Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Mirror and The Seashore

Thoughts. Mind. Thinking. No-thoughts. No-mind. No-thinking. 

Within Zen Buddhist and Taoist thought worlds there are two metaphors: these are those of the mirror and the seashore. They serve similar purposes: to promote ideas of non-attachment to thoughts and the refusal to be bound by any thoughts, ideas or narratives at all. This is not a vision of the mind which is about the attainment or collection of things and so the agglomeration of something denominated ‘knowledge’. Indeed, it is one which privileges the refusal to hold anything at all within something we might call our mind. The mirror, for example, is a reflecting surface. It does not hold what it captures. It simply reflects it back. In a similar way, the seashore is caressed by the sea which may, from time to time, deposit items upon it. But the seashore, in this case, is indifferent and unconcerned about this and is happy to let that which is left upon it stay indefinitely or be just as easily swept away again. The metaphors of mirror and seashore encourage non-attachment, being dispassionate and acting without action.

In his book Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, towards the end, Friedrich Nietzsche has the following aphorism:

“Life as the yield of life. - No matter how far a man may extend himself with
his knowledge, no matter how objectively he may come to view himself,
in the end it can yield to him nothing but his own biography.”

I see in this thought a mentality compatible with that of the Zen Buddhists and Taoists above. For what is it to imagine that a path of life yields nothing but the tracings of where it has been, a biography? Is it not to look disapprovingly on the notion that one may have collected up things egotistically regarded as ‘knowledge’ or ‘truths’ and to count them all as vanity? In this aphorism Nietzsche is agreeing with the past, present and future versions of himself that human beings are prey to many powerful illusions and that they should regard them all as exactly that and treat them accordingly. Here it is noteworthy that Nietzsche, in general, did not so much think of thoughts in terms of true or false but in terms of therapeutic valuations: he wanted to know if such things promoted health or disease in the human being and in human culture generally. Already when Nietzsche had written this aphorism in the late 1870s he had written of the human being as that creature which is a matter of will and desire where, for such a being, it doesn’t matter much what illusion they become attached to so long as it gives them a feeling of power and of control.

Yet it is just such power and control that, it seems to me, the Zen Buddhists and the Taoists are looking to give up. They think these things to be some of the “illusions that we have forgotten are illusions” which is what Nietzsche calls those things we denominate truth in an essay he wrote earlier in the 1870s. Taoists, for example, speak of and value the idea of ‘wu wei’ a great deal. ‘Wu wei’ is best translated into English as ‘actionless action’ rather than the often common ‘non-action’ since, so I am led to understand, it is not a concept which means doing nothing. Instead, the Taoist practitioner is imagined as an active participant in the things of life - yet not as someone with micromanaged intentions. This is seen as a matter of genuineness or authenticity in a conception of the whole that is the existence of all things in which ‘emptiness’ is seen as the source of all possibility. From such a point of view desires, will, intentions, attachments, are all barriers to possibility and enemies of becoming because they impose upon people mental structures which limit their abilities to see, to imagine, to participate and to dream. In effect, the Taoist asks why we should put up mental walls or restrict ourselves by means of entirely thought-based schemes when nothing about our universe of experience itself imposes such things or presents them as inherent to life itself. The situation, whatever the situation is, is not limited to the things we immediately, or even reflectively, think about it. There is no equation of thought and reality. This is, in turn, to concede, as the theologian and philosopher Jack Caputo does, that there is nothing we think that is not an interpretation.

But if there is nothing we think that is not an interpretation then this surely also means that there is nothing that we think that is not partial - in at least two senses. First, an interpretation is our’s, and not someone else’s, and, second, because of the first reason it is also much, much less than the whole, the whole which would be all the possible interpretations. Realising this, we now see, once again, how becoming attached to things or desiring things is actually a restriction of possibility. In fact, it is the imposition of a fiction simply because we become attached to it, either because we want to be through desire or will or because we are not sufficiently detached from it to see it as simply an interpretation. It would be like trying to become like a mirror that wants to possess the image it reflects or like a seashore which wants to retain the items the sea spits out onto it. Yet such a seashore, if it did this in reality, would soon become cluttered. Over time, it would cease to be the empty expanse next to the sea upon which things might occasionally be washed and would, instead, become a dumping ground, a tip, a public dustbin. The seashore as mind would actually impair its own ability to be that which it is. In Nietzsche’s terms, we would then be able to diagnose the habits of attachment, will, intention and desire as unhealthy and disease-inducing habits. So, actually, refusing to hold onto things, taking a detached attitude to the action of the sea of life as it sweeps across our minds, turns out to be good for the seashore, the seashore that is mind. The thoughts may come and the thoughts may go, the actions of a mind that is thinking, but we do not need to accept them or be under their tyranny. We are not forced to hold onto them them or take them seriously anymore.

There is another saying that comes from these Eastern philosophies and it is the following: “the no-mind thinks no-thoughts about no-things”. It seems, to me at least, to be a riddle and yet I imagine that in this brief essay I might have had some thoughts which illuminate its meaning. Zen Buddhists and Taoists know well that we have minds and we think thoughts. The Buddha himself, in fact, is said to have said that “we are what we think”. (He also said ‘there is nothing to stick to’ which is relevant but a whole other story!) This, indeed, is why I imagine such philosophies are so concerned with thinking in the first place. But, that being the case, it suggests that mental hygiene and psychological health are of primary importance for these most therapeutic of spiritualities in which peace and enlightenment are the highest personal goods and the most valuable possessions. This saying, I think, encapsulates the lack of attachment and refusal of imposed narratives that I have already spoken about. It encourages actionless action and loss of intention and a ‘letting things be’ that is hard for people used to ‘gaining knowledge’ or ‘understanding things’ to accept. They only ever do these things to use them in accordance with their own intentions and desires and attachments in the pursuance of some imagined necessity they call “making sense”. Rarely, however, do they question the narrative, and the values, which have motivated them to imagine that this was the purpose of thinking or the mind in the first place. We have here, then, a completely different way to see the world. But you should not then think that this Eastern way is ‘the right way’ where the other, more Western, one was not. 

For then you will only have fallen into the same trap all over again.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

On Reconciling Bible Texts

In the New Testament the death of Judas Iscariot, the supposed betrayer of Jesus, is recorded more than once in differing books. The accounts differ in a way that is hard to reconcile. But should we be trying to reconcile them in the first place? And what can we say about this man and his death in terms of history anyway? Finding this discussed in an online blog, and reading the numerous comments below which fixated on the matter of reconciling biblical texts, I replied with my own answer which is reproduced below:

Having read the blog and the comments I see lots of chat about "reconciling accounts" - all as if Christian texts existed inside some historical bubble - but very, very little about two, to my mind, very much more important subjects. The first of these is that history is public and open not private and closed and the second is that accounts of the kind we find in the Gospels and Acts are, right down to the very soles of their boots, matters of interpretation.

Now what should we take these points to mean? Well, firstly, on the history point, we should stop reading the Bible as if it acted as vouching for itself. This is cheating and giving it a pass you wouldn't give any other book you thought contained historical recitation. Its special pleading. History is public and open. If something happens its not only Christians who might see it or hear about it. Yet the fact of the matter is that whole swathes of the New Testament's reportage are only recorded in the New Testament. In other words, it lacks third party verification or even simple public verification. Did Jesus do A,B or C? Did he appear to 500 people at once, some of whom are still alive? Well, on the latter point, Paul might say so but no one else in the entirety of recorded public history does! This, I suggest, is a problem that needs to be taken seriously unless you want to be prey to the accusation of simply believing things because they got written in a book. In which case why not believe Heracles killed a Hydra or Odysseus tricked and blinded Polyphemus? History has exactly zero to do with what adjectival accolades you may want to accord the text of your special book and everything to do with public verification.

Second, interpretation goes all the way down, as Jack Caputo demonstrated most saliently in a book he published this year called "Hermeneutics" (which I heartily recommend). This might be as simple as thinking of yourself watching some public event and then being asked for your report of what happened. Ask nine other people and I think no one would be surprised to find that no two reports were the same. But, going deeper than that, ask those same ten people for the motivations of the people they observed and what they thought of the people they observed and, I imagine, no one would be too surprised if different opinions, perhaps even convictions, emerged again. These observers are interpreting events. Indeed, their ability to interpret is what is facilitating their ability to answer the questions they are being asked and to form opinions.

We see that in the Gospels too. Jesus asks the disciples in Mark who people think he is. They don't all give the same answer. Frankly, it would have been very suspect if they had because I doubt any of us reading this would find it realistic to think that absolutely everybody who ever encountered Jesus or who heard a story about him came to the same conclusions about him, took the same stance towards him or accorded him the same motives for what he was doing. People are interpreters. They cannot avoid being interpreters. Interpretation enables our ability to have opinions and express beliefs. And, what's more, none of us start off as blank slates for we all stand in traditions which inform our views. But now is not the time or place to get deeper into that. I recommend you check out Caputo's book though for more.

