The Spiritual, Moral/Political, and Judicious/Pedagogical Use of Words (8/21/12)

How is it that I am able to justify placing the spiritual life—as I have slowly come to understand it—on a higher rung of importance than the life dedicated primarily to moral and political justice, as Hedges and Chomsky—who are admirable men—do? It is because I have learned that the practice of moral and political justice in my own life—the only life I have a measure of direct influence over—is overshadowed and subsumed by my practice of the spiritual, or contemplative life. What this means is that, so far as I can see, the best way I can contribute to moral and political justice in my social and political surroundings is to strive to maintain a relatively disinterested, poised state of spiritual centeredness. As long as I am centered and balanced in this way, I am not compelled by powerful anger, resentment, desire, fear, and other emotions that naturally prompt humans to go to war ‘for’ this and ‘against’ that—to take sides in some kind of struggle between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ There will, it seems, always be contending groups and embattled individual egos in the world of ordinary human affairs and the moment we take one side we enter into a potentially hostile dynamic with the other. The various pairs of opposites that appear to be composed of warring or antagonistic factions are essentially (and un-apparently or invisibly) gapless continua, not split dualisms. But in order to see—and to genuinely experience—this underlying unity beneath the apparent strife we must manage somehow to mentally transcend the dualistic or oppositional paradigm—as Arjuna does, under Krishna’s wise supervision, in the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, the simple Christian utterance which is so difficult to practice—namely, ‘Love your enemy’—is a kind of mantra, the intended purpose of which is to break the oppositional, ‘us versus them,’ mode of seeing and feeling. Alas, this is the normal mode of seeing and feeling among human beings. Consequently, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are widely, though often privately, regarded by humans as ‘insanely’ unrealistic, and even dangerously deluded in the sort of world that we actually inhabit (one that is full of hypocritical Christians and lip-service Buddhists), while from the transcendental, centered standpoint, dogs—or even dogs and cats together in the same room—often provide a better example of how to get on in the world than most human animals can manage.

Since I am fully aware that I cannot change other persons’ minds and hearts simply by preaching to them or by apprising them of their blindness and their unacknowledged (or unconsciously projected) villainy, I am wary of moral crusades and political revolutions that aim to purge society and to right the wrongs of the unjust. Human beings simply don’t change inwardly (which is the only kind of change that matters) unless and until they are truly ready. This readiness depends on a number of factors—a capacity for honest reflection being perhaps the most important of these—but it cannot be forced or compelled from without. Unfortunately, another key ingredient to the getting of wisdom appears to be deep suffering—and no good-hearted person prays that such suffering will torment even those persons we don’t like or care for. And yet, we may have to accept the fact that their arrogant ignorance and selfishness will not likely be overcome by mere reason and reflection alone—but will need to be beaten out of them in the school of hard knocks.

It is for this reason that I have gradually come to regard preaching and sermonizing as a comparatively crude way of contributing to the social harmony, political justice, and moral goodness of our surroundings. I have found that when I am able to reflect deeply, temper my own passions, and refrain from ‘us versus them’ thinking, I am in the best position to ‘teach without using words,’ as the old Taoists used to say. And yet, because I feel very much at home with words, it’s not likely that I will ‘shut up’ anytime soon. Perhaps, instead of attempting to ‘teach without using words,’ I will just have to settle for ‘writing between the lines.’


A Word about Ancient Athenians (12/13/17)

There is much profit in our study of the rise and fall of classical Greek – or Athenian – culture and imperial power. The Greeks were, in many ways, emblematic of “the human as such” – both individually and communally – and their chief artists and philosophers seem, uncannily, to have been cognizant of their paradigmatic-archetypal character as events were unfolding. Witness Thucydides’ remarks about his own History of the Peloponnesian War:

The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (I, 22)

Cleisthenes (b. 570 B.C.E.), a born aristocrat, recognized that without the backing, or at least the compliance, of “the people” (the demos), the old, traditional aristocracy was doomed. The democratic reforms – giving those who had hitherto been excluded from policy-making a real stake in political-cultural affairs – were absolutely crucial to the astonishing victories against the gigantic and hegemonic Persian Empire, which led, in turn, to the growth of the Athenian commercial-naval-political empire.

The unleashing and canalization of all that untapped power and talent in the common people made all of this possible, and after Pericles’ death during the plague at Athens (in the middle of the expansionist war against Sparta), the mad scramble to fill the power vacuum on the part of unwise, demagogic flatterers of the people led eventually to the disintegration and defeat of the empire (with the disastrous Sicilian expedition).

