The Creative Dialectics of Intellectual and Cultural History

One of the joys of exploring intellectual and cultural history is that we begin to perceive the variety of critical debates and creative dialectics that have influenced and shaped our worldviews and ways of life across the ages and within different cultural traditions.

Books I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading recently include “From Dawn to Decadence,” by Jacques Barzun, “The Roots of Romanticism,” by Isaiah Berlin, “Culture and the Death of God,” by Terry Eagleton, “The Age of Atheists,” and “The Modern Mind,” by Peter Watson, “Plato at the Googleplex,” by Rebecca Goldstein, “The History of Knowledge,” by Charles Van Doren, “Sources of the Self,” and “The Secular Age,” by Charles Taylor. I’ve become passionate about exploring intellectual and cultural history, and have become so shameless as to give copies of my favorite books to several close friends, hoping that these fine books might stimulate further spirited conversations about “the great ideas.”

Some of the critical debates and creative dialectics that become obvious in any reading of the history of ideas and culture include the following themes: Affirmation and Renunciation, The Picturesque and the Heroic, The Beautiful and the Sublime, the Hedonic and the Ascetic, the Sensuous and the Austere, the Secular and the Sacred, Immanence and Transcendence, Potentiality and Limitation, Unity and Plurality, the Universal and the Particular, the Cosmopolitan and the Provincial, the Abstract and the Concrete, Reason and Passion, Morality and Instinct, Ethics and Aesthetics, Will and Being, Eros and Agape…to name a few. These great dialectics run through the entire history of philosophy, religion, literature, art and culture.

It also becomes obvious that there has been an ongoing contest between the different “Culture of the West,” that is, between the ascendency and attempted hegemony of their respective domains of knowledge and their respective ways of knowing. These different intellectual and cultural ways of being and knowing have become reified and archetypal. They include the Religious Ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet, and the Mystic. They include the Secular Ways of the Philosopher, Scientist, Historian, Mythologist, Poet and Artist. There is a constant push-pull, what Charles Taylor calls “cross-pressure” between these domains of knowledge with their competing epistemologies. Of special interest to Taylor is what he calls “the ghost of transcendence” even in a secular age of exclusive humanistic immanence. Terry Eagleton follows a similar line of thought, seeing a hidden longing for transcendence within the exclusively immanent frame of secular modernity.  At times the ineffable, the eternal, the sacramental and the transcendent seem to vanish into complete hiatus from the immanent frame of the secular age. But the transcendent longing is often hiding in plain sight. And it often reappears in various newly adaptive and modified secular forms. The search for the sacred and the sublime continues, even among many who identify themselves as entirely secular and non-religious in outlook.

Sometimes it helps to put faces and names to the various Cultures of the West. Below are a few images that conjure entire worlds of cultural tradition and worldview perspective, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. Literally hundreds of images could be added to this small cluster of merely representative types. A true liberal arts education will expand our appreciation for the vast array of possible ways to see and live in the world, and will introduce us to the many “cross-pressures” that nurture a complexly nuanced experience of life with all its dualities, dialectics, ironies, enchantments, contradictions and paradoxes. Not only will a liberal arts education give us a broader and wider appreciation for the many ways of being human, but it will also sharpen the intensity and refine the quality of our experience. Those of you who have been following my blogs know that this is one of my persistent themes. We need a renaissance of liberal arts education, historical perspective,  cultural literacy and civil discourse if we are not to be reduced to economic animals, compulsive addicts, distracted spectators and mindless consumers.