Where does this leave us? I'm not sure. But I think that if it leaves us relying on dogmas of Bible truth, or, worse, its inerrancy and infallibility, things which, all by themselves, absolutely and utterly mandate that we treat it like some sort of puzzle where we have to make all the pieces fit, then we are in a very bad place indeed. Its time to grow up from such ways of reading and be more adult about it. We have to be able to take on the chin ideas such as that a lot of the New Testament is straightforwardly, and for all time, historically unverifiable. We have to accept that some people see things this way and others see it another. Even within the covers of the same book. Better an attainable honesty than a duplicitous dogma.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Thirteen Keys to A New Vision of Life

Cultivate your cosmic lack of importance.
All is relationship, everything is interconnected.
Be content with what you have, the way things are.
Love your neighbour as yourself, do not do what you hate.
If you want to be rich do nothing for money.
Blessed are the poor. Do not distinguish between people.
Thoughts are fictions, thoughts are choices.
Nothing remains, everything must be let go.
Flow as the river, without thought; act non-action.
When you see the ordinary as sacred everything is in its place.
Peace is the highest good. The middle way leads to peace.
Now is the time, there is no other.
Know nothing.

These are all actions, how to live life, states of becoming. They are called ‘keys’ because I think each helps unlock something if we take them seriously.

Cultivate your cosmic lack of importance

It all begins with humility. But the first key is not “be humble”. Instead, I speak of a cultivation, a tending to, a concentration on, an ongoing process, something also relevant to every key here. I also speak of a context rather than an abstract. That context is the cosmos, the universe, everything we can imagine existing. In the context of that, what are we? To cultivate your cosmic lack of importance is to groom yourself into a non-egotistical state so that when various people tell you that you matter or that you are important you take it in a context in which it should be more properly set. So cultivating your cosmic lack of importance is not regarding yourself as the lowest of the low or the dregs of existence. Instead, it is an “everything in its place-ness” where that is just to co-exist with all things. It is an inability to concern yourself with status or rank or importance. It is a living, active humility, a non-egotistical becoming.

All is relationship, everything is interconnected

That all is relationship and everything is connected is to recognise and actively embrace that you are not the only thing that exists. Once that is realised, you begin to see things in the context of other things or as a set of interlocking relationships. It becomes the viewpoint of actions and consequences or non-actions and consequences, for, whether we act or don’t act, things must follow. This, then, becomes an existence which is about consequences, relation and interconnection. Since you are not all that exists and since things must inevitably affect other things, a more rounded view than “just me” becomes necessary. So this realisation is also a further example of a non-egotistical existence and a contextualisation of ourselves as a link in a chain or as a set of interlocking relationships. We surely cannot abstract ourselves from everything else for it is everything else, in its possibility, that gave us birth and enabled us to exist but, more than that, that enables existence at all. So such a view is the end of the abstraction or instrumentalisation of both people and things. Instead we think of their linkages, relationships and interconnections in non-egotistical ways.

Be content with what you have, the way things are

At first flush, this might sound cruel or harsh. We imagine any number of oppressive situations or contexts and we ask how the people in those situations could be “content” with them and so accepting of “the way things are”. Indeed, many in our society today preach the exact opposite to this third key that I am here putting forward. They speak of not being content with your lot and the way things are. But this key needs to be approached in the right way to understand what it means. It does not mean to be accepting of oppression or to explain away pain caused by others or the domination of one person over another. Instead, it means to cultivate (there is a lot of cultivation involved in these keys for it is not imagined these are qualities we necessarily have already) a principled indifference to circumstances, to see through the narratives humans impose upon life. It is also to accept that no one person, or group of people, control the way things are or what happens, both things far beyond the capabilities of either. In fact, it is a refusing to rush to settled conclusions about this time, this place, our life and its context. It can also be seen as a seeing things at their best possibility at all times and an acceptance that change is always going on. In fact, this key very much interacts with key seven in this respect. Yet there is also a sense of flexibility here, a privileging of flexibility over possession of something thought ideal which can easily lead to greed for more or an obsession with possession. Indeed, this key seems not to accept that an ideal ever exists to be possessed. Instead, we cultivate contentment in ongoing situations, a training of ourselves, a discipline, a meditation, regarding a process. We treat all circumstances as imposters just the same.

Love your neighbour as yourself, do not do what you hate

These two commandments compounded can be seen as a summary of the entirety of social morality and, indeed, the key to achieving it. The first is famously taken by Jesus as a summary of the Jewish law and exampled by the parable of the Good Samaritan in which he suggests that even your enemy in danger is your neighbour. He thus answers the obvious follow up question to “love your neighbour as yourself” which is ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Yet this is also a third key which focuses on the dissipation of ego. For in taking yourself as the measure and acting to others as you would hope you yourself receive there can be no ego. For here is recommended both an active “love” of neighbour rather than a mandated passive attitude if a neighbour should, by chance, come your way, and an active not acting towards others in ways you would hate, the negative form of “the golden rule” known in human societies since antiquity. In both cases activity, an active mentality, is envisaged. It is a way we are imagined to actively pursue, a path we choose to go down. If growing numbers of us acted this way human societies would be transformed.

If you want to be rich do nothing for money

No one ever suggested that these keys would leave the world as it is with just a little decoration around the edges, as if all that is needed is a few cosmetic changes to a world that is basically sound. On the contrary, that’s not my view at all. Instead of basically sound I see it as fundamentally flawed and one way it is fundamentally flawed is economically. This is far from simply a case of redistribution of wealth, however. Indeed, I seek to abolish wealth, eradicate money, and obliterate commerce. My fifth key takes this from the individual point of view by totally devaluing money and by asking each one of us to find wealth in other things. For the fact is that money is not the inherent way to wealth. Instead, money is a communal agreement to accord value to it from which imagined wealth springs measured by how much of it you have. But, that being the case, we can change our minds. We can choose to find wealth elsewhere. We can forget the dogmas of economics, devalue them and infuse other things with value instead… such as human life and dignity. Money is basically a system of valuations but, as can be clearly seen, it is not one without negative effects. An economic system requires losers and so creates them and holds them up as examples to the rest of what might happen to them if they aren’t careful.

So why do we live in a world where people starve because they cannot pay for food? Is an economic mantra more important than human life? Why do we live in a world where someone might die of a treatable medical condition because they can’t afford to pay for the treatment? Is an economic mantra more important than alleviation of human suffering? And the important thing here is this isn’t a given, an unavoidable fact of nature: its a human choice to value money and economy over living beings. I find that inhuman and I revolt accordingly from any kind of economic system which judges people according to ability to pay or financial means, something our current world does as a matter of course as it credit rates them and judges their current and future earnings ability. In my view, we need to free ourselves of this terrible burden and imagine a world without money, without finance and without commerce and it starts with each one of us forgetting the monetary motive in our daily lives. We could make money valueless and make caring for each other the supreme value if we wanted to. Its in our gift to decide how society should run. We should dare to dream of better rather than settle for worse or imagine that our course is set. For that, of course, is what the haves in an economic system will always want the have nots to think. But how about we remove such structural inequalities whole and entire? If you really want to be rich do nothing for money.

Blessed are the poor. Do not distinguish between people.

I would describe this as a reversal of the current world order, a bottom up rather than top down ethic. “The poor” I regard as the ordinary mass of people, unassuming, perhaps existing from day to day, week to week, month to month, which is most of us. They are those you would not raise above others. They are not famous, they have no status, they are those who must be active to maintain their circumstances. But this ethic goes further than that. It is not just about treating these people, these ordinary, every day, regular people as blessed, and blessing them by your actions towards them everyday in friendship and community, but it is a refusal to admit notions of status, rank or standing to our social ethics and morality at all. People should not be compared and judged better or worse based on judgments about things like race, creed, colour, gender, physical and mental ability or sexuality. There should be no method or idea which splits people up along ideological lines in order to have “the better” and “the worse” or “my side” and “the other side”. Not distinguishing between people entails the abandonment of any and all partisanship. Instead, the prevalent creed here is one of common humanity, even common life if we see ourselves as living things like so many other things that are alive. And so this can also broaden to encompass an ecological dimension as well. But it is important we begin with those in the worst circumstances and work up rather than the other way around. In caring for the worst off we care for ourselves, for we are all the same. To add value to another’s life is to add value to our own. What you do to another, you do to yourself.

