Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sleepwalkers: Koestler vs. Kepler



A personal address....

Dear readers, forgive the dryness of this report. In writing there is an ideal form aimed at, but it is changeable with changeable conditions. In fact that is one of the ideas you'll find here. After I had worked this all out, I threw my ideas up in the air for the pleasure of catching them and putting them together in a new way.

In The Sleepwalkers, the brilliant, courageous, fluent and well informed Arthur Koestler proposes that Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo made their discoveries looking for other things than they found and resisted or neglected discoveries already made by themselves and others. Koestler finds in this a sign of a pathologically divided mind. He draws a distinction between a private life of self understanding, and a public life of society making and world discovering. One without the other is dangerous, he argues, society making leading us to be willing to apply any means to the known end, and withdrawing into private life dooming us to meaningless, loveless and unperceptive isolation. If he is lucky an artist can put private life together with public. In real life, he says, it is hard to see how it is to be done.

What I found most interesting in The Sleepwalkers is that Koestler himself seems to have done some sleepwalking in the writing. He is to my mind clearly mistaken about Kepler, who invented a geometric model that only roughly fit the facts but which unified private and public life, and turned his back on the correct mathematical laws of planetary orbits he had discovered that described regular movements in isolation from each other.

Follow with me a little here. The book begins with a discussion of the Presocratic philosophers, up to Pythagoras, his rituals of concentration and mathematical study culminating in a sense of spiritual harmony in numbers, geometry, and the regular motion of the planets. Religion and science were united. Scientific study was a ritual, and ritual lead to knowledge of the world.

When Kepler discovered he could fit between the orbits of each planet the only known regular polygonal solids, corners and sides in contact at certain points, space was filled by a ritual of reasoned description. Expressed in this ritual by analogy was our own personal movement from one period of wholeness to another, the progression of one discovery or rediscovery to another.

Kepler's geometry is a model of the steps in our lives towards self knowledge and social knowledge, steps of perfect but impermanent success. We conquer in the experience of love both the fear of being alone, unloved and unloving, and the vanity of social power. Perfecting yourself is holding onto love, and as love requires an object, self perfection is social from the beginning. Perfecting society and obtaining a place in the physical world involves the temptation to misuse power, and demands personal restraint from the beginning. In our falling out of love and returning to love, there is a continuous mutual influence of private and public.

The later working out of the laws governing eliptical orbits gives a picture of the world that is one sided. That is, does not leave us with a combined self and world knowledge, religion and science. Kepler did the observational and mathematical work, but as a secondary part of the process of looking for signs that the world we see around us is like the world we see in ourselves, reflects back to us our task in life. Exact description of the world is only part of that task, and Kepler treated it with exactly the respect due.

The filling of space is the key. Ritual works with both love and fear. Without some way of connecting beginning and end, there is no way of distinguishing between better and worse means, knowing whether they are guided by love or fear. The space between beginning and end needs to be part of our calculations.

In an ideal society theoretically defined, everything necessary to the putting the laws into effect and maintaining them has no status, no regularity. All is done in the invisibility of private life. The difference between Kepler's neglected mathematical laws, and his own theory of geometric solids one nested within the other, is between a safe theory that joins public and private and a dangerous one that does not. It is not too much to say that Kepler understood this dangerous invisibility between places of knowledge. He had no immediate practical use for his knowledge of the regular motion of planets. He did have a practical use for a model of the world which made more real what in his own life was invisible, his pursuit of self perfection and knowledge of the world. He had use for a theory that put into touch with each other in space a set of different perceived orders, because it resembled the way he as a man and a investigator of the sky takes his religious concentration into one discovery after another, one return of safety after another. (Newton's theory of gravity would both fill the space continuously and incorporate Kepler's laws, but that was in the future.)

The truth is, there is no real problem bringing together individual and society. It was done long ago, and was done again comparatively recently in the founding of the United States, where a Puritan self control and self observation met Platonic knowledge of the necessary dangers and limitations of governing society. The American government is a joint product of all the people and is for them an object of beauty, both a religious object and a product of scientific calculation, both made and known. It is also a social object and therefore dangerous. It brings a liability to power madness, isolation of each in his own lovelessness. The government is not an ideal world lived within. It is a temporary expedient, though perfect in its successful protection and expression of the religious impulse.

Plato's democracy is the least dangerous form of government. It has to be periodically and constantly remade by its people, just as one polygonal solid links partially and uncertainly to another in Kepler's astronomical geometry.