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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.’

Some Thoughts about Esoteric Writing (3/28/11)

I was reading earlier from Laurence Lampert’s essay about Leo Strauss (‘The Recovery of Esoteric Writing’) and from Strauss himself (concerning Xenophon’s willingness to appear stupider than he was—for the rest of recorded time—in order to conceal his true thoughts behind a mask). Lampert’s intriguing essay opens with Strauss’s 1938-39 discovery of Maimonides’ use of esoteric writing strategies as a way of appearing to be an orthodox Jew while in fact he was a genuine philosopher who fully understood that reason and monotheistic theology (and the morality built upon its dubious foundations) were in fundamental conflict. This momentous discovery of Strauss’s—that this sacrosanct, foundational figure in Judaism was in fact pretending to believe what he did not actually subscribe to—led (through Averroes) back to the Greeks—Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and, most importantly, to Plato, whose influence over western civilization has been incalculable.

A few of the ‘truths’ (about how these genuinely philosophical Greeks saw nature and the human situation) may be listed:

  1. Death ends everything; personal immortality is no more than a consoling myth to give courage to the hoi polloi, who are too fainthearted to stomach the ‘deadly’ truth.
  2. Genuine philosophy (logos), because it is repugnant and hated by the many (‘the city’), must be sheltered by salutary stories (mythos) if it is to survive through time. The code word for this in Strauss is ‘Platonizing.’
  3. The few genuine philosophers were not interested in politics, per se, but in truth, which is both sobering and intoxicating to them, but ‘deadly’ and demoralizing to the many. It was this tension which gave rise to political philosophy, the aim of which was to shelter philosophy from the city and the city from philosophy.

Strauss—in his early study of Plato’s Laws—saw that the philosopher rightly understood that morality’s authority is founded not upon reason, or logos, but upon religion (mythos) for the many. Consequently, genuine philosophers (who, as Nietzsche says, are ‘commanders and legislators’) must prudently make use of religion in their ‘philanthropic’ campaigns to lead mankind in a salutary direction. It is their love of the human that motivates genuine philosophers in this philanthropic activity. In Lampert’s view, Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche were three such ‘philanthropic’ genuine philosophers. Bacon and Descartes both practiced esoteric writing in their ground-breaking campaigns to lead humanity (by way of their sympathetic, alert readers) in the new direction it has taken under their powerful influence. Nietzsche—believing that several hundred years of scientific skepticism and critical thinking (among the educated classes in the West) had prepared humanity for a more honest and frank disclosure of truths that have been kept under wraps since ancient times—dispensed with the ‘Platonizing’ and the ‘noble lies’ that have heretofore reigned over Western culture.

A brief challenge occurred during the Renaissance, but the Protestant Reformation (a popular uprising, a ‘herd’ phenomenon, according to Nietzsche) restored the sovereignty of ‘after-worldly’ Christianity (‘Platonism for the people’). It is primarily this quasi-ascetic, ‘after-worldly’ metaphysical delusion that Nietzsche seeks to uproot, deride, and overcome—a delusion shared by millions—and which profoundly obstructs and hampers humanity’s love of the earth, of this world—the only world, as far as Nietzsche is concerned. We have forsaken and betrayed our true and only homeworld by swallowing and being swindled by this metaphysical-epistemological ruse that devalues the actual world in favor of some ‘true’ and ‘transcendent’ one that only exists in our duped imaginations.

So, Plato and Nietzsche (and, for that matter, all genuine philosophers who have uncovered the ‘truth about beings’ and have faced that sobering truth with reason) are in fundamental agreement about ‘the way of things,’ but because ‘times have changed’ in crucial respects since Plato composed his dialogues, Nietzsche decided to take the gamble of lifting the veil that his predecessors had kept over ‘Isis.’ Plato—who learned this from Socrates’ fate—reckoned that ‘the many’ (non-philosophers) were not ready to receive and to withstand the truths uncovered by natural (unaided) reason without succumbing to wanton immorality and despair. Therefore, he prudently (and seductively) painted a picture of philosophy (in the portrait of the martyred Socrates) that was benign, fascinating, and salutary—rather than starkly sobering and subversive of conventional values, norms, and beliefs. Such an enormous undertaking demanded extraordinary skill and a depth of understanding seldom equaled in the history of western culture, for Plato had to work in the service of two diametrically opposed aims within the individual works he was devising: he had to console and mollify those (weaker and more tender-minded) readers who required salutary lies in order to make life worth living, while at the same time he was providing hints, clues, and piercing questions that might lead his stronger and more resourceful readers (like Nietzsche and Strauss) to radically different (opposite) opinions—nay, truthful insights into reality, the human situation, and the actual order of things.

