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.

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Few and Many, Spirit and Morality (3/18/15)

I am approaching the point where Christianity, insofar as it is single-mindedly preoccupied with sin and virtue, has little to contribute to my spiritual awakening. This enthrallment with moral struggle—so pervasive, both in Judaism and in Christianity—is predicated, I suspect, upon a belief in the ultimate reality of the separate self (or, if you like, the immortal soul). This contest, or agon, between good and evil—whether this contest is fought within the “sinner’s” breast or in some aggressive crusade against an external, ‘evil’ enemy—is one of the principal motors (along with hunger, sex/reproduction, and the need for security) that drive and orient human beings on the stage of dramatic conflict that recorded human history chiefly consists in. Gradually reducing the ‘electricity’ that powers this crucial motor within myself has enabled me to see just how foolish, tormented, blinkered and hateful so much of motorized human activity really is. It is pretty simple: so long as a majority of persons is convinced that the principal aim of both individual and collective action is the triumph of moral virtue over sin, of religious orthodoxy over irreligion (perverted religion) or one cherished ideology (say, free market Capitalism) over a despised one (e.g., Communism or Socialism), humanity will continue to be locked in a self-destructive war with itself—both inside and out.

Of course, I am not advocating the suspension or jettisoning of all ethical principles and means of tempering our aggressive impulses, our lusts, and appetites, and other patently dangerous drives and inclinations. I am not endorsing anarchic indulgence of our wild and unruly instincts—whereby we would be leaping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. I may even be ready to admit that this traditional scheme of hellish punishments and heavenly rewards—precisely because it demonstrates proven power to keep large segments of the beclouded multitude sufficiently tamed so as not to ‘act up’ any more than is already the case—should by all means be left intact and regularly reinforced where the generality is concerned. Children require supervision. Boundaries and rules need to be set and real penalties must be imposed when those rules are broken—when those boundaries are prematurely exceeded or ignored.

May I be justly accused, here, of holding a double standard—one that applies to the blinkered ‘mass man,’ who is likened to a child, and another one that applies to the few, who are implicitly linked with mature adulthood? Perhaps. May I also be justly accused of suggesting that these ‘mature’ specimens have earned for themselves a perspective on things that is ‘beyond (conventional) good and evil’? Perhaps, but only if what is entailed in earning that perspective is thoroughly understood and accepted, and such an understanding appears to be relatively rare.

At a certain stage in our spiritual maturation, unreflective or dogmatic attachment to the old, deeply-ingrained moral law becomes a serious encumbrance to our inner freedom. Like a weighty millstone around our neck, it continues to impose duties and obligations that we have already begun to perceive in a subtler light—but which we are not quite clear and strong enough to slough off.

It is at this crucial stage of our spiritual ripening that we are in a position, perhaps for the first time, to understand the relative, self-canceling, nature of the various pairs of ‘reified’ or metaphysical opposites. A truth—or insight—that is deeper and even more fundamental than the realization about the futile, un-winnable war between good and evil, or light and darkness, begins to take hold of the spiritual initiate’s consciousness. What he glimpses is that all dogmatic or metaphysical dualities are both illusory and the matrix out of which most other illusions are born. When this profound insight is first registered, of course, its implications cannot at once be grasped. They are merely hinted at. But the main insight—namely, that there are no ‘breaks’, ‘splits,’ or ‘gaps’ in nature or the psyche, and that all elements, levels, and states are interconnected—is a watershed realization for the ‘initiate.’

But for awhile, the initiate is of ‘two minds.’ Because this fateful glimpse into the deeper and subtler reality behind the veil of ordinary consciousness is so compelling in its veracity and its authority, the initiate’s estimation of the essential trustworthiness of ordinary, unreflective consciousness (and discourse) sinks to an unprecedented low. Suddenly, the world of everyday experience, the normal round of activities, the value and substance of many of his relationships—all of these suddenly pale in significance, in vividness, and in value when compared to the blessed-accursed glimpse he got of the mystery always lurking behind the veil that was briefly lifted. On the one hand, he feels blessed to have received such a momentous, consciousness-altering revelation. On the other hand, because this experience has so profoundly disturbed his former, familiar bearings and distanced him from the norms and priorities embraced by the general community, he cannot help but feel cursed, as well—at least, initially.

