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

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

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisibles (11/12/12)

Even a cursory examination of Jung’s writings clearly shows that the overwhelming majority of humans—both proud and humble, now as ever—are ultimately ruled throughout their lives by factors that are largely unconscious. Archetypal images, deep-seated complexes, chronic anxieties and phobias, obsessions, normative values, unquestioned dogmas, compulsive desires, dogged ambitions, and irrational hatreds: whatever we choose to call these compelling factors, their effect is generally to restrict the range of our mental and moral freedom in one way or another.

Before the advent of modern depth psychology it was not uncommon to speak of guardian angels, daimones, tutelary spirits, and fiendish spectres guiding or possessing the human soul during its earthly sojourn. Although the nomenclature and the conceptual framework (or mythological context?) have dramatically changed, it would seem that basically the same mysterious issues and problems are being confronted here. I refer, of course, to the murky problem of ‘who’ or ‘what’ is behind or within us—driving, guiding, thwarting, and/or inspiring our very limited and blinkered human egos as we pass precariously through our faintly illuminated lives.

Today in the modern West we appear to live in an exclusively anthropocentric universe. By this I simply mean to say that, on the whole, we humans regard ourselves not merely as the ‘paragon of animals,’ but as the only visible ‘supreme beings’ in an apparently Godless and soulless universe—a universe that consists, so far as our scientific instruments can tell, almost entirely of inorganic matter enclosed within a boundless void. Our explosive population growth is impacting our physical environment with such force that we are driving—or have already driven—many ‘lower’ species into extinction. Have we, at the same time, driven these ‘higher species’ (angels, daimones, Gods, etc.)—if not to the verge of extinction—into retreat or hiding? Or to indifference and exasperation? Perhaps the din of our collective human ‘noise’ has increased so much that the comparative quietness of the Gods’ interior abode has simply been drowned out—as starlight is drowned out by the artificial light of our teeming modern cities. Ultimately it makes little difference whether we thinkers and ‘historians of ideas’ trace this collective inflation back to Renaissance humanism (the seeds of which are to be found in Greco-Roman rationalism and imperialism) or to the Promethean-Faustian science and technology that has changed the face of the world these past three and a half centuries. Evidence of the swelling, the hemorrhaging, the perilous inflation of the ‘human’ to monstrous proportions is visible even to uneducated persons who have little or no knowledge of history or of any other cultures but this bloated, feverish one on the back of which we ride as if mounted upon a tiger.

Of course, hubris—overweening ambition and pride—has traditionally been associated with psychological inflation and with mental/moral blindness. Whether we approach the malady of hubris from the biblical tradition or from the Greco-Roman perspective, the cautionary tales are copious and they still pack a wallop for anyone who is not imbecilic or comatose. The tragedy of Oedipus Rex continues to resonate as powerfully today as it did in 5th century B.C. Athens—another time and place when the inflation of the human threatened to disrupt the natural balance of things. I mean, of course, the larger cosmos within which humans occupy a crucial but limited place. If, like a vital organ, humanity actually plays a critical role in the health and wholeness of the consciously apprehensible cosmos, when that ‘organ’ is afflicted with intoxicants, cirrhosis, cancer, edema, or circulatory strangulation, that meaningful scheme of things begins to totter, wobble, and quake.

I would argue, then, that the ‘organic’ role or function of humanity is absolutely crucial to the well-being of the whole, or the universe, but in a way that is radically different from the way we now understand (or rather, misunderstand) our place in the grand scheme of things. Precisely because the collective inflation has gotten out of hand, we have unintentionally—but quite evidently—lost sight of those wise and stabilizing insights that used to be more generally embraced and humbly obeyed by our forebears. Some have called this forgotten wisdom the ‘perennial philosophy’ because of its timeless, transcendent character.

Instead of properly regarding ourselves as ‘middlemen’ through whom commands from ‘on high’—or from beyond—are channeled on their way towards articulate expression in human terms, we have begun, collectively, to view ourselves as a race of Titanic and Promethean creators. In moving the ‘Gods and daimones’ aside—in drowning out their subtle melodies with our trumpeted bombast—we have usurped the powers and the prestige traditionally reserved for the Gods. Modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Bacon, and Nietzsche have, for the most part, been preoccupied with power—its acquisition, refinement, and enhancement—and not with justice and with a grand vision of the whole, always the priority for genuine sages, prophets, and philosophers in the ancient world—both in our own and in the Eastern tradition.

