Ecstasy: Notes from the Literary and Philosophical Traditions

By Peter Holbrook (The University of Queensland)

Nigel Milsom (Australia 1975– ) Judo House Part 6 (The White Bird) 2014–15 oil on linen 230 x 194 cm Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales – Contemporary Collection Benefactors 2015, with the generous assistance of Alenka Tindale, Peter Braithwaite, Anon, Chrissie & Richard Banks, Susan Hipgrave & Edward Waring, Abbey & Andrew McKinnon. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Yuill|Crowley, Sydney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Nigel Milsom (Australia 1975– ) Judo House Part 6 (The White Bird) 2014–15 oil on linen 230 x 194 cm Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales – Contemporary Collection Benefactors 2015, with the generous assistance of Alenka Tindale, Peter Braithwaite, Anon, Chrissie & Richard Banks, Susan Hipgrave & Edward Waring, Abbey & Andrew McKinnon. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Yuill|Crowley, Sydney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In Euripides’s The Bacchae, Pentheus, King of Thebes, refuses to honour a new god who has come into Greece by way of Asia: Dionysus, deity of wine and intoxication. Dionysus eventually takes revenge for this affront, sending Pentheus mad and having him torn limb from limb by frenzied maenads, the female followers of Dionysus, among whom are numbered Pentheus’s own mother, Agave. At the start of the play the old prophet Teiresias remonstrates with Pentheus, exhorting him to welcome the strange new god into Thebes, but to no avail. By his own understanding, Pentheus is acting in the cause of reason and civic order: Dionysus is no god, but a fraudulent subverter of self-control. The suggestion of the play, however, is that this proud rationality of the king’s is at bottom a form of unreason, an arrogant and blind mental rigidity. Somehow or other, the city must find a way to incorporate the energies and extremities Dionysus stands for. Indeed, to refuse this god of ecstasy is an act of impiety. Ecstasy must be given its due.

Euripides’s play suggests that, for some of the Greeks at least, ecstasy was continuous with, rather than opposed to, reason–that it was the blessed rare fruit of the life lived according to wisdom rather than a state of degraded or bestial madness. On this account of it, ecstasy is the recognition of truth, the sort of experience the poet Wordsworth honoured in Tintern Abbey (1798) as

    that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on,—

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

For Wordsworth, this profound experience, in which one appears almost to have left one’s own body, was not fantastical but a vision of reality; it is in such ‘serene’ moments that one sees ‘into the life of things’.

Socrates too entered into trance-like states and, like Wordsworth, seems to have understood them as essentially philosophical. Plato’s Symposium describes one such event. Socrates was on a military campaign. One day at dawn, while outside, he found himself overcome by a thorny philosophical problem. Utterly absorbed by this difficulty, he became rooted to the spot and entirely oblivious to his surroundings. Eventually night fell and his comrades came out to watch this strange spectacle. It wasn’t until dawn of the next day that Socrates came to himself again, made a prayer to the sun and went about his duties. This ecstasy, then, is of a piece with Socrates’s supremely rational, wholesome, temperate character. It seems that, for the Greeks, now and then to be taken up into a state of ecstasy is exactly what you would expect of a genuine philosopher.

Likewise with Plotinus, the later Greek sage whose development of Plato’s ideas became so important for medieval and Christian thought. Plotinus directed a school of philosophy in Rome, a key part of which appears to have been the cultivation of mystical experiences of merging with ‘the One’. As Porphyry, Plotinus’s student and biographer, tells us, Plotinus’s ‘end and goal was to be united to, to approach the God who is over all things. Four times while I was with him he attained that goal, in an unspeakable actuality and not in potency only’ (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, Loeb translation by Armstrong, p. 71). Plotinus emerges in Porphyry’s biography as a deeply spiritual and rather excitable person, but also as someone who had his feet on the ground and to whom people regularly turned for personal or financial advice. Ecstasy, in Plotinus’s experience of it at least, is, as for Socrates, a rather quiet, sober, essentially sane, experience.

