The late EF Schumacher (1908-77) understates his case in titling this book A Guide for the Perplexed—what he undertakes is to provide nothing less than a Manual for Survival, concerned not merely with individual physicalor even societal endurance (though that, too), but more importantly with the full realization of human potential. Does that sound impossibly ambitious? It’s only the beginning. In the process of articulating his view of life, Schumacher proceeds to knock the foundation from under much of what science has been about these past few centuries, and then to bring into synthesis the definitive tenets of the world’s major religions. All this—and more—in only 140 pages. But hold the snickers; the man pulls it off. Compellingly reasoned and persuasively presented, this Guide diagrams a view of humans and the world in which they live that will challenge and stimulate every thoughtful reader.
A Guide for the Perplexed offers us a harvest of utterly sane, consoling, and life-affirming insight from one of the wisest minds of our time. It is an unapologetic defense of traditional Christian humanism which, I am certain, will light many a darkened path.
—Los Angeles Times
A Guide for the Perplexed deserves wide reading. It deserves, in fact, a place in the college curriculum, as a text for introductory courses in philosophy. It does as much for the defense of traditional civilization values as CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man did in the last generation, and it does so on a much sounder metaphysical foundation.
—Greensboro Daily News
A Guide for the Perplexed is really a statement of the philosophical underpinnings that inform Small is Beautiful. Those who have read neither book would be wise to read the latest book first. Those who have read Small Is Beautiful will benefit from a careful reading of this new book. Its impact may be less immediate, but perhaps more substantial and lasting.
On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”
It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.
The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions. Even illustrious scientists, like Johannes Kepler or Isaac Newton, apparently spent most of their time and energy on nonsensical studies of nonexisting things. Enormous amounts of hard-earned wealth had been squandered throughout history to the honor and glory of imaginary deities, not only by my European forebears, but by all peoples, in all parts of the world, at all times. Everywhere thousands of seemingly healthy men and women had subjected themselves to utterly meaningless restrictions, like voluntary fasting; tormented themselves by celibacy; wasted their time on pilgrimages, fantastic rituals, reiterated prayers, and so forth; turning their backs on reality-and some do it even in this enlightened age-all for nothing, all out of ignorance and stupidity; none of it to be taken seriously today, except of course as museum pieces. From what a history of error we had emerged! What a history of taking for real what every modern child knew to be totally unreal and imaginary! Our entire past, until quite recently, was today fit only for museums, where people could satisfy their curiosity about the oddity and incompetence of earlier generations. What our ancestors had written, also, was in the main fit only for storage in libraries, where historians and other specialists could study these relics and write books about them, the knowledge of the past being considered interesting and occasionally thrilling but of no particular value for learning to cope with the problems of the present.
All this and many other similar things I was taught at school and university, although not in so many words, not plainly and frankly. It would not do to call a spade a spade. Ancestors had to be treated with respect: they could not help their backwardness; they tried hard and sometimes even got quite near the truth in a haphazard sort of way. Their preoccupation with religion was just one of their many signs of underdevelopment, not surprising in people who had not yet come of age. Even today, of course, there remained some interest in religion, which legitimized that of earlier times. It was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God, certainly not one capable of creating anything, and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is, by chance and natural selection. Our ancestors, unfortunately, did not know about evolution, and so they invented all these fanciful myths.
The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be “If in doubt, leave it out,” or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: “If in doubt, show it prominently”? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they constitute no challenge to the living.
To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, taught that “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” “Slender” knowledge is here put in opposition to “certain” knowledge, and indicates uncertainty. Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as can the lesser things, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.
The philosophical maps with which I was supplied at school and university did not merely, like the map of Leningrad, fail to show “living churches”; they also failed to show large “unorthodox” sections of both theory and practice in medicine, agriculture, psychology, and the social and political sciences, not to mention art and so-called occult or paranormal phenomena, the mere mention of which was considered to be a sign of mental deficiency. In particular, all the most prominent doctrines shown on the “map” accepted art only as self-expression or as escape from reality. Even in nature there was nothing artistic except by chance, that is to say, even the most beautiful appearances could be fully accounted for-so we were told-by their utility in reproduction, as affecting natural selection. In fact, apart from “museums,” the entire map from right to left and from top to bottom was drawn in utilitarian colors: hardly anything was shown as existing unless it could be interpreted as profitable for man’s comfort or useful in the universal battle for survival.
Not surprisingly, the more thoroughly acquainted we became with the details of the map, the more we absorbed what it showed and got used to the absence of the things it did not show, the more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical we became. Some of us, however, had experiences similar to that described by Maurice Nicoll:
Once, in the Greek New Testament class on Sundays, taken by the Head Master, I dared to ask, in spite of my stammering, what some parable meant. The answer was so confused that I actually experienced my first moment of consciousness-that is, I suddenly realized that no one knew anything. . . and from that moment I began to think for myself, or rather knew that I could. I remember so clearly this class-room, the high windows constructed so that we could not see out of them, the desks, the platform on which the Head Master sat, his scholarly, thin face, his nervous habits of twitching his mouth and jerking his hands-and suddenly this inner revelation of knowing that he knew nothing,—nothing, that is, about anything that really mattered. This was my first inner liberation from the power of external life. From that time, I knew for certain-and that means always by inner individual authentic perception which is the only source of real knowledge-that all my loathing of religion as it was taught me was right.
The maps produced by modern materialistic Scientism leave all the questions that really matter unanswered; more than that, they deny the validity of the questions. The situation was desperate enough in my youth half a century ago; it is even worse now because the ever more rigorous application of the scientific method to all subjects and disciplines has destroyed even the last remnants of ancient wisdom—at least in the Western world. It is being loudly proclaimed in the name of scientific objectivity that “values and meanings are nothing but defense mechanisms and reaction formations”; that man is “nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information.” Sigmund Freud even assured us that “this alone I know with certainty, namely that men’s value judgments are guided absolutely by their desire for happiness, and are therefore merely an attempt to bolster up their illusions by arguments.”
How is anyone to resist the pressure of such statements, made in the name of objective science, unless, like Maurice Nicoll, he suddenly receives “this inner revelation of knowing” that men who say such things, however learned they may be, know nothing about anything that really matters? People are asking for bread and they are being given stones. They beg for advice about what they should do “to be saved,” and they are told that the idea of salvation has no intelligible content and is nothing but an infantile neurosis. They long for guidance about how to live as responsible human beings, and they are told that they are machines, like computers, without free will and therefore without responsibility.
“The present danger,” says Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist of unshakable sanity, “does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist, but rather in his pretence and claim of totality. . . . What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specializing, but rather the fact that specialists are generalizing.” After many centuries of theological imperialism, we have now had three centuries of an ever more aggressive “scientific imperialism,” and the result is a degree of bewilderment and disorientation, particularly among the young, which can at any moment lead to the collapse of our civilization. “The true nihilism of today,” says Dr. Frankl, “is reductionism. . . . Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness; today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing-but-ness. Human phenomena are thus turned into mere epiphenomena.
Yet they remain our reality, everything we are and everything we become. In this life we find ourselves as in a strange country. Ortega y Gasset once remarked that “Life is fired at us point-blank” We cannot say: “Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.” Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for; aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly. This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings, it seems, are insufficiently “programmed.” Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time; even when fully grown, they do not move and act with the sure-footedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want but above all of what they want.
Questions like “What should I do?” or “What must I do to be saved?” are strange questions because they relate to ends, not simply to means. No technical answer will do, such as “Tell me precisely what you want and I shall tell you how to get it.” The whole point is that I do not know what I want. Maybe all I want is to be happy. But the answer “Tell me what you need for happiness, and I shall then be able to advise you what to do” this answer, again, will not do, because I do not know what I need for happiness. Perhaps someone says: “For happiness you need wisdom”—but what is wisdom? Or: “For happiness you need the truth that makes you free”—but what is the truth that makes us free? Who will tell me where I can find it? Who can guide me to it or at least point out the direction in which I have to proceed?
