Success and Failure Turned Inside Out (5/10/13)

‘Success,’ as it is insufficiently or wrongly understood—and demotically esteemed by contemporary Americans—typically spells failure for the genuine philosopher, to put it bluntly. It is perhaps the most seductive—and destiny-aborting—obstacle standing in the path of the philosopher’s rightful development, since it elevates that which is essentially and qualitatively lower while implicitly demoting (through neglect) that which is inherently higher, nobler. Consequently, the authentic success—or coming to maturity—of the philosopher is all but invisible to the ordinary citizen today. The philosopher, in extricating him- or her-self from the inverted, counterfeit values and norms of today, has developed into an anomalous creature. Within the depths of his soul, he is at odds with the established order of things in the corrupted and debased ‘anti-culture’ of the present time, and yet he knows better than to squander his precious time and energy on an exhausting, protracted direct confrontation with that established order. He watches, sometimes cheerfully and composedly, but more often mournfully and helplessly, as one after another of his former companions are successively swallowed up by the ever-expanding swamp of ‘no-nos’ for the philosopher: wealth, notoriety, comfortable self-satisfaction, conjugal and familial engorgement, onerous duties that allow for no leisure, that most precious possession of the philosopher.

For all his scintillating brilliance and psychological penetration, I sometimes wonder if Nietzsche allowed this profoundly disturbing truth to fully sink in. Of course, he was very much the anomalous creature as I have described here. He was a genuine philosopher who had seen through and beyond his own time and place—at least to a considerable extent. Early on, he appears to have glimpsed what Plato perhaps more fully grasped many centuries ago—namely, that philosophical initiation entails a metanoia, or conversion experience, whereby the ‘world’ is turned inside out as the mind itself is turned outside-in.

Here I am speaking about this ‘inversion’ as if I’m some kind of authority—as if I’ve already got it licked—but the honest truth is that I am still digesting the experience and will continue to do so, no doubt, for years to come, like a python with a small elephant lodged in its gut. Nevertheless, I have learned something of great importance from my own metanoia. I see how it has put me ‘out of phase’ with the broadcast frequency that is propping up the ‘continually running TV show’ that is audibly and visibly underway in my culture. This, more than anything, renders me (and other ‘ghosts’) invisible and inaudible to those in my midst. Of course I have a persona—or masked ‘stand in’ for myself—that vibrates in sync with the regular broadcast signal—my ‘TV personality,’ if you like. And I am certainly aware of that crucial frequency difference that distinguishes the real (invisible) Paul from his projected image on the busy studio stage set.

The upshot? Virtually all that the majority of my fellow cast members ever see—ever hear—is Paul the persona: the mask, the spokesperson, the performer. My soul is invisible and inaudible to all mere actors. Maybe one or two of them can smell me. But, as for them: I can see and hear their souls—if, that is, they have bothered to step offstage from time to time and cultivate soul. I can see and hear their souls because it takes one to know one.

But what is this about ‘cultivating’ soul? Well, I hate to be the older kid on the playground who poops on the lie about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, but if a person hasn’t done some work—and I mean some serious work—reflecting upon and digesting and imaginatively cooking his/her ‘stage experiences,’ there isn’t likely to be anything but a hole or, at best, an undifferentiated ‘stem cell’ where his/her soul is supposed to be. This observation is sure to vex and disturb those innocent Christians who ‘believe’ that it is enough merely to ‘believe’ that a soul is automatically issued at birth (or baptism) and that it is guaranteed an eternal life span. Such ‘believers’ are not for me and I am not the man for them.

If I may be permitted another word about soul—for those who have dared to follow me this far: soul is the boat created from reflected meaning—the boat that carries the spiritual newborn who has just emerged from the fluid-oozing womb of metanoia. Because everything has been turned upside down and inside out, it is necessary to be carried for a while by the boat of soul before it is possible to walk with orientation on one’s own. The word metaphor means ‘to carry across.’ This is a hint for those nearing a certain readiness for transformation. The word ‘psyche’ in Greek also meant ‘butterfly.’ Another hint.

