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Aristotle: Contemplative Life is Divine and Happiest

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Leo von Klenze (1784-1864), The Acropolis at Athens

ARISTOTLE wrote two works on ethics (that we know of).  The greater of these has come down to us with the name Nicomachean Ethics — evidently either because he wrote it for his son, Nicomachus, or the latter edited the work.  In the Books 7 and 8, Aristotle explains the benefits of the Contemplative Life.  Book 7 gives several specific reasons why Contemplation (θεωρεία; theoreia) contributes uniquely to human happiness.

Perfect Happiness is that activity which most fully exercises the virtue of our best part. Our best part is Intellect, and its most virtuous exercise is Contemplation.

7. 1. [1177a11] But if happiness [εὐδαιμονία] consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us. Whether then this be the Intellect [νοῦς], or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine, either as being itself also actually divine, or as being relatively the divinest part of us, it is the activity of this part of us in accordance with the virtue proper to it that will constitute perfect happiness; and it has been stated already* that this activity is the activity of contemplation [θεωρητική].

Εἰ δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ εὐδαιμονία κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνέργεια, εὔλογον κατὰ τὴν κρατίστην· αὕτη δ᾽ ἂν εἴη τοῦ ἀρίστου. εἴτε δὴ νοῦς τοῦτο εἴτε ἄλλο τι, ὃ δὴ κατὰ φύσιν δοκεῖ ἄρχειν καὶ ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ ἔννοιαν ἔχειν περὶ καλῶν καὶ θείων, εἴτε θεῖον ὂν καὶ αὐτὸ εἴτε τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν τὸ θειότατον, ἡ τούτου ἐνέργεια κατὰ τὴν οἰκείαν ἀρετὴν εἴη ἂν ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία. ὅτι δ᾽ ἐστὶ θεωρητική, εἴρηται.

*Aristotle never stated this exactly, but in 6.7.2-3 said that Wisdom [σοφία] is the most perfect mode of knowledge. A wise person must have a true conception of unproven first principles and also know the conclusions that follow from them. “Hence Wisdom must be a combination of Intelligence [Intellect; νοῦς] and Scientific Knowledge [ἐπιστήμη]: it must be a consummated knowledge of the most exalted objects.”  Contemplation is that activity in which ones νοῦς intuits and delights in first principles.

Reasons why the Life of Contemplation is happiest: (1) contemplation is the activity of our highest part; (2) it is the most potentially continuous of our activities;

2. And that happiness consists in contemplation may be accepted as agreeing both with the results already reached and with the truth. For contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action.

ὁμολογούμενον δὲ τοῦτ᾽ ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι καὶ τοῖς πρότερον καὶ τῷ ἀληθεῖ. κρατίστη τε γὰρ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐνέργεια (καὶ γὰρ ὁ νοῦς τῶν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ τῶν γνωστῶν, περὶ ἃ ὁ νοῦς)· ἔτι δὲ συνεχεστάτη· θεωρεῖν [τε] γὰρ δυνάμεθα συνεχῶς μᾶλλον ἢ πράττειν ὁτιοῦν.

(3) it is our most pleasant activity;

3. And again we suppose that happiness must contain an element of pleasure; now activity in accordance with wisdom is admittedly the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtue: at all events it is held that philosophy or the pursuit of wisdom contains pleasures of marvellous purity and permanence, and it is reasonable to suppose that the enjoyment of knowledge is a still pleasanter occupation than the pursuit of it.

οἰόμεθά τε δεῖν ἡδονὴν παραμεμῖχθαι τῇ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, ἡδίστη δὲ τῶν κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν ἐνεργειῶν ἡ κατὰ τὴν σοφίαν ὁμολογουμένως ἐστίν· δοκεῖ γοῦν ἡ φιλοσοφία θαυμαστὰς ἡδονὰς ἔχειν καθαρειότητι καὶ τῷ βεβαίῳ, εὔλογον δὲ τοῖς εἰδόσι τῶν ζητούντων ἡδίω τὴν διαγωγὴν εἶναι.

