Self-knowledge and Self-control (2/23/20)

Many wake up regularly to some turbid emotional state or nebulous, lurking mood. It is the unsettling ones that vie for our attention, especially when their causes are mysterious and unknown to us. When I am able to represent my mood or emotional state to myself in apt words or mental images, there is an accompanying sense of relief—even if it’s only momentary. Somehow, the mental act of reflecting on the emotion and finding expressive form for it leaves me feeling slightly less trapped or bound by it. (Perhaps for this very reason, many persons are reluctant to reflect in this way upon their joyful, exuberant moods, lest they lose their magical, uplifting power when we ‘step back,’ coolly, from them.)

It seems that in the very process of finding language to represent and express these otherwise mute, murky moods and mysterious emotions, I am able to avoid two errors I committed more frequently in the past. One error was to simply and unreflectively act out the emotion—to become its ‘meat puppet’ or unconscious plaything. The other mistake was to passively succumb to the emotion, to mope and squirm, to become more or less paralyzed or inundated by it. In both cases I would fail to do what I now make every attempt to do: come to conscious terms with the mood or affect by means of creative-interpretive engagement.

I’m trying to become something of a horse-whisperer—or a dog-, cat-, snake-, bat-, termite-whisperer—with my emotions since, in some ways, they are akin to live animal-souls. Who will disagree when I say that our desires, fears, hopes, and other passions move us into and through life? And, conversely, when our passions and desires die or sink into a kind of hibernation or a depressed condition, life and our relationships with others often lose much of their former vitality or attractiveness. Whatever power or freedom we achieve in our lives and choices depends to a large extent, then, upon our learning how to unveil and represent ourselves to ourselves—and secondarily, to those with whom we are significantly related.

When we feel trapped and reduced to a miserable state of impotence by our poorly understood, but tremendously forceful, moods and emotions, we are far more likely to do unintentional harm to ourselves and to those we love. Powerful passions—like jealousy, anger, terror, pride, melancholy, and sexual hunger, when raised to a high pitch of intensity—quickly and decisively overwhelm and enslave a weak, undisciplined, or deluded mind. Likewise, manic, depressive, and paranoid moods overtake and diabolically possess a mind that helplessly identifies with the mood instead of doing everything in its limited power to break that spell of identification by willfully stepping back from the otherwise engulfing mood.

As soon as we become identified with a mood or passion, we consign ourselves to mental and emotional slavery. Nevertheless, such enslavement does not always leave us feeling deflated or reduced. Passions—like all polaristic phenomena—have light and dark, positive and negative, modes. Like large magnetic fields, passion-spectrums have what may be thought of as attractive and deflective poles, and the greater the magnitude or intensity of the passion, the greater will be our need for managing and moderating our relationship with the passion. Relationship (which is always between two distinct things or forces) is different from identification, where the weaker force is absorbed or swallowed up by the stronger force. Persons who know—or care—nothing about moderating and wisely tempering their conscious relationship with their passions and desires frequently regard those who earnestly guard against ensnarement by the positive and negative poles of the emotions as ‘cold’ or ‘detached’—somehow less than ‘fully human.’ The free soul certainly responds to charged emotional situations and events quite differently than do these unfortunate slaves of passion.

Strong passions and moods, fears and desires, naturally produce biases that steer and color our thinking. Like the nearby magnetic field that moves iron filings into specific patterns on the paper, our conscious thoughts invisibly conform with the general bias of the fear, desire, hope, etc.—to buttress and intellectually reinforce the ‘picture’ projected by the prejudicial passion. If there is any ‘rule for the direction of the mind’ that bears repeating, again and again, lest we forget it, it is this one: the ‘rational’ arguments we make, along with the evidence we select to support our arguments, are almost invariably determined, from below, by the bias of our passions which, as often as not, are taken for granted as axiomatic and beyond dispute.

Obviously, insofar as we are committed to a larger, more comprehensive vision and understanding of things—an understanding that is not completely subservient to our unexamined, governing desires, fears, hopes, delusions, etc.—we must be willing and able to investigate and identify all those influencing background passions and desires. Together, these constitute the ‘colored lens’ through which we behold the world and conceive of our place in that world.

Some Reflections on Oedipus Tyrannus (12/14/17)

mama  I don’t know if this somber and weighty mood I’m experiencing today is an aftershock following my re-reading of Oedipus Tyrannus, but, given the wallop this ancient text always delivers, how can there not be a connection? The tragedy is sublimely humbling to the human – insofar as Oedipus’s predicament in the play represents the ego’s inevitable fate: to always be attempting to avoid what it suspects to be its horrible destiny; but the more it runs, the tighter become the coils that bind it to that fate. That fate is not so much death as it is something far more crushing, mocking, diminishing—something that springs from the buried, unexamined links between our most unacceptable, ‘shameful’ desires and our most paralyzing terrors. Moreover, it entails a painfully conscious recognition and digestion of one’s ultimate and utter insignificance vis-à-vis the Gods and nature.

