Custom is our nature. What are our natural principles but principles of custom?
The growing rush and the disappearance of contemplation and simplicity from modern life [are] the symptoms of a complete uprooting of culture. The waters of religion retreat and leave behind pools and bogs. The sciences . . . atomize old beliefs. The civilized classes and nations are swept away by the grand rush for contemptible wealth. Never was the world worldlier, never was it emptier of love and goodness. . . . Everything, modern art and science included, prepares us for the coming barbarism. . . .Everything on earth will be decided by the crudest and most evil powers, by the selfishness of grasping men and military dictators. --Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season, 1873-76
“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”--St. John of the Cross
Most people would say that their lives have meaning. It's not something they think a lot about. It just does, and it does because each of us has been socialized into a set of meanings about which we had no choice. Custom is, in this sense, our nature, and these meanings given by custom or tradition are in the background for all of us, even if we consciously reject some of them when we are older. And while I do not want to suggest that I undervalue the importance of given, traditional meanings, it's also clear that in the modern world custom and tradition are not what they used to be. And clearly the pluralization of custom in a globalizing world has a fragilizing effect on human nature--so neither are we humans what we used to be.
It should be clear that there is something essential in the spirit of modernity, coupled with its capitalist economic engine, that destroys customs and traditions and replaces them with other practices that tend to have a soul-flattening effect. Everywhere modernity has established itself traditions and customary practices have died. Islam is quite right to see modernity (or westernization or globalization) as a threat. It will destroy its traditions as it has destroyed the customary cultures of the West. And the hyper-cerebral logic of modernity is now turning on itself attacking even the traditions of rationality that have developed since the Enlightenment.
And the result, of course, is social fragmentation and with it the slow destruction of any sense of robust 'given' collective meanings, which in turn causes increased loneliness and alienation, loss of depth and texture in our experience, anomie and a growing sense that nothing is really important. It creates a new kind of culture in which all that matters is our relative comfort or discomfort, whether we are bored or entertained.
If things continue on their present course, we will have soon enough a globalized world in which all collective social meanings except commercial/consumerist meanings will have withered away. Other deeper, richer meanings, insofar as one can find them, will be a matter for individuals and small groups, who will live as islands surrounded by an ocean dominated by a global-commercial culture that will produce, already is producing, crude Donald-Trump-type culture heroes, vulgar elites committed to their own aggrandizement--and by non-elites thought well of for it, because, according to the new collective values emerging, they are life's winners. And it's a world in which the masses will be increasingly anesthetized by hi-tech bread and circuses, or preoccupied in passively observing elites as they play their power and sex games with one another on tabloid tv and computer screens and iPhones.
In the meanwhile the older traditions continue to provide something of a meaning backdrop, but do so without much, if any, vitality. There are exceptions in pockets here and there, but they are moribund. These dying traditions still provide a certain kind of order, but they no longer have any real life; they no longer have any eros. They are like dead trees that maintain the shape given to them by the life forces that once worked in them, but which now are sapless and brittle. So "higher" meaning in the modern age has withered into boring, eros-less abstractions, and its sapless cultural forms have become what African-Americans call “whitebread”--bland, textureless, soulless. Sure, there is a superstructure of meaning, and most people find a way to live a life within it, but it won’t take much to blow it away--and a storm, she's a brewin'.
So here are some preliminary thoughts rooted in my own struggle to make sense of what we're going through and what a framework for developing a robust sense of future possibility might look like. It begins with a meditation on how we experience meaning in the first place. So bear with me. What I say below starts out kind of abstractly, but I think I bring it back down to earth in the end.
The meaning of meaning and all the semiotic theory developed over the last 150 years is beyond the scope of what's appropriate to discuss here, so I would like just to work with a simpler, more seat-of-the-pants understanding of how we experience meaning. The key word is “connection,” and the key to understand it is the many various ways in which we find and make connections. When we see a connection or make a connection, there is meaning. When we don’t see it, there is meaninglessness. The discrete elements in our experience are meaningless to us unless or until they fall into a meaningful pattern in which each element is connected to the other in a way that makes sense. When we are told a joke and don't get it, we don't understand how the punchline connects the dots in the setup that preceded it. The experience of connection that renders an experience of 'meaning' in this sense is what we commonly experience as 'insight'.
Take for example our reading of a poem when any meaning in it at first eludes us; the words don’t make sense. We know the meanings for each word, but they don’t connect with one another in any meaningful way; it seems to be quasi-gibberish on first reading. We try again, still nothing. Then perhaps several times more, and finally it hits us, and the words vibrate not only with their interconnectedness among themselves, but with something in us that comes alive in response to them. Not just the excitement of breaking the code, but the revelation of a kind of secret that was held in the poem. Its meaning is a discovery, or perhaps it's more accurate to say our experience of it a kind of awakening.
