Particularity and Wholeness (2/16/16)

The natural divergence or disparity between particularity/specificity, on the one hand, and totality/wholeness, on the other, is a topic of some importance. I see these as two poles of a single, uninterrupted continuum—always implicitly connected or related, psychically, regardless of whether the individual ego is conscious of this connection or not. Thus, the individuum is just what the word means: undivided—at least within his essential or core nature. It is the mind or discriminating intellect that conceptually parses and analytically separates ‘one thing’ (or content) from another—but such separations and divisions are merely conceptual abstractions, not the underlying reality from which they are mentally abstracted.

It would appear, at first glance, to make an enormous difference whether we consciously identify with the ‘particular’ pole of our natural endowment or the holistic/universal pole at the other end. In actuality, however, we are neither (or we are potentially, at least, both at once). Rather, we seem to be hybrids—‘in between’ creatures: what certain ancient Greek philosophers called a metaxy. If we imagine our consciousness as situated within an FM radio’s receiving range, our ‘ultimate,’ concrete/material particularity lies somewhere beyond one end of the dial, while the non-human totality of things lies beyond the other. Human consciousness—where it is protean, flexible, and truly alive—is free to move about from ‘station to station,’ from frequency to frequency, within these immensely extensive bounds, as Pico della Mirandola taught us, centuries ago, in his wonderful “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486). It is free, moreover, to peer out beyond its human frontiers at either end and speculate about that terra incognita. But when the intrepid human voyager to the ‘antipodes’ thinks or speaks or writes about what he’s gazing at, he is already translating his vision into the familiar tongue, the ‘lingua franca’—and departing from the mute and defiant opacity that is staring back at his brave, trembling, tear-streaked face.

A Note on the Philosopher (3/6/15)

“Gilbert Ryle once observed that it is a fiction encouraged by historians of ideas that philosophers have certain doctrines or tenets; real philosophers think continuously, and the ‘tenets’ in the history books are obtained by artificially arresting the process of their thought.”—Shakespeare the Thinker; A.D. Nuttall


It may be said that the philosopher strives to map the irreducible and irrational whole that is the totality of consciousness. The difference between the genuine philosopher and most other thinkers is that: he knows (1) that map is to territory what shadows are to substance. He knows (2) that what he is mapping are elements of consciousness and not things that are somehow independent of the consciousness of the mapper. (3) Because his time and energy are not unlimited—a nuanced, detailed map of some particular zone or region of the experienceable whole is attained, to some extent, at the expense of sketching the general contours of other experienceable regions. (4) That which is being mapped is neither fixed nor static, but alive and ever-transforming—like the sea or the weather. Therefore, whatever principles he derives from his experience of this inherently mutable whole are necessarily provisional, heuristic, and fictive in nature. (5) Those who assert that the whole is rational are asserting more than they can know. They are, in fact, superimposing a rational structure or framework (that they have inherited or invented) upon a seething, surging array of ever-metamorphosing modes of consciousness that, because they are alive, cannot be reduced to fixed rational terms.

Those determined seekers after philosophical truth who are driven primarily by a yearning for rational-demonstrative certitude will either become stubborn deniers of the claims I have just made—in which case it is to be doubted that they will ever become genuine philosophers. Alternatively, they will have to overcome their obsession with this reduced, ‘human-sized’ mode of formulating their ‘findings,’ at which point they become viable candidates for the philosophical life.

We are certainly entitled to wonder if philosophizing that dispenses, at the outset, with axiomatic, rational grounds for itself can still, with justice, be called ‘philosophy.’ Regularities, recurring elements, and familiar patterns do not constitute, by themselves, the abstract rationality (say, of mathematics and geometry) with which philosophy became romantically entangled while it was still a callow teenager. May it be said, then, that genuine (‘mature’) philosophy reverts back to a form of mythology—albeit one with a difference? Is it mythology that is sharply aware of itself as mythology? Who knows? Perhaps in this attempt at conscious reconciliation, both traditional mythology and critical philosophy gain something in the exchange—instead of remaining either antithetical or conflated.

The Western religions (from the Levant) also seem to have committed a ‘false grounding’ blunder, as well. In founding themselves upon concrete, historical persons, events, and literally-regarded texts (e.g., Abraham, Moses, the Covenant, Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, Muhammad and his Koran), don’t they exalt the finite and the particular above the infinite and the irreducible whole? Insofar as this occurs in the literalizing minds of dogmatic believers, don’t they unconsciously succumb to a form of idolatry, just as traditional philosophy does in its hypostatization of abstract rational principles, exalting them above ‘raw’ consciousness and life, which are nothing if they are not irrational, irreducible, and contemptuous of all our limited and limiting ‘containers’ and formulations—including this one?

