On The Subject of Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka
On the Subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka
Edgar Allan Poe is a dear friend to all lovers of beauty and truth- whether they know it or not. Poe’s life was filled with the most grueling difficulties one could imagine, of which betrayal, loss, and extreme poverty were only a few. Yet, he believed in the future as the primary reality of his existence, once saying: “I live continually in a reverie of the future.” Indeed, his perseverance through extreme hardship in the pursuit of his noble goals -even while he could have avoided such hardships through compromise- was but one sign of his genius. Poe’s life was cruelly cut short, but, before he died, he completed a work which he considered to be his masterpiece: “Eureka”. He once said: “I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka’. I could accomplish nothing more.” “What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly — but I say it.”
In honor of Poe at the time of his 207th birthday, I will attempt, below, to put Eureka into it’s proper philosophical and scientific perspective in addition to providing a critical commentary of the work itself in a separate document.
The Fundamental Question
What was the subject of Eureka? “My general proposition, then, is this: -- In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.” Later, in a summary letter to his friend, Poe restated “The General Proposition is this — Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are.” The object of Eureka then is to show how would come to pass “the utmost possible multiplicity of relation out of the emphatically irrelative One”. Thus, when Poe claimed in the first sentence of Eureka that it’s subject was the “most solemn -- the most comprehensive -- the most difficult -- the most august.” he was hardly exaggerating. Indeed, the question which Poe here addresses has haunted all the religions of mankind for thousands of years. It is: How is it that the transient world of multiplicity, differentiation, and divisibility -the world which we all find evident in our experience- is to be understood as created from the eternal, absolutely unified, indivisible, Oneness of God? How are we to reconcile the evident world with the transcendental Creator which must be its foundation?
When this question has been recognized the attempt to answer it has, of course, been widely different. For example, the Indian philosophical school of Vedanta maintains that since God is the ultimate reality, and nothing but God could possibly exist (since that would impute a limitation to God) anything which expresses characteristics which are not befitting of God must necessarily not exist- and therefore the whole world of our experience is an illusion. Why or how any such illusions could arise they do not attempt to answer, but, nevertheless, they “solved” the problem by simply rejecting the idea that there is any such thing as a world of distinction, multiplicity etc. Thus, adherents adherents of Vedanta -or the axiomatically identical philosophical strains found in Buddhism (the Buddhist philosophers take an identical approach, only without using the word “god”)- will frequently be found performing “meditation” in a desperate attempt to eliminate from their mind all subjects of conscious attention -all distinct experiences- in a quest for divine communion through utter negation (God -“Nirvana” for the Buddhists- being the only thing left after all negation has taken place). It is admitted by these philosophers that the attainment of such divine communion really is no different than death, or even deep sleep. Yet, they seem much more hesitant to inhale ether or simply kill themselves than they are to meditate. (Actually, it is a tradition among some of the adherents of Buddhism to crawl into a high mountain cave and meditate with a noose around the neck which attaches to the legs such a fashion that any change in posture will strangle the meditator, and to remain meditating in such a circumstance until dead. The caves of the Nepali Himalayas are sprinkled with mummies remnant of the practice.) (Fn. 1)
The approach taken by Poe in Eureka is different. It is the same approach, at least in intention, as was taken by Nicholas of Cusa in his treatise “On Conjectures”. There are, however, significant differences. But, in each case, the intention is to demonstrate a lawful ordering between the world of division/experience, and the absolute Union of God- to demonstrate how the physical world is capable of being derived from the “Irrelative One”. This should not be taken as a merely philosophical question with no practical importance however. If there were to be demonstrated a necessary ordering principle which resolved the simultaneous notions of God and the world, we would gain deeper insight into the nature of what we consider to be physical reality by identifying the necessary basis for its existence. In doing this, we would be able to determine, a priori, what universal characteristics must adhere in the domain of what we conceive to be physical reality. Again, is there a way in which we can demonstrate that the fundamental characteristics of the world are necessarily implied by the ordering principle which resolves its existence with the One undivided God? That the characteristics of the world can be demonstrated as necessarily required by the very act of departure from the Absolute One? Poe affirms it thus: “this Oneness [of the most simple existence produced by God] is a principle abundantly sufficient to account for the constitution, the existing phaenomena and the plainly inevitable annihilation of at least the material Universe.”
