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.

A New Happiness and a New Conscience (8/4/12)

My spiritual health and cogency appear to depend, in large part, on my swimming continually against the prevailing tide of collective consciousness. ‘Happiness,’ as I formerly understood and episodically experienced it, entailed ‘going with the flow’ at a fundamental, core level. Gradually—guided by my antinomian, counter-cultural, spiritual instincts, which were valorized by my study of suitable texts—I learned how to ‘see through’ many of the attachments and assumptions that harnessed my soul to these collective (‘mass’) values. Only by ‘seeing through’ them was I able to begin my ongoing liberation from their otherwise compelling power.

The lion’s share of what commonly goes by the name of ‘happiness’ consists in our surrender to drives, impulses, and compulsions that are the very stuff and substance of this outward-moving wave (or tsunami) of collective consciousness. The relinquishment of self-control and prudent circumspection is a fundamental contributor to this dubious species of ‘happiness’ that the many pursue with their orchestrated, dogged might. Unsurprisingly, this is why the heightening or intensification of self-criticism is so odious and unwelcome for most human beings.

In my own case, a new sort of conscience has gradually evolved over time. This new conscience sets a much higher value upon individual consciousness than upon conformity with collective norms. When we uncritically surrender to our collective instincts and our lower drives we are unconsciously serving a very different master than the genuinely individuating person serves. Individual consciousness and a decisive degree of freedom (of choice and of action) are sacrificed in our capitulation to collective factors. In other words, the ‘happiness’ that we momentarily enjoy in our abandonment to our drives and instincts turns out, of course, to be much more expensive to us, spiritually and psychologically, than we ever could have imagined.

My new conscience makes it harder for me to be seduced by the appeals of such deceptive and problematic ‘happiness’ as I used to enjoy (like a thriftless borrower who squandered his money, and then had to pay it all back with high interest added). My new conscience is a paradoxical conscience in certain respects, for it binds me while it slowly helps me to become free. It impedes the way to happiness as I once knew it while it carves a path towards a new form that I only dimly understand, as of yet. It keeps me at an arm’s length from other persons while opening up new channels that lead into their unlit depths.

Hedonism and Metanoia: the Cultural Conservative Speaks Out (12/20/11)

Are pain, suffering, and distress—of any sort—always to be taken as indications that something has gone wrong, that we have made an error somewhere or transgressed normative laws and values?   If this were so, then we would be doubly behooved to avoid pain, suffering, and distress at all costs—first, for the obvious reason (i.e., that we will thereby spare ourselves the unpleasant consequences) and, secondly, because of the offense to the moral and/or traditional order of things.

But if it is not always the case that pain and suffering betoken error and folly, then their occurrence may be an unavoidable and natural accompaniment to a well-lived life. And if pain and suffering turn out to be natural and unavoidable features of a well-lived or wisely conducted life, then perhaps they should not always be regarded as objections to a course of action or a line of thought. Perhaps they should not always be regarded as warnings and roadblocks providentially placed in our way as if to tell us: ‘Do not proceed any further!’

To be sure, many instances of pain and suffering do in fact serve as signs that something is amiss or that we have placed ourselves in some kind of danger—and these signs should be heeded lest we do serious harm to our bodies and souls—or to those of others. The unpleasant reactions our stomachs have to certain things we put in our mouth, the distress we experience when we are confronted with menacing situations or malefactors, the pangs of conscience we suffer when we’ve done something wicked: all of these serve as familiar examples of pain or distress as signs of trouble or error.

But what about pain and suffering of the other sort—the naturally-occurring kind of suffering that ‘shadows’ a courageously and conscientiously lived life like the weighty contrabass that accompanies and, in a sense, grounds a beautifully balanced musical composition? Viewed in this way, such pain and distress—rather than being regarded as signs of error, deviance, and regression—might be rechristened as substantiating and ennobling factors in our lives. Just knowing that such painful ordeals and periods of distress are the necessary and indispensible ingredients of a substantial and upright life can go a long way towards making such suffering more endurable. It is only meaningless or pointless suffering that tends to eat away at the moral will of the strongest spirits.

At any event, it seems worthwhile that we learn how to distinguish the first type of pain and suffering from the other. We must learn to recognize the difference between a warning sign that advises us to be more cautious and a necessary rite of passage encountered along the way towards a fuller realization of our spiritual, psychological, and moral potentials. The first type of pain is a yellow or red light, while the other is a green one—but perhaps not for everyone. For whom does this problem—this question—arise? Apparently, there are many persons for whom pain and suffering of any sort is enough to prevent then from moving forwards. For these persons differentiating these two very distinct forms of pain and suffering seldom or never becomes a serious or pressing issue. Such persons may be said to subscribe, either knowingly or otherwise, to some form of hedonism, a long-established philosophical standpoint that places the maximization of pleasure and the avoidance of pain at the top of its hierarchy of values. For them, the chief question is always ‘How can I best succeed in eliminating the pain or in avoiding the suffering altogether?’ If things never move beyond this point, then the task of distinction-drawing becomes utterly irrelevant. The task—the issue—is relevant, then, only for those who possess the courage required to confront the pain and suffering, the endurance of which is deemed the unavoidable price for continued ripening and maturation.

