March 4, 2006

The last issue of Phlit was roundly criticized: “Too many quotes! You’re just summarizing what you read! You don’t know how to write an essay! Impossible to read!” No one had a good word to say about it. At first, I heeded these criticisms, and resolved to mend my ways. Later, however, I realized that I have no choice but to write in that fashion, so I followed Luther’s example and said, “Here I stand, I can no other.” I believe in these books, I believe in them so strongly that I must write about them. If someone has a strong desire to learn about Hermetic philosophy, I think he’ll find these pieces valuable, however difficult to read they may be. Also, I myself will find them valuable as a sort of notebook. Think of Phlit as philosophy-in-progress, philosophy-under-construction, a quest for truth rather than a polished presentation of truth. My hope is that you’ll find some pieces interesting, and the other pieces can be useful to you as a soporific — something you can turn to when you have trouble sleeping.

I am, however, making a temporary concession to my critics: the first essay in this issue doesn’t contain a single quotation. I hope my critics will enjoy this short holiday. Soon I’ll go back to my bad habits.

1. Manifesto

The Philosophy of Today is both a religion and a philosophy; it satisfies both spiritual needs and intellectual demands. It has given up on traditional religion, monotheistic religion. It doesn’t believe in a Creator God, a Ruling God, a Judging God. But it also is wary of atheism because it believes that the universe is suffused with energy, power, mystery, even a kind of consciousness. Thus, it isn’t exactly atheist, and it isn’t exactly theist; one might say that it defines god in a different way, or calls god by a different name.

The Philosophy of Today is akin to Eastern worldviews, such as Zen, insofar as those Eastern worldviews are both a philosophy and a religion, and those Eastern worldviews are neither atheist nor theist (in a Western sense). The Philosophy of Today heals the rift that has sundered philosophy and religion since the time of Descartes. Religion has long been based on faith and revelation, while philosophy has been based on reason. But our religion isn’t based on faith, and our philosophy isn’t based on reason. We’ve brought religion and philosophy together, and we base both of them on intuition, feeling, and experience, as well as reason.

Instead of separating feeling and reason, we try to make man whole, and we try to develop a worldview that satisfies the whole person. Thus, the Philosophy of Today is akin to the Renaissance philosophy of Bruno and Pico, which was a religion as well as a philosophy. Just as that Renaissance worldview tried to calm the storms that were raging between Catholics and Protestants by going past religious formalities, so too the Philosophy of Today hopes to bring people together by emphasizing the common essence that is shared by many religions. The Philosophy of Today respects the spiritual core of all religions, as Bruno and Pico did. We don’t dismiss religion as madness or superstition, as rational thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud did.

We believe that the most fundamental distinction in philosophy is the distinction between rational and non-rational philosophy. The Greeks pioneered the rational approach, and were as fond of it as a child is of a new toy. They rejected mythology, and expelled the poet from their ideal republic. We take a different approach. We believe mythology expresses deep spiritual truths, deep psychological truths, truths that rational thinkers overlook. Likewise, we believe that the poet expresses deep truths. We believe that one sees the world best when one’s eyes are half closed. We agree with Bruno that Aristotle isn’t the prince of philosophers, and we agree with Bruno that philosophy should embrace literature, art, etc.

A non-rational approach to philosophy unites philosophy with other branches of culture, whereas a rational approach leaves philosophy by itself. The rational approach is only popular with academics, but the non-rational approach appeals to both the intellectual and the “man on the street.” One of the most popular philosophers of our time is Joseph Campbell, who took a non-rational approach, and explored the wisdom of myths, and the wisdom of the East.

We don’t believe in ethical rules, we aren’t interested in categorical imperatives. We leave such things to rational philosophers, and to their admirers in academia. We believe in finding one’s center, in acting out of one’s center. We believe in spontaneity — the spontaneity of the athlete, of the artist. We agree with Nietzsche that morality is a sign of decadence, that only decadent philosophers try to put human nature into the strait-jacket of Reason.

