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?


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.


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.


Poisons and Pathogens (9/12/12)

We have long been told that ‘the truth shall set us free,’ but that would be scanned. It may well be the case that in matters of spiritual insight, this old saying actually carries some weight. However, when the ‘truth’ pertains to political/social problems, a different situation often obtains. Instead of feeling liberated by many of the truths that I am uncovering about dubious corporate practices, the World Bank and the IMF, the ‘military-industrial complex,’ cowardly and corrupt Congressional and Senate members, taxpayer-funded bailouts for incompetent and/or villainous financial officers, etc., I am left feeling more and more helpless and powerless as a citizen. It is perfectly correct to say that I am liberated, in part, from my ignorance, but one may ask: does learning the truth, say, about toxic elements or infectious pathogens in our air and our drinking water make us feel free—especially if we’ve been drinking that water and breathing that air for years? Certainly not if we also learn that both the leaders and our fellow citizens in the poisoned, infected city are in denial about the seriousness of the threat facing all of us. Under such conditions, we are scarcely in a suitable position to address and correct the problem. From the standpoint of feeling, mightn’t I actually have been better off never having uncovered the truth about the poisons in our air and the pathogens in our water? I would be just as lamentably (or contemptibly) naïve and credulous as the other ‘ostriches’ and ‘know-nothings,’ but since ignorance and bliss have long been intimate bedfellows, I would not feel as helpless as I actually am. So, it would seem that ignorance and bliss are far more closely connected than are feeling and being (or the actual truth of things)—at least in many cases.

For those who need to be alerted to such things, let me announce that I am about to launch into an extended metaphor. As for the rest of you, my apologies for having to spell out what should be apparent: As long as I see little convincing evidence that a sizable number of my fellow citizens and our elected officials are addressing the pressing issue of poisons and pathogens in ‘air’ and ‘water,’ I don’t know whether I should stay in the endangered city or not. The air is slowly killing me and the water—even though I boil it and meticulously filter it—is still causing fevers for me. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am worthless as a Cassandra uttering prophecies and warnings that no one hears or heeds—and I am worthless dead or senselessly martyred (by continuing to take in poisons and pathogens that are made even more virulent by my consciousness of the havoc they are wreaking upon my vulnerable body). An alarming number of my ‘friends’ have become conspicuously silent and aloof towards me. Perhaps they regard me as a kind of smelly untreated wound or as a disturbing nuisance who spoils their ‘happiness,’ which is easily uprooted, since it is often planted in such thin, poor soil to begin with. Perhaps a number of them regard me as a crank, or worse, a resentful malcontent who is secretly envious of their ‘success,’ their prestige, their material ‘security,’ and their participation in a game which I have long viewed with the profoundest mistrust. How doubtful—how unlikely—that I will convince such persons they are dead wrong about me and about the true nature of my unsightly, stinking wound!

It is quite obvious that the knowledge I have been inwardly compelled to seek is neither welcome nor pleasing to most persons I am acquainted with. This observation applies both to knowledge about the socio-political realities of our own and earlier times, as well as the spiritual and psychological knowledge that pertains to the largely unexplored inner world. The first sort is unpleasant chiefly because it invariably conflicts with the comforting stupidities, official lies, infantile diversions, preposterous over-simplifications, and petty poppycock that we are continually awash in. The second sort is welcome only in small, watered-down, sandalwood-scented doses, but soon is felt to be burdensome and taxing, for its cultivation requires serious discipline and considerable leisure (for study and digestion), two things that are in scant supply for busy professionals who have families to feed and hefty expenses to cover.

So, for this student of life (and of humankind), the acquisition and disciplined cultivation of liberal knowledge (as opposed to merely technical skill and know-how) have occasioned a fair measure of sorrow and disappointment, if I am to be completely honest. Rather than having the effect of puffing up my sense of my own power and personal importance, my knowledge has had a generally deflating and curbing effect upon my native human arrogance and my joie de vivre. The overall effect of the knowledge that I have endured may be likened to the alchemical process of purification through fire in a crucible or to immersion into a vat of corrosive acid—where superfluous impurities are burnt away. Of course, such psychological torture (yes, this is the appropriate word) is not for the squeamish or for those of little faith (in the psyche). The work is necessarily lonely since it is business between me and my own soul, and finally has little to do with other persons. I now am convinced that I and others like me were born for such lonely interior labors, for unless the drive to pursue this work is there from the start, it is not likely to be ‘put there’ by books or by anyone else.

Alas, my ongoing quest for interior knowledge and for authentic (individual) experience—often appears to move in the exact opposite direction taken by the great majority of my fellows. Opening up to this constitutional mistrust of the goals and values of the majority and coming to more or less peaceful terms with this sobering fact about my personality has constituted most of the ‘torture’ and disorientation that I have encountered since I was very young. It is only insofar as I have deeply and irreversibly accepted this fact about my innermost nature that I have been able to lift my head somewhat above the confusion and pain that resulted from bucking against my true nature. What for the majority of persons constitutes their familiar and stable ego-personalities can no longer be more than a kind of mask or provisional platform for me. I no longer experience my ego as my ‘true self’ or my essential being. Someone—or something—different, other, and more essential has always been there—but now I am more inclined to recognize that ‘alien’ as my true ground, my essence.

It has been through my voluntary submission to this mysterious but decisively authoritative essence that I have begun to realize that much suffering, confusion, and folly were necessary by-products and symptoms of the metamorphosis, the seeds of which have been inside me all along. This interior work that I have been drawn to since I was young has been responsible for germinating those seeds. And of course, in realizing what feels like my life-work—how could I possibly regret it? How can one genuinely regret the realization of one’s given nature without at the same time being a traitor to themselves?