Such development inevitably entails psychological transformation—and with transformation there is always destruction and re-creation. There is much that must be sacrificed before the caterpillar can be changed into the butterfly. Every cell and every nerve in the organism’s body registers the frightening and torturous change that occurs by nature along a predetermined course. Those persons who know what I am talking about—from experience and not merely from books or from other persons’ accounts—know that such transformations, once they are underway, must be surrendered to. At some point, choice and free will are no longer a part of the equation. Psychological laws take over—and with irreversible determination they move forward. Something in us—or of us—unmistakably dies while something else simultaneously comes into being. There is some trace of continuity between one phase and the other, but that thread of continuity is no more conspicuous or readily apparent than the bridge between the egg and the chick, between the tadpole and the frog, or between the worm and the butterfly. There is something very much like a re-creation or reorganization of the very identity of the psychologically transformed man or woman. All of the old bearings and orienting stars have been changed. It is as if the ‘initiate’ now resides in an entirely new cosmos. The prospect of physical death—along with all the (honest) thoughts and feelings leading up to it, to the very brink—is no less jarring and disturbing than the actual experience endured by the ‘transformed’ one. He or she may, now and again, earnestly yearn for physical death as a relieving end to the pain of a thoroughgoing psychological transformation.

The pain and suffering experienced by persons who earnestly and unflinchingly strive for deep insight, psychic balance, and a modicum of spiritual freedom results primarily from their having to let go of the various attachments, delusions, distractions, and other familiar bits of mental and sensible ‘furniture’ that, under ordinary circumstances, convey a sustaining measure of comfort to all human lives. It is our deep dependence upon these impermanent, unreliable, and conditional ‘goods’ that must be sacrificed before the more authentic and unshakable foundations of a good life can come into their own. As long as the deceptive or unreliable goods command our loyal allegiance, the genuine ones are likely to remain unseen and unappreciated by us. These impermanent and merely personal goods must eventually be offered as a burnt sacrifice before the same fire refines and tempers our soul, activating and releasing the nobler substance that has hitherto remained hidden or buried within. The Christian symbolism of the fires of purgatory is applicable in this context—only these fires are submitted to here and now instead of in the post-mortem state.

Of course, the thicker the accretions around our souls, the greater the suffering and disorientation occasioned by their removal and incineration. In a culture that privately prides itself on its consumption of delicious (but questionably nutritious) foodstuffs, the best meds, first-rate boredom-killing entertainments tailored for every budget and taste, the best manufactured goods imported from (sweatshops, maquiladoras, and gulags) around the planet, austerities and the purging of excesses are as politely and emptily praised as they are privately despised and mocked. Those persons brought up in societies that are materially poorer but richer in traditional culture naturally have less ‘fat’ to burn off, less dead skin to flay, and thereby enjoy certain advantages and communal benefits that we in the West all too frequently regard with clueless derision and parochial contempt. This is due to the fact that many of us are preposterously brought up to believe that our material prosperity and our comfortable standard of living (for as long as they hold out) actually constitute proof of our cultural superiority over the ‘less fortunate’—when, in fact, these presumed ‘advantages’ often handicap us, spiritually and ethically, by insulating us from many of the natural shocks, tribulations, and hardships which provide the best school for moral development, social maturation, and spiritual deepening. In place of these difficult and demanding challenges, many of us have come to expect the comfortable, soft, and protected conditions that, in turn, have transformed a growing number of us into pampered, complacent, dependent creatures that are in constant need of protection, tender affection, entertainment, and reassurance of our personal importance.

