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)

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Clutching my Crutches (2/7/12)

On my more honest days, I am willing to acknowledge how much I rely on being able to make reasonably coherent statements (of a philosophical-psychological character) in order to prop up my general sense of spiritual well-being. In admitting this I am not quite conceding that my philosophical claims make no positive contribution to other inquiring minds or that their function as supports for my spiritual well-being is their only salutary function. In blunter words, I am not ready to grant that these philosophical observations and speculations are merely consoling fictions I tell myself (and anyone else who will listen) simply in order to shield myself from the corrosive waves of ‘nihilism,’ ‘cynicism,’ and ‘pessimism’ that incessantly lap against my vulnerable shoreline.

It seems to be true, then, that my daily invocation of a select set of theoretical/spiritual principles plays a crucially decisive role in fighting back these waves and occasionally devastating tsunamis. Apparently, I see myself as a man besieged and that if I did nothing I would soon be engulfed by the muddy flood threatening to over-run the sandbag wall of philosophical journal entries behind which I have encamped for safety’s sake…for purity’s sake…for ‘God’s sake.’ For let me be candid: at some level I seem to believe that I am going about ‘my Father’s business’ in sheltering my soul from the mud and the slime that beset me on all sides—don’t I? How might this (now not so secret) conception of myself as a ‘servant of God’s plan’ feed into my pride and egotism? How might it widen and deepen the imagined gulf between me and ‘the others,’ those ‘ignorant and lost sheep’ who have swallowed down so much dirty, slimy floodwater that they are on the verge of drowning? What can I possibly do to assist such beleaguered souls? Don’t I have my hands full simply trying to maintain a hygienic distance from them? For in all honesty—aren’t they the flood? Or at least the contaminated carriers of all those malignant, microbial pathogens that I work so hard to keep away from my person—out of my breathing space? Is misanthropy simply one more occupational hazard faced by anyone working for God, Inc.? (Ltd.?)

Perhaps my job description needs to be revised—expanded and made more complex—in order that I may work more effectively and more humanely at what I am called to do. If the good doctor of bodies hates the disease but not the patient, the good doctor of souls will hate the sin but not the sinner. The medical doctor confronts his string of ailing patients face to face—he does not flee from them, even if he avoids taking unnecessary risks (by kissing and sharing needles with them). Likewise, the spiritual physician—recognizing the real distinction between ‘corrupted’ and sound elements within himself—assists those whom he can with their own gradual recovery. He does not shun them, even when he suspects that they are beyond hope for recovery. For these, in particular, he summons from within himself the deepest compassion. Such ‘incurables,’ however, are perhaps not as common as we might suspect.

Origins of the Inner World (2/5/11)

In section 16 of the second essay of Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche opens up an interesting path in his speculations about origins of the human ‘soul’ or the ‘inner world’ (as an experienceable topos). He locates these momentous origins in the all-decisive, general crisis that faced our distant ancestors when, after leaving behind their nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life in the wilderness, they were obliged to settle into fixed communities. When this radical change of context occurred, many of their former drives and instincts were denied the unobstructed and regular discharge allowed to them ‘in the wild.’ Thus, these aggressive instinctual drives and affective energies, which had previously been directed outwards, were forcibly turned inwards, producing incalculable distress and frustration for these semi-animals from whom we are distantly but directly descended. Only the severest restrictions and punishments (against the unencumbered discharge of these rapacious, wildly aggressive, and antisocial drives/impulses) were capable of gradually taming and domesticating these early ancestors of ours—whose very ‘souls’ and self-consciousness (as opposed to the merely unreflective surrender to the regulating natural instincts) were in their earliest stage of formation.

The agonizing torment, frustration, and confusion associated with this violently enforced reversal of the flow of libido or instinctual energy makes it easier to understand why we still—thousands of years later—chafe under the constraints and checks imposed upon our aggressive, erotic, and other natural instincts as we bend grudgingly or dutifully to the yoke of civilization—‘and its discontents.’ Nietzsche anticipates much of Freud, of course, in linking repression and the civilizing process.

