SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

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To begin with, a general image of our intellectual history emerges. Historically, the first thing that existed was clearly religion: belief systems that were shared by ever-larger groups of people, that took away people’s fear of death and considerably strengthened these groups’ cohesion. Those belief systems not only strengthened cohesion externally, but also internally, by stabilizing the individual’s self-esteem through the systematic denial of one’s own mortality and by effectively reinforcing existing hierarchies, for example in conflicts with other groups. Historically, these fideist-dogmatic models of reality developed from burial rites, ancestor cults and shamanism. The historically most recent developments were the ideal of intellectual honesty, enlightenment and self-critical rationalism. The ideal of intellectual honesty in this sense is something completely new, something that is only now beginning to be realized in a few places on our planet, in very few societies, and only in its very first manifestations. What made intellectual honesty possible, however, were the originally religious ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards God. These ideals led to a turning inward, a reflexive turn on ourselves, towards the individual human being itself, led to the development of the ethical ideals of unconditional truthfulness and sincerity towards ourselves, the relentless openness, the unconditional commitment to the growth of knowledge. However, one central insight, which has always been at the very foundation of the spiritual stance, is that there is more than one form of knowledge, and more than one form of epistemic progress. Continue reading “SPIRITUALITY AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY”

EXCHANGE FOR FIRE: I WENT IN SEARCH OF MYSELF

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The ordering (kosmos), the same for all, no god or man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out.

…I have so far characterized the new Ionian cosmology by three fundamental features: (1) a geometric model for the heavens, (2) observation and numerical measurement of astral cycles, and (3) the interpretation of physical change as a conflict of elemental powers within a periodic order of reciprocity and symmetry recognized as just. To these must be added a fourth, less original feature: the tendency to explain the present state of affairs by deriving it from some initial situation or first beginning. In place of Hesiod’s theogony, the natural philosophers give us cosmogony. The reports on Anaximander and the quotations from Anaxagoras show that Ionian cosmology began, like Hesiod and the book of Genesis, ‘in the beginning’. It described the emergence of the world order as a gradual process of generation or development from an archē, a starting point or ‘what came first of all.’ And there is some evidence to suggest that Anaximander, like Empedocles and the atomists later, applied the principle of symmetry to foresee a reversal of the cosmic process, so that the earth which had emerged from the sea would sink into it again, and perhaps the whole world process might begin anew. Continue reading “EXCHANGE FOR FIRE: I WENT IN SEARCH OF MYSELF”

METANOIA

Why dost thou prate of God?
Whatever thou sayest of Him is
untrue.
Meister Eckhart

The further one travels, the less one knows.
Lao Tzu

In religious literature the word ‘truth’ is used indiscriminately in at least three distinct and very different senses. Thus, it is sometimes treated as a synonym for ‘fact’ as when it is affirmed that God is Truth meaning that He is the primordial Reality. But this is clearly not the meaning of the word in such a phrase as ‘worshipping God in spirit and in truth.’ Here, it is obvious, ‘truth’ signifies direct apprehension of spiritual Fact, as opposed to second-hand knowledge about Reality, formulated in sentences and accepted on authority or because an argument from previously granted postulates was logically convincing. And finally there is the more ordinary meaning of the word, as in such a sentence as, ‘This statement is the truth’ where we mean to assert that the verbal symbols of which the statement is composed correspond to the facts to which it refers. When Eckhart writes that ‘whatever thou sayest of God is untrue,’ he is not affirming that all theological statements are false. In so far as there can be any correspondence between human symbols and divine Fact, some theological statements are as true as it is possible for us to make them. Himself a theologian, Eckhart would certainly have admitted this. But besides being a theologian, Eckhart was a mystic. And being a mystic, he understood very vividly what the modern semanticist is so busily (and, also, so unsuccessfully) trying to drum into contemporary minds namely, that words are not the same as things and that a knowledge of words about facts is in no sense equivalent to a direct and immediate apprehension of the facts themselves. What Eckvhart actually asserts is this: whatever one may say about God can never in any circumstances be the ‘truth’ in the first two meanings of that much abused and ambiguous word. By implication St. Thomas Aquinas was saying exactly the same thing when, after his experience of infused contemplation, he refused to go on with his theological work, declaring that everything he had written up to that time was as mere straw compared with the immediate knowledge, which had been vouchsafed to him. Two hundred years earlier, in Bagdad, the great Mohammedan theologian, Al-Ghazzali, had similarly turned from the consideration of truths about God to the contemplation and direct apprehension of Truth-the-Fact, from the purely intellectual discipline of the philosophers to the moral and spiritual discipline of the Sufis.

The moral of all this is obvious. Whenever we hear or read about ‘truth,’ we should always pause long enough to ask ourselves in which of the three senses listed above the word is, at the moment, being used. By taking this simple precaution (and to take it is a genuinely virtuous act of intellectual honesty) we shall save ourselves a great deal of disturbing and quite unnecessary mental confusion.

