Book Club Post

November 2017 Book Club

This week’s post is the fifth of a monthly series of open-discussion posts focusing on books I’ve written. Our theme for the present is Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, and this week we’re discussing “The Fourth Law: The Law of Limits” (pp. 43-53). I’d like to ask readers to keep their questions and comments focused on that chapter and the ideas it contains; we’ll have another Ask Me Anything post later this month, and of course a substantive monthly post or two in due time.

In place of an outline, here’s the Fourth Law, as it appears in the book:

Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself.  Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.

The rest of this section of the book expands on the concept this definition sketches out. It’s not an easy concept for a lot of people these days; mindless hostility to the entire concept of limits is practically de rigueur these days—which is one of the core reasons we’re in the middle of the mess we’ve made for ourselves. Questions? Comments? Discussions? Have at it—subject, of course, to the usual rules.


  1. Hi, John. I have long felt, beleived, that there are limits to virtually all on Earth. Why, other than political ideology, is it so hard for many to grasp?

    One issue I have is people who feel that human ageing is unnatural. That is so bloody absurd that it is hard for me to really fathom. There is so much ‘anti-ageing’ under the heading of ‘successful’, or ‘active’ or some other label. Why not celebrate our daily lives with the rest of life!?!

    Keep up the great work,


  2. A very recent conversation re limits: I was discussing the trajectory of our future — with its resource constraints, decaying/cannibalized infrastructure, reduced availability of net energy — and I pointed to Tainter’s _Collapse of Complex Societies_ as a good analysis of the life-cycle of complex systems. My discussion partner, who did apparently take some time to at least look up a synopsis of the book, came back with “well, that was all about pre-technological societies that were isolated from each other. Things are different now.” (My response to which was that the analysis showed that technological complexity was subject to diminishing returns, whether one was talking about iPhones or irrigation canals.) The belief that we are somehow not bound by limits or constraints seems to be alive and well.

    Just wondering aloud, how does our hubris with respect to limits compare with that of previous cycles? Did people at previous peaks or in the prenumbra of previous collapses voice the same kind arrogance we do today?

  3. The Fourth Law reminds me of the words of Goethe who kind of turned it around when he wrote “In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,” a rough translation of which might be “By defining the limits does the master really show himself.”

    The Fourth Law as you have formulated it tells me why Goethe’s words ring true.

  4. Mr. Greer,

    I recently read this passage with admiration. It reminds me of this anecdote which shows how obvious a law of limits must be, but cannot be acknowledged.

    Recently I returned to an elite research university for no particular reason other than my scholarship made it essentially free and I had access to a research library. My professors are, for the most part, talented and I do learn quite a bit. Nonetheless, it is surprising how defective some of the thinkers who garner “serious” discussion can be. Moreover, mentioning limits to growth–well, limits to anything– is unlikely to make you any allies.

    For example, we were required to read and discuss Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature– a tome full of Whig history if ever there were one. For Pinker, humans have been socially evolving to become kinder, less violent as a species. Pinker states that, after the Soviet calamity, commerce has emerged as the highest, and best way for humans to trade. Indeed, for him, everyone profits from commerce. In my review I pointed out that that cannot be accurate because 1) it confounds the theory of scarcity; 2) even if everyone could profit under current notions of profit (i.e. growth), eventually, and probably soon, humanity would run into hard limits because one cannot extract infinite resources from a finite planet. One needn’t be a soothsayer to predict what would happen to the “better angels” theory when oil and potable water become scarce. I cited you and Joseph Tainter amongst others for the essay.

    What was the result? The professor pulled rank and said I was not credible to give such an analysis because I had no PhD even though my criticism was “true enough”. So, the weird thing is, like all natural laws, the growth cultists know on some level that all they see around them cannot be sustained forever. They *know* this but cannot acknowledge it. How strange.

  5. John–

    Something else that has occurred to me is that the acknowledgement of limits is a significant component of the process of maturation, is it not? An adolescent learns that there are boundaries — to behavior, to one’s body, to one’s resources — and, in transitioning to a mature adult, adapts to live within those boundaries.

  6. I was going to make exactly the same point as Brian. This is probably my favorite chapter in the book and the one I view as most important because I have had so many opportunities to argue with (or bang my head against the brick wall of) individuals employed in the medical industry who view their purpose as making sure that nobody ever dies of any NATURAL cause whatsoever, no matter their age or condition. I love the philosophy that says if you are not hysterical about being of finite size, being of finite duration should be tolerable too!

  7. I remember reading an article about some biologist who suggested that an animals lifespan is influenced by the length of time a first generation of animals can live without stripping the environment of food for the next generation.

  8. I love the part about limits being the foundation of beauty and power. I would personally use the word elegance to describe the things in nature and the human world that have evolved to operate within specific limits. A perfect example of this are most birds as they are limited by gravity, air density and metabolism and thus evolve towards a magnificently beautiful and efficient physical structure. The same can be true of human creations such as the bicycle or scythe which much confront issues of weight, human strength and gravity and have achieved beautiful and elegant designs in their traditional forms. The thing that has ruined all this is the nearly limitless energy we have extracted from fossil fuels. This has made us believe we have no limits and in most cases spawned ugly and inelegant creations. Behold the american suburb or the modern airport. Even the elegance of traditional hand tools has been ruined by the bulbous and awkward creations made possible by Lithium Batteries.

  9. Comprehension of this theme may be related to the age of the reader–
    When I was a small child, I assumed that my parents would always live in the same house with the same stuff. Death was theoretical, and in any case very far in the future.
    In teen years, I thought I would live forever and so did most of my friends. Whenever I became interested in a new skill, I felt that I had to master it and become the best [fill in the blank] that had ever been. 🙂
    In middle age it became OK to let other excel and applaud them for it. I lost the use of some names–Grandfather, Grandmother, Father–But gained the use of others–Uncle, Niece, Nephew, Son.
    Now that I am old, it seems that my life is was always constrained and bounded but within those boundaries were many possibilities. Certainty is gone, security is an illusion. I am running out of time and everything else, but strangely OK with it.
    A sonnet has strict rules. Within each such poem there are infinite possibilities for beautiful themes, but no one sonnet expresses the whole. If I can express the beauty that’s mine to work with, that will be enough for me.

  10. Once again I used your book as fodder for my yoga class- bringing in the idea of limits in a physical sense (as in: trust your body, don’t try to be more flexible that you are) but also with the idea that beauty and power lie in our limits. I talked with one of my students afterward about that puzzle.
    We kept trying to come up with examples, like the birds, as you mentioned in the book. I thought of poetry- the rhyme and meter are more beautiful to me than free verse, and more memorable.
    To me, the most poignant one we thought of was our children. We are both parents, and our kids limit our freedom. Having teens at home prevent us from doing some of the things we would like to do with our time and money. But they have added so much beauty to our lives, so much love. And think about the power- we are touching the future…what we teach our children will influence the world in more ways than we can know.

  11. I think the form that ecological limits take is very much an abstraction to many people. Note that peak oil is not about there not being another drop of oil left, it’s about scarcity. Limits to be sure, but not the same kind of limit as looking in my wallet and seeing how much cash is there. Another difficulty relates to externalities. There is a limit to how much CO2 and related gases we can emit into the atmosphere before causing some bad problems, but maybe that is somebody else’s problem – like in the future. Again, a different type of limit.

  12. Having recently lost my parents to death in very old age (both over 90) I was lucky enough to meet and listen to other older people who lived with my folks. I learned that death, for them, of loved ones, especially spouses, had come to be a blessing rather than a tragedy or whatever else we are supposed to learn and then feel about the death of people close to us. I think about my own death now (the limit we all face as mortals) as something I can actually have some control over, as something of a blessing rather than a burden.

  13. Brian, exactly. We all ripen toward death; that’s a normal, natural, healthy part of being alive, and the current fashion for cowardice in the face of aging strikes me as unusually stupid even by the standards of modern industrial society. (it occurs to me that this would be worth a post all by itself.)

    David, other civilizations had other excuses for ignoring the inevitable. Since worship of progress is purely a modern fad, the most common dodge was the claim that the imperial society, being perfect, would of course endure forever, and any temporary inconveniences such as the Visigoths sacking Rome were the fault of a bad Emperor or bad courtiers and would of course be remedied as soon as someone virtuous got the throne. A similar dodge was the claim that the gods had guaranteed the eternal duration of the status quo and any temporary inconveniences just meant that more sacrifices were needed. Same hubris, different day — I suppose “SH,DD” could become an Ecosophia catchphrase.

    Reloaded15, Goethe knew what he was talking about! Exactly; study the truly great works of art and literature, and you’ll see how the creator in each case set himself or herself a very precise set of limits in which to work, and then used those limits to give the energy of the creative process the laser focus that brings greatness.

    Anonymous, you definitely jabbed the professor on a sensitive spot, to get that kind of lame ad hominem fallacy in response. Keep up the good work. 😉

    David, exactly. Our problem could be summarized by saying that most people in modern industrial societies are five-year-olds in adult bodies and refuse to grow up.

    Dewey, good. Can you imagine what a bunch of utter windbags we’d all become if we did in fact live forever? One of these days I want to do a parody of Tolkien in which the elves are insufferable bores who want to talk by the hour about how drunk they got at the big feast of Mereth Aderthad back in the First Age and none of you young pointy-eared punks have any idea how bad the winter weather in Hithlum was back then, and get off my elanor flowers!

    J.L.Mc12, almost certainly true — it’s an axiom of evolutionary ecology that those traits that maximize long-term survival of a species do in fact tend to get bred into the species, since those organisms that don’t do this tend to die out…

    Clay, “elegance” is a great word. I tend to use it for those things where the balance between energy and limit is pushed right out to the limit of perfect poise. Other kinds of beauty are more relaxed, but there’s always the cooperation of energy and limit. Gyorgy Doczi wrote a fascinating book called The Power of Limits which I should reference in more detail in a post; he referred to this cooperation as dinergy.

    E. Goldstein, that’s apparently quite common, but there are exceptions. I grappled with the reality of death all through my teen years and got very comfortable with my own mortality at that time.

    Katsmama, poetry’s a good one, and I can imagine that having children is another, though it’s not one I’ve experienced. I’d suggest, for another, that the beauty of a yoga asana itself is precisely a function of the interaction between the body’s capacity for movement and the hard limits of its structure. If you had no bones and could fold yourself into any posture you wanted without effort, there’d be no point in doing yoga, since the most intricate asana would be no different from slumping on the couch. It’s because we have bones that don’t bend, and joints that only bend in certain ways, that an asana done right has the crisp beauty that it does — you can see the balance between the energy and the limits.

  14. JMG
    The Fourth Law deals not only with limits to growth but also with contextual limits which are boundaries that circumscribe or constrain. I find helpful your illustration, if I understand you, that these boundaries can be the basis for fruitful choice, discernment and indeed for finding beauty. It has been clear to me that what we call ‘knowledge’, particularly perhaps scientific knowledge, is limited. Indeed I have come to accept that most of what we think we now know will be irrevocably lost, although the loss itself will be remembered. Even if all the data were somehow miraculously kept, a very different society could not replicate the work needed to properly understand and test their import. ‘Technic’ societies, it seems, will be constrained by these future limits in ways that strain my imagination.

    Phil H

  15. Dean, that’s true enough — and one of the things that I want to do, as we proceed, is help get people past the abstractions into the specific realities of what limits mean.

    Bruce, condolences — whether or not it turns into a blessing, that’s a hard row to hoe. But you’re right, of course; we all ripen toward death, and every day is a good day to die.

    Phil, exactly. Notice the beauty with which time sifts through the products of past cultures. Would we treasure the surviving pieces of Greek literature anything like so much if all the rest of it, much of which was highly mediocre by contemporary accounts, had survived as well? Similarly, time will sort out the products of our civilization, get rid of most of the tripe, and hand on some of the best to the societies that will build on our ruins.

  16. I think the “Greed Gene” factors in to the ‘limitless” theme. What better way to commandeer everything one desires by announcing that there are no limits to growth, potential, resources,etc.? When, of course, the end result is just a shifting of resources, etc,, from one person or group to another. There will probably always be only a minority of thinkers, immune to the greed gene, that can see the real consequences of following this path; not only to our earth, but to our own soul or psyche.

  17. Well, here’s the monthly ballet lesson: the Law of Limits as it applies within classical ballet. For classical ballet, I feel that this law is actually the most important and most profound of all. Limits completely define classical ballet (and, I believe, all classical art forms); without limits classical ballet could not exist. They are what set it apart from most modern and post-modern dance forms. And they set it apart in terms of richness, depth of feeling and power. It begins with the body. There is good reason for the traditional entrance audition for children to the major classical ballet academies in Europe and the US (and now other places as well). If the physical structure of the child is such that tight hips will unduly limit (there’s that word) the possibility sufficient turn-out of the legs, or if the structure of the foot will not allow the ability to stand “en pointe” (tips of the toes) with the correct body placement and line, then performing ballet movements to a high degree will not be possible. For those dancers whose physical structure is adequate to the task, the realization of limits is faced in every class and performance. Sure, one might wish to look like the stars seen on stage, but it is folly to try to push beyond the level your body can currently obtain. Slow and steady is the only way to go. Of course, younger dancers always try to elude those limits, but injury and obvious flaws in performance are relentless. Eventually, if one is fortunate, the dancer comes to embrace limits, knowing exactly what they can and cannot do, and how, and when. That is when artistry begins to appear, that is when the dancer finds their own “volice” and authenticity. Less struggle, more ease. And if one is really lucky, you can begin to apply those principles in other areas of life. Classical ballet has so many “built-in” limits in the very vocabulary of movement itself, that many people think that it must therefore be limited in what it can express, but the opposite is true. Ballet, IMHO, can be far more expressive and profound than any other dance form, when the artist (and choreographer) understands and uses those limits appropriately.

  18. Yes. I’ve been learning about limits day by day these days. A magnet on my refrigerator says it all: “I used to run with the wolves. Now I nap with the cats.” And running with the wolves seems to be largely an adolescent activity anyway, isn’t it?

  19. @JMG,

    “One of these days I want to do a parody of Tolkien in which the elves are insufferable bores who want to talk by the hour about how drunk they got at the big feast of Mereth Aderthad back in the First Age and none of you young pointy-eared punks have any idea how bad the winter weather in Hithlum was back then, and get off my elanor flowers!”

    I think such a parody could be uproariously funny – all of the races of Middle Earth are ripe for parody – surely you have encountered ‘Bored of the Rings’. As far as the elves, there are many places in the original where they come across as insufferable bores!

  20. “Free jazz” had a certain popularity back in the day. Once I purchased Ornette Coleman’s album “The Skys of America” and dutifully (and unsuccessfully) tried to like it. Now Charles Mingus, who observed limits of form and musicality at least most of the time, was quite a different matter. And Bach and Brahms were better still.

  21. I guess I am one of those who is perhaps hostile to the concept of “limits.” To speak of nature as having limits sounds like an article of faith from some kind of religion – it requires a leap of faith. Not to start a theological debate, but for those of us who believe in the concept of the soul, how is the notion that there are limits to existence useful for thinking about potential, expansion, as well as beauty and power? Are there also limits to spirit (or is that too abstract an idea)? I don’t get it.

  22. I watched a show on black holes of the universe. Everything get sucked in including light .Would that be the limit to the universe or just the place it starts over ?

  23. I have to say, this has been the hardest law for me to wrap my head around. I get the part about limited resources. As I age, I have experienced my own personal limits as to what I can accomplish. Since I don’t have large financial resources, I get it that there are just some projects I can’t do. I get that we live on a finite planet and there are just going to be some projects our culture just won’t be able to do. I understand that I play my part in that by my own lifestyle choices. The part I am having trouble understanding is the part about limits being the foundation beauty and power. For some reason the examples given just aren’t bringing any enlightenment to my brain. I am really looking forward to hearing what everyone else says about this part of the law and I will keep meditating on it until it makes sense. Must be a koan.

  24. Hi John,
    Your Fourth Law reminded me that nature has many negative feedback mechanisms designed to prevent runaway growth to the point of destruction. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from trying to frustrate them. I really like E. Goldstein’s remarks about sonnets and agree that art needs limits and structure. (My favorite structure is the 5-7-5 Haiku structure, which forces me to express images or ideas with concision.)
    John, I’m against premature ageing. I believe we were designed to last until 120 or so, enjoying robust middle age, until we fall apart like the one-house shay the last few days. Because of factors ranging from bad nutrition, emotion stress, pollutants, etc., we’re all suffering from varying degrees of progeria. (There was a time when 40 was considered old; would it have been reprehensible for our ancestors to wish they could live all the way to 80?) In this context, “anti-ageing” is merely an attempt to reclaim our genetic birthright and reverse the effects of various insults visited on the body. It’s not about living forever or even for 1000 years. For one thing, there are probably limits on what the experience of being human can offer; past a certain point, continuing to live would be like repeating the same grade school classes you had already passed. Moreover, immortality is not invulnerability. Sooner or later, the law of averages will catch up with even an ageless human; most would die (if I remember correctly) well before 1000 years, and beating those odds would require an existence so cautious as to defeat the purpose of living. On the other hand, a mature 100-something, still in possession of a vigorous mind and body, may introduce a whole new level of maturity to the human enterprise, one that’s desperately needed. John, think of how even more trenchant and insightful you would be if you and your mind could continue undimmed for another 40 years.

  25. Over the past three years, I’ve had two losses, one of my mother, by a domestic accident two years ago at age 53, and of my grandmother, at age 85, two months ago. Both were met very differently. My mother’s passing caused immense grief to me and my family, for having happened so suddenly and so untimely. My grandmother’s death, on the other hand, was met with respect and dignity, but also relief. She died after a six months long coma, which followed a three year struggle with Alzheimer’s, and she breathed her last on her bed, very calmly, like a candle burning out. Many felt that it was a good thing her ordeal was finally over. It’s no surprise that she was a very spiritual person, adept of Spiritualism, and probably had a very tranquil passage to the other world.

    There is, after all, a time and a purpose for everything under the heavens, and that includes the process of dying itself. Our society forgets that at its own peril, and the result, I think, is that many are spending money and time on fruitless endeavors, the most extravagant of which are some medical procedures which are meant only to increase one’s lifespan, without increasing one’s life…like butter being spread too thin on a slice of bread.

  26. I’m probably over simplifying, but it fascinates me that one of the wonders of the ancient world, the pyramids, were a total failure. Their job being to keep remains of mortals forever. What limits? And, of course they were brought to ruin by the lowest scoundrels around, grave robbers.

  27. There is a huge debate going on in Australia about eurhanasia or assisted dying; in this case it seems that people in the west are in this instance crying out for limits , to their longevity and suffering , increasingly prolonged by big pharma and technology.
    What is the esoteric viewpoint on this from a suicide point of view .
    I personally do not wish to sidestep the lessons old age brings , although with these new developments it is curiously tempting.
    What are the spiritual ramifications of suicide ?

  28. JMG—does the Fourth Law apply only to tangible things? For example, the irrational number phi is a “thing” that, although not tangible, manifests itself in nature but when represented in decimals, has an infinite number of digits. It has beauty because it’s infinite.

  29. I’m currently thinking about the difference between the limits we observe in the external world, and the limits that have to be imposed on our creations because the human mind is finite. Software development is one place where that becomes painfully obvious.

  30. Having made my first comment, I listened to this interview. I can’t claim to under stand permaculture design processes in any meaningful way, but as the conversation went on, I realized that they were talking about limits, beauty and power. One of the speakers made a statement about a built structure in a landscape and used the words, “graceful adaptation to necessity”. It seemed to me that you could replace the word necessity with the word limits and the word graceful with the word beautiful. Then it struck me that if you did this yourself, you gain power, skill, understanding. Ask and yea shall receive.


  31. “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Still love that line, all these years later.RIP Jim.

  32. I suspect that much of the anger and general unease that caused people to vote for Trump is the unacknowledged and unexamined realization of limits. People don’t want to acknowledge that the limits are already smacking us down. They want to blame it on somene, or something but to some extent it’s just the new reality and that is what people are having a hard time accepting. The situation is made worse because the upper 3rd or so of the US population is still prospering. It turns out the most vulnerable people with respect to limits are those w/o money or special skills/training, quite regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender.

    Just a hypothosis, as I have no supporting data, and there many not even be supporting data at this point – I suspect those struggling economically willl be the first to accept the idea of limits. What choice to they have? Eventually we’ll see that blaming others, or using drugs isn’t the way to deal with limits. I bet 10 or 15 years from now you won’t need to talk about the religion of progress. It’s going to loose adherents. Life experience will see to that.

  33. One theme from my meditations on this law has been the way in which so many of these limits are reciprocal.

    To use one of JMG’s examples from the book: the form of being a bird places limits on the material that composes a creature: it must have wings, hollow bones, etc. But the matter also places limits on the form: No actual individual, incarnate bird can ever embody ALL of what it is to be a bird: each individual is either a hawk with its eyes and talons for sighting and grasping prey, or a vulture with its bare head and acute sense of smell, or a passerine with its own limits/adaptations, etc. Each individual either embodies the male or female way of expressing its species. And so on, and so on.

    So by descending into the material realm, the form both limits and is limited by that matter. The matter could be configured so many other ways, but not all of them at once, while the form could be expressed so many other ways, but again, not of them at once.

    Likewise with E. Goldstein’s sonnet, or any other instance of language. Or pretty much anything else.

  34. Greetings!
    Limits, what a great word it is! For me limits allow focusing of will and power to achieve something. Without limits, nothing holds, nothing stands, nothing lasts.
    Limits enable the exertion of creativity and intelligence.
    Too many limits and nothing worthwhile can be achieved, no limits and nothing holds.

  35. Karen, I don’t see any reason to dignify greed by blaming it on a gene. It’s a bad habit, pure and simple.

    Lydia, thanks for this!

    Patricia, in my experience, way too many people who claim to run with the wolves actually have a hard time keeping up with the poodles…

    Sgage, I have indeed — got my first copy within weeks of the original publication, Some of the jokes can still keep me chuckling.

    Phutatorius, exactly. There was a fixation for a while on getting rid of limits in various art forms, and the result was pretty consistently bland noise.

    Y. Chireau, if you want to get it, I’d encourage you to read the chapter of the book we’re discussing, where all those points are discussed at length.

    Robert, good question. They could simply be the vacuum cleaners of the cosmos.

    Kay, I’d definitely encourage you to keep thinking about it. It’s not a koan, but it flies in the face of the pop-culture prejudices of our time.

    Greg, every time I’ve talked to someone who insists that we all ought to live to 120 or more, I ask for evidence that this isn’t simply wishful thinking. I have yet to get an answer that isn’t just handwaving. As for another forty years, no, that wouldn’t be particularly useful to anyone, because in field after field it’s been shown that you get all your original ideas in the first decade or so you work on a given subject. After that, you work out their implications, and if you live longer, you’re just rehashing things. Forty years of being a repetitive windbag does not appeal to me.

    Bruno, thank you for this. There’s much to be said for a graceful death.

    Michael, good. They also bankrupted Old Kingdom Egypt and helped bring about a dark age, by the way.

    Rhinestone, suicide is one thing, and letting the body die when it’s ready to die is quite another. A lot of “assisted suicide” consists of getting out of nature’s way. Suicide can be problematic, depending on why it’s done; it’s very easy to get stuck in the in-between state if you’ve committed suicide, since you go out of incarnation without any of the natural preparations for death that make transition through the various stages of death easier.

    NickLake, nope, phi isn’t infinite — it’s a specific, very finite relationship, which can be expressed very simply in finite form geometrically. The only thing that makes it look infinite is our clumsy mode of numerical representation, which can’t express so simple a relationship as x:y::y:x+y in a finite number of digits.

    John, good. The limits on the human mind are also part of nature, of course, since the human mind is part of the natural world.

    Kay, thanks for this!

    Dennis, true enough.

    Christopher, I suspect you’re quite correct.

    Barefootwisdom and Karim, exactly!