The unprecedented expansion of human (material) power, along with the increased material prosperity made possible by the rise of modern science and technology, had the further consequence of radically disturbing the former socio-political order, which was hierarchical (not populist or egalitarian) in its structure and often ruled by a classically educated aristocratic elite. Today, a technocratic elite—ideologically informed and driven solely by economic and politically expedient objectives—has completely replaced the defunct aristocracy, which is now popularly regarded with contempt and ignorant irreverence. With the eclipse of the old order we see the disappearance of most spiritual, cultural, and hallowed traditional counterweights to the frenetic, vulgar, appetitive thrust of contemporary life. At best, the vestiges of the old order are mere window dressing cynically exploited by snobs and opportunistic commissars of the modern technocratic-corporatist scheme. The professed ‘religious’ (usually hypocritically expressed ‘Christian’) values and even the patriotism of many contemporary players in the big game have no more connection to genuine spirituality than Christmas shopping in the U.S. has to do with the life and teachings of Jesus.

Inwardly, many of us long for a noble statesman after the model of a Solon (or the fabled ‘Yellow Emperor’ of the Taoists) whose superior wisdom and profound understanding is able to restore balance and order to human culture—but such figures would have no more chance of succeeding in today’s political arena than Jesus would if he returned to earth and went to the Vatican.

Until quite recently within the long and colorful history of our species, the invisibility of Gods, angels, and demons has seldom constituted grounds for doubting their existence. Likewise, no one who has a thorough acquaintance with his or her own psychic depths—or who has ever been ‘possessed’ by a tyrannical compulsion, irrational anxiety, or an obsession with a tantalizing (or even an incongruously bland) member of the opposite sex—or who has undergone a powerful religious conversion or visionary experience—can honestly claim that these ‘invisible’ psychic factors do not exist, or that they do not, at times, possess more power than our conscious wills! When Jung wrote ‘The Gods have become diseases’ he was wryly, but nevertheless accurately, pointing to the fact that the modern mind has consigned the Gods to the unconscious. In other words, ‘divine’ or mysterious factors—because they have no recognized or designated place upon our Cartesian graphs—are simply ignored or repressed. But to be repressed is not to be altogether obliterated. A repressed content—whether it happens to be a shameful, distressing fact about our own sexual history or the Goddess Aphrodite—is simply rendered invisible to the conscious mind. Thus we come full circle—with respect to our theme of invisibility and the Gods, angels, and demons that more conspicuously populated the lives, dreams, and fears of our not so distant forebears.

Food for Thought (12/30/11)

If we proceed from the assumption that ideas are to the mind what food is to the body, some interesting lines of enquiry open up. Whether we conceive of ideas as subject matter for thought or as nourishment for the activity of thinking, it follows that a paucity of ideas would indicate malnourished thinking or even diseased thinking (because of something akin to vitamin or mineral deficiencies).

Just as food can come in a variety of different forms or levels of complexity—say, from staples like molasses, flour, beans, oil, etc., to Beef Wellington and Quiche Lorraine (with the obligatory dollop of Béarnaise sauce on top)—ideas admit of corresponding levels of complexity, sophistication, and richness. We have single, simple, particle-like concepts (say, of ‘untreated pine wood’ or a ‘blue plastic ballpoint pen’) and elaborate, multi-tiered ideas that are actually organized and assembled from smaller units or particle-ideas. Many philosophical and theological principles may serve as examples, such as ‘the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason,’ the ‘Fortunate Fall’ [felix culpa], or the ‘privatio boni’). Moreover, just as menu items that go by the name of ‘Fettuccini Alfredo’ or ‘Shrimp Scampi’ allow for a wide variety of modifications to a standard recipe, complex ideas that come under a shared general heading are often presented by individual philosophers, scientists, theologians, and moralists with noteworthy differences that reflect the idiosyncrasies, partialities, areas of principal interest or emphasis specific to that particular thinker. So much for an initial or provisional sketch of this analogy between food and ideas: nourishment for bodies and minds.

The goal of health—physical and mental—has traditionally been linked to the attainment and maintenance of a condition of balance, harmony, and just proportionality. If we apply our analogy of food to philosophical and psychological health, we must then be wary of a ‘dietary’ program that prescribes the relinquishment of acquired ideas or learning. We do not want to starve our minds—presumably, we want to make them fit and healthy. We don’t want gaunt, anemic, skin-and-bone intellects that go about with an alms bowl, like a sannyasin begging for a clump of rice. We want muscular, well-proportioned, vibrant ones, do we not?

When our foods are chock-full of sweeteners, chemical coloring agents, and pernicious trans-fats—and we get little or no physical exercise—our health will be thrown out of whack. We put on unwanted pounds, become sluggish and torpid. Similarly, when the ideas we consume contain harmful, addictive, or merely superfluous additives, they lose much of their mentally nutritional value, add unnecessary conceptual baggage to our minds, and disturb the balance of our mental vision and functions. Moreover, when we receive ideas that are predigested or watered down so that we can quickly swallow them down without any grimacing or difficulty, what little there is of value and substance in such ideas usually passes through us quicker than boiled asparagus.

