Talent, Conscience, and Discipline (2/20/13)

Having learned that I can do certain things that not everyone can do so well or so naturally, I feel obliged to exercise those talents and abilities, do I not? The very idea of wasting or neglecting such ‘God-given’ talents is morally abhorrent to me—and not merely in my own case, but as far as all of us are concerned. Along with our gifts comes a kind of conscience that spurs us towards the opening up and full development of those gifts. I might add that this conscience (with spurs) operates independently from the social, financial, and other extrinsic encouragements to realize these talents and abilities. In many cases we must summons the will and determination to give priority to our highest (or most spiritually-psychologically fulfilling) capacities while others—our parents, teachers, counselors, recruiters, peers, etc.—pressure us to settle for the exercise of some lesser (or less challenging and less genuinely fulfilling) talent. It is certainly proper, here, to speak of such gifts and talents as a person’s ‘calling.’ To neglect or miss one’s calling, or proper vocation, is, in effect, to betray one’s life and inborn purpose. Since this is no trivial matter, it makes perfect psychological sense that this powerful—and perhaps ineradicable—conscience is essentially bound up with our most distinctive and demanding innate talents and gifts. Even if a person is highly successful, say, in the business world or in a law career, but has won that success and those financial rewards by ignoring and suppressing his deeper calling to be a musician, writer, pastor, or painter, he will find little true comfort and satisfaction with his wealth and social success—because of the self-betrayal that they are built upon and attempt, with mixed success, to cover up.

In many—perhaps most—cases, a person’s natural talents comfortably and smoothly match up with jobs and opportunities that are amply provided by society and the actual economy. For such persons, the happy marriage between calling and active fulfillment is not all that difficult to pull off. A broad and complex economy offers many opportunities for such match-ups between talent and fulfillment. But not all talents and gifts can be nurtured and supported properly by readily available positions within even a booming and diversified economy. Sometimes, our talents and gifts—those crucial, innate capacities and predispositions that constitute our true calling—are extremely difficult or impossible to match up with professional (or paying) careers in our midst, except for a tiny handful of extraordinary specimens or prodigies. What is such a person to do? If he or she is thus prevented from earning a living wage by the development and exercise of his/her crucial talent or gift, then what?

This is where the first test of our loyalty to our given talents—our true calling—is confronted. We’ll call this the economic test. This test arises whenever a person finds it difficult or impossible to pursue and practice his/her calling for a living wage. In such circumstances, something will have to suffer—unless the person is financially supported by patronage of some sort. Either economic privations or the pangs of conscience (for neglecting one’s calling) will have to be endured. To the extent that we are spiritually fulfilled by the development and exercise of our talents (say, as a poet, a philosopher, a glassblower, an opera singer, painter, Kabuki actor, etc.), we will be able to tolerate or even overlook the ‘reduced’ economic circumstances to which we are thus consigned.

The second big challenge we shall call the social-conventional test—for here we are up against the pressure to neglect our ‘impractical’ talents in order to pursue the more common and easily accessible rewards available to those who conform to prevailing norms and conventions. The more uncommon and individual (i.e., ‘unconventional’) our deepest talents are, the more their full development will set us apart from the norms, tastes, values, and easy apprehension of the generality. Collective consciousness—the so-called ‘public mind’—tends to be insensitive or oblivious to the bold innovations, the subtle distinctions and other ‘demanding’ features of truly individual thought, feeling, and expression—preferring bland generalities and flattened, familiar commonplaces that are effortlessly imbibed. Therefore, anyone who seriously devotes his best energies and care to the development of his own individual ‘voice’ and expressive style must be prepared to weather the indifference, and often the muted contempt, of the ‘distracted multitude.’ Unfortunately, the distracted multitude frequently includes many of those near and dear to us. They may not intend any harm, but their incapacity or unwillingness to properly appreciate the ‘exotic’ fruits of our calling sets them apart from us just as surely as our exacting conscience sets us apart from them. Hence, a kind of loneliness not infrequently accompanies the development of our genuinely individual gifts.

