A Word about Jung’s Religious Fantasy (5/6/14)

Jung, in ‘Answer to Job,’ sketches out what the reader might initially suppose to be a significant advance over the traditional Christian idea of man as a puny, impotent creature—a creature who, though created by God (in His image), does not thereby share in God’s divine power or knowledge. Jung’s proposal is that God needs man to carry out or fulfill His creation. This re-definition of man as God’s little helper—his ‘eyes’ and ‘hands’ in the world—is intended, I suspect, to elevate man’s status, to dignify him by assigning divinely creative potentials and a divine telos in the ongoing task of world-creation and world-maintenance. This active-creative function is implicitly contrasted with the stubborn old image of man as the passive, woefully finite and wayward product of God’s unlimited power (Job). Man as mere creature—unable to fully partake in God’s divine power and knowledge—is, at bottom, a kind of prisoner and victim of creation, tainted since the Fall with Original Sin. While I am not about to try and defend such a degrading and pessimistic view of the human being, as such, I’m not sure that Jung’s ‘doctored’ portrait—wherein man is endowed with a divinely creative role, working with his creator to redeem the world—amounts to anything more than a glorified fantasy image of man—perhaps a merely compensatory inflation of the formerly puny creature. Instead of transcending both man and God—as Advaita appears to do—it retains the old fictional dualism (between creator and creature) but with certain ennobling embellishments accorded to the creature. So, the social mobility of the post-Enlightenment, ‘liberal’ West is subtly echoed in the theological mobility of Jung’s philanthropic myth of Judeo-Christian redemption.

Moreover, the Advaitist would unhesitatingly note that Jung’s religious fantasy takes the world—the field of history and temporality—as real, while it is in truth no more than a vivid hallucination, a trick of the mind, a nightmare from which we are better advised to awaken—and not cultivate like some kind of reclaimed Garden of Eden.

Self and Psyche, Jung and Ramana Maharshi (3/18/13)

The thoughts that occupy our minds may profitably be conceived as symptomatic of the mental context or perspective in which we are, for the moment (or, as the case may be, for decades), situated. Our thoughts are the fauna and flora native to that psychic ‘habitat.ʼ To pursue and to work up these thoughts is, at the same time, to further substantiate the enfolding context or perspective—thus making the perspective look and feel all the more solidly and compellingly established. Often, we unwittingly attribute causal status to these thoughts, although when regarded from the standpoint of their generative context or matrix, they are better regarded as symptoms or effects, just as whales, sharks, plankton, and starfish are ‘consequences’ of the life-generating sea, and not its cause.

Our efforts to ‘objectify’ and to extricate ourselves from these enfolding mental contexts or inherited perspectives will be thwarted if our attention remains engrossed in their enchanting or vexing fauna and flora. It behooves us to be mistrustful of the metaphysical pretensions of all bounded mental contexts, along with all the indigenous creatures spawned within their Garden-gates or horizons. Only thus—with such salutary and sobering mistrust as our loyal ally—are we able to wake up from the dream of the ʽmany worldsʼ and learn, at last, to imaginatively play, where before we moiled and toiled on various maintenance crews.

From this perspective we are granted a somewhat fuller view of the crucial differences between Jungian psychology and Ramana Maharshiʼs spiritual standpoint. Jung speaks on numerous occasions of the reality of the psyche. I think it is fair to say that what Jung is calling psyche Ramana Maharshi would call mind plus the vāsanās (the innate or residual tendencies of the mind). And more importantly, Ramana Maharshi does not dignify the mind or the vāsanās with ‘realityʼ status. Only the Self is held to be real and abolute. Everything else—including the psyche—being derivative, is less than real, since nothing but the formless Self is self-subsistent, and this self-subsistence is what constitutes reality in RMʼs book. At first, this may seem like a logical quibble or set piece, like Anselmʼs ʽproofʼ of God, but thereʼs more to it than this.

Before the reader is tempted to make a fateful choice between Jungʼs psychology and RMʼs spiritual teachings concerning the all-embracing Self, let us dive a little bit deeper into this subtle business—a region of deeply intriguing questions where mere words and general concepts are more apt to get in the way than to be of assistance to the diver. In order to begin properly, we would do well to place both Jung and RM within the contexts they were responding to in their seemingly different teachings.

