Monday, July 18, 2005


One of the symbols used to represent the mystic path is the the ascent of a mountain. It seems that every culture has its sacred mountains. The gods of the Greeks lived on Mount Olympus. For the Hindus, Mount Meru in the Himalayas is the home of Indra, whose palace, at the summit, radiates light. After seeing a light, a firebrand, on Mount Sinai, Moses climbed it to recieve divine revelation. Christ revealed his gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, where he preached: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden." (Matt. 5:14) Muhammad's first revelation was on Mount Hira, known as the "mountain of light". Among Christian mystics, St. John of the Cross authored The Ascent of Mount Carmel in the sixteenth century, and there is also the more contemporary allusion in the title of Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain. The Catholic stations of the cross also recall the ascent of Mount Calvary as they offer guidance on how to bear one's cross through life.

In ancient Iranian mythology, the Alborz mountains were the home of the phoenix-like simorgh. The Sufis called the home of the simorgh, Mt. Qaf, and the poet Attar described spiritual wayfaring in an allegory in which thirty birds overcome their faults and attain virtue as they search for the simorgh. Attar puns on the Persian words for "thirty", si, and "bird", morgh, to end his tale with the thirty birds looking at their reflections in a pool at the peak. This idea of finding God within the self is also a common theme. "He who knows himself, knows his Lord," is a saying attributed in some variants to Imam Ali , and in another to the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be with him and with his folk); and it has been subject to lengthy discussion by the Sufis. In the Hindu tradition we find the claim, "Atman (self) is Brahman (God)," and on Mount Parnassus the inscription of the Delphic Oracle was inscribed on the temple of the sun god, Apollo: "Know thyself."

So, we find two related references to mountains in mystic literature. First, the mountains are homes to gods or places of divine revelation. Second, climbing up the mountain is an alegory for the mystic quest. The result of successfully undertaking the quest is understanding, the knowledge of God that accompanies knowledge of the self. This understanding is a kind of illumination or enlightenment.

The understanding of God and self that is reached with the summit is characterized by two important themes. First, there is the Platonic theme of understanding as the grasping of eternal changeless patters or forms. This is the goal of dialectic. Aristotle rejects the forms, but keeps the Platonic idea of dialectic leading to the grasping of eternal principles, which he calls arche, fundamentals. Second, there is the idea that the goal of the journey is the process itself or development. This view of understanding as Bildung is a focus of much German philosophy and literature. The opposition between these two ideas of understanding sets the stage for much subsequent debate. Is the deepest understanding of which man is capable an understanding of the eternal or an understanding of the historical? Is a reconciliation between these views possible?

In "Chapter Zero" of his The Millennium Problems (New York: Basic Books, 2002), Keith Devlin discusses the understanding provided by mathematics, and the mountain of the mystics provides the imagery:

Doing research in mathematics is like trying to find your way to the top of a great mountain. You start in the valleys, where the brush and the trees are so dense it's hard to find your way around or even to know which direction to head in..... But after you have stumbled around for a while, through the trees you catch a glimpse of a tall, snow-covered peak reaching up to the sky. It looks absolutely beautiful....

Now you start to climb. As you go higher, the trees and undergrowth get progressively less dense, which tends to make the going easier.... On the other hand, the air gets thinner (the mathematics becomes more abstract), and that tends to make the ascent harder. What's more, the higher you go, the less likely you are to meet guides who can help you find your way.... But if you make it to the top... the view is breathtaking. From here, at the top of the mountain, you can look down and can see the way you have come, including all your false steps. You can also get a good sense of the terrain below you.... The next time you will start with the kind of global understanding that comes only from having scaled a large peak and looked down from the summit. (16-17)

Devlin's view of deep understanding is Platonic: "Because of the abstract nature of mathematics, mathematical knowledge about a phenomenon generally represents the deepest and surest understanding of it." (7)

Another point that often comes up in discussions of understanding that employ mountaineering imagery is the contrast between the partial view and the global view from the summit. One has understanding when one sees the whole. An awareness of history or tradition is taken to enable one to achieve this sort of history. The point is made with reference to Gadamer by George McLean: "One need not fear being trapped in the horizons of our own cultural tradition or religion. They are vantage points of a mind which in principle is open and mobile, capable of being aware of its own horizon and of reaching out to the other’s experience which constitutes their horizons. Our horizons are not limitations, but mountain tops from which we look in awe at the vast panorama all of humankind and indeed all of creation. It is in making us aware of this expansion of horizons that hermeneutic awareness accomplishes our liberation."

So, how does all this mountain climbing bring peace? In two ways, corresponding to the Platonic and historical views of deep understanding. Platonic peace is achieved by finding abstract universals on which all should agree, whether this is presented as law or dogma. Historical understanding, on the other hand, provides the familiarity that makes possible compassion.


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