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Ancestral Being, Part One

4,538 words

Part 1 of 4 (Part 2 here [2]; Part 3 here [3]; Part 4 here [4])

1. Introduction

This essay presents an “ontology of the individual.” The theory is new, though it has very old roots. “Ontology” is the branch of philosophy that studies being-as-such, or “being as being,” as Aristotle expressed it.[1] [5] My argument is that the being of an individual person is bound up with that individual’s relation to his family or clan. Although we can speak about relations to family members both living and dead, my focus is upon the individual’s indebtedness to the past. In other words, my argument deals with how the being of an individual is shaped by what is inherited. Additionally, one could argue that the being of an individual is constituted through the individual’s relation to his race or ethny, which is essentially a large “extended family” of genetically similar people. However, that will have to be a subject for a future essay. The argument here will concern itself exclusively with familial or clannic relations, in just the conventional sense in which we already understand them. (“Clannic” is the term I shall use here, rather than “clannish,” which has negative connotations.)

To speak of an individual’s being is to speak of what he is. Normally, we think of a man’s being as more or less confined within the space occupied by the individual person we see with our eyes. This is thinking of being as “inside your skin,” as Alan Watts would put it. The ontology of the individual offered here requires us to rethink this simplistic idea – and to realize that it is not a “commonsense” perspective, as one might suppose, but really a quintessentially modern way of looking at things. If the being of the individual is bound up with the past, then what “I am” extends beyond the confines of my perceptible body, both in space and in time. We will see that coming to terms with this idea requires us to completely rethink not just our way of considering individual being, but even our conception of what is real.

I will present three different approaches to these issues. The first is purely philosophical, grounded in the neo-Hegelian metaphysics I have discussed in other essays.[2] [6] The purpose of this first approach is to prepare the ground: to make the reader ready for the reception of some ideas that will seem exceedingly strange to modern sensibilities. The intention of this first approach is not unlike that of Gurdjieff in Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: “To destroy, mercilessly and without any compromise whatever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world.”[3] [7] Readers who find these sections difficult or “too philosophical” are advised to persevere, for there is light at the end.

The second approach is from the standpoint of the Germanic tradition. Here I will draw upon some of the most imaginative and reliable scholarship dealing with the Germanic treatment of the past, and of the past as living within the individual through what Stephen E. Flowers has called the “hamingjafylgja complex.” The third approach is scientific, though some will likely call it “pseudo-scientific,” for I shall be drawing upon the theories of renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake. His theory of “morphogenetic fields” provides us with a plausible (though highly controversial) scientific interpretation of the traditional Germanic beliefs concerning the heritability of the hamingja and fylgja.

Neither the scientific nor the philosophical approach is offered as a “validation” of Germanic tradition, which is presented here as a source of truth in its own right. In fact, each of the three approaches is a source of truth, and they illuminate each other. That these approaches “agree,” up to a point, is certainly something that I find significant. The essay concludes with some reflections on how the recognition of our clannic or ancestral being shaped our ancestors’ lives and self-conception, and how it ought to shape ours.

2. Metaphysics

Everything is related to everything else. This is the point from which we will begin. It is one of the basic claims of neo-Hegelian philosophy, and it is easily understood.

Pick any object near you and begin to consider its relatedness to other things. Suppose it is a coffee cup. First of all, it is your cup – that is one of its relations. And it is clearly related to the saucer it sits on. And to the liquid it contains, which it was crafted to contain. Your coffee comes from Kenya, so the cup is related to Kenya, and to Africa, and to the Africans that harvested the coffee. Your cup is porcelain, so it is related – distantly – to China. And to Marco Polo, who was the first European to mention porcelain in print. You bought the cup in San Francisco, so it is related to that place as well. There is a chip on the base, caused when your dog’s tail knocked the cup to the floor. So, the cup is related to the dog, and to Germany, since the dog is a German shepherd. And the cup is related to wolves, since what caused the chip was the result of a long evolutionary process that began with wolves.

