Shuttle De-plume-acy (5/28-29/11)

The space shuttle program has at last drawn to a close, not for lack of enthusiasm on Americans’ part to hurl themselves into the distant reaches of outer space, but because economic realities have at long last rendered such exorbitantly expensive enterprises an inexcusable extravagance. Whether we are proud of the fact or not, the United States has, for quite some time now displayed its strength as nation primarily through its material or economic might and as an exporter of mass entertainment—rather than through its bequeathals of timeless works of art, literature, philosophy, and spiritual insights—contributions for which a number of former great cultures and empires are esteemed with due gratitude and reverence. The ‘defense-related’ research and development programs which burgeoned (like mushrooms on steroids—or acid) after WWII—and which yielded the high-tech gadgets that no self-respecting teenager, here or elsewhere, can live without these days—were funded by independent capital and by huge federal revenues garnered from U.S. taxpayers. Now we quite literally have more computers, handheld communications and listening devices, creature comforts, and entertainment media than we know what to do with. Apparently—and lamentably, as I see it—this arrangement is perfectly acceptable for a staggering number of mortals throughout the globe. As with pampered house pets or snacking youngsters hypnotically absorbed in their video games, this state of material ease and comfort appears to be sufficient to make life on earth worth ‘suiting up’ for, morning after morning, in the minds of most persons living today.

Regrettably, I have nothing further to say to such complacent and gratified creatures. I certainly wish them the best of luck, but I must confess that I anticipate with dread the day when access to the next generation of these sought-after consumer items and desiderata (not to mention adequate nourishment and drinkable water) are no longer widely available or within relatively easy reach.[1] I address this essay, then, to that troubled and confused segment of society—a small but growing number of thoughtful and courageous men and women—who are no longer morally comfortable being part of the problem, but are convinced that they cannot change the course down which we seem, en masse, to be heading. What is that problem—in the simplest of terms—and why does the present course seem irreversible and unstoppable to most of us who are able to recognize it for what it is—and for what it is not. It most assuredly is not ‘progress’ in any positive sense of that over-used word.

The problem, at bottom, is that, with very few notable exceptions, Western humanity’s interested attention has been turned almost exclusively in one direction for several hundred years—riveted to the outer material world, the only world recognized by most of us, as it would seem. Beginning roughly with the maritime voyages of the 15th century, plunder, pillage, and wars—over land, resources, native populations, religious beliefs, ideologies, and information—have conspicuously dominated human affairs. The daring voyages and expeditions of Columbus, Magellan, Drake, Cortes, Pizarro, and others led to the ‘discovery’ of new worlds to colonize and new populations to exploit, to rob, to convert to ‘Christianity,’ and (where it was deemed ‘necessary’ or expedient) to exterminate. The shuttle expeditions, which used computer navigational systems and rocket fuel instead of sextants and mainsails, have simply been the most recent in a long line of conquests that began centuries ago with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As a species, we appear to be dangerously susceptible to being possessed by archaic predatory instincts—instincts that are stubbornly resistant to higher education, moral training, and religious tutelage. We are predatory towards nature and exploitative towards our own kind. In this respect, we seldom display moderation when we are strong enough to take what we want, using the justification that ‘if we don’t take it, someone else surely will.’

Why, it will be asked, has the lion’s share of our attention been riveted to externals, our spirits tirelessly hankering after outer possessions and entertainments? The answer to such a big question is complex and multifaceted, but there are certain social, cultural, and religious factors that have significantly contributed to the current state of affairs. The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious by Freud, Jung, and their less famous precursors was not an accident—but a natural outgrowth of a cultural crisis that was well underway in the 19th century. Jung writes:

Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grand scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual…The collective unconscious, as we understand it today, was never a matter of ‘psychology,’ for before the Christian Church existed there were antique mysteries, and these reach back into the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. (CW, Vol. 9, pt. 1:21)

The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious—which was really a re-discovery of the autonomous inner world—occurred only because our religious symbols and rituals had become so emptied of meaning, following the Protestant Reformation and the spread of scientific criticism. Jung continues:

The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, for they conflicted with awakening reason. Besides, people had long since forgotten what they meant. Or had they really forgotten? Could it be that men had never really known what they meant, and that only in recent times did it occur to the Protestant part of mankind that actually we haven’t the remotest conception of what is meant by the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, and the complexities of the Trinity? It almost seems as if these images had just lived, and as if their living existence had simply been accepted without question and without reflection, much as everyone decorates Christmas trees or hides Easter eggs without ever knowing what these customs mean…That the gods die from time to time is due to man’s sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made by human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls ‘reason’—which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum-total of all his prejudices and myopic views. The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. And the work of destruction was not too difficult once the authority of the Church had been shattered. (ibid. 22-23)

Because the religious/mythical symbols and internal structures that contained and provided channels for the archetypal energies that constitute our psyches have thus been dismantled and destroyed for so many of us[2], the inner world now bears a striking resemblance to the vast desert of ‘outer space’ with its ‘black holes’ and fiery supernovas, its gaseous clouds and its menacing immensity. Jung observes:

Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair. We are absolutely convinced that even with the aid of the latest and largest reflecting telescope, now being built in America, men will discover behind the farthest nebulae no fiery empyrean; and we know that our eyes will wander despairingly through the dead emptiness of interstellar space. Nor is it any better when mathematical physics reveals to us the world of the infinitely small. In the end we dig up the wisdom of all ages and peoples, only to find that everything most dear and precious to us has already been said in the most superb language. (ibid. 31)

Following the psychologically one-sided directives and inducements of the modern Western ‘outlook,’ generations of Europeans and their colonial descendents have been implicitly warned not to ‘look in,’ but only to ‘look out for themselves’ and their families in a fiercely competitive struggle for limited high-paying jobs in a capitalist economy. As an almost inevitable consequence, Western spirituality progressively degenerated into sterile dogma and cold theology, while morality was largely reduced to apish or sincere conformity to behavioral norms and posturing—cut off, as they were, from their inner source springs. Naturally, as the inner realm suffered from prolonged neglect by the cultural, educational, and spiritual institutions within the West, easy and well-lit access to the inner world, as well as to the knowledge, the ‘maps’ and myths which help to guide the initiate through its labyrinths, became more and more difficult to come by (and to make meaningful sense of when such materials were forthcoming). One usually had to go out of his or her way and ‘against the current’ to find and then to decipher such writings and teachings—as Jung was obliged to do with obscure and arcane alchemical texts, the cultural link with the pre-Christian, pagan layers of the Western psyche (that had been buried under authorized doctrine). From the prevalent, rational-materialist metaphysical standpoint, such myths, interior journeys—and even the interior realm itself—were rather arrogantly and contemptuously dismissed as childish superstitions and mumbo jumbo that were unworthy of serious consideration, except as the primitive and pre-scientific lore of traditional cultures that lacked our superior (scientific) understanding of things. Of course, in saying all this, I do not wish for a moment to deny the astounding array of benefits won for mankind by the noble exploits and brilliant insights of scientists. I am, let me repeat, concerned chiefly with any blinding prejudices which may be built into our modern Western worldview—prejudices that are still very much alive and kicking as we rapidly approach what looks very much like a dangerous cliff to a growing number of attentive persons.

