As the plane descended on my first nocturnal flight, I pondered on the symmetry between the city lights and the heavenly stars. Today we not only see the world from the ground, but also from the sky. This is a hemispherical perspective of the world.

In 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth and was the first to see it as a globe. On Christmas Eve in 1968 the American astronauts from Apollo 8 looped around the dark side of the Moon. They were temporarily without any radio and visual contact with the Earth.

Never before had any human gone beyond the sensory reach of our planet. They were suspended in the infinity of space without the earthly reference. In this sublime moment the astronauts reached deep into their own civilizational archive of cosmic explanation.

William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman took it in turns to read the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.”[1] In a subsequent flight the crew of Apollo 17 captured an image of the earth known as the ‘Blue Marble’.

It was taken at a distance of 45,000 miles and it is now one of the most widely distributed images in existence. This is what our planet looks like when seen from out there, in space, at a point where there is no horizon line.

Where the flat earth dogma ends there is also the beginning of the vertiginous condition of groundlessness. The earth is just a dot in the infinite space.

During the presentation. Photo: Supplied

To register the scale of the cosmos is to open our minds to a world without worldly boundaries – it is a de-worlding experience. From space, the view of the Earth is framed by our blue oceans and layered by silky clouds.

Democracy is a system of government of and for the demos – people. The demos were defined according to their attachment to a particular parcel of land. When the demos met in the Pnyx – the amphitheatre of Ancient Athens – the speakers would step up onto a Bema, and from there, they usually they faced towards the port of Piraeus and gained a view of the sea.

Whether we face the polis or the cosmos, the land, or the sea, is a matter of deep importance in the history of cosmopolitanism.

It was at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic – the unleashing of the pan-daimon on the pan demos– that I began to think of the cosmos in cosmopolitanism.

For the past 30 years I have been writing on culture in the context of mobility and displacement. I had been engaged in the discourses on modernity, exile, diaspora, multiculturalism, and migration.

I had also been active in the debates on contemporary art and globalisation. I had tracked the way that artists embodied cosmopolitan values to question the limits of the polis and experiment with transnational forms of belonging.

New image released by nasa2explore. The first quarter Moon sets below Earth’s horizon. Photo: AAP/NASA/ESA/Samantha Cristoforett

Art, it seemed to me, was at the forefront of re-thinking the boundaries of communal relations and extending the frontiers of political imagination.

After completing my book Cosmopolitanism and Culture (2012) I had the realisation that in my efforts to reimagine the polis I had taken the cosmos for granted.

Art was a useful starting point for challenging the polis, but in what sense was art also a means to connect with the cosmos? To what extent does art offer a cosmopolitan imaginary that differs from the ones we find in moral philosophy?

In this book I have sought to address my previous omission and return to some fundamental questions on the status of the cosmos in art and philosophy.

But the origins of this book have been with me for much longer, surfacing in conversations, and stop-starting in countless essays.

I heard it in the soaring chorus sung by Nikos Xylouris autos o kosmos o kalos – this world the beautiful one. I felt it in my father’s quiet plea to be more charitable yia to kaimeno kosmaki – towards refugees – the ‘burnt people’.

From my childhood I also recall a warm summer’s night when my cousin Anastassios and I walked beyond the frontiers of our neighbourhood and came to a major junction.

He pointed to a large building on the other side and informed me that it was a university – I stared across and upwards to the stars of the cosmos / universe.

George Seferis, the poet, diplomat, and Nobel prize-winner, claimed that traces of classical philosophy and design were interwoven into folkloric wisdom and contemporary domestic arrangements.

He glimpsed a world in which the nature that was here and the cosmos out there were both driven by mutual forces. Greek peasants he said gave measure to their lives as they participated in the movement of these mysterious forces.

Phillip Sherrard, a critic of Greek modernist literature, also noted the perdurance of the cosmic arc – stretching from the time of Pythagoras to the lifeworld of the peasants.

“For these people the natural world was not an object suitable for experiment, analysis, and exploitation. It possessed a richness and a dignity which came from his sense of participation in the movement of these forces” (Sherrard 1956: 128).

Even though I was trained in Australian political science and British sociology I have also spent much time reading translations of German critical theory and French philosophy.