Before this realization sinks in, we see a marked impetuosity and managerial mania in the character of Oedipus. Sophocles succeeds – at least with this reader – in punching the wind out of the belly, leaving one writhing helplessly on the ground. Even so clever and beloved a savior of the city (of Thebes, by answering the riddle of the Sphinx) as Oedipus cannot extricate himself from the ever-tightening coils of Pythia’s prophecy (named after the Python-serpent slain by Apollo). As ‘tyrannos,’ he is the self-made, self-authorized ruler of the Thebans. He seized or claimed this authority after demonstrating his superiority – and yet the conditions that enable and legitimize his rise (by killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother, Jocasta the queen) are the very fulfillment of his curse. The fact that the abominable acts and his investiture as ruler are two sides of the same coin is crucial: those who are first (citizens) will be last (the most fallen).

No one, it seems, who registers the full weight and impact of these sobering, chastening truths about our ultimate irrelevance and insignificance as separate egos, could ever again—with a clear conscience or robust enthusiasm—chase after empty honors, exotic pleasures and luxuries, or any of the countless distractions and diversions available to man – but would gratefully make do with enough. What does a thoroughgoing digestion of this overwhelming insight into the puniness of even the most proud and prominent specimens of humanity – the Pharaohs, the heroes, the Caesars, the holy Roman emperors, the Napoleons – lead to? Doesn’t it make it impossible to go back to the cramped old anthropocentric perspective, where such childlike hero-worship is still possible? It is in this sense that Oedipus Tyrannus is unmistakably a religious work of the highest order – if one of the chief functions of religion is to reveal to man his actual place in the grand scheme of things – and to make him feel it. Does such a humbling and purging realization necessarily or invariably crush or permanently cripple us – so that we are thereafter consigned to a pessimistic paralysis, unable to work up any further enthusiasm for existence?

I would say it all depends on how much resilient strength of soul there is to begin with. Certainly there are plenty of spirits that are broken by gentler impacts than the one considered here – persons whose will to press on through life is extinguished under lighter weights than this. But for other, few in number, this is precisely what is called for in order to balance and temper their oversized spirits properly. No doubt, it is fortunate for most of us that our minds – unlike that of the relentlessly probing Oedipus – have an instinctive awareness of where to shrink back and stop asking questions the answers to which we are scarcely strong and brave enough to withstand. Perhaps this helps to account for why Oedipus Tyrannus won only second and not first place the year it competed in the drama festival at Athens! Its true impact, while powerfully sensed, failed nonetheless to be fully acknowledged even by perhaps the most spiritually resilient audiences ever to fill a theater.

It would be foolhardy not to frankly acknowledge the double-edged or equivocal character of this initiatory vision – this staggering insight into human insignificance, blindness, and fragility. The peculiar light that floods the mind during such momentous initiatory experiences cannot help but have a destabilizing effect upon our familiar bearings. From the standpoint of our established understanding of things, the inrush of light, rather than merely illuminating and valorizing that understanding, exposes its grave limitations and gaping inadequacies. Some “victims” of this flood of penetrating-exposing light (from the unconscious?) never really recover from the shattering ordeal. Like a literal tsunami that sweeps over a coastal town, the flood of light dissolves and washes away all those once trusted, once-stable structures. “Madness” is one name for such fateful encounters with this transgressive and irrational light (or is it a kind of darkness?) from beyond the usually secure perimeter of the human, all too human.

This exposing, disruptive light – and I am proposing that Sophocles’ play has artfully embedded within it a spark or scintilla of this equivocal light – both reveals and, in a sense, magnifies what is already there in the character of those it penetrates like an X-ray. What does Oedipus’ self-blinding tell us about his fundamental character? By ensuring thereafter that he could never again look upon those his actions, however unintentional, had wronged or desecrated, his blinding suggests that he still adhered to notions of taboo (against father-slaying and mother-laying) that, for another character might have been rendered null and void by the very light that throws the human conventional domain into dwarfish irrelevance. It is precisely this property of the equivocal, transcendent light – its inherently transgressive character, “beyond good and evil” – that makes it so potentially undermining of salutary, civilizing human laws and institutions – including the incest taboo and religious proscriptions against parricide and matricide.

Are we getting close, here, to the reasons why religion has been regularly and systematically tamed by those, ever a minority, who astutely recognized just how dangerous and destructive it can be in undiluted, uncompromising doses? By selectively emphasizing only (or mostly) its civically and morally edifying powers and potentials, these teachers, poets, philosophers, and prophets labored to transmute a potentially lethal and maddening substance into one of civilized humanity’s principal supports and comforts! No small feat. Was Carl Jung, who surely knew, firsthand, of the equivocal power of religion – with its rootedness in the archetypes – one such artful, philanthropic tamer of (explosive-corrosive-animating-electrifying) religious materials? Was he attempting, with the other hand, to recover its lost or watered-down power to turn our lives upside down? While reading Jung, we cannot fail to notice the indisputable sense of awe with which he confronts the mystery of the unconscious. And, for him, the unconscious was the true source of “religious” or numinous experience, as it has forever been for all genuine initiates and “victims” of that transcendent-transgressive light.

