Think Philosophical, Act Local

who wants to change

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it  (Karl Marx, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach)

This thesis of Dr Marx is accurate so far as it goes I would however propose to alter its ending, thus-

“The point, however, is to change oneself and then the world for the better.”

The idea of philosophy as a discipline which changes the philosopher as a prelude to her philosophising has been largely lost over the past several centuries. The prevailing philosophical method is to cast oneself as an objective observer of an objective world or cosmos. This involves creating a degree of intellectual detachment from oneself as a subject; and from a universe populated by subjects.

While this certainly constitutes a form of self-discipline it has two fundamental flaws from the perspective of what we might call the classical philosophical method. Firstly it is erroneous to think of humans as objects. Each individual human adult is a unique subject. Arguably human collectives could be regarded as objects but this would be at best an hypothesis and acting upon it as if it were an incontrovertible fact is a profoundly unphilosophic thing to do.

More to the point for the purposes of this blog such detachment is a purely mental exercise. No philosopher can make themselves so dessicated that they become purely thinking machines. The whole person is involved to a greater or lesser extent in everything which we do. Therefore I would suggest that dispassion is a better stance to adopt than intellectual detachment. This is not a distinction without a difference but a radically different approach.

To become dispassionate is to struggle against oneself and therefore to know oneself in a more profound way than if no such struggle had taken place. Giving over the initial part of philosophical training to the exercise of becoming dispassionate is to move the subject out of the realm of pure academic theorising into the realm of practical transformation. One becomes aware of the surges and tides of the emotions, that is, one recognises both the power they possess and their transient nature. The student discovers also the limitations of the passions, they are beatable, and their persistence, they do not ever fully depart from us. Equipped with such knowledge as well as the skill of dispassion one is in a better position to start to enquire into the fundamental questions of philosophy.

If the conceit of contemporary thinkers is that, by virtue of their detachment, they view the world from a position outside of it then the corresponding conceit of a dispassionate observer would be that their perspective is outside of time. The passions of envy, avarice, anger, gluttony, lust and so on are all products of the phenomenal universe, they come into existence, endure for a time and then pass away. Conquering them necessarily involves a heartfelt (as opposed to merely intellectual) comprehension of the impermanence of everything which we can know and experience by normal means. The dispassionate philosopher, then, reflects on everything not with a view to its existence as an object of study but with a view to its frailty as a subject which will cease to be.

The mini-revival of Stoic thought and the apparently growing appeal of Buddhist and Vedantist practices among some Western intellectuals, university graduates and students is, I think, an indication that there is an unmet need among those exposed to current academic approaches. People might be willing to detach themselves from themselves if they have faith that the process will lead, ultimately, to greater understanding. It becomes, however, harder and harder to acquire this faith the more that academic philosophy loses itself in labyrinthine speculations about words and meanings.

And here we come to the for the better part of my proposed addition to Marx. While classical or oriental approaches may lead one to be a transformed observer of the world and the struggle to become dispassionate helps one to be compassionate also towards those still caught in the toils of the samsaric world these things do not naturally promote social activism. What is needed is a philosophic approach which both encourages the acquisition of dispassion and a transformative involvement in the world aimed at improving most the lives of those who suffer the most. Or, to put it another way, we need a philosophy which incarnates itself in the sufferings of the world and works to redeem them. The question is, where could we find such a philosophy?



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The painting is Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali


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Tolerance & Indifference


29 May 2007, London, England, UK --- Londoners wait for an subway in central London. Known for it its frequent delays, engineering works and cancellations, the tube challenges the patience of the Londoners who greatly depend on it.  --- Image by © Andy Rain /epa/Corbis

Tolerance is one of those words which have changed meaning over the course of the last half century or so. Formerly it essentially meant putting up with a thing which you didn’t really like but which getting rid off would cause more problems than it was worth. Now it is used to mean accepting a lifestyle/culture/religion/community as being worthy of respect and of equal value to every other lifestyle/culture/religion/community. In it’s new guise tolerance has become perhaps the defining civic virtue of contemporary Western societies.

