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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Excavating Ourselves (3/30/12)

Where the deeper and more existentially important matters in our lives are concerned, much more is beyond our conscious reach and control than we are inclined to believe—particularly in the atomized, personal ego-driven, consumerist culture we live in today. I would go further and say that, for most of us, those matters of which we do possess some real understanding and control are comparatively trivial and insignificant when set beside the habit-reinforced, structural factors that operate (very much like digestion and our immune systems) well below the threshold of our consciousness. These are the ‘determining’ and predisposing factors that mysteriously shape, steer, and color our conscious thoughts and feelings—about the world, about ourselves, and about others—before we think, before we feel, before we choose or decide. We learn that we are invisibly and inescapably bound in unwitting servitude to such factors as soon as we dig down to a certain depth. And because these factors are for the most part unconscious, they operate behind our backs like invisible gases that intoxicate, enrage, depress, sexually excite, inspire, and panic us. They may be likened to invisible puppeteers that move us about without our knowledge or consent.

Some of these puppet strings were already in place before we were born—others were fastened to us later (following our ‘formative’ experiences with Mommy, Daddy, Father Hamilton, S.J., Uncle Sam, Ma Bell and her corporate kin, etc.)—but we cannot untie ourselves from them unless and until we become conscious of them as being somehow other than us. As long as we are oblivious to these strings and the powers that move them and us around, we will only be able to throw up our hands and say, each time they act up, ‘Well, that’s just me! I wish I were different, but that’s who I am.’ So long as we believe ourselves to be consubstantial with these unseen determining factors, we will never really be free of their power and authority over us. It is easy to see this in cases of alcohol or drug addiction—but these are comparatively crude and destructive forms of servitude. The forms that we are concerned with here are subtle and—aside from the fact that they operate beyond our conscious control—just as frequently benign, harmless, and even salutary as they are malignant, pathological, and disturbing.

Obviously, the most important first step we can take to liberate ourselves from these automatic, fate-deciding psychological complexes is to make them conscious. This means differentiating them from what I will call our essential self. As long as these complexes and patterns remain unconscious, they will remain undifferentiated from—or merged with—our core sense of personal identity. After we make headway differentiating our complexes, they become increasingly objectified. We learn about them—how they operate. We learn to recognize when we are most vulnerable to their domination, etc. But in order to proceed successfully with this sort of inner work, the psyche itself has to be understood in a radically new way. For many of us it comes as a surprise to learn that the psyche is every bit as real, enormous, complex, and ‘objective’ as the outer world and the vast universe are. We come to learn that we are in the psyche—just as we are in the universe. This is a very different perspective than the common (unenlightened) one, which locates the psyche ‘in’ us. Of course, the simple reason this actual arrangement is so hard for many Western persons to see is because our (individual and collective) attention is almost always directed outwards, in keeping with the deeply-rooted, one-sided prejudices of our materialistic, activity-obsessed, literalistic, anti-metaphorical, and unreflective culture. These prejudices must, one by one, be seen through and deconstructed before we can extricate our minds from their blinding and deforming influence. This is no small feat, of course, and considerable intellectual energy, discipline, and leisure will be required in order to make significant headway with this excavation work. We are ex-cavating ourselves (with an oblique reference here to Plato’s allegory of the cave) from the limited horizons of the prevalent modern Western worldview. Unless and until we truly begin to see this worldview (into which we were inserted at birth, just as we were dropped into our particular household, complete with our actual parents, socioeconomic prospects, religious affiliation, ethnic group, language group, etc.) as a historically conditioned, largely constructed and collective-habit-cemented, functional monstrosity, we are almost guaranteed to mistake it for ‘the truth’ or for ‘reality’—plain and simple—when in fact it is probably more accurate to describe it as a filter or veil standing in the way of more honest (and therefore messy) experience.