(4) it requires only oneself;

4. Also the activity of contemplation will be found to possess in the highest degree the quality that is termed self-sufficiency [αὐτάρκεια]; for while it is true that the wise man equally with the just man and the rest requires the necessaries of life, yet, these being adequately supplied, whereas the just man needs other persons towards whom or with whose aid he may act justly, and so likewise do the temperate man and the brave man and the others, the wise man on the contrary can also contemplate by himself, and the more so the wiser he is; no doubt he will study better with the aid of fellow-workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient of men.

ἥ τε λεγομένη αὐτάρκεια περὶ τὴν θεωρητικὴν μάλιστ᾽ ἂν εἴη· τῶν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τὸ ζῆν ἀναγκαίων καὶ σοφὸς καὶ δίκαιος καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ δέονται, τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις ἱκανῶς κεχορηγημένων ὁ μὲν δίκαιος δεῖται πρὸς οὓς δικαιοπραγήσει καὶ μεθ᾽ ὧν, ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ σώφρων καὶ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ἕκαστος, ὁ δὲ σοφὸς καὶ καθ᾽ αὑτὸν ὢν δύναται θεωρεῖν, καὶ ὅσῳ ἂν σοφώτερος ᾖ, μᾶλλον· βέλτιον δ᾽ ἴσως συνεργοὺς ἔχων, ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως

(5) it is an end in itself;

5. [1177b1] Also the activity of contemplation may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation, whereas from practical pursuits we look to secure some advantage, greater or smaller, beyond the action itself.

δόξαι τ᾽ ἂν αὐτὴ μόνη δι᾽ αὑτὴν ἀγαπᾶσθαι· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῆς γίνεται παρὰ τὸ θεωρῆσαι, ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν πρακτικῶν ἢ πλεῖον ἢ ἔλαττον περιποιούμεθα παρὰ τὴν πρᾶξιν.

(6) it is the most leisured activity;

6. Also happiness is thought to involve leisure; for we do business in order that we may have leisure, and carry on war in order that we may have peace. Now the practical virtues are exercised in politics or in warfare; but the pursuits of politics and war seem to be unleisured — those of war indeed entirely so, for no one desires to be at war for the sake of being at war, nor deliberately takes steps to cause a war: a man would be thought an utterly bloodthirsty character if he declared war on a friendly state for the sake of causing battles and massacres. But the activity of the politician also is unleisured, and aims at securing something beyond the mere participation in politics — positions of authority and honor, or, if the happiness of the politician himself and of his fellow-citizens, this happiness conceived as something distinct from political activity (indeed we are clearly investigating it as so distinct).

δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι· ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν, καὶ πολεμοῦμεν ἵν᾽ εἰρήνην ἄγωμεν. τῶν μὲν οὖν πρακτικῶν ἀρετῶν ἐν τοῖς πολιτικοῖς ἢ ἐν τοῖς πολεμικοῖς ἡ ἐνέργεια, αἱ δὲ περὶ ταῦτα πράξεις δοκοῦσιν ἄσχολοι εἶναι, αἱ μὲν πολεμικαὶ καὶ παντελῶς (οὐδεὶς γὰρ αἱρεῖται τὸ πολεμεῖν τοῦ πολεμεῖν ἕνεκα, οὐδὲ παρασκευάζει πόλεμον· δόξαι γὰρ ἂν παντελῶς μιαιφόνος τις εἶναι, εἰ τοὺς φίλους πολεμίους ποιοῖτο, ἵνα μάχαι καὶ φόνοι γίνοιντο)· ἔστι δὲ καὶ ἡ τοῦ πολιτικοῦ ἄσχολος, καὶ παρ᾽ αὐτὸ τὸ πολιτεύεσθαι περιποιουμένη δυναστείας καὶ τιμὰς ἢ τήν γε εὐδαιμονίαν αὑτῷ καὶ τοῖς πολίταις, ἑτέραν οὖσαν τῆς πολιτικῆς, ἣν καὶ ζητοῦμεν δῆλον ὡς ἑτέραν οὖσαν.