In going out of our way—collectively—to de-fang and de-claw not only the natural conditions we live in, but the mental ones, as well, we have largely succeeded in de-railing ourselves as a species. In exploiting science and technology in order to cater almost exclusively to our bodily needs and baser desires rather than to aid us in the pursuit of more demanding and noble ends, we have perhaps done more harm to our species and to our natural environment than anyone could have foreseen. This altered view of nature and of our relationship to nature is only a few hundred years old, but its diabolical ability to bring natural forces under the power of men who have not yet begun to acquire mastery over their own insatiable lusts and appetites has produced a world that would plunge our ancestors into horror and despair if they could see what all their sacrifices and voluntary privations have resulted in. They would see vast herds of scatterbrained, timid, restless, unimaginative and infantile busybodies—men, women, and children with no definable ‘centers’ or cores to them, plugged into gadgets and games and soul-snuffing systems that drain and imprison them while falsely promising to fulfill them and lead them to freedom. All that work, all that self-sacrifice and discipline, all that care to preserve and to protect the sacred cultural legacy—of scriptures, of poetry, drama, philosophy, history—only to culminate in us, this lamentable mass society of fidgety, a-historical, culturally and spiritually vapid, brown-nosing, insecure consumer-pawns. What an unforgivable squandering of spirit, of mind, of goodness, and energy has occurred—if we are the goal and apex, the culmination of our ancestors’ arduous efforts and incalculable self-sacrifice! To contemplate how we’ve squandered this priceless legacy! In some ways, we are no different from the barbaric mercenaries of the past, ransacking towns for portable plunder while defiling precious objects and shrines that we neither value nor understand! These thoughts are hard for me to hold in my mind. They knock the breath out of me.

And yet I look around in vain for others who understand and share my disgust, sorrow, and horror over what we have become—and without even knowing how we wound up here!

Our Indebtedness to Fear and Ignorance (12/7/10—Buenos Aires)

I recognize the bipolar character of the psyche. Now, this bipolarity is actually a matter of direct experience and not simply a theoretical concept for me. It seems like a natural, simple, and obvious thing to acknowledge the fact that all of our stances—in terms of our emotional attitudes toward things, persons, conditions, etc.—are variable (polyvalent) and subject to significant alteration and transformation, if we are able, that is, to relax the grip with which we tend to cling to these positions.

Hanging onto our ‘positions’ affords the temporary benefit of simplifying things—by ‘freezing’ our experience of the persons and conditions in our lives in such a way as to fix their value. Some persons are designated ‘friends’ and ‘allies,’ others are ‘foes’ and ‘rivals.’ Perhaps most persons simply leave us indifferent. Likewise, circumstances that we’re immersed in are either favorable or not—pure and simple—and this illusory sense of stability is immensely comforting to persons who are frightfully inept at dealing with the more liquid and equivocal actual character of things. Roles and values are assigned, as it were, by the ‘fixing agents’ in the ego, and a blind eye is, in effect, turned to all evidence that fails to conform with the stubborn preconceptions unconsciously projected upon the dramatis personae in the ego’s ‘staging area.’

Needless to say, most of the people with whom we are dealing—the co-players with whom we are acting out our little or large roles in life—view and respond to us as if we, too, were fixed entities. To the extent that our co-actors are unwilling or unable to acknowledge those qualities or potentials of ours than are not included within their fixed (prejudiced and reductive) conceptions of us, many perfectly valid parts of us simply go unseen, unheard, and unresponded to by them. These projected, governing ‘frames’ greatly delimit, color, and simplify the relationship with these persons, from their end. And, let us remember: a relationship is only as subtle, comprehensive, and deep as the mental aperture of the ‘lesser’ participant is open and sensitive. The rest is merely unconscious projection—a very different kettle of fish than genuine relatedness with the other person.

Of course, it happens often enough that we become confined by our own preconceptions and fixed notions about ourselves—so that we scarcely require other persons’ insultingly simplistic projections, alone, in order to feel ‘reduced’ to something markedly less complex and protean than we are—or at least potentially are. Normally, we get stuck in such ruts through laziness or passivity—so that by continually repeating and reinforcing our fixed patterns of behavior and reaction, the complex array of other possible ways of living, valuing, and being start to atrophy, rather like unused muscles or an unpracticed foreign language that we once could speak with some proficiency.

And while laziness should never be underestimated or left out of account where human beings are concerned, we must never deny fear and ignorance the prominent places they rightfully deserve in any such discussion. Fear ‘freezes’ pretty much whatever it touches and ignorance blocks out information and potential knowledge that is always right there in front of us, should we ever bother to look.

So, laziness induces us to take the easy, familiar path of least resistance—to allow life’s richness to remain unexplored because it simply requires a bit of effort. Fear and cowardice, on the other hand, conspire to reduce everyone and everything to a more or less fixed, familiar, and non-threatening shorthand. The result is to minimize the strain occasioned by a torrent of complex information or valuations that obstinately refuse to remain stable, predictable, and consistent. Many of us secretly prefer to have things, persons—and our very futures—‘nailed down.’ We do not like it, typically speaking, when the situation is not ‘under control’—if not under our control, then at least someone’s! Our physician’s, our Führer’s, the Pope’s and the clergy’s, our spouse’s, the general’s, the scientific community’s, Monsanto’s, the financial sector’s, etc. It takes considerable courage to acknowledge just how liquid, mutable, and un-nailed-down most of life really is—which leads me to my final and perhaps most controversial point: we should be thankful for the enormous contribution made by collective fear—in the ongoing, mass campaign to ‘keep the situation under control’ and ‘to keep everything nailed down.’ Life—ordinary, everyday existence, would suddenly become much dicier and riskier without the fear, laziness, and ignorance that—gathered and assembled from every corner of the human world—work fiercely and tirelessly to preserve the status quo.