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On Nietzsche’s Monism (9/17/13)

Section 36 of BGE signals Nietzsche’s monism. What can we say about the psychology of the monist? How does the monist deal with those elements of experience that are not easily reducible to the arch principle at the heart of his monism? Well, typically he just ignores them or deemphasizes them to the point of near-invisibility within the all-devouring jaws of his (hungry) pet principle. Or, in his strained attempts to make these incompatible elements fit, he so deforms and distorts them that they no longer bear even the faintest resemblance to their former shape. Something of this sort happens to love and to all charitable or unselfish impulses as soon as Nietzsche attempts to translate them into disguised or indirect expressions of the will to power, his (ravenous and omnivorous) pet principle that is supposed to be the ultimate root of everything.

By taking a perfectly useful explanatory principle far beyond its broad but ultimately limited sphere of appropriate applicability, he makes the mistake all monists make. He undermines or subverts his own credibility. Are we close to uncovering one of the secret incentives behind Nietzsche’s astounding eloquence here? Did he eventually start to become unbelievable even to himself? And after so much effort, suffering, sacrifice, and lonely cheerleading for himself! No, admitting that he had taken a serious wrong turn somewhere along the steep uphill way was too much to bear. He would have to bluff his way into world-historical significance (in an era of declining literacy)—for nothing less than this could ever satisfy his boundless personal ambition. At some point it seems to have occurred to him that he was not merely a man. He was dynamite. And like a crafty suicide bomber of sacred idols, he cleverly recognized that within the marble and crystal corridors of Western philosophy and religion his tidy little supply of TNT could produce incalculable damage—damage and destruction from the top down, as it were.

Crucial to this wantonly destructive work would be Nietzsche’s mockery and vilification of the few remaining sacred cows that continued to graze upon the parched spiritual landscape of that arid-skeptical-hypocritical-reductive era in which he lived and worked. Darwin (prudently uncredited) came to his aid, as did Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Mach, and Stirner (also uncredited for reasons of prudence). Apart from not wanting to appear unduly indebted to these other thinkers for the nuts and bolts of his reductive scheme, Nietzsche had additional reasons for trying to create the impression that his philosophy was born sui generis from his mind. Few thinkers before or since have been so desperate to set themselves apart from the governing assumptions, the complacent society, the prevalent values, and the persons of their own day and age as Nietzsche was. I certainly believe his loneliness and his sense of isolation were excruciatingly real to him. But this pain and loneliness—instead of weakening his resistances to human companionship and sincere relatedness—only painted him further and further into the remote corner from which he screamed out his ‘philosophy of individualism.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that ‘it takes one to know one’ here—but I will say it anyhow. If I had not walked in his shoes, suffered many of the same feelings of isolation, experienced many of the very same reactions that I credit him with having—I would scarcely be in a position to understand this psychological impediment to comprehensive philosophizing (and poetizing, or mythologizing) about man. Fortunately for me, I caught it before it caught me—for good! But I was already older than Nietzsche was when he went insane before I decisively turned things around. Paradoxically—again, for me—it was only by breaking out of the human, all-too-human that I was eventually enabled to break into the human, albeit with new, cleansed eyes that no longer looked solely to man for what can only be called redemption or spiritual solace. For all his Übermensch posturing, Nietzsche never seems to have fully and decisively let go of the human, all-too-human. Somehow, this merely makes me sad for him—makes my hybrid-heart almost break for him.

Nietzsche and the Naturalistic Fallacy (9/5/13)

It seems clear that both as a philosopher and as a psychologist Nietzsche falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy. Instead of acknowledging the independence and autonomy of the psyche—and conceding that, for example, a ‘blighted elm’ or a ‘hog-nosed snake’ in a dream does not refer to a natural tree or snake, but to ‘imaginal’ trees and snakes—Nietzsche, like Freud, tends to ground the psyche in the naturalistic realm. As a consequence, it follows that he comes perilously close to reducing philosophies, ideas, and ideals to instincts and drives that preserve a particular biological-physiological form of life. A corollary of this naturalism (which, as Hillman notes, ‘soon declines into materialism’)—when it underpins a philosophy—issues in a campaign to ‘change the world’ by means of its ‘transvaluation of values.’ In other words, it seeks to change culture as a mechanism for literally changing mankind’s nature. This is to be accomplished by pedagogically modifying the order of rank of man’s drives, or so it would seem. Nietzsche—as I understand him—seems to move back and forth between a kind of monism (where the mind, or psyche, of the human is essentially an offshoot and epiphenomenon of nature, biology, physiology) and a kind of Cartesian dualism (where man’s heroic-creative ego imposes its own will and vision upon nature—if he is strong and masterful).