It is interesting to compare Nietzsche’s notion of the origins of self-consciousness and the soul with Jung’s ideas about introversion and extraversion. Nietzsche and Freud seem to be saying that until the forcible (harsh, strict) repressions of stabilized city life began, man—who was still more like an instinct-governed animal than the self-aware, semi-domesticated human we all know and love—lacked ego-consciousness and was, in effect, a natural extravert. There was, as yet, no recognized ‘breathing space,’ psychologically speaking, between him and his outer, natural environment. We witness something of this condition in human infants, who recapitulate, briefly, this ancestral ‘participation mystique’ (as Levy-Bruhl called it). It is assumed that he was completely immersed, and not yet capable of abstracting or differentiating himself (as an independent subject) from this general mix—this psycho-sensory soup—in which he was immersed like a roughly peeled potato or a chunk of deer meat.

Jung’s descriptions of the introverted attitude make note, again and again, of its tendency to abstract from the outer object—to withdraw libido (psychic energy) back into the subject. When the conscious attitude is introverted like this, Jung tells us that it is psychologically compensated or counterbalanced by unconscious extraversion, which is prone to over-valuing the object. If the introverted attitude is habitually pushed to the extreme, there is a danger of alienating oneself, of becoming isolated within subjective awareness, cut off from life. The unconscious extraversion, functioning almost like a homeostatic corrector of this lopsidedness, will then typically over-charge external objects, persons, or situations with (positive or negative) significance for the introvert and pull his attention outwards, forcing him to deal with the object in one way or another.

Nietzsche’s style of discussing this prehistoric shift—this watershed experience of our ancestors that set us precariously upon the road we are still on—is not quite so value-free or as purged of his own personal biases as Jung’s more even-handed treatment of mankind’s slow, painful, and jarring emergence from primitive participation mystique into ego-consciousness, self-awareness, and self-responsibility. Nietzsche, bless his (tough and tender?) little heart, can almost never resist the temptation to inject an extra measure of drama—nay, melodrama—into his colorful accounts of man’s developmental history (his genealogy), while Jung, who strove usually to maintain more of a ‘scientific’ or neutral posture towards this same material, generally avoided this sort of narrative as a writer. Nietzsche may be more absorbing and entertaining, but Jung does greater justice to the psychological phenomena, I would argue. Nietzsche writes:

All instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards—this is what I call the internalization of man: with it there now evolves in man what will later be called his ‘soul.’ The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as though between two layers of skin, was expanded and extended itself and gained depth, breadth and height in proportion to the degree that the external discharge of man’s instincts was obstructed. Those terrible bulwarks with which state organizations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom—punishments are a primary instance of this kind of bulwark—had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself.

This view of the birth pangs accompanying man’s emergence from the womb of nature (and from his unconscious immersion in nature—wherein he relied wholly upon his instincts to guide and regulate his life) seems to accord well with much of what Jung tells us about the need to withdraw or abstract a certain amount of disposable psychic energy from the object in order to extend and deepen our subjective standpoint, or ego-consciousness. Implicit in what Nietzsche has written—and in Jung’s observations, as well—is the idea that unless and until there is a problem (some significant barrier to the natural flow or discharge of instinctual force and affective energy), there is no real need or occasion for the continuing development and elaboration of ego-consciousness, of soul. More problems lead, according to this logic, to deeper and more extensive consciousness.

A cluster of links between consciousness, as such, and ‘dis-ease,’ illness, self-division, and torment can readily be found in Nietzsche’s writings on this topic, while the ‘unconscious’ expresser or joyful discharger of his drives and instincts (‘enmity, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction’) is generally regarded by him as ‘healthy’ and free, if a bit more naïve, dangerous, and stupid than his repressed brother. This corresponds, in a certain sense, with Jung’s observation that ‘Too much civilization makes man a sick animal, while too little makes him a barbarian.’ If we make the fairly inviting association between the instinctually unobstructed human and the ‘master’ type—and if we correlate the ‘impotent’ sort whose thwarted drives are turned inwards to the ‘slave’ type—then we are led to suspect that Nietzsche, despite his evident attempts to be as impartial as he can be, favors the master type, if only because of his happy, life-affirming character, as opposed to the resentful, hateful, timid nature of the slave type.

