We each have—or function within—a worldview: a more or less comprehensive, nuanced, coherent, and articulate picture of the world and of our place in that world. Our native cultural context and early education provide us with a starter kit, of course, but—depending on how much effort and application we bring to the task—our worldview gradually develops into a more or less individualized mental-affective map of experienceable reality—the terra incognita into which we are dropped at birth. Aside from the particular environmental or circumstantial factors into which we are born—variables that differ from family to family, place to place, era to era—there are individual factors (temperament, natural talents and aptitudes, health and genetic factors, etc.) that play an important role in the development of our worldview.
A philosophy, roughly speaking, is a worldview that has been artfully and conscientiously cultivated or worked out over the course of time. This development goes quite some distance beyond the ‘starter kit’ worldview. The lion’s share of the work involved in the development of an individual philosophy can be divided into two interrelated enterprises: (1) Clarifying and critically examining/assimilating one’s inherited or cultural materials and (2) continually extending one’s knowledge of those cultural resources and materials that lie beyond one’s initial inheritance. These two distinct pursuits are closely interrelated for reasons that should be plain: unless and until we have come to a clear understanding of our initial cultural inheritance, we are scarcely in a position to compare and contrast the various strengths and weaknesses of our inherited views and values with those of the different, rivaling worldviews that we encounter in our studies and our travels.
Why, it will be wondered, is it even necessary or advisable for the aspiring philosopher to venture beyond his initial cultural-educational horizons? Here we encounter one of the cardinal differences between the genuinely philosophical life and the un-philosophical life. The philosopher is a cosmopolitan—or ‘citizen of the world’—through and through, while the non-philosopher is, comparatively speaking, content to remain a prisoner of his unexamined, inherited worldview and value scheme. Plato compared the non-philosopher to a person trapped in cave and obliged to watch, in effect, the same limited/limiting movie or puppet show over and over and over again until he dies, none the wiser about life outside the cave. The genuine philosopher, on the other hand, through a combination of luck and struggle, manages to break out of the dark, closed cave and perpetual puppet show. He comes out of the cave and above ground where he learns all manner of natural things that transgress the mental and experiential ‘ring pass not’ of his fellow prisoners down in the cave.
I spoke of the natural phenomena that the philosopher encounters after he liberates himself from the cave where only cultural—or, if you like, historically conditioned—things are to be found. (This, incidentally, is why Strauss rejects Heidegger’s historicism and, following his friend Jacob Klein, sides with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.) Inwardly steered by a transcultural and ahistorical vision or insight, the genuine philosopher slowly makes his way towards an understanding of man that is both timeless and pre-cultural/pre-historical. It is an experience of ANTHROPOS vis-à-vis nature, antecedent to the coloring biases and blinkering limitations imbibed through acculturation. Thus, the cosmopolitanism of the genuine philosopher entails an implicit element that is both a-cultural and a-historical—a core element at the formless hub of the philosopher’s worldview that is timeless and correlative with nature. The imprints of these timeless, natural elements within the psyches of humans are called ‘archetypes.’
The genuine philosopher who encounters the timeless, natural elements (of ‘world’ and ‘psyche’) in moments of pure theoreia, or contemplation, knows and accepts the fact that to conceptualize or to speak of these encounters inevitably degrades and delimits that which transcends and defies all such limits. Thus, he accepts the fact that all such speech and even the most sublime concepts have only an ‘as-if’ character. They can merely point to—but never substitute for—the ineffable that can be glimpsed only in moments of deepest contemplation of the mysterious root of all being. Thus, the genuine philosopher properly understands why those who speak about the highest things as if they have grasped them know not what they speak of.
How, it will be asked, are the various world cultures; the central, founding-orienting myths; and the essential teachings of the great religions related to these ‘timeless natural elements,’ the imprints of which within our psyches constitute archetypal images? We see how the various internal organs can be differentiated according to the function they serve in the health and maintenance of the body. We see how the various members of a family can be differentiated into distinct roles or functions within that family. Let us glance hurriedly over the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent, Indus valley, and the Far East: Egypt; Sumer-Babylon; Vedic India; and China. What—in a grossly simplified or condensed form—do we see? Agriculture, geometry, and measurement; the hieratic state reflecting astronomical/astrological order; introspective spirituality of the first rank; practical wisdom and harmony of the opposites. If we advance a bit further in time, we see the Greeks, Romans, and the Judeo-Christian religions of the Levant: speculative and dramatic-poetical genius; political will and organization; monotheism, morality, and the opening of the heart.
All of these extraordinary cultures—and others before, alongside, and after them—like the organs of the body or the roles and functions performed by various members of a great family, emphasize some talent or virtue while deemphasizing others. Like diverse colors in the color wheel, the different cultures interact—sometime harmoniously, sometimes antagonistically—with each other, but ultimately it is the whole and not any single part that reveals or points to the shared, timeless elements. Analogously, all the different colors of the spectrum, when combined, merge into the white light, the source of them all.
The present era has been called ‘the Age of Comparison’—and for good reason. For those of us, today, who care to survey the cultural-historical resources at our disposal, great opportunities lie within reach. Recent figures like Jung, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Mircea Eliade, James Hillman—though not philosophers in the traditional or technical sense—saw the unprecedented opportunity to acquaint themselves with this rich cornucopia of mythological, religious, literary, and other cultural materials that, together, can serve as a basis for a more comprehensive picture of the human being, as such, than has perhaps ever been possible before. We now have access to more pieces of the puzzle than our ancestors possessed.
Each of the major cultural-historical worldviews brings its own distinctive color and melody to the polyphonic/polychromatic psyche of the whole human. The aforementioned psychologists, scholars, mythologists, and spiritual explorers were not mere polymaths or dabblers but astute divers and decoders whose immersive encounters with these rich colors and melodies from across time and space produced numerous remarkable, if provisional and preliminary, forays into regions of syncretic experience that rival or surpass the best such ventures during the Hellenistic era—which serves as perhaps the most appropriate historical antecedent to our own peculiarly over-rich era.
No doubt, some readers are perplexed by my depiction of our present state of affairs as ‘over-rich’ when there is such widespread consensus that we live in times of spiritual and cultural bankruptcy and disintegration. How is such a discrepancy to be resolved? It is certainly true that we presently live in lean times so far as nourishment from intact and thriving cultures, myths, and religions go. Where these have not collapsed altogether, they have, in most cases, been weakened or ossified into ghostly echoes of themselves.
Where, then, is this richness of which I speak, if it is not evident in our actual cultural predicament? The old cultures have broken into fragments, just as the old Gods have withdrawn into silence. These fragments are hiding in plain sight, but almost everyone is overlooking them—ignoring them. It is as if the building blocks essential to a thriving culture have been scattered about and within us. They await rediscovery and reassembly into new configurations—freshly conceived narratives that speak to our changed conditions. Human nature and the human psyche—the sources of these perennial building blocks—have not changed, but the terms and conditions of the world we inhabit have indeed undergone the profoundest changes over the past four hundred years or so. We have the essential materials we need to proceed with the conception and gestation of a new worldview—a new myth and a new religious orientation that can respond to these radically new terms and conditions that embrace the whole species for the first time.
As always, the greater part of the creative work to be done falls upon the shoulders of a minority—precisely because it yearns most intensely for a new myth and meaning for humanity—that recognizes the necessity and the privilege of working tirelessly with these fragments or scattered essential materials to respond to the collective hunger for a truly adequate and embracing myth for the whole of mankind.