Saturday, November 2, 2013

Decadence, Enlightenment, and the Great Story

Decadence is a curious concept. The word derives from the French decadere, which means “to fall away.” In English, the word means the falling into an inferior condition, as in deterioration or decay, moral degeneration or unrestrained self-indulgence. When you think of decadence, you likely think of an aristocrat like Marie Antoinette who lived in luxury while the masses starved. In a broader context, however, there’s an unexpected connection between decadence and enlightenment, between immorality and existential authenticity or spiritual perfection.

The Freedom to Play

To see this, consider some ancient history. Tens of thousands of years before the invention of writing, humans were hunter-gatherers, living off of wild plants and animals and thus having to move constantly as the seasons changed or as the herds migrated. Then came the Neolithic, Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago, after which most people lived off of domesticated animals, which allowed the Neolithic people to form denser populations and to settle into sedentary communities. In mythical terms, that revolution marked our banishment from Eden. Early hunter-gatherers were one with nature; regardless of their cleverness or durability, they lacked the culture and the artificial environment to train them to think in stylized, abstract ways, to become what we think of as people as opposed to animals. Psychologically and socially, early foragers were protohumans, members merely of another species of predator hunting along with falcons, alligators, saber-toothed cats and the like. When they struck upon agriculture, our ancient ancestors became much more self-sustaining and thus resistant to many pressures of life in the wild. They produced surpluses of food, which gave them free time, which in turn allowed them to play without any pressing evolutionary motive. That is, in many species of mammal, both the young and the adults entertain themselves either to practice their survival skills or to form social bonds, but agriculture introduced true idleness, the luxury of freedom that comes with a sedentary lifestyle. That freedom was both a blessing and a curse.

You can think of freedom as independence, as the power to do what you want, or you can think of it as alienation, as being untethered from life-sustaining processes. In fact, our liberation from many of our animalistic burdens has both that advantage and that disadvantage. When our Neolithic ancestors learned how to master the land and pliable species, they acquired greater safety in numbers and the larger groups developed more elaborate cultures and fortifications which acted as artificial worlds, sealing off the newly-minted people from the wilderness and encouraging the myths that would develop, of our supernatural status as children of gods destined ourselves to be deified. In short, Neolithic people became very powerful and instead of having to direct all their energies to accomplishing the primitive tasks needed to survive in the wild, the sedentary folk could use their power in arbitrary, unrealistic pursuits that made sense only to cultural insiders. For example, they could spend decades constructing gigantic pyramids as tombs to transport spirits into the afterlife or they could build elaborate temples and sacrifice virgins on the altar to please deities in the sky. Animals know of no such follies, because they’re too busy working hard to withstand the pressures of the wilderness that buffet them from one moment to the next; animals lack the freedom to stop and think about what’s really happening around them. The Neolithic people thus became both outsiders and insiders. Eden was barred to them, as they used technology—language, myths, social infrastructure, architecture—to personify themselves, transforming themselves from animalistic protohumans into godlike humans. But they became insiders with respect to their newly-regulated societies and to the fantasy-worlds they imagined and saw all around them as meaningful overlays that were anchored to their art, jewelry, buildings, stories, and other such symbols.

With power and wealth inevitably comes corruption and here we see the origin of decadence. Once the Neolithic people liberated themselves from the daily grind, they had to choose how to use their spare time. When they were no longer prisoners of natural law, they found that merely prescriptive social law couldn’t bind them with the same effectiveness. Whereas natural betas and omegas have to follow their alpha leaders to survive in collectives that must cope with the pitiless elements, artificial, encultured ones become victims of a more arbitrary double standard. Natural (wild) alphas enjoy the lion’s share of the resources because they’re the strongest members of their group and their strength protects the weaker members. The natural imperative of survival for the genes’ sake governs all levels of the natural dominance hierarchy. But in an artificial society, literally walled off from that elementary concern, alphas are free to rewrite the laws to their advantage, to domesticate not just beasts of burden and the earth but lower classes of people. Thus, people enslave, torture, or otherwise abuse each other in countless ways, because they’re largely freed from nature and are effectively gods with the power to decide how to live, to write the laws that give meaning to their artificial worlds. No greater force corrects us and so we’ve experimented with one bizarre culture after another, rationalizing vices and dividing the most powerful elites from the weaker masses, thusly creating worlds within worlds. The greatest evil is therefore committed by the freest and most powerful of people, while the masses are typically forced to squabble more as animals, competing for the scraps that don’t go to pay taxes or rent to the oligarchs. Those squabbles thus simulate a return to the wretched wilderness within the civilizational oasis. 

But there was another source of moral degeneration, besides the familiar corruption left by the concentration of power. The freedom brought by agriculture opened up two niches, as it were, both the moral sphere and the cognitive one. People were free to decide how to live and so they could choose to live in better or worse ways, according to rarified cultural standards. But they could also use their free time to ponder the nature of things, and so was born philosophy, the pursuit of knowledge that likewise serves no direct evolutionary purpose. Early philosophers quickly hit upon our existential predicament: the horror of death’s inevitability, the mysteries of why we’re here and of where we’re going, the absence of gods, and the liabilities of our self-divided nature. From shamanic religions to the Book of Job to esoteric nature religions and the Presocratics, Hinduism, and Buddhism, philosophical elites have felt alienated not just from nature but from the deluded masses; their wisdom threatens to subvert their social orders and so they hide the poisoned fruit of their intellectual efforts. They practice religions that allegedly unify them with the world, assuaging or disguising their suspicions that free people are terrifyingly alone and cursed to live in existential absurdity. The most hyperconscious of the spiritual elites speak of absolute liberation from the world through death, of the nothingness of reality (nirvana), and of the need for a secondary banishment not just from nature but from society. And so they become hermits who often destroy themselves so as not to spoil the childish illusions of the unenlightened. Having escaped animalistic servitude to natural forces, the masses aren’t about to burden themselves with sorrowful knowledge of the hollowness of our cultural endeavours, and so they flee to their petty corruptions to distract themselves from the philosophical truths of nature.