As we know, Jung was up against the thick, proud wall of 19th century European materialism at its zenith, while RM was operating snugly within the well-established Indian spiritual tradition. He was, as Jung famously referred to him, ‘the whitest spot in a white space.ʼ In order for Jung to gain cultural relevance (in order to fulfill his fate?), he had to come to terms with the materialist context in which he was immersed. The generally embraced metaphysical presuppositions of materialism implicitly denied full reality status to immeasurable and intangible spiritual/psychic phenomena. Within the jealously guarded fortress walls of the empirical-scientific worldview, there were no entry visas for anything that was not demonstrably reducible to matter or energy in quantifiable terms. It was agreed that terms like ‘mind,ʼ ‘soul,ʼ ‘God,ʼ and ‘ideasʼ referred to intangibles that nonetheless meant something, however vague and confused, to human beings (even to clear-thinking, no-nonsense persons like inorganic chemists and physicists). Accordingly, these weightless, immeasurable, and immaterial factors could not simply be ignored or categorically dismissed as utter poppycock or ‘silly nothings,ʼ although more than a few ‘Positivist’ zealots advocated such a wholesale rejection of all non-quantitative ‘phantasms.ʼ Nonetheless, even among those who granted a kind of provisional reality status to these insubstantial elements (of intellectual-imaginative-moral-spiritual experience), there was a generally shared belief that eventually all of these features of consciousness would be adequately accounted for in material terms—e.g., electrochemical processes; stimulus response of the human organism within its environment; neural pathways; behavioral habits rooted in the brain; and so forth.

When Jung argued for the reality of the psyche he was not embarking on a philosophical-metaphysical quest or campaign. He was not attempting to credit intangible psychic contents with quite the same ontological or metaphysical status that material objects and processes had been endowed with by the ruling scientific establishment. Perhaps his move—his intellectual stratagem—was a bit tricky or super-subtle, but instead of trying to induct intangible, invisible psychic contents into the exclusive club of materialist metaphysics, he simply dismissed dogmatic metaphysics altogether as a standpoint having anything of real or authoritative value to say about the psyche as such. And he accomplished this bold, brazen maneuver by simply turning the whole question on its head. By inverting the order of priority—by making the psyche the primary datum of experience—Jung, in a single move, made metaphysics a dependent subset of the psyche, which for him became the precondition, the sine qua non, of all experience. Some critics of Jung have called this move ‘psychologism’—the undermining of all possibility of philosophical truths by exposing their roots in that protean, irrational datum: the unconscious psyche.

In this way, Jung—who was not a professional or trained philosopher (although he had read Kant on his own, and was deeply impressed)—had delivered as deadly a blow to Western metaphysics as Heidegger had done (from the phenomenological direction). Instead of painstakingly unraveling it, after the manner of Heidegger and his deconstructionist followers, he simply cut the Gordian knot in one fell swoop. To repeat: he argued, in effect, that because all metaphysical positions, claims, and assertions are generated by the psyche (just as dreams, myths, and symbols are), they can never be more comprehensive, more authentic, or more grounding than the matrix out of which they emerge spontaneously and autonomously. Basing his findings upon years of experience with the phenomena of the unconscious psyche (gathered from his patients, from himself, and from the myths, religious symbols, and other recurring motifs in human cultural history), Jung concluded that the psyche is ultimately opaque, mysterious, and irreducible to any of the categories and forms of thought that we have at our conscious disposal. But, he claimed, despite its ultimately unfathomable mysteriousness—despite its transcendence of all our rational categories and methods—it appears (again, phenomenologically, and therefore, in Jung’s perhaps idiosyncratic view of phenomenology, empirically) to operate in accordance with certain ‘heuristic principles’ or observable patterns. Like the interplay of yin and yang—or between various elements in chemical processes—the psyche, of which our consciously differentiated ego-standpoint is but an outgrowth, is not a merely chaotic mystery, but a mystery that holds out the promise of wise understanding and a fuller participation in life. And since the psyche is itself the matrix of consciousness, it provides us with the means with which to make some kind of meaningful sense of it: dreams, myths, ‘archetypal’ images, ‘Gods,’ etc.