The method by which Poe proceeded to tackle this question in Eureka was accompanied by a fatal flaw at the outset which rendered his entire subsequent deduction invalid. In saying this I do not intend to sound like a cold-hearted logician. In judging Eureka I believe we should bear in mind that Poe’s intention to tackle the fundamental question discussed above is the only significant motivation for the work, as opposed to providing a final explanation for and systematization of the laws of the physical universe. Poe himself said “Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work [Eureka] to be judged after I am dead.” Poe defines Poetry thus:
“An important condition of man’s immortal nature is thus, plainly, the sense of the Beautiful. This it is which ministers to his delight in the manifold forms and colors and sounds and sentiments amid which he exists. And, just as the eyes of Amaryllis are repeated in the mirror, or the living lily in the lake, so is the mere record of these forms and colors and sounds and sentiments — so is their mere oral or written repetition a duplicate source of delight. But this repetition is not Poesy. He who shall merely sing with whatever rapture, in however harmonious strains, or with however vivid a truth of imitation, of the sights and sounds which greet him in common with all mankind — he, we say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a longing unsatisfied, which he has been impotent to fulfil. There is still a thirst unquenchable, which to allay he has shown us no crystal springs. This burning thirst belongs to the immortal essence of man’s nature. It is equally a consequence and an indication of his perennial life. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is not the mere appreciation of the beauty before us. It is a wild effort to reach the beauty above. It is a forethought of the loveliness to come. It is a passion to be satiated by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments, and the soul thus athirst strives to allay its fever in futile efforts at creation. Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, it struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity. And the result of such effort, on the part of souls fittingly constituted, is alone what mankind have agreed to denominate Poetry."
Indeed, in Eureka we see Poe “struggling by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time” to point to one of the greatest scientific and philosophical mysteries yet to be fully unfolded as a discovery and utilized in the scientific practice of mankind.
The First “Other”
Now, in proceeding with the task set out for himself, Poe assumes that the most simple of all conceivable actual things -the only existence which could possibly be first considered as other than the absolute unity of God- is a particle. He continues to show how divine volition would commence to disperse the particle in pieces through space, thus creating a great diversity of relationships. Through a series of arguments and added assumptions, Poe tries to show how this would necessarily lead to all of the observed characteristics of the physical universe. Insodoing Poe even attempts to provide a reason as to why the Newtonian Law of Gravitation must necessarily be of the mathematical form it is found to be.
However, Poe seemed to overlook the fact that he had already assumed space to exist before the particle existed. This would indicate that space was prior to the particle, and thus, more simple and less removed from God. Poe thus takes the Newtonian view, perhaps without realizing, that space is an actually existing thing which is co-eternal with God. Thus, Poe’s primal particle could not have been “absolutely unique” since it’s existence is dependant on other things- that which is around it (space), or that which is not it (as with any object). This identified problem is not the reason per se as to why Poe’s commencement was flawed, but it illustrates the problem of approach. The problem per se, as I see it, is in the attempt to leave the human mind out of the construction. Any conceived thing cannot be a more simple, or irelative, existence than the source which conceived it, for each conceived thing represents an additional element relative to it’s source. (Yet, anything conceived cannot be more intricate and manifold than its source either, since any conceived thing can only be a specific predicated instance of it’s source.. The source must then be the most simple and yet also most manifold with respect to its predicates. This is something I think should be kept in mind throughout the paper and in general discussions on this topic.)
Thus, any attempted construction of the entirety of existence from the starting point of a definite thing must necessarily leave out those existences which preclude that very thing. The mind is more fundamental than any of it’s predicated instances (concepts). This is why the attempt to consider the physical universe per se as an objective existence is a fatal flaw. In order to illustrate how this consideration would inform a scientific approach to the fundamental question of Eureka we will turn to Nicholas of Cusa.
In Cusa’s treatment (Fn. 2) of the great question tackled by Poe in Eureka, the approach taken does not exclude the human mind, in fact, the human mind is the subject of inquiry itself. Since any conceivable thing is conceived only in the mind, the task of identifying those things which are most fundamental and simple (closer to God) is not separate from identifying those aspects of cognition (that generate any conceived thing) which are more simple, encompassing and fundamental than others.
