The last philosophy of the modern era that we will discuss is existentialism. Philosophy, particularly in the 20th century explored such questions as, is it practical? What difference does it make? Is life an accumulation of instances or pictures? Does it flow? How does the present relate to the past or the future to the present? What is the nature of thought? If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If a straight line is the shortest distance between points A and B, and if there are an infinite number of points in the line, mustn’t there be an infinite number of halfway points between each of the infinite points so that one can never get from point A to point B?
Existentialism addresses the meaning of existence and its quality both in its individual and social aspects. Modern existentialism swept Western culture following the Second World War. Its most notable recent proponents are John Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But existentialistic considerations have, as with the afore-mentioned, found expression throughout history.
The American Unitarian minister and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was one of America’s first and best known philosophers and a well known poet. His philosophy was poetic. That is, as I consider it, appropriate in that any philosophy of life ought to live; prose describes, but poetry sings. As Bergson recognized, when one examines any form of life, it is perceived through the filters of the sense and logic, which tends to freeze what is observed in an “instant,” which is necessary for examination, but it wringing the life there from. I have previously alluded to a literature of “ecstasy,” which has nothing to do with altered mental states and everything to do with transcendent experience. One does not access that experience through mere description and logic. It is accessed through poetry, allegory and metaphor. In short, it is conscious “is if” thinking.
Wittgenstein understood that: language has much greater function than describing objects and experiences. He analogizes words to “tools in a toolbox.” Some tools are appropriate for description, definition and analysis; other tools are appropriate for experience. Language is the stuff of thought. He describes it, “bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” That, from my perspective, means that we can never directly experience an event in the environment about us; it is only through our brain processing of sensory input that our environment can be perceived.
On April 4, 2013, National Public Radio had an excellent program which focused on delay between our sensory input and mental response, whether in cognitive recognition or reflex. Their point: whatever perception we have of that event is, by the time that it is processed in our brains and then relayed for appropriate response, already in the past. The practical consequences of this phenomenon was demonstrated by the producers of the program in computer communication between the stock exchange computer and that of a buyer or seller. Ultimately, differing lengths of cable connections between the exchange and the user could make a difference in whom the exchange computer recognized as a buyer or seller. From the human experiential standpoint, there was no difference in the transaction times among the various users, but the computers could distinguish which was first. The infinitesimal differences in time could make millions, even billions of dollars difference. On that level, in that arena, difference between input and output had immense, concrete circumstances.
Since we cannot avoid the use of language, how can language be used to access experiences which are beyond mere words? If one uses the words of description, they must treat the experience as an object, using powers of logic which tend to be static, rather than those of insight or inference to access and process stored experiences in the light of the new verbal input.
Jesus understood the power of a metaphor. He did not teach philosophy or theology, but he taught in parables which conveyed a truth beyond the mere facts expressed which people from many different backgrounds and social status could understand, and which could make a difference in their life, whatever their circumstances..
The Methodist minister, Rev. David Lux, served in two different churches of which I was a member. He had a way of speaking that, as my wife, Dawn, describes it, was as though he were speaking “directly to me.” The “stuff” of his Sermons were often based upon a movie, a book, or some other aesthetic experience which he then might connect to both a Biblical passage and some current, real life experience. Not only did he feed me well of spiritually, but he was a great help to me and my family emotionally, intellectually, and financially in a time of severe distress.
In preparing this post, I came across a site with Emerson’s poetry concerning the worship experience and its affect on the way that we live and experience life. It seems appropriate that it is in the form of poetry:
This is he, who, felled by foes,
Sprung harmless up, refreshed by blows:
He to captivity was sold,
But him no prison-bars would hold:
Though they sealed him in a rock,
Mountain chains he can unlock: but
Thrown to lions for their meat,
The crouching lion kissed his feet:
Bound to the stake, no flames appalled,
But arched o’er him an honoring vault.
This is he men miscall Fate,
Threading dark ways, arriving late,
But ever coming in time to crown
The truth, and hurl wrongdoers down.
He is the oldest, and best known,
More near than aught thou call’st thy own,
Yet, greeted in another’s eyes,
Disconcerts with glad surprise.
This is Jove, who, deaf to prayers,
Floods with blessings unawares.
Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line,
Severing rightly his from thine,
Which is human, which divine.
Following the Second World War, philosophers, theologians and writers began to address the role of technology in our lives: to what degree does technology help us to live authentically; and what to what degree does it control our lives and reduce us to objects or automatons. As Samuel Enoch Stumpf describes it at page 454,
Everywhere men were losing their peculiarly human qualities. They were being converted from “persons” into “pronouns,” from “subjects” into “objects,” from an “I” into an “it.”
. . .
Whether they were theists or atheists, the existentialists all agreed that traditional philosophy was too academic and remote from life to have any adequate meaning for them.
In John Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, he rejects any notion of dualism of spirit and matter. To be is to be responsible for one’s own destiny. He distinguishes good faith from bad faith. Bad faith of an individual sees one’s self in terms of his or her social or occupational position or function. One cannot blame others, but must take responsibility for his or her future. Humankind is “condemned” by finitude and responsibility to make a decision and to take the consequences, whether that is realized in guilt and despair, or fulfillment in the human condition. Each of us has a mixture of good faith and bad faith. To live authentically is too accept our human condition and to take responsibility for “the wolf that one chooses to feed.”
A good friend of mine, Stephen Scott, has found Deepak Chapra’s book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, quite helpful in expressing in nontechnical language similar notions:
The first spiritual law of success is the law of pure potentiality. This law is based on the fact that we are, in our essential state, pure consciousness. Purer consciousness is pure potentiality; it is the field of all possibilities and infinite creativity. Pure consciousness is our spiritual essence. Being infinite and unbounded, it is also pure joy. Other attributes of consciousness are pure knowledge, infinite silence, perfect balance, invincibility, simplicity, and bliss. This is our essential nature. Our essential nature is one of pure potentiality.
The field of pure potentiality is your own self. And the more you experience your true nature, the closer you are to the field of pure potentiality.
Your true self, which is your spirit, your soul . . .
. . . One way to access the field is through the daily practice of silence, meditation, and non-judgment. Spending time in nature will also give you access to the qualities inherent in the field: infinite creativity, freedom, and bliss.
As you gain more and more access to your true nature, you will also spontaneously receive creative thoughts, because the field of pure potentiality is also the field of infinite creativity and pure knowledge.
Stillness alone is the potentiality for creativity; movement alone is creativity restricted to a certain aspect of its expression. But the combination of movement and stillness enables you to unleash your creativity in all directions – wherever the power of your attention takes you.
The Cherokee Indians had two similar existentialistic stories of the battle of good and evil within each of us and our responsibility for our choices. Two forms of the story are told at http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The Wolves Within
An old grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story.
I, too, at times have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.
But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.
But the other Wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.
The boy looked intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, grandfather?”
The grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
The source of the above stories treats them as Cherokee legend. Joseph Campbell, a scholar who collected such stories of indigenous peoples and stories of religions from around the world and interpreted them, called them “myth.” In the PBS television series, The Power of Myth, composed of conversations between Joseph Campbell and with Bill Moyers, Campbell states that myth, rather than mere heroic legend, are metaphorical statements of what goes on within each of us. They give instruction in how to live: do you choose to live by feeding the wolf of anger, arrogance, inferiority or its companion, superiority; or will you choose to feed the Wolf of joy, love, humility and compassion?
In these myths anger is acknowledged to be part of human nature. That is consistent with modern mental health science. It is there. Will I let it have control, or will it do what emotion is intended to do: to do something. We have a choice: which wolf do we want to feed?
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