Ego and Spirit (10/3/12)

A state of unruffled, serene composure is what is left over after all the numerous, naturally-arising distractions of our attention have been gently but thoroughly rebuffed and brought to a stop. For the intellectual, who seems to thrive on the stimulation provided by fresh and provocative ideas, the deliberate cessation of all lines of thought feels almost like a betrayal of his calling. For the moral enthusiast, whose delicious sense of self-worth and personal importance hinges upon his unceasing efforts to ‘do the right thing’ for his fellows, the unplugging from all such thoughts and sentiments can feel like a gross dereliction of duty. For the man of action, whose very sense of identity is bound up with staying busily involved with his absorbing projects, such willed moments of stillness come up against every imaginable form of resistance. In short, numberless are the distractions that eclipse the serene stillness and contentment that are always just within the reach of the quieted mind.

If self-mastery consists largely in learning how to inhabit this ‘still point’ with greater ease and for longer stretches of time, then it depends to a great extent upon our learning how to not do, not think, and not be moved all over the mental chess board or billiard table by our habitual feelings and insistent passions. And yet, for most of us, these are precisely the factors that constitute our ‘humanity’ and our sense of personal identity. Little wonder, then, that they should put up such a fight as soon as our spiritual self (atman) begins to gently announce its presence. It is like the clash or collision between two diametrically opposed worlds, in a sense. The spirit is essentially free. It exists on its own, independently, in a liberated state. But the moment our absorption in that state of spiritual liberation is disturbed by the powerful distractions produced by (our consciousness of) the body, the emotions, and the intellect (i.e., the ego), we cannot help but see and interpret that ego (and its concerns) in completely new way. We begin to understand freedom in a radically new sense. Put simply, we learn that freedom, which is innate to the spirit, is essentially freedom from, while, from the ego’s perspective, it is understood as freedom to. But freedom to do what?

Since the ego is driven by—one might go so far as to say founded upon—desire, fear, and the will to power, freedom is understood to mean the satisfaction of its desires, the continual enhancement and extension of its will to power, and the control (or outright annihilation) of all feared/despised objects. As long as we are identified with the ego, our notion of freedom will naturally conform to these egoic objectives. As soon as there is genuine contact with the spirit, the ego necessarily experiences a profound crisis. Why is this?

From the spirit’s perspective, the ego (as a reified psychological complex) is prone to enslavement by its natural drives, habits, fears, ambitions, and cravings. The more intensely and vehemently the ego pursues its natural (literal, concretistic) aims, the deeper it digs itself into the hole of its imprisonment, which corresponds with its implicit belief in its primacy, its independent reality, and its ‘given’—as opposed to ‘constructed’—nature. Contact with the spirit does two things, then, for the ego. First of all, it presents a vividly experienceable form of freedom and contentment that is utterly new and utterly different from the appetitive forms of freedom and pleasure that it is accustomed to pursuing. Secondly, it subtly—one might almost say insidiously—poisons the ego’s naïve or innocent trust in its goals, its modus operandi, and its general assumptions about itself and the world. The ego gets a glimpse—an unforgettable taste—of the spirit’s radically different form of freedom. This spiritual freedom, as suggested earlier, is not only far more substantial and profound than the fleeting, unstable pleasures and successes won upon the human ego battlefield, but they expose the concretistic, compulsive, and consuming character of the ego’s fundamental tendencies—its dark and smoky engines, if you like.

‘Even if I win, I lose’: thus muses the newly enlightened (and therefore thoroughly humbled) ego. ‘I could be emperor of this world, and I would never really be secure, or contented, or certain of anything—except, that is, certain of my folly for choosing dominion over the whole wide world above humble abidance in the spirit that I have been mysteriously visited by.’

Death in Life (4/7/12)

From time to time I remember, all over again, what a prodigious misfit I am within my cultural world—if not within this species! My daimon must either be an avatar or an atavism—or more than a little of both. If I ask myself what is at the bottom of my misfitness, the first thing that leaps to mind is the recognition that the lights I strive to live by are noticeably different from—and often diametrically opposed to—the aims and purposes that almost everyone I know lives by. Sometimes I seem to be trying to undo what virtually everyone in this culture was brought up to do, to seek, to shoot for. I, too, was brought up much the same way, but obviously at some basic level it never took. My notion of freedom increasingly assumes the character of ‘wu-wei’ or ‘not-doing.’ This is certainly not born of laziness—since ‘not doing’ seems, paradoxically, to require a good deal more initiative and concentration than conforming to the generally prescribed norms and hitching my wagon to popularly endorsed pursuits, political figures, opinions, behaviors, etc.