Take the following as an example illustration: The experience of any phenomenal color (visual color that is) is not something which occurs on its own- the very admission of the experience of a certain color necessarily presupposes something else. That which is presupposed by the perception of color (or any gross phenomenal experience) is the faculty of rationality. Why is rationality necessary for the experience of basic gross phenomena (like sense-perception)? Because the perception of any distinct thing implies an active power to distinguish, differentiate, and compare- otherwise no distinct experience would take place. Thus, the rational aspect of thinking is more fundamental, more encompassing, more simple, than the experience of gross phenomena. Thus we have found something more simple than the most simple of all perceptible things! Is this then the thing which we should start with in our construction of the Universe? No, for the rational power itself must be constrained by some necessary reason as to why one kind of distinguishment is made rather than another, for if there were no reason for making one distinction as opposed to another then no distinction would take place. Just as all gross phenomenal experience is encompassed and born from the relatively transcendent rationality, so too are all rational conjectures encompassed and unified in the transcendental beyond it- the origin of rational conjectures. Cusa called this power which rationality necessarily presupposes “the intellect”- still more simple, encompassing and fundamental than the rationality, and thus closer to God. We have found something yet more simple. But Cusa says, yet again, that in admitting this power of the intellect, we must necessarily presuppose something else. What is it that could possibly presuppose the intellectual power as described and act as its basis? Truth itself. But not a limited and contingent truth as may be found in our phenomenal experiences, or in the judgements of the rational mind, or even in the intellect which determines the rational power, but the Ultimate Truth, the whole Truth, beyond which there is no more true truth- that is to say: God.
The Continuation of the Cusan Approach
It will be readily seen that the approach adopted by Cusa has been expressed and developed by individuals other than Poe. Gottfried Leibniz was one such figure. He knew that the physical characteristics of the universe must in some way be necessarily implied by the very notion of God. While Leibniz (to my knowledge) did not seem to explicitly pose the fundamental question as I have framed it in this report, he clearly was operating under its influence through his powerful commitment to truth. Here are a few brief selections from his work “Principles of Nature and Grace” which illustrate this.
...we must make use of that great, but not commonly used, principle that nothing takes place without a sufficient reason: in other words, that nothing occurs for which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is and not otherwise. This principle having been stated, the first question which we have a right to ask will be, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For nothing is simpler and easier than something.... Now the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found in the series of contingent things, that is to say, of bodies and their representations in souls [perceptual correlatives]... Although the present motion in matter arises from the preceding motion… we do not get further however far we [examine such motions], for the same question always remains. The sufficient reason, therefore, which needs no further reason, must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which is the cause of this series or which is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself; otherwise we should have no sufficient reason with which to stop. This final reason for things is called God.
This simple primary substance must include eminently the perfections contained in in the derivative substances which are its effects...The reason which has made things exist through [it] has also made them depend on [it] for their operation, and they are continually receiving from [it] that which causes them to have perfection [or true being].
It follows from the supreme perfection of God that he has chosen the best possible plan in producing the universe, a plan which combines the greatest possible variety together with the greatest order.... The supreme wisdom of God has made him choose especially those laws of motion which are best adjusted and most fitted to abstract or metaphysical reasoning. There is conserved the same quantity of total and absolute fore or action etc....
Nevertheless, Leibniz, as Poe, seems to leave out of his transcendental examination the factor of the human mind. He seems to “jump” from created things to God directly, not considering the intermediate orderings identified by Cusa. Obviously, Leibniz’s approach is still very profound and absolutely coherent with Cusa’s despite this.
Today, Lyndon LaRouche has presented the most scientifically developed approach to the inquiry. Below I include, appropriately for this paper, brief sections from LaRouche’s essay “Poe’s Conception of Poetry”:
"Only that aspect of the mind which is creative preconscious activity is, in terms of its continuing self development, in correspondence with the actual lawful ordering of the universe… The self-developing preconscious processes of mind, the creative work of the soul, are the only competent map of the universe we have accessible to us."
The Universe per se, which could be not other than Truth per se, is, to us, only known, to the greatest extent we can know, just as LaRouche concludes in full agreement with Cusa: through the ordering we uncover in the successive intellectual (preconscious creative imaginative) acts of our soul.
Thus, Poe affirmed that Eureka was written to “those who feel rather than to those who think -- to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities.”
1.) We will not take a survey of all the religions in search of other possible solutions to this fundamental riddle (I don't have an overview to do so). This example is used in order to further illustrate the nature of the question itself.
2.) See Cusa’s “De Conjecturis” for the clearest elucidation of this method (that I am aware of).
3.) I would like to add a clarification. This paper in no way intends to convey the idea that Poe had a faulty recognition of the importance of the fundamental characteristics of the human mind, the most important of which being the creative imagination. He did have such a recognition, a powerful one and a self-conscious one too. If this were not evident in the artistic power of his tales and poems, then his explicit identifications of the principle in his other works, especially in his literary criticism, would suffice to convince. But, as this paper is not intended to provide an overview of the most important of Poe’s philosophical/epistemological, scientific and artistic powers as they are revealed in his works -as this work is limited to the subject of Eureka- my treatment here has been disproportionately representative of Poe’s sentiments for that reason.
Postscript: I intend to include with this paper a complete copy of Poe’s Eureka interspersed with my commentary.