But all of this is very different from the Jungian/Hillmanian and the Sufi/mundus imaginalis standpoints which seem to be in agreement concerning the independent, autonomous reality of the psyche, or archetypal imagination. Because this independent realm operates according to its own very different set of laws than the natural world, there is no attempt to translate the terms and conditions of the imaginal realm into those of the realm of nature and vice versa. To attempt to do so is, in its mildest form, delusory, and in its most extreme form, murderously insane or depraved. For this reason, there is a continual effort to maintain a clear distinction between the natural and the imaginal (or psychic) realms—or the dayworld and the underworld, to put it mythologically. Nietzsche—with every bit as much ambition as Marx or Hitler—wants to see his dream actualized. His dream, of course, is his vision of the Overman, of a carefully modified return to the Homeric-Sophoclean, tragic poet-creator who enthusiastically says ‘yes’ to existence in all its horror and sublimity. He wants for ‘conditions on the ground’ to change in accordance with his subtly worked out vision. He wants culture to model itself in accordance with a blueprint that he provides. He wants to be a ‘commander and legislator’ over the world of actual culture, in its formative power over the furniture of posterity’s heart and mind. He wants to remake man and redirect the species’ trajectory.

Why do the Sufis knowingly laugh at such ambitions and campaigns? What do they understand that Nietzsche appears to be blind to? What makes Nietzsche blind? What, really, is the will to power for Nietzsche and how does this idea taint his thinking about the psyche? If Nietzsche is primarily committed to an aggressive, ego-driven competition for world-historical-cultural supremacy, then how capable was his feverishly active mind of understanding and justly appraising the stillness and serenity that can only appear after all such driving, competitive, heroic ambitions have been silenced?

Nature, for Nietzsche, is not, for instance, the nature of the Great Goddess of corn and crops, but the nature of the “hero, a world of outer things or inner impulses to be conquered and harnessed. And these ‘natures’ differ again from the virginal pristine nature of Artemis, the nature of Pan, the nature of Dionysus, or the mechanistic rational nature of Saturn.” (James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, p. 85)

Julian Young writes:

As indicated, Nietzsche’s positive metaphysics is above all naturalistic. Nothing exists outside nature, outside space and time. The starting point for his metaphysics is, it seems to me, Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, p. 414)

And later…

Since life in general is will to power, when it comes to human life in particular, ‘psychology,’ a branch of physiology, should be grasped as ‘the morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power which is what I have done.’ (ibid., p. 415)

Young likens Nietzsche’s outlook, epistemologically, to that of American pragmatists (whose ‘roots’ are to be found in Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies). Thus, a theory (such as the will to power hypothesis) is likely to be true—though not guaranteed to be so with absolute certainty—if it works. Further evidence of his fundamental, inescapable naturalism. Young, on p. 417, writes:

Nietzsche calls modernity a ‘half-barbarism’: ‘half’ because we have civilization—plumbing and the police—‘barbarism’ because we lack culture. ‘Culture,’ recall, is defined as ‘a unity of artistic style in all the expressions of the life of a people.’

I realize that very close to the core of my chronic suspicions about Nietzsche’s philosophical project is my uncomfortableness with his naturalistic metaphysic, which stubbornly refuses to recognize the ‘truth value’ of anything that transcends of space, time, causality, physiology. While he took himself to be the ‘first’ genuine psychologist, I take him—in a certain, restricted sense—to be a kind of anti-psychologist, at least to the extent that he insists upon reducing the psyche to a more or less compliant servant or instrument of man’s physiology. As with Freud—who owes more to Nietzsche than he ever admitted to—the contents of the psyche all ultimately point back to instinctual drives, erotic wishes, and other physiological urges, which they represent by means of dream images, fantasy material, and other subconscious material. Neuroses occur when the physiological-instinctual needs are being thwarted or repressed by social or religious constraints, guilt, etc. There is just enough truth in this limited set of claims to have worked as a satisfactory and comprehensive account of the psyche for the millions of persons who cannot (or will not) see any further than this. But for a psychologist of Jung’s caliber, this theory of the unconscious did not go far enough or deep enough to account for the full range of psychic phenomena and numinous experiences that he was personally and intimately acquainted with.