‘Doing’ in the collectively sanctioned and endorsed ways often seems to entail ‘going with the flow,’ something I have instinctively resisted—in large part because this indeed strikes me as the lazy way of going about one’s business, even if such doing frequently involves burning off a lot of calories. It often amounts to a lot of huffing and puffing simply to push oneself further and faster in the very direction in which everything is already heading. (When and if the ‘giant pendulum’ reverses—as I am certain that it always eventually does—those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first—in the new direction. But staying close to the center is the most prudent and moderate course to follow, I reckon.)

How do I feel about this general situation that I have sketched here? I can honestly say that I am neither happy and content nor ashamed and dejected—but, depending on the day and the circumstances, somewhere in between. The ‘human’ in me understandably longs for the soothing and affirming embrace of my fellow mortals—but the daimon subtly discourages my taking any more than a modest share of such comfort, since a few companions of quality outweigh a battalion of fragments. To continue to remain true and faithful in my service, the daimon limits me to only the most carefully chosen and mutually respectful affiliations with a handful of other like-minded comrades. Thus, soul-making is a kind of death in life, which, as it turns out, is infinitely preferable to the empty life of a dead soul.

Clutching my Crutches (2/7/12)

On my more honest days, I am willing to acknowledge how much I rely on being able to make reasonably coherent statements (of a philosophical-psychological character) in order to prop up my general sense of spiritual well-being. In admitting this I am not quite conceding that my philosophical claims make no positive contribution to other inquiring minds or that their function as supports for my spiritual well-being is their only salutary function. In blunter words, I am not ready to grant that these philosophical observations and speculations are merely consoling fictions I tell myself (and anyone else who will listen) simply in order to shield myself from the corrosive waves of ‘nihilism,’ ‘cynicism,’ and ‘pessimism’ that incessantly lap against my vulnerable shoreline.

It seems to be true, then, that my daily invocation of a select set of theoretical/spiritual principles plays a crucially decisive role in fighting back these waves and occasionally devastating tsunamis. Apparently, I see myself as a man besieged and that if I did nothing I would soon be engulfed by the muddy flood threatening to over-run the sandbag wall of philosophical journal entries behind which I have encamped for safety’s sake…for purity’s sake…for ‘God’s sake.’ For let me be candid: at some level I seem to believe that I am going about ‘my Father’s business’ in sheltering my soul from the mud and the slime that beset me on all sides—don’t I? How might this (now not so secret) conception of myself as a ‘servant of God’s plan’ feed into my pride and egotism? How might it widen and deepen the imagined gulf between me and ‘the others,’ those ‘ignorant and lost sheep’ who have swallowed down so much dirty, slimy floodwater that they are on the verge of drowning? What can I possibly do to assist such beleaguered souls? Don’t I have my hands full simply trying to maintain a hygienic distance from them? For in all honesty—aren’t they the flood? Or at least the contaminated carriers of all those malignant, microbial pathogens that I work so hard to keep away from my person—out of my breathing space? Is misanthropy simply one more occupational hazard faced by anyone working for God, Inc.? (Ltd.?)

Perhaps my job description needs to be revised—expanded and made more complex—in order that I may work more effectively and more humanely at what I am called to do. If the good doctor of bodies hates the disease but not the patient, the good doctor of souls will hate the sin but not the sinner. The medical doctor confronts his string of ailing patients face to face—he does not flee from them, even if he avoids taking unnecessary risks (by kissing and sharing needles with them). Likewise, the spiritual physician—recognizing the real distinction between ‘corrupted’ and sound elements within himself—assists those whom he can with their own gradual recovery. He does not shun them, even when he suspects that they are beyond hope for recovery. For these, in particular, he summons from within himself the deepest compassion. Such ‘incurables,’ however, are perhaps not as common as we might suspect.

