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Posts Tagged ‘The Enlightenment’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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The Water Seller of Seville: Velázquez

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look yesterday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model. 

Recently I have been falling over books that reveal sceptics turning a bit mystical, agnostics extolling empathy and scientific therapies rooted in developing kindness. What on earth is the world rising to?

Tim Parks is the sceptic I referred to. In his intriguing book Teach Us to Sit Still, the title of which is taken from T.SEliot, he unfolds his journey from debilitating pain to relative health via Shiatsu and meditation. He only needed a more explicit touch of McGilchrist to complete his account of his journey.

He describes his obsessive trawling of the internet in search of insight about his condition, which he at first thought might be to do with his prostate, and reflects upon his situation as he leans exhausted against a stone column near his home:

The Pilotòn is about two feet in diameter and ten feet high and dates back to Roman times. . . . . .

Since the operation, I get a kind of tickle and fullness, but I haven’t been able to achieve a proper . . .

This is silly.  Like when I started thinking of the waterseller’s fig as a prostate. Yet I notice that my mind is more at ease with these eccentric analogies than with the information onslaught of the net. I have the impression they bring me closer to some truth about my condition, but in the way dreams do. Something important is staring you in the face, only you can’t decode it. It won’t come out in words. That’s the fascination of dreams. And certain paintings. There is truth that can’t be said, knowledge you can’t access or use. My mind wanders off in these enigmas and after a while I find I’m feeling a little better. Is it a placebo effect? One day, I suppose, I will discover the meaning of Velázquez‘s painting. Or may be that would spoil it.

(Page 105-6)

I could produce many other quotes from Parks that reinforce McGilchrist’s depiction of how the world of the right hemisphere differs from that of the language-based left. One more will have to suffice for now:

Words can describe a mental experience, after the event, but had the same words been spoken to me a thousand times before the experience [of letting go/unquestioning acceptance], I would no more have understood them than a child born in the tropics would understand sleet and snow.

(Page 238)

McGilchrist makes precisely the same point.

One conclusion that Parks draws from his experience concerns our relationship with our bodies.

Finally, when [a moment of intense insight at a meditation retreat] was really over and I could go to the bathroom to wash my face, I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life?

(Page 241)

 

Emp CivilThis insight paves the way for what Rifkin has to say in his book The Empathic Civilisation. While determined to keep himself grounded in the body, he takes off into the ether of global empathy on evolutionary wings. The idea of embodiment is central to his thesis:

Both the Abrahamic faiths . . . . as well as the Eastern religions . . . either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. For the former . . . the body is fallen and a source of evil. . . . . For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world.

(Page 141)

Rifkin defends the body against these attacks.

The notion of embodied experience is a direct challenge to the older faith- and reason-based approaches to consciousness. . . . . The idea of embodied experience takes us past the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason and into the Age of Empathy, without, however, abandoning the very special qualities of the previous world-views that continue to make them so attractive to millions of human beings.

(Page 143)

His take on embodiment, which is centred on the notion that all embodied experience is inherently relational, comes to some surprising conclusions:

The embodied experience philosophers, by contrast, suggest that understanding reality comes not from detachment and exercise of power but from participation and empathic communion. The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level  of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in character. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

(Page 154)

Much of what Rifkin writes is impressively thought-provoking but it needs to be approached with caution as he is also capable of producing strings of statements that are breath-takingly implausible such as:

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

(Page 182)

This example is fairly typical of the traps he falls into as an enthusiastic manufacturer of his particular theory of everything social. In spite of these caveats his book is a major achievement and raises issues of great importance in a clear and compelling fashion for the most part. I find I believe him when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

How exactly might we put such an insight into practice? There is a way, explained in a recent book, whose discourse appeals to me both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í (as if those two things were essentially different in any case).

But this will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the next post.

Read Full Post »

The Water Seller of Seville: Velázquez

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence of two posts was first published in 2010 and is preparing the way for a lengthy consideration of Jeremy Rifkin’s book on empathy and civilisation. 