In more recent times, we can see an analogous pattern played out with the weakening of aristocratic privilege and power – after the French Revolution – and the rise of empowered commoners via the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism-consumerism. The power and talent that were needed to produce the economically obsessed, technocratic world we live in today were excited and liberated by thinkers and reformers who, for the most part, challenged aristocratic institutions and privileges. These thinkers and reformers (Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, etc.) seem, in retrospect, to have been far more concerned with material and mundane issues than with spiritual and (traditionally) moral questions. The lures of power (individual/national) and personal freedom (usually understood in political and economic terms) were employed – either deliberately or automatically – to appeal to those commoners whose formerly frustrated/religiously prohibited ambitions and desires could provide the propulsive force needed to build the consumerist (consuming) world we now inhabit. This is the only world that most of us have ever known or will ever know. This sort of society depends, for its continued survival, upon the arousal, mobilization, and conscription of the collective desires and cravings of the more or less compliant and obedient masses.

After the devastating and exhausting defeats suffered by the reckless, over-reaching Athenians during the long war against the Spartans, things would never be the same. After Socrates – who had been sharply critical of his fellow Athenians for their follies and injustices – had been snuffed out by the very democracy that had tolerated him for 70 years, a chastened Athens was gradually transformed into the renowned cradle of arts and learning for which we remember her after all these centuries. But this renown was earned by courageous and profoundly reflective minds – figures like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and others – who, rather than allowing themselves to become dizzily intoxicated and thrown off balance by the enormous power surge that was produced during Athens’ democratic-imperial rise, chose the path of wisdom and virtue rather than the path of excess and worldly gain that most others chose. Who is our Sophocles? Our Socrates? Who, on our televisions and in our universities, sounds even remotely similar to Thucydides or Plato? Do we not, instead, see only Alcibiades, Cleon, Callicles, and Thrasymachus?


The Whirlpool (10/17/13)

The sense of isolation—of being alienated from others, from one’s (declining, disintegrating) culture and (atomized) society—is by no means the same thing as solitude, per se. In a state of isolation we become painfully, pointedly aware of our smallness and insignificance vis-à-vis the larger world around us—along with the staggering expanses of time before and after us. There may also be an irksome sense of the disproportion between the generally positive assessment we hold of our own worth and the general estimation ‘the world’ holds of us, so far as we can tell. Or, one may be badgered by the crushing suspicion that the world’s indifference and disregard for us is an accurate and just indicator of our actual worth to that world. Either way, such feelings of isolation from one’s own kind can lead to a crippling sense of frustration and futility, while solitude can actually be liberating, unfettering, expansive.

Speaking for myself—and drawing from my own experiences in these turbid and chilly waters—I recognize a crucial link between these crippling feelings of isolation and a condition of deafness with regard to the soul. If, in my solitude, I become related to psyche—if I have managed to attain the ‘soul-perspective’—I do not suffer from painful feelings of isolation or a paralyzing sense of existential alienation from my core. But neither can I boast of feeling some warm, fuzzy sense of open-hearted affiliation with my fellow humans during such ‘soulful’ moments or hours. Rather, I am deeply content in—and supportively grounded by—my solitude. This sense of liberation is due, in large part, to the process of deliteralization that accompanies this shift from (isolated) ego-consciousness to the soul-perspective, which perceives everyone and everything primarily in an ‘as-if’ manner—in terms of metaphor or image and not in reductively material, personalistic, or literal terms.

In fact, I recognize a crucial distinction between the sense of affiliation that humans feel with each other (at a visceral-instinctual level) and this very different sense of affiliation, or relatedness, with soul. The first sort of affiliation or connectedness—the visceral-instinctual sort—has a distinctively collective character and it appeals to us as members of a species—a species replete with drives and instincts that link us to a primeval past and to the other animals. The second sort of affiliation—the soulful, imaginal kind—places the differentiated individual in accord with the archetypal realm, the realm of the hidden (or retreated) gods and daimones. No doubt, the reason this contrast (between the two sorts of affiliation) is so stark during this era is precisely because the gods have been forgotten by humanity—in accordance with the humanistic standpoint, where ‘man is the measure of all things.’ In their neglect, they have withdrawn, as Hölderlin told us.