  36. Just thinking now about emotional states that can feature during an encounter with a limitation. For example, satiation, a common way the body tells you you’ve taken enough of something that is sometimes needed. Satiation helps you to end that activity (on a note of satisfaction) and begin another. Sometimes satiation is eclipsed by frustration, which rails at whatever has stopped you taking something in, casts it in the role of an obstacle. Frustration, in its turn, often obscures the next activity that is needed. States to watch in ourselves as “signals” of our interaction with a limit.

    Separately, on the subject of mortality, the thoughts that troubled me when I was a teenager were more to do with the dread prospect of immortality – the “eternal life” I was raised to believe God had promised me. I wondered which “me” would be fated to live “eternally” – a youth, or a doddering old person? Would I be frozen into eternal immobility at the moment of my death? Would an eternal life “work” as a life if there was no longer a prospect of death, or sickness, or pain? Where would all the bacteria and other important components of our lives go? Where would hunger and desire for sleep and cuddles go? What if we were in love, or in feud? Would this “state” be frozen into timelessness?
    The limitlessness of “eternal life” proved to be terrifying.

    My mortality feels like the right context in which I can have this living relationship with this time and place and with all its denizens, and it is well, and beautiful, and graceful just as it is. I feel less uncomfortable about what comes “after” in the trust that it will [likely] involve re-engagement with times and places and people (or beings) and not no-time, no-place and no-beings-except-timeless-placeless-ones. At least the reincarnation idea is a less “limitless” one. But in any case, what comes after will come after. I do not need to know, one way or another, while I live this life, in this moment.

  37. I am wondering if technic humanity is having a deep bout of denial over the stark truth brought to us by the study of thermodynamics and astronomy, namely that everything happens because the universe is running down hill and eventually all useful energy will be gone. Even if we did colonise (i.e. concrete over) the entire universe we would still eventually die out and cease to exist no matter what choices we made. I think this process parallels on a species level what we all go through on a personal level as we come to terms with our mortality.

  38. Hi John Michael,

    I learned from you that accepting limits is actually an empowering thing. Thank you for taking the time to put barely felt and understood concepts into words.

    I’m unsure whether anyone has mentioned this already as I have not read the comments yet (other than the first comment by Brian which inspired me to type this comment), but belief in the ideal of progress are not compatible with beliefs in time as it actually works – which is cycles. It does not surprise me at all that people fear ageing and death so much because progress promises an ever upwards and outwards linear trajectory, whilst life delivers growth and then regress. People are basically unprepared to accept the eventuality which is facing them, which is why they fear it so much.

    And when I think about it a bit more, when you accept the reality of the future (it is the ultimate personal limit after all), then you know, you may have to do something about it, other than leaving no resources for future generations to deal with our pollution. There is no judgement from me, but I know people who are not intending to leave any resources to their kids, and whilst I don’t judge them, I’m frankly uncomfortable with that position because the Golden Rule applies there too.

    Glad to read that you enjoyed the “Mad Genius” bit and I appreciated your reply! Hehe!

    Hi RPC,

    Thanks for the correction and thumbs up, and I appreciate it as corrections are a good way to learn on the fly.



  39. Hi John Michael,

    It is interesting that you mentioned Lord of the Rings, but I assume Tolkien knew what he was doing when in the story, the great and powerful hid behind walls, whilst the lesser folk – and I include Aragorn – in their number got on with the job at hand that needed to be done? The Elves for all their age and wisdom were not exceptionally useful when the chips were down…

    Sorry, this one is a bit off topic, but I have so many questions and you did mention the Elves, and honestly there is only so much time! :-)!



  40. If I’m understanding my reading of the Law of Limits correctly, JMG, what you’re telling me is that the limitations I have from (actual, diagnosed) PTSD that I’ve had since childhood are themselves routes to beauty and strength. I don’t necessarily have to work around the limitations, be ashamed of them, or tussle with them endlessly as I have been advised to do in the past. The limitations themselves can create beauty and strength? As the kids say, Mind. Blown. I’ll be meditating on this. (I confess I forgot it was book club week until I saw last night that this week’s post had gone up.)

    On the subject of not being able to achieve two competing things at the same time, is it also effective to figure out, if possible, how to make them more compatible? For example, I might want to get household chores done but I also want to spend some time reading. I can’t read a book and dust at the same time (at least, I can’t do either one very well), but I can plug in my headphones and successfully listen to an audiobook while I clean. Not the most magical example, but is the idea of figuring out how to make two things work together within their limitations applicable to other, more important pursuits?

  41. JMG:

    I wish to offer a comment about limits using one of my favorite figures of speech and one of my favorite geomantic figures.

    My mind in its present states of operation finds it useful to describe the figure Carcer as a symbol of active limitation by using the kenning Compost Bin. A compost bin is as you understand one of those everyday altars you can see if you learn how to know and name.

    Perhaps my comment will benefit your geomantic practice as well as the practices of other geomancers who might read this, and provide food for thought for all members of this rare and nourishing community.

    Saturn’s Pet

  42. Now, tthe Law of Limits is really a juicy one! The whole Archdruid Report was in one or another way, about limits. Secondly, I have to second the view of Clay Dennis that in the course of the industrial revolution, increasing access to the energy from fossil fuels made certain limits, which determined the possibilities of traditional arts and crafts go away. The new technical possibilities led, for example, in the 19. century to the invention of vast numbers of new typefaces and the throwing-out of traditional design rules which went back to the possibilities and limits of earler letterpress printing. These developments became detrimental to the beauty and legibility of printed matters, because, without limits, the typesetters weren’t able to deal well with the new realities.
    Thirdly, I propose that there is an intersection between the law of limits and the law of balance. Too few limits, and there will be the known problems of limitlessness. Too strict limits in their turn prevent things and people from fully developing. That is, there is an optimal middle point of limits.

  43. Hi JMG, the concept that most resonated for me in this chapter was the concept that while limits are always present they are also mutable. That is to say that you will always face limits, but you can in some respects choose which limits to accept and which to push. In my twenties, I was quite active in fitness and sports and would regularly push those limits in order to find excellence, but I didn’t really see any other limits. Later, I transitioned to skydiving and I saw that the very best sky divers were those who had devoted their whole lives to the sport (something common to most athletes who excel in their field). Thus, those who were best at being skydiving were those who lived in their cars on the airfield, didn’t have a full time job or even relationship. They put their limits on those things and pushed their limits in their sport. Everything was devoted to excelling in just that one area. For a while I tried to follow in their footsteps, but I soon discovered that I couldn’t accept the limits that that level of excellence required. It was a weird thing to discover that as much as I loved the sport, I loved having a proper bed/home to go to at the end of the day more.
    These days I have given up the sport (its not the most environmentally friendly activity) and taken up the larger questions of existence. This is where the question of limits has me at the moment. It is that I believe that we should challenge limits, not blindly, but sensibly and with thought. For example, sedentary life at a keyboard has left me very inflexible, so I am using Yoga to challenge that inflexibility and move those limits outwards. I accept the limits that require me to work at a desk, but I mitigate the consequences of that choice.
    Some limits are immutable, death for example, but how you live your life changes the odds of encountering the different forms its takes and when, they also change how you view that limit.

  44. Isn’t the claim that death gives life meaning an untestable hypothesis since we don’t have a sample size of even one immortal who we can ask if their life has meaning?

    When the techno-cornucopians talk about ‘the Promethean future of humanity’ I wonder how much they thought that statement through. They may be right in a different way than they intended. Fossil fuels was the stealing fire from the gods part. Now we’re closing in on the rock-chains-eagle-liver part.

    This may be old news in the peak oil community, but a thought occured that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere. When the fossil fuels start to run short the need for manual labour will increase massively. Those workers will need to be fed. A male navvy needs 6000-7000 calories a day, a female navvy 5000-6000 calories. A majority of this needs to be energy-dense proteins and fats. But this near-tripling in food demand will come just as agricultural production is dropping, also caused by the fossil fuel shortage.

  45. As human animals our limitations are largely set, like other animals, by our ancestry, that is by our evolutionary adaptation to past life conditions. For humans this means our abilities and limitations are basically those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. People tend to think of themselves as quite different from hunter-gatherers, and culturally that is very true. But natural selection is generally quite slow and the amount of time that we have spent experimenting with city life (civilization – less than 12000 years and for most of our ancestors far less) is an instant compared to the amount of time we spent (hundreds of thousands as homo sapiens, perhaps 6 million years as homo erectus, etc.) evolving to be successful hunter-gatherers. Science knows of some newer adaptations, such as the adult ability to digest lactose that some of us have, but generally it seems safe to assume that we are born as natural hunter-gatherers, with HG biology, instincts, emotions and conceptual abilities, and HG limitations in diet, social needs, spiritual needs, activity needs, desires and fears.

    The thing is very few of us live like hunter-gatherers anymore, hunting and gathering to eat what was locally available, using pretty basic technology (but detailed knowledge), in harmony with the local ecosystem because that worked best. As homo sapiens we lived in small groups of up to about 150 members (Dunbar’s number). Study of existing hunter-gatherers tells us these groups are generally egalitarian, without hierarchy, emphasizing cooperation, consensus decision making, flexible roles, fairness and a great deal of individual freedom. Basically it’s like living, working and playing all the time with 150 best friends – quite a contrast with the way most of us live today.

    Just as modern people look down on animals, we tend to look down on ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers, the limitations of their lifestyle, knowledge, clothing, food, etc., thinking that we are so much less limited, better in every way. Certainly we are less limited in ways allowed by advanced technology, but is that generally true? Does that even make sense? Take an animal out of it’s natural environment and it is diminished – for example an elephant in a zoo or circus, or a tamed wolf. Why expect it to be different for homo sapiens? I’d say this prejudice against hunter-gatherers is an example of ‘mindless hostility’ toward limitation, a fundamental lack of humility and denial of what our HG limits are, and the first of ‘the core reasons we’re in the middle of the mess we’ve made for ourselves’.

    I hope this isn’t all too obvious. If so I’d love to hear it as well as any problems/disagreements with the basic argument.

  46. “But you’re right, of course; we all ripen toward death, and every day is a good day to die.”

    On the subject of vital limits, I find myself fine with dying of natural causes, but at the same time I actually fear dying because of the negligence of another. As a case in point, I frequently observe drivers texting on their mobile phones while ignoring pedestrians (and other cars). There’s always a chance that I won’t make it home one day because someone was on Facebook rather than paying attention to the road.

    So, my question: You’ve mentioned before that you’ve never owned a car. May I ask if you have any fear of driving?

  47. Maybe this is a bit off topic, but this reminded me of one of Descarte’s proofs of God’s existence. Very briefly, if memory serves, it went something like this: “I have in me the idea of the infinite, the boundless, the eternal. That idea could not have come from the world or from other ideas of mine because everything I can perceive or conceive distinctly has limits in some way: bounded in space, contingent, finite duration, and so on. Therefore, there must be something else that is the cause of this idea, and that something is God.”

    I’m not a Cartesian, but I think it’s interesting that one of the first of modern philosophers noticed that there was something unnatural about the idea of anything limitless, and he awarded that property exclusively to God. I guess we are no longer as pious as Descartes was, and now we think we were also invited to the banquet of the limitless.

  48. I really appreciated Lydia’s description of ballet as interpreted in terms of the Law of Limits. It really helped me to understand it quite a bit better. Without an understanding and acceptance of the limits of that particular dance form, it would just be a bunch of people jumping about on stage, flailing their limbs wildly and crashing into one another! That would truly lack beauty, elegance and power.

    It led me to think about a particular “art” form I’ve studied, West African drumming, in terms of my understanding of the Law of Limits (I hesitate to call it an art, as in the past it fulfilled a more social/communal and spiritual role, although in recent years it has evolved into more of a performance art with various groups touring around the world. Some groups call themselves ‘ballets’ interestingly enough – le Ballet National du Senegal, les Ballets Africains etc – although the accompanying dance is about as far from classical ballet as you can get in a dance form!)

    This particular kind of drumming is highly structured and leaves very little room for improvisation. Westerners trying to learn it seem to often struggle with that fact, but that is indeed what gives it beauty and power. So a group of drummers is usually made up of around three djembe players, and three “dunun” players. The dununs are a set of three drums which vary in tone from low to high, so that when they are played together it is possible to create something of a melody within the rhythm. Each drummer is for the most part limited to playing one particular, distinct part. The parts fit together almost like a puzzle, in that the moments of silence in one part are filled by sound in another part, and the resulting rhythm is a complex synthesis of all the different parts put together (I think this is referred to ‘polyrhythm’ or ‘cross-rhythm,’ but not having much of a musical background, I’m not actually sure). This only works well if each drummer adheres fully to the limits of his or her own part. One has to listen very closely and make sure that one is playing one’s part exactly correctly, and not crossing over into the space occupied by another part (which has interesting parallels to interpersonal relationships!) One’s part becomes something of a mantra, in that you have to limit your thoughts and focus intently on it in order to play successfully with the rest of the group, or as my teachers would say, ‘you have to bring your mind.’ If a group can do this successfully, the rhythm comes together in a most interesting way. I have heard this referred to as the rhythm ‘hardening’ – when each drummer is adhering exactly to the limits of their part – something quite beautiful is formed which has a power greater than each individual part, and can even lead to changes in one’s state of consciousness. The lead djembe player does have a bit more freedom with what they can play in that they improvise over what the rest of the group is playing, but what sets a master drummer apart is their ability to respect the limits of the particular rhythm being played, and craft their solos in ways which both highlight and reinforce the underlying shape of that rhythm.

    Contrast that to what westerners call a ‘drum circle,’ which in terms of my experience of African drumming and the Law of Limits, is almost the exact opposite. People show up and play whatever parts they feel like, improvising freely and largely not listening or respecting the boundaries of what others are playing. You get what my drumming friends and I used to call ‘wankers’ showing up, people with a tendency to try to play the loudest and improvise the most, while simultaneously walking all over everyone else, just to show off. People don’t seem to focus their minds on what they are playing; they almost seem to see it as an opportunity to ‘zone out’ or for transcendence, but I would have to disagree. The resulting ‘music’ is a cacophonous mess that generally lacks beauty or power, and hasn’t (in my experience) led to any similar changes in consciousness, except instilling a desire to get out of there as quickly as possible! This may somehow be a reflection of current western reluctance to accept limits in other areas of life. (Sorry if that offends anyone who happens to like drum circles, but from my point of view, that’s more or less what is going on).

  49. “…beauty is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more perfect its acceptance of those limits, the greater the beauty will be.”

    In this sense, the natural world cannot be other than perfectly beautiful. That fits with my experience.

    But when we consider beauty in the human world, that seems to emerge from the choices we make concerning “diminishing returns and foregone opportunities” and other consequences of any given ambition.

    Can you reflect a bit on the relationship between the freedom to choose and beauty?

  50. More thoughts inspired by the reading of this section of the book – my daughter produces an impressive amount of writings and drawings, to the point where if I didn’t periodically go around and tidy it all up, the house would be covered in a three-foot thick layer of paper. I found this one as I was cleaning up last night:

    “I wish that:
    -unicorns were real
    -that dolls would come to life
    -I owned a chocolate factory
    -I get A LOT of gum
    -I could go on adventures (fun ones)
    -I could have psychic powers
    -my bed could fly”

    A world without limits, from a child’s point of view (not to say some of those wishes are outside the realm of possibility!) It made me think of how the process of growing up is a gradual understanding and acceptance of the various limits inherent in the world. Each person’s success (or failure) relates to the particular way they have approached the limits in which they find themselves, and that their life is in fact a unique response to those limits.

  51. Of general interest to some here, perhaps (though more on topic for last week’s discussions of supreme beings and power relationships among the gods): John Dolan, aka The War Nerd, has tried to steal The Iliad away from the academics by retelling it in modern prose, and it’s pretty fun.

  52. @Gavin Harris: That’s something I’ve noticed too, most notably in martial arts back in my youth. As people advanced through the various belts, there was an expectation that it would become one of the primary things in their lives, whereas I was content to stay lower down and just go to class a few times a week. As I’ve aged, I’ve seen similar patterns: for me, any one activity (martial arts, gaming, writing, the day job, magic, sewing, men, etc) will always just be a thing I do, whereas for other people it’s The Thing They Do. Usually (though not always–men and gaming are examples where monofocus frequently doesn’t correlate at all with skill and often gets in the way, and I think day jobs can easily become that) the latter are the ones that are really great at whatever it is. Pushing limits creates other limits?

    @Chris: I always figured the elves were mostly maintaining the structure of things elsewhere–and in general, that immortal beings (or those more in touch with the immortal parts of themselves) tend to fulfill a more foundational/”keep the shape of things functioning” role, whereas humanish lifespans are more necessary for change, direct action, etc. There are Legolas-style exceptions, of course.

  53. Riffing off booklover’s theme, it seems our society has abandoned the concept of “optimum.” I think of medieval economics’ emphasis on e.g. “just price” as opposed to modern economics’ “grow at any cost” mentality. At some point “any cost” overwhelms whatever good “grow” was accomplishing.In almost all aspects of my life I find that joy/elegance/beauty are found in the creative balancing of multiple limits.

  54. I’m a 44 year old female. As a woman, I am constantly being told by the media at large that looking young should be an aspiration of mine. No limits to how youthful we can look even when we are 70.

    Modern methods utilized to combat the appearance of aging range from pathetic/innocuous to disfiguring/terrifying. When they have “good” plastic surgery, they almost uniformly end up looking like a slightly off, creepy version of their younger selves. Little kids often have bags under their eyes because that’s just life; aging surgery-addicted celebrities never do, it’s a flat plane under there. Implants (shudders) of any kind last 10 years at best — a friend in his 50s is now rapidly dying of a mesh implant he got put in because of hernia — and they leak poison in the form of heavy metals and hormone-mimickers the second they are inserted. Another friend who got breast implants a decade ago cannot afford to have them removed and suffers several auto-immune disorders most likely caused by them.

  55. Regarding limits to life, here’s a thought: given what we know of near-death experiences, the physiology of death, and even (ahem) autoerotic asphyxiation, is it possible that the observed experience of death (cessation and dissolution) does not conflict with the “lived” (can’t think of a better term) experience of an eternity of bliss? In which case the thing to fear is a death that destroys the brain before it dies “naturally” of oxygen deprivation…

  56. reloaded15 @ “By defining the limits does the master show himself.” I think this phrase sums up our predicament very nicely. Because it seems to me that the term master is only applied today, if only something new is discovered. I say “if only” rather than “only” because a lot of new “discoveries” right now seem to be junk. Many modern readers I think would read your quote about defining limits as pushing the boundary out then redrawing it. “Only by going beyond the possible do we know what is possible,” is a version of that I’ve heard tossed around quiet a bit.

    I think a better application of the word master would be, making a positive/relevant contribution to the status of the world. And by that definition Mr. Greer is a master writer. Isn’t kind of funny that progress demands masters run to the boundary of the possible? It seems like a double dog dare to see who can hang the furthest off the edge of a flat Earth.

  57. @Anonymous Millenial

    There is actually a lot of work out there criticizing that book of Pinker’s. Apparently he used shoddy research methodology and cherry picked his data, as well as manipulated statistics to fit his narrative. A quick google search leads to plenty of info on that.


    Regarding limits, I have been contemplating the idea that the human brain, only 6-7 inches long, cannot truly understand something as vast as the cosmos in any complete way. I think people have been led to believe that since we have been able to construct some sort of coherent theory of the material universe using the scientific method, that everything we do no yet understand will inevitably be understood with time. But what is missing from this narrative is that our methods of understanding are subject to diminishing returns and the fact that the scientific method is a finite methodology created by finite beings. It has taken more and more complex and expensive technology just to add a little bit more to our knowledge, and each increment of additional knowledge is smaller than the last.

    The devices we use to accumulate this knowledge can also be viewed as mere prosthetic enhancements of our limited senses. Though these enhancements greatly increase our ability to understand, the fact that these devices are so beyond what we can achieve as humans does not mean the gap between our abilities and the devices is limitless. When we look at, say, a galaxy, it is still really just an enhanced image filtered through a device that allows our senses to register it in a meaningful way.

    -Dan Mollo

  58. When I began working as an architect, I had this postcard on my wall. Entitled “Ropes and Rules”, it said that architecture is constrained by rules, and like bondage, the more complex the rules, the greater the pleasure. Today’s architecture seems completely unconstrained, by cost or logic or precedent, or even by the need to keep out the rain, and it’s no wonder that it produces such hideous products.

  59. JMG,

    Perhaps one could suggest that it is quite interesting that something that is a bare tautology could be seen as needing many comments and/or considerable reflection.

    What is………………… simply is!


  60. Hello all,

    This chapter of the book really spoke to me.

    The theme of limits imposed and limits chosen has been a powerful meditation for me for quite some time. Learning to accept limits has allowed me to see where I need to and can -set- limits and boundaries, something I didn’t learn growing up, and which had caused a lot of confusion and grief in my young adulthood.

    It is a wonder to me how when one draws a circle around a thing and chooses to focus on just that, how the small can suddenly open up like a flower, revealing greater hidden depths of beauty and wonder. It showed me the world is much, much bigger than I thought.

  61. @Gavin – Isn’t it interesting how limits are almost meant to provoke knowledge of the self? It seems that dedicating one’s life to a pursuit, like an art, is the last great push an artist can make in climbing that curve of diminishing returns. The problem is when an artist decides to dedicate themselves to their craft at such a level then it is up to the rest of society to support them. Or the artists must completely support themselves some other way, like living a sustainable lifestyle in a tiny house. Bill Maher once said “We can’t all be the one drawing on the cave walls. Someone has to go out there fight the bear and hunt.” It seems like in a culture where excellence in art/quality goods is increasingly not supported the artists must first learn to fend off the bears/long decline on their own.

  62. Re: Elves

    Somewhere in Tolkien’s letters he says explicitly that the Elves in the Third Age, which includes the events narrated in the Lord of the Rings, were quite wrong to cling to the past and try to conserve it as long as possible (using their three rings); that the effects of the Elves’ actions on other people were not entirely good, and that the point-of-view characters in the Lord of the Rings who are infatuated with the Elves are sometimes naive about their true motives (paraphrasing, since I read this many years ago). The Elves ought to have let go of their kingdoms in Middle Earth long ago. In the same vein, the desire of the Numenoreans and Gondorians to build huge tombs and conserve their pure and untarnished lineages is not a good thing.

    That is to say, your proposed parody of the ages-old Beleriandic bores (and its counterpart in the Russian anti-LoTR) might not be entirely against the intentions of the original author, who was very accepting of limits and ends!

  63. As an academic who chooses not to fly, I often get questioned about this self-imposed “limit”. I think in a lot of ways, rather than a limit on one thing, I have come to think of it instead as a way of choosing to deepen the relationship with the alternative thing (in this case, doing my own research and attending conferences etc in my own area).

    It’s easier to see in other contexts: being vegetarian is not a limitation but a choice to deepen another relationship, so is getting married, so is having children, and yet all of these choices also greatly “limit” what you can do. But freely choosing these limitations is a source of beauty and power.

  64. Someone mentioned “tomb robbers’ as the lowest of the low, which within the culture of Egypt, they were. But I suspect they actually served a vital purpose in that stealing treasure from tombs put precious metals and gems back into circulation and probably helped the economy. Also, once a tomb was emptied there was no use in diverting resources to maintain the ceremonies and priesthoods that had been attached to it, which would have freed those resources for new projects. On a more metaphysical note, if reincarnation is the natural cycle, Egyptian attempts to fix the soul in place with the carefully preserved body frustrates that cycle and the tomb robbers are freeing their fellows to move on.

    I recently visited an exhibition of artifacts from various American civilizations. A lot of gold, jadeite, pottery, shell beads, etc. Very beautiful, although much of the art leaves me cold since I don’t really understand the religions behind it. Many of the artifacts were from cultures I had never heard of, since most of the treasures from Inca and Aztec were melted down by the Spanish the exhibit was largely of artifacts recently excavated from tombs. But I had a distinct sense that the gold artifacts were glad to be in the exhibit. I felt like gold wants to be seen and admired and being buried in a tomb is a frustration.