We could consider negative relations as well. For example, the cup is porcelain and not metal, thus it is not capable of some of the properties of metal cups (e.g., attracting magnets). The cup is not conscious, thus it is not aware of any of these relations – and this gives us some of the reasons it is the way it is; why, for example, you can drink from it but cannot have a conversation with it. The cup is yours, and not your neighbor’s – and so on.

Needless to say, given enough knowledge, insight, and imagination, we could go on this way indefinitely, listing ways in which the cup is related – negatively and positively – to other things. This would be a task we could never actually complete, since in one way or another the cup is related to everything else that exists – every other cup, every other person, every blade of grass, every grain of sand. And each of those things is, in turn, related to the cup and to all other things that exist. Everything, in fact, is related to everything else. The world is not like a bag of ball bearings: separate and unconnected bits. The world is more like an organism, in which everything is connected to everything else and each thing is what it is in terms of its place in the whole. We live within a vast network of relations, in which all things are connected in countless ways.

This position has several interesting implications. Let us first consider the question of the identity of individual things. Since everything is related to everything else, and since a thing’s relations are all characteristics of it, aspects of what it is, a complete account of the being of one thing would have to include an account of its relations to all other things. In other words, to fully know one thing, we would have to know everything (a point that was realized by Plato).

This conclusion seems troublesome enough, but the understanding of relations I have set out actually calls into question the very thinghood of the thing. We are accustomed to thinking of the world as a collection of independent and separate things, and the things as just what we perceive with our five senses. But the above metaphysics suggests that the “things” of our experience are not independent at all, since their being is enmeshed in countless relations and dependencies. Does this mean that they are not, in some sense, “things”? But what exactly is a thing? In a certain sense, this is the oldest question in philosophy.

Philosophy began in the West with an attempt to identify what truly is – or, as we might put it, what is a real thing. Interestingly, right from the beginning there were no philosophers at all who claimed that things are just those perceptible units that we commonly think of as “things.” In fact, that was universally acknowledged as the standpoint that had to be transcended by the love of wisdom. Various reasons were given for why the “things” of our experience lacked thinghood: they were reducible to some plastic substance or substances (e.g., the four elements) out of which they were made, and which outlasted them; they were “copies” of ideal objects on which they depended for their being, and which outlasted them; they were composed out of tiny, invisible things (e.g. atoms) which were the real things because, again, they outlasted the “things” made out of them; they were changing and incomplete, and so therefore had only a kind of illusory being, since whatever is a genuine thing would be stable and complete; and so on.

These treatments of the idea of “thinghood” span from Thales to Plato, and were in a certain fashion “synthesized” in the Metaphysics of Aristotle, who for the first time made explicit that the problem at issue is precisely the problem of “thinghood” (in Greek, ousia, usually translated as “substance”). Whatever the differences between these positions, we can see that they share certain assumptions about thinghood: that whatever is a true thing is irreducible to something else, unchanging, complete, eternal, and also absolutely self-sufficient and independent (dependent on nothing else for its being). The problem of thinghood is treated throughout the history of philosophy – indeed, one can say that it is not just the starting point of philosophy, but its central theme. The problem of thinghood was solved by Hegel (with a little help from Spinoza).

To make a very long story short, Hegel shows that, on one level, it would seem that there are no (true) things. This may be the conclusion to which the reader himself has already arrived. After all, what could possibly be irreducible, unchanging, complete, eternal, and absolutely self-sufficient? As we have already seen, and as Hegel famously emphasizes, everything is related to everything else; everything is dependent on myriad other things; each thing is merely a point in a vast web of relations. But, in truth, this means that really the universe is one, or that it is a whole. “Everything is related to everything else” means that everything is connected to everything else: out of many, one. And this is arguably the central teaching of Hegel’s philosophy.

The only thing that fits all the characteristics of “thinghood” already discussed is the universe itself, considered as a one or a whole. It is irreducible to anything else, and absolutely without any dependency on anything, for there is nothing else. It is complete (it lacks nothing), for it contains everything. Indeed, it is infinite, since nothing else exists to limit it (to make it finite). And the whole, finally, is unchanging and eternal: change occurs within it, and it itself is just the organic totality of all process and all change and all relation. Thus, in a sense, the whole itself, in its ceaseless cycles, does not change. As Heraclitus says of the world, “Changing, it rests” (it was not without good reason that he was known as “the Riddler”).