Jesus and Buddha, Redemptive Savior and Enlightened Sage


Rumi, the Ecstatic Mystic of Absorption into the Divine Beloved


Plato and Aristotle, Rational Mystic and Rational Empiricist


Ludwig Schopenhauer, Philosopher of Ascetic Renunciation


Frederick Nietsche, Philosopher of Dionysian Affirmation


Jacques Barzun, Western Intellectual and Cultural Historian


Shakespeare, Poet and Playwright


Beethoven, Musical Genius Celebrating Human Grandeur

Integrating the Epicurean, Picturesque, Reflective and Meditative Way of Life

“Some people think their way into a new way of living. Others live themselves into a new way of thinking.” My own bias is that it is our habitual way of life that primary and our conceptual beliefs that are secondary. As we become aware of our habitual patterns of living from moment to moment, day to day, how we use our time, what we choose to do, where we choose to go, where we spend our money, whom we choose to be with, how we employ our gifts, how we enjoy our leisure, these tell the truth about who we are and what we cherish, even if we give lip-service to a different set of theoretical values and beliefs. Our habits of body and mind shape and define us.

In our modern Western Culture there has been a rift between the physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual aspects of our nature. One can easily fixate on any of these four elements and neglect the rest. Each of these four elements have created its own “cottage industry” in our corporate consumer commodity culture.

We today could learn something from the medieval monastic orders that developed holistic and integrative daily routines (rules of life) to honor the physical, emotional, rational and spiritual sides of our nature. We need time each day to nurture our bodies through exercise and proper diet. We need time for friendship and conviviality, for healthy self-care and loving relationships. We need time for reflection and study, and a lifestyle balance of work and leisure. Finally, we need time for solitude and meditation,  for inner stillness and contemplative renewal.

One of the values of periodically getting away from our familiar surroundings to spiritual growth retreat centers is that they provide us with “sacred space” in which to re-connect with “the Ground of Being,” our transcendent and indwelling Source, however we happen to intellectually conceptualize that Source. In contemplative renewal we learn to re-connect not only with Source but to bring together the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of life into an integral whole. When we learn to educate our instincts into a pluralistically integrative way of life we learn that while knowledge is good that wisdom is better. Knowledge puffs up. Wisdom edifies.



In Search of “Cosmic Normative Balance”

In his book “Music and the Soul,” Kurt Leland writes about achieving “cosmic normative balance” through transcendent musical experiences. Leland employs the Chakras as a mental map not only of the levels of consciousness but also of ascending musical modalities, including the sensory, emotive, cognitive and intuitive ways of knowing and being. Is samplings of classical music, jazz and rock are fun to explore with or without his theoretical superstructure.

What speaks to me in Leland’s book are several things. First is his obvious enthusiasm for music, especially the many moods of classical music. Second is his desire to cultivate a greater sense of subtlety and nuance of human perception and awareness through music appreciation. Third is his commitment to listening to serious art music as a form of spiritual practice. I confess that I share these enthusiasms.

I know that I am blessed to live in the quiet and picturesque countryside where the most natural activity of each day is to sit in silent meditation and wait for the sun to rise upon the surrounding hillside. It’s a majestic experience, one I never grow tired of experiencing in the quiet dawning of each day. This has become a daily practice for me, cultivating inner stillness and gratitude for the gift of life as I seek to be present to the ever-present and ever-unfolding origin of Being that is made new every morning. My job is to stand still and be present to the sense of wonder.

To have “a room with a view” is to find our still point in a turning world, a sacred place from which to observe at the beauty of the earth. It is to become habituated to the practice of gazing outward upon the world and gazing inward upon the life of the soul within. Such a practice serves to relax the body, clear the mind, open the heart, re-enchant the soul, and illumine the spirit.

For me the reflective life is also the ecstatic life. There is no essential difference. The “great work” of the scientist, philosopher and historian and the “great work” of the musician, artist and poet are complementary aspects of holistic human intelligence. It is folly to drive a wedge between them, although a close reading of the major players who shaped the Enlightenment Spirit and the Romantic Spirit might lead one to think a choice must be made between these two sensibilities and casts of mind. It is entirely artificial, though it cannot be doubted that different individuals and cultures have their habitual preferences which they tend to reify. There is a creative dialectic between reason and romance, sense and sensibility, logic and paradox, knowledge and wisdom. Likewise, there is a creative dialectic between will and being, initiative and receptivity, judgment and perception, action and contemplation. The Western Mind is habitually dualistic, and at times this dualism has served useful pragmatic purposes. But we could learn something important about how to cultivate “normative cosmic balance” by augmenting this dualistic habit with the non-dualist sensibility of the Eastern Mind. Sometimes “both-and” is more profound than “either-or.” The technological, rationalistic and entrepreneurial Western Mind is all about the Will to Power and Taking Charge. The aesthetic, emotive and contemplative Eastern Mind is about Being Present and Letting Go. Years ago the Swiss physician and psychologist Paul Tournier asked the question, “When will we learn to become tranquil and inspired men?” Indeed! It is when we learn to cultivate “Normative Cosmic Balance,” a sense of the sublime unity of Being within the riotous plurality of existence. In a noisy, hurried, anxious and acquisitive society we must recover the gift of solitude and the practice of meditation.



