Monday, July 20, 2020

On Medium: Godless Honour and the Trap of Empowerment

This article continues my series on godless honour and the values of secular humanism. Is there an enlightened way to conquer nature and people?


  1. I would say that the kind of power you speak of in this article - extroverted power over one's environment (including the people in it) is ultimately an illusion or is, at best, tenuous. Nature, for all her seeming lawfulness, is far too powerful to ever be tamed. Our generation is just beginning to experience the blow back of the Baconian fantasy of conquering nature in the form of climate change & pandemics like Covid. Just wait until major cities start flooding & the crops fail due to exhausted soil & water shortages.

    Humans may seem weak in comparison with nature, but I think power over them is even more insecure. Plenty of men have been poised to rule the world only to see their subjects turn on them the moment they made a mistake or someone more persuasive came along. If nothing else, that sort of power eventually causes the ruler to loose touch with reality since sycophants only tell him what they think he wants to hear.

    I think the only real & lasting power is power over oneself. Self-mastery ought to be the prerequisite for exercising any power over others, but sadly it is often those with the least self-control who end up controlling others. When a ruler lacks self-control, the power just goes to his head & he either gets overthrown or becomes the puppet of whoever knows how to pander to his fragile ego (witness Trump). When I think of real power, I don't see a pompous emperor surrounded by an entourage of sniveling sycophants; instead I see a yogi or some other type of ascetic sitting alone in utter peace because he has freed himself from both society & his own inner demons.

    But then maybe I am confusing power with freedom.

    1. That's well said. The fantasy of conquering nature may be foolish but it also seems crucial to the Neolithic human enterprise. I don't know how we give that up without the common idea of humanity going down along with the fantasy. The fantasy bootstraps into being our promethean tendencies.

      I believe Spinoza characterized freedom as a kind of power, linking them with the idea of "conatus," which is like our inner potential or positive freedom (in Isaiah Berlin's sense).

      I'm currently in the middle of a debate on Medium, on the Eastern spiritualist concept of enlightenment versus the existential, cosmicist one. Hopefully I'll be able to post it, but one issue that's come up is of whether the sage truly would be at peace with himself. I can see how conquering your inner demons and overcoming the frauds of certain social expectations would free you from many stresses. But what about the confrontation with the fundamental absurdity of natural being? Wouldn't the existential predicament rob the sage of inner peace, making enlightenment tragic? Anyway, this is the line of argument I'm taking against the Buddhist and Hindu claim that enlightenment entails compassion and contentment.

  2. I think we can work with nature without deluding ourselves that we're in charge. Between godlike dominion & animalistic submission, I see a more realistic attitude that might be best described as stewardship. The fact that we domesticated primates now have the power to destroy the planet we live on should fill us with awe, but also humility because where the planet goes, we go with it.

    Concerning enlightenment, I think the absurdity of nature need not exclude inner peace; but perhaps 'resignation' would be a better word choice that 'peace'. In the west we are instilled with the idea of the world progressing towards a utopia, so when we realize that progress is a myth we become disillusioned. But the east never had this idea of progress. In Vedic & Chinese religion, history is cyclical & God either doesn't exist or doesn't care, so they don't suffer from the existential angst that haunts us westerners. Though the east has its own myths of karma & moksha, so maybe I jumped the gun on this.

    How can you be at peace with a world like ours without renouncing all those traits which distinguish human beings from other animals? Frankly, I don't know. But I have felt at peace with the world for brief periods &, as far as I know, I wasn't harboring any illusions of progress, justice or any hope of escaping this Hell. I suspect it's the lack of cognitive dissonance. Deluded people can never be at peace because they must constantly evade or attempt rationalize reality's refusal to live up to their expectations. The unenlightened man sees a bum begging for change on the street & feels uncomfortable because some part of him knows: "That could be me". But instead of accepting that it could be him, he creates a story in his mind to reassure himself that that poor bum could never be him: "He must be a drug addict or lazy" or "He must have done something awful in a past life to deserve that". Deluded people need to feel in control, the enlightened accept that they aren't in control & do their best to enjoy the ride.

    1. I agree there's middle ground between living like animals and the transhuman fantasy of ruling the galaxy. I think stewardship would be based on fear either of God or of nature's backlash. That fear would have to replace disgust with nature's absurdity, as our primary motive.

      Eastern philosophies do seem more pragmatic and less utopian about the chances of human progress. If they don't suffer much in the East from the existential doubts, that would be because their religions and philosophies are already grounded in resignation, as you say. They speak of liberation from nature, in the form of enlightenment or the perfect discipline, but that means they take for granted that, contrary to the biblical view, the universe isn't a "good" place. For the East, the world was accidentally dreamed into being rather than intentionally created for an intelligent, benevolent purpose.

      Not sure that deluded people can never be at peace. They may have to keep deceiving themselves and spinning the facts or learning how to avoid them (out of sight, out of mind), but some folks excel at that. Most people aren't like detectives who always want to get to the bottom of the matter. Ignorance is often bliss, as when we'd rather not have learned about some disturbing fact or had a certain traumatic experience.

  3. You could be right. That may have been a case of psychological projection on my part. For me, peace can only come from acceptance; but it could be different for other people. Some derive inner peace from hope, which is the opposite of resignation. And if the object of a particular hope is empirically non-falsifiable, like a pleasant afterlife, then I suppose it could serve as a stable foundation for inner peace. I believe that the Buddhists call it Shinjin.