The almost pathologically extraverted collective attitude of the Western mind, during the last several centuries, has its inverted, contrasting twin, which prevailed during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ when the attention of Europeans was turned inwards to such an extent that the external world suffered from a degree of neglect that the internal one now suffers from. Monks, clerics, and even the laity were often obsessed with inner factors in a way and to a degree that occasionally matched Indian yoga philosophy—probably the non plus ultra of cultural introversion thus far in human history. Then, during the High Middle Ages (after 1348 and the end of the Black Death) we can begin to see evidence of a gradual reversal of collective attention from inner to outer factors. Perhaps we might say that this latter half of the Christian aeon, with its ‘antichristian’ (mythologically speaking) infatuation with ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ has at last begun to play itself out, which is to say exhaust itself, in these ‘end times’ that so many of us feel ourselves enmeshed in.

Now, whether or not we are actually and irreversibly headed like lemmings off the side of a cliff and humanity will be plunged into a new period of savagery and darkness to match any of the nastier periods of the past, it is in our immediate collective interest to rediscover the entrances to the inner world which have, as it were, been overgrown and choked with ‘vegetation’—like Angkor Wat or Tikal before they were unearthed and cleaned up a bit. Moreover, because of the general ignorance with respect to the psyche (which inevitably stemmed from this neglect and culturally-endorsed devaluation) the ‘unconscious’ has understandably acquired more of a menacing than a restorative or healing aspect for many of us. For most, it initially resembles the ‘id’ of Freudian theory—a welter of disturbing affects, amoral impulses, and aggressive drives that we have every reason to fear and to avoid encountering. Freud went so far as to equate civilization itself with the repression of these disturbing erotic, aggressive, and often asocial drives and energies, but repression brings its own demons and harpies—hence, the ‘discontents’ of civilization.

The way ahead will be led by voyagers into the interior who will be psychic cousins to those great navigators and explorers of sea and land during our outward-turned phase. The explorations and insights won by the psychic cartographers yet to come will enable the collective mind to undergo the ‘great reversal’ that has already begun for a growing number of human beings across the globe—from every cultural background. In centuries to come, the early (and excruciatingly lonely) pioneers of this neglected territory which has always been there ‘behind our backs’—and I’m thinking of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung—will be seen as the Leif Erikssons and the Marco Polos who were the first Europeans to glimpse and to bring back sketches of previously unknown realms.

Does the scuttling of the shuttle program perhaps symbolize Icarus’ fall to sea (after soaring so close to the sun with his wax and feather wings that they melted)—the ‘sea’ of the psyche where ‘scuba’ equipment makes more sense than plumage and flapping wings?

[1] My concern—and it is quite a legitimate concern, since supporting evidence for my claim is already conspicuously abundant—is that when the spigots that are now spewing out all these consumer items slow down to a prohibitively expensive trickle or shut down altogether, the restlessly acquisitive and hopeful hordes of today will become the armed and dangerous mobs of tomorrow—ready to do the bidding of ruthless gang lords, demagogues, wicked opportunists, and crafty manipulators of fear and resentment. Anyone with his eyes open today cannot help but see dress rehearsals for this general, all-engulfing tragedy already underway here in the U.S. and in many other parts of the shrinking world.

[2] This the true meaning behind Nietzsche’s famous claim that “God is dead”

East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.

The Whirlpool (10/17/13)

The sense of isolation—of being alienated from others, from one’s (declining, disintegrating) culture and (atomized) society—is by no means the same thing as solitude, per se. In a state of isolation we become painfully, pointedly aware of our smallness and insignificance vis-à-vis the larger world around us—along with the staggering expanses of time before and after us. There may also be an irksome sense of the disproportion between the generally positive assessment we hold of our own worth and the general estimation ‘the world’ holds of us, so far as we can tell. Or, one may be badgered by the crushing suspicion that the world’s indifference and disregard for us is an accurate and just indicator of our actual worth to that world. Either way, such feelings of isolation from one’s own kind can lead to a crippling sense of frustration and futility, while solitude can actually be liberating, unfettering, expansive.

Speaking for myself—and drawing from my own experiences in these turbid and chilly waters—I recognize a crucial link between these crippling feelings of isolation and a condition of deafness with regard to the soul. If, in my solitude, I become related to psyche—if I have managed to attain the ‘soul-perspective’—I do not suffer from painful feelings of isolation or a paralyzing sense of existential alienation from my core. But neither can I boast of feeling some warm, fuzzy sense of open-hearted affiliation with my fellow humans during such ‘soulful’ moments or hours. Rather, I am deeply content in—and supportively grounded by—my solitude. This sense of liberation is due, in large part, to the process of deliteralization that accompanies this shift from (isolated) ego-consciousness to the soul-perspective, which perceives everyone and everything primarily in an ‘as-if’ manner—in terms of metaphor or image and not in reductively material, personalistic, or literal terms.

In fact, I recognize a crucial distinction between the sense of affiliation that humans feel with each other (at a visceral-instinctual level) and this very different sense of affiliation, or relatedness, with soul. The first sort of affiliation or connectedness—the visceral-instinctual sort—has a distinctively collective character and it appeals to us as members of a species—a species replete with drives and instincts that link us to a primeval past and to the other animals. The second sort of affiliation—the soulful, imaginal kind—places the differentiated individual in accord with the archetypal realm, the realm of the hidden (or retreated) gods and daimones. No doubt, the reason this contrast (between the two sorts of affiliation) is so stark during this era is precisely because the gods have been forgotten by humanity—in accordance with the humanistic standpoint, where ‘man is the measure of all things.’ In their neglect, they have withdrawn, as Hölderlin told us.

