January, 2002

1. The Young Intellectual

One of the biggest problems of an aspiring writer, a young intellectual, is that he doesn’t get along well with people. One reason for this is that he doesn’t respect anyone. “Is respect a feeling that’s foreign to him?” No, quite the contrary. But he lavishes all his respect on those whom Keats called “the mighty dead,” and he has none left for his contemporaries. This lack of respect for people is matched by a lack of respect for institutions: he respects neither academia nor the business world. Academia is, in his view, a pale imitation of the literary-cultural world to which his reading has introduced him, and business is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing — or rather, signifying nothing except money.

The young intellectual’s feelings, as well as his thoughts, cause him to clash with society. His feelings are often crude, primitive, unconscious. He is enlightened, and spreads enlightenment, but “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”1 For every Faust, a Mephistopheles.

If one adds up all these factors — bad relations with people, lack of respect for people, an aversion for the academic world and the business world — it seems most unlikely that the young intellectual will have much success in the world.

2. Ethics: The Search for Universal Standards

In the time of Socrates, the intellectuals known as Sophists argued that morality is relative, that morality varies from place to place, and from time to time. The Sophists pointed out that public nakedness is tolerated here, but condemned there, that public sex is tolerated here, but condemned there, that homosexuality is tolerated here, but condemned there, etc. Moses proclaimed, “thou shalt not kill,” but a young man who is raised among headhunters is taught, “thou shalt kill.” In our society, stealing is condemned, but a sect in India, known as Thugs, stole and murdered in the belief that they were acting in accordance with their religion, in accordance with their worship of the goddess Kali. The Thugs were immune from prosecution under Hindu law, and went about their business for more than 600 years, before being suppressed by the British around 1830.

Socrates rejected the moral relativism of the Sophists, and believed that there was an absolute moral standard, applicable in all times and places. Plato also believed in absolute moral standards. Socrates and Plato were rationalists, worshippers of reason. Like many early Greek thinkers, Plato was fond of math, and this may have increased his respect for pure reason. (The fondness for math that one finds among the Greeks may be compared to the fondness for science that one finds in another rationalistic era — the era of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. The success of Western math and science has led Western philosophers to overrate reason, a mistake that Eastern philosophers didn’t fall into.) Socrates and Plato seemed to believe that just as 2 + 2 = 4 in all times and places, so reason can discover moral principles that are true in all times and places.

The Stoics agreed with Socrates and Plato. The Stoics believed that there was a Natural Law, a law that could be discovered by reason, a law that could provide moral guidance in all times and places. During the Middle Ages, moral questions took a back seat to theological questions, but after the Middle Ages, the old debate about morality, which had started in the time of Socrates, was continued. The English philosopher John Locke believed in Natural Rights that were universally valid, like the Natural Law of the Stoics. Locke respected reason, as Socrates and Plato did, and he believed that reason could build a foundation for morality and religion.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume, famous for his skepticism, doubted that reason was a reliable guide outside the field of math. I can only know what I have experienced, said Hume, and since I haven’t experienced God, immortality, etc., I can’t say anything definite about them, I’m an agnostic. Hume rejected the old rationalist notion that reason can tell us what’s right and what’s wrong; according to Hume, reason can’t tell us what we ought to do. Morality is a matter of feelings. “’Tis not contrary to reason,” said Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” As if to prove Hume’s argument, the French revolutionaries, who were contemporaries of Hume, and who worshipped Reason, embarked on a policy of genocide. Western man had lost his God and lost his Ought. Stalin and the Russian revolutionaries also followed the road of Reason and ended up in genocide. Reason can justify anything, and doesn’t lead to a universal moral standard.

Like the cavalry coming to rescue a stagecoach surrounded by howling Indians, Kant tried to rescue religion and morality from the skepticism of Hume. Kant probably believed that Western civilization needed a solid moral/religious foundation. Kant declared a universal moral law, his so-called “categorical imperative” (a poetic writer he was not): “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.” Kant’s categorical imperative has been described as a re-statement of the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Schopenhauer was a disciple of Kant, and he agreed with Kant that an absolute moral standard was possible. Schopenhauer declared his own Moral Law: harm no one but rather, as far as possible, help others.

Nietzsche rejected the idea of an absolute moral standard. In Nietzsche’s time, the white man was exploring the depths of Africa, Australia, etc., coming into contact with a variety of primitive peoples, and studying primitive beliefs. Nietzsche was fascinated by this new science of anthropology. Nietzsche said that what had hitherto been called “world history” was actually just a “ludicrously tiny portion of human existence.” The real history of man was his prehistory, which had lasted not for thousands of years, but for hundreds of thousands of years. Nietzsche felt that the findings of the anthropologists confirmed the old argument of the Sophists that morality is relative, that reason can justify many different moral principles, that reason doesn’t lead us to a universal Moral Law. Nietzsche admired the Sophists: “they divine that all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical.”

