Royce, a (Very) Brief Introduction

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In early December I started reading The Philosophy of Josiah Royce.

Before I go any further in this post, I must confess I’m only half way through, so I reserve the right to modify my opinion in the future, but as it stands now, I feel that the philosophy of Josiah Royce will be the new baseline from which I continue all my future work. When I search for words to describe my feelings on discovering Royce, I keep thinking of Nietzsche’s sentiment on his discovery of Spinoza, “I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor!”

Royce is a forgotten, one may say almost unknown, American philosopher. He is generally considered to belong to the school of American Pragmatism. Pragmatism has sadly been neglected as a philosophical school in the modern age, although it still has some cache as an influence in psychology, due to the valuable work of founder William James, and in the largely misnamed social “sciences”, due to the fake pragmatist and general communist villain John Dewey.

You’d never know it from the wikipedia page, but Royce is one of the founding three members of American Pragmatism. I believe Royce has largely been excised because his philosophy is decidedly Idealistic and religious. By Idealism I mean philosophical Idealism, not the colloquial sense of being “well meaning but naive”. While the full implications of Idealism and by extension Royce’s philosophy go far beyond what I can express in a single post, Idealism generally assets that the fundamental nature of reality is consciousness or mental phenomenon. By religious I mean that Royce is most concerned with the profound questions of metaphysical significance and the nature of the supreme and absolute Being, aka “God” – both unfashionable avenues of exploration in today’s intellectual climate.

I would like to say more, and will in the future, but that’s all the time I can devote to the blog today.

Best wishes,

– B

Good, Evil and the Sage

A friend wrote me last week asking for some advice.  While not an orthodox Taoist he has been studying the tradition for many years, and finding himself in a difficult living situation, turned to the I-Ching oracle for assistance. He found the response puzzling and had difficulty reconciling it with his understanding of the Taoist philosophy.   He wrote:

“The Zang Zi seems to advise that rulership as such is a lost cause, one should aspire to the nature of the sage, and then without doing, the kingdom will be in order. It cautions against differentiating between that which is good and that which is bad.

the 44th hexagram in the Yi, encourages a ruler to weed out the evil influence in his court.

How are these reconciled?”

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While I have great deal of positive regard for Taoism, I’m not a Taoist, so I don’t think I can resolve this issue from inside a Taoist perspective. There are, however, some points of contact here with the classical Greek tradition that might prove helpful.

First, perhaps we should examine the question of good and evil. The injunction to avoid distinctions of good and evil strikes many as hard to reconcile with our moral intuitions. Yet there are several mystics and philosophers who have denied the validity of these intuitions: from Protagoras to Thrasymachus to Nietzsche to Crowley. Furthermore, in the age of modern relativism, we shy away from any claim to absolute moral authority. It is attractive therefore to try and toss the whole question of ethics overboard and be done with it, even if we still feel uncomfortable affirming the moral neutrality of such practices as rape, murder, torture, theft and genocide. This leads us to a difficult and philosophically untenable position. As a result we usually end up just avoiding the question. But since we have no choice, let us take it up here, if only provisionally and in brief.

How can we understand the injunction to avoid distinctions of good and evil? One way is with the emphasis on the idea of distinction. Here the issue is not so much moral ideology per se, but our human preferences. Following this interpretation we read the injunction as saying that we should not attempt to reach good or bad results, but simply resign ourselves to the working out of fate. After all, the final outcome of events is not up to us. The Stoics compared man to a dog chained to a cart. The dog may pull this way or that, but in the end he will go where the cart goes. He can do so willingly and enjoy the ride, running and sniffing within the boundary the chain gives him, or he can refuse to cooperate, fight the cart, choke himself on the lead and be dragged. This is perhaps the most mystical of the interpretations.

There is, however, a problem here, because without valuation of some kind, we cannot act. The world does not provide us with a fixed direction, but a field of many possible directions and interpretations. While we might ultimately be dragged by fate, the workings of fate are not immediately apparent to us. We must use our reason to determine what is most likely to be beneficial and attainable, and this is an act of valuation. Valuation presuppose a desired and undesired outcome and here we have returned to the question of preference. If we take the injunction to avoid valuation merely at face value the it is grossly nihilistic and must end in either slavery to some directing agent who holds a different philosophy, or in a chaos of moment to moment impulses, or to a wasting catatonia. We must therefore reject this perspective and unhelpful.

There is, however, another option which is to look deeper into the philosophical system and see what rhetorical purpose the injunction serves. For example, there is a sophisticated solution in Stoicism for this problem, which hinges on the concepts of divine providence, duty, the nature of happiness, and the distinction between simply fated and dependently fated events. An important point here is that the Stoics do not deny the validity of ethics, only change its emphasis from the common view of external events as good if pleasant and evil if harmful to one of human character. External events in Stoicism are viewed as neither good nor evil, but indifferent. If we choose to interpret the original injunction in this light, we see it as not so much a definitive an universal axiom, but an attempt to redirect the reader to a different standard of evaluation – one looking not to results but to personal behavior. The form this takes depends on larger metaphysical conceptions. A practitioner of this interpretation might take up Christian quietism, or Roman heroism, or a Taoist amused wandering. That will depend on the rest of the philosophical system and how it puts forward a view of human nature, and therefore an ideal.