The digestive processes that take place within our intestines occur automatically and without our conscious participation. Mental digestion, on the other hand, is a rather different kettle of fish—or, let us say, it should be. Unfortunately, the passive and unconscious imbibing of ideas, values, feelings, and prejudices (from our immediate ‘mental environment’) is distressingly common.   This is just one reason why so many persons have no real idea what they are talking about most of the time. They may be fine when it comes simply to reporting petty facts and everyday occurrences, but as soon as these passive intellects are summoned to make a carefully considered moral, philosophical, or spiritual judgment call, they are quickly out of their depth—having no other option but to fall back upon received platitudes, sterile clichés, and bloated banalities.

When our bodies fully digest and assimilate the foods we eat—with a minimal amount of leftover waste and maximal amount of energy released from the nutrients—we may rightly claim that such a diet agrees with our body and its natural requirements. Such nutrition is either burned off efficiently as energy or it becomes incorporated, contributing to cell and tissue growth, assisting in the maintenance of those complex systems that link the various organs into a unified, homeostatic whole. These needs are built into the body, as are the unconscious physiological processes that ‘know’ which foods are most nutritional and how to make optimal use of the foods we eat.

The mind appears to behave in an analogous manner where our nourishment from ideas, feelings, and sensations is concerned. Our intuitions—like our palates and our ‘guts’—seem to know without first having to be taught or instructed, that some ideas, sentiments, impulses, and valuations are sound, healthy, plausible, etc., while others are preposterous, unlikely, dangerous, depraved, or shallow. This inborn sense—the discerning intuition which sees into the essence of things—operates in the background region of the psyche for most persons—like a silent observer. Unfortunately, many of us have the foreground of our minds stuffed with signal-scrambling, disorganized information so early in life that we never actually hear the quieter, subtler comments, judgment calls, and observations that are being made from behind that wall of ‘noise’ we wake up to every day.

Chromotherapy (6/28/17—Arequipa, Peru)

We each have—or function within—a worldview: a more or less comprehensive, nuanced, coherent, and articulate picture of the world and of our place in that world. Our native cultural context and early education provide us with a starter kit, of course, but—depending on how much effort and application we bring to the task—our worldview gradually develops into a more or less individualized mental-affective map of experienceable reality—the terra incognita into which we are dropped at birth. Aside from the particular environmental or circumstantial factors into which we are born—variables that differ from family to family, place to place, era to era—there are individual factors (temperament, natural talents and aptitudes, health and genetic factors, etc.) that play an important role in the development of our worldview.

A philosophy, roughly speaking, is a worldview that has been artfully and conscientiously cultivated or worked out over the course of time. This development goes quite some distance beyond the ‘starter kit’ worldview. The lion’s share of the work involved in the development of an individual philosophy can be divided into two interrelated enterprises: (1) Clarifying and critically examining/assimilating one’s inherited or cultural materials and (2) continually extending one’s knowledge of those cultural resources and materials that lie beyond one’s initial inheritance. These two distinct pursuits are closely interrelated for reasons that should be plain: unless and until we have come to a clear understanding of our initial cultural inheritance, we are scarcely in a position to compare and contrast the various strengths and weaknesses of our inherited views and values with those of the different, rivaling worldviews that we encounter in our studies and our travels.

Why, it will be wondered, is it even necessary or advisable for the aspiring philosopher to venture beyond his initial cultural-educational horizons? Here we encounter one of the cardinal differences between the genuinely philosophical life and the un-philosophical life. The philosopher is a cosmopolitan—or ‘citizen of the world’—through and through, while the non-philosopher is, comparatively speaking, content to remain a prisoner of his unexamined, inherited worldview and value scheme. Plato compared the non-philosopher to a person trapped in cave and obliged to watch, in effect, the same limited/limiting movie or puppet show over and over and over again until he dies, none the wiser about life outside the cave. The genuine philosopher, on the other hand, through a combination of luck and struggle, manages to break out of the dark, closed cave and perpetual puppet show. He comes out of the cave and above ground where he learns all manner of natural things that transgress the mental and experiential ‘ring pass not’ of his fellow prisoners down in the cave.

I spoke of the natural phenomena that the philosopher encounters after he liberates himself from the cave where only cultural—or, if you like, historically conditioned—things are to be found. (This, incidentally, is why Strauss rejects Heidegger’s historicism and, following his friend Jacob Klein, sides with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.) Inwardly steered by a transcultural and ahistorical vision or insight, the genuine philosopher slowly makes his way towards an understanding of man that is both timeless and pre-cultural/pre-historical. It is an experience of ANTHROPOS vis-à-vis nature, antecedent to the coloring biases and blinkering limitations imbibed through acculturation. Thus, the cosmopolitanism of the genuine philosopher entails an implicit element that is both a-cultural and a-historical—a core element at the formless hub of the philosopher’s worldview that is timeless and correlative with nature. The imprints of these timeless, natural elements within the psyches of humans are called ‘archetypes.’

