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.

 

Climbing Out and Dusting Off (5/14/18)

I picture contemporary (Western) humanity as buried under the rubble produced by the general collapse of the once defiantly anthropomorphic edifice of our two-legged culture. One strong leg was provided by our Greco-Roman heritage; the other, by Judeo-Christianity. And while it is certainly true that many uneducated or half-educated persons are able to sense this toppled, reduced state of affairs for what it in fact is (despite the misleading technological and socio-political indicators of net or unmitigated progress), only those who have managed, almost miraculously, to dig themselves from out of the ubiquitous rubble and recover a clear vision of how things were before the collapse are truly in a position to assess the scale of the damage, loss, and destruction.

Perhaps the most important question an intelligent and courageous young person might ask today is, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life adapting and catering to this malignant, inherited condition – a half-life amidst the decomposing limbs and organs of Western culture – or do I want to dedicate my best energies to climbing out of this graveyard-infirmary and explore realistic ways of starting over – of rebuilding on new ground?”

The insidious, all-pervasive “system” into which we have been born has been increasingly tailored for the purpose of exploiting our culturally bankrupt and collapsed condition – not to address and/or remedy our condition, for that requires tremendous courage, imagination, and compassion, as opposed to greed, craftiness, and deceitfulness, which will always be in greater supply and will always be more materially rewarded. Contemporary education, consumerism, entertainment, and mass politics all work hand-in-hand, first to cripple minds and imaginations, and then to keep them permanently distracted. Crippled minds and souls that are kept distracted, medicated, and restlessly hankering after addictive sensations/substances are easily kept marginalized, isolated, and depoliticized. Those of us who would climb out of the rubble must first trust our suspicion that the complex system and its conscripted servants (which usually includes our parents, our teachers and religious leaders, and virtually everyone we know who is not regarded as a crank or a lunatic) are bent on blowing out our flickering flame of rebellion and dissent. Only a few young and spirited souls possess the audacity to solitarily defy this colossal chorus of energetic corrupters who use every trick in the book to scare or tempt or drug us into adapting and resigning ourselves to a comfortable life in the shallows, the shadows, the flattened and frenetic, frothy and frivolous, wasteland that the diabolical system is set up to mentally rule and materially exploit.

What crushing disappointments and unappeasable loneliness await such audacious, promising, self-trusting souls! How unlikely it is that they will somehow manage to escape maiming or irreparable damage to their souls as they struggle, alone, to extricate themselves from the sticky web of conditioning and indoctrination that has perversely been sold to us (often by sincerely well-meaning but naïve indoctrinators) as crucial to our welfare – as a kind of privilege! How many will be able to withstand this overwhelming crisis of having the “world” turned inside out? For there is no better description of what the spirited, self-trusting solitary must endure as he slowly claws his way out from under the rubble of dying and dead forms. What an uncanny coupling of exultation and remorse, triumph and despair, such souls must endure as they survey the sinister but heart-breaking scene from which they have succeeded, if only momentarily, to step back – to view from the outside!

Even if our human, all too human attachments and loyalties to certain beloved conscripts, inmates—and perhaps even a few prison guards and officials—eventually lure us back down below, these ecstatic-climactic moments of liberation can never be fully erased from our memory, even if we sometimes wish we could forget what we struggled so doggedly to see with our own eyes. I speak as one who has known such revelatory moments and I still cannot say with absolute self-assurance whether I am blessed or cursed to have been granted such glimpses from beyond the perimeter. Nothing remains the same after such experiences. All our darkest suspicions have been confirmed and an invisible veil or membrane forms between us and all of those who know and suspect nothing of these things. The veil or membrane is porous and permeable, so much pain and a little (black?) light can pass across the border when a courageous candidate approaches and presents his hard-won passport.

A Note on Ambition: Moral Heroes and Moral Zeroes (6/22-23/12)

These past few weeks I have not been as focused or as disciplined as I was prior to this passive patch I seem to have entered. This dearth of productivity (especially with respect to meaty journal entries) weighs noticeably upon my conscience, I must confess. I suppose I would be lying if I were to deny that ambition, of a sort, plays a part in my personal psychology—and when I am not being productive or creative I soon feel as if I’m just taking up space on an already overcrowded planet. Being human would be an unendurably ‘stale and unprofitable’ affair, indeed, if it were not for those precious phases of focused, creative writing that I am fortunate to experience.

Of course, when I am ‘graced’ with these creative phases, they are their own sufficient reward. Because the intense awakening of my ‘higher’ faculties and my creative potentials bring such substantial satisfaction, I care not about ambition while the ‘juices are flowing.’ It is only after the source-springs of inspiration appear to have mysteriously dried up—only then do I fall prey to such ‘pedestrian’ thoughts and concerns. It would appear, then, that these slightly awkward and uncomfortable musings about the value and importance of my writings for others kick into gear only when I find myself stuck with nothing of vital importance to express. Perhaps this is as it should be. The very idea of writing about spiritual and psychological matters so that my personal ambitions may be advanced is morally objectionable to me—on a par with quack therapists who profit materially by exploiting confused and ailing patients without ever really being able to resolve their psychological problems or to enlighten them about their true sources.

