Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

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Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Introduction

Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)

Background

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

 
Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love


While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

Beyond the Pyramid. Being-Psychology: Maslow’s Real Contribution

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IT’S UNFORTUNATE unfortunate and ironic that pioneer humanistic psychologist and the founder of positive psychology Abraham Maslow is today best known for his hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy will be familiar to most readers as the pyramid diagram found in all introductory psychology texts which places lower human needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) above higher needs like those for social affiliation and self-actualization.

It’s unfortunate because many people understandably balk at the suggestion that we have to have all material needs met before we can concern ourselves with being moral.  Ironic, because such a notion is far indeed from Maslow’s own beliefs and message.

To begin, then, let’s clear this up.  First, Maslow never used the pyramid diagram in any of his writings; this is an addition of later textbook writers.

Second, he didn’t intend the ‘hierarchy’ as an excuse for selfishness or delaying pursuit of higher needs; rather, he noted with considerable interest that there are people, like great reformers and saints, who are remarkable precisely because they subordinated material to altruism — and he implied that we all ought to emulate their example.  In other words, to the extent this hierarchy does exist, it is the condition of the fallen human race, and not how we should like it to remain.

Third, that people have basic drives for material needs is hardly a surprising or original suggestion;  the innovation of Maslow’s system is precisely that it includes higher needs at all — something surprisingly few psychologists were willing to admit when Maslow wrote.

Finally, Maslow proposed the hierarchy of needs relatively early in his career; over time he moved decisively towards a focus on higher needs; it is this emphasis which is clearly his greatest legacy.

Yet today, decades later, his legacy remains dimly understood and barely appreciated.  There are several reasons for this, including the emergence of a kind of  pseudo-positive psychology that in the 1990’s, using Maslow’s term yet ignoring him and his work.  But another reason is perhaps the regrettable tendency of human beings to latch onto a simplistic idea like a pyramid diagram and then rest there in the pretension of knowing something real and solid.

Rather than berate human folly (they very problem we’re trying to fix), let’s fight fire with fire.  That is, if we need a diagram to get a concept across, let’s supply a better one that expresses Maslow’s thought.  I propose on below.

mandala hires

The point is to give visual expression to Maslow’s real contribution, which is what he called Being psychology.  We can define Being-psychology in a number of ways.  At one level, it’s the psychology behind all the great religions and philosophies of the world — the perennial psychology.  It involves a transcendence of egoism and the inauthentic world of ‘seeming,’ and stepping into the reality of here and now fully alive: being fully in the world whilst simultaneously connected with the great Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Harmony, Love and Goodness. It is the psychology peak experiences, flow states, aesthetics, fulfillment, love and harmony.

Defined negatively, it is concerned with life free from anxieties, doubts, fears, anger and the other forms of negative cognition that oppose happy and fulfilling existence.  In short, Being-psychology is the psychology of life as we wish it to be; it is the aim of our life, what we strive for.

In future articles I’ll explain more about Being-psychology.  Here I simply wish to comment on its significance for the modern world and relevance to contemporary research.  One of the great merits of Maslow’s psychology — how it goes beyond traditional formulations of the perennial psychology like religion, Platonic Idealism and Transcendentalism — is that it is completely naturalistic.  Maslow, in fact, was more less an atheist. Yet he was convinced that all the great psychological and ethical teachings of the world’s religions are grounded in absolute truths of human nature.  He believed we are biologically designed and intended (perhaps by an intelligent universe) to be Idealists.  And unless we express this side of our nature we cannot be true to ourselves or attain to any great measure of happiness.

While not especially systematic in this thinking, Maslow was nonetheless extremely rationalistic, scientific and empirical.  His humanistic theories originated from analysis of answers to surveys and interviews he conducted.  Throughout his works he proposes practical testable hypotheses.  This empirical orientation means that Being-psychology supplies a bridge between science and religion. Maslow also considered the practical applications of Being-psychology and was especially concerned with applying it in industrial settings to improve worker satisfaction, morale and productivity.