He may with some justice be said to have a foot in two practically incommensurable worlds—in neither of which he can claim to possess full citizenship. He no longer feels fully and confidently invested in the discredited, ‘unmasked’ shadow world where virtually everyone else lives and pursues his personal interests and inclinations. Nor does he yet feel stably and solidly planted in the far more compelling, if elusive, world of psychological or ‘imaginal’ perception. For some time, our ambiguous/ambivalent demi-denizen of two not quite fully inhabited realms of experience must simply endure this unenviable stage of metamorphosis. Neither worm nor butterfly, our unfinished one is something ‘in between’ (metaxy)—a kind of ‘bridge’ between being and non-being. Try as he may, he cannot work up a sustained interest in the activities and preoccupations of those around him who are still firmly fixed at the worm stage. And, of course, this cuts both ways: if he finds them sluggish, ‘soft,’ and exasperatingly linear, the ‘worms’ find him irritating and threatening (like salt on a snail’s moist back). Moreover, this unfinished one has no stable and trustworthy form—but is ‘all over the place,’ like all things larval.

On the other hand, not until the transformation or maturation has carried through to completion will his fully-formed wings appear—the liberty-bestowing wings that will enable the ripened initiate to move freely in the infinite region beyond the self-spun walls of his silken cocoon. Thus, it makes good, natural sense for the psyche (which, in ancient Greek, also connoted ‘butterfly’) to remain quietly secluded within the womb of its solitude while the critical and delicate metamorphosis from creaturely crawler upon the earth to beautiful, winged voyager in the sunny air runs its destined course.

 

Consequences of the Split in Western Consciousness (4/1/11)

The splitting of God and Satan, along with our psyches, into good and evil opposites—where good is ‘upper’ and lit up and ‘evil’ is lower and dark—has led to a distortion and psychological falsification of both sides of this psychological equation. A small minority of men and women today are moving into position to undergo a momentous transformation—the transition from being more or less exclusively ‘moral’ in their fundamental orientation to being ‘psychological.’ The long ‘moral’ phase (roughly coincident with Christianity as the prevailing worldview in the West) has been characterized by an ongoing battle between the radically differentiated ‘spiritual’ and the ‘animal’ aspects of our shared human nature. The newly emerging ‘psychological’ phase will concern itself with soul and soul-making. Soul, as middle principle between spirit and matter, is created out of a provisional truce and the suspension of the hostilities between spirit and matter (or body) and an ongoing effort to bring them into a more or less fruitful and harmonious relation. The dramatic and painful split into warring opposites seems, in retrospect, to have been a necessary phase through which an evolving humanity had to pass—in order to differentiate and focus the light of ego-consciousness. (cf. Cornford on the discovery of the pairs of opposites by the ancient Greeks, and the Indian/Chinese parallels—not to mention the dual symbol of the Fishes in Pisces, the ruling astrological sign of the aeon.) The pressures imposed upon the fragile and slowly maturing ego were formidable, especially when a person struggled to take on as much responsibility as possible for his/her actions, thoughts, feelings, impulses, and choices. Those who left these matters to fate, to their masters, or to God, experienced far less inner stress and tension—then as now—but their ego-consciousness was correspondingly dimmer and weaker, as a consequence.

 

On Edinger’s “The New God-Image” (4/4/11)

I will begin this entry by confessing that the Edward Edinger book (The New God-Image) is stirring up powerful feelings ‘below deck.’ I am currently re-reading the middle chapter on ‘The Paradoxical God,’ in which the problematic coexistence of good and evil—or light and dark elements—is attributed to God, along with unconsciousness! These ideas strain even the most fertile imagination and test one’s spiritual courage as few ideas can. They are beyond our ‘Christianized’ ken, while at the same time, the attitude we assume towards these perplexing questions would seem to have profound implications for us, psychologically. And even if we ignore or pay grudging respect to these questions—or never adequately register them so that we can, in turn, be infected or stung by their disturbing power—they will still be there lurking like cancer cells in the unconscious. Of course, as long as they are lurking murkily in the unconscious their power to darken and cripple our journey through life is only that much greater because, in that case, they’re operating ‘behind our back.’ Perhaps most of us will never arrive at the point (of conscious appreciation of these profound religious riddles) ever to recognize what has been eating away, like a corrosive acid, at our insides.