Beastly Thoughts (8/7/14)

What would a truly honest life be like? Is such a life possible in the midst of so much hypocrisy, shallow-cowardly politeness, and false propaganda that both the givers and the recipients want—perhaps desperately need—to believe in? I suspect that I’ve retreated into greater and greater seclusion and (public) silence over these past few years largely because I am convinced that if I were to speak out honestly and courageously about what I see going on around me and inside of me, I would assuredly turn the world angrily against me. The society I live in is simply too invested in preposterous over-simplifications and comforting delusions—and too willingly led by simplifiers and deluders—for an openly honest person to escape ostracism of some form or another. And given the natural shallowness, intellectual laziness, and moral timidity of the ordinary human being, it has almost certainly always been this way—basically. That’s my ‘educated’ guess, at least.

If it is in fact true that ‘collective consciousness’ is constituted, for the most part, of comforting lies, then the truth-sayer who decides to go public is asking for trouble. He is, by definition, a disturber and disruptor of the soothing, dreamlike delusions that, in their intricate assembly, compose the very fabric of that snarling, dangerous beast, the public mind. This beast apparently needs to be drugged (with sedatives, narcotics, intoxicants, or stimulants, depending on the present needs and desires of the ruling elites—who may be political tyrants or demagogues, religious authorities, or corporations, peddling their goods and services) if any compliance or obedience is to be won from that enormous, powerful, semi-conscious beast.

Before the modern era in the West, the beast was simply de-clawed and caged, but for the past few hundred years it has managed to break out of the various cages that had confined it throughout the millennia. The beast received assistance from various elites—some of whom were cynical and thoroughly self-interested, while others sincerely believed that the beast would, upon its release, gradually cultivate and civilize itself! But, by and large, the experiment has not turned out as well as many of its champions expected it would, despite what generally drugged and deluded modern barbarians will tell you. What has happened, of course, is that the beast, after being released from the various social, religious, racial, and gender cages in which it had formerly been bound and chained, has been craftily conscripted into the service of new ruling elites whose vision, despite all the hype and PR, is in many respects even narrower and more ignoble than that of the beast’s former warders and keepers—the politico-cultural and religious ‘aristocrats’ of premodern times. I should say that the dominant goals and purposes that are served in today’s inordinately economic scheme are inherently baser and cruder than the thoroughly discredited and nearly obsolete aims and purposes of human fulfillment of the premodern scheme. If we hadn’t all become so accustomed to breathing the pestilent air of this spiritually bankrupt bubble we inhabit, I strongly suspect that everything I am saying would be so obvious as to require no comment.

If I have learned anything from my study of history and of myself and of my fellow humans, it is this: the beast is not capable of governing or restraining itself—especially when it suffers from a malignant medley of overwhelming addictions and from an imposed blindness. Because of this fact, empowered elites of some type or another will always be sought out to prevent the beast from destroying both its ‘world’ and itself. The beast is no more intrinsically evil than it is good. Rather—because it is ruled by its dominant drives, compulsions, and fears—it is essentially amoral, like a brute force of nature.

We might liken today’s ruling elites to drug dealers organized into a powerful governing (and administering) cartel. And now, with the psychiatric-pharma and entertainment-propaganda divisions within the cartel, it is no longer merely a likeness, but a literal drug-and-delusion-dispensing, coordinated operation. Its power is challenged by those who have uncovered the truth about how the cartel works, but in their scattered, culturally and politically marginalized state, these watchdogs and whistle-blowers can do little to stem to the growing tide of addictions (to money, personal prestige, sex, entertainment, booze, drugs—legally prescribed or otherwise—pseudo-religion, etc.) The most they can do is to keep themselves ‘clean’ and inoculated against the spreading epidemic—and perhaps offer encouragement and support to other brave souls who are struggling to extricate themselves from the new and more materially comfortable prisons in which the beast is presently ‘serving time.’

