The Manifold and the One—Lessons from the thought of Agnes Arber (1879-1960)

Agnes Arber
This subject of this morning's address came to the forefront of my mind because last week I had to cycle over to Oakington to see an unwell member of the congregation. My route passed by the churchyard in Girton and, as I have done for the past ten years, whenever I am passing by I try to make time to stop and visit Agnes Arber's grave for she has become a bit of a hero of mine. If you click on this link you can see a photo of Arber's grave and also a few other photos of the surrounding landscape I took during the ride.  


From the dust jacket of The Manifold & the One (John Murray, London, 1957, pp. xi-xiii) by Agnes Arber (1879-1960)

Mrs. Arber is a botanist by profession but, for her, botany has constantly been related to broader issues, to a philosophy of life. This book synthesizes the experience of a life time, enriched by a close knowledge of nature and a reading that has gleaned in far flung fields of philosophy and religion, from early Indian and Chinese writings to those of Western Civilization. The result is a living work far removed from the pedantry and verbiage of so much modern ‘philosophical’ writing. A clear, unpretentious prose weaves countless quotations from the world's greatest thinkers into a fabric that delights and convinces. The author’s aim has not been to preach but to stimulate, and the scrupulous care she has taken over sources, together with the full, annotated bibliography, make this book only a beginning, an opening towards limitless horizons.

Biographical Note

Agnes Arber was born in 1879, daughter of H. R. Robertson, an artist. She was married in 1909 to E. A. Newell Arber, of Trinity College, Cambridge who worked at fossil plants, and was on the staff of the Sedgwick Museum. He was the son of Edward Arber, editor of many English Classics. He died in 1918 leaving one daughter, now a geologist.
    From childhood Agnes Arber had a passion for plants, and after a scientific education at University College, London, and Newnham College, Cambridge, she was able to specialize in the botanical research which she wanted to do, and which she pursued for most of her life. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1946, the third woman to be elected to the fellowship. Two of her kith and kin were Fellows of the Society in the nineteenth century, John Davidson, African explorer (1797-1836) and George Fownes, chemist (1815-1849). She was awarded the Linnean Medal by the Linnean Society in 1948, the first time it had been given to a woman. As well as in laboratory botany she had always been interested in early botanical books, and her concern with herbals and their illustration led her to the history of botany in general, and hence to the broader subject of the history of biology altogether. This compelled her attention to the principles on which science is based, and in seeking for clues she found her way gradually into philosophy. Thence her reading of metaphysics carried her into the field of contemplative and mystical thought, and this final phase finds its expression in the present book.

(For those interested there is a paper about Arber available at this link by Rudolf Schmid from the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley. It's called Agnes Arber, nee Robertson (1879-1960): Fragments of her Life, Including her Place in Biology and in Women's Studies.)

From Agnes Arber’s Introduction to her The Manifold & the One (John Murray, London, 1957, pp. xi-xiii)

I still remember vividly the glow of emotion aroused in me as a child by the idea—which I discovered inside myself and treasured as my very own—that all such qualities as justice, love, and truth, are in reality one. At that remote period, I had no conception that I was digging my sand-castles on the edge of a tumultuous sea of great and ancient problems, and that a lifetime later I should be echoing Coleridge's heart-felt cry : 

‘I would make a pilgrimage to the deserts of Arabia to find the man who could make me understand how the one can be many.’

