Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Deflating Traditionalism: Why Existentialism beats Spirituality

Traditionalists, such as Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, and Huston Smith posit that the major religions all contain a core of esoteric, perennial wisdom, but that those spiritual teachings have been largely misunderstood because there’s been a falling away from the truth, especially in what we call the modern age. Guenon, for example, contends that Hinduism is essentially correct with respect to its monistic view of the divine Self, and that this spiritual wisdom or metaphysics (knowledge of universal things) is expressed symbolically in all legitimate religions. More specifically, the truth is found in “rites of initiation,” in the “transmission of spiritual influences,” corresponding to either exoteric or esoteric level of perfection. The Christian symbol of the cross speaks to this hidden distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric, between horizontal and vertical understanding, or between mastery of the illusory domain of multiplicity in nature and that of supernatural reality.

The ancients were supposedly clearer about the importance of spirituality than we are, perhaps because they weren’t as burdened by the distractions of superficial knowledge and power, which technoscience affords us. This falling away lands us in a paradoxical dark age, given our ignorance of what really matters, according to Guenon and other traditionalists. We think instead that we dominate because of our personal liberties and luxuries, but actually we suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, since we’ve become accustomed to our ignorance and to the prison in which we lock ourselves to guard against our spiritual awakening. We mistake exoteric for esoteric power; the abilities to measure and to physically overpower things in the natural, illusory domain of finitude and multiplicity, on the one hand, for entering into a noble relationship with universal reality, on the other; and we mistake also God’s mask or our private ego for the divine self. Traditionalism would thus lend itself smoothly to politically conservative uses—except that the traditionalist will be opposed to religious literalism and exclusivism, that is, to fundamentalism, the latter being much more politically useful to conservatives.

In my view, traditionalism should be deflated and naturalized. Physics and mathematics have replaced metaphysics or rational intuition as the most reliable ways of explaining and describing universal matters. Philosophical speculation is an art form, since it’s closer to literature than to science. The traditionalist will protest that naturalistic knowledge rises only to an exoteric level of understanding. But the only way to justify that criticism of science is to demonstrate that miracles occur in the religious initiation into supernatural mysteries. Where, then, are the miraculous superpowers possessed by wise spiritualists? If there are none, the major religions have more likely operated as massive cons. There is something to the traditionalist’s teachings about initiation and the distinction between esoteric and exoteric understanding and discipline, but the traditionalist isn’t cynical or alienated enough to have grasped the true roles of religion and spirituality in history. Here, then, is my counter-narrative.

The Dark Reality of Spiritualism

The discovery of a “divine, inner self” that Hindus and other mystics take for God, for a mind that precedes nature is only an experience of psychopathic consciousness whereby the initiate realizes that social conventions—be they moral, religious, or political—are founded on delusions and that obedience to them is therefore wrongheaded or at least optional. Thus, concludes the sage, if we can become sufficiently detached from our foolish collective enterprises, we can liberate ourselves from our social commitments and dwell in a higher-dimensional mental space. The divine self within is said to be tranquil, free from worry, and that’s because to experience this “higher consciousness,” you must dispose of your personality, including your socially-instilled conscience. If you feel love for all things while meditating, you haven’t reached nirvana or samadhi, because you’re still emotionally attached to things and haven’t fully surrendered your ego. You still care too much, whereas reality cares not. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, in his clownish and malevolent fashion, Donald Trump has accidentally attained the height of spiritual insight, in this respect, because he’s manifestly a psychopath who’s incapable of feeling shame or remorse. Trump therefore feels free to do whatever he wants, like a god; of course, his wealth and fame only exacerbate this freedom. Trump is one avatar of nature’s overpowering mindlessness, but there have been many others, including most kings, emperors, dictators, plutocrats, and cult leaders that have dominated human affairs throughout history and prehistory. 

