On Nietzsche’s Captivating Rhetoric (1/31/18)

When a writer regularly employs such flagrantly attention-getting language – the sorts of stylistic and button-pushing literary tactics that virtually anyone who can read will often find irresistible – we have to wonder what kind of audience he is trying to reach with such pyrotechnical prose, and what he wants to do with them once he’s got their attention. Nietzsche, despite his “aristocratic,” anti-democratic views and values, is incongruously popular, from all I can tell. He appears to be more widely read and enjoyed (regardless of whether he is being properly understood) than most other philosophers. Plato often wrote beautifully and lucidly, but despite his enormous influence, it would be stretching things to say that he is popularly read, even when selections from the Apology, the Symposium, and the Republic are required reading in most prep schools and honors programs. The same may be said of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and that other truly great stylist, Schopenhauer.

Socrates seems (from Plato’s “artfully” recorded dialogues with him as the central figure) to have tailored his speeches to the particular qualities of the person he was addressing. Nietzsche says he selects his proper reader through his technique of scaring away all but his rightful audience, but he seems to have underestimated his charm – or overestimated his power to “scare” away the wrong or unready readers.

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

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

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

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

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.

Midwifery (1/26/11)

If a writer focuses diligently upon themes and questions that are of essential concern to thinking human beings—and he writes with a modicum of deftness and clarity—his works will be assured of finding an appreciative reading audience. Such works—and we have plenty of examples of them—perform the refreshing service of scraping the non-essential questions and peripheral themes right off our plates, leaving only the lightly seasoned meat and potatoes. Such thinkers and writers about fundamental human questions are attractive to readers who are interested primarily in nutrition for their minds—‘whole food’ for thought—and not chiefly in exotic fruits, over-rich sauces, and sugar-filled desserts.

Rather than coming away from such books feeling stuffed, the grateful reader feels lighter, leaner, and more vitalized than before he or she sat down to read. This is because good, essential questions—well formulated and carefully followed—do not add bulk and excess fat to the reader’s mind but, in vigorously exercising it, help to burn off psychic lipids and to release accumulated mental toxins. It is not principally for answers, then, that readers come to such writings, but for those clear and caustic questions which, like a strong acid, bore right through the layers of torpor and inertia into the molten cores of our encrusted minds. Once these penetrating questions have done their work, our own minds magically prove capable of providing answers on their own. The most we writers and thinkers can—and should—hope for is that our writings may prompt and encourage readers to follow, not us, but their own enkindled fires and guiding lights.

Cloaks and Daggers (7/1/11)

I am put off a bit—as well, perhaps, I should be—by the gaminess of a great philosopher like Plato, even if I confess to finding much pleasure in unlocking the secrets and hidden insights buried in—or inferable from—the dialogues. I mention Plato, but I might just as well have mentioned Heraclitus or Lao-tzu, Shakespeare or Bacon, Spinoza or Nietzsche, Montaigne or Joyce. All of them were expert gamesmen in their writing. Should Jung—and perhaps even Hillman—be included in this elite class of artful purveyors of recondite truths and unpopular insights?

Some voice inside me cries out ‘Why not simply say what you mean to say as clearly and plainly as you can?’ All gaminess would come to a screeching halt if such plain-speaking had been adopted from the start. There would be far fewer places to hide today if the greatest truth-finders had also been the plainest of truth-sayers. But of course if Nietzsche (and others who have voiced much the same idea) was onto something when he spoke of the ‘true but deadly’ ideas of the genuine philosophers, we can begin to understand why Plato (and according to Seth Benardete, the great epic poets and tragedians before him) wrote in a less than completely candid manner—and why his principal alter ego, Socrates, is ‘ironic’ much of the time. Philosophy can die out, perhaps, as some have claimed, if it is not properly sheltered from those—always in the majority—who prefer soothing fictions to ‘deadly truths’ and disturbing insights. But we truth-seekers have a moral obligation—imposed by our intellectual consciences and our psychological courage—not to stop at the gamy surface, but to allow the barbs and daggers hidden within these outwardly delightful and playful works to sting and to pierce our sensitized innards. Only thus will we earn the right to meet our spiritual kin—our (usually) long-dead ancestors who are writing specifically to us—their scattered, scant progeny—across the centuries.

