50. The Volcanic Winter of 536 A.D. and the Beginning of the Dark Ages in the West

File:Cole Thomas The Course of Empire Destruction 1836.jpg

Dark ages
The Course of Empire: Destruction, by Thomas Cole, 1836 (Dark Ages)

In 536 A.D., an Icelandic volcano explosion occurred, blanketing the Earth with such thick ash that it plunged the entire planet into a volcanic winter for the next several years. Nothing like this had ever happened before or since. Day looked like night and the temperature dropped significantly. Several centuries later, people still felt the repercussions of this natural disaster. This volcanic disaster initiated for the West, not just physical darkness, but a cultural and political one as well. Eventually, when things seemed absolutely hopeless, a great and miraculous rebirth occurred. This post is about nothing less than the death and resurrection of the West.

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49. God Becomes Man at the Center Point of History

The Annunciation, a fresco by Fra Angelico

Incarnation History
The Annunciation, fresco by Fra Angelico, 1438–45; in the Museum of San Marco, Florence (Incarnation History)

In my second annual Christmas post, I would like to highlight for you one of my most favorite paintings of all time. It is entitled The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. The Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to have the Christ child – was a common art theme in the Middle Ages. This particular depiction is a masterpiece of Renaissance art and considered one of the greatest paintings in the world. The artist, Fra Angelico, was a Benedictine monk. You can view more works by this great artist in books available through Amazon. Please see the featured book section at the end of this post.

My wife and I actually had the privilege to behold the original in the Museum of San Marco in 2019. San Marco used to be a Benedictine monastery. I had expected to find a framed piece of art hanging on the wall. But to my surprise, the painting is a fresco that greets you as soon as you enter the doorway of the monastery.

In the Fullness of Time

In the Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul said:

“When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”

God sent His Son at the right time – when the world was fully prepared to receive Him. Christianity is an historical faith, not an esoteric one. God’s revelation in the Old Testament occurred exclusively through historical events. For example, the Exodus from Egypt eventually produced the Pentateuch, and the kingship of David produced the Psalms. God reveals Himself through historical events.

God’s greatest revelation of Himself occurred in the Incarnation, God uniting Himself to human flesh. History, including church history, revolves around the Incarnation, events like Christ’s death and resurrection. All history prior to the Incarnation pointed to that event, and all history subsequent to that event was and is animated and directed by that event. In other words, if the Incarnation had not happened, the world would be completely different.

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48. Empedocles – Love and Strife

Empedocles

Of the various qualities attributed to Empedocles, humility was not one of them. He is quoted as saying:

“I am among you as an immortal god, no longer mortal, honored by you all, wreathed in garlands and crowns.”

As a physician, he earned this reputation by performing some noteworthy feats, such as saving the Sicilian town of Selinus from a plague.1 Through sorcery and magic arts, he claimed the power to control winds and storms, to reverse aging, and to ward off evil. He dressed flamboyantly and went from town to town performing his healing arts as well as miracles. He wrote:

“To whatever famous town I go, I am praised by men and women, accompanied by thousands, who thirst for deliverance, some asking for prophecies, and some to be cured by all kinds of diseases.”

Early Life

Empedocles was born in the 5th century B.C. in Acragas (modern day Agrigento) on the southwestern coast of Sicily to a wealthy aristocratic family. Greek colonists from Gela, which was about 45 miles to the east, founded Acragas in 581 B.C. 2 His grandfather, who was also called Empedocles, had the distinction of winning the horse racing event of the Olympic Games of 496 B.C.3

Sixth century Acragas was mainly dominated by tyrants, of which Phalaris is most notorious. He enjoyed roasting men alive inside a bronze bull, their tormented shrieks of pain akin to bellowing. Yet Acragas also flourished as a cultural arts center during this time, with artists of sculptures, paintings, metalwork, and mosaics. In summary, it was a city full of diverse activities.

In 470 B.C., Acragas became a democracy. Empedocles experienced this world until he turned about 20 years old when this significant event unfolded. Even though he favored democracy, he never gave up his flamboyant, aristocratic ways.