Here, then, we see the common source of decadence and enlightenment. Decadence is self-destructive corruption owing to our godlike freedom which we express with willful blindness to our existential situation. Enlightenment is the burden of knowing the truth which likewise tends to destroy our will to play social games or even to stand a moment longer living in the nightmare of this grotesque universe. Enlightenment should be symbolized not just by the opening of the third eye, but by a corresponding frown at what’s thereby beheld. The illuminated perceive everything as an instance of the problem of evil, of the necessary divergence between reality and our ideals. And so decadence and enlightenment are interdependent: the former can be a retreat from the prospect of the latter, while the latter rests on the freedom produced by the society of the deluded and corrupted masses. Arrogance and insatiable consumerism are often distractions from the knowledge which is within everyone’s reach who is cursed with the power of skepticism. Moreover, we turn on each other as we compete for worldly pleasures and successes which mean nothing when judged objectively, from the view from nowhere; we use the losers as scapegoats instead of uniting in common cause against the underlying threat to our happiness and sanity, which threat is the undeadness of our creator. Meanwhile, philosophy is intellectual play, the toying with ideas as opposed to bodies (as in the technological play which transforms animals into people). And philosophy too requires the liberation from nature and the social engine which keeps us all alive despite our alienation from the pre-existing world beyond our technologies, infrastructures, and conceptual schemes.

Hypocrisy of the Spiritual Elites

This common source accounts for the criticism of so-called enlightened elites, that they’re hypocrites because they’re in league with the degenerate masses. See, for example, South Park’s satirical take on the Goths that purport to be pessimists and nihilists, seeing through the charade of conventional society, to the dark reality of the godless world. The satirical twist is that the Goths form their own clique and are hostile to outsiders; Goths busy themselves with such superficial matters as their countercultural style, paying special attention to the symbols that mark their social status, including their haircuts, outsider uniforms, and taste in music. The Goths thus replicate the primitive social dynamics which they claim to transcend and so Enlightenment gives way to decadence.

The ultimate reason for this criticism is that since the Neolithic Revolution, most people have been both outsiders and insiders in that they’ve identified with some artificial world even as they’ve been banished from the natural (wild) one. Only those omegas that separate themselves from everyone else; that live as absolute outcasts in the forest or in a cave, as lonesome para-persons or gods; that thus disconnect from both the artificial worlds which sustain personhood and from the natural laws of the wilderness which determine animals’ life cycles, are outside of everything and inside nothing. These omegas are neither persons nor animals, but are withdrawn from all worlds that might impose some way of life; these hermits must speak a private pseudolanguage and be subject mainly to the whims of their imagination. In short, they would seem insane because of their alienness.

But those rebels, who by contrast oppose only some systems and not the very idea of living by the norms of some world, will associate with each other and regulate their behaviour according to their shared ideals; they’ll thus form a subculture which may even in time become a mass one. At any rate, though they may interpret their culture as superior to others, they’ll still be playing social games and that’s the root of the hypocrisy. If an enlightened person sees through only mass culture, but welcomes the comfort of like-minded individuals, she’ll still be a social creature and so her behaviour will conform to the evolutionary norms of dominance hierarchy and of corruption by the concentration of power. In addition, the enlightened outsider who is simultaneously an insider will depend on mass culture in the above sense. A subculture couldn’t survive the overthrow of popular delusions. Were the delusions somehow disposed of, civilization would crumble and anarchy would make all manner of organized revolt against society both impossible and superfluous.

Leo Strauss identified this problem when he spoke of the conflict between philosophers and the vulgar masses, and argued that the former must hide their subversive conclusions from the latter, because even the enlightened elites who see themselves as superior to the uninformed majority depend on mass society for their bodily needs. Besides hiding their knowledge in an esoteric form that’s decipherable only to the initiated, the enlightened may exploit people’s tendency to worship heroes and to form cults of personality. Thus, Buddhist monks who just want to be left alone to meditate and perfect their paradoxical consciousness of nothing will demonstrate their moral superiority just by presenting themselves and thus reminding the unenlightened masses that the monks lack all possessions and base cravings, that they occupy an elevated spiritual plane even though their bodies must be fed and protected. The masses respond by feeding and clothing the monks, so that the masses can hold themselves blameless according to their much lower spiritual standards.

The Great Tale

There are tantalizing hints here of an immense process that has us in its grip and is using us to bring about some alien finale. In evolutionary terms, we can look at the transition from animals to people as the opening of the moral and cognitive niches. Just as the sea-dwelling creatures which mutated and first colonized dry land, millions of years ago, might have felt existentially lost and free to develop a new way of life, with no one to guide them, the primates that mastered the use of tools to become members of Homo sapiens, the ever-flexible Lords of the Earth, earned for themselves the same bittersweet freedom. Instead of receiving guidance, mutants are faced with the threat of death from the indifferent environment, should they prove obtuse and unable to thrive. People are strangely mutated primates and our niches are invisible to the other species; even the unenlightened folks, whose eyes are only half open, as it were, don’t understand much of what occurs in our artificial worlds. Still, we thrive with imagination and technology, which we use to build those worlds to replace the wilderness we’ve largely left behind, and we excel also in the use of philosophical reason which lays bare the horrible facts of life.

It’s tempting to think of this turn of events teleologically, as the completion of some ordered pattern. Certainly, there’s no intelligent design in our evolution. Instead, there’s an accidental stumbling of hapless creatures that pass through a simulated search algorithm. The algorithm takes as input genetic and thus phenotypic variety and outputs the fitness between a type of creature and some environment, since the environment filters out the unfit types. And yet surely there’s some endpoint of this evolution of life, however unintended it might be. Here we confront the curious subject of naturalistic eschatology. Cosmologists, for example, speak of the absolute beginning and end of the universe. Depending on the strength of dark energy, the universe might tear itself apart or collapse on itself. Either way, the end looks disastrous for living things, in which case the story of the universe is a hauntingly alien one; in particular, we are not the protagonists.

