- Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
- Karen Armstrong – The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
- R. G. Collingwood – The Principles of Art
- Erich Fromm – To Have or To Be?
- Clifford Geertz – The Interpretation of Cultures
- Eric D. Perl – Thinking Being: Introduction to Metaphysics in the Classical Tradition
- Essential to meaning is a proper agent-arena relationship. Without it, “you will be like the tennis player trying to play tennis in the football arena.”
- A further key aspect of meaning is having a nomological order. “To have a meaningful life is to have a life that is situated within a Nomological Order: an attuned world view that is reliably generating existential modes that are consonant with our best scientific understanding.”
Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. So last time we began our discussion of Aristotle and how he has contributed significantly to our understanding of meaning and wisdom. And we talked about how Aristotle was centrally concerned with something that he thought Plato didn’t give an adequate enough account of: change. But importantly Aristotle’s term for change is properly understood in terms of growth and development. And we talked about how much your sense of growth and development is constitutive of finding your life to be meaningful. We talked about how Aristotle understood that development in terms of making use of Plato’s idea of idos, form, the structural functional organization. And then what’s happening in change and in development, is that something is being “informed”. In particular something like wood is the potential to be a table or a chair and when it has the correct structural functional organization then the wood starts to act like a table or the wood starts to act like a chair. And that is then the idea that when you inform some potential it gets actualized into a particular thing and so change is the actualizing of potential via “in-form-ation” and then in order to understand that better we leapt ahead to look at a current account of growth and development that was directly inspired by Aristotle. We looked at Alicia Juarrero work and we went through the discussion of what a dynamical system is and how we can use it to understand growth and development in terms of the idea of a virtual engine. We then returned and used that language to better understand Aristotle’s idea about wisdom as the cultivation of character where wisdom is to create a virtual engine. And there is a deep connection between being a virtual engine and the cultivation of virtues.
That wisdom is the cultivation of a virtual engine, a character that regulates your self-development, in fact your self-making, so that you can actualize your potential. You can live ‘up’ to your potential and what does living ‘up’ to that potential mean? It means, and we talked about it, it means moving through that hierarchy that we talked about last time. The hierarchy of actualization from the mere plant to the animate thing to the mental thing to the rational thing. So to be wise, to live up to your potential, is to cultivate a character that most helps you realize your capacity for rational self reflection, your capacity to appropriate and take charge of your ability to engage in self actualization, self realization and to do so in such a way that fulfills the potential of your humanity that you most realize, reveal, actualize, the characteristics that make us uniquely human. And that foolishness is to have not properly cultivated your character, so even when you have the correct set of beliefs, you believe that you should not do something, you will still fall prey to AKRASIA because you have not cultivated adequate enough Character.
Then I challenged you in two ways: I challenge you to try and reanimate and deepen these terms that we use every day to talk about how meaningful our lives are in terms of growth and development and actualizing ourselves and living up to our potential to deepen those terms by returning and reflecting upon them using Aristotle. But also a Socratic challenge via Aristotle. What are you doing to cultivate your character? How much time are you dedicating to it? Since it is now reasonable, given this argument that it plays a significant role in how meaningful your life is, how much time have you devoted? How much time do you regularly devote to it?
Now as promised last time I want to turn to the other side of Aristotle’s work and show in a further sense how he contributed to the Axial development of these ideas of meaning, wisdom, self transcendence, and of course Aristotle is understanding self transcendence as this living up to your potential, self-realisation, ascending through the hierarchy until you are a fully realized, fully rational human being. Now, Aristotle was interested in rationality for exactly this reason. He thought it was the way of defining human beings. Now his understanding is Axial. Rationality is what we’ve been talking about since the beginning of this series. The Axial revolution idea of second order thinking; you can step back and reflect on the ways in which your are self deceptive and you have a capacity for self correction and self transcendence. That’s the hallmark of rationality. Please remember that. Because we have tended – and we’ll see much later why – we’ve tended to reduce rationality to the idea of being logical. But that’s not the core idea of rationality. The core idea of rationality is your capacity for reflectively realizing your capacities for self-deception and illusion and for self correction. And for Aristotle that self correction is a process of also realizing your potential through the cultivation of character.
But what is at the heart of rationality? Because, if we go back to the Platonic model, Aristotle has told us a bit about one side: character. This is – remember Plato talks about how you are aligning the psyche – but Plato also talked about being in contact with reality. How did Aristotle develop this side (contact with reality) of the Platonic equation. This (character) is his way of trying to give a deeper analysis of structuring the psyche to reduce self-deception. What did he do to try and develop Plato’s idea of being in contact with reality. Because if you remember, we also have this meta-drive, we need to be in contact with reality. I put it to you that that is in fact the core feature, or at least the core motivation of rationality. The core motivation of rationality is the desire to come into as deep a contact with reality as possible by those means that are as reliable as possible. So for Aristotle this brought him into a discussion about what it is to truly know something. To truly know something. And again he’s going to be deeply influenced by Plato while of course making his own unique changes and challenges to Plato.
A Blueprint in the Mind So, We have got a view in which we think, we largely conceive of, ‘knowing’ as being able to give a very accurate description of something. I ‘know’ what a chair is if I can really describe it very well to you. Now, there is a challenge to that if I were to ask you the following: “Who knows better what a chair is? Somebody who could describe a chair very well to you, or somebody who could actually make a chair?” And many people would say “well, the person who can describe it doesn’t really understand…” and they’ll probably struggle for words here and they’ll use words taken from Aristotle without realizing “…they don’t get the essence of a chair because if you can make a chair then you’ve grasped something more…”. And this is again related to this notion, if you can cause a chair to ‘be’, if you can ’cause’ it to ‘be’ (writes because on the board: be-cause), then you deeply understand what a chair is. So, Aristotle then asked “well what is it that the chair maker has that the accurate descriptor does not have? And again it goes back to what we saw before. When I gave you my description of the bird: it has wings and beaks and all this stuff… and I was lacking the idos. I was lacking the form, the structural functional organization. So Aristotle says “what the chair maker has that the good describer doesn’t have, is the chair maker actually has in their mind the idos.
Think of it like an architect that has a blueprint. The architect has in their mind the structural functional organization that is actually going to be shared in the building. The architect ‘has’ the ideas. The chair maker has the idos in their mind and they can actualize, they can use that idos to actualize the potential in the wood to make the chair. So to ‘know’ something is to possess the same idos as it. Now, the architect, when he has the idos for the building, he doesn’t have a material building in his mind! You couldn’t go in and house is a family of five inside his mind! When we say that it has the same pattern, we don’t mean it’s actualizing the same matter as wood and metal in a building but the same form is there. So for Aristotle, when ‘I know’ something – and this is the original meaning of this word – there is “conformity”; I share the same form with it. So when I know some object or know some thing, my mind takes on the same structural functional organization as the thing such that if I could take that idos from my mind and actualize it in some potential, I could make an instance of the thing: I could cause it ‘to be (points out be-cause on the board again)’.
The Difference between Knowing and Being So, if you’ll remember ‘shape’ is not the same thing as form, but we can use shape – as Aristotle does – as an analogy for form. So when I know the cup (for reference, a cup prop/actual cup being used), I could know it by standing away from it and describing it, trying to describe its shape – and I’m using shape as an analogy for form. Or I can actually conform (picks cup up) to the cup. I’m actually taking the same shape! And notice how this enables me to causally interact (points out be-cause on the board again) with the cup in a much more intimate and complex and sophisticated fashion. So when you know something, for Aristotle, your mind is in conformity with it. Now, that’s really important because that means in Aristotle’s theory of knowing there is no distinction – that is that we would typically have – between knowing and being.
What do I mean by that? Again using the analogy, here’s the modern view (cup at distance): I’m over here describing it; it’s over there, independent. I’m over here describing it. Here’s Aristotle’s view (picks cup up): I’m actually changing my structure. This isn’t just… I’m not just knowing and having beliefs, I’m being changed (points out the physicality of his hand and the cup together). This is a change in my being, not just a change in my knowing. The conformity theory doesn’t just change your beliefs it changes the very structure and functioning of your being.
So the conformity theory is a very different way of thinking about how we know things. So Charles Taylor, who I’ve mentioned before, Hubert Dreyfus and others, they talk about the Conformity Theory as a ‘contact’ epistemology. So to know something is to be in contact with it, is to actually participate in the same form as the thing. I’m going to come back to this sense of participatory knowing. Participatory knowing is when I shape myself in order to know the thing, and I know it by conforming to it. This is different from descriptive knowing where I stand apart and I generate propositions about the thing.
So, the conformity theory has this very powerful idea of an intimate connection between the mind and reality. And it’s based on a very powerful idea and, as I mentioned, Aristotle is going through a significant revival in our understanding of living things. An understanding of mental things. We are increasingly coming to see that this kind of contact knowing, this participatory knowing, is much more central to how cognition works than we previously thought. We’re going to come back to that a lot in this series. I just want you to take note of it now.
Notice how this… What we need to notice right now is how this theory of knowing, which is also a theory of being, satisfies that desire of being in contact with reality as opposed to being separate from it and merely pointing at it with my words or my propositions.
All right, so if I’m in conformity with the world, that tells you something very interesting. The structural functional organization, my patterns of intelligibility (remmember for Plato, intelligibility (and Aristotle) completely inherits this. I could say again, read Erik Perl’s book on this), how I make sense of things, the pattern of intelligibility is the same pattern by which the thing is organized. So when I’m making sense of things, there’s a structural functional organization in my mind that is shared with the structural functional organization of what I’m making sense of -. But does that mean that everything I think is just true. No. Aristotle is a genius, he’s probably a clear instance of what’s been called a Universal Genius. We shouldn’t dismiss what Aristotle says so easily. Aristotle literally writes the book on everything.
Say you’re at a party with Aristotle. You say “Well, I’m interested in physics!” …and then he’ll say “hear, I wrote the book on this. This is called Physics. This is the book that started physics”. “Oh, well I’m also interested in philosophy! I am interested in metaphysics”. “Here’s the book I wrote on metaphysics”. “Well! I am interested in how animals move”. “Here’s my book I wrote on how animals move”. “I’m interested in psychology”. “Here’s my book”. “Dreams…” “Here’s my book!” “How to write books”. “Here’s my book!”. Aristotle is an astonishing intellect. So, what does he mean then? Well what he means is, that after we’ve done all that Axial Age, second order thinking. After we’ve done all this Socratic and platonic argument and discussion and we’ve done this rational reflection – once we then get to that… IDOS! ‘That’ structural functional organization… we can be confident that what structural functional or organization we’re finding, and how we make sense of things, is the same. Or to put it in a slogan “when we’ve made sense of things, the pattern in our mind is the same as the pattern in the world”.
An Example of the Conformity Processes So what are those processes? Aristotle, like everything he does, he tries to explicate a little bit more. So, think about this! Think about how you try and determine if something was real. If it really is the case. So let’s say you’re interested in Susan. And you’re talking to your friend Tom. And Tom and Susan and yourself, you’re at a party the previous night and Tom tells you “Oh Susan… I think Susan really likes you!” Now this is important to you because you really like Susan! You’d really like it if Susan liked you. This would be a good thing. But you don’t want to leap into this because your heart has been broken before and you’ve acted foolishly and impulsively so you want to make sure. So you say “wait, wait. Come on Tom. I saw you last night you were really hammered. Like you were drunk. Pfff… I don’t believe you!” And Tom says “no no no no. I heard this way before I was drunk I heard this at the beginning. I heard Susan say this at the beginning.” And then you say “come on Tom. There was so many people, it was so noisy. How can you be sure?” And Tom says “no no. This was in the kitchen. Susan was in the kitchen when I heard her say. It wasn’t that noisy there!” And then you say “I don’t know….” And then Tom says “yeah but Andrew and, you know, Jane also heard Susan say that”. And you go “Oh wow. I think Susan likes me!” So you do these three tests! You make sure that the relevant organ of cognition, your – your attention, your memory, your brain – was functioning normally. Yes it is. It’s functioning normally. OK. So I was sober. You make sure that the environment isn’t creating distorting conditions – too much noise… No no it’s an optimal environment! So, let’s do this: Organ operating optimally. Environment optimal or really good. And then I look for “Did other people experience it?” Inter-subjective agreement. So, this is what you do!
You very carefully try to get your mind into an optimal state. You make sure the medium is the best. And you do a lot of inter-subjective discussion to make sure that you’re in agreement with other people. So you do really deep philosophy: you argue and discuss, you enact like this Socratic thing. You really train your mind, you get the appropriate conditions. You do all this. You get you come to some agreement and then once you get there you can have significant confidence that you are in conformity with reality. That the pattern that’s in your mind is the pattern that’s in the world. Now, I point this out to you, not because I want to say that Aristotle is ultimately right because we’re gonna see how that way of doing things was challenged, but I want to point out to you how you still do it now. There’s something deeply plausible and practical in what Aristotle was saying! This is how you, on a day to day basis, try to make sure that you’re in touch with things.
So how are things? What is the structural functional pattern of the world when I’m making sense of thing? So Aristotle is also, as I said, considered to be a foundational figure in science. In fact for literally millennia, A Millennia, he is basically identical to science. Knowing Aristotle is to know science. He’s building upon all the pre-Socratic philosophers before him. But basically what he says is “OK how is the world organized? What is the structure of reality?” Well how does it look to us? What can we all agree on? OK. So, we’re all stone cold sober. Clear Day. We can all talk. We can agree. And this is what – try to get back to Aristotle’s time – this is how things seem to all of us. We’re at the center. And this is something we’re going to come back to because that’s how your perceptual cognitive system seems to operate. You’re at the center. Things are moving around us.
So he has a geo centric world view. The Earth is at the center. Well why did things move? Why are things moving? So he has the idea, again, that things move for the same reason you do. Remember Thales talked about that – the magnet is moving, your moving. When I lift on this (table) and it’s pushing against me, that feels no different to me than when a person is pushing on me. It feels like the table is moving itself against me. Again, don’t concentrate on whether or not this is true, concentrate on how much sense it makes. When I move the pen away from the earth, it looks like it moves itself to get back there, which looks exactly like I want to be over there and I move myself there, because I’m separated from where I want to be. So Aristotle’s idea is that everything is made up of elements, basic elements like earth, water, air and fire. Things that have a lot of earth in them – like this marker – want to be where Earth naturally is. Earth is at the center. So as you move things away from the earth, things fall back towards it. Water is going to be on the surface. Fire moves up and air is above. So notice when I burn some wood how much sense this makes of it! Because when I burn the wood the fire comes up, the water that’s evaporated spreads out as condensation, and then the ash, the earthen part falls down. So for Aristotle the Earth is at the center and this is the thing: everything is moving by a process of natural motion. Everything has an internal drive. Just like you. Everything is trying to get where it belongs. Everything has a natural place. So – and this is very important – everything is moving on purpose. Everything is trying to get where it belongs. So notice how meaningful this view of things is. Everything is moving, just like you! You’re doing things to get where you belong and where you are where you belong, then that’s the fulfillment of your goals. That’s what makes your life meaningful. So all of these things (on the board: Natural Motion -> Internal Drive), the whole of everything in this cosmos – and we remember we talked about that, we talked about Pythagoras (a beautiful order) – everything in this cosmos is moving purposefully, meaningfully.
It’s important that you resist the temptation here to be smug and say “wow what a silly idea! I mean…? Thinking the Earth is at the center? Is he a Luddite?” No, because the idea that the Earth is not at the center, the idea that the Earth is rotating was known in the ancient world. It was known by Aristarchus for example. The problem with this view is that there were great counter arguments about it. Look: if the Earth is rotating/ you think the Earth is rotating that means, if I’m on the earth and is rotating and I drop an object, as the object is dropping I’m moving forward with rotation; I end up ‘here’ (diagrm being drawn on the board) and the object drops, should that then end up behind me? Because as I let go of it, I’m moving on the earth, it’s rotating and it should fall behind me! So let’s do it! Let’s run the experiment. (Drops pen.) Oh it doesn’t fall behind me! See, what you need to realize is that until you also have an idea of something like universal gravitation, and other ideas like inertial motion, the idea that the Earth is rotating actually doesn’t make good sense of the phenomena! If it’s rotating, why am I not feeling a breeze on my face constantly when I face one way rather than the other? So there was all kinds of arguments.
Ego-centric vs Conformity Theory of World Views So, Aristotle has a sense that we can still appreciate. He has a sense of, “well, this (gesturing down) is how we get in contact with reality, and this (gesturing up and around) is the pattern that is making sense to me”, and what I mean by that is, even though you and I are post-Descartes, post Newton, post Copernicus, we still move around the Earth as if it’s at the center and that the Earth isn’t moving and that objects fall directly down etc. etc.. So given that, given the tremendous plausibility of Aristotle’s proposal, we can now put these two sides together. You’ve got the eg-centric world (written on the right of the board) – and by world I don’t just mean the Earth, I mean the Cosmos – with the earth at the center and everything moved by natural motion. And then what we have over here is we have the conformity theory (written on the left of the board), ‘Knowing’, and I’m going to hyphenate these words because these are not separate for this theory the way they are for us: “Knowing-being” (a way of being and a way of knowing) and what I want you to see is how much they mutually support each other. This is very plausible. That’s why I told you that whole story about the person who knows how to make the chair. And once you admit that this is plausible, and you use Aristotle’s test, it supports this view of things. Because if the conformity theory is right, and I do all of this rational reflection, this is the intelligible pattern that I see.
Now, I can look at this (left: ego-centric view) and say “this is the intelligible pattern and it’s plausible! That makes sense of so many things” and that view that view of the world then lends evidence that I am in fact in conformity with reality. It provides evidence for the conformity theory. And notice these two things are now mutually supporting each other (drawn in a simple cycle). That’s how you get a “World View”: you have an account of the world, and you have an account of how you know the world that mutually support each other in very strong bonds of plausibility. Now that sets something out for us…. Notice that there is now a deep connection, a deep bonding as I say, between your understanding of your understanding and your understanding of the world!
So let’s try and put this together. This (left: ego-centric) is a view of the world that totally makes sense of your actions. This is a world organized according to purpose, things are moving on purpose. Things are trying to get where they belong. The structure of the world is very, very similar to the structure of the meaningful structure of your experience. So this view, basically – if you’ll allow me a term that I’ve crafted with Christopher Mastropietro and Filip Miscevic in our book – this basically makes the external world an “Arena”. An Arena is a place that’s organized such that you know how you can act in it. It makes sense to you. You know where things belong, what actions are appropriate, how to measure and calibrate your performance – and I don’t mean just your physical performance, also your intellectual performance. If you are a football player and you go into a football arena, things are organized in such a way that you know intimately how to be involved and how to interact. You can conform (listen to my language) you can conform to that situation very powerfully.
This is how you become an “Agent”. To be an Agent is to be capable of pursuing your goals. It’s to be able to organize your cognition and your behavior so that your actions fit the situation. They fit the environment. So what you have, when you have a world view, is you’ve got this Agent and Arena coupling. Aristotle is explaining to you how you become an agent (how you know and structure yourself to act accordingly) and then he’s telling you how the world is organized (cosmos) so that you can meaningfully interact within it. And these two (Agent and Arena), there’s a process here of Co-Identification. The identity of this (Arena) is determined by and determines the identity of, this (Agent). And the identity of this (Agent) is determined by and determines this (Arena). So the professional football player is a particular kind of agent. They’re a football player and they go into an Arena. The Arena allows them to be a football player. It affords them. Them being a football player makes sense of why this part of the world (the Arena) is structured the way it is. They Co-identify. The identity as an Arena and the identity as the agent Co-identify.
This is important! We need to stop here and take a little bit more care because I want to introduce an idea to you, this “Co-Identification” because this is something you’re doing all the time right. You’re always assuming an identity. I’m doing it now. I’m assuming the identity of someone giving a talk and I’m assigning an identity to everything around me. Everything has the meaning of how it’s facilitating and affording my talk and even you as the audience have been assigned a particular identity. I’m always assigning an arena and assuming agency, and they are co-defining together. That is an “Existential Mode”, to use a term. This process by which you are co-identifying agency and arena so that they fit together and make sense of each other and you get a coherent and functioning world view… That’s your existential mode. And of course it matters really greatly to you. We’re going to come back to this later. This is an idea from Clifford Geertz. It was an idea that he used to talk about religion in general and we’ll see about that later. But what I want to point out, because a similar idea was also proposed by other people like Buber and by Fromm, and although they also said there were important connections to religion they didn’t they didn’t identify just with religion… Existential Modes, they are “Meta-Meaning” relations. What does that mean?
If you do not have the Agent: Arena relationship, then none of your particular actions have meaning. If I put the tennis player into the football arena, it’s absurd! It doesn’t make any sense! Things aren’t… the tennis player can do all they want and it doesn’t make any sense. The environment is like “What? what’s going on. That’s absurd!” (Notice that word we’re going to come back to it.) Unless the coupling works, your individual actions and projects of meaning don’t work. It’s a meta-meaning system because this mode makes possible an entire system of meanings. It means that the throwing of the ball has a meaning for the football player. The catching the ball, the running here… All of these different things take on their meaning because an Agent: Arena relationship has been set up. You’re doing it right now. You have assumed a particular identity; you’ve assigned an identity to me and within that existential mode everything you’re doing and I’m doing take on whatever meaning they have. This is very, very important: this idea of your existential mode being a meta-meaning relationship and that what it does is it’s an instance – a particular way of enacting – this world view relationship. Geertz calls this (the full cycle drawn on the board of all of this), this thing we’re seeing in Aristotle, the way you get this mutual support, mutual intelligibility – not as a static relation but as an unfolding process. He calls this “Worldview Attunement”.
So one of the things that’s really important to you is that your existential mode – the way in which you are creating co-identifications of Agent and Arena – actually fit into a process of Worldview Attunement. If you don’t have a world view, with world view attunement, then ultimately you can’t get this going. You will be like the tennis player trying to play tennis in the football arena. You will start to experience your existence as absurd. It won’t make any sense to you. Now that matters because one of the ways in which the meaning crisis expresses itself is in people saying that they feel existence is absurd. People often express the opposite of absurdity when they articulate that they have a meta-meaning existential mode that affords a functioning Worldview Attunement which gives them ways in which they are co-creating, with the world, the Agent: Arena relationship.
So, notice what this has done. What Aristotle has done here that’s so powerful. He’s given us a way, a language of articulating a connection between what we often don’t see, a deep connection between, our projects of trying to intellectually understand the world and our existential projects of trying to feel like we fit in and belong in a meaningful fashion. That’s what’s so beautiful about Aristotle. He’s given an integrated account of both of these. And for many of us today we don’t find that clear, consonant connection. We have a scientific world view – a view of how things are, how we understand things given our science – but one of the most common complaints of that worldview is it gives us no existential guidance. It doesn’t tell us how to make our lives meaningful.
I wanted to propose to you a term for talking about this set of things where you have a worldview that is demonstrating, on an ongoing reliable fashion, worldview attunement and so that it is constantly affording existential modes in which Agent: Arena relationships are unfolding and blossoming naturally so that the person is not experiencing absurdity. And so the person is constantly experiencing a deep connectedness between their intellectual projects of making sense of the world and their existential projects of finding meaning and belonging and fitedness (placement) within it. I’m going to call that a “Nomological Order”. Nomological Order comes from “Nomos” which means law. This is what makes the universe law-like, not just in our current sense of scientific law but in the sense that it is a cosmos for us. It’s a cosmos in which there is deep convergence and consonance between our best attempts to scientifically explain the world and our deepest endeavours to existentially dwell within it. When we have that, when we have those two together, we have a Nomological Order. As the Nomological order breaks down, of course, then we start to confront absurdity and we start to lose a sense of how we fit in and how we belong.
So, Part of what we can take from…/ part of how we can understand the Axial-Age heritage…./ part of the way we can understand what this is telling us about meaning, is this idea of a Nomological Order. To have a meaningful life is to have a life that is situated within a Nomological Order: an attuned world view that is reliably generating existential modes that are consonant with our best scientific understanding.
Buddhism the Axial Revolution in India So I want to pause now in the discussion of the Axial-Age in Greece and in ancient Israel. We will return to ancient Israel after we complete our survey of the Axial Age. But I’d now like to move to another place that is an important locus of the Axial revolution that is having a significant impact on us today. This is something that I mentioned earlier on in this series. We’re in the midst of what’s been called the mindfulness revolution one of the ways in which people are responding to the meaning crisis is by an intense interest, both existentially and personally and scientifically, in the phenomena of mindfulness. That somehow mindfulness and the cultivation of mindfulness is a way of retrieving the project of cultivating wisdom and self transcendence and somehow deepening the meaning that we are finding in our lives. And of course when I talk about mindfulness, and mentioned things like meditation and contemplation, our thoughts should turn of course to India and the Axial revolution that was taking place there.
The particular form that revolution took that is impacting the Western meaning crisis, as I mentioned at the beginning of the series, was in the generation of Buddhism and the set of practices around it. Now this is a very complex topic. We’re not going to do it all at once right now. It’s going to unfold as we move through the series. But I want to talk about the Axial revolution in India. I want to talk about mindfulness and I want to talk about what it is as a psycho-technology, how it is associated with wisdom and self transcendence. And I want to begin the discussion of the nature of enlightenment and why enlightenment is largely a project of trying to deal with threats of meaning in one’s life.
So, it’s only analogous in this way, so don’t draw too much from this, but in the way Socrates was the embodiment of the Axial revolution in ancient Greece, I think you can see Siddhārtha Gautama as the embodiment of the axial revolution in India. As I mentioned, of course, the Axial revolution is being driven there by similar kinds of processes. There’s coinage and there’s alphabetic literacy and other things like this developing. But the specific psycho-technologies that seem to have come to the fore, and the reasons for that are very complex – I would recommend taking a look at Karen Armstrong’s book The Great Transformation because she tries to tease out “why did psycho-technologies of mindfulness become so prominent in ancient India? – and I’m not going to go into that history, but she gives a fairly coherent explanation about historical, cultural factors that generated it. What I want to do instead is start talking about Siddhārtha as a way of again giving us a doorway into the axial revolution in India.
So Siddhārtha… It’s in all of these figures: Socrates and Siddhārtha… later when we talk about Jesus. I mean trying to talk about “well who… what’s the historical…?” …this is a quixotic endeavour! Trying to somehow peel away and separate them from their legacy is largely a project that you can only pursue to a certain degree. So I cannot, and I don’t think anybody can say with certainty “this is what the historical Suharto was doing!” and I’m not going to endeavour to try and separate the myth – and I told you how I use the word myth – from the history. I’m going to let them still remain seamlessly together because that’s precisely how they are making an impact on the West.
So the story goes like this… When Siddhārtha was born his father had all of the sages and wise men come to his birth and it was prophesied, foretold, in sort of an oracle fashion that the boy had one of two possible futures. One is he would be a great king. Or the other was he would enter religious life and be a really important religious figure. The king, being what all kings are, chose the former. He wanted his son, of course, to be a great king and he decided, in order to do this, he would try and remove all of the things that might trigger Siddhārtha from pursuing a religious life; a life devoted to the ideals of the Axal revolution. So what do you do if you do not want someone to go through the Axial revolution? Well, you try and give them all the benefits of the pre axial world. You try and give them all the benefits of power and prosperity. So the story goes that the king rigged things so that Suharto never saw anything distressing. He was always surrounded by beautiful women. The correct amount of food. Everything that he wanted. And we can just take that as it is, or we can step back and do something that you should always do with things that have a mythological component. Remember myths are not irrelevant stories about the past, they’re attempts to get you to engage, right now, with perennial ongoing patterns.
So I want to talk about what the palace represents. A good way of getting at this right, is Marcus Aurelius’s famous quote that, and this is how it goes: “It is possible to be happy even in a palace.” That tells you how much the Axial revolution is antithetical to palace life. A way of getting that is to get at a notion, which we’re going to come back to later when we talk about stoics like Marcus Aurelius, drawn from Fromm, and this goes to this idea that I just explained to you – Existential Mode – that the palace represents a particular existential mode. It’s a mythological way of trying to get you to experience, not just think about, but activate in your memory a particular existential mode.
So, we’re talking about the palace, because we’re talking about Siddhārtha living in the palace. What does this represent? Fromm talks about two different existential modes that we all face. Again, perennial patterns. They’re organized around two different kinds of needs. They’re “having needs” and “being needs”. So of course this mode (having needs) is called “having mode”. It’s an existential mode. It’s a way in which you make sense of the world and make sense of yourself in this process of Co-identification. This (being needs) is the “being mode”.
So “having needs” are needs that are met by having something. These are needs that are met by categorizing things efficiently. Controlling them effectively. So my understanding of things is categorical. I put it in the correct category. Here’s a cup. It’s like all the other cups. It functions like another cup. I can replace it with a cup of this one gets damaged. It really improves my ability to control things. I have this categorical way of representing it and it’s oriented towards me getting very effective, efficient control over things because I need to have water. I need to actually consume it! If I don’t I die. So being able to categorize my world, manipulate it and control it so I get water is very important. That means I relate to things in what Buber, who I also mentioned, called an “I-it” fashion and “it” is an identity something has when it belongs to a category. And so what I’m mostly relying on here is my intelligence, which is my ability to control and manipulate things, to achieve solving my problems. There is nothing wrong with the “having mode”. You need to have water. You need to have food. You need to have oxygen.
The “Being mode” is different. The “being needs” are not met by having something. They’re met by becoming something. So for example, you ‘need’ to become mature. Or Aristotle might say “you need to become virtuous”. It’s not met by having something. It’s met by becoming; developing. These are developmental needs. Now according to Fromm, because of that, these are needs that have to do with a particular kind of meaning that you’re creating for your existence. And so you’re not relating to things categorically, but as Collingwood for example would say, relating to them “expressively”. Let me show you what I mean with a concrete example. And we’re going to come back to these kinds of examples when we talk again about the connections between love and Anagoge. When you’re in love with somebody you are engaged in a “being need”. You’re trying to, if it’s love as opposed to just desire or sex, you’re trying to become something. And you’re trying to afford them becoming something, you’re trying to meet your needs of meaning and maturity, growth and development. That’s why we pursue love. As apposed to… you know… And I’m not a prude! …sometimes you just wanna have sex with people. That’s not what I’m talking about! I’m talking about when you have said “no, what I want here is love”.
Now, notice that… So I’m in love with this amazing woman, Sara. OK, and I’m in this relationship with her. This relationship of mutual development, mutual realisation. In fact that’s a great way of thinking about love. Love is this process, like Anagoge, of reciprocal realization. I don’t think of Sara categorically. Remember, how I thought of the cup? This is a good cup because it reminds me of all the other cups that I’ve ever seen and I know how to replace this if this one’s damaged and I can control and manipulate it. If I was to say to Sara “you know why I’m with you? Because you remind me of every other woman I been with and I could easily replace you if I lose you and I know how to control them manipulate you”, I have not made this relationship better! I’ve pretty much just destroyed it. OK? Because I don’t interact with Sara from the having mode. I don’t understand her (on screen correction for this) categorically, but expressively. I’m not trying to control and manipulate, I’m trying to engage in a process of reciprocal realization. We’re going to talk a lot about this when we talk about Narcisse. So, my relationship… I don’t assume control or manipulator of an ‘IT’ thing. I have an “I-thou” relationship with Sara. And here I’m not trying to solve problems. I’m using my reason because I’m not about trying to get rid of my problems. I’m trying to make meaning.
To live in the palace is to try and live everything from the having moved. It’s not that this is good and this is bad! Fromm’s point is we get mixed up. We try to satisfy our being needs within the having mode. We suffer from “Modal Confusion”. Think about how much our culture is organized around this because it serves a lot of market interests if I can confuse you, if I can get you to try and pursue your being needs within the having mode. “You need to be mature. Here’s a car you can have”. “You need to be in love. Here’s lots of sex you can have”. Notice how we talk about making love but having sex! Modal confusion. Deep existential confusion.
And what happens when you’re mortally confused is that your need for maturity isn’t being met by having the car, your need for love is not being met by having sex. So you pursue it more! Buy more cars! Purchase more sex. The more the corporate world, the market world, can get you to try to pursue your being needs from the having mode, the more they can induce modal confusion in you, the more they can sell to you. Being in the palace is a myth in a sense that I’m trying to teach you for modal confusion. It’s a myth of trying to live your entire life within the having mode. But here’s the thing, because the story continues, Siddhartha leaves the palace and he leaves the palace in a way that teaches us something about overcoming modal confusion. And in our next time together we’re going to look at how Siddhartha left the palace. And we’re going to look at “what does mindfulness have to do with that?” And “what does all of this have to do with wisdom and enlightenment?”
Thank you very much for your time.