Thoughts are fictions, thoughts are choices

Everything you think is wrong. Everything you think is an imposition of thought, that is always related to the thinker, imposed on things outside that thinking. Thoughts are interpretations and interpretations are not inherent to things as essentials of the things. Instead, they are rhetoric about things, ways to explain things, possible descriptions, meaningful understandings. But in each case they could be different. Our thoughts about a thing or situation are not the thought or situation or even equivalent to the thought or situation. They are just one possible set of thoughts about it. So everything you think is wrong. But only because there is no right. So thoughts are both fictions, sometimes useful and sometimes not, and thoughts are choices, in the sense of things that didn’t have to be and in the sense of other options (redescriptions, reinterpretations) are available.

The consequences of this are huge. For example, if some thought is giving you a problem then rethink it in a different way for the first way was neither the only way nor the essential way. There is also the thought that we need not think at all, at least not in the way we have formerly been taught, as if life and truth and knowledge are about having the right thoughts and, having collected up all the right thoughts, thought itself then ceasing to be necessary. Taoism speaks of non-mind and non-thought and these are important concepts for this particular key. In thinking we are not seeking a thing called knowledge or truth which we can possess and thought itself is not about possession. Indeed, here we do not seek to wall ourselves in by the artificial boundaries of thought which lead to knowledge at all. We seek only an emptiness which is an openness. That which we “know” is accorded no status. It is not ranked in a hierarchy. Our minds should not hold onto things but, instead, let them go. This encourages becoming and avoids the ossifying lack of flexibility that “knowledge” or “truth” promote. In thinking, it should not be imagined we gather the essence of anything for our thoughts are merely temporary and ephemeral, impressions as we pass by. High understanding comes from not understanding at all.

Instead of knowledge as facts that can be possessed and may be accorded the supposed honour of “truth” this ethic valorises knowledge that is experience. It is an experience in the moment that we each can have. It is not based on academic learning or a canonical narrative. It is not about building up a collection of right thoughts you distinguish from the wrong thoughts. Here possession is loss, not gain. Here every moment has its own integrity simply because it became and it is about its own natural authenticity. Reality, imagined by scientists or philosophers, does not exist. It is artificial. What is real is what you experience as you experience it rather than how some commentary, any commentary, may describe it. Commentary is interpretation and interpretation is never foundational in any intrinsic sense. Commentary is boundary rather than openness to reality. There is no reason why reality need be, or could be, reflected in words. So there is no need to seek truth. Simply cease to cherish your own opinions, a further anti-egotistical move.

All you know is wrong. All you know is fiction. All you know is choice. Thinking can only ever imprison you in a room of your own creating. Freedom, and, ultimately, peace, is not-thinking not-thoughts with a not-mind. Here I promote mindfulness, the aware, balanced acceptance of present experience. Epistemology is abandoned in favour of possibility in which there is nothing to gain and nothing to know. Thoughts aren’t fixed realities but simply movements of a mind that is thinking and so we see thoughts for what they are: the passionate attachment to unreal and non-substantial things, the creation of fictional identities that fade so that only the energy remains. We must realise that nothing is as it seems, that what we think is not the same as what is.

Nothing remains, everything must be let go

This key is an observation, a context, one it is imagined the reader should take note of. This is that everything is moving, changing, passing away, in every moment of our lives. Of course, we are doing these things too and none of this has anything to do with how we feel about it, whether we believe it or whether we have knowledge of it. For this constant change is not something constrained by us or our thoughts. Rather, it is the other way around. The mountain range we observe may seem solid and eternal but over millennia it wears away to dust. It doesn’t just happen one day; it is always happening until it doesn’t exist as a mountain range anymore. So nothing remains and everything embodies change. But, that being the case, it is sensible to adjust ourselves to this situation by having minds appropriate to it. The things we hold in our heads, both as objects and ideas, must also be let go. For, just as we cannot stop the mountain range wearing away, so too these ideas and objects pass away as thought and language changes over time. Here we combat the conservative notion to freeze things in time and give them an eternity and a fixity which is strictly inappropriate to them. All conservation in the end is a wanting to have things forever as they are now or in some other imagined better state and this is always a fight against an unstoppable force, the force that is change. The issue is, however, that our nature, nature itself, is change and we must accept and internalise that fact if we do not wish to lead constantly dissonant lives. We must learn that nothing remains, all things must pass and so all things must be let go.

Flow as the river, without thought; act non-action

Here is a metaphor and a concept. The metaphor is the river. The river just flows. It goes wherever the water will go and adapts to circumstances as they are come upon. It has no purpose and does not want anything. It just flows, never holding on to the ground it flows over, always continuing on the way. The concept is non-action, wu wei in the original Chinese. This non-action, so I understand, is an active quality. It is not a doing nothing. That is why the second half of this key is to act non-action. In a way, the river is itself a good metaphor for this too. For the river acts, it flows. But none of this is deliberate. Flowing is what rivers do even as the flowing that is living is what human beings do. Yet do we live as the river flows, with non-action, an unintentioned lack of concern with where and how and why and what for? Non-action is lack of intention, lack of care or worried concern, but, more than that, an indifference to such things, a cultivated lack of intention. Should the river care if it flows this way or that, here or there? So within this key is also a hidden warning: beware the dangers of care, of desire and of intention which can lead us astray and disrupt our lives. Be as the river.

When you see the ordinary as sacred everything is in its place

The key here is to see every moment as a special moment, to fully inhabit and experience each of those moments. It is also not merely to see the ordinary as the sacred but to see the sacred as the ordinary, to not section off bits of life as special but to allow the special, the meaningful, the valuable, to infuse the whole of life. This then becomes a recontextualisation and reconstitution of life itself. Some bits aren’t more important than other bits; each bit just happens as it will in an ongoing process and each is indebted to what came before as will that be which comes after it. Sacred and ordinary therefore become synonyms rather than opposites.

Peace is the highest good. The middle way leads to peace.

This is a key that I have thought long and hard about. In fact, its not an exaggeration to say that my whole life has been spent thinking about it. The issue is “What is the highest good?” and my answer, after almost one half century, is that, in the end, it has to be peace, personal, social, planetary, cosmic. There are other values or qualities we might wish to take that place instead (like love or compassion) but, ultimately, these are things which lead to peace in themselves by their existence and their being in evidence. So, finally, it is peace I take as the goal and this goal is the unspoken goal when I speak about all of the other keys.

But if peace is the goal how is it achieved? The answer seems to be that it is by avoiding extremes and hence the preference for the middle way devoid of intention, desire, care, concern, worry. In ancient Greek thought there was sometimes a dichotomy presented between reason and passion, logic and feeling. But I reject this bifurcation as inaccurate and misleading. There is no such thing as a passionless reason or as a reasonless passion. When operating by logic, so it is imagined, we have not then turned off our feeling, as if it was something we could ever turn off in the first place. What we are is organisms, holisms, that include both reason and passion, feeling and forms of logic, at all times. There is no turning these off. They are always there. So the peace that we seek must always appeal to both or neither equally for there can be no one without the other. Here too we must follow a middle way rather than appeal to one thing at the expense of another.

No doubt this involves appealing to more than yourself for even a person who has isolated themselves still has surroundings. So there is an element of co-existence to this, a sense in which peace is about more than simply your own, settled state. Can one be at peace if elsewhere others are not? This is an important ethical question that we should be concerned with. For myself, I imagine that the more people who are at peace, the more they will be able to share that peace with others - and so increase their own. Peace, then, involves fraternity, co-existence, holistic thinking, a “middle way”, that is in the midst of everyone and all things.

Now is the time, there is no other

Existence is always in the now, this present moment. We never exist in the past we imagine or the future we expect or hope for. We live in an ever present that rolls on. When we die and our identity fades our matter will still exist (some think our consciousness will as well) in that ever present but we will not. This key is really nothing more than a fresh realisation and emphasis of this, that now is the only time we ever exist in, the only time we can ever influence or experience. So we should enjoy and experience each moment of now for there will never be another time. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it now.

Know nothing

It is a long held insight of philosophy that wisdom is not knowledge and knowledge is not wisdom. The keys I offer here, especially this thirteenth and last, are broadly anti-epistemic but not anti-wisdom. They take a dim view of knowledge as it has been valorised and rhetoricized in the Western tradition, they see through its puffed up, egotistical claims of insight and importance. This key challenges us to take the same attitude and do the same thing, to throw off canonical narratives and fictions imposed by personal and organisational authorities, to see that life is not something we need a set of hard and fixed rules for. Understanding, might I suggest, is not something that anybody needs to have. Bean-counting up the universe and writing the complete set of facts in a book that we can call “The Book of Knowledge” is literally an unachievable aim. One can be happy, or at peace, without reason. As the Buddha once claimed, “There is nothing to stick to.” (He said this because “Everything changes”, by the way.) “If you understand,” runs the proverb, “things are just as they are. And if you do not understand, things are just as they are.” So what is the difference?