7. If then among practical pursuits displaying the virtues, politics and war stand out preeminent in nobility and grandeur, and yet they are unleisured, and directed to some further end, not chosen for their own sakes: whereas the activity of the intellect is felt to excel in serious worth, consisting as it does in contemplation, [1177b20] and to aim at no end beyond itself, and also to contain a pleasure peculiar to itself, and therefore augmenting its activity: and if accordingly the attributes of this activity are found to be self-sufficiency, leisuredness, such freedom from fatigue as is possible for man, and all the other attributes of blessedness: it follows that it is the activity of the intellect that constitutes complete human happiness—provided it be granted a complete span of life, for nothing that belongs to happiness can be incomplete.

εἰ δὴ τῶν μὲν κατὰ τὰς ἀρετὰς πράξεων αἱ πολιτικαὶ καὶ πολεμικαὶ κάλλει καὶ μεγέθει προέχουσιν, αὗται δ᾽ ἄσχολοι καὶ τέλους τινὸς ἐφίενται καὶ οὐ δι᾽ αὑτὰς αἱρεταί εἰσιν, ἡ δὲ τοῦ νοῦ ἐνέργεια σπουδῇ τε διαφέρειν δοκεῖ θεωρητικὴ οὖσα, καὶ παρ᾽ αὑτὴν οὐδενὸς ἐφίεσθαι τέλους, καὶ ἔχειν τὴν ἡδονὴν οἰκείαν (αὕτη δὲ συναύξει τὴν ἐνέργειαν), καὶ τὸ αὔταρκες δὴ καὶ σχολαστικὸν καὶ ἄτρυτον ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ, καὶ ὅσα ἄλλα τῷ μακαρίῳ ἀπονέμεται, τὰ κατὰ ταύτην τὴν ἐνέργειαν φαίνεται ὄντα· ἡ τελεία δὴ εὐδαιμονία αὕτη ἂν εἴη ἀνθρώπου, λαβοῦσα μῆκος βίου τέλειον· οὐδὲν γὰρ ἀτελές ἐστι τῶν τῆς εὐδαιμονίας.

(7) and it is the activity of the divine in human beings;

8. Such a life as this however will be higher than the human level: not in virtue of his humanity will a man achieve it, but in virtue of something within him that is divine; and by as much as this something is superior to his composite nature, by so much is its activity superior to the exercise of the other forms of virtue. If then the intellect is something divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life. Nor ought we to obey those who enjoin that a man should have man’s thoughts and a mortal the thoughts of mortality, but we ought so far as possible to achieve immortality, and do all that man may to live in accordance with the highest thing in him;* for though this be small in bulk, [1178a1] in power and value it far surpasses all the rest.

* see Plato Timaeus 90b-c; cf. Theaetetus 176a-b.

ὁ δὲ τοιοῦτος ἂν εἴη βίος κρείττων ἢ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον· οὐ γὰρ ᾗ ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν οὕτω βιώσεται, ἀλλ᾽ ᾗ θεῖόν τι ἐν αὐτῷ ὑπάρχει· ὅσον δὲ διαφέρει τοῦτο τοῦ συνθέτου, τοσοῦτον καὶ ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς κατὰ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν. εἰ δὴ θεῖον ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὸν ἄνθρωπον, καὶ ὁ κατὰ τοῦτον βίος θεῖος πρὸς τὸν ἀνθρώπινον βίον. οὐ χρὴ δὲ κατὰ τοὺς παραινοῦντας ἀνθρώπινα φρονεῖν ἄνθρωπον ὄντα οὐδὲ θνητὰ τὸν θνητόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἐνδέχεται ἀθανατίζειν καὶ πάντα ποιεῖν πρὸς τὸ ζῆν κατὰ τὸ κράτιστον τῶν ἐν αὑτῷ· εἰ γὰρ καὶ τῷ ὄγκῳ μικρόν ἐστι, δυνάμει καὶ τιμιότητι πολὺ μᾶλλον πάντων ὑπερέχει.

