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.