But the gods have not, on that account, been obliterated. Man’s present hubris may be immense but we are still powerless against the gods we have forgotten in our Faustian campaign to usurp the powers once vouchsafed solely to those gods. No doubt, all this talk about gods and man assuredly sounds archaic, if not a bit dotty, to modern ears. The mysterious and awesome power of the divine and daimonic agencies has been usurped by modern man—stolen from hallowed, ancient precincts. Modern man has been ‘allowed’ to gallop with this stolen power—rather as Phaeton was reluctantly allowed by his divine father, Helios, to steer the chariot of the sun across the sky—and with comparably inauspicious consequences. In arrogating these godlike powers for himself, man has at the same time unwittingly assumed godlike responsibilities—responsibilities for which he presently lacks the wisdom and self-restraint to discharge. His misuse of the almost godlike powers over the natural world has led to a dangerous disturbance of the former order and balance of human affairs. Everyone with a light on in his head sees this—everyone is fretting or freaking about the ‘apocalyptic’ myth that is being played out relentlessly and compulsively in these ‘end times’—but almost no one has anything worthwhile or persuasive to say about how to ‘rein in’ the forces of greedy predation that have been unleashed by our god-like inflation, our hubris. Perhaps there is nothing substantive that can be said or done at this point.

The epidemic proportions of this humanistic or anthropocentric contagion make it nearly impossible to find ‘uninfected’ individuals who have managed, miraculously, to elude conscription into the pathological, collective campaign to possess and consume as much tasty, intoxicating, soothing, or titillating matter as possible before death irrevocably snuffs out one’s brief candle. Who has learned to say ‘no’—and to live ‘no’—against this vast, devouring whirlpool that awaits all of us as we pop out of our mothers’ bellies into the swirling, technocratic-diabolical maelstrom of the modern world? One must be a fish with a spectacularly powerful tail fin in order to avoid being carried over the side of that compelling, beckoning eddy into which one after another of our friends and loved ones have been swallowed, never to be seen or heard from ever again—in their original, uninfected state.

And because they have numbers on their side, they—the insatiably power-hungry officer-elite with their army of anxious, myopically obedient conscripts—are in a position to decide what ‘sanity’ consists in, what it looks and feels like, and so forth. As leaders of this plodding, plundering army of unreflective, mis-educated, fearful and compliant dupes, the generals decide the meaning and value of words, just as they arbitrarily decide interest rates, the value of currency, what legislation gets pushed through Congress, who gets a shot at the presidency, and the interpretation of the law.

Such ‘fanciful’ musings provide us with a means of deepening our initial sketch of isolation—of adding more shadow to that sketch, so as to render it more poignant for readers out there who are still capable of swimming against the current that leads always towards the whirlpool. Anyone who has succeeded—against all the odds—in resisting infection is in danger of being classified and treated as a paranoid—as a crank or misanthrope, at the very least—by the battalions who subscribe to the deforming table of values and standards authored by their cynical-avaricious overlords.

So, what are we ‘oddballs’ to do once we become painfully conscious of the fact that our resistance to this epidemic contagion has not only set us apart from the infected—but set us ‘at odds’ with them, as well—at least from their point of view?


Comfortable, anchoring family ties—and conversely: onerous, emotionally-draining and erotically disappointing spousal and family relations, which are nonetheless still binding—constitute perhaps the greatest collective barrier to the sort of solitary, disinterested inquiry into this widespread contagion that has infected modern humanity—and which will inevitably evoke its nemesis. Binding ties of sentiment, erotic dependency, duty, financial obligations and peer pressure (to conform to the collective norms of a doomed and spiritually deforming consumerism) all consign otherwise strong and capable men and women to a kind of indentured servitude—a modernized, technologically sophisticated feudal arrangement where a new breed of ‘serfs’ are ruled over by contemporary robber barons and unfeeling oligarchs. The masses—as ever—can only be expected to follow where they are led (by the most seductive demagogue or the largest carrot), so no hope for a remedy may be expected from that quarter.

But what am I doing fantasizing about a ‘remedy’ when scarcely anyone these days is actually prepared to acknowledge the severity and the scope of the sickness that has beset our modern nations? First things first. It seems to me that unless and until the scope and the seriousness of the contagion is first acknowledged by a critical mass of capable men and women throughout all ranks of the ailing culture, there is little cause for hope that humanity will light its own path beyond the crisis it is presently embroiled in. The crisis will eventually run its course—one way or the other—either by exhaustion (of the very species hitherto required to keep the destructive program running) or through a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the precarious global system that presently provides a platform for the running of the program. But for anyone who still clings to the vain hope that these worst-case scenarios can be averted by means of human wisdom and collective self-restraint, the prognosis looks grim—at least from our present standpoint.

I have repeatedly used the metaphor of an epidemic contagion in speaking about the sickness from which the vast majority of modern persons (in the West) suffer, but this illness is actually more akin to a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or to drug addiction than it is to an influenza epidemic. So long as the genetically vulnerable person stays away from alcohol or drugs, he can be reasonably expected to carry on a stable life. But once he becomes ‘hooked,’ the dangers become very real. What constitutes the drugs and alcohol in our analogy with modernity? They are legion, but perhaps they can be symbolically compressed into the coveted ease and comfort that are seductively held out as the rewards won through compliant submission to the ruling economic system—an economic system that has now commandeered all aspects of the ‘culture,’ bending them under its all-powerful yoke: political life, education, mental and medical treatment, news, the arts and entertainment, and even religion.