A problem with Nietzsche’s ‘anti-Christian’ concerns about our nihilistic, ‘after-worldly’ neglect of this world is that this simply does not accord with the facts of life for many, perhaps most educated persons living today. Few persons I know agonize over the question of an afterlife—and whatever people think (or don’t think) about our post-mortem fates, it doesn’t seem to get in the way of their engrossed, enthralled—I am tempted to add ‘ensnared’—condition vis-à-vis this world, the mundane, matter of fact world of the here and now. The problem is not that people—or most people here and even in Asia—suffer from a flimsy allegiance to, or blocked connection with, this world (the apparent world of here and now) because they are fearfully or deludedly preoccupied with concerns about ‘the next life.’ ‘Educated’ persons often regard those who subscribe to that old story as throwbacks to pre-modern times. They are the butt of jokes and sneers. A much larger chunk of the general population is exceedingly immersed in the pleasures and pains, the concerns and opportunities, presented by this world. Nietzsche got much closer to the way things are now in his scathing portrait of ‘the last man’ in Zarathustra. Those pathetic, trivial flea-beetle couch potatoes are very much this-worldlings, not after-worldlings. But the quality of their connection to the earth—and to this world of the here and now—is just as shallow, insipid, and pitiful as their equally barbaric and unimpressive ancestors’ connection with the ‘spiritual’ world often appears to have been. The problem—in either direction—toward the realm of the spirit or towards the earth—concerns the quality of the connection.

An Apology for Mind (9/14/15)

A recurring point of difference between me and a number of the other members of the Advaita Facebook group I belong to is that while we all cherish peace, I believe that true peace can only come with (or by means of) understanding, and it would seem that some of the members have a profound aversion to the mind, as such, and to philosophical thinking. I no longer experience mind in such hostile or dismissive terms. I would go so far as to say that—far from vilifying or demonizing it—I often experience the mind as a crucial ally in this psycho-spiritual transformation that is underway. This is not to say that I fail to see how the (badly educated, ceaselessly restless, and utterly undisciplined) mind could easily become a formidable obstacle to one’s peace and to the attainment of enlightened understanding. But the categorical dismissal or rejection of the mind by such ‘victims’ of the restless, untamed mind’s ‘mischief’ and disturbing machinations seems both foolish and inadvisable. I am all too thoroughly aware of what it means—and of how horrible it feels—to be the tormented plaything of the undisciplined, reckless mind. And I also know the blissful peace into which we are delivered when the mind is quiescent. But I am not so rash as to declare that the mind should therefore be forcibly suppressed or eschewed on that account. Such insalubrious and risky campaigns are undertaken by unripe souls who have not been sufficiently patient and modest to learn about the mind in order that they may make profitable use of this valuable but delicate instrument. To rashly embark upon such a sacrificium intellectus is as foolhardy (and ultimately as doomed to failure) as self-castration by someone who has not learned how to properly manage and express his erotic drives and impulses. It is like starving and mortifying the flesh because one does not know how to live moderately and sanely in—or with—his body. No, when I hear persons declaring that I think too much and that I should dispense with the mind altogether, I suspect that person has simply not yet learned to manage and moderate his own (pesky) mental equipment.

With Nisargadatta himself—or Ramana Maharshi—we are dealing with a whole different kettle of fish. In their cases—and with Krishnamurti, as well, so far as I can tell—there was genuine liberation from the sort of mental ensnarement we find in the vast majority of their admirers and followers. And this liberation—I would argue, insistently—was certainly not won by pretending that the mind is merely an inconvenient mirage or illusion, but by experientially proving that it was not the end-all and be-all. This can only be accomplished by a kind of showdown or contest with the (magical) power of the mind—a contest that culminates in a kind of truce or terms of mutual cooperation—a non-aggression pact, if you like.

Of course, in order for such a showdown to occur in the first place, something in or about the seeker that is not merely mind must stand apart from mind—so that it can be faced. Unless and until this momentous event occurs, the seeker is unconsciously or helplessly merged with (or subsumed by) mind. This condition of identification or merger with the mind may, by turns, be pleasant or unpleasant, beneficial or deleterious in its practical consequences, exhilarating or exasperating—but to be merged or identified with mind is not at all the same thing as having a relationship with mind. Identification refers to ONE confused thing or state. Relationship, on the other hand, implies TWO differentiated things or standpoints. Those who recommend the extinction or rejection of mind before first differentiating themselves from the mental vehicle simply cannot KNOW what they are talking about. More pointedly, they have not yet earned the right (as Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi did) to recommend putting the mind aside, since they don’t know the first thing about how that actually happens. The caterpillar, stilled lodged in the cocoon, cannot FLY outside the cocoon until functional wings have been formed through metamorphosis. Those seekers after liberation who fail to recognize and rightly employ the transformative powers of the disciplined mind remain wingless spiritual caterpillars.