The issue is that knowledge as a general category is very prone to being used egotistically. This key, by the way, is nothing to do with knowing how to do things. When I say “know nothing” I do not mean “do not know how to do anything”. On the contrary, this key is about how we view knowing and knowledge philosophically, what place we give to them, what stature we imagine they have. Enlightenment here is regarded as knowing what you do not know rather than counting up all the things you suppose you do. Knowledge, under this rubric, is never a cause for pride. Indeed, often knowledge is regarded as a trap or a blind or a stumbling block. So sure are we of what we know that this knowledge becomes a bind and a stumbling block that has been self-imposed. Better than knowing, then, is an empty openness to all things. Here the ethic is that if you change how you see you will be able to see how you change. Knowledge, on the contrary, is not about change at all. It is about setting in stone. But in a world of change can that ever lead to peace… or only to ever increasing dissonance? So this key is to see knowledge more as experience than collected facts and to see this insight itself as a piece of wisdom. What you possess, you lose.


These thirteen keys should not be read separately as if they were distinct items. Instead they should be read interactively and in relationship with one another, holistically. Then one can, hopefully, see the consequences of one for another. It is the thirteen keys together which unlock a new vision of life, the world and existence.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Rich Hall, Stewart Lee, Louis CK, Diogenes and Two Jesuses

The American comedian, Rich Hall, had a show in 2009 called “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”. I mention it because, hell no, I ain’t happy. In fact, I find it hard to believe I’ll ever be happy and, up until this point at which, as I write, I am approaching the age of one half century old, I never have been happy as a settled state. I’ve been concentrating on trying to stay sane although I’m not sure why as being insane would at least relieve me of the burden of being concerned about it either way. In fact, were it not for brief moments of happiness that had strayed way off course and found themselves populating my hellhole of an existence, I would easily be able to believe that happiness is a myth told to to keep us compliant and hopeful.

The British comedian, Stewart Lee, likes to play a character on stage that he refers to in mock interviews and real ones as “the comedian Stewart Lee” and this character is a version of Stewart Lee himself yet, in Lee’s mind, at least, a rhetorically distinguishable version. This version of Lee does comedy exclusively for “an insular cadre of socially challenged, middle aged men” although, as Lee notes as part of his act, to laughter, not as exclusively as he’d like. Indeed, in a more recent show than the one from which this anecdote is taken, the comedian Stewart Lee goes on to say that his ideal room is a completely sold out empty room. He’s got the money, because people have bought the tickets, but he doesn’t have to do the work of bringing them round or appealing to their comedy sensitivities.

I wonder how the American comedian, Louis CK, feels about this. CK is now most famous for deciding it would be a good idea to masturbate in front of women, sometimes asking permission and sometimes not. It seems it never occurred to him to say that it was “the comedian Louis CK” doing these things. As I write, he recently made what is being reported as a come back appearance at a New York comedy venue only for lots of women to complain in public on the Internet that the disgraced Mexican-American should actually have just disappeared forever. These women, it seems, do not believe that CK has yet suffered enough for the crime of exposing a few inches of flesh in the wrong circumstances. The thought begins to dawn on me that, perhaps, they wish he would just go and hide in a corner and, to all intents and purposes, cease to exist as a public individual.

One wonders how the fourth century BCE Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, would feel about this. Diogenes, so we learn from historical anecdotes, would masturbate openly in public and then remark that he wished it was so easy to fulfill l the desire of hunger as it was to fulfill the sexual desire. A little rub and its gone away until next time. Yet Diogenes would be in jail if he were here today, a pariah and a target of outraged feminist critique, and all because he was dealing as simply as possible with the sexual urge where someone else might see it. But what else could he do, masturbate furiously in his barrel? Diogenes, of course, might have replied to the effect that it is no big deal. Sex is natural and not shameful. Seeing an animal ejaculate is nothing to be frightened of or outraged about just like when your dog licks its embarrassing erection yet, strangely, does not appear remotely embarrassed. At best, it is perhaps something to laugh at, dismissively. Diogenes was a Cynic which means that he thought nothing natural could be a source of shame. His enemy was culture, the artificiality of human beings who codify and make rules for things that take human society away from living “according to nature” in general.

And now, in my fifth paragraph, I come to my fifth man. That man is Jesus, alternatively known as Christ, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Lord, Jesus of Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus H Christ and Jesus, the carpenter’s son. There is no record of the King of Kings ever having masturbated in public, although it seems he did get heckled from time to time, and there is that one saying about chopping your balls off if you are up to it. Yet he did not speak about “the religious figure, Jesus Christ” and neither did he ever say he was happy. But this, it turns out, is not something he could have done anyway because Jesus was not a writer. He did not write and perhaps, most likely, could not have written if he had wanted to anyway. Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. When we bring together the notions of Jesus and writing it is always someone else’s writing about Jesus and never Jesus’ writing about Jesus. Jesus, most likely, did not have the ability or the will to present himself in writing and so it was left up to others, often people Jesus didn’t even know, to write about him instead. Which of us would be happy with that? The religious figure, Jesus Christ, might be happy with that. He has gone on to have the biggest career of all time. But what about Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean?

I strikes me that Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean might be mortified by the career that the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is having. He would, it seems to me, more than likely be banging his head against the wall of his carpenter’s shop shouting “Make it stop!” if it weren’t for the unfortunate fact that he is dead. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, did not ask to be brought into the White House, the seat of American presidential power, and used as a totem or a proxy for policies of any kind of modern partisanship. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, did not share some bread and fish with some people so that guys wearing pillow cases on their heads could express their hatred for Jews. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean was a Jew, unlike the religious figure, Jesus Christ, who was a white European-looking fellow and so obviously not a Jew. The religious figure, Jesus Christ, was more the Jesus who would be happy to be at a right wing rally where the supremacy of the white race could be reasonably discussed. As the whitest person in history, the religious figure, Jesus Christ, fits right in there. But not Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean. Stupid Jew. Literally.

Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean was not a modern, white, evangelical businessman. He did not have family values. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean said, “The person who does not hate father and mother cannot become a disciple of mine.” He also said, “If you have money, do not give it at interest. Instead, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.” He said that people have nowhere to lay their heads and that people should “Become passersby”. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean was fucking insane. He would not have been accepted into your cosy, well-funded church on Sunday. He would have been chased from the door had he even showed up. He had literally nothing to say about homosexuality, abortion clinics or making America great, either again or at all. He would wonder why there were bishops who had thrones in cathedrals and lived in palaces. But not the religious figure, Jesus Christ. He gets that. In fact, he wants you to hang his portrait up in the palace and have a statue of him in the cathedral. And please use his name as much as possible to justify whatever it is you want to do today.

At this point I should apologise to any female readers because even though Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean may have recommended chopping off your balls for the kingdom of God he was still a man. Very much a man. You don’t see any female carpenters now do you? And the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is basically a huge, shiny penis being waved in your face, Louis CK stylee. The religious figure, Jesus Christ, is the very appendage of life. He wants you to eat him. He insists. So this is a very man-centred essay about a very manly subject. God is not a woman, Ok? That’s just a fact you’ll have to get used to down at the Women’s Rights Centre as you discuss the tax on tampons and misogyny in the computer games industry. So, ladies, if you please, the men are talking about men here. It would serve you well to watch, listen, learn and, fundamentally, know your place. Oh, I know that some churches have female priests and even bishops now but, come on, all the proper churches don’t, the ones that actually have eaten the big, shiny dick of the religious figure, Jesus Christ.

Now Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, was a poor man. I mean really poor. Destitute, in fact. And he really disliked people who weren’t poor. He would have hated rich men in suits crowdfunding their campaigns to be congressmen and senators whilst greedily snuffling at the trough of corporate endorsement. (You may wonder why I keep referring this essay to American things when I am British but this is obviously because America is the most important country in the world in every respect…. For those reading this who are unaware of the British comedian, Stewart Lee, I don’t think that. I think the opposite of that.) He would have despised CEOs of multi-national companies outsourcing their work to some third world cesspool where people work knee deep in their own excrement for 22 hours a day, not allowed to even go and relieve themselves elsewhere because it might slow down production and reduce the profit margin by 0.0000000000001%. So, this being true, isn’t it somewhat perverse that the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is exactly a friend of all the slimy sons of bitches that Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean never would be? How the hell did that happen?

It turns out that this is what happens when Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean does not write his own PR material. Then what happens is that bozos turn up later who don’t particularly see the advantages of Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, who likes the poor and encourages everyone else to become it by giving all their money away, but do see the advantages of someone called the religious figure, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, as British motoring buffoon, Jeremy Clarkson, likes to call himself (shouldn’t that be “JC”?) is many times more preferable because, since he never actually ever existed, much like “the comedian, Stewart Lee,” you can actually say pretty much anything you like about him. He is what feminists like to call “a rhetorical construct” and so is very much like “toxic masculinity”. The best thing about being a rhetorical construct is that you can get away with saying anything because you will always be able to fall back on the notion that what you are talking about never really existed. Of course, you should never actually say that because the whole point of the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is that you maintain to the utmost of your ability that he does exist. But, of course, he doesn't really. Just never say that out loud.

