Orphic Sayings 7 through 13

Friday, May 14, 2021

5:20 a.m. Continuing with Bronson Alcott’s Orphic Sayings.


[Piety is not scientific; yet embosoms the facts that reason develops in scientific order to the understanding. Religion, being a sentiment, is science yet in synthetic relations; truth yet undetached from love; thought not yet severed from action. For every fact that eludes the analysis of reason, conscience affirms its root in the supernatural. Every synthetic fact is supernatural and miraculous. Analysis by detecting its law resolves it into science, and renders it a fact of the understanding. Divinely seen, natural facts are symbols of spiritual laws. Miracles are of the heart; not of the head: indigenous to the soul; not freaks of nature, not growths of history. God, man, nature, are miracles.]

I think I understand this one. Maybe I am getting used to his style. I wish I was surer what he means by “synthetic relations,” by “synthetic fact.” Well, my friends, give us your take on this one, please.

Surely the general meaning is plain. He uses the word “piety” where you would use a less loaded word, something perhaps such as “reverence” or even “conscious.” But you know what he means by it.

I get that he is using the word as a sort of shorthand for a person who is awake and alert, who is not blinded by materialist bias (not a sensualist, as his previous paragraph had described), but who approaches life and the world in a spirit of reverence, of intense and continuing appreciation, yes. It would be someone who regarded life and the world as holy in essence, however difficult or discouraging or even tawdry appearance might be.

That’s right. He says such an attitude sees clearly and deeply, but according to its own mode of perception, its own way of weighing evidence. This paragraph mostly says, science, the scientific method, is not the only way to understand the world. You can come to a profound understanding entirely outside of science (as, indeed, humanity did from time out of mind until the scientific method developed). Indeed, you can come to an understanding that is deeper than science, in that it deals with the laws behind the laws.

I don’t hear him decrying science, though.

No, only decrying dead science, that postulates and preaches a dead universe of dead matter inhabited by creatures who ae themselves – to all extents and purposes – dead.

I don’t have any problem with any of that.

We never expected you would. And as he says, miracles are of the heart, not the head. That doesn’t make them any less real. In fact, it recognizes them as more real, in that they do not require a supposed suspension of natural law. They follow the law of being, which is prior to and deeper than the scientific approximations that have been logically deduced from appearances.

“God, man, nature, are miracles.” I like that.

Which brings us to


[Because the soul is herself mysterious, the saint is a mystic to the worldling. He lives to the soul; he partakes of her properties, he dwells in her atmosphere of light and hope. But the worldling, living to sense, is identified with the flesh; he dwells amidst the dust and vapors of his own lusts, which dim his vision, and obscure the heavens wherein the saint beholds the face of God.]

Nothing very obscure here either. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyes man is taken to be a hallucinated lunatic – as I have said for years.

Jesus said (as you often quote) “Who has eyes, let him see.” This is the same as saying, “Those who do not have eyes won’t be able to see.” And this is common sense and common observation, surely. You and they do not live in the same world subject to the same laws, regardless if you are next-door neighbors. How could you possibly? Let each live in the world whose laws s/he can deduce or feel in the heart. There really is no alternative, even though the shared subjectivity makes it appear otherwise.

So –


[The insatiableness of her desires is an augury of the soul’s eternity. Yearning for satisfaction, yet ever balked of it from temporal things, she still prosecutes her search for it, and her faith remains unshaken amidst constant disappointments. She would breathe life, organize light; her hope is eternal; a never-ending, still-beginning quest of the Godhead in her own bosom; a perpetual effort to actualize her divinity in time. Intact, aspirant, she feels the appulses of both spiritual and material things; she would appropriate the realm she inherits by virtue of her incarnation: infinite appetencies direct all her members on finite things; her vague strivings, and Cyclopean motions, confess an aim beyond the confines of transitory natures; she is quivered with heavenly desires: her quarry is above the stars: her arrows are snatched from the armory of heaven.]

Clear enough, too, despite awful words like “Godhead,” “aspirant,” “appetencies,” even “augury,” though that one is merely archaic. Still, despite these paralytic words, what he says is clear in context. I’m sure he thought giving each paragraph a label would clarify his meaning, and maybe it does – provided that the reader remember to treat each paragraph as a part of one argument, not as a separate essay not having anything to do with the paragraph preceding and following.

Literary criticism aside, what do you make of it?