Thus, the genuine philosopher has nowhere to stand—and everywhere to swim.

In fact, it may be said that the aim of philosophizing is always to get beyond philosophizing—much as the aim of eating is to terminate the hunger that prompts us to eat in the first place. Eating simply for the sake of eating easily degenerates into a kind of vice—and thinking simply for the sake of entertaining the mind with various thoughts may also be regarded as a species of idleness, or self-indulgence. Moderate, regular eating silences the hunger—just as moderate, meditative-reflective thinking helps to silence, while it nourishes, the restless mind.

Are We Moderns Decadent? (8/12/14)

Ortega y Gasset’s Chapter 4 (in The Revolt of the Masses), entitled ‘The Increase of Life,’ succeeds, I believe, in demolishing Nietzsche’s (and others’) claims that our modern era suffers from decadence. Ortega y Gasset takes the measure of the times and finds that they are teeming with vitality, which is uncharacteristic of truly decadent periods. Genuinely decadent periods, he argues, are characterized by a sharp decrease in general vitality—so that decadents collectively feel inferior, energy-wise, to earlier, livelier periods.

Ortega y Gasset attributes this vitality spurt to the socio-political and economic ascendency of the masses. This entailed the release of the pent-up energies that had long been suppressed—by religious authority, political oppression, economic constraints, primitive technology, etc. Modern industrial and technological developments have greatly accelerated the tempo of modern urban life—and modern modes of mass communication and mass education have, in a sense, triumphed over space and time. The cinema—and, later, television and the Internet—have brought faraway events and exotic peoples to us, if only ‘virtually.’ Our knowledge of history brings the past to life for us as never before. True, it is a barbaric sort of vitality—this modern dynamo—but it certainly isn’t the weak condition of lethargy, torpor, and diffidence that are associated with decadence.

Nietzsche’s vexation over Christian pessimism and decadence seem exaggerated, if not altogether groundless, in view of Ortega y Gasset’s compelling observations and his insightful arguments. Europeans and Americans have—on the whole, but with some notable exceptions, here and there—been quite conspicuously anti-Christian (in their frenetic worldliness, acquisitiveness, and fidgety restlessness) since the Renaissance, so we have to wonder, “Who are these ‘after-worldly’ Christians that Nietzsche spends more than a little time deriding in Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Antichrist?” How many moderns, relatively speaking, have authentically embraced the ascetic ideal? Perhaps Nietzsche was simply distancing himself from a rejected part of his own complicated and titanic/volcanic psyche.

Before the Story (3/21/13)

All cultures everywhere and at all times are, at bottom, based upon a story—some kind of structured narrative that assigns meaning, value, and a general orientation to conscious experience in the human world. Because the foundational structure of each culture typically serves as the bedrock and starting point for civilized human consciousness and behavior, its axiomatic assumptions are seldom made explicitly conscious to the majority of human beings. The reason these foundational story elements are seldom made conscious by most of us is because they are almost invariably the very terms in which anything and everything becomes conscious. They are always silently running in the background—like the operating system on this computer upon which I am typing—and they are simply taken for granted, much as we take for granted the water, air, and the daily nutrition that sustain life.

We know that natural philosophy was born a long time ago (or not so long ago, depending on the perspective you take) in the mercantile parts of Ionia where mariners and traders from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East converged to exchange goods and materials. Coming from diverse cultural backgrounds—from radically divergent foundational stories—their various worldviews were attended to by those wise and discerning observers, the ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers. These extraordinary, innovative thinkers were the first minds in the West, so far as we know, to discover culture as such—the first to differentiate mythos, or ‘story,’ from physis, or ‘nature.’ In making this game-changing, explosive discovery—one that would be developed and greatly elaborated upon by their direct successors—a new path was opened, one that pointed beyond (or beneath) culture as the basis and ground for all ‘knowledge’ and meaning. In opening up a path to nature, these penetrating minds had discovered (or invented?) a whole new basis for probing into the meaning of things. Philosophy was a new way of accounting for reality and the parts and processes that comprised that whole. And yet, it was only possible to enter this newly discovered territory by ‘seeing through’ the normally binding and sacrosanct mythic structures of one’s inherited worldview. Nothing imaginable could be more radical, preposterous, dangerous—or potentially liberating—than to extricate one’s mind and soul from the authorized and meaning-bestowing articles of faith that were taken for granted by one’s local community—by one’s parents and family, ancestors and countrymen.