The Great Reversal (7/13/11)

These days, the animating psychic energy required for propping up and sustaining established cultural norms, conventional morality and religion, along with the precarious sense of community and public trust, is being undercut by a far more powerful force. This ongoing process erodes and undermines the credibility of the former collective values and beliefs. It is not so much a matter of the values and beliefs being worthless, per se. The problem is that more and more persons are responding, either consciously or instinctively, to collective psychic changes that are occurring below the surface of our everyday lives. The general will and the springs of belief are drying up from within as this mysterious new specter approaches, sucking the blood, as it were, from out of the mortally wounded, inherited culture. This ‘leeching’ makes the inherited values and beliefs impotent in the face of our mounting crisis. And although a growing number of persons sense this widespread, frightening transformation that is underway, few of us really understand it within a meaningful context. We hear people talking about ‘the end times,’ the ‘apocalypse,’ and the paralyzing spread of nihilism—of the decline of Western civilization after its long and impressive run. It is true that we see undeniable signs of demoralization, decay, cynicism, spiritual despair and exhaustion all around and within us. But, given the cyclical nature of life and the compensatory character of the unconscious, we would be wise to remember that where one thing is ending, another is always beginning; where one thing dies, another is being born.

There are, of course, many ways to describe or to account for the world-historical transformation we are enmeshed in. The account I propose is simply one more way of trying to ‘come to terms’ with the process of momentous, sweeping change that is underway. Many of us see only the destructive and grim aspects of this far-reaching transformation, but there are just as many creative and salutary possibilities packed into this process as destructive ones, I would contend.

I would propose that the major symptoms of these dramatic changes and this apparent destruction can be profitably diagnosed in terms of a ‘turning of the tide’ of psychic energy deep beneath the surface of the ordinary waking consciousness of each and every individual. If the powerful current of that stream of collective psychic energy has generally been directed outwards for the last seven or eight hundred years of Western cultural life and experience, what we may be seeing now is a great reversal of that current undergoing, so that more and more of that energy is being redirected inwards. We might imagine a giant pendulum that, having reached its outermost verge, stops momentarily, and begins to swing back in the opposite direction.

Such ‘world-historical,’ sweeping reversals of the tide of collective psychic energy and attention appear to have occurred before now, so ours is by no means an isolated case. The historical record vividly documents the disturbances, the general sense of disorientation, the mysterious withering up and submergence of formerly vital cultural forms and institutions—all the symptoms that precede and accompany these peculiar reversals of the direction of psychic energy and attention. Of course, such reversals do not occur overnight, but often require a century or two before the full and undeniable evidence of the ‘turnaround’ is plain for all to see—in retrospect. Moreover, the changes can (and often do) begin in one region or culture group sooner than in another, but eventually all interrelated cultural groups are swept into the general transformation. Thus, following the collapse of the Greek polis (as a political/cultural institution), the exhaustion produced by the 30-year Peloponnesian war, the humiliating conquest by the Macedonian Philip, the spread of corrosive philosophical skepticism and religious disbelief—the formerly vital, expansive, and outer-directed Greek civilization began to show unmistakable signs of such a reversal. We see the spirited conquest of Egypt, Persia, Babylon, and other Eastern realms by the post-Hellenic, proto-Hellenistic Alexander. Forthwith, we have the exportation of the largely vacated ‘shell’ of classical Greek civilization like a franchise (rather as the models for ‘American democracy’ and ‘American consumerism’ are exported—and forcibly imposed—today). The philosophical schools that emerged during this late, transitional phase—the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans—were, at bottom, ‘coping philosophies’—a rather different animal than the creative, transformative philosophical activities of the Pre-Socratics—Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and the Eleatics, Parmenides and Zeno—from three centuries earlier.