In this book, we shall look at the world and try and see it whole. To do this is sometimes called to philosophize, and philosophy has been defined as the love of, and seeking after, wisdom. Socrates said: “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins with wonder.” He also said: “No god is a philosopher or seeker after wisdom for he is wise already. Neither do the ignorant seek after wisdom; for herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself.”
One way of looking at the world as a whole is by means of a map, that is to say, some sort of a plan or outline that shows where various things are to be found-not all things, of course, for that would make the map as big as the world, but the things that are most prominent, most important for orientation-out standing landmarks, as it were, which you cannot miss, or if you do miss them, you will be left in total perplexity.
The most important part of any inquiry or exploration is its beginning. As has often been pointed out, if one makes a false or superficial beginning, no matter how rigorous the methods followed during the succeeding investigation, they will never remedy the initial error.
Mapmaking is an empirical art that employs a high degree of abstraction but nonetheless clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. Its motto, in a sense, is “Accept everything; reject nothing.” If something is there, if it has any kind of existence, if people notice it and are interested in it, it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place. Mapmaking is not the whole of philosophy, just as a map or guidebook is not the whole of geography. It is simply a beginning—the very beginning which is at present lacking, when people ask: “What does it all mean?” or “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
My map or guidebook is constructed on the recognition of four Great Truths—or landmarks—which are so prominent, so all-pervading, that you can see them wherever you happen to be. If you know them well, you can always find your location by them, and if you cannot recognize them, you are lost.
The guidebook, it might be said, is about how “Man lives in the world.” This simple statement indicates that we shall need to study:
1. The world
2. Man—his equipment to meet the world;
3. His way of learning about the world; and
4. What it means to “live” in this world.
The Great Truth about the world is that it is a hierarchic structure of at least four great “Levels of Being.” The Great Truth about man’s equipment to meet the world is the principle of “adequateness” (adaequatio). The Great Truth about man’s learning concerns the “Four Fields of Knowledge.” The Great Truth about living in this life, living in this world, relates to the distinction between two types of problem, “convergent” and “divergent.”
A map or guidebook—let this be understood as clearly as possible-does not “solve” problems and does not “explain” mysteries; it merely helps to identify them. Thereafter, everybody’s task is as defined by the last words spoken by the Buddha: Work out your salvation with diligence.
For this purpose, according to the precepts of the Tibetan teachers: A philosophy comprehensive enough to embrace the whole of knowledge is indispensable. A system of meditation which will produce the power of concentrating the mind on anything whatsoever is indispensable. An art of living which will enable one to utilize each activity (of body, speech and mind) as an aid on the Path is indispensable.
The more recent philosophers of Europe have seldom been faithful mapmakers. Descartes (1596-1650), for instance, to whom modern philosophy owes so much, approached his self-set task in quite a different way. “Those who seek the direct road to truth,” he said, “should not bother with any object of which they cannot have a certainty equal to the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry.” Only such objects should engage our attention “to the sure and indubitable knowledge of which our mental powers seem to be adequate.”
Descartes, the father of modern rationalism, insisted that “We should never allow ourselves to be persuaded excepting by the evidence of our Reason,” and he stressed particularly that he spoke “of our Reason and not of our imagination nor of our senses.” The method of reason is to “reduce involved and obscure propositions step by step to those that are simpler, and then, starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely similar steps.” This is a program conceived by a mind both powerful and frighteningly narrow, whose narrowness is further demonstrated by the rule:
If in the matters to be examined we come to a step in the series of which our understanding is not sufficiently well able to have an intuitive cognition, we must stop short there. We must make no attempt to examine what follows; thus we shall spare ourselves superfluous labor.
Descartes limits his interest to knowledge and ideas that are precise and certain beyond any possibility of doubt, because his primary interest is that we should become “masters and possessors of nature. “ Nothing can be precise unless it can be quantified in one way or another. As Jacques Maritain comments:
The mathematical knowledge of nature, for Descartes, is not what it is in reality, a certain interpretation of phenomena. . . which does not answer questions bearing upon the first principles of things. This knowledge is, for him, the revelation of the very essence of things. These are analyzed exhaustively by geometric extension and local movement. The whole of physics, that is, the whole of the philosophy of nature, is nothing but geometry.
Thus Cartesian evidence goes straight to mechanism. It mechanizes nature; it does violence to it; it annihilates everything which causes things to symbolize with the spirit, to partake of the genius of the Creator, to speak to us. The universe becomes dumb.
There is no guarantee that the world is made in such a way that indubitable truth is the whole truth. Whose truth, whose understanding, would it be? That of man. Of any man? Are all men “adequate” to grasp all truth? As Descartes has demonstrated, the mind of man can doubt everything it cannot grasp with ease, and some men are more prone to doubt than others.
Descartes broke with tradition, made a clean sweep, and undertook to start afresh, to find out everything for himself. This kind of arrogance became the “style” of European philosophy. “Every modern philosopher,” as Maritain remarks, “is a Cartesian in the sense that he looks upon himself as starting off in the absolute, and as having the mission of bringing men a new conception of the world.”
The alleged fact that philosophy “had been cultivated for many centuries by the best minds that have ever lived and that nevertheless no single thing is to be found in it which is not a subject of dispute and in consequence is not dubious” led Descartes to what amounted to a “withdrawal from wisdom” and exclusive concentration on knowledge as firm and indubitable as mathematics and geometry. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had already pleaded in a similar vein. Skepticism, a form of defeatism in philosophy, became the main current of European philosophy, which insisted, not without plausibility, that the reach of the human mind was strictly limited and that there was no point in taking any interest in matters beyond its capacity. While traditional wisdom had considered the human mind as weak but open-ended-that is, capable of reaching beyond itself toward higher and higher levels-the new thinking took it as axiomatic that the mind’s reach had fixed and narrow limits, which could be clearly determined, while within these limits it possessed virtually unlimited powers.
From the point of view of philosophical mapmaking, this meant a very great impoverishment: entire regions of human interest, which had engaged the most intense efforts of earlier generations, simply ceased to appear on the maps. But there was an even more significant withdrawal and impoverishment: While traditional wisdom had always presented the world as a three-dimensional structure (as symbolized by the cross), where it was not only meaningful but essential to distinguish always and everywhere between “higher” and “lower” things and Levels of Being, the new thinking strove with determination, not to say fanaticism, to get rid of the vertical dimension. How could one obtain clear and precise ideas about such qualitative notions as “higher” or “lower”? Was it not reason’s most urgent task to replace them with quantitative measurements?
But perhaps the “mathematicism” of Descartes had gone too far; so Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) set out to make a new start. Yet as Etienne Gilson, the incomparable master of the history of philosophy, remarks: Kant was not shifting from mathematics to philosophy, but from mathematics to physics. As Kant himself immediately concluded: “The true method of metaphysics is fundamentally the same as that which Newton has introduced into natural science, and which has there yielded such fruitful results.”. . . The Critique of Pure Reason is a masterly description of what the structure of the human mind should be, in order to account for the existence of a Newtonian conception of nature, and assuming that conception to be true to reality. Nothing can show more clearly the essential weakness of physicism as a philosophical method.
Neither mathematics nor physics can entertain the qualitative notion of “higher” or “lower.” So the vertical dimension disappeared from the philosophical maps, which henceforth concentrated on somewhat farfetched problems, such as “Do other people exist?” or “How can I know anything at all?” or “Do other people have experiences analogous to mine?” Thus the maps ceased to be of any help to people in the awesome task of picking their way through life. The proper task of philosophy was formulated by Etienne Gilson as follows:
It is its permanent duty to order and to regulate an ever wider area of scientific knowledge, and to judge ever more complex problems of human conduct; it is its never-ended task to keep the old sciences in their natural limits, to assign their places, and their limits, to new sciences; last, not least, to keep all human activities, however changing their circumstances, under the sway of the same reason by which alone man remains the judge of his own works and, after God, the master of his own destiny.
