The High Cost of Education (8/24/16)

A word to idealists: disappointment must be earned. If it is true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, it is even truer that there is no such thing as a free education. Not only does it involve our suffering pain, as Aristotle observed, but we must make an active effort to obtain our freedom from consoling, insulating ignorance. Shared ignorance and prejudice: aren’t these the strongest bonds holding a surprising number of marriages, families, clans, communities, and all nations together? Thus those who, through their painful exertions, liberate their minds and hearts from ignorance and prejudice will also be most acutely aware of their solitariness. Are my words sinking in? Is it becoming clearer why, with this more stringent definition, there are so few truly educated persons around – but, at best, highly informed (or instructed) ones, which is a very different kettle of fish? Yes, indeed, so different, in fact, that these two – the rare, genuinely educated and the far more numerous “informed/instructed” – are naturally at loggerheads with each other.

So there you have it: the continual, strenuous exertion of swimming against the current; the regular experience of painful disenchantment with what’s offered on the established menu; and the often stark solitariness to which we are consigned as we inwardly negotiate the distances between our severely uncompromising sharp-sightedness and the soporific soft-focus simplicitas in which those near and dear to us often dwell! And all for the sake of an extremely limited and precarious, moment-by-moment liberation from the comforting and affiliating fog of ordinary collective consciousness! What a strange (and vexing-perplexing) lot we dogged delvers and diggers are!

Yes, the exorbitant cost of the genuine education will empty the bulging piggy banks of even the wealthiest minds. There is perhaps some consolation to be found, however, when it is at last learned that the currency one has been dispossessed of was inflated, if not counterfeit, all along.

Cells and Sensation: an updated version of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ or the Real McCoy? (10/16/16)

One way of imagining our roles as humans vis-à-vis the cosmos is to suppose ourselves to be differentiated cells in the body of the earth, regarded here as a living, quasi-conscious being. Of course, the other animals, the plants and trees, and the physical elements and compounds fill out the picture of this evolving being that relies on all of us, just as we depend on self-replicating liver-, blood-, muscle-, skin-, bone-, heart-, and brain-cells. Working within this analogy, it is of vital importance, naturally, for all of us to find out as soon as we can whether we are destined to be a heart-cell or a brain-cell, a blood-cell or a skin-cell, a digestive enzyme or an electrolyte, a complex sugar or a fatty acid – and perform our appointed function fully and properly. So long as confusion reigns within and between us, the organism is always threatened with system failure.

So how do we learn what kind of cell we are? Since our cell type is not decided or assigned by our parents or our educations – but is there, like a seed, in the beginning – often we can only come to this knowledge through a kind of self-examination. Because our cell or function type is inborn, it cannot be changed from one type into another, but it can easily be mistaken for another type, in which case we will be likely to miss our life – our intended existence.

One thing that appeals to me about this way of imagining human identity, development, and fulfillment (within a comprehensive nexus of other identities, paths of development, and functions) is that it gently releases my thinking from its accustomed abstract bearings – allowing me to envision this array of complex factors more concretely – more meaningfully rooted in sensible material conditions. For me, such a move has a salutary, corrective, and equilibrizing ‘feel’ to it. It holds out the possibility of redressing a one-sidedness that I simultaneously (and paradoxically) suffer from and exult in. I am referring to my habitual reliance upon my intuition and my abstract thinking function. The aim here is not to shut these functions down – but to counterbalance them with this enriching and ensouling concreteness.

Education and Inspiration of the Philosopher (2/17/16)

If we attend to the two principal factors involved in genuine philosophical writing – the education (knowledge base) and inspiration of the writer – it is quite natural to regard the former as feminine and the latter is masculine (after the example of yin and yang or negatively and positively charged particles). To sophisticate this scheme a little bit, we can use the analogy of producing a photographic print in a darkroom that is equipped with all the chemical baths required for developing negatives and positive prints. If, in our analogy, the source-images that wind up on the finished prints stand for the inspiring ideas that orient and animate our philosophical thinking and writing, we can more easily grasp the proper role of education (formal or otherwise) in the overall process. Just as the concentration and freshness of the chemical solutions in the developing trays, the quality of the film stock and the print paper, greatly decide the degree of faithfulness to the source-image that is being reproduced, the depth, breadth, and texture of the philosopher’s education will decide, to a great extent, how accurately, comprehensively, and subtly he will be able to formulate and embody his seminal intuitions and insights.

If, while the photographer is working in the darkroom, someone opens the door and allows light to pour into the room, the whole development process can quickly be spoiled. Similarly, the philosophical thinker may require regular periods of retreat from the busyness, chatter, and mundane activities of everyday experience in order for ‘time-lapse’ photo-images to register properly. Only under these undisturbed solitary conditions does the marriage between the higher plane of inspiration and the womb-like, educated imagination become properly consummated, cemented, and fully trustworthy. Once such a marriage is established, there may be occasional rows and spats, but seldom a divorce.