At any event, during the Hellenistic era—after the conquests of Alexander—we begin to note discernible evidence of this turning inwards, not merely for solace in a world that seems to be unraveling or decaying before one’s very eyes, but because persons appear to be called inside by the collective psyche itself. The collective psyche’s long periods of expansiveness—of turning outward towards the world, towards physis, and towards the city and man—has crested and this is followed by a general withering and withdrawal of interest, attention, and energy from those objects and pursuits. We could note here the mystery cults (of Attis, Adonis, Isis, Mithras, Dionysus, and others) that spoke to the spiritual and emotional needs of the less ‘philosophical,’ ordinary men and women of the Hellenistic era. Groups of devotees underwent initiatory rites in exclusive cults that promised personal salvation for the believers and which had nothing to do with political life or the recognized gods of the state. These people were turning inwards and making souls for themselves in a way that would have been unimaginable during the classical period, when the life of the polis and obedience to the state gods meant everything.

The Roman world would also undergo an analogous process of expansion followed by a gradual drying up from within—only to be succeeded by an ‘other-worldly’ Christian Church that oversaw the ‘interiorized’ and (greatly reduced) cultural lives of a very different sort of creature—the men and women of the so-called ‘Dark Age’ or Medieval era.

But what can all this mean for confused, anxious, disoriented persons living today? Are we heading directly and irreversibly into a new ‘Dark Age’ where the lights of civilization begin to dimly flicker and possibly even be blown out by the cold wind that is noticeably gaining strength and speed on the ominous horizon? There are not a few today who dread such a dismal, worst-case scenario being played out. Many of us living in ‘developed’ nations recognize how inescapably dependent we are upon external, non-local factors over which we have little or no real control. There’s oil. There’s water. There are the bafflingly complex economic and political factors that even our revered and handsomely paid ‘experts’ are evidently stumped by, despite all their proud posturing and pontificating. There is the deplorably flawed and short-sighted public educational system that seems to warp, cripple, and deform more minds than it nourishes, strengthens, and ripens to maturity. The list could go on to depressive lengths, but my point is simple: the external props and supports for our familiar way of life are shaky—though few of us know how to live ‘off the grid.’ Moreover, an increasingly large number of intelligent and thoughtful persons are raising serious questions about the true value of this whole way of life that we have become dependent upon and embedded in—the only way of life most of us living today have ever known. And although the majority of U.S. citizens lack direct and intimate exposure to other cultures (especially those that are less technologically developed/dependent, and more ‘traditional’)—either through travel or through historical education—it is beginning to dawn on some of us that we cannot simply take our good fortune for granted. In spite of our circumstantial insulation and educational isolation, some of us are actually beginning to realize that we are not simply entitled to a much bigger share of the world’s limited goods and resources simply because we happen to be Americans. Some of us are beginning to acknowledge just how imbalanced and unfair the distribution of the world’s goods and services is—and we cannot help but suspect that as a nation of ‘haves,’ we are both envied and resented by the ‘have nots’—both within and beyond our borders.

The inner discomfort provoked by such disturbing reflections has prompted a number of us to examine more deeply the complex array of practical and psychological dilemmas bound up with our consumerist way of life—a privileged way of life that is certainly not unique to us or wholly unprecedented in earlier phases of Western history—but never on such a massive scale. And now, as we all know, China and India are rapidly mobilizing their teeming populations to follow in our consumerist footsteps. There is a rather desperate—and blind—urgency or compulsiveness to our consumerism that is not all that difficult to perceive. The ‘pathological’ excessiveness of our national obsession with consumption, with buying far more than we really need and spending more than we earn (both at the individual and federal levels), is a mass psychological symptom, I would argue, of the ‘great reversal’ that is now underway.

I recall something from my own past that might shed some light here. I was a smoker ‘back in the day’ but, by and by, I felt a strong need to quit. I was acutely aware of the negative impact that the smoking was having on my health—and of how deeply the talons of this habit had penetrated into my mind and body. So, I would set a date to quit. And as the date approached, knowing that after April 1st I would never be able to smoke again, I would naturally smoke more and more cigarettes—overdoing it because I was not going to be able to have them anymore after the cut-off date.