Returning to your dilemma and viewing it through this lens, aspiring to the ideal of the sage means viewing external occurrences as indifferent, and focusing on the improvement and satisfaction of your own character. You should not run around trying to “fix” the world, because the state of the world is an indifferent. It will be what it will be. Rather, you should focus on yourself. The advice that the ruler should remove ill influences from his court, that is to say his intimate surroundings, influences that are likely to affect his character for the worse, is rendered rather straightforward and practical. I may be biased, but I see this as perfectly compatible with Taoist precepts.

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Another possible interpretation is to place the emphasis not on the act of valuation, but on the distinction of moral worth. Here moral imperatives are viewed as nothing more than human imaginary constructs. Individuals are still however free to regard particular outcomes as good or “evil” for them personally or for their group. Under this interpretation, there are no ideals, but there are desirable and undesirable outcomes. The attractiveness of this view is that it seems to promise us the ability to “eat our cake, and still have it too”. We can still hold to some kind of moral intuition, and avoid all the messy questions of ultimate right or wrong. There are still aspects of our conventional morality we will have to jettison. For example, while we might not wish to be robbed, or live in a society full of robbers, we can’t say there is anything necessarily wrong with our stealing from someone else – provided we think we can get away with it, for instance if we are in another country and unlikely to ever return.

The problem with this view is two-fold. As pointed out earlier, final outcomes are rarely up to us. We can aim for a particular outcome but we cannot guarantee we will achieve it. Therefore this philosophy depends a great deal on “luck” and we are just as likely to be frustrated as to be satisfied. The second problem is that absent an ideal, there is often a great deal of conflicting possibilities, none of which present themselves as the most obviously satisfactory. Some courses of action are immediately unpleasant, but result in a more satisfactory existence in the long term, or at least are more likely to do so. For example, indiscriminate sexual gratification is very pleasant but can result in numerous interpersonal complications, financial obligations or even catastrophic disease. Sexual fidelity is often difficult, but can result in long last satisfying relationships and more stable life over all. Working hard to gain a good career is unpleasant but results in more resources for satisfaction later in life.

It remains an open question whether or not we can maximize the utility of our actions through pure calculation, absent some kind of organizing ideal. Furthermore, what human capacity should we use to make this calculation? If we deny the validity of all ideals, we also deny the validity of the rational ideal. There is therefore no imperative to act rationally. We can pursue power or pleasure, but even here the question jumps out at us: “How? How should we pursue pleasure or power? In what field? In what manner?” We are thrown back on our ability to think strategically and that means to reason, and it is always easier to reason in pursuit of some goal than to try and determine one’s optimal behavior moment to moment. So we arrive at the strange position that even if holding an ethical ideal might not be defensible from all skeptical attacks, it may be more practical to hold one even provisionally, because it focuses one’s energies and simplifies one’s calculations. machiavelli

Putting these doubts aside for the moment, if we return to the original dilemma posed, a denial not of choice but of morality qua morality would argue that the ruler should avoid distinctions of good and evil simply because these are meaningless distinctions. He should rather pursue a practical course of “power politics”. He should root out the evil influences in his court, taking evil to mean here not immoral per se, but threatening to his rule. While coherent I tend to shy away from this interpretation as it would argue for a ruler more like Machiavelli’s Prince than Lao Tzu’s Sage, and that seems counter to the larger Taoist tradition, but I am admittedly not an expert.

Finally, one could simply toss the whole argument as wrong or incoherent. From a Judaeo-Christian perspective the argument is a non-starter.

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Ignis Aurum Probat

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Today I graduated from the Marcus Aurelius School of the College of Stoic Philosophers.  The following eleven aphorisms were written by me during my final quarter.  We call this practice hypomnemata, a term perhaps best translated as “remembrances”.  More than simply well wishes, or expressions of hope, hypomnema are records of struggle.  Each “remembrance” is an application of Stoic dogma to a real problem we encountered in our day.  I hope you enjoy them. 

 

Remember that eudaimonia is more than a pleasant subjective state.  Not only is it the goal of all our actions, well intended or misguided, but also our fulfillment and the state of harmony with the universe.  It is in eudaimonia that we act in keeping with the divine logos and our own individual nature.  How do we achieve eudaimonia?  By keeping in mind what is “up-to-us” and “not-up-to-us”.  By disciplining our desires and examining our judgements.  By doing these things we fulfill our duty to ourselves as rational beings, to the social web in which we live, and to the divine cosmos.  Through this we achieve arete – excellence of character.  Through excellence we achieve human flourishing and happiness.

The universe being ruled by divine providence, consider your part.  It is not to predict accurately some far future state, nor are you responsible for understanding all of antiquity.  Your assigned part in the universal drama is only this present life – even less burdensome than that, only the present moment.  Fulfill your duty and resolve the action before you with honor.  Is that not enough for any man?

Your character, as you presently find it, you have inherited from yesterday.  What shape it takes tomorrow will depend on your actions and judgements today.  The care of your future self, it has been placed in your charge as a sacred duty.

Begone vain fantasies!  Dreams of fame and fortune, even if your subjects are to be preferred over their opposites, they are only so if gained through personal excellence.  But you, puffed up soap bubbles that you are, have no part in labor, or discipline, or prudence, or wisdom.  That is to say, you take me further away from the very things you feature!  Despite this, I should not be angry with you, for you are the products of an imagination I have trained.  I should not even be angry with myself, for by catching you mid-stream, I am making progress.

