Notes on the Heavens

It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I overlook the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night sky, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

Hearts will be broken and cities may crumble, but the sky will always go about its business. Sometimes this can be a reassuring thought.

There is also comfort to be found in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul is immortal and joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Bertrand Russell writes wonderfully about Plotinus, one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” Russell writes. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times produce otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of God, says Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and distraction, these spiritualized encounters are often all-too-brief glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its original sense: a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body; to be elsewhere. The escape the self — and once freed, where else would one go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, the desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky, of rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens yields one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered: In these rare moments of communion with the stars, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I try to tune in to these echoes from philosophers who listened to the sky while contemplating their souls. I’d like to recover this sense of wonder in the digital age.

Further reading: Posidonius; Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy; Plotinus.