Then April 1st would roll around and I would manage to tough it out for the whole day without indulging. Then the next day. And then the next day. But then, around the fourth or fifth of April, I would be drinking a Dewar’s and soda with some buddies, engaged in a riveting bull session about Nietzsche or Noam Chomsky and I would tell myself ‘OK, you’ve been a good boy. You’ve managed to go four days without lighting up. You’ve demonstrated that you can lick this thing. You deserve to have a smoke—now that you have proven that you can control yourself.’

But then, after I smoked that one cigarette, I would soon find myself right back in the clutches of my old habit—and the whole escalating spiral would resume. Perhaps all of us have some particular weakness or vice where we simply cannot walk sure-footedly around the rim without tumbling down the hole. Skirt-chasing, alcohol, TV-watching, gourmandizing, online shopping, and dozens of other potential addictions and compulsions I have been able to moderate or control. For reasons I did not quite understand, cigarette smoking was that one vice for me that allowed for no halfway measures. If I quit, it had to be decisive and final because it was bigger than me. I can see now, after having quit for over a decade, that smoking, for me, was far more than a physical addiction or craving.

Although I cannot claim to fully understand what the smoking temporarily put to sleep—or held at bay—in me, I can see that some deep and potent source of anxiety was momentarily quieted or muffled when I would smoke. Paradoxically, the anxiety was intimately implicated with death and my mortality. In some strange, inexplicable way, when I smoked I had the vague sense that I had my hands on the dimmer switch of my own life, if that makes any sense—or, that I had my hands on the wheel and my foot on the accelerator of the vehicle (of my life) that would eventually either run out of gas or crash. The anxiety that I was obliged to face after I finally quit the cigarettes stemmed from the troubling but apparent truth that, aside from committing suicide, such matters were quite beyond my control, out of my reach. As perverse as it no doubt sounds, in actively participating in bringing about my own death through the slow and gradual suicide of heavy smoking, I had the sense that I was robbing chance and impersonal, uncaring fate of that office or privilege. This is merely one aspect of what cigarette smoking came to signify for me during a long marriage that ended in an amicable divorce.

Eventually I became strong enough, I suppose, to grudgingly acknowledge my actual helplessness vis-à-vis the larger forces of fate, of irrational compulsions, and of those weaknesses (like smoking was for me) that are rationalized into ‘coping mechanisms.’ But the strength had to be won through a sustained exertion of the will. Understanding my dilemma was certainly helpful, but it was never enough to actually do the work for me. For that, it was necessary not merely to wean myself from my numbing and ‘grounding’ vice of cigarette smoking, but to withstand the protracted confrontation with those mysterious anxieties that had been kept precariously ‘below deck’ by my little addiction and the associated ‘mind game,’ which was for the most part unconsciously played. All this by way of a personal, biographical illustration of what I believe to be an analogous problem in collective consumerism.

The Most Serious Game (2/16/11)

Culture may be viewed as a game with elaborate rules. Language is not only a crucial component of human culture, but is also a rule-based system. Now, insofar as culture and language can be regarded as complex games, we cannot dismiss the important role they serve in providing us with a reliable arena for the regular exercise of our play instincts.

When many of us think of the play instinct we picture little tots or puppies, but I am inclined to see play as serious business, insofar as human well-being and psychological health are concerned. If we are thoroughly engaged with a thriving and balanced culture, our psychic and affective energies are granted freer play than would be possible if we were disengaged or alienated from that culture. And alternatively, if we are thoroughly engaged but the culture turns out to be severely dysfunctional—or lacking a living myth to infuse its members with an unshakable sense of meaning and direction—we’ve got a problem.

After watching the movie ‘Winter’s Bone’ (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakaway film from 2010) recently, some friends recommended two documentaries that also deal with Appalachian or ‘hillbilly’ life—‘American Hollow’ and ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.’ Both documentaries chronicle (for one year) the lives and fortunes of two extended families from ‘the hills.’ What I found particularly interesting about these two films was the way they captured the intense frustrations that some human beings experience in a cultural system that is utterly deficient in its ability to accommodate and to channel the naturally occurring drives, impulses, and longings of more spirited specimens. It was clear, from watching these very instructive little films, that unless the ‘game opportunities’ afforded by a culture are sufficiently engaging and rewarding to the more spirited and talented members of that culture, serious problems are pretty much guaranteed to arise. As in the sports arena or the competitive workplace in a thriving economy, an excellent cultural system provides its engaged ‘players’ with channels and outlets for the aggressive, creative, erotic, and social energies that cry out for discharge and expression. When they are denied expression or a lawful means of discharge, they don’t just vanish into thin air. They accumulated and explode or they express themselves in ‘inappropriate’ and often destructive behaviors, as was shown in these anthropologically insightful films.