Contrast Jung’s reverential, respectful stance towards the numinous with the comparatively dismissive, cavalier, or patently hostile attitude towards religion that we see in Voltaire and most Enlightenment philosophes (including our Founding Fathers, as “deists” and diehard rationalists), and it is difficult to imagine that the latter had any feel or natural susceptibility for the numinous core of religion. For them, it was simply superstition and delusions—which, to be fair, it certainly can be for those who lack openness to the numinous. Nevertheless, it was recognized that religion—because of its ‘irrational,’ spellbinding appeal and its power to override commonsense as a compass and guide for some persons—had to be controlled through the spread of “rational enlightenment,” which was to supersede and supplant religion by exposing its roots in childlike or primitive beliefs. Thus, the separation of Church (which is not synonymous with “religion,” as I am treating it here) and State was a relatively superficial or peripheral matter.

A far more significant campaign against genuine religious (transcendent-numinous) experience sprang from the general elevation or exaltation of (scientific/pragmatic) rationality to an authoritative status that had never before been dared by our ancestors. (Something akin to this was underway in the Athenian Enlightenment—with the rise of ‘atheistic,’ tradition-eroding, skeptical Sophists—when Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus, partly as a warning to his fellow Greeks, as Bernard Knox argues in his excellent study, Oedipus of Thebes.) Thus a rather narrowly defined (but materially transformative and momentous) form of human rationality was raised, by design and via “modern education,” to a position of unprecedented authority over human affairs. Religion was implicitly demoted in dignity and authority in this “transvaluative” campaign conducted by proud, “enlightened” men on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take some time – after the intoxicating “high” of this myth of progress by means of pragmatic reasoning began to wear off, following a couple of world wars – before a sizable number of reflective persons began to realize that modern rationality had no bottom or grounding to it – and that it was essentially just instrumental, a mere method. Moreover, there was no natural aim or teleology to it, unlike ancient (ontological-speculative) reason.

Sorting as a Mode of Thinking (5/23/17—Cajabamba, Peru)

The analytical thinker approaches most situations, problems, and experiences in much the same way that one might approach a giant ball of knotted and confused, multicolored threads, with the objective of untangling and carefully separating the various colors. Everything is present—right there in front of you—before you begin the work of differentiating and separating. But it is a massa confusa—a veritable chaos that invites patient organization into cosmos. The confusion of the initial state will not sort itself out if we leave it be—but it will allow us to disentangle the knotted and intertwined threads if we go about our work carefully and patiently—like mental spiders. As soon as we attempt to rush things or we lose our patience, we run the risk of severing important threads or merely adding to the confusion by pulling and tightening knots instead of loosening them.

Persons who have not taken the trouble to learn how to think their way into and out of these labyrinthine situations (that constitute the great bulk of everyday human experience, when viewed with a high-powered, critical lens) are routinely being devoured by some Minotaur or another. Those, on the other hand, who are both courageous and patient enjoy the kind assistance of Ariadne. Brute strength is never enough, by itself, to unravel the riddles of the psyche. We psychologists cannot suppress a laugh at that mighty conqueror, Alexander, who brazenly hacked at the Gordian knot. Few historical anecdotes better convey the decline of Greek subtlety that accompanied the rise of ‘barbaric’ Macedonian imperialism.

Knot-work, like ‘wu-wei,’ tempers and restrains the aggressive and fiery impulses—allowing things, persons, and situations to open up before us at their own deliberate pace—in their own measured time. Weaving and unweaving, tying and untying, saying and unsaying, making and unmaking: what knowledge must we first master before such Janus-faced virtues and abilities can be earned? Those who categorically disparage analytical thinking—and they are legion—should perhaps not be trusted with our ‘valuables,’ for they know not their true worth.

It is not difficult to track down the various and sundry sources of such sweeping condemnation of discriminative thinking. ‘Sour grapes’ of one sort or another can almost always be found hanging just out of easy reach of such condemners. Perhaps they yearned for those mature and tasty grapes but lacked the patience and earnestness needed to obtain them and, in a fit of exasperation, deemed them ‘sour’ and of no worth to anyone but a fool! Or perhaps they were the unfortunate victims of a malicious critical thinker whose numerous scalpel and stiletto incisions left them scarred, their minds irremediably prejudiced against all sharp-edged implements—which, as we know, can heal, as well as hurt, depending on whose hands wield the blade.

 

 

Talent, Conscience, and Discipline (2/20/13)

Having learned that I can do certain things that not everyone can do so well or so naturally, I feel obliged to exercise those talents and abilities, do I not? The very idea of wasting or neglecting such ‘God-given’ talents is morally abhorrent to me—and not merely in my own case, but as far as all of us are concerned. Along with our gifts comes a kind of conscience that spurs us towards the opening up and full development of those gifts. I might add that this conscience (with spurs) operates independently from the social, financial, and other extrinsic encouragements to realize these talents and abilities. In many cases we must summons the will and determination to give priority to our highest (or most spiritually-psychologically fulfilling) capacities while others—our parents, teachers, counselors, recruiters, peers, etc.—pressure us to settle for the exercise of some lesser (or less challenging and less genuinely fulfilling) talent. It is certainly proper, here, to speak of such gifts and talents as a person’s ‘calling.’ To neglect or miss one’s calling, or proper vocation, is, in effect, to betray one’s life and inborn purpose. Since this is no trivial matter, it makes perfect psychological sense that this powerful—and perhaps ineradicable—conscience is essentially bound up with our most distinctive and demanding innate talents and gifts. Even if a person is highly successful, say, in the business world or in a law career, but has won that success and those financial rewards by ignoring and suppressing his deeper calling to be a musician, writer, pastor, or painter, he will find little true comfort and satisfaction with his wealth and social success—because of the self-betrayal that they are built upon and attempt, with mixed success, to cover up.