The genuine philosopher who encounters the timeless, natural elements (of ‘world’ and ‘psyche’) in moments of pure theoreia, or contemplation, knows and accepts the fact that to conceptualize or to speak of these encounters inevitably degrades and delimits that which transcends and defies all such limits. Thus, he accepts the fact that all such speech and even the most sublime concepts have only an ‘as-if’ character. They can merely point to—but never substitute for—the ineffable that can be glimpsed only in moments of deepest contemplation of the mysterious root of all being. Thus, the genuine philosopher properly understands why those who speak about the highest things as if they have grasped them know not what they speak of.

How, it will be asked, are the various world cultures; the central, founding-orienting myths; and the essential teachings of the great religions related to these ‘timeless natural elements,’ the imprints of which within our psyches constitute archetypal images? We see how the various internal organs can be differentiated according to the function they serve in the health and maintenance of the body. We see how the various members of a family can be differentiated into distinct roles or functions within that family. Let us glance hurriedly over the ancient cultures of the Fertile Crescent, Indus valley, and the Far East: Egypt; Sumer-Babylon; Vedic India; and China. What—in a grossly simplified or condensed form—do we see? Agriculture, geometry, and measurement; the hieratic state reflecting astronomical/astrological order; introspective spirituality of the first rank; practical wisdom and harmony of the opposites. If we advance a bit further in time, we see the Greeks, Romans, and the Judeo-Christian religions of the Levant: speculative and dramatic-poetical genius; political will and organization; monotheism, morality, and the opening of the heart.

All of these extraordinary cultures—and others before, alongside, and after them—like the organs of the body or the roles and functions performed by various members of a great family, emphasize some talent or virtue while deemphasizing others. Like diverse colors in the color wheel, the different cultures interact—sometime harmoniously, sometimes antagonistically—with each other, but ultimately it is the whole and not any single part that reveals or points to the shared, timeless elements. Analogously, all the different colors of the spectrum, when combined, merge into the white light, the source of them all.

The present era has been called ‘the Age of Comparison’—and for good reason. For those of us, today, who care to survey the cultural-historical resources at our disposal, great opportunities lie within reach. Recent figures like Jung, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Mircea Eliade, James Hillman—though not philosophers in the traditional or technical sense—saw the unprecedented opportunity to acquaint themselves with this rich cornucopia of mythological, religious, literary, and other cultural materials that, together, can serve as a basis for a more comprehensive picture of the human being, as such, than has perhaps ever been possible before. We now have access to more pieces of the puzzle than our ancestors possessed.

Each of the major cultural-historical worldviews brings its own distinctive color and melody to the polyphonic/polychromatic psyche of the whole human. The aforementioned psychologists, scholars, mythologists, and spiritual explorers were not mere polymaths or dabblers but astute divers and decoders whose immersive encounters with these rich colors and melodies from across time and space produced numerous remarkable, if provisional and preliminary, forays into regions of syncretic experience that rival or surpass the best such ventures during the Hellenistic era—which serves as perhaps the most appropriate historical antecedent to our own peculiarly over-rich era.

No doubt, some readers are perplexed by my depiction of our present state of affairs as ‘over-rich’ when there is such widespread consensus that we live in times of spiritual and cultural bankruptcy and disintegration. How is such a discrepancy to be resolved? It is certainly true that we presently live in lean times so far as nourishment from intact and thriving cultures, myths, and religions go. Where these have not collapsed altogether, they have, in most cases, been weakened or ossified into ghostly echoes of themselves.

Where, then, is this richness of which I speak, if it is not evident in our actual cultural predicament? The old cultures have broken into fragments, just as the old Gods have withdrawn into silence. These fragments are hiding in plain sight, but almost everyone is overlooking them—ignoring them. It is as if the building blocks essential to a thriving culture have been scattered about and within us. They await rediscovery and reassembly into new configurations—freshly conceived narratives that speak to our changed conditions. Human nature and the human psyche—the sources of these perennial building blocks—have not changed, but the terms and conditions of the world we inhabit have indeed undergone the profoundest changes over the past four hundred years or so. We have the essential materials we need to proceed with the conception and gestation of a new worldview—a new myth and a new religious orientation that can respond to these radically new terms and conditions that embrace the whole species for the first time.

As always, the greater part of the creative work to be done falls upon the shoulders of a minority—precisely because it yearns most intensely for a new myth and meaning for humanity—that recognizes the necessity and the privilege of working tirelessly with these fragments or scattered essential materials to respond to the collective hunger for a truly adequate and embracing myth for the whole of mankind.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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