Always consider this before any course of action: ‘Will this activity make me better or worse?’  If better, then you should pursue it gladly, even if it requires effort and some trouble.  If worse, you should turn away from it, even if it seemed pleasant before you examined it.

Happiness is not a possession or a construction – even a mental one.  Happiness is a state of the soul.  We usually notice it only in passing from it, in hindsight.  While we are happy, we are usually too absorbed in it to mentally comment on our condition.  Perhaps it is this lack of a need for comment that characterizes happiness?  We could describe it as a self-sufficient configuration of the universe.  It does not lack our psychic participation, but is filled up by it, leaving no remainder.  It is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a great ‘Yes’ to life as it is. Happiness is therefore theoretically possible in every moment, since assent lies entirely within our power.

Certainly, no one wishes to be ill.  Health is preferred by all, but in our culture it has become an obsession among a certain class of people.  Care of the body is almost a new religion where we equate physical well being to moral goodness, and seek to propitiate the forces of decay with arcane diets and rituals.  Instead, we should regard this body as an inheritance from the gods – certainly to be cared for, but ultimately to be used.  It is a physical thing, and it is the nature of physical things to be subject to wear.  We may not enjoy illness, but it should not surprise or alarm us.

On what target do you set your aim?  Consider the father of philosophy himself, Socrates.  Socrates thought little of riches, and while he had fame he did not seek it, nor did he fear death.  Throughout his life he followed the charge laid upon him by the god Apollo at Delphi.  This was his highest duty, and yet he did not abandon his fellow man but lived among them, married, raised children and served his city.  Why would he do these things except that they too were in keeping with his duty to God? What do we learn from this?  That our highest duty is to follow the divine, to do nothing contrary to reason, and like a good soldier to not abandon our post.

Are even arguments and feuds according to divine providence?  Yes! For anger is an emotion and therefore the child of judgement. Perhaps the reason for the judgement has been twisted or long forgotten, so do your part and drag it up to the light!  Examine it and see if you cannot find some valid point in it, something good, true, and beautiful.  Remember that you cannot be harmed by truth, but go gently here.  Remember that self-care is the first imperative of all beings, and no one willingly gives sway to an enemy.  Even wives will concede a point if it is made in a fair and kindly manner… eventually.

You will never know with certainty what any great mind of the past intended. Wisdom is not something you can hold, like a possession, rather it holds you, lifts you up, carries you through life, for the world is reason and you are a part of the world.  You can no more take it all in then you can drink the ocean.  The great thinkers you so admire will not give you answers.  They can only show you the way someone once traveled to find their own answers.  By all means, read their words, but do so as a guide for your own thoughts. As the greatest in wisdom have said, “Know thyself”, “Inquire within”.

A statue cannot be carved in a single blow.  It emerges from the rock slowly, freed by increment –  blow after persistent blow.  Each tiny change reveals the work of art within.  Be diligent, and patient with yourself.

 

I will be continuing on with the College as a Faculty member for our beginner’s  Stoic Essential Studies program.  If you are at all interested in Stoicism, or learning classic philosophy in its original context, please consider joining us.

On Political Discourse, in the voice of Seneca

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I wrote this piece during my 3rd term of the Marcus Aurelius school.  My goal was self-instruction through dramaturgy, to capture the voice of Seneca’s excellent letters on virtue.  Seneca wrote these letters to various friends and confidants expressing the principles of Stoic philosophy in practical terms.  The largest extent collection we have is his letters to Lucilius.  Rather than insert myself into this venerable and enlightening conversation, I invented an imaginary interlocutor, Pugilius.   Anything the reader finds enlightening in this exercise can be attributed to the Stoic school and the wisdom of the imitated author Seneca.  Anything that grates on the ear or rings false is the fault of the actual author. 

Dear Pugilius,

Thank you for your recent letter. It pleased me to hear that you completed your most recent period of military service honorably. As you know, the importance of duty is a key tenant of our philosophy. In fulfilling our duty, we choose our own happiness. I don’t have to tell you that many find this sentiment strange. They imagine we advocate a life of drudgery. You and I know that this is not the case at all. Every man who shirks his duty feels the pain of regret, and every man who chooses to fulfill his rational obligations to that of which he is a part – that is to say the whole universe, knows the satisfaction of having fulfilled his purpose as a man. We do not suggest that one invents duties, but only fulfills the few simple things that nature asks of us – eating and sleeping with moderation, caring for our family, discharging our social obligations, acting rationally, and choosing excellence whenever possible. Truthfully it is only this choice that is up to us. The results are in the hands of the gods, but I am now drifting off topic.

In your letter you ask me if I think you should pursue elected office. You point out that so many elected officials seem to lack virtue – how true a statement; and suggest you may be able to serve the people better, thus improving the state and through it the whole of mankind. This is a noble sentiment, but you quite rightfully raise some concerns. Your father is aging and, as his eldest son, management of the family estate falls upon your shoulders. Also you have recently taken a wife, and dreams have recently suggested that you should return to your country home, focusing your energies there, for the betterment of your family. You note that doing so will no undoubtedly provide you with more time for reading and study. In short, you feel caught between two goods, unable to choose the better! Of course, all of our mental struggles are like this: weighing and judging between two of the same kind of thing. No one loses sleep over whether they prefer good things to bad.