Just as there has long been a rift between philosophy and religion, so too there has long been a rift between philosophy and science. Modern science depicted the universe as mechanical, cold, while philosophy tried to preserve some purpose, some meaning in the human sphere, if nowhere else. We don’t think there’s friction between philosophy and science; we embrace modern science, especially quantum physics. The discoveries of quantum physics, which baffled the hard-headed scientists who made them, dovetail perfectly with our non-rational worldview. The occult patterns that physicists have found in subatomic particles are strikingly similar to the occult patterns that we see in the world around us. Even before we discovered quantum physics, we were convinced that the world wasn’t rational or logical. We’re delighted to find that quantum physics confirms our non-rational worldview. Quantum physics didn’t form our worldview, it encouraged us in it.

The same is true of Eastern philosophy: it didn’t form our worldview, it encouraged us in it. Western philosophy had an Eastern drift even before it learned about Eastern philosophy. Thoreau responded to Eastern wisdom because he was Eastern himself. Some of the most Eastern writers of the nineteenth century, such as Walt Whitman and Walter Pater, didn’t study Eastern literature; they reached their Zennish conclusions independently of the East. Eastern philosophy arrived in the West when the West was ready for it. As the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master appears.”

We believe that the philosophical subject par excellence is the occult, and we’re fascinated by all aspects of the occult. Fascination with the occult is characteristic of non-rational thinkers, just as admiration for Aristotle is characteristic of rational thinkers. The thinker who interests us most, Carl Jung, was fascinated by the occult throughout his long life.

We believe that the exploration of the unconscious, which began with Schopenhauer in the early 1800s, is as important for the Philosophy of Today as Eastern philosophy is. We believe that these two movements — the psychology of the unconscious and Eastern philosophy — have left a deep mark on Western philosophy, and have made this moment the most propitious moment in the history of Western philosophy.

We believe that, while Freud is important for philosophy, Jung is even more important. We regard Jung as the leading exponent of the non-rational approach to philosophy. Jung’s grasp of the dark side of human nature is unsurpassed, yet he’s far from pessimistic. He not only sees the potential for spiritual growth, he argues that human nature has a proclivity for growth, for balance, for finding its center, for becoming whole. Like other non-rational thinkers, Jung and his disciples teach us to respect the wisdom of poetry, of mythology, of fairy tales. They teach us to respect that age-old wisdom that is found in all cultures and all religions, that age-old wisdom that is sometimes called the Perennial Philosophy. One might describe the Philosophy of Today as the Perennial Philosophy, or as the Hermetic Philosophy, or as the Non-Rational Philosophy.

The Philosophy of Today isn’t nihilistic or pessimistic. We take a positive attitude — as Zen does, as Thoreau does, as Nietzsche does. We respect Nietzsche because he understood atheism and nihilism, and because he foresaw that we would overcome nihilism, and regain a positive attitude. We believe that Nietzsche carried on the humanistic tradition that has its roots on the Acropolis, and we believe that we’ve enriched that tradition with the help of psychology and Eastern culture. We believe that Nietzsche foresaw the flowering of philosophy in our time, and referred to it as The Great Noontide.

2. Quickies

A. I recently received e-mail from a Shiite Muslim in Canada:

I came across your website looking for something to send our new office administrator who insisted that Western culture was essentially devoid of any spirituality. [I] am pleased to find your thoughts lead me in a logical progression of culture and philosophy throughout the ages.... There will always be commonalities in the spiritual messages of thinkers throughout the ages.... I’ve long been interested in philosophy (and religion) and your jottings are very enlightening.... I like how you take philosophy to be a “way of life,” and not just abstract dialogue.... Just as you discovered Eastern spirituality one night on TV, I’d like to introduce you to Islamic spirituality by way of the teachings of Shia Islam.... The real spirit of Islam — a far cry from the ignorant bloodshed prevalent in many parts of the Muslim world today — is best reflected in the holy Imams from Muhammad’s family whom Muhammad deputed to be his successors, peace be upon them all.

Shiites worship Muhammad’s blood relatives, beginning with Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Sunnis, on the other hand, regard the early caliphs, who were elected, as the true leaders of the faithful. The word “Shia” is short for “Shiat Ali,” meaning advocates of Ali.

Perhaps this e-mail strengthens the argument that the Hermetic philosophy of today can unite different cultures, can build bridges.

B. I also received e-mail from a subscriber in California, who responded to my comments on Socrates:

All the condemnations that we have to Socrates being too ‘moral’ give him attributes that were not even valid in his time.... His idea of morality probably did have a mystical element (remember, how he talks about his personal daemon).