As we know, to ‘see through’ an explanation, a moral precept, or a custom can mean two very different, or practically antithetical, things. It can mean to see through as in ‘seeing through tinted or distorting lenses’—where the ‘world’ we behold automatically takes on the color or the distortions inherent in the lens through which we are (unconsciously or unreflectively) looking. Or it can mean ‘un-masking,’ as when we ‘see through’ a lie or a magician’s trick to the truth that is being artfully disguised or concealed.

Perhaps we should include ‘stories’ with water, air, nutrition, and other absolute requirements without which human beings seem unable to survive for very long. In ancient times—within the various cultural schemes—Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Judaic, Persian, etc.—the ‘stories’ tended to be comparatively well-organized, coherent, and—most importantly—wrapped in an aura of sacredness, an aura religiously maintained by priests, scribes, and poets. With the passage of time, the river of Western culture has been fed—some might say inundated—with many different and often incompatible cultural tributaries (chief of which may be abbreviated as ‘Athens and Jerusalem,’ or ‘Caesar and Christ’). This has led to a proliferation of ‘stories’ and cultural perspectives that would have struck our ancient forebears as a kind of ‘tower of Babel,’ no doubt.

We euphemistically (and perhaps a bit innocently) refer to today’s fragmented, incoherent, and diluted assortment of incommensurable story lines as ‘cultural diversity.’ In our schools and universities we are taught that this modern cultural diversity is, for the most part, a positive and enlightened advance beyond the narrow-minded, myopic cultural chauvinism of the past—and certainly there is some merit in these self-congratulatory claims.

I would suggest, however, that while the quantity and variety of myths and stories we have to choose from is perhaps greater than at any time in the past (including the Hellenistic period which, in this regard, bears a striking resemblance to our own era), the quality of these purpose- and meaning-bestowing stories seems to have suffered a rather noticeable degradation over the past few hundred years. And I would further suggest that human beings, in general, are no better equipped (or naturally disposed) to live without a myth or orienting story than the ancient Egyptian farmer or the Assyrian charioteer was. What the ancient and modern philosophers have attempted to do—namely, to ‘see through’ and beyond cultural forms and assumptions into their natural (and perhaps not 100% human) backdrop—has never been a popular pursuit or pastime. Such enterprises have always been reserved for oddballs and anomalies, weirdos and prodigies: peculiar but uncannily gifted individuals like Anaximander and Heraclitus, Socrates and Chuang-tzu, Diogenes and Nietzsche.

Do we see a Catch-22 situation shaping up here? It would appear that under conditions of religious laxity or during occasional periods of ‘enlightenment,’ foundational stories begin to lose a good deal of their formerly undisputed credibility and authority, at least among the educated members of the society. This often leads to a general decline in the quality and richness of the stories and the anchoring beliefs in which culture—all culture—consists. Thus, with the spread of rational inquiry and religious tolerance we frequently see the rise of corrosive skepticism and a relaxation of passionate belief in any one thing. As we have seen, such conditions are conducive to relativism, moral lassitude, and intellectual confusion, if only because the tension and the underlying sense of urgency that attend full and authentic cultural commitment have been collectively slackened under the new lenient conditions.

On the other hand, after we have become accustomed to such relaxed, free, and open-minded conditions, ordinary believers suddenly start to look a bit like fanatics and simpletons. They remind us of ourselves back when we were youngsters and didn’t know any better—how we inwardly writhed and rebelled against the shocking proclamation, made by the older kid up the street, that there was no Santa Claus, no Easter bunny, and not even a tooth fairy! We cannot help but feel an uneasy mixture of pity and contempt for those ‘fundamentalists’ and those ‘political ideologues’ when we hear them spouting their dogmatic certainties! As if they were from an earlier, less ‘informed’ era! How much must such dogged believers block out or willfully ignore in order to hang onto their life-and-sanity-supporting myths and illusions! No, such willful ignorance and misguided passion is utterly abominable to us. Better to graze on the parched plains of the unforgiving modern-cultural landscape than to descend to such luxuriant marshlands of folly and error!