But if, like Jacob, we wrestle with ‘God’—if, that is to say, we surrender to these searing questions which implicate us not only in God’s coming-to-be-conscious, but in the dangerous work of harmoniously reconciling cosmic good and evil—we may emerge with a serious limp, but also as walking and talking contributors to the founding of the way ahead. For me—because of what I now so strongly suspect—opting out of the wrestling match is no longer a viable option.

So where does my own anxiety and inner turmoil come from when I read from Edinger and from the uncharacteristically direct passages from Jung’s letters, where he seems to be very much out on a limb by himself—making connections, speculating, creating a new way to imagine deity?

Part of the anxiety stems from the central notion that God is not ‘perfect’ (nor as capable of looking out for us, like a good Daddy, as many of us were brought up to believe since childhood), but should perhaps be regarded as a ‘work in progress.’ To seriously entertain this notion—which, for me, means getting inside of it and inhabiting it like one might dwell inside a myth or story—is to suffer the most intense deprivation of metaphysical comfort conceivable, for it injects the God-image with a stronger dose of chaotic indeterminacy than of stabilizing cosmos. To be sure, Jung is willing to concede a latent meaning behind this work in progress, which is certainly preferable to a stance wherein no such latent meaning suffuses our experience of existence. But because of where present-day humanity is situated, historically and psychologically, the consolation offered by this idea of latent meaning gradually becoming manifest over the next few centuries is not quite consolation of the deepest and most gratifying sort. If the integration of the ‘Cosmic’ shadow—or the reconciliation of the split halves of good (love) and evil (naked will to power)—does actually take place over the next few troubled and disaster-marked centuries, none of us alive today (who are supposed to draw consolation from this possibility) will be around to enjoy the benefits of such a ‘healed’ split. As for the rest: well, they are left to feed like scavengers upon the rotting corpse of the dead ‘God-image.’

Another cause for inner unrest lies in the (psychological) fact that in pursuing the questions and themes of absorbing interest to me since I was young, I have—nolens volens—become conscripted into this unfinishable project that, as Jung rightly said, consists of ‘endless approximations.’ And as I have noted many times before, the deeper into this work I descend, the more alone I feel since few are seized and caught by this strange and strangely consuming task. How many authentic practitioners of alchemy were there? Because I have the compelling sense that this work and this path are my fate—and therefore cannot be forsaken or abandoned without inviting terrible guilt (the guilt of having betrayed or neglected one’s calling)—I naturally want for my life and my work to contribute something of substantial value to others after I’m gone. And yet, what I have to offer is so very different from the more solid and readily acknowledged contributions made by those talented and creative persons who serve men as they are now. I do not seem to be serving man as he now is—do I? And it’s doubtful that I ever will. My inner sights seem to be trained upon the way ahead—the way beyond the fragmented, decomposing culture I have already diagnosed and painfully come to terms with over the years.

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.

Before the Story (3/21/13)

All cultures everywhere and at all times are, at bottom, based upon a story—some kind of structured narrative that assigns meaning, value, and a general orientation to conscious experience in the human world. Because the foundational structure of each culture typically serves as the bedrock and starting point for civilized human consciousness and behavior, its axiomatic assumptions are seldom made explicitly conscious to the majority of human beings. The reason these foundational story elements are seldom made conscious by most of us is because they are almost invariably the very terms in which anything and everything becomes conscious. They are always silently running in the background—like the operating system on this computer upon which I am typing—and they are simply taken for granted, much as we take for granted the water, air, and the daily nutrition that sustain life.

We know that natural philosophy was born a long time ago (or not so long ago, depending on the perspective you take) in the mercantile parts of Ionia where mariners and traders from all over the Mediterranean and the Near East converged to exchange goods and materials. Coming from diverse cultural backgrounds—from radically divergent foundational stories—their various worldviews were attended to by those wise and discerning observers, the ‘Pre-Socratic’ philosophers. These extraordinary, innovative thinkers were the first minds in the West, so far as we know, to discover culture as such—the first to differentiate mythos, or ‘story,’ from physis, or ‘nature.’ In making this game-changing, explosive discovery—one that would be developed and greatly elaborated upon by their direct successors—a new path was opened, one that pointed beyond (or beneath) culture as the basis and ground for all ‘knowledge’ and meaning. In opening up a path to nature, these penetrating minds had discovered (or invented?) a whole new basis for probing into the meaning of things. Philosophy was a new way of accounting for reality and the parts and processes that comprised that whole. And yet, it was only possible to enter this newly discovered territory by ‘seeing through’ the normally binding and sacrosanct mythic structures of one’s inherited worldview. Nothing imaginable could be more radical, preposterous, dangerous—or potentially liberating—than to extricate one’s mind and soul from the authorized and meaning-bestowing articles of faith that were taken for granted by one’s local community—by one’s parents and family, ancestors and countrymen.