I want to be careful here. I want to try to avoid hiding under the skirts of my moral indignation, for this is always an easy way to bring a quick and tidy end to a deeper investigation of the (usually) complex matters at hand. If I am to be quite honest, I must admit that my own moral indignation, when it valiantly sallies forth, almost always functions in this way—namely, as a (psychologically suspect) stratagem for shutting down an otherwise promising investigation into gnarled, twisted, and murky psychological factors. Either I become uncomfortable with the unflattering secrets I am likely to unearth there, or the following of such poorly marked trails simply requires more energy and effort than I am willing, at that moment, to expend. At any event, I have come to believe that perhaps most moral judgments and reactions—my own and those of others—boil down to this laziness and fear (of discovering uncomfortable truths) that I notice in myself. Of course, I am not recommending (for myself or for others) the jettisoning of moral judgment altogether. I’m only saying that—from a more rigorous standard of ethical values—it is not advisable to stop there. We might profitably think of our moral judgments and reactions as the frontier or boundary line beyond which we are not easily able to extend our thinking, our feeling, our limited light. Looked at differently, these boundary lines become the proper starting point for genuine psychological, as distinct from merely moral, understanding.

When I pause here to reflect, I have to say that it is precisely because of this commonly encountered abuse of moral judgments and posturing (as a means of warding off any further exploration of the countless possible ‘trails’ that open up before us every day) that I become suspicious the moment I am confronted by strong moral pronouncements and proud moral convictions—whether from others or within myself. From the standpoint of depth psychology, such decisive, ‘cauterizing’ moral judgments amount to ‘closing the case’ and refusing to consider any more evidence.

All this simply confirms our old suspicion that morality and psychology are often quite antagonistic rivals when it comes to interpreting human behavior, motivation, and so forth. The moralist—apparently—clings to the reassuring belief that his moral judgments and interpretations are not merely adequate responses to psychological phenomena—but inherently preferable to a psychological reading. And why does the moralist need to believe such a thing? Isn’t it because—dimly sensing his own limitations of will, patience, understanding, compassion, and self-control—he fears that without raising the rampart of moral defiance, ‘chaos will come again’ and swallow him up? So, why can’t the moralist simply admit this? Why can’t he admit that he resorts to moral judgment as a means of protection against certain drives, against disquieting bits of knowledge, against efforts, against uncertainties, etc., that he is simply not up to dealing with? The simple answer, of course, is ‘his pride stands in the way.’ To be fair, few persons relish the experience of being out of their depth, so it shouldn’t strain the imagination for us to grasp why the moralist leans so habitually upon his moral judgments, always striving to strengthen them and patch them up as soon as they start to become porous—allowing ‘psychology’ to leak through.

The intrepid psychologist who imaginatively presses past these moral prohibitions and boundaries within himself in order to probe more deeply into the complex and unlit roots of his own psychic life will not begrudge the more numerous ‘moral’ men and women these protective walls that shield them from ‘knowledge of (their own) good and evil—or good versus evil.’ Nor will he deride their pride in what frankly amounts to their limitations, as distinct from their (more dangerous) potentials. He will let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes.

A conventionally moral life—at least where exceptionally ‘spirited’ human beings are under consideration—necessarily involves significant self-sacrifice, effective mastery over unruly drives and riotous inclinations, as well as a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance, due to the strained and occasionally preposterous interpretations of his experience that he is limited to when denied the benefits conferred by true psychological understanding, which is always subtler, more complex and more comprehensive in nature. On these grounds, alone, the life of our little moral hero can scarcely be regarded as an enviably untroubled life. He is up against real dynamisms, conundrums, and conflicting currents within himself each day as he struggles to sail a straight course through turbulent waters and maelstroms. Such efforts are not to be scoffed at. Even if these moral ‘heroes’ enjoy the support of an admiring public (the encouraging and vitalizing effects of which should never be underestimated, where the heroic ego is under consideration!), their valiant efforts to keep their ‘white hats’ unshakably fastened upon their proud heads are worthy of our respect. At least—like an ambitious or competitive athlete—he really tries his level best to be ‘good’ and to avoid being ‘bad.’ He knows first-hand the torments of a troubled conscience when he detects baseness or mediocrity, villainy or slavishness, within himself. His efforts to vanquish or to eradicate these dark, shadowy, shameful elements of his human, all-too-human nature may be doomed from the start—but the mere fact that he struggles probably sets him apart from those, probably a majority, who struggle no more than they absolutely have to.

Thus, our moral hero is situated, let us say, somewhere between the many, on the one side, and the genuine (and I don’t mean professional) psychologists, on the other. The genuine psychologists have managed, through their very different (and by no means popularly supported!) efforts, to move somewhat beyond the arena of moral heroics into the less dramatic, less ‘humanistic’ arena of psychological enquiry. Moral heroics have no recognized place in this very different realm of experience and investigation. To enter this realm one must have first loosened one’s mental ties and attachments to the other one. ‘Can’t serve two masters,’ and all that. Game change. Heroics of a sort may be involved in the new realm but they are heroics of a radically different stripe—since they have, as it were, no witnessing audience, no leaping cheerleaders, and little public fanfare.