These concerned ‘uncoverers’ of the sobering truth about beastly intoxication by exploitative, cynical (and just as morally obtuse) elites have at last figured out that simply increasing the power, but not the wisdom, of the beast-addicts is not a viable solution to the systemic meltdown that is underway. There is no good reason to believe that the beast, if given the reins of power, will proceed in a moderate and wise manner towards the restoration of order, sanity, and justice. So much for the much-vaunted ‘General Will’ of Rousseau. The uncoverer of the truth understands that the drug-and-intoxicant-supplying cartel must be overpowered and subordinated by a new elite—and certainly with the endorsement and cooperation of the feverish beast, since the sobriety-providing new elite cannot pull this off without the beast’s grudging assent. But how is the order-and-sanity-restoring elite going to bring about this ‘miracle,’ so long as the beast violently resists all enticements to sober it up? The new elites, then, are diametrically opposed to the drug dealer cartel. The new elites are like AA and Narcotics Anonymous leaders who have, themselves, overcome or avoided addiction. What they offer is indeed a painfully acquired salvation for those who are addicted and lacking in sufficient strength and determination to overcome their addiction. The new elite will appear to place almost impossible demands upon the beast. The cartel, now exposed, will energetically embark upon production of a new line of milder, less virulent narcotics and intoxicants (like the makers of low-tar cigarettes in the 70s) to keep their ‘market share’ as high as possible.

Cavemen (8/7/15)

To be awakened from the dream of human existence is thoroughly unpleasant and deeply disturbing for all who are not spiritually fit as a fiddle – since we are being awakened to our unconscious complicity in the hypocritical savagery and camouflaged cupidity that secretly drives and rules the “fallen world.” This realization is terribly painful and deeply humiliating – and only the strongest and most honest persons can sustain their awareness of this profoundly unflattering fact about themselves – and about our species, generally. A powerfully articulated account of this particularly unflattering insight is provided in Freud’s late essay, Civilization and its Discontents.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing, after all, to feel like an alien among cannibalistic sleepwalkers. If virtually everyone around you is deep asleep or dreaming and you, alone, are awake – it stands to reason that you might very well feel estranged from these snoozing and snoring others. And it makes sense that, under such conditions, you might also feel both vulnerability and a sense of responsibility for the sleepers and dreamers all around you. This pretty accurately describes my perception of those around me – as well as my sense of my peculiar relationship with them. Their somnolence and their enmeshment in dreams cuts them off from me and my sobering perceptions of our actual predicament. Their sleep shields them from consciousness of this predicament while I feel all the more alone, precisely because I have few reliably wakeful allies or companions with whom I can profitably explore our shared, actual predicament.

It has long since been absurd for me to measure and assess my life and my thoughts/perceptions by their collective standards and values. That leads nowhere but to bitter disappointment and despair. I can feel that old context or frame of reference gradually melting away – decomposing and collapsing. And with it, my former sense of personal identity – which was, all along, correlative or interdependent with that crumbling context – the context of human somnolence in dreams.

In Plato’s allegory, the philosopher who returns to the dimly-lit cave full of ignorant and deluded prisoners is transitioning from a natural standard (the sunlit realm above the cave) to an ethnocentric, merely cultural-conventional set of standards. It is not a difference in degree here, but a difference in kind – just as there is a difference in kind between a live animal and a stuffed one, or between an actual human being and his reflection in a mirror. This corresponds to the epistemological-ontological difference between waking experience and dream experience. The awakened mind sees things as they are while the dreamer sees only dreams and imagined creatures. The philosopher who returns to the cave makes a serious – and perhaps avoidable – mistake when he consents to the prisoners’ demand that he “form judgments about those shadows (on the cave wall) before his eyes have recovered (from his ascent to the sunlit surface above).” (517a) He would be wiser, no doubt, to undergo the necessarily painful sacrifice of his former cave-vision and cave-attachments and cleave to the natural, sun-illumined vision into which he has been initiated upon forcibly removing himself from the cave-prison. One must always view the shadows on the wall ironically, skeptically, disbelievingly.

This bold and courageous move (into the natural light of real, as opposed to culture-circumscribed, perception and understanding) involves a conscious repudiation of all claims of binding authority alleged or asserted by any culture, any religion, any system of philosophy – past, present, or to come.

The philosopher does not leave his original cave and become initiated into the free and true perception above-ground only so that he can turn around and search out another, more accommodating cave with slightly more enlightened convicts and shadow-mongers. No, he buckles down and undergoes the trying and lonely ordeal of relinquishing his former ties and attachments to cavemen, cave women, cave wisdom, and cave entertainment.

On the Difficulties Involved in Attempting to Move Beyond Politics and the Personal (10/14)

I recognize that what chiefly attracts me to various religious doctrines is not so much their function as guides within the realm of moral experience, but the light they shed upon transcendent, suprahuman truths. I am therefore more concerned with liberation from the arena of moral-political action and conflict than I am with learning how to thrive more optimally within that large arena. The truth is that I want to have as little to do with the moral-political and personal realms of experience as is minimally required to get through my life with as little worldly encumbrance as possible. By temperament and breeding, I am a contemplative—and a quietist. Over time I have weaned myself from much of my former worldliness and tempered my cupidity—divesting from the sorts of involvements, responsibilities, commitments, and pursuits that most active persons live for and by.