Recently I have been falling over books that reveal sceptics turning a bit mystical, agnostics extolling empathy and scientific therapies rooted in developing kindness. What on earth is the world rising to?

Tim Parks is the sceptic I referred to. In his intriguing book Teach Us to Sit Still, the title of which is taken from T.SEliot, he unfolds his journey from debilitating pain to relative health via Shiatsu and meditation. He only needed a more explicit touch of McGilchrist to complete his account of his journey.

He describes his obsessive trawling of the internet in search of insight about his condition, which he at first thought might be to do with his prostate, and reflects upon his situation as he leans exhausted against a stone column near his home:

The Pilotòn is about two feet in diameter and ten feet high and dates back to Roman times. . . . . .

Since the operation, I get a kind of tickle and fullness, but I haven’t been able to achieve a proper . . .

This is silly.  Like when I started thinking of the waterseller’s fig as a prostate. Yet I notice that my mind is more at ease with these eccentric analogies than with the information onslaught of the net. I have the impression they bring me closer to some truth about my condition, but in the way dreams do. Something important is staring you in the face, only you can’t decode it. It won’t come out in words. That’s the fascination of dreams. And certain paintings. There is truth that can’t be said, knowledge you can’t access or use. My mind wanders off in these enigmas and after a while I find I’m feeling a little better. Is it a placebo effect? One day, I suppose, I will discover the meaning of Velázquez‘s painting. Or may be that would spoil it.

(Page 105-6)

I could produce many other quotes from Parks that reinforce McGilchrist’s depiction of how the world of the right hemisphere differs from that of the language-based left. One more will have to suffice for now:

Words can describe a mental experience, after the event, but had the same words been spoken to me a thousand times before the experience [of letting go/unquestioning acceptance], I would no more have understood them than a child born in the tropics would understand sleet and snow.

(Page 238)

McGilchrist makes precisely the same point.

One conclusion that Parks draws from his experience concerns our relationship with our bodies.

Finally, when [a moment of intense insight at a meditation retreat] was really over and I could go to the bathroom to wash my face, I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life?

(Page 241)

 

Emp CivilThis insight paves the way for what Rifkin has to say in his book The Empathic Civilisation. While determined to keep himself grounded in the body, he takes off into the ether of global empathy on evolutionary wings. The idea of embodiment is central to his thesis:

Both the Abrahamic faiths . . . . as well as the Eastern religions . . . either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. For the former . . . the body is fallen and a source of evil. . . . . For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world.

(Page 141)

Rifkin defends the body against these attacks.

The notion of embodied experience is a direct challenge to the older faith- and reason-based approaches to consciousness. . . . . The idea of embodied experience takes us past the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason and into the Age of Empathy, without, however, abandoning the very special qualities of the previous world-views that continue to make them so attractive to millions of human beings.

(Page 143)

His take on embodiment, which is centred on the notion that all embodied experience is inherently relational, comes to some surprising conclusions:

The embodied experience philosophers, by contrast, suggest that understanding reality comes not from detachment and exercise of power but from participation and empathic communion. The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level  of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in character. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

(Page 154)

Much of what Rifkin writes is impressively thought-provoking but it needs to be approached with caution as he is also capable of producing strings of statements that are breath-takingly implausible such as:

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

(Page 182)

This example is fairly typical of the traps he falls into as an enthusiastic manufacturer of his particular theory of everything social. In spite of these caveats his book is a major achievement and raises issues of great importance in a clear and compelling fashion for the most part. I find I believe him when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

How exactly might we put such an insight into practice? There is a way, explained in a recent book, whose discourse appeals to me both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í (as if those two things were essentially different in any case).

But this will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the next post.

Read Full Post »

The Water Seller of Seville: Velázquez

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks

Recently I have been falling over books that reveal sceptics turning a bit mystical, agnostics extolling empathy and scientific therapies rooted in developing kindness. What on earth is the world rising to?