Homo sapiens has steadily devolved into homo economicus. The power and influence of this economic worldview—complete with its virtually unchallenged array of normative values—is ubiquitous. It penetrates into every nook and cranny of our hijacked, eviscerated culture. And once the culture in all of its various departments has been hijacked into the service of financial and economic interests, the minds of men and women—from the ‘brightest and the best’ to the humblest and dimmest—are as easily lured into slavery as Chinese peasants (and not just peasants) were lured into opium addiction by our not so distant capitalist-entrepreneur American ancestors. The comparison is apt. If anyone bothers to take a close look at the ‘orchestrated’ financial crises that occurred in Southeast Asian nations (Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand) during the late 1990s and the almost identically structured/orchestrated crisis of 2008 in the U.S., it becomes evident that our pathologically acquisitive Wall Street wizards typically engineer a ‘trial run’ somewhere abroad before implementing more or less the same ruthless gambit here upon gullible American citizens—who, like the Asian taxpayers, wind up paying the heaviest costs while the pilfering profiteers at the top of the pyramid make off with astronomical winnings, pay negligible fines for their gross malfeasance, and (astoundingly!) remain in charge of all the financial institutions, the treasury, and the Federal Reserve.

Once ‘addicted,’ however, the ordinary person finds it almost impossible to extricate himself from the sticky tentacles of the modern economy, the infantilizing modern workplace, and (increasingly) from inescapable debt. Precisely because such addicts feel powerless to challenge or to opt out of this system that effectively owns them, they are apt to ‘make do’ with the unfree situation—to quietly conform to ‘terms and conditions’ that a self-respecting free spirit would find intolerable and contemptible. His way towards this ‘resigned’ state of accommodation is smoothed and generously lubricated by the apparent fact that virtually everyone he knows is in more or less the same boat as he is! Now if the ‘system’—the way of life—to which these addicts and comfort-loving conscripts were succumbing was genuinely believed to be dignifying, morally ennobling, or imaginatively enriching, then perhaps such servitude would possess greater justification in the addicts’ minds. But when all the propagandistic poppycock and the false promises are peeled away and the unvarnished truth stares us in the face, we are obliged to admit that there is little that is dignified or inherently noble about the naked pursuit of lucre, sybaritic ease and comfort—and these are precisely those ‘genetically predisposing factors’ that made the risk of addiction dangerous in the first place.

Plato and all serious critics of democracy—before and after him—seem to have been right about one thing, at least. When the energies and desires of the many are unleashed and allowed to significantly influence the course of political life, political dialogue, and societal values, it is simply a matter of time before the vulgar tastes, the slack moral and intellectual virtues, and the pedestrian aims of the multitude become not only dominant but normative—prescriptive for the culture as a whole. Democratization—notwithstanding all the tradition-based evils and injustices that it has helped to abolish from human life—has played a contributing role in the systemic crisis that we are exploring here. Modern science and technology comprise another necessary component of the destructive scheme of contemporary consumerism with its profit-driven economic directives. While no one in his right mind will dispute the enormous contribution that modern science and technology have made to human welfare—the costs may turn out, in the end, to outweigh the benefits—if they provide us with the power to destroy ourselves before we have a chance to attain the moral wisdom that might reduce the likelihood of a collective, catastrophic meltdown.

These two principal factors—the democratic debasement or vulgarization of moral/political culture and the enormous growth of material power with no concomitant enhancement of wisdom or responsibility—go a long way to account for the grim global predicament we find ourselves in. The illegitimate (and as Plato foresaw, disaster-courting) elevation of economic profiteering to the arch-principle governing all aspects of life would not be possible without the other two.

For things to continue in a business as usual manner along the present course—with current population levels—is not a viable option. And yet there seems to be no organized, rationally responsible, politically effective movement or tribunal that is presently capable of challenging, let alone reversing, the status quo. My own critiques of mass democracy, of scientism and technological utopianism, of consumerism and unregulated capitalism are impotent and ineffective—even against many ‘friends’ who hollowly protest that they share my sense of concern over the imminent crisis while continuing to immoderately serve and exploit the system itself. I am categorically and passionately opposed to the use of violence and intimidation as means of bringing about remedial change or enlightenment. The barbarities of the French Revolutionaries long ago demonstrated the absurdity of employing terror in the service of moral and political reform. Does this mean that, given the stubborn, perennial facts about human weakness, human unreflectiveness, and human corruptibility, there are no rational options (which don’t involve terror) that can be implemented before it is too late and things spin out of control, so that chaos comes again?


