What is the Sun?

February 1, 2023

Oxana Timofeeva

Solar radiation is the ultimate source of all life on Earth. The sun is what warms the Earth and makes trees and flowers grow and flourish. It gives me energy and the feeling of being alive; and promises a better future. But it can also burn me down and transform my land into a desert.

A depiction of Dazhbog.

For the people of antiquity, the sun was a supreme god: Ra in Egypt, Tonatiuh in Aztec culture, Surya in Hinduism, and Sol Invictus in the Roman Empire are just a few names for this multi-faced deity. All over the place, gods of the sun were more than one, of both genders, corresponding to different seasons of the year and different times of the day. Just like Helios in Ancient Greece, the Slavic early deity of the sun rides the sky in a golden chariot carrying with him a bright fire shield. His name is Dazhbog, or “giving-god.” He gives everything: light, warmth, and wealth. In one version, he is getting old and dies every evening, but is reborn every morning; in another, he dies in December and is reborn after the winter solstice. Our ancestors welcomed the return of their gods of the sun from the darkness of the night. For them, the radiant circle observable in the sky was literally the body of God, whose rays enabled each new day.

Plato, the author of the reputedly first political utopia, introduces new content to this mythic worldview. In  Book VI of The Republic, Socrates explains to his interlocutor, Glaucon, that there are two suns: the one that we see and the one that we don’t see. The sun that we see reigns in the world of visible objects. It is itself a visible object, which differs, however, from all other objects in that it also presents the source of their visibility. Why do we see objects? First, because we have eyes. Second, because there is light. Third, because there is a sun that dispenses light. Socrates addresses the sun as the one ‘of the gods in heavens,’ whose gift of light “enables our sight to see so excellently well, and makes visible objects appear” (Republic 508a). The same holds for the intellectual world: just as the faculty of sight comprises the relation of the sun, the light, and the eyes, the faculty of thought aggregates the highest good, truth, and knowledge.

The image of the sun is central for Plato’s famous metaphor of truth and society that resists it. A group of people is confined in a cavern that most notably resembles a cinema theater. They are shackled and can only sit still and look at the wall in front of them, where they see the shadows of what is going above and behind their backs. There is a fire there, and a roadway passed by with some other people who carry with them figures of men, animals, and other items. Socrates invites us to compare the first, visible world to the cavern, the light of the physical sun to the fire (the reflections of which we see on the screen of shadows), and the upper world outside to the intellectual region of the highest good discovered by the soul. Behind the visible sun Socrates discerns the invisible, and praises both.

In his 1494 Book of the Sun, Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino fantastically inscribes the symbolism of the sun into the mixture of Christianity, esoteric tradition, astrology, and Renaissance magic. Taking as a starting point Plato’s comparison between god and the sun, Ficino makes parallels: on a downward spiral, God dispenses good and love, just as the sun dispenses light and warmth. All these things can be understood as different kinds of energy, which both God and the physical sun generously distribute around the world. Ficino insists on the hierarchical relation between God and the physical sun: one shouldn’t worship the sun as the author of all things because the sun is in fact only a shadow of God, who is the one principle and beginning of all things. Yes, the sun shines brightly, but the light it spreads, according to Ficino, is not even fully its own. The excessive shine that radiates from the sun is, says Ficino, a gift that it receives from God.

A tendency to portray the two suns as God and his material substitute is further developed by another Renaissance thinker and perhaps the most famous writer of the solar utopian tradition, Tommaso Campanella. In The City of the Sun (1602), he writes that the sun and other stars are “representatives and signs of God.” The sun is the image under which God can be known and contemplated. However, according to Campanella, the sensual sun, whose light Ficino called ‘obscure’, is actually not even good, as God is, but malevolent, for it ‘strives to burn up the Earth.’ This implies that the ultra-rational organization of the utopian city must reckon with the brutality and explosiveness of the sun, rather than seeking inspiration from its goodness. Thus, the city of the sun becomes the site of overregulation and total control, a utopia turns into a dystopia.

Solar symbolism frames many utopian projects. In the mirror of the sun, we relate to the form and matter of sovereignty which suggests itself as the principle of political communities. In the long historical tradition, the idea of the possibility of organizing a settlement according to rational principles, with the infrastructures designed as perfectly as possible to satisfy human needs and desires and to make their collective life bright and happy to the fullest extent, is associated with the image of the sun, which stays as a promise for prosperity and well-being. From Plato’s Republic, to contemporary Solarpunk speculative fiction and the prospects for more ecologically sustainable economies provided by renewed energy expansion, the spirit of solarity animates the most elevated political projects for the future of humankind.

Solar symbolism frames many utopian projects.