Tim Parks is the sceptic I referred to. In his intriguing book Teach Us to Sit Still, the title of which is taken from T.SEliot, he unfolds his journey from debilitating pain to relative health via Shiatsu and meditation. He only needed a more explicit touch of McGilchrist to complete his account of his journey.

He describes his obsessive trawling of the internet in search of insight about his condition, which he at first thought might be to do with his prostate, and reflects upon his situation as he leans exhausted against a stone column near his home:

The Pilotòn is about two feet in diameter and ten feet high and dates back to Roman times. . . . . .

Since the operation, I get a kind of tickle and fullness, but I haven’t been able to achieve a proper . . .

This is silly.  Like when I started thinking of the waterseller’s fig as a prostate. Yet I notice that my mind is more at ease with these eccentric analogies than with the information onslaught of the net. I have the impression they bring me closer to some truth about my condition, but in the way dreams do. Something important is staring you in the face, only you can’t decode it. It won’t come out in words. That’s the fascination of dreams. And certain paintings. There is truth that can’t be said, knowledge you can’t access or use. My mind wanders off in these enigmas and after a while I find I’m feeling a little better. Is it a placebo effect? One day, I suppose, I will discover the meaning of Velázquez‘s painting. Or may be that would spoil it.

(Page 105-6)

I could produce many other quotes from Parks that reinforce McGilchrist’s depiction of how the world of the right hemisphere differs from that of the language-based left. One more will have to suffice for now:

Words can describe a mental experience, after the event, but had the same words been spoken to me a thousand times before the experience [of letting go/unquestioning acceptance], I would no more have understood them than a child born in the tropics would understand sleet and snow.

(Page 238)

McGilchrist makes precisely the same point.

One conclusion that Parks draws from his experience concerns our relationship with our bodies.

Finally, when [a moment of intense insight at a meditation retreat] was really over and I could go to the bathroom to wash my face, I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life?

(Page 241)

This insight paves the way for what Rifkin has to say in his book The Empathic Civilisation. While determined to keep himself grounded in the body, he takes off into the ether of global empathy on evolutionary wings. The idea of embodiment is central to his thesis:

Both the Abrahamic faiths . . . . as well as the Eastern religions . . . either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. For the former . . . the body is fallen and a source of evil. . . . . For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world.

(Page 141)

Rifkin defends the body against these attacks.

The notion of embodied experience is a direct challenge to the older faith- and reason-based approaches to consciousness. . . . . The idea of embodied experience takes us past the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason and into the Age of Empathy, without, however, abandoning the very special qualities of the previous world-views that continue to make them so attractive to millions of human beings.

(Page 143)

His take on embodiment, which is centred on the notion that all embodied experience is inherently relational, comes to some surprising conclusions:

The embodied experience philosophers, by contrast, suggest that understanding reality comes not from detachment and exercise of power but from participation and empathic communion. The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level  of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in character. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

(Page 154)

Much of what Rifkin writes is impressively thought-provoking but it needs to be approached with caution as he is also capable of producing strings of statements that are breath-takingly implausible such as:

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

(Page 182)

This example is fairly typical of the traps he falls into as an enthusiastic manufacturer of his particular theory of everything social. In spite of these caveats his book is a major achievement and raises issues of great importance in a clear and compelling fashion for the most part. I find I believe him when he writes:

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell.

How exactly might we put such an insight into practice? There is a way, explained in a recent book, whose discourse appeals to me both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í (as if those two things were essentially different in any case).

But this will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the next post.

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The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, and would think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny or be carried away by wrath.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 136)

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality from under one’s feet.

(Twilight of the Gods: Friedrich Nietzsche)

There are two kinds of book that normally cause me problems: books about physics and books about philosophy. My shelves are populated with many such volumes whose bookmarks stall about halfway through, just about where good intentions foundered on the rocks of complete incomprehension.

