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Abdulbaha

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the sixth post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (6 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Vision & Station). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Groupwork

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members need to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Guardian’s Explanation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Station

In God Passes By Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, explains exactly what the station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is for Bahá’ís. It is a long passage so I have decided to focus on what is most relevant to our current purposes. It is perhaps necessary to explain that the Manifestation of God, in a way that underpins part of the imagery used here, is seen as a Lote[1] (or boundary) Tree marking a line ‘beyond which there is no passing.’ The offshoots of this Tree, in this case the descendants of Bahá’u’lláh, are described as Branches. Shoghi Effendi writes:

He [Bahá’u’lláh] bids them, moreover, together with the Afnán (the Báb’s kindred) and His own relatives, to “turn, one and all, unto the Most Great Branch (‘Abdu’l-Bahá )”; identifies Him with “the One Whom God hath purposed,” “Who hath branched from this pre-existent Root,” referred to in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas; . . . . and concludes with an exhortation calling upon the faithful to “serve all nations,” and to strive for the “betterment of the world.

. . . . His had been the unique distinction of recognizing, while still in His childhood, the full glory of His Father’s as yet unrevealed station, a recognition which had impelled Him to throw Himself at His feet and to spontaneously implore the privilege of laying down His life for His sake. . . . .

On Him Bahá’u’lláh, as the scope and influence of His Mission extended, had been led to place an ever greater degree of reliance, by appointing Him, on numerous occasions, as His deputy, by enabling Him to plead His Cause before the public, by assigning Him the task of transcribing His Tablets, by allowing Him to assume the responsibility of shielding Him from His enemies, and by investing Him with the function of watching over and promoting the interests of His fellow-exiles and companions. He it was Who had been commissioned to undertake, as soon as circumstances might permit, the delicate and all-important task of purchasing the site that was to serve as the permanent resting-place of the Báb, of insuring the safe transfer of His remains to the Holy Land, and of erecting for Him a befitting sepulchre on Mt. Carmel. He it was Who had been chiefly instrumental in providing the necessary means for Bahá’u’lláh’s release from His nine-year confinement within the city walls of ‘Akká, and in enabling Him to enjoy, in the evening of His life, a measure of that peace and security from which He had so long been debarred. . . . .

He alone had been accorded the privilege of being called “the Master,” an honour from which His Father had strictly excluded all His other sons. Upon Him that loving and unerring Father had chosen to confer the unique title of “Sirru’lláh” (the Mystery of God), a designation so appropriate to One Who, though essentially human and holding a station radically and fundamentally different from that occupied by Bahá’u’lláh and His Forerunner, could still claim to be the perfect Exemplar of His Faith, to be endowed with super-human knowledge, and to be regarded as the stainless mirror reflecting His light. . . . . To Him He . . . . had alluded (in a Tablet addressed to Hájí Muhammad Ibráhím-i-Khalíl) as the one amongst His sons “from Whose tongue God will cause the signs of His power to stream forth,” and as the one Whom “God hath specially chosen for His Cause.” On Him, at a later period, the Author of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in a celebrated passage, subsequently elucidated in the “Book of My Covenant,” had bestowed the function of interpreting His Holy Writ, proclaiming Him, at the same time, to be the One “Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” . . . . . To Him, on the occasion of His visit to Beirut, His Father had, furthermore, in a communication which He dictated to His amanuensis, paid a glowing tribute, glorifying Him as the One “round Whom all names revolve,” as “the Most Mighty Branch of God,” and as “His ancient and immutable Mystery.” . . . . . And finally in yet another Tablet these weighty words had been recorded: “The glory of God rest upon Thee, and upon whosoever serveth Thee and circleth around Thee. Woe, great woe, betide him that opposeth and injureth Thee. Well is it with him that sweareth fealty to Thee; the fire of hell torment him who is Thy enemy.

And now to crown the inestimable honors, privileges and benefits showered upon Him, in ever increasing abundance, throughout the forty years of His Father’s ministry in Baghdád, in Adrianople and in ‘Akká, He had been elevated to the high office of Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant[2], and been made the successor of the Manifestation of God Himself—a position that was to empower Him to impart an extraordinary impetus to the international expansion of His Father’s Faith, to amplify its doctrine, to beat down every barrier that would obstruct its march, and to call into being, and delineate the features of, its Administrative Order, the Child of the Covenant, and the Harbinger of that World Order whose establishment must needs signalize the advent of the Golden Age of the Bahá’í Dispensation.

Question: While recognising that we are only really able to grasp a small part of what this all means, it will be useful to explore what we understand by three key expressions: (a) the Mystery of God, (b) the Perfect Exemplar, and (c) the Centre of the Covenant. As a group pause to share your understandings of the possible meanings of those terms.

It is also important to remind ourselves that whenever ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked about Himself He replied along these lines:

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion…. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the Banner of the Most Great Peace …The Herald of the Kingdom is he, so that he may awaken the people of the East and the West. The Voice of Friendship, of Truth, and of Reconciliation is he, quickening all regions. No name, no title will he ever have, except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my Supreme height. O ye friends of God! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the manifestation of Service, and not Christ. The Servant of humanity is he, and not a chief. Summon ye the people to the station of Service of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and not his Christhood.”

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Examples of His Powers

Page 19: [Quoting Thornton Chase] “His [the Master’s] own writings, spreading like white-winged doves from the Centre of His Presence to the ends of the earth, are so many (hundreds pouring forth daily) that it is an impossibility for him to have given time to them for searching thought or to have applied the mental processes of the scholar to them. They flow like streams from a gushing fountain….”

