Against grand unity

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A reflection on Plato’s Parmenides

In my previous reflections, I have given advice that is somewhat prescriptive, reflecting the thoughts which bubbled up in response to the prose of Plato. However, with this text, I shall attempt to gently censure a belief which, in my opinion, hampers the intellectual progress of the students of dialectic. As the first reflection of this sort I ask that if I stumble from discussion to argument, you be gentle with my fumbling remonstrances. As such, I will use this reflection as an opportunity to discuss the dangers of ‘grand unity’ – monism.

Before I commence my reflection, I should provide some context with regards to this monism, and why I believe the doctrine fails to provide coherence. Monism, as a system, is the belief that the universe is an inseparable whole, and to divide the universe – metaphysically speaking – only provides arbitrary distinction. I demarcate this as separate from monotheism, as in a singular metaphysical power as the source of universal emanation, and substantive monism, that all things are only of one substance (mind, matter, etc.). My target for discussion is purely that form of existence monism, which sees the universe as a complete whole, and that each component is only a partial fragment of a greater whole.

This definition is somewhat difficult to grasp, and I believe it necessary to reiterate that I am not disputing the physical argument of a singular universe made up of the same substance (a universe of matter). My sights are laid directly on that form of mystical thinking which defines the universe, at a metaphysical level, as a living, breathing whole. The thought process is common amongst those who practice spirituality in the abstract, gnostics who ‘commune’ with a greater world spirit beyond themselves and engage in contemplation without intellect.

From my perspective, monism is incoherent  to the point that it renders discussion impossible. By insisting on the complete oneness of the universe there is the implied point that the universe both is and isn’t, can and can’t, will and won’t, was and was not. It encompasses all these incompatible possibilities and more. With this in mind, the acceptance of this ‘grand’ unity means that there can be no meaningful intellectual communication, as these arbitrary lines that we draw in our language only drive us further away from approaching ‘oneness’. The followers of monism pine for a singularity of consciousness, an imagined centripetal force which pulls us to some spiritual point of harmony.

This obsession with unity entails a necessary rejection of the tools of discussion, and as such the monist steps outside the realms of dialectic, arguing that the only true contemplative action is meditation on unity. This mental model, through its rejection of debate, results in the idolization of the unexamined ‘one.’ This path leads to the same dangers that exist with any idol: the rejection of improvement and intellectual self-satisfaction. Seeking a grand unity of spirit – which relies on the rejection of debate as a precursor – is a sure path to intellectual stagnation.

Original text

Plato’s Parmenides


Augusto Giacometti, Bolla di vetro, 1910


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