The loss of the vertical dimension meant that it was no longer possible to give an answer, other than a utilitarian one, to the question “What am I to do with my life?” The answer could be more individualistic-selfish or more social-unselfish, but it could not help being utilitarian: either “Make yourself as comfortable as you can” or “Work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” Nor was it possible to define the nature of man other than as that of an animal. A “higher” animal? Yes, perhaps; but only in some respects. In certain respects other animals could be described as “higher” than man, and so it would be best to avoid nebulous terms like “higher” or “lower,” unless one spoke in strictly evolutionary terms. In the context of evolution, “higher” could generally be associated with “later,” and since man was undoubtedly a latecomer, he could be thought of as standing at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
None of this leads to a helpful answer to the question “What am I to do with my life?” Pascal (1623-1662) had said: “Man wishes to be happy and exists only to be happy and cannot wish not to be happy,” but the new thinking of the philosophers insisted, with Kant, that man “never can say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes,” nor can he “determine with certainty what would make him truly happy; because to do so he would need to be omniscient,” Traditional wisdom had a reassuringly plain answer: Man’s happiness is to move higher, to develop his highest facilities, to gain knowledge of the highest things and, if possible, to “see God,” If he moves lower, develops only his lower faculties, which he shares with the animals, then he makes himself deeply unhappy, even to the point of despair.
With imperturbable certainty Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued: No man tends to do a thing by his desire and endeavor unless it be previously known to him. Wherefore since man is directed by divine providence to a higher good than human frailty can attain in the present life. It was necessary for his mind to be bidden to something higher than those things to which our reason can reach in the present life, so that he might learn to aspire, and by his endeavors to tend to something surpassing the whole state of the present life. It was with this motive that the philosophers, in order to wean men from sensible pleasures to virtue, took care to show that there are other goods of greater account than those which appeal to the senses, the taste of which things affords much greater delight to those who devote themselves to active or contemplative virtues.
These teachings, which are the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world, have become virtually incomprehensible to modern man, although he, too, desires nothing more than somehow to be able to rise above “the whole state of the present life.” He hopes to do so by growing rich, by moving around at ever-increasing speed, by traveling to the moon and into space. It is worth listening again to Saint Thomas:
There is a desire in man, common to him and other animals, namely the desire for the enjoyment of pleasure: and this men pursue especially by leading a voluptuous life, and through lack of moderation become intemperate and incontinent. Now in that vision [the divine vision] there is the most perfect pleasure, all the more perfect than sensuous pleasure as the intellect is above the senses; as the good in which we shall delight surpasses all sensible good, is more penetrating, and more continuously delightful; and as that pleasure is freer from all alloy of sorrow or trouble of anxiety.
In this life there is nothing so like this ultimate and perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below. Hence the philosophers who were unable to obtain full knowledge of that final beatitude, placed man’s ultimate happiness in that contemplation which is possible during this life. For this reason too, Holy Writ commends the contemplative rather than other forms of life, when our Lord said (Luke X.42): Mary hath chosen the better part, namely the contemplation of truth, which shall not be taken from her. For contemplation of truth begins in this life, but will be consummated in the life to come: while the active and civic life does not transcend the limits of this life.
Most modern readers will be reluctant to believe that perfect happiness is attainable by methods of which their modern world knows nothing. However, belief or disbelief is not the matter at issue here. The point is that without the qualitative concepts of “higher” and “lower” it is impossible even to think of guidelines for living which lead beyond individual or collective utilitarianism and selfishness.
The ability to see the Great Truth of the hierarchic structure of the world, which makes it possible to distinguish between higher and lower Levels of Being, is one of the indispensable conditions of understanding. Without it, it is not possible to find out every thing’s proper and legitimate place. Everything, everywhere, can be understood only when its Level of Being is fully taken into account. Many things which are true at a low Level of Being become absurd at a higher level, and of course vice versa. We therefore now turn to a study of the hierarchic structure of the world.
Our task is to look at the world and see it whole. We see what our ancestors have always seen: a great Chain of Being which seems to divide naturally into four sections four “kingdoms,” as they used to be called: mineral, plant, animal, and human. This “was, in fact, until not much more than a century ago, probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe.” The Chain of Being can be seen as extending downward from the Highest to the lowest, or it can be seen as extending upward from the lowest to the Highest. The ancient view begins with the Divine and sees the downward Chain of Being as moving an ever-increasing distance from the Center, with a progressive loss of qualities. The modern view, largely influenced by the doctrine of evolution, tends to start with inanimate matter and to consider man the last link of the chain, as having evolved the widest range of useful qualities. For our purposes here, the direction of looking-upward or downward—is unimportant, and, in line with modern habits of thought, we shall start at the lowest level, the mineral kingdom, and consider the successive gain of qualities or powers as we move to the higher levels.
No one has any difficulty recognizing the astonishing and mysterious difference between a living plant and one that has died and has thus fallen to the lowest Level of Being, inanimate matter. What is this power that has been lost? We call it “life.” Scientists tell us that we must not talk of a “life force” because no such force has ever been found to exist. Yet the difference between alive and dead exists. We could call it “x,” to indicate something that is there to be noticed and studied but that cannot be explained. If we call the mineral level “m,” we can call the plant level m + x. This factor x is obviously worthy of our closest attention, particularly since we are able to destroy it, although it is completely outside our ability to create it. Even if somebody could provide us with a recipe, a set of instructions, for creating life out of lifeless matter, the mysterious character of x would remain, and we would never cease to marvel that something that could do nothing is now able to extract nourishment from its environment, grow, and reproduce itself, “true to form,” as it were. There is nothing in the laws, concepts, and formulae of physics and chemistry to explain or even to describe such powers. X is something quite new and additional, and the more deeply we contemplate it, the clearer it becomes that we are faced here with what might be called an ontological discontinuity or, more simply, a jump in the Level of Being.
From plant to animal, there is a similar jump, a similar addition of powers, which enable the typical, fully developed animal to do things that are totally outside the range of possibilities of the typical, fully developed plant. These powers, again, are mysterious and, strictly speaking, nameless. We can refer to them by the letter “y,” which will be the safest course, because any word label we might attach to them could lead people to think that such a designation was not merely a hint as to their nature but an adequate description. However, since we cannot talk without words, I shall attach to these mysterious powers the label consciousness. It is easy to recognize consciousness in a dog, a cat, or a horse, if only because they can be knocked unconscious: the processes of life continue as in a plant, although the animal has lost its peculiar powers.
If the plant, in our terminology, can be called m + x, the animal has to be described as m + x + y. Again, the new factor “y” is worthy of our closest attention; we are able to destroy but not to create it. Anything that we can destroy but are unable to make is, in a sense, sacred, and all our “explanations” of it do not really explain anything. Again we can say that y is something quite new and additional when compared with the level “plant”—another ontological discontinuity, another jump in the Level of Being.
Moving from the animal to the human level, who would seriously deny the addition, again, of new powers? What precisely they are has become a matter of controversy in modern times, but the fact that man is able to do—and is doing-innumerable things which lie totally outside the range of possibilities of even the most highly developed animals cannot be disputed and has never been denied. Man has powers of life like the plant, powers of consciousness like the animal, and evidently something more: the mysterious power “z”: What is it? How can it be defined? What can it be called? This power z has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master Or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself. This power z, consciousness recoiling upon itself, opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge. What shall we call it? As it is necessary to have word labels, I shall call it self-awareness. We must, however, take great care always to remember that such a word label is merely (to use a Buddhist phrase) “a finger pointing to the moon.” The “moon” itself remains highly mysterious and needs to be studied with the greatest patience and perseverance if we want to understand anything about man’s position in the Universe.
Our initial review of the four great Levels of Being can be summed up as follows:
Man can be written: m + x + y + z
Animal can be written: m + x + y
Plant can be written: m + x
Mineral can be written: m
Only m is visible; x, y, and z are invisible, and they are extremely difficult to grasp, although their effects are matters of everyday experience. If, instead of taking “minerals” as our base line and reachin1 the higher Levels of Being by the addition of powers, we start with the highest level directly known to us-man-we can reach the lower Levels of Being by the progressive subtraction of powers. We can then say:
Man can be written: M
Animal can be written: M – z
Plant can be written: M – z – y
Mineral can be written: M – z – y – x
Such a downward scheme is easier for us to understand than the upward one, simply because it is closer to our practical experience. We know that all three factors-x, y, and z-can weaken and die away; we can in fact deliberately destroy them. Sell awareness can disappear while consciousness continues; consciousness can disappear while life continues; and life can disappear leaving an inanimate body behind. We can observe, and in a sense feel, the process of diminution to the point of the apparently total, disappearance of self-awareness, consciousness, and life. But it is outside our power to give life to inanimate matter, to give consciousness to living matter, and finial to add the power of self-awareness to conscious beings.