Page 22-23: Invariably, the Master’s actions were as eloquent as the words He used. In the United States, for example, nothing could have more clearly communicated Bahá’í belief in the oneness of religion than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s readiness to include references to the Prophet Muhammad in addresses to Christian audiences and His energetic vindication of the divine origin of both Christianity and Islam to the congregation at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. His ability to inspire in women of all ages confidence that they possessed spiritual and intellectual capacities fully equal to those of men, His unprovocative but clear demonstration of the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on racial oneness by welcoming black as well as white guests at His own dinner table and the tables of His prominent hostesses, and His insistence on the overriding importance of unity in all aspects of Bahá’í endeavour – such demonstrations of the way in which the spiritual and practical aspects of life must interact threw open for the believers windows on a new world of possibilities. The spirit of unconditional love in which these challenges were phrased succeeded in overcoming the fears and uncertainties of those whom the Master addressed.

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Page 40: [After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing Horace Holley wrote]:

“Now a message from God must be delivered, and there was no mankind to hear this message. Therefore, God gave the world ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá received the message of Bahá’u’lláh on behalf of the human race. He heard the voice of God; He was inspired by the spirit; He attained complete consciousness and awareness of the meaning of this message, and He pledged the human race to respond to the voice of God. …to me that is the Covenant – that there was on this earth some one who could be a representative of an as yet uncreated race. There were only tribes, families, creeds, classes, etc., but there was no man except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as man, took to Himself the message of Bahá’u’lláh and promised God that He would bring the people into the oneness of mankind, and create a humanity that could be the vehicle for the laws of God.”

Howard Colby Ives-a

Howard Colby Ives (for source of image see llnk)

In Portals of Freedom Howard Colby Ives shared his impressions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 16):

To me, a man of middle age, a Unitarian Clergyman, a student since youth of religions and philosophies, the experience had a disturbing quality somewhat cataclysmic. Why should this man be able so to upset all my preconceived notions and conceptions of values by His mere presence? Was it that He seemed to exude from His very being an atmosphere of love and understanding such as I had never dreamed? Was it the resonant voice, modulated to a music which caught the heart? Was it the aura of happiness touched at times with a sadness implying the bearing of the burden of all the sin and sorrow of the world, which always surrounded Him? Was it the commingled majesty and humility of His every gesture and word, which was perhaps His most obvious characteristic? How can one answer such questions? Those who saw and heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during those memorable months will share with me the sense of the inadequacy of words to communicate the incommunicable.

Mahmud (for source of image see link)

Mahmud-i-Zarqani (for source of image see link)

Earl Redman’s ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst (page 190) quotes Mahmud’s Diary (page 257):

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was up and packed before dawn and calling for the rest of His party to get up. As He left, He gave the hotel manager a $1 tip for the chambermaid since she was not there at that time. They took a taxi to the train station, where the taxi driver demanded more than the usual fare. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ignored him, saying, ‘A man may give $1000 without minding it but he should not yield even a dollar to the person who wishes to take it wrongfully, for such wrongful behaviour flouts justice and disrupts the order of the world.’

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

Juliet Thompson, in her Diary (page 285) records this moment:

The Master sat at the centre on the high stage… on the platform of the World Peace Conference.

The Master was really too ill to have gone to this conference. He had been in bed all morning, suffering from complete exhaustion, and had a high temperature. I was with Him all morning. While I was sitting beside Him I asked: “Must You go to the Hotel Astor when You are so ill?”

“I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit,” He answered. “I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did,” He laughed, “I would get nothing done.”

After that meeting… the Master shook hands with the whole audience, with every one of those thousands of people!

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s foresight saved many lives as Lady Blomfield explains in The Chosen Highway (page 210):

Preparation for war conditions had been made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá even before His return to Palestine, after His world tour. The people of the villages Nughayb, Samrih and ‘Adasíyyih where instructed by the Master how to grow corn, so as to produce prolific harvests, in the period before and during the lean years of the war.

A vast quantity of this corn was stored in pits, some of which had been made by the Romans, and were now utilised for this purpose. So it came about that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to feed numberless poor of the people of Haifa, ‘Akká, and the neighbourhood, in the famine years of 1914-1918.

We learned that when the British marched into Haifa was some difficulty about the commissariat. The officer in command went to consult the Master.

‘I have corn,’ was the reply.

‘But for the army?” said the astonished soldier.

‘I have corn for the British Army,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

He truly walked the Mystic way with practical feet.

Wellesley Tudor-Pole | 'Abdu'l-Bahá in America

Wellesley Tudor-Pole (For source of image see link)

Wellesley Tudor Pole in Writing on the Ground gives this account (page 150):

On many other occasions the prophetic insight of the Bahá’í leader was made clear to me. As an instance of this, I recall that when visiting him at Haifa, just after the Armistice in November 1918, I spoke with of thankfulness we all must feel that the war ‘to end all wars’ had been fought and won. He laid his hand upon my shoulder and told me that a still greater conflagration lay ahead of humanity. ‘It will be largely fought out in the air, on all continents, and on the sea. Victory will lie with no one. You, my son, will still be alive to witness this tragedy into to play your part. Beyond and following many tribulations, and through the beneficence of the Supreme One, the most great peace will dawn.’

Question: What do these comments, descriptions and anecdotes tell us about what the experience of meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might have been like and what the full significance of His role in history might be?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to reflect upon a quotation we have memorised.

Groupwork

The Limitations of His Hearers

Page 25: No objective review of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s mission to the West. . . . . can fail to take into account the sobering fact that only a small number of those who had accepted the Faith – and infinitely fewer among the public audiences who had thronged to hear His words – derived from these priceless opportunities more than a relatively dim understanding of the implications of His message. Appreciating these limitations on the part of His hearers, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not hesitate to introduce into His relations with Western believers actions that summoned them to a level of consciousness far above mere social liberalism and tolerance. One example that must stand for a range of such interventions was His gentle but dramatic act in encouraging the marriage of Louis Gregory and Louise Mathews – the one black, the other white. The initiative set a standard for the American Bahá’í community as to the real meaning of racial integration, however timid and slow its members were in responding to the core implications of the challenge.

