Bane & glory

Consciousness is both the bane and glory of human beings.

Popular Buddhism tells us that to be born a human being is a great privelege, by which is meant that the having of consciusness is good because it enables the person to attain nirvana. Similarly, the Western notion that having a soul enables the is good because it enables the person to attain heaven. At the same time, the secular point of view presents the same glory of consciousness: the ability to reason, decide, create, to pursue knowledge, science and technology.

What underminds the glory of consciousness is the bane. Nirvana missed for the endless turning of the wheel, heaven lost eternally, the vanity of knowledge and the horrors of modern science and technology and the cultural premises behind them. Consciousness has been a tool justifying differentiation and supperioririty over the universe of myriad creatures, an extrapolation of every foible of the mind. The level of consciousness in human beings, ranging from the earliest childhood to the presumed elite of enlightenment has been taken to be complete. Self-sufficient and inevitable, what we see, to drastically paraphrase Hegel, is what we get, as “consciousness.”

The glories, if rhey are ever manifested, are reserved to the few in this world. We risk the sinister social division of elites and masses even in this lofty pursuit, the recreation of our cultural and material environment in this realm of mind and consciousness. If the glories are postponed for another work, another realm, it is because humankind cannot bear too much sorrow (as T.S. Eliot says). Who in this world has the time or space to pursue the perfection of consciousness, the glory of this elite exercise of will?

“Philosophers Behaving Badly”

Reading Philosophers Behaving Badly by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson (2005). The book is a popular treatment of the philosophical ideas of Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Russell, Witttgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre and Foucault, intermingled with biographical anecdotes. The assembly of personalities is well-chosen, both for ideas, influence and personal behavior. Thus we have miscreant Rousseau, misanthropic Schopenhauer, philandering Russell, Nazi Heidegger, autocratic Wittgenstein, faithless Sartre, sado-masochist Foucault, etc. Informative, even entertaining, if not disheartening in a way.

The fundamental question is whether philosophical ideas can be disengaged from the philosophers who propose them. The authors show how complex the issue can be, and how even the personalities involved never completely uderstood the ramifications of their ideas — or of their behavior, for that matter. We are left a little overwhelmed by the contradictions of their behavior and start to wonder if their ideas are just the epiphenomena of their overheated brains (and libidos).

But if we read the philosophical texts without knowing the phiosophers, we would probably just concentrate on the ideas. Rousseau’s naturalism, the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre, the soaring logic of Wittgenstein and the early Russell, the explorations of self and society in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the historiography of culture and ideas in Foucault — it’s all intriguing and compelling in the original, abstracted from the thinker. We ought to resist the temptation to dismiss ideas with an ad hominem flippancy. After all, might we all be dismissed for our personality quirks, too?

But the quirks in these philosophers are, well, very bad. To be charitable we could conclude that it all seems more of an issue of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. What constitutes a brilliant mind but an human aberration? Schoolchildren were once advised to imitate the virtues of the saints — but not their habits! Or, as Nietzsche says paradoxically somewhere (not quoted in this book): “If you are praised by others you can be sure that you are not following your own path but somebody else’s.”

New Age music

Someone wrote to object to the presence of “New Age” on a site devoted to hermits, a contradiction in the eyes of the correspondent. Hermitary simply chronicles hermits throughout history, of whatever tradition or persuasion. This is how one can come to understand such a universal phenomenon as eremitism — universal yet elusive.

As to “New Age,” I assumed the correspondent meant the Hermit of the Tarot, if not anything else that was not Chrisitan or Western. Besides the fact that eremitism is not the exclusive provenance of Christian or Western history by any means, I pointed out the following interesting fact:

In 1994, the best-selling music CD in the New Age category was Chant, the album of Gregorian chant performed by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. The recordings had been made decades earlier, the tapes rediscovered and digitized, and a disc released to a public eager to hear something “New Age.” Many subsequent discs were released as well.

The cliche that people are looking for a form of spirituality or just tranquility in seeking out “New Age” music is amply confirmed by this example. It is one of those historical ironies that the Catholic Church pretty much abandoned Gregorian chant at a time when secular and other people were discovering it. But this demonstrates that music (at least some of it) can transcend cultures and even “marketing” categories.

