PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 24 27th January 2002
I. 'On "The Cloud of Unknowing"' by Michael Brett
II. 'The Idea of Fellowship' by Katharine Hunt
III. Apology to Maushumi Guha!
I. 'ON "THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING"' BY MICHAEL BRETT
One of the best known works of European Mysticism is 'The Cloud of Unknowing', written in England between 1349 and 1395, by an unknown author who is thought to have been the spiritual director of a monastery.
The book is a series of spiritual exercises which rest upon the belief in the utter incomprehensibility of God. The natural facilities of intelligence are impotent to comprehend the being of God because God's nature is essentially different from the nature of man. Thus, any activity of the intelligence is a hindrance in the prayer of contemplation, and gives error when contemplating any idea of God.
However, the unknown writer of 'The Cloud', while laying stress upon God's transcendence, is careful to show that man's soul is not separated from the being of God. God is immanent in all things as well as transcendent above them. God is the Unity embracing all things and sustaining all things.
The soul should by its own efforts, assisted by grace, move towards God. In order to do this, the soul has to renounce all distractions and all discursive workings of the mind. It should move towards God in "a cloud of unknowing":
"If ever you should feel him or see him, it is fitting that
is always in this cloud and this darkness" ('The Cloud of
"The soul's effort is to persevere in this darkness, which
is really a state of complete concentration upon the
unconditioned and incomprehensible being of God ... as a
reward the mind will be illuminated by Him" ('The Cloud of
Like the works of S.L. Frank, 'The Cloud of Unknowing was written during a time of European catastrophe.
After 1330, England and much of Europe, was in the throes of the Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that reduced the population of Europe by a third. It was the era when the new paintings on church walls showed the Dance Macabre, the figure of Death as a skeleton dancing with rich and poor alike, and a popular mass movement of ordinary people - the Flagellants - took to whipping themselves in public to assuage God's anger. Other mass movements included social uprisings, such as the Peasants Revolt of 1381, where a peasant army seized London, beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and burned down the the Savoy Palace.
On the frontiers, Muslim armies were overrunning Africa and parts of Europe that had been Christian for centuries.
The spiritual leadership of Europe was in crisis. Two Popes both claimed to be the legitimate heirs of St Peter. One was based in Avignon and the other in Rome. In brief, all social institutions, including the Church, seemed to be either in crisis or collapse, when - perhaps - the only thing left to rely on was some kind of relationship with God. The purpose of the 'Cloud of Unknowing' being to bring an individual as close to God, and as aware of His presence, as was possible in life.
In 1942, Frank wrote in his notebook:
"The link to God, life through love of God and trust in Him
- this is like being in love, a possession of your soul,
whereby you stop thinking and you perceive higher truth
with your heart and not your mind" (Boobbyer 'SL Frank'
In 1941, Frank wrote 'God with us'. Like 'The Cloud of Unknowing' it is not a work of theology, but one of philosophy and mysticism. Indeed, 'God with us' is, according to Boobbyer, "anti-dogmatic and hostile to conceptual theology."
"The central issue in religion," Frank wrote,
"is that God reveals himself to the souls of people. They
do not need rational proofs of God because knowledge of God
is not primarily rational ... certainty in religious
experience is a product of the inner self-revelation of
God, who is the voice of conscience in the human heart ...
a certain message from afar which has reached our soul from
a region of being which is different from the ordinary human
world" (Boobbyer p.189).
We know nothing of the writer of 'The Cloud of Unknowing' save that he lived in a century of disease, disaster and war. Frank's life was not only adversely affected by revolution, war and exile, but he also refused to take refuge in the formulas of comfort of the societies around him. By remaining part of the Russian Orthodox Church, into which he had been received in 1912, he was part of something that was at least, in part, compromised and dominated by the Soviet state that had expelled him from Russia in 1922. In the final analysis, the only part of his religious life that was not part of a conflict was within himself, and was his own personal desire, and experience of God.
Frank did not turn to conventional formulas, or comforts when considering his life and the historical incidents that shaped it. For him, the Second World War was not a War of Liberation, or part of a progressive development that somehow justified its terrible loss of life and material destruction. The war was the culmination of a "false road in European culture" (Boobbyer p.212).
Frank saw the War as "a product of the divergence of the Christian and humanist currents in history." By this he meant that the Bolshevik Revolution was a product of the secularization of European thought, as well as sociological factors. He traced this, as well as the origins of the Second World War, to St Augustine's rejection of the goodness of man.
