The Caretakers Of The Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World
Gary Lachman. Floris Books (www.florisbooks.co.uk), 2013. PP. 304.$29.95 Paper
Reviewed by David Fideler
Ever since human beings discovered that we live in an expanding, evolutionary universe with billions of other galaxies, it has become increasingly fashionable to suggest that human existence is essentially meaningless, that all reality is strictly material, and that human consciousness, like so many other things, is a kind of illusion that should be “explained away.” In this myth of scientific materialism, one prominent physicist went so far as to suggest that life itself is nothing more than “a disease of matter.” Taking an exactly opposite approach, in the ancient Gnostic myths only spirit is real and the material world is a kind of mistake, an illusion in which we are exiled and imprisoned. In this view, we are not really supposed to be here; we must reawaken to our true nature, leave the illusion behind, and re-ascend to the pure realm of spirit that is our real home. In the myth of materialism, belief in consciousness and meaning is an error; in the myth of Gnosticism, belief in the material universe is.
In The Caretakers of the Cosmos, Gary Lachman rejects both of these views and presents a compelling alternate vision in which the human spirit and the material world are both fully real and fully significant. Moreover, Lachman brilliantly argues that human beings have a significant role to play in bringing the entire world—even the entire cosmos—to completion and creative fruition.
As Lachman shows, this kind of thinking is first found in the ancient Hermetic writings, especially in the dialogue known as the Asclepius. In this writing, humanity is indeed a creature of the natural, material world, but “is also an inhabitant of another world, that of mind, spirit, the soul, consciousness,” which is, in essence, free from the limits of its material nature. According to the Corpus Hermeticum, humanity has a blended spiritual and material nature so man “can raise his sight to heaven while he takes care of the earth.” Humanity is thus in a unique position to both love those things that are higher and to love and care for the material world. In the words of the Asclepius, human beings possess this twofold nature so we can “wonder at and adore the celestial, while caring for and managing the things on earth.” In this view, we are here for a reason.
Drawing on this ancient idea of humanity’s purpose, Lachman takes the reader on a fascinating tour through Western spiritual, cultural, and scientific thought, exploring the central theme of the book, that “the cosmos is incomplete without our contribution to it.” Lachman discusses the idea of tikkun, humanity’s role in “repairing creation” found in the Jewish mystical tradition. He also draws on the work of many key but overlooked thinkers—including Max Scheler, Ernst Cassirer, and Nikolai Berdyaev—all of whom argued that humanity’s essence is creative and “that human consciousness brings a new dimension, a new world, into being, and that any attempt to reduce this to the laws that govern the physical world is not only doomed to failure, it results in a world empty of all meaning and value.”
While Lachman acknowledges all the qualities we share in common with other animals, he points out that the biocentrism of deep ecology and Gaia can have an antihuman “dark side,” which he finds expressed in the work of philosopher John Gray, who wrote that, from the earth’s point of view, “human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mold.” Lachman provides a satisfying response to other thinkers like Gray who suggest that “free will, morality, and other specifically human concerns are simply illusions.”
Like environmentalists and other people of goodwill, Lachman wants to save the planet on the physical level. But saving the planet, he argues, will not take place through “becoming one with nature” or becoming one with the slime mold, by abandoning our human status. That is because “the fate of the phenomenal world, of nature and the cosmos, is not only in our hands, but in our minds”; consequently, we are entrusted with the responsibility of participating with the world consciously. As human beings, we have a unique kind of responsibility, and “one of the most dangerous ideas we can entertain is that our actions do not matter.” While our physical actions do indeed matter, equally significant is the way in which we complete reality through our consciousness and imagination, and bring the world to fruition through the cultivation of life, beauty, and awareness. As he writes, “We can save the universe, we can repair it, take care of it, redeem it and awaken it from its trance by becoming aware of our creative contribution to reality and by intensifying our consciousness to such a degree that we never lose sight of this fact.”
This is one of the most stimulating and significant books on the subject in years. The Caretakers of the Cosmos is an essential work for all who are curious about what makes us uniquely human, and about how we can all participate, each in our own way, in the creation of a fuller and more satisfying world.
David Fideler is the author of Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence and editor of the Cosmopolis Project website (www.cosmopolisproject.org).