The sun [is] a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed.
—John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, “You owe me”. Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”
Tell me the story about how the sun loved the moon so much that she died
every night just to let him breathe.
Later today, much of America will be enshrouded for a brief span of time in an abrupt darkness brought on by a total solar eclipse, a relatively rare astronomical event. It is helpful to remember that Thales—the reputed first western philosopher—accurately predicted for the initial time an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC, at least according to the account by the respected Greek historian Herodotus. That event, which was interpreted by many as a great omen, likely halted a battle in an ongoing fifteen-year war between the Lydians and Medians when a truce was summarily declared.
Indeed, philosophers have been long interested in meteorological and cosmological phenomena, first being referred to as physiologoi (nature philosophers or physicists). They gazed in wonder at the heavens and stars, looking for evidence of order, marveling at a fathomless beauty, searching for ways to navigate by night, and seeking signs of our place in the capacious universe.
The sun has been an object of veneration throughout human history. Entire religions have revolved around it. Solar deities include the Aztec Tonatiuh, the Hindu Surya, the Egyptian Ra, and the Germanic Sól, among multiple others. Sunday was the day of the week that ancient Romans devoted to their sun god, and it became the time that later Christians chose as their Sabbath. Many early churches in fact followed pagan practices of celebrating the light, warmth, and life fostered by the sun, building their houses of worship to face the alluring sunrises in the East.
Sunlight is the elemental medium in which we dwell, the setting and grand stage for the pageantry of all living things. Many yoga practices take note of this fact with salutations to the sun (Surya Namaskara), graceful bending, stretching, and rising postures (asanas) that aim to energize the body and pay homage and gratitude to solar rays. Within philosophy, such light is allied closely with notions of truth and enlightenment. Sight is nearly essential for insight. Plato’s simile of the Sun is the most well known invocation of our neighborhood star. In the Republic, Plato relates the Allegory of the Cave in which he assimilates the Sun to the idea and ideal of the Good as imprisoned figures make their way from the darkness of opinion (doxa) to the radiance of a true reality. Descartes similarly upholds the clarity of vision and light as ways to avoid falsehood and error while Heidegger revives the Greek notion of aletheia as truth that is brought to light through an unconcealedness and disclosure.
Our solitary star emits light from a distance that requires eight minutes to arrive to our eyes. In turn, we are able to gaze with our own tiny “solar collectors” two and a half million light years away to the Andromeda galaxy and beyond so as to look upon stars that have long since perished. It is small wonder, then, that the poet Milton proclaimed, “Thou Sun, of this great World both Eye and Soul.” Goethe even wondered if our eyes owe their existence to light itself, having been brought forth by the summoning sun with which they are intimately bound.
The Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who saw deeply into the complex nature of change itself—panta rhei or, roughly, “all things flow” is a terse phrase he bequeathed to posterity—observed that even “the sun is new each day.” Heraclitus also made elemental fire (pyr) his universal guiding principle or logos. “All things are requital for fire, and fire for all things,” he speculated. Fire, which is embodied paradigmatically and symbolically in the very sun itself and then domesticated by humans as technology—tamed and tricked into electricity, for example—lies at the pulsing center of the transformational powers of the environing world (e.g., lightning, volcanoes, burning forests) and our own species more particularly (e.g., heating, cooking, lighting, weaponry). Both a natural and social phenomenon, fire possesses equally creative and destructive potential, assisting in the governance of evolution and bonding us in a Faustian bargain and Promethean pact that has forever changed our human condition.
Despite such solar benefits and celebrations, however, the sun is now also emerging as a source of fear or a proximate cause of global challenges. Unanticipated sunburns, cataracts, and skin cancers; insufferable heat waves; threatening droughts; warming oceans; and, more generally, rapid climate change are all familiar and growing concerns. Like vampires, we increasingly don sunglasses; cloak our windows with shades, blinds or tinted glass; and cover our bodies with protective sunscreens or clothing to keep dangerous rays at bay. As with fire, the sun has become a more double-edged entity: both an actual font of light, energy, and life and a potential catalyst for disease, disorder, and death. The French philosopher George Bataille went so far as to speak of our “rotten sun” and parodied as well in taunting and aphoristic style what he termed the “solar anus” in the sky.
On Monday (meaning “Moon day”) August 21st 2017, we will be presented with the majestic splendor and odd specter of a sudden darkness and blackout, the temporary removal of an elemental and reliable “given” in the other-than-human sky. This is surely a time to take heart and to “reflect”—to invoke a word and image bound with light—on our relatively young four and a half billion year old star even if, sadly, we only appreciate some things when they are vanishing, broken, or gone forever. All living beings, of course, rely for their existence and subsistence ultimately upon solar power, from bacteria to lightning bugs and great Sequoia trees. And we are no different.
The forthcoming period of darkness might also reasonably encourage us to contemplate and consider the value of both the night and clear skies that are unencumbered by anthropogenic light interference or pollution. Just as we need the bright light and heat of the sun, we—like nearly all other earthly creatures, many of whom thrive at night—require the restorative power of darkness. Whether cast as shadows, sleep, or dense blackness, the night has often been disparaged or demonized in Western thought and culture. The night, however, is best characterized in terms of degrees, shades, tones, and textures rather than as a uniform singularity. The transition from evening to night is the time, too, for philosophical reflection when, as Hegel observed, the Owl of Minerva takes winged flight. It is an opportunity for introspection and wonder, and a period for our sharply defined sense of self to soften and dissolve and to give way to eros, dreams, imagination, and poetry.