Ideology and Anti-nature (9/12/16)

If the ideological scheme – or prevailing worldview – into which we were born, indoctrinated, and gradually conscripted is radically out of alignment with the more deeply rooted structural features of the ancestral unconscious from which our psyches were born, then one thing is certain: adaptation to and conformity with these less than natural, craftily engineered ideological imperatives runs afoul of our inherited natures and courts individual and collective catastrophe. Only an equally determined and relentless insurrection against this booby-trapped indoctrination affords some of us a slender chance of forging a thick life, as opposed to the mythically anemic and psychologically threadbare existence we see among “the sleepwalkers.” But for such self-liberation to get off the ground – or off the “drawing board” – we must first earn a clearer understanding of that against which our life is in revolt.

What this understanding consists in – and how it is arrived at – are perhaps my chief concerns as I near the tender age of sixty. To be plain: I have not been lazy or fainthearted all these years; rather, I have devoted my best energies to serious study, reflection, discussion, and “journaling” (as a vital and necessary aid to digestion). I have never been a namby-pamby greenhorn in whose heart the fire of rebellion waits to be kindled, for the process of uprooting and peeling away my own malignant, crippling ideological indoctrination (on a variety of fronts: religious; philosophical; political-national; moral; cultural; etc.) has long been underway. It has advanced side-by-side with the deepening and the subtilization of my understanding – both of the psyche and the forms (of thought, feeling, belief, valuation, etc.) – that makes a measure of such self-liberation possible.

A life that would be free must first come to frank and no-nonsense terms with the mental manacles by which it is bound. Since – like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave – most of us are not only content with, and possibly even proud of, our state of imprisonment, but oblivious to it – we mistake slavery for freedom, or at least for the acceptable norm. What is it inside some of us that instinctively “smells a rat” in all such norms, regardless of which “culture cave” these norms preside over? Isn’t it the nearly universal acceptance or endorsement of these general norms that arouses our suspicion and mistrust?

What, more specifically, provokes this ineradicable uneasiness and caution where such norms and collective assumptions are concerned? Aware of their anchoring and compelling power over the multitude, I soberly acknowledge the order-imposing power and the steadying influence of these blunt, categorical “rules of thumb” upon the skittish herd. We, too, like less philosophically-minded elites, typically prefer stable socio-political conditions (at least in our own backyard). It is probably safe to say that if cynical oligarchical elites did not promulgate some “noble lie” or pious fraud, around which the people, now as ever, could huddle – as around a magnetic field – the people would clamor for such an order-imposing and stabilizing fabrication. The people will always need and greatly prefer empty generalities to dense, subtle, and dangerously substantial truths – which cause them to fret and scatter – and what are these empty, puffed up generalities if they are not the same noble lies I just referred to?

The chief difference between the philosopher and the cynic is that the former sort cherishes social harmony and stability so that he may be left in peace and quiet to ply his unpopular passion (hoping that his influence upon thinking men and women will promote the common good), while the cynical profiteer sees in the same conditions the most favorable opportunities for fleecing the sheep. Lao-tzu and Plato, both from the first lot, had the temerity to counsel those from the second bunch – but Lao-tzu only as he departed, once and for all, from the palace gates. Plato chose instead, to employ a form of esoteric writing that both hinted at and concealed the radical political conservatism (or muted pessimism?) he actually espoused.

Earning (2/2/16)

When a person has devoted a good deal of care and effort to the cultivation of his/her thinking or feeling function and that function has been brought to a high level of excellence, such excellence cannot justly be criticized or dismissed by someone who has done little or no work upon his own psychological functions. Many persons who are inspired to cultivate their intellects or their feelings do NOT do so chiefly in order to gain the applause of their peers and the admiration of their less ‘cultivated’ brethren and sistren, but this does not mean that they are undeserving of somewhat greater respect than someone who starts off with the same amount of ‘investment capital,’ so to speak and—instead of putting it to fruitful use, squanders it on frivolous pleasures and trifling entertainments until he has bankrupted himself.