But then we ask, in all seriousness: are these the only alternatives available to us? On the one hand, a ‘sophisticated’ but rather tepid and anemic skepticism, a post-modernist reluctance to take any cultural, religious, or philosophical claims too seriously, since all of them have a place on the ‘lazy Susan’ at the center of the table? Or an unsophisticated, retrograde parochialism that sinks its big, plaque-and-tartar-crusted, yellow-brown, buck teeth into some conservative dogma or another and never looks back? Aren’t these the two antagonistic camps into which contemporary society has been polarized? But there are all those millions of people who are ‘in the middle.’ I am referring to perhaps the largest segment of American society. Perhaps I am mistaken, but don’t members of this ‘middle’ segment often appear to be rather shoddily educated, upon close examination, since typically they know little or nothing in depth beyond their usually quite restricted and narrow area of professional-vocational expertise? Generally speaking, mightn’t it be justly claimed that this large segment of Americans in ‘the middle’ typically possesses only the most rudimentary, bare-boned ‘knowledge’ respecting cultural history, for instance, or literature, religion, philosophy, psychology, or the arts? If this huge population possesses some knowledge of these matters, doesn’t it tend to be dismally superficial—not much beyond the Wikipedia level? Also, their knowledge of such important cultural matters tends to be merely informational—and is seldom passionately gripping or crucially important to them. On the other hand, and to their great credit: they are open to new ideas and experiences—unlike the ultra-conservative ideologues, the closed-minded religious dogmatists, the cynics, and other ‘know-nothings’ whose attitude towards the contemporary scene boils down to fear, hatred, apathy, and/or combustible anger.

Inner and Outer Realms of Experience (5/13/11)

I have been watching episodes from the BBC series, ‘The Human Planet.’ It has prompted some speculation about the possibility of a new direction in psychological theorizing. Each episode focuses upon a different habitat or set of challenging environmental conditions (vast ocean, arid desert, high mountains, dense forest, etc.) where humans have been more or less successful in their efforts to carve out an existence, exploiting the distinctive resources and opportunities provided by that environment. Cossacks hunt foxes with the help of Golden eagles they steal and train as chicks. Divers from remote Indonesian islands stalk their prey on the sea floor thirty meters below, holding their breath for longer than five minutes. Inuits in Greenland hunt arctic sharks to feed themselves, assisted by the dogs they depend on for getting to the hunting grounds. In adapting to the peculiar demands and opportunities provided by these very different environments, the physical and mental capabilities of the humans are stretched and shaped in remarkable ways. The series has provided me with a vivid picture of how humans have been able to adapt to dramatically different sorts of given conditions and demands. Because each episode leaps from one type of habitat to another, viewers are reminded of just how diverse these inhabitable regions of our planet are. Because most of us are city dwellers who have little or no direct contact with nature or with the sorts of survival demands imposed upon the (traditional and usually poor) human beings featured in the series, we have lost touch with those skills, the heightened senses, the physical agility and endurance that our ancestors possessed—and needed in order to survive. The concentration of large human populations in teeming modern cities has gradually put many of these formerly crucial capabilities and strengths to sleep while it has favored the emergence and development of very different skills and abilities—ones which would have been utterly useless in these earlier environments.

The voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries opened up new worlds and new peoples to European explorers. The dramatic variety of the climes and cultures that ‘The Human Planet’ concerns itself with became known to the reading public in the West. This greatly expanded and enriched sense of the external world exercised enormous power over the European psyche. There were, to begin with, colossal fortunes to be won (or filched/extracted) from those faraway lands and peoples. But for those whose interests leaned more towards knowledge than to pillage and domination, it was as if the outer world itself suddenly became ten times larger and a thousand times more interesting, if only because so little of it had been carefully explored or adequately understood.

It is my sense that something akin to this is beginning to occur once again—but this time it is the inner world of the psyche that beckons a growing number of us. As before, the first wave of persons who have rushed out in great numbers to colonize the new terra incognita include many opportunistic fortune hunters. More than a few (drug-dispensing) psychiatrists and so-called ‘psychotherapists’ see only (or mostly) a ripe opportunity to exploit the fears, anxieties, and difficult adjustments that have inevitably accompanied the opening up of this strange new inner frontier. But such characters, like merchants and tourist offices in the border towns of foreign countries, are only capable of making their livings cerca de la frontera where those who are unaccustomed to the new language and unfamiliar with the foreign currency require their shady services to be become minimally oriented—for a hefty fee. Many ‘therapists’ and ‘psychologists’ are like the touts and hostel owners who greet incoming travelers at the bus station, eager for their business. They offer a modicum of security in the strange new town or country—and provide guided tours to popular local attractions.

But something very different is required for those of us who wish to immigrate to these newly accessible inner regions. We are not content to make a hurried visit, to see only the spectacles and the local attractions near the border, to remain uninitiated sightseers who skim the surface and take home overpriced souvenirs and snapshots. In order truly to get to know this strange new place we must be willing, it seems, to uproot from our homeland and immerse ourselves in the very different soil and climate of the newly opened interior.