So, to return to the point from which I started this essay: ambition makes no sense where there are no witnesses to behold and to envy one’s success. To the extent that the focus of my own work has moved beyond the exclusively human (and therefore predominantly moral-political) realm of concerns, I have begun to opt out of that game. My ‘ambition’ is simply a vestige from that earlier phase—the pre-psychological phase—of my unfoldment. Perhaps, like the little spurs at the tail end of certain snakes, where legs used to be in the evolutionary past, such vestiges are never completely ‘transcended’ or dispensed with—however fond we may be of ‘pure’ and ‘unalloyed’ fidelity to our new fields of experience. It is nevertheless worth repeating: I seem to be susceptible to such concerns only during these interim phases when the ‘muse’ is mum. When she sings in me I am sufficiently fulfilled so that I crave no beholding witnesses or approving supporters. Such solitariness appears to be the price one must pay in order to glimpse—and only fleetingly—secrets that are denied even to the most muscular of moralists. And why are they denied to them? Precisely because the moralist—as such, and due to the very nature of his divisive-dualistic campaign wherein he plants himself firmly at one end of a vast polarity—refuses to embrace and to integrate all that ‘shadow’ at the far end of his ‘pole’ of Goodness. He turns his back—and, in some cases, the tip of his righteous sword—upon those very contents, states, and perspectives that are prima materia for the psychologist.

No wonder, then, that I have long had ‘ticklish’ relations with fervently ‘good’ (or ‘good-identified’) persons. Persons who live in a state of moral oblivion or obtuseness fail to grasp what I’m ‘up to.’ Typically, they sense nothing amiss (or threatening) about me. But this is precisely because they know or choose to know little of me behind my genial ‘mask.’ Morally heroic persons, on the other hand, have every reason to be unnerved by me when, as an occasional psychologist writing from beyond their ‘good and evil,’ I no doubt come across like the lapping waves of the sea against their carefully sculpted sand castles on the shore.

There is a type of ambition that is rather more innocuous and forgivable than the cutthroat, vaunting variety that usually leads to trouble of some sort or another. We observe this benign form of ambition in children who seek the praise of their parents by making high marks at school and in adults who strive in a polite, inoffensive manner to win the respect of their peers through charitable deeds. In such striving the line between personal egotism and the social/familial instincts become blurred. As long as his striving for excellence and for success is not directly in conflict with the well-being of the community or social order, a man’s ambition is not only excused—it is praised and encouraged, since his virtues and contributions become part of the community treasure chest, as it were. As long as the benignly ambitious man continues to make valuable contributions that can be put to good use by his society, the expansion of his personal power and importance will be tolerated. But as soon as he behaves in such a way—or introduces ideas—that his society regards with disapproval or with cold indifference, the mutually satisfying and mutually beneficial love affair hits a speed bump, if not a brick wall.

As long as a person is content, therefore, to remain a faithful servant to the collective will and interest, he will be warmly embraced and handsomely rewarded by his society. The moment, however, that he bends his chief efforts to genuinely individual[1] problems and concerns, he is more likely to come under suspicion by the very society that honored and celebrated him while his best energies and virtues were earmarked for that society—or at least by those within that society whose consciousness is wholly collective and lacking in any consciously differentiated individuality. If the will or fundamental attitude of the collective—any collective—could be reduced to a simple statement, it would be ‘Either you are with us or you are of no use to us.’

Lip service is paid in this country to the idea or theory of the sanctity of the individual, but in practice, it is almost always the will of some group or another that carries the day. This de facto ‘tyranny’ of the group over the individual springs not so much from a cruelly imposed will-to power (although mob-power and group-arrogance are certainly real forces which must be taken into account) as from the inertia of the group and its extremely limited ability of its leaders to cope with the actual subtleties and complexities of human life, the hallmark of individual consciousness.

Groups vary in size and strength—and the greater their size and strength, the greater the leveling and simplifying power of the group will. It is far more difficult to stop or to change the direction of a moving herd than it is for a single individual to stop and/or redirect his own steps. In order for a single individual to change the powerful but blind will of a mob, he must not only be extraordinarily persuasive, but there must also be a latent willingness within the soul of the mob to listen to the exceptional orator. An example was provided by the great willingness on the part of Soviet society to listen to Gorbachev when the time came for dramatic reforms. If the individual orator is insufficiently persuasive, he will be unable to rouse that hidden seed of willingness and the status quo will prevail. Or, if that potential for redirection is not present, the blandishments and cajoleries of even the most impressive orators will fail to elicit any notable response from the intractable crowd. Only when these two come together—extraordinary persuasiveness on the part of the inspired leader or spokesman and a fundamental, if latent, readiness for change, on the part of the group—for a new direction, a new myth, a new vision—only then will the ground shift. The group may be as small as a board of directors for corporation or as large as the amassed members of a culture or a shared language.