The whole for Hegel is “the Absolute” (known under the form of religious representation, he says, as “God” – a detail that need not distract us). Further, “the true is the whole,” Hegel tells us in his Phenomenology of Spirit. It is knowledge of the whole that is the “wisdom” sought by philosophy (the “love of wisdom”) – a point that was understood long before Hegel; it is to be found already in Plato. Hegel refers to “knowledge of the whole” as “Absolute Knowledge,” meaning knowledge of the Absolute. They mean the same thing. However the idea is expressed, this knowledge sought by the philosopher is extremely elusive and mysterious.

How exactly are we to know the whole? Can we “define” it? Classically, definition consists in first locating something within the larger class or genus to which it belongs, then identifying the characteristics that distinguish it from other members of the same genus. But the whole/the universe/the one/the Absolute (however we describe it) does not belong to a larger or wider genus: there is only one whole, and it encompasses all genera, all classes, all individuals. Thus it cannot, strictly speaking, be defined. The whole cannot even be compared to anything else, for, again, there is nothing else like it. All comparisons are made between things within the whole. It is even questionable whether our languages are at all up to the task of speaking about the whole. After all, they were developed to deal with objects and situations within the whole, not the whole itself.

Our ancestors also saw the universe as one, and saw everything as related to everything else – though supporting this point would be beyond the scope of the present essay. To an extent, Hegel’s philosophy can be understood as a modern re-appropriation of very ancient beliefs. Among other things, it must be recognized that this is the metaphysics that underlies the belief in “correspondences” and “sympathies” in nature, which was central to the pagan, polytheist worldview (and survived well into the Christian era). “Wisdom” consists somehow in knowing all these relations – how all things come together as one. To have this total knowledge would be to know everything that is, was, and will be.[4] [8]

In my essay “What is Odinism? [9]” I wrote that, “It is extraordinary that the chief god of the Germanic peoples is characterized principally by his ceaseless striving for wisdom. Odin, in fact, is a philosopher in the literal sense – a lover of wisdom.”[5] [10] And wisdom, again, is classically understood to be “knowledge of the whole.” Odin and the Odinist seek this absolute knowledge. Yet we are still faced with the mystery of how – or whether – this knowledge is even possible. It is tempting to think that it may only be possible to a god – but such defeatism is unacceptable to an Odinist (who indeed strives to be a god; to be Odin). Might the runes, won by Odin through his self-sacrifice on the World Tree, be a symbolic language giving us an esoteric account of the whole? I have suggested something like this elsewhere,[6] [11] and it is an idea to which I intend to return in future essays.

As I have argued, knowledge of the whole would give us knowledge of the one, true thing or individual that exists. But it would also allow us to account for the being of everything within the whole: all that “commonsense” believes to be a “thing” and an “individual.” The first and most fundamental way in which knowledge of the whole allows us to speak of “things” involves inverting our familiar ways of speaking – something that is actually characteristic of philosophy in general. For commonsense, the whole is “abstract,” while things within the whole (men, trees, rocks, paramecia, etc.) are “concrete” individuals. But in terms of the metaphysics I have outlined here, the whole is, in fact, the only genuine concrete, while that which commonsense calls “concretes” are abstracted from the whole. In other words, the commonsense “individual” only has its being and its intelligibility as embedded within the network of relations that is the whole. In taking these “things” as concrete and individual, commonsense actually abstracts them from the larger context in which they have being and meaning. In short, the truth is the exact reverse of commonsense: the “things” of our experience are the abstractions, while the whole that is the object of philosophical knowledge is the only concrete.

