October 23, 2017

Archaic societies and cosmic order – a summary

This is an edited version of Chapter 61 of Edward Goldsmith’s book The Way: towards an ecological world view, published by Themis Books. Published in The Ecologist Vol. 30 No. 1, January–February 2000.

“What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not an isolated salvation of his soul. I am part of the sun as my eye is a part of me. That l am part of the earth, my feet know perfectly well, and my blood is part of the sea. There is no thing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself. It is only the glitter of the sun on the surfaces of the waters.”

D. H. Lawrence

Across the world, from the beginnings of prehistory, the belief that society must follow a certain path – or ‘Way’ – in order to maintain itself, and the wholeness of the world around it, has been a common theme running through many societies and cultures. This Way, which a society must follow in order to maintain the order of the cosmos, is defined as that which conforms to traditional rules, or laws -laws which the Ancient Greek referred to as the Nomos or the Dike – meaning justice, righteousness or morality. The Dike was “the way of the World, the way things happen”. [1]

The Way was also referred to by the Greeks as Themis: “that specialised way for human beings which is sanctioned by the collective conscience”. [2] Themis was also taken to be the Way of the Earth, and sometimes the Way of the cosmos itself – that which governed the behaviour of the gods. When these concepts later became personalised within Greek mythology, Themis became the goddess of law and justice, and hence of morality. It also coincided with Moira, the path of destiny or fate. In Homer, [3] the gods are seen as subordinate to Moira, and also to Dike – cosmic forces that are older than the gods themselves and that are moral. Against fate – hence against moral law itself – the gods can do nothing.

The Way, then, according to the Greeks, was to be followed not only by all human beings, but also by the natural world, by the cosmos and the gods themselves. There was thus a single law which governed the whole cosmic hierarchy. As Pythagoras writes,

Themis in the world of Zeus, and Dike in the world below, hold the same place and rank as Nomos in the cities of men; so that he who does not justly perform his appointed duty may appear as a violator of the whole order of the universe.” [4]

Much of the country’s vital force or sacredness was concentrated in the person of the king. So it was critical that he should religiously observe the Way. Thus Odysseus tells us that when a blameless king maintains the Dike,

“The black earth bears wheat and barley, and the trees are laden with fruit, and the sheep bring forth and fail not, and the sea gives store of fish and all out of his good guidance, and the people prosper under him.” [5]

The concept of the Way was probably entertained, explicitly or implicitly, by all vernacular societies. Thus, in ancient China, the Tao refers at once to the order and the Way of the cosmos. The term is applied to the daily and yearly “revolutions of the heavens” and of the two powers of light and darkness, day and night, summer and winter, heat and cold,

“It represents all that is correct, normal or right (ching or twan) in the universe; it does, indeed, never deviate from its course. It consequently includes all correct and righteous dealings of men and spirits, which alone promote universal happiness and life.” [6]

The Tao was considered “not only as vaguely informing all things, but as being the naturalness, the very structure of particular and individual things”. [7] Feng Yu-Lan sees the Tao as “the all-embracing first principle of things”. [8] All living things, including humans, are part of this all-embracing natural order. “Tao as the order of nature, governs their very action”. [9] Humans follow the Tao, by behaving ‘naturally’. This means abiding by Lao Tzu’s principle of Wu Wei, for “when all things obey the laws of the Tao, they will form a harmonious whole, and the universe will become an integrated organism”. [10]

In Ancient Egypt, the concept of Maat fulfilled a similar role. It meant “the right order in nature and society as established by the act of creation. . . what is right, what is correct, law, order, justice and trust” [11] – not only in society but in the cosmos as a whole. Re was at once lord of the cosmos, lord of the judgement of the dead and lord of Maat. Although Maat came into being with creation, nevertheless it had to be renewed and preserved. It follows that it

“is not only the right order, but also the object of human activity.Maat is both the task which man sets himself and also, as righteousness, the promise and reward which awaits him on fulfilling it”. [12]

The centralised kingdom of ancient Egypt was ran by a sacred king, whose role it was to maintain Maat, the order of the cosmos. “The sky is at peace, the Earth is in joy, for they have heard that (the king) will set right (Maat) in the place of disorder”. [13] Tutankhamun “drove out disorder from the two lands and Maat is firmly established in its place: he made lying an abomination and the land is as it was the first time”. [14]

A similar concept existed in Vedic India. It was referred to as R’ta. We read in the Vedas that “The rivers flow R’ta”. According to R’ta,

“the light of the heavenborn morning has come. . . The year is the path of R ‘ta. The Gods themselves are born of or in the R ‘ta; they show by the acts that they know, observe and love the R’ta. In man’s activity, it manifests itself as the moral law.”

R’ta also stands for the truth. Untruth, though sometimes termed Asatya, is usually expressed as An-R’ta hence as a divergence from R’ta or the Way.