Shakespeare as Hermes (8/2/15)

Tracing symptoms back to their source: I suffer from a chronic need to meaningfully interact with other persons. As outlandish as the following statement must sound to anyone ruled by commonsense, this need to play a meaningful role in others’ lives is contingent upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of these other persons—and that belief, in turn, is predicated upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of my own personhood. If individual personhood were discovered to be an illusion—one that could be dismantled and dispensed with—this pressing, chronic need to be meaningfully involved in the lives of others would then be greatly weakened, easily uprooted, and dissolved.

What if I were to attempt to turn this analysis and dismantlement process into a work of art—of literature? How might I best approach such an undertaking?

Something that has long fascinated me about Shakespeare’s work as a poet-dramatist is the enhanced objectivity about human matters that his writing process provided him with. In the thoughtful-imaginative-creative process of differentiating and then interrelating the various characters in his plays, Shakespeare was at the same time working through—and working out—fundamental human problems/questions as they presented themselves in his soul, or imagination. What we, the readers and playgoers, see in the plays are, from one angle, the documented records of these interior explorations, mappings, discoveries, conundrums, and provisional evaluations.

Aside from the marvelous beauty and power of the language, what makes his best plays so profoundly interesting—400 years later and counting—is the depths, the heights, and the breadth of experience and understanding that are made accessible to us as we contemplate these compelling (and inwardly compelled) characters and their interrelationships. But rather than remain a mere admirer of the works themselves, I would like to employ them as beckoning doorways through which I might pass—and thereby enter, sympathetically, the workings of the poet’s mind and soul. Rather than stop at a thorough appreciation of the plays, I want to learn about the internal processes that Shakespeare suffered in order to give birth to them. The plays provide maps of this inner experience whereby the poet-playwright acquainted himself with figures, state of soul, tensions, and revelations that go unnoticed—or are shunned and avoided—by most of us.

I used the work suffered to denote these inner encounters. Why? Could it be true that as we acclimate ourselves more and more successfully to the peculiar terms and conditions of profound imaginative experience—as Shakespeare clearly did—we simultaneously experience a corresponding depotentiation of the literal, outer world of ‘sensible’ experience? As the imaginal realm—which is both subtler and far more elastic and polyvalent than literal, sensory phenomena and fixed abstract concepts—becomes increasingly real and vivid to us, the world of ordinary, external forms, events, and persons becomes hollower, more ‘schematic,’ ghostlike, superficial.

It seems likely to me that Shakespeare’s consciousness—at least during those fruitful hours when he was composing works like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.—shifted quite decisively into this imaginal realm where potent imaginary forms possess greater ‘reality’ and psychic substance than the comparatively humdrum and prosaic events, objects, and even persons of everyday experience. But, due to his exceptional powers of balance, the familiar and practical realities of mundane experience were not shunned or categorically discredited—as might be the case with the mystic or the rapt ascetic. His special genius endowed him with an ability to straddle adroitly between these two very different levels of psychic experience—the literal-concrete level and the metaphorical-imaginal level. Unlike the materialist or the spiritualist, he did not ‘take a stand’ in one arena of experience against the other—but like Hermes, passed easily back and forth across the frontier between the two.