Of course, the pain of such loneliness tends to be most acute for those whose hopes for the approving response of others are strongest and most urgently pressing—but who have yet to fully develop their gifts. Once these are fully matured, they tend to be sufficiently rewarding so as to partially neutralize or counteract the pain of being misunderstood or under-appreciated. When our gifts—our calling—are are fully awakened and operative, they carry and support our inner lives so capably that the need for such external props and encouragements diminishes almost to nothing.

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On Nietzsche’s Captivating Rhetoric (1/31/18)

When a writer regularly employs such flagrantly attention-getting language – the sorts of stylistic and button-pushing literary tactics that virtually anyone who can read will often find irresistible – we have to wonder what kind of audience he is trying to reach with such pyrotechnical prose, and what he wants to do with them once he’s got their attention. Nietzsche, despite his “aristocratic,” anti-democratic views and values, is incongruously popular, from all I can tell. He appears to be more widely read and enjoyed (regardless of whether he is being properly understood) than most other philosophers. Plato often wrote beautifully and lucidly, but despite his enormous influence, it would be stretching things to say that he is popularly read, even when selections from the Apology, the Symposium, and the Republic are required reading in most prep schools and honors programs. The same may be said of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and that other truly great stylist, Schopenhauer.

Socrates seems (from Plato’s “artfully” recorded dialogues with him as the central figure) to have tailored his speeches to the particular qualities of the person he was addressing. Nietzsche says he selects his proper reader through his technique of scaring away all but his rightful audience, but he seems to have underestimated his charm – or overestimated his power to “scare” away the wrong or unready readers.

Means of Conveyance (9/11/13)

The ‘conveyor belt’ image that I have employed in a number of essays stands for many things. At the cultural or societal level it stands for collective habits that have either been passed down or inherited as customary practices from our forebears (like monogamy, going to church on Sunday, taking summer vacations, etc.) or they are relatively new (like using cell phones and ‘texting,’ mandatory auto- and health-insurance, internet shopping, etc.) and are ‘sold’ to us by corporations via their marketing-government-lobbying arms. To the extent that these collective habits are established—and have begun to function like ‘second nature’ for large numbers of us—they operate like conveyor belts that carry and direct our energy and attention down clearly-defined, thoroughly rationalized channels. What I mean by ‘rationalized’ is simply that every effort is continually being made to keep these channels clear and conveniently accessible so that the maximum number of persons can be conveyed through them with a minimal amount of obstruction, discomfort, or conscious criticism of the means of conveyance itself. The whole point of stepping onto a conveyor belt is to get from point A to point B without having to walk there oneself.

At the personal (or individual) level, conveyor belts are just as commonly encountered as on the collective level. These individual habits or patterns of thought and behavior that have become ‘second nature’ can be found at work in our daily routines, in our friendships and our marriages, in the way (and the things) we eat, the way we dress and drive and drink and grasp for things just beyond our reach. Laziness and the desire for a sense of security join hands in most of us to form a joint barricade against self-examination where our established habits are concerned. Any attempts to become critically conscious or aware of these automatically (and therefore, smoothly) functioning habits of thought, feeling, and behavior meet with resistance insofar as they are instinctively conservative and self-protective.

Our habits—collective and idiosyncratic—thus strongly influence the course and trajectory of our lives from behind a thick, muffling curtain of unconsciousness. Allied with, and supported by, our naturally-occurring laziness and our longing for stability and a sense of security, these unconscious collective and personal habits are constantly nudging, routing, and coercing our attention, our energy, and our desires down their familiar, accustomed pathways. And, as suggested, they accomplish this not openly and in plain sight, but from the unlit recesses beneath the threshold of our often unreflective and dimly illuminated conscious minds. All we see—all we are comfortable seeing—are the ‘grounding’ effects of these obscurely prompted, mystery-cloaked habits and compulsions, the roots of which remain snugly buried within our almost infantile longing for the warm soft familiar nipple of soothing-oozing security.