The “falling away” from traditional wisdom, then, is just the popularization of cynicism, produced by scientific dismantling of dogmatic belief systems, which has led us to suspect that the gods have only ever been human sons of bitches, that is, tyrants and predators whose personality disorders afford them the superpower of shamelessness which strikes the dull masses as charismatic. The tyrants are liberated from the social contract because they’re incapable of caring about anything except themselves. These are the megalomaniacs who magnify their personality, identifying themselves with society in the kingly manner, as in the myth of King Arthur, so that once the king has taken his outsized share of the resources, the benefit “trickles down” to the little people. But should the king suffer even mere annoyance at any point, let alone be thwarted in his grandiose ambitions, the whole society will collapse—because in retaliation the narcissistic ruler will bring the house down with him. The late-modern case of the banks that are “too big to fail” and that therefore hold Western society hostage, while the advantage of such predatory economic inequality is supposed to be a trickle-down effect is a glaring example of the same traditional myths at work.

So the “esoteric” purpose isn’t union with the godhead or liberation from a natural cycle of rebirth. Instead, the freedom we’re capable of as clever mammals is that of the Ubermensch, the one who chooses his or her values from scratch, and we must then decide by way of a leap of faith in some existential direction whether we want to be a dick with that freedom (a psychopathic tyrant like L. Ron Hubbard, Hitler, Donald Trump, or Kim Jong-il) or to sublimate our grasp of everything’s absurdity, to channel our misanthropic disgust with the world’s silliness into the practice of higher art forms.

The so-called “spiritual initiation” is a form of enlightenment in the sense of an existential awakening. Far from binding the initiate to a higher reality, the higher, cosmicist wisdom we attain alienates us from reality because what we come to realize is that consciousness isn’t metaphysically fundamental but is an accident, an absurd anomaly such that conscious beings can only muddle through life from one ultimately futile gambit to the next.

The spiritual, qualitative or profound perspective differs from empirical knowledge only in being a vision of everything’s aesthetic dimension which corresponds to noumenal reality. What things really are is what they would be even if no one were perceiving or attempting to use them. The closest we get to glimpsing reality isn’t by meditating in the sense of communing with a supernatural mind; instead, we need only abstract from our base preferences and from the laughable charades that support our self-confidence, and look on the world with an artist’s sensibility. We thereby glimpse things as they really are—as natural creations that are meaningless in the end apart from their intrinsic or momentary properties.

For example, suppose you have a dog for a pet. Normally, you think of your dog as a family member, as a companion you care for. That personal, conventional way of interpreting and experiencing your dog rises to the “exoteric” level of understanding. Your dog is really no such thing. The notions of companionship, love, loyalty, and so on are subjective illusions that depend on egocentric fictions and socially-useful myths. But neither is the truth of your dog just the scientific model which would speak of the animal’s evolutionary, biological, chemical, or atomic properties. This is because while that knowledge is admittedly objective, it’s also inherently instrumental. The purpose of objectivity is to probe for physical weaknesses to dominate what you thereby come to understand. Instrumentalism and power-games are likewise mere human pastimes and therefore don’t yet approach esoteric understanding—unless the domination is psychotic and thus godlike in its inhumanity.

What the dog really is, as far as we can tell with our limited human senses and mode of cognition, is just what the animal seems to be when you think of it with as much impersonality and indifference as you can muster. To glimpse noumenal reality, you must cast a sidelong glance while otherwise doing nothing; you must become as hard as a stone. When you appreciate how the light reflects off the dog’s fur, when the animal’s behaviour amuses you—not as the dog’s presumed master, but as though you were an alien wandering through human civilization, taking that world to be just a theater of the absurd—only then have you attained the “spiritual” level of wisdom and experience. There are no supernatural ghosts or gods or devils. The only miracle here is the ability to see through the ridiculous lies we tell ourselves, to gather the extent to which the world has screwed intelligent creatures by evolving them for no reason.