So, now we can see that while Jung posits the reality of the psyche (as an immediately experienceable datum that is directly presented to us in the form of autonomously produced images and fantasy material, which constitute its natural language), this ‘reality’ has a very different status than we encounter in rational philosophy and traditional metaphysics. It is the ground or basis of all possible experience (a claim RM will make about the Self), but it resists all comprehension by necessarily limited human rationality. From one angle, this disqualifies the psyche from being a suitable object for traditional philosophical treatment or analysis—since, as we have noted, it transcends the very terms and axiomatic principles upon which rational philosophy is founded.[1] And while the unconscious psyche is ultimately opaque and stumpingly enigmatic, it nevertheless appears to generate forms that invite (or elicit) meaningful interpretations from us. As Jung saw it, this need for meaning (and for the mental orientation it can provide) appears to be innate in human beings. Our languages, myths, rituals, religions, philosophies—and more recently, our rather threadbare ideologies—have served, with mixed success, to organize meanings and values into systems that mediate for us, collectively. They serve as cultural interfaces between human consciousness and the enigmas of the collective unconscious.

When viewed against the backdrop of his cultural-ideological milieu (namely, the scientific-materialistic-rationalistic modern Western worldview) Jung introduced both creative ideas and corrosive criticisms that left many of the ground-floor presuppositions of that worldview utterly untenable.[2] By opening up the psyche as phenomenologically explorable territory—territory that is situated well beneath the cultural forms and artifacts acquired and assimilated by means of the best formal educations available to us—Jung not only greatly expanded the scope of the discernible and the intelligible. He also introduced more exacting standards of subtlety in treating these little-explored factors and phenomena—standards of subtlety that make former (reductive) methods seem ham-fisted and narrow by comparison.

In our efforts to better understand the points of difference between Jung and RM, then, we must first take note of these differences between Jung’s subtle, inner-directed, culturally assimilative depth psychology and the generally outer-directed, (largely) psychologically unreflective material science that still commands the most respect where questions about the nature of things are at issue, at least here in the West. So, how did the reality of the psyche—or its validity as a ‘scientificʼ hypothesis—become established? Due to a combination of cultural, educational, and other collective factors, the realm of the psyche (or soul) had been pretty much relegated to a marginal zone inhabited by impractical or ‘madʼ poets, the ‘innocent’ faithful, dubious charlatans, theosophists, and lunatics. It was only when members of the ‘normalʼ and ‘respectableʼ bourgeoisie began to suffer from troubling and embarrassing neurotic symptoms that serious attention started to be directed towards the mysterious source of these bizarre maladies of the mind.

Freud is generally credited with having discovered the subconscious—but the groundwork for his valuable theoretical and practical contributions to the new ‘scienceʼ of depth psychology had been prepared by dozens of pioneering minds before him. Jung, having worked closely with Freud as a young psychiatrist, inherited the best that his simultaneously celebrated and reviled mentor could offer him—and then carried the flickering candle deeper into the transpersonal realm of the archetypal unconscious. His theoretical writings on the structure and dynamics of the psyche—founded upon extensive clinical work with patients from around the world, and supported by his own life-altering, protracted encounter with the unconscious during the years before and during the First World War—stand proudly beside the most eminent and revered works of psychic cartography within the possession of Western humanity. Written in a prose style that reflects the scientific temper of the times in which they appeared (but which always points beyond the limits of that worldview), these works possess a lucidity and power that speak to the innermost depths of the attuned modern reader. Suffice it to say that Jung’s writings—along with those of the other genuine depth psychologists—have succeeded in communicating the strange but partially intelligible inner processes of the psyche. Today, for anyone who has been initiated into a dialectical relationship with the unconscious psyche, there is a new dimension of experience that is every bit as vast, complex, and mysterious as the outer universe is—but immediately accessible, unlike the outer universe. Speaking about the outer realm, the British evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.ʼ This observation certainly applies to the psyche, as well—that ever-present but perplexing source from which our angelic and demonic impulses, our transcendent and bestial yearnings, and our fate-shaping dreams and imaginings mysteriously arise.

[1] I suppose I don’t need to point out the fact that ‘irrational philosophy’ is simply an oxymoron.