As I am beginning to see it, Advaita—the non-dual condition of oneness—can only be attained by first differentiating and consciously sorting out that which we first encounter as undifferentiated ‘prima materia’—the raw psyche, as it were. I see many Western devotees to Eastern doctrines speaking and acting as if this protracted, laborsome process of subtle differentiation can simply be leapt or skipped over on their merry, blissful, loving way to Advaita! And of course it makes sense that the mischievous mind is continually mocking and jeering at such preposterous ambitions precisely because its crucial role, or function (as persnickety distinction-drawer and subtle differentiator), is studiously ignored by the over-eager ‘leaper-over.’ It is largely because of these generally neglected (and often haughtily dismissed) matters of mind—and of the critical role the mind can and should play in our inner clarification—that I find 99% of what comes out of the mouths and flowing pens of American and European ‘New Agers’ to be a mixture of poppycock, froth, and blather! There is no such thing as cheaply-won, enduring peace.

If some toes have been stepped on here, there is nevertheless a silver lining here if you look carefully: After toes have been mercilessly stepped on by life (and chiding philosophers)—for years—they gradually begin to flatten into something like webbed feet which, as it happens, are far more useful than standard-issue feet when it comes to subsurface swimming through the mercurial realm of the psyche. Eventually we must leave behind the solid, unyielding dogmas of our spiritual childhood, upon which our old feet and our unmolested toes were wont to amble and gambol, and plunge into the molten realm where boundaries become less visible, more subtle and ambiguous—and where fins, gills, and webbed limbs are better put to use.

Glimpses (6/27/13)

That drive to discover and then to abide in some inviolable ‘palace of truth’—a drive that certainly had its way with my mind and soul for many years—was gradually whittled down to a trickle of intermittent ejaculations after my grudging recognition that such a palace appears only in fairy tales, but not in reality, or at least not in the reality I have precariously and gradually come to inhabit. And when the target of one’s restless yearnings is seen to be a phantasm or, worse, an elaborate deception willed into (fictional) existence out of the yearning itself, then honesty counsels us to temper rather than inflame and nurture that drive.

It was by such a circuitous course that I arrived at a more pluralistic—or polytheistic—view of that most elusive of mirages, the Truth. At bottom, it may very well be ‘true’ that eventually all roads lead to some privileged center that is synonymous with Truth (deserving of a capital T) in some thoroughly comprehensive or complete sense. But, in all honesty, from where I am presently situated on my journey, my understanding is infused more with the sense of polycentricity, variety, and complexity than with unity, simplicity, or oneness. I am not saying that oneness is not implied, but as of now, such implied, ultimate unity registers far more faintly to my mind than the image of multiple inner galaxies, each with its own abundant supply of distinctive solar systems, composed, in turn, of various planets—all of which dwarf in size and complexity the individual creatures (or features) found thereupon.

I have spontaneously employed a cosmic analogy to express my point here. In the enormity of its scale, this cosmic image underscores the puniness and the restrictedness of the individual human ego’s field of vision, or range of experience. Always keeping this image of the puniness and restrictedness of the ego’s range of experience clearly in mind helps me to maintain my salutary mistrust of convenient ‘unitary models’ and all simple, self-consistent schemes. As far as I can see, all such models and schemes ultimately do more to hamper and slacken my thinking (and the questioning behind such thinking) than to invigorate and push that thought as far as it can go. It may be different for other thinkers, but for this one, the seductions of oneness and of all-embracing unity are a bit like the pull of a so-called ‘mother-complex’—a hankering to return to mother’s breast—or even to climb back up into her warm and watery belly. Of course, we could just as easily invoke the ‘father complex’ here, insofar as it stands for the urge to submit, in complete, selfless obedience, to the will of the All-Seeing Nobodaddy. At any event, nothing so successfully collapses or ‘shorts’ the electrical tension that is the sine qua non for soaring (or deep-delving) thought than such pat unities and crude simplifications.

I would suggest that a glimpse of authentic unity is possible only after we have courageously weathered and withstood this profound electrical tension—and emerged, as it were, on the other side of the charged field. Note that such glimpses are fleeting—even if the ‘mark’ they leave behind is as indelible as a tattoo. If I may be permitted to employ an erotic metaphor, such a ‘mark’ is like the memory of a supremely satisfying consummation of love with an ardently pursued partner—after many struggles and frustrations have been endured.

By way of contrast, the crude and spurious unities resorted to by the impatient, the careless, the shallow, and the negligent are like a doorbell or telephone ringing just as we are about to achieve our ‘climax.’ They ruin everything!