Is it then only that something awakens in us that has given the words their meaning? Clearly that's too one-sided. But then is the poem, particularly if it is a great poem, something that the poet "creates", or is it something about our shared reality that he has awakened to himself and then uses language to 'remember' that experience of awakening but which also creates the possibility for others to awaken to it (or remember it) too. I like that way of thinking about it because it gets us out of our individual bubbles and into a shared reality of which we are mostly oblivious. A great poem is not about the poet's subjective experience, but rather disclosive of the Being of the World in which we are all immersed.
But then what is it about us humans that allows us to make these connections in the first place? Certainly the kind of acculturation with its imprinting of foundational meanings is an essential background element, but must there not be something that lies behind the acculturation? Even if we cannot know it except as mediated through our acculturation, is there not something that we must deduce as the ground for the production of culture in the first place? If the creation of cultural worlds is what makes us human, mustn't there, despite all the varieties of culture, be some kind of underlying structure that is the condition for the possibility of culture? Certainly language and symbol making are essential here, but where does that come from? To explain this by some Darwinian evolutionary logic is from where I stand comically reductionistic.
Reading is not a passive activity; it is an active one. It has to be if we are to understand anything we have read. But it's not as if we're making up the meanings that we read. They are there for us to discover, but there has to be something in us that wills to pay attention in order to discover it. But what is it in us that gives us this capacity for understanding when we have this moment of discovery or insight? I think of my experience of insight when the poem yields up its meaning as the experience of something in me that lay dormant as it lay dormant in the poem, a potentia that has becomes actum when, through my act of attention, some meaning discloses itself in the experience of making a connection. What is in me in potentia is stimulated into actuality by my encounter with the poem, but it is not simply given by the poem unless the poem points to something I am already awake to. Otherwise, the meaning doesn’t come alive until I awaken it in my struggle to understand what the poem seeks to disclose. Now the greater the poem, the richer its potential for disclosure and for awakening something in the reader. Someone else in reading the poem might discover a different aspect of what the poem discloses. The poet himself may not be aware of all the poem has to disclose.
So meaning, as in this example, comes from the way words connect with other words, but also in the ways in which we make connections in all kinds of ways--in the way people connect with one another, the way memory connects us with our past, and imagination with our future. But also in the ways in which we become more aware, especially regarding the depths and layers of the Being of the World. We have experiences all the time but we miss the meaning because we don't have a sophisticated or well developed enough meaning framework that allows us to make meaningful connections. The Being of the World is for us as a musical score for a Mozart symphony as would be for musically illiterate deaf people. We see the notes but can have no idea about the full, living reality to which they point.
So our experience of meaning, if it is rich and deeply textured, requires a kind of erotic thinking, I.e., the development or the rediscovery of the thinking heart, a retrieval of the understanding that we cannot really know something if we do not love it, and to love something means to be awakened to its deep truth and goodness and beauty. And loving, if it is truly loving means in some manner an encounter with the mystery and depth of the beloved as 'Thou'. Meaning is relational in the obvious mechanical sense that the brain enables, but it is relational in an interpersonal sense, too. And as all interpersonal relationships are multi-layered, so is our relationship with the Being of the World, for which depth upon depth lie slumbering in potentia awaiting our awakening to them.
We live in a hyper-eroticized society, but we no longer understand Eros because our capacity for it has withered with the withering of our modern souls. We moderns (or no-longer-moderns) have atrophied souls but hypertrophied heads and genitals. We have what I've called Missing Middle Syndrome--we've become what C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man as 'men without chests'. In a soul-atrophied culture, in which there is no robust common experience of the middle that we used to know as soul, we oscillate from head to groin, from groin to head endlessly, pointlessly, compulsively. It gets us nowhere.
Observe our popular culture in film and fiction--there is only the genital experience to make vivid emotion all connections and the head to make meanings, but the two operate in their own orbits, and don't really talk to one another because the soul in a soulless culture plays such a weak role in mediating between them. And we suffer from an internal sense of dissociation and alienation that mirrors the dissociation and fragmentation of the society around us. Our disorientation is the result of the stupor that results when we have lost our souls.
And so we long most deeply for meanings that are not just head meanings or or a sense of connection that derives not just from the temporary satisfaction of our instinctual impulses, but such meanings can be effected only in the soul, and so it is required to have one. If your soul is withered (or just slumbering), there is no real capacity for richly textured, deeply significant meanings. And so we settle for innumerable variations on cheap sex in the back of the car, intensified now by its manifold virtual possibilities. And we mistake excitement for significance, and instinct-driven passion for spiritual élan.