[2] Physicists and biologists living today will no doubt insist that no one who fails to grasp the fundamental ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics, of molecular and evolutionary biology, can claim to be fully or adequately educated. With much the same brazen temerity, I would argue that any contemporary thinker who has not thoroughly assimilated Jung’s fundamental insights and perspectives is living at least a hundred years ‘behind the times.ʼ

Walking the Plank (8/18/12)

We are not in a position to ‘see through’ the world until we have first made significant headway in seeing the world as it is. Only after we have begun to see the world as it is do we become properly suspicious of our cozy comfortableness in that world. When we have come to deplore lax conformity and passive compliance with the terms and conditions of the socio-political world and—from the other end of the spectrum—after we have stepped back from our fiery-passionate campaigns to alter those terms and conditions: only then, perhaps, do we properly begin to ‘see through’—and beyond—the world as it is.

The perspective that is able to see through and beyond the world is already situated beyond or outside the bounds of the world as it is, even though it is unconscious and not within easy reach for many of us. Therefore, seeing through and beyond the world as it is consists principally of learning how to establish our consciousness within that centered, neutral position, and to hold that position. This is the eye of the storm—the inner standpoint where ‘the lion lies down with the lamb.’ It is not a physical paradise, a socio-political utopia, or some heaven in the sky. It is a quiet, undisturbed inner state of balance—upon a razor’s edge. It is what is left over after we have glutted and rutted, beaten and drubbed, our way into the world—and ultimately found the world to be even more devouring and consuming than our own unbridled appetites!

As we know, all the world’s great religions have both an exoteric body of teachings and an esoteric one. Exoteric Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have evolved, over the centuries, to provide moral guidance, a more or less coherent worldview, and metaphysical comfort for the many, while the esoteric traditions provide teachings for the few—teachings that pertain to release, enlightenment, spiritual liberation, centeredness, and mystical vision. Responding to the human situation as it is—and as it will no doubt continue to be—exoteric religion provides rules and instructive examples to be followed by the many (and their all too frequently venal and mediocre political leaders). It is hoped that such moral instruction will serve as a check against doing mischief to themselves and to others while they are confined or embedded within the world as it is. They are promised rewards—usually in an afterlife, but sometimes in the here and now—if they will only abide by these rules and try to imitate the saintly exemplars. The rewards and punishments that are implicit in the moral teachings which are central to all exoteric religions naturally function as ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ for the followers. As long as they respect these moral prescriptions, they feel themselves to be human beings who possess inherent dignity and are, therefore, deserving of respect from other humans. When they violate or ignore these traditional moral commands they are little more than wild beasts, and are made to feel so—both by other decent humans and by their own guilty consciences. Exoteric religions, at least in the West, are not about release from (or genuine enlightenment about) the nature of the world as it is. They are chiefly concerned with establishing and preserving social and moral order within that world, and are therefore ingredient to human civilization as such.

The esoteric teachings from all the religious traditions, on the other hand, speak to that part or perspective within us that is not merely embedded in ‘the world as it is,’ but which silently and detachedly observes. It is a kind of seeing that gently resists merger or identification with that which is seen. To the extent that it is able to preserve this distinction between itself (as seer) and the seen, the observer within is free, unbound, and content. As a contented, self-subsistent seer, there is no compulsion to act, to go anywhere, to alter anything. For all these actions are perceived either as disturbances or modifications—either faint or tremendous—of the quiet abidance in Being in itself. This state, when assessed from the standpoint of normal human (or ego-) consciousness, appears to be utterly and perhaps shockingly transpersonal. Although the stubborn sense of ‘I-ness’ or personal consciousness begins to dissolve in the centered, uncompelled perspective like a salt crystal in water, this state is by no means sterile, nugatory, inhuman, or devoid of vitality. It is, however, the vitality of light, and not of a dynamo or of spirited animality. The terms and qualities that we are forcibly obliged to employ from the ‘normal’ standpoint of ego-consciousness are simply inapplicable to the serene, centered consciousness of the seer within. [1]

Over the years, my own efforts to deepen and to extend my experiences of this centered state have not been infrequent or half-hearted. Ever since I first experienced ‘mystical’ or ‘transcendent’ states as a youth I have repeatedly undertaken a serious and energetic pursuit of the contemplative life. Nevertheless, my path has certainly not been a straight or direct one. My journey has taken me into a dozen or so different regions of study and experience, but I have always remained faithful, down deep, to the path of liberation, even when I venture from this path from time to time. The state of centeredness is, for me, the most real, the most comprehensive, and the most intrinsically free perspective that I know of from experience. All else—including all that the world and ordinary human experiences have to offer—is, alas, of peripheral or relative worth, and pales by comparison.