But the gods have not, on that account, been obliterated. Man’s present hubris may be immense but we are still powerless against the gods we have forgotten in our Faustian campaign to usurp the powers once vouchsafed solely to those gods. No doubt, all this talk about gods and man assuredly sounds archaic, if not a bit dotty, to modern ears. The mysterious and awesome power of the divine and daimonic agencies has been usurped by modern man—stolen from hallowed, ancient precincts. Modern man has been ‘allowed’ to gallop with this stolen power—rather as Phaeton was reluctantly allowed by his divine father, Helios, to steer the chariot of the sun across the sky—and with comparably inauspicious consequences. In arrogating these godlike powers for himself, man has at the same time unwittingly assumed godlike responsibilities—responsibilities for which he presently lacks the wisdom and self-restraint to discharge. His misuse of the almost godlike powers over the natural world has led to a dangerous disturbance of the former order and balance of human affairs. Everyone with a light on in his head sees this—everyone is fretting or freaking about the ‘apocalyptic’ myth that is being played out relentlessly and compulsively in these ‘end times’—but almost no one has anything worthwhile or persuasive to say about how to ‘rein in’ the forces of greedy predation that have been unleashed by our god-like inflation, our hubris. Perhaps there is nothing substantive that can be said or done at this point.

The epidemic proportions of this humanistic or anthropocentric contagion make it nearly impossible to find ‘uninfected’ individuals who have managed, miraculously, to elude conscription into the pathological, collective campaign to possess and consume as much tasty, intoxicating, soothing, or titillating matter as possible before death irrevocably snuffs out one’s brief candle. Who has learned to say ‘no’—and to live ‘no’—against this vast, devouring whirlpool that awaits all of us as we pop out of our mothers’ bellies into the swirling, technocratic-diabolical maelstrom of the modern world? One must be a fish with a spectacularly powerful tail fin in order to avoid being carried over the side of that compelling, beckoning eddy into which one after another of our friends and loved ones have been swallowed, never to be seen or heard from ever again—in their original, uninfected state.

And because they have numbers on their side, they—the insatiably power-hungry officer-elite with their army of anxious, myopically obedient conscripts—are in a position to decide what ‘sanity’ consists in, what it looks and feels like, and so forth. As leaders of this plodding, plundering army of unreflective, mis-educated, fearful and compliant dupes, the generals decide the meaning and value of words, just as they arbitrarily decide interest rates, the value of currency, what legislation gets pushed through Congress, who gets a shot at the presidency, and the interpretation of the law.

Such ‘fanciful’ musings provide us with a means of deepening our initial sketch of isolation—of adding more shadow to that sketch, so as to render it more poignant for readers out there who are still capable of swimming against the current that leads always towards the whirlpool. Anyone who has succeeded—against all the odds—in resisting infection is in danger of being classified and treated as a paranoid—as a crank or misanthrope, at the very least—by the battalions who subscribe to the deforming table of values and standards authored by their cynical-avaricious overlords.

So, what are we ‘oddballs’ to do once we become painfully conscious of the fact that our resistance to this epidemic contagion has not only set us apart from the infected—but set us ‘at odds’ with them, as well—at least from their point of view?

*****

Comfortable, anchoring family ties—and conversely: onerous, emotionally-draining and erotically disappointing spousal and family relations, which are nonetheless still binding—constitute perhaps the greatest collective barrier to the sort of solitary, disinterested inquiry into this widespread contagion that has infected modern humanity—and which will inevitably evoke its nemesis. Binding ties of sentiment, erotic dependency, duty, financial obligations and peer pressure (to conform to the collective norms of a doomed and spiritually deforming consumerism) all consign otherwise strong and capable men and women to a kind of indentured servitude—a modernized, technologically sophisticated feudal arrangement where a new breed of ‘serfs’ are ruled over by contemporary robber barons and unfeeling oligarchs. The masses—as ever—can only be expected to follow where they are led (by the most seductive demagogue or the largest carrot), so no hope for a remedy may be expected from that quarter.

But what am I doing fantasizing about a ‘remedy’ when scarcely anyone these days is actually prepared to acknowledge the severity and the scope of the sickness that has beset our modern nations? First things first. It seems to me that unless and until the scope and the seriousness of the contagion is first acknowledged by a critical mass of capable men and women throughout all ranks of the ailing culture, there is little cause for hope that humanity will light its own path beyond the crisis it is presently embroiled in. The crisis will eventually run its course—one way or the other—either by exhaustion (of the very species hitherto required to keep the destructive program running) or through a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the precarious global system that presently provides a platform for the running of the program. But for anyone who still clings to the vain hope that these worst-case scenarios can be averted by means of human wisdom and collective self-restraint, the prognosis looks grim—at least from our present standpoint.

I have repeatedly used the metaphor of an epidemic contagion in speaking about the sickness from which the vast majority of modern persons (in the West) suffer, but this illness is actually more akin to a genetic predisposition to alcoholism or to drug addiction than it is to an influenza epidemic. So long as the genetically vulnerable person stays away from alcohol or drugs, he can be reasonably expected to carry on a stable life. But once he becomes ‘hooked,’ the dangers become very real. What constitutes the drugs and alcohol in our analogy with modernity? They are legion, but perhaps they can be symbolically compressed into the coveted ease and comfort that are seductively held out as the rewards won through compliant submission to the ruling economic system—an economic system that has now commandeered all aspects of the ‘culture,’ bending them under its all-powerful yoke: political life, education, mental and medical treatment, news, the arts and entertainment, and even religion.

Homo sapiens has steadily devolved into homo economicus. The power and influence of this economic worldview—complete with its virtually unchallenged array of normative values—is ubiquitous. It penetrates into every nook and cranny of our hijacked, eviscerated culture. And once the culture in all of its various departments has been hijacked into the service of financial and economic interests, the minds of men and women—from the ‘brightest and the best’ to the humblest and dimmest—are as easily lured into slavery as Chinese peasants (and not just peasants) were lured into opium addiction by our not so distant capitalist-entrepreneur American ancestors. The comparison is apt. If anyone bothers to take a close look at the ‘orchestrated’ financial crises that occurred in Southeast Asian nations (Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand) during the late 1990s and the almost identically structured/orchestrated crisis of 2008 in the U.S., it becomes evident that our pathologically acquisitive Wall Street wizards typically engineer a ‘trial run’ somewhere abroad before implementing more or less the same ruthless gambit here upon gullible American citizens—who, like the Asian taxpayers, wind up paying the heaviest costs while the pilfering profiteers at the top of the pyramid make off with astronomical winnings, pay negligible fines for their gross malfeasance, and (astoundingly!) remain in charge of all the financial institutions, the treasury, and the Federal Reserve.