. . . . . Commitment to the cause of international peace; the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty that were undermining the unity of society; the overcoming of national, racial and other prejudices; the encouragement of equality in the education of boys and girls; the need to shake off the shackles of ancient dogmas that were inhibiting investigation of reality – these principles for the advancement of civilisation had made a powerful impression. What few, if any, of the Master’s hearers grasped – perhaps could have grasped – was the revolutionary change in the very structure of society and the willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behaviour.

Page 45: However much one may rejoice in the praise poured on the Master from every quarter, the immediate results of His efforts represented yet another immense moral failure on the part of a considerable portion of humankind and of its leadership. The message that had been suppressed in the East was essentially ignored by a Western world which had proceeded down the path of ruin long prepared for it by overweening self-satisfaction, leading finally to the betrayal of the ideal embodied in the League of Nations.

  1. How do we explain how difficult it was for His hearers to understand ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s message?
  2. What relevance might that experience have for us now?

The Proclamation of the Faith

Page 35: As war’s inferno was engulfing the world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá turned His attention to the one great task remaining in His ministry, that of ensuring the proclamation to the remotest corners of the Earth of the message which had been neglected – or opposed – in Islamic and Western society alike. The instrument He devised for this purpose was the Divine Plan laid out in fourteen great Tablets, four of them addressed to the Bahá’í community of North America and ten subsidiary ones addressed to five specific segments of that community. Together with Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Carmel and the Master’s Will and Testament, the Tablets of the Divine Plan were described by Shoghi Effendi as three of the “Charters” of the Cause.

Question: What can we learn of help to us now in this decision of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s?

His Legacy

We will be looking in more detail at both the Guardianship and the institution of the Universal House of Justice in the last two workshops, in an attempt to understand the implications for our work in the world, whether Bahá’í or not.

Page 41: In His Will and Testament, which Shoghi Effendi has described as the “Charter” of the Administrative Order, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set out in detail the nature and role of the twin institutions that are His appointed Successors and whose complementary functions ensure the unity of the Bahá’í Cause and the achievement of its mission throughout the Dispensation, the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

Page 42: Before the reading and promulgation of the Will and Testament, the great majority of the members of the Faith had assumed that the next stage in the evolution of the Cause would be the election of the Universal House of Justice, the institution founded by Bahá’u’lláh Himself in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as the governing body of the Bahá’í world. An important fact for present-day Bahá’ís to understand is that prior to this point the concept of Guardianship was unknown to the Bahá’í community.

  1. In what way might this unexpected development have tested some believers?
  2. What do such tests signify, if anything?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Interlude

Along this journey through the Century of Light we have moved from the pitch black horrors of the First and Second World Wars, with their mixed legacies of trauma and attempted healing, beyond the chilling tensions of the Cold War and its easing into hope, to the turn of the century and beyond where storm and sunlight continue to shift across the globe promising either self-destruction or reconstruction.

This may be a good time to reflect in a different way upon what we have experienced on this journey.

Depending upon our different skills, can we pause to create a poem, story, drawing or song to capture some sense of what it feels like to be poised at a point of faintly glimmering dawn, after a night of such vivid horrors?

If we get through this early we will begin the presentation that starts Session 7

[1] Wikipedia explains as follows: ‘Sidrat al-Muntahā (Arabic: ‫سدرة المنتهى‎) is a Lote tree[1] that marks the end of the seventh heaven, the boundary where no creation can pass.’

[2] We have met this word ‘Covenant’ already in this last workshop. I will repeat the footnote here for ease of reference. This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

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KW Diag 5 v2I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integralpolitics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

As I have brought Shelley back into the frame with yesterday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! There are examples of trauma in his life at the point I take it up, that I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning. This phase in the sequence also looks at some general principles that may be relevant to creativity in general as well as Shelley in particular.

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

For insights shed on this from the trauma literature see my earlier see the three immediately preceding posts accessible from the links at the start of this post..

The really difficult bit starts with the next post tomorrow – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Abdu’l-Bahá said…: ‘All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.’

(Lady Blomfield, The Chosen Highway (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), p. 167)

The Art, Life and the Artist

One reason I persisted in reading on against the current of my initial antipathy was that Shelley’s life, as the earlier posts and what follows later will clarify, illustrates an aspect of the complex relationship between creativity and personality – something I very much want to understand more fully and more directly for myself.

There are many theories and ideas about this whole multi-faceted area.

A Psychological Take

I’ve posted earlier my sense of Baumeister and Tierney’s position on the tendency of great creativity to be paired with chaotic or even destructive tendencies (cf also my posts on Dickens). They raise the question of whether the discrepancy between a lofty art and a debased life could stem from what they term ‘ego depletion.’ ‘Ego’ is used here to mean the faculty of self-regulation. They contend (Kindle Reference 428):

Restraining sexual impulses takes energy, and so does creative work. If you pour energy into your art, you have less available to restrain your libido.

They are aware that there are exceptions to this correlation, quoting Anthony Trollope as one example, and that there are ways of reducing the strain on self-control by automating the grunt work of creativity by regular habit. However, I am uncomfortable in accepting that this is the only or even the best explanation of this pattern.

There are many who continue to argue that creativity goes with some form of ‘mental illness,’ such as bipolar disorder. Again, not a complete or adequate explanation, as we will see in a later post.