It says that we, who are partly of 3D and partly of non-3D, can never be satisfied with our life here, considered as if 3D were all there is, or all that mattered.

Yes. And are the paralytic words such an obstacle to understanding?

Let’s call them an obstacle to inspiring the reader with confidence that the meaning is there. Think how much easier it would be to read, if he had written “sign” or “evidence” instead of “augury”; “the divine,” perhaps, instead of “Godhead”; “aspiring” instead of “aspirant”; anything instead of “appetencies”!

Still, he did his best, and the meaning can be found, given patience.

Oh, I know. But it’s so unnecessarily obstructive. Oh well, to number 10.


[Every soul feels at times her own possibility of becoming a God; she cannot rest in the human, she aspires after the Godlike. This instinctive tendency is an authentic augury of its own fulfilment. Men shall become Gods. Every act of admiration, prayer, praise, worship, desire, hope, implies and predicts the future apotheosis of the soul.]

I took the trouble to look up the word. I have seen it here and there all my life, but I never tried to pin it down. The urban dictionary has as its first meaning, “the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god,” and as its secondary meaning, “the ideal example; epitome; quintessence.” I have always understood the word in its secondary meaning, but I see that Alcott used it in the primary meaning. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us. And the 11th saying follows closely from the 10th.


[All life is eternal; there is none other; and all unrest is but the struggle of the soul to reassure herself of her inborn immortality; to recover her lost intuition of the same, by reason of her descent amidst the lusts and worship of the idols of flesh and sense. Her discomfort reveals her lapse from innocence; her loss of the divine presence and favor. Fidelity alone shall instaurate [to restore or renew] the Godhead in her bosom.]

That is, life is a struggle to remember that we are more than our physical bodies, more than separated minds dependent upon sensory evidence to make sense of a world of contradictions and temptations. This is phrased in theistic language unfamiliar to this generation – perhaps only someone raised in the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, in postwar America, can have the background to serve as translator for a generation that “knows not Joseph,” so to speak.

Nothing to add. We concur with your understanding.


[Greater is he, who is above temptation, than he, who, being tempted, overcomes. The latter but regains the state from which the former has not fallen. He who is tempted has sinned; temptation is impossible to the holy.]

This one is clear, but I don’t know if I agree with it. Like Mark Twain’s characters in “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleysburg,” I put more faith in “Lead us into temptation,” I guess. But – your thoughts.

Bear in mind, no one is likely to call you an archangel, tedious or otherwise. Alcott here wrote his experience, in his simplicity and goodness not realizing what a self-portrait he painted.

It does seem from what we know of his life that he lived a life of seemingly impossible purity. If he ever lied, cheated, stole, corrupted or was corrupted, there is no evidence of it. If he had to battle unworthy thought or impulse, the struggle left no evidence. Try to imagine Alcott living a coarse or perverted or unaware life! It is not conceivable. No wonder he had the esteem of men like Emerson and Thoreau.

We call your attention to that powerful final sentence. Temptation is impossible to the holy. Concentrate on this sentence for a moment. You let it slide past a little too quickly.

Did I?

Consider it in relation to numbers 11 and 13.


[Choice implies apostacy. The pure, unfallen soul is above choice. Her life is unbroken, synthetic; she is a law to herself, and finds no lusts in her members warring against the instincts of conscience. Sinners choose; saints act from instinct and intuition: there is no parley of alien forces in their being.]

Perhaps I see what you are getting at. I was forgetting that Alcott is not merely playing with ideals but is trying to describe something clear to his sight but not to his contemporaries, or most of them. In describing “the pure, unfallen soul,” as in describing one who is “unfallen,” he is not so much calling people to repentance as describing a superior order of being.

That phrasing is too opaque.

Well, if we are already fallen – if we know within ourselves the war of forces – obviously we cannot become unfallen. You cannot return to the life you never led. You can regain it, perhaps, bringing with you the experience you acquired at the cost of your innocence. But I don’t know that he means to say that.

What matters more than what he meant is what the words and the sense behind the words mean to you, here, now.

And that was your hour, and a little more.

I did not expect that we would get through so many of the sayings. It is getting easier as we get accustomed to them, I suppose.

It is mostly in paying attention and doing so a little more slowly than your ordinary lives accustom you to do.

Okay. Well, thanks, and till next time.


Frank DeMarco, author

Papa’s Trial: Hemingway in the Afterlife, a novel


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