All this would have flown over the head of Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean though. He was not up on feminist discourse. He wasn’t interested in corporate endorsements. He couldn’t even write his name. And he didn’t want to. He just got his hammer and chisel and chopped at bits of wood. Sometimes he wandered about and ate food with people. Like a mug. He talked about the kingdom of God and said it was like a weed that infests your garden and draws in birds who will eat all your seed. Then he said it was like mould you put in bread that infects all the bread and makes it rise. Was he off his nut? What is this gibberish? No wonder you never find his picture in palaces or his statue in cathedrals. The religious figure, Jesus Christ, is much more suitable to the task of being our cultural battering ram for all the things that we think but that we can say that he really stood for. Rhetorical construct, remember that.

The religious figure, Jesus Christ, does not mind this because he gets a throne at God’s right hand and he appreciates that kinda thing. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, said he had nowhere to lay his head and, apparently, wandered about the countryside like some kind of tramp. That message will not play well with the upwardly mobile demographic that we are aiming for as they try to not default on their mortgages and upgrade to the next model of car whilst saving for the newest iPhone. We do not want people to find nobility and blessing in their pathetic lives, much less meaning. We want them to imagine that they can have something better… but not right now. After death. Right now you have to give us all of your money and suffer. Suffering is good. Look, the religious figure, Jesus Christ, suffered. He was crucified, for God’s sake. (Yes, literally.) But he has a throne now. Geddit? Suffer now, throne later. Right now you have to hate homos, baby killers, people who vote left and anyone who hasn’t got a gun. Its what the religious figure, Jesus Christ, would have wanted. You know he’s in charge upstairs, right? How do you think things will work out for you if you get there and you have all the wrong views? “No one comes to the Father except through me,” Ok?

So forget this dope Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean. Forget the poor. Forget giving all your money away, hating mom and dad, loving your enemies, being merciful, not judging, taking the log out of your own eye, and that parable where the king invites everyone to the banquet, “both good and bad alike”. As if! That is all terrible stuff, literally the opposite of the good life in today’s world. If you want a good life then you need the religious figure, Jesus Christ. He hates immoral people and is going to burn them all… and you need never look in the mirror with him. He only cares about the bad people and not us good ones. And remember, Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean was a vagrant and can you trust vagrants? No, you can’t. We arrest vagrants. Just for being vagrants! Vagrants are morally culpable simply for their vagrancy which is a kind of social marker for immorality. Any decent person has their own home. Diogenes was a vagrant and he masturbated in public. Like Louis CK. But the religious figure, Jesus Christ, never once so much as touched his own penis. In fact, he was asexual. Never had a single sexual thought. His mind was pure. He never even had an erection because he was too busy thinking about being good and burning the immoral who have far too many erections. And that’s just the feminist lesbians! So would you really choose Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean over the religious figure, Jesus Christ? Its your ass on the line here.

You never realised all this was at stake really, did you? But there is a reason that God speaks through the religious figure, Jesus Christ, and not the leftist conspiracy fabrication that is Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean. That reason is that God has moral values. God, who is white, knows the value and righteousness of good, white values, of making money, looking after yourself, your family and friends to the detriment of all others whilst bearing arms as a God-given right. That’s why we know that the Jews who killed Jesus are not going to heaven, because the religious figure, Jesus Christ, says so. Remember, the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is alive. He rose from the dead on the third day just like the four holy gospels (who were written by four trustworthy white men) say. But this Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean, he died. He died like a dog on a cross and no one knows what they did to him. Probably eaten by dogs or dumped in a pile of bodies with his face in someone’s ass. Do you want to be associated with that? Do you want to follow assface and wonder around like a tramp spouting parables about seeds or do you want a throne in heaven whilst all the bad people get the hellfire they deserve?

Hell no, you ain’t happy now, are you? Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean isn’t looking so good now. He’s almost a masturbator, that vagrant bastard. You can’t trust anyone who hasn’t got a home, right. They are dangerous. Their vagrancy might be catching. Do you know, he even advised his followers to go knocking on doors so that they might get food? This is why the religious figure, Jesus Christ, asks us to live in gated communities so that we can keep scum like that out. You never know where the hand that knocks on your door might have been. Best to see them stopped at the gate. By the security guard. Let them wipe the dust from their feet. See if I care. We don’t need your fake news kingdom of God communist Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean. The religious figure, Jesus Christ, who is white unlike you, has our thrones ready for us in heaven. Which is also white. What’s that? “Everyone who glorifies himself will be humiliated, and the one who humbles himself will be praised?” Listen, Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean. I am white, the religious figure, Jesus Christ, is white and God is white. If you think I’m living like a tramp in the dirt, relying on whatever I can find to eat and mixing with those who can, at best, be described as immoral undesirables, then you are much mistaken.

Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean made a mistake. He left his PR to other people and now other people prefer the religious figure, Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean is now fake news, a commie Christ, a socialist masturbator’s wet dream. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean wishes now that he had learnt to write as he lies, mouldering, in an unmarked grave with his denuded face in someone’s bony ass. He cannot believe that he left the job to the four white guys, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They seemed trustworthy at the time but instead of repeating what he said they made up stories and sexed it up until they had the religious figure, Jesus Christ, instead. Weren’t they listening? Which bit of “blessed are the poor” did they not get? Instead, they went with the whole “son of God” angle as if Jesus was a white guy. They went chasing after Roman approval as if pleasing those in charge was what mattered most. Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean never said that big organisations should be created with people living in palaces. He never endorsed telethons to fund churches or expected the pastor to live in a mansion. Which bit of “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must become slave of all” did they not get? Jesus of Nazareth, the destitute, illiterate Galilean hunkered down in his unmarked grave, depressed. He wished he had learnt to write.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Trump and Jesus? Do Me A Fucking Favour!

Only a day after I write my first blog in months I find myself back on the computer writing a second. What reason could there be for this hasty return? The reason is a video that was retweeted by someone on my Twitter feed which reported on US President, Donald Trump, receiving several senior Evangelical Christians at an event in his honour. At this event, it was reported, Trump was presented with a Bible "to commemorate his greatness". The video I saw and subsequently retweeted along with my disbelief was inter cut with some of the statements of those Trump was receiving. As you might expect, these were a mish mash of homophobia, Islamophobia and even some passive antisemitism.  The whole thing, to my eyes was a total mess. In fact, it vindicates the fact that on my Twitter feed I actually have the word "Trump" filtered out. I do not what my existence daily sullied with a knowledge of his. However, thanks to a new tablet I was recently in receipt of, Trump is not filtered out if I check Twitter on there and so this abomination confronted me.

"Well what's the problem?" you might now be thinking. The problem, the thing that has annoyed me all morning, is that anyone might think to associate Trump with Jesus, the nominal founder of Christianity (he wasn't, but that's another story), in the first place. Even if we step away from an historical appreciation of Jesus and simply approach the question at the level of acknowledged Christian texts then Trump is the last person to be associated with such things. Let's look at some evidence:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)

"As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments:  You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions." (Mark 10: 17-22)

"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20b)

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." (John 13:34)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Tell me, are these the kind of sentiments, found in the four Christian gospels of the New Testament and the writings of Paul, those we might associate with Donald Trump? Is Trump, factually a serial adulterer with every wife he's ever had, factually a very rich man who builds huge towers he then puts his name on in capital letters, factually a despiser and disregarder of the poor, factually a man who does not love others but demonises them and incarcerates their children, factually a man who preys on differences between people and uses them to stir up enmity between people,  someone we should even rhetorically dare to associate with Jesus in any way? Is he remotely a Christian person by any Christian textual definition of this term, even as we find in the New Testament? To me, it simply beggars belief.  In the text of John's gospel before the words I have quoted above Jesus, thought of most highly by the text of John as a pre-existing son of God, is to be found washing the feet of his disciples and teaching that even the greater should humble himself to perform service for the lesser. Could we imagine Trump performing such a deed or even performing a selfless act for someone else at all?

To be honest, the whole scene sickens me. Its not just about Trump, of course. The Evangelicals reflect nothing of Jesus of Nazareth either. What does it say about people who use the memory of a person to build kingdoms for themselves and cultural empires over which they rule oh and, by the way, please keep on sending in those dollars? Who, reading the text of the gospels, or even of the New Testament, could get from this the notion that what Jesus really wants is for you to become as rich as possible and to pontificate to people in general about issues most of which Jesus himself never even reportedly had a single word to say? (For, of course, not a single word of the New Testament was actually written by Jesus.) Who, reading the New Testament, thinks that what we need to do is not help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, imprison children, fan the flames of white supremacist hate and utilise the presidency of the United States for their own personal enrichment and aggrandisement? I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it is not people who have taken the canonical texts of that religion seriously. It is, however, people with at least two faces.