My view that Socrates is a moralizing philosopher is consistent with Nietzsche’s view, and also with Montaigne’s view. Montaigne said, “I have not, like Socrates, corrected my natural disposition by force of reason, nor used any art to interfere with my native inclinations.”1 As for Socrates’ mystical element, I don’t think he cultivated his inner voice, I think he was periodically dominated by his inner voice. Thus, the power of his daemon may indicate, not that he respected his unconscious, but that he repressed it. Didn’t his daemon once tell him to “make more music”? His daemon may exemplify the tendency of the unconscious to correct for the one-sided disposition of our consciousness; if we’re hyper-rational, as I believe Socrates was, then our unconscious will command us to make more music.

C. In an earlier issue, I discussed Leo Strauss’s view that philosophers often conceal their views in order to avoid persecution and censorship. I regard Strauss’s view as partly right, and in an earlier issue, I argued that Strauss’s view fits Shakespeare perfectly (since Shakespeare concealed much, including his identity). In the main, however, I’m skeptical of Strauss’s view, I think Strauss has exaggerated the importance of concealment, and I think his view is likely to lead to misinterpretations.

Strauss’s thoughts on concealment may be the result of the experiences of his people, the Jewish people, who were persecuted, and forced to dissimulate. Did other minority groups have similar experiences? Here’s a comment from the Weekly Standard on the leader of Iran: “he never really practices taqqiyah, the very Iranian-Shiite art of dissimulation, which historically grew from the trials and tribulations that Shiites have endured in the much larger, often unkind Sunni Muslim world.”2

D. In a recent issue of Phlit, I discussed the Fludd Controversies, that is, the disputes between Robert Fludd, a Hermetist, and Marin Mersenne, who subscribed to the rational-Cartesian worldview. We may see similar disputes in our time; the rational and Hermetic worldviews will never agree. Did the ancient Greeks and Romans also argue over this subject? Cicero wrote a book called De Divinatione (On Divination), which contains a debate between the rational Cicero, and his brother Quintus, who respects dreams and portents.3

I learned about Cicero’s work from Himmelfarb’s essay on Strauss. Himmelfarb says, “Against the philosophical Cicero, Quintus upholds dreams and portents.” Notice that word “philosophical.” Himmelfarb clearly thinks that a philosopher scorns dreams and portents, while a superstitious fool respects them. I would describe Cicero’s position as “rational” or “hyper-rational,” or “blind to the occult,” I certainly wouldn’t describe Cicero’s position as “philosophical.” But Himmelfarb, like most intellectuals of his generation, has no respect for the occult.

E. Our book group is now reading The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer, by Erwin Panofsky. It’s a good scholarly study, but rather dull and dry; I don’t think it will be popular with the group. This is the third Panofsky book that the group has read, and each one has been difficult reading. I keep thinking that the next one will be different, the next one will be interesting and readable, but I’m disappointed every time. Panofsky is a deep thinker, and he has a high reputation within the field of art history, but his writing is too scholarly for the general reader. And his study of Durer, though it’s often called his magnum opus, is less interesting to me than his essay collections.

I did, however, find one sentence in Panofsky’s book that was highly interesting. After discussing Durer’s new methods of making woodcuts, Panofsky says, “the woodcut medium became an adequate vehicle for the dynamic tendencies of the Italian Renaissance where all things, whether alive or inanimate, were interpreted as organic entities molded and stirred by inherent forces.”4 The idea that everything in the universe has a kind of force or energy or spirit is an idea that I’ve discussed many times in this newsletter — most recently, in my Manifesto. When I discussed Renaissance philosophers (like Bruno and Pico), I noted that they believed that everything had a kind of life or energy, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Renaissance artists subscribed to the same belief. Who but Panofsky could express such a profound generalization about Renaissance art? Since this Renaissance belief is gaining currency today, we can expect the artists of our time to depict a world that is animated and energized, as Renaissance artists once did.

F. I recently read an article about Harper Lee. She lives in Alabama, and she wrote a famous novel about the South, To Kill A Mockingbird. She has never written another book. She has lived a quiet life, refusing interviews.