From that point on, Frank argues, all subsequent movements - in this he included the Renaissance and the Reformation - had to be declared by the power of man against God. This, to paraphrase him, split European intellectual history, and, by implication, placed God with those resisting progress and change, causing those on the other side to regard personal morality as something old fashioned at best, and reactionary at worst. To paraphrase him: cruelty was established as a principle of modernization.
For the unknown writer of 'The Cloud of Unknowing' there were no 14th century secular alternatives to religious faith in a time of crisis and catastrophe. As a modern man, Frank had seen the alternatives, and rejected them. In a sense both the author of the 'Cloud' and Frank are like Descartes, falling back to a final position of "Cogito ergo sum." But this formulation would exclude the God that they find in the centre of their lives and thoughts. Both Frank and the 'Cloud's author have abandoned formal theology, for a mystical belief in God.
Author Unknown 'The Cloud of Unknowing' Early English Text Society, London 1944.
Boobbyer, Philip 'S.L.Frank The Life and Work of a Russian Philosopher' Ohio University Press 1995
(c) Michael Brett 2002
II. 'THE IDEA OF FELLOWSHIP' BY KATHARINE HUNT
"I read your correspondence with the Philosophical Society
on page 127 of your online note book, and was inspired to
write this piece. If you think it is useful, you would be
welcome to use it in Pathways News or on one of your
"Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death." -
"...one of the members of the Philosophical Society expressed
the view to me that the term 'fellowship' has 'fusty, old-
fashioned and sexist connotations'" - Geoffrey Klempner
'The Glass House Philosopher' online note book page 127
Fusty? Old-fashioned? Sexist? I don't see 'fellowship' as sexist. If you were going to use the word 'brotherhood', I suppose there would be bound to be some objection. But I would understand 'fellowship' as referring to some kind of relationship to my fellow humans. It's true that the word 'fellow' is sometimes used to mean 'man', but it has many other uses.
'Fusty', in this context, is the same as 'old-fashioned', only a bit more derogatory. So is 'fellowship' an old-fashioned idea? Yes! I think it is - but only in the sense that virtue and honour and truth and justice also seem to have become rather old-fashioned.
Fellowship is closely related to that other somewhat discredited form of relationship - friendship. The current tendency is to believe that all close and loving personal relationships must be sexual. This tendency is illustrated in novels, films, magazines, TV, biographies of famous people, and filters down into the way people deal with and talk about their own personal relationships. As an example of this, over Christmas I watched on TV the film "Elizabeth", which purports to be about the early years of Queen Elizabeth I's reign. However, the film made me interested enough to start reading just a little about the background history, and as soon as I started to do this, I realized just how inaccurate the film was. One inaccuracy that illustrates my point, is that the close relationship between Queen Elizabeth and her Court favourite Robert Dudley is portrayed in the film as a sexual relationship; yet authoritative sources agree that it is most unlikely this was the case.
Fellowship is perhaps not as close a relationship as that of loving-friendship; but consequently it is possible to have fellowship with a larger number of people. We could see it as a combination of friendship, and the sense of belonging to a group working together for a common purpose. There is a sense of mutual support, sympathy and understanding; the comfort of meeting with like minds in a congenial atmosphere, to work together for a common aim. In this individualistic age this is indeed an old-fashioned notion; but it is an admirable one, and I hope that Pathways can revive it.
(c) Katharine Hunt 2002
III. APOLOGY TO MAUSHUMI GUHA
Issue 23 of 'Philosophy Pathways' which was sent out on 13th January included a piece about the new Pathways mentors. I wrote:
"MAUSHUMI GUHA gained his M.Phil at Cambridge University
under the supervision of Jane Heal, and is now researching
for his PhD at Jadavpur University, India, as well as
holding a full- time lecturing post at the Scottish Church
College and lecturing at Jadavpur. His main area of
interest is in the Philosophy of Mind."
The next day, I received the following polite e-mail:
"Hello! Thanks for sending me my first P-student. I got
your News Issue as well. I thought I should let you know
that there has been a small category mistake. Maushumi is
female! The word comes from the Arabic 'mausam', meaning
'monsoon'. I was born during the peak monsoon season in
India, so like many women born during that season, I was
I made an immediate apology, and altered the archived version of 'Philosophy Pathways' on the Pathways web site. But for the 500 or so recipients of the newsletter, it was too late. Oh dear!
I wrote to Maushumi, "I am still smarting from embarrassment, following my 'category mistake'." It is interesting that the issue of sexism has been raised in this issue of the Pathways newsletter. I would never have made my false assumption with a 'Pat' or a 'Vivian' (my middle name, after the well known explorer Vivian Fuchs) - So other issues are raised here as well.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2002