Once ‘addicted,’ however, the ordinary person finds it almost impossible to extricate himself from the sticky tentacles of the modern economy, the infantilizing modern workplace, and (increasingly) from inescapable debt. Precisely because such addicts feel powerless to challenge or to opt out of this system that effectively owns them, they are apt to ‘make do’ with the unfree situation—to quietly conform to ‘terms and conditions’ that a self-respecting free spirit would find intolerable and contemptible. His way towards this ‘resigned’ state of accommodation is smoothed and generously lubricated by the apparent fact that virtually everyone he knows is in more or less the same boat as he is! Now if the ‘system’—the way of life—to which these addicts and comfort-loving conscripts were succumbing was genuinely believed to be dignifying, morally ennobling, or imaginatively enriching, then perhaps such servitude would possess greater justification in the addicts’ minds. But when all the propagandistic poppycock and the false promises are peeled away and the unvarnished truth stares us in the face, we are obliged to admit that there is little that is dignified or inherently noble about the naked pursuit of lucre, sybaritic ease and comfort—and these are precisely those ‘genetically predisposing factors’ that made the risk of addiction dangerous in the first place.

Plato and all serious critics of democracy—before and after him—seem to have been right about one thing, at least. When the energies and desires of the many are unleashed and allowed to significantly influence the course of political life, political dialogue, and societal values, it is simply a matter of time before the vulgar tastes, the slack moral and intellectual virtues, and the pedestrian aims of the multitude become not only dominant but normative—prescriptive for the culture as a whole. Democratization—notwithstanding all the tradition-based evils and injustices that it has helped to abolish from human life—has played a contributing role in the systemic crisis that we are exploring here. Modern science and technology comprise another necessary component of the destructive scheme of contemporary consumerism with its profit-driven economic directives. While no one in his right mind will dispute the enormous contribution that modern science and technology have made to human welfare—the costs may turn out, in the end, to outweigh the benefits—if they provide us with the power to destroy ourselves before we have a chance to attain the moral wisdom that might reduce the likelihood of a collective, catastrophic meltdown.

These two principal factors—the democratic debasement or vulgarization of moral/political culture and the enormous growth of material power with no concomitant enhancement of wisdom or responsibility—go a long way to account for the grim global predicament we find ourselves in. The illegitimate (and as Plato foresaw, disaster-courting) elevation of economic profiteering to the arch-principle governing all aspects of life would not be possible without the other two.

For things to continue in a business as usual manner along the present course—with current population levels—is not a viable option. And yet there seems to be no organized, rationally responsible, politically effective movement or tribunal that is presently capable of challenging, let alone reversing, the status quo. My own critiques of mass democracy, of scientism and technological utopianism, of consumerism and unregulated capitalism are impotent and ineffective—even against many ‘friends’ who hollowly protest that they share my sense of concern over the imminent crisis while continuing to immoderately serve and exploit the system itself. I am categorically and passionately opposed to the use of violence and intimidation as means of bringing about remedial change or enlightenment. The barbarities of the French Revolutionaries long ago demonstrated the absurdity of employing terror in the service of moral and political reform. Does this mean that, given the stubborn, perennial facts about human weakness, human unreflectiveness, and human corruptibility, there are no rational options (which don’t involve terror) that can be implemented before it is too late and things spin out of control, so that chaos comes again?

 

In what Kind of Crisis are we Immersed? (2/26/14)

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that we are in the midst of a crisis. It is not the sort of crisis that you hear about on the evening news—like the current crisis in Syria or the one mounting in Ukraine. It is not a crisis such as the recent tsunamis have left in their walloping wakes. The crisis that I want us to suppose we are in the midst of is a cultural or spiritual crisis. Although this crisis produces palpable effects in the lives of millions of people, here and abroad, its roots are intangible and immaterial. The roots of the crisis are, in fact, invisible because they are buried in our psyches. If a decisive number of persons paid careful and close attention to their psyches—and if they had even a rough idea of what they were looking for—the roots of the present cultural-spiritual crisis would be widely recognized. In the not so distant past, religion encouraged individuals to examine their own consciences, to face their deepest motivations with honesty and courage—and this opened a window into the psyche. But as things stand today, the great majority of persons have their attention continually directed outwards. They are simply too busy managing outer affairs and pursuing external or sensual pleasures to be able to see what is glaringly evident to the inner-directed, self-aware person who has learned a thing or two about the unacknowledged but ever-present inner world.

My guess is that it would mean little to many otherwise intelligent and expensively-educated Americans if I said that this collective outer-directedness is one of the chief symptoms of the collective cultural crisis we are presently steeped in. Moreover, we might press our argument one step further and say that most of the truly painful and stumping problems that we face on a daily basis in this pathological, blind, and restless society are symptoms not of physical, neurochemical, technological, and other ‘material’ factors—but direct consequences of ignoring our psyches. The psyche, because of our collective negligence and ignorance, is always striving to redress this injustice, to restore the disrupted harmony or balance, to check our blind and reckless behavior. It goes about this corrective work in much the same way that our bodies work to maintain homeostasis or to ward off pathogens. The symptoms of a cold, for instance—the fever and the coughing up of phlegm—are actually assisting in the work of killing and eliminating the infectious agent that made us sick in the first place. As many of us do with our cold symptoms—i.e., attempt to vanquish or completely mask them with over-the-counter cold remedies—we are inclined to blot out or divert attention away from those potentially helpful (but often irksome and disturbing) psychic symptoms, the ultimate aim of which is to assist in the restoration of psychic equilibrium.