On how my Self-Education has stamped my Writing and Thinking (9/09)

What follows will no doubt sound like a bizarre confession. It pertains to my style of expressing ideas that are potentially disturbing to ‘uninitiated,’ innocent minds. Because of the ‘from the ground up’ character of my spiritual and psychological education, I feel entitled (for reasons I cannot easily or adequately articulate) to speak with a degree of bluntness about delicate issues that are usually treated with greater caution, delicacy, or flat-out avoidance by thinkers who either regard themselves as having descended from an elite pedigree or who have in fact been groomed and polished within the cultivated ranks, with all the advantages and prerogatives that come with that privileged (and, if genuine, invariably earned) descent.

My case bears a faint resemblance to that of Rousseau in the sense that I am almost entirely self-educated, with respect to formal schooling. But why, it will be asked, should this designation as autodidactic thinker and writer induce (or even oblige) me to speak more candidly and baldly than those who were ‘to the manor born’? Is it perhaps because I feel that my own efforts—as well as my own findings—are somehow less hampered by uninviting academic conventions, off-putting terminology, and constraints? Does my having eluded, to a great extent, these guiding, formative influences allow for a certain natural cohesion in my thinking that compensates for my lack of scholarly erudition and my indifference to the strict guidelines of academic publications? If my thinking and writing do benefit in any noticeable way from my autodidacticism, I would say that they possess the virtue of having grown slowly and undisturbedly from a strong single root: that root is my natural curiosity concerning the origins and interconnections of cultural phenomena—ideas, values, works of art and faith—with my own personality providing the soil and vessel in which these cultural seeds have been planted and in which they continue to grow.

What I do not feel—or feel very strongly—is some obligation to simplify or prettify what I uncover for the minds and hearts of readers who perhaps have not struggled so uninterruptedly to get closer to the bottom of these things. I do not hold the belief (which seems to be cherished by most members of the intellectual priesthood or academic elite) that such hard-won truths should remain guild secrets, and that they should remain hidden from that segment of the public that possesses a modicum of leisure, education, and freedom from the ignorance and compulsion that generally afflicts the poor and semi-literate masses who are ruled for the most part by necessity and external authority. Our disturbed and unexplored psyches may have brought us to the brink of cultural meltdown, and I would argue that it will only be through improved understanding of the psyche that we stand a chance of avoiding a collective slide over that fateful brink.

Because my cultural-philosophical education was not provided in top-notch, ready-made form by celebrated professors at elite private schools and the best universities, but has been carried out largely by my own lights and through my own efforts, I have emerged from this lengthy (and ongoing) process of self-education with a different attitude towards learning than my more formally educated brethren display—especially those who, from youth onwards, have been groomed within the preeminent schools and universities.

I find it difficult, for instance, to write and think very deeply or imaginatively about topics, events, persons, and ideas that do not resonate in some direct way with my innermost nature. This is not to suggest for a moment that such topics, events, persons, and ideas are not worthy of serious concern or attention—just not from me, for I would certainly not be able to do them proper justice—and give them their due. No doubt, the array of particular themes I feel suited by nature to explore is thus limited in ways that would unduly constrain a successful professional journalist or career writer (who is not a mere specialist). Nevertheless, I take some comfort in the fact that my writing and thinking seldom ring false since they emerge, spontaneously, from the roots of my personality. I may be perceived as a deluded fool or an alarmist; I may appear to be preoccupied (or obsessed) with the same handful of linked questions, but I don’t think it can be claimed with any justice that my writing and my thinking are not authentically expressive of my inner and outer experience.

I don’t presume to speak for others—or to be conveying any universally binding truths or moral principles in my writings—but this has never been my aim. My aim is similar, I believe, to that of other essayists who have preceded me—and in whose giant footsteps I modestly follow. I’m thinking chiefly of Montaigne and to a lesser extent of Emerson (where the truly grand and the slightly grandiloquent sometimes become blended and confused). I am thinking of the ‘confessions’ of self-examiners like Augustine and Rousseau, La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche—persons who struggled—often stumbling along the way—towards some kind of honest and penetrating testimony about life from where they stood—or where they were swimming, falling, dancing, warring, pleading, drowning, convulsing, etc.