Bust of Roman Emperor Marcus Augustus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, Turkey. Found in the Kandilli (Bozhoyuk, Turkey), was sculpted during his reign. Photo: Depositphotos

Only recently it became clear to me that the German and French philosophers I admired so much were all products of an education in which Greek philosophy was like a first language.

In a strange way, the fact that the classics were excised from my education made me feel doubly excluded. I was not alone in this uneasy relationship with the legacy of Hellenism.

Seferis also noted that determining the “right attitude” towards his ancient traditions was difficult. Access to the past, he noted is oblique and incomplete, it is gained mostly through “foreign sources” (Seferis 1966: 96).

Slowly I began to immerse myself in the texts of ancient philosophy. What a marvellous exploration of the archive this turned out to be!

I was in awe of the pithy and profound command of language. I was shocked to discover of the disappearance and destruction of the vast libraries of ancient knowledge.

Democritus wrote over a hundred books not one remains. Sophocles composed around one hundred and twenty plays but only seven have survived. Ideas that are relevant to our understanding of cosmopolitanism are found in not only philosophy, but also the histories and tragedies.

Aeschylus’s play The Persians (472 BCE) is the oldest tragic manuscript. It depicts a defeated enemy not with haughty triumph but through tender sympathy.

Although I have come to appreciate the gaps in my formal training, I have not set out to rectify these faults by establishing the classics as the exclusive ground from which to rebuild a theory of cosmopolitanism. What continues to shape my critical imagination is the commitment to a relational perspective on the local and global.

In the past my critical attention towards art and cosmopolitanism has been guided by the desire to articulate a world that I sensed was rumbling below the discursive levels of the artworld.

If there was something to be found, I believed it could only come from the combination of observing objects, participating in events, and conversing with artists.

The writing was an act of bringing forth impressions that were formed across these three modes of engagement. In this book art has a different function.

I am not seeking to either apprehend the meaning contained within the artwork or link up associations unleashed by the artist. In this book I held back from my usual expository aims.

Democritus wrote over a hundred books not one remains. Photo: Depositphotos

Instead, I chose to see artists as reminders of the limitations to the prevailing scholarly paradigms and interlocutors of the relation between cosmos and creation.

I therefore take seriously artist’s speculations on cosmic connectedness. When an artist such as Lee Ufan insists that his breath and gesture is aligned with the energy of the cosmos, he is not making a frivolous remark.

Yet such comments are seldom given the seriousness they deserve. There is almost no critical vocabulary that can pick up the points he raised.

Critical attention tends to be concentrated on the execution of formal techniques and the development of contextual comparisons. Therefore, artists often complain that the process of creation is utterly misunderstood.

I contend that the constitution of microcosms and macrocosms in art is akin to a big bang aesthetic moment – filled with horror and delight. Zooming into the aesthetics and zooming out onto the politics of cosmopolitanism is a dance with chaos and order.

If the process of creation is acknowledged it is usually explained as a driver that exists in the artist’s psyche, or as product of the social context.

The artist’s claim of connecting creation and cosmos is thus left hanging, either glossed with polite condescension, or crucified through derisive debunking. Perhaps, this is what Nietzsche called the “raging dissonance between art and truth” (1991: 142).

Cosmopolitanism also carries an ambivalent set of associations. It is routinely celebrated as the ultimate moral goal and elevated as the pinnacle of cultural sophistication.

However, it is in equal measure, either dismissed as a hollow ancient ideal that has no relevance for the modern world, or exposed as part of the ideological smokescreen that hides the evils of globalisation.

Despite these blunt rejections and stigmatic associations, the idea of human fellowship and cosmic companionship continues to not only inspire but also shape the lives of people.

While Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island he drew on the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius for inspiration. Marcus Aurelius was both emperor of Rome and a Stoic philosopher.

In the Meditations he reflected on the value of his life from the aerial perspective of the cosmos. In its most fundamental terms cosmopolitanism proclaims a form of belonging that is free of boundaries and is open to a sensory connection with the whole of the cosmos.

This, to me, remains a noble idea, and it should never be dismissed as a fanciful distraction or conflated with the worst excess of terrorism and neoliberalism.

The book launch of ‘The Cosmos in Cosmopolitanism’ by Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis: April 24 at 6:30 pm at the Mezzanine Level of the Greek Centre 168 Lonsdale St. Melbourne.