    This was quite unlike the feeling I get in exhibits of African and Oceanic art, which is mostly “What am I doing here, being stared at by the enemies and receiving no reverence? Take me home!” I would explain my lack of sympathy with the art as cultural blindness except that I was an anthropology major and took some courses in the art of those regions. So I do have a limited knowledge of what the artists were doing, unlike many Westerners who just see an ugly, crude, primitive ‘attempt’ at art.

  65. It doesn’t matter if you’re ugly you should be able to do ballet. What matters is how hard you try not the end results. I’m guessing I’m going to be discriminated against because my name is troll bingo.

  66. Consumerism is ugly because it does not respect limit. limit is a merciful and beautiful law ,imagine our different organs grow without limit. What an ugly structure we face when limits are not recognized among the different organs, Imagine we write and speak without the rules of limit.Here pop up the concepts of beauty and elegance in respecting the limits. We can not divorce the law of the heaven from the law of the earth, nor can we separate the law of life from the first and the last law of history , the law of potentiality from the law of actuality. Limit is not across the board but each event and each thing has its own limits. The same humanity under the same different limits. Yes it is the law of the same hubris under different day. the only difference is the wider consciousness and the better understanding even if it is on another limited scope . This recall to my mind the jazz singer Lalah Hathaway and her new limit in the world of delivering music note. We are all under the spells of different names in a continual process of dialogue to find our way out of the confusion and aspiring to set new limits for human maturity in both realm of ecology that of the mental and the physical. Life is a difficult game few are those that can make it to the other shore of safety, to the a bode of restful certainty in this sea of uncertainty. It is unity and diversity and how to coordinate our move between these polarity. I appreciate your openness in a human world that is heading toward closing their doors against each other despite all the talk of globalization and the message of the internet that is pointing to the unity of our connected cosmos. It is how to communicate with the higher energetic conscious forces that fill
    our cosmos and to know that our consciousness is part of the consciousness that brought this elegant existence int existence, and shy away from being engulfed in the centrism of the human self that has led us to this unhappy situation and stop accusing the genes of our misconduct. It is the same spiritual
    air that we are all breathing its oxygen of consciousness.

  67. In a late post in last month’s Book Club thread I talked about the Law of Balance from a game designer’s point of view. The Law of Limits relates to games even more directly. The objective of game design is to bring about certain kinds of balance and flow that are considered quality game play. But the way that’s done is by the crafting of structures of limits. Games are nothing but systems of imaginary limits (aka rules) that the players agree to voluntarily treat as real. No physical law prevents a player from moving a rook diagonally or moving a Monopoly token off the “Jail” space at will. (Of course, rules/limits can take on more concrete forms when enforced by living referees, embodied in gaming mechanisms such as a pinball machine or computer game, and so forth.)

    So, the importance of limits in other art forms such as dance, music, and poetry is echoed if not magnified in game design. Take away limits (such as rhyme and meter) from poetry, and you might still have words on a page that could mean something. Take away limits (harmony, cadence, etc.) from music, and you might still have unusual soundscapes (even with 4’33”, which is an unusual soundscape in the context of a traditional performance space; though not so much, if you queue it up on your stereo). Take away limits from a game and you have pretty much (as Alice put it) “nothing but a pack of cards.”

    Lengthy discussion abridged here. Short version: when it comes to appreciation of the crucial role of limits in manifesting creative power, which seems to be a theme of this discussion, I’m all in.

    At least in the abstract. In the everyday, I’m starting preparations for a move to about 800 square feet of living space, a limit that means I’m going to be getting rid of most of my lifetime accumulation of stuff. That final S in LESS, which for me includes endless amounts of books, family heirlooms, tools, and salvageable equipment that could be very useful in a future of scarcity. I’ve watched older family members suffer enormously late in their lives from holding on to too much stuff, due to sentimentality or perceived practicality or both, so I know I need to do this and I’ll be better off when it’s done. I wish the stuff in question were all old newspapers and dirty rags like the “extreme hoarders” on TV, but too much of it has apparent value. Like one entire chest of drawers filled with brand new projector bulbs, acquired by my father, which are no longer manufactured and so are worth real money to people keeping old projectors working, but will be a huge chore to sell. And that’s a drop in the bucket overall.

    What I’m facing is quite benign by comparison, but when limits manifest themselves in forms like “food or medicine; can’t afford both” it’s a bit harder to celebrate them.

  68. Now for some wilder speculation. It appears to me that the Laws of Flow, Balance, and Limits are an interlocked triad. Specifically, that any two of them necessitates the third. At least, if anything like life as we know it is to be a possible result of the system’s behavior. More specifically, any two of these laws in operation, with the third contravened, would lead to one of three different varieties of stasis.

    And furthermore, the three Hermetic Principles that appear to be the closest analogies to those three laws also form a similar triad. Such a triad also appears in every variant formulation of the Seven Laws I’ve had the opportunity to examine.

    Then there are the three laws of thermodynamics: respectively a law of balance, a law of flow, and a law of limits. Newton’s three laws of motion relate roughly to flow, limits, and balance respectively. Ohm’s Law relates measures of one particular instantiation of the three, with I (current) being a flow, E (voltage) being an imbalance (i.e. the inverse of a balance), and R (resistance) being a limit.

    This makes me wonder whether the Laws of Flow, Balance, and Limits are actually aspects of one single deeper law. (But if so, stating what that law might be, or even look like, is beyond me.)

  69. A lot of thoughtstoppers seem to revolve around this one, maybe because it’s the law that human societies that haven’t yet realized they’re past their expansion phase have most trouble with. I think Catton said that anyway. As in the mindset that insists that “they’ll think of something”, “it’ll be different this time”, “all our problems can be solved with a little imagination” and all the offspring of the cult of positive thinking. I suppose what we usually call positive emotions tend to be expansive while negative ones usually involve encounters with limits in one way or another. Might explain in part the deep discomfort our cultures have about negative emotions.

    This is a half-formed thought sorry, but…you know how in creation myths the world is sometimes created by a word? And I read that the virtue of Malkuth is discrimination. Is the act of naming individual things, of creating categories of thought and therefore limits between one category of things and another, kind of the act of creation? It’s an act of limitation that creates order out of chaos or something like that?

    So postmodernism, by dissolving categories of thought, is maybe the most explicit part of our civilization’s barbarism of reflection and it re-creates chaos out of order. It’s like the opposite of creation which is equally necessary. If the decline of civilization is a pattern, what is it that triggers the emergence of the Second Religiosity? Is there a tipping point in the progress of nihilism that causes it to emerge? I’d like it to hurry up but hopefully that’s not a case of be careful what you wish for!

  70. Thank you Greer for providing such an inspiring opportunity for a constructive dialogue that helps us understanding our human problematic condition better and helps us to address the mess with a new consciousness. The worst problem is to get besieged by the limitations of the ideas of our ancestors, A problem that has faced all previous generations that demanded renewal. This recall to my mind the distinction between the scholastic knowledge that went into unhealthy limitations and the revelatory knowledge that appears to save humanity from suffocation, that is the creative artistic new vision that brings new consciousness to address the mess. The art that might go itself in sickness when it no longer respects its limits, The two beautiful inputs that of Lydia and Garmilla that cover the grace of motion and the grace of sound and how the violations of such graceful proportions lead definitely to ugly death away from the beautiful death the gift of the true self that has known its limit. Thank you all for a world that works toward more honesty and more sincerity the basis for respecting the limits that brings greatness to human life. The awareness of the finite in the frame of the infinite awareness. .

  71. Scotlyn, the emotional state I find most often appearing when a limit is reached is satisfaction: “there, that’s taken care of.” I aspire to feeling that when I reach the end of my life, too. As for eternal life, no argument there.

    Shane, exactly — most of modern culture can be seen as a frantic attempt to deny the facts of human impermanence and unimportance that are revealed so clearly by the sciences. it would be nice if we could grow up and let go of that denial…

    Chris, no question, there’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance in the popular fixation on perpetual progress and betterment. I think most people know perfectly well that the world doesn’t work that way — with the aging process as exhibit A — but since that knowledge is unacceptable to them, they engage in increasingly strident make-believe. As for the elves, oh, granted — but I may want someday to tell that story in a different and edgier way.

    Maria, exactly. Your limits — whatever those happen to be — are your sources of beauty and strength, and if you approach them that way, you can use them as such. It’s the rejection of limits that leads to so much ugliness and weakness in industrial humanity. As for doing more than one thing at a time, bingo — you have to figure out how to make them cooperate rather than compete, so they become parts of a single event.

    Pet, that’s a useful metaphor. In the same way, Tristitia — the geomantic figure of downward movement — can be thought of as Putting Down Roots.

    Booklover, excellent. Each of the seven laws interacts with all of the others, producing the kind of insights you’ve just demonstrated with Limits + Balance. In your meditations, you can try matching up all the possible pairings of the laws, and seeing what they teach you.

    Gavin, also excellent! Yes, you’ve always got the choice of how you’re going to relate to each of the limits in your life — which ones you’re going to push up against hard, which others you’re going to rest on relatively gently, which ones you’re going to leave alone for now.

    Yorkshire, we actually have a moderate sample size of people who think they’re going to live forever — some people convince themselves of that, and even though they’re wrong, that belief shapes their actions…

    TrueThomas, you’re certainly right about the prejudice against the “primitive” — a prejudice that’s inevitably mixed with a good dollop of envy.I see a lot of people responding to that by standing the prejudice on its head and praising the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as reflexively as others condemn it. It seems more productive to me to remember that human beings are highly adaptable — the skills needed to be a successful hunter-gatherer in the Arctic don’t, all things considered, have that much in common with the skills needed to be a successful hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari desert — and to keep in mind that the question that matters isn’t whether one lifestyle is better in some abstract sense than another, but how you yourself are going to choose to live where you are right now.

    Jeffrey, no, I don’t make decisions on the basis of fear. I dislike driving, as it’s loud, busy, and happens at a faster pace than I like to deal with; I’m also not very good at it — like a lot of people with Aspergers syndrome, I have very poor eye-hand coordination and some sensory processing disorders — and so, back when I was fifteen and a half and taking driver’s education classes at high school, I decided that I didn’t need to drive, the riads didn’t need one more suicidally incompetent teen driver, and the planet could use one less tailpipe. I’ve reviewed that decision from time to time, but never found any good reason to change my mind.

    Jose, fascinating! I wasn’t aware of that. While I consider Descartes’ argument fatally flawed, it’s useful to me, because it helps point to the origin of concepts like “limitless” — so thank you!

    Stefania, thank you for this! I avoid drum circles but I enjoy West African drumming a great deal — also Japanese taiko drumming, which is also very formal — and now I have a much clearer idea of the reasons why.

    Redoak, such a reflection could be extended over a lifetime, with good results. The one comment I’ll make here is that humans create beauty when they choose to work with limits, and generally create a pretty ugly mess when they choose to ignore limits.

    Stefania, I wonder if children everywhere have such wishes, or if it’s specifically the product of our dysfunctional culture, reflected in the minds of children…

    Jonathan, hah! I’ll have to read that. Do you have a link?

    RPC, bingo. A bumper sticker I saw once summed it up well: “If you had enough, how would you know?”

    Kimberley, I know. I’ve often thought of that as a particularly savage form of karma; those who flee old age, sickness, and death get “treatments” that guarantee old age, sickness, and death. Diets are the same way: there’s no more effective way to make yourself look haggard and hideous than by following the diets that are supposed to make you look young and attractive. On the other side of the balance, I’ve known some very old women who were gorgeous, not because they tried to look young, but because they looked like themselves.

    RPC, as far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s no more than an assumption that the experiences in question are being caused by oxygen deprivation and not by some other aspect of the experience of dying…

    Dan, bingo. A lump of meat six inches long cannot understand a universe trillions of light years across. The sooner we deal with that, and stop pretending otherwise, the fewer idiotic mistakes we’ll make on the false assumption that we actually know what’s what.

    Peter, true enough. The traditional habit of using geometrical proportions to structure architectural design is a way to up the ante, and add in more limits, in order to create more beauty. Does it work? Well, here’s the Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, and Kinkaku-Ji Temple; there’s a modern office plaza and shopping mall; take your pick… 😉

    Michael, au contraire, tautologies always need the closest contemplation. “What is, simply is” deserves months of discursive meditation if it’s to unfold everything it has to teach.

    Bonnie, delighted to hear it.

    Matthias, fascinating. I’ll see if I can find that letter before I write the counterblast I have in mind…

    Erica, exactly. Choosing your limits is what turns an ordinary action into a work of art and an expression of power.

    Rita, fascinating. Thanks for this.

    Troll, did you choose the name so that you would get discriminated against? If so, why do you enjoy that? As for ballet, of course an ugly person can do it, and enjoy it. When you say what what matters is the effort rather than the result, though, I’d remind you that nothing just “matters” in the abstract — it has to matter to someone. To whom does the effort matter more than the result?

    Abdulmunem, good. When an organ grows without limit, we have a name for that; we call it “cancer.”

    Walt, having recently moved from a four bedroom house to a two bedroom apartment, I can sympathize! As for the laws, in a very precise sense, all seven laws are manifestations of a single idea. The ability to synthesize these seven perspectives on a common theme and see the common theme, though, takes a lot of work.

    Dot, excellent. I don’t know if anyone’s worked out, or could work out, the exact timeline over which the second religiosity rises to counteract the barbarism of reflection, but I think postmodernism has pretty much run its length, and some reverse swing can be expected.

  72. Truethomas,

    There is a common misconception that because natural selection operates over very long time frames, that it must also be a very slow and gradual process. In fact, change happens relatively quickly in response to novel environments. An equilibrium is reached, allowing for a long period of relative stability (with comparatively little change) until new environmental changes force further adaptation. For species of our lifespan, such rapid changes may take place over 10,000 years (while evolutionary changes in fruitflies for example can be observed over months and years, with bacteria much faster still).

    With some humans having lived in cities for a significant period of that time, there’s certainly reason to believe that some morphological adaption would have occurred during that time. However, the significant interbreeding between rural and urban populations over time has undoubtedly muddied the waters somewhat.

    Leaving aside the affectations of the ultra modern city: computers, desks, cars and the like – it’s difficult to say what sort of physical changes would be particularly important for the city dweller as compared to the ruralite. Perhaps high visual acuity is generally less important in a pre-car city?

    What you’ve failed to consider is first: the way that we’ve adapted our cities to suit our needs. Go to any old European town, and observe the urban design and architecture. The design of the church either consciously or unconsciously mimics a natural canopy of trees (though perhaps not very well compared to other places of worship, our host might add). The streets and gathering places are ‘human scale’, facilitating a good balance between social interaction and privacy. I could go on, but there are many websites that express the fundamentals of good urban design better than I.

    The second and even more important factor is the way that our evolution has become unbound from our physical structure. Our brains allow us to adapt extremely quickly to novelty, and our language allows us to pass on these adaptations to others almost immediately, and have them persist across time.

    The glaring issue with all of this though is that none of this has prepared us for the modern industrial world. We’ve designed our modern cities around the car, rather than the person. Our buildings are not designed to put one at ease, or even for function much of the time, but rather some abstract fashionable ideas imported from some other context where they are no longer relevant (e.g. Most New Zealand houses are built facing away from the sun to the south, because that’s the way it was done back in England). Our social structures, our traditions, our habits are all completely out of place. The way we sit at desks and tap away on glaring screens. The way we spend inordinate amounts of time and energy maintaining our little grass monocultures. The fact is that we haven’t even begun to deal with removal of men from the home during the day, let alone figure out how to incorporate women into the work environment. The point has been made repetitively on this blog and its predecessor – perhaps there was an opportunity to sustain ourselves back in the 70s, if we’d thought really hard about what we were doing, and the implications of all our new tech and modes of being. But we didn’t and things have gotten so far out of hand since that we’re barely treading water.

  73. A few more thoughts on that ultimate limit to human activity: death.

    was a fan and acquaintance of Robert Anton Wilson, who wrote a fair amount about various immortality projects. He also had the brain of his murdered daughter preserved cryonically. She was killed in the 80s, but RAW appears to have abandoned cryonics by the time of his own death in 2007, as he was cremated. I remember that some of the immortality workers he cited asserted that there were people alive as they were writing( 80s-90s) who would never die. Science would learn things that would extend your life by 30 years, during those 30 years more discoveries would be made to extend another 50 and so on. This would be accompanied by technologies that would repair whatever damage your body had suffered while waiting for the next big step. And, of course, cryonics relied on the supposition that scientists would be able to repair the body and reanimate it. Some forty years later none of this has happened. I assume some of the enthusiasm for this project has drifted over to the ‘download your consciousness into a computer’ crowd.

    A couple of years ago I read Susan Jacoby’s _Never Say Die:the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age_ in which she debunks the idea that a majority of people can expect to be relatively healthy and active into their 80s and 90s. She feels that we are being sold a myth. In addition to pointing out health problems that will inevitably affect a certain percentage of the population, such as dementia, she also touches on the financial aspects of the cost of care for an aging population. If I recall correctly, she also claims that cities are the best place to be old, since there are more services, such as transit and delivery services available there. But the major point is that we are fooling ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be fooled about the realities of aging. No limits, paraglide on your 90th birthday. Climb Everest to celebrate your 70th. And don’t forget to spend your children’s inheritance as you go!

  74. This chapter in the book was one of my favorites (along with the sections on the laws of balance and evolution). I never really thought about limits as a source of power and manifestation before, but as I reflected on it it made a lot of sense because I realized how wasteful “limitlessness” is. For example, one decision I recently implemented – admittedly with struggle – is to walk more for transportation rather than driving around. It pushes me up against the mainstream American value of “choice” and “access.” There’s so many pointless activities people do because they can hop in a car and drive from place to place. When you walk, you are more judicious with your commitments because you only have so much physical energy and hours to accomplish them. I realized that if I could wean myself from reliance on middle class identity and social validation, I could accomplish certain tasks more efficiently because the self-imposed limits of walking to the grocery store, etc. forces me to become more disciplined in how I use time and resources. The money I save can be reinvested in other areas of my life as well.

  75. “Limitation is the source of beauty” (from the chapter). I keep thinking there must be limits to limits, though.

    The first time I read this chapter, I thought of Victorian ladies who were raised and lived with very strict limits: no sun to darken the skin, no exercise, no work, corsets restricting breathing, constant drilling on posture, voice modulation, piano, clothes, manners, etc., to produce the vision of beauty wrapped in silks and lace expected of upper class ladies. By the time she was married off, she had become like a beautiful sonnet written by someone else, following the strict limits of the art form that is woman.

    But if you pinch her waist just a little more, does she become more beautiful? At what point does the beautiful become grotesque, like the living Barbie?

    Beauty is a subjective value judgment, and the power of the beautiful object lies in the response it gets from others looking at it and finding it beautiful. But this seems to contradict the notion that something is inherently beautiful because of limitations. If the lady is fainted on the couch from lack of air due to her corset, suffering a Vitamin D deficiency and physically weak, she is still beautiful to those gazing on her, people rush to help her, treating her like a rare orchid, but is she inherently beautiful? Or a grotesque caricature of woman? The beautiful lady’s power lies in our response to her. “ ‘Power’ is simply a word for the capacity to accomplish something” and in this case doesn’t matter if it gets pushed to the grotesque if it works.

    And if we find her scullery maid ugly, with her scared, red chapped hands, tanned face, sweaty, toil-hardened body, and coarse clothing, is she inherently ugly? Do the bright eyes, capable hands, reddened cheeks flush with sunshine and exercise not count towards her beauty? Is she necessarily the loser in the comparison? Yet she has no power to elicit in us the response we give the lady. And neither one is responsible for what they are, being a product of their circumstances.

    “Power is born when a flow of energy encounters firm limits, and the more narrow the outlet left open by those limits, the greater the power will be.” To push this a bit further, a starved child, though we would not think her beautiful, has the power to elicit horror and pity. The worse the child is suffering, the stronger our response.

    We could argue that a political prisoner on a hunger strike is beautiful? And has power?

    I am left with the feeling that one cannot impose a value judgment on someone who decides to voluntarily pursue extreme limits to gain a specific power, as the prisoner, or the living Barbie above, though one could judge harshly the involuntary imposition of such limits on others. I can think of all kinds of grotesque examples. This isn’t what you were talking about at all, and I think I’ve lost my way down the wrong path, but I’m not sure where. I want to bring in the law of balance, but then one would be giving up the power associated with the extreme limit. Need to think some more.

  76. Abdulmunem, you’re welcome and thank you.

    Rita, thanks for the recommendation of the Susan Jacobi book; I’ll want to put it on the get-to list. Exactly; the frantic attempt to pretend that old age doesn’t exist, that everyone (or at least everyone of a sufficiently privileged social class to be able to afford paragliding lessons, mountain climbing, and other habits of the entitled) can stay 21 years old until they die, is worth a mordant laugh.

    MJ, congratulations! Welcome to the secret society of shoe leather. 😉 You’re right that there are restrictions, but there are also immense paybacks to walking.

    Myriam, it’s always possible to take any statement and come up with a sufficiently distorted example to try to cast the statement into disrepute, and this sort of thing is a common debating tactic just now — I’ll be posting on that tactic, and the glaring logical fallacy behind it, in the not too distant future. Perhaps you might set aside those Victorian ladies as a distorted example of this kind, and think instead of dancers whose beauty in movement relies on the discipline of limits, or any of the myriad other examples of limits used constructively; those will help you understand the point I’m trying to make in this chapter.

  77. JMG: “Michael, good. They also bankrupted Old Kingdom Egypt and helped bring about a dark age, by the way.”

    That reminds of this Donald Duck comics by Carl Barks:

    ‘The Pyramid Story’ – 1959
    Scrooge – the business man – claims that a cobbler should stick to his last but he becomes interested in an Egyptian archaeological dig anyway…

    After spending a lot of money and manpower Scrooge gets inside the treasure chamber of a king’s pyramid. Sadly, he only finds a stone tablet announcing: ‘King Nutmost the Rash regrets that he has no treasure to leave in this treasure room! He spent all of his fortune building this pyramid!’

    Carl Barks had some depth in many of his works.

  78. I really appreciated the focus on limits when Mystery Teachings was first released. I remember starting university in the late ’90s, the Economics 101 textbook included, in the first chapter, a section on how economic growth was essential, at a rate of at least 2-3% growth in GDP per year. I remember thinking (knowing nothing of steady-state economics critiques at that point), what happens when you inevitably can’t grow anymore? The textbook was silent on that point; I wonder if economics textbooks have changed at all in the intervening years.

    A passage I’ve always like on the subject of limits, from Jason Lotterhand’s the Thursday Night Tarot, from the B.O.T.A. tradition:

    “If I had to point to a handful of prize ideas that I had gotten out of the Cabala, surely one of those would be the teaching that if there is no resistance, there is no art […] please bear with me while I explain this again, it is vitally important to understand the positive aspects of the Saturn principle.

    “An artist must have a resisting medium, whatever the field of expression. Without the resistance, no form could last. The marble was always fighting Michelangelo, yet he knew that its resistance continually increased his skill and power. If we didn’t have something to practice on, we’d stay the way we were in the beginning. But we want to advance. Consider the enormous amount of material in the Tarot and the Cabala. The more we practice on this material, the stronger and sharper we get. Thus, we should enjoy the pressure because we are advancing all the time.”

    – from chapter 11, “Justice”, pg. 182

  79. Mortality has been mentioned several times as the ultimate limit. Just to finish up what I wanted to say about fictive immortal beings: somewhere near the beginning of the Silmarillion (sorry, all my books are far away), Tolkien calls death “the gift of the One to men” (=humans, of course!) and says that as time goes on the Elves will envy men because of this gift. That is not a very biblical or Catholic interpretation, but it does fit in with Tolkien’s whole world, and maybe the Elves he had in mind were exactly those reminiscing forever about Mereth Aderthad!

  80. Yoga got mentioned here more than once so I feel like sharing a little observation that came out of my yoga practice.

