Finding values

The troubles that humanity visits upon itself and the earth are enough to engender the greatest skepticism about the potential for human beings to change.

A shift in consciousness is often proposed or detected or hoped for, but what is it?

Consciousness is simply awareness, especially awareness of awareness, the ability to reflect on our cognition, perception, experience, thought, and feelings. On a social scale, however, a shift in consciousness is an abstracted process that, in a vacuum, would presumably take place across social and cultural structures. Historically, such shifts are shifts in belief, a dogged embrace among masses of something new, or a resignation to the inevitability of a social or cultural change — a conquest, not usually for the better, from the point of view of the conquered.

But in order for humanity to stop the troubles, there must be not merely a shift in perception or even belief or structures, but a shift in values. This is why revolutions improve things only a little. The cycle of history turns between wide autonomy to narrow control and back again, inverting the hour-glass at some point before one end is full or empty. Or the pendulum swinging back and forth (another metaphor). Metaphors are too absolute, of course, because society and structures do change, but they do not stop changing, even as they pass through periods of flux, tighten control, exhaust themselves, ossify, collapse. They transform, mutate, readapt, and continue — or are replaced by a near clone. They cannot change completely because they are human, after all.

Societies and structures do not change fundamentally not because they are human but because they carry within themselves something vital to human beings such that no matter how inefficient, dysfunctional, or repressive, they safeguard a vital continuity for people. They constitute a social and cultural habitat that took centuries to evolve in relation to the material setting, and equally centuries for humans to adapt themselves to them, to eke out a sustainable way of living and coexisting with others.

But where these processes might seem to unfold mechanically as if the processes are entirely dependent on human will or instinct, or other human-made factors — and not all observers would attribute change to human-made factors — the resultant society cannot carve out an ideal without recourse to a period of devolving into a martial state, a feudal economy, an authoritarian culture of control mixed with autonomy for pursuit of that which does not matter or what does not affect centralization and control. The result is a rationalization of the animal instinct of violence.

Civilizations are uncontrolled human projections, not driven by bare instincts for survival and reproduction but nevertheless controlled by those in power, projected in directions that mitigate reason and exacerbate dependence on the centers of control. Eventually the instinctive drives inherited by humans from other animals are transmuted into “values.”

The resulting political, economic, and social character of the culture becomes its own self-sustaining values. At that point, values justify the tendencies of the society and culture into which the individual is born, grows, and matures. All those psychological facts of growth in infants (described by everyone from Piaget to Lacan) have little to do with socialization into cultural values. The glee of a baby’s discovery and identification predates culture. In that is the universal, at that point at mere months of age. After that, the natural factors merge with the values of the society (via others) and are less distinguishable. Individual tendencies become personality and character. Values are derived, only slightly modified by the person, but always derived, modified by personality. Belief and faith in the structures that are the person’s habitat are inevitable markers of what one knows as “reality.”

Thus the universal form of socialization can be expressed in this sequence:

     doctrine –> practice –> values

where doctrine represents the culture’s infrastructure and the individual’s experience of predefined reality; practice represents what the individual is supposed to do as a respondent or tribe-member or citizen or believer; and values are the resulting ideology or peculiarly personal set of expressions that the individual has synthesized from the culture.

The next post will argue that the exact opposite sequence must be pursued by the solitary.

Perennial philosophy

According to Aldous Huxley, perennial philosophy (a term coined by Leibniz) “is primarily concerned with the one, divine Reality substantial to the manifold world of things and lives and mind.” Here, “divine” is used in the broadest sense and intentionally flexibly.

One of the ironies of perennial philosophy is that compilers of anthologies like Huxley and Tolstoy (in his Calendar of Wisdom). abstract wisdom literature into a consensus that does not appear manifest in a specific culture or society.

Wisdom underlies the myriad things, is the insightfulness of human expression, yet it remains intellectual in expression, the product of thought and reflection, not practice. Culture and society are the organic structures from which ideas and practices emerge as from a micro-climate. Here, small and narrow niches evolve into larger, more complex, and more flexible entities. Within these entities emerge typical individuals — not atoms but people, socialized, interacting, and interdependent. If there are bits of wisdom in the cultures, they are either expressed within daily existence, almost unconsciously, or are consciously identified and cultivated as wise teachings of elders. But these are almost always individuals blessed with insight and the courage to practice, not social or institutional organs.