To invoke a familiar example, let us look at depression. From the psyche’s standpoint, a depression is a rather extreme attempt to get the sufferer to slow down, to stop being so busily engrossed in peripheral affairs, to look inside, to deepen (by sinking down, beneath the noisy-busy shallows of one’s outer life). Heart attacks, bouts with cancer, and a slew of other ‘medical’ disorders also have a psychic aspect or component that is yearning to be acknowledged. But before such a potentially regenerative development can occur, the existence of the psyche must, itself, first be admitted. Now, many persons will say that they acknowledge the reality of the psyche—but most of them turn out to be talking about something else altogether. For if you press the issue, what is often discovered is that like most (unconscious) materialists, they equate ‘psyche’ with ‘brain.’ The brain can have a slew of new and widely available drugs prescribed for it—and these drugs have been proven to be most effective in dampening or suppressing the symptoms of various psychic disorders, chief of which, today, are depression and anxiety.

But the psyche, being immaterial (which is not to say, unreal), is not solely responsive to chemicals, like the brain is. It is more like the wireless signal coming out of your router at home, while the brain is like your laptop. When your computer’s motherboard, its processor, its operating system, and cluttered hard-drive are in a sorry or outmoded state—the fastest and best wireless internet signal will just be wasted, since it is hampered by the limitations of the laptop. Taking brain chemicals as a response to psychological problems is analogous to placidly contenting ourselves with 56 kbps on our computer instead of doing everything in our power to enhance our courage, our intellectual understanding, and our moral resources in order that we may be equal to what our psyche throws at us.

But—to return to our original ‘thought experiment’: suppose we are in the midst of a cultural-spiritual crisis (that is only worsened by the fact that its true causes are invisible or unrecognizable to most persons). I would then ask: is it wise or advisable to remain placidly content or comfortable in the midst of a crisis—to go about one’s life in a ‘business as usual’ fashion? It is one thing to remain composed and collected during a crisis, but it’s a different matter altogether to behave as if nothing at all were amiss. Imagine a person becoming all worked up about some petty or inconsequential matter while a far more momentous disaster is unfolding all around them—like worrying about how you’re dressed during the earthquake that is leveling Tokyo or San Francisco. We would regard such behavior as befitting a madman. Don’t we all instinctively agree that during a crisis—geological, meteorological, military, epidemiological, ideological, mass-psychological—priorities should be adjusted in such a way as to best respond to the very pressing needs of the victims of the crisis that is unfolding? During such crises, what constitute acceptable or tolerable behaviors under normal conditions suddenly become ludicrous, insane, and misguided, do they not?

And vice versa? During relaxed, easy-going, non-critical periods, aren’t persons who behave and speak as if the world were falling apart regarded as ‘loonies,’ alarmists, and noisy trouble-makers? Shouldn’t such trouble-makers be mocked and silenced—and, if they attract too many followers, ‘put away’ in order to teach a lesson to those who follow?

And yet, if we were to assemble in a gigantic, swelling chorus all those trouble-makers and disturbing malcontents that have appeared throughout the ages—from India and Iran, Greece and Rome, China and Japan, England and France, Russia and America—wouldn’t their voices converge into a more or less discernible, uniform melody? What would that melody import unto us? Would it more likely be an ‘ode to joy’—or would this chant not bear a more somber, less exuberant tone?

On the Mind and Freedom (9/16/15)

Those familiar with my writings on the subject know that when it comes to mind and/or the ego—like Jung, Hillman, Buddhists, Sufis, and Taoists before me—I follow a middle way. Whether because of incapacity, incomprehension, or temperamental incompatibility I eschew those two extremes: Nietzschean-Randian (of the ‘Ayn’ sort) heroic-Promethean egotism and Eastern-style, yogic campaigns to exterminate the mind/ego. So, assuming a kind of enlightened or properly negotiated truce with the mind is a necessary precondition for the radical transformation of consciousness that culminates in mental liberation, what is the role played by the ego-will (which, we are told, is but the reflection of the light of pure, impersonal awareness in the mercurial mirror of the mental body)?

I sometimes see those ‘spiritual seekers’ who would do away with the mind as dwarfish, low voltage Ahabs, who famously said, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab’s daimonic energy and unsettling eloquence lend a kind of sublimity and gravitas (to his revenge against the white whale) that is conspicuously absent from the souls of these harmless, puny revengers against their own shrunken little ‘Moby Dicks’—which, having been malnourished and unexercised for years, are but minnows and small fry next to Melville’s. And they still can’t seem to flush them down the commode!

Do not misunderstand me. I am not wholeheartedly endorsing Ahab’s Promethean-heroic egoism, but it is certainly of a higher order and nobler pedigree than Starbuck’s Hobbesian-Lockean, mercantile-conventional prudence—the clearly reigning outlook (and in-look, for that matter) in 21st, as well as 19th, century, pragmatic America. Whether he was justified or not, Dante assigned Ulysses to one of the lowest circles in hell for a similar sort of ‘titanic’ egoism as we see in Ahab’s ‘mad flight’—but of this we may be certain: Dante, with his own sublimely expansive and self-authorizing spirit, could not help but admire precisely where he condemns—in Ulysses’ case. But my point should be plain: the greatest ‘sinners’ always stand a far better chance of finding genuine salvation than petty and harmless little nebbishes who ‘cannot be bothered’ to confront either black or white whales swimming just below the placid, artificial surface of their scrupulously controlled conscious standpoints. They will tell you that they are ‘busy’ silencing the mind, but some of us know what they’re really up to instead. They are running away from truly disturbing questions and supremely inconvenient ordeals that they would be obliged to recognize and submit to if they weren’t so dreadfully busy trying to distance themselves from that pesky, uncooperative ‘desire-mind’ (kama-manas)—strangling one Hydra head at a time. Well, good luck with that!

Ahab, as we know, goes down with the whale, along with the Pequod and its crew—except for the mercurial Ishmael who, alone, lives to tell the tale. Dante’s Ulysses’ ship and crew are similarly swallowed up by the sea—just offshore from Mt. Purgatory. Ulysses—though close enough almost to touch it—was not permitted to land his vessel upon the shore of Mt. Purgatory. While Dante finds much to admire in Ulysses’ spiritedness, his proud indifference to personal security and emotional attachments, he is troubled by the hero’s brazen refusal to humbly defer to anything whatsoever that might exceed or transcend his cognitive and experiential ambitions. Could this, wonder of wonders, be the fatal flaw that bars his access to the shores of Purgatory? To return to our initial theme: is this what, on a far less sublime level, prevents petty revengers (against the demonized mind) from being able to negotiate a truce with the ‘enemy’?