(8) which is the true self. Therefore the Life of the Intellect is the happiest.

9. It may even be held that this is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

Moreover what was said before will apply here also: that which is best and most pleasant for each creature is that which is proper to the nature of each; accordingly the life of the intellect is the best and the pleasantest life for man, inasmuch as the intellect more than anything else is man; therefore this life will be the happiest.

δόξειε δ᾽ ἂν καὶ εἶναι ἕκαστος τοῦτο, εἴπερ τὸ κύριον καὶ ἄμεινον. ἄτοπον οὖν γίνοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἰ μὴ τὸν αὑτοῦ βίον αἱροῖτο ἀλλά τινος ἄλλου.

τὸ λεχθέν τε πρότερον ἁρμόσει καὶ νῦν· τὸ γὰρ οἰκεῖον ἑκάστῳ τῇ φύσει κράτιστον καὶ ἥδιστόν ἐστιν ἑκάστῳ· καὶ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ δὴ ὁ κατὰ τὸν νοῦν βίος, εἴπερ τοῦτο μάλιστα ἄνθρωπος. οὗτος ἄρα καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατος.

So the Life of Contemplation is the happiest.  In 8.1-12, Aristotle gives further reasons we should prefer it.  These include that it needs little wealth and few external goods, animals don’t engage in Contemplation, and divine beings do. For the last reason he concludes in 8.13 that the person who lives for the Intellect must be dearest to the gods, and is therefore happiest.

8. 13. [1179a25] And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favors those men who esteem and honor this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest.

ὁ δὲ κατὰ νοῦν ἐνεργῶν καὶ τοῦτον θεραπεύων καὶ διακείμενος ἄριστα καὶ θεοφιλέστατος ἔοικεν. εἰ γάρ τις ἐπιμέλεια τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ὑπὸ θεῶν γίνεται, ὥσπερ δοκεῖ, καὶ εἴη ἂν εὔλογον χαίρειν τε αὐτοὺς τῷ ἀρίστῳ καὶ συγγενεστάτῳ (τοῦτο δ᾽ ἂν εἴη ὁ νοῦς) καὶ τοὺς ἀγαπῶντας μάλιστα τοῦτο καὶ τιμῶντας ἀντευποιεῖν ὡς τῶν φίλων αὐτοῖς ἐπιμελουμένους καὶ ὀρθῶς τε καὶ καλῶς πράττοντας. ὅτι δὲ πάντα ταῦτα τῷ σοφῷ μάλισθ᾽ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἄδηλον. θεοφιλέστατος ἄρα. τὸν αὐτὸν δ᾽ εἰκὸς καὶ εὐδαιμονέστατον· ὥστε κἂν οὕτως εἴη ὁ σοφὸς μάλιστ᾽ εὐδαίμων.

Sources

English: Rackham, H. (tr.). Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed.  Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Greek: Bywater, J. (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.

first draft: 15 Oct 2018

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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

A Beautiful Mind: Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_READERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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Emerson_older

IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

What is American Transcendentalism?

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EmersonThoreau2

Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the AAAS Report on the Humanities and Social Sciences, ‘The Heart of the Matter’

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A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today.  Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy.  That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute.  The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective.  Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.

But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.

The Cart Before the Horse

The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities).  The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita.  Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.

In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well.  I tend to agree with this view, personally.  Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’.  That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society.  May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?

The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around.  We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act'”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”

That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right.  But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security.  Do your duty:  Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare!  How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie?  The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!

On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late.  Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming  rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.

Materialism vs. Idealism

The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia.  Now, to my mind  – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation.  What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine.  This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism.  Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that.  But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention?  Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative?  I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.

We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett.  That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education.  A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked.  Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative.  But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?

Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary.  Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America.  But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values?  Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books?  And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?

A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today.  Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience.  The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals.   One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history.  And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons.  Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.

Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure.  Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system.  The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear.  But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.

The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2013 at 12:08 am