I began from the premise that the inner realm of psyche is every bit as expansive and as rich in diversity as the outer universe is. As humans, we are both psyche and physis. Our more or less articulate ego-consciousness is situated at the meeting place of psyche and nature, the inner and outer realms of what, so far as we can tell, is a seamless totality. For the past few centuries, Western man’s collective attention has primarily been directed outwards. The inner world, therefore, has been ‘behind’ us—ever-present, but its mysterious contents seldom known, except through projection into the outer world (in the direction of which we are principally turned).

The ‘discovery’ of the objective psyche by Freud and Jung—along with a number of other important cultural developments—has marked the beginning of a change that is still underway in Western thought and feeling. The riches and the dangers that are to be encountered in the inner world are becoming more and more indisputably real for an ever-enlarging number of persons who have freed themselves from an exclusively outer-directed view of things. As more and more of us ‘pivot’ and turn our animating attention upon inner objects, this vast (and long neglected) interior cosmos comes into plainer view.

It seems that, in the West, our recent ancestors needed to believe in the solidity, the eternally unchanging stability of theological dogmas so that they could turn away from the inner world, trustingly and confidently—to leave the protean psyche out of the equation. The tautological, self-consistent ‘truths’ of mathematics and deductive logic (derived from unquestionable axioms) provided a stabilizing, if ultimately limited and illusory, sense of rational order that was then ‘innocently’ projected onto external nature after first being introjected into the realm of spirit. It was this elaborate system of artificial constructs that bought us the time (as Nietzsche recognized) we needed to build our little boat or platform of being upon the lava flows of becoming. Now the magma thrusts itself upon us—from within and without.

Contemplation, Action, Hades, and Zeus (10/20/16)

In moments of unadulterated, pure contemplation, human consciousness situates itself “beyond good and evil” – or rather, beyond implication in absorbing/compelling moral experience. From the purely contemplative perspective – what ancient Greek philosophers referred to as theoria, as opposed to praxis – moral actions and stances disclose their structural or formal features, much as the organs and structural features of a living human body can be traced back to genetic material that serves as a template or source-code. As consciousness is moved from the purely contemplative standpoint by a potent impulse (i.e., some desire or fear) to action, these invisible, encoded factors are mysteriously but indisputably translated into bones, musculature, nerves, pulsing arteries, veins, and flesh. The move from detached, theoretical contemplation to engaged, practical action is, figuratively speaking, a kind of incarnation, with all the limiting as well as opportunity-providing implications that are packed into that word. The word (or logos, idea) made flesh. Remote vision becomes immediate involvement. The audience member leaves his seat and steps onto the stage – becoming con-scripted, as it were, in the eternal drama.

Philosophical conundrums arise when these two human capacities – contemplation and action, disinterested witnessing and interested involvement – become conflated or when they remain undifferentiated and undeveloped. If one is cultivated at the expense or neglect of the other, an imbalanced existence invariably results.

While immersed in the realm of action, we are continually exhorted or expected (from within and without) to take a stand for good against evil. This oppositional dynamic is predicated upon the moral-metaphysical presupposition that good and evil are independent essences and that good should always strive to prevail over evil. This profound and widely encountered presupposition can be traced back to Zoroaster, also known by his Greek name, Zarathustra. To allow our consciousness to blindly subscribe to this dualistic moral scheme is to turn our backs upon our innate capacity for detached contemplation. When we fail to develop this capacity or when we become so immersed in the moral war (or, in those cases where the person is saddled with a punier battery-pack, the skirmish or spat) between good and evil that we ignore our capacity for disinterested contemplation, we forfeit our indispensable allotment of potential freedom, while operating through a body and in a world where necessity (ananke) reigns supreme.

In relinquishing this sacred inheritance—our priceless capacity for disinterested contemplation—we are like delusional actors who become lost in our roles on the stage – lost with countless others who are also snugly strapped into their cramped little Matrix-pods or their cave-chairs, forever mistaking shadows on the wall for substance. The continual affirmation (of the veracity of this hallucinatory spectacle that ‘immersed’ experience consists in) that we receive from our thoroughly bamboozled and deluded friends, family members, teachers, preachers, and mass media representatives makes our task of “snapping out of it” far more difficult than would be the case if authentic contemplation and disinterested reflection were even slightly more popular. But as it turns out, most who undertake this difficult and demanding work of sanity-restoring “dis-enchantment” are pretty much left to work things out on their own. The astute reader will have put two and two together by now and recognized that what goes by the tragically misleading names of “common sense” and “conventional wisdom” amount to little more than a collective phantasmagoria from the detached perspective of disinterested contemplation. In fact, to do full justice to the tragic irony at the root of the “human situation” – now as ever – it must be conceded that the reverse is also true: from a conventional standpoint, detached contemplation is almost universally regarded as both a mild species of madness and a deplorable form of moral irresponsibility.