And what is good? To live in accordance with nature; first our own rational nature, then our shared human nature, and finally what is natural to all. So first I must ask you, do you know your own nature? I do not have to ask you if you know the difference between seasoned military men and raw recruits. How both strive for the same goals: to show courage in the face of the enemy, to maintain discipline, to watch over their companions in the unit; yet how the scale of challenge appropriate to each is different. Recruits lack the seasoning of veterans. War is new to them and they cannot help but shake, while the older centurion bares even his wounds with patience. Experience makes us resistant to fear and experience cannot be rushed. For this reason the good commander places the veteran in the front and the recruit several ranks behind him, so he is not overwhelmed by the first sight of the enemy. The question we must ask therefore is not which choice is better, but which choice is better for you. In which of these realms: Rome or the country, will you best be able to practice virtue? It is true that this choice is not always up to us, but when a choice is before us, we should choose wisely. A brave commander must occasionally trust to the charge, yet it is foolish if he does not use strategy to gain the surest likelihood of victory. We should therefore be good strategists, and begin by consider the challenge before you, your own skills and abilities, and always keep in mind the goal of the campaign, namely excellence of character.

Politics first consists of seeking office, then in keeping office, and finally of leaving it. Let us consider each of these in turn, examine what choices are before us in each of them, and then reflect on what promises or challenges they hold for us in the pursuit of virtue.

Seeking office first consists of gaining money. Either you spend your own private fortune, or you gather it from wealthy men. If from the former, you deplete the resources of your own family. If you fail to return these resources you have neglected that which the universe has set in your care. If you succeed in your election campaign, and use your new position for financial gain, you have violated the trust which placed you in office. You should spend, therefore, only the money you can afford to lose. For most men, the cost is simply too high. For this reason, the politically inclined seek out wealthy benefactors; yet they forget these benefactors are in exactly the same position. Why should rich men spend wealth on a political campaign except to see some benefit? It is a rare man who devotes his wealth to the care of the Empire for its own sake. Unless you know such a modern day Cato, you will be forced to raise money from men of lesser character. Here again you face the same difficulty as before. If you do not repay their investment willingly, they will seek repayment through other, less savory, means. If you misuse your exalted position, you have betrayed the public trust. A difficult position, plotting the course between Charybdis and Scylla, a problem we find again and again in the political realm.

Here you must certainly be thinking, “My dear friend, it cannot be all that bad. Did you not yourself apply your philosophy in the palace, the very heart of the State?” Yes, I did. Fate put me within the palace and I did my best to do good in that place, but finding oneself in the palace and bending all of one’s energies to put oneself there are very different things.

Even if you gain office and keep your honor, you must somehow manage to keep both. Once in office the worst traits of others assail us. All the problems of seeking election are returned an hundred fold, for before you only held the promise of power whereas now you hold it in fact.

If you believe, as I know you do, that virtue is the only good worth pursuing other men in their ignorance do not. Misguided and lacking philosophy they believe their material and social benefit to be all important, mistaking as good what is only to be preferred.

Few men would be tempted to betray a friendship, or rob their neighbor for a few more square feet of farmland, but when provinces, armies, and temples are at stake, men lose their wits and all sight of what is truly worthwhile in life. To gain what they suppose good they will assault you with lies, flattery, seduction, fawning servility, greed, a hydra of temptation. It take a veritable Heracles to snuff it out! I will not insult you by dwelling upon the risk to your very life and security, for I know that you hold these in little esteem, but in gaining a full tally of the dangers we should not omit the pain that exile may cause on your family, whether it be to Sicily or Hades.

Undoubtedly, a man of your character can do some good, but it is a dangerous battlefield. Even our private conversations in barber-shops, in the square, the theater, or around our dining tables, are fraught with political debate and discussion. The universe has made all creatures to seek their own good, but unlike the solitary tiger, men are social creatures made for co-operation. Politics is the place where these two potentially conflicting impulses – care of self and social co-operation, meet. Who has not seen this first-hand? How often does political discourse end friendships, or cause strife between father and son? Even in the best of circumstances imagine the life of an elected official: making speeches, nodding politely at the opinions of ignorant but powerful men, bargaining with the mob. Some men excel at these things. I must admit that despite my best efforts to serve the Empire, I never developed a taste for it. Have you ever been persuaded to change your mind about some principle by a beggar or a bully? If we are honest with ourselves, how much of politics is begging and bullying? Now I am acting the politician and making speeches! Let us return to the topic with sober minds, remembering that the approval or disapproval of the crowd does not matter, for it does not make a man any better or worse than he is already.

Now I think I have said enough about the risks, with many hoary warnings from an old man. What of the benefits you ask? The common and uneducated men will here list wealth, fame, and power. We know, however, that these are not good, but merely indifferent, for they are potentially good or ill depending on our character. The improvement of our community is certainly a benefit, but again here we must remember that what other men think and believe is not up to us. Remember that community does not exist as a thing in itself. It is just a grouping of men, all living together in a society. Remember also that the opinions of other men are not up to us. Socrates, the very best of us, met each man as a friend. He did not assume that he knew what was best for his friend, only what was best for himself: to pursue virtue in all situations. If he found himself in the street, or in the council chamber, or on the battlefield, or in the bedroom, or in court, or even in a prison cell, he did not waiver or allow himself to be lead astray. Nor did he fall victim to hubris, but always told his friends, when pressed on an uncertain subject, that he did not know. Can we imagine a better example for emulation? And yet, even he failed to convince his generation of Athenians of their folly, and they killed him for his friendship to them. The only thing which is truly up to us is the improvement of our own character. It is here that the political realm may offer some benefit to us. By resisting those forces of corruption we encounter, we can improve ourselves, but this is a hard road that so few are able to walk, and opportunities for self improvement can be found everywhere.