Of course the most fundamental conveyor belts of all—the ones that operate at even deeper levels than the collective cultural habits and formal patterns I’ve been discussing—are the archetypes and instincts themselves. It may be the case, as Jung has suggested, that the archetypes—as distinct from their more or less explicit cultural and symbolic formulations—remain permanently unconscious, so that we are never ‘in a position,’ epistemologically, to ‘objectify’ or step outside of them. In other words, it is probably safe to assume that our consciousness is always being structured and guided by some archetypal perspective/fantasy or another—or a combination thereof. If Jung and the archetypal psychologists are correct in their hypothetical picture of our natural-psychological predicament, then we are confronted here with ‘conveyor belts’ from which we may never depart, for they are the true ground and matrix of the psyche itself. To step off these archetypal conveyor belts, then, is to leap out of the psyche, which seems about as absurd as the prospect of leaping out of our bodies.

An interesting question to pose at this juncture is: are we more free or less free—spiritually and psychologically—when we consciously acknowledge the hidden sovereignty of these thoroughly unconscious archetypal determinants? Don’t we enjoy a fuller experience of freedom when we remain ignorant of, or deny, the existence of these subterranean determinants? But then, if Jung’s hypothesis is actually correct, our ignorance or our willful denial of them founds our experience of freedom upon a lie or delusion. This certainly throws the authenticity or legitimacy of our experience of freedom into serious doubt—even if the feeling of freedom is indisputable.

But what if the experience of freedom is never an absolute or permanent experience? What if it is always relative to other states—say, the state of mind (or the state of affairs) we are just leaving? Can we not imagine departing from an entire arena of more or less familiar, routine experiences—and entering into an altogether new and unexplained arena of experiences? For the sake of illustration, let us imagine a married man who is living in London in the 19th century. He and his wife have three adolescent children. He has a high-profile job in the government. And he is a closet homosexual. He meets and falls in love with a younger man and before long, his secret becomes known. The press gets hold of the story and a scandal erupts. Within a few weeks he suffers public humiliation, is fired in disgrace from his high government post, and his wife leaves him for the paramour she has been involved with for years on the sly. He and his lover move to Corfu and live happily in seclusion for the following ten years.

This compact storyline or series of events provides us with a tidy little gold mine of possible angles of approach to the multifaceted question of freedom. Some persons, for instance, will be inclined to say that our protagonist (let’s call him ‘Oscar’) was about as free as he could ever be prior to the scandal, at which point everything fell to pieces. From this perspective, Oscar’s freedom was located in his comfortable, honorable ‘fit’ with the social, political, moral, economic, sexual, and familial values and norms of 19th century London. The disruption and rapid dissolution of this outward conformity catapulted him from the familiar orbit of this free and ‘adjusted’ existence—and it was all due to his foolish surrender to an unnatural inclination in himself—this ‘perverted’ homosexual tendency that he had successfully (and wisely) kept firmly under repressive control for decades. It was precisely this repression of his ‘unnatural’ sexual tendencies that made his free, but thoroughly conventional life possible. By keeping this tiger of homoeroticism caged up and malnourished, the well-fed, domesticated and obedient stallion rose quickly to prominence in society. It might even be argued that the smoldering, repressed yearnings—locked up in that cage below the threshold of Oscar’s consciousness—actually contributed a kind of volcanic, geothermal thrust to his ambitious pursuits in the London social and political arenas.

For those who understand freedom and human fulfillment in these terms, Oscar’s ‘surrender’ to his homosexual inclinations was an unmitigated disaster and should have been avoided at all costs. For those very different persons, however, who are thoroughly convinced from experience that there are few greater crimes that we can commit than to be untrue to our innermost selves—our deepest natures—Oscar was relatively unfree while he was repressing his homosexuality, and that he began to take courageous steps in the direction of authentic freedom only when he stopped ‘living a lie.’ From this very different perspective, Oscar’s homosexual yearnings were not ‘unnatural’ even if they were not statistically the norm or conventionally sanctioned. Moreover, from this perspective, the mere fact that some collective norm happens to be conventional does not make it true, valid, just, binding, let alone natural. For these persons, Oscar ultimately enhanced, rather than diminished, his existence by following his deeper nature in opposition to conventional norms and prohibitions. And more importantly—in connection with our present theme—he thereby entered into a freer existence by divorcing himself from the complex ‘tissue of lies’ upon which his former life was founded.