A Spiritual Perspective

Maitreyabandhu has a subtle take on this whole issue. He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2012, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

I will be returning in far more detail to his perspective in the final sequence of posts.

With Shelley we can immediately see how hard it was for him to express his compassionate ideals in his personal life. There was a strong element of narcissism that kept dragging him down, so that his indifference to the suffering he caused to those closest to him was bordering on brutal at times, even though he wept at the idea of the poor dying in the streets. I will be looking more closely at how life gradually helped him lift himself above this trap more often as he got older. Sadly, we will never know how high he might have been able to climb had he lived longer.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Morality and Art

Defining the relationship between the artist’s work and the artist’s life can raise serious issues that are not easy to resolve even if we can have access to all the necessary information.

For example, on 17 October, The Guardian published an interesting examination of this problem triggered by the court’s having ordered the destruction of original photographs, some historic and some by Ovenden himself, in the possession of Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Emine Saner wrote:

Can you ever divorce an artist’s life from their work? “Knowing Van Gogh shot himself, does that change the way you look at his paintings? Caravaggio was a murderer – does that make you look at him differently?” . . . . .

The attitude, says art writer Jonathan Jones, “where people [think] the art exists in its own sphere – I think that’s not true at all. Ovenden’s art probably does reflect aspects of his life we now find deeply troubling.” The question of how harshly we should judge the art by its artist remains. Can you read Alice in Wonderland in the same way when you’ve seen Lewis Carroll’s photographs of naked girls? Or listen to Benjamin Britten’s work, knowing he wrote great music for children, with such attention, because he had an obsession with pubescent boys (as detailed in John Bridcut’s 2006 biography)?

There are even questions, often raised by the surviving family, of what it is permissible to publish about an artist’s life, which makes this area even more difficult to grapple with because we are then deprived for sure of all we need to know. The most recent such furore has been about Jonathan Bates’s unauthorized biography of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes. Bates’s freedom to quote was seriously curtailed, as a Guardian review explains:

As has been widely reported, he began his work on a “literary life” with the support of the Ted Hughes estate, controlled by the poet’s widow Carol. Late in the day this support was withdrawn: evidently, his researches were not purely “literary” enough. Permission for any substantial quotation from Hughes’s writing was also withdrawn, and Bate’s Unauthorised Life has to grapple with this ban.

The debate is heated. Adam Begley perhaps the defined the crucial issue best when he wrote recently:

Perhaps the answer is to divide the biographical mission into halves. A biographer engaged in research should be shameless, free of compunction and squeamishness. Every fact, no matter how sordid, whether plucked from the archives or the trash can, should be grist for the mill. Snobbish convictions about propriety and highbrow notions about the elevated status of art should be banished – but only until it comes time to tell the life story, at which point the biographer’s shamelessness must be put to good use. Any dirt dug up must tell us something essential about the person under scrutiny, about the work accomplished, about the achievement that makes the life worth examining.

Easier said than done, I suspect, as did Henry James also, when he penned his pointed dissection of the mind of a digger of bio-dirt – The Aspern Papers. Very appropriately for present purposes the short story was based on an attempt by Edward Silsbee to elicit documents about Shelley from Claire Clairmont shortly before she died (cf Richard Holmes – Shelley: the pursuit (page 733). The acid tone of the book can be sampled in the narrator’s reflection on his approach as he speaks to the niece of the lady who has the papers he longs to get his hands on: ‘I felt particularly like the reporter of a newspaper who forces his way into a house of mourning.’

Clearly, at such a remove in time and after so many relevant papers have been suppressed and destroyed, we will never be completely sure where the truth lies (can the truth lie?) in Shelley’s case. I’ll continue to have a stab at it none the less. I’ve come too far now to turn back!

subliminal

Source of Inspiration

In addition, there is the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Are the person and the poet not quite the same? May they be almost completely distinct as Shelley felt?

Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FHW Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ Their book explores in depth the full complexity of our relationship with our unconscious processes. They give many examples of how people are simply not aware of complex and coherent processes at work beneath the surface of awareness. This makes taking a simplistic line which links the person we see with the source of the poetry tempting but deceptive. It is probable that, at the very least, the source of poetry is not completely reducible to the visible influences of a poet’s life. It may even, with the best poetry, be largely the product of invisible unconscious creative processes.

Even so, ‘subliminal uprush’ could be a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live.

At a more prosaic level and looking at external influences, Ludwig Tuman makes a telling point in his excellent survey of creativity and spirituality (page 19) when he draws the distinction between those who work within a global framework and those who work within a more circumscribed tradition:

The approach taken by an artist whose creative work draws its inspiration or its substance more from outlying cultures than from that of his native land, will in this book be called the global approach.

Since the Nineteenth Century this approach has become increasingly practicable for more and more artists.  Nonetheless he feels we should not disparage ‘work’ which ‘draws more on [the artist’s] traditional culture.’  This he terms ‘the traditional approach.’

A third element is perhaps worth mentioning here. Last month, there was a programme on the BBC called Wider Horizons, which focused on the music of David Gilmour, best known as a member of the band Pink Floyd. It became very clear that his creativity was in part fostered by a network of close contemporary collaborators including Phil Manzanera, a record producer and Roxy Music guitarist, and Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, who writes many of his lyrics.

What is also true of Gilmour, and all other creative artists as far as I can tell, – the same mysterious element Myers strove to define – also comes across from the programme. Interviewed by Alan Yentob he attempts to describe the experience of realising a song is emerging:

Every once in a while an idea will force its way to the surface of my mind. When I’m trying to write a lyric, a song about . . . . but I’ve got no way of predicting where that’s going to go in the future. I keep thinking that there is a little door, a little key that I can open and I’ll suddenly find a way that would make it slightly simpler for me to move those things forwards and define them, ‘cos there’s plenty to write about, but I haven’t yet really pinned that down.