3. Bradley on Shakespeare

In many previous issues of Phlit, I’ve sung the praises of G. Wilson Knight, a Shakespeare critic; I’ve said that Knight is far superior to other Shakespeare critics.5 I was wrong. I recently read A. C. Bradley, a more well-known Shakespeare critic; Bradley was from an earlier generation than Knight. Bradley is best known for his essays on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Although I don’t regard Bradley as the equal of Knight, I’m impressed with his deep understanding of Shakespeare. Perhaps Bradley inspired Knight’s work; perhaps Knight tried to apply Bradley’s methods to plays that Bradley didn’t discuss — comedies, histories, etc.

I recommend Bradley’s essay “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy,” which is the first lecture in Bradley’s book, Shakespearean Tragedy. Bradley says that the tragic hero is partly to blame for his own sufferings; the hero’s own flaws help to bring about his doom. In short, “character is destiny” in Shakespeare. But Bradley doesn’t stop here. He points out that circumstances and character both contribute to the hero’s fall: “many of his tragic personages, if they had not met with peculiar circumstances, would have escaped a tragic end, and might even have lived fairly untroubled lives.”6

Does this remind you of something? How closely do you read Phlit? If you read it closely, Bradley’s argument may remind you of The Doctrine of Mutual Arising, which I discussed in a recent issue. According to this doctrine, a host of causes contribute to an outcome (such as the invasion of Iraq, or the fall of a tragic hero) — not just character, not just circumstances, both character and circumstances. Mutual Arising, not cause-and-effect. Bradley says that Shakespeare’s tragic characters fail to achieve balance, wholeness, and restraint:

In almost all we observe a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction; a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind. This, it would seem, is, for Shakespeare, the fundamental tragic trait.... It is a fatal gift, but it carries with it a touch of greatness.7

One thinks of Conrad’s character, Kurtz, who has a “touch of greatness” but is doomed by a lack of restraint. One also thinks of Freud’s view that the great man is usually one-sided; Freud spoke of, “great leaders — men of overwhelming force of mind or men in whom one of the human impulsions has found its strongest and purest, and therefore often its most one-sided expression.”8 Is greatness akin to evil? Marie-Louise von Franz (one of Jung’s disciples) said that evil is one-sided, unbalanced: “evil entails being swept away by one-sidedness, by only one single pattern of behavior.”9 Perhaps the tragic hero (Macbeth, Kurtz, etc.) has a touch of evil as well as a touch of greatness.

Bradley says that “the center of the tragic impression [is] waste.”10 We’re impressed by the greatness of man, the splendor of man, but when man is destroyed, we feel “a profound sense of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste.”11 Here I think Bradley errs. I think he’s taking a rational approach, and looking for a purpose, a goal. If we take a different approach, if we say that the purpose of life is living, the purpose of life is feeling fully alive, then we won’t regard the essence of tragedy as waste.12

Perhaps the most interesting part of Bradley’s lecture is the part in which he deals with the question, “Is there justice in Shakespeare’s universe?” He begins by saying that, at least on the surface, there’s no justice in Shakespeare’s universe:

No one who thinks of Desdemona and Cordelia; or who remembers that one end awaits Richard III and Brutus, Macbeth and Hamlet, or who asks himself which suffered most, Othello or Iago; will ever accuse Shakespeare of representing the ultimate power as ‘poetically’ just.13

But then Bradley argues that the “ultimate power or order.... cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent between evil and good” because the convulsion of tragedy is caused by “evil... evil in the fullest sense, not mere imperfection but plain moral evil.”14 Shakespeare’s universe is convulsed by evil, as the human body is convulsed by poison, therefore there must be some sort of order or balance in the universe that is disturbed by evil, and eventually destroys evil, though it may destroy many innocents in the process.

Perhaps we can compare Shakespeare’s universe to the “real world,” and say that the Nazis were an evil force in the world, this evil produced a convulsion, this evil was eventually destroyed (like Macbeth and Iago), and many innocents died also (as in Shakespeare’s universe). Perhaps the moral order can be compared to the natural order, the ecological order, and perhaps evil disturbs the moral order in the same way that pollution disturbs the ecological order. Or perhaps we could compare Shakespeare’s moral order to the order or balance in Eastern philosophy, an order that the Chinese referred to as the Tao. This order isn’t an Almighty Judge who rewards the virtuous, and punishes the vicious, but rather a natural order, a cosmic order, that is disturbed by evil, and eventually destroys evil. Shakespeare depicts the disturbance of the cosmic order not only in human affairs, but also in strange comets, strange weather, strange animal behavior, etc.