In many—perhaps most—cases, a person’s natural talents comfortably and smoothly match up with jobs and opportunities that are amply provided by society and the actual economy. For such persons, the happy marriage between calling and active fulfillment is not all that difficult to pull off. A broad and complex economy offers many opportunities for such match-ups between talent and fulfillment. But not all talents and gifts can be nurtured and supported properly by readily available positions within even a booming and diversified economy. Sometimes, our talents and gifts—those crucial, innate capacities and predispositions that constitute our true calling—are extremely difficult or impossible to match up with professional (or paying) careers in our midst, except for a tiny handful of extraordinary specimens or prodigies. What is such a person to do? If he or she is thus prevented from earning a living wage by the development and exercise of his/her crucial talent or gift, then what?

This is where the first test of our loyalty to our given talents—our true calling—is confronted. We’ll call this the economic test. This test arises whenever a person finds it difficult or impossible to pursue and practice his/her calling for a living wage. In such circumstances, something will have to suffer—unless the person is financially supported by patronage of some sort. Either economic privations or the pangs of conscience (for neglecting one’s calling) will have to be endured. To the extent that we are spiritually fulfilled by the development and exercise of our talents (say, as a poet, a philosopher, a glassblower, an opera singer, painter, Kabuki actor, etc.), we will be able to tolerate or even overlook the ‘reduced’ economic circumstances to which we are thus consigned.

The second big challenge we shall call the social-conventional test—for here we are up against the pressure to neglect our ‘impractical’ talents in order to pursue the more common and easily accessible rewards available to those who conform to prevailing norms and conventions. The more uncommon and individual (i.e., ‘unconventional’) our deepest talents are, the more their full development will set us apart from the norms, tastes, values, and easy apprehension of the generality. Collective consciousness—the so-called ‘public mind’—tends to be insensitive or oblivious to the bold innovations, the subtle distinctions and other ‘demanding’ features of truly individual thought, feeling, and expression—preferring bland generalities and flattened, familiar commonplaces that are effortlessly imbibed. Therefore, anyone who seriously devotes his best energies and care to the development of his own individual ‘voice’ and expressive style must be prepared to weather the indifference, and often the muted contempt, of the ‘distracted multitude.’ Unfortunately, the distracted multitude frequently includes many of those near and dear to us. They may not intend any harm, but their incapacity or unwillingness to properly appreciate the ‘exotic’ fruits of our calling sets them apart from us just as surely as our exacting conscience sets us apart from them. Hence, a kind of loneliness not infrequently accompanies the development of our genuinely individual gifts.

Of course, the pain of such loneliness tends to be most acute for those whose hopes for the approving response of others are strongest and most urgently pressing—but who have yet to fully develop their gifts. Once these are fully matured, they tend to be sufficiently rewarding so as to partially neutralize or counteract the pain of being misunderstood or under-appreciated. When our gifts—our calling—are are fully awakened and operative, they carry and support our inner lives so capably that the need for such external props and encouragements diminishes almost to nothing.

On Part Three of Beyond Good and Evil (“The Religious Character”) (9/16/13)

In part three of Beyond Good and Evil (‘The Religious Character’) it is as if Nietzsche has implicitly assumed that a kind of dome covers humanity. That dome, like the hemispherical ceiling of a planetarium, is solid and impenetrable. Moreover, the various constellations of the zodiac, along with the other noteworthy individual stars and galaxies, which are projected onto the dome, correspond to the various mythologies, religious principles, metaphysical systems, and moral doctrines that have been created solely by great geniuses who—though superior and exceptional specimens—were, nonetheless, irrefragably and inescapably human. Culture, then, and those principle works of art and thought that lend both structure and ‘luminous’ orientation to human lives everywhere and at all times, are solely human inventions. As with Darwinism, there is no need to introduce extraneous teleological or superfluous metaphysical principles (i.e., ‘God’) into Nietzsche’s genealogical scheme in order to account for man’s cultural evolution. There is no need—no justification—for bringing such intangible or supernatural factors into the equation. Naturalism suffices. And perhaps a little bit of ‘naturalistic’ human psychology.

Because we humans tend to be painfully conscious of our mortality—and because our hopes and our imaginative longings often reach quite far beyond our actual, limited conditions as frail, ephemeral creatures (even when we’re not fully conscious of these hopes and longings)—it should come as little surprise that, from early on, our ancestors have been concocting all manner of (benevolent and malevolent) immortal figures who have a significant impact upon our lives—and whose power we neglect at our peril. Nietzsche recognized that this imaginary relationship between the unreal Gods and very real mortals makes very good sense from both the individual, personal standpoint, as well as from the social/political standpoint. For the individual, this imaginary relationship with the divine, supernatural dimension provides a context and a kind of playground for those transcendent yearnings that mortals are often afflicted with when they remember they must die. What a marvelously effective and time-tested pressure valve these imaginary heavens and hells provide whenever we need to let off steam! On the other hand, this same valve can be closed off when pressure is precisely what is required to jolt us out of our indolence and make us serious about our ‘salvation.’