 

[1] Jung is careful to make a noteworthy distinction between individuation and mere individual-ism:

Individuation is always to some extent opposed to collective norms, since it means separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular—not a particularity that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution. The opposition to the collective norm, however, is only apparent, since closer examination shows that the individual standpoint is not antagonistic to it, but only differently oriented. The individual way can never be directly opposed to the collective norm, because the opposite of the collective norm could only be another, but contrary, norm. But the individual way can, by definition, never be a norm. A norm is the product of the totality of individual ways, and its justification and beneficial effect are contingent upon the existence of individual ways that need from time to time to orient to a norm. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally, this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that account needs the norm for its orientation to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality. (C.G. Jung; CW, vol. 6, par. 761)

The Great Reversal (7/13/11)

These days, the animating psychic energy required for propping up and sustaining established cultural norms, conventional morality and religion, along with the precarious sense of community and public trust, is being undercut by a far more powerful force. This ongoing process erodes and undermines the credibility of the former collective values and beliefs. It is not so much a matter of the values and beliefs being worthless, per se. The problem is that more and more persons are responding, either consciously or instinctively, to collective psychic changes that are occurring below the surface of our everyday lives. The general will and the springs of belief are drying up from within as this mysterious new specter approaches, sucking the blood, as it were, from out of the mortally wounded, inherited culture. This ‘leeching’ makes the inherited values and beliefs impotent in the face of our mounting crisis. And although a growing number of persons sense this widespread, frightening transformation that is underway, few of us really understand it within a meaningful context. We hear people talking about ‘the end times,’ the ‘apocalypse,’ and the paralyzing spread of nihilism—of the decline of Western civilization after its long and impressive run. It is true that we see undeniable signs of demoralization, decay, cynicism, spiritual despair and exhaustion all around and within us. But, given the cyclical nature of life and the compensatory character of the unconscious, we would be wise to remember that where one thing is ending, another is always beginning; where one thing dies, another is being born.

There are, of course, many ways to describe or to account for the world-historical transformation we are enmeshed in. The account I propose is simply one more way of trying to ‘come to terms’ with the process of momentous, sweeping change that is underway. Many of us see only the destructive and grim aspects of this far-reaching transformation, but there are just as many creative and salutary possibilities packed into this process as destructive ones, I would contend.

I would propose that the major symptoms of these dramatic changes and this apparent destruction can be profitably diagnosed in terms of a ‘turning of the tide’ of psychic energy deep beneath the surface of the ordinary waking consciousness of each and every individual. If the powerful current of that stream of collective psychic energy has generally been directed outwards for the last seven or eight hundred years of Western cultural life and experience, what we may be seeing now is a great reversal of that current undergoing, so that more and more of that energy is being redirected inwards. We might imagine a giant pendulum that, having reached its outermost verge, stops momentarily, and begins to swing back in the opposite direction.

Such ‘world-historical,’ sweeping reversals of the tide of collective psychic energy and attention appear to have occurred before now, so ours is by no means an isolated case. The historical record vividly documents the disturbances, the general sense of disorientation, the mysterious withering up and submergence of formerly vital cultural forms and institutions—all the symptoms that precede and accompany these peculiar reversals of the direction of psychic energy and attention. Of course, such reversals do not occur overnight, but often require a century or two before the full and undeniable evidence of the ‘turnaround’ is plain for all to see—in retrospect. Moreover, the changes can (and often do) begin in one region or culture group sooner than in another, but eventually all interrelated cultural groups are swept into the general transformation. Thus, following the collapse of the Greek polis (as a political/cultural institution), the exhaustion produced by the 30-year Peloponnesian war, the humiliating conquest by the Macedonian Philip, the spread of corrosive philosophical skepticism and religious disbelief—the formerly vital, expansive, and outer-directed Greek civilization began to show unmistakable signs of such a reversal. We see the spirited conquest of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and other Eastern realms by the post-Hellenic, proto-Hellenistic Alexander. Forthwith, we have the exportation of the largely vacated ‘shell’ of classical Greek civilization like a franchise (rather as the models for ‘American democracy’ and ‘American consumerism’ are exported—and forcibly imposed—today). The philosophical schools that emerged during this late, transitional phase—the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans—were, at bottom, ‘coping philosophies’—a rather different animal than the creative, transformative philosophical activities of the Pre-Socratics—Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and the Eleatics, Parmenides and Zeno—from three centuries earlier.

At any event, during the Hellenistic era—after the conquests of Alexander—we begin to note discernible evidence of this turning inwards, not merely for solace in a world that seems to be unraveling or decaying before one’s very eyes, but because persons appear to be called inside by the collective psyche itself. The collective psyche’s long periods of expansiveness—of turning outward towards the world, towards physis, and towards the city and man—has crested and this is followed by a general withering and withdrawal of interest, attention, and energy from those objects and pursuits. We could note here the mystery cults (of Attis, Adonis, Isis, Mithras, Dionysus, and others) that spoke to the spiritual and emotional needs of the less ‘philosophical,’ ordinary men and women of the Hellenistic era. Groups of devotees underwent initiatory rites in exclusive cults that promised personal salvation for the believers and which had nothing to do with political life or the recognized gods of the state. These people were turning inwards and making souls for themselves in a way that would have been unimaginable during the classical period, when the life of the polis and obedience to the state gods meant everything.

The Roman world would also undergo an analogous process of expansion followed by a gradual drying up from within—only to be succeeded by an ‘other-worldly’ Christian Church that oversaw the ‘interiorized’ and (greatly reduced) cultural lives of a very different sort of creature—the men and women of the so-called ‘Dark Age’ or Medieval era.