The correspondent never wrote back.


A writer once said (I don’t remember whom or where) that he no longer listened to the music of Rachmaninoff because he no longer identified with such feelings. The context was the subject of enlightenment.

Rachmaninoff’s music is late romantic, full of emotion and melancholy, not angst so much as personal sadness, what would be called depression today. It has a specific context and became a creative reservoir for him.

To dismiss this music (it is just an example) as immature or narcissistic runs close to the dismisser’s own attitude. Everyone reflects in their “art” or speech or feelings nothing less than the present, and as much as we might summon other people to perfect balance, enough horror transpires in the world that there is plenty of room for melancholy. Creative people may be more prone to taking the full measure of feeling when confronting existence. And creative works appeal to different people in different ways. I don’t want to set up a philosophy of aesthetics so much as a psychology of creativity. Our paths in life are objects of creativity.

I am reminded of Lao-tzu’s saying: “Those who know do not speak. Those who do not know, speak.” The ineffable mystery of anguish and joy is a product of the interplay of yin and yang. To still that process in the self may be the goal, but we are unrealistic — even arrogant — to ignore the place of life, growth, maturity and decay in gripping our minds and hearts.

This experience of anguish and joy is creativity itself, which nudges us along the road of life. Learning to be empty is a great labor, and music can help us understanding things within outselves that we did not know. And having come to know them, we may be able to forget them, but we should never be so flippant as to boast of our having forgotten.


Existentialism maintains that the individual is free to create a self-directed life and set of values for himself or herself. The realization of this capacity may be a burden (angst) or a liberation. But is this premise entirely true?

The driving mechanism of the Western world in the modern era has been the devolution of cultural and social stability. The great confluence of ideas in the nineteenth century met the enormous destabilizing forces of industry, technology, and science. The effects of this meeting (or clash) intensified in the twentieth century with the enormous impact of war and its consequences, coupled with the acceleration of change in every sector of society and culture. In rebellion from the oppressive forces that have grown out of these experiences, existentialism asserted the primacy of the individual, the humanity of being a person.

But it is one thing to assert the dignity of personhood, and another to claim that the individual is really free to re-create his or her life. Most people will not think to redo themselves — in what image would they do so, most likely mimicking the very culture and society they claim to want to be free of. Most people will follow the contours and ethos of the culture, class, and authorities they know. Identity will be bound up in accurately reflecting that dominant culture and ethic, its shades and nuances reflecting what will be commonly thought to be individualism, always within a spectrum of popular values and mores.

The echo of Confucius’ dictum about serving when the emperor is good and reclusing when the emperor is evil reverberates as a core criterion for evaluating society and culture. It provides a starting point for considering what the person’s relationship to authority and society should be. But the insight is never pressed by people to the point of decision. When culture is “good” (which is assumed to be the case by default) then conformity to its chief ethos is acceptable and when evil it is a matter of adjustment and digression back to how it was before the corrupt times, back to the old days — so will run the common opinion.

Can anyone really be said to be free of culture and society, of its corrupting values, even the existentialist? The existentialist presents a breakthrough from a primitive Rousseau-like order of innocence to a realistic confrontation with what must be done: achieving an order that is free and of the person’s own making. But is such a breakthrough ever possible? Can the gap between our consciousness of evil and our inevitable participation or complicity ever be bridged? These are not essential questions for the masses of people, nor even for those who see society and culture as primary and necessary, but are the essential questions for the solitary.

There is no academic discipline or intellectual frame of thought for the solitary that is not a product of egoism, alienation, or authority. This is the breakthrough that the solitary must address.

Religious and spiritual traditions see solitude and eremitism as a means to an end, but what are the means and what relevance do the means have to daily life in the world of pluralistic societies and cultures? The justification for a life of simplicity and solitude must break through the past philosophical points of view, each laden with the vestiges of authority, laden with the remnants of bitterness and alienation, to a new and benign view that takes into account not just abstract ideas but the way that people live and function in society and culture.