Now, whether it should be trusted or deeply suspected, I have long been governed by an inner determination to try to reconcile my intermittent transcendent experiences with my cultural-philosophical-moral knowledge and experience. This seems to be my inwardly assigned, or fated ‘task’—although I am all too painfully aware of how colossal and unfinishable this task ultimately is. It dwarfs my meager abilities and exposes the paucity of my learning. And yet, my commitment to the task is a commitment that I do not—perhaps cannot—shirk or argue away, so integral it is to the health and integrity of my soul. It is my modest contribution to the general campaign—undertaken by spiritually-motivated persons everywhere and at all times—to construct bridges from the bank of the world to that of the contemplative and serene seer.

Although my journey thus far has been circuitous and, at times, seemingly episodic, the ultimate aim has remained unwavering: liberation by means of ingathering of my attention, attaining a state of centeredness, and attempting to maintain a critical distance from the devouring seductions and allurements, the boogies and the threatening phantasms, of the world as it is—the world as it is seen through the distorting lens of the de-centered mind. The seemingly episodic character of my journey stems from my having explored a number of well-traveled regions of typical experience—regions such as ‘romantic,’ conjugal, and friendly love; archetypal psychology and the Western philosophical tradition; artistic creativity and literary studies; politics and moral theory; comparative religion and mythological studies. From the standpoint of the centered seer all of these regions or arenas of knowledge and experience constitute more or less reliable platforms from which we may involve ourselves with the world. They are interrelated but relatively independent realms. And, perhaps most importantly, they can be traps or snares in which the seer may become lost.

My own involvement in each of these realms is ultimately governed by a will to release. Consequently, I have learned to approach them like a latter-day Houdini who is chiefly alert to the often hidden orifices and weak links that allow one to wriggle out of one’s bonds. The strongest weapon against entrapment in any particular domain of relatively coherent and compelling experience is—as I have observed many times in the past—the mental ability to melt literal forms into metaphors. In viewing and experiencing forms and phenomena imaginally instead of concretistically, symbolically instead of literally, we are able to divine the meaning trapped within these forms—meaning that is obscured or blocked from view so long as we think exclusively in literal terms. Unfortunately, this literal, matter-of-fact, reductionist manner of seeing things has been encouraged by the dominant scientific/materialistic worldview lurking behind virtually all ‘acceptable’ and culturally sanctioned statements and positions.

Why am I engaged in this work of searching for weak links and escape routes from the various regions that have captivated my interest throughout the years? I believe now that I was initially drawn to these arenas of experience and these ‘ways of seeing’ precisely because they promised—each in its own distinctive way—to provide a path towards a viable form of personal or spiritual fulfillment. The more I invested in these particular studies and personal involvements the more I came to see that these prospects of fulfillment were only half-true at best. The steps taken within these arenas—as my knowledge and understanding deepened—were like rungs on a ladder. The rungs would mysteriously vanish below me as I climbed higher (or descended lower, as the case may be, since ‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’). My thoughts and insights would progressively become subtler, more inclusive and synthetic, as I moved deeper and deeper into each region. I could see and feel myself becoming absorbed by the realm as I became more absorbed with its particular phenomena. There was certainly as much that was limiting and circumscribing about such immersions as there was liberating and transcendent about them. There would, for example, be a sense of exhilaration or momentary transcendence (say, of a lower or former ‘rung’) as I had an articulate experience of the next depth or stage—but this would soon enough settle into a new norm, or average, and the ‘shine’ of its earlier numinosity would fade.

What I have gradually come to realize is that with the formal, intellectual, emotional, and even imaginal experiences that we undergo as we delve deeper and deeper into the roots of a realm—say, of epistemology or romantic love—we ultimately wind up on a kind of plank, on the side of the craft we’ve been sailing in. The ‘plank’ ordeal is the liminal experience—the encounter with that strange frontier between the continuity of thought and the coherence of familiar experience, on the one hand, and the transcendent mystery that defies adequate formulation and representation by the human intellect, feelings, and imagination, on the other.