To an extent this is simply making a virtue out of a necessity. Global economic inequalities combined with absolutely rapid and relatively cheap long distance transport inevitably leads to huge population movement. As a consequence wealthier societies cannot help becoming more and more heterogeneous.  More subtly the instantaneous transmission of ideas around the world allows for communities of, say, Buddhists in Chipping Norton or Zoroastrians in Peoria to spring up overnight after a charismatic person is converted via the internet. This prompts old style tolerance but since it would be manifestly impolite to say so to the new minorities it is rebranded as something more positive.

Another strand, however, exists to new tolerance which is relativism. This holds that the different ways of being human are all equally valid because there is no absolutely correct way of living universally applicable to all. More precisely, it holds that the dominant Western paradigm of the last several centuries, that Christian beliefs and moral values are normative, is oppressive of freedom and that tolerance is a weapon which can dissolve this consensus by the expedient of creating a patchwork coalition of minorities which adds up to a majority. As a strategy (unconsciously followed in most cases) it has been remarkably successful. Any argument which suggests that there is an hierarchy of ways of being human with some ways, the more Christian-like, as being objectively superior to others is decried as intolerant. Since tolerance is the characteristic civic virtue of our times intolerance necessarily is its evil opposite which civic society is invited to drive out of the public square with execrations ringing in its ears.

This is the raw material for many of the culture warriors of our epoch to fight over. I would argue however that these conflicts absorb the attention and energy of small minorities of activists who are misled into proclaiming victories or defeats because public indifference is interpreted as tolerance. The one thing, indifference, can act as an effective simulacrum for the other, tolerance, but  is a wholly different phenomenon. It proceeds from apathy so that it neither cares enough to feel irritated in an old fashioned way by a lifestyle/culture/religion/community but tolerate it anyway nor does it positively respect such lifestyles/cultures/religions/communities. It fundamentally doesn’t care.

It appears to me that among those sections of the Western population that have been settled in the same country for, say, five or more generations indifference is the new normal. By this I mean that they may be passionately concerned about themselves, their nuclear family, their friends, their work and their favourite sports club but beyond that they simply shrug their shoulders in unconcern. Not only do they feel nothing much about people with different lifestyles/cultures etc they often know little and care less about their near neighbours who share the same lifestyle/culture as themselves. This, I think, is tied in with the long slow auto-genocide of these populations by abortion, contraception, divorce and the adoption of necessarily sterile relationships. In short the, for want of a better word, native populations of the West have reached the end of their long creative phase and having run out of energy are dying of apathy.

This is not a new thing nor necessarily a bad one. Very often in the past civilisations have succumbed to internal languor and external invasion only to emerge in modified form re-energised and reinvigorated by new blood and the fusion of new ideas and ways of doing things with the old. Europe in particular has faced a series of invasions from the East which have first destroyed before rebuilding Western society and culture. What is novel is that today the infusion of new blood is not accompanied by fire and sword. Western countries are being renewed from within by peaceful incomers who possess the energy, fertility and communitarian outlook which their hosts are dying for the lack off. A recent study in England and Wales, for example, has shown that one in four new babies have foreign born mothers. This is hugely disproportionate to the percentage of migrants in the country and indicates that native and incoming populations have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world and what is important in it.

Very often when we talk about the success of migrants the focus is upon their individual effort and entrepreneurial spirit. Beneath this though are generally strong family bonds and community solidarity from which individuals benefit and in return for which they invest their gains in strengthening those families and communities. Simple and ancient values which Western native populations have become too atomised, tired and indifferent to practice. Almost invariably, though, these values are associated with an absolute standard, an assessment that some ways of being human are objectively superior to others. Usually this is based upon a religious belief.