Let us consider the second: management of your family estate. Of what does it consist? It requires living away from the excitement of cities, managing the estate itself, and living peaceably with your neighbors. The first item often seems unattractive to young people, imagining that every cry or whisper in the city holds some secret delight or intrigue. Yet we know it is merely the noise of many people going about their lives in a relatively small space, doing perfectly ordinary things: baking bread, washing clothes, gossiping with their neighbors, trundling goods to market, and so on. Unlike the country it goes on at all hours in the city, but is this of some benefit? Is life that much different at night than during the day? What is to be gained from staying up with the bats and thieves, drinking wine and babbling inanities with dinner guests until the small hours? We wake with a splitting head and a heaving stomach, and call for remedies like an invalid. Remedies for a disease we ourselves have created. Books and letters can be had in the country, and time to read them! Friends can be invited to visit, and the food – while often simpler, satisfies. What have we lost but smelly gutters, crowded streets, and the never ending noise?

Managing the estate itself is a complex thing, requiring very many skills, such as rising early, seeing things accomplished in their due season, being careful with accounts, managing servants with care, looking to the well being of the family, observing the festivals and praising the Gods. All of these tasks are worthy of philosophy. All of them are fertile ground to be planted with the seed of virtue. Rising early is easy for a man such as yourself, who has been on campaign. Besides, there is a very clever trick to accomplishing it – retiring at a reasonable hour. Punctuality and attentiveness to proper timing are excellent habits to cultivate, regardless of one’s place in life. No man is thought worse for possessing them. The management and care of the household – servants and family, this is the chief practice of all fathers. In cultivating this we emulate the very highest ideals. Is this wisdom and care not what we wish to see exemplified in our Senators? In the Emperor? In the Gods? Speaking of the Gods, when we bless crops or observe the seasons, are we not calling our attention to their creation – nature? By placing ourselves in the patterns of nature do we not accomplish our duty as men?

Finally, by coming to friendly terms with our neighbors, do we not accomplish everything that politics sets out to do? Namely to bring our own personal interests in harmony with our fellow man? If we wish to exercise a positive influence over our community, here is the place where we can do it. Yet here you must exercise the same care which we spoke of earlier, remembering that the only good is to pursue excellence of character, and not to refute or correct your neighbors – even when they speak from ignorance. Likewise you should not fear speaking your mind, if called for. It is only slaves who cannot speak their own thoughts.

It is true that the country farm has other challenges. Small mindedness often plagues village life. Men who have never traveled sometimes forget that we are citizens of the world; that men everywhere desire the same things and fear the same things. They believe that civilization starts and stops at their border. Likewise while the city has more people, men are not of different character in the country. The village has it’s own drunks, troublemakers, gossips, leches, thieves and prudes. Forgetfulness is perhaps the chief danger. In the pattern of country life it is possible to forget oneself and no longer live philosophically, but like a wagon on a bad road, to fall into a groove and trundle along mindlessly. These risks, however, can be found everywhere. But the country life is not for everyone. I, myself, found it difficult at first. You must adjust yourself to the slower rhythm of nature, and learn to enjoy your own company. Hot blooded men often find this difficult, and make a nuisance of themselves.

I hope I have not wearied you with the opinions of an old man, nor let you believe that along one road lies certain good, while down the other evil. Life is not as the Epicureans suppose, made for pleasure. If it were, surely we would find fault with the Gods and providence for introducing so many troubling things – wars, hunger, disease, stinging insects, earthquakes, storms, and the like. Finding our way through life is also trouble at times. It is hard to know which road to choose, and harder still to keep it once chosen, yet this too is according to nature, for men have been made with the power of choice, and charged with executing it. Blessings and challenges are found everywhere the same, and while I may state my preference and the reasons for it, we go where fate leads us.

Yours in friendship,

Lucius

If you are interested in the work of the New Stoic College, our  introductory course can be found here

Conversations Continued…

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M:  I’m curious why you’ve broken with Heidegger in your last post.

A:  Before I admit to breaking with Heidegger, which I may or may not have done, why do you accuse me of doing so?

M:  Have you read his Introduction to Metaphysics?

A:  Yes, but it’s been some time.

M:  Well, in it he says that the principal question of philosophy is, and has always been, “How does it sit with being?”  When you declare that real philosophy asserts the transcendent, you’ve curtailed the range of inquiry, which arguably means you’ve stopped practicing philosophy and entered into the realm of religion or something like that.

A:  Actually I think I’m agreeing with Heidegger, just carrying the inquiry to the next logical stage.  To ask “How does it sit with being” supposes that eventually you will reach a conclusion: “Being sits in such-and-such a manner.”  Even reaching a hypothesis requires some kind of cutting off of other options.  If that means some “great” Philosophers are revealed as having either drifted off course, or as having never earnestly engaged in the project… well… I’m okay with that.   Honestly, I’m not sure how one could avoid it.

M:  It just seems sort of arrogant to say these guys, who were way smarter than me, had no idea what they were doing.

A:  It’s not that.  We all stand upon the shoulders of giants… but which giant are you standing on?  Philosophers can’t all be equally right.  Eventually you have to say “I substantially agree with these guys.  Those guys made some good points, but I think they were wrong about X.  Those guys, over there, may have been brilliant, but they were wrong.”  Being smart is not a guarantee of being right in all situations.