The subject matter of the Perennial Philosophy is the nature of eternal, spiritual Reality; but the language in which it must be formulated was developed for the purpose of dealing with phenomena in time. That is why, in all these formulations, we find an element of paradox. The nature of Truth-the-Fact cannot be described by means of verbal symbols that do not adequately correspond to it. At best it can be hinted at in terms of non sequiturs and contradictions.

The history of all the religions is similar in one important respect; some of their adherents are enlightened and delivered, because they have chosen to react appropriately to the words which the founders have let fall; others achieve a partial salvation by reacting with partial appropriateness; yet others harm themselves and their fellows by reacting with a total inappropriateness either ignoring the words altogether or, more often, taking them too seriously and treating them as though they were identical with the Fact to which they refer.

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy.

HEROISM MAY BE THE ONLY WAY TO LOVE

…we cannot repeat too often that it is not by preaching the love of our neighbour that we can obtain it. It is not by expanding our narrower feelings that we can embrace humanity. However much our intelligence may convince itself that this is the line of advance, things behave differently. What is simple for our understanding is not necessarily so for our will. In cases where logic affirms that a certain road should be the shortest, experience intervenes, and finds that in that direction there is no road. The truth is that heroism may be the only way to love. Now, heroism cannot be preached, it has only to show itself, and its mere presence may stir others to action. For heroism itself is a return to movement, and emanates from an emotion infectious like all emotions akin to the creative act. Religion expresses this truth in its own way by saying that it is in God that we love all other men. And all great mystics declare that they have the impression of a current passing from their soul to God, and flowing back again from God to mankind.

Let no one speak of material obstacles to a soul thus freed! It will not answer that we can get round the obstacle, or that we can break it; it will declare that there is no obstacle. We cannot even say of this moral conviction that it moves mountains, for it sees no mountains to move. So long as you argue about the obstacle, it will stay where it is; and so long as you look at it, you will divide it into parts which will have to be overcome one by one; there may be no limit to their number; perhaps you will never exhaust them. But you can do away with the whole, at a stroke, if you deny its existence. That is what the philosopher did who proved movement by walking: his act was the negation pure and simple of the effort, perpetually to be renewed, and therefore fruitless, which Zeno judged indispensable to cover, one by one, the stages of the intervening space. By going deeply into this new aspect of morality, we should find an impression of coincidence, real or imaginary, with the generative effort of life. If seen from outside, the activity of life lends itself, in each of its works, to an analysis which might be carried on indefinitely; there is no end to a description of the structure of an eye such as ours. But what we call a series of means employed is, in reality, but a number of obstacles overcome; the action of nature is simple, and the infinite complexity of the mechanism which it seems to have built up piece by piece to achieve the power of vision is but the endless network of opposing forces which have cancelled one another out to secure an uninterrupted channel for the functioning of the faculty. It is similar to the simple act of an invisible hand plunged into iron filings, which, if we only took into account what we saw, would seem like an inexhaustible interplay of actions and reactions among the filings themselves in order to effect an equilibrium. If such is the contrast between the real working of life and the aspect it presents to the senses and the intelligence which analyse it, is it surprising that a soul which no more recognises any material obstacle should feel itself, rightly or wrongly, at one with the principle of life?

Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.
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BEING ECOLOGICAL

Being Ecological

Don’t care about ecology? You might think you don’t, but you might all the same. Don’t read ecology books? This book is for you.

It’s understandable: ecology books can be confusing information dumps that are out of date by the time they drop on you. Slapping you upside the head to make you feel bad. Shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts. Handwringing in agony about ‘What are we going to do?’ Horseshoe‑in‑a‑boxing-​glove propaganda. This book has none of that. Being Ecological doesn’t preach to the eco-choir. It’s for you: maybe you’re in the choir but only sometimes, or maybe you have no idea what choirs are, or maybe you don’t care at all. Rest assured this book is not going to preach at you. It also contains no ecological facts, no shocking revelations about our world, no ethical or political advice, and no grand tour of ecological thinking. This is a pretty useless ecology book, in fact. But why write something so ‘useless’ in such urgent times? Have I never heard of global warming? Why are you even reading this? Well, the truth is you might already be ecological, you just didn’t know it.

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JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS

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WE CONTROL NATURE for societal reasons. The control of nature advances with our ability to predict the outcome of natural processes. Inasmuch as predictions are but explanations in reverse, it is possible that they will be quite as combative as explanations. Indeed, prediction is the most highly developed skill of the Master Player, for without it control of an opponent is all the more difficult. I t follows that our domination of nature is meant to achieve not certain natural outcomes, but certain societal outcomes.

A small group of physicists, using calculations of the highest known abstraction, uncovered a predictable sequence of subatomic reactions that led directly to the construction of a thermonuclear bomb. It is true that the successful detonation of the bomb proved the predictions of the physicists, but it is also true that we did not explode the bomb to prove them correct; we exploded it to control the behavior of millions of persons and to bring our relations with them to a certain closure.

What this example shows is not that we can exercise power over nature, but that our attempt to do so masks our desire for power over each other. This raises a question as to the cultural consequences of abandoning the strategy of power in our attitude toward nature.

Continue reading “JAMES P. CARSE ON NATURE, ORDER, CHAOS”