Jung ultimately found Freud’s psychology reductive, just as I find Nietzsche’s psychology reductive. It tries to cram far too much into the Procrustean bed of ‘nature’…of physiology. Moreover, his insistence upon interpreting all moral thought and action as ultimately rooted in the ‘will to power, and nothing besides’ is one-sided and counter-intuitive. This is not to say that it is of no value in helping us understand ourselves and moral phenomena. Nietzsche’s brilliant insights have added greatly to our arsenal of weapons for combating ignorance about ourselves. I am simply making the unremarkable claim that his brilliant approach and his explanatory scheme are far from being sufficient—let alone, exhaustive—just as with Freud’s and Adler’s (who adapted Nietzsche’s will to power concept to depth psychology).

It suits my (still mysterious) purposes to radicalize the distinction between nature and culture (or ‘anti-nature’?), whereas for Nietzsche, it is usually quite the opposite: he is almost always maneuvering to ‘translate’ man back into nature. Why? Because he believes (Western) man has become sick (‘diseased,’ ‘decadent’) from buying into 2,000 years of anti-nature—namely, ‘Christianity.’ This powerful, coordinated assault upon the ‘manly’ (‘master morality’) instincts—this ‘effeminization’—has cut us off from our actual, natural-instinctual roots and propped up an illusory, unnatural, non-existent ‘ideal world’ in its stead. Nietzsche is sincerely and justifiably concerned about the damage that this colossally effective fraud has inflicted upon Western culture. My question is: has he thrown out the baby with the bathwater?

If I may be permitted a joke: you can drive out anti-nature with a pitchfork, but she always returns. My little jest with Horace points to something very basic about human beings—something any genuine philosopher must acknowledge: as creatures, as a species, we are a marriage of nature and culture—and culture exists in a fundamental state of tension, perhaps even a kind of antagonism, with mere nature. Without language and culture we simply cannot become fully human. That’s how crucial—how utterly indispensable and ineradicable—our cultural induction is. Now, I am certainly not accusing Nietzsche of being unaware of this basic fact about humans (as such, anywhere, anytime). Nor do I wish to discredit his very astute criticisms of Christianity’s unhealthy impact on many persons—and not merely upon ‘master’ types who are encouraged to feel guilty or ashamed of their strength, their heroic ‘ambitions,’ their contempt for weakness, their pride in themselves, their very happiness, etc. I simply want to argue that he went too far in blaming a cultural/pedagogical institution—an ideology—for all the negative effects that he saddles it with. It is a gross simplification unworthy of so fine a mind as Nietzsche’s. I believe that as individuals and as a species we are always engaged in a kind of balancing act between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ within ourselves. When either side of this pair of opposites tyrannizes over the other, we are certain to run afoul. As Jung said, ‘too much culture makes for a sick animal, while too much nature leads to barbarism.’

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

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

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

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

Climbing Out and Dusting Off (5/14/18)

I picture contemporary (Western) humanity as buried under the rubble produced by the general collapse of the once defiantly anthropomorphic edifice of our two-legged culture. One strong leg was provided by our Greco-Roman heritage; the other, by Judeo-Christianity. And while it is certainly true that many uneducated or half-educated persons are able to sense this toppled, reduced state of affairs for what it in fact is (despite the misleading technological and socio-political indicators of net or unmitigated progress), only those who have managed, almost miraculously, to dig themselves from out of the ubiquitous rubble and recover a clear vision of how things were before the collapse are truly in a position to assess the scale of the damage, loss, and destruction.

Perhaps the most important question an intelligent and courageous young person might ask today is, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life adapting and catering to this malignant, inherited condition – a half-life amidst the decomposing limbs and organs of Western culture – or do I want to dedicate my best energies to climbing out of this graveyard-infirmary and explore realistic ways of starting over – of rebuilding on new ground?”