The politically conservative orientation of traditionalists isn’t an accident, since to long for a return to a premodern vantage point is to prefer a period in which religious jingles mesmerized the human herd and provided excuses for outrageous economic inequalities that buoyed the rulers’ psychopathic self-image. The traditionalist’s “spiritual” enterprise is never egalitarian, as Leo Strauss pointed out, since the democratization of knowledge, which Guenon calls “hatred of secrecy” is equivalent to modernization; instead, the traditionalist’s ruse is to tell the masses noble lies to make them content with their mediocrity and to convince them to ignore or excuse the shenanigans of the upper class. Thus, Guenon says in The Reign of Quantity, “It has never been possible to place the Vedanta [philosophical Hinduism] ‘within the reach of the common man’, for whom incidentally it was never intended, and it is all the more certainly not possible today, for it is obvious enough that the 'common man' has never been more totally uncomprehending” (84).

Indeed, this elitism is built into the Hindu caste system and into that religion’s superficial eclecticism. The Hindu says a labourer can be as spiritually elevated as an ascetic monk, by taking a less philosophical yoga or path to moksha, such as by devoting himself to an image of God. The Karma, Bhakti, and Nyan yogas are all supposed to liberate us from misery, but Hinduism also has a subversive tradition, which came to be formalized as Tantra or the “left-hand path” and which can be traced back to the sages or Muni, spoken of in the Kesin Hymn of the Rigveda in the second millennium BCE: The Munis, girdled with the wind, wear garments soiled of yellow hue. They, following the wind's swift course go where the Gods have gone before. Transported with our Munihood we have pressed on into the winds. You therefore, mortal men, behold our natural bodies and no more. The Muni, made associate in the holy work of every God, looking upon all varied forms flies through the region of the air.” 

Here the sages are depicted as crazed, self-worshiping ascetics, since somehow they've achieved equality with God and can therefore fly like the wind. Like the Greek Cynics, they taunt mere mortal men who lust after luxuries, whereas the sages don't dress up their natural bodies. As in Psalm 103, they know that, The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower in the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. The so-called left-hand path or Vamachara, which looks more like the esoteric one, is the flouting of orthodoxy and of social conventions, as a free-thinking, individualistic form of worship. Having been transmitted by Theosophists in the nineteenth century, Western occultists picked up on this subversive tradition from India, forming cults of Satanism and Chaos Magic. But my hypothesis here is that this Eastern cynicism originates from the nature of spiritual liberation or samadhi itself, since what’s actually thereby discovered is the absurdity of human attachments and of life in general. This discovery thus presents the initiate with the opportunity for sociopathic liberation from social commitments; that is, spiritual insight is a form of madness

Ancient and Modern “Spirituality”

If there’s been a neglect of a pristine past, it was confined to the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, from the naivety and short-sightedness of the hunter-gatherer’s relatively childlike mindset to the corruption of all of us who are condemned to the collective nightmare of living side by side with tens of thousands of strangers. The prices of civilization are corruption and a loss of intellectual integrity, as Yuval Harari points out, since we need mass fictions or myths, be they legal, economic, political or religious, to count on each other’s cooperation and civility. The traditionalist insists on a further type of corruption owing to what we think of as the Age of Reason, and there is indeed a valid criticism here, but the traditionalist misunderstands the deficiencies of the modern age.

The point shouldn’t be that scientists and rationalists have lost sight of spiritual reality and perhaps also of everything that can’t be quantified such as religious or moral values. No, the modern neglect of traditions and intuitions is properly called the Enlightenment, because we’re corrupted just by learning the dreadful truth. The traditionalist thus condemns the messenger for bearing the horrific news that our “traditions” were only ever noble lies, mass fictions, and delusions that provided excuses for the same predatory exploitation that modern science and technology likewise facilitate. Part of the Enlightenment was supposed to be moral, not just epistemic. We devised scientific methods to rule out our faulty suspicions, but we also boast that we discovered the inherent, inalienable rights of each individual to life and to the pursuit of happiness. Thus, modernity supplied us not just with advances in science and technology, but with liberating social systems, namely capitalism and democracy.