    I found it useful to distinguish 3 different limits nested within each other (or different stages of the same limit) when approaching almost any yoga posture. Let’s say I am very slowly going into a forward bend that works on my hamstrings. First, when I only start bending forward I don’t feel much other than a little elongation of the muscle (if that) – I am very comfortable. At a certain point into the bend I will reach the first limit – the threshold of my comfort zone. Bending beyond it will stretch my hamstrings enough to feel some degree of discomfort – the body is signalling that I am going beyond my usual range of motion with this muscle. As I keep bending the discomfort grows and if I choose to keep going, eventually it will turn into pain, signalling that I passed another limit – the danger threshold. The pain is a way of the body to say that some damage is happening to the muscle and it’s best to back off. Let’s suppose that I keep pushing myself into the bend ignoring the pain as best as I can – eventually I might be violent enough to reach the third limit – the breakdown threshold – one of the ligaments may give way or a few of the muscle threads get torn and the muscle becomes unusable for a period of time. These same 3 limits work in a similar way with strength exercises (i.e. push ups) or for balance postures (and how deep one can go into one before falling over).

    Out of these 3 limits, the ability to identify the zone between the comfort and danger thresholds is most useful. I call it “the working zone” for myself. Staying in the comfort zone – like doing 1 push up when I can do 10 with no sweat – is not going to get me far. Actually, the comfort zone is likely to shrink over time if I always stay within its limits and a year later I might only be able to do 3 push ups before I feel discomfort. Venturing into the danger zone is not good either – should I stretch my hamstrings too far and damage them even slightly today – it will take time for the muscles to heal so I can stretch to the previously available level only days later (or more depending on the damage done). Funny enough, passing the second threshold also ends up shrinking my comfort zone. So in each posture I choose to stay somewhere between those two limits – in the working zone – and doing this every day ends up gradually extending my comfort zone towards the natural limits of what’s possible for my body.

    This model of thinking can be mapped to some extent to other areas of life. Yes, as a culture we are obsessed with going beyond limits and right now we are very far into danger zone (and on many occasions well beyond the breaking point) of stretching the limits of our global and local ecosystems. In addition to that (or as a part of that process) we are also obsessed with being comfortable which comes at the expense of not only the environment that ends up being abused to keep us comfortable, but also at our expense – our own comfort zone shrinks and we become more uncomfortable in more situations at times to a breaking point. Someone mentioned here not that long ago how air conditioning/heating reduces the range of the temperatures we can tolerate – this is one of the many examples of that. And it makes me think that when some of the limits of the support systems will reach their respective breaking points, our reduced comfort zones are going to make the experience much less tolerable!

  81. One thing I appreciate (perhaps all the more so because I’m an Aspie) is just how literally you can take this principle. You find limits not just to life and power and progress, but to absolutely everything. You can nitpick this to the Moon and back and you’ll never find an exception, because at the bottom of all things is the limitation that you cannot be everything; to actually be anything is to not be one of a very large set of other things.

    One realization I personally came to, which relates to Myriam’s concerns, is that while limits are sources of beauty and power, the beauty and power produced by a given set of limits may not be terribly useful to or appropriate for us in our actual situation. For example, a waterjet restricts the flow of water until the pressure makes it strong enough to cut through metal; this has the side effect of making it a terrible showerhead.

    My guess is that for any given limit, there is some hypothetical situation in which it would be appropriate and useful. And many socially-imposed limitations are probably those that would be appropriate in the world that that society thinks they live in.

  82. Jose’s exact wording of Descartes’ proof of God, “the idea of the infinite, the boundless, the eternal. That idea could not have come from the world or from other ideas of mine because everything I can perceive or conceive distinctly has limits” helped me see another of Descartes’ many flaws. He mistook body for mind and from that confusion fashioned a mighty split between the two that has kept Western culture confused ever sense.

    Descartes thought that the infinite and eternal was an idea, not an exceptionally common human experience. Anyone who has gone into deep meditative trance knows the “all is one” experience. Anyone who has gone into deep ritual trance has experienced the cessation of self and time and the emergence of the infinite and eternal. Descartes appears to have settled on the distracting flow of mental imagery and thought as being the Self rather than exploring who it was who could, on occasion, stop the distracting flow. Some part of the subconscious? An innate skill of the body and its nervous system? God?

    He was right that most of what we perceive has distinct limits, but ever so rarely we have fleeting perceptions of the infinite and eternal. As to what we can conceive with our puny little thoughts after our bodies have done that perceiving may be of little relevance except as the building blocks of the familiar distracting flow.

    It seems that what Descartes did was to appropriate the power of the body/irrational/instinctual and turn it over to the mind/rational/conceptual. With that kind of power asymmetry in place, he inserted a split between them so the body could not get close enough to reclaim its actual powers. And to some extent he got his way for several hundred confusing years. As usual, it is the conceptual blurring of real experience that has backed us so far into the lonely, disconnected corner we are stuck in and made us so brittlely defensive whenever anyone tells us that the only way out is to go back to where we tried so hard to escape from — all the pain, discomfort, and overwhelming awe of real experience.

    Fascinating that Descartes had to blur the real limit between the body and the mind so he could build a fake limit in another place, more to his liking. What part of reality was he hiding or hiding from? What part of himself was he hiding or hiding from? And do all false dichotomies actually start by blurring a real limit they will then exaggerate and exploit?

    Russia and the USA have real cultural differences and linkages, but those have to be ignored or made two dimensional before we can utterly demonize Russia with all the traits we cannot tolerate in ourselves. The same with Iran, North Korea, Mexico, etc. The body and mind too have real differences and linkages, but decoding what they actually are after hundreds (or in the case of classical Greece’s rational bias, thousands) of years of navel contemplation is likely to be a slow process.

    Wow! Now I see why you can’t possibly win a fight against bigotry, but you can win if you fight ignorance. The power doesn’t come from the bigotry or the split between black and white, body and mind, us and them. Bigotry is like a lens that exaggerates and exploits the power that came from blurring the actual difference and distinction. Re-establish the real boundary, dispel the ignorance, and the bigotry can transform into fascination. You don’t beat a false dichotomy by fighting it, but by speaking the truth and pointing towards reality. The only way to beat the myth of no limits is to speak the truth and point towards the real limits. The power is in the real limit that got blurred, not the false limit or lack of any limits. Ye Gods, no limits is utterly disempowering!

    John Michael, is this related to your dichotomy busting technique of finding a third position outside the gravitational pull of the dichotomy? And is this why you don’t let commenters bait you into arguing their false dichotomies, but point to the real distinctions and limits as you see them instead? Sorry for the length, but this comment got me in its teeth and tossed me around like a doggie chew toy.

  83. Sometimes I wonder if our culture’s problem with acknowledging limits has to do with the fact that we have an unusually small number of limits in our personal lives and pretend we have even fewer limits than we do. (We tell children, “You can be anything you want to be! If you can dream it, you can do it!” No, you can’t, or if you can, you have to make tradeoffs that aren’t worth it.)

    I was talking to my mom recently about peak oil. She takes it as a given that there is only so much oil and eventually it will run out. She doesn’t have internet and probably had never heard of peak oil (I didn’t use the term), but I think her experiences with poverty have taught her a lot about limits.

    To be honest, I’m trying to figure out how to handle this with my kids. They don’t have the limits that come from poverty, and I think my husband and I have indulged them a little too much. They don’t need to grow up thinking they can have everything they want. My daughter recently wanted something that we didn’t have the money for, and when told we couldn’t afford it, asked why Daddy doesn’t just make more money. I explained that Daddy could make more money, but he’d have to take a position that involves a lot of travel and time away from us. I told her that it’s better to have Daddy home with us than it is to have more money to buy more stuff.

    We’re planning to shift to a mildly poor lifestyle after Christmas so we can put extra money on bills. In other words, my kids may soon be hearing the word no a little more often. That builds character.

    Patricia Mathews, I’d love the recipes you mentioned near the end of last week’s blog comments, but I have no idea how to contact you offlist. I don’t really do much commenting online aside from here, so I’m an amateur. Would you be willing to do a post on the Green Wizards forum? Thanks so much for thinking about me.

  84. Re limitation – by Kabbalah reckoning, (and Druidic reckoning as well?), the first creative act of the Ein Sof was in fact a limitation, a contraction of the Formless Infinity into space and time, i.e., this was a limitation that allowed for Creation. Fair to say this is the original template for limitation as we should understand the term? I have to say I’ve benefited from meditating on this concept – limitation is a sacrifice, and sacrifice is not undertaken simply for its own sake, but rather to achieve something better than before.

    Btw, JMG, you know, Gemini suns or those with large dollops of Gemini in their natal charts are said to be, in large measure, notoriously bad drivers. So, thanks for not driving.

    Also, didn’t you mention that in your last earthly incarnation you were killed in a car crash? Could that have had an influence on your decision not to drive in this life? Not that I don’t appreciate your decision not to add another belching tailpipe to the freeway ….. that’s reason enough not to drive.

  85. JMG,
    Yes, please do write a post on the logical fallacy that I’ve fallen into! I am well aware that the Victorian ladies was not at all what you were talking about, and I could give you many examples of the beauty and power I see in limits, as others are doing.

    I was hoping you could show me where I went wrong in that line of thinking. Could you give me a hint so that I can correct it? I will certainly keep thinking about it.

  86. Hi John Michael,

    Thanks, the cognitive dissonance is one of those matters that I see expressed all the time, and I have no idea what to make of it, as it all seems rather strange to me. As you are very well read, and particularly in the shape of thoughts and history, I’d be curious to learn your thoughts about how such forms of thinking worked out in the history of the fall of Rome? And do you feel that that would be a reasonable guide for today? I’m guilty of having more questions than answers! Hehe!

    I look forward to reading your edgy tale regarding the Elves. They could do with a little bit of a send up, the cheeky scamps. I always felt that the fall of Sauron also meant that they themselves fell and so that conflict of interest was not lost on me.

    I feel compelled to now out myself as having read “Bored of the Rings”… We may have mentioned this before. Hehe!



    Hi Isabel,

    Greetings! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the Elves. Interesting. Do you reckon that would mean that by their very nature the Elves have a conservative (in the old school meaning of that word) view in an otherwise changeable environment? And have you ever wondered why given the power and experience of the remaining Elves, did Legolas alone step up to the plate and take on the challenge of the day? What do you reckon that says to you?

  87. Dan’s comment above got me thinking that diminishing marginal returns may be another expression of the law of limits. Obviously, the first slice of pizza is always better than the second. But one could even argue that knowledge and wisdom are subject to the same law, because the first bit of knowledge gained is almost always more valuable than the later refinements. The initial discovery of the existence of bacteria, for example, was very valuable because it led to the adoption of sanitary practices. Sequencing the genome of the E. Coli bacteria was both less useful and more costly. For Europeans, discovering that North America existed was more valuable than an accurate map of its coast. This isn’t to argue that the later knowledge shouldn’t have been pursued, of course. Until marginal returns become negative, it makes sense to keep learning more.

    I’ve kind of followed a line of thinking about knowledge here, but I’m having trouble thinking of any situation where diminishing marginal returns don’t hold.

  88. Atonalism arrived at the Western musical scene in the 1920s with strict mathematical rules designed to ensure the randomness of any given tone in our well-tempered scale of 12. Music as we know it, including the music of Asia and the traditional music of most peoples of the world, tends to focus on a tonal center, also known as tonic. Atonalism sought to discard the tonal center and remove the tonal limits of what music naturally wants to do.

    The result, in this musician’s humble opinion, is a bunch of random, unpleasant, anxiety-producing sonic garbage. Back in my music school days, I had the odd experience of explaining the theory of atonal music to a new piano friend who had just arrived from the Ukraine. This guy could sightread anything, including 8 part Bach fugues, yet found himself perplexed on how atonal music worked. I explained to him that it was math for dummies. I explained it is randomized, pretentious garbage that was beneath his expertise and showed him the formula of avoiding certain numbers until you had 12 tones equally represented. He caught on quickly.

    Modern pop music of the sort that is piped into retail stores and workout gyms goes the other direction into a morass of monotonous, jackhammered electronic tones. Every song sounds like an over-loud ad jingle played on repeat. Many songs by Beyoncé and her ilk have only one chord. This proves JMG’s point that swinging hard the other way from “bad” usually equals more “bad”. The happy point is definitely somewhere in between angsty, intellectual randomization of tones and machine gun tonic to an electronic beat.

  89. Recently, I wrote a deindustrial novella length story about 32,000 words. I have been editing it for the past week or so. I was surprised by how limited the whole process was; I listened very closely to the characters and they told me everything and I was limited by what they shared. The story itself had a limit; the characters were interested in certain time frames and not others, and I would have had to start twisting their arms to make it novel length . To make it short story length I would have had to discount a lot of their experiences and context. So I wasn’t just “making stuff up” if I had done that the characters would have gotten mad and left me!

    Since the characters live in another world I was in turn very limited in my understanding of the full recursiveness of their culture. They answered a lot of my questions as we proceeded, but not all of them.

    After I put in the hand and typewritten pages of the manuscript in my desk for eight days I had to limit my own work on it. Finally as I edited it the entire story I became aware that the story is limited unto itself, and these very limits are what makes it whole.

  90. Simo, many thanks for this! I think I’m going to add King Nutmost the Rash to my list of standard metaphors. 😉

    Alacrates, thank you for this also. I haven’t read Lotterhand’s book, but my own studies of the Cabala (and also Dion Fortune’s The Cosmic Doctrine did a lot to shape my understanding of the role of limitation. (I’ve considered, once we’re finished with Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, going straight into a once-a-month, chapter by chapter commentary on The Cosmic Doctrine — to my mind, far and away the best study of the core philosophy of modern magic.)

    Matthias, that’s a good point. I suspect he saw a lot of those Elves, or their close equivalents, in faculty gatherings at Oxford…

    Ganesh, excellent! You get today’s gold star for a thoughtful and highly practical extension of the core idea in this chapter — a nice example of your thesis, by the way, as you pushed the concept past the familiar but not to the point of pain… 😉

    James, exactly. What you’re suggesting can be summed up very neatly by saying that limits also have limits — that the usefulness of any given limit is itself limited.

    Christophe, my guess is that what drove Descartes’ fallacy was something rather simpler. It’s very easy for the human mind to take two words denoting concepts that exist in the world of our experience, and combine them to make a phrase that denotes something that doesn’t exist in the world of our experience — consider “square circle,” or for that matter “sustainable industrialism.” The trap — and it’s a trap that philosophers have been falling into since ancient Greek times — is to assume that since this doesn’t exist in the world of our experience, it must either be possible to make it exist in the world, or to find some other world where it exists. Descartes simply put together the concepts “no” and “limits,” and then convinced himself that since this doesn’t exist in the apparent world, there must be some other being of which it is true. Not so much…

    Garden Housewife, I think that has a very great deal to do with it. The impact of childraising habits on later worldview and behavior is huge — this is one of the reasons why my hackles go up when the politically correct insist that women shouldn’t be allowed to have the freedom to choose to be stay-at-home parents and homemakers if they so wish. (I’m just as supportive of men who make the same choice, but they don’t face anything like as much nastiness in response — I’ve been a househusband, so can testify to this).

    Will, Druid cosmology doesn’t presume to guess how the cosmos first came into being! We weren’t there, and so tend to rely instead — to borrow something from a different tradition — on “the nearest approximate metaphor.” But there is a limitation at the core of being, Cylch Ceugant, the Circle of Ceugant, which represents the boundary beyond which created beings do not pass — the realm of being in which only the Divine is present.

    As for Geminis, car crashes, and so on, both those may well have something to do with my tendency to dislike car travel, yes, and thus with my comfort level with leaving the driving to the bus driver, locomotive engineer, etc.

    Myriam, fair enough. Stay tuned! The post is in process.

    Chris, unfortunately a lot of the intellectual history of the late Roman world doesn’t survive, because it was very boring — rather like most of today’s internet babble. Nobody was willing to waste the parchment to preserve it through the Dark Ages. Thus we don’t really know the ramifications of cognitive dissonance in late Roman times! What survives, though, suggests that the worse things got, and the more obviously the empire was sliding down the vomitorium, the more over-the-top rhetoric you got about how the empire was eternal and all nations on earth enthusiastically submitted to the glory of Roman rule, blah blah blah.

    Jeremy, yes, indeed, knowledge — like everything else — is subject to the law of diminishing returns. There’s certainly such a thing as knowing too much about a subject! Again, the internet is a good example…

    Kimberly, your timing with this comment is exceptionally good; the novel I mentioned working on a few weeks ago, The Shoggoth Concerto, is coming along very well, and I’m in the middle of developing the musical dimension of it — the viewpoint character, an aspiring young composer who writes music in the Baroque and Classical style-language rather than any of the currently fashionable noise-producing styles, is dealing with a professor who wants her to write things in twelve-tone atonalism, and her feelings are very close to yours…

  91. @Walt

    “This makes me wonder whether the Laws of Flow, Balance, and Limits are actually aspects of one single deeper law. (But if so, stating what that law might be, or even look like, is beyond me.)”

    Constructal Law comes to mind. It’s an interesting and underdiscussed aspect of physics and thermodynamics.

  92. @Chris: Good question on both accounts. I would suspect so–the ones “onstage” in LotR do seem very concerned with preservation of various things*, and with being relatively slow to act. (From what I’ve heard of the Silmarillion, some of that could well be having seen what happens when people act impulsively.) Not as much so as Ents, of course, but there we are. And in fairness, I also don’t recall–and don’t have the books handy–if various Elves were supposed to be off fighting other bits of Sauron’s forces while our POV characters were doing their thing.

    Legolas, like Gimli, is interesting on a number of levels: as well as each being the only active member of the Fellowship, each is explicitly the younger-generation descendant of a character who was an adult young enough (for whatever that means re: Elves and Dwarfs, true) to be adventuring and fighting in The Hobbit. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that youth is more inclined toward direct confrontation and/or action, with age providing and maintaining the support structure. (There’s a possible paper or two here on comparisons with the overseas forces v. home front in various World Wars, but like every paper I’ve written, IDK how true it’d actually be.)

    * In the book I’ve written where they’re involved, they’re kinda magpie-ish about that, and very adaptive, picking up what they consider the best, or at least the most easily portable, aspects of younger cultures. Mine aren’t quite the same as JRRT’s, though, in a number of aspects, notably being eighties Technicolor because I am a self-indulgent woman with questionable taste. ;P

  93. JMG
    I contend that scientific knowledge or at least as we routinely apply it and the logic we use, provides little direct help in ordinary daily life, the popularity of ‘apps’ notwithstanding. I have come to regard this as a feature not a bug.

    I confess I am not like the Crofters of whom Grieve wrote in the poem that I mentioned to Robert M last week. “ [Emanation] … / Difficult to describe, / But easy to recall to anyone who has stood in such a room / And been disturbed by the certainty /That those who once inhabited it / Were sure of every thought they had.”
    Grieve went on to say in the same poem (Island Funeral): “It is not their creed, as such, however/That explains them and the beauty of their work. It is rather the happiness with which they held it, / The light-heartedness with which they enslaved themselves / To the various rituals it demanded …. “

    Phil H

  94. @ Chris fernglade “why … did Legolas alone step up to the plate and take on the challenge of the day?”

    Well, he didn’t. He wasn’t alone. Far from it. Many elves fought and contributed. I could give you a long, detailed list, but it’s off topic. A limit was set on the size of Frodo’s escort as a matter of policy. Secrecy was deemed prudent and more protective than open force. That’s an example of a limit that increases the power to be effective. However, if there is any limit on the media’s tendency to over-glorify the One Man (Elf) who *alone* does this or that, I have yet to glimpse it on the far distant horizon. All efforts by all others seem to be cast into the Outer Darkness of Human Memory: swallowed up in the sooty shadows cast behind the yuuuge illuminated figure of the Lone Hero upon which the Lights of Brilliance and Glory must always and forever flood. It appears that only limitless admiration will do. Like Ringlust, some hungers can never be appeased; they can only be finally fed by fasting.

  95. JMG:

    You mentioned pyramid building as the cause of the collapse of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. I’ve never seen this elsewhere. The three most frequently advanced causes are: the extremely long reign of Pepe II, who seems to have outlived all of his successors, increased power of the nomearches, who became hereditary and began creating their own armies, etc., and the 4.2 kiloyear BP climate event, which was a global drought that may have lasted a century. This caused the Nile inundation to fail a number of years and may have caused the fall of the Akkadian empire, the Lingzhu culture in the Lower Yangtze River area, the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization, the start of the Indo-European migration into India and other global phenomena.

    The only mention I have ever seen of economic causes mentions population increase sharing out the bounty from the annual Nile inundation among more mouths to feed.

  96. JMG/kimberly

    As I am sure you know, the originator and best-known composer of atonal music was Arnold Schoenberg. He didn’t start as atonal, though. The harmonic style of his first works was Wagnerian or Mahlerian.

    But he always had a problem with limits. Look at his first major work, Gurrelieder. (It wasn’t finished until later, but the concept was early.) The orchestra plus choirs are vast beyond even Mahler’s most extravagant requirements. It is inordinately long. True, it has beautiful moments in it, but nothing to justify its length. It is as if Schoenberg regarded limits as a challenge to be overcome.

    Then there is his most famous and most popular work, Verklaerte Nacht. Like Gurrelieder it uses advanced Mahlerian harmony, and at first sight it looks as if Schoenberg is adopting limits here. After all, it is a chamber work and chamber music is inherently limiting. Then you realise that most other composers would have used a string quartet rather than a sextet and would have made the duration of the work twenty rather than forty minutes. It is still beautiful, though.

    After that, Schoenberg’s harmony became more and more extreme. The work in which limits are most apparent is the First Chamber Symphony, and for me it is one of his finest works, but already the harmonic style will put off most people. Shortly after completing it, he “adopted” atonality.

    At first sight atonality looks like the abandonment of limits, but actually in the earliest atonal works it is not. This is because the need to keep tonality at bay creates it own limits. (Tonality is the feeling “being in a key”.) Schoenberg had to use particular techniques to do this – for instance, the use of augmented triads in the Five Orchestral Pieces. It is as if Schoenberg is composing at the absolute limit of tonal harmony, not falling back into traditional harmony but not going beyond it into the realm that Richard Strauss described as ‘madness’ (though Strauss described the works as “madness” anyway).

    But after that, Schoenberg’s harmonic sensitivity collapses. (I would date that to ‘Pierrot Lunaire’.) We arrive at his theory of the “emancipation of the dissonance”, which basically means that consonance and dissonance are treated as equivalent. Any chord can follow any other chord. There are no rules – in other words, no limits. It is from this point that Kimberly’s criticism most obviously applies.

    Schoenberg was aware that this was a problem. That was why he created the 12-note technique, which we can regard as an attempt to give himself limits. But the limits were irrelevant to what he was trying to do, namely create music. Music in the western tradition is created out of melodies and harmonies, not sequences and chords made up of numerically ordered pitches.

    In other words (and this is the main point of my post), it is not enough to have limits. They have to be the *right* limits, limits that are appropriate to what you are trying to do. The later Schoenberg had adopted limits, but they were simply not appropriate.

  97. Archdruid,

    About a year ago I was trying to join the national guard, so was training quite intensely. I gradually pushed back the limits of my fitness, increasing the number of push ups, sit ups, and etc…when I tried to do the same with my running I found that I would experience intense pain in my ankles. Instead of stopping and figuring out the source of the pain I kept pushing past the pain (a common trope among the fitness crowd is that pain is a mental barrier), eventually I sprained my ankles. Fast forward a year later, my ankles are still too damaged to allow long distance running. I can lightly jog, but forget a 50mile ruck in combat boots.

    By ignoring my limits I now have greater limits.

  98. JMG, thanks for your reply. No need to post this publicly unless you want to, but one of the major reasons Baroque, Classical, and Romantic music faces dwindling audiences is Museum Piece Syndrome. Every single one of the aforementioned styles was improvisational music in the day. Bach was able to “write” his stuff live. Beethoven’s one-man traveling show (which kept him mostly financially independent) was in large part improvisation. As for the codas/codettas of any given sonata from the 17th century well into the late 19th, they were improvised. Chopin and Liszt were geniuses at it, which is why it is so peculiar to hear a Chopin prelude as carbon copy of “what Chopin did” by a young person who has been tortured into obedient, passionless practice for the duration of childhood.