It follows, then, that those cultural relativists who are promoting the new tolerance as a way of undermining one paradigm, based upon Christian belief, are preparing the ground not for a state of normlessness but for a new paradigm also based on religious belief. The vigorous, communitarian, religious and fruitful incomers will not be converted to Western values by an actively tolerant and welcoming society they will be left to get on with it by an apathetic and indifferent one. And this ‘getting on with it’ will lead to huge societal change and, I suspect, a total defeat of relativism. What is likely to emerge, out of necessity, will be societies based on old-style tolerance. That is, people will hold that there is an hierarchy of rightness and wrongness and that they are sitting at the top of it but that they need to accept the existence of rival notions because co-existence is preferable to all other options. It is not offensive to be told that you are wrong, it is only offensive to lack the freedom to respond in kind. Peacefully competing visions of truth are a sounder and livelier basis for society than a tolerance born of relativism or an indifference born of existential weariness.


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The picture is from a photo essay on the London Underground

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The Structures-A Poem

offshore windmills

We chanced upon them

In the early morning.

One lay, crazily tilted,

At an impossible angle.

The others, white and upright

Stood in their curved straightness.


Above us broken blades thrummed

Struck by constant sea-breeze buffets.

Why, we asked, did they-

Our long dead forebears-

Why did they build these things

Here in the wild free ocean?


Did they seek to honour

The gods of wind and tide?

Or were they hurling defiance

At nature? Building what storm

Could not destroy. (Nothing,

We said, will defeat time.)


Well, the structures had survived;

Wind and tide remained,

But they, the builders, had

Long departed, names forgotten

Purposes unknown, carried away

In hurricanes of human anger.


Our wise-woman pondered

These things (it was her way)

Man proposes but God disposes

She said. Greed destroys

What vanity builds and

Wisdom comes too late to save.


The folly of construction puzzles us

The folly of destruction is nearer to our heart

We will repeat their foolishness because

Already we have forgotten it.

Our business gave us no time to linger

For we carried important messages.


From the Holy Father in Rome.


(Acknowledgements- Thanks to @CatholicEcology who tweeted the picture, to Edwin Muir for his poem The Horses and to Thomas Babington Macaulay for his New Zealander in London between them they inspired this poem. The failures in execution are all my own work.)

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Plato, Kipling & Safe Spaces

soviet propaganda poster muslim women

(Trigger warning- this post mentions without condemning Rudyard Kipling, a Dead White Man)

In one of his poems, The Disciple, Kipling wrote-

HE THAT hath a Gospel
To loose upon Mankind,
Though he serve it utterly —
Body, soul and mind —
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain —
It is His Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.

Although couched in Christian terms and first published at the end of his story The Church that was at Antioch clearly the author had a more universal application of the principle in mind. This is shown by the final verse which references both Islam and the religions of India-

He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won
(Carpenter, or cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son),
Many swords shall pierce Him,
Mingling blood with gall;
But His Own Disciple
Shall wound Him worst of all!

The point is a simple one which is that visionaries and pioneers have their hopes wrecked most of all by their successors. That which drives people to create great movements such as the world spanning religions or the great ‘isms’ of the 19th and 20th centuries- Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Nationalism, Fascism etc etc- is the internalising of some partly seen glimpse of one of the Platonic ideals. That is, an Idea in its perfect abstract form is seen and then an heroic attempt is made to make that form a lived reality here upon earth.

Such revolutionary impulses are something of a mixed blessing since all too often they contain strong procrustean tendencies and merrily proceed to hammer rough edged human pegs into ideally shaped smooth holes. The advantage which they sometimes bring is that caught up within the scope of the grand vision are a myriad of lesser issues which touch upon vital matters of ordinary life and great changes for the better occur during the process of the long march towards the New Jerusalem. Whether Fascism is a price worth paying to get the trains to run on time or Communism to achieve universal literacy in Russia is of course another question.