One of the basic differences between moralities, in Nietzsche’s view, is that some represent masters, others represent slaves. (This argument may have been derived from Plato’s Gorgias, in which Callicles takes a skeptical view of morality.) A slave morality, in Nietzsche’s view, is a morality that extols meekness and compassion; Nietzsche regarded Christian morality as slave morality.

Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, agreed with the Sophists that reason can’t provide us with clear moral guidance. According to Kierkegaard, our view of what is right and decent isn’t based on reason: “decency.... has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm. ‘On principle’ one can do anything.” The reasoning process, which Kierkegaard terms “reflection,” can go on forever: “reflection has the remarkable property of being infinite.” But we must act now, we must decide now. Kierkegaard, Sartre and other existentialists believed that reason can’t guide us through a moral crisis, we must make a leap of faith.

Like Kierkegaard, Zen doesn’t look to universal principles for guidance, Zen doesn’t think that man should live by reason and logic. Zen likes to compare human existence to a ball being carried along by a river — every moment is new, every situation is unique. I don’t believe, however, that Zen is in complete agreement with Existentialism. Like Western thought in general, Existentialism accentuates the I, the ego, the personality. Zen, on the other hand, dissolves the I, and merges it with the All. When the existentialist says, “I must decide,” Zen says, “Things happen.”

Jung agrees with Zen insofar as Jung doesn’t trust reason as a guide for life. A few months before he died in 1961, Jung spoke with a Chilean writer, Miguel Serrano, and said, “I have just finished reading a book by a Chinese Zen Buddhist. And it seemed to me that we were talking about the same thing, and that the only difference between us was that we gave different words to the same reality.” Jung was more disposed to rely on dreams for moral guidance than to rely on reason.

Thus, the search for moral absolutes seems to have failed. But the age-old argument isn’t over yet, and surely new philosophers will appear who will seek to establish new Moral Laws.

3. “O my prophetic soul!”

Jung believed that our unconscious could foresee future events. He himself foresaw World War I: “In October 1913 [I] lost consciousness of time and place and [had] an hallucination, a waking dream. I was looking at the map of Europe and saw how, country by country, beginning with France and Germany, all Europe became submerged under the sea. Shortly afterwards, the entire continent was under water with the exception of Switzerland: Switzerland was like a high mountain that the waves could not submerge.... I realized that the sea was of blood. Floating on the waves were corpses, roof tops, charred beams.”2

Lincoln foresaw that he would be assassinated. “Several times Lincoln publicly expressed the belief that he would not live through his second term as President. He often reported his ‘presentiments,’ fantasies, and even his dreams, not only to his intimate friends but to strangers as well.”3 One of Lincoln’s friends said, “he always believed that he would fall by the hand of an assassin.”

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our unconscious really can read the book of fate. If we listen to our unconscious, can we change fate? For example, if Lincoln believed his prophetic dreams, in which his assassination was a fait accompli, could he avert his fate? If he dreamed that he had been assassinated, and if he told people about his dream, and if perhaps other people dreamed the same thing, is it possible that someone around him would say, “let’s increase the guard that protects him, let’s try to dissuade him from entering public places, let’s try to change fate.” Has this ever happened? Has our anticipation of the future ever enabled us to change that future?

Osama bin Laden was concerned that anticipation of the future could change the future, that is, he was concerned that anticipations of the September 11 attacks could prevent those attacks from succeeding. The tape of bin Laden chatting with a Saudi cleric reveals that bin Laden and his cohorts are preoccupied with prophetic dreams and other harbingers of the future. (The New York Times, in an article on the tape, dismisses this preoccupation with prophecy as “tribal superstition”; evidently the Times has the shallow rationalism, and the contempt for psychic phenomena, that is typical of the intelligentsia.) In the tape, bin Laden says “[he] told me that he saw, in a dream, a tall building in America, and in the same dream he saw Mukhtar teaching them how to play karate. At that point, I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream. So I closed the subject. I told him if he sees another dream, not to tell anybody.”

Throughout history, man has tried to foretell the future, avoid misfortune, and seize good fortune. Even in recent times, this ancient habit can still be found. When Reagan was President, his wife often consulted prophets and fortunetellers, asking them what days were safe for her husband to travel, appear in public, etc. Will mankind forever be divided into two groups, those who fall victim to gross superstition and those who fall victim to shallow rationalism? Or can we enjoy the benefits of rational, scientific thinking, and at the same time appreciate and utilize the mysterious powers of the unconscious?

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 165, “On Creative Achievement” back
2. ibid, “1952” back
3. Wilson, George W., “A Prophetic Dream Reported by Abraham Lincoln”, American Imago, June, 1940 back