Because of this crucial difference between my contemplative, di-vested life and the more active, in-vested lives of others, I often find that I have little of substance to contribute to the ever-simmering cauldron of debate and (frequently confused) discussion of mundane affairs. In a real sense, I don’t have a dog in that fight. Such rights and privileges should rightfully be reserved for those persons of superior talent and experience who are deeply invested in, and committed to, worldly and ethical struggles.

And yet, in protesting my unfitness for meddling in cultural-political conundrums from which I have extricated myself to the extent that I can, I seem to be challenged by Plato and the old Hindus. At the summit of the social-political hierarchy of Plato’s Republic—and as the ruling caste in Indian cultural-political life—we find world-renouncing, contemplative philosopher-priests. Presumably, in the case of the Indians—and explicitly in the Socratic-Platonic arguments of the Republic—it is precisely because the philosopher and the Brahmin have ascetically renounced a personal stake in political affairs, having devoted themselves to spiritual-philosophical understanding, they can be trusted to rule wisely and justly.

And while I can surely appreciate the insightfulness of such arguments, history has shown us that their implementation—even to a limited or provisional extent—ultimately depends on the compliance and assent of the ‘invested,’ worldly majority. And how is such compliance and assent to be obtained? How are ordinary, worldly, desire-driven majorities persuaded to go against their perceived self-interest by an elite minority of unworldly Brahmins, priests, philosophers, and ascetics? Is there a snowball’s chance in hell of such a ‘coup’ being pulled off—and sustained? If there is one thing we’ve learned from history, it is this: blatant hypocrisy will not be tolerated for long in self-professed ‘world-renouncers.’ When the Vatican cardinals and many Catholic bishops became conspicuously worldly and ‘profane’ in their values and in their extravagant lifestyles, it was only natural that even uneducated peasants would be outraged by the flagrant hypocrisy and the abuse of church wealth and power for personal ends. But when candidates for leadership are, themselves, epitomes of acquisitiveness and the pursuit of sensual/worldly power in a sybaritic, consumerist culture that almost unanimously pursues the same aims, there is no foil or touchstone against which such ‘hypocrisy’ can be measured.

Thus, the ‘hierarchy’ (there’s always a hierarchy, except during those extremely rare episodes of complete social-political meltdown) that is in place today in the U.S. (and in most of the capitalist West) is one based almost entirely on economic-hedonistic aims and priorities. Hierarchies are pretty much defined by, and organized around, some arch-value or primary objective. In an unbridled globalized, neo-capitalist system—one that is only nominally regulated and restrained, such as we see today under corporate-domination of the planet, with its captive labor force and resources—the primary objective is the maximum accumulation of wealth in the pockets of the most successful players and functionaries in this game. This is certainly not the first time in human history that the accumulation of wealth was the principal aim of a people or nation, but because of the power unleashed by modern technology and mind control (through ultra-sophisticated media), the impact upon human life and welfare is exponentially greater than ever before. A simple comparison between 14th-15th century Florence and contemporary America will suffice: both are ostensibly motivated by capitalistic acquisitiveness, and while Dante describes well the moral degeneration of old Florence, we have that plus environmental and human degradation on a vastly larger scale.

Contra Rousseau (2/14)

The ‘general will’ is never the enlightened will. Therefore, any state founded upon the general will is ultimately bound to founder. Fortunately, no such states have ever actually existed—and if one ever did arise it would last no longer than a frat party crashed by uninvited, mischief-making ‘outsiders.’ In fact, the ‘general will’ is a phrase without meaning—like a signifier that points fecklessly to no actual, existing thing. We can indulge in a science fiction fantasy and say that immediately following an attack upon the earth by alien invaders, there may very well be a kind of forced or makeshift uniformity of the will of mankind—but within a few days, or even hours, people all over the place would be taking sides with the enemy against—in more than a few cases—even their own family members.

It is one thing to say that a state exists because of general forbearance and another thing altogether to say that it exists because of the general will. The former tends towards passivity and inertia—and therefore constitutes no more than an appearance of stability. The latter, however, tends towards volatility and seething activity and is therefore typically quite unstable and immoderate. Humans have always generally preferred merely apparent and torpid stability (and the false sense of security that it breeds) to actual, will-infused instability (and the chaotic disorientation that it spawns).

There is a third course—just as there is a third guna[1] (namely, sattva—or serene, detached harmony) distinct from rajas (restless, impulsive activity) and tamas (dense, weighty inertia)—but it has absolutely nothing to do with politics and mass behavior.


Songs of Innocence and Experience (9/11)

One of the principal benefits derived from my friendships—one that pertains more to our serious conversations than to any other mode of connection, perhaps—is that I am given an opportunity to present my soul and my views to a more or less qualified or knowledgeable listener—and vice versa.  I would perhaps go even further and declare that such conversational exchanges constitute the most valued and important feature of my relationships with other persons.