Christians or traditionalists would like to take credit for this moral awakening, since long before the Renaissance religions posited an immortal soul in each person which in the end will supposedly be united with God. Wasn’t it Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount who spoke of the rights even of the poor and the downtrodden? Yes, egalitarianism can be derived from Judeo-Christian ethics, and Christianity spread rapidly in part because of its revolutionary moral teachings. But Christianity is incoherent, so you can derive whatever you like from its scriptures and traditions. Notice that although Jesus extended the Jewish notion of being favoured by God to pagans and to women and the poor, he doesn’t say everyone’s equal because of our immortal souls. Instead, he flips the script, saying that the poor will triumph in heaven while the rich will die forever in hell. Christianity as an institution includes much more than any latent humanitarianism. The Church’s persecution of the Gnostics buried the egalitarian potential of Western Christianity, since Catholicism set Jesus forever above Christians instead of identifying him with their potential to transcend their fallen, animal state. Eastern Christianity is more egalitarian and closer to the foundational Hindu mysticism, which means this kind of Christianity is susceptible to the above deflationary interpretation. To view yourself as divine is to go rogue, to become a threat to society so that you either find a place in a monastery to work out your alienation or you live among the herd as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

In any case, the modern discovery of our equal worth as sovereign beings is much ado about nothing. The early modernists were colonialists, misogynists, racists, and sometimes slave-owners. Likewise, capitalism and democracy generated new forms of inequality via monopoly, plutocracy, or demagoguery. Social democracies can sustain healthy middle classes, as in the Scandinavian countries, but these are exceptions that prove the rule. The free world is led by the rough-and-tumble United States, which likewise flirted with social democracy after the Great Depression, and that period again was the exception that proved the rule of inequality in American history. This is why American Christianity is so easily harnessed by “spiritual,” sociopathic predators, and thus why this version of Western Christianity approaches the same “perennial wisdom” as that of the more traditional, Eastern form. Jesus is elevated to such a height in American Protestantism that he disappears from view, becoming practically irrelevant and leaving the public square open to secular demagogues who sell their crooked schemes with religious rhetoric, as in the case of almost every single Republican politician since the advent of that party’s Southern strategy in the 1960s.

Of course, psychologists and neurologists have found no immaterial spirit in the human body. The basis of modern equality thus must rest on mass fictions, just as civilized tolerance did in the ancient world. There are many modern myths, such as those that sustain the taboo against political incorrectness, but the myth on which the traditionalist would seize has to do with the material benefits of science and technology. These benefits would seem to be obvious, but perhaps they’ll prove to be short-lived, as many science fiction authors fear, since modern knowledge and power stir up new dangers. Here the traditionalist’s criticism of the modern age is defensible, but the traditionalist loses the advantage when she contrasts modernity with an alleged golden age of spiritual wisdom. Deflated spirit, which is the only real kind, is the mind liberated by antisocial insight. This kind of elevated being was with us from the start and he (the godly ones are typically male) still accompanies us, despite our conceits of social justiceThe spiritual life isn’t sustained by God; rather, we deify ourselves by seeing through the sham of conventional morality. Traditional notions of spirituality are central to that sham, and the truly spiritual person, who is only a sociopath or an existentialist, dispenses with traditions because they interfere with either his predatory or his artistic impulses.


  1. What you Ben,summarized in this good article is core message of "Left Hand Path". Zoran from Serbia

    1. That's an interesting comparison and indeed it makes for a better line of argument than the one about the Brahmins, so I've rewritten that passage of this article. It's also worth exploring this connection between the left-hand path, samadhi, and psychopathy in a separate article, which I'll do soon.

      The main connections, I take it, are the antisocial aspect and the willingness to break taboos. The distinction between left- and right-hand paths seems euphemistic, though, since it suggests merely a matter of taste in options, the one being more respectable and less "sinister" than the other. Instead, ascetic, individualistic elitism is the esoteric way of someone who is supposed to have seen through the noble lies and illusions of the material and social worlds.

