In previous postings there has been an identification of certain poisons in human cultures, namely legitimized violence, especially in acts of war, and radical inequality. Based on that, another way of identifying the poison in currently dominant cultures would be with the concept “power”, which is inseparable from inequality and violence. The most blatant mechanism of power in the world today is the government of the USA. Its public record of violations establishes unmistakably that what that government and its vast military and covert agencies are protecting is not the rule of law, responsible government, human rights, or anything based in bottom-up political power such as democracy. The only alternative seems to be that those institutions are projecting the will of an obscure but effective oligarchy which has nothing but contempt for such things as bottom-up politics, thus revealing a core malevolence. Malevolent oligarchy, corporatocracy, organized wealth, patriarchy, all refer to that same feature of modern social organization. As a whole, that oligarchy is not tightly enough organized to be a conspiracy, but it carries a certain cultural sense of predicament and entitlement, and a shared culture of dealing with its predicament. One way the oligarchy succeeds at controlling the levers of profound meaning on a mass scale is by constantly broadcasting the message that everyone benefits from accepting “noble lies” (rarely named as lies publicly) about a caring god with a divine plan for everyone’s life, about a meritocracy, a beloved leader, a beloved nation or tribe (usually under threat). However, the only real lever of profound meaning is the interiority of individual intelligence.
The idea of the transcendent interiority of individual intelligence enables a kind of Copernican revolution, since all human projections onto nature and culture originate as somebody’s individually dreamed up non-actualities. There certainly are plans, but all plans are the products of perfectly ordinary humans. There is no single centre, source, or foundation of meaning. From awareness of the interiority of intelligence we learn to look inward instead of outward for transcendence, meaning, and grounding. There is an intrinsic power of individual intelligence to critique the foundations of power and to construct an alternative elemental orientation. (Hegel and Nietzsche both wrote about a moral duality between master-morality and slave-morality, but there is a point of view which is neither master nor slave, namely the elemental orientation, which philosophical deliberation achieves. Living from a contemplative grounding is the alternative to the moral duality of master and slave.)
Christendom to Modernity
The claim that the interiority of intelligence (a rich subjectivity) can be effectively asserted to transcend or go beyond a poisoned culture and conceive a new culture is especially interesting and plausible because there is a precedent in history for the effectiveness of philosophy acting against propaganda streams promoting radical inequality and issued by the groups exercising power in society. The really dramatic social change that is closest to us in time, culture, and geography is the transition from Christendom to Modernity. That change is exactly the historical precedent for the culturally transformative force of rethinking Stoic interiority. The concept of innate deliberative power, a specific power of interiority, was dramatically effective, during the historical period known as the Enlightenment (roughly 1650-1789) in changing the culture that was Christendom, and leaving things somewhat better. A cultural background of humanism, classical Greek cheerfulness, especially in the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, also contributed to those transformative effects.
Philosophy in a Historical Context
For centuries “philosophy” meant something quite close to Stoic philosophy, which identified a separation between those things beyond and those things within an individual’s control. Emotional investment in things beyond control was considered pointless and self-destructive. Outward circumstances were to be conceived and treated as indifferent things, since they were all indifferently necessary manifestations of a coherently structured and regular nature, Logos. By focusing on inward matters, which are within an individual’s control, a person can experience transcendent freedom. The experience of intelligence as transcendent was a powerful incentive and reward for the study of Stoicism and philosophy in general in the Hellenistic era. An interiority within the mental control of each individual became especially illuminated by that.
One link between the ancient and modern streams of that focus on interiority is The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (c. 480-525 A.D.). Boethius was a Christian Roman of the patrician class who flourished at the highest level of Roman politics after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from the west, when Rome itself was ruled by the Ostrogoth Theodoric. In addition to administrative and political engagement, Boethius conceived and accomplished much of an ambitious project to make Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, accessible to his contemporary Romans. The humanist philosophies were already somewhat familiar. As a Christian philosopher he wrote on the relationship between faith and reason. He became a victim of political enemies, was imprisoned on charges of plotting to overthrow Theodoric, and was brutally executed. Boethius’ Consolation, written near the end of his life during his imprisonment, was read and remained influential for a millennium and more. It is still being read, and is peculiarly appropriate for consideration of freedom within a culture poisoned by legitimized violence.
One principle meaning of “philosophy” from an historical perspective is the one in The Consolation of Philosophy, namely a Stoic or Cynic indifference to outward circumstances beyond personal control, and concentration on inward mental conditions, powers, and operations which are (more) under personal control. Innate powers of deliberation are involved in achieving such consolation, and a rich and powerful subjectivity is affirmed. Humanist Stoicism is the best candidate as the eternal philosophy, and Stoicism is founded on an idea of interiority: what every individual can control, as opposed to the world of nature which is beyond control, entirely predetermined. Stoic philosophy includes the application of deliberative thinking to truths about the objective world and especially to self-knowledge and self-possession.
Another principle meaning of “philosophy” from an historical perspective, emerging especially after 1600 in north-western continental Europe, is “Rationalism”, an assertion of the power of individual intellect to observe and think out the truth about the world, founded on the idea of an elemental congruence (Logos) between the natural world and individual mentality. The core idea of that rationalism is not innate knowledge but innate mental power to distinguish truth from falsehood by systematic observation and logical thinking, such as with the recognition of natural causation as sufficient to account for events and conditions in the world, aided by use of such logical devices as Ockham’s razor, and valid forms of inference. However, those native powers and abilities can be repressed, twisted, or ignored by cultural and social forces. For example, consider Freud’s observations of the effects of cultural attitudes toward innocent sexuality, or consider the influence of various religious beliefs about the causes of events in the natural world. “Philosophy”, then, has been mainly either the exercise of native intellect in comprehending impersonal nature, or thoughtful self-possession of a personal intelligence that is crucially discontinuous from ambient nature and culture.
Critique of the Malevolent Christian Oligarchy
The crucial force in the change from Christendom to Modernity was the rationalist critique of Christianity as the foundation of all-controlling sovereign power. The Consolation of Philosophy was one crucial link between ancient humanism and Wycliffe’s movement of proletarian empowerment through universal literacy and vernacular literature. Subsequently, deliberation on the inner-outer discontinuity, a chain of Stoic/ humanist influence, was continued in Renaissance humanism (individual self-development for literary and artistic accomplishments, or for power politics and business ventures), then in Luther, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, the rationalist enlightenment, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer. There have been many complaints about Cartesian dualism, but the dualism inherent in the discontinuity between nature and the interiority of intelligence runs through the history of philosophy, and cannot be especially credited to Descartes. The most important proposal about unification of subjective intelligence with objective nature may be Spinoza’s, but even on Spinoza’s view ‘thought’ and ‘extension’ are distinct attributes of “God or Nature”.
Next: Finishing the Job of the Enlightenment
Copyright © 2013 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.