Jung, by way of contrast, seems to avoid such a bias—or, if anything, he leans a bit in the opposite direction from Nietzsche, recognizing how lopsidedly extraverted the contemporary attitude is, and therefore soberly pleading for more reflection as a check against its extremes. Jung sees the interdependence of introversion and extraversion (like yin and yang), while acknowledging the problematic tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise between them.

Both, however, appear to be in agreement as far as the awakener or activator of differentiated ego-consciousness is concerned. It was an enormous crisis—the radically different demands and requirements of civic life (the early ‘state’) violently imposed upon antisocial, and therefore potentially destructive drives and instincts—that was the fons et origo of consciousness. Moreover, it is problems—impediments and disruptions of the smooth flow of libido or instinctual energy—that still, to this day, impose the need for a conscious response. Without difficulties and obstacles we would just be like puppies frolicking 24/7 in the Garden of Eden.

The other animals face difficulties and obstacles, of course, but if their unconscious, automatically functioning instincts are insufficiently equipped to guide them through or around the difficulty, the animal is out of luck, for there are no other resources to turn to. They cannot locate solutions to most of their problems on the Internet or at the mall, like we can. Human beings, in addition to their inheritance of animal instincts and drives, also have language, learning, technology, and culture, which provide assistance for life under civilized conditions—beyond the ‘state of nature.’ Of course there are trade-offs, as we all know, that come with civilization. We cannot remain puppies and piglets who just follow their alternately playful and savage instinctual promptings. We forfeit these freedoms (or, to be more precise, we have them forcibly taken away, at an early age, like the testicles of a neutered dog) in exchange for the boons and security afforded by civilized life—such as it is. And just as with spayed cocker spaniels, it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to get ‘our balls back and happily re-attached’ after we have become so thoroughly domesticated that we are dependent upon those social and civil benefits which can be obtained only by undergoing the required rite of passage, wherein a good deal more than mere foreskin is carved off.

An Idea whose Time Has Come? (10/26/14)

We can look back and see that the successful establishment and dissemination of Christianity as a major world religion first required the establishment of the Roman Empire, with its extensive network of roads and its political-economic organization—as well as the use of the Greek koine and Latin language throughout the sprawling realm. Because these crucial mundane factors were in place, the radically un-worldly message of Christianity was able to spread like a redemptive epidemic and to dramatically reorient Western values for about a thousand years.

Have globalization, air travel, 24-hour world news, and the ‘worldwide web’—a culmination of the worldly-materialistic phase that got rolling just prior to the ‘Renaissance’—similarly prepared the ground for yet another spiritual movement that will meaningfully link all human cultures for the first time?

Possibly. One might even go so far as to say ‘probably.’ If the frenetic, ruthlessly competitive predation of the planet’s limited resources continues at its present rate, it won’t be long before a bad situation worsens and exhausting wars and disasters devour humanity. The present course of events and policies must collide with the solid wall that is waiting ahead before a new course can be charted and then followed by the ‘remnants.’ A non-catastrophic scenario, whereby humanity sensibly ‘wakes up’ to its imperiled situation before it’s too late, and voluntarily submits to austerities and relatively draconian measures in order to circumvent that wall, is almost guaranteed not to arise, given the blind determination of the cunning ‘engineers’ who have commandeered the train we’re all on.

Genuine quality (of philosophical thought, of artistic excellence, of moral reasoning and action, of spiritual attainment) is almost invariably produced by human beings that are not boorish, loutish, or representative of ‘mass-mindedness.’ In other words, the coarse ‘mass mind’ (and the collective, quantitative terms and values the masses live by and through) seldom creates or authentically responds to true quality—whether it is understood spiritually, ethically, artistically, or politically.[1] By and large, the architects and exploiters of the present scheme of things know little or nothing of such quality—or, if they do, that mere knowledge is wholly insufficient, on its own, to transform them into courageous, self-sacrificing critics and opponents of the current lowbrow culture. All too often, these delinquent trustees of humanity’s future simply ‘milk’ the system for all it’s worth in order to enhance their own personal wealth, power, pleasure, comfort, etc.