As we know, to ‘see through’ an explanation, a moral precept, or a custom can mean two very different, or practically antithetical, things. It can mean to see through as in ‘seeing through tinted or distorting lenses’—where the ‘world’ we behold automatically takes on the color or the distortions inherent in the lens through which we are (unconsciously or unreflectively) looking. Or it can mean ‘un-masking,’ as when we ‘see through’ a lie or a magician’s trick to the truth that is being artfully disguised or concealed.

Perhaps we should include ‘stories’ with water, air, nutrition, and other absolute requirements without which human beings seem unable to survive for very long. In ancient times—within the various cultural schemes—Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Judaic, Persian, etc.—the ‘stories’ tended to be comparatively well-organized, coherent, and—most importantly—wrapped in an aura of sacredness, an aura religiously maintained by priests, scribes, and poets. With the passage of time, the river of Western culture has been fed—some might say inundated—with many different and often incompatible cultural tributaries (chief of which may be abbreviated as ‘Athens and Jerusalem,’ or ‘Caesar and Christ’). This has led to a proliferation of ‘stories’ and cultural perspectives that would have struck our ancient forebears as a kind of ‘tower of Babel,’ no doubt.

We euphemistically (and perhaps a bit innocently) refer to today’s fragmented, incoherent, and diluted assortment of incommensurable story lines as ‘cultural diversity.’ In our schools and universities we are taught that this modern cultural diversity is, for the most part, a positive and enlightened advance beyond the narrow-minded, myopic cultural chauvinism of the past—and certainly there is some merit in these self-congratulatory claims.

I would suggest, however, that while the quantity and variety of myths and stories we have to choose from is perhaps greater than at any time in the past (including the Hellenistic period which, in this regard, bears a striking resemblance to our own era), the quality of these purpose- and meaning-bestowing stories seems to have suffered a rather noticeable degradation over the past few hundred years. And I would further suggest that human beings, in general, are no better equipped (or naturally disposed) to live without a myth or orienting story than the ancient Egyptian farmer or the Assyrian charioteer was. What the ancient and modern philosophers have attempted to do—namely, to ‘see through’ and beyond cultural forms and assumptions into their natural (and perhaps not 100% human) backdrop—has never been a popular pursuit or pastime. Such enterprises have always been reserved for oddballs and anomalies, weirdos and prodigies: peculiar but uncannily gifted individuals like Anaximander and Heraclitus, Socrates and Chuang-tzu, Diogenes and Nietzsche.

Do we see a Catch-22 situation shaping up here? It would appear that under conditions of religious laxity or during occasional periods of ‘enlightenment,’ foundational stories begin to lose a good deal of their formerly undisputed credibility and authority, at least among the educated members of the society. This often leads to a general decline in the quality and richness of the stories and the anchoring beliefs in which culture—all culture—consists. Thus, with the spread of rational inquiry and religious tolerance we frequently see the rise of corrosive skepticism and a relaxation of passionate belief in any one thing. As we have seen, such conditions are conducive to relativism, moral lassitude, and intellectual confusion, if only because the tension and the underlying sense of urgency that attend full and authentic cultural commitment have been collectively slackened under the new lenient conditions.

On the other hand, after we have become accustomed to such relaxed, free, and open-minded conditions, ordinary believers suddenly start to look a bit like fanatics and simpletons. They remind us of ourselves back when we were youngsters and didn’t know any better—how we inwardly writhed and rebelled against the shocking proclamation, made by the older kid up the street, that there was no Santa Claus, no Easter bunny, and not even a tooth fairy! We cannot help but feel an uneasy mixture of pity and contempt for those ‘fundamentalists’ and those ‘political ideologues’ when we hear them spouting their dogmatic certainties! As if they were from an earlier, less ‘informed’ era! How much must such dogged believers block out or willfully ignore in order to hang onto their life-and-sanity-supporting myths and illusions! No, such willful ignorance and misguided passion is utterly abominable to us. Better to graze on the parched plains of the unforgiving modern-cultural landscape than to descend to such luxuriant marshlands of folly and error!

