planet from the sun, inhospitably wrapped in clouds of sulphuric acid, but the brilliant and beautiful light that appears at times in the evening sky, which we have made the symbol of the goddess of love.
And what could be more dramatic than Coleridge’s line
The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out, at one stride comes the dark ?
The sun may be a ball of burning gas 93 million miles away, but as far as our life is concerned, we know him as an actor in the daily drama that starts with his rising and ends with his setting, often in scenes of spectacular beauty, which have inspired much in the way of poetry, art and music. Between times he wears different aspects:
‘sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines
and often is his gold complexion dimmed’
and likewise at particular times of the year:
‘Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.’
Dante famously ends each volume of his Divine Comedy with a reference to the stars:
e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle
(‘and whence we emerged to see again the stars’ – Inferno )
puro e disposto a salire alle stelle
(‘pure and ready to mount to the stars’ – Purgatorio )
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle
(‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’ – Paradiso )
But the stars Dante refers to are not the marvellous balls of burning gas, stupendously distant, that were probably the origins of life here on Earth; the stars he means are the ones that come out at night, the stars as they appear to us from our viewpoint here on earth. I think we could avoid a great deal of needless difficulty and strife if people would only learn to separate the two, and treat them with equal respect. They belong to different orders.
In saying this, I speak with the zeal of a repentant sinner.
For a long time – since I was 14, in fact, when I first read the Republic while on holiday in Barra (there was no television; I also learned to play cribbage) – I have been in thrall to Plato, in particular the notion that the world has two aspects: ‘appearance’, made known to us by the senses, which is of no value – being deceptive, ephemeral, mutable and relative – and ‘reality’, apprehended by the intellect, which is equated with truth itself, being eternal, unchanging and absolute.
This is a potent notion, and I am not the first to have been seduced by the marvellous simile of the Cave, with its vision of the seeker striving to escape the darkness of ignorance to gaze at last upon the pure sun of Truth*; indeed I think that lay behind my decision, at the end of my first year at Edinburgh University, to switch my field of study from English Language and Literature to Philosophy and Literature.
So it was something of an epiphany when I realised, a few years ago, that this vision of the world had lost its hold on me. One day, I had an idea for a story which imagined a family living in the innards of a clock – either they were very small or it was very large – on some part of the mechanism which they took to be stationary while all the rest moved around them in highly complex and quite marvellous evolutions. One member of the family – a rebellious teenager, without doubt – somehow gets out of the clock and is able to share the viewpoint of the owner of the house in which it stands, and sees that the place where his family lives is a moving part of the mechanism, while the bits he had thought in motion are fixed in place.
So far, so Platonic: the teenager could stand for the prisoner who escapes the Cave and comes at last to see how things ‘really’ are; however, that was not how the story turned out. Although the boy fully grasps that the world his family experiences is an accident of their position within the clock, and appears as it does only because they assume their viewpoint to be stationary – which could be supposed an error – he is not prepared to concede that it is any less real, and in fact he thinks it more beautiful and marvellous than the view from outside, which strikes him as dull and prosaic; for him, the house-owner is the one missing out, the one who does not appreciate ‘how the world really is’.
I think now (beating my breast in repentance) that in an adult lifetime spent in philosophical reflection of various sorts, I have, like King Lear, ‘ta’en too little care of this’: I hereby cast aside my Platonic blinkers, and proclaim that the world of so-called ‘appearance’ – the world of our everyday experience – which I might term ‘subjective reality’ – is no less real and of no less worth for being ephemeral, accidental, mutable and relative.
Awa’ wi absolutes!
*though I should, perhaps, have paid more heed to the fact that it relies on concrete imagery to persuade us to the reality of the world of Forms.