A Historical Angle

Also there are those who locate the problem of a problematic life and the kind of art it permits as deriving principally from the 19th Century onwards. For example, Ludwig Tuman in his exploration of the role of art – Mirror of the Divine – (page 102) argues that:

[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

This would suggest that this model of explanation – great art tends to emanate from disreputable artists –  would be only of limited use. I intend to keep an open mind on that one. One of the most obvious contaminating factors to any examination of the evidence on this issue would be the fact that evidence is less readily available the further back in history you look. This might not simply be a question of more time means more accidental loss: in other earlier periods contemporaries might have been even more motivated than the Victorians to exalt the reputation of their great artists, as well as less concerned than we are to preserve every scrap of information.

Problems of Definition

Tuman also makes a compelling case that defining precisely any of the variables, such as the quality of the art or the moral rectitude of the artist, is almost impossible and concludes (page 99):

Whether we are considering greatness in art, or spirituality in human conduct, we need to remember that in both cases the light varies by degrees, and that even if it is brilliant, one can always aspire for it to become a bit brighter. This observation alone makes the argument of ‘good art despite bad conduct’ look suspicious, for in order to demonstrate the argument’s validity one has to state the criteria by which to distinguish between good and bad, and draw a line between the two.

He does contend, even so, that there will be a correlation between the quality of the art and the character of the artist because, as a Bahá’í, he is convinced that you cannot completely separate external action from inner state, even if no one outside the artist can define the relationship exactly in any given case. He takes the reach of this belief beyond the realm of art to include everything we do and makes a very telling point towards the end of his chapter on this issue (page 108):

One of the reasons that the world is in such a chaotic state is that professionals are trained for their calling technically, but are often not prepared spiritually

Where does this leave me?

Perhaps because of all this confusion of views, I feel I need to look at this whole issue more deeply for myself. Admittedly I’m not going to be doing thorough systematic studies across large populations of people. For example, if we are to test out the ‘ego depletion’ hypothesis we need to do a prospective study of creative artists which compares their level of work intensity with, say, lawyers, accounts, psychologists, and, if we are to take Maitreyabandhu’s point seriously, a group of meditators who also work hard at some vocation. I’m not up for that level of exploration.

I am choosing instead to embark, as time permits, on a reading of diverse biographies, particularly of more or less equally famous and hard working people from diverse backgrounds, many but not all of them creative artists of some kind, to see what patterns if any emerge.

In terms of the present, possibly over-ambitious exercise, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of what we learnt about Shelley from a whirlwind tour of his life before seeing what, if anything, that might imply about his poetry. In doing so I need to bear in mind all the strictures and caveats I’ve just been quoting. I’m not sure I can do this well so early in my learning process, but I’m going to have a go.

What we’ve learnt about Shelley so far

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source of image see link

In the first post, for those who may not have read it, I described Shelley’s dark situation and character contradictions in fairly stark terms.

He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of them committing suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.

I quoted his sonnet about Ozymandias to illustrate how powerfully he understood the emptiness and vanity of power and wealth. His sonnet about the condition of England in 1819 as George III was dying, which I also quoted, showed his compassion for the poorest in his society when he wrote of ‘[a] people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,’ and looked forward in hope to the possible redemption of his society.

After looking at his early life of privilege and, while at home, his domination of his younger sisters, tempered by his later experiences of being cruelly bullied at both his schools, I quoted the conclusion Holmes came to as his biographer (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

Later years saw his continuing love of the macabre and episodes of hysterical intensity. His close relationships continued to reveal a lack of empathy and this could be exacerbated by his intense idealism. So much so, that it was tempting to conclude that he had invested a huge amount of ego in the ideals he chose to espouse. It took much suffering, his own and other people’s, to shift the tight grip of Narcissus on his thinking.

That he could be generous is shown by his consistent support for Claire Clairmont after her affair with Byron and the birth of their daughter, Allegra. His protracted negotiations with Byron on Claire’s behalf also show that he could be perceptive and diplomatic when he saw the compelling need, as he did in this case.

Holmes’s conclusion about Shelley at this time was that he was not completely blind to his socially destructive impulses but was rarely able to curb them. Commenting on a letter Shelley wrote to William Godwin, with whom his relationship was positive at that point, Holmes writes (page 145):

It was a warm and touching letter. In the intellectual presence of one he felt he could trust, Shelley’s sense of personal inadequacy is revealing. He was rarely able to admit his own impatience and his own bitterness of feeling; more usually he was ‘unimpeached and unimpeachable.’

A key event that helped Shelley mature was the suicide of his first wife. Claire Clairmont wrote in a letter that (page 356) ‘Harriet’s suicide had a beneficial effect on Shelley – he became much less confident in himself and not so wild as he had been before.’ Holmes unpacks this by saying: ‘For Claire, it was Shelley’s recognition of his own degree of responsibility – a slow and painful recognition – which matured him.’

The really difficult bit starts on Thursday – trying to map some of this at least onto the development of Shelley’s poetry! I’ll begin with a review of key moments in that trajectory followed, in a later group of posts in this sequence, by reflections on where that leaves me as I try to articulate my own sense of the issue in a wider perspective.

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The Guardian's Resting Place

The Guardian’s Resting Place

I have just finished reading Kevin Beint’s Spiritual Destiny of the English Language. It successfully combines an overview of the history of the English language with a history of the important part English played in the development of the Bahá’í Faith.

