Making links

The link between the life and behavior of a philosopher, thinker, or creative person and that person’s work is often made, even insisted upon. In The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley even makes the manner of death linked to the style of life — though, of course, it does not hold up, and his flippant attempts at humor are not very sympathetic to the whole subject. Usually, a link between life and expression is made to argue that the ideas or beliefs are flawed because of the person’s behavior — or the opposite, that the manner of a person’s life proves the value of the idea.

What an irony — the linkage works both ways! Whether we condemn or praise the ideas, those ideas are made the responsibility of the person. Or, conversely, whether we condemn or praise the person’s behavior, that behavior becomes the basis of the ideas.

So we are trapped having to accept both or none — if we insist on a link.

More likely, and more realistically, there is no absolute link because there is no completely new idea, nor is there any completely new personality or behavior.

A creative person skirts the edge in forms of expression and what a given society will look like socially or technologically, but that appearance involves historical or accidental elements that simply distinguish one era from another, one culture from another — not necessarily one person from another, or one idea from another. New ideas are not channeled from the dead and morphed upon arrival into some human receptacle that will express the ideas. Rather, old ideas are textured by the atmosphere in which the ideas arrive. Every era is a modernity to the ideas of the past. The genealogy of ideas is traceable because “nothing is new under the sun.” Through the prism of the moment are applied the myriad factors of what is called “the world” and it looks familiar.

But neither does this mean that no linkage between existence and expression can be maintained.

Ideas are the epiphenomena of mental activity, which is in part a physical and physiological foundation for our thoughts. The mind’s complexity will probably never be unraveled. Science will not pursue the issue that far. No only because it cannot. Rather, it explores neuroscience on behalf of others, its funders, its protectors, its front-room desk wardens. Why should science exist at this point except to control our environment, our food, our material conditions, our autonomy, and our thoughts?

Not only must we weigh many factors before judging the thoughts of a person, but the myriad conditionals make no thought autonomous, original, new. Humanity shares the same experiences, whether as instincts still haunting the brain mechanisms, or primordial experiences poured into the pool of collective unconscious.

Psychological trauma or environment or ingested stuff (even food, now contaminated with so many substances) can change the ideas, expressions, and behaviors of people. The epidemic of autism and attention-deficit disorder in young children, suicides among soldiers on prescribed chemical cocktails that enable them to continue their sanctioned behavior, depression among adults — all appear to be very modern insofar as they are linked to modern environmental factors or pharmaceuticals. Behavior in the past was in that since more “rational” and predictable, even if not more benign or violent by extremes. Thousands and thousands of chemical exist today that did not exist in the past, but more to the point is their proliferation and justification.

Thus, when we hear arguments or creative expressions from music to film to fashion to scandal made today as if they are new, we must filter them through the clouded atmosphere of what it means to exist in modern times.

Additionally, we have little experience in what material conditions affected our best-thinking ancestors. Yet we can identify those trains of thought so well. We can even, by methodically subtracting the products of industry and technology, vaguely reproduce their world, though not so well their thoughts. But how can we ever apply this to better our lives today when the material conditions that nurtured our best-thinking ancestors are gone, and when nearly everyone’s identification with modern society is so strong?

This challenge is the prime reason that solitude and silence are essential to our well-being. Despite the many relaxation techniques trumpeted today, they have no ancient context, no continuity other than name and form, if we use them only to postpone value-making decisions, if we use them to allay stress just long enough that we are recovered for the next day’s rat race.

So to with our material lives, wrapped up in technology, petroleum, industry, pollution. So, too, these words, made visible as dancing electrons, are my thoughts, evanescent, doomed to disappear if anything changes in our power grid, or network of dependence. So much thatch.

The link between behavior and ideas is authentic only if we are able to understand the context of the person’s life and times. Thought and art is a combination of a complex of mental interchanges, among which is plain personality, that tightened bundle of heredity, environment, life circumstances. The best art, like the best ideas, are anonymous, and come to us over the centuries as a perennial wisdom, self-effacing and deeply resonant, like a deep still pool of water undisturbed from which any can drink. Such is Jung’s collective unconscious, the waters of which all must drink. Such is the tradition of the self-effacing spirituals who did not write anything, or reputedly did so but probably did not: Buddha, Lao-tzu, Jesus, the mystics whose works are mere ashes of the fire that burned, the poets and painters of antiquity whose reflectiveness enabled them to see into the nature of things. Even the wisdom philosophers who wrote, and wrote a great deal, were only trying to express what they could barely retain.

We can read and study as much as we can, but without changing our environment and behavior, little will be accomplished. We can identify ourselves with the dead and the past, but until we understand the tenuous link between behavior and expression, we are apt to make overstatements on the one hand or on the other hand lack comprehension of or tolerance for the many ignorant of the modern world.

The slender thread that links us to wider reality is more important than anything we think or dream, anything in our environment that impedes us, though we must be scrupulous not to obscure our view of it. Solitude and silence alone will enable us to hear it, to feel it resonating within.