My point, though, is that aesthetics doesn’t depend on theology. There are still atheistic stories to tell about patterns. Stories make sense as interpretations of sequences of events that have beginnings, middles, and endings. If the universe has an absolute beginning and an end, we will be attracted to fictions that make sense of that established order. And yet in biology, many species have no absolute end since they smoothly transition into mutated ones. In the Tree of Life, species branch out in a bush-like structure: some are dead ends, but others turn into further branches. By analogy, if you keep adding pebbles to form a heap, there’s no obvious point at which the heap is completed, so any story told about that tantalizingly incomplete process would be anticlimactic. This is to say there’s no real process there at all, no pattern but a constant deferral of the ending that would indicate the manifestation of some deeper order. It’s like a stage play that never ends, so that the curtains are never lowered and the critics never have the satisfaction of evaluating the work as a whole. When a famous author dies, critics get their knives out because the story of her body of work can then finally be told. But as long as the author keeps adding twists to the narrative of her life’s work, the whole can’t yet come fully into view.

We can assume that all life on Earth will perish in the distant future, which leaves us with the alienating narrative in which we’re extras rather than heroes. But what of the more specific story of animals that became people who cope with their freedom, succumbing to decadence or afflicting themselves with rational enlightenment? What’s really going on here in the big picture? What’s the best story to tell about this strange development? The evolutionary story is anticlimactic: there’s just another niche to explore, another sequence of genes to be expressed and submitted for the environment’s quasi-approval. Moreover, the all-encompassing evolutionary story is an oversimplification, because our freedom is unique. The animals that first crawled onto dry land had comparatively little self-control, since their original behaviour was just as genetically determined as the kind that enabled their ancestors to thrive underwater. Also, those animals lacked the cognitive capacity to explicitly mourn the loss of their ancestral way of life; likely, they felt no angst. As for the tale of our unique predicament, I’ve tried out several options. There’s the interpretation of humans as life’s executioners. There’s the scenario in which nature is re-enchanted thanks to our return to a mythopoeic mindset. There’s transhumanism and the technological singularity. And there’s the hope for a naturalistic postmodern religion which inspires us to rebel against nature as tragic heroes. Perhaps a combination of all of these and more would make for the most satisfying myth that tells our tale.


  1. Suicide is true philosophy. As long as we allow ourselves to be chained to the desire of the flesh for continued existance we are merely playing philosopher, and if we're just playing anyway, the sex-money-power game is much more fun than the philosophy game.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I haven't written much yet on suicide here, but I don't see why suicide should be superior to a life of detachment and rebellion against the causes of suffering and absurdity. It's similar to the difference between prison time and execution for a murderer. Those who really want to see the murderer pay for what he did should stop and think about which makes for the worse punishment, a lifetime in a horrible prison or some hours of torment on death row before all the inmate's suffering ends after his execution. Similarly, when a good person dies, the good the person can do ends with his suicide. It's also a little like protesting a political system by not voting, when that ineffectual, ignored protest ends up only empowering the creepiest candidate who's intent on perverting the whole society.

      Who says all those that choose to go on living are "chained to the desire of the flesh"? On the contrary, some may be motivated by an urge to rebel against materiality, using their time to convince others to rebel and raise their standards, and so forth. Granted, everyone who lives has to eat, sleep, breathe, and otherwise make use of their bodies, but those "sins" must be weighed against the spiritual good the person can do. It's like a move in jiu jitsu, when you use someone's force against the person. We can compel bad natural processes to overcome themselves.

    2. You seem to see the philosophy and the sex-power-money game as separate. Is that very accurate? Although according to the myth, philosophers are supposed to be monkish scholars, I've found that philosophy students and lecturers are quite adept at hawking pseudo-philosophical bullshit for prestige or sexual favours. Everyone consciously or unconsciously tries to exploit their individual talents for gain.

    3. I agree with your criticism of academic philosophy. I went to philosophy graduate school to get my Ph.D., so I'm aware of the problems with academia. Whenever you have an institution, you have the danger of corruption.

      When I speak of philosophy, though, I'm not talking just about the professionalized version. See, for example, my article "Philosophy and Social Engineering" (link below). In this article on decadence on enlightenment, I'm talking very generally about using reason to know the truth for its own sake. That is, thousands of years ago, when our ancestors solved the problem of survival, they were left with a lot of time on their hands. Some people used that freedom to think hard about the world. They became, in effect, philosophers, skeptics, existentialists, idealists, and so on, regardless of whether they practiced philosophy in some academic setting. There are still such genuine philosophers out there, both inside and outside the academy. So for me, "genuine philosopher" is more or less synonymous with "introverted omega" or "creative intellectual." I'm not talking about the business of philosophy, but about the obsession with philosophical questions and the hyperconscious awareness of our existential predicament.

    4. From the perspective of the prisoner the difference between life in prison and the death penalty is that as long as you are alive you have hope. New DNA evidence might clear you, you might get out on a technicality of some sort or you might escape. Other than the 'personal God' religions you have derided in this blog there is no escape from the undead universe except death. On the other hand, I was an English Lit. major in college, and the ability to cobble together a plausible sonnet works at least as well as pseudo-philosophical bullshit when it comes to hustling sexual favors.

    5. By "chained to the desire of the flesh for continued existance" I mean that the flesh demands we eat, so we eat; it demands we breathe, so we breathe. Any voluntary act we perform in order to continue our existance is a chain binding us to the world. The urge to resist philosophical despair is, at bottom, the same urge that compels an antelope to keep dodging the lions.

    6. What I mean to say is that goals such as the "urge to rebel against materiality, using their time to convince others to rebel" and the like are philosophical rationalizations of a fleshly urge to continue living. The desire of the flesh for continued life inspires philosphers to resist despair in the same way it inspires an antelope to dodge a lion.

    7. The urge to resist existential despair may be similar to an antelope's urge to dodge lions, in that they're both matters of self-interest, but there are also crucial differences. The former may be opposed to the evolutionary goal of reproducing for the genes' sake. That's why the antelope runs from lions: to survive and reproduce and raise the offspring. But while those who are concerned with angst may also want to survive, they're likely opposed to the idea of reproducing and raising a family. They're withdrawn from nature in a way that the antelope isn't.

      This is why I'm just not convinced by your reductive contention that the philosopher's desire to live is as "fleshly" as the antelope's. It's just not so. The antelope lives within nature because that animal is nothing but tied to nature. (I'm going to say more about this next week, but Dennett's distinction between Skinnerian and Popperian creatures is relevant here.) That's what makes the antelope an animal rather than a person. An animal is much more like a puppet of natural forces. But a person is more self-controlling, meaning the person is aware of what's going on and can decide to go with the flow or oppose it.