The Soviet experience, indeed, is an instructive one. The Lenin’s, Trotsky’s, Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s, a generation of deep thinkers and sharp debaters, were succeeded by the dull and pedestrian minds of Stalin and his acolytes. Leaving aside the historical peculiarities of 1920’s Russia we could generalise that the attempt to impose an ideal vision into the interstices of daily life for millions of people requires a focus on the banality of the every-day and only banal minds can or will perform this task. If one reads, as I did in my misspent youth, the debates and speeches at Soviet and Comintern conferences one is struck by the way that years of genuine argument about ideas and underlying principles is succeeded by unanimity and an abandonment of intellectualism. The process has happened, I think, so often in history that one is justified in thinking, as Kipling clearly did, that it more or less amounts to a universal law (unless human frailty is overcome through divine assistance as, I believe, is the case with the Catholic Church.)

So, what has all this to do with safe spaces? One of the phenomenons of recent years has been that students activists have made two significant demands. They seek to exclude from debate and discussion, to ‘no-platform’ in the jargon, those whose views they deem to be grossly offensive and, since this can never be 100% successful, they also try to create safe spaces where no unpleasantness may ever by any chance occur. Among those whom they aim to no-platform are often pioneers of the very ideas which the students endorse, people such as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and others of that generation. This is an experience which the Danton’s and Trotsky’s of history would recognise. In one sense it means that the revolution has been won. The feminists, LGBT activists, social liberals and cultural marxists of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s have made their ideas a part of the social, legislative and intellectual framework of the Western world.

The downside of this for those who support these ideas (and I don’t) is that leadership has now passed into the hands of the Kiplingesque disciples. Unanimity is sought, intellectualism is cast out, banal minds regurgitate half-digested ideas which they have passively accepted not arrived at through ratiocination or debate. The ground, in fact, is being cleared for the revolution to defeat itself. The question is what legacy will it leave? There is much, amid the idiocies of current student politics, that is worth salvaging out of the vision of the pioneers, that women’s status and viewpoint are never secondary considerations, that people should not be persecuted merely for their sexuality and so on. This legacy question is as important for us as the “what happens next?” question and it is up to us to answer both of them. And, also, to hope that we are never cursed by having disciples.


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The picture is a Soviet propaganda poster from the 1920’s aimed at Muslim women



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Shangri La-sur-Loire

shangri la by sonja christoph

The chances are that you are reading this because you want to know what the odd title means. I will come to that presently but first I want to talk about cults. The word has acquired a sinister connotation in modern English but its Latin original cultus means  “care, labour; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence.”  It retains something of that meaning in French so Anglophone visitors to Francophone regions are sometimes bemused to see references to the culte Catholique. We can see that culture, cultivation and religious cult share a common root of some kind. I would suggest that community is an implied component of the concept “cult.” People come together to produce culture and worship (also crops but that’s not my interest here.) That is, however much individual creative work an artist may produce or however intense a person’s particular spiritual life may be they do so as the inheritors of a community tradition, participants in a current community of activity or belief and contributors to a future storehouse of artefacts or practices which subsequent generations can benefit from.

Which brings me to Shangri La-sur-Loire. There are three strands I wish to pick out here. The 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, the French town of La Charité-sur-Loire and the idea known as the Benedict Option (Ben Op).  Taking the last point first; the proposition is that we are in an epoch of civilisational collapse. A perfect storm of trends and events is combining to put an unbearable strain on existing Western structures and societies which will be unable to endure in anything like their current form. During an analogous period of human history, the ending of the Latin Roman Empire, the best values, culture and religion of classical society were preserved by a loose network of intentional communities formed under the monastic Rule of St Benedict. When the chaos subsided somewhat these formed the basis for the flourishing of a new culture and way of being which led to the world that gave us the Gothic Cathedrals, illuminated manuscripts and all the other glories of the High Middle Ages. The Ben Op proposes the creation of new intentional communities in order to carry the best of our civilisation through the tribulations to come.

