In the Darwinian sense, humanity’s greatest asset is its intellect. The expressions of human intellect are so unique in the animal kingdom that it is not possible to understand its character and limitations by study of other creatures. Furthermore, the creative power of intellect is such that for many of us the natural world is no longer part of our experience. This is true even in the Third World, where most land once wild is now cultivated (where it has not been rendered arid), and the predators that dominated those ecosystems may be slaughtered to produce aphrodisiacs for the Chinese market.
And so man is the most self-involved of all creatures.
In the animal kingdom, evolutionary advantage is a simple proposal: a creature either lives or dies. In human societies, however, methods such as agriculture demanded attention to politics. Freed from the daily concerns of physical survival against the natural tyrannies (hunger, disease, the elements and predation), the danger is that our fellows will organize to seize our goods, break up our families, and take our lives. To a large degree, our survival depends upon inventing reasons for them to not do these things, and indoctrinating them to live according to those constraints.
The easiest way to accomplish this is the path of illusion – to invent entertainments that consumers believe will bring them benefits greater than the price of entry. The trick of tyranny, of course, is to replace the suckers just at the moment that they start demanding more than they contribute. That makes primitive societies terribly unstable.
The alternate path is the path of reason, which is properly understood to be philosophy, or the study of the operation of the intellect. As urban societies arose, three great cultures gave rise to distinct philosophical traditions: China produced Confucianism, India gave birth to the Veda (and its outgrowth, Buddhism) and the Occident sired Hellenism.
Despite their differences, these three threads of philosophical thought share similar concerns. Given that the intellect exists, what does it operate on? What are its virtues and pathologies? How do we strengthen the former and heal the latter?
Those explorations were formalized and documented in societies that were all making the transition to urban culture. This meant, on the one hand, that their ideas were made stronger through competition with the ideas of other thinkers. But many of the early philosophers also stood in opposition to the moral decay (one of the pathologies of intellect) that festers in urban societies. They celebrated a life in harmony with nature – nature that in its forms and behaviors expresses the most durable truths.
The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle neatly encapsulate the tensions that arise in the study of the intellect. Socrates was a man of leisure in ancient Athens who set out to discover truth, and rapidly learned that his questioning attitude revealed the emptiness of what others heralded as wisdom. Socrates broke the spell of illusion, and was sentenced to death for his troubles.
Socrates’ student Plato realized that the forms of nature were too diverse and imperfect to yield to rigorous categorization and analysis. What differentiates a fox from a dog from a wolf? Where is there any perfectly straight line in nature? Plato and his followers therefore celebrated the abstractions of the mind – or ideas – which were perfect and infinitely malleable, and therefore could be synthesized. Eventually, Plato came to believe that ideas had an independent existence, and were actually the originals from which arose natural phenomenon.
Observing that ideas in of themselves were of no practical use, Plato’s student Aristotle asserted that it was from the study of nature that ideas arise. The concept of “dog” arises naturally in the mind of those that interact with dogs, as a kind of convenient short-hand (a “categorization”) for the similarities of our sensory experiences when interacting with real dogs. Aristotle did not stop there, however, but built a formal logic that could be used to assess the internal consistency of our sets of categories, and applied it to categorization of the natural world around him.
One way of reconciling Plato and Aristotle is to observe that ideas allow us to improve the forms of nature. While perhaps a perfectly straight line cannot be created, rulers are really useful devices, helping us to build sturdy homes, roads and aqueducts. And an understanding of the characteristics of dogs and their variability allows us to benefit greatly from their companionship and hunting skill, while preventing us from trying to get them to serves as mules.
But there was another thread in this conversation in the ancient world, a thread that many modern philosophers tend to deprecate. Plato celebrated ideas not only for their malleability, but also because he was convinced that the mind participated in forms of experience that were not tangible to the physical senses. This was evident in Socrates’ statements just before taking his hemlock, in which he consoled his followers with the assurance that he was simply laying down his physical form to take up conversation with the great thinkers of the past. It is also evident in the rites of passage in pre-urban cultures, which often include a merging with animal or divine consciousness – mergings that have no obvious physical manifestation but that can be sensed by the wise.
This thread is exposed most directly in Indian philosophy. Trying to find a solid basis for managing the natural world, Indian philosophers rapidly realized that we do not have direct experience of nature – everything is mediated by our senses. Diving into a study of the senses, they encountered the vagaries of the mind: two people observing the same phenomenon emphasize different things. A beautiful woman may be an object of desire to one man, but “mother” to another. Plumbing the depths of how we form intentions, the Indian philosophers consistently encountered, beneath all of our corrupting interests, an eternal presence of universal love. As mystics withdrawing from the world of things to celebrate that presence, often reduced to penury, they became irrelevant. Prompted by the longing of love to be revealed in service to all people, the mystics began to study to problems of their peers, which were almost always practical. And so the cycle was renewed in the study of nature.
In the West, the turning of this cultural wheel was impeded by the rise of Christianity and Islam, both of which celebrate prophets and propagate rituals that purport to guide the faithful into the presence of the love celebrated by the Indian mystics.
The key word here is “purport.” Because relationship with the divine is discerned reliably only by the wise, religion falls all-too-easily into the pattern of illusion. This is not only a fault in the leaders of religions. who find it all too easy to turn their authority to material benefit (witness the success today of those peddling prosperity theology). Many adherents are also seeking charity, and not always from legitimate need. Blocked by self-seeking, they often fail to attain any meaningful mystical union.
What saddens me about modern academic philosophy is that it has succumbed almost entirely to Aristotelean materialism. It ignores or trivializes the Platonic experience of soul relation. It therefore surrenders fully half of the power of the human intellect, and in particular the half that allows us to tap into the energies that give strength to compassion and charity.
While they may appear narcissistic, my writings here are an attempt to give courage to those that recognize this great want in our hearts. In attempting to surrender myself as a servant to love, I have had many great and joyful experiences. But it is not of me that the greatness arises. From me arises only the hungering to feel joy, and the hope that it will not be denied me.