As a philosopher, Empedocles is renowned for his idea: the universe’s balance hinges on Love and Strife’s opposing forces. Either he had some profound insight or he was just projecting the state of his marriage onto the universe. Empedocles’ views on Love and Strife had a significant influence on subsequent theories of philosophy, medicine, mysticism, cosmology, and religion.4

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47. Anaxagoras – Mind as the Origin of the Universe

Anaxagoras' theory of mind put Athens on the map.
Anaxagoras, by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, Baroque style, 1636

According to the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, when Anaxagoras returned to his hometown of Clazomenae, Ionia after an extended journey abroad, he saw that his estate had been abandoned. Rather than become despondent as many people would, he simply said, “Unless they had perished, I would not have been saved.”1

As the story goes, after losing everything, he spent the rest of his life in pursuit of wisdom, thus the story of how Anaxagoras became a philosopher. Valerius Maximus comments:

“For if he had given his time to the cultivation of his property rather than of his mind, he would have remained master of domestic things, among the household gods, and would not have returned to them the great Anaxagoras.”2

After this, he moved to Athens, Greece. Quite by accident, as I write this post in the year 2021, it is the 2500th anniversary of Anaxagoras moving from Ionia to Athens.3

Why is this important? Simply because it was Anaxagoras who put Athens on the philosophical map, eventually making it the philosophical capital of the world. Prior to this, Athens had done little in terms of philosophy or scientific inquiry. He paved the way for the golden age of philosophy characterized by heavyweights like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And according to science historian George Sarton, Anaxagoras, the first Presocratic philosopher to reside in Athens, “introduced the scientific spirit into Athens.”

Anaxagoras was a trailblazer. He was so obsessed with philosophical ideas that he did not have time to get involved with politics. Because of this, someone once accused him of having no affection for his country. Anaxagoras did not miss a beat as he immediately quipped, “But I do have the greatest affection for my country,” as he pointed upward toward Heaven.4

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46. Zeno’s Paradoxes – The Discovery of the Infinite in the Finite

Zeno of Elea's paradoxes of plurality spoke to infinite divisibility and the concept of the infinite within the finite.
The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea showed his followers the doors of truth and falsehood. From a 16th-century AD Fresco at the El Escorial, Madrid. (Post: Zeno’s Paradoxes)

It all started when an art teacher asked me a simple question: “How many colors are there?” Well, it turned out that this quite simple question sent me on a trek, at the end of which I ran into Zeno, of all people.

Of course, Zeno did not give me an easy answer to that question. Rather he, as all good philosophers do, caused me to go much deeper into this question than I had ever anticipated, with some surprising results.

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45. Zeno’s Paradoxes – You Can’t Get There from Here

What are Zeno's paradoxes?

After three deep posts on Parmenides, Zeno of Elea will be a refreshing change of pace where we can rest our minds a bit and have some fun. Zeno is known almost exclusively for his intriguing paradoxes.1 For example, according to Zeno, did you know that if you set off to reach a destination, you will never make it? It is impossible. In other words, you can’t get there from here. And his argumentation is pretty convincing. In fact, people have been trying for years to find solutions to his perplexing paradoxes. But before we get into all of that, let’s learn a little bit about his life.

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44. Parmenides Discovers Being and the Origin of the Universe

Parmenides' philosophy was communicated via a poem illustrating the idea of eternal being and the divine origin of the universe.

If you are looking for a purely rationalistic discussion on Parmenides’ philosophy and his idea of eternal being, you have come to the wrong place.

The majority of the websites out there take the rationalistic approach, but we cannot separate the man from his ideas. Therefore, if you are looking for a more holistic approach to understanding Parmenides’ concept of oneness and the idea of eternal being, please proceed.

His philosophy was an outworking of his own being. And his experiences; it was not a purely rationalistic endeavor as we tend to view philosophy in the modern era. In fact, it was anything but that – it wasn’t that it was irrational. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, it was suprarational. We moderns are trapped in a rationalistic matrix, which is why we are so miserable. If there is any hope for us, we must become familiar with and understand the concept behind the little known world of suprarational thought.