Conversation about ‘serious’ psychological, philosophical, cultural, and ethical issues—as a principal basis of friendship and bridge between souls—puts a premium on consciousness, while other grounds or bases for connection with others (shared lust, the need for emotional security, economic/professional advancement, distraction from boredom, etc.) might be best served by a relaxation or dimming of the often unforgiving light of consciousness.  Adam and Eve covered up their private parts after their fateful apple snack in the Garden of unselfconscious bliss.

I would propose that the satisfaction of my own basic emotional needs—for a warm and trusting embrace by others, especially by a suitable mate—is often hampered by my strong (and almost obsessive) drive to be as conscious as possible, both of myself and of others. The implication here is that we are best able to enjoy such ripple-free emotional and instinctual gratification when the lights of self-consciousness and consciousness of the other (his/her hidden motivations and compulsions, unexamined assumptions, childish hopes, weaknesses, moral illusions, etc.) are dimmed or altogether extinguished.  The innocence of the prelapsarian condition appears to be the proper context for such unalloyed gratification, but the problem, of course, is that before eating this fruit of the tree of knowledge (i.e., self-consciousness) Adam and Eve were little more than children, morally and spiritually.  They were as carefree and as unselfconscious as contented, sheltered beasts—the pampered pets of Yahweh.[1]  It was only by means of ‘sin’ (disobedience, driven by curiosity and the desire to be more) and subsequent exile from this Edenic state of utter dependency upon God, their Fabricator, that our first parents began the long (and the last time I checked, unfinished) journey towards authentic self-responsibility.

Sometimes I suspect that the only way I might ever genuinely re-experience complete and utter gratification of my deep emotional longings for happiness among my own kind would involve repressing this vehement drive to be conscious—at which point I would presumably sink back into the sweet imbecility of infantile innocence.  There are other, less drastic ways to recover this blessed state of blissful oblivion (or numbness) besides alcoholism, heroin addiction, obsessive philandering, and prefrontal lobotomies.  These less radical means of blunting, dulling, and distracting our consciousness of our ‘fall’ from innocence are so numerous and so commonplace that some of us have been tempted to equate them (in their assembled, interrelated form) with civilization itself.  To the extent that our civilized, domesticated habits constitute a mental buffer against the ‘raw deal’ of our naked existential predicament, they direct our attention and our disposable energies along constructive lines.  Thus, they harmlessly occupy our minds, hearts, and bodies, distracting us from the nastier and less savory elements within ourselves—and which often appear to be inherent in existence itself.  In fairness to ourselves, let us admit that a direct, unfiltered confrontation with these darker elements or ingredients (within ourselves, within those we love, within nature, within—dare we say it!—God, or the Gods) is not for the faint of heart.  We should bear in mind that such undiluted (un-deluded?) visions have driven many strong persons to madness or despair.  The squeamish and the unfit are only obeying their prudent, life-and-sanity-preserving instincts when they think twice before venturing too deeply into the woods or caves they have not earned the right to venture into, let alone explore.

In other words, their fears have a certain legitimacy.  Such fears are not unwarranted or worthy of anyone’s sneer of contempt.  They should be humanely respected, though never celebrated or admired.  But the means that weak and unready persons employ to ‘come to terms’ with the raw deal of actual human existence are not exempt from moral assessment and evaluation in terms of their baseness or nobility, decency or depravity.  If we will concede that it is one of the tasks of culture to temper a people’s exposure to these darker and more disturbing elements within our own and the universe’s very constitution, that culture shirks its office (and forfeits its claims to respectability) as soon as it fosters mere escape from, or denial of, these daunting and often indigestible factors.  For one thing, such escapism only further erodes the already limited power of the ordinary human being to withstand these painful and corrosive truths—elevating a precarious state of affairs into a critical situation.  Secondly, as with the alcoholic who drinks to forget his troubles, denial and escapism can never rid us of the problems that we flee from.  They only become worse the longer they go untended.  This, I believe, is a fairly accurate description of the general situation we are in today in the U.S.—in the world as a whole, perhaps.  But because of the prosperity we have enjoyed for so long, now, it has been easier to generate and to underwrite the thousand and one distractions and diversions that have acted like an enormous prophylactic, preventing the insemination of the ‘innocent, virginal’ collective mind—and thus impregnating it with the truth about our actual, existential predicament.  Each one of us knows—or should know—where his or her familiar escape routes are, where refuge from consciousness (and the anxiety that naturally attends such consciousness) is to be readily found.

[1] One can only wonder what real profit or delight God could derive from those afternoon conversations he is reported to have shared with that tender churl, Adam.  It is difficult to know which one to feel more sorry for: Yahweh, for having to abide the dim-wittedness of his pitifully unsophisticated conversation partner and hand-crafted ‘meat puppet,’ or Adam, for the pressure he was under to say something ‘interesting’ to the Artificer of the universe, confined to a limited vocabulary (of his own invention) that consisted mostly of animal names.