The insidious, all-pervasive “system” into which we have been born has been increasingly tailored for the purpose of exploiting our culturally bankrupt and collapsed condition – not to address and/or remedy our condition, for that requires tremendous courage, imagination, and compassion, as opposed to greed, craftiness, and deceitfulness, which will always be in greater supply and will always be more materially rewarded. Contemporary education, consumerism, entertainment, and mass politics all work hand-in-hand, first to cripple minds and imaginations, and then to keep them permanently distracted. Crippled minds and souls that are kept distracted, medicated, and restlessly hankering after addictive sensations/substances are easily kept marginalized, isolated, and depoliticized. Those of us who would climb out of the rubble must first trust our suspicion that the complex system and its conscripted servants (which usually includes our parents, our teachers and religious leaders, and virtually everyone we know who is not regarded as a crank or a lunatic) are bent on blowing out our flickering flame of rebellion and dissent. Only a few young and spirited souls possess the audacity to solitarily defy this colossal chorus of energetic corrupters who use every trick in the book to scare or tempt or drug us into adapting and resigning ourselves to a comfortable life in the shallows, the shadows, the flattened and frenetic, frothy and frivolous, wasteland that the diabolical system is set up to mentally rule and materially exploit.

What crushing disappointments and unappeasable loneliness await such audacious, promising, self-trusting souls! How unlikely it is that they will somehow manage to escape maiming or irreparable damage to their souls as they struggle, alone, to extricate themselves from the sticky web of conditioning and indoctrination that has perversely been sold to us (often by sincerely well-meaning but naïve indoctrinators) as crucial to our welfare – as a kind of privilege! How many will be able to withstand this overwhelming crisis of having the “world” turned inside out? For there is no better description of what the spirited, self-trusting solitary must endure as he slowly claws his way out from under the rubble of dying and dead forms. What an uncanny coupling of exultation and remorse, triumph and despair, such souls must endure as they survey the sinister but heart-breaking scene from which they have succeeded, if only momentarily, to step back – to view from the outside!

Even if our human, all too human attachments and loyalties to certain beloved conscripts, inmates—and perhaps even a few prison guards and officials—eventually lure us back down below, these ecstatic-climactic moments of liberation can never be fully erased from our memory, even if we sometimes wish we could forget what we struggled so doggedly to see with our own eyes. I speak as one who has known such revelatory moments and I still cannot say with absolute self-assurance whether I am blessed or cursed to have been granted such glimpses from beyond the perimeter. Nothing remains the same after such experiences. All our darkest suspicions have been confirmed and an invisible veil or membrane forms between us and all of those who know and suspect nothing of these things. The veil or membrane is porous and permeable, so much pain and a little (black?) light can pass across the border when a courageous candidate approaches and presents his hard-won passport.

On the Question of Solitude and Letting Things Be (4/11/12)

After deriving very little satisfaction from the books I have recently been reading, I picked back up with Jung’s Psychological Types yesterday—a text I can always rely upon to re-excite my keen interest. I was reading from the Definitions (of his key terms) and I was once again powerfully impressed by the subtlety and scope of Jung’s mind.

In paragraph 758 he writes:

As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation.

The passage caught my attention because recently I have wondered if my ‘individual’ ideas and my unusual way of life have not succeeded in isolating me to some extent from my fellows. It is true, though—and certainly worth mentioning—that I feel much less antagonistic towards ‘the herd’ or the collective than I used to. I may not yet have attained the Christ-like attitude that can say, in sincerest compassion, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,’ but I am slowly beginning to move in that direction.

My dear friend C— often likes to call attention to the outward resemblance between our quiet, solitary, and retreating personal lives—but I am not altogether comfortable with the comparison. Since I have slowly and reluctantly become convinced that the ideas I’m working with can be of some benefit to a few others besides myself, I will not remain forever content to keep them hidden, along with myself, away from the world. C— is not inwardly moved by such concerns and pressures, so far as I can see, so, for her, it is a somewhat simpler matter to retreat into anonymity. I love my solitude as much as any monk out there, but I don’t want to be so tyrannically governed by this love that I avoid the world altogether and miss out on opportunities to be of some service to those who stand to benefit in any way from my modest reflections and observations.

Of course, ‘moving out of my individual isolation’ can certainly be understood to mean something other than attending convivial social events. Interestingly, I find many of these ardent socializers and heavy investors in their personal relationships to be mentally, culturally, and emotionally isolated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is precisely this interior poverty and isolation that often drives such persons outwards into superficial or merely sentimental relationships with other inwardly blinkered and impoverished souls. I must confess that the company of my own thoughts or the impressions from a good book provide more than adequate protection against the needy isolation that many are consigned to because of their lack of inner/outer exploration.