At last, though, I’ve found a philosophy book that I could finish and not only that: I could follow its main lines of argument relatively easily and immediately see their relevance to our problems today. This is the book.

Neiman’s starting point is to renege on the ‘non-interference pact’ in which philosophers agree not to meddle with the details of history as it unfolds and historians sign up not to interfere with morality. She sees it as critical that philosophical acumen is brought to bear on political realities. Once she has asserted her right to participate in the debate, she proceeds to argue that the typical understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is flawed. In her view, though deeply intertwined, they are essentially independent. Her position, though, is not simplistic (page 112):

To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.

While I still think it is possible and rational to argue the case for a different relationship between religion and morality, one which places our idea of God not just our idea of good at centre stage, her position leads to some interesting possibilities not least a revision of the current distortion of the enlightenment viewpoint. This is typically seen to be atheist with a potentially lethal utopian view of the power of reason (see John Gray’s Black Mass for an eloquent example of this view). By contrast she contends (page 126):

The Enlightment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress is necessary, only that it is possible.

She goes on to add that the Enlightenment also confronted torture and inherited privilege. She sees it as referring back to Plato’s belief that truth, beauty and goodness are connected. She goes onto examine in detail its commitment to ‘happiness, reason, reverence, and hope.’

She focuses on the thinking of Kant, for example the way he treats the discrepancies between is and ought. She summarises this by saying (page 153):

Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality: reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals.

She argues that (page 158-159):

The gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is too great to be bridged by good intentions. . . . . Ideas are like horizons – goals towards which you can move but never actually attain.

She is wonderfully clear about the relationship between happiness, virtue and social progress (page 177):

Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.

She sees this as an essential corrective to self-righteous abuses of power, especially if we focus on the other person’s concept of happiness not our own. This is very close to the Bahá’í view where we are urged to focus on ploughing our own furrow straight rather than causing ourselves to stray off line by picking holes in our neighbour’s ploughing.

She seeks to correct what she regards as a fundamental misconception of the Enlightenment view of reason (page 190):

One nearly constant theme [of the Enlightenment] was the idea that reason is not omnipotent.

Nor, she feels (page 194), was reason set up as opposed to feeling but rather to its bête noire: ‘authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism.’ Reason, she argues, is what enables us not to be restricted by our biology: we have become able to create our own ends, and should not simply become means to other people’s ends (pages 202-203).

She follows this analysis with detailed examinations of examples through which she seeks to rehabilitate the tarnished concepts of heroism and evil. Her treatment of these nicely complements Zimbardo’s psychological approach, which he explores in depth in The Lucifer Effect.

At the end of the 450 pages of this excellent and supremely accessible book, where does she leave us?

Other posts on this blog, for example on the nature of reflection and the limits of reason, explain in depth why I can’t accept as a complete and adequate explanation her view that reason alone is the means for our transcendence. However, much else that she derives from this argument is compelling.

For example, a key point she makes is that moral conviction and a sense of evil have been highjacked by powerful interests and thereby devalued in the public eye. They need to be reclaimed and put to proper use if we are to understand the nature of the realities that confront us and which demand appropriate and proportional responses.

We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to fear that certain actions – whether we privately feel guilty about them or not – could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.

She concludes her analysis, before moving on to considering particular examples, by stating in ringing terms (page 380):

Evil presents an unacceptable gap between ideals and reality; judging something to be evil is a way of setting limits on what we are willing to endure. The language of good and evil is vulnerable to exploitation because it’s the most powerful language we have. . . . . To abandon talk of evil is to leave that weapon in the hands of those who are least equipped to use it.

This book raises serious and important issues and reflects deeply upon them. While I do not agree with everything she says, I respect the way she says it and have to acknowledge that she has significantly deepened my understanding of these themes.

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the direction our civilisation is taking. And it’s readable enough for me to have finished it – no mean achievement for any author writing from a philosophical perspective.

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