      Note, though, that I think the enlightened person faces an existential choice at that point, between doubling down on the ego in a sociopathic manner and acting more like a bodhisattva, using art to inspire others to elevate themselves. So spiritual or existential insight doesn't entail something like Satanism. The Ayn Randian, Anglo-Americanized form of elitism is only one modern interpretation of the hidden implications of the Axial Age insights.

  2. Nice essay, Ben!

    I wonder why we humans are attracted to psycho-sociopaths, while unassuming "artists" (those who use art and try to see things as it is, which is nigh impossible) get little attention, at least in a startling or mass appeal. The many things and art that "is" is not shocking like the tyrant and psychopath. To be an artist, by this definition requires subtlety, obscurity, not mass appeal.

    Thanks for your essays.

    1. Thanks. Well, one type of sociopath is specifically the charismatic kind, so that would explain some of the attraction. I'm writing another article on this now, about the connection between sociopathic and mystical or "spiritual" freedom.

      Some artists are popular, but artists are lower on the flagpole in terms of the quality of their conscious states. Artists are known for being extra-sensitive, and thus are prone to moodiness, anxiety, or depression. Like Neo at the beginning of The Matrix, they sense there's something wrong with reality, but they haven't crossed the threshold; they haven't discovered the horrific truth that from the state of samadhi or nirvana, of perfect detachment from everything but what Kant might call the form of consciousness, life looks like a joke, social norms like shams, and we face terrible choices because of our existential freedom. This is why spiritually enlightened people tend to divorce themselves from the herd and live out the rest of their days as ascetics, because the world disgusts them and they renounce it.

    2. Sounds interesting, your future article you mentioned, Ben.

      One suggestion I'd like to offer is somewhere in the article to define terms within the context of that discussion, like narrow scope of term such as "artist", "mystic", or whatever, if those are core to the discussion.

      I've heard some speakers say things like everyone is an artist, which I agree in some sense. All humans have a "creative", solutions oriented impulse to improvise or survive with the resources at our disposal, etc. But not everyone is musical, paints, writes, etc. Those are the cliche'd artist outputs.


    3. Instead of repeating myself, I often include links to the background articles that define the key terms. In this case, I linked above to my article, "Life as Art: Nature's Strangeness and the Aesthetic Attitude," which goes into my broader senses of "art" and "aesthetics" and which is perhaps my deepest article so far on this subject. I have several other articles that explore this aesthetic view of morality, which you can find in the Ethics section of the Map of the Articles (some links below).

      But I agree that postmodern or New Age interpretations of creativity might not withstand philosophical scrutiny. My view of "life as art" goes back to Nietzsche, though, so while you may still object to these ideas, they're not likely arbitrary.








  3. Thanks for listing your links to articles on Life as Art, creativity. I will look.

    Suggestion: Why not compile your links to the articles in one Index Post on your Blog site?
    For example, see my Index Post of links to my articles related to Monastic Order of Self-Realization: http://skepticmeditations.com/2015/08/25/monasticism/ All my Index Posts are listed at the bottom of my blog. Just a thought for you to give readers more context by your key topics.

    1. I've had that sort of index since 2013. It's called Map of the Articles (it used to be called Map of the Rants) and it's at the bar at the top of the blog. You can find it also on a mobile device in the drop-down menu at the top.

      I update the "map" after every post. It's not at the bottom of each post, like on your blog, but I do use the labels too. Plus, there's the Search function. The best place for context, though, is the Map of the Articles, since it's divided into categories and I try to fit each article into a logical spot in terms of reading order within each category.


  4. See your index. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and writings.

    1. No problem. Thanks for reading.

      By the way, have you heard of Swami Nithyananda and followed his scandals? One of his followers posts videos to attract new members to live at his ashram, but I watched some of her videos before she converted to this cult, so that I ended up watching a transformation and indoctrination process in real-time, from being caught up in New Age nonsense and conspiracy theories to being a full-blown cultist. I've written about her before a couple of times. Pretty creepy stuff, but it might be right up your alley. Here are some links if you'd like to follow up on it and if you're not already aware of it.



