Meaning order, meaning organization,
suggesting organism: this great big body
topped with stars, lined with trees,
and each of us within it, not one of us outside.
Whatsoever you do, you never do it alone.
Crack the spine of the leather-bound book; inhale the balsamic tang of ink.
You share that scent with all who’ve opened this same volume.
You turn the page; you move the universe a little more.
— Matthew Kosinski
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the pensive Library, we meditate on holism, a broad philosophy that views the cosmos as a system of interconnected and interacting parts.
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
So said astronomer Carl Sagan in an episode of his landmark television series, Cosmos. Embedded in Sagan’s memorable quip is a certain holistic understanding of the universe — a notion that the existence of any one thing is intimately tied to the existence of everything else. There are no apple pies without apples; there are no apples without the proper climate for growing apple trees; there is no proper climate for growing apple trees without a planet on which the apple trees can grow — and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.
The night sky at Yosemite; Source: Unsplash
But in our everyday lives, how often do we consider the universe in such interwoven terms? Take the candle sitting in front of you right now: Have you ever really thought about the whole grand chain of events that had to line up for that candle to be here right now? It, too, all started with the Big Bang.
Sometimes the Stars Look Back at Us
Of course, Sagan wasn’t the first to propose such a holistic view of cosmology. The sixth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Pythagoras is often credited as the first person to use the word “cosmos” to refer to the entirety of the universe as a whole.1 It is a telling word choice: “Cosmos” comes from the Greek word “κόσμος,” meaning “orderly arrangement.”2
Pythagoras and his followers held mathematics in an almost holy regard, and they saw numbers as a basic form of matter. According to their view, all things had numbers, and the objects of the universe — including human societies — were arranged in harmonious mathematical relationships with one another. For example, the Pythagoreans believed the distance of other planets from the earth corresponded to musical intervals, and the motions of these bodies through space produced a kind of “heavenly music.” Pythagoreans believed in the transmigration of souls after death and a kinship between all living beings. To them, the universe was a single, unified organism. 3
Pythagoras; Source: Wikimedia
While Pythagoras was the first to use the particular word “cosmos,” he was neither the first nor the only to view the universe as a system of deeply interrelated parts. In Bronze Age (3100–300 B.C.) China, kings commonly appointed court astrologers who would consult the movement of the heavenly bodies for guidance. Like the Pythagoreans, they believed the order of the universe reflected the social order. By studying the stars, these astronomers believed they could divine the will of the “Supernal Lord,” allowing their kings to carry out “Heaven’s Mandate” on earth. Dynasties rose and fell — and military campaigns were launched and ended — according to the movement of the stars.4
“While there are significant differences between the many indigenous religions, many of them share a similarly holistic approach to cosmology.”
In a paper exploring Indigenous ecologies and cosmologies, Yale University scholar John Grim notes that, while there are significant differences between the many indigenous religions, many of them share a similarly holistic approach to cosmology. Grim quotes Lakota writer Luther Standing Bear, who explains the Lakota belief “that man did not occupy a special place in the eyes of Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather of us all. I was only a part of everything that was called the world. … Everything was possessed of personality, only differing from us in form. Knowledge was inherent in all things. The world was a library.”5
A Revolution Away
While cosmological holism never disappeared altogether, modern society tends to conceptualize the world in more siloed terms these days. We certainly no longer model our societies after the movement of the stars — although a resurgent interest in astrology suggests we may be hungering for a little more holism.
An astrological clock; Source: Wikimedia
Not to say we should all become Pythagoreans, but perhaps something is lost when we trade our big, unifying narratives for narrower bands of specialized knowledge.
The movement away from holistic philosophies to more formalized, distinct fields of inquiry can be traced, in part, to the Scientific Revolution. Funnily enough, it all began in the realm of cosmology.
In 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus flew in the face of 2,000 years of orthodoxy by proposing the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of our galaxy. Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe aroused both fierce criticism and ardent defense. Not only was Copernicus challenging the (literal) centrality of humankind in the cosmos — he as also offering a new view of science.6
“As scientists began to pursue the “how” of it all rather than the “why,” science, philosophy, and theology — long considered unified domains — became increasingly distinct.”