Do we not come perilously close, here, to suggesting that there are implicit standards of attainment in the operation and deployment of thinking and feeling—standards that might be invoked as criterial grounds for some kind of hierarchy or meritocracy? Should it come as a surprise that such speculations often meet with popular hostility in a democratic regime that is continually ‘lowering the bar’ and ‘leveling the playing field’ (intellectually, educationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, etc.) in order to flatter itself and to avoid seeing this ‘mediocracy’ for what it truly is? Such exacting standards constitute a direct affront to the ‘mass man’—an unflattering, unforgiving mirror in which all that is there and, perhaps more importantly, all that is not there stands nakedly exposed. We can certainly be forgiven (that is, by ourselves, which is what matters above all) for not doing or becoming more than we are capable of doing or becoming. Miracles and prodigies are not to be expected. But a feeling of profound regret is a perfectly natural response, I would argue, for those persons who are honest and courageous enough to acknowledge how much spiritual, moral, creative, and intellectual potential they have allowed to ‘fust in them, unused’—in choosing to ‘go with the flow’ (of a muddy and often stinky river) instead of strenuously swimming ‘against the current’ towards the clearer, livelier source-waters, upstream from the sluggish, swampish delta.

Moreover, when we reflect upon earning, it can take on a different character, depending on whether what we are earning is intended chiefly for the personal profit of the separate self or for the more enlightened purpose of loosening the hold that such self-interest has upon our soul. Shakespeare wrote plays that were, for the most part, popularly successful at the Globe Theatre, of which he was part-owner. His professional and financial success as a playwright and business owner allowed him to retire comfortably to Stratford after his long and distinguished career. Would anyone be so churlish, myopic, and reductive to suggest that it was only—or even mostly—for these personal/material motivations that Shakespeare wrote plays like Hamlet and King Lear? While there is no need to categorically deny any or all self-interested elements found within the complex concatenation of motivations at work within even the most ‘selfless’ saints and philanthropists, we can readily see the relative prominence or insignificance such self-interested motives play in a person’s psychic economy by carefully observing their actions, words, reactions, etc.

Nowadays, I resist the temptation to judge selfishness primarily as a symptom of a morally debased or vicious soul. Instead, I find it makes wiser sense to regard selfishness as an almost necessary, if preliminary and comparatively immature, stage of moral-psychological development or unfoldment. It is simply something that is to be experienced, properly appreciated, and gradually outgrown—even if vestiges of that selfishness, that flare up from time to time, will always remain part of us. My suspicion is that self-interestedness can neither be completely eradicated nor leapt over, but must be accepted and ‘come to terms with’—rather as we come to terms with the fact that we have BODIES that make pressing demands upon us and which eventually decompose and die.

Socrates, early on, recognized the crucial difference between arguing simply for the sake of winning and analytical inquiry aimed at deepening the understanding of all persons involved—where everyone, potentially at least, comes out a winner. The first—self-serving and extremely limited—technique was called eristics (from ‘Eris,’ the goddess of strife), while the second was called dialectics.

With this idea in mind—the diametrical contrast between strife-sowing, competitive eristics and therapeutic, soul-making dialectics—we have a fresh angle from which to approach the often hidden connections between thinking and feeling. Socrates aptly described himself as a ‘midwife’ of ideas. What he meant, it seems, is that in his carefully directed question-and-answer dialogues with his listeners, he was able to ‘bring to birth’ thoughts and formulated beliefs/opinions (doxa) that had erstwhile existed only as ‘fetal’ or ‘embryonic’ possibilities lurking in the unlit, unexamined psyches of those he questioned. Sometimes the ‘offspring’ born from such ‘obstetrics’ would be healthy and noble (as with Glaucon), while some would be ugly, deformed, or undernourished (Callicles, Meno). But one thing is fairly certain: unless and until these hidden, inner possibilities are lured out of seclusion in the ‘background’ of the psyche, there is little or no chance of applying therapeia to them. So long as these contents remain latent or unformulated—they continue to have an enormous, if unrecognized and ‘mysterious,’ influence upon us, but we can do little or nothing to challenge or override that influence. Now, when these mysterious influences (or ‘invisible angels’) are benign, many persons are content not to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so to speak—but will simply ‘get out of the way’ and let these inner guides ‘do their thing.’ But when they are more like imps, mischief-makers, satyrs, and devils, a very different situation often obtains. Then, the ‘victim’ of his troublesome inner figures is given every incentive to turn within and face the (menacing) music to which he is otherwise condemned to dance out the rest of his days.


A (probably vain) Attempt to Restore a Nearly Forgotten Word to Popular Usage: Caitiff (1/6/16)

Anyone who’s spent a little time reading Shakespeare has surely come across this word—‘caitiff’—which basically translates as ‘coward.’ But ‘caitiff’ conveys even more contempt by the user than is normally conveyed by the word ‘coward,’ just as ‘knave’ conveys more contemptibility than its modern equivalents, ‘scoundrel’ and ‘loser.’ The caitiff is naturally disposed towards lying—first, to himself and, then, to everyone else. Why is this? For one thing, timidity sets strict limits to what is acceptable, endurable, or tolerable so far as what life throws at him—and life, lest we forget, is no ‘respecter of persons.’ Instead of honestly acknowledging that it is his fearfulness—and not the malicious will of life or of other persons—that paints him into a narrow mental corner of his own making, the caitiff simply blames ‘fortune’ and demonizes others while illegitimately rationalizing and justifying his own reality-distorting stratagems and opinions. If the caitiff, however, is sufficiently courageous to admit (again, first and foremost, to himself) that he is disposed to cowardice—and that he seeks chiefly to protect and insulate himself from life’s ‘slings and arrows’—then a certain measure of honesty can develop.