If the sea beckons us and we leap—all our accumulated knowledge, insight, and experience are seen no longer as our possessions. They were merely the vessel that brought us to the leaping-off place. At some level we had to already know—or at least strongly suspect—that the vessel could take us no further on our journey, since vessels float upon the surface of the wide expanse of the sea. That is their nature and function, due to their buoyancy. But if the watery depths call us, we already know that in swallowing us up, they more than compensate for the paltry cargo on board the vessel we leapt from. Knowing how to swim—before we leap into the sea—may be helpful, but if we have learned how to breathe underwater, our plunge will yield even richer finds. All platforms, ultimately, turn out to be diving platforms for those who are called, by fate, to the depths, are they not?

[1] It is for this reason that we link apophatic or negative theology with mystical vision. Instead of ascribing to the seer (or the deus absconditus, the hidden ‘God’) virtues and qualities that are known and intelligible to us in our ordinary experience, the apophatic approach says what it is not. The shift from ordinary ego-consciousness to mystical identification with the seer, or the Godhead, involves the transcendence of all the ‘concepts and categories,’ the criteria and rationality, of the former standpoint.

The Non-dualism of Ramana Maharshi (8/3/11)

Ramana Maharshi’s momentous realization—at the tender age of 16—that all is consciousness and that consciousness (of the one Self) is the only Reality, makes for a wonderful launch pad for radical inquiry. If we take him seriously, he is saying not merely that the projections (projected through the illusory ego that I mistake myself for) from the Self (the source-light in the projector) are aspects of this one consciousness, but so are the ‘screens’ upon which the projection is thrown. It is this crucial inclusion of the screen(s) that saves RM’s teachings from being dualistic. But it doesn’t make much ‘spiritual’ sense to speak of projections and screen (or ‘hooks’ for the projections) once the Two have sunk back into the unity of the Self. This would perhaps be the last pair of opposites to go—that between the subject and object, leaving nothing behind but complete abidance by the Self in itself. But, technically speaking, how can this be called ‘consciousness’ if there is no longer a differentiated subject and an object (of some sort!) for the subject to be conscious of? (This is why Nisargadatta makes a distinction between consciousness—which depends on the subject/object separation—and absolute awareness, which has no object other than itself.) Perhaps Nietzsche was onto something when he identified this subject-object dualism in the very structure of grammar where, if we are to have a meaningful or intelligible sentence, we must have a subject and a predicate. And since rational thought basically follows from this grammatical matrix or paradigm—it ‘stands to reason,’ does it not, that any intelligible assertion about anything must model itself after this embedded and almost invariably unconscious grammatical ‘structuring’ (of consciousness) at the very ground level?

No wonder RM (and Plato, too, for that matter) repeatedly remarked upon the utter and ultimate inappropriateness of using words and rational statements (including the use of metaphors and analogies) in attempting to describe or even point to the Self and its realization (in a state of non-duality). To employ an extreme example: using words and rational statements to lead someone to Self-realization is like molesting someone in an effort to show that person the path to love and forgiveness—or shooting someone in the heart with a pistol as a preparation for showing them what healing consists in. Ensnarement in language and rational thinking (an ensnarement that many humans aspire to and haven’t even ‘mastered’ yet, let us not forget!) may constitute the single greatest unrecognized obstacle to authentic spiritual liberation facing us as a generally benighted and spiritually infantile (or adolescent, at best) species. This is precisely why all truly enlightened teachers—whether Taoists, Heracliteans, Zen Buddhists, lonely alchemists or Swiss psychologists—have consistently resorted to paradox as the best and last resort for unshackling the mind from language and reason. Paradox and irony turn words and concepts against themselves, occasionally leaving (the desired) ‘nothing’ behind.

Earning (2/2/16)

An approach to the problems associated with thinking-feeling clashes and discords can be made in terms of earning. The effort and care a person devotes to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function is not something that can fairly be dismissed by those who have done little or no work upon their own faculties. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.
Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for certain persons who have the courage to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ to the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.
Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements in the complex totality of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.
Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if admittedly juvenile or immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown–even if vestiges of that selfishness will always remain buried within us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.
Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of WINNING and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.
With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, of course, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Thrasymachus). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.