Year after year the mystery of Unity and the Manifold has held its place in the background of my mind, gradually becoming so insistent that I was impelled irresistibly to try to approach it on various lines. I soon found that in trying to think about the nature and the relations of the One and the Many the simple linear type of thought and argument, which is used in dealing with scientific problems, does not suffice. We can no longer depend exclusively upon straightforward sequences from premisses to conclusions by means of orthodox logical thinking. We shall find ourselves obliged to feel our way towards a maturer kind of thought by first carrying the discursive process to its utmost limit, and then outdistancing it and entering a region which lies beyond logic. This means that we can scarcely look for help in our quest to any modern discipline which, though retaining for itself the ancient and comprehensive title of Philosophy, excludes Metaphysics and seems reluctant to admit the existence of any Reality which defies logical formulation. As such a discipline tends to limit its own functions primarily to the critical analysis of linguistic usage, it can have no great concern with types of thought which are communicable only in forms not suited to rigidly scientific treatment and exact verbal definition. For our special purpose linguistic analysis has thus little relevance.
    [. . . ]
    In attempting any approach towards a goal that is located beyond formal logic, we must be content to take our own way, even if blunderingly, by means of routes which are complex and reticulate rather than simple and linear. So irregular a procedure is bound to result in a degree of indirectness which would be out of place if our scheme were scientific in the narrower sense; but the topics which we have in view cannot be understood unless they are viewed from several standpoints, diverging perhaps only slightly from one another but sufficiently to reveal varying aspects. After being seen in isolation these may be brought together and comprehended more fully in an explanatory synthesis. This type of thought cannot be tied down to a clear-cut prearranged programme ; we have to leave it free to grow untrammelled, under our hands. Such an ostensibly methodless method may sometimes result in what Dryden called ‘a confus’d Mass of Thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark’. On the other hand there is the possibility that in the end indications of a pattern may emerge spontaneously and may prove more valid for our purpose than the results of any preconceived scheme could have been.
    I am painfully aware how much in those high matters considered in the following pages my reach exceeds my grasp ; but my hope is that the small-scale reflections which I now offer may incline some readers to turn—or turn again—to the writings of the great contemplative thinkers of the past, wherein they cannot but find a wealth of material for their own individual syntheses.

A poem by Agnes Arber (1956) found on p.112

Time’s fortress falls, the battlements are down;
The bastions crumble into futile dust.
Time’s captive, man, released by ruin, stands
Freed from the shackling bonds of Here and Now.
Vision, no longer pent and loophole-barred,
Achieves the far horizon in its sweep,
While vanquished Time relives a phoenix life,
To enrich Infinity with finitude,
Fusing in one Eternal-Temporal flame
Unending stillness and the flowing hour.
Bathed in that light, illumined at the last,
Enringing Time, ringed by Aeternitas,
Man sees, embraces, knows, and is, the All.

The Manifold and the One—Lessons from the thought of  Agnes Arber (1879-1960)

During the month of November, Susanna and I often stay for a week in Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. We spend most of the time walking along the wonderful open sandy coastline, by its mysterious muddy creeks or through the magical pine woods but, on cold and rainy days, when we only feel like pottering around the town, we always drop into the book and pottery shop that now occupies the old Great Eastern Railway station building standing a half a mile or so away from the town centre.

Over the years I've found on its shelves a number of books that have proved to be of lasting important for me, the most notable of which have been Dōgen's Zen essays (the "Shōbōgenzō") translated by Thomas Cleary, "Evening Land"  by the Swedish poet Pär Lagerkvist translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg and, some ten years ago, "The Manifold and the One" by Agnes Arber.

Once at the shop's philosophy or theology section, any title such as Arber's which directly references, or in some fashion implies, the unity of all things is always going to be natural draw to someone like me who is firmly within the orbit of the Unitarian and Universalist tradition which, despite its often confusingly diverse make-up, continues to centre in one way or another upon the intuition that somehow (even though we know not how) the many is one and the one, many.

The title of Arber's book was clearly an expression of this intuition which gifted us our aforementioned two most well-known names, Unitarian because of our affirmation of the oneness of God/Nature; Universalist because the oneness of God/Nature would mean, as my own Unitarian minister Cliff Reed once put it, that:

Because God [Nature] is one, Creation is one. Because Creation is one, humanity is one. Because humanity is one, my neighbour and I are one. And, indeed, each of us is one integrated whole participating in one infinitely greater yet still integrated whole.

Out of this intuition there also sprang our abiding concern to promote religious freedom, toleration and, wherever possible, deep respect for and genuine interest in the many different ways of being human because despite the real diversity of humankind and, indeed, all creation we really have come to feel, deep in our bones, that we are also all somehow one and that we need not think, or believe alike in order to love alike.

Spinoza in a window in Exeter Unitarian Meeting House
Within our own complex, free-thinking religious and philosophical tradition this intuition reached its apotheosis in the thought of the radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) whose famous dictum deus sive natura I repeat in English each week at the start of every service: God-or-Nature. As the historian Frederick C. Beiser says:

Spinoza’s famous phrase 'deus sive natura' made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist ("After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900", Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7).

