Ecologists tell us that the interdependence of all living things makes the world more than a mechanism, more than the sum of its parts, perhaps even in some sense organically alive in its own right. But this is little more than a rediscovery in scientific terms of what had already been understood “poetically” in all previous civilizations. They may not have had (or needed) the term “ecology,” but the ancient writers were deeply aware of the inter-relatedness of the natural world, and of man as the focus or nexus of that world, which they expressed in the doctrine of correspondences. It was, of course, not scientific in its formulation, but it expressed a profound insight that remains valid, and the present ecological crisis could only have developed in a world that has forgotten it, or forgotten to live by it.
In A Secular Age (p. 60), the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, contrasts the ancient notion of cosmos with the modern secular universe:
I use “cosmos” for our forebearers’ idea of the totality of existence because it contains the idea of an ordered whole. It is not that our own universe isn’t in its own way ordered, but in the cosmos the order of things was a humanly meaningful one. That is, the principle of order in the cosmos was closely related to, often identical with, that which gives shape to our lives.
Thus Aristotle’s cosmos has at its apex and centre God, whose ceaseless and unvarying action exemplifies something close to Plato’s eternity. But this action, a kind of thinking, is also at the centre of our lives. Theoretical thought is in us that which is “most divine.” And for Plato, and this whole mode of thought in general, the cosmos exhibits the order which we should exemplify in our own lives, both individually and as societies.
Taylor adds that for medieval Christians, as for many of the ancients,
This kind of cosmos is a hierarchy; it has higher and lower levels of being. And it reaches its apex in eternity; it is indeed, held together by what exists on the level of eternity, the Ideas, or God, or both together – Ideas as the thoughts of the creator.
C.S. Lewis, who knew and loved the medieval “cosmos”, describes it as “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine” (cited in Ward, Planet Narnia, p. 24). It was an organic whole, ordered from within, animated by a hierarchy of souls, perhaps even by a “world soul.” This is not pantheism, although it could become so once the transcendence of God had been forgotten. It meant that nature possessed a sacred and spiritual value, by virtue of its creation by God and the immanent presence of God within it. The world was a book, pregnant with meanings that God had placed there. All things, even the conjectured world soul, were creatures. The stars and planets in particular were angelic creatures, participating in their own way in the cosmic intelligence, the movements of their high dance helping to determine the pattern of events unfolding below.
Each of the seven planets–by which is meant the seven heavenly bodies that can be perceived by the naked eye to move–was thought to sing a certain note, together expressing the harmony of the universe; a harmony that may be transmitted through music to the human soul. According to Lewis (cited in Ward, p. 21), this music of the spheres
is the only sound which has never for one split second ceased in any part of the universe; with this positive we have no negative to contrast. Presumably if (per impossibile) it ever did stop, then with terror and dismay, with a dislocation of our whole auditory life, we should feel that the bottom had dropped out of our lives. But it never does. The music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.
One of the most telling moments in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader comes when Eustace meets the retired star, Ramandu. Rather puzzled, he remarks that, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”