Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism

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One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”

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The Comic, Romantic, Tragic and Ironic Sense of Life

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The literary critic Harold Bloom suggests four casts of mind that influence different kinds of writers. He calls these the Comic, Romantic, Tragic, and Ironic sense of life. For Bloom these are irreducibly pluralistic ways of looking at life, different lenses through which different writers and artists may view the world. I don’t doubt that there can be found among the great literati “pure types” of these four ontological and aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed, it is the “pure types” who have the hardest time understanding and appreciating how any “rational and sane” individual could possibly see the world any differently than they do.

At the same time it must be said that there are plenty of thoughtful and sensitive souls among the first ranks of poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, artists, historians, philosophers and scientists who prefer to hold the comic, romantic, tragic and ironic sensibilities in a kind of dialectical tension, to practice Keat’s “negative capability” without allowing any of these four moods to be given the final word.

It is tempting to draw a direct correlation between these four temperamental casts of mind and the four major worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism, with agnostic pluralistic pragmatism functioning as the “all-and-none-of-the-above” function.  The problem with this correlation is that it does not work. The reason it does not work is because one can find theists, deists, pantheists, panentheists, polytheists, materialists, gnostics and esotericists who are alternately comic, romantic, tragic and ironic in their alternating moods and sensibilities.

My own view is that a more fully human life will be well acquainted with the experiences of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony, and that life as performance contains all four, whatever our worldview and belief system happens to be. These four moods of the soul are more primal than the particular worldviews we use to rationalize  the particular moods that capture us and become our dominate states of normative balance.

When I listen to a great symphony by Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, I don’t particularly care about the composer’s belief system and worldview. What I do care about is the composer’s ability to translate the various moods and movements of life into diverse and profound musical experience. There is no doubt that great composers, artists and poets do indeed have worldviews and that their worldviews are expressed through their artistic achievements. But one need not buy into their worldview assumptions in order to be enchanted and inspired by their creative works. Worldviews matter, but only as a form of secondary language. The primal language is one of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony.

Harold Gloom has a second paradigm for charting the great works of literature. It is the historical paradigm of Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic cultural zeitgeists. Here too there will be purists who identify exclusively with one historical epoch and cast of mind. But there will be others who can appreciate great literature that spans all four of these symbolic rubrics without taking any of them literally or as the absolute and exclusive truth. We can imagine what it is like to view the world through each of these sensibilities, and enrich our experience through widening our range of empathic perspectives. In so far as “nothing human is alien to us,” we can appreciate all the ages of humanity on their own terms rather than judging them entirely through the assumptions of our age.

What matters most to me is not a person’s particular worldview and belief system, whether dualist, idealist, materialist, panpsychist or agnostic, but rather the capacity of the individual to encompass life, knowledge, wisdom and experience in all its rich and complex diversity. That includes a “category X” for encounters with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox. Not everything is Black or White.

An Encompassing Perspective will seek to cultivate the whole person — to care for the body, soul, heart, mind, will and spirit. It will seek to tend to the totality of life — including our relationships with family and friends, work and leisure, culture and society, the visible and the invisible. It will explore all the vital domains of cultural literacy and civil society–including philosophy and religion, history and literature, arts and sciences, economics and politics.

And in all of these it will see the continual interplay between the moods and movements of Comedy, Romance, Tragedy and Irony. Childhood is the season of comedy, whimsy, and ludic play. Youth and young adulthood is the season of Romance, Passion and Intimacy. Mid-life is the season of Tragedy, Challenge, and Courage. Elderhood is the Season of Irony, Reversal and Paradox. May we strive to become “men and women for all seasons.”