What we can do ourselves, we can, in a sense, understand what we cannot do at all, we cannot understand—not even “in a sense.” Evolution as a process of the spontaneous, accident emergence of the powers of life, consciousness, and self-aware ness, out of inanimate matter, is totally incomprehensible.
For our purposes, however, there is no need to enter into such speculations at this stage. We hold fast to what we can see and experience: the Universe is as a great hierarchic structure of four markedly different Levels of Being. Each level is obviously a broad band, allowing for higher and lower beings within each band, and the precise determination of where a lower band ends and a higher band begins may sometimes be a matter of difficulty and dispute. The existence of the four kingdoms, however, is not put into question by the fact that some of the frontiers are occasionally disputed.
Physics and chemistry deal with the lowest level, “minerals.” At this level, x, y, and z—life, consciousness, and self-awareness—do not exist (or, in any case, are totally inoperative and therefore cannot be noticed). Physics and chemistry can tell us nothing, absolutely nothing, about them. These sciences possess no concepts relating to such powers and are incapable of describing their effects. Where there is life, there is form, Gestalt, which reproduces itself over and over again from seed or similar beginnings which do not possess this Gestalt but develop it in the process of growth. Nothing comparable is to be found in physics or chemistry.
To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The French or German versions of the play “own” different combinations of letters.
The extraordinary thing about the modern “life sciences” is that they hardly ever deal with life as such, the factor x, but devote infinite attention to the study and analysis of the Physicochemical body that is life’s carrier. It may well be that modern science has no method for coming to grips with life as such. If this is so, let it be frankly admitted; there is no excuse for the pretense that life is nothing but physics and chemistry.
Nor is there any excuse for the pretense that consciousness is nothing but a property of life. To describe an animal as a physicochemical system of extreme complexity is no doubt perfectly correct, except that it misses out on the “animalness” of the animal. Some zoologists, at least, have advanced beyond this level of erudite absurdity and have developed an ability to see in animals more than complex machines. Their influence, however, is as yet deplorably small, and with the increasing “rationalization” of the modern lifestyle, more and more animals are being treated as if they really were nothing but “animal machines.” (This is a very telling example of how philosophical theories, no matter how absurd and offensive to common sense, tend to become, after a while, “normal practice” in everyday life.)
All the “humanities,” as distinct from the natural sciences, deal in one way or another with factor y-consciousness. But a distinction between consciousness (y) and self-awareness (z) is seldom drawn. As a result, modern thinking has become increasingly uncertain whether or not there is any “real” difference between animal and man. A great deal of study of the behavior of animals is being undertaken for the purpose of understanding the nature of man. This is analogous to studying physics with the hope of learning something about life (x). Naturally, since man, as it were, contains the three lower Levels of Being, certain things about him can be elucidated by studying minerals, plants, and animals-in fact, everything can be learned about him except that which makes him human. All the four constituent elements of the human person—m, x, y, and z-deserve study, but there can be little doubt about their relative importance in terms of knowledge for the conduct of our lives.
This importance increases in the order given above, and so do the difficulty and uncertainty experienced by modern humanity. Is there really anything beyond the world of matter, of molecules and atoms and electrons and innumerable other small particles, the ever more complex combinations of which allegedly account for simply everything, from the crudest to the most sublime? Why talk about fundamental differences, “jumps” in the Chain of Being, or “ontological discontinuities” when all we can be really sure of are differences in degree? It’s not necessary for us to battle over the question whether the palpable and overwhelmingly obvious differences between the four great Levels of Being are better seen as differences in kind or differences in degree. What has to be fully understood is that there are differences in kind, and not simply in degree, between the powers of life, consciousness, and self-awareness. Traces of these powers may already exist at the lower levels, although not noticeable (or not yet noticed) by man. Or maybe they are infused, so to speak, on appropriate occasions from “another world.” It is not essential for us to have theories about their origin, provided we recognize their quality and, in so doing, never fail to remember that they are beyond anything our own intelligence enables us to create.
It is not unduly difficult to appreciate the difference between what is alive and what is lifeless; it is more difficult to distinguish consciousness from life; and to realize, experience, and appreciate the difference between self-awareness and consciousness (that is, between z and y) is hard indeed. The reason for the difficulty is not far to seek: While the higher comprises and therefore in a sense understands the lower, no being can understand anything higher than itself. A human being can indeed strain and stretch toward the higher and induce a process of growth through adoration, awe, wonder, admiration, and imitation, and by attaining a higher level expand its understanding (and this is a subject that will occupy us extensively later on). But people within whom the power of self-awareness (z) is poorly developed cannot grasp it as a separate power and tend to take it as nothing but a slight extension of consciousness (y). Hence we are given a large number of definitions of man which make him out to be nothing but an exceptionally intelligent animal with a measurably larger brain, or a tool-making animal, Or apolitical animal, or an unfinished animal, or simply a naked ape.
No doubt, people who use these terms cheerfully include themselves in their definitions—and may have some reason for doing so. For others, they sound merely inane, like defining a dog as a barking plant or a running cabbage. Nothing is more conducive to the brutalization of the modern world than launching, in the name of science, of wrongful and degrading definitions of man, such as “the naked ape.” What could one expect of such a creature, of other “naked apes,” or, indeed, of oneself? When people speak of animals as “animal machines,” they soon start treating them accordingly, and when they think of people as naked apes, all doors are opened to the free entry of bestiality.
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!” Because of the power of self-awareness (z), his faculties are indeed infinite; they are not narrowly determined, confined, or “programmed” as one says today. Werner Jaeger expressed a profound truth in the statement that once a human potentiality is realized, it exists. It is the greatest human achievements that define man, not any average behavior or performance, and certainly not anything that can be derived from the observation of animals. “All men cannot be outstanding,” says Catherine Roberts. “Yet all men, through knowledge of superior humanness, could know what it means to be a human being and that, as such, they too have a contribution to make. It is magnificent to become as human as one is able. And it requires no help from science. In addition, the very act of realizing one’s potentialities might constitute an advance over what has gone before.”
This “open-endedness” is the wonderful result of the specifically human powers of self-awareness (z), which, as distinct from the powers of life and consciousness, have nothing automatic or mechanical about them. The powers of self-awareness are essentially a limitless potentiality rather than an actuality. They have to be developed and “realized” by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.
I said earlier on that man can be written m + x + y + z. These four elements form a sequence of increasing rarity and vulnerability. Matter (m) cannot be destroyed; to kill a body means to deprive it of x, y, and z, and the inanimate matter remains; it “returns” to the earth. Compared with inanimate matter, life is rare and precarious; in turn, compared with the ubiquitousness and tenacity of life, consciousness is even rarer and more vulnerable. Self-awareness is the rarest power of all, precious and vulnerable to the highest degree, the supreme and generally fleeting achievement of a person, present one moment and all too easily gone the next. The study of this factor z has in all ages—except the present—been the primary concern of mankind. How is it possible to study something so vulnerable and fleeting? How is it possible to study that which does the studying? How, indeed, can I study the “I” that employs the very consciousness needed for the study? These questions will occupy us in a later part of this book. Before we can turn to them directly, we shall do well to take a closer look at the four great Levels of Being: how the intervention of additional powers introduces essential changes, even though similarities and “correspondences” remain.
Matter (m), life (x), consciousness (y), self-awareness (z)—these four elements are ontologically—that is, in their fundamental nature—different, incomparable, incommensurable, and discontinuous. Only one of them is directly accessible to objective, scientific observation by means of our five senses. The other three are none the less known to us because we ourselves, everyone of us, can verify their existence from our own inner experience.