      The cultist's YouTube channel (she now posts from his ashram in India, but you go back to her earlier videos, to where she was a New Ager and then a Catholic and back to a New Ager and then finally a disciple of this guru):


    2. I've heard of this Swami. Seen a few of the videos. Lots of Westerners going to these ashrams in India. Will take a closer look. I think your assessment was insightful of why Westerners renounce to go to ashrams.

      Thanks for the info.

  5. ["But the only way to justify that criticism of science is to demonstrate that miracles occur in the religious initiation into supernatural mysteries."]

    Well, the ancient mysteries could all be classified as a type of science. The Christian mystic, Rudolf Steiner goes so far as to call real Christian esoterism the Spiritual Science. You question the Christian spiritual science of initiation, but why do you have no problem with some of the modern types of science? The modern sciences are often quite incoherent, even the sacred cow of biological evolution. But it looks like you hinge your philosophy of the undead god on this kind of narrative, at least to some extent. Perhaps in this age naturalism has the majority appeal merely because of its present aesthetic? If this is true, what would it take for some kind of newly packaged story of mystical Christianity to supplant it?

    1. I am explicit about aiming for my philosophy to be "naturalistic," but I'm not a slavish, cultish follower of any mainstream view, as far as I can tell. See, for example, my article, "The Incoherence of Naturalism," or the numerous articles where I criticize new atheists, secular humanism, scientism, or Scott Bakker's eliminativism.

      My biggest problem with postmodern or Continental philosophy is that it doesn't give modern science its due. I'm pragmatic about the success of science. The naturalistic theories are obviously empowering, which means there must be something to them, but I'm skeptical, too, about the correspondence theory of truth (see "How to Fathom the Nature of Truth" and "Life as a Dream: The Secular Myth of Objective Truth").

      So yeah, I think philosophy should be consistent with what science is broadly telling us about the monstrous size of the universe, for example, but philosophy should also be subversive--not for its own sake, but because philosophy stems from horror/awe, doubt, and alienation.

      I wouldn't be surprised if scientific models are sometimes incoherent, since they're used to solve isolated problems or to account for the results of different experiments. But scientists have methods and the values of skepticism and objectivity to improve their worldviews, whereas theistic religions are more dogmatic, emotional, and self-serving. Eastern Christians are more philosophical and so their mystical or metaphysical abstractions converge on atheism (as William Lane Craig points out).






    2. ["But scientists have methods and the values of skepticism and objectivity to improve their worldviews"]

      But do they really approach phenomena objectively? I don't think they do. By what standard do they purify themselves entirely of presuppositions? What's an objective measurement of progress?

    3. I'm not saying scientists generally conform to a hyperrational ideal, although phlegmatic or autistic types who are personally prone to following rules or being objective are more likely to go into a scientific field than, say, acting. But science has its institutions with their traditions that go back to Newton. Capitalism and nationalism can get in the way, but these are checked by the scientific virtues so that frauds, for example, are driven out of science as soon as they're identified, whereas in the Catholic Church they're allowed to abuse children for decades. Those two institutions have different traditions and values. Catholics aren't taught to be objective, although John Ralston Saul points out that the Jesuits were formative rationalists in the Machiavellian mold. Still, scientific values are all about skepticism and challenging dogmas and orthodoxy.

      I understand that science now has its own orthodoxy (string theory, the search for the theory of everything, natural selection). No one should expect a normal person to be perfectly rational, since our brains are built to be mostly irrational (as David Hume said). Broadly, though, we should expect more rationality from science than from religion, because the one values reason more than the other. Religions are explicitly set up to defend faith. Scientists personally may have faith in their pet hypotheses, but the scientific institutions don't reward that faith in the same way that religious institutions would, because faith has little place in the scientific metanarrative (myth).

      I've criticized the notion of social progress on this blog, but one obvious measure of scientific progress is the pragmatic one: technological empowerment, since technology applies the scientific understanding. That empowerment wouldn't amount to social (ethical) progress, of course; just look at the United States, which is economically and technologically mighty but socially backward in large part.