What I have said about the “things” of our experience applies, of course, to us as well: to what we think of as human “individuals.” Ultimately, to understand a single human being, he must be understood in terms of the entire network of relations that is the whole. However, for the purposes of this essay, I am going to focus specifically on the relation of the human individual to a smaller whole within the whole: the ancestral, clannic whole of which he is a part.

3. Time and Being

The being of the human individual is, in large measure, constituted through the past: through who and what has gone before him. I am the result of countless prior events, and so too is my situation. The world I take as my own is not of my making, and my options for realizing myself were not created by me. I owe everything to what has gone before. This is obviously true in many senses. For example, each individual can be seen as a product of history – or we can see history as culminating in each individual. It comes to the same thing. For the purposes of this essay, however, we are concerned narrowly with the past that lives inside each of us, in the form of what I will call our “ensouling inheritance.”

I want to avoid limiting myself through the use of the term “genetic inheritance,” though what I am speaking about certainly includes this. And “genetic inheritance,” in fact, is a good place to begin. If the reader has any knowledge of the degree to which our bodies and minds are “determined” by genes, he can immediately see the truth of the claim that we are constituted by a past that “lives inside us.” (Some of the best evidence for this comes from studies of identical twins, which I will touch on briefly in a later section of this essay.) Our physical and psychic being bears within it literal traces of the physical and psychic being of those of our clan who have gone before.

Again, however, the topic under discussion cannot be reduced to genetics. One reason is that we must be open to the very different manner in which our ancestors believed we bear an inheritance within us. They conceived this primarily through the idea of the fylgja, which I will discuss much later. For the moment I will simply say that it would be a gross distortion to understand the fylgja merely as the way our ancestors conceived things before they had access to the science of genetics. To speak of “ensouling inheritance” comprises all the factors which shape or form us – and this is not limited, I will argue, to genetics. In this conception of “ensouling inheritance,” I am drawing, in part, on the Aristotelian conception of the “soul” (psyche) as that which in-forms or lends form to the body. (And in speaking of multiple “souls” which inform us, he is not far off from the understanding of “soul” held by our Northern ancestors.)

In truth, the being of the individual (x) is at the intersection of past and future:

Past <——————X——————> Future

As I have already said, I am a result of what has gone before, in many senses. In me live traces of beings who pre-existed me. But stretching out before me is the future, and my being is bound up with it as well. To a great extent, I live my life in anticipation of the future. I make decisions based on what I think the future may bring, should bring, and should not bring. Societies also make decisions based on anticipation of the future.

In addition, we must consider the role of offspring in conceptualizing the future. We are a continuation of the past in that we are a continuation of the family or clan, and we see our children as a continuation of us. We give part of our being to our children; part of us lives inside them. If I have a child, what I am comes to include “being a father.” This does not merely amount to taking on a new role: it is a fundamental alteration in my being. Part of my being is now externalized in another: I, myself, am in this child. My own being is mingled with that other, who is now part of what I am. This is why parents are so invested in their children – and why the loss of a child is such a shattering event. The child is part of the being of the parent – and a promise of that being extending into the future.

We have seen that in considering the being of the individual – what he is – we find that it is bound up with the past and future in multiple ways. But if we are considering the ways in which the being of the individual is bound up with the clan, then there is yet another dimension that must be considered, and should already be obvious. In terms of what I am, there is also my relation to my “extended family.” In the broadest sense, this includes my relations to others within my ethny. But in narrower terms, there is my relation to other living members of my clan, aside from parents and children: brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so on. Parents and grandparents, while they live, are nevertheless aspects of the part of our being that has to do with pastness. Even while they live, they come before us. Similarly, though the child lives alongside us in the present, the relation to the child is, in a sense, a relation to futurity.

In sum, we can speak of our clannic or ancestral being in terms of two planes, one of which stretches future-past, the other of which is a “horizontal” plane that involves our relations to others in our clan/family.

Those relations along the plane of “presentness” are, again, relations to individuals living alongside us, with whom we share our “ensouling inheritance.” Thus, we can think of them as sharing “traces” of our being. This fact is encountered all the time in ordinary experience when we notice physical and behavioral commonalities with relatives. In these instances, we are noticing that, in certain respects, we are them, or that we are the same.