For millennia, the artful manipulation and exploitation of these supernatural longings and anxieties by crafty priests and opportunistic rulers has greatly contributed to social-political stability. A ruler who tampers with established theology (or who used to, since this is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the West) and customs—from Akhenaton to Henry VIII, from Mao to Stalin—had better possess despotic powers if he is to succeed in implementing such disruptive reforms. A leader whose actual or supposed religious sympathies diverge from those of the mass population (as when rumors spread about Obama being a Muslim) will be up against fierce, and often unconscious, prejudice in the generality. Mitt Romney’s good looks and his anti-Obama polemics were not quite enough to offset the ‘Mormon’ factor and enable him to inch out ahead of Obama’s good looks and his slippery-silver tongue. John F. Kennedy’s (epidermal) Catholicism tugged against his good looks and silver tongue, making it necessary for his wealthy father to buy Chicago’s deciding votes. But, I digress.

As with other ‘naturalistic’ thinkers—both ancient and modern—Nietzsche, in explaining the ‘religious character’ in exclusively human, all-too-human terms, effectively explains away transcendent or superhuman factors altogether. In the final section of Part Three Nietzsche makes it quite clear that as soon as religion—in this case, Christianity—succeeds in becoming sovereign (as opposed to remaining a subordinate means of marginalizing and thwarting the canaille and providing the proper breeding conditions for higher human specimens), culture is debased into a ‘sublime abortion.’ In its successful campaign to preserve and protect the great mass of ‘failures’ and ‘degenerates,’ two thousand years of Christianity has bred…

…the European of today, a herd animal, something well-meaning, sickly, and mediocre.

He accuses the Christian cultural leadership—over the past two millennia—of having been stupid and cowardly. These were:

people who were not high and hard enough to give human beings artistic form; people who were not strong or far-sighted enough, who lacked the sublime self-discipline to give free reign to the foreground law of ruin and failure by the thousands; people who were not noble enough to see the abysmally different orders of rank and chasms in rank between different people. (sect. 62)

And for this awful crime committed against ‘higher’ human possibilities, Nietzsche shouts: ‘Christianity has been the most disastrous form of arrogance so far.’ What in the world is going on here? Nietzsche is certainly not being cryptic or ‘tricky’ here. He cannot be accused of resorting to ‘esoteric writing’ in such blatant declarations of his own personal preferences and his standards of what ‘health’ looks like with respect to human culture. But, to spell things out even more explicitly, so as to dispel any lingering, unresolved doubts about what he is saying here, let us begin with his endorsement of treating human beings as a potter might treat clay, or as a sculptor might employ stone in order to impose artistic form upon them. Upon us. (But, let us remember, it was Christianity and not Nietzsche’s Anti-Christianity that constituted the most disastrous form of arrogance so far!) This basic notion of man as moldable clay accords with his description of humans earlier in this same section (62) as ‘the still undetermined animals.’ All but the rarest and most unlikely exceptions among us (since exceptions so often come to ruin) are merely programmable animals without a determinate (and therefore truly knowable, clearly discernible) nature. Most of us are just conscious enough to be aware that we are destined to struggle and eventually to die. Thus, in our anxiety and our natural credulity (when facing the awesome authority of the past and its ‘legacy’) we almost invariably succumb to the sort of imprinting or programming that Nietzsche and many others understand acculturation to consist in—and nothing besides. A human being without cultural imprinting would be all nature and no art.

Technically speaking such a creature is not fully human at all. He is feral, a savage. He may be possessed of (or by) instincts and drives that are hardwired into him, but lacking language and culture to canalize these raw energies and impulses, the (truly unfinished) creature’s existence is decidedly worse than that of an animal’s. Such an existence would be chaotic and anarchic. At least the animal can rely on the regulatory function of its instincts. Civilized human life, on the other hand, depends to a decisive extent upon the disruption and often upon the artful repression of these instincts and drives. They must be re-directed down new, socio-politically acceptable courses. They must be hammered (or coaxed) into new shapes and down new pathways. One of the principal functions of religion, as Nietzsche and many others have understood it, is to instill and to inwardly enforce an elaborate system of (albeit illusory) rewards and punishments—the aim of which is to keep wayward and impetuous little unfinished human animals on track. And by ‘on track’ we mean out of the wilderness of overpowering lusts, rages, and other uncivil drives and affects that may have served our proto-human ancestors well enough out on the savannah, but can only lead to mischief nowadays—unless, of course, we happen to be serving our nation overseas, fighting heathen, Huns, and towel-heads who need a good thrashing if they are to stay on the track we lay down for them.