      Is suicide the ultimate opposition? Not necessarily, since a Bodhisattva figure can do more damage against the natural world than someone who entirely escapes it, by enlightening others about the degrees of resistance which comprise our personhood. So you can say that enlightened philosophers are really just animals, at bottom, hanging on to more earthly life at all costs. But then you'll have to explain why they tend to live in caves, to withdraw from society even though they have social instincts, to give up having possessions and a family, even though they instinctively seek those things as well. All of that indicates that a deathly sort of life is possible, that a spiritual person doesn't just go with the flow like the other animals, but uses the flow (the instinct to survive) against the flow (the various natural forces), like a judo move (not jiu jitu, like I said before). That's also what our technological and cultural remaking of nature is about: we create artificial worlds and we then adapt to those, which recreates the flow and the "chains" in the first place.

    8. Perhaps my philospher/antelope reductionism is a bit simplistic. As long as we are flesh we can't escape its demands completely, but we can give in to them as little as possible. I suspect that as with many other aspects of human nature our capacity for spirituality is normally distributed. At the far left of the bell curve some of us think the sex-money-power game is great fun and can't imagine anything else. At the far right end some of us are so disgusted with corporeal existance that we take gun in hand and reject it utterly. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, dissatisfied with our lives for reasons we can't quite name. The philosophers are just to the left of the suicides. I think the desire of the flesh for continued existance is what anchors the philosophers just enough to keep them from joining the suicides.

    9. I would add an aesthetic dimension to this analysis of spirituality. One problem with materialism and egoism is that they're cliched, unoriginal, and thus ugly and artistically uninspiring. Those who give in to the biological dynamics, preoccupying themselves with their social status, their power over others, their possessions and sexuality, and so forth are to those extents animalistic. Those who are more spiritual, introverted, self-controlling, and existentially rebellious are more artistically creative, because their lives are more unique. They're going against the flow of nature, creating their path with tragic heroism. To me, that aesthetically superior aspect of what we're calling spirituality gives existential rebellion its emotional power.

  2. Regarding your main question, I think that the uncertainty principle implies that no myth can be discounted, and that therefore all myths are equally valid.

    The only two conditions which apply are contextual validity and authenticity. Just as every belief has a unique context, all beliefs need to be validated by their context. Also, since beliefs are an expression of the commitment to life, all beliefs need to be authentically committed to life.

    I have some doubts about you anthropological history. I've studied the culture of the Bushmen, a hunter-gatherer culture, and found that besides their technological differences there is very little to distinguish them from other cultures. The western myth that society and culture as we know it today only originated with the agricultural revolution is a myth without any real substantiation. Bushmen have their priestkings, in the form of tribal elders and witch-doctors, they have complex power structures dividing alphas from omegas, they have their own decadent practices and enlightenment philosophies, etc.
    Obviously, there are differences, but these are contextual variations due to differences in environment, technology and social factors.

    Also, I question your distinction between decadence and enlightenment. I think that the two are inextricably linked. Society provides the enlightened with the decadence needed for their pursuit of enlightenment. Surely you cannot dispute the evidence of your decadent alpha lifestyle and the contingency of your philosophies on it?

    Finally, I disagree with your views regarding the hypocrisy of spiritual elites. I think that many of the distinctions are symbolic, but that they serve to symbolize real distinctions. Although the distinctions may often only be symbolic, in terms of cultural symbols like words and appearances, but these often symbolize actual distinctions in terms of special knowledge and skills.

    1. If by "uncertainty principle" you're talking about the multiverse, that wouldn't mean that each myth is valid in every universe; instead, it would mean only that each myth is valid in some universe. So not all stories would be equally powerful in, say, our universe. Our universe works as it does, so even though there may be some other universe elsewhere which works differently, there are still better or worse ways of characterizing our universe.

      I'm not an expert on anthropology, but I'm under the impression that the theory of the Neolithic Revolution is based on a lot of archeological evidence. Studying bushmen today wouldn't necessarily tell us about hunters and gatherers tens of thousands of years ago, since even current primitive tribes might have been influenced by more advanced societies. In any case, I wouldn't dispute that hunters and gatherers had some social structures, such as dominance hierarchies. As I say in numerous places on this blog, I think most social species are structured in that way. For the purposes of this article, the distinction between hunters and gatherers and the Neolithic people has to do with the complexity of their artificial environments. Those who are constantly on the move can't afford to settle down and build permanent shelters, whereas farmers do so.

      I agree that decadence and enlightenment are linked. That was one of my points in this article, that they're interdependent.

      I wasn't agreeing so much with the point about the hypocrisy of spiritual elites, as I was trying to explain why people have that impression. Still, if you're talking about cultural markers like hairstyle and music choices, those markers may be "real" but that doesn't mean they're important. Spiritual elites would be expected to focus not just on reality but on the more important parts of the real world. Of course the differences between hairstyles is part of the real world in the sense that those differences exist. But the difference between, say, reality and maya, the world of illusions, is a normative as well as a metaphysical one. The point is that some things that exist are relatively trivial and yet dangerous in that they can serve as distractions that confuse and mislead us. So the danger of the spiritual elite's hypocrisy is quite real.

    2. The uncertainty principle refers to the knowledge that there are no certainties. Myths are fundamentally speculative or prophetic, and considering that there is no certain way of predicting the future, all myths are potentially valid. Obviously some are more probable than others, but this is not entirely relevant, due to the problem of intention (we can shape probability through volition, and even improbable outcomes do occur).

      My criticism then is against the notion that there is one myth which is best for everyone. People are different, and therefore what counts as the best myth will be different for different people. The only universal qualifiers are those which are universal to all living beings, such as the commitment to life and the desire for a meaningful/authentic existence.

      Most of the evidence I've read for the supposed social changes of the Neolithic revolution is questionable. For instance, scholars often say the same about our own civilization, pointing to the high quality of life people enjoy in most western nations. However, they completely ignore the suffering of the millions of sweatshop workers who make a life of luxury possible for the privileged few. Although technology and our environment have changed greatly, I find little evidence of much change in human nature itself. You seem to be saying that the agricultural revolution isolated us from nature and allowed us to develop artificial worlds of thought. But living in imaginary worlds is characteristic of all human beings, even the most primitive societies, such as the Bushmen or Australian Aborigines.