But what can all this mean for confused, anxious, disoriented persons living today? Are we heading directly and irreversibly into a new ‘Dark Age’ where the lights of civilization begin to dimly flicker and possibly even be blown out by the cold wind that is noticeably gaining strength and speed on the ominous horizon? There are not a few today who dread such a dismal, worst-case scenario being played out. Many of us living in ‘developed’ nations recognize how inescapably dependent we are upon external, non-local factors over which we have little or no real control. There’s oil. There’s water. There are the bafflingly complex economic and political factors that even our revered and handsomely paid ‘experts’ are evidently stumped by, despite all their proud posturing and pontificating. There is the deplorably flawed and short-sighted public educational system that seems to warp, cripple, and deform more minds than it nourishes, strengthens, and ripens to maturity. The list could go on to depressive lengths, but my point is simple: the external props and supports for our familiar way of life are shaky—though few of us know how to live ‘off the grid.’ Moreover, an increasingly large number of intelligent and thoughtful persons are raising serious questions about the true value of this whole way of life that we have become dependent upon and embedded in—the only way of life most of us living today have ever known. And although the majority of U.S. citizens lack direct and intimate exposure to other cultures (especially those that are less technologically developed/dependent, and more ‘traditional’)—either through travel or through historical education—it is beginning to dawn on some of us that we cannot simply take our good fortune for granted. In spite of our circumstantial insulation and educational isolation, some of us are actually beginning to realize that we are not simply entitled to a much bigger share of the world’s limited goods and resources simply because we happen to be Americans. Some of us are beginning to acknowledge just how imbalanced and unfair the distribution of the world’s goods and services is—and we cannot help but suspect that as a nation of ‘haves,’ we are both envied and resented by the ‘have nots’—both within and beyond our borders.

The inner discomfort provoked by such disturbing reflections has prompted a number of us to examine more deeply the complex array of practical and psychological dilemmas bound up with our consumerist way of life—a privileged way of life that is certainly not unique to us or wholly unprecedented in earlier phases of Western history—but never on such a massive scale. And now, as we all know, China and India are rapidly mobilizing their teeming populations to follow in our consumerist footsteps. There is a rather desperate—and blind—urgency or compulsiveness to our consumerism that is not all that difficult to perceive. The ‘pathological’ excessiveness of our national obsession with consumption, with buying far more than we really need and spending more than we earn (both at the individual and federal levels), is a mass psychological symptom, I would argue, of the ‘great reversal’ that is now underway.

I recall something from my own past that might shed some light here. I was a smoker ‘back in the day’ but, by and by, I felt a strong need to quit. I was acutely aware of the negative impact that the smoking was having on my health—and of how deeply the talons of this habit had penetrated into my mind and body. So, I would set a date to quit. And as the date approached, knowing that after April 1st I would never be able to smoke again, I would naturally smoke more and more cigarettes—overdoing it because I was not going to be able to have them anymore after the cut-off date.

Then April 1st would roll around and I would manage to tough it out for the whole day without indulging. Then the next day. And then the next day. But then, around the fourth or fifth of April, I would be drinking a Dewar’s and soda with some buddies, engaged in a riveting bull session about Nietzsche or Noam Chomsky and I would tell myself ‘OK, you’ve been a good boy. You’ve managed to go four days without lighting up. You’ve demonstrated that you can lick this thing. You deserve to have a smoke—now that you have proven that you can control yourself.’

But then, after I smoked that one cigarette, I would soon find myself right back in the clutches of my old habit—and the whole escalating spiral would resume. Perhaps all of us have some particular weakness or vice where we simply cannot walk sure-footedly around the rim without tumbling down the hole. Skirt-chasing, alcohol, TV-watching, gourmandizing, online shopping, and dozens of other potential addictions and compulsions I have been able to moderate or control. For reasons I did not quite understand, cigarette smoking was that one vice for me that allowed for no halfway measures. If I quit, it had to be decisive and final because it was bigger than me. I can see now, after having quit for over a decade, that smoking, for me, was far more than a physical addiction or craving.

Although I cannot claim to fully understand what the smoking temporarily put to sleep—or held at bay—in me, I can see that some deep and potent source of anxiety was momentarily quieted or muffled when I would smoke. Paradoxically, the anxiety was intimately implicated with death and my mortality. In some strange, inexplicable way, when I smoked I had the vague sense that I had my hands on the dimmer switch of my own life, if that makes any sense—or, that I had my hands on the wheel and my foot on the accelerator of the vehicle (of my life) that would eventually either run out of gas or crash. The anxiety that I was obliged to face after I finally quit the cigarettes stemmed from the troubling but apparent truth that, aside from committing suicide, such matters were quite beyond my control, out of my reach. As perverse as it no doubt sounds, in actively participating in bringing about my own death through the slow and gradual suicide of heavy smoking, I had the sense that I was robbing chance and impersonal, uncaring fate of that office or privilege. This is merely one aspect of what cigarette smoking came to signify for me during a long marriage that ended in an amicable divorce.

Eventually I became strong enough, I suppose, to grudgingly acknowledge my actual helplessness vis-à-vis the larger forces of fate, of irrational compulsions, and of those weaknesses (like smoking was for me) that are rationalized into ‘coping mechanisms.’ But the strength had to be won through a sustained exertion of the will. Understanding my dilemma was certainly helpful, but it was never enough to actually do the work for me. For that, it was necessary not merely to wean myself from my numbing and ‘grounding’ vice of cigarette smoking, but to withstand the protracted confrontation with those mysterious anxieties that had been kept precariously ‘below deck’ by my little addiction and the associated ‘mind game,’ which was for the most part unconsciously played. All this by way of a personal, biographical illustration of what I believe to be an analogous problem in collective consumerism.