So, by all means, be the vile, self-serving, hate-filled, despicable and disingenuous people that you are. But not in the name of Jesus. Not even in the name of those who claim to be his followers (of which i am not one). Your lives and the lack of morals by which you guide them are nothing to do with the man from Galilee. They are your own artificial creations, a travesty of anything the Galilean stood for. On your own heads be it. You are responsible not him.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Partisanship, Collectivism and Individuality

This blog is to be about thoughts arising for me personally from the Avital Ronell affair. The what? you may be asking. Who is Avital Ronell? This, it turns out, is a point well made for those  of us (overwhelmingly most of us) who are not academics and who, much less, are denizens of that very niche location "comparative literature studies".  Ronell is a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at NYU (New York University) who was this year accused of a campaign of sexual harassment of a male postgraduate student under her supervision. This becomes stranger when we learn that Ronell, who is 66, identifies herself as queer whilst her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, thirty years her junior, identifies as gay.  Yet it is not my point here to trawl through the accusations in detail and those who want to do that will surely find several reports detailing this by searching accordingly. Instead, my point here is to raise fairly broad questions about our society that arise from this example for in its juxtaposition of the imagined "usual" roles in cases of sexual harassment a number of rather ugly things crawl from under the rocks.

One aspect of this case that immediately strikes me is that before the case was even made public (by leak from what is meant to be a confidential process) a number of colleagues and supporters of Ronell (from across US academia) had written to her university employers pleading her case. It has subsequently been revealed that they did not have the full facts of the case  at their disposal when they did so. These supporters included Judith Butler, one of the better known feminist academics in the world, who has since had to back pedal on the content of the letter in support of Ronell, not least because the content of the letter intimated that Ronell's status and the quality of her academic work should be held in her favour and also because the letter in part attempted to discredit the male complainant.  One can only imagine  how such arguments and tactics might have played with the co-signees of this letter had the accused been a heterosexual man and the complainant a female of any description. Arguing that status should speak for an accused and attempting to discredit accusers has been excoriated loud and long by many commentators (and rightly so) when the roles are reversed.

This raises the spectre of partisanship and jumping the gun where the individuals in such matters are identified as allies or enemies of the cause. Clearly, those writing to NYU in support of Ronell did so as those supporting someone they identified very much as an ally. Their belief was that an ally should be defended even as many of them no doubt believed her incapable of the acts she was accused of. Some, I'd have no problem believing, no doubt imagined it was all part of some greater conspiracy to bring down feminists like Ronell. But what strikes me is how many on the Ronell side of the fence are those who often write about power, or the operations of power, yet in this case seem totally blind to the fact that, in this situation, Avital Ronell was the one with the power and, according to others, she had been observed to abuse it before. Yet the point here for me is not what Ronell did or didn't do, grievous as that may be in its own right, but that those studying power and its effects become totally blind to their own studies when its an ally in the firing line.  Some, such as Queer Studies scholar, Lisa Duggan, would much rather we focus on "the structural issues". This seems to me like a smoke screen. It is not structures which make people do bad things. There is and always will be bad people responsible for bad things when they are done. Obsessing with structures does not, and should not, let the guilty off the hook. Indeed, if everyone acted appropriately the ideological and idealist structures would be shown up as the excuses they often are. Personal responsibility does not stop because "the system made me do it".

But there is a further unprobed assumption of the Ronell supporters here and its evident more widely in various other debates. This is that, somehow, being gay or queer or feminist is somehow special and that being one or any of these things somehow makes you immune to doing wrong. To be gay or queer or feminist somehow is imagined to make you one of the good guys, ineluctably on the side of right and constitutionally incapable of doing wrong. This belief is casually sown across social media by any number of sympathetic accounts such that the problem in society becomes maleness or heterosexuality or, more archetypally, male heterosexuality, the combo that should not dare to speak its name. At this point Harvey Weinstein might be thrust in our faces to hammer the hackneyed point home that heterosexual men + power = the subjection of all women and the corruption of a hoped for equal society. This attitude, where it raises its ugly head, is nothing other than a crock, a simple shitty belief. But it is instructive of one flavour of feminist agenda.

The problem, however, is that Feminism is not one thing and the word itself has become of doubtful use, in my opinion. For what does "feminism" actually mean? Often, its suggested it means equality but I would reject such a naive equation out of hand. Whilst some feminists, and some feminist agendas, approach and pursue the quite sensible and humanist desire for equality, often trying to avoid confrontation in the process, others are much more blatantly little other than anti-menist in which, according to their anti-menism they dub "Feminism", men are always the problem and removing power and influence from men is always the solution.  Thus, in cases of sexual assault or rape where women are the victim some such people say we should simply believe the woman's account regardless of evidence or any kind of thorough legal investigation.  Check out past Guardian columns of Jessica Valenti for lots of that.  Whether you think this is right or wrong it doesn't look much like equality and you can bet that Valenti doesn't think we should ever just believe men for whom a gender they did not choose has made them constitutionally unreliable in her eyes.

This itself belies an incipient and seemingly thorough-going collectivism in much discourse today as I pondered during my daily walk. Why is it that today no one is seen as an individual anymore, a person with their own story to tell and their own life to lead, a person who makes their own decisions and is their own set of beliefs, desires, hopes and fears? Instead, in much discourse today, academic or otherwise, everybody is designated as a set of labels and descriptors, they are ciphers for a category of human beings. I, for example, become not the name on my birth certificate which designates a person who has led an individual life but am, instead, a British white male heterosexual. And you better believe that there are some people out there who have lots of things to say about British white male heterosexuals and it doesn't matter whether or how much any of these things apply to me personally because if I am a British white male heterosexual then they are both true of me regardless and good enough to pass muster in some conversations. Does this dissection of society have any credibility at all? Because I wonder. What this becomes is lots of people in ideological bubbles talking about their thoroughly rhetorical and ideological creations AS IF THEY WERE FACT which are then applied to real world people as if the rhetoric just slides out of the conversations into reality without a join, a map that naively is the territory it rhetorically claimed to map.  Having watched several George Carlin shows online recently I have found myself becoming more persuaded of his position, which he came to in the 1990s, which is that individuals are fine. How you get on with a person you meet is real world stuff. But groups of people, collectivisims, that is a crock of shit. It is easy to see in much modern discourse, where all that is talked about is ideologically conjured groups that are as idealist as they are ideological, how this has proliferated to our mutual disbenefit if not destruction.

In fact, truth be told, I hate all the partisanship. I hate the social media rhetoric of team this and team that, I hate the idea that we are all allotted our groupings and then we are set free to battle against each other to the death, a real world game of thrones that never stops. Is this the best our greatest academic minds can conjure up? Is this what billions in currency buys us from our educational establishments? Must academics and others set themselves up in fiefdoms from which they direct cultural battle operations? This last item was also evident earlier in the year in the UK when a campaign was started by some female academics who felt disrespected for their imagined achievements and so began pointing out that they had a PhD. They changed their social media accounts to reflect their titles, Dr this and Dr that. What struck me about this was that there were some female academics opposed to this move and who wanted to challenge the notion of status, societal as well as academic, that this might insidiously also communicate.  I wonder if you feel that someone with a PhD has a status which demands some form of special acknowledged respect? For myself, I think being a human being is what demands respect. Titles and social denominations much less so for if we give the first the second becomes unnecessary.

I've gone on long enough for what is just a personal blog. Yes, of course I acknowledge that there is a world out there and that the struggles are often real.  There is pain, unfairness, inequality. I agree we should lessen pain where we can, decrease unfairness and increase equality. But I don't think you have to sign on Feminism's dotted line to do it. In fact, I don't equate Feminism and equality at all. Equality is a humanist value in my understanding and the ethical goal is to respect a human being for being a human being in all their particularity. I simply don't go along with all the sectarian collectivisms that we have conjured up. That is what leads to people writing letters of support for an ally before they even know the facts. It is what leads to Nationalism. It is what leads to the notion that we, but not they, should be "great again". Collectivisms make life about those like me and those not like me and that, in blunt language, is partisan bullshit. I, like Diogenes before me, am a citizen of the world. I am not to be reduced to a British white heterosexual male. I'm another person, a human being. We all are. So you can keep your categories and collectivisms. I'm not interested. I will continue to treat people as individuals with their own integrity and regard them accordingly.  I would suggest you do the same, for all our sakes. But in the end that's up to you.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Three Things are Appropriate

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a book by Benedicta Ward which collects and catalogues the sayings of Christian ascetic monks in Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. It interests me primarily as an observer of human behaviour and as one seeking to make sense of it. One can read through the book even at random and begin to get a sense of the mentality of these people, how they think, what they value, what their aims in life are, and so on. I find in them a strange mix of the philosophical, the theological and the very human. One saying in particular has stayed with me since I first got the book and not least because it is attributed to a namesake, Abba Andrew:

Abba Andrew said, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: exile, poverty and endurance in silence.”