But then we ask, in all seriousness: are these the only alternatives available to us? On the one hand, a ‘sophisticated’ but rather tepid and anemic skepticism, a post-modernist reluctance to take any cultural, religious, or philosophical claims too seriously, since all of them have a place on the ‘lazy Susan’ at the center of the table? Or an unsophisticated, retrograde parochialism that sinks its big, plaque-and-tartar-crusted, yellow-brown, buck teeth into some conservative dogma or another and never looks back? Aren’t these the two antagonistic camps into which contemporary society has been polarized? But there are all those millions of people who are ‘in the middle.’ I am referring to perhaps the largest segment of American society. Perhaps I am mistaken, but don’t members of this ‘middle’ segment often appear to be rather shoddily educated, upon close examination, since typically they know little or nothing in depth beyond their usually quite restricted and narrow area of professional-vocational expertise? Generally speaking, mightn’t it be justly claimed that this large segment of Americans in ‘the middle’ typically possesses only the most rudimentary, bare-boned ‘knowledge’ respecting cultural history, for instance, or literature, religion, philosophy, psychology, or the arts? If this huge population possesses some knowledge of these matters, doesn’t it tend to be dismally superficial—not much beyond the Wikipedia level? Also, their knowledge of such important cultural matters tends to be merely informational—and is seldom passionately gripping or crucially important to them. On the other hand, and to their great credit: they are open to new ideas and experiences—unlike the ultra-conservative ideologues, the closed-minded religious dogmatists, the cynics, and other ‘know-nothings’ whose attitude towards the contemporary scene boils down to fear, hatred, apathy, and/or combustible anger.

Bacon, Modernity, and the Antichrist (11/6/12)

In the past I refrained from saddling Bacon with the lion’s share of culpability for the catastrophically imbalanced, nay unhinged, technocracy for which he laid the foundations three centuries ago. My willingness to exonerate him was based upon his repeated insistence that the powerful new technologies that his new science would assuredly generate were to be used solely for philanthropic ends—and not for the enormous profit of the few at the expense of the many, which, as we can all see, is pretty much the way things have panned out.

Now that I am learning more about his protracted, virulent smear campaign against Plato and Aristotle—and not simply as thinkers/philosophers, but as characters, as humans—I am less forgiving towards him. His efforts to discredit and to effectively quash Platonic and Aristotelian moral-speculative philosophy (which was concerned, especially in Plato, with the intelligible Good-in-itself) certainly contributed a great deal to the redirection and re-allocation of Europe’s intellectual capital towards exclusively practical investments—and towards the aggrandizement of human power. So, we see the clearing of a path of domination over nature while effectively obstructing an old and well-traveled path of moral-spiritual enlightenment.

My sense is that if Bacon (and others after him who followed in his powerful wake—persons like Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Bentham, and Mill) had made half as strong an effort to preserve and uphold the spiritual-moral authority of these ancient philosophers as he did to impugn them, the West might not have become so completely deracinated from its moral-spiritual underpinnings. I am not alone in suspecting that Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical and moral teachings—had they been left intact near the beating heart of Western culture, instead of being thoroughly upstaged and eclipsed by the material science founded by Bacon, Descartes, and Co.—would almost certainly have provided a wise and moderating counterweight against the shameless acquisitiveness, the crass sensualism, and the virulent banality that have inundated the last few centuries.

Why did Bacon deem it necessary to dethrone Plato and Aristotle—categorically, and not just those bits that were obstructive to his natural science project—in order to accomplish his world-historical ‘revolution’ in thought and action? This is a big question and any attempted answer will necessarily be complex and many-sided, not simple. If Bacon had not been such a notoriously subtle dissimulator, we might be in a better position to know if—and how much—he privately believed that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were indeed worthless and misguided, as he publicly claimed. It is certainly possible that, despite his indisputably first-rate intellect, Bacon was constitutionally incapable of seeing things ‘transcendentally’—after the fashion of Socrates and Plato (I am very much of two minds about Aristotle’s ability to authentically experience Platonic ideas in other than a merely conceptual manner, so I will keep him ‘on ice’ in this discussion). One might raise much the same psychological observation or question about Hobbes, Locke, Spencer, Darwin, and even Nietzsche, who was nothing if he was not a kind of physiologist in his psychological speculations. One could even argue that a man as intimately acquainted with the psyche as Freud lacked this introverted-intuitive faculty needed to experience the Ideas or the archetypes, which must be distinguished from hypostatized drives, reified instincts, and mere ‘universal ideas’ (nominalism).