The sun can be considered as the source of power in two fundamental senses. In the classical perspective of political theology, it presents the source of authority and equates not only to God, but also to earthly sovereigns, like Louis XIV le Roi Soleil in France, Vladimir the Fair Sun in Russia, and other monarchs. The sun of theology is a master whose brilliance is contemplated with delight by everyone. The solar ring becomes one of the signs of supremacy accredited by God to the one on the top of the social pyramid. But the sun also becomes a major emblem of the Age of Enlightenment, in order to reverse the ancient régime sovereignty and establish a new one in the bright light of rationality and equality.

Today, the sun and other celestial bodies are no longer divine. Cultural, scientific, and technological developments aimed to free humankind from the insecurity and precariousness of the state of nature, from weather conditions, seasonal periodicity and alteration of day and night. Capitalist modernity has facilitated a different understanding of power, which corresponds to industrial revolution: now, the sun is treated as a source of energy that can be extracted, converted, stored, and consumed. The paradigm of energy tries to master the sun rather than celebrate its mastery. In order to build their own cities of the sun, people develop controllable sources of light and warmth, take energy from wind and water, dig for fossil fuels, generate nuclear power, construct solar panels, and produce fusion reactions. At the present moment, nothing is so abundant in energy as the sun, the disposal of which will supposedly satisfy all our economic needs for many epochs to come.

The dream of solar energy stands beyond some cosmic posthuman imaginations and prospects. Thus, in 1895, Russian cosmist and theorist of rocketry and astronautics Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published his science fiction novel Dreams About the Earth and the Sky, which alludes to the idea of humanity’s eventual colonization of the milky way galaxy. The novel describes, among other things, the belt of asteroids around the sun inhabited by colonists from bigger planets, who had overcome gravity and developed into a new highly intelligent form of life. Approximation to the sun allows them to control the power of its rays and enjoy it as they wish.

For the most effective usage of the solar energy, these posthuman communities decompose planets and turn them into a ‘necklace’ that consists of rings dispersed in space. A similar fantasy was presented in the 1938 novel Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon and again in 1960 by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who suggested that the growing energy needs of advanced technological civilizations must lead to the formation of megastructures around the sun, and that finding their traces in the cosmic space will prove the existence of some extraterrestrial forms of advanced intelligent life.

There can be various modifications of the so-called Dyson sphere or Dyson swarm, but the main principle is to build an artificial megastructure that would encompass the sun, surrounding it with industrial stations and space habitats to capture its power within extractive economy in order to provide humanity with an unlimited amount of energy.

Rendering of a a Dyson Swarm superstructure. CC BY 2.0.

Indeed, the sun is not eternal, and after some billions of years it will eventually cool down and die. However, according to these theories, for this occasion humans can get prepared: using the extreme amounts of stored solar power, they will be able to travel further, discover new suns, and colonize new galaxies.

Technically speaking, the sun is the biggest and the most powerful fusion reactor in our planetary system. In order to colonize cosmic space, we need to have something similar at our full disposal. There are various fusion reactors around the world today, including the most popular tokamaks, but the main problem is that all of them consume more energy than they generate. Thus, for some, dreaming goes on: as soon as these technologies reach the point of generating more than they consume, it will become possible to create new superpowered technologies for colonizing our solar system, including the sun itself. The Dyson sphere and the like will require colossal resources: in order to get enough materials for building such megastructures, future generations will have to disassemble all other planets of the solar system. All that we call nature will be destroyed for the ultimate City of Sun, where humans or those who come after will master the star, which was once divine a long time ago.

A worker performing maintenance inside the DIII-D (tokamak) vacuum vessel in 2017. CC BY-SA 4.0

Whence comes the ambition to colonize cosmic space? Capitalist economic growth demands more and more resources and energy. Colonizing other lands together with their populations and natural resources, as well as colonizing other planets is a part of the modern politics of greed, appropriation, and exploitation. Our needs grow together with our energetic capacities, but if we stick to the economic model of capital, we have to take into account its specific relation to its environments. Extractive industry, with its total dependence on the burning of fossil fuels, has pointed technological developments toward a serious collision between economy and ecology, which will produce catastrophic side effects.

Yes, humanity would like to finally succeed in its Icarus flight to the sun without being committed to its flames; humans can conquer the sun and devour all of its energy, and then move to other suns, but how not to destroy the Earth–and ourselves together with it on the way? Today’s ecological turn brings this problem to the foreground and suggests solutions that mostly rely on the development of a clean and renewable energy sector. Solar energy’s use looks different from the industrial paradigm of mastering. It promises decentralized, democratic individual use, guided by the idea of zero emissions. However, with the current relations of ownership, global inequalities, and forms of production even in the most sustainable economic projects, there is a risk that the sun will remain trapped in the bad infinity of extraction that is indistinguishable from destruction.  

*This essay originally appeared in German in Die Zeit: https://www.zeit.de/2022/24/sonne-philosophie-antike-energie.

Oxana Timofeeva is a Professor at the “Stasis” Center for Philosophy, the European University at St. Petersburg, and a member of the artistic collective Chto Delat. She has published several books, including Solar Politics (2022).

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