Symbols of Cosmic Order

Adam Smith says you and I are “lovers of toys.” This love drives the economy. The toys are of two sets. One is the tasks, business structures, and institutions comprising commercial civilisation. All have intricate parts that need tending. To tend these complex systems is why we get up in the morning. Critically, it is not so much the utility of these intricacies that motivates but their beauty: “The orderly and flourishing state of society is agreeable to him, and he takes delight in contemplating it. Its disorder and confusion, on the contrary, is the object of his aversion.” This contemplation is highly productive and paid for the work of setting things in order, we buy the other set of toys: the complex systems that are cars, dishwashers, designer showers, gourmet kitchens, hi-fi, and watches.

Smith was fascinated by watches. Business leaders regularly sport watches ranging from $10,000 to $75,000, and even beyond the $750,000 mark. High horology is prized for its complications and one of the most curious, often said by watch geeks to be a romantic option, is the moon phase. With this complication, a watch has a little aperture on the dial inside of which is a moon—often playfully figuring a little face. Contemplating your watch, you observe how much of the moon shows in the window, then look at the night sky, and the waxing and waning ought to match. An ingenious mechanical system enclosed in a small space on your wrist is keyed to the heavens.

The moon phase complication is not just an index of modernity’s prowess, it is, as Barry Cooper’s review of paleolithic research shows, a continuation of recording devices made by our earliest human and Neanderthal ancestors. Alexander Marshack, an American journalist and an “outsider” pioneer in paleolithic studies, argued that the markings on paleolithic artifacts record lunar cycles. He postulated that calendric notations etched on bone played a role in rituals and rites (the objects show wear from having been massaged in the hands). He further speculated that lunar notations might have been the seed bed for written language. Paleolithic Politics proposes that early human studies confirm Eric Voegelin’s theory of consciousness, specifically his claim that original political order was cosmological.

Voegelin argued that the symbolizations of the Babylonian and Egyptian empires depict their polities as smaller versions of a greater cosmos. He called the political order of such empires cosmions, the first political form more articulated than tribal experience. Paleolithic Politics is a gentle correction of Voegelin, Cooper collating paleolithic research that dramatically pushes back the date of cosmological politics and makes it coeval with consciousness as such.

Marie König was a German housewife and “outsider” researcher of the paleolithic. Typically ignored by academics, Voegelin heard her lecture in the late `60s in Rome and was bowled over by her ideas. The Rome meeting led to König and Voegelin scampering around rock formations and caves in their 70s, exploring together the earliest signatures of our forbearers. By the end of her life, König was a recognized authority on Celtic numismatics—another of her interests—but, for Voegelin, her work on spheroids and skulls was a striking confirmation of the compactness and differentiation of consciousness.

Politics, according to Voegelin, addresses a metaphysical crisis. Political order stems human anxiety caused by a primary intuition that existence is out of nothing. König argued that early artifacts show an initial ritual use of spheroids—the human (and our Neanderthal counterparts) enclosed in wholeness—gave way to the ritual use of cups and skulls. The half-spheres of cups and skulls intimating life under a vault, earth and heaven clearly distinguished. She also suggested that the discovery of so many skulls around springs spoke to a notion of a netherworld. The placing of the dead in graves in fetal position on an east-west axis displays not only a consciousness of space, but also time, the passage of life, including rebirth in another domain. This idea of transcendence was matched by a transcendence in thought. A north-south divide was already articulated in the Mousterian period—the Neanderthals—as evident from square Neanderthal graves. Boxes divided into four quarters is also depicted in their art. This should astonish us, König remarked, as a north-south divide is not relayed by the stars but is a purely speculative insight. Voegelin was astonished: König’s research pointed to a development of mental distinctions at the dawn of thinking.

The first part of Cooper’s book introduces the intellectual background to Voegelin’s claim that human nature is unchanging. Unchanging both because we cannot escape the anxiety that we are suspended over a metaphysical abyss and on account of our encounter with the transcendent, an order not of human making. Stretched between chaos and cosmos, politics is an effort at order imposed to stabilize, its symbolizations a reply to metaphysical precariousness. Political symbolizations—the Assyrian king as ruler of the four quarters of the earth, the Marxist realm of freedom, or the liberal contract—helps anxiety turn to trust. A politics whose symbols invokes the cosmos does this effectively, but there is a cost. It is to the benefit of human dignity and personal freedom that Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian revelation mightily compounded the complexity of thought (the mind-bending Trinity, a case in point) and weakened the social compactness of cosmological myth.