Understanding the nature of kama-manas, or the desire-mind, is the key to freeing our spirits from its lower, cruder, and heavier (in terms of psychic gravity) power. But as with the ‘external’ natural world, in order to understand the inner nature of the desire-mind, we must to a certain extent obey it. I suspect that alarms and red flags are exploding in the minds of some over-reactive readers, but ‘hold your horses.’ We obey, or submit, chiefly to establish equitable terms between both parties—and not merely to get the better of one another. By ‘obey’ I do not mean ‘indulge in’ or ‘utterly surrender to.’ By ‘obey’ I more precisely mean ‘carefully attend to,’ ‘to alertly observe and take note of’ the mind—the various ways in which it works; how it influences or affects that which it touches, treats, entertains or gives birth to; what happens—or doesn’t happen—when it is quiet and still.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the mind is always with us—‘hanging around,’ much as our bodies are always with us, just hanging around, whether busy with something or not. In fact, it is probably useful to think of the mind as a body—a subtle body—that seems to hang upon us, or even enfold us, rather as our fleshly bodies do. But the great difference between the physical and mental bodies lies in the fact that the physical body deals with solid, concrete objects, persons, and events while the mental body deals with ideas, concepts, emotions, moods, attitudes, and other intangible but nonetheless experienceable forms and phenomena.

The Sanskrit word ‘kama’ means desire, so ‘kama-manas’ refers to a mind that is stamped or infused with more or less stable, distinct desire-habits. These generally stable and established desire-habits operate upon ‘mental matter’ in much the same way that a magnetic field operates upon tiny iron shavings. Understanding the extremely intimate relationship between desire-habits and mental forms (concepts, memories, plans, recurring thoughts, etc.) that are directly shaped by those affective patterns is absolutely crucial to attaining mastery over, and liberation from, these often cramped and confining desires. It is also crucial for overcoming our suspicion/hatred for mind (misology), which is founded upon a deep misunderstanding.

When New-agers (and Shirley Maclaine, back in the 80s) tell us that we create our own ‘worlds’—our own ‘reality’—they are actually speaking the truth, or at least giving voice to a sound spiritual-psychological principle, whether they actually understand what they are saying, or not. Persons with a semi-sensitive or half-awakened intuition are occasionally able to glimpse profound spiritual insights, but that’s about all they can do since they lack the training and the conceptual understanding (of what they’ve glimpsed in ‘flashes’ of insight) that are needed to articulate and to ground these insights in a reasonably intelligible form—to place them in a comprehensive, meaningful context. Only then would such intuitive souls be in a position to make significant contributions to the intellectual, artistic, or spiritual welfare of our ailing culture. Such training and education require time and much discipline—even when we have a passion for learning these things and developing these skills. As it happens, most persons who are drawn to such matters wind up getting side-tracked and absorbed by mundane affairs, so that little real development of these potentials ever occurs. Such persons, alas, are a dime a dozen, but in saying this I am certainly not condemning such half-hearted, well-meaning persons. We all eventually ‘find our level,’ whether we like it or not. As it turns out, it is the specific gravity of our desire-habits that is primarily responsible for assigning us to our particular, all-too-familiar ‘level.’ I am not referring here to some deplorable and oppressive caste system or even to some kind of karmic destiny from which there is no reprieve or escape. Our ‘level assignment’ is not written in stone. We can move ‘up’ or we can move ‘down.’ We see it all the time in persons around us—or in our own lives. What I am trying to argue is that unless and until we figure out how to alter the specific gravity of our desire-habits or affective patterns, we are pretty much obliged to stay put on more or less the same rung of a ladder that stretches from heaven to hell, figuratively (but as the same time, existentially) speaking.

So, in an attempt to tighten up these meandering musings about the mind, let us review some of the polarities or contrasts that were touched upon earlier, and see if this provides any clarification. We spoke of the contrast between negotiating a truce with the mind versus dismissing or disparaging the mind; between daimonic, sublime overreaching egos (like Ahab’s and Ulysses’—and possibly Dante’s) and the puny, run-of-the-milquetoast variety that prefers to ‘stay home,’ preferably under the covers with the TV set on; between a kind of reverent openness to the transcendent and a titanic drive to conquer or dispense with it. Then, with the idea of kama-manas, we began to explore the hidden marriage between two things that are commonly contrasted, or even isolated, from one another: thoughts and desires, or knowledge and affects.

What can we do with these disparate pieces of a puzzle? Can they, indeed, be fitted together naturally—perhaps even seamlessly—into a vivid and clear picture of our general problem: how to regard the mind and how to make the best of our relationship with it? To repeat what has been said elsewhere: no relationship is possible where there is an unconscious merger or identification with the ‘other’—and this goes for the mind, as well. And if the relationship is dysfunctional (because of hatred or neglect or rejection of the other), not much of value can come out of this arrangement either. Therefore, unless and until we have dis-identified with and/or come to workable terms with the mind we can pretty much kiss the prospect of genuine mental liberation goodbye.

In speaking about kama-manas, the desire-mind, I used the analogy of a magnetic field moving and organizing iron filings into distinctive patterns. A powerful magnetic field—generated, say, by an Ahab or a Ulysses—can hold (almost) an entire crew under its enchanting spell—while many persons have trouble holding a single thought or question in their mental grasp for more than a few seconds. Thus, those with potent spirits are capable of either great good or great mischief, while the majority of low-voltage souls will leave the world pretty much as they found it when they depart. But for all of us—from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the world-historical ‘dynamos’ to the backwater bozos—one principle applies to all: thought is but the shadow or lackey of the governing desire or will. It is the will—weak or strong, noble or base, selfish or selfless—that occultly or invisibly formulates and steers the thoughts that populate (and sometimes overpopulate) our minds.

Going after the thoughts, then, is a bit like chasing after shadows or holographic images so long as the inner will or ruling desires remain unconscious and unattended to.