    I am one of the many who can write stuff in the style of most of composers by parroting their idioms and melodic structures, and I suppose I could even pawn them off as the lost works of the Rococo era if I was more cunning. I wrote a fugue in the style of Bach once because I had to for an assignment. Supposedly, it wasn’t that far off. I still wasn’t anywhere near the skill level of improvising even two part counterpoint in front of a live audience, which means any average jazz cat blew me away in terms of musical skill. I have since learned to a little more with improvisation, however, I’m still very much in the peewee league, and I am Classically trained.

  99. Jeremy said: “Obviously, the first slice of pizza is always better than the second.”

    Not so obvious. The first slice calms the hunger. Only on the second slice, when you’re not too hungry you really can enjoy the flavour of the pizza.

    Same happens with sex, after a period of abstinence the first encounters are not really enjoyable, as the physical needs are just too great, you need to discharge all the accumulated tensions; then, once you’re more calm you can start enjoying each other fully.

    It seems that the returns function is not a decreasing line, but more like a Gauss bell.

    Thinking of computers, the first ones had not a great advantage over manual methods, then they were getting better and better each day and now they have been stagnated for almost two decades.

    The same happened with cars, oil, maths and all technologies I can think of, and I’d venture it happens in arts and humanities too.

  100. @Alethios

    Beautifully said. I wish I had your evident skill at communication and expression. Thank you for your feedback. I don’t disagree with anything you said, though like you I might elaborate and qualify some parts.

    Punctuated equilibrium and all: evolution is certainly more complex than either of us said or anyone really can say. To my knowledge, science has not positively identified many genetic changes from our hunter-gatherer ancestors and those generally don’t seem that amazing. And if civilization is evolutionarily brief then our time spent in industrial civilization is as nothing. That said I suspect that there are certain traits that civilization has fostered over the ~12000 years, for example a more frequent occurrence of psychopathy and narcissism.

    That’s funny about the NZ houses facing south. I’ve had a long interest in the thoughts of architect Christopher Alexander whose best known book “A Pattern Language” attempts to list and describe the patterns that make buildings and places human and livable, recognizing the limits that architects too often ignore.

    On unbound evolution: I don’t think you meant it but that sounds a bit like no limits. Rewording what you said, the main thing that sets humans apart from other animals is that we evolved a variety of traits allowing us to adapt as individuals and especially as groups to incredibly diverse circumstances. This has always been our greatest strength but may prove our undoing – as you say we are barely treading water. There are limits to our adaptability. This is my current interest and how it relates to JMG’s spiritual ecology. Adaptiveness has lead us too far from the middle, separated us from wholeness, past limits that should not be crossed, forcing us to maintain artificial infrastructure that blocks flow.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Rather than envying hunter-gatherers, I’d guess the main emotion is dissatisfaction with civilization and the choice is personal resistance/rebellion. It is easy and perhaps comforting to scoff at those who try to come closer to their HG roots, say through diet or fitness regimes, especially if they take it to extremes. After all it is hard now to know what HG life was really like and harder still to actually practice it – very inconvenient in the modern world. Much more difficult is attaining anything approaching a HG social environment in a tribe-like group. But I cannot fault their basic logic or their desire to know, explore and stay balanced within homo sapiens limits.

    I suspect that Kalahari and Arctic hunter-gatherers, despite climate and diet differences, had (have?) more in common with each other, than either have with civilized people and were happier. I think they would understand each other’s lifestyle better than ours. Is that too abstract? Hard to test. But I don’t see this line of thought as an abstract, academic ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ kind of exercise. The general dissatisfaction, insecurity and craving for more, from being out of tune with our HG instincts, may be precisely the core driving force behind our endlessly growing, self-destructive culture. ‘I want something else, I don’t know what, so I buy, take, conquer, compete, … even if I don’t feel like it I gotta compete to survive’.

    An elephant in a zoo, regardless how good or bad the zoo, has no choice but to make the best of where she lives right now, or else die. Unable to forage, she has no choice in food, and little freedom of movement, and no real herd. The same could be said of most humans in their economic circumstances. Those with the wherewithal to practice a paleo diet or fitness regime should count themselves lucky. People today do their best, but that doesn’t make living lives outside the limits and out of balance satisfying and it doesn’t make it sustainable or just. If we could do better why not try?

    The real elephant in the room is the HG social aspect because it is the hardest to approximate under civilization and arguably the most important part. Hunter-gatherers were effective because of the intensely interconnected, cooperative communities they lived in. We weren’t designed by evolution to be (primarily) individuals competing with strangers. Yet here we are.

  101. Somo: An added note on Carl Barks: My boyhood hero was Gyro Gearloose, Inventor of Anything. As you probably know, he was a shirt tail relative of Donald Duck who worked out of a garage workshop. Neighbors would come to him with requests for invention. In one episode, at least, he would hit himself over the head with a ballot, and, in the altered state that resulted, sing a song which to the reader was meaningless, but which contained the construction details of the requested invention. He would then build it. What a fascinating sequence.
    As a child, this was all lost on me, just a fun story. I wonder just how much Barks consciously knew.

  102. As people have already mentioned, the nice thing about creating any kind of art is that you get to apply these laws in whatever medium you’re working in. Perhaps observing these laws while creating results in better art.

    One could write a manual for music composition in the context of these laws, because this is what the technical manuals in harmony and counterpoint only imply. Assuming the reader has a certain amount of technical ability in music, the manual could give examples from music literature of:

    – the Law of Balance (in counterpoint, some voices holding notes while others move; a good melody is never flat, it follows an up and down contour, like the skyline of distant mountains),

    – the Law of Wholeness (overall compositional form both through time but also in terms of harmony; are motifs throughout connected in ways that reinforce each other and are developed sensibly),

    – the Law of Flow (writing a good melody which flows nicely; but also the pacing of the whole piece itself),

    – the Law of Limits (is the piece derived from a few restrictive elements to make it cohesive; is silence used effectively; are the limits considered of the instruments involved and of the technical skill of the performers; how well does the composition of the piece feel proportionate, which is in a way related to limits. The latter is a case where you can sense how the different laws interact and are shades of each other, perhaps like the different colors of a prism),

    – the Law of Planes (perhaps the choice of orchestration, consideration of the timbral properties of each instrument used; but also the behavior of the melody versus its accompaniment as they often develop according to their own logics),

    – the Law of Evolution (how the piece develops; conflict and resolution for example in sonata form),

    – the Law of Cause and Effect (theme and variations, the ‘opening out’ of a motivic element before it develops and is resolved by a cadence, the theme ’causes’ the variations, indeed, the piece).

    Maybe that’s fitting compositional theory into a Procrustean Bed and I’m just getting a bit carried away, but I still think they do apply. Obviously theory falls apart as soon as you actually start to compose, but I think perceptive artists will read these laws and realize how much that, beyond being natural laws, they are also aesthetic laws. By composing and working at the scale of a piece of music, you perhaps get an education in how the world works – and this connection between the two levels is itself an expression of the Law of Wholeness, I believe.

    Of course, if these are natural laws, then perhaps you wouldn’t need to compose music to observe them in action, because by definition they would be involved in everything…

    Specific to the Law of Limits: In Bach’s solo violin sonatas, some of my favorite music, I think that all of these laws are at play and is a fantastic example of creating an enormous amount within the limits of a single instrument.

  103. One question that came to me as I read the chapter on the Law of Limits was, how has this law influenced you in writing, JMG? I say this because your writing is lovely and you gave the example of a gymnast using physical limitations to perform beautiful maneuvers.
    I tried implementing your suggestions for meditation and will make headway when I can. Using the daily changing of the sakaki water on my kamidana as a good opportunity (when nothing serious is demanding my attention), I took a walk outside (meditate inside? with the TV? fuggedaboudit), where I have to get away from things under my responsibility before I can clear my mind, and went seeking a place to sit in the forest. The first thing I noticed on my way out the door was the little bean plant I’d planted in the pot that holds my lime tree. Connections galore! And nearly all of them pleasant! Never did find a place to sit, but had a nice walk.

  104. @Robert Plant, actually, I heard about a well defined limit to how much stuff a black hole can suck in, related to the fact that the stuff expands explosively on approach. The latest hypothesis on how we will end up is continued expansion until we freeze and then finally break apart, dissolving into quarks and so on. Don’t know what becomes of the black holes about then, but they’re not gonna get me! I’ll just keep runnin’ and runnin’…

    @Patricia Matthews, I intend to keep running with the wolves, until they eat me. But I did give up hang gliding. Pat 60 or so, you are inevitably a pain in the behind to everyone else, and broken bones take a lot longer to heal.

  105. So JMG, are we approaching the ouroborous tail of Wholeness here? As I look around, there are many limits – food, water, personal time, cognition, etc. The limits seem to be set based on Balance and Flow within Wholeness, at least where I look about.

    I watched the passion flowers take over an entire acre this year. No real reason for it, other than higher than normal rain. The plants that were throttled by the passiflora shriveled and did not grow much, while the passiflora went crazy – almost like kudzu.

    At the end of this summer, suddenly appeared a red caterpillar, with black spines. It only ate the passiflora, leaving the underlying trees and shrubs unmunched. We had never seen this type of caterpillar before, but it was as voracious as the tomato hornworm, eating 3-4 feet of green passiflora daily. It outstripped the ability of the passiflora to grow, and the entire acre-sized patch was gone in about a week.

    Now, just before the first big freeze, the passiflora is doing a rejuve, but unlikely to grow much due to declining sunlight and dropping fall temperatures. It’s about where it ought to be in terms of density within that acre. The hickory, pecan and sycamore saplings that the passiflora was throttling are putting on a last burst of greenery, now that they are getting sun again.

    Not sure how all this ties in, but either the passiflora reached a limit and attracted the spiky caterpillars or there was a cyclical flow we never saw that suddenly came in the form of spiky red/black caterpillars. I got no idea if a balance was achieved – have to wait until early summer to see, I reckon. See how it affects the whole of things, and if there is a way to get the passiflora to grow somewhere vigorously without the spikey red/black nemesis killing them back – as the fruit is nice.

  106. JMG-

    “I’ve considered, once we’re finished with Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, going straight into a once-a-month, chapter by chapter commentary on The Cosmic Doctrine …”

    The book club selections may not be voting matters, but I’ll throw a couple of votes out anyway for The Cosmic Doctrine, or for Levi’s Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic.

  107. Self-imposed limits: as of tonight’s cold snap, I have more or less shut down the outer parts of my apartment and, unless I’m having guests over, will spend the winter mostly in my bedroom, which is small and thus easy to heat, has thicker curtains than anywhere else, and is furthest away from the outside door. This is the first winter when I’m able to do this for as significant an amount of time, so it’ll be interesting to see how that changes my experience.

  108. To Mr. Greer and the Commentariat

    Some personal thoughts regarding limits. I am a casual smoker and for the longest time I have been trying to quit and failed every time. Eventually I simply accepted that I don’t want to quit at all, for any reason, and have rather slowly, step by step, reduced the number of cigarettes to the point that I only smoke one-a-day now. This limitation seems quite satisfactory to me.
    Now, going cold-turkey may work for some but I as far as I have experienced it, It just seems like ‘the opposite of a bad idea is usually another bad Idea”, i.e. smoke all you want. This ‘anti-limit’ of quitting is a denial of limits to desire just as much as ‘anything goes’ is. Both deny the nature of desire. ‘Anything goes’ denies that desire can ever be sated while ‘quit cold-turkey’ denies there is any desire at all.

    This also tells me that desires and limits go together. Removing desire by ‘quitting’ or ‘excision’ doesn’t work, neither does removing limits by letting yourself ‘go’ till you don’t know who you are anymore.

    ..hoping this was not too incoherent



  109. One theory I heard about the pyramids is that they were never tombs. The body in the sarcophagus was alive and spending the night in the pyramid as a spiritual initiation. Where do you stand on this possibility? Having initiates go in, maybe even one every night of the year, certainly seems like a better return on investment than one dead guy in there for all eternity. 🙂

  110. A thumbs up for me on a series of posts on The Cosmic Doctrine. I own it and have read it once, but I didn’t really understand it anything like as well as I should have done.

  111. Dear Mr. Greer,

    You’ve discussed it at length but maybe you’d want to give a short summary on your take on the potential
    limits of human survival in our world.

    I asked because thinking of spent fuel pools, barrels of nuclear waste rusting in the sea, hormone-like substances in the water, in fact all the dizzying variety of things hostile to the life of higher organisms and the durability of phenomena like radioactive waste make me wonder whether human life is possible on the planet at all in say 200 years?

    A former activist of Greenpeace I knew who conducted measurements of contamination in soils, used a small amount of radioactive waste for his activism once and spent a night in prison a couple of times always said “there are so many ticking time bombs out there I rest assured that human life as such has a date of expiration in the near future”.

    I do not doubt that higher organisms can adapt also to chemicals and some levels of radioactivity. However, the sheer scale, durability and multiplicity of harmful environmental impacts is stunning and one begins to wonder.

    Where from do you take your confidence that humankind would also persist for the coming centuries, millenia or longer, could you give a summary of key points?

  112. @Darkest Yorkshire.

    I’ve heard that said of the three largest pyramids: they were originally constructed for a different purpose, which has not come down to us, and were only later coopted as tombs. The others were definitely built as tombs, though. As with a lot of what I’ve heard said, I’m giving it a definite “well, maybe.”

    There are over 180 pyramids known. The most impressive were built during the third and fourth dynasty. Pyramid building declined after that in favor of more conventional temple complexes, possible because of increased worship of the sun god, Ra.

    As far as limits are concerned, later pyramids seem to be both smaller and cheaper construction.

  113. Lordyburd – it’s not at all incoherent. Most of my quitting things has been either that something snapped and I no longer craved the item (diet cola) or that circumstances made me quit cold turkey (cigarettes.) But tapering off is an excellent way to deal with things like excess eating or eating things that are bad for you, and I see no reason it wouldn’t work as well for smoking. Your Mileage May Vary.

  114. @Varun

    Congratulations! I hurt my knee badly last year in a much similar fashion (aggravated sporting due to reasons of anger, frustration and the wish to escape what felt like an emotional prison, trying to push limits beyond any reason….).

    For a few weeks it hurt so bad I could not walk for a 100 meters and was in the state of a veritable cripple.
    The doctors and “experts” all knew nothing and their advice was not only useless but even made matters worse.

    But people experienced in the eastern arts of medicine and martial arts knew quickly to tell me what was my condition. They told me I move so and so and showed me how I was damaging myself, why and what to do about it.
    They also told me that while gaining a lot of strength, I also gained an unbalanced body incapable of soft and swift movements, a body under constant muscular tension for nothing, burning up energy in vain and exterting a bad influence on my character.

    Since then I take great dedication in training the eastern arts under the supervision of people experienced in medicine and health in general.

    The reason I tell you this is my recommendation to take up Tai-Chi, Qi-Ging, Ninjutsu, Yoga or any such practice from people who are competent and do not just “practice” for their ego and the attention of others.

    Its hard and often frustrating to practice correctly, but it helps a lot to recover from the limiting red line people like you and me have unwittingly crossed.

    Now I am even glad I hurt myself – so I learned to revert from my folly.

  115. Phil, interesting. I’d agree, on the whole — the scientific method is like musical performance, something that’s done in specific contexts at specific times, even though some of its elements may be useful in other contexts (singing in the shower, reasoning out the answer to an everyday problem).

    John, a cause, not the cause. It’s a commonplace of the history of civilizations that gigantism comes immediately before collapse, and the immense expenditures needed to fund the gigantism very often contribute quite a bit to the national bankruptcy that helps drive the collapse; my thesis is that this was very likely also the case in Old Kingdom Egypt.

    Doug, many thanks for this. I’d point out that there’s a crucial difference between the mathematical limits Schoenberg imposed on his twelve-tone compositions and the limits of traditional tonality: with a tonal composition, the audience can tell what you’re doing simply by listening to the piece. With atonal music and at least some of its successors (such as spectralism), the limits are only apparent to the composer, which is why the result sounds to the listener like an assortment of random notes that never go anywhere or do anything other than grate on nerves. This is part of a broader movement, not limited to music but found in many modern arts, to deny the audience the opportunity to participate in the artwork, and thus transform the artwork into an act of aesthetic onanism whereby the creator pleasures himself or herself, with only a mess to show for it.

  116. Giving up smoking was one of the most interesting and educational things I have ever done. Perhaps ‘experienced’ would be a better word. It happened in a particular instant and would not have happened if ‘it’ (intersection in time) had only been me. A long time ago now, and I am still a smoker – I just don’t smoke.

    I have only this minute done a skim read for the first time but I am beginning to wonder if Dion Fortune might have been onto something.

    best (and thinking of LB above)
    Phil H

  117. JMG wrote ” I’d point out that there’s a crucial difference between the mathematical limits Schoenberg imposed on his twelve-tone compositions and the limits of traditional tonality: with a tonal composition, the audience can tell what you’re doing simply by listening to the piece. With atonal music and at least some of its successors (such as spectralism), the limits are only apparent to the composer”

    Absolutely correct, and this charge was levelled against Schoenberg from the beginning. At the same time, there have always been a few people who have maintained that they do actually hear the “note row” when listening to Schoenberg’s works. Maybe they do. The fact remains that the intervals of traditional melody and harmony constitute a language in which such things as emotions and beauty can be expressed. I cannot see any way in which a note row can do that – the rules governing its creation seem to actively preclude it. If such people do hear the note row, all they are doing is following a structure which has no inherent meaning.

    Of course, they then argue that “the structure is itself the meaning”. Such arguments are endless and there is no point in going into them here.

  118. @Lordyburd, I had similar experience to yours, but regarding sugar (one of my main addictions, the other is trichotillomania–ogawd is that ever hopeless!). Cold turkey might work for some people if they can get away from the addicting substance/behavior. But I hear that after they go through all that hell, relapse is another big problem, because the addiction is hardwired into the brain.
    Heller & Heller put out a diet book in the 90s, that I’ve forgotten the title of, but it featured a “reward meal,” during which, after eating a couple of salads, you had an hour to get your sugar fix for the day. They theorized that a lot less damage was done this way, and it appeared to be true. My consumption of sweets went way down, while my consumption of vegetables went way up.
    Problems arose in a social context, however: “Okay, where are the cookies you offered me at eleven?” “Oh, we ate them all, and the cake, too.” “Argghhhh!” (Your addiction is obvious, while theirs is spread throughout the day.) Or there is the dainty little tea cakey that your gracious hostess offers you, consisting of one cubic inch of pure sugar, artificially colored. Refusal is not an option. (I developed sympathy for alcoholics in Siberia.)
    Nonetheless, you experience such a difference in your health by staying off sugar, even if not perfectly, that you find other ways of limiting your consumption of it that are more socially compatible. When I am ill, I eliminate sugar entirely, and schedule a day every now and then without any sweets (including stevia, which we grow–my husband is diabetic). If I were to develop cancer, I would go cold turkey entirely (well, I think stevia would be okay now and then, but I’d have to see).

  119. I should add that it is a mistake to conflate atonality with the twelve-note system. The twelve-note system is a particular method of writing atonal music, but it is not the only one. As I tried to explain, Schoenberg’s earliest atonal works actually used the traditional laws of harmony against themselves so as to destroy tonal feeling. The intended effect was one of extreme heightened emotion – which was in keeping with the time, as this was the era of German expressionist painting, poetry and drama.

    I described this as Schoenberg “composing at the absolute limit of tonal harmony”. Of course, if you are constantly operating at the absolute limit, you have very little freedom of movement. The amount you can achieve is extremely restricted in scope, and it is significant that Schoenberg only composed half a dozen works in this style before he felt the need to move on. This started his obsession with musical “structure” and led first to the extraordinary canonical complexities of Pierrot Lunaire, in which all harmonic meaning is sacrificed to the demands of the counterpoint, and then finally to the twelve-note system, which he envisaged as the solution to all his structural problems.

  120. “Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself. Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.” Gender is a limit. Some have tried to escape from it.

  121. JMG
    Re: Old Kingdom Egypt

    Old Kingdom Egypt is paradoxical in a lot of ways. The three great pyramids were built in the Fourth Dynasty, between 2589 and 2532 BC, while the Old Kingdom didn’t end until 2181 BC, 350 years later. In the First Intermediate Period the central administration broke down into the nomes, which consolidated into two kingdoms. It lasted less than 130 years before the kingdom in Upper Egypt conquered the one in Lower Egypt to establish the Middle Kingdom.

    The solution to the paradox is that the annual Nile flood gave them unparalleled agricultural productivity which could support a massive central administration and major works projects. When the floods quit coming for half a century, that central administration couldn’t be sustained; the accompanying drought caused massive starvation and a drastic reduction in population, during which the district administrators (the nomes) continued in operation. Once the floods started again, it didn’t take that long before the central administration was reestablished with essentially the same culture in the Middle Kingdom. The biggest change was that the kingdom in Lower Egypt didn’t try to maintain the old cultural forms, so the Middle Kingdom had a cultural renewal.

  122. @ Oilman2 – your red caterpillar was likely the Gulf Fritillary
    which often uses the passion flower as one of its preferred host plants. So it’s not surprising the floral boom was followed by a baby boom of caterpillars.

    All the talk about trying to live forever and avoid the weaknesses of old age brings to mind the old Greek myths addressing this issue. Endymion got to live forever but had to pay the price by always remaining asleep. Tithonus was made immortal by Zeus at the request of his lover Eos. Unfortunately she forgot to ask for eternal youth so poor Tithonus shriveled away, according to some accounts, becoming a cricket endlessly chirping and squeaking. There are always unintended consequences when trying to extend the life past its natural limits, something our immortal wannabees seem to forget.

  123. Varun, a worthwhile lesson; thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

    Kimberly, thank you very much for this! I was trying to figure out what the opposite of mindless innovation is in music, and of course the answer is Museum Piece Syndrome. I wonder what would happen if someone with the requisite talent and passion set out to create new pieces of Baroque music that weren’t pastiches of Bach or Telemann or whoever, but uniquely personal works using Baroque forms and techniques — that is to say, what Bach, Telemann, et al. were doing at that time. My working guess is that they’d be attacked from both sides…

    Truethomas, and yet the fascinating thing to me is that there are still close social networks in existence, and most people run like rabbits from them. I was at one this evening; I’m a Freemason, as you probably know, and I spent the evening at lodge tonight, doing things like paying the electric bill of an elderly brother who’s fallen on hard times. Brother Masons aren’t individuals competing with one another, they’re participants in a voluntary community with its own customs, rituals, feasts, and so on. In some ways, it’s as close to the sort of tribal community you’re talking about as you’ll find in modern industrial society, and only a very small minority of men, all of us at least slightly weird, have the least interest in anything like it. Most people — including, not incidentally, most of the people who wax rhapsodic about hunter-gatherer life — react to the suggestion that they might consider putting their time, money, and personal commitment into something of the sort by backing away as hurriedly as they can…

    Jbucks, exactly! One of the reasons I love classical music is precisely that it follows the Law of Limits so precisely, and produces beauty and power thereby.

    Patricia O., walking meditation is a very common Western practice! It was once very common, back in the days when discursive meditation was taught in the Anglican church, for the local vicar to be seen of a Saturday pacing back and forth slowly in his garden, with a look on his face suggesting that his thoughts were somewhere off around the orbit of Neptune. He was meditating on the scriptural text he meant to use as a theme for Sunday’s sermon. Try walking slowly along a familiar path, so you don’t need to concentrate on where you’re going; let your breathing and your steps find a steady rhythm; and do your discursive meditation in that setting. It really does work well.

    Oilman, bingo. Every law feeds back into every other law; the fact that the universe is a single whole system is expressed in the fact that everything in the universe has limits. As for the passion flowers, watch what happens next year; odds are that after several years, the passion flowers and the caterpillars will come into balance, and you’ll see a modest number of passion flowers fed upon by a modest number of caterpillars.