In the past, solar eclipses have spawned widespread panic, ranging from fears that they are a threat to pregnant women to rumors of wild monsters that are capable of swallowing the sun. Upon witnessing an eclipse in 637 B.C., the Greek poet, Archilochus, stoked such tales when he wrote: “After this, men can believe anything, expect anything. Don’t any of you be surprised in future if land beasts change places with dolphins and go to live in their salty pastures, and get to like the sounding waves of the sea more than the land, while the dolphins prefer the mountains.”
A solar eclipse is an outcropping of the sublime, an event routinely engendering at once both wonder and existential worry, or at least discomfort—a peculiar sense of awe coupled with the suspicion of something conceivably awful, as when a violent storm, hurricane, tornado or tsunami strikes. The sublime is an encounter beyond that which is simply beautiful. Its sheer magnitude can generate a feeling of our own smallness and finitude in a vast universe, as well as provide us with an experience of amazement and a curious kind of pleasure. Kant distinguished two forms of the sublime: the mathematical (being overwhelmed by great size) and the dynamical (being overwhelmed by great force). Following the German philosopher, we might also say that whereas daylight is beautiful in its ability to “charm” us, night (especially when it is brought on suddenly by an eclipse) can be sublime to the extent it can “move” us. Or, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it more poetically, “Moonlight is sculpture; sunlight is painting.” The sheer immensity beyond our capacity to compare or fully comprehend it, along with the near boundlessness and unrecognizable formlessness of a solar event such as an eclipse, can trigger our sensibilities to oscillate swiftly between aesthetic extremes and cause our feelings to shift quickly between emotional poles.
Naturalist Annie Dillard has conveyed some of the strange and numinous dimensions of a total solar eclipse in an account of her experience while visiting the state of Washington in 1982. She observes:
It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky . . . I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.
The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded . . . The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages.
And toward the end of the essay, she adds:
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm . . . We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit . . . This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?
On this matter of an imminent or likely “crashing”, the question can be appropriately raised as to whether we humans are becoming like the legendary Icarus, a haughty and unrestrained species flying too close to the sun for our own safety and comfort through our unnecessary over-reliance upon fossil fuels (stored solar fire, in effect). There is a clear and preferable difference between “fuels from hell” (coal, gas, oil) aggressively mined from the bowels of the earth and cleaner, more renewable “fuels from heaven” (solar and wind power). In this regard, the atomic bomb is in some respects like a first-born human-generated sun and an instance of a more technological (as opposed to natural) sublime given its explosive ability to bathe and bury the planet in immense light and intense heat beyond our imaginations. While nuclear weapons now sit like silent Buddhas in their silos, we frequently forget about their presence and, indeed, waxing omnipresence. But in times of darkness, we wait nervously to learn if they might be deployed in a final fiery catastrophic war—with Russia, China, a rogue political faction, or most recently North Korea. Perhaps this is part of an associated or hidden human fear of the sun exploding or, alternatively, going dark—an apocalyptic and unthinkable black hole of a moment for humanity, a living nightmare.
Nevertheless, there may still be reason to hope and time to change, especially since the sun pelts the Earth with enormous quantities of untapped energy each hour of every day. Experimental and environmentally oriented artists, too, are helping us to view the sun and its effects upon Earth in new ways. Spencer Tunick has taken photographs of hundreds of nude men and women atop a melting Swiss glacier in order to call attention to and raise awareness about rapid climate change. James Turrell has explored the hypnotic qualities of the sun by building structures that reveal light’s liquidity, capacity to mark time, and interplay with shadows. He has even converted a large volcanic crater near Flagstaff, Arizona into a monumental work of art so to reveal the beauty of celestial phenomena: the moon, sun, and stars. And in London’s Tate Gallery, Olafur Eliasson has created a massive and dazzling artificial sun by placing yellow lights behind a great screen and below a ceiling filled with mirrors. His “Weather Project” illuminates the significance of the sun on the climate and our societies and helps to clarify the physical and emotional responses of visitors to the Tate, who sunbathe, picnic, and revel in this solar substitute as a kind of modern-day sun worship while often ignoring or hiding from the real rays outside.
The sun is now crawling across the white gravestones in cemeteries and potters’ fields of New England, bleaching and polishing their rough-hewn surfaces. It is yawning over the well-preened lawns of quiet suburbs, tugging shafts of green toward the sky. It is hopscotching about the silver-coated chicken coop roofs of rural America. It is making photosynthetic breakfast in thousands of forests around the equatorial belt and warming the water for tea in Tokyo, Baghdad, Cairo and Beijing. It is tickling the tendrils of fiddlehead ferns in the cloud mountains of Costa Rica and, well, working its legerdemain just about everywhere you can name, map, number or imagine. So, let’s put the solar-powered coffee pot on—yes, fossil fuels are truly slow-birthed sedimentary offspring of the sun—and toast a big “hallelujah” to that thermonuclear fire in the sky before it takes a respite and rest of sorts for a few minutes from our busy world.
Good morning. There goes and soon here comes again . . . the sun. Salut!