If Bacon did, in fact, suffer from this sort of congenital psychological blindness—a defect that seems to have been compensated by an exaggerated, hypertrophic development of ‘extraverted sensation thinking’—then we may have a partial explanation for his extraordinary powers of penetration as an empirical, outer-directed thinker and, alas, his corresponding weaknesses in the internal realm of transcendent/speculative cognition and experience. And what a man simply cannot see or experience for himself (if he’s honest), he will be likely to dismiss as an empty phantom or chimera. In such a case we cannot, in all fairness, impugn the thinker’s sincerity. He suffers from something analogous to color-blindness in his psychic make-up and cannot perceive certain mental phenomena that are plainly evident to persons who do not suffer from the same defect. From this angle, materialism—as a metaphysical scheme or standpoint—is not so much an elaborate concatenation of abstract concepts or intellectual postulates as it is a kind of consciousness that is decisively governed and oriented by sensation, one of the four psychological functions, along with thinking, feeling, and—its polar opposite—intuition, which is precisely the function that is crucial to the symbolic-transcendent cognition that Plato exemplified so impressively.

For the materialist, the senses are automatically elevated in importance and implicitly regarded as the proper criteria when it comes to the reality and the ultimate nature of things in the world. The thoughts that the strict, self-consistent materialist has about sensory data appear to be derived from and shaped by the evidence of the senses. Such a psychic constitution or organization I suspect Bacon to have been endowed with. The general trajectory of his stupendously influential thought fully conforms with the terms and natural conditions of this sense-determined, outer-directed attitude and approach towards reality. Its remarkable effectiveness cannot be disputed. Bacon—pioneering and charting the way into the terra incognita of external nature—has, along with his loyal followers and disciples, radically transformed the world in which we now live. If Bacon’s thoroughly ‘down to earth,’ un-transcendental psychic constitution had been some fluke or anomaly, the scientific revolution never would have taken off—let alone become the intellectual movement that spread like a wildfire through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—and is still going strong.

He was in this sense an outstanding prototype—a groundbreaking pathfinder—who opened up territory that was quickly and enthusiastically colonized by hordes of lesser, but thoroughly competent lights. Outstanding, similarly-oriented scientific geniuses—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Lavoisier, Boyle, Darwin, Marie Curie, Einstein, and Heisenberg, to mention only some of the most renowned—lent enormous and well-deserved dignity to the scientific enterprise. Aside from the brilliant theoretical insights of these luminaries, there are the countless comforts, conveniences, and medical marvels with which applied science and the new technologies have blessed a grateful humanity. Of course, it is not an unmixed blessing and the costs—both to the natural environment and to our spiritual balance and well-being—may soon bring the brilliant success story to an unexpectedly sobering denouement.

I am not oblivious to the fact that in ‘profiling’ Bacon[1] as psychologically ‘blind’ to the ‘transcendent’ or spiritual dimension of our human endowment, I am surreptitiously linking modernity to a kind of mental imbalance that afflicted one of its principal architects. Having read Bacon (and about his legacy) for many years—and having ‘placed’ him, to the best of my ability, within the general scheme of Western cultural evolution—I strongly suspect that, like Nietzsche, his understanding of the whole was perilously skewed and incomplete. Nietzsche’s lopsidedness and mental disequilibrium were of a somewhat different ilk than Bacon’s: there was a good deal more innate piety and religiosity that had been rather brutally traumatized by his own ferociously critical intellect and forcibly repressed, causing all sorts of related complications, while Bacon often seems not to have had a sincerely pious bone in his body.