      My point about enlightenment is that they're more than interdependent. I think that enlightenment is generally a form of decadence, and vice versa. As you say, decadence grants the privilege of enlightenment. Then it is only natural that enlightenment should seek to increase our decadence, that we may have even greater opportunity for the pursuit of enlightenment.

      Regarding the spiritual elite's hypocrisy, I think that their hypocrisy is in a large part only apparent. Consider monks in the middle ages. They created an iconography of spiritual superiority. Taken literally this hypocrisy, but viewed symbolically, as symbolizing their important role as the intellectual class of the medieval world, this is not so hypocritical. Rather, much of medieval society was dependent on the benefits of the monastic tradition, and therefore it was only reasonable that society provided for them. The same can be said of many such spiritually elite groups. Taken literally they appear absurd, but taken pragmatically or functionally, their privilege is sound in principle.

      Consider for example the modern day mysticism of medicine. Viewed objectively, doctors are no more the heroic life savers society makes them out to be than any old plumber or farmer - after all, our lives are just as dependent on proper sanitation or food provision, if not more so, than on medicine. But we venerate doctors in the media and in society in spite of this hypocrisy, because beneath the hypocrisy there is the knowledge that doctors are special because the ability to practice medicine is rare and valuable, and this value needs to be nurtured for it to continue. So the mysticism of medicine hypocritical, but the product of this hypocrisy is real.

    3. Benjamin:

      Some anthropologists argue that the neolithic revolution only freed the elites, that the lower orders in a hunting and gathering society lived far better than the serfs and peasants of agricultural eras. I read somewhere that the average plebe in medieval Europe had fewer calories than the average stone age hunter.

      So...the revolution may have freed a small elite, but did it really free humanity as a whole?

    4. That is the problem with such so-called evidence - it doesn't necessarily mean anything. Perhaps the stone-age hunter needed more calories to survive. It doesn't say anything about the quality of living.

      In my experience, most historical theories are questionable. When it comes to history, you should isolate the facts and come to your own conclusions.

      Look for instance at Gibbons thesis - that civilizations fall due to cultural decadence. His primary proof is that neighbouring peoples eventually start to out-compete the civilization. Does this point to cultural decadence? No, there are many other, and in my opinion, better explanations.

    5. Brain M,

      What you say about the degrees of freedom is plausible. However, I'm not talking here about political freedom, or liberty. I'm sure the masses living in ancient empires weren't as free as the rulers in that sense. Still, the masses weren't as unfree as animals, because they didn't live in the wilderness. They were encultured people, walled off from nature by their architectures, tools, infrastructures, languages, and cultures. They were *existentially free,* meaning that they faced a choice which leads ultimately to decadence or to enlightenment. Animals don't face that choice because they're existential slaves, meaning that their bodies are mostly caught in natural processes. People slip out of those and create artificial worlds that substitute for the wilderness; we then adapt to these idealistic environments and set up a feedback loop which accelerates the unnatural processes of decadence or enlightenment. Oh, everything in the universe is natural in some metaphysical sense. But the distinction between nature and artificiality is still warranted by the evidence.

    6. Your use of the Uncertainty Principle, then, is quite a stretch, since it applies directly only to the quantum level. Scientists aren't entirely uncertain about what's going to happen in the higher levels of nature, because the quantum effects average out at those levels.

      I agree, though, that different people may require different myths. However, there's a more general difference between all people and all animals. People face the existential crisis which defines our personal nature. All myths help us deal with that defining problem, so they should be judged by that criterion.

      I agree that living in imaginary worlds is characteristic of human beings, but at some point in our prehistory, there were gray areas: there were protopeople who were more animalistic than imaginative. I'm saying the line between foraging and agriculture was a big turning point in the transformation of some animals into people. The evidence of when exactly that change in animal nature happened may be mixed, but clearly that change did happen sometime in the distant past. People are existentially free to choose decadence or enlightenment; animals aren't.

      Enlightenment is the opposite of decadence (resisting vs succumbing to natural processes). It's a matter of judo, as I say above to Michael Murden.

      I agree that some double standards may be justified by natural inequalities. Still, hypocrisy is at least possible for so-called spiritual elites, no? Just look at the televangelists. And it's hard to argue against South Park's satirical take on Goth subculture. They spend too much time worrying about what they look like on the outside; those cultural markers work in the same way as conspicuous consumption, in that both are meant to divide Us from Them. The more advanced division isn't between classes in a dominance hierarchy; it's between the enlightened individual and the natural forces that tend to enslave us all.

    7. Benjamin:

      I'm not sure I entirely buy your argument.

      Because the "artifical" habitat is at this point in history so all encompassing. Effectively, we are animals within an artificial nature, Culture provides the same role, the same matrix as nature.

      I am not sure I buy the argument that this is somehow more freedom or superior. Look at I am not a fan of the nobel savage myth, but ...

      How is a mall rat wandering in a pack of other teenagers any more existentially free? Is the food court really better, freer than the jungle swimming pool?

    8. Brian,

      I think you're still looking at freedom in a normative way. The freedom I'm talking about is the horror of being groundless. It's existential freedom, not political liberty. Liberty is good, because the opposite is oppression. Animals are neither oppressed nor liberated, because they're blissfully ignorant. Still, animals lack the existential freedom to create themselves, because their bodies are enmeshed in their environment. In Dennett's terms, they're Darwinian or Skinnerian creatures: their behaviour is genetically determined or dependent on stimuli. Freer creatures create an artificial world in their minds, made of mental representations which they use to stand in for the outer environment. By creating that inner self through mental labour, they detach themselves from the outer environment and face the primordial, existential choice of a path towards decadence or one towards enlightenment. Each path has its downside, although the latter is far nobler.

      So just because someone's existentially free doesn't mean she's in good shape. She may have chosen decadence. The hideous folks in Wallmart are as decadent as Marie Antoinette, the difference between their respective social class. Poor folks lack the money to express their inner corruption with the same extravagance as rich folks, but either can be degraded, corrupted, and so forth. Corruption here means falling away from our spiritual potential, from our capacity for artistic greatness which requires philosophical enlightenment. The problem with spirituality is that it's a matter of *tragic* heroism, because the creative genius sacrifices her capacity for happiness.