We never find life except as living matter; we never find consciousness except as conscious living matter; and we never find self-awareness except as self-aware, conscious, living matter. The ontological differences between these four elements are analogous to the discontinuity of dimensions. A line is one-dimensional, and no elaboration of a line, no subtlety in its construction, and no complexity can ever turn it into a surface. Equally, no elaboration of a two-dimensional surface, no increase in complexity, subtlety, or size, can ever turn it into a solid. Existence in the physical world we know is attained only by three-dimensional beings. One- or two-dimensional things exist only in our minds. Analogically speaking, it might be said that only man has “real” existence in this world insofar as he alone possesses the “three dimensions” of life, consciousness, and self-awareness. In this sense, animals, with only two dimensions—life and consciousness—have but a shadowy existence, and plants, lacking the dimensions of self-awareness and consciousness, relate to a human being as a line relates to a solid. In terms of this analogy, matter, lacking the three “invisible dimensions,” has no more reality than a geometrical point.
This analogy, which may seem farfetched from a logical point of view, points to an inescapable existential truth: The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings. A world without fellow human beings would be an eerie and unreal place of banishment; with neither fellow humans nor animals the world would be a dreadful wasteland, no matter how luscious its vegetation. To call it one-dimensional would not seem to be an exaggeration. Human existence in a totally inanimate environment, if it were possible, would be total emptiness, total despair. It may seem absurd to pursue such a line of thought, but it is surely not so absurd as a view which counts as “real” only inanimate matter and treats as “unreal,” “subjective,” and therefore scientifically nonexistent the invisible dimensions of life, consciousness, and self-awareness.
A simple inspection of the four great Levels of Being has led us to the recognition of their four “elements”—matter, life, consciousness, and self-awareness. It is this recognition that matters, not the precise association of the four elements with the four Levels of Being. If the natural scientists should come and tell us that there are some beings they call animals in whom no trace of consciousness can be detected, it would not be for us to argue with them. Recognition is one thing; identification quite another. For us, only recognition is important, and we are entitled to choose for our purposes typical and fully developed specimens from each Level of Being. If they manifest and demonstrate most clearly the “invisible dimensions” of life, consciousness, and self-awareness, this demonstration is not nullified or invalidated by any difficulty of classification in other cases.
Once we have recognized the ontological gaps and discontinuities that separate the four “elements”—m, x, y, z—from one another, we know also that there can exist no “links” or “transitional forms”: Life is either present or absent; there cannot be a half-presence; and the same goes for consciousness and self-awareness. Difficulties of identification are often increased by the fact that the lower level appears to present a kind of mimicry or counterfeit of the higher, just as an animated puppet can at times be mistaken for a living person, or a two-dimensional picture can look like three-dimensional reality. But neither difficulties of identification and demarcation nor possibilities of deception and error can be used as arguments against the existence of the four great Levels of Being, exhibiting the four “elements” we have called Matter, Life, Consciousness, and Self-awareness. These four “elements” are four irreducible mysteries, which need to be most carefully observed and studied, but which cannot be explained, let alone “explained away.”
In a hierarchic structure, the higher does not merely possess powers that are additional to and exceed those possessed by the lower; it also has power over the lower: it has the power to organize the lower and use it for its own purposes. Living beings can organize and utilize inanimate matter, conscious beings can utilize life, and self-aware beings can utilize consciousness. Are there powers that are higher than self-awareness? Are there Levels of Being above the human? At this stage in our investigation we need do no more than register the fact that the great majority of mankind throughout its known history, until very recently, has been unshakenly convinced that the Chain of Being extends upward beyond man. This universal conviction of mankind is impressive for both its duration and its intensity. Those individuals of the past whom we still consider the wisest and greatest not only shared this belief but considered it of all truths the most important and the most profound.
This analogy, which may seem farfetched from a logical point of view, points to an inescapable existential truth: The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human being! Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are mad or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings. A world without fellow human beings would be an eerie and unreal place of banishment; with neither fellow human nor animals the world would be a dreadful wasteland, no matter how luscious its vegetation. To call it one-dimensional would not seem to be an exaggeration. Human existence in a totally inanimate environment, if it were possible, would be total emptiness, total despair. It may seem absurd to pursue such a line of thought, but it is surely not so absurd as a view which count as “real” only inanimate matter and treats as “unreal,” “subjective,” and therefore scientifically nonexistent the invisible dimensions of life, consciousness, and self-awareness.
A simple inspection of the four great Levels of Being has lead us to the recognition of their four “elements “-matter, life consciousness, and self-awareness. It is this recognition that matters, not the precise association of the four elements with the four Levels of Being. If the natural scientists should come and tell us that there are some beings they call animals in wholly no trace of consciousness can be detected, it would not be for us to argue with them. Recognition is one thing; identification quite another. For us, only recognition is important, and we are entitled to choose for our purposes typical and fully developed specimens from each Level of Being. If they manifest and demonstrate most clearly the “invisible dimensions” of life, consciousness, and self-awareness, this demonstration is not nullified or invalidated by any difficulty of classification in other cases.
Once we have recognized the ontological gaps and discontinuities that separate the four “elements” —m, x, y, z-from one another, we know also that there can exist no “links” or “transitional forms”: Life is either present or absent; there cannot be a half-presence; and the same goes for consciousness and self-awareness. Difficulties of identification are often increased by the fact that the lower level appears to present a kind of mimicry or counterfeit of the higher, just as an animated puppet can at times be mistaken for a living person, or a two-dimensional picture can look like three-dimensional reality. But neither difficulties of identification and demarcation nor possibilities of deception and error can be used as arguments against the existence of the four great Levels of Being, exhibiting the four “elements” we have called Matter, Life, Consciousness, and Self-awareness. These four “elements” are four irreducible mysteries, which need to be most carefully observed and studied, but which cannot be explained, let alone “explained away.”
In a hierarchic structure, the higher does not merely possess powers that are additional to and exceed those possessed by the lower; it also has power over the lower: it has the power to organize the lower and use it for its own purposes. Living beings can organize and utilize inanimate matter, conscious beings can utilize life, and self-aware beings can utilize consciousness. Are there powers that are higher than self-awareness? Are there Levels of Being above the human? At this stage in our investigation we need do no more than register the fact that the great majority of mankind throughout its known history, until very recently, has been unshakenly convinced that the Chain of Being extends upward beyond man. This universal conviction of mankind is impressive for both its duration and its intensity. Those individuals of the past whom we still consider the Wisest and greatest not only shared this belief but considered it of all truths the most important and the most profound.
First, we dealt with “The World”—its four Levels of Being; second, with “Man”—his equipment for meeting the world: to what extent is it adequate for the encounter? And third, we dealt with learning about the world and about oneself—the “Four Fields of Knowledge.” It remains to examine what it means to live in this world.
To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems.
Unsolved problems tend to cause a kind of existential anguish. Whether this has always been so may well be questioned; but it is certainly so in the modern world, and one of the weapons in the modern battle against anguish is the Cartesian approach: “Deal only with ideas that are distinct, precise, and certain beyond any reasonable doubt; therefore, rely on geometry, mathematics, quantification, measurement, and exact observation.” This is the way, the only way (we are told) to solve problems; this is the road, the only road, of progress; if only we abandon all sentiment and other irrationalities, all problems can and will be solved. We live in the age of the Reign of Quantity. Quantification and cost/benefit analysis are said to be the answer to most, if not all, of our problems, although where we are dealing with somewhat complex beings, like humans, or complex systems, like societies, it may still take a bit of time until sufficient data have been assembled and analyzed. Our civilization is uniquely expert in problem-solving. There are more scientists and people applying the “scientific” method at work in the world today than there have been in all previous generations added together, and, they are not wasting their time contemplating the marvels of the Universe or trying to acquire self-knowledge: they are solving problems. (I can imagine someone becoming slightly anxious at this point and inquiring: “If this is so, aren’t we running out of problems?” It would be easy to reassure him: We have more and bigger problems now than any previous generation could boast, including problems of survival.
This extraordinary situation might lead us to inquire into the nature of “problems. “We know there are solved problems and unsolved problems. The former, we may feel, present no issue; but as regards the latter: Are there not problems that are not merely unsolved but insoluble?