The Most Serious Game (2/16/11)

Culture may be viewed as a game with elaborate rules. Language is not only a crucial component of human culture, but is also a rule-based system. Now, insofar as culture and language can be regarded as complex games, we cannot dismiss the important role they serve in providing us with a reliable arena for the regular exercise of our play instincts.

When many of us think of the play instinct we picture little tots or puppies, but I am inclined to see play as serious business, insofar as human well-being and psychological health are concerned. If we are thoroughly engaged with a thriving and balanced culture, our psychic and affective energies are granted freer play than would be possible if we were disengaged or alienated from that culture. And alternatively, if we are thoroughly engaged but the culture turns out to be severely dysfunctional—or lacking a living myth to infuse its members with an unshakable sense of meaning and direction—we’ve got a problem.

After watching the movie ‘Winter’s Bone’ (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakaway film from 2010) recently, some friends recommended two documentaries that also deal with Appalachian or ‘hillbilly’ life—‘American Hollow’ and ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.’ Both documentaries chronicle (for one year) the lives and fortunes of two extended families from ‘the hills.’ What I found particularly interesting about these two films was the way they captured the intense frustrations that some human beings experience in a cultural system that is utterly deficient in its ability to accommodate and to channel the naturally occurring drives, impulses, and longings of more spirited specimens. It was clear, from watching these very instructive little films, that unless the ‘game opportunities’ afforded by a culture are sufficiently engaging and rewarding to the more spirited and talented members of that culture, serious problems are pretty much guaranteed to arise. As in the sports arena or the competitive workplace in a thriving economy, an excellent cultural system provides its engaged ‘players’ with channels and outlets for the aggressive, creative, erotic, and social energies that cry out for discharge and expression. When they are denied expression or a lawful means of discharge, they don’t just vanish into thin air. They accumulated and explode or they express themselves in ‘inappropriate’ and often destructive behaviors, as was shown in these anthropologically insightful films.

But let us go back to our initial question concerning the problematic relationship—or is it, as Nietzsche suggests, a separation?—between nature (and presumably the human-animal instincts that bind us to nature), on the one hand, and culture (along with language and abstract concepts), on the other. One way of defining the complex, transformative process of taking a newborn human child and gradually civilizing him or her is to say that the natural instincts of the child are being awakened, reconfigured, and redirected in such a way as to shift his or her primary allegiance from merely animal satisfactions to ones that are rooted in, and sanctioned by, culture. Of course this involves ‘taming’ and ‘domestication’— especially those socially disruptive, aggressive, and erotic drives—but domestication is not annihilation and taming is not always laming. The ideal aim of the civilizing process—whether this is consciously acknowledged or not—is to preserve as much of the strength of the natural instincts as possible while conscripting them into the service of civilization. Christianity—the way Nietzsche and others have seen and understood it, at least—has failed to live up to this ideal, insofar as it has systematically sought to weaken, cripple, poison, and vilify these aggressive and erotic instincts. But, not to worry: Thank God most ‘Christians’ can be relied upon to be arrant hypocrites who profess one thing and do quite another. Thankfully, Western humanity has not perished from actually living in a genuinely Christian manner. The redirected instinctual drives are not eradicated, but subordinated to the interests of society as a whole. The complex mechanism (or glutinous web) linking the individual members in a shared system is culture, along with its child, language.

Such reflections caution me against drawing a thick, solid line between purely natural instincts (innate; given at birth) and ‘artificial,’ ‘invented’ language and culture (which are acquired from our already semi-acculturated/semi-barbarous parents, teachers, peers). Is it too much of a speculative leap to posit a natural bridge between the human organism—as it is given at birth—and culture as such? By saying ‘culture as such’ I mean, of course, culture in its essential features or ingredients—a language, an ethos or table of values, a social scheme or hierarchy, a sense of history or cultural memory, etc.—and not a specific instance, e.g., Javanese or Berber culture. If ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ really are like apples and oranges—as some philosophers, psychologists, and religious teachers would have us believe—then I suspect that fewer of us would so resignedly allow ourselves to be shackled into our chair in Plato’s ‘cave,’ his famous image of the insulating and containing bubble of a cultural scheme—any cultural scheme. The simple fact that most human beings sincerely, if somewhat naïvely, conflate their inherited cultural worldview with ‘reality,’ as such, strongly suggests that it is not a simple matter of nature and culture being fundamentally conflicted or antithetical systems. This is an enormous and complex philosophical question and it admits of many complicating factors, to be sure, so we must beware of trying to settle or to simplify the issue too quickly. Blake wrote:

Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only shadow of desire. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 5)

Blake’s suspicions and misgivings about bending to reason’s yoke of restraint must, I think, be understood within the revolutionary cultural climate in which he serves as a powerfully dissenting voice. He was aware of the fact that European culture’s aims and functions had long been under the unchallenged sway of an elite political, aristocratic, and ecclesiastic minority for the enhancement of their own power and wealth at the expense of the masses, who were poor and uneducated—just the way elites like them. Blake recognized that the old ‘game’ was being changed by revolutionaries. Those who were being welcomed into the new game were a new breed of entrepreneurial players, persons whose political and economic ambitions had been thwarted and suppressed by the old aristocratic order. This emergent bourgeoisie was also restricted in numbers and, despite all its lip service on behalf of ‘enlightenment,’ these acquisitive and industrious makers of the modern world were often even more restricted in the scope and depth of their humanity, so far as Blake could see.