      As for the artificial outer environment, it's a sign of our collective existential freedom. Even decadent folks are free in that sense, because their sin, if you like, exposes the fact that they don't belong in the animal kingdom. Animals can't sin. Corrupt people are free because they've created a supernatural way of life, in a sense. Metaphysically, everything is natural, I grant you, but morally and spiritually, decadent folks have *fallen*: they've used their separation from nature to make themselves ugly, retreating to an animalistic lifestyle even though biologically they're people, not animals. Our artificial environment provides indisputable evidence of the "miracle" of our existential freedom: whether we choose decadence or enlightenment and existential rebellion, we leave the natural world behind and express our inner worlds by creating outer ones which in turn exacerbate our inner condition, making us monstrously corrupt (e.g. the racist Tea Party hotheads and ignoramuses or the oligarchical demigods, like the whiner Wall St "banksters") or alienated, antisocial introverts or philosophical skeptics and nihilists.

    9. Animals are neither oppressed nor liberated, because they're blissfully

      Exactly my point with the reference to teenage mall brats and People-of-WalMart Decadents. But more importantly, why is the world of "nature" different functionally than the world of the cul-de-sac or the mall? I would certainly disagree that our decadents are NOT as dependent on "instinct" and "stimuli" as the culture is so all-encompassing. I am not sure how much mental labor is actually involved in most human cultures and habitats. The medieval peasant does not exist in any more well-considered or developed mental world than the Aborigine with his complex mental world and cosmology that is far more "sophisticated" than the mall rat's.

      This is not a "normative" definition. I question your view of pre-agricultural man and cultures. The mental world of the tribesman may be MORE sophisticated, even if on the surface it is not artificial.

    10. My reference to the uncertainty principle is not to Heisenberg's theory, but the general philosophical principle that certain prediction is impossible. Certainly 'quantum effects average out' at higher levels, but we're talking about averages, that is probabilities, not certainties. It is a silly conceit of scientism to pretend that probability is equivalent to certainty, but anyone with a brain knows the difference.

      Certainly there is a difference between humans and animals, but discovering your place in the cosmos is a question which all living beings face. The parameters are different for human beings, but the question is the same. But I would have to concede that it is still an important qualifier for any myth.

      What I do contend is that the existential crisis is universal in the sense that it is the same for everyone. I think that it is more accurate to say that for each of us our existential crisis is different, and therefore the myths we will arrive at are different.

      I agree that it is likely that at some point human beings evolved into their present state. I just find the theories that trace this evolution to one moment in history to be ridiculous. It must have been a gradual process that occurred over many millennia.

      Decadence and enlightenment cannot be that easily differentiated. If decadence is the pursuit of the well being of 'the body' and enlightenment that of 'the soul', then certainly you'll agree that they indistinguishable in the sense that the body and soul are indivisible. The body cannot be well without a healthy soul, and what heals the body also heals the soul. Pursuit of decadence then is also the pursuit of enlightenment and vice versa.

      The fallacy of a divisible being is a theory with no real substance whose ultimate purpose is bad faith/slave morality. It seeks to dissociate a being from its authentic nature and in so doing to force that being into a state of subservience by convincing that being that subservience is a necessary condition to achieve the authentic existence all being seek.

      The fallacy of a divisible being is the basis of all false religions which claim that followers can only be spiritually complete through subservience to a spiritual master who controls access to spiritual wholeness. It is the same with elitist art which claims that aesthetic experience can only occur with the permission of the Artist.

      I think that an imbalance is possible. It may happen that we pursue certain needs (decadence) to the neglect of others (enlightenment), but I believe that to imagine that they are divisible and to seek to promote enlightenment needs over others can only lead to an equally inauthentic position. Rather, we should seek an inner harmony, were decadence and enlightenment become synergetic rather than opposing, where they work in harmony for the well-being of the being as a whole.

    11. Regarding hypocrisy, I think that what we call hypocrisy is rather an exploitation of symbolic confusions. I think that there are tele-evangelists who provide a sincere and honest service to their viewers, while there are others who exploit their symbolic prestige to line their own pockets. Similarly, there are Goths who use cosmetic subversion to undermine the social conventions of appearance, and there are others who use it to create their own cultures of cosmetic hierarchy.

      To condemn all people of a particular group by the natural hypocrisy of society is ridiculous. Society is inherently hypocritical. To condemn only a few for that hypocrisy while validating the hypocrisy of the many is unfair. Take yourself for example. Can you guarantee that your philosophical meditations will benefit others? Yet your title of philosopher, formal or informal, implies such a commitment. Sure, being a goth or a tele-evangelist is based on a fundamental hypocrisy, but so is being a philosopher. You can't condemn all goths and tele-evangelists on the basis of a few bad seeds by the same principle that it would be wrong too condemn all philosophers, including yourself, on the basis of a few quacks.

    12. Anon,

      Your earlier point about the Uncertainty Principle was that because we must be uncertain about everything, we can't discount any myth. But this isn't so, because in quantum mechanics, uncertainty has to do with the inability to predict how one variable will turn out, given knowledge of another one, whereas when the quantum effects average out at higher levels of nature, probabilities come to the fore which allows for rational prediction. So some myths might be better than others according to certain aesthetic criteria, for example, which are based on knowledge of what's probably best for us.

      Maybe you're right that the Neolithic Revolution shouldn't be made to carry too much weight. All I want to say here is that the shift from foraging to farming is an important part of the transformation, which happened at different times in different places around the world.

      Decadence and enlightenment differ for me because I think one is bad and the other is good despite its tragic consequences. They differ at the normative level. You say we need to balance the two and I'd agree that perfect enlightenment is probably impossible. We all tend to have our blind spots, personal baggage, and so on. But remember that decadence is the opposite of enlightenment. Decadence is a matter of surrendering our potential to develop in a transhuman way, to fall back into an animalistic stupor, to give into base instincts and to degrade ourselves. Enlightenment is seeing through all of that and responding to our common existential predicament in some creative, original, and thus aesthetically praiseworthy way.