Our popular culture, for this reason, exults in the life of instinct as if it's some affirmation of life, liberty, joyousness. But it just isn't. It's Charlie-Sheen pathetic. It's just a parody of eros and its sacred mysteries. It's pathetic the way fundamentalist Christians and Muslims focus on everything that is unimportant in their rich religious traditions. It's all so much going through the motions because, I guess, it's better than doing nothing. It's something. Or if it's got any juice to it, it's a form of obsession or compulsion, and it's better to be obsessed or in the grip of a compulsion that to feel numb and dead.
The difference between modern, soul-withered man and archaic, soulful man is that for the latter the connections are obvious and given in their traditions and customs and in their intimately experienced connection with the natural world around them. They are Charles Taylor's "porous selves", and for him the world is full of wonders and rich given meanings. For the modern "buffered selves", the world is disenchanted and flat, not because the Being of the World is flat, but because we moderns have lost the cognitive capacity to experience its depths. And so we moderns and no-longer-moderns are mostly aware of the disconnections and therefore the the lack of meanings in a meaning-flattened, disenchanted world.
So has the world flattened, or is it just that it seems flat because we are so soul-flat, so soul-sleepy. Is it that there is no meaning, or that our capacity for experiencing it has become so diminished that we no longer have the range of experiences that provide the data for us to make meaningful connections? Or Is it that the data is there, but we haven't awakened to it, that we are having the experiences but missing their meanings because we haven't the interior capability to make the connections? In other words, do we experience the world as we do the poem that at first reading seems like gibberish? Is it that the connections are there, but we just haven't awakened to them, perhaps because we haven't tried hard enough. And so therefore, Is it possible, perhaps, that the gods have not abandoned us, but that they await our re-awakening to their presence.
So back to a reflection on potentia and actum, which is largely derived in my thinking about it from Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Barfield and Nietzsche saw that the world of given collective meanings and given connections no longer had any vitality. Nietzsche and Barfield agree that we are living in a dead-tree world rather than in a living world in which the collective consciousness is vibrant with life and meaning. Barfield’s word to describe a human experience rich with connection and meaning is 'participation', a word that deliberately has Platonic connotations, and for him it comes in two varieties ‘original’ and ‘final.’ His word to describe our life lived among the dead trees is 'idolatry'. Original participation is experienced by what Taylor calls 'porous selves', selves embedded, animist cultures in which everything is connected and merged into one another and in which the world is alive with spirits. Final participation is a stage of human development that lies before us in the future in which the autonomous, buffered, idolatrous, modern self will re-embed or de-buffer in a deeper and more richly textured experience of of communion with the Being of the World.
Remnants of original participation lingered in Europe through the medieval period and even into the nineteenth century in some rural areas where the old ways hadn’t quite died. But a phenomenal world emerged in the West during the modern period in which layer upon layer of meanings had been stripped away by a withering rationality. All that remained was a kind of minimalist husk whose meaning was mostly defined by its utilitarian or economic value, rather than the I-Thou relationship that is more characteristic of aboriginal and other premodern cultures. These husks are Barfield's idols.
For Nietzsche this stripping away of given meanings was a liberation because it cleared the way for an unprecedented, open-ended human project in a joyous effusion of self assertion unrestrained by tradition, Kantian categories (or whatever). For Barfield, a Christian, this loss of the original, rich experience of meaning is a necessary step in the evolution of consciousness. Meaning moved from out there as something publicly experienced to something grounded in interior experience, from the Mosaic stone tablets to the supple human heart, and the possibility for movement from outer to inner, from burning bush out there, to burning heart in here, was effected by the incarnation of the Word as described in the prologue to John's Gospel.
For the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, is about the new law, a felt experience (in Heideggerian, a new mood?) of something that is born within, and so from this 'within' new practices and attitudes are developed. So for Barfield God has not died, he's just gone into hiding in the depths of the human soul. And he argues that the new human task is to renew the face of the earth by making the Logos now in potentialis, actualis. In other words, the Logos is sleeping in the depths of every human soul, and salvation both for humans and for the earth becomes a possibility to the degree that it is awakened, i.e., becomes actualis, i.e., activated in the human soul. There's some overlap with Norman Brown here. Brown thought highly of Saving the Appearances.
Both Barfield and Nietzsche agree that freedom is at the center of the human project. But Barfield's is a Christian understanding of freedom. It envisions the nobility and dignity of the future human being and his existence on the earth as dependent on his willingness to undertake the struggle to make what is implicit explicit and in doing so to awaken what is in potentialis or slumbering in both nature and the human soul, because they are the same thing--Nature is the human unconscious. A fully animated experience of Being is there in the collective unconscious like a repressed memory. And for him the implicit that is to be made explicit, the potential to be made actual, the slumbering to be awakened is the Logos--the substructure of Being and the ground for its intelligibility. The awakened, thinking heart to paraphrase St. Paul, is not I but the Logos thinking in us. I am arguing that the key to the restoration of the withered soul is the awakening to this presence of the Logos which lies in the soul's depths, but also in the depths of everything. The Logos is not a head thing; it's a Being thing, and as such a soul thing.
The story of the world for the last three thousand years has been that of a gradual human disembedding, to use Charles Taylor's term. It's been a movement from original participation, to use Barfield's phrase, to a radically disembedded experience of the human being as autonomous or buffered Self. The shift to autonomy reached a kind of tipping point among educated elites in the period between Descartes and Kant, and its culmination in the doctrine of radical, open-ended freedom articulated by Nietzsche and later Sartre, which has become the new values backdrop for cosmopolitan, Western educated elites. In such an autonomous state, humans have a sense of their individual freedom and a lack of external restraints that were unimaginable in previous epochs. And the challenge that lies before them now is what they will do with that freedom.
We humans are free, but we don't seem to have the will (or is it the inspired imagination) to do anything really constructive with it. We are as a result passive, and we are allowing the technological/economic tail to wag the dog. We are serving it, rather than finding the vision and the will to make it serve us. We are living in a perilous time for the earth and for humans, particularly with the way in which information and biological technologies are pushing for what appears to be an inevitable transhuman mechanomorphic redefinition of what it means to be human. It's deeply disturbing to me that there is so little push back from the older humanistic traditions--at least any push back that seems to matter.
I think what I have written above largely explains why. We've lost our souls, and so that older understanding of what it means to be human, a being with soul and spirit, is something that nobody in your typical humanities department believes in anymore. That tradition is largely dismissed as the boring, myopic utterances of dead, white males. There simply isn't enough mass among our cultural elite which believes in those traditions anymore, and so it cannot provide a culture wide foothold to push back against the coming barbarism. Does the new anti-humanism offer a better foothold? I don't think so.
And so my preoccupation, and the underlying preoccupation of this blog, has been about how to resist the coming barbarism, and the only answer is to counter with an alternative vision of the future that will be robust enough to galvanize the collective will to fight for it. And I would argue it lies in the retrieval of essential aspects of the old humanism that flashed forth brilliantly in Renaissance and then diminished slowly after that during the Enlightenment, and after that the materialistic period that darkened the world in the 19th Century and from which we are now trying to emerge.
We're all one way or another Nietzscheans now, but really there was only one Nietzschean and he died in an asylum. His diagnosis of what ails us was correct, his cure questionable at best, and at its worst produces symptoms far worse than the original ailment. So the challenge is to frame a robust alternative cure--one that accepts the basic Nietzschean frame that there is no robust sense of shared, culture-wide meanings, and so no robust sense of the "better angels" working with us in our collective consciousness. But they are there, in our collective unconsciousness, in our souls and underground in the Being of the World, and the task is to find a way to awaken them.
The challenge should be easier and more naturally embraced by Christians. It should be easier for them to accept that the connections are there--as they are in the poem I talked about earlier. This is the work, and it is, I believe, where the imagination, the inspiration, and the will to push back and to create something new will come from. But while this is a difficult work, I don't see anything else that is likely to work.
To undertake this work it's not essential to accept in some credal or doctrinal sense Christian beliefs. The important thing is that people of good will become grounded and oriented again, that they lose their diffidence, and begin to push back. And my argument here is that if we are truly grounded, it's possible to accept pluralism and multi-perspectivalism at the same time that one embraces that there is an underlying lawful, liberating, love-abounding substructure to reality that is the source of all meaning, the giver of all productive purposes, healthful customs, and living traditions. Christians need to explain why they understand the meaning of history the way they do, and trust that if there is any truth in it, others will come to embrace it.
And so for me, a Christian, I call that ground the Logos, and I do believe that what happened 2000 years ago mattered to the history of the earth in a central way and that the whole history and evolution of the earth pivots around it. But I also believe it doesn't matter what you believe; it matters what you do. The right kind of doing does not require a complete understanding of the underlying forces that direct it. But the right kind of doing will in my view always be work than in its manifold ways leads to the awakening the Logos in the individual and in the collective consciousness. That's the critical task no matter how you think about it or how you do it. This is how we save our collective soul, and how we as individuals restore our collectively missing chests.
There is the particular, local, and historical--but it must be held in a tension with a transcendent grounding that exists in a very real way in potentio in the depths of every human soul--and in the depths of the Being of the World--and which when awakened awakens in magnificent, abundant variety and particularity. But more important than this awakening, whatever its manifest variety, is that it will gradually provide a transcultural framework for people of good will everywhere to come together to decide what a good, healthful, human future should look like. Otherwise the barbarians take the field unopposed.
Ed: This post, somewhat revised here, originally appeared in February 2011. For a more explicitly theological, and tercer statement of the underlying principles that shape this essay, see "The Meaning of History in 25 Theses."]