M:  Yes, of course, but I’m talking about you breaking from philosophers that you, yourself, are standing on –  or at least have in the past.

A:  Such as?

M:  Nietzsche for one.

A:  Nietzsche is a very complex and deeply ambivalent figure.  I don’t think I’m breaking from Nietzsche, so much as picking up some of his threads and by necessity putting down others.  I admit that there are a lot of possible readings of Nietzsche.  I don’t think anyone can follow all of them to their logical conclusions and be consistent.

M:  Okay, let’s take a lesser figure.  De Benoist would say that transcendence is not a character of being.  It’s something we impose on being through our myth making.  He offers two readings: The Christian, that meaning is inherent in being, or the pagan, that meaning is absent from being outside of man’s intervention.  If you think meaning is latent on existence, you’re treading on Christian metaphysics, no?

A:  I think you’re inverting De Benoist’s distinction.  Paganism doesn’t posit that meaning is “absent” but rather immanent – inherent in the world, and not located in some “big other” which lies outside our experience.

M:  Check it out…. page 91: “In each case, it is a question of describing without depicting, of considering the world in some way as a coded ensemble whose key lies beyond visible appearances; of considering it, not as the site of forms to create, but a mystery to interpret, a puzzle to put back together, in which man, taken not as creator but as an intermediary, has the task of ‘discovering’ a hidden meaning, a necessarily unique meaning that predates his very existence.  The idea of the world-as-cryptogram and that of an absolute signifier allowing it to be deciphered (who might be Yahweh, but could just as well be the unconscious or the class struggle) then functions as diastole and systole.  If the world is in fact something other than what it is, there necessarily must be a universal key, which cannot be ignored and exceeded, which allows one to know what part of the world is being, and what is not.  Man no longer acts; he is acted upon as the ‘decipherer or hieroglyphs.”

A:  This is not what I’m talking about.

M:  Well, how do you define transcendent?

A:  To pull from another chapter in De Benoist, page 169: ” Far from forming an absolute that is entirely separate from the world, [the pagan supreme God ] is identical to the world’s very being.  Stoicism, whose religious foundations are essential constitutes a significant case in this regard.  The Stoic God is the ‘soul of the world’. The cosmos is a ‘living being full of wisdom.’  The logos that furnishes it its information is entirely consubstantial to it: it is incorporated into the itinerary and very substance of the cosmos…. The universe is not dependent upon another being, and it is in this world that man must realize his idea.  When the Stoics speak of the world’s ‘duality’ – by accepting, for example, the Pythagorean opposition between the celestial world, which is the perfect world of the stars to which souls belong, and the terrestrial, sublunary  world – it only involves a substantial opposition within a unitarian world.  Wisdom and virtue consist of living according to the ‘order’ of this universe.”  The experience of transcendence is when we step out of our own particular existence and apprehend this world-order in which we participate, not as an intellectual abstract, but as a living reality.

M:  This reminds me of our break with the Gnostics.

A:  In a way, it is.  Neo-Platonic scholar Gregory Shaw in his text on Iamblichus describes various interpretations of existence within the Platonic tradition.  “Plato’s taxonomy of the cosmos and society exemplifies what Jonathan Z. Smith has termed a locative view of existence… In a locative orientation, evil and the demonic arise only when something is out of place… Since Platonic taxonomy was locative as well as monistic, the demonic element was only relatively evil, an unbalanced expression of divine elements.  Therefore the power of evil was temporary and limited to the province of an upside-down soul.  The pervasive acosmic mood of late antiquity… reversed the traditional locative taxonomy… The all pervasive and beneficent order of a cosmos… was transformed into a maleficent system of repression and punishment meted out by cruel demons…  man’s salvation is no longer measured by the degree of his assimilation to the patterns for the cosmos but rather to the degree to which he can escape the patterns.”  In this, I stand with Iamblichus and Plato against the Gnostics and Plotinus.  I’m not trying to escape to anywhere.

M:  See, when I read “philosophy has to be centered around the transcendent aspect of being,’ I read, “philosophy is about positing and accessing truth, which is not situated here, but out there.”  You’re defining the transcendent as imminent.  It doesn’t get more contradictory than that.

A:  There’s more than one way to understand the concept of transcendence.  “…in all [ classic ] schools – with the exception of Skepticism – philosophy was held to be an exercise consisting in learning to regard both society and the individuals who comprise it from the point of view of universality…. Similarly, in each philosophical school we find the same conception of the cosmic flight and the view from above as the philosophical way, par excellence of looking at things.” – Pierre Hadot.

M:  Have you read Kojeve on Hegel?

A:  No, but I have read some Hegel. I am not a fan.

M:  Well, Kojeve analytically breaks down all possible relations of Truth (or, the Concept) and being by discussing time. The possibilities are: Truth is: -temporal -identical with Time -eternal -identical with Eternity Of these possibilities, be says the only one that cannot be philosophy, because it excludes the possibility of philosophy, is “Truth is temporal.” All the others can form the foundation of philosophy, even if he himself thinks only one of them is the right answer. And that whole scheme is an incredibly ambitious assertion.

A:  I am very certain I do not mean that “truth is temporal”.

M: I know, but I’m saying your assertion vis-a-vis Philosophy is even more ambitious than his.  I’m just cautioning writing off tons of brilliant philosophers who don’t fit your model.  And just trying to show that it’s not a settled question as to what’s pagan, what philosophy requires, and so on. I wouldn’t be comfortable saying “that’s not philosophy.”