      I agree that some Goths or other spiritual elites (countercultural rebels) may not be hypocritical. Still, the South Park critique calls attention to a real danger for these folks.

      I'm not sure philosophy entails an interest in helping others. Philosophy is the love of knowledge, which ends more authentically in detachment from society, due to horror of what's discovered by the helpless skeptic. It would take great willpower for the enlightened philosopher to haul himself back into the social maelstrom and to interact with more ignorant or deluded folks. It would be like Neo plunging back into the matrix.

    13. Brian,

      Now you're focusing on our mental worlds, when you say the foragers have sophisticated inner lives. But by "artificial world" I'm talking about everything we create (languages, cultures, social infrastructures, technologies, cities), so we have to look at this in a holistic way. Foragers don't build cities or empires. They can't afford to be tied down. And those who do settle down find themselves with more free time to think or to luxuriate and corrupt themselves. Either way, there's additional personal development here as well as feedback from the larger, more all-encompassing artificial environment. So I'd predict that while the ancient foragers had some language, tools, and religious beliefs, those creations weren't as complex as the ones that develop within the crucible of a technologically advanced society that has a much larger population.

      Still, I agree that Australian Aboriginals have a fascinating shamanistic religion (the dreamtime, etc). Terence McKenna proposed the interesting theory that cultural complexity happened as a result of ingesting magic mushrooms. That could have been a factor too, in which case certain foraging tribes might have had that head start.

      I wouldn't say a mall rat has a complex mental world. Instead, this sort of person has chosen the opposite path from enlightenment, which is decadence. Decadence shows itself in the complex ways in which someone with great potential to "rise" from her animalistic distractions chooses instead to *fall down,* ethically speaking.

    14. 'probabilities come to the fore which allows for rational prediction.'

      Only certainty can provide proper criteria for rational prediction, and if you agree that probability isn't certainty, then no such criteria exist.

      Think about it. A probability is essential a statement two simultaneous, opposing yet equally valid propositions. For instance, if we say there is a 10% probability of rain, we are saying that there is both a probability that it will rain, and a probability that it won't rain. Even though the one is only 10% and the other 90%, both are equally valid because both are probable outcomes. After all, if you choose to believe that it won't rain and it does, you will have made the wrong choice even if you chose the more probable proposition.

      Myths are all about predicting the future, and because the future is uncertain/probabilistic, all myths are potentially valid so long as the prediction has some chance of happening. An argument which says that we should use highest probability as a criterion for determining the best myth fails on several points. Firstly, improbable outcomes occur just as probable outcomes do. Highest probability is no guarantee of success. Secondly, less probable outcomes are often more salubrious or desirable than more probable outcomes. Thirdly, we are beings with volition, able to change probability according to our own desires.

      To give an example, say you're faced with the question of whether to trust some. Given that you cannot say for certain whether that person is trustworthy or not, that is, truthworthiness is only a probability, both choices are equally valid.

    15. Decadence is just as necessary as enlightenment. You cannot deny your base instincts or animalistic needs. You are an animal which feels cold or hunger, which suffers feelings of loneliness or inadequacy. To deny these would be to deny yourself life. All living beings must embrace the decadence of visceral existence to continue existing. Denying it is pure hypocrisy.

      An authentic existence instead depends on not supplanting decadence for enlightenment, or enlightenment for decadence.

      Regarding social hypocrisy, can't you see your own hypocrisy? You say that Goths are in danger of hypocrisy by holding themselves apart through superficial conventions. But by judging Goths on their appearance you are implicitly acknowledging the same hypocrisy.

      Regarding philosophy, you cannot deny that you make assumptions based on that term. Yet those assumptions are merely generalizations. As such, you run the same danger of hypocrisy.

    16. Anon,

      Certainty is a psychological matter, but probability is mathematical or objective, depending on which theory of probability you assume. For example, religious fundamentalists may be absolutely certain that Jesus will soon return to Earth, but what's the probability of that happening?

      Again, I'm not agreeing so much with the South Park criticism, so much as I'm explaining it to add a complication to my article. Some so-called elites may be hypocritical, while others may be the real deal. It's a character issue. South Park isn't always fair in its satirical take-downs, but I think there's a kernel of truth in what it says about counterculturalists like the Goths. I'm sure I do run the danger of being hypocritical. As I said, we all have our blind spots and potential illusions. I've never held myself out as enlightened.

    17. Considering how gullible most apocalyptic Christians are, it's a near certainty.

  3. "And there’s the hope for a naturalistic postmodern religion which inspires us to rebel against nature as tragic heroes." Isn't that what we've been doing? Isn't the industrial revolution an example of this? What exactly do you mean by "naturalistic?" There's a little known book you might be interested in, if you haven't already read it. It's called, Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt. It goes into the importance of keeping secrets from the masses, both technological and philosophical. Are you aware the neoconservatives are followers of Leo Strauss?

    1. Anon,

      I haven't read the book on Egypt, but I'm interested in its connection with Strauss. I've read Shadia Drury's work on Strauss and neoconservatism.

      By "naturalistic," I mean that the superior worldview can't take the cheap, theistic way out, by positing a god-of-the-gaps. The religion has to be philosophically naturalistic, meaning that it's got to square with the sciences. Generally, the Eastern religions are more naturalistic than the Western ones, so those give us a head start. But the Eastern religions don't reckon with postmodernity. So the religion I'm curious about would reconcile us to naturalism and to our postmodern historical position, using myths (fictions) to artistically inspire us to pursue a new and fitting way of life.

      You might want to check out my articles on scientism, modernism and liberalism, where I talk about the Enlightenment (some links below). The problem with modernism is that it's scientistic. Modernists are religious and beholden to certain myths, but in a paradoxical way, because consciously they set themselves in opposition to all religions and myths. That's the essence of scientism. Scientism is an uninspiring religion. It's naturalistic, to be sure, but it's not postmodern, since modernists lack hyperconscious self-awareness. They think they're opposing all irrationality even though they've set up reason, consumerism, democracy, and capitalism (i.e. modernity) as the elements of a bumbling sort of religious creed and practice. This is my problem with many New Atheists, like Jerry Coyne and the rest.