Elders have no stake in instincts: reproduction, territory, power, followers, aggrandizement of self, wealth. These re products of action and growth, not reflection and practice. Elders have historically become the reservoirs of a culture’s wisdom because of their disengagement from instincts. Today, however, there are many foolish old people, few elders.

Perennial philosophy is the summation by elders scanning the settings of their lives and times. Perennial philosophy represents an abstraction insofar as it represents not the culture or even the wisdom of the culture (with few exceptions), but rather the cumulative observation of one person at a time.

Even the term perennial suggests a biological rather than philosophical model. The perennial herb or flower seems to remember its experience, to apply it anew when it is reborn from seed. Its reappearance must have seemed to primitives a miracle, carrying both memory and vitality, the content of wisdom plus the gift of life. Naturally, perennial philosophy outlasts its own cultures, which eventually die, but carries the memory of what it learned, what made most sense, what was wise, and brings it back to life in those who discover it.

No wonder ancients dabbled in transmigration and reincarnation as a means to explain the continuity of wisdom in human beings. Otherwise, cultures and societies are doomed to repeat the same errors, to be dominated by the same base instincts, to commit the same follies. And so they do. Perennial can refer to rebirth as much as to that Jungian pool of unconscious wisdom from which only a few cup their hands to drink, a pool inaccessible to what we call culture and society at large and reserved only to the individual mind and heart.

But the poignancy of life is perhaps not the varieties of the perennial but the tragedy of the mundane, of the “annual” in contrast to the “perennial” — to continue the metaphor. The herb or flower grows in due season, subject to natural forces as it strive toward reproduction, to make of its very cells and atoms something that will continue, something that will be everlasting in its successions. It gives fruit or pod with a thousand seeds, hoping, as it were, to have these fall to the earth and carry on the memory, the identity, that it is.

We call these natural forces blind and random. Science categorizes them in terms of genetics and hormones and vital minerals. But this scrutiny without reflection misses the drama and the potency of meaning and analogy. A lesson not heard or heeded. For even as we imbibe, nurture, give life to the seeds of wisdom (reflecting on the anthologies of perennial philosophy that is culture writ large), we transmute these spiritual seeds from the biological, from that form that the world thinks is the only form of seed and perpetuation of life.

By our identification with the perennial (and identification falls short of love, that love that is the eros of all life, even of herbs and flowers, of human beings), we leave behind the blind and random drama of appearances and enter the only way to respond to the world of cultural and social vagaries.

On the one hand are the cold minds that see nothing of this life drama but their own material comfort, much like the seed that falls on the rock or dry place or on the heavily-trodden path where they are ground down by the march of humanity. On the other are the sentimentalists who uphold tradition and the classics as authorities, but dead. In contrast, the perennial is a living being only when within the mind, expressed outward into a form of living. Huxley warns against “reverential insensibility” and the “stupor of the spirit” that affects both classes of people mentioned. Their methodology amounts to “empirical theology” analogous to astronomy with the naked eye, vaguely descriptive, purporting to describe the indecipherable and the unseeable.

To pursue the perennial philosophy is to throw oneself into life and the primacy of experience, not an abstraction but a path for living. This throwing is not the hot egoism of Dionysius nor the cold ego of Apollo. It is awareness and insight, gained by work and practice. Nor is the perennial a cultural decoration or trophy, like a dusty library of acknowledged titles. The perennial demands experimentation, engagement, and discovery. Only then can wisdom be made into a transforming force.

Tribes & neighbors

The ancient Hebrews, ancestors of Western scriptural religions and to the secularized marketplace ethics of the modern West, maintained a two-fold moral and social code: 1) love God, and 2) love neighbor as oneself. Both parts of this code referred to exclusive cultural experiences. God was only their deity. Neighbor was a fellow tribe member. This experience was not exclusive to them but characteristic of every cultural group since — with the possible exception of their conception of God.

For the Hebrews, then, further commandments elaborated on this code. Not killing meant not killing one’s fellow tribe members. Similarly not lying to them or about them, not stealing their possessions or wives, and so forth. People beyond the tribe were subject to a different moral code, and this treatment was reciprocated. Conflict over land, water, and space inevitably demarcated neighbor from enemy. To marry within the tribe and to protect the cultural and presumed physical purity of the progeny was a primitive survival measure. Hence the fate of captive or slave women like Hagar under Abraham, and the fate of their progeny such as Ishmael versus his half-brother Isaac.

None of these facts is new in history but their impact as subconscious psychological and social practices are widely neglected in assessing the evolution of tribe and society into civilization.

Tribally-oriented societies characterized all ancient and indigenous peoples. But even modern societies retain the tension between identity and xenophobia. The cultural beliefs, behaviors, styles, and ethics of those who hold power — political, economic, cultural — are emulated by the society at large. Those within a society holding a different cultural custom are often eager to discard it and embrace the appearance of the powerful. The alternative to assimilation (status of neighbor) is to remain isolated, subject to persecution and attack. Hence, the whole of a society tends toward reasserting its primitive instincts, its unchecked sense of tribalism, even when manufactured for the modern age.

Between this reconstructed social persona and the rest of the world is recreated the ancient tribe versus everyone else. The momentum of popular societies is to remain within the orbit of its primitive and instinctive penchant for consensus and amalgamation. However complex and technological a society, especially modern societies with no conscious cultural foundation, the striving for identity always reasserts itself.

Christianity attempted to discard the tribalism of its predecessor religion in order to rationalize the universality of its theology and accommodate the teachings of its “founder.” But lacking the tribal cohesion of Judaism, the concept of “neighbor” was necessarily derived instead from the secular or pagan world around it, namely, the Greco-Roman social distinction between tribesman as citizen (a political construction) versus barbarians (a cultural and ethnic one as much as political).

To the ancient Greeks, a non-Greek speaker merely uttered sounds of “Bar! Bar!” — hence a barbarian. The Romans, wrestling with the universalism of both empire and institutional religion, assented to incorporating German tribes within its cultural center, but could not amalgamate this stronger if less “civilized” force. Hence, “neighbor” was taken in the Judaic sense for a while, then returned to the hostile military sense of enemy.

The Christian sense of “neighbor” mixes political and coreligionist, not anticipating an equal cultural force in the world. The conversion of Germanic peoples, Celts, and other peoples of Europe evolved a culture that attempted to transcend boundaries but not cultures. The checkered history of “neighbor” in the Christian sense, followed by the secularized Western sense after the Enlightenment, has never adequately transcended its Biblical origin. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was not built on a cultural neutrality but a direct inheritance of what it realized as a flawed view of ethics. Without a culture of its own, however, how could Christian society amend the flaws? Without a radical break envisioned by its historical founder, Christianity carries the millstone of its historical inheritance, undermining the universality it intended. That the West exterminated the indigenous cultures it encountered, whether in druidic Europe or in the shamanistic Americas, or through ongoing colonial wars outside of its continent can be seen as a failure to address the concept of “neighbor” in any cultural and social way different than the ancient Hebrews.

The Western view of the “neighbor” as foreign and menacing to the cohesion and identity of the predominant culture can be described as what modern psychology calls “the Other.” The Other is infinitely different in every way and threatening in that it reflects something at the same time very similar to some part of the unconscious self. The Golem and the Frankenstein monster are projections of the Other, resembling staid society men but fundamentally Other, harboring what is within but seething under bare control within.

And the Other has proven useful for the powerful classes to stir the masses to anxiety and resentment of their plight, ascribed to not their rulers but to the “Other.” What is a primitive survival and territorial instinct metamorphoses into an ideology, the only cohesion left to a dying culture already riddled with its own failing ethics. The “Good Samaritan” of the gospel is not bound by society or culture, but reacts from the heart, violating the codes of his culture by recognizing the fundamental humanity of all “neighbors.” The “Other” does not frighten him as much as does the cold indifference of the majority.

And this is how the “Good Samaritan” himself becomes the “Other.” This is how the distortions of one’s culture and society create the stranger, the alienated, the solitary within their midst. The solitary is sensitive to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the tribe, and to the universal similarities of mind and heart that transcend the baser instincts in any “neighbor.” This is the first step to an understanding of ethics, the universal ethic that one ought not to do to others what oneself would not want done to self.

But historical time cannot achieve a balance that has only existed in the hearts of some. After thousands of years, the prospect for humanity continues to fade. Yet, ironically, the potential for individual insight is as available as ever. As individuals attempt to discern how a universal ethic can be pursued, their path, however, becomes austere, uncomfortable to others, alienating. Tribal comforts are lost; the ready option to hide behind the masks of rapacious society as does everyone else is renounced on principle. The seeking of a path through a social and cultural morass is increasingly a lonely effort. The solitary is at least psychologically more disposed to being stranger in a loveless world.