But let us go back to our initial question concerning the problematic relationship—or is it, as Nietzsche suggests, a separation?—between nature (and presumably the human-animal instincts that bind us to nature), on the one hand, and culture (along with language and abstract concepts), on the other. One way of defining the complex, transformative process of taking a newborn human child and gradually civilizing him or her is to say that the natural instincts of the child are being awakened, reconfigured, and redirected in such a way as to shift his or her primary allegiance from merely animal satisfactions to ones that are rooted in, and sanctioned by, culture. Of course this involves ‘taming’ and ‘domestication’— especially those socially disruptive, aggressive, and erotic drives—but domestication is not annihilation and taming is not always laming. The ideal aim of the civilizing process—whether this is consciously acknowledged or not—is to preserve as much of the strength of the natural instincts as possible while conscripting them into the service of civilization. Christianity—the way Nietzsche and others have seen and understood it, at least—has failed to live up to this ideal, insofar as it has systematically sought to weaken, cripple, poison, and vilify these aggressive and erotic instincts. But, not to worry: Thank God most ‘Christians’ can be relied upon to be arrant hypocrites who profess one thing and do quite another. Thankfully, Western humanity has not perished from actually living in a genuinely Christian manner. The redirected instinctual drives are not eradicated, but subordinated to the interests of society as a whole. The complex mechanism (or glutinous web) linking the individual members in a shared system is culture, along with its child, language.

Such reflections caution me against drawing a thick, solid line between purely natural instincts (innate; given at birth) and ‘artificial,’ ‘invented’ language and culture (which are acquired from our already semi-acculturated/semi-barbarous parents, teachers, peers). Is it too much of a speculative leap to posit a natural bridge between the human organism—as it is given at birth—and culture as such? By saying ‘culture as such’ I mean, of course, culture in its essential features or ingredients—a language, an ethos or table of values, a social scheme or hierarchy, a sense of history or cultural memory, etc.—and not a specific instance, e.g., Javanese or Berber culture. If ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ really are like apples and oranges—as some philosophers, psychologists, and religious teachers would have us believe—then I suspect that fewer of us would so resignedly allow ourselves to be shackled into our chair in Plato’s ‘cave,’ his famous image of the insulating and containing bubble of a cultural scheme—any cultural scheme. The simple fact that most human beings sincerely, if somewhat naïvely, conflate their inherited cultural worldview with ‘reality,’ as such, strongly suggests that it is not a simple matter of nature and culture being fundamentally conflicted or antithetical systems. This is an enormous and complex philosophical question and it admits of many complicating factors, to be sure, so we must beware of trying to settle or to simplify the issue too quickly. Blake wrote:

Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. And being restrained it by degrees becomes passive till it is only shadow of desire. (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, pl. 5)

Blake’s suspicions and misgivings about bending to reason’s yoke of restraint must, I think, be understood within the revolutionary cultural climate in which he serves as a powerfully dissenting voice. He was aware of the fact that European culture’s aims and functions had long been under the unchallenged sway of an elite political, aristocratic, and ecclesiastic minority for the enhancement of their own power and wealth at the expense of the masses, who were poor and uneducated—just the way elites like them. Blake recognized that the old ‘game’ was being changed by revolutionaries. Those who were being welcomed into the new game were a new breed of entrepreneurial players, persons whose political and economic ambitions had been thwarted and suppressed by the old aristocratic order. This emergent bourgeoisie was also restricted in numbers and, despite all its lip service on behalf of ‘enlightenment,’ these acquisitive and industrious makers of the modern world were often even more restricted in the scope and depth of their humanity, so far as Blake could see.

