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The historical thinking project of philosophy was the cultivation of an alignment between a personal spirituality (orientation, bearing, poise, or condition of mind) and the world at large in its most profound being, thought as a transcendence which confers meaning on the world. This relational duality of focus was fundamental, and defines the philosophical origin of ethics. Ancient Greek philosophers were so impressed by mathematical abstractions such as numbers and geometrical axioms that they conceived a transcendence of universal and timeless “truths”, eternal necessities which would be the source of absolute knowledge. They elevated the dignity of such abstractions very far above particular objects and common subjectivity, placing them at a commanding height atop a hierarchy clearly modelled on the patriarchal and military society of their time. Timeless abstractions at the top of the hierarchy set up an opposition with the ordinary landscape of changeable material objects at the bottom. In stark contrast to the supposedly incorruptible immateriality (and so eternity) of ideal abstractions, the material particulars of common experience were considered unstable, ephemeral, in an endless state of either growth or decay, always transforming into something else, and so useless as a source of knowledge. Philosophers were obsessed with rising above the turmoil of ephemerality in which crowds of the poorest and least educated humans construct eventful lives, and so time itself was relegated to the category of unreality, illusion, metaphysical nothingness, as distinct from ideal Being. Plato’s Ideal Forms illustrate the importance of eternity in ancient thinking. In that classical metaphysical scenario, certain features of concrete objects were cherry-picked and bundled with features of mental abstractions to construct what seemed the best of worlds, a world that would be transcendent over common things as a patriarchal ruler is transcendent over his people. Concrete objects supplied distinctness of image and outline, of form and quality, and abstraction supplied ideal universality and immateriality conceived as a transcendent purity of being, beyond corruption or extinction, a refined and magical state invoking the mysterious existence of ghosts and divinity, radiant with the glamour and mystique of power, status, and authority.

Since the mental efforts of an individual do not change the world at large in its most profound being, the mental effort of philosophy was to decide on and achieve the personal bearing that best expresses the most profound being of a person in relation to the world. Issues and questions of spiritual bearing were the elements of ethics: the best way to live. For a long time in the ancient world, the personal condition to be achieved was conceived as imperturbability. The charge is sometimes made against ethics in ancient philosophy that it is an expression of the self-absorption of the thinking person, apparently concerned only with personal happiness. However, context is crucial here. Stoics and Epicureans, for example, each in their way, considered events in the world to be predetermined by eternal necessities: Stoics by Logos (everything happens for a Logos), Epicureans by atoms falling in the void. The Epicurean conception of a “swerve” which enables human freedom is pretty much limited to an interior mental freedom, like the Stoic freedom to assent to fate, or not. In relation to an almost completely predetermined world, the diligently thoughtful poise to cultivate was identified as a kind of spiritual invulnerability.

In an ultimately predetermined world, change, and so time, is an illusion, a triviality when put against the perspective of eternity, which was thought of as what the consciousness of gods (or the providential Logos) would be. Philosophical thinking (love of wisdom) was a way to live a human life most like the life of gods by achieving that ethical poise at the core of the project. Seen in that light, an ethical life was cultivation of a personal alignment with transcendence as it was conceived in that era. The framework for transcendence was the inferior reality of change and time, as experienced in ordinary events and activities, and the ultimate reality of the perspective of eternity. Within that conception of the philosophical thinking project, metaphysics, understood as the identification of transcendence, was the indispensable guide for ethics. The personal aspiration to achieve imperturbability followed from what was identified as transcendent, namely eternity, or in other words, ethics emerged directly from metaphysics.

We people of modernity no longer find eternity convincing as a transcendence that confers meaning on the world. Except for Epicureans (whose transcendence was arguably individual rationality), the ancients thought that the high eternal abstractions were alive, sensitive and teleological in some important sense, mothership senior intelligences. For Aristotle, it was nested heavenly spheres in motion around the Earth that were such intelligences. It was specifically the aliveness of those remote intelligences that seemed to confer meaning on the world and the lives of individuals. It gave the remote transcendence creative purpose and power, and aligning a personal bearing with that transcendence expressed the sense of a kinship or commonality between the spirituality of the individual and a sovereign aliveness. The gradual accumulation of a more scientific view of the world has made those ways of thinking seem bizarre. Since we no longer accept the idea of a cosmos that is personified as a whole or on a grand scale, it strikes us that in the perspective of eternity there is just nothing but frozen rigidity, nothing happening, no life and so no fountain of meaning. However, just as in the ancient conceptual systems, it still is life which confers meaning on the world: sensitivity, consciousness, caring about, aiming for, and actively moving into a future with some openness for discretionary creativity, for inventive construction, for freedom. It’s the creative freedom of intelligence that is transcendent, now as then. There is no freedom in eternity because there is no time in eternity, and so the ancient idea of a sovereign aliveness at the far cosmic horizons, the consciousness of gods, doesn’t make sense. The idea of freedom arises from a specific sense of ongoing time to come, into which novelty can be projected deliberately. Since we no longer accept the plausibility of disembodied consciousness and caring, what confers meaning on the world now is the agency and creative freedom of ordinary embodied individuals.

Identification of transcendence has been largely banished from respectability by scientific materialism, but ethics makes no sense without freedom, and freedom is transcendent in relation to an inertial and entropic nature. Ethics is a framework of orientation for free agents acting through time. If we have not been convinced that identification of transcendence is illegitimate, or that transcendence is properly identified in a patriarchal father God or some other personification of the cosmos at large, nor yet in the eternal Being that some have conceived at the far horizons of things, then we might find life yet in the conception of philosophy as an alignment of personal bearing, way of life, with a more modest transcendence. The obvious approach is to change the direction of the gaze, and so to stop gazing outward for transcendence. The focus instead is on looking itself, not on what is seen but on seeing. There is no consciousness, looking or seeing, without a transcendent personal spirituality, a specific questioning representing the interpretive sum of a personal no-longer, poised as a context through which to read what the body senses in making what is not-yet. Seeing is the application of such context, a context-mediated moment of interpretation. Time in which there is past and future is clearly spiritual, pure ideality, because past and future are perfectly non-actual. Only consciousness in its temporal, teleological flight, is transcendent, and occurs plausibly only at the level of the embodied individual.

Ethics will always be an alignment of personal action with transcendence as it is currently understood. With transcendence conceived as non-capricious, non-personal eternal necessities, ethics calls for an act of will to love your fate, cultivating personal imperturbability, sometimes understood as complete selflessness. With transcendence as the will of a capricious and all powerful deity, then the point of orientation is commands of the patriarchal deity, and ethical action is obeying the god’s list of rules, duties, obligations, virtues, and vices. If we recognize that transcendence is the freedom created by the spiritual projection of time in the form of futurity and a personal questioning applied as context to the sensible world, there isn’t any cosmically senior intelligence for our personal spirituality to align with, no sovereign transcendence. Ethical agency then requires aligning with a world in which transcendence takes the form of multiple embodied individuals scattered horizontally in local clusters over the face of the planet. If an ethical life is alignment with the transcendence of intelligent aliveness, then it would be aligning my freedom with the freedom of everyone around me, mutual respect for and empathy with all the other sensitive and teleological beings here within nature.

Copyright © 2018 Sandy MacDonald.

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