I also suspect that Bacon—supremely conscious of his bulging intellectual endowment, confident in his vast learning and his privileged access to the highest social and political circles of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts—was possessed of an exceptionally ambitious soul. He was not only a peerless analytical and inventive thinker—but a sly and artful man of action who had little doubt in his ability or his calling to steer the course of mankind’s future—the sort of legacy that few sane persons in a century have the wherewithal even to contemplate soberly. Bacon surely must have recognized that his particular genius was splendidly tailored for the task he set before himself—to become an actual, as opposed to a merely fabled, Prometheus or Dædalus. As such, he would unlock the carefully hidden secrets of nature—secrets the knowledge of which would forthwith transform the earth itself into a bountiful cornucopia, controlled for the first time by its most magnificent and godlike creature—man. This—if anything—was religion for Bacon: the relief of man’s material estate with himself as the benevolent author and creator of the Novum Organon, a book that made the (formerly) impossible possible.[2]

I believe it was this preferment of the spiritual over the (‘corrupt’ and chaotic) material world that Bacon and Nietzsche both found unforgivably repellent in Plato. These were very much ‘this-worldly’ thinkers who, while attentive to the grandeur of the Bible (or rather, the Old Testament), saw little besides error and useful fictions in the actual content of religion—at least to the extent that they were able to appreciate its cultural significance. Bacon—like that other extraordinary secular thinker across the Channel, Montaigne—had witnessed the senseless mutual slaughter of Catholics and Protestants during that bloody era of religious wars. Very bad business for the implementation of the communal research—the peaceful collaboration—that Bacon’s grand scheme would require before the scientific revolution could get rolling! The tempests of religious fanaticism certainly had to be calmed—and sectarian agitators had to be de-clawed and de-fanged—if the proper conditions for Baconian science were to be established.[3]

*****

In the fabled ‘Bensalem’—Bacon’s pleasant, science-founded (and secretly governed) utopia depicted in his posthumously published The New Atlantis—the great co-architect of modernity presents us with a materially seductive alternative to Plato’s equally fabled Republic, a sterner and rather less cozy regime ruled over by ascetic philosopher-kings who place the highest value on spiritual and moral excellence, while setting little store on technological innovations and sensual pleasures. Was it this hedonistic appeal that won over the hearts and minds of Bacon’s initial (bourgeois) fans and followers? Is it any coincidence that improvements in technology brought increased trade, prosperity, and a growing middle class that wanted its share in the political freedoms that had heretofore been confined to the few, the well-born? The generation and the distribution of wealth—drawn both from the new industries and from exploited colonies scattered throughout the world—set Europe (and later, America) on the complex economic, social, and political trajectory that carries us to the present day.

Bacon was decisive in plotting and inaugurating this materialistic/terrestrial trajectory, but in order to put his contribution into a larger perspective it should be remembered that the Renaissance in Italy had already, a century earlier, heralded a sea change in European culture—a kind of swing of the world-historical pendulum away from the spirit and towards matter and the outer world of sensuous experience. When viewed within the vast context of this great reversal of collective psychic energy and attention, Bacon’s project can be seen as facilitating and formally articulating this new direction that life and consciousness were already moving in. The ‘Great Man’ theory of history (Carlyle) turns out to be woefully inadequate here, even if it is true that extraordinary geniuses—persons like Bacon, Descartes, and Newton—may be crucial for establishing the actual roads and drawing up the maps through territory that is already being entered by the ‘spirit of the era.’

As I recall, Jung—perhaps echoing a previous observer—postulated the notion that the first half of the Christian aeon was governed by spirit and by inner realities, while the second half, beginning around the 12th century, has been (enantiodromically)[4] governed by the pull outwards towards matter, the body, and the senses—which were disparaged and, to a great extent, repressed throughout the first millennium. Understood in this way, Christ (as living symbol of spiritual, transcendent reality) ruled over the first half of the aeon (which currently is nearing its end), while the Antichrist (complementary symbol of material, immanent, sensual reality) has ruled over the latter half (our own ‘end times,’ as Jung makes clear in the cited passage. Whether or not one goes in for such mythological or theological readings of historical-cultural trends and energies, the recorded evidence quite persuasively corroborates this rather dualistic, spirit-versus-matter, inner-versus-outer dynamic that has been played out upon the grand stage of human history these past two thousand years.

