On the Individual and the Whole


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“A human is a part of the whole called by us, ‘the universe.'” Apart, limited in time and space, he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty…We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.”

–Albert Einstein, most likely from New York Post, November 28, 1972

“Either an ordered universe, or a stew of mixed ingredients, yet still coherent order. Otherwise, how could a sort of private order subsist within you, if there is disorder in the Whole?”

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4:27

“Suppose you had made yourself an outcast from the unity of nature—you were born a part of it, but now you have cut yourself off. Yet here lies the paradox—that it is open to you to rejoin that unity. No other part has that privilege from god, to come together again once it has been separated and cut away. Just consider the grace of god’s favor to man. He has put it in man’s power not to be broken off from the Whole in the first place, and also, if he has broken off, to return and grow back again, resuming his role as a member.”

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8:34

“He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity—only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated.”

–C.S. Lewis, from Perelandra

“A work of art, then, is characterized, not by the absence of distinct parts, on the contrary, by the greatest possible distinctness and self-sufficiency of its parts — provided only that we do not think of them as mutually impenetrable. It is equally clear that interpenetration is a quality which the parts possess, not as mere objects, but precisely as being (a) wholes in themselves and (b) ‘parts’ of the same whole. They interpenetrate and are pro tanto inseparable, not because the whole is a formless waste, but because the whole has form, and that form enters into each of them. Can we therefore go further and affirm that the ideal organic relation of the part to the whole is a sort of identity of the one with the other? That, in musical terms, ideal counterpoint is fugue—where the whole melody is found again in each part? Now, according to Soloviev, this is or ought to be true of human society—that the whole of which individual men are the ‘parts.’ Not only man in general, but each individual man ‘may become all’ (he says), as he lives and learns to do away with that inward boundary which severs him from the rest.

“And again: the ideal ‘person, or embodiment of the idea, is only an individualization of the all-oneness, which is indivisibly present in each of its individualizations.’ Thus, in the ‘all-one-idea’ realized, the part is the whole, not by merger, but by the contrary by intensive development of its true individuality or part-ness. Or rather the whole is the part; for, whereas when we think abstractly about being, as in the process of logic and classification, the whole is predicated f the part, so that we say, ‘A horse is a quadruped,’ in the actual process of being, the order is reversed, and the race or archetype is the species or individual—because it gives it being. ”

–Owen Barfield, “Form in Art and Society,” in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays 

3 thoughts on “On the Individual and the Whole

  1. The first line Barfield quotes could have been lifted from A. Schopenhauer. The World As Will and Idea. He had a very strong influence on F. Nietzsche while he was young, at least up until 1876. FN has had a very strong influence on me, I know all of his books, published and unpublished, and have read virtually all the commentary (that I found worthwhile) on his thought–most of which is utter trash, I thought that I would quote from his translation of Epicurus in a small book of FN’s which he never published:

    “Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

    • Excellent insight. My paper for Mythcon this year was an effort to place the Inklings in the Western contemplative tradition. It relied heavily on the Stoics and Epicureans as Pierre Hadot understands them. Again and again, the Inklings, Barfield included, remind us that philosophy is the love of wisdom and it is worthless if not lived.

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