Therefore, it is not for lack of trying that my social and interpersonal dealings have withered almost to a stalk. Although I often find ostensibly serious conversations quite superficial and tepid, I persist in my attempts to deepen and extend my connections with others. Is it solely my fault if they don’t show more enthusiasm and interest in the ideas and themes that supply my life with meaning and with spiritual passion? Throwing aside such edifying and transformative passions for the sake of campfire conviviality and glutinous ties of schmaltzy affection is no longer a viable option for me. I’m afraid that my unpopular passions and compelling interests are constitutional and ineradicable, and I should not—and dare not—suppress or conceal them. If these passionate interests have not inspired others in my midst to seek my company for the sake of lively dialectics—or for the spark that may kindle a kindred fire—I don’t know what more I can do. I am becoming less and less inclined to proselytize as I get older—less and less eager to seek or inspire ‘converts’ to the contemplative life.

A Note on Ambition: Moral Heroes and Moral Zeroes (6/22-23/12)

These past few weeks I have not been as focused or as disciplined as I was prior to this passive patch I seem to have entered. This dearth of productivity (especially with respect to meaty journal entries) weighs noticeably upon my conscience, I must confess. I suppose I would be lying if I were to deny that ambition, of a sort, plays a part in my personal psychology—and when I am not being productive or creative I soon feel as if I’m just taking up space on an already overcrowded planet. Being human would be an unendurably ‘stale and unprofitable’ affair, indeed, if it were not for those precious phases of focused, creative writing that I am fortunate to experience.

Of course, when I am ‘graced’ with these creative phases, they are their own sufficient reward. Because the intense awakening of my ‘higher’ faculties and my creative potentials bring such substantial satisfaction, I care not about ambition while the ‘juices are flowing.’ It is only after the source-springs of inspiration appear to have mysteriously dried up—only then do I fall prey to such ‘pedestrian’ thoughts and concerns. It would appear, then, that these slightly awkward and uncomfortable musings about the value and importance of my writings for others kick into gear only when I find myself stuck with nothing of vital importance to express. Perhaps this is as it should be. The very idea of writing about spiritual and psychological matters so that my personal ambitions may be advanced is morally objectionable to me—on a par with quack therapists who profit materially by exploiting confused and ailing patients without ever really being able to resolve their psychological problems or to enlighten them about their true sources.

I want to be careful here. I want to try to avoid hiding under the skirts of my moral indignation, for this is always an easy way to bring a quick and tidy end to a deeper investigation of the (usually) complex matters at hand. If I am to be quite honest, I must admit that my own moral indignation, when it valiantly sallies forth, almost always functions in this way—namely, as a (psychologically suspect) stratagem for shutting down an otherwise promising investigation into gnarled, twisted, and murky psychological factors. Either I become uncomfortable with the unflattering secrets I am likely to unearth there, or the following of such poorly marked trails simply requires more energy and effort than I am willing, at that moment, to expend. At any event, I have come to believe that perhaps most moral judgments and reactions—my own and those of others—boil down to this laziness and fear (of discovering uncomfortable truths) that I notice in myself. Of course, I am not recommending (for myself or for others) the jettisoning of moral judgment altogether. I’m only saying that—from a more rigorous standard of ethical values—it is not advisable to stop there. We might profitably think of our moral judgments and reactions as the frontier or boundary line beyond which we are not easily able to extend our thinking, our feeling, our limited light. Looked at differently, these boundary lines become the proper starting point for genuine psychological, as distinct from merely moral, understanding.

When I pause here to reflect, I have to say that it is precisely because of this commonly encountered abuse of moral judgments and posturing (as a means of warding off any further exploration of the countless possible ‘trails’ that open up before us every day) that I become suspicious the moment I am confronted by strong moral pronouncements and proud moral convictions—whether from others or within myself. From the standpoint of depth psychology, such decisive, ‘cauterizing’ moral judgments amount to ‘closing the case’ and refusing to consider any more evidence.