Here then is a new way to look at Maslow’s theory: at the center of Philosophy, Religion, Science, and Culture, connecting them, and enabling ideas and discoveries to flow from one area to the others.  Let this much, then, serve as food for though and as an introduction to further posts.

References

Maslow, Abraham H. (1965). Eupsychian management. Homewood, IL: Irwin (reprinted Wiley, 1998).

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. Ch. 6. Cognition of being in the peak experiences. (pp. 71−102)

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993). Ch. 9. Notes on Being-Psychology. pp. 121−142.

Van Gogh: Christ – “an artist greater than all artists”

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Vincent Van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun, June 1888

“Christ — alone — among all the philosophers, magicians, &c. declared eternal life – the endlessness of time, the non-existence of death – to be the principal certainty. The necessity and the raison d’être of serenity and devotion.

“Lived serenely as an artist greater than all artists — disdaining marble and clay and paint — working in living flesh. I.e. — this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals.

“That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.

“That great artist didn’t make books, either — Christian literature as a whole would certainly infuriate him, and its literary products that could find favour beside Luke’s Gospel, Paul’s epistles — so simple in their hard or warlike form — are few and far between. This great artist — Christ — although he disdained writing books on ideas and feelings — was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word — the parable above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig tree, &c.)

“And who would dare tell us that he lied, the day when, scornfully predicting the fall of the buildings of the Romans, he stated, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’

“Those spoken words, which as a prodigal, great lord he didn’t even deign to write down, are one of the highest, the highest summit attained by art, which in them becomes a creative force, a pure creative power.”

Source: Vincent van Gogh, To: Emile Bernard, Arles; Tuesday, 26 June 1888

http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let632/letter.html#translation

Written by John Uebersax

January 30, 2018 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Art, Christianity, Idealism

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Van Gogh: “We take death to go to a star”

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Starry Night over the Rhône (September 1888)

My dear Theo, […]

It’s certainly a strange phenomenon that all artists, poets, musicians, painters are unfortunate in the material sense — even the happy ones — what you were saying recently about Guy de Maupassant proves it once again. That rakes up the eternal question: is life visible to us in its entirety, or before we die do we know of only one hemisphere?

Painters — to speak only of them — being dead and buried, speak to a following generation or to several following generations through their works. Is that all, or is there more, even? In the life of the painter, death may perhaps not be the most difficult thing.

For myself, I declare I don’t know anything about it. But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream.

Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France.

Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones.

To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.

For the moment I’m going to go to bed because it’s late, and I wish you good-night and good luck.

Handshake.

Ever yours,

Vincent

Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), Letter to brother, Theo van Gogh. 10 July 1888.

 

Written by John Uebersax

January 29, 2018 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Art, Idealism

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Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.

 

Hesiod’s Ages of Man Myth as Psychological Allegory

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Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807)

MY HYPOTHESIS is that Hesiod’s Works and Days is not a “glorified farmer’s almanac,” but an example of ancient wisdom literature meant to convey the perennial philosophy. Its purpose is to advise readers on how to operate the human mind and soul and to find happiness in life via the same philosophical principles expressed by the Delphic religion (and, for that matter, also the Old Testament, the wisdom tradition of ancient Egypt, etc.). For this it uses, as befits poetry, figures and metaphors drawn from history and daily life; but the meanings are parabolic, and it is the reader’s task To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. (Prov.1:6)

I leave this experiment of interpretation to individual readers.  But for this experiment it will help to have an artistic translation which potentially highlights the interior, psychological meanings — and at least one that does not obscure poetic meanings, which can easily (if not inevitably) happen in translations that are extremely literal and technical, which is the modern trend.

Therefore for your enjoyment and edification I have placed online a copy of Thomas Cooke’s inspired 1743 verse translation, and also for ease of reading an 1822 reprint with modern spelling.