I am learning—rather late in my life—that constantly raising and relentlessly following the philosophical and psychological questions that I have devoted most of my free time to is rather more uncommon, statistically, than felonious criminality, genocidal slaughter of humans by other humans, pedophilia, human trafficking. Apparently, this peculiar way of life is a good deal less common than homosexuality. What has come quite ‘naturally’ to me since I was a child—and which has been conscientiously cultivated and strengthened almost entirely by my own unceasing labors—appears to be something of an anomaly, like a rare disease, among by fellows. I’m not suggesting for moment that there is not a fairly large number of persons, now as ever, who read and study serious writings—and who raise tough questions about themselves and about nature and about this strange species, homo sapiens—persons who love nothing more than getting down to the bottom of things. I am quite aware of the fact that such probers and plumbers exist in significant numbers throughout the globe, and the last thing I want to do here is to sound condescending, as if I’m trying to set myself apart not only from ‘everyday folks,’ but even from those ‘exceptions’ who subscribe to Socrates’ dictum that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’

In an uncharacteristic (but splendidly timed) display of prudence, let it be known that I am perfectly content to ‘lump myself in’ with these exceptions. It would be considered preposterous for me to push my exceptionalism any further than this. Let me be content, therefore, to speak up—hesitantly and warily—on behalf of this entire, exceptional class of serious, bravely dedicated questioners, probers, experimenters, soarers and divers who love nothing more than asking and trying to answer tough, deep, disturbing questions about society, about ourselves and our history, about the origins and aims of culture, and so on. For those of us who are born for this sort of life of enquiry, everything else, every other sort of pursuit, immediately loses its appeal and its power to charm as soon as we hit pay dirt.

On Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil (“The Religious Character”) (9/16/13)

In part three of Beyond Good and Evil (‘The Religious Character’) it is as if Nietzsche has implicitly assumed that a kind of dome covers humanity. That dome, like the hemispherical ceiling of a planetarium, is solid and impenetrable. Moreover, the various constellations of the zodiac, along with the other noteworthy individual stars and galaxies, which are projected onto the dome, correspond to the various mythologies, religious principles, metaphysical systems, and moral doctrines that have been created solely by great geniuses who—though superior and exceptional specimens—were, nonetheless, irrefragably and inescapably human. Culture, then, and those principle works of art and thought that lend both structure and ‘luminous’ orientation to human lives everywhere and at all times, are solely human inventions. As with Darwinism, there is no need to introduce extraneous teleological or superfluous metaphysical principles (i.e., ‘God’) into Nietzsche’s genealogical scheme in order to account for man’s cultural evolution. There is no need—no justification—for bringing such intangible or supernatural factors into the equation. Naturalism suffices. And perhaps a little bit of ‘naturalistic’ human psychology.

Because we humans tend to be painfully conscious of our mortality—and because our hopes and our imaginative longings often reach quite far beyond our actual, limited conditions as frail, ephemeral creatures (even when we’re not fully conscious of these hopes and longings)—it should come as little surprise that, from early on, our ancestors have been concocting all manner of (benevolent and malevolent) immortal figures who have a significant impact upon our lives—and whose power we neglect at our peril. Nietzsche recognized that this imaginary relationship between the unreal Gods and very real mortals makes very good sense from both the individual, personal standpoint, as well as from the social/political standpoint. For the individual, this imaginary relationship with the divine, supernatural dimension provides a context and a kind of playground for those transcendent yearnings that mortals are often afflicted with when they remember they must die. What a marvelously effective and time-tested pressure valve these imaginary heavens and hells provide whenever we need to let off steam! On the other hand, this same valve can be closed off when pressure is precisely what is required to jolt us out of our indolence and make us serious about our ‘salvation.’

For millennia, the artful manipulation and exploitation of these supernatural longings and anxieties by crafty priests and opportunistic rulers has greatly contributed to social-political stability. A ruler who tampers with established theology (or who used to, since this is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the West) and customs—from Akhenaton to Henry VIII, from Mao to Stalin—had better possess despotic powers if he is to succeed in implementing such disruptive reforms. A leader whose actual or supposed religious sympathies diverge from those of the mass population (as when rumors spread about Obama being a Muslim) will be up against fierce, and often unconscious, prejudice in the generality. Mitt Romney’s good looks and his anti-Obama polemics were not quite enough to offset the ‘Mormon’ factor and enable him to inch out ahead of Obama’s good looks and his slippery-silver tongue. John F. Kennedy’s (epidermal) Catholicism tugged against his good looks and silver tongue, making it necessary for his wealthy father to buy Chicago’s deciding votes. But, I digress.