All this simply confirms our old suspicion that morality and psychology are often quite antagonistic rivals when it comes to interpreting human behavior, motivation, and so forth. The moralist—apparently—clings to the reassuring belief that his moral judgments and interpretations are not merely adequate responses to psychological phenomena—but inherently preferable to a psychological reading. And why does the moralist need to believe such a thing? Isn’t it because—dimly sensing his own limitations of will, patience, understanding, compassion, and self-control—he fears that without raising the rampart of moral defiance, ‘chaos will come again’ and swallow him up? So, why can’t the moralist simply admit this? Why can’t he admit that he resorts to moral judgment as a means of protection against certain drives, against disquieting bits of knowledge, against efforts, against uncertainties, etc., that he is simply not up to dealing with? The simple answer, of course, is ‘his pride stands in the way.’ To be fair, few persons relish the experience of being out of their depth, so it shouldn’t strain the imagination for us to grasp why the moralist leans so habitually upon his moral judgments, always striving to strengthen them and patch them up as soon as they start to become porous—allowing ‘psychology’ to leak through.

The intrepid psychologist who imaginatively presses past these moral prohibitions and boundaries within himself in order to probe more deeply into the complex and unlit roots of his own psychic life will not begrudge the more numerous ‘moral’ men and women these protective walls that shield them from ‘knowledge of (their own) good and evil—or good versus evil.’ Nor will he deride their pride in what frankly amounts to their limitations, as distinct from their (more dangerous) potentials. He will let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes.

A conventionally moral life—at least where exceptionally ‘spirited’ human beings are under consideration—necessarily involves significant self-sacrifice, effective mastery over unruly drives and riotous inclinations, as well as a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance, due to the strained and occasionally preposterous interpretations of his experience that he is limited to when denied the benefits conferred by true psychological understanding, which is always subtler, more complex and more comprehensive in nature. On these grounds, alone, the life of our little moral hero can scarcely be regarded as an enviably untroubled life. He is up against real dynamisms, conundrums, and conflicting currents within himself each day as he struggles to sail a straight course through turbulent waters and maelstroms. Such efforts are not to be scoffed at. Even if these moral ‘heroes’ enjoy the support of an admiring public (the encouraging and vitalizing effects of which should never be underestimated, where the heroic ego is under consideration!), their valiant efforts to keep their ‘white hats’ unshakably fastened upon their proud heads are worthy of our respect. At least—like an ambitious or competitive athlete—he really tries his level best to be ‘good’ and to avoid being ‘bad.’ He knows first-hand the torments of a troubled conscience when he detects baseness or mediocrity, villainy or slavishness, within himself. His efforts to vanquish or to eradicate these dark, shadowy, shameful elements of his human, all-too-human nature may be doomed from the start—but the mere fact that he struggles probably sets him apart from those, probably a majority, who struggle no more than they absolutely have to.

Thus, our moral hero is situated, let us say, somewhere between the many, on the one side, and the genuine (and I don’t mean professional) psychologists, on the other. The genuine psychologists have managed, through their very different (and by no means popularly supported!) efforts, to move somewhat beyond the arena of moral heroics into the less dramatic, less ‘humanistic’ arena of psychological enquiry. Moral heroics have no recognized place in this very different realm of experience and investigation. To enter this realm one must have first loosened one’s mental ties and attachments to the other one. ‘Can’t serve two masters,’ and all that. Game change. Heroics of a sort may be involved in the new realm but they are heroics of a radically different stripe—since they have, as it were, no witnessing audience, no leaping cheerleaders, and little public fanfare.

So, to return to the point from which I started this essay: ambition makes no sense where there are no witnesses to behold and to envy one’s success. To the extent that the focus of my own work has moved beyond the exclusively human (and therefore predominantly moral-political) realm of concerns, I have begun to opt out of that game. My ‘ambition’ is simply a vestige from that earlier phase—the pre-psychological phase—of my unfoldment. Perhaps, like the little spurs at the tail end of certain snakes, where legs used to be in the evolutionary past, such vestiges are never completely ‘transcended’ or dispensed with—however fond we may be of ‘pure’ and ‘unalloyed’ fidelity to our new fields of experience. It is nevertheless worth repeating: I seem to be susceptible to such concerns only during these interim phases when the ‘muse’ is mum. When she sings in me I am sufficiently fulfilled so that I crave no beholding witnesses or approving supporters. Such solitariness appears to be the price one must pay in order to glimpse—and only fleetingly—secrets that are denied even to the most muscular of moralists. And why are they denied to them? Precisely because the moralist—as such, and due to the very nature of his divisive-dualistic campaign wherein he plants himself firmly at one end of a vast polarity—refuses to embrace and to integrate all that ‘shadow’ at the far end of his ‘pole’ of Goodness. He turns his back—and, in some cases, the tip of his righteous sword—upon those very contents, states, and perspectives that are prima materia for the psychologist.