In my own case, which may or may not be universalizable or repeatable by everyone simply on the basis of shared humanity, there are complicating factors which, in all fairness, ought to be addressed here. Something happened to me—inside my soul—that does not happen to everyone, perhaps not even to most persons, so far as I can tell from consulting many others. Without really understanding what it was at the time, I went through a kind of conversion experience. This experience, which I have described as a major shift in my psychic center of gravity, was not—I repeat, not—linked to any confession of faith in Christianity or Judaism or Islam or any other established religion, although after the dust began to settle I recognized unmistakable parallels between my conversion experience and those we can read about in religious histories of all persuasions. Suffice it to say that I am living proof—at least to myself—that one needn’t profess orthodox faith in Christ (as a historical figure, or Allah, or any deity whatsoever) in order to undergo a bona fide spiritual awakening or rebirth experience. On the other hand, I would venture to say that the symbolic value of Christ’s life, teachings, and final ordeal—as with those of the Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, Heraclitus, Mani, Socrates, Valentinus, Augustine, and others—begin, inwardly, to be revealed only after this conversion experience occurs.

Why do I bring this up within the context of this essay, it will be asked? Is it because I realized at one point, while I was writing, that all of the crucial observations that I’ve made are predicated upon that ‘conversion’ ordeal? How does this fact impinge upon the content of the essay? Well, I am not sure I would go so far as to say that the content is worthless and unintelligible to anyone who has yet to undergo an analogously radical ‘pivoting’ or shift in his/her psychic center of gravity—but such readers will not be likely to experience an immediate recognition of the crucial points shared here.

Apples and Oranges (8/16/12)

Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and other morally upright dissenters and critics of the current system who cry out against the enormous injustice committed by the power elite are like good apples addressing other good apples about the rottenness of what they take to be bad apples, when in fact they are oranges. [1]

If we approach this important issue from the standpoint of my ‘game theory’ of value systems, I think my general idea here will become clear. It seems fairly obvious that the corporate power elite (and their minions, to a somewhat lesser extent) are not concerned with moral-political-economic justice in the least. ‘Justice,’ as an aim or concern is not even on their menu, although concern over the appearance or semblance of justice is absolutely vital to their success. This is why they so lavishly reward that hired gang of public relations and media whores for their clever feats of whitewashing, distraction, disinformation, and deception. It is quite obvious that the power elite play at an entirely different game than Chomsky, Hedges, Nader, and Co. The objective of their game has everything to do with the consolidation of power, with market shares and the boundless accumulation of wealth, with buying off the Congress and commanding the air waves, with the maximization of personal pleasure, and with the constant fabrication of false images and masks to conceal the truth about what they are really up to. Their aims have nothing whatsoever to do with justice—which is simply and rightly regarded as a positive obstruction to the attainment of their actual aims. These aims are venal and reliably mediocre—scarcely more noble or dignified than those of an Afghan warlord or a Florentine condottiere—to anyone with a modicum of good breeding and spiritual refinement. Regrettably (for the rest of us), these ‘movers and shakers’ are often little more than clever sociopaths, unfettered megalomaniacs, and moral-spiritual louts. How else could they strong-arm their way into positions where they are capable of wreaking so much economic, political, cultural, and environmental damage, without remorse or a moment’s thought about the consequences? These men and women make the deranged generals of WWI look good by contrast.

Obviously, their way—their game—is a perfectly viable and playable game, at least for a limited time. The duration of play may be as short as a decade or two—or it could go on for centuries, depending on how long the game resources and the absence of serious opposition hold out.

What the good apples really want is for everyone to play the apple game. And if the oranges don’t voluntarily ‘come over’ and begin to play by apple rules and submit themselves to apple referees, the apple directors have, in effect, called for a popular uprising to overthrow the orange team and to reinstall political-moral-economic justice as the principal value/virtue under apple rule.

The success of this campaign led by good apples depends, of course, upon greater hegemony of justice-loving apple game-players over and against unjust oranges—or upon a miraculous ‘game-change’ initiative on the part of well-placed, powerful oranges. It almost seems as if this miracle will have to occur—if a game-change is to really turn things around for humanity and for the beleaguered biosphere—since the masses can usually (but not always) be relied upon to follow where they are led—and the oranges indisputably have the upper hand at this time.

When I say that the orange game is, by far, the dominant game today, I certainly do not mean to trivialize the grim seriousness of this fact by referring to it as a ‘game.’ The stakes couldn’t be higher, since the severe imbalances in virtually all major arenas of our present-day civilization appear to be poised for collapse: the teetering economy (domestic and global); profit-obsessed, psychopathic corporatism; a corrupt and paralyzed government that has betrayed and misled the American people by whoring itself out to the highest bidders; a narrow and stultifying system of mis-education that does not teach persons how to think for themselves, but only how to serve obediently within the greedy, corporate system (if they are fortunate enough to get a job); religion which has either degenerated into a consoling, frothy form of New Agey escapism or has been politicized by demagogues and proto-fascists in order to foment and exploit the rage and confusion of the unreflective masses, a goodly number of whom are armed to the teeth. The examples set by the nihilistic, ruling elites—who are contemptuous of (and, at the same time, duly afraid of) the smelly masses squirming, teeming, and simmering just outside the carefully guarded perimeters of their gated communities—have taught us well, if badly: for they have made it clear that it is every man for himself.

But all of these questions and conflicts have been thoroughly and far more eloquently explored—hearkening all the way back to the heyday of the great Greek philosophers, historians, and poets. Thucydides fully understood the messy problems bound up with the competing claims of power and justice, and Plato seems pretty much to have gotten it right in the Republic when he observed that unless kings become philosophers or philosophers can be persuaded (and allowed) to rule, injustice and corruption are almost bound to flourish. Characters in his dialogues—Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Meno, to name a few—are living portraits of ‘orange’ gamesmen. They cynically tell us that justice is the ‘will of the stronger’ and that it is ultimately conventional or arbitrary—not grounded in nature or in some kind of transcendent Logos, or reason. Socrates is perhaps the shiniest, most polished apple to be found among the medley of fruits that have appeared throughout the course of Western civilization. When Jesus told us that we must ‘Render unto Caesar…’ (since Jesus was concerned chiefly, if not exclusively, with a kingdom not of this world), He may have been leaping out of the ‘apple’ cart and into an entirely different sort of vehicle. I dare not claim that this new trail that He blazed has no relevance whatsoever to these pressing questions and conflicts which pertain more directly to moral, political, and economic justice here and now in mundane reality, but insofar as followers of Christ are divested from this world and devoted to a radically different plane and arena of experience, they have only a limited stake in mundane problems and affairs. By that definition, we may wonder if more than three or four genuine followers of Christ are living on this planet today—if that many.

