Perspective, power and giving it all up in exchange for belonging

I’m like everyone else, I guess. I have a few pet topics that I labour on and on about ad infinitum. And one of the things I rattle on about is the fact that perspective is all. Yeah yeah, blah blah. But the fact is perspective is all, and a rich and full one is magically powerful. But even an impoverished perspective is defining, and understanding this is fundamental to all things. It is certainly fundamental to all divinatory methods and, since these underlie all our cultural and religious frameworks, the importance of perspective – how we understand it, what we do with it – can’t be underestimated.

OK, so what is perspective exactly? Well, it refers to our standpoint but let’s look at the etymology of the word. It comes from the Latin, perspectus which means “clearly perceived” and refers to the science of optics. It combines the meanings of the Latin per – “through, during, by means of, on account of, as in,” – and the Latin scopus. This, from the Greek skopos “aim, target, object of attention; watcher, one who watches”, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *spek. This word refers to the means or the instrument used for observing. Thus, our word perspective has evolved to refer to the understanding gained of one’s standpoint through one sense – sight – whereas its root, which takes us back at least 6000 years, refers to all of the senses – the whole body, in fact – and this is the complex instrument which is ideally suited to gaining a decent perspective.

Taking astrology as an example, it’s easy to see how perspective became all about sight, especially the way we do things now as, at the click of a mouse, we generate two-dimensional charts to read. But, even if we imagine astrology as a question of sitting on a hill somewhere and noting down the details of the circling skies, there remains a definite sense of uninvolved detachment about the astrological perspective. The fact is, we are each so very small and the stars and planets are so very far away and we know for sure that not one celestial object has ever paused on its inexorable round even to return a gaze with a glance. But, actually, despite appearances, the astrologically-minded observer is absolutely entangled in their observations because what they see of the sky depends entirely on their location and what they see has resounding implications for what this sky means to them.

As an example, some years ago I lived in a large sprawling town where the sodium skyglow was intense. The stars and moon were mostly outshone so that, usually, just a couple of points of The Plough were visible while the featureless moon glowed only blandly and flatly. There was absolutely no chance of seeing subtler wonders such as the Milky Way and none at all of seeing the illumination of the ecliptic by zodiacal light. So it was that, whereas in remoter places the night-sky advertises in lights why the sun’s path has meant so much to us all these millennia, in that place it was a mystery. Thus I felt my universe diminish in size as we urbanites became enclosed in an orange light-dome at night which excluded the natural world in favour of an artificial one. I was a human protected from nature only to find myself rudderless and lost on an ocean of distractingly arbitrary symbols and abstractions.

There were obvious effects from this to do with the disruption to my own circadian rhythms and also to those of the wider ecosystem. But, in terms of what the night skies meant, well, they hardly meant anything at all because their draw on me was minimal. Astrology, in these circumstances, showed itself simply as another of the symbolic systems which characterise modern abstract thinking. It was quite clearly superstition or occult esoteric knowledge, depending on point-of-view. In other words, my inability to see the night sky had implications for my perspective which reached a long way beyond the street-lights’ effects on my view.

So, the modern default perception of perspective is of uninvolved observation. But, whilst this may be reflective of where we’ve come as a species, it’s not where we started. Moreover, this limited perception would not have got us far in the natural world and it would have offered only the dodgiest, most unstable base for the development of magic, religion, culture, science, medicine…Instead what we needed was what we had: absolute material involvement in the natural world with our whole bodies and all our senses cooperating as a single instrument by which we came to an understanding of it.

It all started with each body and a few fundamental concepts. The first fundamental was that the world is a place of divine creation and a coherent organism pervaded with a life-giving spirit. The second was that it is a place of repeating self-similar patterns which reflect each other in the way of fractals so that the macrocosm reflects the microcosm and vice versa (thus, each human reflects the whole sky). The third – which flows naturally from the first two – was that all is related and we are all kin. The fourth was that we were not left to struggle blindly for meaning and survival because the gods thoughtfully marked everything with a ‘signature’ or, in other words, an indication regarding the nature of a possible beneficial or curative relationship.

We can assume with a significant degree of confidence that this idea of signatures, or similarities – which came to be known as the Doctrine of Signatures – is very ancient indeed for a few reasons. A first is that our relatives, the non-human primates, apparently select medicinal herbs using common criteria (they have been observed ingesting plants from the same genus with similar characteristics for relief from gastro-intestinal upsets and intestinal parasites).(1) A second is through the fact that those hunter/gather societies who still live according to ancient patterns attest to it’ An example is where the Ashaninka people talk of how nature gives signs by, say, placing hooks on a plant to indicate that it cures snake bites.(2) A third is through Mesopotamian records which list plants according to appearance along with associated omens and medicinal properties.(3)

But, if one wants to recognise a signature, one must never rely simply on sight. If one is to recognise a signature, one must identify a configuration and this is shown by shape, colour, appearance, texture, taste, smell and so on. And the surrounding environment is to be taken into consideration too because properties change according to location. Thus, the same plant in a different environment will possibly have an adjusted signature – just as the reliably ferocious sun that always rises to burn and scorch from the zenith in equatorial regions is a very different beast to the seasonally-enfeebled one that sometimes cannot gather the strength to clear the horizon of the frozen north.