      Still, I agree that the Industrial Revolution divides us from the wilderness. All artificial environments do that. But I'm talking about an inner, spiritual/existential rebellion not just against superstition and irrationality, but against our inclinations towards decadence and existential inauthenticity. Modern rationalists lack the self-awareness to be great artists. Sure, the Enlightenment rationalists were masterful at creating technology and discovering the natural facts. But normatively speaking, modernity (democracy, capitalism, consumerism, scientism) leads to decadence. Modernists naively thought reason alone would show us the way, and so as postmodernists appreciate, the modern metanarrative is hollow. If we pretend to be ultrarational robots, we let oligarchs and phony elites like the neoconservatives determine our ideals for us. We think in instrumentally rational terms, deriving our idea of happiness from pop culture. This is the connection between the cliche of consumerism, which recapitulates the same old dynamic of the dominance hierarchy, and the inferior religion of Scientism.

  4. The Goths thus replicate the primitive social dynamics which they claim to transcend and so Enlightenment gives way to decadence.

    Whoa, hold on there!?

    Okay, there's thinking you're all enlightened, but slipping right back into default human behaviour/give way to it. This is slipping back - a mistake.

    But there's also choosing to slip back into various amounts of default human behaviour (the amounts, what capacity one can decide, is decided rather than simply being of its own accord). Are you calling that 'giving way' as well? You're probably calling it decadence. But are you calling it 'giving way'?

    1. Callan,

      I agree there are degrees in all of this. We can be partly enlightened and partly decadent, and so on. The Goths are partly enlightened in that they're nihilistic in Brassier's sense: they appreciate the existential burden left by technoscience. But that's only a matter of cognition. Where's the normative elevation in Gothic behaviour? They're too tribal to be spiritually or artistically great. They're caught up in petty social games and sexuality, which distract themselves from the implications of their nihilism. Distraction is okay as long as it guides us in some aesthetically-compelling direction. The Gothic lifestyle is cliched, not original, and their myths lack the emotional power of viable metaphors. The social games distract them by making them hypocrites, whereas our behaviour should be in line with our cognition. That's the mark of existential authenticity/integrity.

      Now you might say Goths subscribe to something like BBT and so they don't believe in normativity or spirituality; thus, they're not hypocrites, since they're authentic nihilists. This might be so, but Goths (along with all other people) are existentially free in the sense I've explained in the above comments. Knowing that ideals are illusory is to know only that spiritual folks are doomed and that great artists are tragic heroes at best. Goths must then be held accountable for their choice to walk partway down the path of decadence. Why choose cliched tribalism over the tragic heroism of the more creative life option?

      Of course, I'm not really advancing this critique myself, since I know little of this subculture. I'm just explaining the South Park criticism of the Goths in my terms.

    2. Where's the normative elevation in Gothic behaviour?
      What does normative elevation refer to?

      They're too tribal to be spiritually or artistically great.
      By what measure?

      I've already paid the notion that someone might think they see beyond, but then just slip back into very much default trible behaviour.

      But assuming one decides to reenter the matrix...well, what are you expecting? Slo-mo air kicks, ala Trinity? Bad ass, I admit, but...what are you expecting to see? Transformation?

  5. I idly imagine the reason for no responce is that the judgement methodology has withdrawn its border back to critique the goths and thinks itself, having drawn back, safe from that. And the questions of measures throws it right back into the same frying pan as the goths. Yes, I'm being provocative. Because I wonder if by not responding myself, I will condone something I would not wish to. ...Such is danger, it seems, of idle imagination.

    1. Callan,

      Yesterday I was busy writing an article that I'll be sending to Scott Bakker. That's why I didn't respond to the comments on my blog. What do I mean by "normative elevation"? Well, in the context of South Park's critique of the Goths, it's just a matter of integrity as opposed to hypocrisy. As long as a rebel against society tries to be free of delusions or at least to be aware of her delusions (irrational beliefs, unconscious motivations, etc) that are inevitable for her survival, she's more heroic than one who's only pretending to be countercultural. In South Park, the Goth kids protest that the Emos are the hypocrites who are much too concerned with fashion to be melancholy, but it turns out the Goths and the Emos are pretty much interchangeable.

    2. Looks like I need to watch that episode at some point.

      Almost seems like any notion of heroism involved spoils the brew, eh?

      Anyway, I'd have to pin down the details - I mean, if the goths and even the emo's practice any amount of such awareness, even if only once a week - well the thing is, then the writers of the show are promoting themselves as the very judge of how much one must practice this and then judging who they deign to as not practicing enough. Put that way, its question begging, isn't it?

  6. BTW, what season of south park does that episode come from, Ben?

    1. The Goths are in several episodes, but the 2013 Halloween episode, just a few weeks ago, focused on the Goths and satirized their lack of difference from Emos. There was another episode that made fun of the vampire kids and the accessories store Hot Topic (season 12, ep. 14).

  7. One cannot be "partly enlightened"; sounds like "partly pregnant" to me... one is either enlightened or not. Enlightenment is a happening after which one doesn't distinguish between good and evil, in human perception of the phenomena at least. Thus the whole idea of the "frown of the enlightened man" is absurdly retarded. Any philosophical findings and enlightenment are never the same - philosophy is hugely flawed because all the findings are conducted from a human point of view by normal humans (most of whom consider themselves "partly enlightened", i.e. godlike but are nothing but very smart unenlightened normal people) - none of the enlightened beings have ever called themselves philosophers, mind you. Teachers yes, masters yes, but philosophers?.. Or, if they had been philosophers before the happening, after enlightenment they dropped all their folly philosophies, or their teachings changed a lot. Philosophy rants are merely findings of blind leading the blind, thus are nothing more than exercise for a leisurely mind. Pumped up by huge unenlightened intellectual egos in most cases.
    Or... maybe you're using the word "enlightenment" for something different, and or more loosely? Like, for singular occasions of shaktipat or grace?

    1. When you say that philosophy in general is flawed, are you coming at this from a theological perspective? Or perhaps a scientific one?

      I agree that enlightenment as it's construed in the Eastern religions is a sort of all-or-nothing detachment that makes you amoral and uninterested in philosophical speculation. But I'm talking more about modern enlightenment that comes from naturalism and existentialism. Mind you, I've argued that Buddhism has more in common with existentialism than you might think.