A:  Perhaps, but I don’t think I’m writing off as many as you assume.  I am asserting that philosophy has a point, and that “an open mind is meant to seize on something.”  By necessity, that seizing will have to exclude certain possible lines of development, which I have no choice but to leave to others.  I don’t know if we’ll see eye to eye on this particular issue, but I want to thank you for raising some great challenges.

M: That’s all a philosopher can hope for.

Thelema Redux: Conversations with Friends

 

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A: So, I just finished reading Kaczynski’s Perdurabo.

JT: What do you think?

A: I’d recommend it. On the whole he presents a far more coherent and balanced view of Crowley than the Symonds bio. I think for the last few years I have been struggling through the “vision of the demon Crowley” where his most difficult aspects take on monstrous proportion, and that’s literally all you can see anymore. He complained about having this effect on people. I feel much better about my investment in his work now, but I am more thoroughly convinced that the dominant interpretation found in the community simply will not work. Most of our problems, as a movement, are not new but have been with us from the beginning.

JT: Heh. I was just talking with a friend about the weird critical thinking problem we find in the community, like among people who otherwise seem able to navigate life and career just fine.

A: Well, I don’t think they see contradiction as an inherent problem. While Crowley tried to gain a rational understanding of his work – and he frequently encouraged his students to learn logic, he also indulged in self-justification through rejection of philosophical rigor. He wasn’t a philosopher and while he often found philosophers useful, suggestive, inspiring…

JT : He was an artist and a poet, and when he was told something he didn’t want to hear…

A: Exactly, and this problem still plagues us today. We point out “Hey guys, this can’t be A and B at the same time. That’s logically inconsistent.” And it’s like we’re speaking Mandarin to housecats. They just look at us like… “So?”

JT : And they can cite where Crowley avoided the same issue, or double-talked around it.

A: Right. Even if they’re smart enough to follow the point, they don’t really grasp why we think it’s so important. They are totally willing to criticize Crowley as a person, but they never trace back his errors and problems to fundamental mistakes in reasoning. Instead they trace it back to the aristocratic values of Liber AL, which they reject.

JT: Hmm… so how might a more philosophically rigorous approach help us?

A: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between art, theurgy, philosophy, and meditation.

JT : ok

A: What do they have in common? What about each is different? What distinguishes prayer from theurgy (if anything ) and art from ordinary productive activity?

JT : Big questions.

A: Indeed.

JT: To play devil’s advocate, and taking just the last question, I would argue in both cases that there is no essential difference, it’s just about the skill of the practitioner.

A: In so much as art is the highest form of external activity, and theurgy the highest form of prayer, I agree; but each is also distinguished by their character of transcending the rest of the category. Theurgy is prayer that becomes something more than prayer. Art is productivity that is more than regular productivity; not just more quantitatively, but qualitatively.

JT: Qualitatively in that they exist in a state of greater… connection, I want to say?

A: That’s one way to put it. I think what all these have in common is an orientation to being’s transcendent aspect, rather than its merely contingent aspect. Art, for example, is the concrete materialization of the artist’s metaphysics. Philosophy – classic philosophy anyway, is the discipline and organization of thought around the transcendent dimension of being. Prayer is the orientation of the person to the transcendent through direct symbolic communication. Theurgy, pace Iamblichus, is participation in the creative demiurgy through symbol.

JT : Direct participation as opposed to supplication?

A: In a sense, although I think theurgy should always be preceded by prayer. In prayer we orient ourselves toward the highest symbol of being. In theurgy we participate in that current. Crowley in Book 4 says that all magical work should be preceded by the confession, which is part of the consecration. If one reads his description of that act, it’s pretty much prayer – rather typical Christian prayer, actually

JT: So there is no “ascent on the planes”, you’re not identifying with the Gods.

A: Right, but if you pardon the analogy, you get your compass pointed in the right direction. Okay… I’m here…. North is… that way… now I’m moving North… now I’m AT North. I am North.

JT: So how is classic philosophy different from modern?

A: Well, to further belabor this metaphor: Classic philosophy is like map making. To be worthwhile, philosophy has to be logical organization AROUND something, and that something is supposed to be the transcendent aspect of being. Philosophy is ideally the practice of organizing thought, removing contradictions, and proceeding in a rigorous manner, in order to apprehend this transcendent. Modern philosophy is more like cataloging and describing the map making process. The early and late Platonists, the Stoics, the Peripatetics, and the Cynics are all, more or less, in agreement about the purpose of philosophy – even though they disagree about various aspects and approaches. For example, Platonists and Stoics disagree about the nature of the soul and the nature of universals, but they both agree that the soul is real and that universals are important.

JT: So what happens with the philosophical project? Why does it fall apart?

A: I think Epicureanism and Academic skepticism are the first breaks with the orthodox tradition. They retain the emotional emphasis, but they’re chipping away at the project itself. Ultimately though, I think Iamblichus again points us to the answer, and it is metaphysical. Man IS spirit, but FULLY descends into the body. This is necessary for the universe to remain whole, but it also places us in a very precarious position. Without reference to the transcendent view of the whole, we can lose our way. Through theurgy we can regain that reference point. The ancient Greek philosophers, some 800 years before Iamblichus, simply assumed a traditional pagan metaphysics. Many of them were initiates of the Mysteries or at the very least, were familiar with personal worship. It’s the same problem we run into in all Traditional societies. They already know that the Gods exist. It’s a very different point of view.