As with other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers—both ancient and modern—Nietzsche, in explaining the ‘religious character’ in exclusively human, all-too-human terms, effectively explains away transcendent or superhuman factors altogether. In the final section of Part Three Nietzsche makes it quite clear that as soon as religion—in this case, Christianity—succeeds in becoming sovereign (as opposed to remaining a subordinate means of marginalizing and thwarting the canaille and providing the proper breeding conditions for higher human specimens), culture is debased into a ‘sublime abortion.’ In its successful campaign to preserve and protect the great mass of ‘failures’ and ‘degenerates,’ two thousand years of Christianity has bred…

…the European of today, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre.

He accuses the Christian cultural leadership—over the past two millennia—of having been stupid and cowardly. These were:

people who were not high and hard enough to give human beings artistic form; people who were not strong or far-sighted enough, who lacked the sublime self-discipline to give free reign to the foreground law of ruin and failure by the thousands; people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. (sect. 62)

And for this awful crime committed against ‘higher’ human possibilities, Nietzsche shouts: ‘Christianity has been the most disastrous form of arrogance so far.’ What in the world is going on here? Nietzsche is certainly not being cryptic or ‘tricky’ here. He cannot be accused of resorting to ‘esoteric writing’ in such blatant declarations of his own personal preferences and his standards of what ‘health’ looks like with respect to human culture. But, to spell things out even more explicitly, so as to dispel any lingering, unresolved doubts about what he is saying here, let us begin with his endorsement of treating human beings as a potter might treat clay, or as a sculptor might employ stone in order to impose artistic form upon them. Upon us. (But, let us remember, it was Christianity and not Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity that constituted the most disastrous form of arrogance so far!) This basic notion of man as moldable clay accords with his description of humans earlier in this same section (62) as ‘the still undetermined animals.’ All but the rarest and most unlikely exceptions among us (since exceptions so often come to ruin) are merely programmable animals without a determinate (and therefore truly knowable, clearly discernible) nature. Most of us are just conscious enough to be aware that we are destined to struggle and eventually to die. Thus, in our anxiety and our natural credulity (when facing the awesome authority of the past and its ‘legacy’) we almost invariably succumb to the sort of imprinting or programming that Nietzsche and many others understand acculturation to consist in—and nothing besides. A human being without cultural imprinting would be all nature and no art.

Technically speaking such a creature is not fully human at all. He is feral, a savage. He may be possessed of (or by) instincts and drives that are hardwired into him, but lacking language and culture to canalize these raw energies and impulses, the (truly unfinished) creature’s existence is decidedly worse than that of an animal’s. Such an existence would be chaotic and anarchic. At least the animal can rely on the regulatory function of its instincts. Civilized human life, on the other hand, depends to a decisive extent upon the disruption and often upon the artful repression of these instincts and drives. They must be re-directed down new, socio-politically acceptable courses. They must be hammered (or coaxed) into new shapes and down new pathways. One of the principal functions of religion, as Nietzsche and many others have understood it, is to instill and to inwardly enforce an elaborate system of (albeit illusory) rewards and punishments—the aim of which is to keep wayward and impetuous little unfinished human animals on track. And by ‘on track’ we mean out of the wilderness of overpowering lusts, rages, and other uncivil drives and affects that may have served our proto-human ancestors well enough out on the savannah, but can only lead to mischief nowadays—unless, of course, we happen to be serving our nation overseas, fighting heathen, Huns, and towel-heads who need a good thrashing if they are to stay on the track we lay down for them.