In one way or another I still see this project — of divinizing nature and naturalizing the divine — as a central and basic aim of our church tradition which has never fully fallen into the trap of thinking that the aims and methods of the natural sciences need be antithetical to aims and methods of a certain kind of rational, free-thinking mysticism such as that practiced by Spinoza and, as I discovered when I first opened-up her book a decade or so ago, Agnes Arber herself.

The first thing I read were, as you might expect, the flaps on the dust jacket, the contents of which you heard earlier. I was quickly drawn into the book because Arber was clearly both a highly respected scientist as well as someone concerned to articulate a living philosophy of life wholly amenable to a Unitarian and Universalist such as myself. I quickly moved on to read her equally inviting and amenable short introduction some of which you also heard earlier. You will recall that it ends with an invitation "to turn—or turn again—to the writings of the great contemplative thinkers of the past, wherein they cannot but find a wealth of material for their own individual syntheses." I duly turned to what turned out to be an extensive  bibliography and, as I ran my eye down it, I was intrigued to see her name many poets, theologians and philosophers from Britain and America, from Japan and China, from India and Europe whose words had already inspired me in my own religious journey. I closed up the book and took it straight to the shop owner and potter to make my purchase feeling that my £8 was likely to be well spent.

Later that evening after, I seem to remember, a wonderful  dinner of fresh skate beautifully cooked by Susanna, we both settled down in front of the warming log-burning stove quietly to read our respective purchases.

I quickly discovered that Spinoza's kindly and creative spirit suffused the whole book and I was delighted by the way she gently drew into play not only the insights of some of my favourite Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme and William Blake but also others from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and ancient Greek traditions as well as some of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century English Idealists (such as F. H. Bradley, T. H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet) whose work I had come to know whilst studying at Oxford. I must not neglect also to mention her insightful use now and then of examples drawn from her own field of scientific expertise, botany.

Before going on it is perhaps helpful also to offer you the titles of her seven chapters:

1) The Conviction of Oneness and the Idea of a Graded Manifold

2) Unity and the Contemplative Experience

3) Contemplative Thought in Relation to Transcendence and Immanence

4) Approaches to the Contemplative State: the Way of Emotion and the Way of Reason

5) The Coincidence of Contraries

6) The Finite and the Infinite

7) Synthesis

To sum-up the contents of such a rich and thoughtful book in a short address such as this is, of course, impossible so, by way of mere introduction to her overall thought, I will simply concentrate on two key points made in her concluding chapter.

The first point comes out of Arber's frank acknowledgement that her book "has made essential use of the postulate-hypothesis that there is a unitary whole" (p. 96 her emphasis) and that, therefore, her book is not an attempt to prove the truth (or otherwise) of this postulate-hypothesis but simply concerned to show some reasonable evidence of its probable truth. (Her first six chapters present what she considers to be reasonable evidence). In doing this she is concerned to remind us that, in philosophy and religion as much as the natural sciences, there is a point beyond which we cannot any longer search for proofs and that, at this point, we have no choice but to rely upon upon certain minimal postulates (axioms) that have to be taken in faith if we are to have any starting point at all for further reasoning and argument. As I hope you realise we are, once again, sailing close the topic of my last two addresses (HERE and HERE) which is the need to acknowledge there are many things we cannot know and that, following Keats, in the face of them we have to learn how creatively, reasonably and sensitively to live in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any further irritable reaching after fact and reason.

The difficult take-away lesson here (especially for us in a religious tradition so shaped by the use of reason and the desire for certain rational proofs) is that the basic Unitarian and Universalist position that the Many is the One and the One, the Many can, in the end and even after the fullest application of reason and the gathering of quantifiable empirical evidence, only ever be at heart a statement of faith. This remains deeply irritating and frustrating for some — heaven knows it's irritated and frustrated me at times — but there it is. It stubbornly remains a matter of fides quaerens intellectum — faith seeking understanding.  

Arber's second important point is the desirability for "a rapprochement between philosophy and non-philosophical modes of thought" (p. 101) which she puts elsewhere as the need for "the joint use of inferential and of contemplative thought." Here is what she has to say about this in her final chapter:

"Their rigid separation is an artefact due to man's craving for well-defined verbal classifications; actually these two forms of mental life are intergrading stages in the development of the inner light from mere feeble spark to a full blaze. Ordinary happenings which we deal with by means of logical thought are characterised by being strung out in time - a fact which we recognise when we speak of our 'day-to-day' existence. The contemplative phase at its best represents, on the other hand, the drawing together of these temporal experiences into one whole, 'sub specie aeternitatis'; Eternity is here understood according to the definition of Boethius, as 'the possession — all at once, and in its completeness — of unending life'" (pp. 102-103).