The Vedic poet fully realises that to obtain nature’s bounty, man must obey R’ta: “for one who lives according to eternal law, the winds are full of sweetness, the rivers pour sweets. So may the plants be full of sweetness for us’.’ The great Vedic Hymn to Earth clearly expresses the belief in humanity’s dependence on the order of the cosmos and in humanity’s role in maintaining it by observing the ancient law.

Later, the concept of Dharma was also used by Hindus in very much the same way.

“That regularity, that normality of the universe, which produces good crops, fat cattle, peace and contentment is expressed by the word Dharma which means ‘support’, ‘upholding’.” [15]

It describes the way in which animals, men or things are expected to behave; it is natural law. The sun is sometimes identified with Dharma because it regulates the seasons. Among the gods, Varuna is the Lord of Right, who lays down ordinances for the universe. The king, on his accession, is seen to have become to his people what Varuna is to the gods. For that reason he too is known as the “Lord of Right”.

In Balinese Hinduism, Dharma is seen as

“the organising force that maintains order, the organisation that governs the universe as a whole, the relationships between various parts of the universe and actions within the various parts of the universe.” [16]

The concept of Dharma was also taken up by Buddhists, who brought it to China. There, the Dharma of Mahayana Buddhism was identified with the Tao. The Buddhist Dharma is the universal law that embraces the world in its entirety.

“It exists for the benefit of all beings, for does not its chief manifestation, the light of the world, shine its blessing on all men and things?” [17]

When a Buddhist Lama sets his prayer-wheel turning, he is performing a ritual that has deep meaning both in terms of Dharma and R’ta. He finds himself in sympathetic touch with the Wheel of the Universe; he performs the act, “Justice-Wheel-Setting in motion. He dare not turn the wheel contrariwise; lest that were to upset the whole order of nature”. [18]

In the Persian Avestas, the Way is referred to as Asha, the celestial representative of justice on Earth.

“Justice is the rule of the world’s life, as Asha is the principle of all well-ordered existence and the establishment or accomplishment of justice is the end of the evolution of the universe”. [19]

In ancient Judaism, the terms used are Mishpat meaning justice or right judgement and sedeq – most commonly translated as righteousness. These virtues are attributed to God, but “the overarching vision is of human society in harmony with heaven”. This harmony is Shalom, or peace. But in reality, it is a wider term, standing for the harmony between Heaven and Earth, the cosmic order or “the right functioning of all nature as God created it”. [20]

Wrong Turnings

According to this world-view, for a society to divert from the Way is to threaten the order of the cosmos itself, and thereby give rise to the worst possible discontinuities. The society is then best seen as following the Anti-Way; An-R’ta in Vedic India, adharma in Buddhism, ou Themis amongst Ancient Greeks or Isft (disorder) amongst the Ancient Egyptians.

For the Greeks, ou Themis was seen on such occasions as taking on the form of Nemesis, related to Nomos and Nemos, the sacred grove that was almost certainly the original place of worship of the Ancient Greeks, as it was of the Celts. Nemesis, the woodland goddess, identified with Artemis or Diana, inhabited such a grove. She was also a goddess of fertility, closely allied with Fortuna,

“the Lady who brings forth the fruits of the Earth. She who dispenses good things can withhold them or dispense blights instead of blessings, the awful power which haunts the Nemos may blast the profane invader of her sanctuary.” [21]

Classical mythology abounds with stories of the Earth taking her revenge on those who destroy the natural world. So, Erysichthon, whose name means “Tearer of Earth”, cut down a tree inhabited by a dryad in spite of the tree spirit’s protests. The spirit complained to Mother Earth, who afflicted Erysichthon with insatiable hunger. Orion boasted that he would kill all the animals in the world. This too was reported to Mother Earth, who sent a monstrous scorpion to sting him to death. Their star-signs oppose each other in the sky even today – a message, perhaps, to those who live now of the consequences of adopting a world-view that is in direct opposition to the interests of the Earth.

Back to top


1. Jane Harrison, Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. Cambridge University Press, 1927, p.517.
2. lbid, p.517.
3. F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy. Harper Brothers, New York, 1957, Herodotus. p.12.
4. Ibid, p.54.
5. Op.cit. 1, p.132.
6. Jan Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religion of the Chinese. Macmillan, New York, 1910, p.174.
7. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1956.
8. Yu-Lan Feng, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Macmillan. New York, 1984.
9. Ibid.
10. Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 1963.
11. Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, Methuen, London, 1973, p.113.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid, p.114.
14. Ibid.
15. A. M. Hocart, Kings and Councillors, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970, p112.
16. Fred Eiseman, Bali: Sekala and Niskala, Vol. 1. Pickell-Periplus, Berkeley, 1989, p12.
17. Op.cit. 6, p.166.
18. Op.cit. 1, p.526.
19. Pierre Daniel, Chantepie de la Saussaye. Manuel d’Histoire des Religions, Paris, 1904.
20. Robert Murray, The Biblical Vocabulary of Justice, unpublished notes.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top