Please do not proceed with this post unless you have read the previous two posts (post 42 and post 43), for Parmenides’ philosophy arose organically and naturally out of his mystical experiences and his poetry. The Academy would mock and dismiss Parmenides if he were still alive today. But yet if philosophies derived by such origins are nonsensical, why have they endured and why do they continue to be discussed by scholars?

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43. Parmenides the Priest-Physician Discovers Mystical Healing Powers of Life

Parmenides the Pythagorean priest-physician

Did Parmenides receive his deep philosophical insights because he was a priest?

If this were true, it would disappoint many moderns who like to view the Presocratics as those who spearheaded the triumph of reason over religion.

While it is correct to say that Presocratics like Xenophanes did accomplish much in discounting narrow superstitious beliefs, it is not at all true that they can be charged with disparaging religion or spirituality. Rather, the evidence shows that in the case of philosophers like Parmenides and Heraclitus, their philosophy was rooted in their religious beliefs and mystical experiences. In other words, they saw no dichotomy between reason and religion.

For the Presocratics, philosophy was far from a purely rational endeavor. In fact, in addition to Parmenides being a philosopher, he was also a priest-physician of Apollo and a Pythagorean disciple.

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42. Parmenides Experiences Enlightenment in the Realm of Deep Darkness

Parmenides' poem tells of his descent to the House of Night to receive enlightenment from the goddess there. Parmenides' journey illustrates how light can come from dark.

Was Parmenides a mystic?

This is one of the questions about Parmenides that I will seek to answer in this post as we return to the Presocratic philosophers. As I study the Presocratics, I am discovering things I never anticipated. Because of my modern perspective, I started this blog viewing philosophy as a purely rational endeavor.

What has surprised me is how many philosophical mystics I am running into. Among them include not only Parmenides but ancients like Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Epimenides, Socrates, and Plato, not to mention Chinese thinkers such as Lao Tzu. And this tradition continues strongly into the Catholic faith with intellectual mystics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and others.

The other thing that I am learning is how in touch with the divine the Presocratics were. For them, having a naturalistic explanation for things did not at all preclude the involvement of God; in fact, it enhanced it. Where they made advancements in thinking was in moving away from superstitious mythology. They were against superstition, not spirituality. One could say that by opposing superstition, they deepened not only our understanding of the physical universe, but of God as well.

Modern thought teaches that these thinkers viewed anything spiritual as “superstitious” and that they sought their explanations for things entirely in the physical. By abandoning “myth” – that is, all religion – they became “enlightened.” Thus we recreate the Presocratics in the image of our modern, rationalistic, materialistic gods. The reviews of books written by modern authors about the mysticism of the ancients are often qualified with phrases such as “an intriguing book, although the author’s perspective is at odds with numerous modern critics.”

As such, we virtually ignore the ancient philosophers’ mystical experiences and discourses on divinity. They make us uncomfortable and don’t fit into the mold of what we would like them to be. This is especially true in regard to their mysticism. Not all ancient philosophers were mystics, but all were spiritual. And in the lives of philosophers like Parmenides, mysticism played a large part.

Why do we have such a difficult time in the West holding the intellectual and the spiritual together? And where did this false dichotomy originate? The purpose of this blog is to explore such questions.

In this post, we are going to take a look at a fascinating poem by Parmenides, the only extant work of his that survives.

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41. Lao Tzu Discovers Christ in the Wisdom of the Tao

Pre-Christian cultures all attempted to explain God in some way. In China, Lao Tzu's Tao explained God just as the Greek Presocratics explained Him through Logos.
Confucius visits Lao Tzu

What was God’s purpose for ancient pre-Christian cultures like Greece and China? In Post 40, I discussed how the Logos, the wisdom of God, enlightened pre-Christian cultures throughout the world. The Logos granted wisdom and left signs pointing the way to the one true God, preparing people for the coming of His Son.

In regard to God’s purpose for ancient pagan cultures, there are two basic errors that Christians make.

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