In its pristine form the Ben Op is a primarily Christian idea. It perceives that the faith has no traction in mainstream Western society and never will but since that society is dying Christians should prioritise survival and future rebirth over fighting unwinnable battles in a world whose time is in any event severely limited. It is no doubt true that the psalmist’s lament-

We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
mocked and derided by those around us. (Ps 79:4)

applies to Western Christians but given the rising tide of anti-intellectualism and the perceived link many see between culture as such and the despised ruling elites it might with equal truth be said by devotees of the Opera, the fine arts or poetry. To put it another way the different forms of cult as well as having a common origin are currently facing a common fate.

Lost Horizon, which was published in the year that the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, imagines an isolated community, Shangri La, which although originally religious in purpose has become transformed into an entity which deliberately seeks to preserve all aspects of culture against the imminent danger of global destruction. This is a not uncommon literary trope, we see something similar in A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Glass Bead Game and in the kingdoms of Nargothrond or Númenor of the Silmarillion. Possibly the first author to explore this idea was the fifth century Tao Yuanming in The Peach Blossom Spring. As a lived experience arguably the oldest practitioners were the Jews of Babylon who used their exile as an opportunity to refound and reinvigorate their ancient community around the concepts of Law, Land and identity.


What I am suggesting is that the formation of intentional communities to preserve what is worth preserving is not simply a matter that need only concern Christians. And so we come to La Charité-sur-Loire. Loosely translated the name means kindness or generosity on the Loire. It is not the original title assumed by its inhabitants but was given to it by outsiders. The reason for this was the loving hospitality given by its monks to travellers through the town of whom there were many since it sits on the pilgrimage route to St James Compostela. The town went through various vicissitudes over succeeding centuries including an assault led by St Joan of Arc and a great fire. Today the monastic community is long gone but La Charité is now a Ville des Livres (City of Books) and visitors can explore numerous shops selling antiquarian texts and maps. In effect one intentional community has been replaced by another, albeit much looser, one.

The Ben Op idea is not a survivalist retreat to desert or mountain. Many of the original Benedictine houses were hidden, like La Charitié, in plain sight in towns, on main communication and transport routes. They were involved in the life of their epoch and of their region. More than that, however, by virtue of a shared purpose they were also involved in keeping safe and keeping alive the things which they valued most. Shangri La, because of its isolation doesn’t fit into that model but it’s ability to thrive was dependant not only on its intentional community but also on a mutually beneficial relationship with its neighbouring geographical community of valley people. Its value for us then is as a sign of such cooperation and that Ben Op purposes need not be seen as narrowly conceived.

Unlike Christians, perhaps, protagonists of high culture may not see the need to be physically proximate to those who share their interests. The internet, after all, enables a virtual community to be formed which eliminates the tedious business of living cheek by jowl with people whose egos are as monstrous as our own. In the event, though, of total or partial civillisational collapse the net will likely cease to function or at least become greatly diminished. A need for our times is the rediscovery of culture as cult and the creation of cultic communities in real life occupying real space with explicitly formed intentions anent preservation and survival. The chances of survival would be greatly increased if the two cults, Christianity and the liberal humanities, were to act in concert (as it were) but there even my untrammelled imagination dare not go.


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The pictures are Shangri La by Sonja Christoph and La Charité-sur-Loire





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Trust Me, I’m a Politician

Bernie Endorsed Hillary

As the decades rolled by and I observed crisis succeed crisis I always resisted the temptation to run around yelling “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Systems are more resilient and challenges less radical than their opponents and supporters respectively bargain upon. Now, in 2016, it appears to me that the chances that the Western system will fail and disappear are at least as great as that it will continue. None of the current crises- economic, political, social, cultural, demographic-  taken singly are unprecedented in their nature or severity. The occurrence of so many of them simultaneously across such a wide geographic spread, however, is something new in my experience. It dwarves the last great shock to hit the Western world, the 1968 events, which happened during an era of sharply rising prosperity and social mobility.