Nevertheless…as different as Plato of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth were—along with the markedly different cultural/religious backgrounds from which they emerged—they had far more in common, spiritually, than either of them have in common with Anglo-American philosophy and culture, which is unapologetically materialistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, nominalistic, and hedonistic. Anglo-American culture and its imperial ambitions are nothing if they are not thoroughly this-worldly. ‘Worlds’ that cannot be weighed, measured, analyzed, touched, bought, or conquered by main force are merely imaginary, unreal, and of no real consequence to the typical ‘modern.’ If something isn’t tangible, edible, marketable, and/or directly useful to us here and now, it is implicitly discredited and viewed with skepticism by the ministers and conscriptees of the contemporary materialistic-pragmatic-scientistic worldview. [2]

The study of history—of the ideas, the traditional ways of seeing and judging that our forebears lived by and died for—happens to be one of those pursuits that are deemed a useless waste of time and energy from the modern “live-like-there’s-no-tomorrow-because-there-isn’t-one” standpoint. As a consequence, few of us are even remotely aware of what a serious study of the past can teach us about the prejudices, weaknesses, and blind spots afflicting our modern worldview. Many of us have fallen for the ridiculous idea that simply because we came into existence after the heyday of the ancient Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Indian cultures, we are automatically more advanced and fully developed human beings! This rampant delusion is patently absurd—even when we readily allow all the technological and scientific advances to count towards our credit (even though the actual inventors of this technology constitute a tiny subset of the general population). Anyone who has seriously studied and reflected upon the cultures of the past—as it has been recorded in the great works and deeds of the poets, philosophers, statesmen, historians, saints, and artists—will, if he or she is honest and fair—acknowledge the superior wisdom, courage, moral rigor, and comprehensive understanding found in the cultivated figures of the past when place beside their descendents of today. I know it is a cliché by now, but if our material and technological achievements eclipse anything the past has to hold up in comparison, the moral-spiritual and aesthetic standards of the educated man or woman of today are on a par with those of Rome at its nadir, not at its Republican heights—closer to the chaotic and cacophonous conditions of Babel than to those of wise Solomon’s reign. Of course I compare the leading, educated figures from past and present, since—as representative men and women—they set the tone and the standard for the many, who, as ever, follow the examples of their leaders, or their mis-leaders, as the case may be.

At any event, both Plato and Jesus—each in his distinctive manner—recognized a cardinal distinction between the spiritual and the instinctual/appetitive sides, or aspects, of our composite human nature. Moreover, they both taught that the spiritual or philosophically reflective aspect of our nature should become the rightful ruler over the instinctual-appetitive part. Neither appears to have simply advocated a violent or harsh repression of our primitive, inherited drives and instincts but a wise moderation and constructive channeling of those impulses that we share with the beasts. Such moderation and civilized expression of these instinctual and often aggressive energies was enormously aided by accurate self-understanding coupled with a deep understanding of the city, or man in society. Obviously, we are in a much better position to manage and to wisely express these energies when we understand them, rather than when they are poorly or wrongly understood. Nevertheless, a truly liberal education—a thorough acquaintance with the literary, philosophical, and scriptural legacy of our Western past—is, itself, rapidly becoming a thing of the past. So-called ‘educated persons’ of today—as we approach what may very well be the brink of a new Dark Age, if we haven’t already fallen, collectively, into its glutinous grip—are typically myopic, narrowly trained specialists in some modern technical area of expertise or another. Such persons have, at best, a fragmented and sketchy grasp of the rich legacy from our cultural past—a priceless gift that has been allowed to fall into a pitiable state of neglect, so that the living connection with that potentially redemptive and tutelary heritage is all but severed. And for what have the shepherds and custodians of our culture abandoned their sacred offices? For a soulless, anxiety-fueled technocracy and all the petty little gadgets, conveniences, and weapons of global destruction that we parade as badges of our superiority. It’s enough to make one want to weep with shame and disgust—this profoundly demoralizing realization of the depths to which we have sunk after being seduced and betrayed by those who enthusiastically and uncritically threw aside the riches of the past in their mad scramble for these pernicious powers that have been unleashed by and upon us.

 

 

[1] Their goodness or badness as oranges is, for the most part, irrelevant, since the apples are holding them up to apple standards of goodness and badness, not orange standards. Apple standards, roughly speaking, are those of Socrates, while those of oranges lie somewhere between Machiavelli and Stalin.

 

[2] Unless, of course, it happens to be a piece of modern ‘art.’ Though useless, impractical, lacking in order or meaning, these peculiar ‘exceptions’ often fetch enormous sums at auctions attended by the rich and clueless.

Words as Seeds and Conjurors (5/11/15)

Lest we go too far in our reduction of words and concepts to empty, dried-out husks and sloughed-off skins of the once vital vegetables and animals of living thought and perception, we would do well to remember the creative power of speech. We needn’t take this idea to the super-human level of the ‘divine Logos’ (“In the beginning was the Word”). We might simply muse upon the magical power that poetry and prose exerts over some of us. We need merely recall the transporting effect that passages from Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, or Plato have upon our minds, hearts, and imaginations—and all through the conjuring power of words! To be sure, there must first be suitable ground within our souls in which to plant and germinate these seeds. Our psyches must, therefore, be capable of meeting words halfway—of unlocking the ideational and imaginative power packed into their ‘chromosomal’ material. Words, like temples and palaces, octogenarians and very old trees, have long and often interesting histories—and therefore, stories to tell if we are but sufficiently patient and attentive.

And there is a socio-political function of words and verbal commands: it is precisely because—or to the extent that—we obey words and verbal directives—because we place our trust (and sometimes our very fate) in their power to mean what they say—that words indisputably wield real power over tangible reality, over happiness or regret, life and death. There is no getting around this. Words and perceptible, material phenomena (and consequences) are intimately intertwined with each other—so far as humans are concerned. Thus, to fail to acquire competent use of speech is to fail to develop fully into a human being. It is obvious that one who never acquires a language is effectively cut off from those distinctive powers and abilities that are characteristically human. What is less obvious is that one whose command of language is poor or grossly deficient is to that extent hampered and crippled as a cultural entity. Thus, the dilution, homogenization, and radical simplification of ordinary language use inevitably contribute to the barbarization, stultification, and mental homogenization of human consciousness. And who does not see compelling evidence of this distressing trend?