We are what we are at the deepest, core levels—and likewise, we can never be what it is not within our nature to be. If all of us could learn to be what we are, as purely and as completely as possible, there would be a lot less unnecessary noise, waste, and confusion in the world. There would still be tensions and conflicts, of course, but they would be purer and more intelligible. They would be meaningful tensions and conflicts—nothing like the conflicts, say, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which were founded upon lies, false pretenses, and deeply conflicted motivations. But to learn what we are—and what we are not: is that a priority or even a serious consideration for our teachers, our parents, and others whose responsibility it is to guide and educate children? Or, do we find, instead, that nothing is more common than for these parents, teachers, and guides to mislead by trying to shape their charges after their own idealized image (of themselves)? This is a collective problem of the blind often leading the innocent down narrowly constrictive paths that are seriously out of touch with the innate seeds (the intended tasks) of the young. They are simply being fitted for service within an extremely imbalanced and fundamentally unsound system that has forcefully weakened any ties to nature, to the psychic depths, to the heart, to genuine sanity—and almost always in the interest of material profits and personal power for the winners. Most children today never have a chance to see or to experience any viable alternative to this unsound, anti-natural, pathologically imbalanced system, with its low, vulgar aims and its empty prizes that are quickly found unsatisfying to anyone with healthy or developed taste and judgment.


Cells and Sensation: an updated version of Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ or the Real McCoy? (10/16/16)

One way of imagining our roles as humans vis-à-vis the cosmos is to suppose ourselves to be differentiated cells in the body of the earth, regarded here as a living, quasi-conscious being. Of course, the other animals, the plants and trees, and the physical elements and compounds fill out the picture of this evolving being that relies on all of us, just as we depend on self-replicating liver-, blood-, muscle-, skin-, bone-, heart-, and brain-cells. Working within this analogy, it is of vital importance, naturally, for all of us to find out as soon as we can whether we are destined to be a heart-cell or a brain-cell, a blood-cell or a skin-cell, a digestive enzyme or an electrolyte, a complex sugar or a fatty acid – and perform our appointed function fully and properly. So long as confusion reigns within and between us, the organism is always threatened with system failure.

So how do we learn what kind of cell we are? Since our cell type is not decided or assigned by our parents or our educations – but is there, like a seed, in the beginning – often we can only come to this knowledge through a kind of self-examination. Because our cell or function type is inborn, it cannot be changed from one type into another, but it can easily be mistaken for another type, in which case we will be likely to miss our life – our intended existence.

One thing that appeals to me about this way of imagining human identity, development, and fulfillment (within a comprehensive nexus of other identities, paths of development, and functions) is that it gently releases my thinking from its accustomed abstract bearings – allowing me to envision this array of complex factors more concretely – more meaningfully rooted in sensible material conditions. For me, such a move has a salutary, corrective, and equilibrizing ‘feel’ to it. It holds out the possibility of redressing a one-sidedness that I simultaneously (and paradoxically) suffer from and exult in. I am referring to my habitual reliance upon my intuition and my abstract thinking function. The aim here is not to shut these functions down – but to counterbalance them with this enriching and ensouling concreteness.


A Note on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (7/12/15, 7/28/15)

Danby argues that Shakespeare gradually arrived at the firm conclusion that the truly good person (exemplified by Cordelia and the humbled-regenerated Lear) can thrive only in a good state or healthy community. When corruption, disorder, anarchy, cynicism, shallow individualism, hypocrisy, and other evils undermine the health and goodness of the society, the good person either ceases to exist[1] or lives permanently at odds with the disordered state. If we accept this general thesis, a number of implications follow—most of which I have treated, in one form or another, in earlier essays.

One of the implications of this thesis is the problem of adaptation or accommodation to degenerate or seriously degraded cultural-moral norms.


Danby’s thesis: The good man can thrive only in the good community, or culture.

If, by ‘good’ we merely mean good in the moral sense, Danby’s point seems plausible enough. Likewise, if he means full development, or wholeness. It seems reasonable to assume that unless we grow and reach maturity within a community that, at its core, is not corrupt to its core, we will be denied two crucial components that are necessary for wholeness (or wholesomeness) and goodness: 1) a critical number of exemplary figures of moral-intellectual excellence and 2) occasions for the reciprocal, mutually supportive practice of virtue with moral-intellectual peers and betters—and not merely with faithless knaves, blinkered simpletons, self-serving cowards, and feckless mediocrities.

But we have plenty of evidence that good persons can—and do—exist in corrupt and vicious societies, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the obstacles they bravely confront each day—since they are constantly obliged to define themselves in contradistinction to these deplorable norms and collective habits. Perhaps the crucial, qualifying word is ‘thrive.’ A good man certainly may survive—but seldom or never thrive, or flourish—in a degenerate or thoroughly corrupt community. Why? The conspicuous or public presence of such a figure will necessarily draw ‘sniper fire’ and opprobrium from the corrupt majority whose vices and shortcomings are thrown into sharp relief by contrast with the Socrates or Jesus who philosophizes or preaches in the open air. Peter was no doubt a good man, but his ‘prudent’ denial of affiliation with the sentenced Jesus—as cowardly and weak as it may seem at first glance—delayed his eventual martyrdom long enough to get years of fruitful evangelizing behind him before he met with ultimate mischief. Plato and Aristotle were good men living in corrupt and volatile times, but they had the good (i.e., ‘prudent’) sense to teach philosophy to select students within the walls of the Academy and Lyceum instead of taking on (and thoroughly pissing off) Athenian big shots and rancorous nitwits in the Agora, as the martyred Socrates did.

[1] Both Cordelia and Lear are dead by the end of the tragedy.