No wonder, then, that I have long had ‘ticklish’ relations with fervently ‘good’ (or ‘good-identified’) persons. Persons who live in a state of moral oblivion or obtuseness fail to grasp what I’m ‘up to.’ Typically, they sense nothing amiss (or threatening) about me. But this is precisely because they know or choose to know little of me behind my genial ‘mask.’ Morally heroic persons, on the other hand, have every reason to be unnerved by me when, as an occasional psychologist writing from beyond their ‘good and evil,’ I no doubt come across like the lapping waves of the sea against their carefully sculpted sand castles on the shore.

There is a type of ambition that is rather more innocuous and forgivable than the cutthroat, vaunting variety that usually leads to trouble of some sort or another. We observe this benign form of ambition in children who seek the praise of their parents by making high marks at school and in adults who strive in a polite, inoffensive manner to win the respect of their peers through charitable deeds. In such striving the line between personal egotism and the social/familial instincts become blurred. As long as his striving for excellence and for success is not directly in conflict with the well-being of the community or social order, a man’s ambition is not only excused—it is praised and encouraged, since his virtues and contributions become part of the community treasure chest, as it were. As long as the benignly ambitious man continues to make valuable contributions that can be put to good use by his society, the expansion of his personal power and importance will be tolerated. But as soon as he behaves in such a way—or introduces ideas—that his society regards with disapproval or with cold indifference, the mutually satisfying and mutually beneficial love affair hits a speed bump, if not a brick wall.

As long as a person is content, therefore, to remain a faithful servant to the collective will and interest, he will be warmly embraced and handsomely rewarded by his society. The moment, however, that he bends his chief efforts to genuinely individual[1] problems and concerns, he is more likely to come under suspicion by the very society that honored and celebrated him while his best energies and virtues were earmarked for that society—or at least by those within that society whose consciousness is wholly collective and lacking in any consciously differentiated individuality. If the will or fundamental attitude of the collective—any collective—could be reduced to a simple statement, it would be ‘Either you are with us or you are of no use to us.’

Lip service is paid in this country to the idea or theory of the sanctity of the individual, but in practice, it is almost always the will of some group or another that carries the day. This de facto ‘tyranny’ of the group over the individual springs not so much from a cruelly imposed will-to power (although mob-power and group-arrogance are certainly real forces which must be taken into account) as from the inertia of the group and its extremely limited ability of its leaders to cope with the actual subtleties and complexities of human life, the hallmark of individual consciousness.

Groups vary in size and strength—and the greater their size and strength, the greater the leveling and simplifying power of the group will. It is far more difficult to stop or to change the direction of a moving herd than it is for a single individual to stop and/or redirect his own steps. In order for a single individual to change the powerful but blind will of a mob, he must not only be extraordinarily persuasive, but there must also be a latent willingness within the soul of the mob to listen to the exceptional orator. An example was provided by the great willingness on the part of Soviet society to listen to Gorbachev when the time came for dramatic reforms. If the individual orator is insufficiently persuasive, he will be unable to rouse that hidden seed of willingness and the status quo will prevail. Or, if that potential for redirection is not present, the blandishments and cajoleries of even the most impressive orators will fail to elicit any notable response from the intractable crowd. Only when these two come together—extraordinary persuasiveness on the part of the inspired leader or spokesman and a fundamental, if latent, readiness for change, on the part of the group—for a new direction, a new myth, a new vision—only then will the ground shift. The group may be as small as a board of directors for corporation or as large as the amassed members of a culture or a shared language.

 

[1] Jung is careful to make a noteworthy distinction between individuation and mere individual-ism:

Individuation is always to some extent opposed to collective norms, since it means separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular—not a particularity that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution. The opposition to the collective norm, however, is only apparent, since closer examination shows that the individual standpoint is not antagonistic to it, but only differently oriented. The individual way can never be directly opposed to the collective norm, because the opposite of the collective norm could only be another, but contrary, norm. But the individual way can, by definition, never be a norm. A norm is the product of the totality of individual ways, and its justification and beneficial effect are contingent upon the existence of individual ways that need from time to time to orient to a norm. A norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally, this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that account needs the norm for its orientation to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality. (C.G. Jung; CW, vol. 6, par. 761)