Hillman, Heidegger, and Forgotten Wisdom (5/19/12)

Insofar as I am able to grasp what Heidegger and Hillman share in their otherwise quite different approaches to the deeper realms of experience, I recognize their respective attempts to relativize inherited systems and structures of thought—those buried, unconscious assumptions that tend to limit or thwart the connection between man and Being. In their different ways they both see the root of this collective malady in our metaphysical inheritance. Our experience of Being is not simply mediated by abstract metaphysical concepts. On the contrary, these concepts typically obstruct—or merely replace—our encounter with Being. These abundant, ever-proliferating abstractions possess a fixed and stable character, while Being is never reducible to static or stably fixed forms, as wise Heraclitus, the Ephesian, recognized long ago. The very advantages afforded by these ‘lofty,’ idealized, abstract metaphysical concepts—their time-tested, reliably unchanging magnificence—constitute, from the reverse position, a wall of separation between our fluid souls and the reality these concepts were ostensibly constructed to serve, in much the same fashion that ancient oracles might serve a divinity like Apollo or Zeus (as cryptic mouthpiece). If we substitute ‘the Gods’ for Being, then much of our philosophical activity—from Plato through Nietzsche—has cut us off from the Gods, and plunged us into a fallen condition.

We cannot serve the Gods so long as we are merely custodians of metaphysical concepts that wall us in and block us off from the very divinities we purport to serve.

Behind this simple statement is the idea or image of mystical union—or participation—with the Gods, with Being, with the divine. Elsewhere I have written about dogmatists and the fearful fixity of the paranoid perspective—a perspective that aggressively defends itself against the very metaphors that could dissolve its walls and liberate the dogmatist from his self-created citadel-cell. Following Hillman, I located the cause of this imprisoning paranoia in literal-mindedness—that peculiar but practically ubiquitous form of mental blindness that defiantly refuses to prostrate itself and bow down before the ineffable and irreducible mysteriousness of life and the psyche. It might be of interest to note that this aggressive-defensive and inwardly split perspective is often closely linked with humanism or anthropocentrism. Variants of humanism spring from the illicit arrogation of Godlike powers and rights to the merely human perspective. On a grand scale, this is conducive, of course, to a collective inflation—evidence of which no one with his eyes open will deny today. A collective inflation—i.e., borrowing (or filching) far more divine authority and power than we can ever hope to wield in a responsible way—upsets the general balance of things. Balance can be restored—and it will be restored—only by deflating that which has been wrongfully inflated.[1] The balance I refer to is that between man and the Gods. It is noteworthy that this very question (of maintaining a proper balance or proper terms between the human world and that of the Gods) has always been a primary concern for humans everywhere until quite recently in history—the past several hundred years in the West, during which time the rise of science and, with it, modern technology, have risen to prominence.[2]

Are we simply to assume that our distant (and not so distant) human ancestors were merely unsophisticated know-nothings—no more than groping ‘precursors’ and fumbling ‘rehearsals’ of modern man, the ‘paragon of animals’? Did they cling to their quaint superstitions about Gods and mysterious powers, a ‘Great Chain of Being,’ and a moral order within the cosmos only because they lacked what we have: modern science and technology? Science has pretty much dispensed with claims and ‘entities’ it cannot see or touch, measure or weigh, in its scales and in its terms. Technology, on the other hand, by making our material lives more comfortable and secure, has set up a new and more easily attainable version of ‘happiness’ than the dubious immaterial versions known and cultivated by our ‘benighted’ ancestors.

But if our ancestors were the naïve, blinkered and brutish boobs that many of us assume them to have been—why is it that millions of modern persons suffer from profound feelings of alienation, anxiety, meaninglessness, and rootlessness that our ancestors appear to have been spared? Was their sense of rootedness and anchoredness in the world perhaps bound up with their respect for the balance that we moderns have recklessly undermined—so that we have been driven insane by our stolen power, our compulsive covetousness, and our unceasing restlessness? Is it possible that the balance has been so seriously disturbed that most of us no longer can even be fully human—let alone, little Gods? Could it be that our ancestors understood the importance of remaining within the bounds of the properly human because these limits were still clearly discernible to them in a way and to a degree that they are not for us? And why might this be so?

Perhaps it is because we have been transgressing those limits long enough by now to have forgotten—as a culture—what such balance looked and felt like. In this sense, perhaps more than any other, humanity has begun to behave, collectively, like a cancer that is slowly but surely killing the larger organism—the world—of which it was once a modestly restrained and integral part. The evidence suggests that, for the most part, our premodern ancestors abided within a balanced order of things and, precisely because they did so, they were able to behold the world and man’s place in that world in a way that is practically lost to us now. The modern worldview is rife with the Muzak of shallow distractions and narrow, short-term objectives that deafen us to the faintly audible strains of the song of creation—a song that appears to be dying down within and around us. And yet—within the modest limits of the individual life—something of this fading, balanced melody may be recovered or re-sounded. The price for this may seem too high for many, however, since it involves unplugging ourselves from the tinny and sterile pageant that presently passes for ‘normal life.’ There is little that is normal, let alone healthy, about contemporary life—but the sickness can only be perceived for what it is after we’ve managed to get our fever down. Only then do the hallucinations cease and we begin to see just how close we came to ‘succumbing.’

[1] This is a much less melodramatic and graphic way of describing the evisceration of the wild beast that we are always on the verge of collectively lapsing into.

[2] The idolatry of science (as the only or best method for getting at the truth and for resolving all of our real problems) is called scientism. Like all so-called ‘-isms,’ scientism tends to be reductive, unduly simplistic, and inimical to a true understanding of the actual complexity of things. Some scientists are certainly infected with the malady of scientism, but certainly not all of them. With the semi-educated, secularized portion of the general public, scientism is quite endemic, unfortunately. There is a very close link between the spread of this psychic infection and the collective inflation I mentioned earlier.

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