Cultivating the Potentialities of the Universal Human Within An Integral Pluralist Vision of Reality

Cultivating the Potentialities of the Universal Human

To see this post in its proper relations please open the attached word document PDF file highlighted in green letters above. This is the mental map I described in the previous blog. I attempted to “copy and paste” the document into word press but the lines didn’t want to cooperate. In any case, there are a variety of ways in which modern people have attempted to envision the meaning and relation, metaphysical reality and epistemological authority of Spirit and Nature, as well as the Right Side and Left Sides of human experience, that is, the internal and external aspects of human perception and awareness. Mergers and Splitters, Artists and Scientists as “pure types” simply see the world through different lenses. Each is convinced of the primal and ultimate authority of its own lens. There are a variety of “spiritual” or metaphysical visions of the encompassing reality, just as there are a variety of “secular” and naturalistic visions of the encompassing reality. An integral pluralist approach is to at least be aware of the variety of ways that different human beings in different ages and cultures have perceived and interpreted their experience of themselves and the world in which they have lived.

“Spirit” (Above)

Synoptic Visions Within the Primal, Ancient & Medieval World

Spirit, Nature, Human Being (Aboriginal Vision)

Passive Yin, Active Yang, Integral Tao (Taoist Vision)

Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Hindu Vision)

Non-Attachment, Mindfulness, Compassion (Buddhist Vision)

Justice, Mercy, Peace (Shalom) (Jewish Vision)

Light, Life, Love; Faith, Hope, Love (Christian Vision)

Beauty, Goodness, Truth (Classical Hellenic Vision)

Solitude, Simplicity, Serenity (Medieval Monastic Vision)

Arts, Humanities, Sciences (Renaissance Humanist Vision)

Synoptic Visions within the Modern, Post-Modern & Contemporary World

Reason, Law, Mechanism (Enlightenment Vision)

Freedom, Creativity, Organicism (Romantic Vision)

Private, Public, Social Sectors (Democratic Vision)

Passion, Inwardness, Subjectivity (Existential Vision)

Subjective, Objective, Relational (Pragmatic Vision)

Unity, Diversity, Unification (Integral Pluralist Vision)

Intentions:Interior Individual


Identity & Intimacy


Inward Orientation:

Right Brain Hemisphere



First-Person Experience

Feeling & Perceiving




Internal Collective


Symbols & Traditions


Intuition (Visions & Dreams)

Conscience (Virtues &Ethics)

Volition (Purposes & Plans)

Reason (Logic & Analyses)

Above: Mind & Spirit


Below: Body & Soul

Imagination (Arts & Aesthetics)

Emotions (Moods & Relations)

Sensations (Pleasures & Desires)

Body (Health & Wellness)



External Individual


Differentiation & Distance


Outward Orientation:

Left-Brain Hemisphere



Third-Person Analysis

Thinking & Judging




External Collective


Systems & Institutions


“Nature” (Below)

Mystery, Cosmos, Galaxies, Solar Systems, Planets, Earth, Existence,

Life*, Complexity, Consciousness, Community, Civilization, Culture

Vegetative, Animal and Human Forms of Life and Consciousness

Other Forms of Life and Consciousness throughout the Galaxies

The Modern Age in Search for “God Surrogates”

Even before “the death of God” announced by Nietzsche the modern age has been in search for various unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era. In his book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton writes, “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to tome as forms of displaced divinity.” In this book Eagleton examines the limits of the Enlightenment, the legacies of the Idealists and the Romantics, the Crisis of Culture, the Death of God, and the challenges for Modernism and Post-modernity.