All this is achieved in an accessible style. He unpacks, amongst other things, the importance of metaphor, with its ‘layers of meanings’ (page 25), to the conveyance of spiritual truths, the under-rated contribution of women in the development of English literature and the gradual emergence of African American voices. He traces the rise of English to its present status as the second language of a significant proportion of the world’s population. He acknowledges that this could change but feels (page 76) that ‘[t]o make sense of the current world and derive solutions to its many challenges it presumably helps greatly if the language used is one that through experience has absorbed and acquired sufficient vocabulary, concepts and flexibility to serve this need. Language can, indeed, be a servant to change. It can be argued that in the last two hundred years English has provided that service like no other language.’

He then moves to exploring how, through the efforts of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith with the help of certain key figures such as Lady Blomfield, Ethel Rosenberg, George Townsend and John Esslemont, English became the means of making key texts of Bahá’í Scripture accessible to the Western world and beyond. English facilitated their translation into many other languages over time.

In addition, during his Ministry as Guardian, oceans of guidance in English poured from Shoghi Effendi’s pen, all of which helped believers across the world begin to lay the all-important foundations of the Bahá’í administrative order. His key work on the history of the Bahá’í Faith, ‘God Passes By, was written in English. Kevin concludes (page 165): ‘. . . .it would seem that English was, like no other language of the time, at the service of Bahá’u’lláh. A ‘spiritual’ service that, as a result of the breadth of its literature and its turbulent religious and political history, interwoven with reform in the world, was its destiny.’

For anyone interested in either of these aspects, this book is well worth exploring. The book is self-published and anyone interested in buying it should contact Kevin on his LinkedIn page at the following link or via his blog. The proceeds of the sale will go to fund work currently in progress to enhance and maintain the site of the Resting Place of Shoghi Effendi. The cost of the book is £10 with total proceeds to go to the Guardian’s Resting Place Endowment Fund. If you wish to order directly in the UK, the book is available from Kevin Beint, 50 Laureston Drive Leicester LE2 2AQ. Cheques should be made out for £12 to cover £2 for P&P.

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Abdulbaha

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the sixth post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (6 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Vision & Station). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Groupwork

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members need to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Guardian’s Explanation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Station

In God Passes By Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, explains exactly what the station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is for Bahá’ís. It is a long passage so I have decided to focus on what is most relevant to our current purposes. It is perhaps necessary to explain that the Manifestation of God, in a way that underpins part of the imagery used here, is seen as a Lote[1] (or boundary) Tree marking a line ‘beyond which there is no passing.’ The offshoots of this Tree, in this case the descendants of Bahá’u’lláh, are described as Branches. Shoghi Effendi writes:

He [Bahá’u’lláh] bids them, moreover, together with the Afnán (the Báb’s kindred) and His own relatives, to “turn, one and all, unto the Most Great Branch (‘Abdu’l-Bahá )”; identifies Him with “the One Whom God hath purposed,” “Who hath branched from this pre-existent Root,” referred to in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas; . . . . and concludes with an exhortation calling upon the faithful to “serve all nations,” and to strive for the “betterment of the world.

. . . . His had been the unique distinction of recognizing, while still in His childhood, the full glory of His Father’s as yet unrevealed station, a recognition which had impelled Him to throw Himself at His feet and to spontaneously implore the privilege of laying down His life for His sake. . . . .

On Him Bahá’u’lláh, as the scope and influence of His Mission extended, had been led to place an ever greater degree of reliance, by appointing Him, on numerous occasions, as His deputy, by enabling Him to plead His Cause before the public, by assigning Him the task of transcribing His Tablets, by allowing Him to assume the responsibility of shielding Him from His enemies, and by investing Him with the function of watching over and promoting the interests of His fellow-exiles and companions. He it was Who had been commissioned to undertake, as soon as circumstances might permit, the delicate and all-important task of purchasing the site that was to serve as the permanent resting-place of the Báb, of insuring the safe transfer of His remains to the Holy Land, and of erecting for Him a befitting sepulchre on Mt. Carmel. He it was Who had been chiefly instrumental in providing the necessary means for Bahá’u’lláh’s release from His nine-year confinement within the city walls of ‘Akká, and in enabling Him to enjoy, in the evening of His life, a measure of that peace and security from which He had so long been debarred. . . . .

He alone had been accorded the privilege of being called “the Master,” an honour from which His Father had strictly excluded all His other sons. Upon Him that loving and unerring Father had chosen to confer the unique title of “Sirru’lláh” (the Mystery of God), a designation so appropriate to One Who, though essentially human and holding a station radically and fundamentally different from that occupied by Bahá’u’lláh and His Forerunner, could still claim to be the perfect Exemplar of His Faith, to be endowed with super-human knowledge, and to be regarded as the stainless mirror reflecting His light. . . . . To Him He . . . . had alluded (in a Tablet addressed to Hájí Muhammad Ibráhím-i-Khalíl) as the one amongst His sons “from Whose tongue God will cause the signs of His power to stream forth,” and as the one Whom “God hath specially chosen for His Cause.” On Him, at a later period, the Author of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in a celebrated passage, subsequently elucidated in the “Book of My Covenant,” had bestowed the function of interpreting His Holy Writ, proclaiming Him, at the same time, to be the One “Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” . . . . . To Him, on the occasion of His visit to Beirut, His Father had, furthermore, in a communication which He dictated to His amanuensis, paid a glowing tribute, glorifying Him as the One “round Whom all names revolve,” as “the Most Mighty Branch of God,” and as “His ancient and immutable Mystery.” . . . . . And finally in yet another Tablet these weighty words had been recorded: “The glory of God rest upon Thee, and upon whosoever serveth Thee and circleth around Thee. Woe, great woe, betide him that opposeth and injureth Thee. Well is it with him that sweareth fealty to Thee; the fire of hell torment him who is Thy enemy.