First, let us look at solved problems. Take a design problem -say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is “the answer” -a bicycle-an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable over time. Why is this answer so stable? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe-laws at the level of inanimate nature.
I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you (whoever you are) study them, the more the answers converge. They may be divided into “convergent problem solved” and “convergent problem as yet unsolved. “ The words “as yet” are important, for there is no reason in principle why they should not be solved some day. Everything takes time, and there simply has not yet been time enough to get around to solving them. What is needed is more time, more money for research and development (R&D) and, maybe, more talent.
It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people may set out to study a problem and come up with answers which contradict one another. They do not converge. On the contrary, the more they are clarified and logically developed, the more they diverge, until some of them appear to be the exact opposites of the others. For example, life presents us with a very big problem-not the technical problem of two-wheeled transport, but the human problem of how to educate our children. We cannot escape it; we have to face it, and we ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them, on the basis of a clear intuition, tell us: “Education is the process by which existing culture is passed on from one generation to the next. Those who have (or are presumed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. For this process to be effective, authority and discipline must be set up.” Nothing could be simpler, truer, more logical and straightforward. Education calls for the establishment of authority for the teachers and discipline and obedience on the part of the pupils.
Now, another group of our advisers, having gone into the problem with the utmost care, says this: “Education is nothing more nor less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, whose function is to make available healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots; through these it will extract the nutrients it requires. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.” In other words, education as seen by this second group calls for the establishment, not of discipline and obedience, but of freedom—the greatest possible freedom.
If our first group of advisers is right, discipline and obedience are “a good thing,” and it can be argued with perfect logic that if something is “a good thing,” more of it would be a better thing, and perfect discipline and obedience would be a perfect thing—and the school would become a prison house.
Our second group of advisers, on the other hand, argues that in education freedom is “a good thing.” If so, more freedom would be an even better thing, and perfect freedom would produce perfect education. The school would become a jungle, even a kind of lunatic asylum.
Freedom and discipline (obedience) here is a pair of perfect opposites. No compromise is possible. It is either the one or the other. It is either “Do as you like” or “Do as I tell you.”
Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true its opposite cannot be true at the same time. It also insists that if a thing is good, more of it will be better. Here we have a very typical and very basic problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, “straight-line” logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.
“What is the best method of education?” presents, in short, a divergent problem par excellence. The answers tend to diverge, and the more logical and consistent they are, the greater is the divergence. There is “freedom” versus “discipline and obedience.” There is no solution. And yet some educators are better than others. How does this come about? One way to find out is to ask them. If we explained to them our philosophical difficulties, they might show signs of irritation with this intellectual approach. “Look here,” they might say, “all this is far too clever for me. The point is: You must love the little horrors.” Love, empathy, participation mystique, understanding, compassion-these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently, requires a high level of self-awareness, and that is what makes a great educator.
Education presents the classical example of a divergent problem, and so of course does politics, where the most frequently encountered pair of opposites is “freedom” and “equality,” which in fact means freedom versus equality. For if natural forces are left free, ie. left to themselves, the strong will prosper and the weak will suffer, and there will be no trace of equality. The enforcement of equality, on the other hand, requires the curtailment of freedom-unless something intervenes from a higher level.
I do not know who coined the slogan of the French Revolution; he must have been a person of rare insight. To the pair of opposites, Libertéand Egalité, irreconcilable in ordinary logic, he added a third factor or force—Fraternité, brotherliness-which comes from a higher level. How do we recognize this fact? Liberty or equality can be instituted by legislative action backed by force, but brotherliness is a human quality beyond the reach of institutions, beyond the level of manipulation. It can be achieved only by individual persons mobilizing their own higher forces and faculties, in short, becoming better people. “How do you make people become better?” That this is a question constantly being asked merely shows that the essential point is being missed altogether. Making people better belongs to the level of manipulation, the same level at which the opposites exist and where their reconciliation is impossible.
The moment we recognize that there are two different types of problems with which we have to deal on our journey through life—“convergent” and “divergent” problems-some very interesting questions arise in our minds: How can I recognize whether a problem belongs to the one type or to the other? What constitutes the difference? What constitutes the solution of a problem in each of the two types? Is there “progress”? Can solutions be accumulated?
The attempt to deal with questions of this kind will undoubtedly lead to many further explorations. Let us begin then with the question of recognition. With a convergent problem, as we said, the answers suggested for its solution tend to converge, to become increasingly precise, until finally they can be written down in the form of an instruction. Once the answer has been found, the problem ceases to be interesting: A solved problem is a dead problem. To make use of the solution does not require any higher faculties or abilities -the challenge is gone, the work is done. Whoever makes use of the solution can remain relatively passive; he is a recipient, getting something for nothing, as it were. Convergent problems relate to the dead aspect of the Universe, where manipulation can proceed without let or hindrance and where man can make himself “master and possessor,” because the subtle, higher forces-which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness-are not present to complicate matters. Wherever these higher forces intervene to a significant extent, the problem ceases to be convergent. We can say, therefore, that convergence may be expected with regard to any problem which does not involve life, consciousness, self-awareness, which means in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and also in abstract spheres like geometry and mathematics, or games like chess.
The moment we deal with problems involving the higher Levels of Being, we must expect divergence, for there enters, to however modest a degree, the element of freedom and inner experience. In them we can see the most universal pair of opposites, the very hallmark of Life: growth and decay. Growth thrives on freedom (I mean healthy growth; pathological growth is really a form of decay), while the forces of decay and dissolution can be contained only through some kind of order. These basic pairs of opposites: Growth versus Decay and Freedom versus Order are encountered wherever there is life, consciousness, self-awareness. As we have seen, it is pairs of opposites that make a problem divergent, while the absence of pairs of opposites (of this basic character) ensures convergence.
The methodology of problem-solving, as can easily be observed, is what we might call “the laboratory approach,” It consists of eliminating all factors which cannot be strictly controlled or, at least, accurately measured and “allowed for.” What remains is no longer a part of real life, with all its unpredictabilities, but an isolated system posing convergent, and therefore in principle soluble, problems. At the same time, the solution of a convergent problem proves something about the isolated system, but nothing at all about matters outside and beyond it.
I have said that to solve a problem is to kill it. There is nothing wrong with “killing” a convergent problem, for it relates to what remains after life, consciousness, and self-awareness have already been eliminated. But can—or should-divergent problems be killed? (The words “final solution” still have a terrible ring in the ears of my generation.)
Divergent problems cannot be killed; they cannot be solved in the sense of establishing a “correct formula”; they can, however, be transcended. A pair of opposites—like freedom and order—are opposites at the level of ordinary life, but they cease to be opposites at the higher level, the really human level, where self-awareness plays its proper role. It is then that such higher forces as love and compassion, understanding and empathy, become available, not simply as occasional impulses (which they are at the lower level) but as a regular and reliable resource. Opposites cease to be opposites; they lie down together peacefully like the lion and the lamb in Durer’s famous picture of Saint Hieronymus (who himself represents “the higher level”).
How can opposites cease to be opposites when a “higher force” is present? How is it that liberty and equality cease to be mutually antagonistic and become “reconciled” when brotherliness is present? These are not logical but existential questions. The main concern of existentialism, it has been noted, is that experience has to be admitted as evidence, which implies that without experience there is no evidence. That opposites are transcended when “higher forces”-like love and compassion -intervene is not a matter to be argued in terms of logic: it has to be experienced in one’s actual existence (hence: “existentialism”). Here is a family, let us say, with two big boys and two small girls; freedom prevails, and it does not destroy equality because brotherliness controls the use of the superior power possessed by the big boys.
It is important for us to become fully aware of these pairs of opposites. Our logical mind does not like them: it generally operates on the either/or or yes/no principle, like a computer. So, at any time it wishes to give its exclusive allegiance to either one or the other of the pair, and since this exclusiveness inevitably leads to an ever more obvious loss of realism and truth, the mind may suddenly change sides, often without even noticing it. It swings like a pendulum from one opposite to the other, and each time there is a feeling of “making up one’s mind afresh”; or the mind may become rigid and lifeless, fixing itself on one side of the pair of opposites and feeling that now “the problem has been solved.”
The pairs of opposites, of which freedom and order and growth and decay are the most basic, put tension into the world, a tension that sharpens man’s sensitivity and increases his self-awareness. No real understanding is possible without awareness of these pairs of opposites which permeate everything man does.
In the life of societies there is the need for both justice and mercy. “Justice without mercy,” said Thomas Aquinas, “is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution”—a very clear identification of a divergent problem. Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both.
Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove tension by coming down on one side or the other, but they provoke, stimulate, and sharpen the higher human faculties, without which man is nothing but a clever animal. A refusal to accept the divergency of divergent problems causes these higher faculties to remain dormant and to wither away, and when this happens, the “clever animal” is more likely than not to destroy itself.
Man’s life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of divergent problems which must inevitably be encountered and have to be coped with in some way. They are refractory to mere logic and discursive reason, and constitute, so to speak a strain-and-stretch apparatus to develop the Whole Man, and that means to develop man’s supralogical faculties. All traditional cultures have seen life as a school and have recognized, in one way or another, the essentiality of this teaching force.
At this point, it may be appropriate to say a few words about art. Today, as far as art is concerned, there seems to be nothing at all to go by and anything will do. Who dares to say “boo” to anything claiming to be “art ahead of its time”? However, we need not be so timid. We can obtain reliable bearings by relating art to the human being, which consists of feeling, thinking, and willing. If art aims primarily to affect our feelings we may call it entertainment; if it aims primarily to affect our will, we may call it propaganda. These two, entertainment and propaganda, we can recognize as a pair of opposites, and we have no difficulty in sensing that something is missing. No great artist has ever turned his back on either entertainment or propaganda, nor was he ever satisfied with just these two. Invariably he strove to communicate truth, the power of truth, by appealing to man’s higher intellectual faculties, which are suprarational. Entertainment and propaganda by themselves do not give us power but exert power over us. When they are transcended by, and made subservient to, the communication of Truth, art helps us to develop our higher faculties, and this is what matters.
If art is to have any real value, says Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, it is to nourish and make the best part of us grow, as plants are nourished and grow in suitable soils, it is to the understanding and not to fine feelings that an appeal must be made. In one respect the public is right; it always wants to know what a work of art is about. Let us tell them the painful truth that most of these great works of art are about God, whom we never mention in polite society. Let us admit that if we are to offer an education in agreement with the innermost nature and eloquence of these great works of art themselves, that this will not be an education in sensibility, but an education in philosophy, in Plato’s and Aristotle’s sense of the word, for whom it means ontology and theology and the map of life, and a wisdom to be applied to everyday matters.
All great works of art are “about God” in the sense that they show the perplexed human being the path, the way up the mountain, providing a Guide for the Perplexed. We may again remind ourselves of one of the greatest examples of such art, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante wrote for ordinary men and women, not for people with sufficient private means to be interested mainly in fine feelings. “The whole work,” he explains, “was undertaken not for a speculative but a practical end. The purpose of the whole is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and lead them into a state of felicity.” The pilgrim—Dante himself—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, that is, at the height of his powers and outward success, suddenly realizes that he is not at the height at all but, on the contrary, “in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.”
Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell what this wild and rough and difficult wood was, which in thought renews my fear! So bitter that death is little more. So full was I of slumber at that moment when I abandoned the true way. Clothed already with the rays of the sun which leads man aright along every path, at the beginning of the steep a she-leopard, light and very nimble, which was covered with a spotted coat. And she did not withdraw from before my face, nay, hindered so my road that I often turned to go back. Which in her leanness seemed laden with all cravings, and ere now had made many folk to live forlorn, she brought on me so much heaviness, with the fear that came from sight of her, that I lost hope.
He cannot remember how he ever got there. Having “found himself,” Dante looks up and sees the mountain, the very mountain he had meant to climb. He makes a new attempt, but he finds his way barred by three animals: first, light, very nimble, with a spotted coat—all the pleasant temptations of life, to which he was used to yielding. There is worse to come: a lion, fearful in his pride, and a she wolf.
Dante, however, is seen “from heaven” by Beatrice, who wants to help him. She cannot do so herself, as he has sunk too low for religion to reach him, and so she asks Art, in the person of Virgil, to guide him out of “this savage place.” True art is the intermediary between man’s ordinary nature and his higher potentialities, and so Dante accepts Virgil:
“Thou by thy words has so disposed my heart with desire of going, that I have returned to my first intent. Now go, for one sole will is in us both: thou leader, thou lord, and thou master.”
Only the truth can be accepted as leader, lord, and master. To treasure art simply for its beauty is to miss the point. The true function of art is “so to dispose the heart with desire of going” “up the mountain,” which is what we really wish to do but keep forgetting, that we “return to our first intent.”
The whole of great literature deals with divergent problems. To read such literature—even the Bible—simply “as literature,” as if its main purpose were poetry, imagination, artistic expression with an especially apt use of words and similes, is to turn the sublime into the trivial.
Many people today call for a new moral basis of society, a new foundation of ethics. When they say “new,” they seem to forget that they are dealing with divergent problems, which call not for new inventions but for the development of man’s higher faculties and their application. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall,” says Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, suggesting that it is not good enough to decide that virtue is good and vice is bad (which they are!), but that the important thing is whether a person rises to his higher potentialities or falls away from them. Normally, men rise through virtue, but if virtue is merely external and lacks inner power, it makes them merely complacent and they fail to develop. Similarly, what by ordinary standards is sin may set in motion the all-important process of development if its shock causes a man to awaken his higher faculties which have previously been asleep. To quote an example from the Eastern traditions: “By what men fall by that they rise,” says the Kular nava Tantra.
All traditional wisdom, of which both Dante and Shakespeare are outstanding representatives, transcends ordinary, calculating logic and defines “The Good” as that which helps us to become truly human by developing our higher faculties which are conditional on, and also part of, self-awareness. Without them there is no humanity, as distinct from the animal kingdom, and the question of what is “The Good” reduces itself to Darwinian questions of adaptation and survival and the utilitarianism of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” where happiness rarely implies anything more than comfort and excitement.
In fact, however, people do not accept these “reductions.” Even when, being well adapted, they survive with plenty of comfort and excitement, they go on asking: “What is ‘Good’? What is ‘Goodness’? What is ‘Evil’? What is ‘Sin’? What must I do to live a worthwhile life?”
In the whole of philosophy, there is no subject in greater disarray than ethics. Anyone asking the professors of ethics for the bread of guidance or how to conduct himself, will receive not even a stone but just a torrent of “opinions.” With very few exceptions, they embark upon an investigation into ethics without any prior clarification of the purpose of human life on Earth. It is obviously impossible to decide what is good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or evil, without an idea of purpose: Good for what? To raise the question of purpose has been called “the naturalistic fallacy”-virtue is its own reward! None of the great teachers of mankind would have been satisfied with such an evasion. If a thing is said to be good but no one can tell me what it is good for, how can I be expected to take any interest in it? If our guide, our annotated Map of Life, cannot show us where The Good is situated and how it can be reached, it is worthless.
Let us recapitulate. The first Great Truth we have discussed is the hierarchic structure of the World: at least four great Levels of Being, with new powers added as we move up the Chain of Being. At the human level, we can clearly perceive that it is open-ended. There is no discernible limit to what Man can do; he seems to be “capax universi,” as the Ancients used to say, and what one person has done shines thereafter like a light in darkness as a capability of Man, even if no second person is ever found able to do it again. The human being, even in full maturity, is obviously not a finished product, although some are undoubtedly more “finished” than others. With most people, the specifically human faculty of self-awareness remains, until the end of their lives, only the germ of a faculty, so underdeveloped that it rarely becomes active, and then only for brief moments. This is precisely the “talent” which according to traditional teachings we can and should develop threefold, even tenfold, and which we should on no account bury in the ground for safekeeping.
We have been able to touch only lightly on the various “progressions” we notice when contemplating the four Levels of Being: from lifeless mineral to the self-aware person and onward-to the most perfect, most thoroughly integrated, enlightened, free “Person” we can conceive. These extrapolations help us not only to obtain a clearer understanding of what our ancestors were concerned with when they talked about God but also to recognize the one and only direction our life on Earth must develop if it is to have sense and meaning.