But the problematic upshot of this momentous game-changing transformation from wild animal to obedient modern consumer is that, for Nietzsche, we might very well have lost as much as we gained in the bargain by becoming so thoroughly domesticated. Like Freud, in his excellent, late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, Nietzsche worries over the damage unleashed upon the ‘animal’ in all of us by the severe constraints that civilization (and especially religion) inflicts upon our erotic, aggressive, and other vital—and vitalizing—instincts. One would be an arrant fool to categorically dismiss such claims. Few Western persons living today have a very good idea—or rather, experience—of the sort of repressions and constraints that were commonplace in 19th century European cultural and social life. One would have to ‘do time’ as a female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan for a few years in order to get a rough idea of the sort of mentality Nietzsche and Freud were calling into question—and with Nietzsche, this concern seems to have been confined, for the most part, to men.

Having made this preliminary—and admittedly sketchy—effort to contextualize Nietzsche’s ‘naturalistic’ understanding of man’s religious need and his notion of culture as an elaborate system of ‘necessary illusions’ or arbitrary fictions, let us probe further. Nietzsche makes it clear elsewhere in BGE that he sees genuine philosophers as the authors and creators of these collective values—these necessary fictions. Figures like Plato, St. Paul, Confucius, Hammurabi, and Moses are the ‘commanders and legislators’ of entire cultures or durable worldviews. It is such figures who stamp their own image upon the mass of clay—that indeterminate creature, man—and, in doing so, provide us with distinctive goals and hallowed trajectories. They provide us with ‘serious games’ that have awesome implications and consequences. It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche ever so tacitly regards himself as one such commander and legislator, even though he rather furtively and unconvincingly tries to conceal himself behind the mask of herald of the ‘philosophers of the future’—those who will eventually take such Herculean responsibility upon their shoulders. Astonishingly, it would appear that Nietzsche’s notorious megalomania actually had limits beyond which he deemed it prudent not to transgress. Although he spells it out for anyone who bothers to put all the pieces together, he never has quite the temerity to come out and say precisely and plainly what he means: I, Friedrich Nietzsche, have come here to redirect humanity’s path into the future in accordance with my own superior will and intelligence!

Given his special gifts, along with the apparent fact that he acknowledges nothing of genuine value or ‘transcendent’ significance beyond that dome—the outermost limits of which are established by the most clever and seductive human commanders and legislators—it makes a certain kind of sense that Nietzsche would see himself and his calling as fatefully bound up with this sort of cultural renewal and regeneration. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he would assume the role of ‘physician’ and undertake a thoroughgoing diagnosis of an ailing patient: Western/Christian culture. He would tirelessly dig and delve into the unconscious assumptions and unexamined collective values that were at the root of the devastating illness. ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Decadence,’ ‘Pessimism,’ ‘Pity,’ ‘Slave Morality,’ ‘Egalitarianism,’ ‘Socialism’—these are but the most conspicuous of the names and forms of the degenerative disease that has eaten away the once-vigorous heart of Western culture. At bottom, it is a war between nature and anti-nature, or vigor and sickness, as Nietzsche passionately conceives of the struggle that is perhaps in its final throes. Life itself is under siege—at least where man is concerned—because it is no longer being revered and served by our decadent, effeminate culture. In fact, we wrongly and suicidally misuse culture as a means of escape from life, as Nietzsche sees it. It does not function as a means of courageously engaging with life, as certain pagans used to do, in accordance with their nobler cultures.

And the reason this damning truth about modern culture is not more widely known is simple enough to understand: virtually everyone is so infected with the disease of modern culture—the disease is so far advanced for us, collectively—that sickness has become normal. Our disease is like the stench of urine that goes unnoticed by persons who live in a park latrine that never gets cleaned. When this is all you smell, rancidity and acridity become odorless because they no longer stand out. Then one day you are miraculously released from this giant outhouse. You go for a lovely hike, high up in the nearby alpine forest. You breathe in crisp, clean, invigorating mountain air. When you are called back to the park latrine—say, because of your attachment to loved ones who cannot leave the toilet, or because collecting admission fees from visitors to the urinal is your only source of income—the full reeking impact of the stench assails you with its revolting unpleasantness and unhealthiness. How have you managed to breathe this foul air for years—day in and day out—and never notice that something was terribly amiss?

Cases of natural resistance to this viral contagion (of modern ‘sickness’) are so rare—so anomalous—that we have few salutary models to measure our illness against. Our souls are dead long before our bodies expire—and most of us never suspect a thing.