She is speaking here, of course, of a certain kind of 'eureka' moment when we suddenly grasp a sense of the whole (gestalt).

Arber's take away point here is for me the need to develop, maintain and practise a living form of rational mysticism that allows for the appropriate and creative intermingling of scientific method and rigour and poetic (and yes, religious and philosophical) flashes of insight. (I most recently wrote about this at this link.) Without the continued existence of such a way of being the pointless and ultimately destructive fight between the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities (which includes philosophy and religion) which so vexed C. P. Snow will continue to diminish our humanity and considerably reduce our chances of genuinely maturing as a species and of playing a truly helpful and healthy role in the stewardship of our planet.

There is much more I could say about Arber's fine book but, for the moment, I'll stop by concluding with her own words with which she finished what I think is a fine and long-overlooked book (pp. 117-118):

"From an attempt to study and estimate this conviction [this intuition] from various different standpoints, the conclusion seems to emerge that the meaning of this basic belief cannot be deciphered if we regard it as a ‘problem’ (in the sense of something which will yield its secret to rational-discursive thought) but that it comes into the category of a ‘mystery’ which cannot be ‘solved’ because logical thought cannot, in its own right, penetrate into it. It is an obvious criticism that if this be so our discussion must be valueless, since it simply carries us back to the point whence we started. In a sense this is true, yet there may be a difference between our position at the beginning and at the end. We made our start with the primitive and undeveloped conviction of Oneness, but we have come to recognise that the content of this conviction is open to indefinite enrichment by the type of meditative thought through which at the last the darkness of the mystery is seen, in the ancient words of Dionysius, to outshine all brilliance. The heights of the Unio mystica [mystical union] may not be for us. We cannot dare to hope that we shall ever see with our own eyes, as Dante did, a single eternal flame in the heart of which Unity and Multiplicity are fused by the Amor intellectualis [intellectual love] that moves the sun and the other stars. Yet even we, despite the limitations of our insight, may find that long and intensive pondering will have so far fostered our fitful inward spark that we return to the starting point with at least a glimmering torch, able to irradiate, though dimly, the fringes of the mystery. If the light is sufficient to disclose to us the way of contemplation that lies within ourselves, we may by pursuing it to the end come to know—not as a mere static dictum but as a winged intuition, carrying an infinitude of significance both for mind and heart—that the One is the Manifold, and the Manifold is the One."


Anonymous said…
I am on the trail of Agnes' sister, Margaret Hills and it was wonderful to read of how Agnes has inspired you since, Margaret has been doing just that in Stroud.We created a wiki page for Margaret this February ( and are celebrating her life an legacy this July through street performance.
There is synchronicity in finding out about Agnes life as a botanist this morning - Professor Schmid's article - her writing on the Manifold and the One - a current inquiry of my own - and that photographs in the RHS Encyclopaedia that I have carried from home to home, were taken by you and which sits next to Stearn's Botanical Latin on the shelves.
Thank you.

Jacqui Stearn

Dear Jacqui,

Splendid to hear from you. Thank you for writing.

I'm delighted to read about Margaret Hills about whom I knew nothing until reading your wiki entry about her. Yet another remarkable person from a remarkable family. I look forward to hearing about how the street performance celebration goes.

I'm pleased you found, and seemed to have enjoyed, my address about wonderful Agnes. Since writing that piece I've tracked down her earlier book called "The Mind and the Eye: A study of the biologist's standpoint" which, alas, I have yet to have had a chance to read. But I will.

I'm also intrigued by your note saying that you're engaged in a current inquiry into the Manifold and the One. Fell free to drop me an email about that kind of stuff if you want to
via my minister's address found under the contact tab at the church website.

Just a minor point but, alas, I did not take any of the photos in the RHS book. However, I was one of the picture editors and, therefore, responsible for getting them taken/finding them and then passing them on the the editors. But well noticed -- the text of my credit is very very small and very much towards the end! Well spotted.

Best wishes and thanks for writing.