The paleolithic is more than a choice for wellness gurus, it stands as a challenge to ponder whether human consciousness is rooted to our place in the cosmos.

The second and greater part of Cooper’s book is a long survey of paleolithic research told with verve and full of arresting paleolithic discoveries. The majority of the book is not about political theory and is best read as a big data set backing up Voegelin’s theory of consciousness. This is part of the book’s significance. New paleolithic finds always garner a lot of media attention but Voegelin worried the significance of the science was missed without a philosophical anthropology able to illuminate politics. The question keeps arising to what degree Neanderthals were the same as early humans, and whether early humans were just like us, but the idea of sameness is fraught, all too easily framed by our own egalitarian anxieties. To capture the spirit of Voegelin’s worry, Cooper relays a funny exchange at a conference when the famous head of philosophy at the London School of Economics, Ernest Gellner, accused an archeologist of doing bad philosophy, only to have the archeologist quip back that until philosophers take a serious interest in paleolithic science archeologists have no choice but to be poor philosophers.

Like Voegelin, König rejected the progressive theory of history in which early peoples were primitive and brutish. The progressive theory led academics to initially reject as inauthentic the wall art discovered in caves at Altimira, Spain, for the polychrome drawings were held to be too sophisticated a technique for cave men. Worse, since the cave drawings were beautiful by contemporary standards it was believed impossible they could have been done 36,000 years ago. The progressive theory, which posits a smooth glide to ever more sophistication, buckles when confronted with the findings from the Cosquer cave. The entrance to this cave is under the sea and was discovered by a local diving instructor, Henri Cosquer. The route in was perilous and other divers hearing of the discovery drowned. Researchers had to receive diving training and be guided into the cave by French naval divers. Even then, bizarrely, academics thought the cave a fake. The cave sits ill with progressivism for there are clear indications that the original drawings were scratched out by later inhabitants who painted over the original beauty with other beautiful images peculiar to their own brand of magic and belief.  

A point made in the book is that contemporary research is tending to think of Neanderthals as basically human. Only in the last decade was it established that humans and Neanderthals interbred and it was long held that the two were quite different because Neanderthals had no nonutilitarian or decorative objects. This is no longer tenable: the Neanderthal Tata Plaque dates to some 100,000 years ago! For Cooper, all this is evidence for the reach of Voegelin’s political thought. To my mind, consistent with Voegelin, there is an important implication for natural law and Aquinas’s claim that human nature has an original religious orientation.

König argued that Celtic coins continued to express the cosmological order birthed in the paleolithic period. Squares and dot arrangements are prominent on Celtic coins. Imagery on the coins reproduces pictograms found in caves. On this basis, she argued there was an unbroken spiritual tradition spanning tens of thousands of years. In Cooper’s hands, her insight becomes the graphic image of the Roman clash with the Celts being an encounter between a differentiated consciousness—an empire taken up in philosophy and bureaucracy—and a civilization “in the west still capable of a direct connection with the primary experience of the cosmos.”

A differentiated consciousness is never a million miles away from the thinking of cosmions. Cooper points out how caves still figure prominently in our sense of order. In the paleolithic, the most decorated caves were the least lived in. This suggests that certain caves were akin to basilicas. There are no wall depictions of everyday life or plants and animals that made up the typical diet. Inside the sanctuaries, the parts with the most drawings also have the best acoustics suggesting places to sing and dance. Recent speculation has wondered whether the most decorated zones might be keyed to political hierarchies. And caves remain prominent in our civilization. Zeus was hidden in one, Jesus is depicted as born and buried in a cave, and Marian visitations, most famously at Lourdes, occur at grottoes. And, as all Scots know, Robert the Bruce, smarting over prior defeats, observed the doggedness of a spider in a cave before emerging to defeat the English.

The Neanderthal square is still very much with us, too: palaces, city squares, monasteries, and the arts and sciences refine around the college quad. Adam Smith’s theory of the division of labour—emblematic of differentiated consciousness—is one of the towering achievements of modernity and explains moon phase watches, but as Marshack and König remind us, the underlying cosmological cultural form is paleolithic. Voegelin would not think it accidental that Smith gives the watch as an example of the background logic to the invisible hand, an idea he first introduced in his essay, “History of Astronomy.” The great worth of Cooper’s book is to raise the bar on any politics that would aim to cast off the past in hopes of a great leap forward. The paleolithic is more than a choice for wellness gurus, it stands as a challenge to ponder whether human consciousness is rooted to our place in the cosmos.