But the problematic upshot of this momentous game-changing transformation from wild animal to obedient modern consumer is that, for Nietzsche, we might very well have lost as much as we gained in the bargain by becoming so thoroughly domesticated. Like Freud, in his excellent, late essay, Civilization and its Discontents, Nietzsche worries over the damage unleashed upon the ‘animal’ in all of us by the severe constraints that civilization (and especially religion) inflicts upon our erotic, aggressive, and other vital—and vitalizing—instincts. One would be an arrant fool to categorically dismiss such claims. Few Western persons living today have a very good idea—or rather, experience—of the sort of repressions and constraints that were commonplace in 19th century European cultural and social life. One would have to ‘do time’ as a female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan for a few years in order to get a rough idea of the sort of mentality Nietzsche and Freud were calling into question—and with Nietzsche, this concern seems to have been confined, for the most part, to men.

Having made this preliminary—and admittedly sketchy—effort to contextualize Nietzsche’s ‘naturalistic’ understanding of man’s religious need and his notion of culture as an elaborate system of ‘necessary illusions’ or arbitrary fictions, let us probe further. Nietzsche makes it clear elsewhere in BGE that he sees genuine philosophers as the authors and creators of these collective values—these necessary fictions. Figures like Plato, St. Paul, Confucius, Hammurabi, and Moses are the ‘commanders and legislators’ of entire cultures or durable worldviews. It is such figures who stamp their own image upon the mass of clay—that indeterminate creature, man—and, in doing so, provide us with distinctive goals and hallowed trajectories. They provide us with ‘serious games’ that have awesome implications and consequences. It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche ever so tacitly regards himself as one such commander and legislator, even though he rather furtively and unconvincingly tries to conceal himself behind the mask of herald of the ‘philosophers of the future’—those who will eventually take such Herculean responsibility upon their shoulders. Astonishingly, it would appear that Nietzsche’s notorious megalomania actually had limits beyond which he deemed it prudent not to transgress. Although he spells it out for anyone who bothers to put all the pieces together, he never has quite the temerity to come out and say precisely and plainly what he means: I, Friedrich Nietzsche, have come here to redirect humanity’s path into the future in accordance with my own superior will and intelligence!

Given his special gifts, along with the apparent fact that he acknowledges nothing of genuine value or ‘transcendent’ significance beyond that dome—the outermost limits of which are established by the most clever and seductive human commanders and legislators—it makes a certain kind of sense that Nietzsche would see himself and his calling as fatefully bound up with this sort of cultural renewal and regeneration. As Plato and Socrates had done before him, he would assume the role of ‘physician’ and undertake a thoroughgoing diagnosis of an ailing patient: Western/Christian culture. He would tirelessly dig and delve into the unconscious assumptions and unexamined collective values that were at the root of the devastating illness. ‘Nihilism,’ ‘Decadence,’ ‘Pessimism,’ ‘Pity,’ ‘Slave Morality,’ ‘Egalitarianism,’ ‘Socialism’—these are but the most conspicuous of the names and forms of the degenerative disease that has eaten away the once-vigorous heart of Western culture. At bottom, it is a war between nature and anti-nature, or vigor and sickness, as Nietzsche passionately conceives of the struggle that is perhaps in its final throes. Life itself is under siege—at least where man is concerned—because it is no longer being revered and served by our decadent, effeminate culture. In fact, we wrongly and suicidally misuse culture as a means of escape from life, as Nietzsche sees it. It does not function as a means of courageously engaging with life, as certain pagans used to do, in accordance with their nobler cultures.

And the reason this damning truth about modern culture is not more widely known is simple enough to understand: virtually everyone is so infected with the disease of modern culture—the disease is so far advanced for us, collectively—that sickness has become normal. Our disease is like the stench of urine that goes unnoticed by persons who live in a park latrine that never gets cleaned. When this is all you smell, rancidity and acridity become odorless because they no longer stand out. Then one day you are miraculously released from this giant outhouse. You go for a lovely hike, high up in the nearby alpine forest. You breathe in crisp, clean, invigorating mountain air. When you are called back to the park latrine—say, because of your attachment to loved ones who cannot leave the toilet, or because collecting admission fees from visitors to the urinal is your only source of income—the full reeking impact of the stench assails you with its revolting unpleasantness and unhealthiness. How have you managed to breathe this foul air for years—day in and day out—and never notice that something was terribly amiss?

Cases of natural resistance to this viral contagion (of modern ‘sickness’) are so rare—so anomalous—that we have few salutary models to measure our illness against. Our souls are dead long before our bodies expire—and most of us never suspect a thing.

On the Judicious Use of Terror (6/26/18)

Even if I have many deep resistances to a number of his diagnoses and proposals concerning modern man, Nietzsche can always be relied upon to poison the comfort zones and block access to the many escape routes in which so many of us continue to seek refuge. Those readers who follow him are often ushered into a vulnerable condition of existential exposure from which it can be difficult or impossible to exit after we have had as much as we can take of this “nihilism.”