Now, earlier I discussed a metaphysical view that holds, contrary to “commonsense,” that the whole is not “abstract,” nor is the individual “concrete.” Rather, the whole is the only concrete, and the individual is an abstraction from it. If we apply the same metaphysics to clannic relations, we are drawn to a surprising conclusion: the “beings” with which we have to deal are clans and ethnies, not individuals. In other words, the true concretes appear to be clans and ethnies, and individuals are “abstracted” from these. (There is another side to this, however, which I will consider in a moment.) This is because when we come to consider the being of the individual in relation to his clan or ethny, we realize that he is what he is only in and through that relation. Thus, the diagram given earlier . . .


. . . should be interpreted as saying what it literally seems to be saying: that the individual (x) is a point on a line continuing forwards and backwards. It is the line that is primary, not the point on the line.

As I noted earlier, our normal perspective is to think of the being of the individual as somehow contained within the individual’s physical space. We are accustomed to think in terms of what we regard as discrete units, and generally to take the world as consisting of such units. But the perspective I have put forth asks us to question this. We have seen that when I delve into the question of my being, I leave behind what I normally take to be the physical limits of myself. I wind up understanding my being in terms of my relations to others who are distinct from me yet (and here is the whole point) not distinct from me. On one way of looking at things, the clan appears to have primacy over the individual. The individual, again, is a point on the line, on the continuum. The individual is a perpetuation of the clan, and his being is derived from his membership in the clan. On the other hand, the clan only has its existence through the individuals that make it up.

What is fascinating about the clan is that it constitutes a kind of universal; a “concrete universal,” as Hegel might put it. It is a self-specifying nature or kind. We speak of “the Joneses,” but we only know the clan/family through the characteristics manifest by the members. Those members form a unity: first, because they all belong to the same clan; second, because they will exhibit certain characteristic traits (though these may sometimes skip a generation); third, because they are responding to or developing from a set of conditions or circumstances that are, at least to a degree, unique to their clan. Yet there is never a point, except in the most remarkable cases, where we can abstract away a “nature” and say, “This is what Jonesism consists in”; this is the “essence,” or key characteristic of this family. “Jonesism,” as a reality, is something unfolding over time, through the coming into being of new variations on Jonesism; i.e., new Joneses. It thus really depends upon one’s focus whether one says that it is the clan or the individual that is primary. In a way, it is both, though I would say that the clan has the greater claim. And this can at least partly be justified on the basis of how individuals who live in awareness of their clan membership have responded to it – especially our Northern European ancestors.



[1] [13] For more information on ontology, see my essay “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Modernists [14]” in What is a Rune? and Other Essays [15], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2015). In this and other essays, I have capitalized the B in being to indicate when I am referring to being-as-such. I have not followed that practice in the present essay since most of the time I am speaking not of being-as-such, but of the being unique to the human individual.

[2] [16] See principally “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origins of the Human Spirit [17]” in What is a Rune? [15]; and “What is Odinism? [9]” in TYR: Myth, Culture Tradition, Vol. 4 [18] (Atlanta: Ultra, 2014); and “On Being and Waking” in TYR, Vol. 5, forthcoming.

[3] [19] G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (London: Penguin, 1999), unpaginated front matter.

[4] [20] There is a great deal more to Hegelian philosophy than I am discussing here. Hegel actually believed that it was possible to “define” the whole, though in a very unusual sense. In his Logic he begins with literal nothingness and “deduces” (using what is called “dialectic”) the structure of the whole itself in terms of a system of concepts, each of which is a “provisional definition” of the whole, or Absolute. I do not follow Hegel in all details. I merely take from him what I find useful, though I take a good deal. This is why I describe some of the ideas I have put forward as “neo-Hegelian,” rather than “Hegelian.”

[5] [21] TYR, Vol. 4.

[6] [22] See my essay “What is a Rune? [23]” in the volume of the same name. See also “Philosophical Notes on the Runes” in Cleary, Summoning the Gods [24], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2011).