For millennia, scholars were more concerned with the “why” of the world than the “how.” They treated knowledge instrumentally — that is, they assessed new theories and concepts according to how well they solved practical problems. Copernicus, on the other hand, argued that science should only seek to describe the natural world as it exists. If accurate description opened up new problems instead of solving existing ones, so be it. As scientists began to pursue the “how” of it all rather than the “why,” science, philosophy, and theology — long considered unified domains — became increasingly distinct.7
The Ptolemaic model of the universe pictured was "geocentric" — putting the earth at the center, while the Copernican was helocentric, putting the sun at the center; Fine Art America
Science as we now know it arose out of the efforts of various scholars striving to prove Copernicus right. As defenders of heliocentrism worked out the mechanics of Copernicus’s cosmos, modern physics took shape. Occult alchemy gave way to chemistry as chemists borrowed the tools and language of physics to probe and explain the chemical properties of matter.8
The specialization of the scientific fields was also, to some extent, liberating. Scholars no longer had to explain the totality of the world: They just had to study their small corners of it. This allowed scientists, philosophers, artists, and theologians to delve deeper and deeper into the most seemingly miniscule details of the universe. While our understanding of everything in the cosmos became more robust than ever before, the total corpus of all knowledge became too massive for any one person to master it all.9
Returning to the Cosmos
In the wake of the Scientific Revolution, the sciences continued to sharpen their distinctions. However, not every scholar felt that specialization had to mean separation. Take, for example, the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt.
Self-portrait of Alexander von Humboldt; Source: Wikimedia
Born in Berlin in 1769, Humboldt brought the ancient Greek concept of an orderly cosmos back into fashion among academics with the publication of his five-volume work, aptly titled Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe.
In the introduction to the first volume of Cosmos, Humboldt lays out his view of the universe — and of science’s role in comprehending the world: "The most important aim of all physical science is this: to recognize unity in diversity, to comprehend all the single aspects as revealed by the discoveries of the last epochs, to judge single phenomena separately without surrendering their bulk, and to grasp Nature's essence under the cover of outer appearances."10
Humboldt’s holism is evident in the way he practiced science in the decades of his life leading up to the writing of Cosmos. Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, calls him “a connector, [someone] who compares and connects things.”11 During a particularly notable five-year journey through South America, Humboldt studied and made significant contributions to such wide-ranging fields as astronomy, botany, oceanography, and anthropology.12 In observing how the cultivation of cash crops in the European colonies of South America wreaked havoc on the environment, he also became the first person to identify the existence of anthropogenic climate change.13
A sketch of basalt prisms in Mexico by Alexander von Humboldt; Source: Wikimedia
Like the holistic philosophers of old, Humboldt applied his knowledge of the natural world to his understanding of the social order. For example, Humboldt laid the groundwork for the field of biogeography, which studies the distribution of various life forms across the regions of the planet. Humboldt noticed remarkable similarities between the species that inhabited similar environments, regardless of how far flung they were.14
In recognizing the kinship between even seemingly disparate living things, Humboldt also saw the errors of social systems that sought to divide and discriminate. He was a fierce advocate against slavery, and he deeply influenced Simón Bolívar, a key figure of the South American independence movement.15 After meeting Humboldt in Paris, Bolívar would write, “The real discoverer of South America was Humboldt, since his work was more useful for our people than that of all the conquerors.”16
“This failure to view the world as a vast yet interconnected ecosystem is at the heart of so many of the issues we face today.”
Seeing the Grand System
Humboldt’s work paved the way for a more interdisciplinary approach to the sciences. He combined the best of both worlds, marrying the robust knowledge of the specialized sciences with the ethical and spiritual guidance of a more holistic worldview. In Humboldt’s cosmos, we humans are not distinct from the things we study or the objects we make. We are part of the whole grand system.
The Universal Whole; Source: Unsplash
Unfortunately, while Humboldt’s work did inspire an intellectual revolution in the late 18th century, he fell into relative obscurity in the 20th century. In many ways, modern societies have since returned to increasingly myopic and specialized worldviews.
This failure to view the world as a vast yet interconnected ecosystem is at the heart of so many of the issues we face today. We don’t make apple pies or candles in isolation, and by remembering this fact, we can remember to treat the planet — and the people on it — with respect. As we move about in this world, perhaps we should keep in mind the words of another of Humboldt’s disciples — the celebrated American poet Walt Whitman: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”17