I mention these sobering facts (which are verified throughout history by all genuine philosophers, sages, and seers – stretching back to ancient Greece and beyond) because it is of utmost importance that the candidate for initiation into the contemplative life be prepared for the practically insurmountable resistance that will be encountered, both within the psyche and from “the world,” as the precious capacity for freedom from “commonsensical insanity” is recognized and courageously cultivated.  Perhaps as few as one in a million souls elevate philosophical contemplation or spiritual-psychological liberation to the summit of their priorities, thus making it their lifelong goal. The number of temptations, distractions, excuses, obstacles, and potential derailments that stand between the seeker and his goal is so daunting that it is small wonder that so few ever reach – and then hold their position on – that summit.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about this journey from genuine, first-hand experience is aware of the insufficiency of “climbing” and “lofty” imagery here. For, as Heraclitus – a genuine philosopher – wrote: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” If the elevation or altitude attained by the theoretical philosopher distances him from the “conscripted” hallucinators in the wide, populated valley below, the corresponding (and unavoidable) descent into the underworld (which is the equally spacious and compelling counterpart to the Uranian, celestial realm) is distancing in a very different way. Zeus and Hades were brothers, but they presided over very different realms. One ruled over the sky and the heavens, while the other was Lord of the Underworld.[1]

But nothing that pertains to the heart of heavenly philosophy and depth psychology is untouched by the profoundest irony. Thus, only the philosopher-psychologist who has endured these nearly unendurable estrangements and alienations from his “kith and kin” earns the serpent-like power to slither into and through the most intimate recesses of their souls – of which they, alas, usually know next to nothing. In this way, the estranged seeker of dark and mysterious visions and insights finds his way back to those he long ago parted from in sadness and confusion. He returns to the fold – not as a rapacious wolf in sheep’s clothing, but as a grateful and compassionate survivor of tests and trials, the weight and gravity of which he has learned to take the measure. He returns not to be fully reinstated (or re-conscripted) into the tribe, but to serve, henceforth, as ambassador from a foreign land – ever on the lookout for those who have the calling for the lonely road to heaven through hell.


[1] Hades was of course the God of the depths, the God of invisibles… Hades is said to have had no temples or altars in the upperworld and his confrontation with it is experienced as a violence, a violation (Persephone’s rape; the assaults on simple vegetative nymphs, Leuce and Minthe; and Iliad 5, 395 or Pindar Ol. 9, 33). He is so invisible in fact that the entire collection of Greek antique art shows no ideal portrait of Hades, such as we are familiar with of other Gods… On vase paintings when Hades is shown, he may have his face averted, as if he were not even characterized by a specific physiognomy. All this “negative” evidence does coalesce to form a definite image of a void, and interiority or depth that is unknown but nameable, there and felt even if not seen. Hades is not an absence, but a hidden presence – even an invisible fullness… Some say that the cap or helmet Hades wears belongs primarily to Hermes and may have little or nothing to do with Hades. This hat is a curious phenomenon: Hermes wears it, Hades wears it; Athene puts it on to beat Ares, and Perseus to overcome the Gorgon. It makes its wearer invisible. Evidently the explicit image of connection between Hermes and Hades is the headdress. Hermes and Hades share a certain style of covering their heads that both hides their thoughts and perceives hidden thoughts. It is their intentions that become invisible. We cannot perceive where there “heads are at,” though we may have the sense of a hidden watch over our inmost thoughts. Because we can never discover what their covert minds intend, we consider them deceptive, unpredictable, frightening – or wise… When we consider the House of Hades, we must remember that the myths – and Freud too – tell us that there is no time in the underworld. There is no decay, no progress, no change of any sort. Because time has nothing to do with the underworld, we may not conceive the underworld as “after” life, except as the afterthoughts within life. The house of Hades is a psychological realm now, not an eschatological realm later. It is not a far off place of judgment over our actions that provides that place of judging now, and within, the inhibiting reflection interior to our actions… The simultaneity of the underworld with the daily world is imaged by Hades coinciding indistinguishable he with Zeus, or identical with Zeus chthonios. The brotherhood of Zeus and Hades says that upper and lower worlds are the same; only the perspectives differ. There is only one in the same universe, coexistent and synchronous, but one brother’s view sees it from above and through the light, the other from below and into its darkness. Hades realm is contiguous with life, touching it at all points, just below it, it shadow brother (Doppelgänger) giving to life its depth and its psyche. (The Dream and the Underworld; James Hillman; pp. 27-30)


Hellenism and Modern America (12/22/09)