Thus it will, of necessity, typically be a spiritual-philosophical-poetical-political-scientific elite that is responsible for whatever there is of the highest quality and the most enduring cultural value to humanity. It never springs up, as if by magic, out of the mass or from mass-mindedness—any more than sonnets and haiku issue from the mouths of kine and swine. What does all this mean to the ordinary, ‘well-educated’ American or European reader? Alas, it means nothing—or next to nothing.

And yet I will no doubt be denounced as an ‘elitist snob’ for holding such a position—for having bucked my egalitarian indoctrination and finally unearthed the sobering truth about the necessary combination of (fateful) genius and exceptional conditions that is required to produce cultural ideas and works of the highest and noblest rank. Interestingly, those who would dismiss my claim have no difficulty acknowledging the fact that the most precious diamonds are only produced under conditions of excruciating heat and pressure. This is just another instance of how anti-meritocratic, leveling ideals have possessed and deformed the minds of the many—and ‘many of the few,’ at that. But then, materialism (our prevailing metaphysical standpoint) has a natural propensity for leveling, and thereby discrediting, all such qualitative hierarchies—by reducing everything to mere stuff.

I bring up these uncomfortable points not in order to settle a score with naïve idealists (i.e., persons who still entertain untenable notions about the ultimate power of natural human goodness, rational self-restraint, and wisdom), but only to call into question the idea that a spiritual renewal (as it is presently conceived) aims to make life on earth more materially pleasurable and desirable. I ask you, the reader, simply to step back a bit from your busy personal affairs and absorbing commitments for an hour or two—and to look deep within the murky well of your heart and ask yourself: If there is any inherent purpose or higher meaning to human existence, is it likely that it consists in the single-minded pursuit of material goods and pleasures? Can that be all that we are here for?

And if ‘yes’ turns out to be the best or the only answer you can come up with—and you believe that armed competition for these limited goods and pleasures is indeed what our brief and fitful lives are all about—then how are we, as a species, any different from mere beasts, aside from the fact that our greater cleverness has permitted us to carry predation to inconceivable, ultimately self-annihilating lengths? The sky is the limit and enough is never enough. And if this is indeed the way of things—then it follows that life on earth have never been anything but a chamber of horrors for the great majority of human animals who have to struggle incessantly in order merely to survive. And, naturally, if this is indeed the stark and implacable ‘way of things,’ you would be an idiot to slacken off and risk losing your hard-won place or rank in the predatory pack, right? Apparently, a lot hinges on how we answer this question for ourselves—the question of what human life is really all about. Somewhere, deep inside each one of us, the answer we have settled upon is lurking—like a wolf or an angel (or a mixture of both)—behind every one of our thoughts, actions, and decisions. To hear people talk, one would think that philosophy is nothing but an esoteric and feckless pursuit engaged in by eggheads and impractical dreamers. But what could be clearer than the fact that there is nothing so intimately urgent or so far-reaching in its impact upon our lives as the answers we have consciously or unconsciously settled upon—answers, that is, to a handful of basic ethical questions, only one of which I have raised here.

The general indifference and aversion to philosophy seems merely to be an indication that most of us are dimly aware of just how disturbing and disruptive its probing questions are. We are frightened by these questions because we half-consciously recognize their power—once they’ve gotten under our skin and infected our minds—to dissolve all the treasured poppycock, sentimentality, and cant upon which our actual lives are solidly erected. And how many of us are ever prepared to be plunged into the sea of uncertainty and insecurity that a few well-aimed questions will unleash within us?

 

[1] My claim has nothing to do with one’s socio-economic status, origins, or formal education. Individuals who are both responsive to quality and capable of producing works, deeds, and thoughts of superior quality are inwardly compelled to find what they require from their environment—‘by hook or by crook’—in order to realize their ‘qualitative’ potentials. Perhaps in the majority of cases, it is the privations—the lack of educational, monetary, social, and other forms of SUPPORT—that call forth and bring fully to life the potentials for excellence that have been innate in these exceptional souls—from the start.