Part of my hypothesis is that the Ages of Man is myth of moral fall (Uebersax, 2014), and symbolizes stages in our periodic descent from a state of grace (understood in either a religious sense, or alternatively in a psychological sense as a condition of greater unity and mental ability) into its opposite mundane and debased condition, through successive cognitive stages, with parallels to Plato’s Tyrant’s Progress in the Republic (Uebersax, 2015). Here is Cooke’s translation of Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth, illustrated with engravings designed by John Flaxman and executed by William Blake.

Bibliography

The Beatitudes as Stages of Spiritual Growth

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The Sermon on the Mount (detail), Heinrich Hofmann; German, 1824–1911; date unknown.

By William Pryse

THE Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3−10) are literally and thematically at the center of the Sermon on the Mount.  They mark successive steps of the upward course of the spiritual life to its full and final perfection. Each beatitude grows out of all that precede it, and occupies a necessary place in the progressive series. There is not a grace, excellence, experience or duty of the moral life which does not find its place within this series.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit refers to those who have awakened from their self-righteousness to the fact of their self-poverty. Without this conscious and heartfelt awareness of ones limitations and shortcomings, there can be no start, much less progress, in the spiritual life. And it is gloriously significant that with the first step is promised the end: namely, attainment to the grace-led and blessed manner of life which the Gospels call the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Poverty of spirit leads directly to mourning for sin. One who has become sensible of spiritual destitution soon recognizes the cause of ones inward need. One perceives that it is egoism and selfish attachments which deprive one of happiness and spiritual good. Thus one becomes increasingly sensible of the evil of sin, and sensitive to the miseries resulting from it, in ones own life and in the world at large. In other words, one becomes a penitent mourner for sin in oneself, and a sincere mourner over the dreadful reality and destructive work of sin in human life and society.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Out of conscious poverty and penitent mourning grows the meekness of the third beatitude. This meekness is the modest, self-denying and self-restrained spirit which evinces itself in gentleness and forbearance toward others in one emptied of pride and self-sufficiency.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

These three experiences naturally lead to a supreme valuation of and desire for righteousness — that is, to think, act and live rightly, in right accord with ones own true physical and moral nature, with the Cosmos and Eternal Order, with God, and with ones fellow human beings. And to desire this good above all things else.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

As the next stage of spiritual progress, the heir of the heavenly kingdom becomes merciful toward ones fellow men. All ones previous experiences conspire to awaken in one a clear sense of their lost condition, their trials and sorrows, their need of sympathy and help. Ones consciousness of ones own infirmities teaches one charity toward the infirmities of others. Ones sense of the supreme importance of salvation from unwisdom and unvirtue prompts one to efforts for their spiritual and eternal good. A realization of ones own imperative need of the divine mercy quickens in one the same spirit of mercy toward all others.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Purity is a composite of all the previous graces, freedom from all their opposites. Each of the five contributes to it. In it is the love of all things good, the abhorrence of all things evil. As such it carries with it the vision of the true Good. It is the clearing away of the mists from the soul, and the cleansing of the films from the spiritual eyes.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

It is easy to see how such qualities as humility, penitence, meekness, desire after righteousness, mercifulness and purity become elements of peace in the soul and influences for peace in the life. They invest the character with an effective power to prevent strife and allay discord. They are the very elements and conditions of peace, whether internal or external. There can be no peace where they are absent; there can be no strife where they prevail. Their opposite qualities are the direct causes of all strife and dissension, and they who are swayed by them are necessarily strifemakers. But the graces of the beatitudes are, each and all, potent solvents of discord, and they who possess them are necessarily also peacemakers, both through conscious effort and unconscious influence. To seek and promote this peace, inward and outward — peace within oneself, peace with God and Nature and peace among men — becomes a free impulse, urge and ordering principle of their lives.

Based on the writings of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928).

Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.

References

Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.

 

 

Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm