Is not survival the most fundamental instinct of living beings? And if we imagine that all beings are animated by some being-ness, is not survival the fundamental instinct of the universe? Coming into being is not so fundamental as maintaining being. Having come into being summons the instinct to remain “be-ing.”
Yet the fundamental law of the universe is change, flux, degeneration and regeneration, coming-into-being and passing away. Western tradition militates against the finality of this latter principle, while many Eastern traditions do not exempt even the gods from death, much less the myriad living beings or non-animated ones. Death as finality haunts both traditions, and the modern sleight-of-hand that particles reassemble somewhere offers little comfort to assuage the traditions. Is a new tradition, a new version, tenable?
The particles of physics are as transient as the stars. But only human beings are conscious of this necessity, and in their most hopeful moments have built and projected and ritualized absolute stillness, unmoving, incorruptibility, and spaces where nothing changes.
If the instinct for survival is universal, so that even rocks and trees and stars and animals strive to retain it, to achieve a stasis or stability, then the most fundamental instinct is at tragic odds with the most fundamental principle, and the latter wins.
In human beings, the circumscribed efforts of construction and maintenance become pattern, aesthetics, and reflection — civilization, art, religion. Science is born of the acuteness of minutiae-watching, of excess vigilance as a personality, of the desire for categorization and absolute order. Technology is born of aggrandizement, of the morbid desire for control and manipulation. Both are spin-offs of decay and decline. The fundamental instinct of survival has imploded due to decadence and aggression. Such is the shared history of the universe, or at least the perceived human one.
The primordial and pristine instinct of survival manifests itself in many ways, like evolutionary waves, from biology to spirit:
- Reproduction, procreation, generation, nurturing, succession. From this sequence, allied emotions and desires emanate: discovery, desire, pleasure, sociability, accomplishment, possession, power, order, fame, the sense of immortality. The initial sequence produces an antithesis:
- Aggression (that is, violence premeditated), war, law, class, ideology, politics, economics, centralization, science, technology, propaganda, sanctions. From this sequence emerge dysfunctional psychological personalities among both elite and mass populations and individuals. Ultimately what results is the dissolution of individual autonomy and the collapse of shared or convivial infrastructure, in short, the winding down of Spengler’s morphology, to use one mythopaedic structure.
- self-discipline, philosophy, higher conscious eros, harnessing the instinct of survival for deeper activity and response: art, creativity, faith, plastic arts, permaculture, aesthetics, asceticism.
To this devolution must be added today the effects of science and technology in the feedback loop of planet destruction, Its countdown simply paraellels the countdown engendered by the social and political and technological forces already unleased. Now, the instinct for survival embedded in the living Earth, Gaia (another mythopaedic image) asserts itself.
Alternatively, a possible synthesis is ever potential, occasionally actualized, but only in individuals:
Of the possible synthesis, the fruits of individual efforts ought to but cannot affect civilization or society at large. These efforts are seen as anomalies, in effect shooting stars, microcosms of universal processes achieving an apex and then collapsing again into memory and oblivion. This is the legacy of the sage, the wise, of those who have harnessed the potential of the instinct for survival and made of it what the universe most wants. But to know this one must know the sages, and be ready to speculate about what the universe wants but is bound to do.