And now to crown the inestimable honors, privileges and benefits showered upon Him, in ever increasing abundance, throughout the forty years of His Father’s ministry in Baghdád, in Adrianople and in ‘Akká, He had been elevated to the high office of Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant[2], and been made the successor of the Manifestation of God Himself—a position that was to empower Him to impart an extraordinary impetus to the international expansion of His Father’s Faith, to amplify its doctrine, to beat down every barrier that would obstruct its march, and to call into being, and delineate the features of, its Administrative Order, the Child of the Covenant, and the Harbinger of that World Order whose establishment must needs signalize the advent of the Golden Age of the Bahá’í Dispensation.

Question: While recognising that we are only really able to grasp a small part of what this all means, it will be useful to explore what we understand by three key expressions: (a) the Mystery of God, (b) the Perfect Exemplar, and (c) the Centre of the Covenant. As a group pause to share your understandings of the possible meanings of those terms.

It is also important to remind ourselves that whenever ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked about Himself He replied along these lines:

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion…. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the Banner of the Most Great Peace …The Herald of the Kingdom is he, so that he may awaken the people of the East and the West. The Voice of Friendship, of Truth, and of Reconciliation is he, quickening all regions. No name, no title will he ever have, except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my Supreme height. O ye friends of God! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the manifestation of Service, and not Christ. The Servant of humanity is he, and not a chief. Summon ye the people to the station of Service of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and not his Christhood.”

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Examples of His Powers

Page 19: [Quoting Thornton Chase] “His [the Master’s] own writings, spreading like white-winged doves from the Centre of His Presence to the ends of the earth, are so many (hundreds pouring forth daily) that it is an impossibility for him to have given time to them for searching thought or to have applied the mental processes of the scholar to them. They flow like streams from a gushing fountain….”

Page 22-23: Invariably, the Master’s actions were as eloquent as the words He used. In the United States, for example, nothing could have more clearly communicated Bahá’í belief in the oneness of religion than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s readiness to include references to the Prophet Muhammad in addresses to Christian audiences and His energetic vindication of the divine origin of both Christianity and Islam to the congregation at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. His ability to inspire in women of all ages confidence that they possessed spiritual and intellectual capacities fully equal to those of men, His unprovocative but clear demonstration of the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on racial oneness by welcoming black as well as white guests at His own dinner table and the tables of His prominent hostesses, and His insistence on the overriding importance of unity in all aspects of Bahá’í endeavour – such demonstrations of the way in which the spiritual and practical aspects of life must interact threw open for the believers windows on a new world of possibilities. The spirit of unconditional love in which these challenges were phrased succeeded in overcoming the fears and uncertainties of those whom the Master addressed.

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Page 40: [After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing Horace Holley wrote]:

“Now a message from God must be delivered, and there was no mankind to hear this message. Therefore, God gave the world ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá received the message of Bahá’u’lláh on behalf of the human race. He heard the voice of God; He was inspired by the spirit; He attained complete consciousness and awareness of the meaning of this message, and He pledged the human race to respond to the voice of God. …to me that is the Covenant – that there was on this earth some one who could be a representative of an as yet uncreated race. There were only tribes, families, creeds, classes, etc., but there was no man except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as man, took to Himself the message of Bahá’u’lláh and promised God that He would bring the people into the oneness of mankind, and create a humanity that could be the vehicle for the laws of God.”

Howard Colby Ives-a

Howard Colby Ives (for source of image see llnk)

In Portals of Freedom Howard Colby Ives shared his impressions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 16):

To me, a man of middle age, a Unitarian Clergyman, a student since youth of religions and philosophies, the experience had a disturbing quality somewhat cataclysmic. Why should this man be able so to upset all my preconceived notions and conceptions of values by His mere presence? Was it that He seemed to exude from His very being an atmosphere of love and understanding such as I had never dreamed? Was it the resonant voice, modulated to a music which caught the heart? Was it the aura of happiness touched at times with a sadness implying the bearing of the burden of all the sin and sorrow of the world, which always surrounded Him? Was it the commingled majesty and humility of His every gesture and word, which was perhaps His most obvious characteristic? How can one answer such questions? Those who saw and heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during those memorable months will share with me the sense of the inadequacy of words to communicate the incommunicable.

Mahmud (for source of image see link)

Mahmud-i-Zarqani (for source of image see link)

Earl Redman’s ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst (page 190) quotes Mahmud’s Diary (page 257):

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was up and packed before dawn and calling for the rest of His party to get up. As He left, He gave the hotel manager a $1 tip for the chambermaid since she was not there at that time. They took a taxi to the train station, where the taxi driver demanded more than the usual fare. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ignored him, saying, ‘A man may give $1000 without minding it but he should not yield even a dollar to the person who wishes to take it wrongfully, for such wrongful behaviour flouts justice and disrupts the order of the world.’

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

Juliet Thompson, in her Diary (page 285) records this moment:

The Master sat at the centre on the high stage… on the platform of the World Peace Conference.

The Master was really too ill to have gone to this conference. He had been in bed all morning, suffering from complete exhaustion, and had a high temperature. I was with Him all morning. While I was sitting beside Him I asked: “Must You go to the Hotel Astor when You are so ill?”

“I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit,” He answered. “I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did,” He laughed, “I would get nothing done.”

After that meeting… the Master shook hands with the whole audience, with every one of those thousands of people!

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s foresight saved many lives as Lady Blomfield explains in The Chosen Highway (page 210):

Preparation for war conditions had been made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá even before His return to Palestine, after His world tour. The people of the villages Nughayb, Samrih and ‘Adasíyyih where instructed by the Master how to grow corn, so as to produce prolific harvests, in the period before and during the lean years of the war.