I must admit that I have stared at this apophthegm many times and found in it many pathways of thought. I note several things initially. For starters, the saying does not say that its three things are good; it says that they are “appropriate” and for a monk. It is, thus, not focused on people in general but on those who have taken a specific religious vocation and what is appropriate, not good, to it. Next I note that the three appropriate things are things which cut the monk off from society in general. A monk is exiled, economically bereft and uncommunicative. There is a sense here that the monk is perfecting himself, taking responsibility for his own existence and not expecting things to just happen except by attention to them and focus upon them. Third, I note that this is a kind of “how to be a monk” saying. There is no reference in the saying to anything outside of this. “Monk” thus seems to be a very single-minded vocation - and perhaps one in which the monk separates himself (it was usually a him) from society and community. It seems a vocation in which the individual life looks beyond itself to an eternal context in which it becomes the thing at stake. Here the existential and the eternal seem to meet and interact, in fact, and in a way in which the temporary and ephemeral existential are not extinguished by the sheer awesome overwhelmingness of the eternal but in which it is, in some sense, purified or perfected by it. We see from numerous other sayings of the Fathers that to take this vocation was to take suffering as a vocation and Christians, in Jesus, have from their very first writings taken their God as their paradigmatic forebear in such “perfection through suffering”. A Christian is led to think, “If Jesus suffered then why shouldn’t I?”

But I turn to Andrew’s three things in turn now beginning with “exile”. Exile is a prominent theme throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures where the exile is from God but also from his promises such as “land” or “salvation”. We may sum up the notion of exile here as being cut off from God. Meanwhile, both modern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and theologians such as Tom Wright have used “exile” as a metaphor in their own academic work, the former perpetuating an argument about language as an alienating and exiling force whereas the latter has argued that Jesus was God’s agent of the end of human exile from Himself in a theological interpretation of the historical Jesus. If we ask ourselves what the monks are exiling themselves from the answer must be “society” and so, basically, outside influence or temptation to straying from the existential path the monk has set before them. This is not an inconsequential choice or an easy path to take, as anyone who has ever been alone for a decent period of time will likely testify. It is noteworthy, however, that here exile is regarded as a positive thing, something which gives the monk space and time to go about their monkish business. Often exile is perceived religiously as a punishment or in a negative light in contrast to this.

So why is exile appropriate for a monk? Because they are those who have single-mindedly chosen to focus on a vertical relationship with God which, they believe, will result in their own eternal good. But in choosing exile from society they have also chosen exile from friendship, from comfort, from diversion from themselves, from simple help, for such monks historically lived alone in cells. Exile is a choice to bear one’s existence alone without assistance, to forego the horizontal  community for the vertical eternity. This puts oneself under a terrible microscope in which hitherto unnoticed details about the self become apparent. It seems that Abba Andrew finds this entirely appropriate for the monk who must seek to root out all insufficiencies from the one who seeks to dedicate himself to a God thought perfect. That one cannot be of God and of the world is an old Christian thought and so the monk is to choose exile from the world in an attempt to better approach God instead. Abba Arsenius is reported to have heard God say to him, “Flee from men and you will be saved.” This is the attitude that Andrew also preserves here. Human society in general, so it is thought, can only distract and contaminate thought that should be on higher and more eternal things. “The perfection of the self cannot be carried out amongst the distractions of the crowd” is the thought at work here.

Next in the list of things appropriate for a monk is poverty. Monks should not have “things” in general and for much similar reasons as to why they should not have neighbours: they can only act as a distraction from the focus required for the task at hand. Abba John the Dwarf is reported to have said that “if a man goes around fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak” and we see this thought in Andrew’s imposition of poverty upon the monk. Theodore of Pherme said, “It is best of all to possess nothing,” another desert witness to the same thought. Here possessions are simple distractions, unnecessary things which can only take up time and thought and get in the way. Having things or wealth are those things which will demand attention of their own which the monk can ill-afford to give away since he must always be watchful. Interior peace is regarded by many Desert Fathers as something necessary and how can one have that if one is worried about his possessions - or has possessions to worry about? Better, then, not to have any and here we see the very ascetical bent of the Fathers brought to the fore. This ascetical poverty is an enforced simplicity, a mindset of “having enough” as being good enough. If one survives then one has achieved one’s goal and one, by very definition, has had enough, all that was required, to do so. Here “excess” would be any more than this bare minimum. This poverty would seem to enforce a necessary simplicity and humility upon the monk in his reduced circumstances. And this, in turn, reminds me of the second two of the “Three Treasures” from the 67th saying of the Tao Te Ching, those being frugality and humility.

The third item in Andrew’s list is “endurance in silence,” a composite notion that needs unpacking. “Endurance” suggests something that needs to be endured and in the notions of both exile and poverty we have suitable referents for neither are simple matters easily negotiated. “Endurance” here also suggests to me the New Testament Greek word (the Fathers were Christians after all) “makrothumia” which is longsuffering, forbearance, fortitude (sometimes simply rendered “patience”). It is literally makro - long - and thumia - temper - and so cultivating a “long temperedness” as opposed to being short tempered. Paul gives makrothumia, the ability to calmly play the long game, as one of the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. But here the endurance is “in silence” and this is not an unimportant addition for, once more, talk is seen as a problem because it is a distraction, something else to be concerning yourself with instead of the thing the monk should be focused on. To be a monk is, as one Father says, “to be always mindful of God.” Another, Abba Pambo, was asked by the brethren to say something to Theophilus the Archbishop when he came to visit the Fathers in their desert cells. But he replied to them, “If he is not edified by my silence then he will not be edified by my speech.” Here silence is taken as having better things to do with one’s time than talk and is indicative of a more important communion than oral discourse. “Endurance in silence” is then an inward attitude of silent resilience without distraction yet also a witness to something beyond words.

Having given brief thoughts I now want to change tack and interpret this from a Taoist / Zen perspective. Consider the following Zen / Taoist sayings culled from a popular Twitter account dedicated to tweeting such things within 24 hours of me writing this:

Mirror facing mirror. Nowhere else. - Ikkyu

If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it. - Taoist proverb

The art of simplicity. - Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Without the Tao, kindness and compassion are replaced by law and justice. - Lao Tzu

The supreme form of wealth is contentment. - Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. - Zhuangzi

The valley stream's rushing sound is the eloquent tongue of Buddha. The mountain's vibrant colours are nothing but the Buddha's form. - Dogen Zenji

If you let go a little you will have little happiness. If you let go completely you will be free. - Ajahn Chah

Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. - Lao Tzu

Silence is proactive. - B. D. Schiers

When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much. - Zen proverb

Fundamentally, the marksman aims at himself. - D.T. Suzuki

What mindset, what attitude, what worldview, is being cultivated and recommended by these sayings? How does it compare with that put forward by Abba Andrew as an example of the Desert Fathers? One big difference is that the Desert Fathers, as Christians and monotheists, have personalised the infinite and eternal, that which is beyond them, whereas Buddhists and Taoists in general have not. Taoists, for example, have “the Tao” which translates loosely as “the Way” and it is thought to be in, around and through all things. “Buddha” itself is a title (like Christ is whether applied to Jesus or not) meaning “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one” and not a name and the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is not a god within Buddhism but merely the most enlightened human being who ever lived, one in balance with all things and at perfect peace. This latter point, however, is a point of possible contact with the Fathers who also seek peace yet through communion with their god. Yet we may say, in general terms, that there is a very different point of emphasis for these two ways. The focus of the Desert Fathers is God and they themselves are regarded as those who need to be perfected to be in perfect communion with him. Along the way they may expect to struggle, to have to purge themselves of sin or evil desires and this will more than likely be a painful experience. In contrast, the Buddhists and Taoists might be represented by the quote of Zhuangzi above: To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. Here the focus is the individual themselves, albeit in the context of absolutely everything else one may experience or encounter. Neither Buddhists nor Taoists seek communion with a being but perhaps they do seek it with Being, an ineffable oneness with all things in a peaceful harmony. Peace or serenity we may see as a, if not the, goal of these latter paths.

Here the mention of silence in both traditions is interesting and worth exploring. From both Abba Andrew’s words here and those of some of my Zen and Tao quotes we can see that words have their limitations. For Andrew words were confusers or distractors that pulled the monk from the place he needed to be. Yet for both Abba Pambo and B.D. Schiers silence itself is saying something, perhaps plenty, yet without words. In both these religious traditions more widely conceived it seems to me that there is just so much room for what cannot be said, for acknowledging that words fail and language reaches a limitation. One need not be overtly religious to reach this conclusion either since 20th century philosophers of language, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, both seemingly come to similar conclusions should you read their work. I see in both of these ways, that of Christian Desert Fathers and that of Zen Buddhists and Taoists, that neither perceive of everything as a mass of facts scientifically understood, a very instrumental and detached mode of thinking. The world, existence, could not for any of these people potentially be tagged and catalogued so that one day we could imagine that everything could be logged, known and worked out. Both operate with a much more experiential and even existential understanding of knowledge than that. For them, we are in a world of experience and not one of subjects and objects where the former can, with ingenuity, skill and patience, learn all about the latter. I see the importance of silence in all these traditions as related to this. I see the recognition that words stop as a recognition that “knowledge” stops too. It is not the supreme need, the major requirement. It is merely a tool but the true riches are so much more than it can ever provide. Words are inadequate to experience as knowledge is inadequate to understanding.

So what happens when the talking stops? For one thing, other things then become possible such as listening and thinking (the latter perhaps being a kind of listening to yourself). In the Zen proverb quoted above “understanding” takes one beyond the realm of words so that even one is too much, or, perhaps, never enough. Thinking like this even seems to make something like a Derridean deconstructive operation something of religious significance. Here, according to Derrida, language is itself insufficient to the task it sets for itself. In use we find that it cannot fix the price of things. It sets out to say something but, in the act of so doing, we find that it disrupts its own operation. It can also be seen to say other things it did not mean to say, it can be subverted and used against itself, it falls short of its target. This, in philosophical guise, is not far from the monkish notion that silence can be more edifying than speech or the Zen notion that even one word is too much. According to one Buddhist proverb “the no-mind thinks no-thoughts about no-things” which expresses this mode of thinking perfectly. Not only is there no-mind but there are no-thoughts and there are no-things. How would a knowledge-based, instrumental, objective, scientific mindset cope with something like that? Neither tradition here has to worry about that, though, since, I argue, they are experience-based mindsets and not epistemologically-based mindsets. They are focused on experience not facts. Experience, unlike facts, is not simply known; it is felt, it is intuited, it can be instinctive, it embraces more than intellect. Experience gives cash value to the lives, and the pathways those lives take, of every thinking being.

I discussed above how, for the Desert Fathers, exile was primarily a matter of separation from the world for the purposes of personal devotion to God and the cultivation of that vertical relationship. The figure of exile applies in Buddhist and Taoists contexts too but here it is in the guise of alienation from the Tao, if Taoist, or “all things” if we talk more generally. The aim of these religious paths, it seems to me, is therapeutic: they aim at universal peace and harmony and so rest which becomes understanding or enlightenment. Their aim is the dissolution of a grasping, desirous existence which can only lead to conflict and turmoil. As Ajahn Chah says above, the aim is to “let go completely” and here the notion of Wu Wei, the action of non-action, plays a large part. Here again we can see how knowledge or fore-knowledge is consequently deprioritised for in these traditions we are not knowing subjects who progress through our existence by the manipulation of objects we know facts about. Indeed, it is hard to see how these traditions are based on knowledge at all as an essentialist, foundationalist or realist (in the philosophical sense) might understand these things. This idea of letting things be is totally alien to a modern Western mentality based on knowledge about things and this knowledge as the means to their instrumental use. For the Taoist, for example, it is not our job to impose our will upon things. The viewpoint here is much more holistic than many are capable of being, the idea is that, in a meaningful sense, everything is already a part of everything else and it a part of that in return. So when D.T. Suzuki says that, fundamentally, “the marksman aims at himself” he really does literally mean it. “Mirror facing mirror. Nowhere else” says Ikkyu, to change is to ruin, to hold is to lose, runs another Taoist proverb. The worldview here is one of movement, of constant change, of the idea of knowledge, beloved of others, being one that is static and ossifying and so not at all true to the world of experience for that is never still and always changing. A Buddhist or Taoist experiences exile, alienation, when out of this stream of existence, not in balance with the way of all things. This is not something we know facts about and so attempt to control; it is that which, with non-action, we become one with.

The Taoist and Buddhist alike also know about Abba Andrew’s “simplicity” (which he calls “poverty”) and they would see its necessity. I have already mentioned that the Taoist Tao Te Ching regards frugality and humility as two of its “three treasures” - and this is not merely for monks, those dedicated to a life of religious devotion, but for all to be in accord with that which is beyond them, be that a Way or a God or simply the Everything. For neither religious tradition here, the Christian and the Buddhist/Taoist, is the personalised, self-concerned form of existence that we experience all that there is. For these traditions, Man is not the measure; instead human beings are part of a much greater whole the overwhelming majority of which is unknown and, to all intents and purposes, perhaps even unknowable. For a Christian their God is not reducible to human minds and understanding anymore than for a Taoist the Tao can be put in a box and explained. Both retain concepts of the Beyond, the Ineffable, That Which Can Be Experienced But Not Known. Its also worth pointing out that this isn’t necessarily about us doing anything either. It is about our not-doing. “Do your work, then step back,” says Lao Tzu, suggesting that we just go about our business quite matter-of-factly. In these traditions simple things become sacred things, not because they are special but because the whole, everything, anything, is, in that sense, special. Here we partake in the All just because we are, because we exist. We seek peace within it not by grasping it and bending it to our will but by flowing as it flows. Unlike the God of the Desert Fathers, the Tao is not a will and so it is not a matter of using our will or bending it to that of another. Instead, its absence and negation is sought. “Simplicity” here is a life of non-action lived without will, an openness to all things. And if we are open to all things then the value of specific things dissolves accordingly. Things are made simpler. Less is more.

I have not wanted to suggest in this brief essay that Christian Desert Fathers and those of Buddhist or Taoist persuasions are versions of the same thing. This essay has been far too brief for even a cursory evaluation of such issues and my intuition is that, if such an essay were attempted, it would find areas of common interest but also others of conflict and differing agendas. But what I would take from the words of Abba Andrew, and from the Buddhist/Taoist interests that I introduced to discuss those words, is that exile, poverty and endurance in silence are not merely matters for monks in the desert in the conscious gaze of their god nor Eastern mystics seeking enlightened harmony with all things. They are matters for all of us. Exile, alienation, is very prevalent in the world of anybody who looks out of the window. The question of what is needful for a human being, and if the economic treadmill so many willingly climb onto, and to which so many others are either coerced or forced, is beneficial or necessary, is very apparent. That people’s experience of life is disregarded and vilified to their detriment for a mentality of “knowledge is power,” the logical conclusion of an epistemological approach to life, takes its toll upon the existence of many who are regarded as inconsequential casualties of progress or as natural wastage, those who couldn’t keep up.  “Exile,” “poverty” and “endurance in silence” my seem very objective things in Abba Andrew’s statement but when read through any number of real lives they come to have consequences far more far-reaching than Andrew himself can ever have imagined. They also come to be relevant to every human being.

Human society is constructed from an ever growing number of human beings. Each, by means of any number of connections, is connected to all the rest. Each, by virtue of living in a shared space, has consequences for the rest. It is my intuition that it would do us good to concentrate on these notions of exile, poverty and endurance in silence, and their consequences, some of which I have teased out in this short essay, and that doing so would be to our common good. It is my view that we each have our part to play in the world and that any “change” that we think the whole needs begins with each one of us. You cannot change a system if you cannot change the people within it and so positive change of any kind is a matter not merely of changed circumstances but of changed people. Abba Andrew recognises this in the monk when he requires him to completely change his lifestyle in order to change society for, in fact, the Desert Fathers were taken as examples by many of how to devote oneself to God. They acted for many as examples of devotion and commitment. We may not believe in God but the point remains that to change the whole it starts by changing yourself. (Of course, it may be granted that Christianity in general has had a mixed record of effects upon society in general and that all but the most bitter of its critics would admit that these were not all bad.) The Buddhists and Taoists, too, recognise this in that their thinking is about a program of personal change which works a holistic harmony through the dissolution of both individual wants and an obsession with knowledge as power. No one can force people to change themselves. No one can even enlighten them to the notion that they need to be changed. Yet it remains my own personal, perhaps spiritual, conviction that when people change, societies change. And if they can change then why not for the better? The battle is not merely at societal level but, fundamentally, at the personal one as Abba Andrew, sundry Zen Buddhists and Taoists  seemingly know so well.

This essay is taken from a forthcoming collection of philosophical, theological and hermeneutical essays I am writing called Being-in-the-midst: Hermeneutics, Interpretation, Tradition.