Bradley says that evil is akin to death, evil is a kind of death-instinct:

Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death. It isolates, disunites, and tends to annihilate not only its opposite but itself.... At the close of the struggle [the evil man] has vanished, and has left behind him nothing that can stand. What remains is a family, a city, a country, exhausted, pale and feeble, but alive through the principle of good which animates it; and within it, individuals who, if they have not the brilliance or greatness of the tragic character, still have won our respect and confidence. And the inference would seem clear. If existence in an order depends on good, and if the presence of evil is hostile to such existence, the inner being or soul of this order must be akin to good.15

In earlier issues of Phlit, we’ve discussed this idea, we’ve discussed the idea that evil is akin to death, evil is a kind of death-instinct. I connected evil with death during a Socrates Café discussion; I argued that the suicide bomber’s love of death is evil. When I discussed Hamlet, I mentioned G. Wilson Knight’s theory that Hamlet is evil, and that Hamlet is preoccupied with death; according to Knight, Hamlet’s evil eventually destroys many characters in the play, including Hamlet himself. Perhaps we can turn this argument around, and say that if evil is akin to death, then good is akin to life, good embraces life.

Bradley says that tragedy generally arouses positive feelings in the spectator because tragedy shows that there’s a “moral power”16 in the universe, “a power akin to all that we admire and revere in the characters themselves.”

While arguing that the universe has a moral order, and that this order destroys evil, Bradley realizes that the source of evil is the universe itself. In other words, the universe is hostile to evil, yet the universe itself produces evil, “produces Iago as well as Desdemona.”17 It makes no sense to argue (says Bradley) “that the order is responsible for the good in Desdemona, but Iago for the evil in Iago.”18 Perhaps we should conclude that there’s a moral order in the universe, but the universe is always fluctuating (as the weather is always fluctuating), and sometimes these fluctuations produce imbalances, evil, which further fluctuations rectify.

In earlier issues of Phlit, we have often argued that truth is contradictory, that the world is contradictory. Bradley finds contradiction in Shakespeare’s universe:

We are left at last with an idea showing two sides or aspects which we can neither separate nor reconcile. The whole or order against which the individual part shows itself powerless seems to be animated by a passion for perfection: we cannot otherwise explain its behavior toward evil. Yet it appears to engender this evil within itself, and in its effort to overcome and expel it it is agonized with pain, and driven to mutilate its own substance and to lose not only evil but priceless good.... Tragedy would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery.19

Though I’ve been reading Shakespeare for many years, I still find him difficult to read. I was pleased to see that Bradley blames Shakespeare, not me, for this difficulty:

The early critics [Bradley writes] were no doubt often provokingly wrong when they censured the language of particular passages in Shakespeare as obscure, inflated, tasteless, or ‘pestered with metaphors’; but they were surely right in the general statement that his language often shows these faults.20

Bradley speaks of Shakespeare’s “occasional bombast and other errors of diction.”21

© L. James Hammond 2006
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1. “On Physiognomy” back
2. “Coming Soon: Nuclear Theocrats?” by Reuel Marc Gerecht, 01/30/2006, Volume 011, Issue 19 back
3. See “On Leo Strauss,” by Milton Himmelfarb, Commentary, August, 1974 back
4. ch. 2, p. 48 back
5. See this issue and this issue and this issue. back
6. p. 13 of 1952 edition back
7. p. 20 back
8. Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 8 back
9. Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, Part II, ch. 2, p. 147. Von Franz says that this one-sidedness is represented in fairy-tales “as a crippled human, or as a distorted thing.” back
10. p. 23 back
11. p. 23 back
12. As Walter Pater put it, “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.... Life as the end of life.” back
13. p. 32 back
14. p. 34 back
15. p. 35 back
16. p. 36 back
17. p. 37 back
18. p. 37 back
19. pp. 37, 38 back
20. p. 73 back
21. p. 75 back