Science and the liberal arts (literature, history, painting, sculpture, ethics) were already beginning to undergo a divisive split during the Hellenistic period (323 B.C.—26 B.C.)—a couple of millennia before C.P. Snow wrote of the “Two Cultures.”[1] Plato and Aristotle had both attempted, throughout their careers, to preserve the undivided unity of the sciences (including mathematics) and the arts—because of their shared conception of philosophy as a comprehensive attempt to account for the whole in terms that embraced the entire human being. It may be profitable for us to take a close look at this initial divergence of science and the liberal arts within the peculiar cultural/political context of Hellenism. We know, for instance, that with the decline and eventual demise of the polis (along with the spread of a comparatively leveling cosmopolitanism), aristocratic forms and vertical (“top-down”) ways of rank ordering rapidly gave way to more “lateral,” plebeian modes of thought and feeling.

Examples are abundant. Sculpture becomes increasingly ornate, sentimental, and even melodramatic—very different, indeed, from the austere, Apollonic ideals of the classical period. Menander’s comedies provide a prototype for the modern sitcom—homely characters in often farcical predicaments drawn from everyday life. These plays (like the story of Jason and the Argonauts) are meant primarily to entertain and amuse a general audience. The comedies of Aristophanes, by contrast, though certainly funny even by today’s standards, were culturally substantive and politically serious in their use of satire. Comparing Aristophanes’ The Birds or The Clouds to a comedy by Menander is a bit like comparing a movie like “Network” to “The Forty Year-old Virgin.” The two principal philosophies of the Hellenistic era—Stoicism and Epicureanism—have frequently been characterized as more or less dignified stratagems for escape. Escape from what? From the uncertainty, the anxieties, and the general sense of disorientation endured by so many persons after the decay and collapse of the old religious and political orders.

Very much like our own era, it was a time marked by cultural decomposition, with the concomitant leveling of traditional forms and hallowed values from a magnificent past. Such a situation permits the release of social, political, economic, and psychological energies that had formerly been blocked or held in check during the more repressive and socially restricted aristocratic scheme that exclusively favored a limited ruling elite. The variety, mobility, and fluidity of Hellenistic society made for a very different mental and cultural context than that inhabited by Aeschylus and Sophocles—and even later, during the careers of Plato and Aristotle, when troubling signs of cultural-political decay were already quite conspicuous.

Is there a possible historical parallel between ancient Macedon’s role in the spread of Hellenism and present-day America’s role in the spread of modern Western (European-rooted) culture? In the ancient case, we have a provincial, outlying Greek nation of warrior-adventurers led by a “world-conquering” leader who envisions a cosmopolitan, Greek-speaking empire. In the modern case, we have a “rough and ready” former colony equipped with the practical, economic, communicational, and military might required to establish and temporarily maintain a global, U.S.-dominated, English-speaking empire. Both Hellenism and American capitalism-consumerism operate by absorbing and recruiting the natives of conquered territories (or markets) into their institutional-educational schemes—reshaping and adapting these local cultures, usually in as non-destructive a manner as possible (as the Romans would do after the Hellenistic model, and the British would do after the Roman model) into cooperative dependents.


One way of backing up the claim that philosophy should be at the summit of human activities or disciplined pursuits—higher in natural rank than physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and all the many arts and practical activities which are taught in our universities and polytechnic institutes—is to demonstrate that philosophy is not only more comprehensive than all these other disciplines, but that, in overseeing all of them, it seeks to determine how these noble but lesser arts and sciences contribute to the overall good of humanity—and what that good consists in. Moreover, the philosopher—or “lover of wisdom”—is not inclined to profess (and by no means to preach!) that there is a simple or final recipe for the “overall good of humanity.” Nevertheless, unlike the physicist, the biologist, and the physician, who—in their official capacities—confine their attention to material, biochemical, and physiological phenomena, the philosopher concerns himself with a much broader array of questions, problems, and phenomena. These include the phenomena dealt with by scientists, of course, but they extend to arenas for which the powerful but restricted methods of science are inappropriate and often quite ham-fisted. Not that scientists haven’t intrusively meddled, now and again, in such inappropriate domains as ethics, politics, psychology, and history. Fortunately, the blunders and follies of scientism have had a chastening and cautionary effect upon many who might otherwise be tempted to misuse scientific methods outside the ample, but by no means infinite, domain wherein they are fit to be employed.

The diplomatic passport of the philosopher, when it has been justly earned, entitles him to freely enter domains that are either closed off to the various subordinate disciplines or which have little or nothing to offer to him. This universally honored passport of the philosopher which enables him to take the totality of phenomena, questions, and perspectives within his purview and speculative embrace is earned only by virtue of his commitment to take the whole seriously into consideration over the course of his life career.