The architects of the new game of modernity, with its capitalistic, anti-theological, technocratic, scientistic, and materialistic tendencies made up Blake’s unholy trinity: Bacon, Newton, and Locke. To be sure, there were other thinkers and artists besides Blake who were deeply suspicious of these founders of modernity (perhaps Machiavelli, Descartes, and Hobbes should be included among the ‘villains’). They, too, warned against dangers they saw coming as a consequence of the momentous scientific, socio-political, and industrial revolutions that were reshaping every aspect of culture. Goethe said that his poetical works were not nearly as important as his methodological challenges to Newton’s abstract, mathematical physics. The German poet was convinced that the new mathematical physics—because it led to a view of the cosmos that so vastly transcended the reach of our unaided senses and which ignored our human feelings—posed a dangerous threat to human psychological wholeness and integrity. As Goethe saw it, the new physics elevated instrumental reason and material processes to such a high status, the human soul and its vitalizing sources—the senses, the feelings, and the imagination—were being tacitly neglected, devalued, and eclipsed. I needn’t point out the fact that Goethe was quite prescient about this. We’ve sent men to the moon and we now have nuclear weapons. Our technological might is as enormous as our souls and imaginations are cramped, starved, impotent, and alone in a vast and uncaring universe. Worldviews bear the stamp of the methods and means that give birth to them. What gets left out of, or excluded from, the method gets left out of the ‘world’—or gets relegated to the realm of insignificance.

But lordy, I must sound like I am disenchanted and discontented with this modern, technologically spellbinding era in which I was fortunate enough to have been dropped like an apple. An era that upwards of 99 percent of my human ancestors would have sold their daughters and their grandmothers to have been part of. But my guess is that eventually they would have been disappointed and disenchanted, too. They would have made the forgivable mistake of assuming that they could have brought their innocent, life-affirming, richly endowed cultural inheritance with them—and that these tasty exotic fruits would grow in this thin, contaminated soil and that these fruits would continue to nourish and vitalize them. Not knowing any better—or any differently—how could these innocent ancestors know beforehand that the sacrifice of these exotic nourishing fruits is precisely what was demanded for the very different sort of life that we have now—a way of life that caters to the body and the individual ego while ignoring the soul and the spiritual needs of the community? A way of life that trains and encourages the development and exclusive use of calculating reason at the expense of imagination and speculative thinking.

I personally think that it is foolish and ungenerous to demonize Bacon, Descartes, Newton and other indisputable geniuses who provided most of the blueprints in accordance with which our age has been constructed. These bold and innovative thinkers rightly felt that they were great philanthropists and benefactors to humanity. Bacon, to his eternal credit, warned repeatedly against allowing the staggering power that would surely be unleashed by the new science to fall into the hands of private interests—which is precisely what has happened. Surprise, surprise. Like Bacon, the other founders of modernity wanted the new science and the emergent technologies to serve humanity as a whole. Did they grossly underestimate the greed and cunning of the species they were trying to assist and enlighten? Did they overestimate humans’ present capacity to work cooperatively for the common good? Perhaps. Or possibly they were sufficiently aware of man’s wayward and selfish tendencies to have foreseen that they were opening up Pandora’s box—but that it was simply a matter of time before the torch of scientific knowledge spread, given the direction that intellectual currents were moving in. The increase in power over nature and the freedom from servitude to the soil would certainly bring many tests and trials in their train, but how else was our species to grow up and mature, unless it faced and mastered these very trials?

One thing seems fairly clear to anyone who’s been watching: the game has to change, and soon, if we—as a species—are to barely turn the corner ahead and avoid a complete regression into barbarism—Hobbes’ ‘state of nature.’

Games are serious business—period! But they become extremely dangerous when they are played unconsciously. The line between invigorating play and insane dogmatism is a thin one. Only when we have developed a saving (and lubricating) sense of humor about the cultural process we are conscripted into as innocent children—only then are we able to liberate ourselves from our blinders and our enslavement to rules and traditions that will otherwise keep us stuck in an irresponsible condition childhood.