But alas, the honesty of clever caitiffs tends, like Hobbes’, to derive from a reductive, jaundiced—basically fearful—response to existence and to other human beings. This is the ‘nothing but’ breed of timid posers and pontificators who are always saying “this (or that) noble (or dignified) person (action, or ideal) is nothing but a base, self-serving (and/or deluded) so and so.” In making this sweeping, ‘categorically debunking’ move, the clever caitiff implicitly justifies his guarded, cynical, or pessimistic stance towards…well, just about everyone and everything. We all know the type. These are the ‘lily-livered,’ ‘yellow-bellied’ scaredy-cats whose formerly tender and precious sensitivity has been deeply wounded by the shrapnel regularly delivered by that superficially polite but profoundly hypocritical war zone otherwise known as ‘everyday life.’

Such caitiffs—regardless of how clever they may be—have souls that are simply too cramped and shallow for the deeper sort of suffering—which, as it turns out, is the only sort of suffering capable of bringing about a substantial moral-spiritual transformation of the personality, and of purging it of any lingering frivolity and residual frippery. More than a few jabbering, twittering, and supercilious ‘modern’ atheists belong to this carping camp of critical caitiffs. Such vain and voluble mediocrities are able to proliferate—and even preponderate—in a semi-barbaric and soulless ‘information age’ where they have few natural predators and plenty of protectors against the harsher, stinkier, and more honest realities of life from which they instinctively recoil. But as soon as such favorable and shielding conditions change for the worse—and, eventually, they always do—these imposters and pretenders are the first to be devoured and done away with by the first big wave of ‘corrective,’ order-restoring reality. And, of course, in being thus laid low, their worst fears and suspicions are thoroughly confirmed. But again, because genuine, redemptively transformative suffering can find no place to ‘conduct its business’ in the tiny, cramped soul of the caitiff, such blows and hardships only make him more bitter, resentful, and convinced that life is a cheat.

Caitiffs instinctively avoid genuine solitude, even when they retreat from society. This is not simply because they are deathly afraid of being deprived of the assistance and company of others—but because they desperately need to have persons close at hand who are even more cowardly and spineless than they are, in order to produce the optical illusion that they have an actual ‘pair’ growing down there between their legs. Thus, they seek the society of others not out of love, which actually requires and entails courage and generosity, but from self-interest and a need to feel superior to those who are even more fearful, needy, impotent, and helpless.

Those persons, on the other hand, who are naturally courageous—how do they instinctively respond to the veritable army of self-serving, lying, knavish, pea-souled caitiffs in their midst? Well, of course they cannot help but regard them with politely muted contempt or with the sort of forgivable indulgence that a compassionate, mature parent sometimes shows towards a silly, immature nincompoop of a child. The contempt that is felt is the natural response of real strength or virtue to what amounts to a cluster of interrelated vices and failings—all of which have their roots in a cowardly flight from reality and sobering truths. The indulgence—which, mind you, has its limits—stems from the sober acknowledgement that such born caitiffs and self-deceivers cannot be other than they are—and must simply be tolerated, just as other natural pests, nuisances, banes, and ‘skin irritations’ must be borne with patient forbearance. But to trust—and invest one’s hope—in a caitiff? The courageous person knows all too well what folly that would be!

Depth-seekers and Depth-shunners (7/25/17—Quito)

When a marriage, a friendship, a political alliance, or a professional career is simply not working, despite our best efforts, do we not acquire permission to withdraw—permission that may entail a measure of free moral choice on our part but is not ultimately founded or dependent upon our voluntary choice? Where does this extra-moral permission—or should we not, perhaps, call it an imperative or a mandate—come from? And if this permission, this mandate, this imperative comes from some source or region that lies beyond or deeper than our conscious will and reason—say, from some instinctual or pre-conscious level—how much freedom is involved in the act of withdrawal? What we are describing here is a situation where one’s former investment (of desire, interest, love, trust, enthusiasm, hope, etc.) has dried up at its very source. Next, we cannot resist asking: Did we freely create or generate that desire, interest, love, etc., in the first place—and did we just as freely command or orchestrate their evaporation and extinction—or weren’t all of these rising and falling affects secretly and invisibly set into motion and then doused by unseen agencies well out of our reach and, therefore, beyond our control?