Nietzsche’s subtly corrosive prose spoke seductively to that skeptical part of my soul that has always been inclined by nature to regard all human-cultural narratives, myths, religions, philosophies, and moral systems as arrant fictions. Moreover, the primary purpose behind these elaborate fabrications is not to communicate or reveal the natural truth – or stark reality – of our existential plight, but to insulate us from this terrible and potentially crushing truth. After suffering through this “unmasking” of myth and culture – and seeing through them so that their function as protective shields against the hard, cold, merciless truth was plainly exposed – the skeptical/cynical part of my soul initially exulted in what seemed like a vindication and confirmation of suspicions it had been harboring for years. This initial feeling of exultation was strengthened by the fact that these dark suspicions had been so persistently and forcefully repressed by the other side of my soul. This other side refused to believe that the actual universe – beyond the “cave walls” of my culture, of any culture – was utterly devoid of any metaphysical or teleological foundations that were capable of endowing our human existence with a higher moral meaning and purpose.

If Nietzsche was correct – if his violent and irreverent unmasking of religion and morality, meaning and “Being,” exposed the awful truth of our existential predicament as a species – I would be obliged by my intellectual conscience to systematically uproot and dismantle every last inherited myth and lie that has been planted in my mind since boyhood. Since virtually everyone I know, every song I sing, every book I read and every movie I watch is infested with these lies and cave-assumptions, I would also have to learn how to insulate my newly purged mind from this constant flood of delusions with the same ferocity previously devoted to insulating myself from these very truths that the skeptical part of my soul had sniffed out, early on.

Little wonder, then, that I felt so alone, so divided, and so alienated – for years – from everyone and everything that had hitherto been so comfortingly familiar, reassuring, and grounding. The skeptic in me had won out, at long last, over the innocent idealist, and my “world” had been turned upside-down. What had been discredited and destroyed in this upheaval had been so foundational to my former worldview and my sense of who I was that, for the first time, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something eerily inhuman about the new perspective that was emerging from out of the rubble of my former worldview and identity.

Eventually, after a few painful years of being aligned almost exclusively with the hardheaded, uncompromising skeptic in my soul, I began to balance out a little bit. Unlike Nietzsche, who seems to have remained steadfastly uncompromising till the bitter end of his thinking career, I found it necessary – let’s say for the sake of mental health, which trumped my concern for rational-logical consistency – to ambivalently oscillate back and forth between these two very different standpoints within myself: the myth-friendly part and the no-nonsense skeptic/nihilist. I would not go so far as to say that I “relativized” the skeptic simply out of fear and anxiety, but in large part because I recognized that I had primal doubts about the adequacy and ultimate accuracy of the radically skeptical perspective.

This accommodation to my softer “human, all too human” side helped to relax – but not to eliminate – the enormous tension that had built up since the collapse of my former bearings and beliefs. While I would remain divided within myself for years to come, this “healthy” compromise probably prevented me from going mad or from turning into a complete misanthrope, a very real danger at the time. This concession to the fragile, needy – or in Nietzsche’s terms, “herd-like” and “decadent” – human ego on the part of the hard-boiled, mythless skeptic/cynic could not, by itself, heal the rift in my psyche. But it could buy me some time to recharge after the depressive, disorienting upheaval—time to gather my wits and other resources for the difficult work that lay ahead. That work is now underway.

A large part of this inner work involves my attempt to answer the following questions: Do we, as a conscious, culture-dependent species, absolutely require the belief in divine or superhuman support and sponsorship in order to thrive, and does the “death of God” also mean the fall of man into savagery and brutal barbarism? Given what we have learned about ourselves as a species – from history, from mythology and literature, from science and modern psychology – is it likely that our better angels (if they indeed exist) will prevail in the ongoing showdown with the darker and more bestial parts of our natural inheritance? Are modern technology and the power it has unleashed more likely to bring enduring comfort and relief to our plight—or to hasten our self-extermination in a conflagration of feverish competition over limited resources?

So, where do I stand (or swim!) on this question of belief? The simple but honest answer is that I stand in awe before the majesty and mystery of existence. I stand in wonder before the bottomless depths of the psyche. I stand in humble respect before the profound questions and the imaginative responses raised and offered by our great, long-suffering human ancestors – the shamans and the mystics, the poets and philosophers, the saints and the scientists, who have left us with so much to reflect upon and digest. I see myself as a modest servant and grateful participant in this always urgent, unresting quest for answers – followed by the search for balance after the answers we receive have disturbed and threatened to “undo” us. It’s only natural for human beings to go crazy or succumb to despair when they’ve remained terrified for a long, long time. Courage is perhaps our most precious commodity – when it is alloyed with wisdom – and those of us who find the courage needed to confront the terrors of existence must not hoard our courage in proud isolation, but share it with those who need it as much or more than we do.

Few and Many, Spirit and Morality (3/18/15)

I am approaching the point where Christianity, insofar as it is single-mindedly preoccupied with sin and virtue, has little to contribute to my spiritual awakening. This enthrallment with moral struggle—so pervasive, both in Judaism and in Christianity—is predicated, I suspect, upon a belief in the ultimate reality of the separate self (or, if you like, the immortal soul). This contest, or agon, between good and evil—whether this contest is fought within the “sinner’s” breast or in some aggressive crusade against an external, ‘evil’ enemy—is one of the principal motors (along with hunger, sex/reproduction, and the need for security) that drive and orient human beings on the stage of dramatic conflict that recorded human history chiefly consists in. Gradually reducing the ‘electricity’ that powers this crucial motor within myself has enabled me to see just how foolish, tormented, blinkered and hateful so much of motorized human activity really is. It is pretty simple: so long as a majority of persons is convinced that the principal aim of both individual and collective action is the triumph of moral virtue over sin, of religious orthodoxy over irreligion (perverted religion) or one cherished ideology (say, free market Capitalism) over a despised one (e.g., Communism or Socialism), humanity will continue to be locked in a self-destructive war with itself—both inside and out.