If I were to draw a “mental map” or “cosmogony” of the territory that encompasses the various dimensions of our “ultimate concerns” I would begin by placing Spirit and Nature at the top and bottom the page, so to speak, with Interior Subjective Reality on the left side and Exterior Objective Reality on the right side. *Note: Synonyms for “Spirit” include Freedom, Geist, the sublime, the life force, the ineffable, essence, Being, Process, creativity, the abyss and the Absolute.

What is the relation between Spirit and Nature? This is a primal question. In “metaphysical dualism” Spirit and Nature (Mind and Body) are two separate realities. In various forms of “metaphysical monism” either Spirit reduces to Nature, or Nature is an emanation of Spirit, or both are regarded identical. In Panpsychism Spirit and Nature remain distinct but inseparable. For “metaphysical agnosticism” the question of their relation is regarded as either unknowable or meaningless.

The Left side of our cosmogony is aligned with the Right Brain, with art, poetry, Romanticism, existentialism and the realm of inwardness, passion, subjectivity, participation, quality, sensibility, and taste, in short, the intimate “first person” account of reality. The right side is aligned with the Left Brain, with science, technology, the Enlightenment, positivism, and the realm of outwardness, rationality, objectivity, detachment, quantity, utility, scale, in short, the third person detached account of reality.

In the four corners within the nexus of Above: Spirit, Below: Nature, Left: Interior and Right: Exterior I would place Ken Wilber’s four quadrants: In the upper left quadrant is the internal individual sector of Intentional Purpose. In the external individual sector is Behavioral Action. In the lower left quadrant is the internal collective sector of Cultural Traditions. In the lower right quadrant is the external collective sector of Social Institutions.

Then in the center I would place the integral vision of the universal human in the fullness of his/her identity and in all his/her relations. This integral vision includes the eight dimensions of the body, senses, emotions, imagination, reason, volition, conscience, and intuition.

Terry Eagleton’s thesis is that in the absence of God in the modern secular age various ambitious but inadequate attempts have been made to find God surrogates. These include each of the elements that I’ve just listed in my cosmogony. The Enlightenment generation set forth their surrogates in such ideas as Reason, law, science, progress and democracy. Idealists and Romantics set for counter-surrogates in such ideas as Spirit, Transcendence, Being, Essence and Process.

As the jacket of the book puts it, “Eagleton goes on to discuss the state of religion before and after 9/11, the ironies surrounding Western capitalism’s part in spawning, not only secularism but also fundamentalism, and the reasons while the various surrogates for the Almighty have shown themselves to be unsatisfactory.” One must read his book in order to see why he claims that each of these ambitious attempts to postulate a God surrogate is inadequate. In many cases these various attempts serve to borrow from the Judeo-Christian tradition and to smuggle various new “god concepts” through the back door. His point is that it is harder to be a true atheist than many modern secularists realize.

Eagleton’s astute survey of modern intellectual and cultural history disserves a close reading. Another book that explores much of the same territory is “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God,” by Peter Watson. The two authors reflect different perspectives on the various attempts to find or create meaning, purpose, value and hope in the modern (and post-modern) world after the cultural “death of God.” However, Eagleton’s book makes more clear than does Watson’s the radical consequences for humanity if we take Nietzsche’s atheism seriously. Eagleton maintains that most atheists today are still living on the borrowed memories, theological concepts and assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even when they deny and repudiate this tradition. This is true in different ways of the Enlightenment generation and also of the later Idealists and Romantics.

Another curious theme that surfaces in both books is that some modern atheists experience an inner crisis and return to some kind of religious orientation, even as some religious types experience an inner crisis and turn to some kind of atheistic orientation. The traffic flows in both directions. In any case it is a curiously complex, multi-sided and paradoxical age in which we live.