The architects of the new game of modernity, with its capitalistic, anti-theological, technocratic, scientistic, and materialistic tendencies made up Blake’s unholy trinity: Bacon, Newton, and Locke. To be sure, there were other thinkers and artists besides Blake who were deeply suspicious of these founders of modernity (perhaps Machiavelli, Descartes, and Hobbes should be included among the ‘villains’). They, too, warned against dangers they saw coming as a consequence of the momentous scientific, socio-political, and industrial revolutions that were reshaping every aspect of culture. Goethe said that his poetical works were not nearly as important as his methodological challenges to Newton’s abstract, mathematical physics. The German poet was convinced that the new mathematical physics—because it led to a view of the cosmos that so vastly transcended the reach of our unaided senses and which ignored our human feelings—posed a dangerous threat to human psychological wholeness and integrity. As Goethe saw it, the new physics elevated instrumental reason and material processes to such a high status, the human soul and its vitalizing sources—the senses, the feelings, and the imagination—were being tacitly neglected, devalued, and eclipsed. I needn’t point out the fact that Goethe was quite prescient about this. We’ve sent men to the moon and we now have nuclear weapons. Our technological might is as enormous as our souls and imaginations are cramped, starved, impotent, and alone in a vast and uncaring universe. Worldviews bear the stamp of the methods and means that give birth to them. What gets left out of, or excluded from, the method gets left out of the ‘world’—or gets relegated to the realm of insignificance.

But lordy, I must sound like I am disenchanted and discontented with this modern, technologically spellbinding era in which I was fortunate enough to have been dropped like an apple. An era that upwards of 99 percent of my human ancestors would have sold their daughters and their grandmothers to have been part of. But my guess is that eventually they would have been disappointed and disenchanted, too. They would have made the forgivable mistake of assuming that they could have brought their innocent, life-affirming, richly endowed cultural inheritance with them—and that these tasty exotic fruits would grow in this thin, contaminated soil and that these fruits would continue to nourish and vitalize them. Not knowing any better—or any differently—how could these innocent ancestors know beforehand that the sacrifice of these exotic nourishing fruits is precisely what was demanded for the very different sort of life that we have now—a way of life that caters to the body and the individual ego while ignoring the soul and the spiritual needs of the community? A way of life that trains and encourages the development and exclusive use of calculating reason at the expense of imagination and speculative thinking.

I personally think that it is foolish and ungenerous to demonize Bacon, Descartes, Newton and other indisputable geniuses who provided most of the blueprints in accordance with which our age has been constructed. These bold and innovative thinkers rightly felt that they were great philanthropists and benefactors to humanity. Bacon, to his eternal credit, warned repeatedly against allowing the staggering power that would surely be unleashed by the new science to fall into the hands of private interests—which is precisely what has happened. Surprise, surprise. Like Bacon, the other founders of modernity wanted the new science and the emergent technologies to serve humanity as a whole. Did they grossly underestimate the greed and cunning of the species they were trying to assist and enlighten? Did they overestimate humans’ present capacity to work cooperatively for the common good? Perhaps. Or possibly they were sufficiently aware of man’s wayward and selfish tendencies to have foreseen that they were opening up Pandora’s box—but that it was simply a matter of time before the torch of scientific knowledge spread, given the direction that intellectual currents were moving in. The increase in power over nature and the freedom from servitude to the soil would certainly bring many tests and trials in their train, but how else was our species to grow up and mature, unless it faced and mastered these very trials?

One thing seems fairly clear to anyone who’s been watching: the game has to change, and soon, if we—as a species—are to barely turn the corner ahead and avoid a complete regression into barbarism—Hobbes’ ‘state of nature.’

Games are serious business—period! But they become extremely dangerous when they are played unconsciously. The line between invigorating play and insane dogmatism is a thin one. Only when we have developed a saving (and lubricating) sense of humor about the cultural process we are conscripted into as innocent children—only then are we able to liberate ourselves from our blinders and our enslavement to rules and traditions that will otherwise keep us stuck in an irresponsible condition childhood.

Some Thoughts about Esoteric Writing (3/28/11)

I was reading earlier from Laurence Lampert’s essay about Leo Strauss (‘The Recovery of Esoteric Writing’) and from Strauss himself (concerning Xenophon’s willingness to appear stupider than he was—for the rest of recorded time—in order to conceal his true thoughts behind a mask). Lampert’s intriguing essay opens with Strauss’s 1938-39 discovery of Maimonides’ use of esoteric writing strategies as a way of appearing to be an orthodox Jew while in fact he was a genuine philosopher who fully understood that reason and monotheistic theology (and the morality built upon its dubious foundations) were in fundamental conflict. This momentous discovery of Strauss’s—that this sacrosanct, foundational figure in Judaism was in fact pretending to believe what he did not actually subscribe to—led (through Averroes) back to the Greeks—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, to Plato, whose influence over western civilization has been incalculable.