On Our Responsibility for Our Personality Development (9/14/16)

When we think about our personalities (and their cultivation and maturation) as something we are responsible for, important questions may flood upon us. If we slacken in our responsibility, not only will we have to live with the consequences each day, but others will be denied the contributions we might otherwise be in a position to make if we actually made something of ourselves. The fact of the matter is that authentic cultivation of the personality involves significant exertion, broad experience of our fellow human beings, risk, and discipline. I suspect that leisure and a certain degree of economic freedom may also be necessary for the cultivation of the personality, since a life that is severely burdened by poverty and by oppressive energy-absorbing toil will enjoy only restricted opportunity for learning, reflection, the development of one’s given talents, and for the civilized social intercourse that are essential to the full and rounded development of the personality.

But there are certainly other forms of oppression and other limitations (besides poverty and time-and-energy-devouring toil) that will stand in the way of self-cultivation. What first leaps to mind are the common vices – sloth, bitterness, restfulness, all forms of addiction, a weakness for distractions – along with psychological problems that cripple or scatter the will: chronic depression, apathy, low self-esteem, misanthropy, paranoia, etc.

The personalities of some individuals get off to an unfavorable start – with handicaps that must be surmounted before this dark lead may be transformed into shimmering gold. The learning, the reflection, the self-discipline, the courage, and patience required for such life-altering transformations are by no means trivial. What is it that props up and sustains the will-to-transform throughout this lengthy period of inner reformation and plodding growth? It can only be an inspiring vision or foretaste of the alluring goal before the mind’s eye.

Psychological Faith: A Matter of Life and Death (1/24/16)

What do I mean by psychological faith? Faith in the ‘reality of the psyche’? This is far too vague and general an answer. Perhaps I mean faith in the reality and efficacy of that psychological process Jung called ‘individuation’—that long, educative-transformative process whereby the developing individual differentiates his consciousness from the mass or collective from which the human ego, any human ego, takes its start—from which it initially takes its bearings and against which it strives towards greater intellectual, emotional, moral, and spiritual independence or self-reliance.

There would appear to be two poles between which the individuating ego oscillates—either gently or violently, but nevertheless unavoidably. What should we call these two poles? Coagulating and dissolving? Hardening and melting? The firm and the yielding (employing Taoist nomenclature)? Whatever terms we opt for, the general idea is of a regular or periodic pendulum swing between gathering and assimilation, on one side, and dissolving and releasing, on the other. There are additional parallels we might list: projecting/reflecting; action/contemplation (or meditation); doing/not-doing; thinking/stilling the mind; eros/thanatos; extraversion/introversion.

Oscillation obviously entails movement, so becoming stuck—on either ‘side’ or somewhere in between—is a sure sign that the individuation process has been interrupted. And yet the life within and without us never takes a vacation—or at least not a long one. Becoming stuck is a bit like clinging desperately to a large rock or boulder near the seashore, where the strong incoming and outgoing tides threaten to carry away the clinger-grasper. Not a few clinger-graspers attach themselves like barnacles or oysters to such immovable rocks. Some try to build a church or an entire philosophy upon such rocks. But courageous faith and vital thought have little or nothing to do with such fixed orthodoxies or such rational-philosophical systems. Life and thought are essentially dialectical inasmuch as they depend upon polarized fields for the energy that sustains them. It is in our intuitive understanding of this essential polarity at the bottom of all existent things that we eventually come to see the secret interdependence of life and death.

How does this apply to our initial theme—faith in the psychological process known as ‘individuation’? What we come to learn is that in order for our consciousness to undergo renewal or rebirth (and not once or twice, but continuously throughout the course of life), it must suffer (or endure) a kind of death, time and time again. It is the usually overpowering, determined desire to dominate and possess the things, persons, and ideas, that we gather and associate with along the way that prevents us from voluntarily embracing death in this symbolic, but nevertheless psychologically real, sense.

Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the idea of faith as a kind of trust in the unknown or the uncertain stands out most prominently. Here the idea of psychological faith as a courageous, conscious submission to something far more powerful and mysterious than we are comes into view. The things we have gathered about us and assumed to be ‘our own’—these we can see. Faith and its testy demands are not an issue at this end of the polarized continuum. Thus, we see that faith requires courage from us precisely because it confronts us with the uncertainty of what happens after death—the death of a friendship or marriage, the ending of a chapter or a long career, the withering and falling away of an earlier ‘Paul’ and all that came with that. Persons who talk about the comfort and sense of security that their faith fills them with are, no doubt, talking about something. But they are not talking about the same thing I’m touching on here, I suspect.

Perhaps in some instances it is not necessary—or even advisable—to wait around for a thing (say, an outgrown relationship or pursuit, a set of interrelated assumptions or way of seeing) to actually perish. Far too much time can be unnecessarily frittered away as we twiddle our thumbs, waiting for such ‘comas’ to come to a quiet, almost unnoticed end. We would be doing everyone a favor in some cases if we simply grabbed a pillow or pulled a plug. Suffocation is a quick and relatively painless way to go—and if we are to be killers, for gosh sakes, let us be merciful killers!

I may have entered a phase in my life upon which I will later look back (with nostalgia) as my ‘glorious wintertime killing spree.’