JT: Right. The problems of us moderns are… well… modern.

A: But as the social order, which they saw as inherently metaphysical in origin, starts to fall apart this confidence in being’s meaning and significance also breaks down. Maybe the Gods don’t really care about us? Maybe the Gods don’t exist at all? Now what? Christianity offers a solution of sorts. It claims that reason itself must be made subservient to faith. It stops at a barrier. Below the barrier, reason is fine, so long as it does not rise above its station. Beyond this you can only have faith in a revelation that is totally outside your experience and understanding. This is subtly different from what Iamblichus and the Pagan neo-Platonists suggest.

JT: I’m not sure how subtle that is.

A: No, I suppose not. Anyway, this arrangement between reason and faith works for a while, but then things start getting funky. Gaps appear in the world-view presented by a literal reading of the Abrahamic faith. In an effort to deal with these gaps, some people start applying the philosophic method to faith. Initially the hope is to improve the faith, but the end result is that it just reveals how contradictory and ridiculous much of it is. Philosophy, however, still lacks that transcendent connection. It’s been gutted of its original context to make it compatible with Christian faith. So while philosophy has revealed the problems with the Christian synthesis, it can’t really offer a replacement. Today we either hold onto the transcendent as a personal and private “belief” or we have faith that science and technology will resolve the problem – although we really aren’t sure how.

JT: Sounds about right.

A: Crowley inherits this condition, goes looking for the experience of transcendence, finds it…and then spends the rest of his life struggling with the implications. Rather than simply admitting that the transcendent dimension of existence is real, he tries to justify the experience of transcendence within the modern worldview.

JT: hmm… but also retain his own claim to transcendent authority and “mission”.

A: Right. As a result, he often identifies that which is above consciousness as that which is below it, namely sexual desire. This is an understandable mistake if you assume that discursive reasoning is insufficient, but you are also uncertain about whether or not the transcendent experience is actual, or just a manifestation of the powers of the brain or something. You have to locate that power somewhere, so he struggles with this and ends up in weird places.

JT: Such as?

A: Well, as an example, he and Rose are in China and Crowley isn’t sure what to do with himself. He contemplates getting away from Rose and the baby to go on a “magical retirement”. They do some theurgic work and Crowley is told NOT to go on a magical retirement, but rather to leave immediately with his wife and child, return to Egypt. He blows it off and does exactly what he’s told not to do. His first daughter dies shortly afterwards. Later in his life Crowley claims that the gods killed his kid for his ignoring them. He doesn’t think ,“ I shouldn’t have abandoned my newborn and wife in China. “, or “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken a newborn on a walking tour of the 3rd world”, but “the Gods – real external beings – reshaped the world to kill off my kid because they were mad at me.” He doesn’t seem to consider that they were trying to warn him of a natural consequence, or even that it was just impersonal fate, but he assumes that, because of his “chosen” station, it HAS to be personal.

JT : There’s a pretty strong historical backing for that attitude.

A: Sure, but at the same time it’s not compatible with the fundamentals of his own purported philosophy: “There is no god but Man”. It’s this weird back and forth with him.  He believes both simultaneously “I can do whatever I want, because we make our own magic, these entities are just ways of me reaching my highest creative potential”, and at the same time –

JT : “They kill my kids when I disobey”

A: Right. At the same time, “They are real, and I have a special mission chosen by them, and since my authority is divinely sanctioned, if you don’t do what I want you to do, you are in error, because you’re contradicting the will of the gods…which is also your own highest will, of course, and you’d know that if only you did what I told you to do.”

JT: Sounds like most biblically inspired would-be rulers.

A: Naturally. On the other hand, I think his identification of the value of theurgy and meditation is correct, and his visions are beautiful and real, and more often than not he gets things right. He values liberty and genuinely wanted the best for people around him, even if his own bullshit got in the way. He shows a way out of the modern mess – that you can still have the transcendent experience without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, like refusing modern science and technology.

JT: That’s rather a big deal. Not just “these techniques may be psychologically useful” but rather “this stuff is important for mankind”.

A: Exactly. I also think he was right about the erotic dimension of our existence as a key, but I think he’s wrong about the how and why of it, and that error made his life far more difficult than it needed to be.

JT: How so?

A: Once again he’s locating the transcendent in the physical symbol; not as a correspondence and reference, but as a literal container. It’s not just the highest embodied symbol of the whole – that would be fine. Rather it’s “God” as intellectual superstructure on the physical apparatus of your nuts. If he was philosophically rigorous, he would have realized this doesn’t hold together. It’s just nihilism with some spooky stuff, which may or may not be personally meaningful.

JT: Being raised as a “Born Again” who needed to break through so much guilt about my sexuality, and then just guilt in general, I’m hard pressed to find too much fault with what Crowley linked onto. Embracing sexuality is part of embracing and acknowledging the whole self.

A: Yes, but it also returns us to this idea of fully descending into embodiment. Eros is the infinite force into which we descend. It’s our physical connection to eternity. We have to work with this, but simply indulging in it, letting it lead us around by the dick, which Crowley not only does but explicitly TRIES to do, just leads us into mess after mess after mess.

JT: So enough about these purely modern problems, right?

A: Glad to hear I haven’t drifted too far from the topic at hand.