It is also an anti-egoistic feeling, an identification with a good standing far above what the English Romantic poet and radical Shelley called (in his Defence of Poetry,1821) ‘the dull vapours of the little world of self’. As the great scholar of ancient philosophy, Pierre Hadot, put it, ‘the fundamental philosophical choice’ for philosophers like Aristotle, Plotinus, and Marcus Aurelius is ‘an overcoming of the partial, biased, egocentric, egoist self in order to attain the level of a higher self. This self sees all things from a perspective of universality and totality, and becomes aware of itself as part of the cosmos that encompasses…the totality of things’. As Anne Cheng writes in her History of Chinese Thought (quoted by Hadot): ‘Every form of spirituality begins by a “letting go”, a renunciation of the limited and limiting self’ (see Hadot’s The Present Alone is Our True Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Marc Djaballah. Originally published 2001; Stanford, 2009, p. 86.) For Christian philosophers such as Meister Eckhart (c.1260–1328), the overcoming of the tyranny of self is the essence of a godly life. Eckhart was one of the great mystical thinkers of the Middle Ages. His thought has a strongly Plotinian flavour–the aim of life is union with God, and the only way to achieve such unity is the renunciation of one’s own will in favour of God’s: ‘The will is perfect and right when it has no selfhood and when it has gone out of itself, having been taken up and transformed into the will of God’ (Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, trans. Oliver Davies. London 1994, p. 16). It is important to note too that, for Eckhart, the true, divinely-inspired ecstasy does not issue in a narcissistic indifference to the world. Eckhart himself was a member of the Dominican monastic order, with significant administrative and academic responsibilities. Ecstasy–union with the divine–is an ‘overcoming’ of ego, and as such naturally expresses itself in charitable concern for others. As Eckhart wrote:

You must sometimes leave your state of exaltation for the sake of something better out of love and sometimes to perform an act of love where this is needed, either spiritually or physically. As I have already said, even if you are in such an ecstasy as St Paul was, and knew of a sick person who asked for a bowl of soup from you, then I would consider it far better for you to leave your ecstasy for the sake of love and to administer to the needy person in a love that is greater. (Selected Writings, p. 17)

The Ecstasy Exhibition
Audrey Flack (USA, 1931– )
The Ecstasy of St Theresa 2013
Printed at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania.
pigment print and screenprint, edition 67/75
56 x 40.5 cm
Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Audrey Flack, 2017.
Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York.
Photo: Carl Warner

Ecstasy then, for Eckhart is not an individualistic withdrawal from the world but a transcendence of individual will. Paradoxically, this most inward of experiences is an opening out towards others. Ecstasy is the way of love. ‘Leave nothing of my SELF in me’, prayed the English seventeenth-century poet Richard Crashaw.

In the work of the English Romantic poets imaginative transport or ecstasy frequently has a political, social or critical dimension; it is, once again, the enemy of Shelley’s ‘little world of self’. A frequent experience in Wordsworth’s poetry, for example, is his becoming aware of a deep harmony and oneness in all existence–what the twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called ‘the interfusion of modes of existence’ (Modes of Thought. Originally published 1938; New York, 1966, p. 71). For Wordsworth it is the poetic imagination that reveals the deep underlying unity of all that exists–and in this regard it is in no way different from the higher unifying reason of philosophers such as Plotinus or Meister Eckhart. Such apprehension of cosmic oneness is a metaphysical foundation for a political and social universalism, a solidaristic conception of humanity itself.

All of this is potently expressed by Shelley. In the Defence of Poetry he argues that as children ‘we less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction’. The imagination, likewise, is a way of revealing the essential oneness of everything, and hence of abolishing competitive egoistic isolation. Ultimately, for Shelley, there is only ‘one mind and “I” am but a portion of it. “The words I, and you and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to ‘them’.”

This was the view of D.H. Lawrence as well. For Lawrence, the key question for modern human beings was one of ‘relationship’. Humanity ‘must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation, to the cosmos and the universe’, he asserted. What was essential was escaping ‘the world of our little consciousness, which we know in our pettifogging apartness’. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), Lawrence has harsh things to say about modern civilization’s ‘insane’ obsession with the individual freedom of the will, expressed above all in the cult of ‘mammon’ and ‘the bitch-goddess, Success’. The ecstasy of authentic sexual love, as between Connie and Mellors in that novel, was one way to abolish such ‘apartness’, and so too were the mystical insights proper to poets and seers. As Lawrence wrote, powerfully:

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two great ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of ‘apartness’, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.


Note: This is an edited version of a talk for members of the public. It was presented in association with the exhibition ‘Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond’, a partnership between The University of Queensland (UQ) Art Museum and the UQ node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) and curated by Dr Andrea Bubenik, UQ CHE Associate Investigator.

Peter Holbrook is Director of the Queensland Node of CHE. Peter’s work contributes to the Meanings Program. His project investigates two related themes in English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: self control, and the conflict between reason and the passions. Peter’s research has focused on political, social, and philosophical aspects of English Renaissance literature, and on the influence of Shakespeare on diverse writers and thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of his publications include English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom (London: Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare, 2015) and Shakespeare’s Creative Legacies: Artists, Writers, Performers, Readers (London: Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare, 2016), which was co-edited with Paul Edmondson.

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