Thoughts on Independence Day

Humans naturally desire a kind of moral compass or guidance system with which to navigate through the often tough choices and situations that life throws at us all.  Under ideal circumstances, the ethical values or standards that we defer to would be part of the weave of our own hearts, minds, souls—and not merely in some revered text or tablets of culturally-imposed commandments, served up to us from a pulpit or a Smartphone.

The question, I suppose, that intrigues me here is: “How does one advance from faithful obedience to environmentally derived and enforced moral commandments and prescriptions to a presumably more mature state of affairs wherein the internally rooted (and cultivated) moral resources start to prevail?”  If the adoption of culturally inherited moral laws and principles may be likened to the use of training wheels to keep us upright while we’re learning to ride a bicycle during childhood, the eventual aim is to achieve sufficient balance and confidence to remove those supporting wheels and ride independently, is it not?

It has not escaped my notice that certain persons become incensed with muffled indignation whenever they observe someone genuinely dispensing with the training wheels.  They have learned to navigate through their moral dilemmas without continually referring to some scriptural passage or citing some hallowed philosophical principle to prop them up and sanction what they’re doing or saying.  So, what triggers such indignation and resentment?  What lies behind the ‘righteous anger’ that obedient ‘believers’ occasionally direct towards more independent, self-reliant thinkers and actors?  Is it petty childishness?  Is it something like the obedient, approval-craving, younger brother saying to his more independent, self-directed older sibling, “How dare you act without Mom and Dad’s permission and approval!”?  Mightn’t this merely be a confession of his own lack of ‘adult’ independence and self-assurance instead of an indication of his unquestioning filial obedience—so that a disguised weakness is slyly parading itself as a virtue?  And, of course, such pesky little prigs generally desire nothing so much as to see their elder, more independent siblings punished for defying established authority and acting on their own.  Such tiresome little goody-goodies and tattle-tales are always ready and eager to shout with a sneer, “See, I told you so!” as soon as mavericks become bruised and bloodied from their collisions with the stony wall of conformity, or when ‘free spirits’ and ‘heretics’ receive a humiliating public drubbing from philistines.

Perhaps the most grievous and irretrievable loss that we suffer in our obedient conformity to principles and rules that we have not road-tested and ‘authorized’ ourselves is that we are thereby insidiously deformed into liars, both to ourselves and to everyone around us.  Without ever realizing what we’re throwing away, we resign ourselves to the indisputable, damning fact that we—and pretty much everyone we’re affiliated with in our morally and intellectually smug, enthusiastically self-righteous conformity to ‘game rules’ that we have neither genuinely understood nor arrived at through our own efforts and exertions—are no more than loud-mouthed little hypocrites.  Could it be true, as some have suggested, that this ‘type’ comprises upwards of 90% of humanity, now as ever?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnawing, needling suspicion of his own pettiness, puniness, and fundamental duplicity actually spurs on the phlegmatic, hypocritical conformist to noisier and ever noisier name-calling and vilification of the truly independent and self-authorizing persons he secretly envies, while his own timidity, mendacity, and passivity are his true enemies.  His deep hatred for the independent spirit stems largely from the disquieting fact that such persons—rare though they be—cannot help but direct an unnerving spotlight on all the conformist’s unflattering flaws, failings, and blind spots.  What poor wretches most of us prove to be as soon as the searchlight of truth is directed inside that dark, reverberant cave that is our ‘soul’!  No wonder so many of us run from that searchlight as passionately as we would from a humorless I.R.S. auditor or a zealously probing proctologist!

The truly independent spirit cannot help but feel flickers and cinders of scorn and contempt for cowardice when he stumbles upon it within himself.  It turns his stomach when his ruthless searchlight exposes self-deception or dishonesty lurking and skulking within his soul.  To be sure, he has a knowledgeable grasp of these flaws and weaknesses, but self-understanding is not equivalent to ‘indulgent acceptance’ or ‘patient tolerance’—at least not in his own case, where the very fate of his soul is at stake.  Certainly he displays ‘patient understanding’ and forbearance where the weaknesses and failings of others are concerned.  He humbly acknowledges that these are beyond his jurisdiction, unlike the worms and spiders squirming and spinning webs and stories within his own breast. The independent, self-responsible spirit knows that others’ inner blindnesses and weaknesses are not his business precisely because he understands ultimately only we ourselves can do anything ultimate for or against our Self-liberation.  To be sure, others may offer helpful advice and even profound instruction but, in the end, it comes down to a confrontation between the individual soul and its mysteriously impersonal source, does it not?