The second Great Truth is that of adaequatio—that everything in the world around us must be matched, as it were, with some sense, faculty, or power within us; otherwise we remain unaware of its existence. There is, therefore, a hierarchic structure of gifts inside us, and, not surprisingly, the higher the gift, the more rarely is it to be found in a highly developed form, and the greater are the efforts required for its development. To enhance our Level of Being, we have to adopt a life-style conducive to such enhancement, which means one that will grant our lower nature no more attention and care than it requires and will leave us with ample free time and attention to pursue our higher development.
A central part of this pursuit is the cultivation of the Four Fields of Knowledge. The quality of our understanding depends decisively on the detachment, objectivity, and care with which we learn to study ourselves-both what goes on inside us (Field 1) and how we appear as objective phenomena in the eyes of others (Field 3). Instruction on cultivating self-knowledge of this dual kind is the main content of all traditional religious teachings but has been almost entirely lacking in the West for the last hundred years. That is why we cannot trust one another, why most people live in a state of continuous anxiety, why despite all our technologies communication becomes ever more difficult, and why we need ever more organized welfare to plaster over the gaping holes torn by the progressive disappearance of spontaneous social cohesion. The Christian (and other) saints knew themselves so well that they could “see into” other beings. The idea that Saint Francis could communicate with animals, birds, even flowers, must of course seem incredible to modern men who have so neglected self-knowledge that they have difficulties communicating even with their wives.
The “inner world,” seen as fields of knowledge (Field 1 and Field 2), is the world of freedom; the “outer world” (Field 3 and Field 4) is the world of necessity. All our serious problems of living are suspended, as it were, between these two poles of freedom and necessity. They are divergent problems, not for solving. Our anxiety to solve problems stems from our lack of self-knowledge, which has created the kind of existential anguish of which Kierkegaard is one of the early and most impressive exponents. The same anxiety to solve problems has led to a virtually total concentration of intellectual effort on the study of convergent problems.
Great pride is taken in this voluntary limitation of the limitless Intellect to “the art of the soluble.” “Good scientists,” says P.B. Medawar, “study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” This is fair enough; it clearly demonstrates, at the same time, that “good scientists” in this sense can deal only with the dead aspect of the Universe. But the real problems of life have to be grappled with. To repeat the quotation from Thomas Aquinas, “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things,” and “grappling” with the help of slender knowledge is the real stuff of life, whereas solving problems (which, to be soluble, must be convergent) with the help of “the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” is merely one of many useful and perfectly honorable human activities designed to save labor.
While the logical mind abhors divergent problems and tries to run away from them, the higher faculties of man accept the challenges of life as they are offered, without complaint, knowing that when things are most contradictory, absurd, difficult, and frustrating, then, just then, life really makes sense: as a mechanism provoking and almost forcing us to develop toward higher Levels of Being. The question is one of faith, of choosing our own “grade of significance.” Our ordinary mind always tries to persuade us that we are nothing but acorns and that our greatest happiness will be to become bigger, fatter, shinier acorns; but that is of interest only to pigs. Our faith gives us knowledge of something much better: that we can become oak trees.
What is good and what is bad? What is virtuous and what is evil? It all depends on our faith. Taking our bearings from the four Great Truths discussed in this book and studying the interconnections between these four landmarks on our “map,” we do not find it difficult to discern what constitutes the true progress of a human being:
—One’s first task is to learn from society and “tradition” and to find one’s temporary happiness in receiving directions from outside.
—One’s second task is to interiorize the knowledge one has gained, sift it, sort it out, keeping the good and jettisoning the bad; this process may be called “individuation,” becoming self-directed.
—One’s third task cannot be tackled until one has accomplished the first two, and is one for which one needs the very best help that can possibly be found: It is “dying to oneself,” to one’s likes and dislikes, to all one’s egocentric preoccupations. To the extent that one succeeds in this, one ceases to be directed from outside, and also ceases to be self-directed. One has gained freedom or, one might say, one is then God-directed. If one is a Christian, that is precisely what one would hope to be able to say.
If this is the threefold task before each human being, we can say that “good” is what helps me and others along on this journey of liberation. I am called upon to “love my neighbor as myself,” but I cannot love him at all (except sensually or sentimentally) unless I have loved myself sufficiently to embark on the journey of development as described. How can I love and help him as long as I have to say, with Saint Paul: “My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe”? In order to become capable of loving and helping my neighbor as well as myself, I am called upon to “love God,” that is, strenuously and patiently to keep my mind straining and stretching toward the highest things, to Levels of Being above my own. Only there lies “goodness” for me.
After Dante (in the Divine Comedy) had “woken up” and found himself in the horrible dark wood where he had never meant to go, his good intention to make the ascent up the mountain was of no avail; he first had to descend into the Inferno to be able fully to appreciate the reality of sinfulness. Today, people who acknowledge the Inferno of things as they really are in the modern world are regularly denounced as “doomwatchers,” pessimists, and the like. Dorothy Sayers, one of the finest commentators on Dante as well as on modern society, has this to say:
That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercializing of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and “spell-binding” of all kinds, venality and string pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognizable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilized relations.
What an array of divergent problems! Yet people go on clamoring for “solutions” and become angry when they are told that the restoration of society must come from within and cannot come from without. The above passage was written a quarter of a century ago. Since then, there has been further progress downhill, and the description of the Inferno sounds even more familiar.
But there have also been positive changes: Some people are no longer angry when told that restoration must come from within; the belief that everything is “politics” and that radical rearrangements of the “system” will suffice to save civilization is no longer held with the same fanaticism as it was held twenty-five years ago. Everywhere in the modern world there are experiments in new life-styles and voluntary simplicity; the arrogance of materialistic Scientism is in decline, and it is sometimes tolerated even in polite society to mention God.
Admittedly, some of this change of mind stems initially not from spiritual insight but from materialistic fear aroused by the environmental crisis, the fuel crisis, the threat of a food crisis, and the indications of a coming health crisis. In the face of these -and many other-threats, most people still try to believe in the “technological fix.” If we could develop fusion energy, they say, our fuel problems would be solved; if we would perfect the processes of turning oil into edible proteins, the world’s food problem would be solved; and the development of new drugs will surely avert any threat of a health crisis. And so on.
All the same, faith in modern man’s omnipotence is wearing thin. Even if all the “new” problems were solved by technological fixes, the state of futility, disorder, and corruption would remain. It existed before the present crises became acute, and it will not go away by itself. More and more people are beginning to realize that “the modern experiment” has failed. It received its early impetus from what I have called the Cartesian revolution, which, with implacable logic, separated man from those Higher Levels that alone can maintain his humanity. Man closed the gates of Heaven against himself and tried, with immense energy and ingenuity, to confine himself to the Earth. He is now discovering that the Earth is but a transitory state, so that a refusal to reach for Heaven means an involuntary descent into Hell.
It may conceivably be possible to live without churches; but it is not possible to live without religion, that is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of “ordinary life” with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity-whatever it may be. The modern experiment to live without religion has failed, and once we have understood this, we know what our “post modern” tasks really are. Significantly, a large number of young people (of varying ages!) are looking in the right direction. They feel in their bones that the ever more successful solution of convergent problems is of no help at all—it may even be a hindrance—in learning how to cope, to grapple, with the divergent problems which are the stuff of real life.
The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Only if we know that we have actually descended into infernal regions where nothing awaits us but “the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilized relations,” can we summon the courage and imagination needed for a “turning around,” a metanoia. This then leads to seeing the world in a new light, namely, as a place where the things modern man continuously talks about and always fails to accomplish can actually be done. The generosity of the Earth allows us to feed all mankind; we know enough about ecology to keep the Earth a healthy place; there is enough room on the Earth, and there are enough materials, so that everybody can have adequate shelter; we are quite competent enough to produce sufficient supplies of necessities so that no one need live in misery. Above all, We shall then see that the economic problem is a convergent problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been. But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not convergent, capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort. No, they are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.
Can we rely on it that a “turning around” will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer “Yes” would lead to complacency, the answer “No” to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.