The nearest comparable epoch appears to me to be the period preceding the Second World War which is rather worrying. Nothing, though, is inevitable until it happens. There are many ways in which the current system can more or less survive the current existential threats which it faces. In this endeavour it is our political class which has perhaps the greatest responsibility. If they act wisely and intelligently then the Western system will adapt and continue. If not it will catastrophically crash and burn, or at least significant component parts of it will. But are wisdom and intelligence the first words that come to mind when we consider the mainstream politicians of the West?

Returning to our comparison. It has often struck me that the most significant event of the period from the beginning of 1930 to the end of 1940 was not the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany. It was, rather, the sudden, total and wholly unexpected collapse of France. Many factors contributed to this not the least of which was the disgust that French politicians inspired in their people, a disgust which proceeded by extension from the politicians to the political system which they embodied. This repugnance was not lessened for Frenchmen when they had uniforms put upon their backs and rifles put into their hands. Although many did fight heroically and vainly in 1940 many more did not feel that their system was worth dying for. A decision which was perfectly rational in its way had it not been for the fact that what they gained, Nazi occupation and Vichy, was far worse than the terrible thing which they lost.

Returning to 2016 we can see that huge swathes of the population in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and elsewhere regard their own political class not as representatives defending their interests but as venal, corrupt, self-serving liars. Again many factors have played into this widespread alienation but the behaviour of politicians themselves is not the least significant of these. By this I do not mean that the bulk of politicians are anything other than well meaning individuals whose primary concern is the common good. There have always been corruption scandals, over-promising manifestos and misleading use of statistics yet none of this has had the hyper-magnified effects of recent years upon public opinion. What we have had recently is a decline of civility.

Politeness may seem a trivial concern to a world which might shortly go up in flames. I would argue though that it can act as an important fireguard. The point is this, civility towards an antagonist proceeds from a respect for them and for the people they represent. It assumes that your opponent, although profoundly wrong, is at least as honest, sincere, intelligent and well meaning as yourself. They are not acting out of malevolent or sinister motives, they are at worst honestly mistaken. Extremists are never civil, they take the Manichean approach that their enemies are dominated by the powers of darkness and deliberately wish to inflict suffering and misery upon the people. When mainstream politicians adopt the language of extremism to describe their equally mainstream opponents, often within the same political party, then they are effectively opening the gates of hell.

When the same words and phrases are used to describe a Marine Le Pen and a Boris Johnson, a Hugo Chavez and a Barack Obama then voters can be forgiven for not being able to differentiate between extremism and moderation. If you spend years demonising a mischievous imp then what do you say when a real demon appears? You have already been broadcasting at full volume you have no additional sound to add which would alert the public to the fact that something new and dangerous has arrived. The recent brutal murder of the British Member of Parliament Jo Cox (eternal rest grant unto her O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her) apparently by a bona fide fascist highlights some of the issues here.

After the murder politicians of all parties and members of the public were lavish in their tributes. Jo was a talented, hard-working, committed and much loved public servant. Yet it is an oddity of our system that it takes a violent death for people in politics to acknowledge that these qualities exist in their colleagues and opponents. Moreover the long term fascist commitment of Jo’s alleged murderer was swiftly elided into the terms of the Brexit referendum debate as if there was no significant political difference between a Nazi inspired murderer and someone campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union. Where the extremes are understood to be the same as the centre then voters will have no barrier to prevent them voting for extremists.

The words we use affect the thoughts which we have. In US discourse in particular I am often given the impression that the political class have used over-cooked rhetoric about their opponents for so long that they have begun to believe it themselves. Heres the thing, in France, Britain, America and all around the Western world most politicians are decent people trying to do the right thing. If the language they use about each other conveys the opposite impression; that politicians are ravening beasts intent upon destroying civilisation as we know it then, you know, civilisation might well be destroyed because the barrier of plain common decency which separates the extremes from the centre will have been torn down not by the extremists but by the centrists. In the name of God, in the name of all thats holy I call for a return to civility, politeness and mutual respect in our public discourse. The alternative is a price too high to comfortably contemplate.


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The picture shows Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders endorsing Hillary Clinton for President



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Lust, Decadence & Immorality

Pompeii brothel

The poet Gregory Wood describes, in one of his poems, soldiers ending their day in ‘bleak debauchery.’ This rather startling turn of phrase describes rather neatly a great truth. It is only while it preserves the charm of novelty that debauched, decadent behaviour can be said to be exciting. It possesses the glamour of unknown possibilities and unforeseeable excitements so long as it is new to us. After a while though it loses these attributes and becomes repetition. In relationships or creative endeavour the possibility of growth always exists, in debauchery this is not so. We can add quantity but never quality to these experiences. As our appetites become jaded we may seek to add in elements to stimulate the effects of our actions but this is not growth rather it is an attempt to recreate the excitement of our first encounters with immorality.

This absence of possibilities to grow does not necessarily act as a deterrent to continued plunging into the world of debauchery. The lust for this or that experience, gambling, drunkenness, promiscuity, becomes an itch that we need to scratch to obtain brief ease or, in the situation Gregory Woods wrote about, as a consolation, a powerful sensual experience to drown out for a while the memories and anxieties which the rest of our life produces in us. Indeed it is its sensual nature which is its key characteristic. The senses can drown out the mind and the emotions and there are times when mind and emotion are seen by us as enemies to be avoided not instruments through which we can fulfil our potential. Where we are guided by sensuality not thought then we can expect less complexity and thus the consequence of repetition and the absence of the possibility for growth.

From a rather different angle an ancient Hebrew poet wrote “let me find life in following thy ways.” (Psalm 118:37) This speaks to a perception in various philosophical and religious traditions that behind or within existence in the transient and phenomenal world which we experience through our senses there are eternal verities which we encounter directly through Mind or Spirit. Plato and the neoplatonists thought of them as Ideas, like Truth, Beauty and the Good which exist beyond the realm of shadows which we inhabit (hence the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic.) The Zen concept of enlightenment, satori, when we unlock the Buddha nature within is essentially similar. The use of spatial analogies like within or without is unavoidable but misleading since Mind or Spirit is presumed to be universally present so the distinction between within and without is merely a descriptive tool to be discarded when that which it describes is understood.

The concept here is that the sensual life though real is less real than the life of Mind because it concerns itself with what arises and passes away. Which is to say it attaches undue importance to things which will shortly cease to exist. Mind can give due importance to that which always was and always will be. Here the possibility for growth exists because though the verities do not change we do. The more we contemplate them the more we mirror that which we contemplate. The finite grows into the infinite the temporal into the eternal. The argument against this is that we know that the objects of sensual experience exist but we cannot say the same for the objects of Mind. However, we only know that the objects of sense exist because our senses have encountered them. In the same way we can only know that the objects of Mind exist if and when our Mind encounters them. Given that the Mind is more complex than the senses clearly that which it encounters at its own level requires more effort and attention than that which the senses encounter at theirs.

Most of us most of the time occupy the space between unchained sensuality and unfettered Mind. In our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our creative endeavours we seek to live and to grow. Yet this is rarely entirely satisfactory at times, perhaps frequently, we seek to escape with our bodies and minds from the mundaneness and unsatisfactoriness of the everyday. Because the senses are near at hand, powerful and habit forming they are often our first resort taking the form of anything from excess chocolate to flagellation. That is not the only option though. We can seek that “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” as St Paul puts it (2 Corinthians 5:4.)  The restlessness and ennui which normal life cannot eliminate opens up a space and an incentive for us to use Mind to search for what lies beyond the transient and the phenomenal. And this, unlike bleak debauchery, is not an escape from the daily but an expansion of it into new and infinite dimensions. To be fully alive is to be growing to be half dead is to be forever repeating. Lust, decadence and immorality are bleak because repetitious and they lead us to death in life, death of the Mind. The French letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.


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The picture is from a fresco found at Pompeii 





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