The powerful, generally unconscious determinants alluded to in this narrative transcend mere human rationality and control. Within the context of such a cosmic scheme, human cultural and collective psychological developments emerge chiefly as effects, rather than as primary causal factors. For those, like myself, who find philosophical merit in such narratives, it makes more sense to view transformative figures like Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Bacon, Descartes, Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung as oracular articulators and avatars of these transpersonal, course-determining energies and worldviews than as the sole creators of the legacies they bequeath to us. The work of a Plato, Jesus, Bacon, or Nietzsche is not produced ex nihilo but in sensitive, intelligent response to archetypal energies and to ‘daimonic’ inner realities that few can encounter without being overwhelmed or even crushed. Thus it stands to reason that skeptical and extremely strong-willed egos (Bacon, Nietzsche) are perhaps more susceptible to dangerous inflation or madness than more pliant and transcendentally-minded ones (Jesus, Plato, Jung).

[1] …and, by extension, those among his followers and adherents who embraced the new science without adequately reflecting upon its darker implications for a species that, in retrospect, appears to have been manifestly unready to responsibly manage the incalculable material power and the personal freedoms that came along with the political reforms of the past few centuries.

[2] As Laurence Lampert points out in his provocative book, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche, the young author of Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil entertained similarly Olympian ambitions of redirecting humanity’s trajectory in accordance with his own superior will and special wisdom. And he, too, incidentally, regarded Plato as his arch-enemy—and for much the same reason that Bacon did: for his ‘after-worldliness,’ i.e., his ‘transcendental’ claims for the philosophically enlightened soul.

[3] One could argue that it was largely because religion had gradually degenerated into such a dismal and destructive state of dogmatic-sectarian warfare that Bacon’s genius for improving man’s material conditions through science and technology was given the warm and enthusiastic welcome it received by, up and coming, middle class men of learning. Had Western Christianity managed to remain spiritually effective and coherent instead of succumbing to schisms and splintering, then the seductions of materialism and earthly comforts would perhaps have been somewhat easier to resist. But this question must be saved for another time.

[4] Jung’s controversial idea is explored in his work on psychological symbolism in Christianity: “If we see the traditional figure of Christ as a parallel to the psychic manifestation of the self, then the Antichrist would correspond to the shadow of the self, namely the dark half of the human totality, which ought not to be judged too optimistically. So far as we can judge from experience, light and shadow are so evenly distributed in man’s nature that his psychic totality appears, to say the least of it, in a somewhat murky light…In the empirical self, light and shadow form a paradoxical unity. In the Christian concept, on the other hand, the archetype is hopelessly split into two irreconcilably halves, leading ultimately to a metaphysical dualism—the final separation of the kingdom of heaven from the fiery world of the damned…For anyone who has a positive attitude towards Christianity the problem of the Antichrist is a hard nut to crack…the devil attains his true stature as the adversary of Christ, and hence of God, only after the rise of Christianity, while as late as the Book of Job he was still one of God’s sons and on familiar terms with Yahweh. Psychologically the case is clear, since the dogmatic figure of Christ is so sublime and spotless that everything else turns dark beside it. It is, in fact, so one-sidedly perfect that it demands a psychic complement to restore balance…The coming of the Antichrist is not just a prophetic prediction—it is an inexorable psychological law whose existence, though unknown to the author of the Johannine Epistles, brought him a sure knowledge of the impending enantiodromia…In making these statements we are keeping entirely within the sphere of Christian psychology and symbolism. A factor that no one has reckoned with, however, is the fatality inherent in the Christian disposition itself, which leads inevitably to a reversal of its spirit—not through the obscure workings of chance but in accordance with psychological law. The ideal of spirituality striving for the heights was doomed to clash with the materialistic earth-bound passion to conquer matter and master the world. This change became visible at the time of the ‘Renaissance.’ The word means ‘rebirth,’ and it referred to the renewal of the antique spirit. We know today that this spirit was chiefly a mask; it was not the spirit of antiquity that was reborn, but the spirit of medieval Christianity that underwent strange pagan transformations, exchanging the heavenly goal for an earthly one, and the vertical of the Gothic style for a horizontal perspective (voyages of discovery, exploration of the world and of nature). The subsequent developments that led to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution have produced a world-wide situation today which can only be called ‘antichristian’ in a sense that confirms the early Christian anticipation of the ‘end of time.’ (Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self; CW, vol. 9, part. 2, pars. 76-78)