Getting high

Dante’s ecstatic journey to the roots of the Universe and Being, in a (much-loved) manuscript made in Tuscany in the mid 15th century, now housed in the British Library, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 130r.

There’s a lot of people getting high in ancient & medieval narratives. A lot of people experiencing altered states of consciousness, journeying to afterworlds and beyondworlds, in spirit only or in body as well.

To be in ecstasy is to find yourself standing beside yourself, outside of yourself, ek-stasis. When the spirit takes flight, it usually bolts upwards. In Cicero’s Republic, the vision of Scipio’s dream concludes with a view of the earth from space, a speck on the threshing floor of the universe. At the end of Paradiso, Dante takes it a step further, moving beyond space (and time), where the self, in ecstasy but no less alive and aware, watches the drama of Creation commence with a bang. A very big bang and a human effigy, a kind of ‘I come in peace’ icon of humanity on-the-cusp-of-being, the imprint of the observer’s own destiny on the fabric of the universe. What Einstein discovered, Dante had known all along: it’s all relative – not in an ethical or ontological sense, but from an existential and phenomenological point of view: the lived experience of the observer owns its singular perspective and is co-shaped by it.

Medieval heroes got incredibly high on theology and spiritual practice. The vision literature, so prominent on both sides of the year 1000 AD, wasn’t just a high-minded way to dress the insights of theology in the language of embodiment, but also the idea that seeing is everything, and that a mindshift always comes through a shift in the way things are seen, a sighshift, a change in the way the I-person sees all other things.

Vision was narcotic, and in many ways it always is. To see something in a radical different way is in many ancient and modern schools of thought the path to internal optimisation.

There’s no need to wait for magic mushrooms, vision comes to the one who dares to see things in a different light, and to be transformed by that vision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: