question mark with speech bubles, vector on the abstract background

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen explores the idea of “the Questing or Spirited Life” through listing a variety of “perennial human experiences” and asks some “perennial mythic questions.”

The Perennial Human Experiences include wonder and awe, joy and gratitude, longing, creativity, loneliness, compassion, boredom, despair, disillusionment, compulsion and addiction, resentment, personal guilt, ecological guilt, disease and alienation, fear of death, and horror.

The correlating Mythic Human Questions include: Why is there something rather than nothing? How do we celebrate and give thanks for the gift of life? What would satisfy me? What do I desire? What are my gifts? What is my vocation? What can I create? Am I loved? Can I love? How close should I be to Father, Mother, other men and women? Who are my people? Who is included and excluded from the community? What is my passion? What will renew me? Is there any meaning in my life? Can I know the truth? Am I free? Can I change? How do I punish or forgive those who have wronged me? What is taboo? What ought I to do? How do I make amends? How can we heal and tend the earth and animal spirits? What is wrong? Can I be healed? How? For what may I hope? Do I survive death? Why is there evil?

These are profound mythic questions, and they do indeed correlate with a variety of perennial human experiences. Sam Keen makes the point that different individuals who have been marked for life by different formative experiences will be preoccupied (if not obsessed) with different mythic questions. For example, it is important to realize that such historical icons and cultural exemplars as Siddhartha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Bach, Beethoven, Marx, Freud, Rembrandt, Picasso, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, among others, were preoccupied with addressing kinds of questions within the diverse contexts of their experiential and constructed worlds. There is an “incommensurability” between their answers to life great questions because they are asking different questions and they are asking them in different historical and cultural, economic and political context.

In other words, it simply will not do to say that they were saying the same thing in different languages and traditions. Nor will it do to say that they were saying opposite and opposing things that must conflict and clash with each other. Each one experienced and viewed the world through a different personal and cultural lens, and was asking questions that emerged from primal human experiences and felt needs.

But there’s something else happening here as well. The various liberal domains of intellectual and cultural inquiry each constitutes its own “symbol system,” “language game” and methods of inquiry. The inquiring domains of Philosophy, Religion, History, Mythology, Linguistics, Literature, Music, Visual Arts, Science, technology, Mathematics and Logic each becomes a complete and self-referencing and self-validating language game and hermeneutical circle. “Scholars” and “Experts” within each field tend to talk to and read each other, and to ignore or subordinate the theories and ideas that come from outside their preferred field, regarding “outsiders” as having marginal credibility and limited relevance to the questions at hand. What we’re talking about here is “the sociology of knowledge,” or in layman’s terms, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

I recently read a New York Times article on Steven Pinker‘s latest book on The Angels of Our Better Nature with the provocative thesis that human nature has been slowing improving through evolutionary processes and that violence has been on the decline throughout history. Responses to his thesis are all over the map. Much of the response has come from other “cognitive and social scientists.” Some “optimistic idealists” want to believe he is essentially right. Many “pessimistic realists” think he’s wildly out of touch with the horrors and atrocities of the chaotic and violent world of modern warfare, that he has a myopic view despite his scholarly credentials. Is this a debate that any one can win? I don’t think so. “We see what we choose to see” and ignore the rest. We can’t separate the “facts” from the “values”, much as we think we can.

But here’s the thing: It’s not only cognitive and social scientists who have weighed on in the perennial mythic question of human nature. Philosophers, theologians, novelists and artists, historians and mythologists have been debating this question for centuries. It is a particular conceit of the modern age that “science” finally has the empirically factual and rationally true “answer” to the age-old mythic human questions. In the past we merely had superstition and speculation, stories and conjectures, but now we know the TRUTH because SCIENCE, god of the modern age has shown us the way. I’m not dismissing the considerable value of science, only pointing out that it can over-reach the boundaries of what it’s discipline and method legitimately allows. And of course we can distinguish between the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences which each has its internal claims to relative hegemony.

There are some kinds of questions where empirical science is the best discipline for finding reliable answers. These are questions of measurement, calculation, data and facts. But when “science” becomes “scientism” it attempts to subordinate or even replace the other liberal domains of human inquiry with its own assumptions and methods, assuming that there must be one objectively and rationally true answer for every kind of question that human beings are capable of asking. Is human nature good or evil, or a mixed bag? Are human being evolving morally and ethically; or are we devolving into technologically skilled but intellectually stunted and morally bankrupt Barbarians and Philistines; or are things pretty much the same as they’ve always been – a muddle of contradictions? Are science and technology the solution to our biggest problems and our hope for the future; or are science and technology themselves at the root of the problem of alienation and dehumanization in a mechanistic, impersonal, algorithmic and robotic world that is replacing human beings ; or are they both part of the problem and part of the solution? These are not really the kinds of questions that can be “settled” by scientific studies, and it is folly to think they can. There can be no consensus within the general public, the academic world, or the scientific community where scientific and technical questions of facts and information are really hidden philosophical and moral questions of meaning and interpretation, and where the “applications” of selective information and different interpretations are subject to wildly divergent consequential choices for good or ill in the everyday world. One can be committed to the scientific enterprise but remain wary of it whenever it over-reaches its boundaries to became a self-inflated pathological scientism.

The Questing and Spirited Self will appreciate the variety of perennial human experiences, the perennial mythic questions, and the variety of intellectual and cultural domains that have sought to explore and understand these experiences and questions in many different ways. There is no need to make an idol or god of any of our intellectual and cultural domains of liberal knowledge and creative experience. Each has a valuable but limited contribution to make in serving the human project.

The Enemies of Self-Creation & Human Solidarity


I agree with Richard Rorty in his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that “Self-Creation” and “Human Solidarity” are different enterprises and that some theoretical thinkers have concentrated exclusively on one but not the other. Rorty is not saying that they are mutually exclusive but only “incommensurable” in the sense that they have nothing to do with each other. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. I view Self-Creation and Human Solidarity focusing on the life of the individual and the life of the community. They appear as microcosm is related to macrocosm. It is only our society’s “specialization syndrome” that has divided the primary concerns of life in this matter.

What interests me is the question, “Who are the enemies of Self-Creation and Human Solidarity.” Let’s begin with definitions:

Self-Creation designates the capacity to develop one’s creative human potential, to exercise a degree of freedom and autonomy in creating one’s life rather than living in unconscious conformity to the dictates of the collective mass-consumer culture.

Human Solidarity designates the courage to speak out and act courageously on behalf of the “inalienable human rights” of others, especially the most vulnerable and least fortunate, against domination, oppression, cruelty and exploitation of those in power.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopia that champions the importance of “Self-Creation” rather than becoming the willing slave of empty pleasure and escapist addictions.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also a dystopia that explores some similar themes. Self-Creation involves turning off the wall-to-wall TV with its shallow sit-coms and game-shows, and finding others who have chosen to cultivate their minds through critical thinking and the reading of the great books.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four portrays a ruthless and cruel totalitarian society that terrifies and dehumanizes its citizens through the methods of propaganda, lies, interrogation and torture.

Today we are all too familiar with both kinds of oppression and exploitation.  Militant oligarchies and dictatorships like Syria simply crush and destroy their own people, keeping them subjected by ruthless military strikes on cities that indiscriminately torture and murder men, women and children. It is a reign of terror.

Some democratic societies (guess which ones) have been seduced  into  becoming crony capitalistic plutocracies that keep up the appearance of human solidarity while perpetuating a widening gap between the rich (who get richer) and the poor (who get poorer.) As the shrinking educated middle-class declines in influence and it is neutralized by becoming narrow technological specialists, the super-rich power-elites can have their way with a populace that has become more discount consumers than informed citizens. Reforms come, but it is often one step forward and two steps backwards.

One of the best ways to subject the populace of a “liberal democracy” to the authority of concentrated corporate, economic, military and political power is to medicate, distract, entertain and amuse them to death through”bread and circuses,” spectacles and games. In such a society the populace know more about the latest gossip surrounding their favorite celebrities than they know about what is going on that matters in their society and world.

Those who are committed to Self-Creation rather than passive consumerism may or may not make the connection with the need for Human Solidarity, but one hopes that they would. In the best scenario the cultivation of the whole person and the cause of progressive democracy would find each other to be kindred spirits. One cannot help but admire such remarkable journalists as Bill Moyers who has been a champion of both Self-Creation and Human Solidarity for many years, combining a love of poetic sensibility and a passion for social justice. May his tribe increase!

Who Are Your People?

people_of_the_world_2_by_kirsty_mercer88-d32dago“People of the World”

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen poses a variety of “Perennial Mythic Questions.” Keen asks the great questions pertaining to reality and existence, life and death, meaning and purpose, identity and belonging, knowledge, ignorance, suffering and evil, wonder and joy, love and hate, hope and despair. One of his questions is “Who Are Your People?” I have asked myself that question countless times throughout my life and often find the question itself problematic. What if I don’t have a single group of people with whom I identity but rather find myself among multiple groups that live in entirely different worlds? Has this been your experience too?

Like many people I have associated and affiliated with many different organizations and groups throughout my life.  Frequently these different organizations and groups seemed to co-exist with little or no knowledge of each other, and even less interest in getting to know each other. The same is true of various individuals I’ve known along the way. While there have been natural attractions and elective affinities between some of them, many have lived in incommensurable worlds. I find the word “incommensurable” to be a word I’m using a lot these days. And I’ve learned that “the post-modern condition” is one of living in many incommensurable worlds with their different meanings, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is jangle, perplexity, complexity and dissonance in such an experience, but also perhaps great beauty and opportunity. Beyond the post-modern world of “incommensurability” may lie the “trans-modern” possibility of a complexly hyphenated identity — the fusion of multiple and divergent horizons, the first step toward pluralistic integration. No doubt this hope of pluralistic integration or at least of creative dialectic has something to do with why I’ve been drawn to facilitating conversational salons for so many years.

In the Modern Age of the Rational-Scientific Enlightenment Project, a key assumption has been that there is one right answer to every question, and that one can know that answer to be objectively factual and true. In the “Postmodern turn” in our culture a new paradigm has emerged, a paradigm that says that there may be many “right answers” to some kinds of questions, and that what we actually do is to “try out” those various answers to see if they are relationally “fit” for different kinds of useful purposes. This has led to a “pluralistic,” “hyphenated”  and even “oxymoronic” sense of identity and belonging. We are “many selves” and we belong to many different communities of discourse, or hermeneutical circles.

So who are my people? My people are the inhabitants of multiple cultures, traditions, thought-worlds and life-styles. My people are not ideological purists living in one exclusive world but are eclectic pragmatists, having joined the horizons of divergent intellectual and cultural traditions in creative dialogue. We have decided that “both-and” is sometimes more profound and fruitful than “either-or.” But neither are we ideologically attached to “both-and” in every circumstance, for sometimes a choice must be made between “either-or.” Sometimes there are multiple human and social ends that cannot all be fulfilled at the same time.

Many of us have decided that words alone cannot fully capture the mystery of reality in a net, that there is always more to life than we can say, a “surplus of meaning.” We are inclined to think that there are times when Silence, Music, Art and Poetry, along with Symbols, Rituals, Stories and Dance may do a better job than discursive prose of evoking and honoring if not naming and capturing the Ineffable Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. We respect the rational and empirical ways of knowing, but we also reverence the visionary and ecstatic, the sacred and the sublime.

So who are my people?

Metaphysically, my people include religious, spiritual, humanistic and secular folks of all types, and those who make no such claims at all. But more to the point, they include hyphenated  “sacred-secularists” and “secular-sacramentalists.” They include a “dialogical dialogue” between the archetypal ways of the Existentialist, Sage, Shaman, Prophet, Evangelist and Mystic, and between their respective ideals of Beauty, Goodness, Healing, Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. My people nonor an eclectic and integral combination of principles and ideals as diverse as Beauty, Goodness, and Truth;  Justice, Mercy, and Peace; Faith, Hope, and Love; Gentleness, Strength, and Harmony; Life, Liberty and Happiness. Today in the global age one’s core principles and ideals may include Hellenistic, Hebrew, Christian, Taoist, Pagan and Democratic influences, among others. The world’s living wisdom traditions are not oppositional to each other. Their relationship is mutual and symbiotic. That is a lesson that many are still learning, and others have yet to learn.

Of course there are negating and destructive ideologies and value systems that are implicitly or explicitly committed to perpetuating fear, hatred, envy, jealousy, arrogance, greed, conflict, violence, alienation, war, conquest and cruelty as a perpetual way of life. A liberal democratic  society that is committed to such progressive ideals of freedom, dignity, justice and peace is not compatible with any fascist plutocracy, whether in socialist or capitalist, anarchist or totalitarian guises.

Philosophically, my people include Platonists and Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans, Rationalists and Empiricists, Existentialists and Pragmatists. But more to the point, they include those who hold to a provisional view that multiple philosophical movements may each be “partly right,” useful cultural constructs that seek to solve different theoretical problems and serve different purposes.

Educationally, my people include Literati and Philosophers, Mythologists and Historians, Psychologists and Sociologists, Artists and Scientists. But more to the point, they include those who have “transgressed the boundaries” between these liberal academic disciplines in order to appreciate their diverse domains, questions, problems, methodologies, exemplars, schools and styles of inquiry.

My people do not insist that any one academic discipline is “king of the mountain.” They do not need to subordinate one discipline and method of discourse to another — as if it alone where the true and final “vocabulary” that all men must speak or be deemed ignorant fools.

In the Philosophy of Language there is a continuing debate between those who insist on the primacy of: (1) Objective Correspondence and Coherence, (2) Subjective Imagination and Expressiveness, (3) Relational Symbols and Metaphors, and (4) Pragmatic Uses and Consequences, as if every use of language ought to employ the same theoretical tools.  My people suspect that each linguistic theory may be “partly right” and so we will attempt to negotiate between all four of these epistemological language games rather than choose only one theory to serve our needs on all occasions.

Culturally, my people enjoy “the epicurean life” of good books, music, art, theatre, cinema, nature, health, beauty, gardening, food, drink, stories, travel, conversations and friends. They value the life of their minds as much as the pleasure of their senses. They combine the functions of introspection and observation, sensibility and practicality, affection and reflection, perception and judgment into a heightened awareness and creative way of life.

Politically, my people include liberals, conservatives, communitarians and libertarians. But more to the point, they include Principled Pragmatists and Radical Centrists who seek to negotiate reconciliation and peace between opposing parochial ideologies and entrenched narrow interests that wish to play the barbaric game of “winner takes all.” Politically, my people are looking for common ground and the middle way. But at the same time they know that there will always be a struggle between those who seek a world that advances the greater good of all, and a world that rewards only the lucky and ambitious few while abandoning and exploiting the many. My people are “radical centrists” and “passionate moderates” who seek to balance and reconcile the complementary principles of the individual and community, tradition and progress, rights and responsibilities, enterprise and ecology.

Well, these are my people, but obviously not in any possessive sense. These are people who seek to broaden and deepen their complex humanity, to live in harmony and respect for nature, and to seek a transcendent horizon of meaning, purpose, serenity and hope through a constructive dialogue with the world’s living wisdom traditions.