A vast quantity of this corn was stored in pits, some of which had been made by the Romans, and were now utilised for this purpose. So it came about that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to feed numberless poor of the people of Haifa, ‘Akká, and the neighbourhood, in the famine years of 1914-1918.

We learned that when the British marched into Haifa was some difficulty about the commissariat. The officer in command went to consult the Master.

‘I have corn,’ was the reply.

‘But for the army?” said the astonished soldier.

‘I have corn for the British Army,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

He truly walked the Mystic way with practical feet.

Wellesley Tudor-Pole | 'Abdu'l-Bahá in America

Wellesley Tudor-Pole (For source of image see link)

Wellesley Tudor Pole in Writing on the Ground gives this account (page 150):

On many other occasions the prophetic insight of the Bahá’í leader was made clear to me. As an instance of this, I recall that when visiting him at Haifa, just after the Armistice in November 1918, I spoke with of thankfulness we all must feel that the war ‘to end all wars’ had been fought and won. He laid his hand upon my shoulder and told me that a still greater conflagration lay ahead of humanity. ‘It will be largely fought out in the air, on all continents, and on the sea. Victory will lie with no one. You, my son, will still be alive to witness this tragedy into to play your part. Beyond and following many tribulations, and through the beneficence of the Supreme One, the most great peace will dawn.’

Question: What do these comments, descriptions and anecdotes tell us about what the experience of meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might have been like and what the full significance of His role in history might be?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to reflect upon a quotation we have memorised.

Groupwork

The Limitations of His Hearers

Page 25: No objective review of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s mission to the West. . . . . can fail to take into account the sobering fact that only a small number of those who had accepted the Faith – and infinitely fewer among the public audiences who had thronged to hear His words – derived from these priceless opportunities more than a relatively dim understanding of the implications of His message. Appreciating these limitations on the part of His hearers, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not hesitate to introduce into His relations with Western believers actions that summoned them to a level of consciousness far above mere social liberalism and tolerance. One example that must stand for a range of such interventions was His gentle but dramatic act in encouraging the marriage of Louis Gregory and Louise Mathews – the one black, the other white. The initiative set a standard for the American Bahá’í community as to the real meaning of racial integration, however timid and slow its members were in responding to the core implications of the challenge.

. . . . . Commitment to the cause of international peace; the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty that were undermining the unity of society; the overcoming of national, racial and other prejudices; the encouragement of equality in the education of boys and girls; the need to shake off the shackles of ancient dogmas that were inhibiting investigation of reality – these principles for the advancement of civilisation had made a powerful impression. What few, if any, of the Master’s hearers grasped – perhaps could have grasped – was the revolutionary change in the very structure of society and the willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behaviour.

Page 45: However much one may rejoice in the praise poured on the Master from every quarter, the immediate results of His efforts represented yet another immense moral failure on the part of a considerable portion of humankind and of its leadership. The message that had been suppressed in the East was essentially ignored by a Western world which had proceeded down the path of ruin long prepared for it by overweening self-satisfaction, leading finally to the betrayal of the ideal embodied in the League of Nations.

  1. How do we explain how difficult it was for His hearers to understand ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s message?
  2. What relevance might that experience have for us now?

The Proclamation of the Faith

Page 35: As war’s inferno was engulfing the world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá turned His attention to the one great task remaining in His ministry, that of ensuring the proclamation to the remotest corners of the Earth of the message which had been neglected – or opposed – in Islamic and Western society alike. The instrument He devised for this purpose was the Divine Plan laid out in fourteen great Tablets, four of them addressed to the Bahá’í community of North America and ten subsidiary ones addressed to five specific segments of that community. Together with Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Carmel and the Master’s Will and Testament, the Tablets of the Divine Plan were described by Shoghi Effendi as three of the “Charters” of the Cause.

Question: What can we learn of help to us now in this decision of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s?

His Legacy

We will be looking in more detail at both the Guardianship and the institution of the Universal House of Justice in the last two workshops, in an attempt to understand the implications for our work in the world, whether Bahá’í or not.

Page 41: In His Will and Testament, which Shoghi Effendi has described as the “Charter” of the Administrative Order, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set out in detail the nature and role of the twin institutions that are His appointed Successors and whose complementary functions ensure the unity of the Bahá’í Cause and the achievement of its mission throughout the Dispensation, the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

Page 42: Before the reading and promulgation of the Will and Testament, the great majority of the members of the Faith had assumed that the next stage in the evolution of the Cause would be the election of the Universal House of Justice, the institution founded by Bahá’u’lláh Himself in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as the governing body of the Bahá’í world. An important fact for present-day Bahá’ís to understand is that prior to this point the concept of Guardianship was unknown to the Bahá’í community.

  1. In what way might this unexpected development have tested some believers?
  2. What do such tests signify, if anything?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Interlude

Along this journey through the Century of Light we have moved from the pitch black horrors of the First and Second World Wars, with their mixed legacies of trauma and attempted healing, beyond the chilling tensions of the Cold War and its easing into hope, to the turn of the century and beyond where storm and sunlight continue to shift across the globe promising either self-destruction or reconstruction.

This may be a good time to reflect in a different way upon what we have experienced on this journey.

Depending upon our different skills, can we pause to create a poem, story, drawing or song to capture some sense of what it feels like to be poised at a point of faintly glimmering dawn, after a night of such vivid horrors?

If we get through this early we will begin the presentation that starts Session 7

[1] Wikipedia explains as follows: ‘Sidrat al-Muntahā (Arabic: ‫سدرة المنتهى‎) is a Lote tree[1] that marks the end of the seventh heaven, the boundary where no creation can pass.’

[2] We have met this word ‘Covenant’ already in this last workshop. I will repeat the footnote here for ease of reference. This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

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KW Diag 5 v2After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integral politics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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