Of course, I am not advocating the suspension or jettisoning of all ethical principles and means of tempering our aggressive impulses, our lusts, and appetites, and other patently dangerous drives and inclinations. I am not endorsing anarchic indulgence of our wild and unruly instincts—whereby we would be leaping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. I may even be ready to admit that this traditional scheme of hellish punishments and heavenly rewards—precisely because it demonstrates proven power to keep large segments of the beclouded multitude sufficiently tamed so as not to ‘act up’ any more than is already the case—should by all means be left intact and regularly reinforced where the generality is concerned. Children require supervision. Boundaries and rules need to be set and real penalties must be imposed when those rules are broken—when those boundaries are prematurely exceeded or ignored.

May I be justly accused, here, of holding a double standard—one that applies to the blinkered ‘mass man,’ who is likened to a child, and another one that applies to the few, who are implicitly linked with mature adulthood? Perhaps. May I also be justly accused of suggesting that these ‘mature’ specimens have earned for themselves a perspective on things that is ‘beyond (conventional) good and evil’? Perhaps, but only if what is entailed in earning that perspective is thoroughly understood and accepted, and such an understanding appears to be relatively rare.

At a certain stage in our spiritual maturation, unreflective or dogmatic attachment to the old, deeply-ingrained moral law becomes a serious encumbrance to our inner freedom. Like a weighty millstone around our neck, it continues to impose duties and obligations that we have already begun to perceive in a subtler light—but which we are not quite clear and strong enough to slough off.

It is at this crucial stage of our spiritual ripening that we are in a position, perhaps for the first time, to understand the relative, self-canceling, nature of the various pairs of ‘reified’ or metaphysical opposites. A truth—or insight—that is deeper and even more fundamental than the realization about the futile, un-winnable war between good and evil, or light and darkness, begins to take hold of the spiritual initiate’s consciousness. What he glimpses is that all dogmatic or metaphysical dualities are both illusory and the matrix out of which most other illusions are born. When this profound insight is first registered, of course, its implications cannot at once be grasped. They are merely hinted at. But the main insight—namely, that there are no ‘breaks’, ‘splits,’ or ‘gaps’ in nature or the psyche, and that all elements, levels, and states are interconnected—is a watershed realization for the ‘initiate.’

But for awhile, the initiate is of ‘two minds.’ Because this fateful glimpse into the deeper and subtler reality behind the veil of ordinary consciousness is so compelling in its veracity and its authority, the initiate’s estimation of the essential trustworthiness of ordinary, unreflective consciousness (and discourse) sinks to an unprecedented low. Suddenly, the world of everyday experience, the normal round of activities, the value and substance of many of his relationships—all of these suddenly pale in significance, in vividness, and in value when compared to the blessed-accursed glimpse he got of the mystery always lurking behind the veil that was briefly lifted. On the one hand, he feels blessed to have received such a momentous, consciousness-altering revelation. On the other hand, because this experience has so profoundly disturbed his former, familiar bearings and distanced him from the norms and priorities embraced by the general community, he cannot help but feel cursed, as well—at least, initially.

He may with some justice be said to have a foot in two practically incommensurable worlds—in neither of which he can claim to possess full citizenship. He no longer feels fully and confidently invested in the discredited, ‘unmasked’ shadow world where virtually everyone else lives and pursues his personal interests and inclinations. Nor does he yet feel stably and solidly planted in the far more compelling, if elusive, world of psychological or ‘imaginal’ perception. For some time, our ambiguous/ambivalent demi-denizen of two not quite fully inhabited realms of experience must simply endure this unenviable stage of metamorphosis. Neither worm nor butterfly, our unfinished one is something ‘in between’ (metaxy)—a kind of ‘bridge’ between being and non-being. Try as he may, he cannot work up a sustained interest in the activities and preoccupations of those around him who are still firmly fixed at the worm stage. And, of course, this cuts both ways: if he finds them sluggish, ‘soft,’ and exasperatingly linear, the ‘worms’ find him irritating and threatening (like salt on a snail’s moist back). Moreover, this unfinished one has no stable and trustworthy form—but is ‘all over the place,’ like all things larval.

On the other hand, not until the transformation or maturation has carried through to completion will his fully-formed wings appear—the liberty-bestowing wings that will enable the ripened initiate to move freely in the infinite region beyond the self-spun walls of his silken cocoon. Thus, it makes good, natural sense for the psyche (which, in ancient Greek, also connoted ‘butterfly’) to remain quietly secluded within the womb of its solitude while the critical and delicate metamorphosis from creaturely crawler upon the earth to beautiful, winged voyager in the sunny air runs its destined course.