But what percentage of men and women living today have learned how to rely chiefly upon this invisible and more mysterious background out of which emerge those most compelling—if unheeded—inducements, commands, warnings, and interdictions? What portion of humanity attends, first and foremost, to these cues and clues from below, from beyond the foreground consciousness that enjoys so much more power and authority over the multitude? Why is this the case and how did it come to be this way? Why does this foreground consciousness and its stock, collective contents so commonly and so effectively muffle or drown out altogether the much older and much more thoroughly ‘road-tested’ voice from the depths—the voice, if you like, of the ancestral spirits?

If we take a close, scrutinizing look at the comparative minority, now as ever, who do in fact heed these ‘cues and clues’ (from what Jung called the ‘unconscious’), what do we observe? What, if anything, sets them apart from the majority who live, as it were, closer to the surface of consciousness rather than in and from the depths? Moreover, how might we characterize relations between these two segments of humanity? Are we justified in speaking of the depth-plumbing minority as the ‘elders’ of our species? Does their attunement—their at-one-ment—with these profounder and older strata of our shared history place them in the position of pioneers, guides, and scouts for humanity—or should we perhaps regard them as atavisms, retrograde relics from a generally barbaric and backwards past?

It must be admitted that this relative minority of depth-seekers are more conservative (and I certainly do not mean ‘right wing Republican’ by this) than the majority who instinctively avoid the quieter and darker depths. The depth-seekers may even be characterized as ‘archaic’ in some respects since the strata of the psyche into which their conscious roots descend have an ‘immemorial’ or archetypal quality about them. And yet, it would be going too far to describe them as ‘primitive,’ outmoded, or backwards. Au contraire. Like seasoned and venerable old elephants, whales, tortoises, and condors that have savored and suffered life to the full, the minority of human depth-dwellers of all ages and climes have something timeless about them. As such, they are emblematic of their kind—their type or species—like living, breathing, suffering, and delighting symbols. At once particular and universal, mortal and undying, actual and imaginal, part and whole.

Such reflections point to a welter of paradoxes respecting the multifaceted, elusive notion of freedom, depending on whether one is a denizen of the depths, the shoals, or from some place in between. The archetypal legacy or inheritance passed down from the primeval past may be likened to a deep, broad river. The waters of this mighty river are gathered from throughout the vast territory surrounding it. The river stretches from its headwaters to the delta where it merges with the sea.

For the minority of depth delvers—employing our river analogy—freedom means adaptation to, and acceptance of, the currents within the rising and falling river. At times, it is both wise and joyfully revitalizing to surrender to the current that follows a course or line of least resistance through the vast surrounding territory. At other times, it is salutary and strengthening to swim upstream—against the current—to revisit past scenes and atmospheres with new eyes and perspectives. What distinguishes the freedom of the depth-seekers is graceful movement or navigation within the all-embracing stream of life. The freedom of the depth-shunners, however, is of a very different sort, indeed.

The depth-shunners are as needful of hydration as their distant kin, the depth-seekers, but rather than immerse themselves, trustingly, into the stream of life, they prefer to dwell along its shallow banks where they can fetch what they need without having to swim—or even get wet. This, in a nutshell, is their notion of freedom. In stark contrast to the freedom I described earlier, the bank-dwellers’ freedom is freedom from immersion in the flowing stream of archetypally-informed-and-animated experience. Levees and ramparts along the river help to protect and insulate them from rising waters, while irrigation channels and hydroelectric dams allow them to exploit the river for countless benefits. Thus, because of these artificial means, the depth-shunners are able to live and move about in relative security and comfort farther and farther away from the river itself. Larger and larger tracts of the desert surrounding the river are steadily settled and inhabited by these depth-dreaders who have never seen, let alone swam in, the distant river that supports them and everyone they know via aqueducts and pipelines.

Whole generations of desert-dwelling descendants of depth-shunners come and go with only a few persons undertaking the long pilgrimage to the river to behold the shared source upon which all depend. As the centuries pass, fewer and fewer of those pilgrims are able to sufficiently overcome their fears—fostered and fueled by stories passed down through generations of depth-shunners—to leap into the magnificent river when they at last reach its distant banks. But one or two from each generation do take the plunge—and then learn how to swim and to navigate the river’s currents. Later, these same depth-seekers send emissaries to challenge and discredit the superstitions and false beliefs of those teeming, timid desert-dwellers who are ignorant and fearful of the very source upon which their thin, dry lives depend.