TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Reflections on Light

Descartes flattened the sun and flattered our vision when he imagined that to know, all one need do is open the window of an underground cellar for all to become apparent. This is to suppose that because light is the presupposition for clarity, it must be a simple matter. But does not a moment’s (infinite) reflection show that it is neither simple nor even a matter? Never can we stand in daylight without being aware that the fundamental element of light nonetheless has a point of concentrated origin which we cannot gaze upon nor encompass, and which is therefore a dark mystery. Moreover, pure light would not illuminate at all. To be light, it requires the very things opposed to its nature that it illuminates; dense dark things which halt its passage and at the same time alone make manifest any passage whatsoever. And without manifestation, who can say that this passage would exist since light is Being as manifestation? Thus light lies somewhere between an infinitely dark source and the immeasurable matrix of solidity. In this no-man’s-land, light boasts its brightness and yet this absolute condition of all truth itself dissembles (though without deceit, since it has no other side, no substance to deny) from the outset, since all it shows is what it is not. Although light is the first source, it only begins to be when it leaves its unrevealed origin and even these beams do not become visible until they have been reflected back from some quiddity. All these three-dimensional facets of solar truth were neglected by Descartes: the sun’s dark heart, its passage and its refractions. Moreover, Descartes wished to see the flattened sun as a metaphor for a truth arising from within the human subject. Yet he neglected to observe that already subjectivity is implicated in physical light, for light does not appear for passive, insensate, inanimate and mindless creatures, and (to repeat) when we say light does not appear, how can we say there is light? Or, indeed, that anything appears, or that anything is? Thus it is not, as Descartes thought, that we cannot be sure that there is a world outside our observation of it but rather that we cannot imagine any ‘extended’ thing that does not also have a manifestatory and so intellectual aspect. And it follows that the perception of light lies as much in the complex and supplemented origin of light as does physical refraction. Since to see something one must turn one’s attention in a certain direction, travel a specific pathway of intention and desire, it is clear that phenomenologically-speaking the eye does indeed transmit its own beam to meet advancing light, as traditional physiognomies held. Thus forgetting that physical light is subjective and complex, Descartes imagined that spiritual light is wholly subjective and yet simple by analogy with flattened material light. By contrast, Plato and Augustine were obedient to physical reality and therefore apprehended its immediately intellectual, mysterious and subjective character. They realised that if the sun’s rays stream only for intellect and yet they really do stream, since they manifest divine intellect, then all intellectual processes operate with the many nuances of light. Thus in order to know, we must obscurely anticipate what there is to know, as if there were a beam streaming from us, which like its solar counterpart has no time to tarry in the darkness of its unrevealed source. Likewise we can only comprehend our own beams of illuminating reason when they fall upon things in such a fashion that these things themselves shape the idiom of our reasonings. Thus, there are never any inert objects for our curiosity, nor autonomous gazes of the curious. Instead, if knowledge is an active seeking beam of love it is equally true that things known elect to be known. Knowledge, like light, is a journey and a seeking, only enabled by the lure of what it seeks.

In the case of physical light, it has been seen that both the source of light and its refractions arise for a perceiving subject. The knowledge that this subject has, if he is embodied, is always mediated by the corporeal. However, insofar as this subject sees a spiritual light through the physical, there occurs a kind of doubling of the perception of light. For in the spiritual realm also there is a source of truth and a refraction of truth which are both necessary for there to be truth. But what is it that holds together in us the arising of desire for truth and the relative satisfaction of knowledge in revealed phenomena? This is for Augustine the divine light that shines within us from beyond us. However, since this light is only manifest insofar as it illuminates our desire which is in turn only manifest insofar as it illuminates the realm of physical light, all the complex properties of this physical light are to be found not only in our mind but in the divine Mind itself. Thus Augustine understood the divine light in Trinitarian terms: this light also encompasses a dark source, a transmitted rebound of reflection and a perceptive desire which mediates between these poles.

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