Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free. In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times. In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.
The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed. Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free. He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together. He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity. The result is modern Humanism.
Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.
We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.
The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion: he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’. Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death. In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.
If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience. Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.
The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good. Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species. By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
An example is the theory of memes. Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do. In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive. Unfortunately, memes are not genes. There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.
In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics? If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication. Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage. The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.
If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’. As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.
In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth. Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.
Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin. History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe. In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.
These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. These are not just inferences from history. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.
Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible). Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational. They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable. Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of surburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Robinson Jeffers, Carmel Point.
“It is not the arm that is unjust, but the weapon that is too heavy for the human hand.”
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals — justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission of emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another. “Nature binds truth, happiness, and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain,” said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality, and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. But somewhere, we shall be told, and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so, conflicts of values may be an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life. To admit that the fulfillment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfillment of others impossible is to say that the notion of total human fulfillment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimaera. For every rationalist metaphysician, from Plato to the last disciples of Hegel or Marx, this abandonment of the notion of a final harmony in which all riddles are solved, all contradictions reconciled, is a piece of crude empiricism, abdication before brute facts, intolerable bankruptcy of reason before things as they are, failure to explain and to justify, to reduce everything to a system, which “reason” indignantly rejects. But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found — perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive — we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realizable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose. Any method of bringing this final state nearer would then seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I have no doubt, some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakeable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. I do not say that the ideal of self-perfection — whether for individuals or nations or churches or classes — is to be condemned in itself, or that the language which was used in its defence was in all cases the result of a confused or fraudulent use of words, or of moral or intellectual perversity. Indeed, I have tried to show that it is the notion of freedom in its “positive” sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and that not to recognize this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realized is demonstrably false. If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton had conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.
I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or even the dominant, criterion of social action. We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. This judgment in turn depends on how we determine good and evil, that is to say, on our moral, religious, intellectual, economic, and aesthetic values; which are, in their turn, bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic demands of his nature. In other words, our solution of such problems is based on our vision, by which we are consciously or unconsciously guided, of what constitutes a fulfilled human life, as contrasted with Mill’s “cramped and warped,” “pinched and hidebound” natures. To protest against the laws governing censorship or personal morals as intolerable infringements of personal liberty presupposes a belief that the activities which such laws forbid are fundamental needs of men as men, in a good (or, indeed, any) society. To defend such laws is to hold that these needs are not essential, or that they cannot be satisfied without sacrificing other values which come higher — satisfy deeper needs — than individual freedom, determined by some standard that is not merely subjective, a standard for which some objective status — empirical or a priori — is claimed.
The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. We are rightly reminded by R. H. Tawney that the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained. This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty. That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. Burke’s plea for the constant need to compensate, to reconcile, to balance; Mill’s plea for novel “experiments in living” with their permanent possibility of error, the knowledge that it is not merely in practice but in principle impossible to reach clear-cut and certain answers, even in an ideal world of wholly good and rational men and wholly clear ideas — may madden those who seek for final solutions and single, all-embracing systems, guaranteed to be eternal. Nevertheless, it is a conclusion that cannot be escaped by those who, with Kant, have learnt the truth that out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.
There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. Whether the standard of judgment derives from the vision of some future perfection, as in the minds of the philosophes in the eighteenth century and their technocratic successors in our own day, or is rooted in the past — la terre et les morts — as maintained by German historicists or French theocrats, or neo-Conservatives in English-speaking countries, it is bound, provided it is inflexible enough, to encounter some unforeseen and unforeseeable human development, which it will not fit; and will then be used to justify the a priori barbarities of Procrustes — the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future. To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts.
Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognize the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide rule could, in principle, perform. To say that in some ultimate, all-reconciling, yet realizable synthesis, duty is interest, or individual freedom is pure democracy or an authoritarian state, is to throw a metaphysical blanket over either self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy. It is more humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings. In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do, because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are, at any rate over large stretches of time and space, a part of their being and thought and sense of their own identity; part of what makes them human.
It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving or the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.
Isaiah Berlin, The One and The Many from ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’
Read the whole thing here.
There is no nature, only Nature – an imaginary state of man’s own invention, a realm of concept and language. That is man’s place and it is nowhere except inside his head; a mirror image of a distorted fantasy he calls Mankind. A distortion of a distortion, exponentially phantasmagorical. Nature is a conceit: a man-made garden in which we wander to relax and preen, as we nod to one another in passing, and congratulate ourselves on being us. We created Nature so that we might take pride in how far we have ventured beyond it.
Man has no place in nature because there is no nature: only what he makes. He is therefore beyond nothing. He is merely self-deceived. Forever trapped inside his self-inflated dream of what he is. A pathetic child imagining himself in the world, when, in reality, he is confined by the four walls of his playroom. His ‘world’ being nothing more than the arrangement of his diminutive models and playthings.
Man is exiled from the real world, from nature, by language. He is the willing prisoner of words. All his high-mindedness, his ideals, morality, stemming merely from the necessity of language. True nature cares for nothing, neither life nor death. It is simply in a perpetual motion of growth and decay, beyond value or morality. Lacking the curse of consciousness and the petty ethics that entails, the natural world lives and dies blindly, without intention, regenerates or doesn’t. There is no system, only a multiplicity of life cycles; parts that remain seperate, that never add up to a whole. Nature does not do arithmetic. Man is one of a myriad of dissociated parts, not outside observer of an illusory unity.
If he tears down the forests or fights for their preservation, he does it for himself. It is of no consequence to nature, whose disparate parts survive or don’t, without sensibility. The ‘ecosystem’ is man’s vision of where he is and, in reality, no system at all. The environment is his own orderly invention, his realm, but the environment cares neither for its own death nor man’s. Nor does it care for man’s care for it. Man makes a lapdog of a planet in which he is merely a passing formulation of life: the current arrangement of molecules. His continued existence, and that of the planet itself, is of no importance to anything other than a few temporary particles that are our species.
Jenny Diski, Rainforest.
“It isn’t important what you do, it is the attitude with which you proceed through the world that matters.”
Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train.
At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world.
To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system.
People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness.
But, as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT, penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone, by law, to be superficially “good and healthy” are creating more problems than they solve.
We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away – from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself.
Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves- that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated. Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.”
This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.
In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang-tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of “going with the grain.” The point is therefore that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.
Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.
In Chinese the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland.
Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other.
When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes. The male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male. Thus Lao-tzu says:
Knowing the male but keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.
The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male and the affectedly flimsy female. The key to the relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:
When everyone knows beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness,
there is already evil.
“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited;
Before and after are in mutual sequence.
They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet, or pulse and interval in any vibration. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting.
It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the permanent universe. We do not easily grasp the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from non-being as sound from silence and light from space.
Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
This space is not “just nothing” as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch Hui-neng, writing eleven centuries after Lao-tzu:
The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this.
Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary.