I became acquainted with philosophy and literature at age fifteen. Until then, I was interested mainly in sports, like other American youngsters. But when I stumbled across a world history textbook, a textbook that had been written for youngsters, the whole world of culture was suddenly revealed to me. The historical personage who caught my imagination most was Socrates, the ancient philosopher who was famous for discussing ideas in the marketplace. I became enthralled by Greek culture, and when my dentist gave me ether, I dreamed of Greek culture.
I was not alone in being enthralled by Greek culture. The Romans, too, were enthralled by Greek culture, and so were the Renaissance Italians, and so was Nietzsche. Western civilization as a whole has followed the trails first blazed by the ancient Greeks. Only in the 20th century has Western civilization strayed from these Greek trails. My youthful infatuation with the Greeks gave me a deep feeling of kinship with the Western classics, with the heritage of Western civilization, and a deep feeling of alienation from 20th-century culture, from “modern art,” from everything “modern.”
What I’ve attempted to do in my writings is to resurrect the tradition, to continue the tradition. If I’ve been successful in the field of philosophy, if I’ve breathed new life into the tradition, then surely others may succeed in imaginative literature, visual art, music, etc. I hope that my writings will inspire people with the belief that one can be faithful to pre-20th-century traditions, and at the same time create works that are original; the adjectives “traditional” and “original” can be applied to the same work.
The first philosophical work that made a deep impression on me was a work by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a work called Meditations. The aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius persuaded me to live a Stoic life. Other writers later persuaded me to live according to a different philosophy. Thus I was introduced to philosophy by living philosophy, I treated philosophy as a method of living, a set of values, not as a purely intellectual exercise.
The next philosopher who caught my imagination was the French philosopher Montaigne. Here, too, philosophy was a set of values, a method of living, but Montaigne had something that Marcus Aurelius didn’t have: a love of literature and literary tradition, a desire to carry on a dialogue with earlier writers, a penchant for quotation. For Montaigne, the good life was (among other things) a literary life, a cultured life. Thus literature became more than a means of reaching truth, it became a kind of friendship, a kind of recreation, something to live for, part of the good life.
And then I discovered Nietzsche. Nietzsche made a tremendous impression on me because, unlike Montaigne, he spoke directly to my generation, to me. While preserving classical taste and classical style, Nietzsche was modern, he understood the modern world, he understood the challenge of preserving culture in a democratic world, he understood the revolution in psychology that began with Schopenhauer and culminated in Freud.
Furthermore, Nietzsche was preoccupied by a subject that was on the front of my mind: decadence, and its opposite, renaissance. With the help of Hegel’s theory of society as an organism, Nietzsche’s theory of decadence, and Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts, I put together my own theory of decadence and renaissance, which constitutes my chief original theory, and is set forth in the last chapter of my book, Conversations With Great Thinkers.
Though I was interested in Nietzsche, this interest didn’t prevent me from being interested in other 19th-century thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and Ruskin. Nor did it prevent me from being interested in psychology, chiefly Freud and Jung. So my approach to philosophy was formed by modern thinkers, not by ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. My approach to philosophy was broad, and embraced all the humanities. I had little interest in philosophers like Kant, who defined philosophy more narrowly, and emphasized metaphysics.
When I turned thirty, I felt that I needed to shift gears, to shift from the intellectual to the spiritual. One night, while watching TV, I discovered The Eastern Way—meditation, yoga, etc. I’m now in my fifties, and I still practice meditation and yoga on a regular basis. I’ve also studied Zen literature, Zen arts, etc. I believe that Zen—which came to the West recently, about 100 years ago—represents a revolution in Western thought, comparable to the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions. One of my goals as a philosopher is to preach Zen—the importance of Zen, the depth of Zen, the beauty of Zen—and to show how Zen is compatible with Western philosophy, indeed, represents the next chapter in the natural evolution of Western thought. If my dentist gave me ether now, I’d probably dream not of an ancient Athenian debating in the agora, but of a Chinese or Japanese sage sitting in a mountain-top hut, sipping tea and watching the rain fall into the valley below.
As I grew older, my interest in religion deepened, and my interest in Jung deepened. Unlike Nietzsche and Freud, Jung respected religion, believing that it contained psychological truth. Jung also respected Eastern wisdom, yet at the same time, he appreciated the value of Western individuality. Jung offered the possibility of merging East and West, building a bridge between East and West. Jung embraced the whole universe—spirit and matter—in one comprehensive philosophy. Jung was fascinated by the occult, and I shared that fascination. Jung’s worldview combined the irrational, the occult, and the religious; I wanted to sound the depths of Jung’s thought, and I wanted to achieve the inner wholeness that Jung had achieved.
When I was in my mid-forties, I happened to see my former professor, Harvey Mansfield, on TV. He said he was teaching a class at Harvard on his favorite thinker, Leo Strauss. I wanted to visit the class, so I read some Strauss in preparation. I found that Strauss took a rational approach to philosophy, that he viewed Aristotle as a pivotal thinker, and that he lamented the split between philosophy and religion, and also the split between philosophy and science.
Then everything came together for me. Strauss’s work showed me what I didn’t believe, and gave me a clearer understanding of what I did believe. I realized that my philosophy was the opposite of Strauss’s — that I took a non-rational approach to philosophy, that Aristotle wasn’t important to me, that I saw philosophy and religion as closely connected, if not identical, and that for me, philosophy and science were friends, not enemies.
My philosophy was a fusion of Jung and Eastern philosophy, and since Eastern philosophy enjoyed broad popularity, I called my philosophy the Philosophy of Today. I embraced quantum physics, which stressed the non-rational nature of the world; I felt that philosophy and science were friends. I embraced Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, since this tradition took a non-rational approach to philosophy; like Bruno, I felt that philosophy and religion were close allies. As for my old favorites, Montaigne and Nietzsche, they weren’t fond of logic or of Aristotle, and I felt that their approach was consistent with the Philosophy of Today.
On the whole, my work is optimistic, since it predicts a renaissance in our time — the first in 400 years — and since it believes that we can unite East and West, the humanities and the sciences, the spiritual and the intellectual, into the Philosophy of Today.
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