Saturday 15 June 2024

Cosmic Order

 Ma'at and Ṛta are two words signifying concepts whose meaning we have almost completely lost today. The first comes from ancient Egypt, the second from ancient India and they mean more or less the same thing which is truth, universal order or simply that which is right. The cosmos is built on these things and the earthly state or nation should reflect that as should the microcosm, the inner state of the human being. The human soul should conform to Ma'at if it is to walk the correct path and the nation must be based on its principles if it is to be favoured by the gods and prosper. As soon as these principles are deserted because of human corruption or sin or for whatever reason, the benevolence of the gods will be withdrawn and things will start to fall apart. The nation may even be conquered by outside forces or overrun by uncivilised, barbaric elements.

In Egyptian theology Ma'at was personified as a goddess, sometimes shown with wings symbolising her divine origin. She was the daughter of Ra the creator God, so high up in the hierarchy of spiritual beings. She represented the order and harmony of the universe, the pattern on which it was designed and the principles according to which it should be governed. She was also of great importance in determining the post-mortem destination of the soul. After death every soul was required to enter the Hall of Judgment where its heart would be weighed on a set of scales set against Ma'at's feather of truth. If the heart balanced with the feather then Thoth the god of wisdom would record that fact and the soul would be admitted by Osiris to the Sekhet-Aaru or Field of Reeds which was the Egyptian heavenly paradise. If, on the other hand, the heart was heavier than the feather it would be consumed by the goddess Ammit who combined the features of crocodile, lion and hippopotamus, these being the most fearsome beasts known to the ancient Egyptians. This grim fate implied the destruction of the soul. Such was the importance of living by the principles of Ma'at.

The Judgment of the Soul with Osiris (far right) and the Feather of Ma'at in the right hand scale.
The jackal-headed god Anubis officiates.

Ṛta expresses a very similar idea. It describes cosmic and moral order and is mentioned over 300 times in the Rig Veda which is the oldest Sanskrit text, currently regarded as dating back to the second millennium BC. The chief god at that time, the sky and ocean god Varuna, is called the king of rta and through its power restores the good order lost from time to time because of sin and ignorance. However, even he is subject to rta in the sense that it precedes him in the order of creation so he may serve and exemplify it but its origin lies further back than the gods. In ancient India the word itself faded from use but its meaning persisted in the idea of dharma which became fundamental to Hindu religion.

These two words convey a similar meaning to the idea of the Tao as used by C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man. This is more his adoption of the term than the traditional Chinese sense of the word as the mysterious undercurrent of being, but it fits in with that well enough. For Lewis it is a universal moral structure that transcends the vagaries of the times and cultures in which it may be expressed. It is not verifiable by conventional scientific means because its ground lies in the realm of first principles which cannot be proved as they just are. Lewis traces its presence through many religious traditions, all of which had intuited the reality of this Natural Law as we may think of it. But today we have lost touch with it because we have abandoned the sense of a transcendental absolute. Indeed, a definition of modernity could be that it is the triumph of relativism which might have seemed reasonable at one point but inevitably just ends up in nihilism.

Ma'at, Ṛta, the Tao, all these things point in the same direction, to an eternal, absolute, unchanging, incorruptible reality. We need to rediscover the truth of that reality and start to build our lives and our cultures on that basis. It is flexible enough to allow for different expressions of the one truth but these will differ only in form. In essence, they will be one. However, we must also remember that since Christ natural virtue, which is what Ma'at etc call for, is no longer enough. Piety, worship of the gods, following the path of dharma, supported by the traditional four cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude, are the foundation but on these must be built the house and that is constructed of the spiritual virtues of faith, hope and charity. The difference is that whereas the natural virtues can be acquired through right thinking and human effort, the spiritual virtues can only come from God though God will only bestow them to the soul that has made itself ready to receive them. This should tell us that faith, hope and charity, spiritually considered, are rather more than they are conventionally thought to be as anyone can have them in an ordinary sense but in the proper spiritual sense they are gifts of the Holy Spirit and so qualitatively different to the human versions.

Without the idea of an overarching Absolute human beings have nothing to anchor themselves to reality, and so will make up all sorts of fantastic notions to further their ambitions, desires and goals. But these can never go beyond the limitations of human experience and the human soul is so constituted that it must do this or suffer spiritually. The rediscovery of Ma'at is essential if we are not to drown in relativism.


Kristor said...

Or we could just recall the Logos, and conform our minds to his. He came to live among us, as one of us, and to teach us how to do it, after all.

Anonymous said...

I don't think modernity is merely "relativism" - rather, it's the deliberate effort to violate cosmic order by imposing human will over cosmic harmony. Human will becomes primary, and to demonstrate this one must violate cosmic order at every turn.

Otherwise a fine essay.

The key to human flourishing is paradoxically to become "less" - too much self assertion, arrogance, selfishness, greed, desire for power, puts man at odds with cosmic harmony and order.

Paradoxically, this kind of self assertion diminishes us because it cuts us off from the whole and traps us in our small ourselves, wheres becoming "less" actually makes us infinite because we are connected then to God and the whole.

Paradoxically, too, one does not lose individuality by becoming "less" and limiting self assertion, but one flowers fully into ones true self, with all its eccentricities and uniqueness, when one takes one's place as part of the whole and aligns oneself with cosmic harmony - including the inner harmony of your true nature - rather than seeking to impose ones will on it.

But these truths are so opposite of modern civilization that it first has to collapse before we can return to them.

William Wildblood said...

Kristor, we could and we should. The Logos is the reality behind Ma'at, Rta, etc., but I wanted in this post to explore something of St Augustine's idea that “That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity.” But I did say that Ma'at was only the foundation and still required more in order for the house to be built.

William Wildblood said...

Anonymous, yes, agreed. Modernism is not just the denial of the Absolute but as you accurately describe "it the deliberate effort to violate cosmic order by imposing human will over cosmic harmony". That sums it up neatly.

cae said...

Hello William - I love these particular types of posts that you do here, and especially appreciate the way that your reply to Kristor so perfectly summarizes your overall point.
This concept of spiritual 'Truth' having always been existent resonates intuitively with me, as it speaks to the entirety (100,000 years or more?) of mankind's existence, during which (I should think) God must surely have been 'relating' in some way with His children.

I have to express how much I value your perspective as a Christian who has learned about and/or experienced so many other 'avenues' of spirituality.
My faith has been so hard-won and seems constantly under attack - whether from my own subconscious 'doubting Thomas' or some 'outside' interference. It helps me to read 'materials' by which I can intellectualize my faith with solid reasoning, during times when I cannot 'reach' my faith experientially.

God Bless you!

William Wildblood said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Carol. It lifted my heart.