A few of the ‘truths’ (about how these genuinely philosophical Greeks saw nature and the human situation) may be listed:

  1. Death ends everything; personal immortality is no more than a consoling myth to give courage to the hoi polloi, who are too fainthearted to stomach the ‘deadly’ truth.
  2. Genuine philosophy (logos), because it is repugnant and hated by the many (‘the city’), must be sheltered by salutary stories (mythos) if it is to survive through time. The code word for this in Strauss is ‘Platonizing.’
  3. The few genuine philosophers were not interested in politics, per se, but in truth, which is both sobering and intoxicating to them, but ‘deadly’ and demoralizing to the many. It was this tension which gave rise to political philosophy, the aim of which was to shelter philosophy from the city and the city from philosophy.

Strauss—in his early study of Plato’s Laws—saw that the philosopher rightly understood that morality’s authority is founded not upon reason, or logos, but upon religion (mythos) for the many. Consequently, genuine philosophers (who, as Nietzsche says, are ‘commanders and legislators’) must prudently make use of religion in their ‘philanthropic’ campaigns to lead mankind in a salutary direction. It is their love of the human that motivates genuine philosophers in this philanthropic activity. In Lampert’s view, Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche were three such ‘philanthropic’ genuine philosophers. Bacon and Descartes both practiced esoteric writing in their ground-breaking campaigns to lead humanity (by way of their sympathetic, alert readers) in the new direction it has taken under their powerful influence. Nietzsche—believing that several hundred years of scientific skepticism and critical thinking (among the educated classes in the West) had prepared humanity for a more honest and frank disclosure of truths that have been kept under wraps since ancient times—dispensed with the ‘Platonizing’ and the ‘noble lies’ that have heretofore reigned over Western culture.

A brief challenge occurred during the Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation (a popular uprising, a ‘herd’ phenomenon, according to Nietzsche) restored the sovereignty of ‘after-worldly’ Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’). It is primarily this quasi-ascetic, ‘after-worldly’ metaphysical delusion that Nietzsche seeks to uproot, deride, and overcome—a delusion shared by millions—and which profoundly obstructs and hampers humanity’s love of the earth, of this world—the only world, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. We have forsaken and betrayed our true and only homeworld by swallowing and being swindled by this metaphysical-epistemological ruse that devalues the actual world in favor of some ‘true’ and ‘transcendent’ one that only exists in our duped imaginations.

So, Plato and Nietzsche (and, for that matter, all genuine philosophers who have uncovered the ‘truth about beings’ and have faced that sobering truth with reason) are in fundamental agreement about ‘the way of things,’ but because ‘times have changed’ in crucial respects since Plato composed his dialogues, Nietzsche decided to take the gamble of lifting the veil that his predecessors had kept over ‘Isis.’ Plato—who learned this from Socrates’ fate—reckoned that ‘the many’ (non-philosophers) were not ready to receive and to withstand the truths uncovered by natural (unaided) reason without succumbing to wanton immorality and despair. Therefore, he prudently (and seductively) painted a picture of philosophy (in the portrait of the martyred Socrates) that was benign, fascinating, and salutary—rather than starkly sobering and subversive of conventional values, norms, and beliefs. Such an enormous undertaking demanded extraordinary skill and a depth of understanding seldom equaled in the history of western culture, for Plato had to work in the service of two diametrically opposed aims within the individual works he was devising: he had to console and mollify those (weaker and more tender-minded) readers who required salutary lies in order to make life worth living, while at the same time he was providing hints, clues, and piercing questions that might lead his stronger and more resourceful readers (like Nietzsche and Strauss) to radically different (opposite) opinions—nay, truthful insights into reality, the human situation, and the actual order of things.

A problem with Nietzsche’s ‘anti-Christian’ concerns about our nihilistic, ‘after-worldly’ neglect of this world is that this simply does not accord with the facts of life for many, perhaps most educated persons living today. Few persons I know agonize over the question of an afterlife—and whatever people think (or don’t think) about our post-mortem fates, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their engrossed, enthralled—I am tempted to add ‘ensnared’—condition vis-à-vis this world, the mundane, matter of fact world of the here and now. The problem is not that people—or most people here and even in Asia—suffer from a flimsy allegiance to, or blocked connection with, this world (the apparent world of here and now) because they are fearfully or deludedly preoccupied with concerns about ‘the next life.’ ‘Educated’ persons often regard those who subscribe to that old story as throwbacks to pre-modern times. They are the butt of jokes and sneers. A much larger chunk of the general population is exceedingly immersed in the pleasures and pains, the concerns and opportunities, presented by this world. Nietzsche got much closer to the way things are now in his scathing portrait of ‘the last man’ in Zarathustra. Those pathetic, trivial flea-beetle couch potatoes are very much this-worldlings, not after-worldlings. But the quality of their connection to the earth—and to this world of the here and now—is just as shallow, insipid, and pitiful as their equally barbaric and unimpressive ancestors’ connection with the ‘spiritual’ world often appears to have been. The problem—in either direction—toward the realm of the spirit or towards the earth—concerns the quality of the connection.