 

The Ecstatic Life: Fulfilling the Soul’s Need for Passion and Intimacy

VILLA SOPHIA

What do we mean by the ecstatic life? In Webster’s Dictionary some synonyms for ecstasy include the following: overwhelming emotion, rapturous delight, mystical trance, intense exaltation of mind or feelings, a state of intense bliss or beatitude, a powerful emotion that lifts us out of our self, an experience of radical wonder, awe and amazement, a luminous vision of beauty, a state of sublime reverie, an tender and elegiac mood, a diaphanous state of transparency to Being in itself, contemplative serenity and peace, intimate communion, sensuous and spiritual surrender, transcendental joy.

In her book, “The Hunger for Ecstasy: Fulfilling the Soul’s Need for Passion and Intimacy,” Jalaja Bonheim writes, “There comes a time in each of our lives when the inner ‘serpent’ (see the Kundalini Tantric Yoga Tradition) demands its freedom. We know that this time has come when we begin to long for new avenues of self-expression. We begin to dream of dancing…

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The Ecstatic Life: Fulfilling the Soul’s Need for Passion and Intimacy

What do we mean by the ecstatic life? In Webster’s Dictionary some synonyms for ecstasy include the following: overwhelming emotion, rapturous delight, mystical trance, intense exaltation of mind or feelings, a state of intense bliss or beatitude, a powerful emotion that lifts us out of our self, an experience of radical wonder, awe and amazement, a luminous vision of beauty, a state of sublime reverie, an tender and elegiac mood, a diaphanous state of transparency to Being in itself, contemplative serenity and peace, intimate communion, sensuous and spiritual surrender, transcendental joy.

In her book, “The Hunger for Ecstasy: Fulfilling the Soul’s Need for Passion and Intimacy,” Jalaja Bonheim writes, “There comes a time in each of our lives when the inner ‘serpent’ (see the Kundalini Tantric Yoga Tradition) demands its freedom. We know that this time has come when we begin to long for new avenues of self-expression. We begin to dream of dancing with wild abandon, of writing poetry, traveling to faraway places, or making love with total freedom. Though we might be frightened, we yearn to take risks–to speak the truth when doing so feels risky, to reveal ourselves in new ways, to experience, to explore the outer boundaries of our potential. Unlocking the cage take courage, no doubt, but once we taste the joy of full self-expression, there is no turning back.”

In the chapter of her book entitled “The Practice of Presence,” Bonheim explores such pathways to transcendent and transformative ecstasy as divine presence, healing ritual, slowing down, meditation and silence. In the chapter on beauty she explores such themes as beauty as the mirror of the soul, the senses as divine messengers, adorning the body, the power of natural beauty, everyday beauty, and music. She writes, “Anything beautiful allows our senses to savor the sweet taste of the Divine.” The ecstatic life is one in which we learn to “savor” the  wonder and beauty of life, to experience radical amazement and intoxicating joy.

The poet and essayist Diane Ackerman who calls herself a “natural ecstatic” writes: “Ecstasy is what everyone craves –not love or sex, but a hot-blooded, soaring intensity, in which being alive is a joy and thrill. That enravishment doesn’t give meaning to live, and yet without it life seems meaningless.”

“The ecstatic life” is not incompatible with the contemplative life. Contemplation and ecstasy are two aspects of the same awareness of expansive and intensified experience. Nor is the ecstatic life incompatible with the life of rational reflection, ethical integrity and creative purpose. The ecstatic life integrates the natural, physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, imaginative, rational, volitional, ethical, intuitive and spiritual dimensions of life, much as is symbolized in the image of the seven yogic “chakras” or “energy centers” of sentience and consciousness that all need to be opened, honored, expressed and synthesized. The ecstatic life is what “integral yoga” is all about. Someone has described it as “full-blast living.” Someone else has described to as a beautiful flower opening up and blooming. Sometimes the ecstatic life will be experienced as a profound sense of serenity and peace. At other times it will be experienced as euphoric pleasure and joy. Sometimes it will be experienced as heartache and melancholy. Or it may make its presence known as luminous light or flaming heat.

Below are some beautiful pieces of artwork that evoke the spirit of the ecstatic life. Enjoy!

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