    Bonnie, so noted!

    Isabel, good. That sort of sensible practice used to be standard in the days before absurd amounts of energy were on hand.

    Lordyburd, not incoherent at all. You’ve encountered one of the basic laws of magic: the strength of your will is a function of its singleness. If you actually wanted to quit smoking you would have done so; in fact, you desire to smoke, but you also desire to avoid the negative consequences of smoking, and so the thing to do is balance the desires as you’ve done, by choosing to limit your smoking.

    Yorkshire, I don’t know — I wasn’t there at the time. 😉

    Phil K., so noted. Do others have an opinion on this?

    Labor Case, it’s become quite fashionable to insist that we’re all going to die soon; I suspect this is because it allows people to pretend that they have no responsibility to their descendants, since they claim they won’t have any. Nuclear waste pools, nuclear reactors, toxic waste dumps, et al. are real problems but they’re localized. We know, for example, exactly what happens when a nuclear waste dump catches fire — it happened in the Soviet Union several times — and while it kills people who have the bad luck to be nearby or downwind, and leaves a dead zone around the site, it doesn’t cover that large of an area. Take all the nuclear reactors and high-level waste storage facilities in the US and assume the improbable worst-case scenario that they all melt down or catch on fire, and you still end up with only a modest fraction of the continental US converted into dead zones.

    The future ahead of us is going to involve a lot of deaths and a lot of people living short and miserable lives. That, I think, is unavoidable at this point — but that’s a long ways from the fantasy that everyone’s going to die.

    Michael, thanks for this.

    Phil, Dion Fortune was definitely onto something. Shall I put you down as a third vote for The Cosmic Doctrine as our book club topic once Mystery Teachings is done with?

    Doug, many thanks for both of these comments. You’re helping my fictional composer get a clearer sense of why her personal approach to music requires classical tonality and the forms of baroque music. (Her first original composition is a bourree in G.)

    Phutatorius, of course. And they’ve accepted other limits, willingly or otherwise, as a consequence of pushing past that limit.

    John, that’s one theory. I’ve seen this sort of thing proposed often enough, and debunked often enough, that I’ll reserve judgment.

    Jeanne, excellent! Yes, exactly.

  124. @doug and @kimberly

    Thanks Doug for the marvelous history lesson about Schoenberg’s evolution as a composer and Kimberly for the history of improvisation in classical music.

    What I have noticed for myself is that the first time I hear a difficult, ‘unmusical’ piece or style it seems chaotic, unpleasant, and boring, but the more I listen to it the more accustomed I become to it so that it becomes for me musical again. If I listen to it too much it starts to become boring so I seek out novelty, perhaps even less ‘musical’ styles, that demand if broad enough leads to new compositions and performances to soothe the boredom again.

    Years ago I met a Russian man on a plane flight who was a professional clarinetist, playing in both a symphony and a klezmer or maybe jazz bands as I recall. I am a (very amateur) clarinetist myself so we had a nice conversation. Being more into folk music at the time I said something to the effect that I didn’t listen to or play much jazz music anymore and that jazz seemed to be fading away. Then he pointed out something that surprised me. He said that all American music is jazz music. At first I didn’t get it but as I thought about it I realized he exaggerated but that he was basically right. The main forms of contemporary American music are heavily influenced by jazz, so much so that if someone from the early twentieth century were to listen to them through a time warp they would probably say they sounded like a kind of jazz.

    What I think happened is that as jazz became popular, its elements and styles were taken up gradually, first by popular music, then Broadway, and country, bluegrass, folk, rock, and even classical music. While this was going on jazz had to differentiate itself, to stay ahead of the wave, so it evolved into more extreme, less listenable forms, more and more over time. Modern jazz passed listenability limits, so became harder for newcomers to approach, and its audience and performers gradually died away. But its imprint remains just about everywhere, like the Russian clarinetist said, so it didn’t really fade away. And of course aficionados remain loyal to ‘real’ jazz – it has been marginalized but it still survives.

  125. Talking of close social networks, I was formally inducted earlier today into the Fuji Confraternity of Edo Era Fuji-centered pansyncretic religions, and am undoubtedly the first non-Japanese to do so, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve brought in second or third generation Koreans. I bring it up because as part of the induction, I was given a list of 15 directions on how to behave to reflect well on the group (and I really ought to translate them while they are fresh on my mind). Among them was to be aware of “kotodama” (the spirit of words), that is, the ability of words to hurt or heal. It struck me as I was reading through and listening that this is really useful to me as a foreigner, because most people in society just operate on unspoken rules, which you’ve internalized if you were brought up there. To have a cohesive group, though, it does help to make as many limits as possible clear, even if they are deemed “common sense” by most.
    The remnants of the Fuji Confraternity are scattered, forcing us to travel to get together. Today, we also discussed opportunities to make our activities more visible to the public and appealing. As you have noted, most people run away at the first hint of commitment–this is not just an American thing. I think most people feel too overwhelmed with the way things are going economically.

  126. JMG, thank you, BTW, for your advice on meditation! I’ll put it to work. This was a topic discussed at the induction today, too, though seated. I think I could combine the two.

  127. JMG: I was hoping you would find my comments useful. Here are a couple more observations that are less relevant to the topic of this week’s discussion but that you may also find interesting.

    About the people who claim to hear note rows and to find value in the structures that Schoenberg created from them: they included some fairly prominent cultural critics. I forget their names (it was 60 years ago) but they were not people to be taken lightly. Ultimately the situation is very similar to that of religion. People undertake some activity (such as taking part in a particular ceremony or listening to a 12-note piece by Schoenberg). They then say they experienced something valuable while doing so. You do not understand how they can possibly have experienced what they say, but you cannot say they did not without calling them a liar. That is not conducive to good communication.

    About Schoenberg’s free atonal music (i.e. before he invented the 12-note technique): I said above, “The intended effect was one of extreme heightened emotion – which was in keeping with the time, as this was the era of German expressionist painting, poetry and drama.” That was the intention, but in practice it doesn’t turn out that way for a modern audience. Because everything is at the extreme of dissonance, that becomes the “new normal”, and everything that depended on its being extreme slips away. I still find one or two of Schoenberg’s works of this period fascinating and rewarding, but the emotional impact has vanished. If Schoenberg had been like Mahler and juxtaposed this extreme dissonance against childlike simplicity, with a full range of other possibilities in between, perhaps some of the emotional impact could have been retained. That is another consequence of Schoenberg jamming himself up against one limit without seeing that the range of possibilities has two limits, one at each end.

    About your fictional composer and her first original composition being a bourree in G: that sort of thing was, of course, already being done in the 1920s – it was called ‘neo-classicism’. True, the harmonies were usually a bit more spiky than those of Bach and the modulations were rather more extreme, but the structures were there and the harmonies were fundamentally similar and clearly tonal. I do not recall an actual bourree among the works of the time but there were plenty of gavottes and minuets. (I am aware, of course, that you may intend your composer to go back to the exact style of Bach’s contemporaries, not some “updated” version of it.)

  128. Hi, again, John.

    Put me down for the Cosmic Doctrine discussion. I read that book many years ago, and found the quote, ‘There is, however, a limit to the knowledge of the finite.’ (section 1, chapter 1), well, challenging.

    And if you do pursue human ageing, John, one of the really interesting theories of ageing (based slightly on Jungian thinking) is Tornstam’s notion of ‘gerotranscendence’. I suspect if you explicitly addressed ageing in the Mystery Teachings, it would read a lot like Tornstam.


  129. Truethomas and J. M. Greer, in addition to people not really wanting any community any more, there is the problem, that today are noticeably fewer opportunities to take part in activities and joining groups. At least that is what Harold Fleming wrote in “Lean Logic”. Theoretically, people could start attempts to bring about communities, but that doesn’t seem to be very successful nowadays. I know of an example where someone tried to found neighborhood connections, and I haven’t heard anything more about it afterwards.

    Lordyburd, the confusion about desires that you described is aggravated in industrial civilization due a widespread “anything goes” attitude and due to the effects of advertising on one hand and life conditions typical for industrialized countries on the other hand. This makes it more difficult to decide what one could and/or should desire.

  130. JMG wrote (for Kimberly): ” I wonder what would happen if someone with the requisite talent and passion set out to create new pieces of Baroque music that weren’t pastiches of …. My working guess is that they’d be attacked from both sides…”

    I have remembered a painting example and a documentary in the 1970s about Tom Keating. I became fond of Tom the artful faker, partly because his choice of models (mentors?) included Samuel Palmer. Palmer, who when a young man admired, got to know and was influenced by Blake, had become a source in my own imagination. In the documentary Tom shared genuine recall as he felt again to the point of tears Palmer’s guiding imagination and his own hands gaining the necessary cunning. Tom did not copy.

    So the allegation might be ‘faker’. Keating called his works – a few probably still stand quietly under assumed names along some gallery wall somewhere – in his cockney rhyming slang; ‘Sexton Blakes’, and likened them to children making their way in future worlds.

    Phil H
    Dion Fortune’s, Cosmic Doctrine? I will go with the flow. Smile.

  131. It’s perhaps a trivial example, but I struggle with the law of limits in that I have many competing interests (music being one of them), but I am of course limited by time and energy on a daily basis to pursue them. I seem to be unwilling to sacrifice what each of my interests seems to offer me to focus on just one of them, and be content to pursue it doggedly in order to hopefully through time master it.

    I see the law of limits very well in this situation, but I can’t decide which limits to accept. It changes on a daily basis depending on what I read and what aspect of my personality comes to the fore that day. Either I should be happy to be a generalist, or I am being dishonest with myself about my own nature and perhaps the influence of others over it, or I am simply overthinking!

  132. @ Jeanne Labonte

    Thank you – it’s nice to know what species is eating which plant. We are in the midst of tractor failures and repair (entropy is quite the resource eating b#### for farmers) and so I had not even tried to look. That is exactly the caterpillar that devoured my passiflora!

    @ Darkest Yorkshire & John Roth…

    If you guys like reading about pyramid history, go have a look at the research (now stopped by the Indonesian government) of Gunung Padang. What the initial research cores have sown makes me feel pretty good about mankind surviving whatever the current situation, short of another Chixlub event.

    To ALL…

    I have been warning other sites I peruse that the price of oil is looking to climb again. Depletion never sleeps, and it has been 4 years since any oil company increased exploration efforts. The drop in prices forced most every company to curtail expenses in any form. The result is going to bring another whipsaw upwards in price. The MENA situation will exacerbate this. It is currently looking like 2018 timeline for the jag upwards, which will (of course) debilitate any shot at recovery of projected and wishful economic growth.

    Those predictions we made at The Oil Drum were not inaccurate – they were just not immediate or readily visible to people with no patience or time sense. Resource depletion is very sneaky and slippery, especially when there is collusion to ignore it at all costs. This collusion is best exemplified by watching the events surrounding the IPO of ARAMCO, which is a giant neon sign that something is amiss all by itself…

    If you want to buy gas and store it to offset the price increases, find some without ethanol and it will keep for years. Aviation fuel has no ethanol, fyi, and can be ‘cut’ with lower grades to extend it.

  133. Regarding a return to baroque musical forms, perhaps Brahms is the nearest example. He was very much a traditionalist, retaining the sonata form, but adding his own personal inspiration. That opposed him to the German “new music” of the late 19th century represented by Liszt and Wagner.

  134. Regarding Dion Fortune. Yes. I’ve been reading her fiction, btw, and comparing it to that of Charles Williams and Russell Kirk. Fortune is the best fiction writer of the three. As to her “Cosmic Doctrine” definitely yes. I’ve read it, but not with the care it deserves.

  135. Between finding out that everything I’ve been taught about the way the world works is wrong and finding out that my limitations are a source of beauty and strength, the early effects are that I’m a little disoriented (although not unpleasantly), my OBOD Ovate review is going a lot better, and the feeling in my trapezius muscles that I can only describe as the talons of a bird of prey called Anxiety has loosened its grip. While I have come to accept that anxiety will always be with me, a lessening of it is welcome. Thank you very much for that, JMG.

    Please add my vote for The Cosmic Doctrine as the next book club selection.

  136. Mr. Greer

    Let me raise something somewhat offtopic. I am a type who is very skeptical about any idea of the supernatural. The only reason I am still forced to entertain the idea is that experience taught me that when we modern think people of the past were idiots, we are usually wrong and it turns out they had good reasons to believe things they believed. See e.g. and belief in magic and suchlike is so widespread, moreover, there are so surprising similarities between, say, European and Tibetan systems… that I cannot just write it off.

    I came accross your Monsters book pretty much by chance. I sample a lot of books and yours is certainly not the weirdest one. In fact I was very positively surprised how what you wrote about the etheric body was 1) internally consistent and logical 2) it seems to match the descriptions of different, unrelated civilizations, specifically, I am somewhat knowledgeable about Tibetan Buddhist lore and when you wrote etheric bodies are fed through breathing mostly it ringed some bells, like why breathing is so important in meditation and why they say in the energy channels of the body there is “wind”.

    I must say of all Western occult writers your work seems the closest to science to me, the least unacceptable to science-minded people and worthy of further investigation.

    I would like to ask in which of your books do you lay out the theory in more detail, and do you have any experiments about the supernatural or magic a skeptical person may try at home?

    I also would like to ask the obvious question you was probably asked a million time. If this stuff is real why is it not out in the open? Why don’t people routinely use magic with observable, provable results?

  137. There’s an ancient Iranian tale about limits, in the Shah-Nama. I stumbled across it while looking at all the beautiful illuminations.

    It concerns the First Shepherd: under his rule -and with Divine guidance – the tribes of men and their flocks flourished and multiplied.

    When the earth grew too small, he performed some magical manipulations and, hey presto! the earth expanded and growth recommenced.

    He did this successfully once more; but when he tried a third time, the gods came down and told him that it wouldn’t work again, that a Great Winter was coming, and that man should hide in the earth for the duration.

    (If anyone knows this tale from other mythologies, I’d be grateful to hear from them.)

  138. Doug Manners, thanks for your elucidating, insightful take on Schoenberg. JMG, you are more than welcome. I only stayed in the world of ramen and misery that is music school for four years, and I only have my own experience as a frustrated composer during that era. You are welcome to any part of it I can dredge up. Most of the people in music school are not composers and went to school to study and learn other people’s music. I went in order to figure out how to write the language I was born knowing how to speak. If your fictional composer has (Baroque) music burning out of her heart at a young age, she will come across as authentic. Maybe she starts in life running to the keyboard at age 5 desperately trying to copy a snatch of Couperin and trial/error until she gets it. Later on, the teacher idiotically forbids her to play by ear. Maybe have her rework the Dies Irae in her own style?

  139. Patricia, congratulations! That’s quite an honor. I hope it leads to older and better things. 😉

    Doug, many thanks for this also. Ironically, I’d just been thinking — as in, in the moments before I sat down at the internet computer — that Neoclassicism is exactly what I’m suggesting here: a known phenomenon in many other artistic traditions, and not only in Western cultures, where a large number of artists decide that the forms and aesthetic language of a specific creative period in the history of their art is especially well suited to what they want to do, and provides a set of limits within which they want to create. The various Neoclassical movements in other arts (sculpture, painting, architecture, etc.) have produced a bumper crop of fine work, and also — and not incidentally! — inspired other artists who didn’t want those limits to go veering off in completely different directions, launching such equally creative movements as Romanticism, Modernism, etc.

    So my fictional composer has her work cut out for her. She’s not going back to the style of Bach et al., though, at least not in the sense of making pastiches of that style; she’s using the tonal and harmonic language of Baroque music and the standard forms composers used at that time (such as the bourree, gavotte, gigue, etc.) as the set of limits that foster her own musical voice and enable her to create the music she wants.

    Brian, I suppose it’s necessary to use a lumbering word such as “gerotranscendence” these days; not that many generations ago, the word — a much more elegant one — was “wisdom.” That said, Tornstam definitely has a point.

    Matt and everyone else who’s voted for the “Cos. Doc.,” as Fortune’s students used to call it, so be it! We’ve got a good deal still to work through in Mystery Teachings, but once that’s wrapped up, The Cosmic Doctrine it is.

    Booklover, the opportunities are out there. I promise you that if you go looking, you’ll find dozens of old-fashioned community organizations that would love to hear from you!

    Phil H., thanks for this! I hadn’t heard of Tom Keating, and will be putting his autobiography on the get-to list.

    Jbucks, that’s a common experience. You’ll need to decide if one or two of your interests call you strongly enough that you’re willing to set aside the others to pursue them, or if you’d rather dabble a bit in all of them. Both of those can be valid choices, depending on what you want out of life, and each imposes limits of its own.

    Oilman, thanks for the heads up. Of course there’s going to be another price spike, it’s just a matter of when, and I can see a very real case for 2018 or so as the point when the next one hits. Readers all, now’s the time to ditch a few more of your energy-intensive habits, position yourself for the next round of sharp economic contraction, and — ahem — collapse now and avoid the rush.

    Phutatorius, a very good point. Thank you.

    Maria, you’re welcome and thank you!

    Dividualist, thank you. I’d encourage you to read my book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, followed by The Druid Magic Handbook; down the road a bit I want to write a general introduction to occultism for the complete beginner, but that’s still not even in outline draft yet. As for “a little experimentation,” I strongly advise against it. Dabbling a little with magic is like dabbling a little with surgery; if you aren’t prepared to put in a lot of study and training, so that you can do it right, it’s far wiser to steer clear of it.

    As for why this stuff isn’t out in the open — it is out in the open; it’s just that most people misunderstand what it is. Magic, as Dion Fortune used to say, is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. When a corporation uses a logo and a jingle (that is to say, a talisman and an incantation) to convince millions of people that their self-worth depends on buying the right brand of fizzy brown sugar water, magic is being done — a debased and frankly evil form of magic, but magic nonetheless. The kinds of magic that can change your consciousness so that you perceive disembodied (or, more precisely, differently embodied) beings are different in approach and technique but not, fundamentally, in kind — and they’re closely related to the kinds of magic that have been used on you, and on most people in the modern industrial world, to keep them from perceiving differently embodied beings, the way most human beings have throughout history.

    Jonathan, thank you!

    Xabier, fascinating. I haven’t encountered that, and will want to chase it down.

    Kimberly, thank you! “Ramen and misery” is a great line, by the way. My fictional composer got taken to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the age of seven, and the music turned her world upside down; since her paternal grandparents were musicians (Grandma was an African-American jazz singer, Grandpa was a Jewish pianist who became her instrumental backup and manager, and then her husband), she had the kind of encouragement that fed that initial passion; but the possibility of composing crashed in on her like a Wagner fortissimo early in the first semester of the two obligatory semesters of composition class everyone takes in the music department of Partridgeville State University. The core of The Shoggoth Concerto is basically the story of the school year in which she went from that initial shock to the decision to make neoclassical composition her life’s work. Oh, and there’s also a shoggoth, two eldritch tomes, the Hounds of Tindalos, and Nyogtha, The Thing That Should Not Be mixed up in there as well; it’s an odd project, currently 48,000 and some words along.

  140. While walking last night I meditated on limits. Here are some of my thoughts, if I may:

    An identity is a statement of limits; a chair is a chair because it isn’t a table, or anything else besides a chair. Furthermore, What can be defined at all can only be defined because of its limits. To be defined is to exclude what isn’t part of the definition. Visually, our perceptions hinge on limits, which is why outline drawings are comprehensible at all. Again, things are defined based entirely on limits.

    This would mean that the resolution that one is able to perceive directly correlates to the degree that one can apprehend limits.

    The part about beauty and power arising out of limits has profoundly numinous implications, I can feel that it is correct but it is much harder for me to put into words.

  141. Labor Case,

    One more reason for me to join a martial arts school. Thanks.


    Most welcome. By the way, I’ve been trying to join the local Masonic order for the past year, but haven’t been able to get in touch by the official channels on their website. They keep saying they’ll get back to me in two business days, but I never hear back. What should I do?



  142. I’ve been hesitating posting this and you’ll see why in a moment.

    Two examples of denial of the Law of Limits in action both come from the Social Justice movement.

    The first: A post by a young SJW I saw on Twitter, complaining about those of us who “identify as men.” The trouble with manhood, according to this young person, is that it’s “limiting.” That really was the key word in their argument. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that womanhood is also limiting, and so is “pangenderhood” or whatever they were identifying as, and so is everything else. If you want to be an astronaut, you’re very unlikely to have the time to also become a concert pianist. If you manage to be both a concert pianist and an astronaut, you’ll probably not be able to also become a vascular surgeon, a black belt martial artist, and a world-class brewmeister. Should society therefore not have astronauts, pianists, surgeons, martial artists or brewmeisters, simply because pianists very often can’t be brewmeisters, and most surgeons can’t also be astronauts?

    Of course not.

    The second example comes from the same source, and it’s the constant discussion on the Left of people who are “marginalized” and “excluded.” The idea here seems to be that nobody should be excluded, from anything. Of course this makes no sense– As in the example above, if you want to have a society for astronauts, you have to exclude brewmeisters, unless they’re also astronauts. Similarly, if you want to have a church dedicated to Christianity, you have to exclude Muslims, Jews and atheists, and if you want to have a church dedicated to a particular denomination of Christianity with its particular rules, you have to exclude people who aren’t part of that denomination and won’t follow those rules.

    In practice, everybody knows this, because groups which claim to be “inclusive” are, in my experience, very vigilant about excluding people who disagree with their version of “inclusivity.” That suggests that the Law of Limits is just that– a Law, which can’t be violated even by those who think they are rejecting it.


    I have to consider the facts that both of these examples sprang readily to mind, and they both come from people who I don’t like. “Hate” would probably be a better term. The fact that they came to mind so quickly means that they’re somewhere near the forefront of my consciousness– and that calls to mind another important thing I’ve learned here– “What you contemplate, you imitate.” And that, in all likelihood, means that there are ways, probably big ways, in which I’m rejecting limitation for myself or “people like me”, probably while approving it for others who I don’t like as much. That means I have some introspection to do, and some meditation. I will report on its results.

  143. Jbucks, I would advise to concentrate on one or a few activities, so that you can learn in more depth to perform them, and it is, at least to me, more rewarding. Secondly, that lowers the amount of tools which you need.

    Patriciaormsby (if I may) and others, the structure of modern life (working hours and the like) makes it more difficult for people to juggle work, community activities and other activities.

    And generally, I have found that a more or less traditional approach to the artistical pursuits (book design, bookbinding and some others) which I do outside of work, is best suited to my needs.

  144. @Truethomas

    Thanks for the compliment about my writing. It’s a skill I’ve been working on for some time now, but still feel I have a long way left to go. Perhaps, given the way my career has been unfolding in recent years, I could describe myself as something of a journeyman!

    Regarding the evolutionary ‘unbinding’ of adaptation from physical structures, I would note that limits are still very much in effect! I was merely pointing out that our ability to adapt to changing circumstances doesn’t rely purely our genetics and takes place over far shorter time frames than generations. Nevertheless, when we adapt to something, it seems to me that we’re necessarily becoming less adapted to something else. Even the way in which we frame certain concepts or label phenomena in particular ways, while often been extremely useful for conceptualisation and communication, also creates certain blind-spots. When we label a thing ‘tree’, it makes it easy for us to count, climb, grow, harvest, collect seed from etc. but it also tends to seperate us from the direct experience of the thing itself, and makes us view the tree as something separate from the forest and ecosystem that it is a part of.

  145. More than anything else, aging has given me the greatest practical appreciation and understanding of limits. On the way up, pushing against them and finding them somewhat malleable, momentarily dreaming that perhaps there are no limits. At mid-life, realizing those limits are real and seeing how you have pushed against them unwisely in various ways. Now I’m into my late 50s, I’m feeling the pressure of limits more keenly, and am beating as graceful a retreat as I can. I’m talking mainly about health, but this could also apply to goals, work, finances, family formation, etc. It was ever thus, I suppose, and youth is wasted on the young. But living this arc in an age of boundless cheap energy really turbo-charged that youthful sense of a limitless future.