So it was that the sixteenth century Swiss philosopher, physician, botanist and astrologer, Paracelsus, advised that one should look for the anatomia, or structure, of things while not being too distracted by their outward appearance. And he said that anatomia is a quality of all things – people, plants, diseases – which means that correct treatment of sickness requires the healer to match the anatomia of the medicine to the disease. And, more, he said that something’s anatomia gives clues as to the nature of its arcana – its secret, its vital life-force.

And he also said, “As long as man (sic) remained in his natural state, he recognised the signature of things and knew their true character; but the more he diverged from nature and the more his mind became captivated by illusive external appearances, the more this power was lost.”(4)

And he was right because the Doctrine of Signatures is now understood as outdated superstition whilst at the same time we have, as a culture, become captivated by looks whilst losing touch with our bodies and natural environment. We either trample these rough-shod or they and their processes perplex and frighten us; we either control both through suppressive, abusive means or they control us through sickness and terrifying overwhelming events.

But it must be said that, nevertheless, Paracelsus’ arcana lives on inside all of us because we haven’t yet lost our life-force either as individuals or as a collective. The thing is that now the arcana has evolved in a symbolic direction. It is perhaps analogous as a composite of Freud’s ego and id since these use certain concepts arising from physical perspective but in generally psychological ways. Let’s take the idea of polarity as an example.

Polarity is a fact of the natural world and the concept of opposition is a valid point-of-view. We have magnetism as a result of solar involvement with the earth which arises through the alignment of the latter with its axis of rotation and it gives us our north/south poles. As a consequence, internally and behaviourally, we have magnetoreception which is the capacity to perceive magnetic fields, and this sense of polarity is essential for orientational purposes. Moreover, our cells, through their shape and organisation, display polarity, and chronic sickness states coincide with a disrupted and chaotic state. For instance, tumours are bundles of disorganised cells. We also understand polarity positionally: i.e. it matters when something is placed ahead of us; we need to understand if it’s friend or foe because our reactions – each to the other – may have significant consequences. And also, in herbal medicine the concept of oppositional antipathy is crucial to choosing the right kind of treatment.

Now, Paracelsus argued against treatment using antipathy and treated like with like, thereby always matching arcana to arcana. But he was a bit of a maverick in taking a firm stance on this. In the tradition of older authorities like the second century Greek physician, Galen, other prominent physicians saw greater benefit in opposing diseases and this is the kind of view we are most comfortable with presently. What this means using astrological-herbalist terms, is that the first step towards healing is to decide which planet is the cause of the disease. Then the question to ask is which system or part of the body this has afflicted, and subsequently the job is to ascertain which planet governs what is stricken. Having made these determinations, the astrologer uses herbs of the planet opposite in the zodiac to the one that causes the disease. Hence, cures for diseases of Jupiter are herbs of Mercury. This is treatment using antipathy and the aim is towards humoral re-balancing. Underlying is the idea that one can’t calm inflammatory conditions by heating them further but must cool inflammation down. Similarly, one treats dry coughs with humectant moisteners like honey.

So, all this informs us that having a perspective that recognises polarity and oppositional positioning is very useful. One can derive helpful metaphors from these recognitions and apply them to psychological situations. However, our reliance on an impoverished sense of perspective means that we discount or cannot access all the information necessary to understand these metaphors holistically. So we now have hard-lines, and ideals, and polarised opinions and we find that we are either for or against; we are avowed friends or mortal enemies. What we should be holding in our hearts is that, at root, each of us is a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm; that each of us holds the centre-ground; that each of us is the axis around which the world turns; and that each of us holds a valid perspective which we can develop if we care to so that it gains in clarity and power.

But, before we rush off and develop our powers in efforts to become so many great leaders or despots we also need to pause to remember that there are countless other centres of the universe just like us, each holding a different but still valid perspective. And it could be that some of these others have perspectives that are absolutely true because they access and make use of all the information available in a way that we don’t; or it could be that they are very limited – like mine was, under that light-polluted sky. And we also need to remember that we must forfeit some personal perspective in order to belong socially. This is because any group perspective amounts to the mass individual acceptance of an overarching umbrella perspective which may see things an individual can’t but could equally be impoverished and without true vison: if we want to belong, it is imperative that we are – strategically at least – a little blind and a little stunted. So it is that we are where we are.


1 Huffman, Michael, A. 1997. “Current Evidence for Self-Medication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 40:171–200

2 Narby, Jeremy. 1998. Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. London: Victor Gollancz

3 Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. 1998. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Greenwood Publishing Group

4 Wood, Matthew. 1992. Vitalism: The History of Herbalism, Homeopathy, and Flower Essences. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.