If we begin with the working hypothesis that cultural epochs are born, develop, ripen, and then decay after the manner of living creatures—as various students of history and culture have claimed before us—then, it follows that we can derive a number of useful insights which may profitably guide our understanding and our action in the particular “phase” we happen to inhabit. Put simply, modes of thinking, feeling, and acting that are properly suited to the youthful or adolescent stage of a culture (here regarded as a vital organism with a lifespan that roughly resembles that of a man) are quite unsuitable for middle and old age, when the organism begins to wane in vitality and to gradually—or abruptly—fall apart.

If there is a centripetal and coagulative tendency evident in the first half of a culture’s lifespan, the second half is comparatively centrifugal, dispersive, and eventually decompositional. At a midpoint, these divergent modalities would be relatively poised in a condition of equilibrium. This polaristic scheme entailing growth and consolidation, on the one hand, and decay and decomposition, on the other, transcends human reason and human will—collective or individual—in terms of scope and determining power. As humans, we are its children and its servants—not the other way around. Being governed by the overarching life cycle of the cultural organism that we are part of, rather than governing and determining it—is it not both in our own collective interests and that of the unfolding culture itself to coordinate, as best we can, our thoughts and actions with the requirements and conditions of the phase we happen to inhabit?[2]

And yet, here we run into a very interesting problem. While it is true that these symptoms of youth and age can be observed in the field of temporal or historical events, they are also archetypal and therefore are manifest to some degree or another, at all times. If we look, for example, at the well-documented life cycle of Greek culture, we find Bronze Age Homeric heroes at the founding (or childhood) phase and Epicurean and Stoic copers during the foundering, Hellenistic phase, near the end. To carry this illustration further, we might position the tragedians (Aeschylus and Sophocles, but not Euripides for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who has studied Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy) and the Pre-Socratics (especially Pythagoras, Anaximander, and Heraclitus) at the prime point of equilibrium. It is perhaps also worth noting that when an “anomalous” representative appears (who is conspicuously out-of-step with his/her own phase or background, like the black spot in the white hemisphere of the yin-yang symbol), he or she commands a disproportionate amount of attention. Alexander the Great, who appears in the dotage of that life cycle known in its entirety as “Hellas,” was in certain respects a throwback to the Bronze Age of the Homeric epics. It took the strangely incongruous figure of this reincarnated Achilles to consolidate and preserve for posterity the legacy of the long growth cycle that has entered its sunset with his career. He may be likened to a supernova. (Nietzsche says much the same thing about Napoleon with respect to modern European culture—that he was an atavism, an anomalous recurrence of Roman virtú, out of season.)

These anomalous figures who are born out of season possess an almost magical potency vis-à-vis their own times. Why is this? Because they are complementary to (and, in a sense, the polar opposites of) their times. They fill in the many blanks that are produced by the one-sidedness of the collective attitude. In this sense, the complementary men (and Nietzsche, I believe offers an excellent example of this in his own anomalous career) embody all those virtues, vices, perspectives, inclinations, and dangerous possibilities that are unconsciously repressed or neglected in accordance with the general requirements of the culture at its particular stage of unfoldment. If we use youth and seasoned maturity (or old age) as illustrations of this complementarity, we see that now and again the energetic and ambitious young man at once desires and resists the companionship of the wise elder—and vice versa. The young man—because he is dimly aware that he has a good deal more energy and enthusiasm than wisdom—may recognize the value and importance of the elder’s advice and guidance. Nevertheless, another part of him wants to proceed alone, learning and discovering everything for himself—even if that means risking some big blunders and setbacks that may be easily prevented by heeding the elder’s wise counsel. The elder, on the other hand, instinctively wishes to pass on to the younger generation whatever wisdom and insight he may have gathered over a long lifetime. Moreover, the company of the young is vitalizing and pleasant to him. But, by the same token, the years of hardship and disappointment (which provided both the soil and the grapes from which the wine of wisdom was fermented) have left him with his share of bitterness and with a certain impatient disdain for the foolishness and the thick-headedness of youth. He must temper this bitterness and disdain before he is a fit guide for the young.


[2] Certainly I am not recommending some slavish conformity to conventional trends or values—the sort of conformity that is inimical to individual development and unfoldment. Rather, I am merely suggesting that we strive to establish our (intellectual and ethical) bearings within the culture and epoch (that fate has seen fit to plunge us into) as they actually are constituted, rather than as we would ideally prefer them to be! The way towards liberation from the blind spots and prejudices of our culture and age begins, I would argue, with our conscious adaptation to the reality of our situation and not with its wholesale denial and dismissal.