    Also, relevant to this week’s broader discussion is a current post on Rod Dreher’s blog, about how Liberalism has failed “because it has succeeded so well in liberating individuals from a sense that they have unchosen obligations to the past, the future, or to each other”….Worth a read.

  146. @JMG

    “…I spent the evening at lodge tonight, doing things like paying the electric bill of an elderly brother who’s fallen on hard times…”

    I spent my Sunday morning as usual at my “lodge” a Unitarian-Universalist congregation of which I am a long time member, and part of yesterday at a spiritual book discussion group there, Thursday night planning a solstice service, Friday morning doing Tai Chi, Wednesday Theravada meditation, and so on. Thinking about it, UU’s are not unlike Masons, slightly weird (from a mainstream perspective) and with our own odd rituals, customs and feasts. But more inclusive, accepting women, children, and atheists, pagans, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, gay, transgender, everyone, even Druids, without even a question. Non-inclusive people too though they rarely come. No secrets that I have heard of. Since UU’s are so diverse we have this odd pattern of avoiding certain sensitive words, usually related to ‘spirituality’, or qualifying them, or redefining them – something most faith groups don’t have to consider. Weird, I know. And despite all this inclusiveness we *still* have trouble attracting enough new members to keep up with attrition.

    Yes it is *quite* fascinating how people avoid something that would generally be good for them and the world. But having once avoided groups myself more strongly than most, but going the other way now, I think I understand it. I don’t see it much as a moral issue. It’s mostly a conscious or unconscious cost/benefit analysis, and people doing their best to survive and prosper with the hand they were dealt – just people being people. It’s the cost in their limited energy, time and money, to cross over the transition barrier to any group and integrate with it, plus long term responsibilities vs. the expected benefit to them and their family, compared to other options. It’s complicated by the fact that most people, especially young people, haven’t experienced the benefits themselves so don’t know or believe them. Also a fear of entering some kind of “cult-like” group, which is a real danger, as well as being seen as part of a “weird cult” and losing status in the mainstream pecking order. This combined with the fact that our economic system basically rewards people for being independent and flexible, able to move and change jobs easily. It’s really no wonder people are leery of joining groups like Masons and religious groups or even marrying or forming friendships. But the benefits are very real if you can do it. Even so these kinds of groups and their benefits must be pale ghosts of what it would be like in a real, 24-7 hunter-gatherer tribe.

    Besides understanding the problem, a fascinating thing for me is to try to imagine a non-subsistence, “civilized” society which fostered these kinds of groups and more, and benefitted thereby, how it would be structured, how it would work. There’s a book called “150 Strong” that has some ideas about that and there are other books and ideas.

  147. “Dot, excellent. I don’t know if anyone’s worked out, or could work out, the exact timeline over which the second religiosity rises to counteract the barbarism of reflection, but I think postmodernism has pretty much run its length, and some reverse swing can be expected.”

    Yep, well roughly the time I started reading the old ADR was roughly when I finished, or started to finish with postmodernism. For anyone who hasn’t seen it this article neatly sums up how Donald Trump represents postmodernism running to its logical conclusion:

    Just on the subject of limits, no pressure but I recall a while ago you talking about doing a post on the Faustian Soul and the failure of the dream on transcendence into limitless space? If nothing else People in western civilization cling to this highly dysfunctional dream, because its the only meaning they’ve got in their lives…

  148. @Oilman,
    thanks for the heads up! As an, ahem, oilman, I take your predictions seriously, and they seem very reasonable. Perhaps this will be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back, and brings our much needed, long delayed, Depression? One can only hope, though I’ve had my hopes dashed enough to know better this time. The System is nothing if not resilient, and working overtime to maintain the status quo.

  149. I can picture the Lovecraftian creatures trying to catch their breath after a vigorous and slimy round of gigues, rondeaus, and eccosaises, saying, “I dig her music. It’s got a good beat and I can bug out to it.”

  150. @oilman2
    Re: Gunung Padang

    Actually, I’m not particularly interested in pyramids in general. I’m interested in Ancient Egypt, to the extent that I’ve taken a flier at learning the hieroglyphic form of the language a couple of times. My apparent interest was generated by JMG’s comment that gigantism is typical of the late stage of civilizations; the actual facts of Old Kingdom Egypt do not match this comment. I should also point out that civilizational collapse because of major climate shifts not only wasn’t on the table for late 19th and early 20th century historians, it wasn’t even on the horizon. The entire idea that a major climate event had a significant role to play in the demise of the Old Kingdom is a result of facts turned up in the last four decades or so.

    I took a look at Gunung Padang, and it looks like someone has gotten overly enthusiastic, exacerbated by the Indonesian government seeing tourist dollars and the usual MSM tendency to hype anything that sells papers (and the electronic equivalent.)

  151. On a much lighter note, if I may, in James Mitchner’s book Hawaii, a young man is talking about sex, the one thing he can’t get enough of, until he just had some. What a mischievous natural limit, without which, nothing else would get done.

  152. Dividualist – You ask “if magic works, why don’t we see it all the time?” Here’s my take: you’ve probably heard the aphorism “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur Clarke). Turn that around: “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.” What Clarke, and most of our culture, label as “magic” is an activity which one can be trained (a la Harry Potter) to employ, to violate accepted expectations of the physical world, through mechanisms that are totally opaque. And here we are, having learned to transcend traditional limits of time and space in our communications, and how many of us have any idea of what’s going on between my keyboard and your display screen? The actions of my will are changing your consciousness. Not in any greatly surprising way, though, because “it just works. We see it all the time.” As JMG said, the advertisers have been using it on us for a long time.

    It sounds to me as though you want a lab-scale demonstration of a magical effect. (Something like a chemistry lab?) If you were to meditate on why that is your desire, where would it lead? Would performing such a demonstration be a good way get you closer to your more meaningful goals?

  153. I’m not much of a movie fan, but I’m surprised that no one has quoted that 1970s Clint Eastwood character, Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations”. (I’ve pondered the meaning of that phrase for decades.)

  154. Chiming in to voice my support for doing The Cosmic Doctrine in the book club!

    I’d also love to see, perhaps, The Druidry Handbook, The Druid Magic Handbook, or any of your more instructional books on magic. I understand, though, if those are books you’d prefer people to work through if they’re seriously interested and ask questions about during the open posts, rather than just taking everyone along for the ride.

    On the other hand, Monsters could fit the book club format better, and I do seem to remember you mentioning that it was your best selling book.

  155. Violet, excellent. Yes, exactly.

    Varun, were you going through the state Grand Lodge website? If so, drop them an email and tell them that you’ve been trying to make contact and what results you’ve gotten. They’re probably forwarding the contact info to a lodge that’s dropping the ball. You can also see if you can contact a local lodge directly; many of them have contact phone numbers, either on their websites or on the Grand Lodge website.

    Steve, those are solid examples. I’d encourage you to look for examples of the same thing being done by people of whose ideas you approve.

    Mark, I’ve been noticing that one too. I turned 55 this year, and am definitely feeling it.

    Truethomas, fair enough. To each their own.

    Tom, yes, that one’s certainly in the hopper; I’ve done several posts on the failure of the space age, but not one from a Spenglerian perspective.

    Kimberly, funny. One of the charming things about shoggoths is that, according to Lovecraft, their language is a series of musical notes across a wide range. I imagine them having a very keen ear for music!

    Michael, also funny.

    LatheChuck, hmm! I’ll have to find that as a brief clip on YouTube and use it as a tag line from time to time.

    Yucca, so noted.

  156. “As for the laws, in a very precise sense, all seven laws are manifestations of a single idea. The ability to synthesize these seven perspectives on a common theme and see the common theme, though, takes a lot of work.”


    At present, the closest I can get to such a synthesis vaguely resembles a sandwich, with Wholeness as one piece of bread and Cause and Effect as the other, containing and fulfilled by Flow, Limits, and Balance, plus Evolution, as parallel (but also intermingled) layers between them; but Planes sticks perpendicularly through the rest like a cocktail toothpick. That’s probably not very helpful, if it makes any sense at all.

    It appears there may be an unnecessary distinction between “characteristic” (or “property”) and “process” getting in my way. Evolution or flow as characteristics rather than processes; wholeness or planarity as processes rather than characteristics; might be worth some reflection.


  157. On the subject of limits: I’m teaching myself to play the accordion and have been given a large amount of sheet music. Up until recently I’ve been playing a wide range of songs with the result that each song got a limited amount of practice and I could play them to an okay level of skill as long as I had the music in front of me.

    A week ago I resolved to limit the number of songs I practised daily to three. I am now playing all three songs to a significantly higher standard, and two of them I now know by heart. I am also developing a greater understanding of the chord progression of these songs, and why they work the way they do. Putting this limit in place has allowed me to master a limited number of songs, rather than being an amateurish player of many.

  158. @JMG

    Yes, that last paragraph was a bit of a stretch. In more than one way. :–}

    I also vote for Cosmic Doctrine as the next book for a discussion. I’ve attempted to read it casually and very soon it was clear that it requires a way more serious approach. Studying it with a whole bunch of intelligent people discussing it online? Where do I sign up? :}

  159. @Booklover, thank you for your remark. And the structure of working life in Japan is even more all-consuming, with men (and now to a large extent, women too), expected to put family matters second to the degree that many remained practically strangers to their own children. The company is like a close-knit society for them. But they are a gradually diminishing minority in Japan. There are plenty of other factors preventing people here from becoming interested in community activities. Lots of women have been forced by societal/family expectations to perform duties for community organizations. Many younger people unable to find good enough employment to consider marrying are sitting at home texting and gaming their lives away, and now feel too socially inept to try real-life activities.
    There are plenty of people in our town who will attend Fuji Confraternity functions and rites, but only if it’s something special or they have a particular problem and want our help. I think letting people know we are here and having lots of fun will help them find us when they would like to get involved in a community that seeks spiritual significance in nature via ancient traditions and practices.

  160. Hi John Michael,

    Thanks for the explanation. Yeah, I’m impressed that the folks in the dark ages understood how the various brayings and other assorted noises from the political classes of those times worked out in reality, and then decided in their wisdom not to waste their time and resources copying the texts. The scribes work would make an interesting story, don’t you reckon?



    Hi Isabel,

    Thanks for the courteous reply and I agree with your assessment of the situation. Yes, Legolas is an interesting exception to the general concerns of the Elves. And I don’t recall that the Elves contributed much to the final confrontation with Sauron’s forces but memory of the story is from long ago…

    Hi gkb,

    Sorry mate, but I just don’t see any lone heroes, anywhere. Can you provide an example to clarify your point? I’m not arguing with you, I’m just trying to understand what you are discussing.

  161. Hi John Michael,

    I have no idea where any of this stuff comes from. Perhaps it is the many long hours every week that I do of manual labour about the farm? That is my form of discursive meditation and whilst it is unconventional, it works for me…

    Anyway to cut a long story short I read your reply above about “the basic laws of magic: the strength of your will is a function of its singleness.”.

    I had to laugh because I once advised someone who was bemoaning their unrewarding romantic life to me that: they were single because they chose to be single! I’m not making a joke about the word “singleness” that you used. Rather, the person who received that bit of advice, then ran with it and rapidly ended up in a relationship. They applied the strength of their will and single-mindedness towards resolving their romantic situation. It was quite startling to see.

    PS: As an unrelated side note I picked up the compendium of Sailor Steve Costigan and am looking forward to reading it. Any idea when your book two will be available in trade paperback or paperback? I purchased the first one in hardback, but I’m not whingeing, but far out the exchange rates are killing us down here…



  162. Truethomas, you have very eloquently described the problems which people face who want to join groups. Additionally, there is the problem of not knowing which community or group one would like to join.

    Two examples of the difficulty of community come to mind here. The first example is of a workshop for singles, at which I took part a few years ago; after the workshop was done, we met again in a cafe, where we agreed to meet on weekends. At the first weekend, quite a few of the participants showed up (we went to an art exhibition). But at the second weekend, the number of participants already had dwindled to a few. This time, we met in another cafe. Afterwards, one of the participants tried to keep things going, but nothing more came of it.

    The second example is of a Transition Town group in a midsized German city. They have some activities, such as a sort of repair cafe for sewing, gardening associations, and selling organic food at quite high prices. But the impression that came through their website and sone of their activities, which I have seen,.is that they are preferentially wealthy, more-than-middle-aged woman who doesn’t relly like to reach out to the wider community in the city. They do also speeches, and interestingly, the size of the donations they propose is 50-150 Euro. On a tour through their gardens, the leader of the tour said that they would like it, if there were more young people partaking in their gardening activities.

  163. JMG, you’ve posted often on the limits of our brains – and I believe I’m humble enough to appreciate that, and my question may run into that limit quickly. Last week you responded to Rationalist’s comment on the “argument from evil”, and logically explained the limits of a polytheist definition of a deity, and how even the King of the Gods is not omnipotent or omniscient. But does the argument from evil hold up if we’re assuming a monotheist definition of God? In that case there would be an exemption to the Law of Limits, no?

    I ask because I’ve never been able to reconcile “free will” with the existence of an omniscient Supreme Being, as described (in a rather heavy-handed fashion) during my Lutheran upbringing. Your response about limits of the deities in a polytheistic definition really got my head spinning….

  164. @Violet

    I agree with you, things are defined by their limits. This brings up the distinction between the real, hard, limits of things and the limits we impose by defining things by what they are (or are not) and what they can do.

    For example, a chair also makes a handy step ladder, as any 4 year old trying to get to the cookie jar can attest. The right chair, in the right circumstances can also be a flotation device, a door lock, firewood, a splint, a travoy, and perhaps many other things. This doesn’t mean it’s uses are unlimited but we need to be careful about defining thigs by what they are not.

    I supsect the ability to see multiple uses in ordinary objects will be a more and more useful skill as we slide into our post-industrail future. In turn, that requres that we be somewhat flexible in thinking about what things are or are not.

  165. @ John Roth…

    As an observer of people, I find it always interesting when one person takes a position that is different based on what he discovered and thinks. When the rest pile on him and try to invalidate him rather than support him – well, it seems just like old times in the archaeology world. For that reason alone, the initial dates on the core samples interest me.

    I’m a geologist, not an archaeologist – so things old are interesting. History is interesting, and when geology can provide a new lens for history and archeology, that is kind of a cool thing for me personally.

    But with everyone a specialist and nobody allowed to even comment without being a specialist, it seems thoughtstoppers are the rule of the day. Generalists are reviled today, yet they are required to form a coherent picture when everyone is highly specialized. There is also much inertia of older theories to be overcome, and funding is directly tied into supporting those older theories, since the “elder statesmen” of each discipline control access.

    I’m too old to make the trips again, but having been to China and seen pyramids, Eqypt and walked them and Mexico as well – Gunung Padang interests me. It is yet another, but is cloaked in ash and who knows what else. Whatever is at the top of the site is youngest, geologically – so those deeper cores with their dates are fascinating to consider.

  166. @ Shane W…

    I believe we have been in this Depression since 2000 or so, the end of the dotcom bubble. The BLS and many other entities want to extend and pretend we are not in it, but the evidence is all around you if you look. Debt coming into fruition (bankruptcy and default) are the end stages, not the beginning. Just as high oil prices are the end of a cycle, not the beginning.

    We are going to unwind the biggest wad of debt mankind has ever accumulated. We are at Peak Indebtedness, top of the cycle. The wave down is the destructive part, and it will be in fits and starts until it cannot be held at bay. Just as in the cycles we ride in the oil business.

  167. I think one objection to the Christian idea of Heaven is it is often portrayed as a place without limits. Easier to imagine a paradise where we still have to walk or even put in a few hours a day in the garden. I like the Summerlands idea some pagans have where our time is limited, we do not automatically know everything, and we soon depart to something else.

  168. @Oilman2:

    From what I saw in the relatively cursory scan, the way the basalt “logs” are arranged says that it was deliberately constructed, probably quite a while ago, and then was repurposed by a later culture, possibly several times. Basalt is of volcanic origin, and the shape is natural, but “logs” of that shape are vertical. At least, that’s what I’m told.

    Carbon dating has limits; it’s quite possible that it’s too old for carbon dating. A good isotopic analysis of the basalt “logs” might finger-print the volcano they came from.

    Otherwise I have no problem with the idea that there were ancient civilizations that built in wood and other materials that decay easily, so they left few traces. The thing is, when someone says “This is from Atlantis,” you can hear minds closing with a thud. If you want odd-ball discoveries taken seriously, you don’t say things that categorize you with the flakes. Having your discoveries publicized by people like Graham Hancock is a textbook example of: “with friends like this, you don’t need enemies.”

  169. I’ve been ruminating over the weekend on what at first glance seems like an exception to the Law of Limits: mathematical infinities, such as the set of all natural numbers. Of course, these are abstractions, but I’ve come to the opinion that the Law of Limits apply here just as it does anywhere else.

    One of the interesting facts about infinite sets is that there is always a superset that includes things not in the original set. The natural numbers are a subset of the rationals, which is a subset of the reals. Thus every set is limited compared to some other set.

    Some of those sets are even a higher order of infinity, as the reals are to the natural and rationals. Even with infinite sets, there is always a larger infinite set. So there’s another limit.

    The one place where there would seem to genuinely be no limit is that not only are there infinitely many orders of infinity, in a sense there are more orders of infinity than items in any of the orders of infinity. But that “in a sense” is crucial here, because the only way to actually state this rigorously is to say that there is no set of all infinities. In other words, the only way in which infinity seems to truly transcend all limits is in terms of the non-existence of something.

    Then today one more thing hit me: one of the key concepts, if not the key concept, that mathematicians use to work with infinities is… the limit.

  170. Dear JMG, dear commentariat,

    This book club about limits is particularly instructive and insightful for me.

    I learned that my personal limits (health issues and other things) can be a source of beauty and strength. Thank you JMG and Maria!

    Mourning about Star Trek Enterprise:
    I used to be a big fan of the TV series and now read the occasional Star Trek book. I can still enjoy them although they are of course full of “Man conqueror of Nature”. Rereading your book “The Retro Future” and contemplating that something like Star Trek will never happen I became very sad.
    I also became aware that I am upset that humankind will go extinct sometime in the future (in one of your posts you gave us 10 Million years); also I am shocked that really nothing and nobody will save us (mankind) from our own stupidity.
    Well, so I´m still dealing with the brainwashing of this society.

    Law of diminishing Returns:
    Some things are not applicable to the law of diminishing returns, I think.
    I think of spiritual exercises like meditation, of love, friendship.
    What do you think?

    Best wishes

  171. @Alethios

    Agreed, our labels, our concepts help us adapt but blind us to other possibilities. I would describe it this way: Human ability to create, modify, use and communicate mental models of reality is core to our non-genetic adaptiveness – we see everything through our models. Models let us reduce, map, predict, and manipulate reality. Models filter reality by providing a framework to fit our observations into. Beliefs are entrenched models. Observations that can’t be slotted into our beliefs are usually ignored, denied, suppressed – our blind spots. But if we can hold the models lightly, tentatively, then we can sometimes notice the events that don’t quite fit in, and instead of freaking out say like good scientists, “That’s interesting.”

    Since they are reductions, all models of reality are approximations, i.e. more or less wrong, but they are useful and necessary, essential to being human. We often fool our minds with our models, into believing we need some things and don’t need others. But the effect is limited: it doesn’t completely work because there are other parts of us that stubbornly refuse to be fooled. Our bodies refuse to be fooled by inappropriate food and activities, our emotions by inappropriate relationships, our souls by inappropriate lives.

    The “all humans are fundamentally hunter-gatherers” model that I often cite is a good, supported approximation, and a fantastic simplifier. It simplifies by providing a way of testing and eliminating a lot of popular ideas that, no matter how central to so many people’s belief systems (entrenched models), just can’t be ‘true’ (i.e. good models) if the HG model is good. It eliminates lots of popular ideas about diet, activity types and levels, and social relationships – lots of sacred cows. Probably the biggest idea it throws doubt on is the idea that a sustainable human civilization can be structured around pecking order/status hierarchies as ours is and always has been. That’s a hard pill for most people to swallow.


    I agree it’s hard to know and find a community that is a good fit. But not impossible. As JMG says there are a good many out there to explore. Forming a new tribe is hard too. People need good reasons to keep coming together and need to make a pretty big commitment of time, attention, etc. to make it work. Hunter-gatherers had it relatively easy in this respect – everyone needed to be with a tribe just to survive so commitment and purpose were natural, although they were/are reportedly pretty free to move between tribes. The singles group probably didn’t come close in purpose and commitment. Transition groups should do better as past-peak-everything becomes more obvious and times get tougher. Join now “and beat the rush.”

    Besides fraternal groups and churches, co-housing groups are another possibility. That’s where people own homes on common land, share some meals, work, play and celebrate together. Another possibility might be large group houses where people fill different roles, some going out to work and bring back money and others work at home, growing food, raising kids, caring for elders, maintaining stuff, etc. This might work especially well if it included a cooperative business.

    Another surprising example of modern tribes: Army platoons. Sebastian Junger writes in his book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” that a major source of what we are told is PTSD for returning soldiers, is actually not combat related but instead due to the loss of platoon tribal support and “brotherhood” when soldiers return to civilian life.

    Based on the HG model, groups centered on strong, charismatic leaders and status hierarchies should be avoided, as should groups that are too large (>150) for everyone to know each other very well. Large groups (like Christian megachurches) are often subdivided into tribe sized groups, so that could work if the larger organization isn’t too controlling, or even better is somehow a consensus organization of the subgroups.

  172. Ray, many thanks for this!

    Walt, I like that spatial metaphor. Of course it’s hard; the reason why there are seven laws is that getting the whole pattern into a single statement would be extremely difficult, and understanding it would be even more so.

    Kfish, an excellent example!

    Ganesh, you’ve just signed up. You’re quite right that casual reading won’t get you anywhere with it; as the author notes, “this book is intended to train the mind, not to inform it” — a statement we’ll be unpacking early and often.

    Chris, delighted to hear about the Sailor Steve Costigan stories! I like the story about singleness, too. 😉

    Drhooves, the classic argument from evil presupposes the standard monotheist definition of God: a unique, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity. Given the existence of such a being, the argument proposes, it’s impossible to explain why evil exists in the world, since if such a being is really omnibenevolent, he has the motivation to eliminate all evil; if he is really omniscient and omnipotent, he has the power and knowledge to eliminate all evil; and if he’s really unique, nobody can stop him from doing so. Since evil exists, the argument concludes, no such being can exist. I agree with this claim, noting merely that the gods and goddesses of traditional polytheism are neither unique, omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent, and that the existence of evil is therefore entirely compatible with the existence of gods and goddesses as described in traditional polytheist faiths.

    The entire subject of free will is a garbled mess, since so many people assume that the only two options are absolute free will or the absolute absence of free will — note the erasure of the middle ground in which we all normally operate — but you’re certainly right that the existence of free will, under some definitions of that term, is difficult to square with the existence of a unique, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity. On the other hand, for the same reasons, if the gods and goddesses that exist are none of these things, it’s hard to see how this would conflict with any reasonable definition of free will.

    Shane, of course. You know as well as I do that the point of that program isn’t to help displaced miners in the Appalachians — it’s to give another round of free handouts to a politically influential industry, using displaced miners in the Appalachians as an excuse. The academic industry already got its time at the feed trough, why not set out some slops for the tech industry too?

    Phil H., thanks for this!

    Robert, funny! Many thanks for this, and I raise a glass to the historical drinking society/drinking historical society.

    Jbucks, you’re welcome.

    Christopher, my objection to it is that it’s so obviously a sales pitch. “Buy into our faith and when you die you’ll instantly enter into eternal bliss!” Yeah, and I have a bridge to the other world to sell you…

    James, most interesting!

    Ilona, ten million years is a very, very, very long time. Think of all the time that’s passed since the building of the pyramids; that’s around five thousand years. Now think of double that time. Then ten times as long as that time,. Then a hundred times as long as that time. Then two thousand times as long as that time, packed to bursting with human lives, historical events, creativity, and everything else humans can get up to. By the time we’ve been around ten million years, we’ll be ready to give it a rest! As for the law of diminishing returns and spirituality, I think it does apply, but we’ve done so little so far that the point of diminishing returns is a very long distance off!

  173. @ John Roth…

    I heard that very same “snap” of closing as I read your comment. This is the same “snap” heard for nearly a century as the probability of a North American impact event rose again and again – until we are here today – where the evidence is overwhelming but comes from another discipline.

    I am not going to argue any of these things – time will tell, if we have enough left. I have had enough dealings with “established views” to know that most have been arrived at by consensus, led by things (funding for example) other than the evidence. How long did it take for the Chixlub impact and the Cretaceous extinction event to even be remotely conflated? Even today, some persist in ignoring it, while Occam’s Razor is reflecting blinding light on their subject.

    Coincident events in a complex world are often dissociated for analysis, and then irretrievably held separate. This is a very common mistake when considering the wholeness of our planet and its history.

    Scientific disciplines are man-made constructs devised to simplify complex problems. I am still looking for how these same disciplines are brought together to make a picture of wholeness. It seems to me, there is a distinct lack of anyone assembling these disparate events into anything resembling a uniform picture across disciplines.

    Perhaps that is why it takes so very long for things to assemble – the “flakes” are trying, while the “disciplines” of modern science simply disallow a whole view. They do not even speak to one another. Science without a grasp of wholeness – I wonder how many things each discipline feels are ‘right’ turn out to be wrong when the lens of wholeness is placed over them?

    Our views on this subject are likely very divergent, as evidenced here.

  174. JMG wrote above in response to Jose and Christophe:

    ‘It’s very easy for the human mind to take two words denoting concepts that exist in the world of our experience, and combine them to make a phrase that denotes something that doesn’t exist in the world of our experience — consider “square circle” … “sustainable industrialism”… “ no limits”. ‘

    It has been some days, but today it occurred to me that joining two words that don’t seem to make sense together is sometimes the essence of poetry and a source of deeper understanding. Take the trivial example from 17th century poetry, “the warm snow of her shoulders”. I understand that a Zen koan works from such seemingly absurd juxtapositions. In Christian tradition, Angelus Silesius is famous for such paradoxical phrases, e.g.

    Ich selbst muss Sonne sein, ich muss mit meinen Strahlen
    Das farbenlose Meer der ganzen Gottheit malen.
    (I must be sun myself, I must paint with my rays
    The colourless sea of entire divinity)


    Ich bin ein Berg in Gott und muss mich selber steigen,
    Daferne Gott mir soll sein liebes Antlitz zeigen.
    (I am a mountain in God and must climb myself,
    If God is to show me his dear countenance)

    Not all such phrases will be helpful, JMG gave examples of ones that aren’t. I think when happening on such an apparently absurd combination, it is necessary to discern whether it is useful or not.

    PS: What you call law of attraction, Angelus Silesius also put into (in German) very pithy verse:

    Mensch, was du liebst, in das wirst du verwandelt werden:
    Gott wirst du, liebst du Gott, und Erde, liebst du Erden.
    (Man, whatever you love, that is into what will you be transformed:
    You become God if you love God, and earth if you love earth).

    I am aware that “becoming earth” had very different connotations to him than to a Druid!

  175. Truethomas, strangely, I, too, have read the book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”. It is quite good, although it was criticised that it painted a bit too rosy an image of the military.

    J. M. Greer, a genus like the genus Homo may well last ten million years, but so far, most individual human species have endured for a few hundred thousand years. The longest-lived was Homo erectus, who endured for two million years. New finds from Morocco suggest that Homo sapiens has existed for three hundred thousand years.

  176. @Oilman,
    what this oil spike NEEDS to do, just like the first peak oil spike back in ’05-’06, is burst some bubbles–heathcare, education, and maybe tech comes to mind, just to name a few. I’m thinking that this time, if they even attempt a pro-industry/lobbyist bailout that totally shafts the average person, the way the housing bailout did–this may provoke the insurgency. Think how bad the response was to the housing bailout, and things have only gotten worse/more desperate since then, and now we have multiple unsustainable bubbles. If TPTB really attempt housing-style bailouts on all crashing bubbles this time to keep the plates spinning, it really will strain all credibility, but I wouldn’t put it past ’em.

  177. Thanks for the detailed reply, JMG. I never thought about “free will” in anything other than extremes, so that’s something else to ponder. Seems the real world isn’t often like computer processing, or binary.

  178. Violet said:
    “An identity is a statement of limits; a chair is a chair because it isn’t a table, or anything else besides a chair.”

    Although it does make me curious about how this concept applies to occasional tables…

  179. Heaven according to Willie Nelson:

    Oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies
    Oh, they tell me of a home far away
    Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
    Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

    Oh, the land of cloudless day
    Oh, the land of an unclouded sky
    Oh, they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise
    Oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

    Love Willie typically, but I don’t even have to get to my cosmology to find this image unattractive. The ecologist, gardener, and domestic rainwater collector in me is offended from the outset! Sounds like a desert in the making!

    I’ve never thought much of the Christian description of paradise.

  180. @Oilman,
    I mean, I can just see it all to clearly with healthcare & education, let alone other bubbles. Messy bubbles bursting, leaving hospitals, clinics, and universities shutting down and slashing services right and left, meanwhile, their legions of lobbyists are screeching at the top of their lungs about how vital their services are, demanding a no-strings bailout to maintain BAU, meanwhile, particularly with much-despised healthcare (ed. still seems to have a better reputation, but that is quickly crumbling), the populations is fed up and on slow boil, and a BAU bailout won’t help matters.

  181. @ Ganesh and others:

    Surely not the only one, but I definitely chimed in on the “no thermostat” conversation. Woke up this morning to a 58 degree house and didn’t think much of it. I built a fire in the wood stove for sure…once I had a hot cup of tea in my hands, and ample clothing on to handle the chill. The kids? Eh, feels fine to us, Dada! And that’s the goal of course.

    Some other limits to daily life at our house:

    -When the laptop runs out of battery and the screen goes dark the kids just close the lid and go do something else. (We don’t allow “electrical streaming,” ie, operation while plugged in. When it’s dead it’s dead. You can put it back on the charger if the sun is shining on the solar panels, but otherwise, that’s it for the day.)

    -When dishwater gets too dirty the kids have to check the graywater bucket under the sink to make sure there is enough ullage to accept it. If not, that has to be dealt with first.

    -The sawdust toilet functions on the same idea. If there is no space to accept your waste, something else has to happen first. There’s no magic trick that makes poop disappear into thin air (or thin water rather).

    I think the fundamental incorporation of tangible limits in daily life is one of the most useful things my wife and I have done for our children. This law, more than any other, really resonates with us.

    And I really appreciate the depth of discussion among the commentariat!!

  182. BTW, I have a really interesting story about our most recent experience with a nature spirit this past weekend. But I’m going to sit on it until the 5th Wed post!

    Time to go order a beer kit or two and a cider starter…all this discussion of 2018’s potential horsemen has got me thinking about homebrew for some reason. Just cracked the mead bucket that I laid up in February this morning too – pretty good stuff. Heady too…

    Cheers everyone.
    Tripp out!

  183. Matthias, of course! The thing to keep in mind is that poetic metaphors are poetic metaphors, not literal descriptions. The lady’s shoulders were not made of warm snow, they were made of human flesh, but the combination of very light skin and warmth makes it a great metaphor. It’s when somebody insists that this lady’s shoulders really are made of snow that you pass from metaphor to absurdity. “Sustainable industrialism,” on the other hand, isn’t even a good metaphor — it’s too abstract and too clunky-sounding — and so it passes to absurdity right away.

    Booklover, yes, but I suspect we’d find a lot in common with other species of our genus if any of them were still alive. The fact that most people of western European extraction are part Neanderthal suggests that we’d find quite a bit in common with them! 😉 So I’ll simply correct my comment and say that humans — meaning members of the genus Homo — could very easily be around for another ten million years, and other genera descended from ours and close enough to us that we’d find plenty to talk about could be around much longer than that.

    Drhooves, in modern industrial society, people are taught to think of things only in terms of mutually exclusive extremes, so don’t fault yourself. The fact that you’re willing to consider a challenge to that bad habit puts you way ahead of the game.

    Tripp, funny! You’re right, of course. Mark Twain pointed out in a very funny essay a long time ago just how dreary the standard descriptions of the Christian heaven really are. Did you ever read the last of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, The Last Battle, and watch the heroic but unsuccessful efforts he made to avoid that dreariness? It didn’t work; I always finished that book with a sense of being cheated, because Narnia itself always seemed far more appealing to me than what came after, to say nothing of the cheap verbal trick he used there at the end to try to get off the hook.

    I’ll look forward to your story about nature spirits!

  184. Re: Heaven: I’m reminded of bits in the L.M. Montgomery novels where sympathetic characters express their desire for both laughter in Heaven (mildly scandalous at the time, or so I understand) and for *projects*: gardens, or donuts to bake, or similar. I’m of that mindset myself–I can be lazy for a few days, and then I need something to occupy myself.

    I never liked The Last Battle for similar reasons to you, JMG, and also because I came away from it with the feeling that everything Lewis was celebrating was what I’d consider fairly horrible. Even if I believe in an afterlife, and I do, presumably there’s a reason to be on Earth: experiences to have, growing to do, etc. Having a bunch of kids killed in a trainwreck does not seem like a happy thing, even if Paradise is their consolation.

  185. @Violet and Tripp,

    Violet said:
    “An identity is a statement of limits; a chair is a chair because it isn’t a table, or anything else besides a chair.”

    No, it’s a chair because you sit on it. But you can also sit on a table. Oh noes! There goes my classification down the tubes!

    Tripp said:
    “Although it does make me curious about how this concept applies to occasional tables…”

    A class (identity) is an imperfect statement of limits, and sometimes pernicious in that regard, especially with regard to humans. It can fuel prejudice (“oh, that person ‘is’ a so-and-so, and therefore must have this and that nasty habit that is part of my definition of that class”). And it can work the other way, too, in identity politics (oh, I ‘am’ a so-and-so, therefore I must conform, or surrender, to this and that set of stereotypes,”).

    We’re talking about fundamental errors of logical type. A member of a class is not the class. A class is not a member of the class – two different levels of logical typing. I am white. I am NOT ‘white people’. an LGBT person is NOT’ LGBT people’, and so on and so forth.

    And a chair is NOT ‘chairs’. 🙂

    For people who have the patience to read slowly and ruminate on things a bit at a time, I strongly recommend ‘Mind and Nature’ by Gregory Bateson. His ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ is also quite rewarding. Demanding, but very rewarding.

  186. The sane reaction to the banality of some versions of Heaven was perhaps exemplified in the film ‘White Mischief ‘, based on an unsolved murder among a clique of very decadent British aristos in colonial Kenya.

    At the end, one character looks at the vast and flawless African dawn unfolding from her veranda,and says; ‘Oh Christ, not another (blanking) perfect day!’

  187. Myriam, I have a thought about your example of the Victorian lady. I have known two recovered bulimics, and one of the things they talked about was the unbelievable amounts of time and energy they’d put into monitoring every ounce that appeared or disappeared from the scale and obsessing over food. Not only did they damage their health, but their educations, their social lives, and their relationships suffered as well.

    Viewed one way, my friends and those Victorian ladies did indeed put extreme limits on their bodies and lives, distorting them in the process, as you said. Viewed another way, though, they were driven to reject and to struggle to defy the limits of their bodies, the limits that said “It is in your nature to to be a particular size and shape, and you cannot attain this unrealistic image of beauty without doing yourself harm.” Am I making sense? It seems distinct in my head, at least.

  188. Then Aslan turned to them and said:

    “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

    Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

    “No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

    Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

    “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

    And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

    It seems like an age of men since I last read these words, back in my “tween” years – and certainly it HAS been an age in regard to my worldview – but you’re right. Cheap, disappointing, and utterly at a loss for how to improve the world they were leaving behind. Actually sounds kind of like the cult of Progress to me.

    Cheers, Loremaster.

  189. Tripp, heaven does sound boring. When I was a Christian, I only wanted to go to heaven because it wasn’t hell. When it comes to the song you quoted though, that’s just talking about a lack of the troubles of life (the storms of life). It occurs to me, for the first time, that maybe the reason descriptions of heaven are so boring is because people in general used to have a lot more difficulties in life, so after death, they wanted peace. If you had a really hard life, like people used to have, an eternity of boringness might be a relief.

  190. JMG, you said:”Phil, exactly. Notice the beauty with which time sifts through the products of past cultures. Would we treasure the surviving pieces of Greek literature anything like so much if all the rest of it, much of which was highly mediocre by contemporary accounts, had survived as well? Similarly, time will sort out the products of our civilization, get rid of most of the tripe, and hand on some of the best to the societies that will build on our ruins.”

    During dark times, when much is lost anyways for various reasons, actions of a single invidual could make a difference to better or worse I guess. Its like a bottleneck in cultural sense at least.

    Does it happen that literature (any genre, including scientific) and other stuff such as pieces of art get destroyed or kept hidden deliberately (possibly by action of single invidual like in Umberto Ecos novel The Name of the Rose. The plot plot includes the only surviving copy of Aristotles Poetics Comedy part kept hidden in a monastic library, and guarded by a certain monk, who does not hesitate taking extreme measures to make it remain so.)

    Are you familiar with this nnovel:

    And my last question is are you planning to have some of your own books translated and published some other languages such as German, French etc?

  191. Isabel, exactly. It suddenly occurs to me that what we have here is the origin of the fixation on disposability that plays so large a role in modern culture. At the end of The Last Battle, Narnia’s used up, so Aslan chucks it in the trash and everyone gets something even newer and shinier. (Parenthetical note: I mentioned this online conversation to my wife Sara, and she described her reaction to her first reading of The Last Battle circa age seven: she shouted “That’s not fair!” and threw the book across the room. Strikes me as a good plan.)

    Ilona, you’re welcome.

    Xabier, funny. I’ve said such things from time to time, but only as a joke.

    Tripp, bingo. I suppose he had to use some such gimmick; I’ve always felt that Lewis believed that he ought to believe in Christian doctrine, rather than just believing in it; that’s why so much of his polemic nonfiction relies so heavily on debating tricks, and why you can see him straining at the crowbar so often as he forces some bit of orthodoxy down the throat of his story.

    Simo, yes, it happens fairly often that something gets saved because one person makes or preserves a copy that happens to survive. Yes, I’ve read Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian, though it was a very long time ago; and yes, in fact, I’ve had quite a few books of mine translated into other languages — for example, I recently had my first book, Paths of Wisdom, published in Chinese.

  192. A little late in the cycle here but I wanted to throw in a comment on the limts of consciousness.

    As mentioned, what is often so beautiful in life is seeing things accept their limits and push them to their very edge. Skirting, or dancing along that edge. But it is always done when we reach acceptance of our limits. Humans have been pushing the limits of consciousness for ages. We have consciousness on many different levels and perspectives and dimensions. We’re even aware of the fact that we are conscious of consciousness. Perhaps though, all this fight against nature has been the fact that we are trying to fight the idea of consciousness itself being limited. As this blog, and The Archdruid Report have been trying to help all along, we’ll have to come face to face with our limits, and our limits as a whole species, in order to dance along the edge of our limits, both physical, mentally, and consciously.

  193. I have a question about limits in interacting with other people. People comment here displaying all kinds of illogic, thoughtstoppers, repeating mass media clichés. They get stuck in loops and ask the same questions over and over again in different ways and different contexts – I know I do that. They insult you (in ways they can deny when called out on it of course) and play all kinds of manipulative games. I assume you must notice all or most of it, so you must be deliberately choosing what to ignore and what to pay attention to. I suppose you pay attention to what you want to encourage and mostly overlook the rest?

    But especially with the insults, how do you manage to pretty much ignore them and still treat the person amicably? Most people, from what I can see, end up just avoiding people who spend their time trying to bait us, call us names and of course play victim when called out on their playground behaviour. There’s a school of thought that says limiting your contact with such people is part of having healthy interpersonal boundaries. I suppose the difference is that you’re trying to teach people, so you can’t give up on them just for doing what humans do. And if you forensically and brutally honestly pointed out to them every insane thing you see them doing they’d just get defensive and unable to learn anything. For those of us not in possession of the patience teachers tend to have though, how do we decide how to limit what to respond to from others and what to ignore? Kind of a ridiculously broad question sorry!

  194. Having not read the Book Club book, I generally don’t weigh in on these.

    However: the picture I got from The Last Battle was that Narnia was an imperfect reflection of Heaven, not that Heaven was a perfected version of Narnia. The adventures in Narnia were a distorted and diminished reflection of those to come in Heaven, like trees are distorted and diminished in color and detail when reflected on a rippling lake. Seems not at all like the visions several of you have of Heaven.

    I believe Mendelssohn would make an excellent example of someone adopting Baroque forms in a later era. His Elijah has a good deal of endurance–we performed it just last year here. The reason why I have a BA in Applied Music instead of in Composition is exactly because I cannot produce atonal music, and we were required to do that, first, before composing any other sort. Well, it did weed out those of us who would have been content to write for the masses rather than the elite.

    The reasons why music has gone the way it has are several: Academic musicians produce music for each other, not the public. Music has ceased to be a participatory experience for the majority of the population and become a passive experience. The majority of the population cannot enjoy classical music because they are not able to follow it. Popular music is very simplistic. (When asked why we analyzed Bach and not something more popular and familiar in Music Theory, the prof replied, roughly, that “There are a greater variety of chords in one line of Bach than in an entire Beatles song. Why should I waste paper or your time on the latter?”)

    Academics produce what wins them praise from their peers and tenure. Pop musicians produce simple music that their audiences can enjoy. Most folks these days struggle to sing the simpler hymns that were sung in four part harmony by folks who couldn’t even read four centuries ago. Bach wrote popular music in his day. Without a revival of musicianship, a New Bach has not a chance of popular success. Without a revolution in Academia, a New Bach has not a chance of academic tolerance.

  195. Phutatorius, I think you did, but the point stands. Thank you.

    Prizm, excellent! Yes, exactly — thus my repeated comments on the absurdity of a bunch of social primates with brains six inches long trying to comprehend a cosmos trillions of light years across. Human consciousness has sharp limits — that doesn’t make it useless, it just makes it something other than the omnipotent superpower of contemporary fantasy — and coming to terms with those limits would be a very helpful step toward maturity as a species.

    Dot, I think it’s something that everyone has to settle for themselves. Somewhere in the intersection between having Aspergers syndrome, practicing daily meditation for upwards of thirty years now, and soaking myself in Stoic philosophy during several periods of traumatic personal crisis, I somehow lost the habit of letting my sense of personal value depend on what other people say or think of me. Thus when people get insulting, my first reaction is on the order of “How odd, I wonder what’s motivating all that hostility?” — and my second reaction is usually amusement, because people who are trying to be insulting usually sound a lot like angry toddlers.

    If the opinions or words of others are important to your sense of personal value, though, I can definitely see the value of separating yourself from people who insult you — but here again, exactly where to draw the line is a matter of personal choice.

    BoysMom, on an intellectual level, I get that about Narnia. What I was discussing, though, was my personal reaction to reading The Last Battle — as a child, for the first time, and ever since then. It feels dishonest to me. With regard to music, no argument there; in my story, I’m postulating the first stirrings of a neoclassical movement just starting to show up at a couple of universities, and the first stirrings out there among the more educated public of interest in something other than pretentious avant-garde noise. My character is going to have to write some atonal music in her composition class, to be sure, but it’s in reaction to that experience that her own musical voice really begins to come into focus.

  196. JMG and all

    R.e. Musical Scales and Consonance

    As far as I know, most musicians and composers create music that mostly “works” and don’t spend a lot of time looking at why i.e. their approach is mostly empirical even if they try to tease out a theory for why it works after the fact. Still, looking at the underlying physics can be instructive.

    I have some training in underwater naval acoustics. One can identify classes of warships and even specific ships by their characteristic acoustic signature mostly the from the propeller and gearbox “fundamentals” and their “overtones”.

    When it comes to musical instruments, the same principles apply. Each instrument has its characteristic ratio of various overtones to any given base “note” being played. Its how one distinguishes say a flute from a violin paying the same note. Each note then is a collection of pure. tones (the fundamental and its various overtones). These tones (for a given note being played by a given musical instrument) can be plotted as amplitude versus frequency (of each pure tone) to find the instruments characteristic acoustic signature. They are “pure tones” in the sense that they cannot be broken down any further themselves (they are pure sine waves … the simplest wave form possible).

    For an instrument to be pleasing to the ear … for its to be musical… most of the overtones must have a simple relationship to any fundamental being played. That simple relationship is that each overtone is normally a whole number multiple of the fundamental. The human mind detects this simple relationship and finds pleasure in finding the underlying unity in the diversity of tones present.

    Musical scales anywhere in the world (and I suspect off world) also follow the same principle. All the notes on the scale bear some simple relationship to the tonic. There are exceptions of course but these prove the rule e.g. a flatted 5th in blues and jazz adds tension because it does not have a simple relationship … and for that reason you never resolve a phrase on a flatted 5th.

    If one compares the tones in any given note on a musical scale to the tones in the tonic, some line up and some don’t. The degree to which they line up is the degree to which the two notes are consonant. For instance, all the tones in the 8th (octave) are represented in the 1st (tonic … the “fundamental of the scale). The 1st and 8th are so consonant that they are given the same name. The next most consonant note is the 5th; being 3/2 times the tonic, every 2nd tone in that note is represented in the tones of the tonic. The next most consonant note is the 4th; being 4/3 times the tonic, every 3rd tone in that note is represented in the tones of the tonic.

    The result is that for any given common musical scale found in the world, the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 8th are pretty much fixed. As the 4th and 5th are (mostly) invariant feature of any given scale we have already established an interval we can call a “tone” (not to be confuse with the pure tones inherent in every note). This interval relationship is 9/8 (3/2 divided by 4/3). There are about 2 and 1/2 of these in an interval of a 4th.

    To get nice consonant movements within a scale, its handy to have the notes of the top 4th of the scale an interval of a 5th (i.e. 3/2 times) from the corresponding notes in the bottom 4th. This is already built in for 1st to 5th and 4th to 8th. If you chose the 2nd note on your scale to be a tone (9/8) from the tonic, this fixes the 6th at one tone (9/8) from the 5th. If one fixes the 3th as a tone from the 2nd, the 7th will be fixed a tone from the 6th. Bingo, you now have un-tempered major scale (TTS/T/TTS where “T” = tone and “S” = semitone and / / indicates the position of 4th and 5th). [Note: for those who check 10/9 is close enough to 9/8 to be called a “tone” interval]

    The nice thing about the major scale is that if you are playing a simple non-keyed wind instrument, and so can’t easily “retune” the instrument, you can get workable scales by using the 2nd (of a major scale) as your tonic and getting a scale with intervals of TST/T/TST (flatted 3th and 6th); or 5th (of the major scale) as your tonic and getting a scale with intervals of TTS/T/TST (flatted 7th); or 6th (of the major scale) as your tonic and getting a scale with intervals of TST/T/STT (flatted 3rth, 6th, and 7th i.e. a natural minor). These are the modes most common in Irish (and I suspect other) folk music. Though the symmetry of the upper and lower fourths of the scale are lost in the modes, the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 8th relationships are preserved. In all of these scales (or “modes” of the major scale), most of the notes still have a simple relationship to the tonic. The 2nd and 7th being the least consonant and the 5th (rightly called the “dominant” because its is generally well represented in any piece of music) is the most consonant (after the 8th).

    Playing of notes where all (or mostly all) have such simples relationships to the tonic tones (I,e, simple whole number multiples of the tonic fundamental) establishes the tonality of the piece even if the tonic itself is never played until the piece “resolves” to the tonic at end.

    All this to say that the choices one has in creating scales is actually fairly limited if you are striving for some underlying unity that gives pleasure to the listener. My guess is those atonal guys didn’t care too much about “pleasure to the listener”.

    Limits create beauty.

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